books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone 5: Devilish Details

Welcome back, Virtually Readers, to Setting in Stone, the best discussion series ever probably. Some months ago, I read a fantasy book with four states explicitly named: a fantasy equivalent Russia, where the book was set, a fantasy equivalent France, Persia, and China. In terms of technology which the characters had, this was probably in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Then, a character drank rum. Rum is made from sugar, and at the time (as far as I know) was grown in the Caribbean, by slaves. (and if you want to know more about this, read a Tom Standage book). I did not like said book, for a whole host of reasons (and if you want to know which book it is, go stalk my ‘meh’ shelf on goodreads), but one of the reasons was the author’s ignorance of detail. Continue reading “Setting in Stone 5: Devilish Details”

books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone 4: Finding other settings

Hi Virtually Readers! Today, you are reading another episode of Setting in Stone, my discussion feature about how settings work. I started this whole thing with a post about the lack of variety of settings in YA novels, so today I’m going to find the flipside of that, and talk about how to find less common settings and how to support those books. Also, it’s hopefully going to be shorter than most of the posts in this series, but I make no promises. Continue reading “Setting in Stone 4: Finding other settings”

books · discussions · features · shanti · writing

Setting in Stone 3: Research Methods

Hello, Virtually Readers! Your, that is, my, favourite discussion feature is back again. Setting in Stone is a series where I explore many assumptions inherent in settings in books, spurred by enthusiasm for this post. You can read all the Setting in Stone posts by clicking the ‘setting in stone’ tag at the bottom of this one. Today, I’m discussing how setting is researched. This information is derived from reading/listening to various authors talking about their research process plus common sense. I’m going to outline the different ways to research setting, and their advantages and disadvantages as I see it. Continue reading “Setting in Stone 3: Research Methods”

books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone 2: Contemporary Worlds

When you think of worldbuilding, you think of sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopia; what are known as ‘genre’ books. (though that definition is less useful in YA). Historical fiction also requires worldbuilding, but it’s usually reconstructed worldbuilding, compiled through research rather than invention (though there is some invention, obviously, and alternate history is another game altogether). But contemporary books also need worldbuilding. This is a very useful post by Jenn Marie Thorne, one of my FAVOURITE contemporary authors about how she does worldbuilding in contemporary books; and today’s Setting in Stone topic is my own take on that.


Setting in Stone is a Virtually Read original series where we (okay, mostly Shanti) talks about setting.

Continue reading “Setting in Stone 2: Contemporary Worlds”

books · discussions · features · shanti

How I Use Goodreads Shelves

Good day, Virtually Readers! Today, I’m going to take you through how I use goodreads shelves. It’s a totally random post, but people were interested. Thank you for being interested, everyone! I do so like goodreads, though, especially when you can see how your reading tastes have changed. I have a very haphazard shelving process because I’ve developed it over the years, so this is basically like revealing the inner workings of my brain. Feel free to friend me on goodreads, by the way-my profile is set to private automatically, but say you came from the blog and I’ll accept your request.

Continue reading “How I Use Goodreads Shelves”

books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone 1: A Place for a Story

Hey Virtually Readers! You may not remember, but way back in June I published a excellent popular post about setting and how non Western European or North American settings are discriminated against. You guys were really into the post—yay!—which got me thinking more about setting, and so I have decided to commence a new discussion series called Setting in Stone. Shar thinks the name is stupid, but I’m ignoring her. I’m very good at that. I don’t know how long this series is going to go on for—I have about 10 posts planned, and will write as the inspiration strikes, but this first one is going to be about how setting informs story.


Setting is a vital part of the story. It sets limitations for the characters and plot, informs mood and atmosphere, and usually shapes the climax.

How is setting a limit, and why is that a good thing? If a book is set in a small town, it means that the characters are focused on how to get out or how to stay. If a story is set in a city, then the isolation and opportunity will again pull characters in two directions. To some extent, yes, this is a trope, but that’s how settings limit character mindsets.

By the Chekov’s gun principle, a setting also limits plot. If a certain shop is mentioned, it must become significant in some way. If a lake is part of the setting, then something has to happen at the lake. Obviously, an author can make her setting fit her story—in fact, she should make the setting fit the story—but geographical limitations also apply. There can’t be a lake in the middle of a story set in the desert. There can’t be a tornado in a story set in a rainforest. These rules of geography have to dictate how the story unfolds within a setting. In magical realism, perhaps, all bets are off; but still this is a general rule.

Why are so many cute, summery books set in beachside towns during the summer? Because sunshine and beaches makes the reader think of cute fluffy things. Similarly, creepy books are often set in forests or winter time, like Megan Miranda’s Vengeance. These Broken Stars, a space opera with a romance and a mystery, is on a lush but empty planet, conveying an atmosphere of beauty and eeriness, while the harsher, more brutal Illuminae consists of the barren metal walls of spaceships. The connotations of various settings are quickly formed, and, along with writing style and content, contribute to the ‘mood’ of a novel. A forest can mean magic or horror. A cozy college dorm is more like a place for falling in love with someone you didn’t expect.

Finally, setting aids the story by informing character choices towards the climax. For example, in Rebel of the Sands, the climax involves a character raiding a train and discovering a (non-metaphorical) power. If the book had had the same Western vibe but been set in, say, a mountainous region, the climax would have been different, both in details (e.g. sand is everywhere, trains wouldn’t have existed) and in broad terms (how the characters escaped and how they felt).

The effect the setting has on the narrative is impossible to quantify and certainly variable between books. Swallows and Amazons, a classic children’s book set in the Lake District of England, revolves around the lake. The story would be utterly different if set in Iowa. However, while stories set in generic small towns or big cities do depend on their settings, it may not make much difference whether the setting is Portland or London, Derbyshire or Queensland.

It’s safe to say that setting is pretty important, even if it’s not immediately obvious how. Over the next few weeks I’m going to try to show different aspects of the interaction between setting and story, and it’s going to be awesome.

What’s one story where you feel like the setting had a big influence? Are you excited for this series? tell me your thoughts in the comments!

books · features · Shar

The Bookish Planet: Magical Forests

Hi Virtually Readers! It’s time for another Bookish Planet, your guide to literary locales. Today, inspired by my love of Into the Woods (seriously, Into the Woods is ridiculously good and you should watch/listen to it if you at all get the chance), I’m giving a brief introduction to an excellent setting for books, the Magical Forest. The Magical Forest is known for having trees and magic. Basically it’s like its name. All sorts of dodgy and wonderful stuff can happen inside. bookish planet


Description: You’ll know you’re in a magical forest when there are trees and there is magic. It’s not too hard to work out. You may also find magical beings, like fairies or witches; plot creators, like trolls or evil queens; magic sources; magic portals; swords; unsolved mysteries; fairy tales; and, most dangerous of all, potions. You may be in the Magical Forest because you’re participating in a plot, or else perhaps an innocent bystander who thought it would be a nice place for a holiday. Either way, you’ll probably end up in a story. The forest is, in a word, atmospheric; there are shafts of light filtering through ancient trees, thick undergrowth, old paths, beautiful maidens and so on. Within your literary explorations, you’re probably more likely to find a Magical Forest in European based fantasy books, but it can be part of other traditions too. The best things about Magical Forests is that they can be anywhere where there are both trees and magic, an easy criteria to fill in fantasy stories. There are always new places to explore; you can never fully know the Magical Forest, and that is one of the most enchanting reasons to visit. Continue reading “The Bookish Planet: Magical Forests”

books · features · shanti

The Bookish Planet: Islands

Good morning Virtually Readers. You are all travelers, going back and forth between cities and oceans and galaxies and all the places in between (usually through books let’s be real). So it is with great pleasure today that I can give you a guide to one of the most wonderful places of all: an island. Sometimes these islands are magical; sometimes they are tropical. Whatever it is, you’ll be glad you went there.

bookish planet

Description: The key feature of the island is its isolation from the rest of the world. This can create a magical feeling where relationships are more intense, and time has its own spin. This creates a story that is compelling, for how self sustaining it is. The outside world loses its influence; you are in a bubble of island life. But islands still have problems; don’t forget that, no matter how absorbing they are. Islands are still part of the world, and that is part of what makes them so worth visiting. Don’t let the island consume you, despite the wonder of the ceaseless ocean and the people. Each island is unique, and therefore it is worthwhile to visit several, just to get a sense of the breadth and range of this location.

People: The gorgeous pageant contestants of Beauty Queens (by Libba Bray); Puck and Sean from Thisby, in The Scorpio Races (by Maggie Stiefvater); Morveren and Jenna from Stormswept (by Helen Dunmore); Persis, from Across a Star Swept Sea (by Diana Peterfreund); Sophie from A Brief History of Montmaray (by Michelle Cooper); Tamsen, from Young Widows Club (by Alexandra Coutts); Anne, from Anne of Green Gables (by L.M. Montgomery); Frances from Daughter of Deep Silence (by Carrie Ryan); Katie Morag from Katie Morag (by Mairi Hedderwick and okay this is technically a childrens picture books series but IT’S REALLY BEAUTIFUL) .

History: Some islands have been there forever, such as Thisby. Others are seemingly newly inhabited, like the island in Beauty Queens. Wherever you are, there are often residents who would love to introduce you to the history. Pick up a brochure, ask someone at the local shop. If you’re really lucky, someone may have written a history—for example, the isle of Montmaray has a Brief History written by Princess Veronica Fitzosbourne.

Where to Stay: Many islands have a bed and breakfast where you can stay. Otherwise, you’ll have to hope you can find a castle or a friendly resident. If the island is uninhabited, Robinson Crusoe it up (or Swiss family Robinson if you’re with others) and make huts, feed yourself from the jungle and so on. You can do it. (probably.)

Culture: Island culture, rather like finches on the Galapogos islands, develops independently. Try to figure that out. Some places have water horses, others have grief support groups, vengeance plots, or mermaids. Most islands have a hatred of tourists. So don’t act like a tourist. Be genuinely interested. Don’t be a prat. This is good life advice in general. Islanders don’t like to be taken for granted; ask them questions, discover what makes them different, what makes you the same. Be respectful. Also enjoy the food. Islands, at least those with decent housekeepers, have great food, like November cakes. You can visit islands at any time of year—so what are you waiting for? If you can’t *actually* go to an island, spray some salt water in the air, grab a book, and commence your journey.

What’s your favourite book set on an island? Have you read any of these ones? let me know in the comments!

books · features · Shar

Bookish Recipes: November Cakes

Hi Virtually Readers! My friend recently read the Scorpio Races (I reviewed it here; btw it’s definitely my favourite Maggie Stiefvater book by a long, long way) . Anyway, I’ve wanted to make November Cakes ever since I read this book over a year ago, and I finally did. So here’s a recipe (Which I found in the back of the book… I don’t think? this is violating copyright because it’s not the actual book, and I adapted the recipe a bit anyway.)

First, life advice for reading a recipe that I never rarely follow: read the entire recipe first because then you’ll know how long it will take. Don’t just skim the ingredients because then you will start at like 9 pm and not be done until late or something.

Also, I took photos, but just fyi, they’re not going to be beautiful. Hover over them for captions. Now, let us begin.

This recipe has four parts: the dough, the filling, the glaze, and the icing. And again, disclaimer: I got this recipe from the book.



  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 and 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 teaspoons yeast

Method: Microwave milk, water, oil and butter for two minutes. ( I actually ended up putting it in a pan because I couldn’t work out how to turn the microwave on. After I did this, I realised the switch was off. Don’t be like me). When it comes out, make sure it’s not too hot to touch (because hot things kill yeast), then add eggs.

Add one and a half cups of flour, the salt, the sugar, and the yeast. Use a spoon to kind of stir through the dry ingredients (which are floating on top of the liquid) before mixing with the liquid. Then add the other two cups of flour one by one and knead for a while. (The recipe suggested using a mixer but we don’t have one so I kneaded.) Then leave the dough to rise in a warm place (I put the bowl over a pot of just boiled water)

One note: I only could find 1 teaspoon of yeast, then I found the rest later which I added halfway through rising. Don’t be like me.

When the dough is close to being risen, make the filling by melting three tablespoons of butter and adding 1/4 teaspoon orange extract. There wasn’t any in my kitchen, so I used lemon juice instead.

Then, roll out the dough on a flat, floured surface. The width of the dough determines the  number of cake you can make (the recipe said 12, but I made 15 and they were all quite big), and the length determines how wide they’ll be. Spread the butter/orange mixture on top, then roll it into a log shape and cut slices off. Put these rolls in pre-greased muffin pans and leave them to rise again for about half an hour.

When the rolls look like they’ve risen enough, put them in the oven (mine was at 175 degrees C or so) and cook them until they’re brown on top. (Mine got a bit too cooked because I went to help my mother reconfigure an iPod with my tech-savvy genius).

Meanwhile make the icing.



  • about half a cup icing sugar
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 1 tablespoon water

Basically, mix these things together until you get a thin liquidy icing that you’ll be able to drizzle over the cakes. I didn’t take any photos, sorry.

When the buns are done, leave them to cool and make the best part: the glaze.



  • 1/2  cup honey
  • 7 tablespoons butter (the recipe said 8. we did six because butter is unhealthy, 7 is probably okay. Besides, you don’t want to get heart disease from too much butter)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Melt the butter and honey in a pan, stir in the sugar and wait until it boils. Keep it boiling for about two minutes. Stir the whole time otherwise it will burn. Mix in the cream and vanilla, keep stirring for another minute or so, then take off the heat and spoon onto the rolls. (are these cakes, buns, or rolls? I don’t know)

Give the glaze a few minutes to cool, then drizzle the icing over the buns.

Then, eat the buns while they’re still warm, think about Thisby, Puck and Sean, and enjoy the deliciousness of your creation.

Is this delicious or what? Have you read The Scorpio Races? What’s other bookish food you’d like to try? Do you think you’ll ever make November Cakes?

books · features · shanti

A Question of Fiction: Mel Duan

Hi there Virtually Readers! So I bet that none of you were thinking “it’s been a long time since we’ve seen one of those awesome Virtually Read features around here, like The Bookish Planet or A Question of Fiction.” But that’s okay. They’re sporadic features, that’s how it goes. Anyway, I am doing a (surprise) feature again today BECAUSE I CAN. It’s A Question of Fiction, where we invite literary characters onto our blog and give them a nice old fashioned interview. Such fun. So today, we have Mel. She won’t tell you her full name, but you need to know several things about her: She lives in Team Human, she likes to joke around, and she is fiercely protective of her friends. (Like, she will punch for them. I know. Violent. Anyway.)


Interviewer: Good morning, Mel. It’s a pleasure to have you on Virtually Read. Can you start off by telling us about one of your favourite childhood memories?

Mel: Well, it’s nothing specific. I loved playing soccer in the backyard with Lancelot, my little brother, and Kristin, my older sister. I’m quite the score on a soccer team.

Interviewer: Ha ha.

Mel: Other than that, I used to really like hanging out at Cathy’s house. We’re best friends, and if my parents were busy with a case, I’d go over there. For a long time we were convinced that there was a secret tunnel—New Whitby is a quite old city, you know—and we were always looking for it.

Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit more about your friends?

Mel: I’m really close to Cathy, we’ve known each other all our lives. I can’t imagine what we’ll do once she leaves for Oxford. I also get on well with Ty, but we didn’t work out as a couple which is ENTIRELY HIS FAULT. Sorry. And then there’s Anna, but I’ve been a bit busy with all Cathy’s drama—and she has her own issues, so I haven’t seen so much of her lately. I don’t know. We’re all capable people, but sometimes I feel like I’m the one who doesn’t know what I’m doing.

Interviewer: Do you have any plans for the future?

Mel: Not really. That’s the problem. I can get into the University of New Whitby easy peasy, and I’m sorta thinking about Ivies, but I just don’t know what I want. [laughs] I guess I’m letting the future take on me.

Interviewer: Way to work in an 80’s song reference. But you know, it’s okay to feel that way. It’s how a lot of teenagers feel. It’s why YA books are written—that identity, what-is-my-place-in-the-world thing defines the genre, and it’s what makes YA books so popular across generations.

Mel: [rolling eyes] Dude. Be as meta as you want. But I don’t care about your media theories. Just ask me the questions.

Interviewer: Fine. Tell me what you think about vampires.

Mel: I don’t mind vampires, really, they’re quite all right, even if they’re about as pretentious as teenage poets.

Interviewer: Ouch.

Mel: But I’m just….I don’t know… I would like them to leave me alone. AND CATHY TOO THANKS FRANCIS.

Interviewer: So how is it for you, living in New Whitby the ‘vampire city’?

Mel: It’s fine. I never go to the shade. I’m not some vamposeur, okay?

Interviewer: Do you believe in any other ‘supernatural’ creatures?

Mel: It’s not about belief, it’s about reality. And the reality is that I don’t want to be a zombie. And I don’t want to live without laughter. I can’t help but be suspicious of those I do. As for other beings, well, Cathy is really the right person to answer this question. That’s all I’ll say. It’s a big world out there, and I am a sarcastic teenager, not an expert.

Interviewer: Tell me about one time you felt despair.

Mel: Probably when ALL MY FRIENDS STARTED HANGING OUT WITH VAMPIRES. Seriously, the Shade sucks. All those bloody vampires…lots of opportunity for puns, though.

Interviewer: You seem like a very loyal friend. Do you have any advice for others who are going through, uh ‘FRIENDSHIP DRAMA’?

Mel: Listen to your friends. Make their business your business. Stick up for them. Don’t let them make the wrong decisions. Be their sunshine, their laughter, their smiles, the one they can rely on for as long as the sun shines. That’s what it means to be a good friend. You have to be persistent, even if your friends seem to be leaving you behind.

Interviewer: That’s excellent advice. Thank you so much for your time. Do you have anything else to add?

Mel: Just…be careful. Ask questions. Investigate the world around you, because it will pay off. probably. Ooookay, thanks. And if you see my mom, tell her I’m not coming home until she tidies her room.

Interview: Thank you so much.


Team Human is an AMAZING book which I whole-heartedly recommend. I hope you guys enjoyed this feature (it’s as immortal as vampires) and my puns. Tell me about your favourite funny book, and your thoughts on this interview in the comments!