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Thursday, 27 February 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #10 - The Chance, Karen Kingsbury

"...a fervent message about love and reconciliation." writes Publishers Weekly. This book certainly is that.

Ellie Tucker is an ordinary teenager from Savannah, Georgia, when her life is turned upside down. Her father discovers her mother's affair and resulting pregancy, and kicks Caroline (the mother) out. He then decides to move himself and Ellie to California, accepting a job on a military base. The news wrecks Ellie and her best friend, Nolan Cook. The night before Ellie leaves, she and Nolan write each other letters, lock them in a box, and bury the box in their favourite spot of the local park. They promise to meet each other on June 1st, 2013.

Fast forward to eleven years later. Ellie has a daughter of her own and hasn't spoken to her father in years. Nolan Cook is a star NBA player and, apparently, has never forgotten about Ellie. Various characters and threads come together in a heartfelt and moving conclusion. Ellie and Nolan are engaged, Caroline and Alan (Ellie's father) begin to reconcile, and the hurts of long past begin to heal.

This was a really enjoyable read. Kingsbury writes easily and from the heart, and the pieces of the puzzle come together really well. As Christian fiction, there's a lot of well-known Bible verses and Christian jargon, but Kingsbury manages to keep it from being cheesy, particularly as each of the main characters has a period of questioning God and their faith, for obvious reasons. It's a story in which Kingsbury really wants to show the heart of God, and how she believes that He wants to heal hurts and hearts and bring love and reconciliation.

I would recommend it as it's a lovely story, well-written and absorbing, and gives you a lift after turning the last page.

Until next time!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #9 - Song of the Lioness, Tamora Pierce

Song of the Lioness is a quartet of four stories: Alanna: The First Adventure, In The Hand Of The Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, and Lioness Rampant. It follows the adventures of Alanna of Trebond and her quest to be a knight.

I loved this book. After finishing the 'Inheritance Cycle' it felt like a breath of fresh air; a really easy read but no less exciting or absorbing.

We first meet Alanna when she is ten or eleven and her father is sending her and her twin brother, Thom, away - Alanna to the convent to learn to be a lady, and Thom to the palace in Corus to start page training. Neither of them want to do what they're told - Alanna wants to be a knight and Thom wants to learn sorcery - so Alanna has the idea that she dress up as a boy and they can swap places. Thom then goes to the convent - as a boy - to learn sorcery from the masters there and Alanna becomes Alan and goes off to Corus to start page training.

Alanna is a great character and role model for teenage girls. She's feisty, tough, smart, intuitive, and doesn't let being the only girl in a training camp full of boys deter her. In fact, I don't think there's a character in this who I didn't like. From George, the King of the Rogues, (the city's network of thieves), to the villain, Roger Duke of Conte, each person brought a new and interesting element to the stories.

The four stories themselves are quite short, the longest being a little over two hundred pages, but neither plot nor world-building - a tough skill to master in fantasy - suffered because of it.

This is definitely a series of books I would recommend for teenagers, and will be doing so at my school. Girls need role models like Alanna - tough, clever, and someone who doesn't let romances with boys define her life, something many a teenage girl needs to be empowered in!

Friday, 21 February 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #8 - "Inheritance" by Christopher Paolini.

It's been a long road to this point...2868 pages in fact (according to Yahoo Answers) and 880 of those from Inheritance alone.

Side note - this review has some spoilers in it, so be aware!

"Inheritance" opens with a siege of Belatona. Ever since "Eldest", the second book in the series, the Varden - rebels to the Empire - have been slowly progressing from Farthen Dur in the Beor Mountains to further up within the Empire, joining with the forces of Surda along the way. As it's the last book we know there is going to be the ultimate face-off with Galbatorix, the mad and evil king, at some point, but plot and sub-plot abounds long before we get there.

One of the most interesting of these provides a solution to the problem that Eragon and Saphira knew they would have to face. If Galbatorix is slain, what becomes of them, then? As far as they know, Saphira, Thorn (the dragon of Eragon's half-brother, Murtagh) and one as-yet unhatched dragon are the last of their race. Happily, SPOILER ALERT, they find this is no longer the case. Acting on cryptic advice from a werecat called Solembum, Eragon, Saphira, and Glaedr (no longer in dragon form, but in his heart of hearts form) travel to Vroengard - more specifically, to the Rock of Kuthian on that island. After discovering their "true names" - this is a pretty big deal in the Inheritance Cycle, as names equal power, and if anyone were to ever discover your true name you would be at their mercy - they open the Rock of Kuthian - or Vault of Souls - and make an incredible discovery. There are more dragon eggs and Eldunari (heart of hearts). Obviously they are overjoyed as, firstly, the eggs mean that the dragons can rise again and the extra Eldunari give Eragon more of a fighting chance against Galbatorix (Eldunari hold huge amounts of energy, and energy is needed for magic).

One of my other favourite strands of this book involves Nasuada, the leader of the Varden. She is abducted by Murtagh and taken to Galbatorix's court where he tries to break her and make her submit. We already knew Nasuada was a badass, but her holding out against Galbatorix's physical and mental torture makes you admire her even more.

Eragon's final showdown with Galbatorix is also suitably epic. Galbatorix's plan for Alagaesia is to limit the use of magic so no one will be at the mercy of a magician. A noble plan, if you didn't know how nuts and evil Galbatorix was. The reason he is able to do this is because he has discovered the "true name" of the ancient language.

(Basically, before the ancient language came along, magic was very difficult to use safely as there wasn't really anything one could do to control the release of it. One of Eragon's most important lessons was to only use the ancient language for magic, as to do otherwise could prove fatal.)

Anyway, Galbatorix has discovered the "true name" which means he is able to control who can do magic and when and how much, making Eragon's final battle with him even more hopeless than it was already. I won't say how Eragon finally beats him, a) because it's quite complex and I wouldn't be able to explain it very well b) it's just a really interesting bit of writing. However, beat him he does and then it falls to Paolini the immense task of tying up many loose ends. I won't give away the ending but I can say it's actually quite sad and, in some ways, frustrating too, though I'm sure Paolini had very good reasons for choosing the ending he did.

It feels strange that this series is over. I haven't had this feeling since the Harry Potter series ended, like I know the books can't carry on forever, but if they did I would read them because I've spent so much time investing in the characters.

The Inheritance Cycle is an incredible achievement and, finding it difficult to come to terms with its ending myself, I can't imagine what it must have been like for Paolini. I'm sure it's a series I'm going to come back to again. I would highly recommend this series for lovers of fantasy.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer #7 - "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

"The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms...This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase...the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh." 

The scant knowledge of Thomas Cromwell I had prior to reading “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel mainly came from watching “The Tudors”, the television show. Cromwell is barely mentioned in history lessons – at least, history lessons I've been in as a student and as a teaching assistant – because, of course, there is Henry VIII, there is Katherine and Anne Boleyn (not to mention the other four wives), and there is even Cardinal Wolsey. So I am very glad that Mantel took the time to write of this intriguing, illustrious, and – in many ways – frightening period of England’s history from an otherwise unheard-of point of view.

Considering Cromwell's humble origins – he was the son of a blacksmith who regularly beat his son, near enough to death on occasions – it is staggering that Cromwell rose so high, practically second in all but name to King Henry – obviously infuriating to the nobility – and that he became someone upon whom the King so thoroughly relied. In “Wolf Hall” Cromwell regularly references to his time abroad as a young man. He did many things, including soldiering, learning the banking trade in Italy, and training as a lawyer, but no matter all his skills and talents, it all comes down to the question of blood to certain of the King’s friends, beautifully demonstrated by this: “There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old. To be trusted, new men must forge themselves an ancient pedigree, like Walter’s, [his father], or enter into the service of ancient families. Don’t try to go it alone, or they’ll think you’re pirates.”

However, Cromwell seemed to refuse this and did go it alone. He was the protégé of Cardinal Wolsey and stuck by him all through his master’s and mentor’s fall from grace, something for which King Henry commends him, as though he – the King – has forgotten it was him who was bent on destroying Wolsey, thanks to a certain Anne Boleyn. It is Cromwell, not Wolsey, who manages to get the divorce that Henry so desperately wants so he can put off Katherine of Aragon and get Anne Boleyn. It is Cromwell who ever so gently suggests reformation of the Church to Henry, enticing him with both power and financial gains – in the novel, Cromwell suggests that the clergy own a third of England altogether – while acknowledging privately that the English deserve to be able to read the Gospel in their own language. He is not so zealous as Tyndale – the translator and peddler of such a text, and hounded out of England for it – but Cromwell is evidently anxious for ordinary people to be unburdened and unshackled by Rome. After all, asks he, where in the Gospel does it refer to Popes? Where do the clergy own estates? Why must ordinary people bankrupt themselves to shorten Purgatory? In fact, where is Purgatory at all?

Mantel has worked so brilliantly to craft a character hitherto unknown to those whom might would not think to seek him out in the history books, a man so brilliant that one might not lament another such as him being alive and working in our government today. He knows how deal in both money and favours, how to keep his concerns private while discreetly ferreting out the business of others - how to navigate the Tudor court, in short. No mean feat for any person. And not only Cromwell has she portrayed so brilliantly, but others to whom we might not pay much heed. Mary Boleyn is a prime example, and one whom I ended up feeling very sorry for. Used by her father and King Henry as and when she was needed, she still had the sense to keep her mouth shut and not complain, because what could she, a poor and feeble woman do?! Politics and scandalous relationships exist everywhere, but I am glad we do not have the Tudor brand of it any more. Or do we? If we do I am lucky to have not come across it.

Anyway, I digress. To sum up, “Wolf Hall” is staggering, brilliant, and well worth the time needed to invest in it. For those who want to write, read this. For historical fiction lovers, read it. And to anyone else who just loves a good book, read it. (I think) you won’t regret it.

Until next time!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer #6 - "And The Mountains Echoed".

After I turned the last page to this book a few hours ago, I was wondering why there was so much time between the publication of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and this one (2008 and 2013 respectively). I know good books take time, don't get me wrong. But then I found out a little bit more of what Hosseini does - not only author but he is also a former Goodwill Envoy to the UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) and the founder of the "Khaled Hosseini Foundation", a non-profit which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

One reason why I love reading Hosseini's work so much is that it opens my eyes to a completely different culture. Previous to reading "The Kite Runner", "A Thousand Splendid Suns", and this new novel, my knowledge of Afghanistan was limited to the Taliban and war which had seemed to wage on for as long as my memory functioned. Therefore, it was a pleasure to read about the Afghanistan that was, the Afghanistan at peace when people did not have to live in turmoil and girls could go to school safely (though still under the thumb of the Soviet regime...).

Hosseini does not paint a rose-tinted glasses version of Afghanistan, but he does want us to see his homeland the way he and his kinsmen did - not just the version we see on the news. He demonstrates his flair for scene-setting that is both sweeping and yet detailed enough to flesh out an image in our mind's eye while stopping short of describing every rock and blade of grass as could be tempting:

" in sight but the deep copper gorges and vast sandstone cliffs. The desert unrolled ahead of them...the sky high and blue. Rocks shimmered on the cracked floor."

The imagery is stunning and yet not limited to the deserted landscapes:

"Everywhere, he saw traffic lights, and teahouses, and restaurants, and glass-fronted shops with bright multicoloured signs. Cars rattling noisily down the crowded streets, hooting, darting narrowly among buses, pedestrians, and bicycles...The sidewalks...were crowded with cigarette and chewing-gum sellers, magazine stands..."

In terms of plot, the opening chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. Suleiman, Pari and Abdullah's father, tells them a story in which a div, comes to the village and takes one child. The child chosen is the favourite of this story's main character, Baba Ayub. Baba Ayub eventually goes to search for his child, only to find him not imprisoned by the div but provided for in every single way. Though it breaks his heart, Baba Ayub lets his son go. And thus we know that this story is going to be heart-wrenching. And it is.

Pari and Abdullah share a bond rare between brothers and sisters - the most touching and evident example given in the novel is the one in which Abdullah traded his pair of shoes in order to get a feather for Pari. However, this is broken when Pari is taken by her father to be adopted by a wealthy couple in Kabul. She and Abdullah are separated, likely to never see each other again. There is a moment on the journey to Kabul when Abdullah, ignorant of what is about to happen, promises Pari that they will always be close, and the position one is in as reader is made all the more difficult, because despite being less than thirty pages in we know that this promise is going to be broken.

The story is not just about Pari and Abdullah, however. It follows the stories of other characters, though by the end of the novel we find out how they are all linked. It is done in a very subtle way and more than once I had to stop and try to remember who was link with whom and where and when in time this was happening. Hosseini builds both his characters and his interweaving plots brilliantly. This is a skill which is hard to master - in both books and films characters can be sacrificed for the sake of plot and vice versa - but it is something Hosseini does almost effortlessly - at least, that's the way it looks on the page.

What I really enjoy reading in novels is the way the authors put themselves in the book. Writers, at least in my experience, write because they want to communicate something but want to do so in the guise of a book. In this case, the message is about creating:

"Creating means vandalizing the lives of other people, turning them into unwilling and unwitting participants. You steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their flaws, their suffering. You take what does not belong to you. You do this knowingly."

This was said by Pari's adoptive mother, Nila Wahdati, who turns out to be quite a destructive kind of person, but there is a ring of truth in her words none the less. Authors, poets, journalists, anyone who does some kind of writing gains inspiration from their surroundings. For me, it was an RE lesson about genetic engineering and my imagination ran wild with the possibilities of the technology. Often, writers also do this with people, both in their lives and from ages past. It is not wrong, but it is true.

Overall, I loved this book. I picked it up expecting to love it and it did not disappoint. If you are a fan of Hosseini's work, get it. Borrow it. Read it. And don't worry - it won't break your heart and reduce you to tears like his first two did (and I cry *a lot* through books like this) but that does not make it any less profound or moving.

Until next time!

Take This Feather

I just finished reading "And The Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini, and was once again blown away by his brilliant storytelling.

Before I write and post the review, though, I wanted to share a poem I composed, inspired by this novel. Now, I know nothing about poetry, and what makes it good or bad, so I have no idea whether the following is good or not. But I like it, and that's a start.

"Take This Feather"

Take this feather, dear sister.
I have painted it with
The colours of my heart, the colours of my soul,
Which I know match yours.

Take this feather, dear sister.
It crosses continents,
Yields not to years,
Defies death.

Take this feather, dear sister.
A little piece of me,
For a little piece of you,
Hold on to it as we could not
Hold on to each other.

Take this feather, dear sister.
As the mind decays and memories fade,
This thing alone will last.
Know what was in my heart,
Since you took it in innocence.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer #5 - Brisingr, Christopher Paolini

And here we are in the third stage of the 'Inheritance' cycle by Christopher Paolini: Brisingr. When I first saw the page count - 748 pages - my first thought was, how has Paolini written this much and still made it interesting? Paolini himself said in the acknowledgements that it was originally meant to be a trilogy but there was just too much, hence a fourth book. And he gave a nod to his editor as well - the first draft was apparently a lot longer.

Anyway, a lot has happened in Eragon's life up until this stage (SPOILERS APLENTY HERE!!). His uncle, Garrow, was slain by the Ra'zac; he found a dragon's egg who hatched for him - he named her Saphira; they partnered with Brom who began training Eragon but was later slain; he fled to the Varden in the Beor Mountains with a guy his age called Murtagh; he travelled to Du Weldenvarden and received training from Oromois and Glaedr; and he battled with Murtagh and his dragon, Thorn, on the Battle of the Burning Plains.

The book opens with Eragon and Roran trying to figure out how to rescue Katrina, Roran's fiancee, from the Ra'zac in Helgrind. After the rescue they are separated, for the most part, and enters into dual narrative again with some overlaps.

In this Paolini takes us over much more of Alagaesia. From Helgrind, to Surda - where the Varden are contemplating their next move - to Farthen Dur where the dwarves need to elect a new king, to Du Weldenvarden and Ellesmera, so Eragon and Saphira can receive some more training.

It really is remarkable to me how fantasy writers can create entire universes, well-thought out to the very last person and path, and take their readers on an epic journey through their world. What was so interesting to me about Brisingr was the amount I learned about the different civilisations, from the humans, to the Urgals, to the elves and dwarves, and in particular about their politics. The clanmeet, in which the dwarves elect a new king, reveals so much about dwarven politics and how the different clans live and work together. We find out from Rhunon, the elf who makes Eragon a new sword, how the elves used to be before the peace between dragons and elves. We even find out smaller details, such as how precisely to make a sword, in the chapter "Mind Over Metal". I was surprised that Paolini had spent about nine pages on it but, as my friend found out, it was good because it further demonstrates how important it is to Eragon to have a sword befitting his needs and station.

I'll be honest, though - some bits of description I did scan quickly over because I didn't judge them necessary to focus much on, although in terms of world-building, it may be beneficial to learn from them. One particular example was during the seige of Feinster, when Eragon and Arya go into a room in which some spellcasters are attempting to create a Shade (someone inhabited by spirits who becomes incredibly powerful, but the person no longer has complete control over themselves). Paolini described every single bit of the room down to the last piece of furniture which, in my opinion, wasn't necessary, as a more general description can give the reader everything they need to know when visualising a place. I guess that's just Paolini's writing style, though, and it works for him.

There was a great twist in this (AGAIN, SPOILERS) that I probably could have seen coming, but did not. Eragon was told by Murtagh in "Eldest" that he is the son of Morzan, one of the forsworn who betrayed the Riders to Galbatorix, the evil king. Obviously this gives Eragon a bit of an identity crisis, considering how appalling Morzan is, but he finds out that this is not actually the case. His father is, in fact, Brom. MIND BLOWN.

This book was a bit of a mission to complete in a week, I'll be honest. But it was worth it. I look forward to reading Inheritance in a couple of weeks (I've got some library books I need to read first) and see how Paolini brings this great series to an end.

Until next time!