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Monday, 31 March 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer #17 - "Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone" by J.K. Rowling

To me this kind of feels a bit like cheating, as I've read this book before (I'm trying to just read books this year that I haven't read) but I picked this up at the weekend when I went home to visit my mum and her husband. I was helping them move and they had found a few of my Harry Potter books that I had misplaced when moving my stuff out.

It was so good to start this series again as an adult. There was a writer who, a few weeks ago, told J.K. Rowling that she should stop writing for adults to give other authors a chance - but by all means, she could keep on writing for children. As if writing books for children were any less important. This writer was also dismayed that adults were reading Harry Potter for themselves instead of just reading them for the benefits of their children. This writer did admit after that she had a touch of the green-eyed monster, but still. Not cool.

Because it's been so long since I read the books it was almost like starting again from scratch. Yes, the main events were still in my head but there were several parts of the writing that I had never noticed before. For example: "...for neither as a cat nor as a woman had she fixed Dumbledore with such a piercing stare as she did now." This phrase almost seemed jarring with the sentences before and after it, it's such an elegant composition of words (I know that sounds awfully pretentious, but that's what I thought!). The whole book was so fluid and easy it's almost difficult to believe that this was her debut novel.

It was wonderful meeting the characters again from scratch and reading the descriptions of them, as they must have been in Rowling's mind. Knowing how the characters end up, it was also really interesting to see them at the beginning of their arc, and how much they grow just in this short book (only 256 pages).

If I get far enough ahead of myself in my reading challenge again (I'm aiming to read a book a week and am currently 3 books ahead of time) I'll continue this series. It's still got it.

"After all this time?"
"Always."

Until next time!


Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #16 - "blueeyedboy" by Joanne Harris.

This author really knows how to pack a punch.

On the back of the book under the blurb there is an extract from the Mirror's review:
"...beware unreliable narrators along with a huge plot twist at the end."

Even with this and several other hints, nothing could have prepared me for what was in store.

"blueeyedboy" is the online name for the main narrator of the story, B.B. He is forty two and lives with his mother in Malbry, Yorkshire, with the bulk of his life played out in "fics" that he writes on his webjournal, "badguysrock". He has several regularly posting fans who are, for the most part, certain that what he writes is just really good - if disturbing - fiction/ However, one of his readers, "albertine" knows the truth. She and blueyedboy go way back and are entangled in each other's lives in very complicated ways.

The story is brilliantly paced and plotted, not to mention thrilling. It will keep you sat at the edge of your seat because there really is no guessing what happens next. All of my theories were wrong, and when I did find out, I just stared at the book for five minutes before heading back a few pages, trying to make sense of what had just happened. It was very similar to the way I felt reading "Gentlemen and Players" (by the same author) - there seemed to be no warning for what was going to smack you in the face.

And then, just when I thought I had recovered from that blow, Harris smacked me again with something else. At this point, though, I was just in a hurry to finish the book - simply to see if Harris wanted to mind-screw her readers with anything else - before I could sit back and properly process it.

I would recommend any of Joanne Harris' work, to be honest, but there was just something about this that makes me want to go and shove it under people's noses until they sit down and read it (though I won't do that). It really is that good and will probably still play on your mind for a while after you've finished. Utterly fantastic.

Until next time!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Review Challenge #15 - The High Lord by Trudi Canavan.

The last of "The Black Magician" trilogy by Trudi Canavan goes out with a bang.

We pick up with Cery, a slum dweller who has risen to the rank of Thief among the Thieves - as opposed to just serving them before. He is hunting mysterious murderers in the city - their victims are found with only shallow cuts yet all energy has been drained from them.

Soon after we meet back up with Sonea, relieved by her defeat of Regin, her adversary for the past couple of years as a novice. She has found out a little more of her High Lord and Guardian's habits, but not enough to understand why he is using black magic. However, Akkarin eventually trusts her with his story and from then on she begins to gradually put more and more trust in him.

She learns that Akkarin has found out that the Ichani, outcasts of the Sachakans - a country with whom Kyralia was at war - are planning to invade Kyralia once they have found out the Guild's weaknesses. Though the Ichani are few they practice black magic and are immensely powerful as a result.

This book certainly seemed to be the most ambitious of the three - after all, "The Magician's Guild" and "The Novice", while leading up to "The High Lord" had slightly more insular plotlines, though they were still really good books. However, "The High Lord" had so many different threads and characters to follow it could easily have turned into a confusing mess. Thankfully, it wasn't, and I found my brain struggling to keep up with my eyes as I tried to read as fast as I could, eager to get to the end of the fast-paced battle and conclusion.

I was really saddened by the ending, not least because of (SPOILERS) the deaths of certain characters. The characters who died...their deaths make sense but when you have invested in them and their stories it's really hard to let them go.

Anyway, I highly recommend this whole series to any lovers of fantasy, and magic in particular.

Until next time!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #14 - "The Novice" by Trudi Canavan.

"The Novice" is the second in "The Black Magician" trilogy. Sonea, having discovered her magical powers, has been accepted into the Magician's Guild and has been taken on by an official guardian, Rothen, a Higher Magician and a teacher of alchemy. He is also one of few magicians who is not offended by Sonea's humble origins.

The story has two distinct lines to it. Firstly, that of Sonea who, though she has been accepted into the Guild, is not looked upon kindly by the other novices, or even some of the teachers. Regin is the worst of these, who makes it his life mission to make Sonea's life completely miserable. Worse, he knows she will not say anything unless she has to, because she does not want to risk yet more animosity and her teachers not believing her. Secondly, that of Dannyl. Dannyl was another magician who is quite happy with Sonea's initiation into the Guild. He is sent off as an ambassador to Elyne and, instructed by Lorlen, the Administrator of the Guild, to dig into the Akkarin, the High Lord's past. Dannyl does not know why, but Lorlen clearly wants to find out from where Akkarin discovered the ability to perform black magic. 

There is an interesting twist halfway through the book, and one I originally expected to be saved for the third book - Akkarin finds out that Lorlen, Rothen, and Sonea know about his use of black magic and that Lorlen suspects the spate of murders happening in the City are down to Akkarin. As a result, Akkarin removes Sonea from Rothen's guardianship and places her under his own - something which attracts jealousy and more awful pranks from the other novices. Sonea and Rothen are forbidden to speak to one another, as are Lorlen and Rothen. 

All is not lost, however. Sonea finds some measure of victory against Regin. After some particularly nasty attacks - twenty novices against Sonea, at one point - Sonea snaps and formally challenges Regin to a battle. This is obviously of some interest to the Guild, to see how the slum girl fares against a boy of the Houses - the nobility of Kyralia. Happily, she wins and proves to everyone - but especially to the Higher Magicians - just how powerful she is, though she herself is not as aware of the true extent of her power as the Higher Magicians. 

This all makes for some very interesting questions for the third book. What exactly are the High Lord's plans for Sonea? Surely he won't let her power grow to the point where she can challenge him? Will he tap her power and make himself near-enough invincible? What will happen between Regin and Sonea, as surely we won't see the last of that nasty piece of work. 

This book was a brilliant read, and kept me up later than was advisable most nights. It's great when a book does that, though. It was so satisfying, in particular, to read about Sonea's victory against Regin, as he really had been a complete douchebag to her throughout the entire story. I'm really looking forward to the next one. A friend hinted that it's a really brave ending and there are lots of questions that I'm looking forward to being answered.

Until next time!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #13 - "The Magician's Guild" by Trudi Canavan

During the annual Purge - an event in which the Magician's and Guard of Kyralia drive out miscreants and criminals - Sonea, a 'dwell' from the city of Kyralia's slums, discovers something extraordinary about herself. She has amazing potential to do magic. She hurls a stone at the Magicians' barrier and it passes through, knocking unconscious one of the Magicians. Startled at what she has done, and afraid of how the Magicians might respond, she hides with the help of her friends Cery, Harrin and others.

The first half of this book is taken up with a massive manhunt to find Sonea. The Magicians don't want to hurt her - rather, they want to find her so they can examine her powers and teach her how to control them before she becomes a danger to herself and others around her. She does not know this, though - all that she knows and believes of the Magicians are that they are powerful, cold, and uncaring of Kyralia's poor.

Eventually, though, the Magicians do find her, just as she is about to accidentally lay waste to a large part of the city. Rothen, a kind and mature Magician, takes Sonea under his wing and tries to convince her to stay.

Fergun, another Magician, has different plans. He was the one that Sonea knocked out with her accidental missile and consequently wants to humiliate her and arrange for her to be kicked out of the Guild with her powers blocked. He feeds her with charming lies but, when she wants to refuse, he blackmails her, revealing that he has in captivity her friend Cery.

I read this book in a handful of days. It was a really well-written, absorbing read, even with pretty much the first half of the book taken up with the search to find Sonea. During this time, however, we learn a lot about the characters. Canavan has a lot of different characters thrown into the mix here, a lot of whom we quickly become attached to. There are some familiar themes here as well, which all - and especially teenagers - can relate to. Power struggles and accepting those in authority; injustice; misuse of power; but also much more positive aspects such as friendship and loyalty, no matter which side of the law you are on.

I'm really looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy and finding out what happens with the characters, particularly with the development of Rothen and Sonea's relationship as guardian and novice.

Until next time!

Friday, 7 March 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #12 - Holy Fools, Joanne Harris.

Ever thought life in a convent was quiet or boring? Joanne Harris is about to change your mind on that.

This is the story of Juliette. She was once an actress and rope-dancer is a travelling company of players, but through a dire set of circumstances she was forced to flee and decided to hide out in a convent under the name Soeur Auguste. She has a daughter, Fleur, who lives in the convent with her and the sisters. However, her contented life is about to be turned upside down.

The Abbess dies and a new one is brought in, She is only eleven or twelve years old, however, and brings with her a man whom she says is her confessor. Juliette knows him better as LeMerle, the head of the various travelling companies she used to go on the road with. She knows that LeMerle is not here having changed his ways and seeking a new life in the Church. She knows he is up to something, but has no idea what.

I always learn so much about writing whenever I read a book by Joanne Harris. 'Holy Fools' is just one example (among many) of how well she does plot. This book feeds you in titbits, tantalising rather than frustrating, and when you think you have finally figured out the puzzle Harris hits you with another surprise.

Another reason why the book is so good is because of the dual narrative. Dual narrative is such a tricky skill to master and I've read more than one book in which I couldn't distinguish between the two voices. I've thought I was reading from one person's POV when actually I've been reading the opposite. Happily, that's not the case here. Juliette and LeMerle have distinct, strong voices and Harris switches between them with ease. Each character, even the minor ones, are developed with a strong sense of self, and everyone is needed to play their part in this story.

I won't give away the ending but it is great. It builds up towards the finale with increasing urgency and speed, shown by the short lengths of the chapters, and goes off with a bang. Even in the aftermath it doesn't fall flat. The loose ends are tied together well making for an ending that could be seen as both satisfying and uneasy, depending on your point of view and opinions of the characters.

A hugely enjoyable read, I thoroughly recommend.

Until next time!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Music - a poem

The sweet, soft sound
Of music.
It flutters,
Drifting down like dappled light,
Trilling,
Like birdsong.

What pleasure it awakens,
What joy!
The heart rejoices
And mourns
At its profound display.
Its rises and falls,
Its perfect cadences,
Disturb our solitude,
Daring us, begging us.

Wake up! It screams, Wake Up!
Dare to dream, dare to live!
Dare to love.
Free.
Like me.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #11 - The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

"It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting."

Santiago, a young shepherd boy, is someone who likes to be on the move. He travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert searching for treasure buried in the pyramids. Along the way he meets many people who help to point him in the right direction and, more importantly, seek to instruct him about life and finding himself so he is more able to find his treasure.

There are some beautiful ideas and images presented in this book, namely the 'Personal Legend'. We each have our own Personal Legend - kind of like fate - that only we can live out, and it is those who live out their Personal Legends who become truly happy.

One of the people that Santiago meets is a merchant who deals in crystals. He is a devout Muslim and talks to Santiago about going on pilgrimage to Mecca, though he seems to have no intention of actually doing it. He says, "...it's the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive...I'm afraid that if my dream is realized, I'll have no reason to go on living." Later in the book, Santiago remembers this and is sad, because it is in his journey to find his treasure that he learns much about the world and himself - something that is not an option to the merchant because the merchant is not brave enough to try and live out his Personal Legend.

In the desert Santiago meets the eponymous Alchemist. He tells Santiago of the Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life, but warns him that those whom have tried to make a Philosopher's Stone just to learn how to turn metal into gold have failed. They only wanted the treasure instead of trying to live out their Personal Legend - i.e. living their lives to the full. (This part makes more sense in context!) The things that the Alchemist stresses to Santiago as being more important are learning the Language of the World and connecting with the Soul of the World. He also teaches him to listen to his heart and pay heed to omens.

My favourite part of the book is in which Santiago is trying to turn himself into the wind, otherwise he'll be put to death by desert soldiers. He converses with the wind, the sun, and the hand that wrote all, and talks a great deal about love, which I found wonderfully uplifting and challenging at the same time:

"Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World...when we love, we always strive to become better than we are."

Simply put, this book is wonderful. Through the eyes of a young, adventurous shepherd boy, we learn a great deal about the world and spirituality, and are challenged to answer the questions that the Santiago is asked for ourselves.

In the end, the boy find his treasure. But that was not the most important thing. The important thing was his journey, because without his journey - in other words, living out his Personal Legend - he wouldn't have found his treasure, and he wouldn't have learned and connected with the world - not to mention the "hand that wrote it all".

Until next time!