Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Books in 2013

I read a lot of great books in 2013. I'm traveling at the moment, but here's a quick year-end wrap-up of my 2013 reading.

These are very subjective, and there are certainly a lot of other books that I read and enjoyed; these books are just my absolute favorites of the books I read this year.

January: Some of my favorite new books reviewed in January, although some of these I may have read in 2012:
The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins
Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

How to Lead a Life of Crime, Kirsten Miller
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton

Lady Susan, the Watsons, Sanditon, Jane Austen
Poison Study, Maria V. Snyder

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte
Eighty Days, Matthew Goodman

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
Tisha, Robert Specht

The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo (I'd read this before, but so long ago it hardly counted)
A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

Siege and Storm, Leigh Bardugo
Crown of Midnight, Sarah Maas
Moon Palace, Paul Auster

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker

The Importance of Being Earnest & Other Plays, Oscar Wilde

Most certainly my favorite books published this year were Rose Under Fire, The Golem and the Jinni, and Eighty Days. In terms of older books, I discovered the amazing Room of One's Own over the summer (and have since recommended it to a friend who loved it), as well as Wilde's plays, which were great.

I look forward to another year of great reading of books both old and new! Look for another post about my plans for 2014.

Why We Make Mistakes, Joseph T. Hallinan

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above AverageThere are all kinds of mistakes. There's real estate you should have bought and people you shouldn't have married. There's the stock that tanked, and the job that didn't work out, and that misguided attempt to save yourself a few bucks by giving yourself a haircut. 

"We forget our passwords. We pay too much to go to the gym. We think we’d be happier if we lived in California (we wouldn’t), and we think we should stick with our first answer on tests (we shouldn’t). Why do we make mistakes? And could we do a little better? We human beings have design flaws. Our eyes play tricks on us, our stories change in the retelling, and most of us are fairly sure we’re way above average. In Why We Make Mistakes, journalist Joseph T. Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error—how we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes. In his quest to understand our imperfections, Hallinan delves into psychology, neuroscience, and economics, with forays into aviation, consumer behavior, geography, football, stock picking, and more. He discovers that some of the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns—but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientists miss—and why you can’t find the beer in your refrigerator."

Although there were some interesting aspects to this book, I ultimately did not finish it, mainly because of the writing style, which wasn't very accessible. It also was quite confusing at times. I did learn a fair amount from the approximately one hundred pages that I read, but there were parts that I couldn't make much sense of, mainly where the procedures in an experiment weren't described well. That was really the main reason I didn't finish this one. The writing also didn't draw me, either in phrasing or with humor, and I really didn't feel like continuing to read. A book like this could have been fascinating; instead it was rather uninteresting and I felt no inclination to pick it up again. A disappointment, although there were some interesting facts.

221 pages.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Out of My Mind, Sharon M. Draper

Out of My MindWords. I'm surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.

"Eleven-year-old Melody has a photographic memory. Her head is like a video camera that is always recording. Always. And there's no delete button. She's the smartest kid in her whole school; but no one knows it. Most people; her teachers and doctors included, don't think she's capable of learning, and up until recently her school days consisted of listening to the same preschool-level alphabet lessons again and again and again. If only she could speak up, if only she could tell people what she thinks and knows . . . but she can't, because Melody can't talk. She can't walk. She can't write. Being stuck inside her head is making Melody go out of her mind, that is, until she discovers something that will allow her to speak for the first time ever. At last Melody has a voice . . . but not everyone around her is ready to hear it."

Out of My Mind is a middle grade book that one can still enjoy later; at times it was annoying, but at others really moving. It certainly was intensely readable, and I raced through it. Melody has quite a compelling voice and style of narration, and at times the book was quite heartbreaking, particularly when Melody is trying to communicate something important but can't. The adults and other kids around her are constantly misunderstanding her because she can't speak her mind. There's that one scene with the goldfish, and Melody's mom blames her even though it wasn't her fault; it was quite infuriating, and probably even more frustrating to Melody herself.

Yes, this book was rather cheesy, but it was slightly better than Counting For 7's; at least it was a  more impressive book in terms of its ambition. That said, the tone was rather odd at times, the way that Melody and the other people around her interacted and spoke. Some of the fifth graders didn't really speak like I imagine fifth graders would. Also, much like A Mango Shaped Space, I find it unlikely that only in fifth grade would Melody and her parents want to start researching machines that could help her talk. I realize it was brought on by having classes with the "normal" kids, but I would think that she would have wanted to research various technologies earlier.

I liked Out of My Mind, but I had one main problem with it: nothing much happened for a while. Melody was just kind of introducing all the people she knew, and her life. That was fine, but it seemed to take up too much of the book. Then, for a while we had a kind of summary of her school life like "I went to history. I went here. I went there. I did this". It seemed rather uninteresting, yet despite it I kept on reading. The same thing happened with the Whiz Kids competition; it felt like the author was just listing the questions and the things Melody did in a kind of bland, uninteresting way, taking a long time and then suddenly realizing she was doing it and speeding up again.

And then there was the last section, in which a lot happened all of a sudden. I'm not going to spoil it, but the events were quite shocking, almost too much so. The last event felt rushed, odd, and out-of-place, but it was a compelling novel in spite of its flaws. It definitely changed how I view people. As one might expect, Out of My Mind ends on a hopeful note despite all the setbacks, and I liked the ending.

Out of My Mind was certainly an emotional read; I was very invested in Melody's joys and her sorrows throughout this short but sweet book. I have no delusions about its greatness or how long it will be remembered, but this is still a fun and interesting book. I'm sure it's affected a lot of people positively.

295 pages.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Jungle Books, Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle BooksIt was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.

"The story of Mowgli, a man-cub who is brought up by wolves in the jungles of Central India, is one of the greatest literary myths ever created. As he embarks on a series of thrilling escapades, Mowgli encounters such unforgettable creatures as the bear Baloo, the graceful black panther Bagheera, and Shere Khan, the tiger with blazing eyes. Other animal stories range from the dramatic battle between good and evil in “Rikki-tikki-tavi” to the macabre comedy “The Undertakers.”

I liked certain stories in this collection, but others not so much. I'd read the first Jungle Book before, but I didn't really remember much going in, and I was pleasantly surprised by how charming Mowgli's story was (if a bit violent). The dialogue is quite amusing in an old style way, and I was enjoying such exclamations as "by the Broken Lock that freed me, thou art no slow goer!" Mowgli's stories were certainly the best ones; I also enjoyed "The White Seal" and "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi". However, some of the other stories were pretty uninteresting and confusing. I can't imagine young children finding them entertaining; I certainly didn't. The tone Kipling took started to get boring and downright annoying after a while. 

That's not to say that the book is all bad; on the contrary, some of the tales are positively whimsical, particularly the ones with Mowgli and Shere Kan. I also enjoyed "Kaa's Hunting" which has Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo as well as Kaa, the strange and hypnotic snake. I believe in the Disney cartoon he is cast as a villain, but in the original story he actually helps rescue Mowgli from the Bandar Log, However, he's definitely portrayed in a sinister light, hypnotizing the monkeys with his eyes and conducting a frightening death dance of sorts. I certainly wouldn't want to have Kaa as an enemy.

I found it quite interesting that there is a very fixed code or law in the jungle that all the animals, predator and prey, (except for the Bandar-log, the monkeys) must follow. There are certain rituals and greetings for each people, and everyone seems to have a role to play. This could perhaps be connected to Kipling's colonialist views (as in, Indians and whites are different, each with their own fixed place in society), but I also just found it intriguing on its own. The life in the jungle is hard and rather cruel; those who break the rules of the jungle do not fare well, but if they are followed, the animals generally co-exist with one another at least somewhat peacefully. In one of the stories a Water Truce is declared because of a huge drought, and predator and prey alike come to the water hole and converse freely. When Shere Kan the tiger comes to drink, however, he is shunned and the other animals are disgusted by him, for he has broken a rule by eating Man, doubly so because he ate for pleasure and not food. In the eyes of the other animals, the water is tainted by him drinking there. 

Kipling creates some interesting sounds and words by transcribing the animal language. Some of the sounds are quite whimsical, and I enjoyed reading them. 

I will admit that I skimmed through a few of the more uninteresting stories, so I haven't really read this book cover to cover. Close enough though. I suppose I would recommend The Jungle Book(s) since they are so famous, but these stories weren't all great. 

314 pages. 

Rating: ***

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rereading The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

"Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called "Gobblers"—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments with their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved." (Summary altered slightly because for some reason it contained a rather major spoiler). 

I read The Golden Compass in sixth grade, and I enjoyed it, though for whatever reason I didn't love it. This time, I appreciated the world-building and the suspense much more; The Golden Compass is really atmospheric and an amazing read. The alternate Europe that Pullman creates is so compelling, as are the descriptions of the Far North, such as Svalbard (by the way, the capital is Longyearbyen). The daemons, too, are fascinating, and Pullman writes really movingly of the bond between daemon and human: "it was such a strange tormenting feeling when your daemon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love." I really almost felt that bond while reading that passage, and also in a few other places. It's quite affecting. 

The Golden Compass also has plenty of fast-paced and breathless action and intrigue, which is so entertaining. There's a lot that goes on in this book, which goes from Oxford to London to Bolvangar to the far Northern reaches of Svalbard in a fairly short span of time. There are chilling sequences dealing with the activities of the Gobblers, and imaginative creations such as the panserbjorne, and of course daemons themselves. Pullman's style is quite descriptive, but not in a bad way, and I could really picture the world as I read, from the beautiful and grand Jordan College to the freezing far reaches.

Lyra herself can be kind of annoying as a character; she's oblivious and a bit self-centered. However, I loved the character of Pan, her daemon, and the fierce link between them. There's nothing wrong with unlikable characters either, and Lyra isn't too bad. But she's still a rough-and-tumble girl without much knowledge besides the smattering she's learned at Jordan College. 

Despite all the fantastical stuff, The Golden Compass is really believable, mainly because of the way it's written. It doesn't feel stretched or anything, and everything in the world is explained really well, although I would like to know more about daemons and how they could be explained scientifically. Later on, there's talk of scripture explaining the dust, and this alternate world is masterfully created.

Iorek is quite a compelling character. He's the giant armored bear who Lyra befriends. Really, Pullman does such a good job portraying the differences between the way the humans in the novel think and the way the bears, fierce and alone, without daemons, conceive of their world. And it's by playing with these perceptions that Lyra and her companions manage to win against their enemies.

The descriptions of the Gobblers (a.k.a Mrs. Coulter) at work are definitely quite chilling, some of the most dread-inducing sequences in the whole book. Even more so are the descriptions of the compound at Bolvangar, where children are taken for nefarious purposes. 

The Golden Compass is really, really good, and no doubt I'll be reading the sequel sometime soon.

351 pages. 

Rating: ****

The Divorce Papers, Susan Rieger

The Divorce Papers: A NovelDear Poppa, I wish you were here. Momy and Daddy are very cranky. Is 1999 going to be a good year? What's a millennium? And what's Motezuma's revenge? Daddy has it. Mommy says I have an iron stomach. xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo Jane
"Twenty-nine-year-old Sophie Diehl is happy toiling away as a criminal law associate at an old line New England firm where she very much appreciates that most of her clients are behind bars. Everyone at Traynor, Hand knows she abhors face-to-face contact, but one weekend, with all the big partners away, Sophie must handle the intake interview for the daughter of the firm’s most im
portant client. After eighteen years of marriage, Mayflower descendant Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim has just been served divorce papers in a humiliating scene at the popular local restaurant, Golightly’s. She is locked and loaded to fight her eminent and ambitious husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim, Chief of the Department of Pediatric Oncology, for custody of their ten-year-old daughter Jane—and she also burns to take him down a peg. Sophie warns Mia that she’s never handled a divorce case before, but Mia can’t be put off. As she so disarmingly puts it: It’s her first divorce, too. Told through personal correspondence, office memos, emails, articles, and legal papers, this playful reinvention of the epistolary form races along with humor and heartache, exploring the complicated family dynamic that results when marriage fails. For Sophie, the whole affair sparks a hard look at her own relationships—not only with her parents, but with colleagues, friends, lovers, and most importantly, herself."

I won an ARC of The Divorce Papers from Goodreads, and I certainly wasn't expecting to like it; I'm not sure why I even entered the giveaway in the first place as The Divorce Papers didn't seem like my cup of tea. 

I'm sure the book's amusing enough; it's just rather lengthy, and I didn't want to spend so much time on this decidedly unliterary novel. I find that I've become rather more impatient with my reading lately. Ah well.  Another disappointment. 


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews

Me and Earl and the Dying GirlI have no idea how to write this stupid book. Can I just be honest with you for one second? This is the literal truth. 

"Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics. Until Greg’s mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel. Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia—-cue extreme adolescent awkwardness—-but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives. And all at once Greg must abandon invisibility and stand in the spotlight."

This summary fails to mention how hilarious this book is. Literally every page has something funny on it. Most of the humor is kind of low-brow, but I was literally laughing out loud as I was reading the book, something I haven't done in a while. It was great, although kind of awkward because I was reading in a place with other people. I read this book in two sittings, and definitely could have read it in one.

Some of the profanity in the book was a bit disturbing, but it was also really amusing, as were some of Greg's descriptions of his life and sense of humor. Both Greg and Earl are actually fairly smart people despite their oddities, jokes and swearing. Greg views life with such a cynical lens; indeed, in one of the flashback scenes he and Earl start calling themselves nihilists (although cynicism and nihilism are not exactly the same things). 

The humor was unexpected, and I just loved it. I didn't have much of a notion of what the book would be like going on and I just loved its hilarity. Despite the fact that the book has a dying girl in it, it's just so funny and entertaining, and really insightful too, despite Greg's repeated warnings that the book will not contain any "Important Life Lessons, or Little-Known Facts About Love, or sappy tear-jerking moments When We Knew We had Left Our Childhood Behind For Good, or whatever." He adds that "things are in no way more meaningful because I got to know Rachel before she died. If anything, things are less meaningful." Yeah right. There's definitely some meaning in this book despite Greg's assurances to the contrary. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does stay away from cliches though, which is good. 

I liked that the main film that inspires Greg and Earl is an actual movie, one of Werner Herzog's. I haven't seen this particular one (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), but I have seen some of his other films and documentaries, and they're...interesting. The documentaries tend to be a bit heavy-handed. However, quite often authors use fake books and movies as part of their characters' world, and I was happy to find it not so here. 

Some of the descriptions of the films Greg and Earl make were just hilarious. Most of them are terrible, but the way Earl describes them had me laughing. Their film-making career started at an early age after watching the aforementioned Werner Herzog movie. 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was just laugh-out loud funny, but it also certainly had its sad moments, although it's of course not nearly as good or heartbreaking as say, The Fault in Our Stars. However, I enjoyed the plot, the writing, and the narration.

295 pages.

Rating: ****

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Crane Wife, Patrick Ness

The Crane WifeWhat actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself - a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt - but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.

"George Duncan is an American living and working in London.  At forty-eight, he owns a small print shop, is divorced, and lonelier than he realizes.  All of the women with whom he has relationships eventually leave him for being too nice.  But one night he is woken by an astonishing sound—a terrific keening, which is coming from somewhere in his garden.  When he investigates he finds a great white crane, a bird taller than even himself.  It has been shot through the wing with an arrow.  Moved more than he can say, George struggles to take out the arrow from the bird's wing, saving its life before it flies away into the night sky. The next morning, a shaken George tries to go about his daily life, retreating to the back of his store and making cuttings from discarded books—a harmless, personal hobby—when through the front door of the shop a woman walks in.  Her name is Kumiko, and she asks George to help her with her own artwork.  George is dumbstruck by her beauty and her enigmatic nature, and begins to fall desperately in love with her.   She seems to hold the potential to change his entire life, if he could only get her to reveal the secret of who she is and why she has brought her artwork to him."

The Crane Wife is a beautiful novel in many respects; there were many images and descriptions that made me pause and read over them again. One might say that it lacks focus, but I didn't care; I was just absorbed by the deceptively simple story and Ness's beautiful language. The Crane Wife is quite different from More Than This, the other Ness novel I read recently. More Than This was scary and chilling; The Crane Wife, while sad, was a much easier novel to read. One was gritty and disturbing, the other luminous and gorgeous. However, they're both quite good.

I pulled quite a few quotes and images from the very first section, which was the most stunningly beautiful of all. Here's one: "But if it wasn't a dream, it was one of those special corners of what's real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life...But this, this moment here, this moment was like those and more so. The gravely injured bird and him in a frozen back garden that could have been the borders of the known universe for all he knew. It was in places like this that eternity happens. " (pg. 11 in the ARC). Looking back, some of those phrases are a bit odd, but not necessarily in a bad way. Later, the crane's neck is described as "curved against his coat like a question mark." I really loved that simile.

As I mentioned when reviewing More Than This, Ness clearly thinks very highly of himself, but he's not totally wrong. However, The Crane Wife was a bit pretentious; it seemed to repeatedly try to emphasize how deep it was, and as other reviewers have said, make certain key points about truth and knowledge and love over and over again.

There's also a great description of books: "He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He'd never really warmed to ebooks because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer files were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no emails from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book? The different rags of paper, smooth or rough under your fingers. The edge of the page pressed into your thumbprint as you turned a new chapter. The way your bookmark - fancy, modest, scrap paper, candy wrapper - moved through the width of it, marking your progress, a little further each time you folded it shut." (pg. 60). I loved that paragraph; I'm just going to hope that "as you turned a new chapter" will be changed to "as you turned a new page" in the final copy. Or perhaps Ness meant chapter; I don't know.

Another great sentence: "She was almost a half-remembered dream, yet not." (93). Really, this book is just populated with noteworthy phrases and lines and paragraphs.

To me, the only real reason that The Crane Wife is labelled as an adult book is because there's a fair amount of sex. But mature younger people can definitely handle it, and at least in terms of vocabulary, it's not a difficult book.

The Crane Wife is full of sad, sad people drifting through life. Then the mysterious Kumiko shows up and changes everything. This book is so dreamy; at times there's realism, but most of the time it's like a wonderful fantasy. It did have a sense of urgency though, what with all the secrets surrounding who Kumiko was. I knew, obviously, that she was connected to the crane that George half believes was a dream, yet I wasn't sure exactly how, whether in a fantasy sense she was actually the crane or if in a realistic sense she was just a representation of the crane or vice versa.

The Crane Wife isn't a great novel or one of my favorites, but it's certainly an intriguing and lyrical novel, worth reading. I was initially attracted by the retelling of a Japanese fable; I stayed for the beauty of the story and writing. It may lack subtlety, and ultimately I'm not sure whether I liked it more than Ness's young adult books, but I did enjoy the book a great deal. I received an ARC from the publisher; The Crane Wife comes out January 23rd in the US; it's already available in Britain. I would definitely recommend it.

305 pages.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Twistrose Key, Tone Almhjell

The Twistrose Key
The grave that Lin had made for her friend could not be touched by wind. Above, the dripping rosebush flailed, scratching its thorns at the wall. But the whittled cross of twigs and string did not so much as shiver. Instead a lick of rime had crept up to cover the wood with white. Later, Lin Rosenquist would remember this as a sign, the first. 

"Something is wrong in the house that Lin's family has rented; Lin is sure of it. The clocks tick too slowly. Frost covers the flowerbed, even in a rain storm. And when a secret key marked "Twistrose" arrives for her, Lin finds a crack in the cellar, a gate to the world of Sylver. This frozen realm is the home of every dead animal who ever loved a child. Lin is overjoyed to be reunited with Rufus, the pet she buried under the rosebush. But together they must find the missing Winter Prince in order to save Sylver from destruction. They are not the only ones hunting for the boy this night. In the dark hides a shadow-lipped man, waiting for the last Winter Prince to be delivered into his hands."

The Twistrose Key looked so, so good when I first heard about it, like a middle grade novel that could be enjoyed by everyone. And then Laini Taylor raved about it, and I heard that it was Norwegian, and I saw how beautiful the book was (the photo doesn't do it justice). The book is not, perhaps, great, but The Twistrose Key is nonetheless a mix of all the best elements; read one of Laini Taylor's posts about it here.

In another summary, I saw The Twistrose Key compared to The Golden Compass and The Chronicles of Narnia, and a mix of the two is about accurate. The style is completely different from The Golden Compass, but although I don't remember the latter very well, both highlight the deep bonds between children and their pets (or their daemons, which are admittedly slightly different). In the case of The Golden Compass, however, the bond is so much more fierce and primal; The Twistrose Key is tame by comparison. It's is definitely much more similar to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; there are talking animals and a young girl who goes from her world to their perpetually frozen one. And of course there's a deadline; there's always a deadline before which a certain task must be completed.

I enjoyed this lovely little fairy tale, but it definitely had some issues. For one, the world that Lin enters is a bit silly, with all the dead, beloved pets of children living there as "Petlings". I didn't like that name at all; it just sounds so cutesy, although it is a nice idea. The plot and magic in general was a bit silly and vague, though in a comforting sort of way. I feel like the world and the magic could have both been explored further, especially the Winterfyrst, which I didn't find compelling at all. At times, the writing made things confusing and there was weirdly written dialogue, but for the most part the language and the atmosphere it created was quite charming.

The Twistrose Key is pretty smart for a middle grade novel, and I definitely enjoyed its intelligence. The book is also just gorgeous and from the lovely cover image to the raised gold lettering to the inside jacket art, it completely enchanted me.

I liked the main character, Lin; she's at an age where she basically accepts all the remarkable things that happen to her without too much questioning. Obviously, she's surprised to find her pet vole Rufus alive and five feet tall in another world, but Lin also enjoys playing a troll hunting game, so she's ready to believe in Sylver. Teodor the fox was a great character too, as were some of the other animals that Lin meets.

I would have actually liked a bit more of the book to take place in the real world, in Lin's strange rental house, presumably in Norway (since that's where the author's from). I found the beginning few chapters quite interesting, and her family and home could have been developed more before she leaves them. Alas, it was not to be, but this didn't bother me too much. On a rather unrelated note: there are some amazing descriptions of food both in Norway and in Sylver, and they were quite mouthwatering.

The overall atmosphere and plot of The Twistrose Key was amazing, but it could have been more focused and stronger in terms of specifics in the world development. I think it would have also been better if there were less branches of magic that were all described in more detail; there are so many different elements and gadgets that it was a bit too much. However, I loved the feel of this book, and I liked it, although I didn't love it. Ultimately, however, I found that in the hands of a different author this could have been an amazing fantasy novel, but there was just too much crammed into one book. That's not to say the book is bad, but it could use some work. I look forward to Tone Almhjell's next creation.

354 pages.

Rating: ***

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Defy, Sara B. Larson

Defy (Defy, #1)The crackle and hiss of the flames devouring our house couldn't block out the screaming and wailing of those who were still alive. 

"Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king's army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince's guard. But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can't prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory. The longer Alex is held captive with both Rylan and the prince, the more she realizes that she is not the only one who has been keeping dangerous secrets. And suddenly, after her own secret is revealed, Alex finds herself confronted with two men vying for her heart: the safe and steady Rylan, who has always cared for her, and the dark, intriguing Damian. With hidden foes lurking around every corner, is Alex strong enough to save herself and the kingdom she's sworn to protect?"

Defy was a surprisingly good novel (at least at first) full of fantasy, action, and (of course) romance. That's almost always my least favorite aspect of a book, but I initially liked this novel a lot, despite its guilty pleasure status (after all this book is hardly challenging or literary). It's just a fun read, albeit with a lot of pretty horrifying scenes in it, mixes of awful reality and magic. The world created is pretty bland, with one exception: the awful, awful "breeding houses", where girls are conscripted to produce new armies for the deranged king. They were definitely shudder-worthy, and made up the grim aspect of the book. 

The beginning of Defy was just great, introducing a strong heroine and somewhat interesting world. But as the book progressed, action development of many of the characters was put to the side, and for me there was just too much romance. For some parts of the book, almost everything that happened related to the love triangle. At first, I thought Damian was well portrayed, but it became clear that he wasn't actually; maybe there's another side to him, but it's pretty obvious. And Rylan was completely undeveloped; I barely had a sense of who he was. That was really annoying. Rather than being a strong, independent, young woman Alexa basically turned into a whiny, indecisive girl. Also, it seemed to me that she had much bigger things to be worrying about.

Nevertheless, I kept reading because the book definitely drew me in and it was a quick, exciting, suspenseful read. The general set-up was interesting; the world just wasn't developed enough, and it was rather vaguely described. The politics and power-play were fine though; I would have liked more of that, actually. 

It strikes me that this book is really similar to Graceling, at least in terms of cover. I mean, both books have a dagger on the front, and the same kind of background color scheme (albeit with different colors, but with that same tone and fading). See what I mean about unoriginality? Graceling's cover is much more beautiful and interesting, both in terms of color, background color, and the dagger itself. Graceling is also undoubtedly a much better book, and although both Defy and Graceling feature female fighters, I prefer Katsa to Alexa by far. Katsa actually is strong, fiery, and independent. Defy does have more magic in it, although come to think of it that wasn't well developed either. The sorcery doesn't really come in until much later. 

I raced through Defy and was pretty entertained, but looking back, I'm not really sure what I just read. Characters and plot weren't developed enough, and there was too much focus on romance. And yet, I finished the book, it absorbed me, so it's not necessarily a bad YA novel of its type. I just don't happen to like that type much. It's also Sara B. Larson's debut novel, and there's definitely potential for more. She writes fairly well. It's also possible that some of the issues were in the ARC that I read, though I doubt it. Defy comes out in January; I received a review copy from Scholastic Books.

323 pages. 

Rating: **

Monday, December 16, 2013

Rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7)The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other's chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction. 

"Harry Potter is preparing to leave the Dursleys and Privet Drive for the last time. But the future that awaits him is full of danger, not only for him, but for anyone close to him — and Harry has already lost so much. Only by destroying Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes can Harry free himself and overcome the Dark Lord's forces of evil. In this dramatic conclusion to the Harry Potter series, Harry must leave his most loyal friends behind, and in a final perilous journey find the strength and the will to face his terrifying destiny: a deadly confrontation that is his alone to fight."

I like the last book, although it does have some plot holes relating to the Hallows and the wands. However, many amazing elements are woven throughout, and there are certainly some heart-pounding action scenes. We also get a marvelous conclusion to the whole series, wrapping things up nicely. So many people die though. And some non-humans.

I will say that I think the book is a bit unfocused; there's so much going on, and so many different threads of the story that Rowling is trying to juggle. I mean, she does it very well, but it's certainly a lot. The Deathly Hallows themselves are just added in, and they seem a little unrelated; however, I really do like that element as it adds more complexity to an already complicated story. 

There is focus on relationships in this book, but less so, as the characters are all in terrible danger from Voldemort. Still, Ron and Hermione are developed more, and so are some of the other characters, which I always enjoy. However, I really love the last book mainly because of how multi-faceted it is, and how the focus is on fighting evil and discovering new things, like Horcruxes and Hallows, both of which are fascinating in their own right.

This book is particularly hard to put down, because so much happens, page after amazing page. Even when I'm rereading it, I still can't wait to finish the book because it's so suspenseful and so good. There are events and scenes that I eagerly anticipate as well, because it's just so much fun to reread them and savor them once again.

This book takes place in a wide variety of places; at the Burrow, Grimmauld Place, the Ministry, in various woods across the country, at Shell Cottage, Gringotts, and finally at Hogwarts. These different settings for the action make the book more interesting; we're constantly reading about the unfamiliar and they provide a bit of change as opposed to the other books which are mostly set in Hogwarts (though not all of the time). Harry, Ron, and Hermione do a lot of different things in The Deathly Hallows: they storm the Ministry, they attempt to rob Gringotts, and they're searching for Horcruxes.

So many people die in The Deathly Hallows; it's very sad; if you made a list, it would be very, very long. On that note, I didn't like how certain of the deaths were dealt with, how they happened off the page, and didn't seem to serve any purpose. I am referring, of course, to Moony and his wife. Still, the book overall is quite good and absorbing.

759 pages.

Rating: *****

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rereading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6)
It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

"The war against Voldemort is not going well; even the Muggle governments are noticing. Ron scans the obituary pages of the Daily Prophet, looking for familiar names. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses. And yet, as with all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate—and lose a few eyebrows in the process. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Classes are never straightforward, though Harry receives some extraordinary help from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. So it's the home front that takes center stage in the multilayered sixth installment of the story of Harry Potter. Here at Hogwarts, Harry will search for the full and complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort—and thereby find what may be his only vulnerability."

Perhaps it was not such a good idea to read all of the Harry Potter books in one go; I ended up getting rather tired of the style by the end, with all the "said's" and not much variation in terms of dialogue and writing. Nevertheless, I still love the series, and J.K. Rowling certainly spins a good tale full of detail and endlessly fascinating. 

Even though a lot of bad things happen in this one, the fifth book is still definitely the most grim and dark, mainly because of Umbridge's crackdown at Hogwarts; at least in the sixth book, the Ministry of Magic now acknowledges Voldemort's return, and that's something, even though they're going about handling it completely the wrong way. 

A lot of new things are introduced in this sixth installment; for example the sinister and awful Horcruxes. The Pensieve is also explored more fully, and so is Harry and Dumbledore's relationship, although there are still many mysteries about Dumbledore that will not be revealed until the final book. The ending of the sixth book is quite shocking, certainly, and changes everything. 

Just like The Order of the Phoenix, Harry and his friends are also in the midst of adolescence, and there's quite a lot of "fighting, flirting, and falling in love" in addition to battling evil. All of it is quite entertaining, however, and the book flies by quickly just like the previous five. 

What else can I say? Slughorn is a new character; he's annoying but kind of endearing as well. One feels slightly sympathetic for Malfoy in this book; I mean, he's really nasty, but he's bitten off more than he can chew with the mysterious assignment. Harry is convinced that he's a Death Eater, and is annoyed that everyone else doubts him, and that Dumbledore won't even really listen.

Ah, the half blood prince, what gives this book half of its title. I really enjoy the sections where Harry is triumphing in Potions thanks to the book, which has helpful tips and instructions. The book eventually gets him into a lot of trouble with Snape, who as it turns out is the author of it. One thing I found unrealistic about this is that Snape would just leave his Potions book with all of his scribblings in the store cupboard of the classroom where it could be found by anyone. It's very unlike Snape. Harry also at first suspects that it might be his dad, but when he sees the book was published fifty years ago, he assumes it's not. But that doesn't mean anything; I mean, his class is using it fifty years after it was published. It wasn't like Harry to just assume that the owner had it when it was first published. That was a minor annoyance, but irksome nonetheless. 

Overall, I like this book too, and though it's not one of my very favorites, I still really enjoyed rereading it. 

652 pages. 

Rating: ****

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter, #5)The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close an a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.

"Harry Potter is due to start his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His best friends Ron and Hermione have been very secretive all summer and he is desperate to get back to school and find out what has been going on. However, what Harry discovers is far more devastating than he could ever have expected..."

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is definitely one of my favorites in this series, although it is one of the most depressing of the books. It's also the longest, and perhaps drags a bit in certain places, but it's compensated by some really action-packed sequences, great character development, an excellent plot, and some new aspects to the novel. 

Can we talk about Dolores Umbridge? I seriously hate that woman; she's one of the most evil characters in the book, and that includes Lord Voldemort. Not the most evil perhaps, but close to it, and certainly the nastiest non-Death Eater. Still, as a villain she's wonderful, and the scenes with Harry and Umbridge are some of the most infuriating. She's also the new High Inquisitor, sent by the Ministry to take control of Hogwarts, and 'tis awful. But we all know Dumbledore will triumph in the end. Some of the scenes with Umbridge and McGonagall facing off are just brilliant, and amusing to read. 

But of course, Harry has more looming things to worry about; namely, that Lord Voldemort is back and no one at the Ministry seems to believe him. He's been having strange dreams, and his scar is prickling and sometimes bursting into pain quite often. There's also, of course, Cho Chang...

As one might expect, there are many sub-plots in this large book, from Cho Chang to the DA (which I love, by the way), to Occlumency lessons and many revelations. Harry and his friends discover the Room of Requirement, and use it for Dumbledore's Army, where they practice defense spells because Umbridge isn't teaching them anything. This is one of my favorite parts of the book, for sure, even if it does end somewhat disastrously. 

Fed up with Umbridge, Fred and George also get up to some interesting stuff, setting off their marvelous creations. There are many hilarious moments in this book, as well as serious ones, and that's one of the reasons I really like it. At times I was outwardly chuckling; there were other scenes that were so, so sad. It's a good balance, though certainly the later books are much darker with the earlier ones, what with Voldemort's rise and Harry being in the throes of tortured adolescence. The latter can be rather humorous, but obviously not the former. 

There are so many different parts to this book in particular, and they're certainly woven together superbly. Each chapter brings new delights (and horrors). I'm also very fond of the next book, The Half Blood Prince

870 pages. 

Rating: *****

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Rereading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)The Villagers of Little Hangleton still called it "the Riddle House," even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.

"Harry Potter is midway through his training as a wizard and his coming of age. Harry wants to get away from the pernicious Dursleys and go to the International Quidditch Cup. He wants to find out about the mysterious event that's supposed to take place at Hogwarts this year, an event involving two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn't happened for a hundred years. He wants to be a normal, fourteen-year-old wizard. But unfortunately for Harry Potter, he's not normal - even by wizarding standards. And in his case, different can be deadly."

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the first of the big, big books that finish off the series (The Order of the Phoenix is the longest). I don't think it's the best of the later books, but one can certainly see J.K. Rowling stretching her wings even more, as she writes a much larger novel. The Triwizard Tournament is certainly fascinating as well, and makes for some great action and side-plots, as well as with all the other things that Harry's worrying about (although never does he have more to worry about than in the next book, The Order of the Phoenix).

The Goblet of Fire is way more angsty; the characters are definitely teenagers now, and are trying to figure out shifting relationships and how they relate to one another. Never is this more apparent than Ron and Hermione; some of those sections were really amusing. They're constantly bickering. Ron and Harry also have a huge fight, which isn't amusing in the slightest.

Other new things are fleshed out, such as who the Death Eaters are, and more about the dark days when Voldemort was in power. Harry and his friends go to the World Quidditch Cup, and Harry unexpectedly competes in something else entirely - the Triwizard Tournament.

I found some plot holes in this book though, such as the fact that gillyweed isn't mentioned earlier in the book by Neville. Also, at one point Ron is talking about Percy "not recognizing a joke if it danced naked in front of him wearing Dobby's tea towel" (paraphrased). Well, if it was wearing a towel, it wouldn't be naked then, would it? Poor editing, or maybe that was the joke. I know, I know, one is not supposed to criticize Harry Potter, but there a few little incongruities that came to my attention this time around. It is a large book, and I'm sure it's super easy to miss certain things and not patch up certain holes. It's still a great story, after all, and the little things didn't bother me that much.

More characters who will reappear in later books are of course added: Moody, Fleur, Viktor Krum, and Rita Skeeter among them. Of course, there are still many more that haven't been introduced: Tonks, Luna, and Kingsley. Lupin is not in The Goblet of Fire either, but he comes back in the next book. That's one of the joys of rereading this series: encountering familiar characters as you go on, and sometimes catching things you didn't before.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an excellent fourth book; I'll probably reread the rest of the series in the next few days. It strikes me that my reviews of the HP books are all saying the same things: that it's amazing and that each book adds more characters and more developments. I'll have to think of something else...

734 pages.

Rating: *****

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Rereading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of the year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework, but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

"Harry Potter, along with his best friends, Ron and Hermione, is about to start his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry can't wait to get back to school after the summer holidays. (Who wouldn't if they lived with the horrible Dursleys?) But when Harry gets to Hogwarts, the atmosphere is tense. There's an escaped mass murderer on the loose, and the sinister prison guards of Azkaban have been called in to guard the school..."

I've been rereading the whole series, and probably will finish it when I get the chance. I really like the third book; it introduces a lot of amazing new characters like Sirius and Lupin. Also, of course, the awful dementors. I love Lupin as a character, and as it turns out The Prisoner of Azkaban is probably one of my favorites in the series, certainly of the earlier books. As I mentioned in my reviews of the first two novels, each subsequent books builds and builds on the foundation, and this is no exception; Harry learns about the existence of Sirius Black, and a lot of exciting new things happen. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban differs slightly in that Voldemort plays no direct role in the events; in all of the other books he's trying to come back or trying to take power. In this one, Sirius Black is the main villain, or so everyone thinks. I actually like that aspect, it's a bit different. 

We also meet Cho Chang, and a lot of great Quidditch games are played. Hogsmeade, Lupin's excellent classes, the Marauder's Map, the Firebolt, Patronuses...perhaps the reason I love this one so much is all the new things that are part of the lore. It's a bit lighter than the later books, although there are still grim things going on, what with the dementors guarding the school. But it's a bit of a break, at least for the reader who has already read the book many times before. 

As with all of the earlier books, it's such a fast read; I sped through it, even though I already knew what was going to happen. I find that rereading the Harry Potter books is quite comforting; they're like old friends you can just curl up with on a rainy night. Sometimes you just need a break, you know? And I certainly enjoyed it.

The last sequence in The Prisoner of Azkaban is quite fast-paced and frankly breathless; it's superbly written so as to be suspenseful even if you already know exactly what happens. Prongs, Padfoot, Moony, and Wormtail, as they are known, are all quite interesting characters, and in this third book their friendship is delved into, though not as much as it will be later. 

I love rereading this series periodically (although I haven't in a while), and am definitely glad that I decided to a few weekends ago. It was fun and an excellent way to pass the time.  

316 pages. 

Rating: ***** 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr. Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting, noise from his nephew Harry's room.

"The Dursleys were so mean and hideous that summer that all Harry Potter wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he's packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature named Dobby who says that if Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike. And strike it does. For in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor, Gilderoy Lockheart, a spirit named Moaning Myrtle who haunts the girl's bathroom, and the unwanted attentions of Ron Weasley's younger sister, Ginny. But each of these seem minor annoyances when the real trouble beings, and someone--or something--starts turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects...Harry Potter himself?"

I like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but it is to me the weakest of the books, in terms of plot and development. It's still very good, however. I think the main reason that I don't like it is perhaps Lockhart, who's the most annoying character ever. You just want to punch him. Also, there are some slightly dread-inducing events; not a very good way of explaining it but nevertheless true. I don't really like the whole Chamber of Secrets/Tom Riddle plotline. There's not enough development, I would say, and the book is much denser than the first one. Still, J.K. Rowling does add to the series, building on another layer of new characters and events. Dobby the house elf is introduced for the first time; I absolutely love him. We also learn a bit more about Voldemort's backstory and who he was before he became the feared Dark Lord.

A lot happens in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but it still feels kind of dull at times, maybe because it's not super focused, and the characters' relationships aren't developed as much as in later books. It's still a really fast and fun read though, and you do learn a lot more about the Wizarding world, as you do in each of the books.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets marks the second iteration of Voldemort attempting to come back in a rather roundabout manner, before he finally returns at the end of the fourth book. Tom Riddle's diary is quite an interesting medium for this, and of course we find out in later books what it actually is, and how significant it really is. The basilisk is also quite an interesting (and frightening) creature. I certainly wouldn't want to encounter one.

The second book in the series is entertaining, though, and I suppose the story-line is fairly compelling. When it comes down to it, I'm not really sure why I find it the least good. I used to think that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was my least favorite, but then I found myself rereading passages in it quite often. The books after that are all really long, but really in-depth and amazingly crafted and action-packed.

Perhaps another reason I'm not as fond of this one is that Harry is pretty much suspected of hating Muggle borns and Petrifying people and being Slytherin's heir, and I did not like that. People are so stupid sometimes, aren't they?

If I've given you the impression that I don't like the book, that's not accurate. It's still really good; just the weakest of the seven books in my opinion. But obviously, you must read it to get to the later books, and it is entertaining and likable enough.

341 pages.

Rating: ****

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Rereading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

My original review, which apparently got deleted: "Blogger did a stupid thing and deleted my original review of this book that I wrote a few weeks ago. So bear with me as I try to remember what I said. I typed out the summary in my own words in my first review, but I'm not going to here. Most people already know it anyway. "Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He's never worn a Cloak of Invisibility, befriended a giant, or helped hatch a dragon. All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry's room is a tiny cupboard under the stairs, and he hasn't had a birthday party in ten years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that's been waiting for him... if Harry can survive the encounter." 

Right, so I'm not as avid a Harry Potter fan as others, but I definitely do love the series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is also definitely not my favorite of the Harry Potter books, but it is a really good beginning, and introduces the characters well. Hermione is definitely my favorite character; she's incredibly smart, and she shows herself to be brave, especially in the later books. We'd probably get along well together.

Another amazing thing about this series is just the plot. J.K. Rowling comes up with so many amazing creatures and stories throughout the seven books that it just blows the reader's mind away. Quidditch, the houses, the magic; all have become so popular so justly. She also draws from so many different sources to craft her lore. There are plenty of great fantasy novels out there, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is one of them.

A lot of my friends are more obsessed with Harry Potter than I am. But I still love it. I apologize for the shortness of this review, but would recommend the series if you haven't read it already."

I really do love this series, although I haven't reread any of the books in their entirety recently; perhaps I will now. The story is so compelling and heartrending and amazingly creative. The basic outline is rather typical, perhaps, but it's executed so well. We have an orphaned boy raised by very cruel relatives; then one day he finds out that he belongs to a different world, and is indeed quite special even in that world. Variations of this abound in books both fantasy and not, and it really works very well.

However, the detail that J.K. Rowling adds is what makes this book so well-loved. She creates a whole, marvelous quirky world that you can just dive into and never leave, spending hours with it. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone sets the foundation for the longer and more intense books beyond, but it is itself a very fun little read, and each chapter brings a new (in my case, oft-read) delight, from the discovery that he's a wizard, to meeting Ron and Hermione, to first magic lessons and other things.

I absolutely love the characters, especially Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the golden trio, if you will. They're all really interesting and complex. The villains are superbly, darkly painted as well, although more so in later books. And Snape is of course always a conundrum; one is never quite sure what his intent is. A lot of characters are introduced in the first book, but of course there are many more amazing characters who are just barely touched upon or not even mentioned at all who will play a major role in later events. I just love how each book adds complexity to the series as a whole, another layer of interesting interactions and characters. With each new installment, more starts happening, and the wonderful world is ever clearer.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is certainly not the most intense or gripping of the books, but I really do like this one; it's rather whimsical and charming. Some of the later books are really, really dark, and I like the difference in tone here. The series is always amazing to reread.

309 pages.

Rating: *****

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest & Other Plays, Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays   From "Lady Windermere's Fan": Parker: Is your ladyship at home this afternoon? Lady Winderemere: Yes - who has called?

"A Woman of No Importance, for all its charm, exposes an aristocratic world that is smug, snobbish and morally bankrupt. An Ideal Husband portrays a glittering diplomatic gathering which is revealed as a masquerade to cover up the shady past of a prominent establishment figure. Lady Windermere's Fan is a brilliant critique of conventional morality. In The Importance of Being Earnest every character is revealed to be leading a hypocritical double life, while Salome and A Florentine Tragedy use historical settings to explore issues of sex, gender and power."

I absolutely loved this book of Oscar Wilde's plays; each was interesting in its own way, and many of them are so witty and amusing as well as layered. The edition I read (cover on right) also had really insightful notes; not only did they explain what certain historical things were, they also offered interesting commentary both in terms of historical context and social commentary on Wilde's part and in terms of the ironies created by the staging. This is an aspect obviously unique to plays, and I was glad this was commented on in the notes. The introduction was also quite interesting, talking about the staging and also Wilde's interest in masks of all sort, both literal and societal.

The first play in this collection was Lady Windermere's Fan. "Beautiful, aristocratic, an adored wife and young mother, Lady Windermere is 'a fascinating puritan' whose severe moral code leads her to the brink of social suicide. The only one who can save her is the mysterious Mrs Erlynne whose scandalous relationship with Lord Windermere has prompted her fatal impulse. And Mrs Erlynne has a secret - a secret Lady Windermere must never know if she is to retain her peace of mind." I really enjoyed it; it focused both on morality and also the different standards to which men and women were (and are still) held. Quite tellingly, through the use of little details, Wilde paints this picture. For example, one of the characters has a daughter who is completely sheltered and controlled; her son, however, goes to Oxford and basically does whatever he wants with no one to rein him in. Both are really bad, and even more ironic is the fact that the women themselves are contributing to their predicament as a sex. 

In this play and all of the others, Wilde also portrays the hypocrisy of the very society he wrote for and belonged to. There are those who make judgements, but in fact they are morally suspect themselves; for example two characters who are kind of judging Mrs. Erlynne but are clearly in an adulterous relationship themselves, as exhibited by the fact that the man calls the woman by her Christian name. There are so many little examples of ironic hypocrisy. 

Wilde is also the master of aphorisms, pithy, succinct statements about life and society. They're deliciously witty and oftentimes at least partly true. These are present mostly in the plays set in his present day, the late 19th century. I absolutely loved "Lady Windermere's Fan", populated by comic characters but with a seriousness belying the wit. Mrs. Erlynne was so complex, and the notes on the dialogue really helped further that development. I felt that a few of the characters such as Lord Darlington were a little shallowly developed, but other than that the play was amazing; I would love to see it some day.

It was quite a jarring transition to "Salome", the next play in the book. "Written originally in French in 1892, Wilde's one-act tragedy Salome enacts the biblical tale of a wanton woman's erotic dance and the martyrdom of John the Baptist." I have seen the Strauss opera, though not in a while, and I have to say that I really can't imagine "Salome" just performed as a play without the music, which just adds so much. This play is quite different from most of Wilde's others, with their wit and aphorisms. "Salome" lacks humor; I suppose Herod could be viewed as comical, but not really. The play is, however, really intense; I read it one sitting, unable to put it down. Salome is such a fascinating and hideous character (though not physically, of course). "Salome" is a bit confusing; there are lots of Biblical and historical references (the notes came in handy there). However, it's really compelling; the use of the moon and the different characters' perceptions of it is just brilliant. The play's rather dense, but not overwritten; the elaborate phrasing serves to emphasize some of the characters' foolishness. The foreign setting is quite different and interesting. The opera is better, but reading the text of the play was interesting nonetheless.

"A Woman of No Importance" returns us to Wilde's present day, and it's quite amusing as well. "Oscar Wilde's audacious drama of social scandal centres around the revelation of Mrs Arbuthnot's long-concealed secret. A house party is in full swing at Lady Hunstanton's country home, when it is announced that Gerald Arbuthnot has been appointed secretary to the sophisticated, witty Lord Illingworth. Gerald's mother stands in the way of his appointment, but fears to tell him why, for who will believe Lord Illingworth to be a man of no importance?" I really loved the banter between Lord Illingsworth and Mrs. Allonby; they're both rather nasty people, but they certainly get along pretty well, and have interesting conversations. In the notes, it's pointed out that Wilde originally had many of the quips written just for Lord Illingsworth, but dividing them up cemented the rapport between the two characters. It was certainly effective, and I enjoyed reading their exchanges. "A Woman Of No Importance" had a great plot, and it was also quite moving and skillfully, subtly written. There were several amusing quips, most of them said by Lord Illingsworth. For example, he says, "one should never take sides in anything...taking sides is the beginning of sincerity, and earnestness follows shortly afterwards, and the human being becomes a bore." I found that quite interesting and funny; it's also sort of true. I was fascinated by the character of Lord Illingsworth; he rather cruelly manipulates Mrs. Arbuthnot, verbally and pyschologically, yet he has a charm about him. He's more than just the stereotypically cruel and wanton villain. Wilde portrays all the characters and their relationships so, so well, in this play and all of the others. 

"An Ideal Husband" was also a good play, although there was overall too much description of the characters as they were introduced. It was mainly intended for the audience as opposed to for a performance. However, there was lots of great banter, and even some blackmail, all of which proved to be very entertaining. I loved the character of Lord Goring, charming, funny, and witty. He sets everything to rights, giving the play its happy ending. The plots of many of these plays are somewhat similar, usually revolving on secret pasts and scandals, but they make for very good reading. And the many seeming cliches that populate the book are tweaked, and different. Plus, almost all of these works are full of wit, humor, and irony.

"A Florentine Tragedy" is obviously a tragedy,and I have to say that it was my least favorite. It's so, so short (less than 20 pages), and the climax happens quickly and suddenly. There are only three characters: Simone, a merchant, his wife, Bianca, and Guido, a duke who Simone suspects of being Bianca's lover. Everything happens in a rush, but in trademark Wilde, the ending is different than one might expect. I didn't like the verse the play was told in; I mean, it was fine, but nothing special. "Salome" and "A Florentine Tragedy" are both set in settings different than Wilde's own, and they were the two weakest (at least the least funny). Still, "Salome" was much better than this one. I hated the character of Simone; he treated his wife so cruelly, insulting her constantly; he also reminded me of Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice; they both have the same obsequious quality. In the merchant's case, he's constantly on about his wares. "A Florentine Tragedy" was good but not great; I would probably give it 3 stars.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is Wilde's most famous play, and justly so. Although it bears many similarities to others in this volume, it's also distinctive in terms of just how hilarious it is, farcical at times. There's also a lot of use of mistaken identity to great effect. "Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack's ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack's country home on the same weekend the "rivals" to fight for Ernest s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded hand-bag can save the day!" I loved this play; it's both laugh out loud hilarious, and offers some biting commentary on societal standards, different concepts of marriage, and our own opinions of ourselves. There are so many clever quips; here is a page of them. "The Importance of Being Earnest" also cleverly mocks the upper class, as do all of the plays. Algernon was such a great character; his antics were the most funny, particularly his talk of "Bunburying", in which one makes up a relation or friend to get out of situations (although this can lead to complications). He's also constantly eating, which provides a great deal of comedy in several scenes. Algernon always has some cynical or witty remark on hand. Some of the other characters were great too, such as Aunt Augusta, a kind of more genial version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Gwendolen, who was quite saucy, and Lane, the butler, who in typical butler fashion is stoic and unresponsive to his employer's foibles. The play goes at a really fast pace, and there are so many wonderful elements. I absolutely loved it, and loved this whole collection, which I would highly, highly recommend. I wouldn't mind actually seeing some of these plays, as they would probably be even more funny if done well.

358 pages. 

Rating: *****

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Midwives, Chris Bohjalian

MidwivesThroughout the long summer before my mother's trial began, and then during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county - her character lynched, her wisdom impugned - I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked.

"The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby's life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if—as Sibyl's assistant later charges—the patient wasn't already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her? As recounted by Sibyl's precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives—and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do."

Midwives was quite disturbing and very graphic, but I nevertheless enjoyed the novel, despite the fact that it sometimes had an overabundance of annoying detail. The book was never boring, although I certainly didn't race through it. It was slow and methodical, building up to the big event that will change all of the characters' lives forever. In this case, the event isn't some big mystery: it's in the book summary, after all, and Connie tells what it is before she actually gets to it in the narration. There's just a lot of background information to fill in before we get there. Overall, that style of constant heavy foreshadowing and looking back is kind of annoying, especially when as in this case the narrator is now much, much older. Still, it sometimes works, and it was okay here. I certainly wouldn't want every book I read to have a narration like the one in Midwives, and it did get annoying with all the repetition along the lines of "If we had known this..."/"We should have realized this..."

Midwives has really interesting, well-rounded, and complex characters, foremost among them being Sybil Danforth. She's not actually that sympathetic in terms of who she is and her lifestyle, but it is pretty clear that she genuinely thought the woman was dead and was just acting in the way she thought best. Of course, that's still enough for a manslaughter charge, and therein lies the dilemma. What it comes down to is whether Charlotte was actually dead or not when the cesarean section was performed. We do know, however, that Sibyl didn't take the usual procedures for making sure that she was dead. Or rather, she says she did, but while the two witnesses were out of the room.

I said the book was never boring, but there were times when it dragged a bit. I remained, however, interested, and enjoyed Connie's descriptions of the people around her and her reflections about her life before and after the trial. The book is rather sensational, what with all the "our lives were never the same" kind of talk, and it was also as I mentioned earlier very graphic. It is, after all about midwives and what they do, so be prepared for that. I was a bit surprised, and not altogether happy at the vivid descriptions; I didn't really need to know a lot of it.

Midwives has extensive trial scenes, which I really enjoy reading in To Kill a Mockingbird and other novels. It's great to read about lawyers doing their work, cross-examining and casting doubt upon testimony even if they don't always win. I also think the nature of these scenes makes them very suspenseful, because who knows which side will win. Although in this case you think you do know, they were still absorbing scenes, and I really liked the lawyer for Sibyl. He's very effective.

Overall, I enjoyed Midwives, although I certainly didn't love it. There were sections that dragged a bit, but it was an interesting and disturbing novel, with many murky areas in terms of who's right and who's wrong.

372 pages.

Rating: ****

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Screaming Staircase, Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co, #1)Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up.

"When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . . For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions. Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive."

I wasn't sure whether I would like this one, but I did; it was creepy and humorous at the same time, though not that scary. I found The Screaming Staircase very readable and also very entertaining, with an interesting and somewhat original set-up and a compelling narrator, Lucy Carlyle. The cover is hideous, though; there could have been something much better and more Gothic feeling, if that makes sense. I initially thought that the book was set in the 19th century, but I quickly realized it wasn't when there was mention of a TV set; this partly due to a somewhat misleading review in the New York Times (the other book featured there is in fact set in the 19th century). The reviewer keeps referring to them both as "Victorian", when of course The Screaming Staircase is not. 

Anyway, I found the book very amusing in terms of snappy dialogue and back-and-forths between the characters, mainly between Lucy and Lockwood, the young manager of the organization. Such as: "Well, that was useful.” “Really?” “No. I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.” “Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic.” I really enjoyed this exchange, and the friendship between Lucy and Lockwood in general. 

The book drew me in almost immediately; it started off with a fast-paced and breathless action sequence without much explanation, later going back to tell the story of how Lucy arrived in London and was hired by Lockwood & Co., also providing some much needed explanation for the premise of the novel, with the ghostly and ghastly "Visitors" that have become a problem in recent years, causing eradication agencies to spring up. Of course, children have the most psychic abilities, and so they are the ones doing the work. The drawback to middle grade novels is that kids are almost always the heroes and heroines, no matter how improbable the situation. Like, really, kids would not become the sole ghost-ridders in a situation like this.  But such is the nature of middle grade; the kids are the ones who are better and smarter than the adults, and they are the ones who will ultimately triumph and (perhaps) save the world. It's quite appealing, and I think accounts for some of the charm of Harry Potter. 

The Screaming Staircase is also very readable in terms of texture; the paper and the font are both quite nice. I also really liked the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, which were appropriately dark and shadowy. The book wasn't that scary though, and it was very easy to read and get through. The Screaming Staircase is nothing special, nor was I expecting it to be, but it was a fun read, a good mix of the light and the dark. I really enjoyed the two main characters, as well as George, the other member of the agency. The villains were great too, and the book was quite creative and absorbing as the characters tried to solve the mystery and save the agency with humor and chills.

381 pages.

Rating: ****