Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling

It was the summer of 2003. My dad was the first person on the Isle of Wight to pre-order the fifth Harry Potter book, happening to be in the shop where I now work, when the publication date was – after a three-year wait – finally announced. I was in the lower sixth form (junior year of high school, to my American readers) and my friends and I spent plenty of lunchtimes and free periods rereading the initial four books and trying to figure out what clues J. K. Rowling had planted in them, discussing what we thought might happen next. We had picked up on Dumbledore’s look of “something like triumph” when he had heard that Voldemort was now protected by Lily Potter’s sacrifice. What did this mean? What was the Order of the Phoenix, and did it have anything to do with the messages Dumbledore had sent out to Professor Lupin, “the old crowd,” including a Mrs Figg – the same Mrs Figg who had babysat for Harry before he knew of his Wizard heritage? I myself wondered about Dumbledore’s throwaway line about Professor Trelawney having brought her total of real predictions up to two – what was the first, and was it plot-significant?

Order of the Phoenix was published
with a choice of covers, catering for
the growing adult readership who'd
rather not be seen reading a kids' book.
And the big question was who dies? J. K. Rowling had let slip that she had killed off a main character, and that the scene had made her cry, and it seemed that question was more interesting than the other 700-odd pages of plot development. Recently I found the old school homework planner in which I had written my shortlist of possible victims. Hagrid. Neville. Lupin – because I knew he was returning. Sirius. Ron. Was I right about any of them? If you’ve read the book, you’ll know.

I think this was the first book with a midnight release, with Ottaker’s bookshop temporarily rebranded “Pottaker’s.” (Groan!) I didn’t go to any of the bookshop events, but I did note that HMV was opening an hour early, and I went down there to buy my shiny new book, not even peeking at the back or cover-flap blurbs. In fact, the postman looked at my book before I did. He spoke to me as I was walking home, “Nice day. You’re up early. You haven’t been buying the new Harry Potter book, have you?” he asked, sounding bored. “Yeah…” I said in the same tone. “Oooh! Let’s have a look!”

It was, as the postman had said, a beautiful day, and I read in the garden. All that day, I read – it was a Saturday – but as the day came to a close I realised I’d rather savour it, draw it out a bit longer. Who knew how long we’d have to wait for another new Potter book? But then I had to go back to school on the Monday, with about a quarter of the book left to go. “Have you read the new Harry Potter book?” asked a certain little squirt in the lunch queue. I should name and shame him, but I won’t. “I’m reading it,” I said, “So don’t…” “[NAME OMITTED*] dies,” he said, before I could get my hands over my ears. Thank you very much! I wanted to believe he was just messing around, but I was watching out for the event now, and not surprised when it happened after all. This boy was in my sister’s class and friendship group at school, and apparently he made himself very unpopular both in 2003, and then in 2005, when Half-Blood Prince was published, by giving away crucial plot spoilers to people trying to savour the story. Not decent, old chap. Not cricket.


But onto the book itself. Perhaps it’s because I’d familiarised myself with the first four books over the previous three years, but Order of the Phoenix felt like the odd book out. It didn’t seem to fit in, somehow. And, to be honest, it’s my least favourite book in the  series. In each of the books so far there has been a sense of danger. Lord Voldemort has always been out there somewhere, plotting world domination and Harry’s murder, and now he has returned, the threat is stronger than ever. Harry, Dumbledore et al know it is only a matter of time before outright war.

But worse than the deadly fear is the opposition from the Ministry of Magic. Not only do the Minister and his supporters refuse to believe that Voldemort has returned, but they actively hinder the spreading of the unwelcome news, discrediting it as madness and lies. At Hogwarts, the Ministry is represented by the awful Dolores Umbridge, the latest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, who is largely responsible for ensuring that actually learning any kind of self-defence is brutally punished. As Umbridge slowly gains more power at the school, the book’s atmosphere becomes unbearably oppressive. One can’t even love to hate Umbridge, who makes Severus Snape appear a real sweetie by comparison.

As well as my least favourite character in the series, two of my favourite characters, clumsy young witch Tonks, and dippy fourth-year Luna Lovegood, are introduced in this book, and we are reunited with former Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers Remus Lupin and Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody – the real Moody, this time. We also learn more about Sirius Black, Severus Snape and Harry’s own parents, and some shocking revelations about Harry's father come to light.

We get to see a bit of the wizarding world outside of Hogwarts: much of the action takes place in the Ministry of Magic buildings, and Rowling goes into more detail about Wizard Politics – an ugly game. There are some great plotlines – the titular Order’s covert war against Voldemort despite the Ministry’s opposition, Harry’s mysterious dreams in which he seems to be reading the mind of Lord Voldemort, the students uniting against Umbridge and the Ministry to form Dumbledore’s Army – a sort of trainee Order of the Phoenix - and we learn more about Harry's parents. Yet this book also contains are several subplots which I find less enjoyable to read about. As well as the poisonous Umbridge woman, Hagrid’s story leaves me cold, and Harry throws a year-long strop, shouting at anyone and everyone. Then again, he is fifteen. Finally, I think the scenes at the Ministry of Magic have too high a concentration of weirdness which is left  largely unexplained. I take away from the chapters in the Department of Mysteries a vague, blurry impression of sometimes overwhelming, sometimes grotesque magic all happening too fast to take in. Although the Order of the Phoenix is still a great read, it is a vast and chaotic novel which could probably have benefitted from tighter editing.

*Name omitted for COMMON DECENCY, a concept that some people might not understand. Not that I'm still sore, mind you. Not me. Nope.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling


If Azkaban was when the wizarding world of Harry Potter* started to change, Goblet of Fire marks the real turning point. After the Quidditch World Cup celebrations are ruined by Voldemort’s old supporters showing themselves and causing chaos and panic, Harry and his friends expect another school year of magic lessons, Quidditch, rule-breaking and perhaps a finale of risking their lives in some adventure. But the pattern is broken from the moment Dumbledore announces there will be no Quidditch cup this year, because there will be an even bigger event at Hogwarts: The Triwizard Tournament: a trio of challenging tasks for the champions of three wizard schools: Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. Not that Harry, Ron or Hermione will be affected directly, except that they will be provided with a bit of entertainment. The Triwizard Tournament is far too complicated and dangerous, and Dumbledore has installed failsafe measures to ensure that no one under seventeen can be selected as champion…



harry... potter


Somehow, Harry Potter has found himself in deep. Again. Putting one’s name into the Goblet of Fire signifies a legally binding contract – if the Goblet says you are to be a champion, champion you must be. Never mind that Harry didn’t – couldn’t – enter his own name. For the first time, there are four wizards and witches competing in the Triwizard Tournament (though they don’t change the name) and Harry’s year is devoted to finding ways to survive the Tournament. Because in all probability, the person who nominated Harry – in his own category without any competition – did so  in the hopes that he will die in the process.

But when Harry does survive – and win – the Tournament, it is only the start of his troubles. In the most horrifying, terrifying and gruesome scene so far, Voldemort, He Who Must Not Be Named, the Dark Lord is reborn. So far we’ve only seen him as a whisper, a memory, or heard about what he was like through other people’s stories. He seemed like a fairly standard memory of a children’s story’s villain, mostly harmless now. This new Voldemort puts an end to that delusion: he is terrifying. Although nearly-dying seems to be an occupational hazard for Harry at the end of the summer term, never has death felt so real – we witnessed the first on-page death of an established character moments before – and so inescapable.

In my opinion, the adaptation of Goblet of Fire is the first really good Harry Potter film, faithful to the book without being slavishly so, a good film as well as a good interpretation of the book. As such, I found on this reread  that the film had a stronger impression on me than I had realised, and that there were many wonderful moments in the book which I had completely forgotten about: the Weasley family arriving at the Dursleys’ house to collect Harry for the rest of the summer holidays, Fred and George’s Weasley Wizard Wheezes, and Hermione’s entire S.P.E.W. campaign for the better treatment of house elves. (Still not entirely convinced by the house elves, I wasn’t too sorry that they were omitted from the film.) Even in the scenes that had been filmed directly from the book, I discovered I got more pleasure from reading than watching them. The scenes of chaos at the Quidditch World Cup felt so much more intense to read on the page than to watch a load of people running and screaming in the dark on the screen. And the Graveyard scene is so much scarier in my imagination than someone else’s translated to the screen.

I wonder why that is? Perhaps what is described but unseen appeals to the individual’s own worst fears for them to imagine the worst. When it is given shape through film, there is only one way to interpret it, and that is what is shown. Maybe it’s because you can read a book at your own speed, savour the moments and take your time to let things sink in. Whatever the reason, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a fine example of the power of the imagination, and how superior books can be to the film of the same story.

*not the theme park

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Contains some spoilers (just in case you've survived this long unspoiled!)

After J. K. Rowling's first two fun and magical boarding-school adventures, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban seems to be the point at which the series starts to assert itself as something extraordinary. The first two books worked well as connected, stand-alone stories, setting the scene for Hogwarts and the wizarding world. Although there is still much to learn and discover all the way through the series, book three is where, for me, The Story really begins.

Prisoner of Azkaban has a noticeably darker tone than its two predecessors. I will state this once, and in my reviews for the rest of the series you can just take this for granted. Each book is darker than the last. (When the last few films have been released, this information was announced by reviewers as if it were some great surprise. We all know it. Let's move on.) So far, despite events at Hogwarts, the wizarding world as a whole has been at peace. Now, there is a flutter of fear in the air. Notorious mass-murderer Sirius Black has escaped from the supposedly inescapeable Azkaban Prison - and all the evidence suggests that he's trying to kill Harry. The Dementors, shadowy prison guards who spread despair wherever they go, have been set to guard Hogwarts, but they don't seem to be doing any good, and their presence is having a serious effect on Harry. Thankfully, for the first time there is a competent Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts: the mild-mannered Professor Remus Lupin, who gives Harry some valuable extra coaching. But Lupin has some dark secrets of his own...

Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favourite books in the Harry Potter series. There is less world-building and more plot, a twisty, page-turning and very satisfying plot. We learn some of Harry's family history, about Harry's father at school, and about the circumstances leading up to their deaths. Harry starts studying two new subjects: Divination and Care of Magical Creatures. Although both of these classes are crucial to the plot of this story, it is probably Lupin's extra-curricular Patronus charm lessons that are the most valuable to Harry. In later books, the Patronus seems to come as second nature to Harry, passing it on to his fellow students, and I forget how advanced magic it is, but for Harry, aged only thirteen, to produce a Patronus is extraordinary.

Remus Lupin is one of my favourite characters in the books - and the first sympathetic werewolf I ever encountered. Rowling managed to change the way I viewed some of the typical "monsters" of fantasy and horror writing, and influenced a couple of werewolves into my own writing. Again, I was blown away by the twists and revelations that came at the end of the book, and by this point it is apparent that the books are coming together to lead up to some bigger event; that the stand-alone stories are just chapters in a seven-volume epic.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

With just a few weeks to go before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is released into the cinemas, I decided to pick up the series where I left off a month or two ago and see if I could reread the lot before going to see the film. The Chamber of Secrets is a lighter read than I’ve come to expect from the series; this is the book – and film – I tend to neglect the most. The Story hasn’t really got started yet, and this book still feels quite safe and self-contained. Sure, there is danger; someone or something has been attacking students at Hogwarts to leave them comatose – and it’s only by luck that no one has died! If the culprit is not caught, Hogwarts must close! But we know that, eventually, everything will be all right, Harry and his friends will find out who did it, might have a near-death experience, but they’ll pull through and save the day.

Rereading this book when you know the whole story, you realise anew how much Harry still has to learn about the wizarding world. In this book, Harry, Ron and Hermione learn how to use the essential Expelliarmus spell, how to make and use polyjuice potion, and for the first time Azkaban prison casts its shadow. We meet the father of school bully Draco Malfoy and start to understand that the Malfoy family are not just snobs, not just nasty, but dark wizards and thinly-veiled supporters of Voldemort. It is here that we hear the insult, “mudblood,” for the first time and find out just how seriously some wizards take the “purity” of their blood – and everyone else’s. This book also has a wonderful comic moment in the duelling club, led by self-obsessed new teacher Professor Lockhart and cold, cruel Professor Snape, who one has to love to hate. I find myself mentally cheering Snape on, because Lockhart is just that annoying.

In some ways this is one of my lesser favourite books in the series. I’m not a big fan of the giant spider detour, and to be blunt, Dobby the house-elf is somewhat irritating.  On the other hand, the Chamber of Secrets is a thrilling mystery, and I love the storyline with Tom Riddle’s old diary, which seems to be a magical revelation into the past, but turns out to be something much more sinister.  I remember being amazed by the twist at the end when we discover the other, more famous identity of handsome, popular golden boy Tom Riddle.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, Annabel Pitcher (audiobook)

sister mantlepieceFive years ago, Jamie’s sister Rose was killed in a terrorist attack in London. He doesn’t really remember Rose, because he was only five at the time, but his family has never recovered. His mum left just a few weeks ago after having an affair with Nigel from the support group. Jamie’s dad drinks all the time and hates all Muslims. Rose’s twin sister Jas – now fifteen – has dyed her hair pink and got her nose pierced, an act seen as a betrayal by their parents, because she doesn’t look like Rose any more. It’s like Jas and Jamie are less visible than the urn on the mantlepiece, less present than the hole where Rose ought to be, the gap around which their whole family revolves.

After Mum’s desertion, Dad, Jas and Jamie move to a small village in the Lake District to start a new life. At his new school, Jamie doesn’t fit in. His teacher always seems to ask the very questions he can’t answer, and is frustrated by his reticence and apparent stupidity. The other kids call him “freak,” with the exception of sparky, mischievous Sunya, who recognises in him a kindred spirit, a fellow super-hero. But Jamie dreads to think how his father would react to his friendship with a Muslim girl, when he blames all Muslims for Rose’s death.

Jamie is a bright, unusual child with a vivid imagination. His narration is full of bright similes and metaphors which fit perfectly:
“I was more nervous than the most nervous person I could think of, which right now is the lion from The Wizard of Oz. My tummy had something bigger and scarier than butterflies inside it. Maybe they were eagles or hawks or something. Or, come to think of it, they could have been those monkeys with wings that kidnap Dorothy and take her to the witch that's scared of water.”
Jamie doesn’t really remember his sister Rose. Every day he sees the effect of her death on his parents, but for him that’s normal. He doesn’t remember when life was any different. For the outside reader, it is clear that something is very, very wrong. I felt intense pity for Jamie’s parents – one could never get over the loss of a child – but they are unreasonable in the way they treat their surviving children, so wrapped up in their own pain that they resent Jas and Jamie for not being Rose, or for not letting their lives revolve around her absence. When Jamie had to write a school essay about a hero, and chose footballer Wayne Rooney, his mother made him rewrite it about Rose, dictating the memories he didn’t have. Then, at a birthday party, when Jamie asked for food, his dad filled a plate – to put on the mantlepiece beside Rose’s urn. Jamie is such an optimistic child, but his hope is painful to an older, wiser reader (or listener listener) because of the awareness of the crushing disappointment that is to come when his wishes don’t come true, or if they do, they aren’t what he had hoped. At times the story just seems to be disappointment after disappointment, and Jamie has to learn the difficult lesson that adults don’t always get it right, don’t have all the answers and do let you down. But they get there, slowly, until Jamie concludes:

If OFSTED inspected my family, then I know what grade we'd get: Satisfactory. OK, but not brilliant, but that's fine by me.
I downloaded the audio version of this book when I was struck by a bad migraine attack. I couldn’t sleep for the whole time but wasn’t up to reading, so I let David Tennant read this to me instead. Although he is a talented voice actor, seemingly able to imitate any accent he tries, in this case his reading is simple and understated, letting the story do the work, narrating with the right amount of innocent hope, eagerness and subdued sadness. I bought the audiobook from, but was quite disappointed that it came as one six-hour track, so I couldn’t burn it to CD to wake me up in the morning. In future I think I’ll stick to buying  audio books as CDs.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery

I've decided to review the concluding two books in the Anne of Green Gables series in a single post, as I've already said a lot about Rilla of Ingleside three years ago. (You can read the original post here. Caution: It's long and full of spoilers.)

Rainbow Valley follows on from Anne of Ingleside, but by this point the Anne books aren't really about Anne Blythe, nee Shirley, any more. Rainbow Valley isn't even a Blythe family book, but instead is centred on a new family, the Merediths. John Meredith is the new Presbyterian minister, a young widower with four children. Although academically brilliant, Mr Meredith is completely at a loss when it comes to bringing up his children, and Jerry, Faith, Una and Carl cause scandal in the community by their wild behaviour.

I found Rainbow Valley to be much more enjoyable than Anne of Ingleside. The Blythe children, who befriend the Merediths, are a little older, and their escapades are less cutesy-poo and more heartfelt. Under the children's silly scapes is their real longing to get their father's attention, and to become respectable members of the community. Although I didn't feel that I got to know the boys very well - I would get Jerry Meredith confused with Jem Blythe, both being the eldest of their respective families, and having similar names - there was real character in the girls: impulsive, big-hearted Faith, and shy, thoughtful Una. We also got to know Walter Blythe better, who is growing to be an extraordinary, unearthly boy with his own battles.

Then there's Mary Vance, a runaway orphan "adopted" by the Merediths. Mary's story has strong parallels with Anne's own childhood, but a very different character - maybe an insight into what Anne could have been like without her imagination? Mary's language and attitude horrifies the minister's children, and even after she is being "brought up properly," she has a sharp tongue and too high an opinion of herself. I don't exactly like Mary Vance, but there is no denying she is a living character.

Perhaps I felt more interested in Rainbow Valley than its predecessor because L. M. Montgomery herself was more interested. Ingleside and Windy Willows, which are less of a joy for me to read, were written at a later date when I understand Montgomery had fallen out of love with Anne, and it shows. In Rainbow Valley there is stronger characterisation, with some newcomers who are more than gossippy old women and match-making subjects, but who take on a valuable role in the story. We meet intelligent, argumentative Norman Douglas, the West sisters imprisoned by their own vows to each other, and of course Mary and the Merediths, all of whom are as knowable as the Avonlea residents of old.

Anne's story concludes in Rilla of Ingleside, when her children are grown up, and so has the story. For the first time the timeless, slightly other-worldly, other-time classic is brutally placed into an exact place in history: World War One. I found it interesting to read about Canada as part of the British empire and the characters' patriotism towards a country most of them had never seen. I felt uncomfortable noticing that Rilla, who was so set against her brothers going to war, addressed a meeting about dying for one's country being glorious, and helping to persuade young lads to join up.

But this book does not allow idealism to overshadow the ugliness of war. We don't get to see the action first-hand - although one of Jem's letters home was reminiscent of some of war poet Wilfred Owen's writing - but Montgomery focuses in on the agony and helplessness of the people on the home front; the families, friends and lovers of the soldiers. Though full of comic and heartwarming scenes, through Rilla, Anne and Rilla's friend Gertrude, we feel the relentless agony of life, love and loss at such an unpredictable time, the fear that must underscore every aspect of life "Till the boys come home." And, of course, many never would return, including one of the Blythes' most beloved friends-and-relations. To Gertrude, Rilla, Una Meredith and me as a reader, it seemed that such loss could not be borne, but of course they survive and carry on. They must. But Rilla of Ingleside made it clear that for all who lived through the fateful years, the world had changed forever in a way that one can never quite get over.

Rilla of Ingleside is a guaranteed tearjerker, a bittersweet ending to the story that started off as such sweet escapism. In some ways I am glad that Anne retreated into the background in the later stories, as it seems so terrible that her story should take such a turn. By this point, this is far more than just a children's story, but a unique piece of World War One literature that deserves a place in the canon.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Poison Tree, Erin Kelly

Karen Clarke was always a good girl, a top-class languages student who lived a sensible, dull life, with a sensible, dull boyfriend and sensible, dull housemates. Then, after finding herself single again, she met Biba, the strange, alluring would-be actress who invited Karen into her life. For one summer, Karen seems to live the dream, sharing a big, old house in Highgate with Biba and her brother, with streams of interesting people, drugs and endless parties. But summer must come to an end, and one fateful evening all of their lives are changed forever...

The Poison Tree is a story told in two timelines: the main plot which set during the summer of 1997, a time that begin with hope in Britain with a new government, and ended with the nation mourning the "People's Princess," Diana. The second strand takes place ten years later, but the repercussions of the tragic night have not stopped. It is not much of a spoiler to say that Biba's brother - and Karen's partner - Rex has just been released from prison for a double murder - we are told this early on. The mystery is in what we are not told: why was her really there and what led him to that point? Why would Karen stay with a notorious killer? What is Karen's own guilty secret, and to what lengths will she go to keep it?

For most of the book I found Karen, the narrator, to be quite a dull character, with one unique trait - her language skills - and little personality. Her reaction to being dumped is emotionless - soulless? When she falls in with Biba and Rex, she seems easily moulded to become like them, to fit in and become part of their family until she's not sure who she was before, or who she would be without them. The sibling relationship between Rex and Biba is the most interesting dynamic in the story, the tale of a brother and sister who have nothing left but each other, and Rex in particular is driven by his obsession with protecting and holding onto his unpredictable, damaged sister.

I started off by disliking the main characters in the book when they showed no consideration for those around them, disturbing their neighbour, his children and pregnant wife by their late-night revelry. As a student in university accomodation I was made ill through lack of sleep because of people in the opposite flat, and my personal experiences made me hostile to these characters. But as the book progressed I found myself softening towards them, feeling sympathy towards the outwardly carefree and inwardly desperate Rex and Biba. Actual liking for the characters fluctuated; I was drawn to Biba by her charm but repelled by her selfishness, while Rex grew on me. Despite seeing the story through Karen's eyes, I could never quite like her; sensing a darkness beneath her seemingly ordinary character that didn't seem to be part of their shared history.

The Poison Tree is, like the poem it was named after, a dark, menacing read. It is almost gothic, with the crucial big, old house more of a character than a setting, with skewed residents who were too quirky, too passionate and intense. There is a thread of suspense throughout the story which kept me turning the pages and left more of a lasting impression than I first expecting, creepy and disturbing with its untold secrets and a shocking ending which left me to work out for myself why Erin Kelly had chosen this poem for its title. Kelly's next novel is set to be named after another William Blake poem, "The Sick Rose," which gives me reason to expect an equally dark read

The Poison Tree is one of the selected books for Richard and Judy's Summer Reads 2011.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Not Necessarily Coming Soon...

but maybe some day.

This post was inspired by the lovely Nomes at Inkcrush who asked:
how many books [do] you own but have not read?
Now, I am notorious for buying books faster than I can read them, and I thought that now would be a great opportunity to look all through my bookshelves and compile the definitive to-read list: the books which I intend to read, maybe not this month or even necessarily this year, but one day. No doubt I've got books on my shelves I don't even remember buying. So here goes:

From Grandma:

When my Grandma moved out of her house into a smaller flat a couple of years ago, she gave me her bookcase, the very first piece of furniture she bought herself! And with the case came a lot of books, mostly classics in nice old hardback editions.

*The complete Dickens. I've been working my way through the better-known titles, but there are still a lot more to go.

A Child's History of England
Sketches by Boz
Our Mutual friend
Martin Chuzzlewit
Dombey and Son
Barnaby Rudge
The Uncommercial Traveller
The Pickwick Papers
Christmas Stories
Pictures from Italy
American Notes
Master Humphrey's Clock
Miscellaneous Papers

(I'm pretty sure that much Dickens isn't designed to be read in the long term, but maybe across a decade or two...)

Adam Bede - George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot
John Halifax, Gentleman - Mrs Craik
Vanity Fair - W.M. Thackeray


The Confession of Katherine Howard - Suzannah Dunn (from a friend)
The Poison Tree - Erin Kelly (from library)
The Private Patient - P. D. James (from library)

Kids' books:

Mandie and the Forbidden Attic - Lois Gladys Leppard. (A charity shop find.)
Rabble Starkey - Lois Lowry. (I'm sure I read this when I was a kid, and recently rediscovered the Anastasia books by this author. Bought from a charity shop at least a year ago)Gene Stratton Porter. (My Grandma once lent this to me to read when I was bored at her house when I was maybe 11. I didn't get very far but enjoyed what I did read, and took it off her hands with the bookcase. I must read this, if only to find out what a "limberlost" is.)
Jean's Golden Term - Angela Brazil and Just The Girl for St Jude's - Ethel Talbot. (Two old-style girls' school stories, found in charity shops or second-hand bookshops.)
A Girl of the Limberlost -
Inkdeath - Cornelia Funke. (I read the first two a while ago, but never was quite in the mood for this one. Bought half-price when it came out in 2008)


Weatherwitch and Fallowblade by Cecelia Dart-Thornton, books 3 and 4 of the Crowthistle Chronicles.
Sorcery Rising and Wild Magic by Jude Fisher, books 1 and 2 of the Fools' Gold trilogy
The Word and the Void trilogy by Terry Brooks. (I think I've had that since my first or second year at uni - around 2005-2006!)
The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers. (This was donated to a charity shop I used to volunteer at, but it couldn't be put on sale because someone had written in the front. It was too good quality to throw away, never read.)
The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien. (Full-length version of the most interesting story from the Silmarillion, my cousin had two copies and gave me one. I've had it 4 years.)

General/literary fiction:

This is the long one!

The Other Hand - Chris Cleave. (Bought on a 3-for-2 offer after I met Mr Cleave at a writers' conference. My old supervisor George kept telling me to read it. I really should.)
Granta New Fiction Special. (Not so new now. Given away at the same writers' conference in September 2009.)
The Gormanghast Trilogy - Mervyn Peake (Another charity shop find from my early uni days.)
Witch Light - Susan Fletcher.
The Life of Pi - Yann Martel. (Given away at the World Book Night evening in March this year.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender.
The Other Side of the Bridge - Mary Lawson.
Bad Boy - Peter Robinson
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini.
The Little House - Philippa Gregory. (another charity shop! Bought when I was still in uni, so I've had it at least 4 years.)
The Firemaster's Mistress - Chrissie Dickason (bought new 2006)
Mr Rosenblum's List - Natasha Solomons. (Bought BOGOF this year with the Richard and Judy book club.)
The One from the Other - Philip Kerr (free with a magazine, either this year or the end of last.)


The Brontes - Patricia Ingham
Wedlock - Wendy Moore
Battle of Britain - Patrick Bishop
Eating For Victory
Spitfire Women of World War II - Giles Whittell
Total unread books in my possession: 51. Watch this space for reviews - but not all of them, and not right away! Have you any recommendations for where to start? What is your to-read pile like?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Pretties, Scott Westerfeld

Due to both library copies being missing, I had a long gap between reading Uglies and its sequel Pretties. I ended up finally getting to read Pretties when I found the series on my friend's bookshelves. It took me quite a while to get back into this setting: a garish, dystopian Back To The Future Part 2 sort of world (compete with hoverboards.) On the surface New Pretty Town seemed rather crude and childish, but beneath it all is a dark threat. Tally Youngblood discovered the truth about her society back in Uglies, but has since undergone an operation to remove all her natural imperfections to fulfil the ideal of Pretty, and in the process, her mind has been altered. So in a way, it was an advantage to come back to the series having forgotten much of the story so far, because it put me in the same position as Tally, seeing the world anew.

Another obstacle to really enjoying this book was the prevalence of irritating Pretty slang which seemed to be a cross between Evelyn Waugh's Bright Young Things (Vile Bodies or Stephen Fry's film adapation: Bright Young Things) and Bill and Ted. Everything is either "bubbly" or "bogus," or "[adjective]-making." Perhaps the Bright Young Things comparison is not as strange as it may seem, as the new Pretties live the same sort of lifestyle: all about fun, pleasure and parties, except here it is manipulated and enforced by the shadowy authorities, the Specials.
Post-Prettification, Tally's world looks jarringly different, taking us right back to the worldview she held at the beginning of Uglies: mindlessly accepting the way things are. This time, though, it is all the more sinister because we know what has brought her to this point, and appreciate the tragedy of Tally having forgotten all the valuable information and life lessons she learned in the Smoke in Uglies.

Plot-wise, this installment didn't really grab me. Whether it was the slang or the over-reliance on hoverboards, bungee jackets or crash bracelets, or the fact that the story seemed like a repetition of the prequel, or yet another flippin' love triangle, I whizzed through the story quickly without really engaging with it. But there were just enough cliffhangers and hooks to keep me going, wanting just one more question answered before I put it down. And the never-quite defined "Bubbly" started to make sense, a word that seemed at various times to mean happy, brave, clever or cool, and basically "alive" as opposed to the empty-headed contentment and acceptance that is the norm for new Pretties.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Blog Hop and Irresistibly Sweet Award

Hi everyone. Once again, I'm sorry for the quietness around this blog lately. For one reason or another I haven't had a lot of reading or reviewing time lately and seem to be taking longer over each book than I would like. I'm hoping that normal service will be resumed shortly.
And as if that weren't enough, blogger isn't even letting me comment on other people's posts, much to my frustration. I really hope this will be resolved soon. Apologies to all the lovely bloggers who write such brilliant reviews, discussions and meme posts. (ETA: it seems to be working - now. But I don't trust these technologies...)

This week the Book Blogger Hop is being hosted by Lori at her Reading Corner, and the question is:
Who is the one author that you are dying to meet?
For me there can be no contest: it must be the brilliant Neil Gaiman, although I'm pretty sure if I got the opportunity I would lose all ability to speak out of nerves. This is a fantasy author whose best writing just seems to make more sense than the real world, especially his worlds of Neverwhere, American Gods, and his latest Doctor Who episode (which was superb.)

Thanks to The Book Gatherer for this lovely award, which I am honoured to pass on to the following wonderful blogs. (Choosing just five was a tough task.)

(Another) Katie: Call Me Crazy

In return for this award, I've been asked to share seven facts about myself:

1. Just lately, I've been getting a bit obsessive about colour-coordinating my nail varnish with my outfit of the day. Or... choosing my T-shirt to match my nails.

2. If I had enough money I'd invest in shoes to match - preferably Converse All Stars. I love my Converse (I have one pair dark red and one in purple) but am terrible when it comes to smart or pretty shoes. I can't walk in high heels, and slip-on shoes just slip off my feet again.

3. If my childhood were a place, it would be an "adventure park" called Blackgang Chine, which I try to revisit every year, even if I might be technically too old to go without any kids to entertain. There are giant (climbable) model dinosaurs, a pirate ship, a mansion which has been taken over by the "little people of the unfriendly kind," and a cowboy town. Amazing place, except for an abundance of...

4 ...wasps, the one thing guaranteed to make me freak out and scream like a little girl. Ugh. Can't even say the word without shuddering.

5. I collect drinks coasters, prefering interesting one-offs to matching sets. My current favourite is bright green with "THIS IS NOT A BISCUIT" written across it.

6. I'm an old-fashioned girl who prefers paper books to e-readers and likes to have real photo albums to look through.

7. I have three bookcases in my room: On the left of the door is a vintage affair with glass doors containing all the "clever" books, classics and nice hardbacks. This was the first item of furniture my Grandma ever bought herself, and the top shelf is full of her entire Dickens collection, a present from her first boyfriend's family in about 1943. On the right is a little case with three shelves full of classic kids' books: Enid Blyton, L.M. Montgomery, Little House on the Prairie and school stories. General fiction lives on the big bookcase by the bedroom window, if it fits. These shelves aren't enough: I also have shelves in my wardrobe and another cupboard for books, and a box for those without any other home. Oh, and two shelves in my sister's bedroom. Every so often I send a few to a charity shop - but replace them just as quickly.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Why Stories Are Important

A few times over the last year I've found myself questioning whether, or why, my love of reading is worthwhile. Back at the end of last year, when the British government announced their plans to treble university tuition fees, a newspaper comment on the subject suggested that students wanting to study "worthwhile" subjects such as medicine and teaching, should pay substantially reduced fees, while those who chose to study the arts must pay the whole lot. The sentiments I got from this letter were that studying non-essential subjects were a selfish indulgence and ultimately useless.  Now, my degree is in Creative Writing with English Literature, and so far it hasn't got me very far. I could have been in my current job with a handful of GCSEs, and I've had to move back home - something that I am very ashamed of. While the student protests went on, and the government and general public all had their own opinions on the matter, I found myself in a dark place questioning my own worth. All I was good at was reading or writing stories, and a bit of singing. What was the point of me? I'd always valued reading highly, but why, exactly? What was the point of stories?

Books like Harry Potter and Twilight are often praised, not so much for their literary value but because they've got people reading who wouldn't otherwise have picked up a book. But why is this important? What is it that makes reading a virtue?

The first purpose of stories - and really, I'm including films, TV and the theatre as well as my medium of choice, books - is simply entertainment. A good story will take you away for a little while, and you spend time getting to know characters and care for them, wanting to know "what happened next?" Reading fires the imagination and opens the mind to infinite possibilities and may inspire great ideas of your own. Or it may simply distract you, if perhaps you're not in a great place at the moment. Simply put, a good story makes people happy - and surely that can't be a bad thing.

Secondly, stories enlighten, and teach empathy and compassion. I've found myself reading books from the point of view of a character who reminds me of someone I'd never liked, or sympathised with. Sarah Ockler's titular Delilah was externally a high school delinquent, a trouble-maker and probably someone I would have avoided if she was one of my classmates. But seeing her from the inside out and learning what made her tick, I came to understand her real-life counterparts and realised that maybe we weren't so different after all. Or a a book might show the life of someone from another culture, another country, place or time, a story you might not find in your back garden, but the human experience nonetheless.

Finally, stories make sense of the world, and show readers that they are not alone. I know when I find myself in a situation I don't know how to handle, I find myself thinking of my beloved characters, their good and bad decisions, and that in turn helps me to understand my own emotions and actions. Even bad role models have been known to help here. When I was dumped by the Ex-Vampire, Bella of New Moon was a wonderful model for How Not To Act. I refused to think my life was over just because of a bloke. Maybe I felt like it - but I was not going to let the next six months pass like blank pages. Doctor Who's Donna Noble was living at home and working dead-end jobs when she was considerably older than me, before she was whisked away by a madman in a box to see the universe and finally realise her potential. (For the purpose of this article, let's ignore how that adventure ended!)

And I'm fortunate in that these were the first examples I could think of from my own life. Last autumn's Speak Loudly campaign, and a backlash against a Wall Street Journal article today, have demonstrated that books can offer a way out of despair. Fictional characters can offer hope to readers in comparable situations, and show that they are not alone, not the only person who has been there, done this or felt like that, and that there is a way out.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Readalong: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (ii)

Contains spoilers

When we left Helen, heroine of Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she was stoically enduring an unwise marriage that had turned out not to be as idyllic as she had hoped. The marriage turns from bad to worse as Huntingdon spends more and more time in bad society, making promises he cannot keep, drinking and gambling and eventually having an affair with the wife of a friend. After much agonising, and after many - far too many, the modern reader might say - second chances, Helen leaves her husband and takes her mother's maiden name, Graham, making her living as a reclusive artist in Wildfell Hall.

Tenant was a controversial novel when it was published, with frank depictions of alcoholism, adultery and other debauchery deemed unsuitable for ladies to read - and no doubt for a lady to have written! For a woman - who in those days would have had no independent rights, unable to own property or sue her husband for divorce - to be found to be married but separated from her husband must have been scandalous. The ideal Victorian wife was "the angel in the house," the selfless, submissive wiife devoted to making her husband happy without any thought for herself. Despite marrying against the advice of her relations, Helen is not generally a thoughtless or irresponsible woman. For a large part of her narrative, her attitude seems to be that as she chose to marry Huntingdon, she must take the consequences, and set a bad husband a good example by living a virtuous life. But is it virtuous to remain in a loveless, somewhat abusive marriage? What about when Arthur commits adultery with Lady Lowborough, the wife of a friend? When Helen knows about her husband's dalliances, is it right for her to tell the other wronged spouse, or remain silent in the hope that he will not be hurt by what he doesn't know? Her decision to put up and shut up turns out for the worse, and when the truth comes out, Lord Lowborough is hurt far worse for her silence.

Helen wrestles with her conscience, continuing to live with Huntingdon, though not as husband and wife, for a long time. She comes to realise that being a good person herself is not enough to reform an unrepentant scoundrel, and that being a "good wife" can be more damaging than to outrage society and her conscience by abandoning her husband. The last straw is Huntingdon's influence on their son, only an infant but already encouraged by his father to imitate his foul language and love of drink. Helen realises that the only way to stop little Arthur from turning out like his father is to take him out of Huntingdon's reach, where he cannot be corrupted. Helen's motives can surely not be faulted, and in the modern day this would be the logical course of action,but Anne Bronte must have raised a few eyebrows of her Victorian readership in her presentation of the conflict between being "respectable" and doing the right thing.

Anne Bronte always seems to be the forgotten sister, overlooked in favour of the more famous Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but Tenant is a brave, groundbreaking novel which deserves to be better known.
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