Jim Butcher: Grave Peril (The Dresden Files #3)

Grave-PerilWhen I was a kid, I liked ghost stories. My father had some books about white ladies and he told me about castles which have their own private ghosts. He didn’t believe in them. I think he just wanted to make my world a bit richer, just like I tell my kids how their grandparents had to run from dinosaurs when going to school and how their father saved me from a dragon.
Now I don’t believe in ghosts as white sheaths moving softly through walls. But I do believe that extreme sadness, pain and anguish can leave behind some kind of remnants that we – or some of us at least – can feel.
Now, Jim Butcher is not this subtle. When he lets Harry Dresden go up against ghosts, he doesn’t just find some whimpy moaning white lady to pit him against. He of course creates the worst kind of ghost imaginable and lets this ghost have the most powerful helpers – and then he lets Harry, poor messed-up Harry, face off with these and takes us along for the ride.
Now it’s not like Harry hasn’t got any help. Taking a back seat in this story are Harry’s normal helpers such as Karrin Murphy, a police officer from Special Investigations and also to some extent Susan Rodriquez, Dresden’s girlfriend. But they are put on the back burner to make room for interesting new characters such as Michael, a Knight of the Cross, and his family. Now Michael comes with a special connection to God and a magnificent sword and while constantly lecturing Dresden on how to be a decent person and a better man, he knows how to handle himself when trouble comes around.
The intrigue in this book also allows us to delve into the Nevernever for the first time – an experience which is not altogether pleasant for our dear Harry. It also allows us to experience the Vampire courts more intimately than earlier – again not altogether pleasant for Harry. It also introduces faeries, especially Harry’s godmother Lea.
If you ask me to say exactly why I like these books, I’m not quite able to get you an answer. I can give you all the normal reasons – it’s a thrilling exciting read with an interesting main character and it’s just the right thing to loose yourself in. But so is a lot of books. I haven’t  yet pinpointed what it is that so far makes me enjoy these books. But I do enjoy them and I guess I’ll keep reading ’till I can find out what it is that attract me about Harry Dresden.
Other than he is a cool, but not too cool, wizard living in Chicago trying hard not to destroy any and every modern technology he gets remotely close to while attempting to help ordinary people exposed to supernatural situations and creatures while trying to have a somewhat normal relationship with his girlfriend.

  • Title: Grave Peril (The Dresden Files #3)
  • Author: Jim Butcher
  • Publisher: Roc 
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages:  388 pages
  • Source: Own collection – Kindle
  • Stars:  stars out of 5

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Bob Tarte: Enslaved by Ducks (review)

EnslavedbyDucks‘In days gone by, if anyone had asked me if I owned any pets, I could readily rattle off their names. To answer the same question now, I would have to excuse myself, find a pen and sheet of paper, sit by myself for several minutes, and try to sort the problem out.’ (p. 249)

So I think I have a lot of animals. Or, rather, my boyfriend thinks I have a lot of animals. I don’t think so. Does one dog, one hamster, three bunnies (with one more moving in soon) count as a lot? Even if I had considered it a lot, I wouldn’t any more after reading this book. Bob Tarte and his wife have a lot of animals and a lot of animals moving in and out of their home. At one count they have three rabbits, two cats, three parakeets, a dove, two parrots, three turkeys, two geese, a canary and nine ducks. Now that is a lot of animals!
So what this is, is an account of the chaos that ensures when you keep on adding animals to your household. Animals who almost all have their own needs and wants and are very vocal about getting them met. So vocal in fact that for some periods, Tarte’s wife eat her lunch outside in the car to get away from the birds demanding to taste.
Tarte is a very funny writer. I don’t know much about birds but I can easily visualize the troubles they got from Binky the bunny. As I always say, bunnies are terrorists and escape artists and Binky is just another proof of this. I loved reading about Binky!
It’s also about a man from the city finding a purpose in his life through these animals. Bob is struggling with depression and slowly realizing, that the structure needed to care for these animals as well as the love he starts to feel for them, is actually helping him overcome his disease.
I had a lot of fun reading this book. Only issue I had with it was, that they kept adding animals to the household without any knowledge about them. It was a bit discouraging to read about them acquiring animals and having these die in their care. However, as I read one, they became more knowledgeable and it clearly shines through that they love all their animals and care for them to the best of their ability. Still, I was sometimes a bit put off by smaller things – like them not going to the vet immediately when something happens to one of their animals or going to bed, leaving one of their birds to die on its own in the basement.
Still, it is clear that they care about the animals and it is very entertaining to hear about their inabilities to construct pens or their attempts to eat a quiet dinner while simultaneously catering to a host of birds or trying to get a bunny to leave it’s chosen hiding place.
It is a light cozy read for the animal lover and as such, it’s very enjoyable – even if it has as many characters as your average Russian novel.

First lines: I should have known I was doomed to write a book about our animals. Since they had taken over just about everything else in my life, it was only a matter of time before they commandeered my word processor, too.

  • Title:  Enslaved by Ducks
  • Author: Bob Tarte
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • Year: 2003
  • Pages: 308 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam (MaddAddam Trilogy #3) (review)

13_10_atwood_book_club_eventIf you look at a basic hierarchy of needs, you’ll find things like food and water at the bottom with safety on the next level. In some ways, this is what the two first books in the MaddAddam trilogy was about. The world fell apart and we followed a few people and saw them carve out a way to survive, securing their basic needs. But in this third book, they are beginning to be able to strive for bigger and better things like beginning to create a foundation for a way to live together, the beginnings of a society for both Crakers and plain old-fashioned humans.
Granted, the world is not safe. Three men who have served time in the Painball tournament, a tournament where murderers are pitted against each other and the survivors are released, are doing what they can to satisfy their needs, no matter how depraved.
These men are a constant threat for our settlers in this book. Other than that, this is mostly the book of Toby and Zeb. The Crakers have added Zeb to their pantheon of gods and this means that Toby has an excuse to get Zeb to tell her his life story and we get to listen in on this as well which fills out even more of the puzzle we have been working on fitting together throughout the first two books.
What I absolutely loved in this book, was, whenever it was story time for the Crakers. Each evening, preferably, they want a new story and these stories are part of their mythology, their way of understanding the world. Whoever tells the story has to put on Jimmy-the-Snowman’s red cap, eat the fish (or frog) brought by the Crakers and then tell them a story about Crake, Oryx, Zeb – or maybe Fuck, the special helper you call whenever you are in trouble. I absolutely adored reading these stories and how the story teller, Toby on most occasions, are really struggling to keep the Crakers from breaking out singing whenever the name Crake is mentioned and is really trying to explain the Crakers what’s going on as well as tell them stories from the past.
At later points, a young Craker named Blackbeard starts telling the stories and Atwood does a masterful job of changing the voice of the story teller while at the same time letting some things be a stable of the story telling. Both Jimmy and Toby has repeatedly been asking the Crakers to stop singing when they tell stories, and of course when Blackbeard is telling a story, he says the same things even though he too is a Craker and used to the singing.
I also really loved the Pigoons, the Pig Ones. After having seen animals reduced to what was needed to create meat in the first book, it is amazing to see these half pigs/half humans express themselves, care for each other and work together with the humans to eliminate a threat.
The ending of this book was sad, yet hopeful. I am torn between thinking that the ending was a very brave move on Atwood’s side and the only way this trilogy could possibly end. Either way it was a very fitting end to an amazing trilogy. A lot of things were explained but not quite everything. I’m still trying to piece together why Crake did what he did to Oryx and also, the importance of this girl who plays a somewhat small role but is still important enough to be in the title of the first book and be the mother of all animals in the Craker mythology.
Whereas the focus in the first two books was on survival and how they ended up in this dystopic world, this book is more about living. This means building relationships, making long-term solutions for their lives as well as teaching the Crakers things. Not only teaching them their history through story telling but also teaching writing and the importance of caring about books. What Toby learns Blackbeard is similar to the practice in Medieval cloisters where the monks copied the books when they read it so the words were spread. Particularly the Bible, of course.
It is interesting how Crake tried to remove all what we normally consider human qualities from the Crakers and yet, some parts were impossible to remove if they were to have anything resembling a working mind. He couldn’t do away with the singing – they became mindless bag of bones if he did. So what this book also is, is a comment on what makes us humans. The Crakers are humans too and they need to have both their singing and their stories, their faith, to exist. In a time where we often focus more on making money and on productivity than on almost anything else and where the world is being destroyed, it is necessary that we are reminded of what makes us humans and not just shells of flesh. We need the arts, the humanities, philosophy – we need all that to be the best we can be.

‘If a nation’s culture survives, so too does the nation.’
Jan Mládek

First lines: In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you. Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story.

  • Title:  MaddAddam
  • Author: Margaret Atwood
  • Publisher: Virago
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages: 394 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy) (review)

9780349004075‘According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity: from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.’ (p. 224)
What exactly is going on? Why am I reading about someone named Toby? And some stripper named Ren? Supposedly this is the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy, so where is Snowman, Oryx and Crake?
Well, yeah, I guess I know where Oryx and Crake are and why they are not exactly playing first fiddle in this book. But we kind of left Snowman in a situation which could turn both good and bad in the first book of the trilogy, Oryx & Crake, so why are we not reading about him?
Oh well, I guess both Toby and Ren are kind of interesting and … what’s this? There’s some connections between them – and to Snowman aka Jimmy. And to Crake. Interesting.
So this is the story of Toby and Ren. Ren is working as a stripper/hooker at Scales and Tails while Toby is working at a spa. Both are lucky and survives the plague we heard about in the first book, the plague that Crake caused. Both have a past as God’s Gardeners, a sort of vegetarian eco-sect who grows it’s own vegetables and lives on a roof top, being careful not to attract too much attention to themselves.
These Adams and Eves are not your everyday mad cultist but rather an extremely intelligent bunch of scientists. Their teachings are actually really interesting. Each day has it’s own saint, various people they pay tribute to. People who worked for the environment, for the preservation of species, for clean air. Each part of the books begin with a sermon by Adam One as well as a song from the gardeners’ oral hymnbook.
And their biggest fear is the waterless flood aka the plague Crake unleashed.
Not only did I think it was really interesting to hear about the mythology put together by Adam One and the gardeners, I was again fascinated by Margaret Atwood’s skills as a writer. In this trilogy, she is amazing at just slowly revealing information a little at a time and jumping back and forth in time. She did it in the first book and she does it again in this one. Add to this, that the characters we had gotten so interested in in the first book, are not a huge presence in this one. But even though this is so, she manages to give us a lot of information about Crake and Snowman which explains a lot about the events in the first book as she lets us look at them through the eyes of other characters. After spending the entire first book seing the world through Jimmy’s eyes, it is so fascinating to now see this world as well as Jimmy through the eyes of someone else. And this book is told solely from female view points in contrast to the male perspective in the first book. It is in fact a parallel story, telling the same events but filling in some blanks because it’s told by other characters who have new information for us that helps us understand what exactly is going on.
Add to this a whole new set of interesting characters in this one. Gardeners like Zeb, Pilar, Amanda and of course Adam One and our two main characters Toby and Ren as well as real creepy guys like Blanco, the guy Toby is rescued from by the Gardeners. And of course the Crakers. Zeb in particular is interesting as he is second in command but doesn’t really seem like a gardener.
I absolutely loved this book. I think Atwood has written an extremely clever trilogy which manages to be both a timely comment on the way we choose to live now and the way we abuse our world as well as being extremely clever books that hook you right in and keep your interest. I can’t wait to read the third novel and finally find out exactly what MaddAddam is and get the final pieces to the puzzle. I have a feeling that this series will only improve with each reread and I’m diving right in to MaddAddam.

First lines: In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, and if she slips and topples there won’t be anyone to pick her up.

  • Title:  The Year of the Flood
  • Author: Margaret Atwood
  • Publisher: Virago
  • Year: 2010
  • Pages: 518 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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Margaret Atwood: Oryx & Crake (The MaddAddam Trilogy #1) (review)

oryx-and-crakeThe world as we know it, is falling apart. We have almost used all the oil, the poles are melting, animals are dying, there’s not enough food to feed everyone – and yet it seems we don’t really care enough to do something about it.
For Snowman, the time where it was possible to do something, has long passed. And even though it was tried to solve the world’s problems, well, he’s the last of his kind, living on his own, sleeping in a tree and taking care of the Crakers.
But why are Snowman living alone and how can he be the last of his kind when he’s human, for gods sake?! Well, that’s not something Atwood just reveals to us. Slowly, slowly, she reveals what has been going on and why Snowman has ended up this way. And who the Crakers are.
By jumping back and forth between Snowman’s childhood and his current life, we start to discover what has been going on. As a child, Snowman was a normal boy named Jimmy. He spend a lot of time with best friend Crake, playing computer games, watching wars, executions and porn – all the things of normal boyhood. But even though they live in one of the compounds, one of the safe places, not everything is as it should be. For starters, Crake is living with his mother and her new husband after his father had an accident and fell to his death. But maybe it wasn’t an accident. And why has Jimmy’s mother quit her job and is just staying home, doing nothing? That is, until she disappears and take Jimmy’s pet animal with him?
There’s no question that Crake is the smart one of the two. But just how smart he is, well, that actually shocked me. Or, rather, it shocked me what he chose to do with all his intelligence. There are definitely a couple of twists in this one, that I didn’t see coming.
Before starting this, I knew that Margaret Atwood is an excellent author. I have read and reread Alias Grace and I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale – and I’ve enjoyed them both so much. Excellent, excellent books. And this is another one. Atwood is quickly closing in on the elusive list of my favorite authors. Only five authors on it so far but Atwood is definitely in the running.
And not just because this book was really good. Also because she tackles some big issues, she does it in an fascinating way and she’s just such a clever author. She reveals the true scope of things so very slowly in this book. You are constantly left guessing, she’s peeling away layer after layer until finally everything is revealed and you are left completely speechless and having to read that one key scene over and over to realize that yes, that’s what happened and yes, she did do that.
This is definitely one scary book. When looking over my notes, I see a lot of questions at first and then it goes quickly through bafflement and bewilderment to holy cow territory and just poor what the fuck. When she finally explains what the Crakers are and explains the Paradice Project, I was just floored. I couldn’t believe that anybody could or would take science this far – yet I totally buy into the premise of the book and that there are scientists who would do things like this if they had the skills. This following scene gave me the creeps – and it actually got worse from there: What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.
“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken arts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.”
“But there aren’t any heads,” said Jimmy. He grasped the concept /…/ but this thing was going to far. At least the pigoons of his childhood hadn’t lacked heads.
“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”
“This is horrible,” said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.
“Picture the sea-anemone body plan,” said Crake. “That helps.”
“But what’s it thinking?” said Jimmy.
The woman gave her jocular woodpecker yodel, and explained that they’d removed all the brain functions that had nothing to do with digestion, assimilation, and growth.
(p. 237-238).
Is that nasty or what? Then imagine what they are able to do with humans…
This is a good book. It’s a clever book. It’s a book that hooks you in while you are slowly learning the lengths humans are willing to go to to survive. And if any one man stands a chance of stopping it. And who exactly that man might be.

First lines: Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still sleep.

  • Title:  Oryx & Crake
  • Author: Margaret Atwood
  • Publisher: Virago
  • Year: 2003
  • Pages: 436 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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A. S. Byatt: Possession (review)


‘She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness /…/’. (p. 287)

It seems that my go-to theme when talking about A.S. Byatt is that I’m afraid that she is so much more clever and well-read than me that I will not be able to understand her books. I hope this will change now when I’ve not only read two of her books, one of these being Possession, her most well-known work which also won the 1990 Booker Prize – but actually really liked them both.
And there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about Possession. A young literary scholar, Roland Michell, discovers two hidden and unfinished love letters by the great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. But there’s something different about these poems. They have a completely other feel to them than what Ash normally wrote and so, Roland is intrigued. He snatches the poems from London Library and starts investigating who they were written to.
This turns into quite the literary mystery hunt – during which he is joined by the Christabel LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey when it turns out that the poems were written to Christabel. But no one knew that Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash had a relationship – especially since Randolph Ash were (happily) married. As Roland and Maud dig deeper, they discover a beautiful, albeit very tragic, love story about two people who supplemented each other perfectly and fell in love through letters, yet could never be together.
Of course, Christabel and Randolph’s love story is somewhat paralleled by the contemporary story of Roland and Maud although the stories are vastly different even though Roland and Maud do their best to follow in the footsteps of Christabel and Randolph.
To make this novel even more impressive, Byatt has written the letters between Randolph and Christabel as well poems written by both poets. These poems and letters are convincing and have no contemporary feel to them. They felt so real, in fact, that I had to google to make sure that Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte were not in fact real people. It is such a convincing story that Byatt has written.
Now, of course no story is complete without a villain and in this book, it is a American Randolph Ash scholar who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what he wants. He wants everything that Ash ever owned to be in his or his university’s possession – and he does whatever it takes to achieve that. Academic life is definitely not always boring and predictable!
A character not to be forgotten in this novel, is Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash’s wife – although it seems easy to do, given you have two couples and two love stories, and she’s not a part in either. She shows herself fully towards the end and is just such a fascinating person, especially when we see what lengths she was willing to go to to protect her husband’s heritage and to protect him.
I absolutely loved this book. I was intrigued from beginning to end and just wanted to know what had happened between these two poets, what happened with their letters and why Christabel’s female roommate (or lesbian lover) committed suicide.
Add to this all the interesting thoughts on scholarship, especially the kind of scholarship that centers on just one person. What happens with a scholar who spends his entire life and career focused on the words and thoughts of one famous person? Does he just becomes a filter through which we experience another man’s life? Does his life loose all intrinsic worth and only gain importance through his scholarship? Does he become possessed by the poet in some ways, like Byatt at one point talks about Ash being possessed by Christabel as like a deamon? It’s fascinating to ponder – also the length scholars are willing to go to gain that piece of new knowledge that will not only ensure their career for life but also, maybe even more importantly, satisfy their curiosity.
This is definitely one of those books that shows you how good literature can be. Interesting and fascinating at the same time as it’s clever and intellectual. Extremely well-written and dealing with deep themes like feminism, Victorian poetry, academic scholarship, love. It was an absolute joy to read and I can only – again – regret that I didn’t read this one sooner. It is a book I can see myself rereading many times and because of the depths of it, enjoy it more and more with each reread.

First lines: The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.

  • Title: Possession
  • Author: A. S. Byatt
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1991
  • Pages: 511 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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Kate Atkinson: Life After Life (review)

Life-after-life-cover‘And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur – if a dish was to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.’ (p. 127)

As a writer, I guess you sometimes sit down and write various things as anexercise to keep your juices flowing. Imagine your joy and/or surprise when you discover that your writing exercises is much more than use exercises and is actually something useful, something that can be turned into a novel.
I think that is how Kate Atkinson must have felt after writing several versions of the birth of a little girl and discovering that there’s something there, something more than just exercises. Discovering the spark that could become a book.
This is how I feel Life After Life starting. As a series of writing exercises that suddenly turned into something interesting. Ursula is born on February 11, 1910. And she dies that same night. But then she’s born again and manages to survive to the age of five years old – when she drowns. And is born again. And dies again at age five by falling from the roof. But slowly, she’s learning. She gets swimming lessons, she avoids climbing on the roof to get her toys and slowly, she grows older. She vaguely remembers her previous lives and what would have killed her in a previous life, she can avoid in a later life – even though it sometimes takes her several tries to get it right. Throughout the book I was so impressed with her ability to keep on writing the same scene over and over without it becoming boring in any way.
To judge by this book, life is sort of like one of those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books, so popular in the 80s. A situation is described and then you choose what your action will be – and either die or live. If you die, you can go back and try again and eventually you will manage to make it all the way to the end. Life is also changed by just one small thing being changed. Let’s say a boy kisses Ursula – this sends her down one chain of events and turns out to be a bad chain. In her next life, then, she avoids the kiss and a whole new chain of events unfolds. So it isn’t always her death she has to prevent, it can be a small events that triggers a lot of other events and she then has to stop or change that one event.
Ursula stumbles and falls and seems to be a very accident prone young girl but she learns. She learns how to survive the Spanish flu, she learns how to survive the London Blitz. But the lessons come with a price and for much of her life – for many of her lives – she isn’t happy.
Her childhood though, and Atkinson’s description of it, is marvelous. I enjoyed reading about Ursula and her siblings, her parents, her friends and all their dogs. It reminded me of parts of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book – which I also really liked. This also meant that I really started caring for Ursula and having a character you rather like die eight times in 140 pages can be a bit rough. And then there’s about 300 more pages after that.
This book definitely comes with it’s fair share of tragic events. We have abortion, so many deaths, wife abuse, love affairs, wars – and even Adolf Hitler. This is a historical fiction novel but with a strong philosophical overtone. Her descriptions of the events of World War I and II and especially the London Blitz are spot on and as Ursula gets to relive it several times, we get to do so too.
Time is just a construct in this novel. All that is real, is the now. There’s no stability and things just seem to go round in circles. Or so it is for Ursula. But is it that way for any other characters? There were times where I suspected it – but I’m not sure. And of course, philosophically speaking, to have only one person being able to change her life like this, seems to indicate that all the rest of the population is just figments of her imagination. And then we’re on the straight path towards solipsism – the worst philosophical evil in the world, according to my old philosophy professor. However, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying this book quite a bit. And any book that makes me wonder about determinism, the question of time, solipsism, the problem of identity through time and a whole list of other philosophical questions while caring about it’s protagonist and her troubles, is making me a happy reader.
Especially since this book is also funny at times. I noted down several wonderful quotes while reading this book: ‘She supposed she would go to bed with him eventually. There was no great argument to be found against it.’ (p. 368) or this one: ‘you should read philosophy at university, you have the right kind if mind for it. Like a terrier with a terrifically tedious bone.’ (p. 200) or this description: ‘Mrs Fellowes, a woman to whom nature had denied elegance and who always smelled vaguely of fried onions. Not necessarily a disagreeable thing.’ (p. 70). I also like that Ursula takes swimming lessons from a man who just barks orders at them until they are too afraid to sink! And I really enjoyed that the book Ursula uses to distract her while hiding out in the shelters during the London Blitz, is Proust: ‘Now that the war looked as if it were going to last for ever Ursula had decided she might as well embark on Proust.’ (p. 263). When nothing better to do in the middle of a war, read Proust!
The novel begins with Ursula trying to kill Hitler. The reason for this is fairly obvious, of course. ‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’ Ursula said. ‘If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’ (p. 261). But reading the book, you don’t really care much about whether she will succeed or not. What you do care about is whether Ursula manages to succeed in living the one life that’s her true life. If such a thing exists.

‘Sometimes it was harder to change the past than it was the future.’ (p. 447)

First line: A fun of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.

  • Title: Life After Life
  • Author: Kate Atkinson
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages: 477 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Robin Hobb: Assassin’s Quest (The Farseer Trilogy #3) (review)

423053_10150667428926823_1450689760_nIt wasn’t Tolkien and Lord of the Rings who taught me to love fantasy. Nope. Weis and Hickman’s Chronicles Trilogy from the DragonLance shared world series is responsible for that. I fell in love with this story of – of course – unlikely heroes who go on a quest to save the world of Krynn and I fell in love with this world of kenders, draconians, gully dwarves and so much more.
It’s been about 15 years since I read this trilogy and since then  I have loved fantasy – and I have read and loved Lord of the Rings too. However, I feel that it’s hard to find good fantasy. More often than not, fantasy is either a band of unlikely heroes – as in LOTR and in DragonLance Chronicles – or one hero facing overwhelming odds but still finishing their quest – like in Shadow and Bone (The Grisha #1). There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s done in a new and refreshing way.
The Farseer Trilogy is of the second kind. This is definitely one hero against the world – and never more than in this third book. When we left Fitz in the second book, he had been tortured by Regal, died and had been brought back to life by Burrich and Chade, his sort of adoptive father and his sort of uncle. When we meet him in this one, he is slowly trying to learn to be alive and a human again – after having survived by letting his soul live inside of Nighteyes.
He becomes more and more himself but with a lot of anger inside after being tortured in the Buckkeep dungeon. Anger which he lets loose on Burrich which makes both Burrich and Chade leave him alone to grow up and learn to be his own man. So what does Fitz do? He goes after Regal who has crowned himself king and has moved his entire court away from the coast and left Buckkeep and the coastal duchies to fend for themselves.
But Regal and his group of Skill users are not an easy target which Fitz learns the hard way. This forces Verity to interfere to save Fitz and by doing this, he puts a quest in Fitz’ head – to find Verity.
Verity left on a quest to bring the Elderlings back to safe Buckkeep and save the kingdom and is somewhere beyond the Mountain Kingdom. Followed by Regal’s guards and his skill users, Fitz flees towards the mountains and picks up a group of – yes, you guessed it – unlikely heroes on his way. Most noteworthy of course is always Nighteyes. Fitz’ wolf companion is a huge part of what makes this book special and Hobb manages to create great scenes and amazing action both when Nighteyes is around and when he joins a pack of wolves and leaves Fitz to fend for himself for a period of time.
This is the longest book in the trilogy and it is a bit too long in places. Part of the traveling gets longwinded but still, the book has amazing characters. Kettle and Starling end up as part of the group traveling with Fitz and especially Kettle is a mystery. But even more of a mystery is, why Verity has been gone for so long and what, if anything, he has discovered.
Despite it’s flaws, this is such a good book. Even when I thought it a bit long-winded, I was still intrigued and read every chance I got. I just wanted to know what happened to Verity and Kettricken and if they would ever find each other again? To the Fool who disappeared with Kettricken when they fled Buckkeep and Regal. To Molly, Burrich, Chade, the Lady Patience and all the other characters we’ve grown to love over these three books.
And especially what happened to Verity. Without revealing too much, I have to say that he finds what he was looking for – but that it maybe wasn’t quite what he expected when he set out on his quest.
Finally the cover of this book promises dragons – or at least one dragon – and yes, there are dragons. Not your regular fantasy fire breathing dragon though. These are much more complex creatures – and I absolutely loved them.
Without revealing the ending, this is definitely not your typical ending. Because of this, because of these books being so good and because I want something to come after this for Fitz and Nighteyes, I’m really happy that there are more books about Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. This series has rekindled my love of the fantasy genre.

First line: I awake every morning with ink on my hands.

  • Title: Royal Assassin (The Farseer Trilogy #2)
  • Author: Robin Hobb
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager
  • Year: 2007 (original 1996)
  • Pages: 838 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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Susan Hill: Howard’s End is on the Landing (review)

9781846682667‘I climbed two flights of elm-wood stairs to the top landing in search of a book, and found myself embarked on a year of traveling through the books of a lifetime.’ (location 101-109)

I have a tendency to use books about books to keep my enthusiasm about books and reading at a high level at all times. It’s not that often that I need something to feed my enthusiasm but it’s not often either that I read memoirs about books and reading. According to Goodreads, I’ve only read two – Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch and this one, Susan Hill’s memoir about reading at home for a year. I’ll probably add Alan Bennett’s wonderful The Uncommon Reader to the list though. Still, it’s not like this is a genre I read a lot – and I kind of wonder why. When you are a reader, there’s something nice and cozy about sitting down and reading a book about someone else who loves to read. Or at least there should be. But maybe – or probably if I judge by my large experience of reading two memories and one novel about the love of reading – reading isn’t something you should read about. Or at least not about other people reminiscing about their reading. Which is probably a bit problematic for me, since in a way, that’s what’s book blogging is all about…
Anyway, to hurry on, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing. It’s a nice quiet book about a year spend reading only books already in the house, inspired by her discovering how many unread books she actually owned. And so she goes around in her house, picks up some books, read some in part and other in full, rereads others and basically just reacquaints herself with the books she has collected through her life as well as the memories attached with them.
As a writer, she of course has the advantage of having actually met some of the people she has books by and therefore is able to relate anecdotes about them. One in particular that struck me, was how she remembered meeting Iris Murdoch for the last time and this sad image of a very clever woman lost to Alzheimer’s. Also the image of her arriving home one night and finding both her husband and her two daughters immersed in Harry Potter books was an enjoyable one.
Authors discussed include Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, Trollope, Elisabeth Bowen, E.M. Forster as well as many others. Virginia Woolf also gets a lot of pages – especially since she has inspired Hill in many ways, both with her writing and her publishing. And this is probably one of the key point of the book – Susan Hill is more of a writer than she is a reader. Not to say she doesn’t read or love to read. She does indeed. But she is a writer and the book is a writer’s guide to and exploration of her home library.
Throughout her year of reading from home, she puts together a list of 40 books that she could survive on, if she had to choose only 40 books to keep. She doesn’t discuss them all or give reasons to why they are on her list, but it’s an interesting exercise. Of all the books you’ve read throughout your life, which 40 would be the keepers that you could live on for the rest of your life? She includes the list at the end of the book and it’s an interesting diverse list – and quite different from what mine would look like.
One thing that did struck me as a bit peculiar was, that she never seemed to be sad that she could only read what she already owned and wasn’t allowed to get any new ones. I love book buying and tend to go a bit crazy when I visit a good book store and have a lot of trouble with not buying books all the time – even though I have enough unread books on my shelves to be easily able to spend a year reading just these. She doesn’t seem to miss book buying in any way. I know I couldn’t go an entire year without buying books – but she never mentions it.
Susan Hill is a very different reader than me. She writes all over in her books – but doesn’t write her name in the beginning of the book. I do the opposite. She keeps her books all over her house, randomly organized. My novels are organized alphabetically by author’s last name and on a big book case in the living rooms. We don’t have stacks of books all over the house like she does. Still, I would love to visit her house. Keeping books that way seems like a treasure trove of reading experiences and it would be fun to spend some time discovering her unexpected treasures. It’s not wonder that she got inspired to just explore this book heaven for a year. For us as readers, it would have been more fun if we could do the same and not just read about it.

‘A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.’ (location 73-79)

First lines: It began like this. I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there. It was not. But plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realised that I had never read.

  • Title: Howard’s End is on the Landing
  • Author: Susan Hill
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Year: 2009
  • Pages: 236 pages
  • Source: Own collection – Kindle
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Joyce Carol Oates: Carthage (review)

078960-fc222‘She had no existence, in herself. From earliest childhood she had believed this. Rather she was a reflecting surface, reflecting others’ perception if her, and love of her.’ (p. 378)

What happens when you are no longer able to live up to the label everyone else has put upon you? When you are the youngest sister, your sister is the pretty one – and you are the smart one, but failing at it. What happens then?
Nineteen years old Cressida Mayfield, daughter of the former mayor, is missing. She went to visit a friend and never came home. Investigations are made and it turned out that she acted rather out of character the last evening before she disappeared. She went to a bar to talk to her sister’s former fiancé, Brett Kincaid, something she never did, and they left together. The next day, Brett is found sleeping in his car, alone. But he’s parked in the forest, there’s blood in his car and he’s acting strange. He is taken to the station and later, he’s questioned in the disappearance of Cressida.
Cressida’s family – and especially her father Zeno – is desperately searching for her and not willing to accept that she is anything but lost. But then Brett confesses that he killed her. Brett is a disabled veteran of the Iraq War and since he got back, he hasn’t been quite himself. And now, although he confesses, his confession is mixed up with memories from what he experienced in the war and so it is not quite clear if he actually killed her or not – although he is convicted of it.
Cressida’s family has to adjust to the loss of her – and of course this has huge consequences for the three remaining members of her family. And no one writes this better than Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is a master at writing about the destruction of families, loss and suffering, and heart ache. She is such a skilled writer and her characters are so real that whatever they do, feels real. She creates flawed characters suffering because of both their own and others’ actions. Zeno and Arlette handle the loss very differently and grows apart because of it. Cressida’s sister Juliet, having lost both her fiancé and her little sister, is taking the loss hard – especially since she is presented as fighting with her sister over a man as well as dumping a war veteran. So slowly, the family is broken apart.
It is almost unavoidable to compare this to We were the Mulvaneys since both deals with the breaking up of a family caused by something happening to a daughter. Despite having these similarities, they are still very different books; We were the Mulvaneys being the sadder ones in some ways, probably because there’s a hope of redemption in this one. I’ve rated them both the same but I am giving the edge to We were the Mulvaneys – it is a a better book, although both are excellent.
One thing you can always count on with Joyce Carol Oates, is her taking on difficult subjects. In this one, besides the unability of families to handle serious traumas, she discusses both the death penalty and the way the US takes care of it’s (disabled) war veterans. The last one is a issue in many countries – how do you get wounded soldiers who are damaged both mentally and physically back into society without them being a safety risk to others? The death penalty is not an issue in many countries – especially not in Western countries. I don’t see Oates as being in favor of the death penalty even though she writes the following: ‘… if you were a foe of capital punishment, it was a good idea not to know what condemned prisoners had been convicted of doing to their victims. Good not to temper mercy with too much information.’ (p. 259) She also writes about The Innocence Project as well as have a significant part of the novel taking place in a death penalty facility and a significant plot turning being caused by a character lying down in a execution chamber and by that being reborn.
As always, Joyce Carol Oates delivers. I enjoyed myself every minute I spent reading this book and as always, her way of writing is what impresses me the most. I’m still as blown away by it as I was years ago when I picked up Blonde. This is a really good book and even though Cressida isn’t necessarily the most likable character, Oates makes your care about what happened to her and interesting in reading about her childhood and the experiences that shaped her and brought events in motion which led to a young girl seeking out her sister’s ex fiancé to declare her love for him.

‘You do not want to disappoint those who love you or whom you love. Always it is the easiest thing to kill them as it is easier to kills civilian who might fuck you up with a complaint, easier than to negotiate a deal, once a person is dead there are no longer two sides to a story.’ (p. 180)

First line: Didn’t love me enough.

  • Title: Carthage
  • Author: Joyce Carol Oates
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate
  • Year: 2014
  • Pages: 482 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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