Lev Grossman: The Magician King (review)

Grossman-MagicianKingUS_thumb[10]Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians made quite a stir back in 2009 when it was first published with its mix of Harry Potter and Narnia and the way it turned these YA stories into some serious adult fiction. I read it in 2009 and liked it a lot. I’ve had the second book in the series on my shelves for a couple of years and I picked it as one of the books to get me back into reading again.

And that was a smart choice. It was one of the books I read on this year’s summer holiday. I read it over three days. And enjoyed it a lot.

We’re back with Quentin and the other kings and queens of Fillory. Quentin is bored with his job as king of smooth-running Fillory and he is desperate for any kind of adventure. So when it is discovered that the Outer Island doesn’t pay tax to the kingdom, he decides to go on a quest. He readies a ship so it’s just like in the Fillory books, he grew up with, and off he goes. Turns out that what he’s really questing for, is a set of keys – and that Fillory’s future is heavily depending on him getting the keys. Only trouble is, that if you use the keys, you risk ending up somewhere you didn’t exactly plan to go.

What we also get in this story, is the story of Julia. One of my comments to the first novel was, that I felt that Julia flickered in and out of it and that her character wasn’t presented in  a satisfying way because of this. This issue is fixed in this novel. We get Julia’s backstory in probably even more gory details that we knew we wanted! Julia wasn’t accepted to the magical school of Brakebills so she had to find her own way to magical learning. A way that wasn’t exactly paved with flowers.

Just like a lot of fantasy novels play with the tropes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and like J.K. Rowling played with the tropes of British boarding schools, Grossman builds on what was started by C.S. Lewis in the Narnia novels with a nice dose of Harry Potter added to it.  But this in itself isn’t interesting. What is interesting, is Grossman’s way of taking this inspiration and not only making it completely his own but also making it more sinister – and definitely for adults only. And I like that. I like that even though this on the surface is a nice world from a children’s stories, you really can’t trust that we get any happy ending.

What I also like about these novels is, that Grossman is a guy only a bit older than me. This means that he has grown up with a lot of the same culture as me and this means that we have references to modern pop culture like Die Hard and a ‘We were on a break’-moment. As well as a shoot-out to Nicolas Tesla – all of which I really enjoyed.

More than anything this is a book about finding a sense of meaning and purpose for your life. From Julia who wants to learn magic and has to fight for what she knows will give her life meaning to Quentin who has everything he seemingly ever wanted but still isn’t satisfied and goes looking for adventure at the far end of the world.

I really enjoyed going with him – and Julia’s character is fascinating and her storyline is so interesting. This book ended with a bang – it was a very brave ending and I can’t wait to move on to the next novel.

First line: Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.

  • Title: The Magician King
  • Author: Lev Grossman
  • Publisher: Plume
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 541 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo (review)

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‘Wait and hope!’

So one of the major things you learn if you read The Three Musketeers is, that whenever a musketeer is in trouble, there will be fencing. Lots of duels and all fought with rapiers. So I sort of thought I knew what would be happening in this one. People would fence their hearts out and it would be swashbuckling madness. But The Count of Monte Cristo is a very different book than that. And definitely not in a bad way.

Where the morale of The Musketeers is about friendship and loyalty and is shown mostly through the positive behavior of these musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo is in some ways a more sinister book with a focus on how man shall be careful with playing God although still with an emphasis on being truthful and loyal. It’s a novel filled with smugglers, murders, poisoners, illegitimate children, young lovers and cruel fates – and revenge.

Edmond Dantès is a happy young man. Much beloved by his old father, his betrothed as well as his master, he is on the brink of making it. He has been promised the position as Captain on the ship he sails on and he is about to marry Mercedes, the love of his life. However, jealousy abounds around him and he is betrayed by three men he views as friends and is arrested at his own wedding party. When he is brought in front of the magistrate, however, he is sure to be freed because the magistrate seems so kind to him and, of course, because he is innocent.

However, this takes place in France at the time when Napoleon Bonaparte and the royal family is battling over who is to rule France and Edmond Dantès is not only caught in this but also get caught up in the magistrate’s own ambitions and family secrets.

So instead of being freed, he is thrown into a prison at Chateau d’If without chance of parole and is left there to die or go mad. But Dantès is lucky and not only survives but manages to escape and become a rich man because of a strange friendship he formed in prison even though he was put in isolation.

And this enables him to seek revenge on the four men who has ruined his life and turned him into a hard and bitter man; a man willing to wait and plot for years to achieve his goals: to give back to the people who treated him kindly and tried to help him – and to destroy the ones who ruined him.

It’s a book which roughly said is split into three parts. The first part is where we are introduced to Edmond Dantès and his family, friends and foes and where he is wrongly sentenced and put in prison. The second part is where he is setting the stage, networking and preparing for the third part which is his revenge on everyone who ever wronged him. I felt that the second part was a bit slower than the other two. I wouldn’t say it dragged but it was less of a thrilling read. Whether this was actually caused by the novel or because I started a new job at this point and only read about 10-20 pages maybe every other day, I’m not sure. Suffice to say that whether the one or the other was the case, I still really enjoyed this novel and am a bit surprised by myself that I haven’t read it earlier.

My edition, Everyman’s Library, has a preface by an Italian translator and I found it so strange that an French book translated into English should be prefaced by the person who had translated the novel into Italian – but it was engaging and interesting so I kept reading. And I must admit I blushed a bit when I reached the end of the preface and read the name of the translator. Umberto Eco. Okay, I guess then it was fair enough to have him write the preface…!

Despite it’s many many pages (1188 to be exact) and despite the fact that it took me 33 days to read it, this is not a difficult read. It’s engaging with a fascinating main character who one initially gains an incredible amount of sympathy for – but who still is very flawed. Dumas manages to create an enigmatic protagonist whom you start out with nothing but positive feelings for but then his actions and his complete focus on getting his revenge even though innocents get caught in the middle, makes him a character whose actions you really have to question. Man is not supposed to play God!

  • Title: The Count of Monte Christo
  • Author: Alexandre Dumas
  • Publisher: Everyman’s Library #320 – Alfred A. Knopf
  • Year: 2009 (original 1844)
  • Pages: 1188 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Related posts (other books read for The Classics Club):

Lisa Shearin: Con & Conjure (Raine Benares #5) (review – audiobook)

It’s actually really hard to write reviews of this series since they all just seem to blur together. Yes, I know I start listening to the next one as soon as I finish one but they are all so similar that it’s difficult to separate them.

This of course is the Raine Benares series. It consists of six books, taking place over a rather short amount of time. In the first book, Raine helps a friend steal a necklace with a stone. She puts it on – and is instantly bonded with the rock which turns out to be the Saghred, a soul stealing nasty thing that can destroy whole kingdoms and normally, turns it’s wearer, it’s bond-servant, insane. However, Raine is able to wear the rock without getting insane and the rest of the series is spend with Raine trying to get rid of the stone and find a way to destroy it as well as trying to avoid the psychopath Sarad Nukpana who wants both her and the rock. Luckily, Raine has help from not only her friends but also from new friends like Paladin Mychael Ellisor and archmagus Justinius Justinius Valerian.

As per usual, this one starts off with a bang. The conflict between the goblins and elves is slowly escalating and when the Goblin prince Chigaru Mal’Salin arrives to Mid, things gets moving. The prince is wanted dead by almost everyone so before he even sets food on Mid, several assassins try to kill him. Luckily, Raine is there to save him – even though not all the goblins see it that way.

While the elves – or at least some of them, led by Sylvanus Carnades – is trying to get their hands on Raine, having a specially prepared cell ready for her with magic-reducing manacles in the cellars of the elven embassy, the Goblin king and Sarad Nukpana is preparing to attack the elves – and just being nasty as usual.

It seems to me that the new characters being introduced in these last books in the series, are rather more interesting than some of the ones who have been in all the books. In this one, we’re introduced to Raine’s cousin Mago, a banker, who’s of course still in the family business of sneaking, stealing and other sorts of criminal activity. He’s the prince’s banker and is of course in an excellent position to help Raine. Also, we have Raine’s ex-boyfriend and former fiancé who is a most skilled assassin who’s of course after the prince. And maybe others? Someone at least is taking shots at Mychael.

So when you listen to a whole series, it’s hard to come up with something new to say about the narrator for each book. However, when you have listened to a whole series and the narrator suddenly starts saying something in a different way, it does distract from the listening experience. For some reason, in this book Eileen Stevens has started saying ‘the Saghred’ in a different way.The Saghred is mentioned a lot and every time, she says the word in this new way, I start wondering why she has changed it and it takes me out of the listening experience and ruins the flow of the story for me.

Other than that, this is just like the other books in the series. Plenty of action, very fast pace, some things are repeated over and over etc. If you’ve come this far in the series, you know exactly what you get. It’s decent light fantasy. It’s quite entertaining when you read it/listen to it but nothing more. I do admit that at a few points in this one, I really didn’t want to put it down but just to keep on listening but normally, I don’t think about it when not listening to it. I’m actually looking forward to finishing this series so I can try out other audiobooks and see if my lack of enthusiasm is because of the book or the medium I experience them through.

  • Title: Con & Conjure
  • Author: Lisa Shearin
  • Narrated by: Eileen Stevens
  • Publisher: Ace/Audible Frontiers
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 323 pages
  • Time: 9 hours 19 minutes
  • Source: Own Collection (Audible)
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

Related posts:

The Gunslinger (Dark Tower #1)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

What a strange book. Or well, maybe it wouldn’t be all that strange if it wasn’t because this book is written by Stephen King – and it really doesn’t feel like a Stephen King novel.

But let’s start with the beginning. In his introduction, King writes that a lot of people who have read lots and lots of his books, still have never read The Dark Tower series – and that’s true for me too. I’ve read It, The Stand, Gerald’s Game, The Green Mile, Carrie, Under the Dome, Christine, Rose Madder, Bag of Bones and more, but even though I’ve been a King fan for maybe 20 years, I have never read this – or even attempted to. As a young teenager, I looked at the first volumes at my local library. I think I thought that the rest of the series was always rented out – or that the library hadn’t bought them or something. Years later, I realized that King actually hadn’t finished them. And then the car accident, and then he started writing them again. Still I didn’t read them. My boyfriend and I talked about buying the series for several years and finally he got them. And he started reading them – even though he’s not really a King fan. But then this read-along came and I thought, here’s my chance. And now I’m reading them!

This post is my review and my responds to the read-along questions, all cozily mixed up. I’m trying not to spoil anything but with this being in part a read-along post, there might be some spoilerish comments.

In The Gunslinger, we follow Roland, the last gunslinger, who’s traveling in pursuit of the man in black. Initially, we don’t know much about either of them. However, since I have read The Stand, my immediate reaction is that the man in black is Roland Flagg and therefore, evil incarnated. However, as we read the book, Roland is the one doing all the bad things and for me, this gave the book a very interesting twist. We follow Roland and sympathize with him – but he commits some really horrendous deeds and even though these are blamed on the man in black, it’s still Roland’s doing. This actually gives us two villains in a way – even though it’s hard to feel any negativity towards Roland. If anything, the man in black comes across as the tempter or trickster who somehow creates these scenarios for Roland which forces his hand. However, we mostly have Roland’s words for this so throughout the book, we’re left wondering.

As the novel progresses, however, we get more glimpses into Roland’s life, especially his childhood. We learn of his growing up and being trained as a gunslinger, how his father became a cuckold. It seems that Roland grew up in some sort of chivalry system where he was trained – and where at one point, every boy has to stand up to his teacher. Roland does this at a very young age – forever separating from his friends by doing so and in the way he does it, he shows he might have more cunning than raw physical power.

One of the most interesting things for me in this book, is a boy, Roland meets along the way. The boy, Jake, actually saves Roland – but he seems lost and he keeps having memories of New York, although they are slipping away. He clearly comes from another world and Roland is fascinated by this. Jake, however, seems to be a pawn in the power play between Roland and the man in dark – and again, it seems unclear who the real villain is. And I guess that’s kind of the point – the world isn’t black and white, there are more to it and sometimes, if you want to overcome great evil, you have to do great evil yourself.

The world this takes place in, seems like an Old West kind of world with small towns with saloons with piano players in them and a gunslinger academy. At the same time, there’s another world, the world Jake comes from, which is more like our world. It seems strange that this more technologically advanced world feels like it’s the past, that the world of the gunslinger has moved on from this. I guess that will become more clear in the volumes that follow.

As I mentioned earlier, King’s writing style in this is very different from normal. He usually starts his books of with a bang – something happens and you just have to read one to figure out exactly what happened, who did it or why it happened. This one kind of feels like it never really gets started. We follow Roland traveling across a landscape, a desert, and then across mountains. There are a few high-paced action scenes but it’s a slow moving novel, compared to King’s other novels. This weird alternate cowboy fantasy universe also feels very different from King’s other works that for the most part takes place in our world, the present day world at the time the novels were published. This is so different – but so far, I’m intrigued. Especially by the strong hints about what’s to come – some kind of crossover between our world and Roland’s world. I can’t wait to see how Roland will act if he arrives in our world!

I seem to remember that King sees the Dark Tower series as one huge novel and this novel definitely feels like a slow start to a huge novel with an incredibly rich storyline. I’m really looking forward to seeing where King will take me in the next books!

  • Title: The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)
  • Author: Stephen King
  • Publisher: nel. Hodder and Stoughton
  • Year: 2003 (original 19979)
  • Pages: 254 pages
  • Source: Boyfriend’s Collection
  • Stars:  3 stars out of 5

Iris Murdoch: The Message to the Planet (review)

If you saw someone perform something that seemed to be a miracle, would you believe it to be a miracle or would you try to find some rational way of explaining it? When days, weeks, months had passed, would you still be convinced you had seen a miracle or would you instead think that you must have been mistaken?

Patrick is dying. He has been sick for a very long time and now, the doctors have given up on him. He is lying in Jack and Franca’s house and Franca is taking care of him while trying to come to terms with the new woman in her and Jack’s life. But more on that later. Patrick is sick because he has been cursed. By Marcus, an old … friend.

Ludens, another one of this group of friends, have taken it upon himself to find Marcus. He was always very impressed with Marcus and luckily, he’s able to locate him. When he visits him, Marcus and his daughter Irina are living in a small cottage and Irina is more than willing to leave the place. Marcus comes, sees – and he brings Patrick back from the (almost) dead.

Or does he? Even though a lot of this group of friend saw him do it, they are not all sure about what they really saw – or what he did. Did he cure a physical disease? Or did Patrick so firmly believe that Marcus had cursed him, that he almost died from this belief and did Marcus lift the curse and thereby bring Patrick back to life?

Afterwards, Ludens goes to live with Marcus and Irina and desperately tries to grasp what Marcus thinks because he is convinced that Marcus has found a great truth. He begins a relationship with Irina but is constantly struggling with finding his place. The other main storyline is focusing on Franca’s marriage to Jack and his insistence on having affairs with other women – and finally, on actually marrying one of these other women while stile retaining his relationship with Franca.

It feels strange trying to sum up this book by talking about what happens. Because that’s not really what’s important. At least not for the most part. Towards the end, it does become somewhat important but for most of the book, the talks and discussions between the characters are what matters. How they react to events, what they think and feel, why they feel compelled to do certain things – not what really happens.
And then again. This is a strange book, hard to come quite to terms with. It’s definitely not a book where everything is tied up neatly with a pretty bow. You are somewhat left to decide what really happened – and what will happen. Did Marcus really bring back Patrick from the dead? What will happen with Jack and Franca? How will Ludens go on?
And what about Irina? Irina is a character who I never really got a hold on. The entire novel through, she confused me. I never really knew what she really felt and wanted. After finishing the novel, I’m still a bit confused about her. And that fascinates me. I’m still pondering why she made the choices she did – and that’s a big compliment to Murdoch’s writing. She lets her characters live on even after the book is closed, by not concluding their lives but by leaving it open-ended.

Overall, this is a book about relations. Relationships not only between lovers or married couples but also between friends. How far do you wish to let yourself be pushed by the one you love? How much will you accept? All the characters in the book are searching for some king of meaning, for love, for faith – and they are all unsure about what to do. And the book is like this too. There’s no easy answers and even though it does come to a very satisfactory, you are still left with questions. As you are in life.

Iris Murdoch was a British author and philosopher. She wrote her novels in longhand – and they are printed as is, without being edited! She wrote both non-fiction and fiction but her fiction is heavily influenced by her philosophical thinking – which for me makes it even more interesting. With her focus on the importance of inner life on moral action, it is clear why she – at least in this novel – chooses to focus so intensely on the thoughts and feelings and not so much on the actions. As she does in this novel, she apparently often writes about intellectual men caught in moral dilemmas and about enigmatic male characters, who swipes other people along with them and convinces them of the truth of things – even though this might not actually be true. Jack is such a person. Charismatic, artist, persuasive. Marcus, although powerful, seems to be more just swept along of events, searching so after some kind of meaning that everything else fades – with Ludens at his side as a eager puppy, desperately trying to grasp the meaning of what Marcus says and does, and through that get a sense of meaning in the world and his life.

Although I really felt for Franca and her attempts to continue to love her husband no matter what, even when he wants to live in a committed menage a trois relationship with her and another woman, Ludens and his struggle to find meaning in the world by both listening to Marcus and persuading Marcus to think and talk and by his relationship with Irina, is the tragic hero of the novel. A man lost without past, a confusing present that constantly leaves him frustrated and without a sense of direction for his future. And yet, he has to go on.

I guess that’s how it is for all of us. That we each have to find our own meaning in life, our own purpose. And just go on.

  • Title: The Message to the Planet
  • Author: Iris Murdoch
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Year: 1989
  • Pages: 563 pages
  • Source: Borrowed from my friend Henrik
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Lisa Shearin: Bewitched & Betrayed (Raine Benares #4) (review – audiobook)

This book starts a few weeks after the last one left out. Because of the demon queen’s attempt to rescue her husband, some souls escaped from the Saghred, this mighty rock our main protagonist Raine Benares is stuck with. Of course, her arch enemy and serious sadistic black mage Sarad Nukpana is one of the souls who escaped from the Saghred and of course, Raine has to try and  find him. Preferably before he finds her. Only trouble is – maybe Nukpana is even more dangerous than expected. Maybe he has found a creepy ritual that will enable him to bring him back to life or else he’s just being even more evil and creepy than usual. In either case, his idea of gifts – as in the sucked dried, leathery smelling husks of dead elven generals – really needs improving.

So Raine has to find a way to find Nukpana who is working on becoming corporeal again – with the help of his uncle, a very dark and cruel nachtmagus, a man who toys with the dead and their souls for fun. Nukpana’s plan is to suck the life, soul and memories out of enough people to make himself corporeal again – and with each kiss of death, he becomes even more powerful. And more difficult to stop.

A couple of new characters really stepped up to the plate this time around and greatly enhanced the reading experience. Imala Kalis, the head of goblin security – as well as the cutest little thing with dimples. She knows Tam from his time at Goblin court and they pretty much rubbed each other the wrong way. So much in fact, that Imala stabbed him at one point. However, she’s back and she’s great! I hope she will be a huge part in the remaining two books – and since the inevitable war between elves and goblins seem to be getting closer and closer, I think she will be a huge part in the attempt to avoid this war.

However, my favorite new character in this book is Nachtmagus Vidor Kalta. He is this seemingly creepy man who works with raising the dead – or so it seems. In reality, he is an extremely clever man who knows his business, has deep respect for the work he does – and isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in, which creates one of the best scenes in the book when he actually makes Silvanus the little man in a discussion. Priceless!

I also enjoyed that Mychael got out from his desk and really became part of the action this time around. We get to see Mychael in action, actually in ways we hadn’t expected of our knight in shining armor. Parts of his past is revealed and it’s not exactly the past we expected either. All these things mean that Mychael becomes a more well-rounded character – who even knows his way around a bordello… and isn’t afraid to go under-cover.

Also, we actually finally get the love triangle between Raine, Mychael and Tam resolved. Raine made the choice I had expected – although resulting in a rather bad sex scene that I could have lived without (and I’m a bit sad that it wasn’t better since I wrote in my review of the third book in the series that I genuinely enjoyed it when Lisa Shearin played the sexual innuendo game – maybe it just got too explicit and left no room for the humor that so far has been the best part of every sexually loaded situation). However, the bond between Raine, Mychael and Tam is also changed in this book – no longer a threesome. The way of fixing this was clever and rather unexpected – and this part of the plot gave me a bit of a surprise that I enjoyed and it created some great tensions and gut wrenching moments for Raine (as well as a excellent fundament for the further books in the series).

The issues I have with this book, are the same as I’ve had with every book in the series. There are a lot of recaps of what has happened before and it really gets too repetitive. Also, Raine still keeps mentioning that she’s a Benares and therefore, no good – although one should think that after all what she, her cousin and uncle has been doing to help the Guardians, it should no longer matter to her that some high elves might not like her name – especially since she doesn’t like them. So enough already. The Benares family has proven itself – no reason to keep pretending to believe yourself a lowlife. Also – what’s up with the teeth? Everyone smiling has to bare their teeth or fangs – and I think it has been mentioned in every book that a goblin’s fangs are not just for decorative use. Again – enough! Raine’s way of handling things, her sarcastic thoughts and replies to every situation, sometimes feel very off. Not every situation demands a snarky reply!

When listening to these books, I often get a sense of something not being right. Something happens and I think ‘wait a minute – how can that happen?’ It seems to me that this world and it’s magic as well as the various creatures living in it, are not quite consistent. That small changes are made to both the characters and the laws of magic as it suits the plot. Some of the mages also seem extremely powerful – and there seem to be no drawback to using magic. You can just go on and on, throwing out one powerful spell after another and you don’t get drained. You do when you heal people – but not when using spells. I would have liked to see a more developed magical system (that’s one thing I love about the DragonLance series for instance – that mages constantly have to commit spells to memory to be able to use them).

Also, it does feel like Raine, Mychael and Tam – with the support of Archmagus Justinius – should be making progress with at least some of their enemies, specifically the high elf Silvanus who has been after Raine from when she arrived on Mid. We all know that he’s power hungry, we know he wants to rid himself of both Raine, Tam and Mychael and we know that Justinius knows this as well. With Silvanus’ abilities to lock people up as he sees fit, shouldn’t the other side be able to do something about him too? Like maybe just lock him up for slandering, lying and being deceitful? With the combined resources of Raine, Mychael, Tam and Justinius, they ought to have had time to spend 5 minutes tossing about ideas about how to get rid of him – and then just do it. It’s not believable that these very capable people can’t fix at least him. I get that he may be needed for the plot – but if it isn’t believable that he stays free and in power, Shearin has to find another way to move her plot forward.

We did get rid of one of the main bads – and even though that was solved off-camera, so to speak, it was a nice way to end that part of the plot and it made sense. The plot in this book was moved forward and we’re left with a plan for how to proceed.

I haven’t got anything new to say about the narration.Eileen Stevens does her job well, her voice is the voice of Raine to me, and she adds little touches here and there that adds to the listening experience. I still think some of her male voices sound a bit too alike but overall, it works well.

Now, if you haven’t already read/listened to this book, you might want to stop reading now. There’s going to be a bit of spoilers, I think. One thing I don’t quite get is why can’t they just cut open the Saghred and release the souls and diminish it’s power that way? The bloody rock is the cause of all Raine’s problems and with Nukpana now having a bit of link to it as well – or at least Saghred-enhanced powers like Raine – I see no reason to not just cut up the stone, release the souls – and just make sure there’s Reapers around to eat them. Wouldn’t it make it easier for everyone if the stone was dried out – or am I missing something here? Also, I thought the way the umi’atso bond issue was solved was excellent – however, I can’t stop wondering if the Saghred who created the bond in the first place, can’t just do so again…

If you’ve made it this far, I will end by saying, that overall, I do enjoy these books. They are light and fun fantasy romps which suffers a bit from a not completely developed world and a at times too high-paced plot. However, they are enjoyable and at times hard to put down and works great as light entertainment.

  • Title: Bewitched & Betrayed
  • Author: Lisa Shearin
  • Narrated by: Eileen Stevens
  • Publisher: Ace/Audible Frontiers
  • Year: 2010
  • Pages:  366 pages
  • Time:  13 hours  25 minutes
  • Source: Own Collection (Audible)
  • Stars: 3  stars out of 5

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Lisa Shearin: The Trouble With Demons (Raine Benares #3) (review – audiobook)

True to form, this third volume in the Raine Benares series starts with a bang. Or rather – The Isle of Mit gets invaded by demons coming in through a Hellgate and of course, Raine is right in the middle of it. Luckily, Raine is able to save the day yet again, with a little help from Tam. Since the Saghred has made sure that Raine and Tam are bonded together to try and make Tam feed it when Raine steadily refuses, Raine is now able to use some of Tam’s magic and power and boost her Saghred enhanced skills even more.

So why are all these demons doing on Mid? Turns out, one of the souls trapped in the Saghred is the demon king and of course, the demon queen wants him back. With a Hellgate raised somewhere on Mid, demons come pouring out. Rudra, the Saghred’s former bond servant, is also on the loose, enjoying himself immensely, trying to wreck as much havoc as possible while getting back in control of the Saghred.

A bad situation gets even worse when Raine finds out that not only can the Saghred be opened and souls released from it, the demon queen wants her to find the dagger forged to do this. A dagger that can be found by a virgin. On a college island. Where students soon discover that to get laid is actually a way of protecting yourself. Of course, Raine succeeds – and of course we all know who the virgin is.

So besides demons being on the loose all over Mid, not much has changed. Raine is still caught between Tam and Mychael, she is still being pursued by Nukpana and in this book, by Rudra especially. She still has lots of spunky replies to everything, no matter what situation she finds herself in and she still rushes headfirst into trouble, without stopping to think. While this is light, action-packed fantasy, it would be nice if once in a while, she did take a breather, listened to advice and acted accordingly. That said, these books take place over a very short amount of time and so, she of course isn’t given much time to ponder her actions – or her love life. But since I think Lisa Shearin has a lot of humor in her writing when the action slows down, I would like to see more of that. Towards the end of this novel, there’s some very amusing scenes between Mychael and Raine and since Shearin has set this three-way between Tam, Mychael and Raine up, there’s plenty of room for sexual innuendo – like the finding of a virgin to help her find a dagger or Mychael having to heal by being naked in bed with Rane… I actually find Shearin at her best when she writes these scenes with lots of humor and lots of sexual tension.

I did like that we got to see more of Justinius, the archmagus. He’s one cool old bugger – with a lot of power! I also think some of the other lesser characters – like the leader of the demon department – are rather entertaining. And, of course, Vegard. Big burly Vegard. The poor Guardian who has gotten the job of keeping Raine safe. Definitely not an easy gig. I like Vegard! He’s a big, dangerous, puppy dog!

My main issue with this book is the same as I had with the second volume. It gets too repetitive. Again, yes, we know you’re a Benares, yes, we know that the Benares are a family of thieves and pirates, and yes we know that Mychael is law abiding and that causes trouble and no decent persons will look your way – yes, yes, yes. We get it. You’ve been saying it for three books now. And why is that everyone smiling shows their fangs or teeth all the time? It makes sense in some cases that the goblins want to show their fangs to show their weapons, but everyone does it over and over. Stop mentioning it!

I’m hoping the 4th book in this series will flesh out Tam and Mychael more – so far, they are still just pure good and pure (reformed) evil and each other’s opposites and it would make the love triangle more interesting if you actually knew enough about these two to be able to root for one of them. I’m also hoping that Shearin will realize that if readers are reading the 4th book in a series, it’s their own fault if they haven’t read the first three and they should go do so – she doesn’t have to retell everything that has happened in the series once more! We got it. Let’s move on! And finally – no more showing of teeth and fangs, no more ‘I’m a Benares’ crap. And then we’ll have us a good book!

As this is an audiobook, I want to comment on the narrator. While Eileen Stevens has become the voice of Raine to me, and her way of reading is overall quite good, I do think there are a few issues with her making voices. To me, some of the male characters sound too much the same and sometimes, that’s a bit confusing. It’s not a huge thing, it’s just a small complaint. Overall, Eileen Stevens does a good enough job for me to enjoy listening to it.

All in all, this book didn’t progress the series’ story arch that much. There simply wasn’t time to investigate how to get rid of the Saghred and in the end, Raine is almost worse off than she was in the beginning. With that said, this book really sets up the next book(s) nicely, maybe hinting at what Raine needs to get rid of the Saghred but also setting the scene for even worse trouble than has been the cause so far. This feels like a typical middle book and hopefully, Shearin can cash in on the ideas she hints at.

  • Title: The Trouble With Demons
  • Author: Lisa Shearin
  • Narrated by: Eileen Stevens
  • Publisher: Ace/Audible Frontiers
  • Year: 2009
  • Pages: 370 pages
  • Time: 13 hours 41 minutes
  • Source: Own Collection (Audible)
  • Stars:  3 stars out of 5

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Ken Follett: The Pillars of the Earth (review)

Middle Ages. 12th century. The building of a cathedral. People struggling, starving. Knights fighting for power. Monarchs and monarchs to be fighting over who get to rule. Historical fiction. So not my thing.

I was given this book as a gift, years ago. It has stood on my shelf ever since. For the first several years, I really didn’t care to read it. I just wasn’t interested. But slowly, I became more interested. I must admit that Oprah saying she loved it, was a push for me to read it – mostly because she said it wasn’t her thing either. Also, the publication of the first volume of his Century Trilogy peaked my interest in Follett’s work. So I put The Pillars of the Earth on the list of books I definitely wanted to read this year. I must admit I have been dreading it a bit but finally, it just felt right to start reading it – and well, now I  kind of regret not having read it earlier.

Tom the Builder has a dream. A big dream. A dream which makes him drag his family all over trying to achieve it. Tom wants to build a cathedral. He wanders from place to place, building site to building site, trying to find somewhere where a cathedral is being or going to be built and where Tom can be Master Builder. So he, his pregnant wife Agnes and their two children Alfred and Martha, wander in search of Tom’s dream. But a series of bad luck follow them and leads to Agnes giving birth to a baby boy in the forest in the winter. She dies and Tom leaves the baby to die on her grave. Luckily, a priest finds him and takes him to a chapel in the forest where the priest’s brother, Prior Philip, is the leader. Philip decides that the boy should grow up in the monastery, just as he and his brother did, and he names the boy Jonathan.

Jonathan is the first link between Tom and Philip. After Agnes’ death, Tom begins a relationship with Ellen, a woman who has been living in the forest as an outlaw with her son Jack. Prior Philip becomes leader of the Kingsbridge Priory and takes Jonathan with him. Together with Tom, he makes a plan to build a cathedral and Tom begins the work – happy to be close to his baby boy.

At the nearby castle of the Earl of Shiring, his daughter Aliena is supposed to marry William Hamleigh. She refuses him however, and William takes this rather hard. So hard, that he eventually rapes her and cuts off a part of her little brother Richard’s ear after their father has been thrown in prison. William and his family takes over the castle and Aliena and Richard are homeless, struggling to find a way to survive.

When Prior Philip first became a prior, he did so by striking a deal with Waleran Bigod who then becomes Bishop of Kingsbridge. But Waleran Bigod is a man who wants power and he’s ready to do a whole lot to get more of it. He supports the Cathedral in Kingsbridge just as longs as it’s in his best interest. He has ambitions for where he wants to go and he struggles with Prior Philip, both wanting a cathedral – but for very different reasons.

All these characters weave in and out of each others’ lives. They support each other, they hurt each other, they kill each other. They fight, they starve, they suffer, they dream and build and create. They dream big and they strive to achieve it, no matter what setbacks they encounter. The ways the plot twists and turns and the various strands weave together, only to separate and then come together in some other way, is impossible to recount. The characters are fleshed out, lifelike and you get to care so deeply about them. However, although I do enjoy a good villain, you have to be careful not to make him so evil that he gets almost cartoony. I’m quite okay with William Hamleigh raping, burning, killing, slaughtering his way through the book. But there’s a scene where he wants to stone a cat just for the fun of it – and it just gets to be a bit much. I get that he’s evil – you don’t have to spell it out!

For the largest part of this novel, I just loved it. I devoured it, I read for hours each night, 100-200 pages a day. But – then something happened. Ken Follett likes to wrap everything up neatly and that’s fine, I don’t mind that at all. But it seemed that he maybe had difficulties wrapping up one of his characters –  and therefore, he introduces Thomas Beckett to the mix. Now, for most of the book, the historical facts have been sort of the canvas, Follett painted his characters on. The facts are the background Prior Philip, Tom the Builder, Jack and all the other can live and strive on. But towards the end, the facts and especially Thomas Beckett and his fight with the king and then tragic ending become the foreground of the novel and the characters we have followed and cared for during the first 900 or so pages of the book, suddenly becomes bystanders to the events. This does mean that Follett gets to wrap up all his story lines very neatly – but it also means that the story looses it’s momentum and becomes a bit less compelling towards the end.

By the way, there’s a board game based on this book. It sounds like it could be a great game. Anybody tried playing it?

  • Title: The Pillars of the Earth
  • Author: Ken Follett
  • Publisher: Pan Macmillan
  • Year: 1999 (original 1989)
  • Pages: 1076 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

David Millar: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar (review)

Reading Jørgen Leth’s book about professional cycling Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge and Lance Armstrong’s book about the beginning of his career, his battle with cancer and his way back to the sport, made me even more appreciative of cycling and the Tour de France. However, Millar’s book is exactly the opposite. It makes me even more aware of the dark side of cycling.

Coincidentally, I began reading this book on July 13th, 2012. I had timed my reading of books about Tour de France and cycling to coincide with this year’s Tour de France – but I hadn’t expected that I would start reading this book on the same day as David Millar won yet another stage in the Tour.

Source: The Telegraph

Millar is racing again. As everyone who follows cycling knows, he’s back in the peloton after his fall from grace – he is one of the contenders. But how did this young Scott fall so deep?

What Millar describes, is a sport where doping is the rule more than anything else. From describing his childhood and how he got started with professional cycling, doping is something he’s quickly aware of – but staying away from. He doesn’t want anything to do with it but eventually he succumbs to the pressure and starts injecting, first just with various supplements, later with the real stuff.

Millar’s story is a typical example of how ‘what’s normal’ changes. When you’re constantly living in a world where it is normal to dope and to have various tactics to avoid the doping controls, you are gradually changing your perception of normality. Slowly, Millar’s aversion towards doping lessens until his defenses against it, is completely gone.

Still, throughout it all he claims that he never viewed the victories won when doped, as real. ‘If I won doped then it meant nothing, I was very clear on that.’ (p. 174). But his changed perception of normality as well as his curiosity get the better of him: ‘I’d proved what I could do clean – how much more could I do if I was doped?’ (p. 177). With all his struggle against it, you would have thought his first time doing EPO would have been a huge deal – instead it turned out to be something of an anticlimax. He describes it as the easiest injection he ever had and the whole procedure as very tiny process, over in a couple of minutes. Of course, he had been slowly conditioned to this through a long period and was completely used to self-injections of various supplements.

Millar comes out of it all as a crusader against doping. He wants to save his sports, he wants to make it clean and show that you are actually able to win even if you’re racing clean. And this is how he comes across in his book. As a very honest Scot who loves to race and ride his bike clean and who wants everyone else to do the same. However, I did check out a few things online while reading this book and apparently Millar has changed his story from he testified till he wrote this book. So he might be a bit of an unreliable author, there are names he doesn’t share and there might be things he doesn’t tell us. It’s hard do tell. But he does come across as very honest and the book is very interesting to read.

One of the dominating riders in this period, has of course been Lance Armstrong. Millar does say that the riders winning the big races like the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta, were the ones using doping. However, he doesn’t say Lance doped: ‘I can’t say definitively if Lance doped or not. Yes, there are all the stories and rumours, but I never saw him dope with my own eyes. If he did dope, then, after all that he has said and done, it would be unforgivable. Certainly, his performances in the Tour were extraordinary, unprecedented, but then he’s unlike anybody I have ever met, a force of nature. /…/ He is a phenomenal human being – I would never argue against that. He lives life on a different level, controlling his world in omnipotent manner, leading by example but also be fear. His ability to motivate, based on his absolute self-belief and complete fearlessness of failure, is legendary. His own lack of fear brainwashes those around him to believe in everything he does.’ (p. 297-298). He also says that the riders riding alongside Lance, were for the most part taken for doping when no longer riding with Lance – and several of these are the ones now accusing Lance of doping. I guess we’ll know eventually if he did dope or not what with the current investigation going on – although I rather doubt that anti-doping will ever get this period of professional cycling completely under control.

Still, this is not a book about Lance. It’s a book about one man’s love of the sport of cycling, and luckily, this shines through throughout the book – except for these instances where doping has cast such a dark shadow over the sport that Millar plans on never riding again.

For a lover of professional cycling and the Tour de France, there’s plenty of good stuff in this book. In fact, it’s a really interesting book and definitely worth reading to get an inside look on the doped years of professional cycling as well as David Millar’s career and the portraits he gives of other riders. I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote about wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France: ‘I wasn’t wearing the yellow jersey; the yellow jersey was gracing me.’ (p. 127).

  • Title: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar
  • Author: David Millar
  • Publisher: Orion Books
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 354 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike (review)

Lance Armstrong. Probably one of the most well-known athletes in the world. A 7 times Tour de France champion. Founder of Livestrong. A dedicated fighter against cancer and for cancer treatment. This is his story – from childhood to cancer survivor.

First of, I have to say that I am a fan of Lance Armstrong. I enjoyed watching him win his many Tour de France victories and these days, I follow him on Twitter. Still, while reading this book I definitely didn’t like the young Lance. There’s no doubt that he had a troubled childhood in some ways but still, boys setting balls on fire and then playing catch are just not my cup of tea. Anyway, this is not what this is about.

Lance details how he started biking and shows how he was very focused, even as a young boy and how huge an influence his mother has been on both his life but also 0n the way he views his career, teaching him to never give up and always fight. Two abilities, that was hugely important to him when he was diagnosed with cancer.

There’s no doubt that he was lucky to survive. As a professional cyclist, Lance was used to dealing with pain and ignoring it and so he did too with the fact that his testicles changed both color and size. This meant that his cancer was discovered very late, it meant that it had spread to both his lungs and his brain and it meant that he had to endure some very tough treatments to be able to beat it.

I really like how candid he was about the toughness of the disease, how hard he had to fight to just endure the treatment and how far out he was before it turned and he started getting better. This is definitely a book that shows how tough cancer is. I also liked how he seemed to have changed as a human being, becoming much more sensitive and having more empathy after the disease and being able to see clearly, that he had not always behaved very nice before he was ill. I know that some will say that he still don’t behave very well and that he’s arrogant – I don’t know if I would like him if I actually met him but I think that to win Tour de France and to do well in (almost) all professional sports, you have to be arrogant.

I also liked how he is very open and candid about his and his wife’s trouble with having children. Of course, he had to freeze his sperm before being treated for cancer and this means, that his wife have to go through a lot to get pregnant – as all women/couples have to if having trouble getting pregnant. I know several couples who have had these issues and I know that it is a struggle for all, and therefore, I am glad that Lance addresses this and shares his and his wife’s story.

Of course, it’s a bit bittersweet to read about his relationship with his wife and how perfect she is, when you know that they are no longer together and that Lance has been having a bit of trouble finding the right partner since.

There are a few things I don’t want to discuss – or even talk about. It’s kind of a joke, but still – just don’t go there. One is that Sir Cliff Richard has never had any plastic surgeries – the other is that Miquel Indurain and Lance Armstrong never used doping. My boyfriend challenges all these three – but I don’t care. I just don’t want to discuss them. Being that as it may, you can’t really mention Lance Armstrong without talking doping – even though that’s really not what this book is about.

Lance mentions doping a couple of times. As with other professional cyclists writing biographies and talking about doping, you really have to hope he is telling the truth – with the claims he makes, he will loose all credibility otherwise and with the current doping investigation against him, doping is once again rearing it’s ugly head in Lance’s life (for what it’s worth, in my opinion, they should just stop investigating the doping in professional cycling in the 90s and early 00s. If Lance is found guilty, well, then they can start investigating the rider who finished second – and so on and so on. Just stop and focus on keeping cycling clean now!).

Anyway, back to what Lance himself says: ‘Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or in any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it’s like nuclear weapons – that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton. I never felt that way, and certainly after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive.’ (p. 205) This of course sounds like Lance could never even dream of doping – the only thing is that this argument is not the best one since a lot of the drugs riders are using to enhance their performance, are the same drugs being used by doctors to battle cancer – which means that these drugs are not foreign to Lance.

Still, he has never been tested positive. The newest tests that have been made public, does not necessarily mean that he was doped – according to doping experts. I hope he will never be found guilty in doping because I cling to my belief that Lance won because he could fuel his body with anger – and Lance was a very angry man!

This is not a book about cycling per se – as the title also says. This is about one man’s battle with cancer and it is a very fascinating account. The writing is rather plain as it is in all sports biographies but the book is worth reading if you’re interested in Lance, cancer or – to a lesser extent – professional cycling and Tour de France.

  • Title: It’s Not About the Bike. My Journey Back to Life
  • Author: Lance Armstrong
  • Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press – Random House
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages: 294 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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