As far as my reading goes, there hasn’t been much of it, unfortunately. Endless feedings and lack of sleep have made me more receptive to reruns of Hoarders than to reading, but I’m getting back into it. I did just finish the second book in Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, Son of the Shadows. Honestly, why is she such a fantastic writer? She’s the kind of author that could make the back of a cereal box mysterious and moody. It’s been about a year since I read the first in the series, Daughter of the Forest, which is brilliant and lovely, and I instantly was catapulted into Marillier’s world of fairy tale retellings, strong heroines, and beautiful atmosphere. Seriously, if you love fairy tales or well-written fantasy, try this series.
I just wanted to post a quick note explaining my absence these past couple weeks, and excusing myself for the upcoming few weeks as well. My baby finally arrived in early September! It was a bit of a surprise as he came three weeks early, but we’re all doing well and I’m trying my best to adjust to new mommyhood. I’ll be back soonish, as soon as I have time to focus on anything other than feeding, sleeping, burping, and poop.
While reading Chalice, I became aware that I had read this book previously, but I have no idea how long ago. I got that weird deja vu feeling, you know? But no matter, because I clearly didn’t remember details or the ending – huzzah! Chalice is technically classified as YA for grade 9 and up, but I think McKinley’s writing and ideas are sophisticated enough to be considered as completely satisfying for adults as well. (Please don’t misunderstand me – I read a ton of YA and don’t feel like there needs to be a distinction between young adult and adult books 99% of the time. Good writing is good writing, no matter what age it’s intended for.) Chalice refers to the ceremonial role that our heroine, Mirasol, fills in her kingdom. Once a beekeeper and woodskeeper, Mirasol was inexplicably chosen to fill the role of Chalice after the previous Chalice, along with the previous Master, had died in a fire. She is untrained, alone, and incredibly overwhelmed by her new position, the loss of her former life, and the aching despair she feels in her land. As a member of an “old” family and the Chalice, Mirasol can hear the earthlines of the land, magical currents that speak to the health and vitality of the country. Together with the rest of the ceremonial Circle, led by the Master, they must heal their country or watch it fall into the hands of the Overlord. Adding to her difficulties, the new Master has been called back from his indoctrination to Fire Priesthood and is barely human any longer. Mirasol and the new Master must learn how to fill their new roles, heal their land, and maneuver through the political and magical difficulties of their situation.
Phew, that was a long summary. Honestly, it’s so hard to sum up everything that’s going on in this novel, which in actuality doesn’t have an amazingly fast-paced plot. It’s more like Mirasol and the Master are both in incredibly difficult and complicated circumstances with SO MUCH riding on their success. McKinley does a fantastic job communicating the pressure Mirasol feels and takes a slow, methodical pace in exploring those feelings and their ramifications. It’s incredibly mature in that way – emphasis isn’t placed on exciting plot developments, but more on the discovery of oneself and the responsibilities all of us have to face at times before we’re ready. I read a review of this book that mentions it’s connection to Beauty and the Beast, and I can see that a bit. The Master is perceived as a bit of a “beast” in that he’s not quite human anymore. But I really felt like the relationship between the Master and Mirasol took a backseat to the discussion and exploration of the connection between human beings and the land and both the pleasure and the pain of tradition and duty. I’m trying to put my finger on why it didn’t satisfy me as completely as some of her other books have, such as The Hero and the Crown or Beauty. Maybe because the ratio of introspection to action was a little too heavily weighted toward introspection? I think I found the last quarter of the book a little slow, and then the ending tied everything up so neatly and quickly that I felt it was a little…easy. That’s a small gripe overall though; I really enjoy McKinley’s writing style and her ideas. I have a couple more of her books to read – I’ve never read Sunshine, surprisingly, and she has a newer book called Pegasus out now. I can’t even remember what a pegasus is – is it a unicorn that flies? Anyway, time for me to track that one down to find out!
Now, on to the third installment in JK Rowling’s world-famous Harry Potter series. My leisurely re-read of the series was suggested to me and it was a fabulous idea. Clearly, my friend is a genius. The Prisoner of Azkaban seemed to stand out in my memory as my favorite of the series, and with good reason: it introduced Sirius Black. I lurve Sirius. He is an awesome, awesome character, so seemingly sinister but with a heart of gold. And can I just say: Gary Oldman? Just…magnifico! Perfect casting choice, movie peeps. Plus, I think this may be the last book where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are just kids. Is it the fourth book where teenage hormones come into play and Harry in particular starts acting like a little, pubescent snot? God, I’m old – I don’t identify with the kids anymore.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry faces a threat besides the most evil of evil, Lord Voldemort. Sirius Black has escaped from the infamous wizarding prison Azkaban and is being hunted down by dementors, sort of ghostly, tall things that sucks all the happiness out of you and can even steal your soul. Yikes. What Harry finds out pretty quickly is that Sirius was his father’s best friend and was imprisoned for killing 13 people after his allegiance to Voldemort was discovered. Also, he betrayed Harry’s parents and was the reason Voldemort was able to find them and kill them in the first place. Poor Harry must live under the onus of being stalked by one of the most dangerous criminals the wizarding world has ever known, all while striving to win Quidditch matches, sneak into Hogsmeade, pass exams, and just generally survive his third year at Hogwarts.
I do love this one. You get to learn a ton of backstory about Harry’s father and his three best friends, which is always fun because you get some Hogwarts history and learn more about the vast world JK Rowling has built up around Harry. Rowling is masterful at weaving subplots into the whole, so Professor Snape’s character also is illuminated while Harry has adventures with the Marauder’s Map and Whomping Willow. You always get the sense that she’s building to a crescendo, and that no detail or backstory is trivial or unnecessary. Snape is just so venemous and, well, mean most of the time, but in this third book you start to get an idea of why he holds such a grudge against Harry. Draco is just as horrible as ever, and Hagrid just as good-natured and bumbling. And I don’t want to give anything away to the 2 people worldwide who have yet to read this book or watch the movie, but something good (in a “family” way) happens for Harry and my heart just melted for him. More please!
Okay, enough exploration about why I need therapy and on to the book! Tinker centers on Tinker, a brilliant inventor who lives on a salvage lot in Pittsburgh and messes with magical gadgets in her off-time. This alternate Pittsburgh is a part of Elfhome, a magical fairy realm exposed by a portal invented by Tinker’s own father. Whereas magic doesn’t exist in the “regular” world, anyone can encounter it in Elfhome. When an elven lord seeks refuge in her salvage lot from an assassination attempt, Tinker gets pulled into the political machinations and intrigues of the elven court and fairy governmental agencies. There is tons of action, with lots of dramatic escapes, along with a fair amount of romantic flirtation between Tinker and her rescued elven lord, Windwolf. Bits of fantasy and sci-fi intermingle here, and there was just enough of each to keep me fascinated.
The world-building here is extremely intricate and detailed, and I’m not gonna lie, sometimes I got lost. But more in a “man, I need to read more so I can understand this” kind of lost. I just loved the originality of this book – I honestly haven’t read anything quite like it before. The romantic development between Tinker and Windwolf was an obvious treat for me, since I am a sucker for any kind of love story, though there was a potential love triangle situation, which is dreaded and loathed by me at all times. I just….don’t like it. Never have. How can I truly believe that two characters are meant for each other when a third character poses a real appeal? Also, I just really liked spending time with Tinker – she’s not overly smartass in that annoying urban fantasy heroine way, but she does have flaws. Real, human flaws, the kind that make you shake your head at her rather than throw the book across the room in annoyance. Spencer has another series, the Ukiah Oregon series, that’s highly regarded – maybe I should just take a leap of faith and try it?
Sammar is a widow from Sudan living in Aberdeen, Scotland and working as an Arabic translator at the university. When the book begins, Sammar has been living within a numbing bubble of grief for her husband Tarig, who was killed in a car accident four years earlier in Scotland. Unable to function, Sammar left their son with relatives in Sudan and returned to Scotland after a horrendous fight with her aunt (also Tarig’s mother). She is alone and content to be so – interactions with others are kept purely surface, as not only can Sammar barely manage to interact with others but she also is locked into an alienation from her surrounding European culture. The only person who seems to crack her shell is her employer, Professor Rae Isles, a noted Muslim scholar. Though he is Scottish, he seems to understand Sammar in a way that no one else does in gray and misty Aberdeen. Though they connect, they are still separated by layers of cultural difference and Sammar’s unyielding faith in Islam.
This book reminded me a lot of some other “quiet” books and authors that I adore – Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News comes immediately to mind. There’s something about books that are subdued, that take the time to let events unfold realistically – I think it’s a break for me from some of my genre favorites, like fantasy or romance. What I really identify with is that sense of being “other,” being outside the norm, of not feeling like you know what to do next. Sammar is incredibly strong and capable, but she doesn’t know it. She’s been brought very, very low, but continues with her quiet life because she has no idea what else to do. I just like that steady, no-fuss minimalism of life when you get knocked down and have no idea how to get back up again.
Another thing I adored about this book, and I’m hoping Leila Aboulela’s writing in general, is the window into everyday Muslim life. There wasn’t much talk about the hot-button issues I usually hear when people talk about Islam; terrorism is mentioned but it’s periphery and not at all connected with the mundane Muslim life Sammar and her family know. Descriptions of the food, the rhythms of family life, the daily call to prayer – these were so interesting to me and really peaceful and beautiful. I love learning another facet of Middle Eastern life, and can’t wait to read Minaret, which I’ve heard is just fantastic. The Translator is short – only 202 pages – so I encourage anyone to give it a try and see how it feels. I found it really, really rewarding.
I don’t know if this is a universal opinion or not, but I LOVED the series debut, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I loved being introduced to the magical world alongside Harry. I mean, is there any better fantasy than being horribly mistreated and unloved all your life, then suddenly finding out how special and important you are? Poor Harry is abominably treated by the Dursleys, who I loathe with every ounce of myself. And then, glorious Hagrid shows up and whisks Harry away to learn about pictures that move, Quidditch, chocolate frogs that jump, and of course Hogwarts. And Harry finally gets friends! Just totally heartwarming and exciting.
I’m currently on the last 30 or so pages of the second book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I like this one too, though not as much, and I can’t tell if that’s because I owned the movie adaptation of this book and have seen it a hundred times, so maybe I’m just bored with it? Or, because of the snakes. I have a terrible, terrible phobia of snakes, and the creepiness of the basilisk just squick me out. It reminds me of a news story I read a few years ago about how scientists had found a prehistoric skeleton of a snake the size of a bus. A BUS. I think I still have the creepy crawlies from reading that.
I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I remember being my favorite. Maybe I should do a simultaneous watch-along with the movies as well? That way, I’d be able to see Gary Oldman, who plays Sirius, soon. Nothing wrong with that!