The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A tree of clouds, a garden made from ice, a merry-go-round with every exotic animal imaginable, a white fire that never goes out… This is a circus like you’ve never been to before, and that is even before you have seen any of the acrobats, jugglers and other performers. It appears and disappears without warning, like the clever illusionist in one of the tents, and it seems to hypnotize its visitors, like the handsome man who manages it, does with those around him. The Night Circus is a fantasy novel that people seem to adore or detest. I can tell you right away that I belong to the first group.

In 1873, two proud men with magical powers bind themselves to an agreement: a game between them, played out through their chosen apprentices. It is not the first time they play the game, both have won and lost in the past, but this time one of them decides to place his own daughter on the board. The thought of losing her, in the case that they lose the game, doesn’t seem to upset him. The five-year-old girl, Celia, knows nothing about the implications of the game. Her father doesn’t think she should know the rules, or what it is that would make someone win. All she has to do is train her powers and do as she is told. The orphan boy Marco, whom his opponent chooses to train, isn’t better informed. He is taught an older form of magic, to do with books, spells and rituals, while Celia is trained to work more intuitively with the power that she finds inside herself.

When both children have grown up, the game is truly swung into gear. An idea is planted in the head of Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, eccentric cultivator of theatrical projects, and the man brings together an extraordinary group of people in order to realize his latest plan: a circus like no one has ever seen before. Ever at his service is his faithful assistant, the young Marco. One of the first artists to successfully audition for the circus is a beautiful illusionist called Celia. Their arena prepared, the secret players take their places. All they know is that they have to outperform their opponent.

The Cirque des Rêves (‘Circus of Dreams’) is a labyrinth of striped tents and pathways, all black and white and filled with the most wondrous acts and experiences. You never know when it is going to appear: at any given night, it might appear fully set up on a previously empty field. The circus opens at sundown and closes at sunrise, often staying a couple of weeks in the same place before it disappears again. It crosses the globe without noticeable plan or pattern and it seems like, every time it reappears, it has new tents with even more magic disguised as illusions. It develops a cult following: people who call themselves rêveurs, dreamers, and try best as they can to follow the circus or at least visit it as often as possible.

Time passes, although the people associated with the circus don’t seem to age anymore. The notion that some things about the circus are not quite right, not possible, gnaws at the minds of some of the original team and it becomes harder to put those minds at ease with magical manipulation. The circus itself is a powerful place, full of magic, illusions and dozens of people. As Marco and Celia build ever more surreal tents, it becomes harder to balance these powers and the effect they have on both visitors and circus employees. When it is not just magic affecting people, but love and jealousy as well, the situation becomes pretty much untenable… In a remarkable turn of events, the decision of an unremarkable American boy called Bailey will determine the course of the deadly serious game.

The story constantly shifts between perspectives, dates and locations. The effect is dizzying, confusing, like the Cirque des Rêves itself. The non-chronological style is hard to follow at first but makes perfect sense in the logic of the story. As the tale progresses, some plot lines run faster ahead in time than others, which eventually brings every string together for the great finale. It is the perfect form for a book about illusions and trickery. I loved this, because I think a lot of authors would depend on colourful language and plot alone to write a book like this. Erin Morgenstern, by thinking out every detail and making form comply with style and storytelling, adds layers to the story and makes it even more satisfying to read.

Although, as a reader, you know no more about the goal of the game than the players do, you do know a bit more about the stakes. Even from the beginning, it is apparent that this is not a game that allows for a draw: someone must lose, and losing will be costly. Knowing more than the characters do is an age-old trick that works very well to provoke a feeling of unease while the characters are still discovering just how dangerous the game really is. But the people actually play a secondary role at best; the circus itself is the main character. I think this is the reason why some people think it’s boring or stupid. The story does progress quite slowly and spans more than a decade, merely touching upon the characters’ thoughts and feelings but leaving most of them hidden from view. A great part of the book consists of descriptions of scenes and atmosphere. A romance brews in the background but doesn’t take over the story, action scenes are all the result of tensions that it takes at least a dozen chapters to build. If you like fast-paced stories or clear-cut romance, this is not something that will appeal to you. It’s quite the opposite of minimalist. As a woman who spends a lot of time inside her own head, I thought it was wonderful to stay in the most beautiful circus in the world for a while. Let me put it like this: contrary to what you might expect from the title or the text on the back cover, this is not a book that entertains. It’s a book that mesmerises.

Pink Elephants On Parade Award for a surreal circus world that leaves you with a book hangover

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (New York, 2011)

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Jo Robin

Update: Reading Challenge for August

I am left all alone: Bella is frantically packing for Kenya while Thura travels through England on her honeymoon (congratulations, darling!). What else is there for me to do in the lonely evenings but meticulously plan our August Magical Readathon?

A few weeks ago, Thura and I announced that we would partake in Book Roast’s Harry Potter-themed NEWT Reading Challenge. You can find the explanation of the challenge here, together with Book Roast’s video. As August draws near, now is the time to actually pick the books we want to read in order to pass the Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests (NEWT’s). So here we go:

Jo’s list

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I picked three subjects, which is the minimum amount, but I’m not a fast reader and sadly have to work all summer. I’m determined to pass these three! I chose my books mostly from my TBR, a towering pile on my nightstand, and I’m really excited to finally get to them! I’m a Hufflepuff, by the way. I’m not sure if that’s relevant but it might explain my interest in Herbology.

For History of Magic, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book that you think would fit right in at the Hogwarts’ Library. In de houten broek by D. van der Stoep and H.H. Felderhof
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book published at least 5 years ago. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that’s at least 400 pages long. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

For Ancient Runes, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book set in the past. The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: one of the most ancient books left on your shelves that you haven’t yet read. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book translated from another language. For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian*

For Herbology, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book with a green cover. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book with illustrations. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book with either one of these words in the title: light/air/sun/water. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Thura’s list**

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Thura is an ardent reader, very ambitious AND in good reading shape, so she chose no less than five subjects for this Readathon. In picking her books, she not only paid attention to the subject requirements, but to the personalities of the teachers of these subjects as well. I think that by the end of August, she might actually be able to brew some potions. I will keep you updated.

For History of Magic, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book that you think would fit right in at the Hogwarts’ Library. The Golem by Gustav Meyerink
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book published at least 5 years ago. The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that’s at least 400 pages long. Paula by Isabel Allende

For Defense Against the Dark Arts, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a last book in a series. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a foiled book. The Marvels by Brian Selznick
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book with the word ‘dark’ in the title or series name. His Dark Materials: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

For Transfiguration, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book with a grey cover. Grimm Tales by Philip Pullman
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book from an author you haven’t read anything of before. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that’s set in a kingdom / has royals. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

For Care of Magical Creatures, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book with an animal on the cover. Night Bird by Alice Hoffman
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book under 160 pages long. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that includes dragons in any way. Dragonology: the Complete Book of Dragons by Dugald Steer

For Potions, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book that has a name of a colour in the title. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book with a male lead character. Stoner by John Williams
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book over 350 pages long. Zorro by Isabel Allende

 

What do you think of our picks? Are any of you joining in? Let us know in the comments!

*I took this instruction to mean ‘translated from a language you wouldn’t have been able to read’ so I chose a book translated from Romanian.

**Grimm Tales and A Clockwork Orange are not in the picture because Thura took them with her to England to start off the challenge at 1 August. The Golem is not in there because I couldn’t find it for the life of me.

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Jo Robin

Beyond sleep (Nooit meer slapen) by Willem Frederik Hermans

This book has left quite an impression on me. Not immediately upon finishing though, but the book kept popping into my mind days after I’d finished it as if the book had wormed its way into my mind. That could be because the plot of a guy going abroad to do research to make a name for himself in science resonated with me because I am also going abroad to do research in a few weeks. But maybe it was the oppressive underlying atmosphere of dread and futility that kept me reading. It reads a bit as a train wreck: you know something bad is going to happen, but you can’t look away.

This book is originally written in Dutch. For a while, I feared it would be too obscure to review here since I didn’t want to review a book that’s impossible for you to read. However, I discovered the book got translated and the Guardian even wrote a review of it! So, I figured I’d be good to go! This book has been very popular in the Netherlands and also the author, Willem Frederik Hermans, is very well-known in Dutch literature. So, see this review as a small introduction into Dutch Literature for all who are unfamiliar with it. For a lot of the older Dutch persons this book was mandatory reading material at High School, and therefore they will already be familiar with this brilliant book. For me, this was the first time I read this book.

This book shows in a brilliant way how futile life can be and how even the greatest efforts can lead to absolutely nothing. The main person in this book, Alfred, is a young geologist working on his PhD. He goes to Finnmark, in the utmost north of Norway, to study rocks and the landscape. By doing that he hopes to find proof for the proposition of his Professor Sibbelee that there are meteorite craters in the area. This discovery will bring him fame and success as a scientist. Consequently, success in the sciences will be a way to surpass his father’s death who died when he was very young while doing research himself. His father ‘s death has been a determining factor in all his life and he feels he has to prove himself as a scientist to his mother and sister to get over his death. For this study, Alfred needs aerial photographs which are promised to him by professor Numendal, an old acquaintance of Sibbelee, who is located in Oslo. However, when Alfred arrives in Oslo he finds out that Numendal is by no means able and willing to help him. He claims he doesn’t have the photographs and he also scoffs at Sibbelee’s meteorite theory. After some further desperate attempts to get the aerial photographs, Alfred is forced to give up and to travel to the research site without them. This unsuccessful start is the start of a long string of anxieties, doubts and mistakes that keeps taunting Alfred on his trip to the North. Most of the book Alfred is in doubt about everything: his research, his companions and his own reasons to study geology and meteorites. That was also the charm of this book. The characters are not especially likeable, and no big discoveries are discovered, so on the surface, it does not sound exciting at all. However, somehow the book is written in such a way to make the slow movement towards the anticlimactic ending fascinating.

In total there are four people travelling to the North: Alfred, Arne, Qvigstadt and Mikkelsen, of which Alfred is the only non-Norwegian. He struggles to become part of the group, partly because he is not used to hiking. He always lags behind while walking and is unable to make himself useful in the camp because of his inexperience. Also, he doesn’t speak Norwegian and not all of his companions speak English well. Of the group, I thought Arne was the most sympathetic. He has the most patience with Alfred’s inexperience and helps him to navigate the landscape. He has his own problems though. He believes that when one suffers and lives like an ascetic he will be rewarded with a big discovery. For example, all Arne’s stuff is worn out and he refuses to buy new equipment. All the trials and tribulations Alfred and Arne have with the worn-out equipment, such as a leaking tent, is both a comic and sad element to the story. It relieves the oppressive sense of failure in the book, but it also shows how ill-equipped both Arne and Alfred are for discovery, both physically and mentally. They both are too involved with higher ideas of faith and being rewarded for unfortunate events in one’s past to realize that science takes skill and good equipment. You don’t learn much about the other two characters Qvigstadt and Mikkelsen. In a way, they signify the ‘ideal’ scientist as opposed to Arne and Alfred to further underline the ill-fated nature of both Alfred’s and Arne’s exploitations. They have good equipment and work on their own projects and are not interested to involve themselves with people fighting battles which have nothing to do with gaining geological knowledge. This dichotomy between the groups becomes clearer when Qvigstadt and Mikkelsen leave for a different location for their own research, leaving Alfred and Arne behind.

This is the kind of book in which not much happens but in a good way. Most of the text are descriptions of Alfred’s doubts, of camping or of walking through a landscape difficult to navigate with fifteen kilos on your back. From the start, you, as a reader, wonder how he is going to manage his research, and when he arrives at the research destination, very little is talked about his research, while there is mentioning of the studies of the other three persons. It seems that not having the aerial photographs has shaken Alfred to such an extent that he doesn’t know what to do next. He starts doubting the proposition as well, which was never his own idea. That might be exactly why he failed. Throughout the book, events lead him instead of the other way around. Even his choice to become a geologist was prompted by his dead father because he died leaving his scientific promise unfulfilled. In the field, it becomes clear he is ill-prepared for his fieldwork and he even questions what he is doing in Norway as a Dutch guy. He wonders what he can possibly discover that the Norwegians haven’t found themselves already. Especially when details are revealed about why he did not get the aerial photographs from Numendal. There is no kindness in the book for the characters, and they certainly don’t have it for each other. Alfred moves in a dog-eat-dog world where his youth and naivety is used to fight out old battles between professors and in which there is no room for an insecure naive boy to make a name for himself.

The Dutchness of this book is in the style it is written in. Many books from around the 60s were written in a kind of careful style where no word is too much. It is the perfect style to learn Dutch with because every word used is exactly the right word in the sentence. This, funnily enough, also makes it a challenging book to read. It uses a big vocabulary of which knowledge is required to grasp the full meaning of the book. With the more abstract passages, I found the exact meaning of the paragraph hard to follow at times. I don’t know how good the translation is, but all in all this book is an impressive description of a boy realizing he got himself into a situation he has no business being in. Also, it has beautiful descriptions of hiking through Norway and it turns the uselessness of life into an enthralling story about a boy trying to become a man. It is not a particularly cheerful story and also there are no great actions scenes, so if you are into books like that I would skip this one. However, if you like psychological books that talk about the melancholic side of life in a beautiful way, making the bad feel less so, this is exactly the book for you. This is a book about a boy who starts out on a big adventure to become a famous scientist to avenge the death of his father. But in the end, he returns home with the realization that most exploits for fame are futile and with not much more. Here’s to hoping my adventure abroad will not be an as futile an undertaking!
The inexperienced hiker award because they might not be one hundred percent successful, but often survive much more than you would expect beforehand.

Willem Frederik Hermans, Nooit meer slapen (Amsterdam, 1983)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1) by Lemony Snicket

Unless you have really cool grown-ups in your life, you won’t be introduced to dark humour until a few years after you could do with a dose. That means you have to find a darkly humorous children’s book yourself and if you’re lucky, that means you find ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. The series, which starts with The Bad Beginning, tells the story of three unlucky siblings who take on an evil villain. It is packed with dry wit, appreciation of learning and warnings to listen to children. All things children and adults alike could stand to hear more often.

At the beginning of The Bad Beginning Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny Baudelaire are playing on Briny Beach when a man with a top hat and an eternal cough comes to bring them terrible news: their parents have died in a fire that has also destroyed their home. The children are to be put in the care of a distant relative who lives nearby. His name is Count Olaf, leader of a theater groupe and hatcher of evil plots. In Count Olaf’s house, the siblings are nothing more than slaves while their guardian tries to gets his hands on their family fortune. None of the adults they reach out to wants to listen when they raise the alarm, so Violet, Klaus and Sunny have to rely on each other to escape. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you if they succeed, but the first book is followed by twelve sequels, so suffice it to say that the children won’t be out of trouble anytime soon.

This synopsis sounds quite dark, but the book is full of comedy. This comedy doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the subjects and situations that it deals with, it just makes thoses themes understandable. Someone recently told me that children are drawn to extremes and that sounds plausible. It is no wonder than, that Lemony Snicket’s style of constant hyperbole works in a children’s book. He emphasises how horrible the Baudelaire’s situation is, how awful Count Olaf is, how sad the children’s story is and how the reader should put the book away and read something happier. Still, there is hope: the children are smart, kind and resilient. They help each other and use their individual talents to best Count Olaf and his troupe of comical but evil henchmen. Fourteen-year-old Violet is an inventor and engineer who can make useful devises out of whatever is lying around. Twelve-year-old Klaus loves nothing more than to do research and remembers everything he has ever read, thus accumulating extensive book knowledge. The infant Sunny, who likes to bite things, has not yet come into her own, but she shows every sign of an intellect as sharp as her teeth.

‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and its distinctive writing style have become well-known, especially since the series was adapted for Netflix. I might try, as others have, to write a part of this review in Lemony Snicket’s tone of voice. But he is really the only person who can get away with his particular melancholy, cynical style and people who try to copy him fail without exception. Therefore I will quote some typical dialogue between the siblings:

“I hate it too,” Violet said, and Klaus looked at his older sister with relief. Sometimes, just saying that you hate something, anD having someone agree with you, can make you feel better about a terrible situation. “I hate everything about our lives right now, Klaus,” she said, “but we have to keep our chin up.” This was an expression the children’s father had used, and it meant “try to stay cheerful.”
“You’re right,” Klaus said.”But it is very difficult to keep one’s chin up when Count Olaf keeps shoving it down.”
“Jook!” shrieked Sunny, banging on the table with her oatmeal spoon.

As you might have noticed, the author is very present in his story. He breaks the fourth wall by explaining words and idioms, to go on page-long rants and to hint at his own circumstances. Throughout the series, it seems that Lemony Snicket himself is somehow connected to the children he has vowed to write about. This is only a small part of the mystery that surrounds the main characters and of which they know as little as the reader. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are portrayed as talented, smart and polite children who have grown up in a big house with parents who loved them, encouraged them in their interests, and provided them with books and support. But both in their parents’ past and in the shadows of their happy little world, things are not as perfect as they seemed to be. Because they are clever and resourceful, the children uncover these secrets bit by bit. Lemony Snicket follows their quest closely and comments on every step. As they learn, the reader learns to. That was especially the case with me when I read the books for the first time. I had only just started to read in English and Snicket’s explanations of difficult words and literary conventions actually helped me to understand the story better, even if those explanations were sometimes preposterous or highly specific to one situation.

Besides the wild plot and copious adventures, the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events is wonderful as well. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world full of eccentric characters who go to see opera’s and read books in beautiful libraries and give masked balls to pass on secret messages? Although that world can be cruel, the same goes for the real world, so I’d prefer one with more room for imagination and books. Part of the atmosphere of the Baudelaires’ world comes from the beautiful and mysterious pencil drawings of Brett Helquist, the books’ illustrator:

The Bad Beginning is short and uncomplicated, a beginning pure and simple. To really appreciated these first 165 pages, you should go on to read the rest of the series. If you like the style (of course, it might not appeal to everyone), you certainly will. I would recommend this book to bookworms of all ages, because Lemony Snicket understands the world as we see it through bookish eyes and in this day and age, that is very, very precious.

Victorian Award for the cliffhangers and lavish costumes

Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), (New York, 1999)

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Jo Robin

Arsenic for Tea (Murder most unladylike #2) by Robin Stevens

As I have now reviewed two books in the Flavia de Luce series, always with the highest praise, I think it’s obvious to most of our readers that I’m a big fan. I’ve never read any book like it and even though it’s a series with many novels, I couldn’t get enough. So that’s how I picked up this book. ‘Arsenic for Tea’ caught my attention with the title alone, and when the cover read that it’s about little girls getting involved with murder solving in 1930’s England, I was very hopeful! This is the second book in the series, but the books can be read on its own. It’s nothing like Flavia de Luce as it turned out and it really is a children’s book, but it’s murder and mystery and tea, so overall, good fun.

During their holidays from boarding school Deepdean School for Girls, best friends Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells spend the weekend at Daisy’s house to celebrate her fourteenth birthday. Last year they apparently started their very own Detective Society, when a murder at their school took place, which they managed to solve brilliantly! Daisy is a pretty blonde, with perfect teeth and manners, a little standoffish at times, but a great friend to Hazel. Hazel is a little girl who stands out wherever she goes, and she’s very much aware of this, because her family is from Hong Kong. The girls are inseparable however and a perfect match: where Hazel lacks confidence, Daisy speaks her mind, and where Daisy is a bit rash at times, Hazel has the brains.

While they are staying at Daisy’s family estate Fallingford, the party consists not only of the girls and Daisy’s parents. They’re Lord and Lady Hastings, a mother who is nothing short of a glamorous but distant diva and a father who’s a bit of a kooky prankster in gentleman form. Daisy’s great-aunt Saskia stays with them as well, another strange old lady who is basically a kleptomaniac. Then there’s Daisy’s flamboyant uncle Felix, brother to Lady Hastings, who suddenly acts in a strange and serious manner over the holidays. Of course the girls are expected to keep up with their lessons during their school break, so there’s their governess Miss Alston, who isn’t like any other governess Daisy has ever had. Daisy’s older brother, Bertie, is also home from school and he has brought a friend by the name of Stephen. Besides the household staff, there’s Kitty and Beanie, two friends from Deandeep, who have been invited to Daisy’s birthday celebrations. And last, and most definitely least, the horrible Mr. Curtis.

Mr. Curtis is a friend of Lady Hastings and he ruins Daisy’s birthday right from the start, by being rude, arrogant and far too friendly with Lady Hastings. Daisy is furious of course, and decides they must keep an eye on him. Hazel notices at once what his intentions are towards Lady Hastings, but Daisy won’t hear of it, even when they are seen kissing. The Detective Society soon notices something very odd about this Mr. Curtis, when he is spotted examining all the paintings, works of art and antique in the house. He can’t keep his eyes of the things, but he insists towards the family that everything is worthless. Soon, the atmosphere in the whole house changes into a grim one, and Daisy’s birthday seems hardly important anymore. To make matters worse, the weather changes all of a sudden and Fallingford becomes flooded overnight. The next day is the day of Daisy’s birthday tea, but also the day when tragedy strikes. That very morning, Lord Hastings was seen threatening Mr. Curtis, but for some reason he hasn’t left and shows up at the tea like he hasn’t a care in the world. So, when he is served arsenic instead of tea, very few people are sad. However, a murder is always grizzly, especially in a flooded house, when the murderer has to be among family and friends.

The thing I loved most about this book was how it really is a book for young children, but a murder mystery, and those are, unfortunately, very rare! The language used is simple and it’s written from a child’s, Hazel’s, point of view. As the daughter of a minister, I grew up with detectives and murder mysteries, but lots of people find these kind of stories unsuitable for young children. Psychology, murder en puzzles are apparently things that children shouldn’t be exposed to, but I disagree: murder, however unladylike, is always great fun.

The world created by Robin Stevens sucks you right in and I do love a book set in the past. 1930’s England is a strange place, but also one of traditions and improvisation. When someone is murdered, that’s unfortunate, but life goes on as it ought to. Maybe it’s because I’ve read so many murder mysteries, but just the thought of a group of Englishmen having innocent tea in the 1930’s makes me think: Yep, someone’s about to get done in. But it’s not just the setting: the entire atmosphere of boarding school girls and the way they live and think comes across beautifully in this novel. From the first chapter on, you just step right into their little world, which seems ever so big to them, and go along with Hazel’s thought process. This might be the reason I finished the book in just a few days and I loved that. I only wish I could’ve found this book when I was a lot younger myself.

I was a little bit disappointed with the characters in this book though. As you may have noticed, this book is the second book in the series ‘Murder most unladylike’ and maybe this is the reason, but I found the characters to be very flat. They all appear to have just one characteristic and then they act accordingly. Hazel is the only exception, and I really do love her. She’s a permanent outsider, but at the same time she offers some insight on how peculiar the British actually are. She’s very quiet, dislikes murders intensely, but is also incredibly resourceful and smart. Why Hazel puts up with Daisy I couldn’t quite figure out, because Daisy is mostly arrogant, impulsive and often very unkind. However, friendships often don’t make sense to outsiders and I know this by experience. My best friends and I are nothing alike and people have often commented on our friendship, so I was able to look past this detail. But Uncle Felix, Aunt Saskia and even Chapman, butler to the Wells family, are horrible, two-dimensional clichés.

I did however love the idea of the Wells & Wong Detective Society. The fact that Daisy wants to figure out the mystery before the adults do, just to prove a point, made so much sense to me and I cherish these know-it-all memories of my childhood. Because this is the second book in the series, some might argue that it’s unlikely that these girls find murders wherever they go, but as we all know, this is what happens to all the great detectives: you solve one murder, and before you know it, your entire village should have been extinct for years. So I have great hope for these girls; they will surely follow in the footsteps of the great Miss Marple. Because these girls really are fearless: Hazel is quite scared of murder, but pulls through anyway because she truly believes in justice and Daisy has to face facts and acknowledge that a member of her family might be involved, but that doesn’t stop her either. They compliment each other so well!

All in all, I really did enjoy reading this book and I will probably read the other books in the series at some point. It really doesn’t matter that I read hem out of order. The mystery in this novel was a bit weak; I did figure that out long before the great unveiling, but my inner child loved it. It’s a cute little read, nothing like Flavia de Luce, but I’m really glad I found this series after all. If I ever have a child, this would make a great tenth birthday present.

Little know-it-all girls award: because without them we’d probably be dead.

Robin Stevens, Arsenic for Tea (Murder most unladylike #2), (London, 2015)

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Thura Nightingale 

 

Reading Challenge for August

As Bella is leaving us for a few months in August for Kenya, we thought we’d better find a way to keep ourselves from falling apart from sorrow.
So, Thura and I decided to commit ourselves to a Reading Challenge. Recently, Thura discovered an amazing YouTube channel by the name of Book Roast. She hosts a Magical Readathon based on the Harry Potter books and the educational system of Hogwarts. In April she hosted the OWL’s challenge and August’s challenge will be based on the Hogwarts NEWT’s examinations.

You can find details of the challenge below in the video posted by Book Roast, but in this Readathon you will pass each NEWT subject when you read at least one book per subject, and following the instructions per subject, and three books to receive an Outstanding.
You can find your examination schedule and requirements, depending on your chosen subjects, here. But check out Book Roast’s actual video as well, because it was her enthusiasm and imagination that led us to choosing this particular challenge.

As the both of us didn’t sit our OWL’s, we’re only doing our NEWT’s as a practice run for next year. So we simply decided to choose some subjects we like and try and do our best on our exams, determined to not disappoint!

Thura chose to take her NEWT’s in five subjects, being History of magic, Defense against the dark arts, Transfiguration, Care of magical creatures and Potions. As you are required to pass at least one subject with an Outstanding, her focus will be on either Defense against the dark arts or Potions.
I’m only doing three subjects, because I’m a much slower reader, being History of magic, Herbology and Ancient Runes, the last one being the one I’d like to excel in. Obviously, I’m more the scholarly type, rather than a magician with many practical skills.

If you’re still looking for some kind of Reading Challenge to do over the summer, we’re really excited about this one and we can’t wait to start! Let us know if you’re doing a Reading Challenge, especially if you’re doing this Magical Readathon as well, in the comments below.
We’ll keep you updated on our preparations, which books we’ve chosen to read and so on, and our progress.

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Jo Robin

How to train your dragon (how to train your dragon #1) by Cressida Cowell

   “I was not a natural at the heroism business. I had to work at it. This is the story of becoming a hero the hard way”  

This is a sentence uttered by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III in the opening statement of this book. It is a good representation of the book, and the series, as a whole. In this story, an unlikely hero saves his Viking tribe, the Hairy Hooligans, and learns there are many different ways of being heroic. This is never a bad message for a children’s book.  In this book, the threat comes in the shape of two giant sea serpents called the Green and Purple Death. They are defeated by cleverness instead of the traditional Hooligan training strategy: shouting at dragons. This is part one of a twelve-part series written by Cressida Cowell, or actually written by Hiccup, and translated from ancient Nordic by Cressida Cowell.  

The Hooligan tribe are Vikings living somewhere in the icy north. They believe in shouting, hitting things with an axe and generally being more brutal than the other person to gain dominance. They use dragons as domesticated animals to help hunting fish, much in the way we use a horse for transport. Every Viking has their own dragon which they have to capture and train as initiation into the tribe. Hiccup is the son of the chief of the Hooligans and by right will be the next chief. However, he doesn’t look like the typical Viking. He is small, scrawny and prefers to think about things instead of shouting until things go the way you want them. Shouting has never worked for him anyway. As the son of the chief, though, he has to be the best imaginable version of the typical Viking imaginable. This is a constant source of anxiety in his young life.  Especially because his peers see him as a laughing stock. Most prominent one among them is Snotface Snotlout, a bully.  

The book starts with the young boys in a boat in the icy waters of the sea on their way to Wild Dragon Cliff. This is where they are going to capture their own dragon. The young dragons are in hibernation which makes it the safest time possible to capture one. If they don’t manage to capture and train a dragon they will be exiled. Among the boys is also Fishlegs and he is the most annoying character, and strangely also the best friend of Hiccup. He is whiny, gets Hiccup into trouble without apologizing and also Hiccup constantly saves his ass and he keeps complaining about everything. Hiccup on the other side, also complains, but he actually has a good reason for that considering the constant pressure to be a brutal Viking, which he isn’t. He has a secret as well: he studies dragons and even speaks their language, Dragonese.  Dragons are not seen as something to be studied in the tribe, and seeking knowledge is also considered a shameful pursuit. One of Hiccup’s bullies at some point shouts he can’t read, and he is told off for bragging about that fact.    

Hiccup has been fascinated with dragons since he was a small boy. Eventually, he realises he can use that knowledge, and his general smartness, to train dragons in his own way. In this way, he and his dragon Toothless manage to become the heroes of this story. This realization came just in time because after capturing his dragon, it becomes clear shouting at it doesn’t work for him. He learns to rely on his knowledge of dragons and cunning. This becomes even more obvious when the Hooligan tribe is frightened by the arrival of two sea serpents, the Green and Purple Death. One of the dragons had been sleeping for hundreds of years to digest the Roman legion he ate: it is difficult to digest brass spokes of wheels. Now that he has woken up he is hungry and looking for food. His eye has fallen on the Vikings and dragons of the Hooligan tribe.  The second sea serpent also arrives at the Viking’s place with the intention of eating them. The adults try to scare the dragons away by shouting at them, but that doesn’t work. It turns out training by that method only works when the creature is smaller than you. And this is where Hiccup and his dragon have their moment of glory.  

While the story is told, chapters of the book are alternated with intervals with background information on the different dragon species in the book detailing their characteristics, especially how dangerous they are. I really liked this feature, because it teaches the reader more about the dragons in this world. If you are the kind of reader, like me, who always appreciates some background information about the fantasy creatures created in books you would like this as well. Hiccups dragon is called Toothless because he has no teeth. Toothless is a very small and lazy dragon and quite common, as the book tells us. Not at all like the awe-inspiring and vicious dragons the future chief of the tribe should have. There is quite a lot of variation of dragon species. There are the more or less domesticated dragons the Vikings use, which are categorized in sub-species. There are sea dragons who look like alligators and are deadly in sea and on land. Also, there are the giant sea serpents, which form the biggest problem in this book. All in all, the Vikings are not living in hospitable surroundings. This mix of dragon species made their existence sound plausible. It always works well to mix the very dangerous dragons with the not-so-dangerous ones – not all cat-like species are the same level of dangerous as well after all.  

If you have only seen the movie of this wonderful book, you are probably very confused by now.  For example, Toothless is not the awesome mysterious Nightfurry dragon it is in the movie. I still have hope Toothless will turn into something majestic somewhere along the series though. I only hope for his sake that this is not only my optimism speaking. When comparing the book and the film, Toothless is a more interesting character in the book where he has more his own voice. He is the kind of character that hates its attachment to other creatures because it forces him to do things he doesn’t want to in order to save them. The nice thing about the movie is the female Vikings. In the book all young Vikings-to-be are boys. I have decided to believe the girls are somewhere else doing more sensible things than shouting at dragons. The downside of the movie is that you don’t get to read the book. It is written in a very funny way with a lot of descriptions and scenes that made me laugh out loud hours after I read them. Another thing I admired about the writing style is that it doesn’t come across childish at all, even though it is aimed at a young audience. Those are the best children books in my opinion: suitable for small children, fun for grown-ups and which do not read childish. Children are not stupid after all.  

All in all, this is a funny book. Cressida Cowell has a wonderful, witty writing style. There are many dragons in this book all with their own personalities and characteristics. And if dragons and humour are not enough to convince you, I haven’t even told you about the most amazing thing of this book: the audiobook is narrated by the always attractive David Tennant in a lush Scottish accent.  So, go ahead and find the audiobook and you will be both mesmerized by his beautiful Scottish accent, and entertained by this witty story about dragons and how to become a hero the hard way.  

Hero of dragons award by proving you can also be a hero without wielding a battle axe  

Cressida Cowell, how to train your dragon (New York, 2004)

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Bella G. Bear