His Majesty’s dragon (Temeraire #1) by Naomi Novik

Imagine you are a happy captain at sea during the Napoleonic war between England and France (1803-1815). You are a gentleman who is raised to respect discipline and formality is what you prefer. You are doing well as a captain. You actually just captured a French ship and you are busy inspected the prize. Now imagine the prize is a mysterious dragon’s egg that is about to be hatched. This egg will change your life forever because you are living in an alternative world from ours where dragons are used for combat in the air.
I’ve always wanted to either be a dragon or own one, so the premise of this book was an instant hit for me. This book is part one of a nine book series written by Naomi Novik, the same lady who wrote ‘Uprooted’ which is reviewed here: Uprooted.

The reason that the hatching egg will change Laurence’s life is because a dragon has to be harnessed the moment it comes out of the egg in order to control it and use it in combat. Normally that should be done by a trained aviator who has been trained from a very young age to handle dragons. However, they are in the middle of the sea with no land in sight, so Laurence and his crew must improvise. Laurence and his crew pull straws and the unlucky one is allocated to try and harness the dragon. However, when the dragon hatches he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the chosen one. Instead, he chooses Laurence as his master and he grudgingly accepts because he knows it is his duty to serve his country and to take care of the dragon. Dragons are a vital part of Englands’ defences during the war and they need to train as many as possible to compete with the dragon forces of the French. Dragons are difficult to train because they are smart creatures whose intelligence often rivals that of humans. An additional difficulty in the training of dragons is that aviators who do the training have to dedicate their life to it. Aviators life far away in secluded areas and have little contact with other people. People fear the dragons too much and they need space to fly and train. Also, usually aviators forge a strong bond with their dragons and spend most of their time either training with them or chilling with their dragons anyway. Laurence knows that accepting the dragon as his responsibility will mean saying farewell to his life as captain and to ‘civilized’ society as a whole. He names his dragon Temeraire and together they go off to Scotland for their training as aerial combatants.

The biggest part of this book focusses on the training of Laurence and Temeraire and how the two form a deep attachment to each other. Also, we meet the other aviators and we get to know the variety of dragon species. There are very big ones, there is the one with acid breath and there are smaller ones build for speed or as a messenger. Also, there is a difference between species from Britain, France and China. For example, Temeraire’s species is a mystery for a large part of the book until it turns out he is Chinese. This difference is explained because every empire breeds its own species and they all started out with different dragons. They mix dragons to get certain capabilities such as speed or size. A big part of the book is dedicated to finding out which species Temeraire is exactly and to see his how he develops while he grows. One of the biggest questions is whether Temeraire has any special capabilities such as acid breath, but I won’t tell you the answer to that question.

Laurence background as a gentleman and navy captain means he is used to formality. This gives him some troubles because the aviator society is informal. Throughout the first book, he is trying to hold on to his formal manners while he is also adjusting to the more informal ways of the aviators. In the beginning, he even looks down on the aviators’ manners, although he would never admit to that. He is a bit of a twat and an egghead and in that way as he refuses to make friends because everyone appears too gruff. It is funny to witness his struggle to get to terms with people who do not greet him with the proper title or servants who openly jawn when he stays up too late. Luckily for Laurence, he quickly grows a deep attachment and friendship with Temeraire and soon he spends most of his free time with him so he is not alone anymore. This does give him an even better escape to avoid the humans he cannot bond with though. It is interesting to read about a character who is so obviously struggling to adjust. It is something different from the hero who struts into a new place, makes friends and saves the world. The thing that eventually aids Laurence to become one of the aviators and to earn their respect is his combat skills. That makes sense because he was a well-trained captain before after all so he had sufficient experience.

Temeraire is a remarkable character. He is fluent in both English and French because dragons learn in the egg and he has been on a ship from both countries for weeks. Why he is fluent in fancy French and English, instead of the versions most likely spoken on a ship is a question that still remains. Temeraire is supposedly tough to handle because he only allowed Laurence to harness him. However, as soon as Temeraire takes a liking to Laurence he accepts his harness and listens to him, even when he doesn’t agree with Laurence’s commands. There are no problems such as aggression, threats of escape or violence. The tough dragon is obedient to a fault. And it is like this with all dragons. It seems that as soon as a handler has put the harness on a dragon it becomes obedient. This harnessing trick is a universal agreement between dragons and humans, but it is never explained why it works like that and that irked me. Why would the dragons be so easy to control? It is not as if humans have any real means of control over them. It would all have been much more logical and interesting when the training of dragons went with some effort towards controlling the dragons instead of it all going in amiable companionship. That would have shown the love for battle instead of telling us the dragons love fighting. The friendly appearance Novik tried to give the dragons does not add up with their love for battle and their habits of hunting their own food. Also, dragons have friendships among each other but there is no mentioning of dragons flying off to start their own society. Maybe I am too independent thinking, but that felt strange to me.

All these contradictions made the dragons very unrealistic to me. Don’t get me wrong, they are amazing creatures and I loved reading about them and riding with them in this story. However, the way to control them sounded too easy for me. On the one hand, you have humans who use the dragons in their dangerous battles where they also have to kill many of their own. Also, they train long hours with the dragons and the humans’ control when and what they eat. On the other hand, dragons are massive (even the small ones can carry more than five people), supposedly intelligent and capable of independent thought and also lovers of fighting and battle. I guess this is one of those cases where technically speaking the suppressed are way more powerful than the oppressors, but still the oppressed do not revolt and fly off to live their own lives in peace. I can accept that the dragons stay because they befriend their handlers and they get taken care of, but still, it is strange there is not even a bit of revolt or trouble when training a dragon. They act like friendly puppies hopping along adoring their handlers, but puppies who are also vicious fighters. Even when a dragon is neglected it doesn’t revolt. I hope Naomi Novik will do something in the later books to make the dragon characters more realistic.

The book starts very good by showing us the alternative world and how it works. However, it slacks off in the middle and even became a bit boring to me. There are two big actions scenes, but they both come at the end of the book. I am not sure whether lack of actions made the book fall flat though. Maybe the bigger issue is that the book turns repetitive. It is mentioned a little bit too often how magnificent, intelligent and awesome Temeraire is. He only receives praise and nothing big goes wrong in the training. And whoever learned something new without making some big mistakes on the way? This is even more mystifying because at the beginning of the book everybody is worried they will never get Laurence and Temeraire’s training on combat level quickly enough. Additionally, too often Novik tries to convince the reader how kind, compliant and hardworking the dragons are. But if you must tell your readers so many times the characteristics of your characters maybe you did not write them that well.

Despite my qualms, I still want to read the other books in the series and when you get down to it that is one of the most important qualities of a book. It might not be perfect and there are many things I hope Novik improves on in the other books because the potential is there. The world is interesting and this was one of her first books ever, so we can not expect wonders. She got the most important thing down a writing style that takes you away to soar through the skies on the back of Temeraire together with Laurence. Even if reading the other books would only allow me to go on many more trips with Temeraire or the other dragons they will still be worth the read! But I am sure the next books in the story will have more to offer when the bigger story of the Napoleonic war unfolds.

Alternative world jealousy award for giving us another world I’d rather live in than my own

Naomi Novik, his majesty’s dragon (London, 2006)

 

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Do you ever feel so frustrated with a book that you have to finish it? I hated The Other Typist, but I enjoyed hating it and complaining about it after every chapter. It ought to have been a good book. It’s about a typist in New York in the Prohibition era, who meets a dazzling young woman who takes her to speakeasies and parties and then there are secrets and murders and many, many cocktails. A thriller in the 1920’s ought to have been the perfect book for me, but it wasn’t. That being said, with this story I think it very possible that a lot of people might complain less and love this book. I’m not advising against reading this. I just have to blow off steam.

Rose Baker, the narrator, is a mousy young woman who grew up in an orphanage and earns a living by working as a typist at a police station. She lives at a boarding house and leads an uninteresting, calm life with clear moral boundaries. This all changes when a new typist arrives to work at the precinct. Odalie is a beautiful flapper girl with a bob and expensive clothes and Rose almost instantly develops an unhealthy obsession with her. She starts documenting everything Odalie does and alternates between hating her and wanting to be her best friend. Luckily, Odalie wants to befriend her too.

Rose’s life changes drastically when she starts going to speakeasies with Odalie and even moves in with her in her enormous hotel apartment. Gradually, the not-so-bright Rose starts to wonder how Odalie became so rich, why she would work as a typist, where she comes from and why she wants to be friends with Rose. But Odalie tells pretty lies and charms everyone around her and Rose can’t help but follow her everywhere she goes. Their lives merge to the point that people mistake Rose for Odalie. Then someone who claims to be from Odalie’s past catches up with her, which upsets the unstable balance of the women’s lives. The result is a disaster, a scandal, and a lot of collateral damage. Rose explains with this book how things have come so far, but mostly seems to try to shift any blame onto Odalie. Her story might not be the most reliable account of the events.

Now, I actually do not know much about 1920’s New York besides what I’ve read in The Great Gatsby. The problem is, Suzanne Rindell doesn’t seem to know much more than that. In her acknowledgements, Rindell writes “I should mention there are one or two moments in this book wherein I humbly aspired – in my own small way- to pay deliberate homage to the first true love of my teenage years: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.” I think that there were more than two moments, deliberate or not. Her story contains: speakeasies, a rags-to-riches-story, a car crash, a charismatic character that tells dozens of different stories about their past, a mansion by the water, an obsession that gets out of hand, bootleggers and – for crying out loud! – a narrator who writes the story like a memoir at the request of their psychiatrist.

On top of that, the story was full of anachronisms. There are small mistakes that could have been easily avoided with a little research, like a visibly pregnant minor character who’s allowed to keep working at the precinct, but also bigger problems. Rose is a prim and conservative woman and at one point she goes off against suffragettes like Margaret Sanger, who (Rose says) would condone Odalie’s one night stands with various men. Only, neither Margaret Sanger nor any other first wave feminist would have done such a thing. To advocate sexual liberty or casual sex for women would turn public opinion against them and be counterproductive to more urgent causes, like making contraception legal and available. It’s not likely a girl like Rose would make such a serious mistake.

The writing style is not much better. Our narrator, Rose, tells us that she is going to tell us something every time before she tells it. She repeats herself and foreshadows a disastrous ending to the story at every opportunity. She explains every occurrence or feeling instead of showing it and leaving some things to the imagination. If she would write in a believable, personal voice, this would all be ok, I guess. But the writing is heavy-handed and dry with too many adjectives and adverbs. Where has a simple girl like Rose learned to write so pompously? Nobody in real life tells a story like this, and neither did real people in 1925. I was especially irked by the use of the word ‘intuited’. Rose doesn’t see things or guess things or understand things; she ‘intuits’ everything. There is no excuse for using such an uncommon word so frequently and so needlessly. “I intuited the knife was very sharp,” she writes when the knife in question easily cuts through something. That’s not intuition, that’s observation and the reader could have made that deduction herself.

The story ends with a plot twist. This is both given away on the cover and implied heavily in about every chapter, so I wasn’t too surprised. I was curious as to the explanation or build-up, but in the end that remained ambiguous. There are at least four possible outcomes, none of which make complete sense because the hints that the author gives don’t add up. Maybe it was all misdirection and the ending was meant to be ambiguous, although I think that’s just lazy writing. But the author might be cleverer than I give her credit for! She certainly made me deconstruct her plot for at least two shower sessions, so she did something right.
When I told Thura about the ending (she has no intentions of reading the book) I expressed my frustrations over the fact that, in my eyes, the suggestions that are made in the epilogue do not correspond with anything else in the book and that I hated that. I would have appreciated an ending that would invert everything we had read so far and make you look anew at the story our unreliable narrator told us. If you want to amaze people with your plot twist and your unreliable narrator, you should hint at a coherent truth within the lines. There must be some revelation within the story universe. If all the different versions of the story are lies, there is nothing to be amazed about or interested in. Imagine spending chapter upon chapter telling about your trip to Italy and then revealing at the end that you didn’t go to Italy but to Lithuania. What’s the point in telling it then? Not a single puzzle piece falls into place at the end of The Other Typist: it’s just general confusion. But Thura laughed at me when I told her this and said that I couldn’t call the end impossible just because I wanted it to end differently. I should probably let it go.

I’ll tell you instead some of the things I did enjoy about this book! I liked that Rose isn’t written as a likable character. She is boring and self-righteous. She abandons all her own principles but nothing is ever her fault. Even when she is actually drinking in a speakeasy, she has the nerve to judge other people for doing so. She is so obviously trying to redeem herself by telling her side of the story that she seems all the more guilty. This is not an innocent girl, panicking while everything around her spirals… this is a selfish, uninteresting woman who stubbornly tries to make you see her point of view. Another thing I liked is the nonchalant way in which Rose tells about her obsession with Odalie. She keeps a logbook with things that Odalie says and does and she makes a list of the men Odalie sleeps with. It is stalker behaviour that Rose constantly tries to rationalise in an airy tone. We suspect Rose is lying, but her lies make clear that her love-hate for Odalie could lead her to extreme actions. It’s like watching the world through her eyes but never knowing for sure what she might do if she snaps. If you ignore all the obvious foreshadowing, this makes the story actually a bit scary.

I’m sorry if this was much of a rant. Opinions on The Other Typist on Goodreads seem divided between people who loved the writing style, plot and decadence of the subject and other people who had a lot of issues with the book, like I did. It has a very particular charm about it that apparently doesn’t work for everybody. I will end with someone else’s review of the book, because Goodreads-user Cece (ProblemsOfaBookNerd) manages to summarize my feelings so well:
“*long, drawn-out sigh*”

Bootlegger Award for an imitation of fun and style that really kicks in but is rather poorly mixed

Suzanne Rindell, The Other Typist (New York, 2015)

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Jo Robin

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is of course famous for her Miss Marple and Poirot mysteries, but many don’t know that she has written so many more mysteries with other detectives taking the lead. As my grandfather has left me his entire collection of Christies, which is quite impressive I can tell you, I’ve read my share of murder mysteries. Quite often, we see people appearing again in her novels, but this mystery has an entirely new protagonist. He is fresh, unknown and just a little bit boring. He never planned on playing the detective of course, but the mystery he stumbles upon is anything but boring. In fact, it sent the shivers down my back from time to time and it was one of the creepiest Christies I have ever read, as she attempts to write a supernatural horror novel.

Mark Easterbrook, the main character of The Pale Horse, is a bit of a dull man: a historian researching the Moguls. But he gets his first thrill in ages when he sees two young girls fighting at a coffee place, literally pulling each other’s hair out. The next day, he learns that one of the girls has died. This shouldn’t really alarm anyone, but it does him, especially when he learns of an old priest that has been struck down and murdered, and the coroner has found a small note stuffed down the priest’s sock. This list contains a few names that the police can’t quite connect, but the dead girl is among them. In fact, Mark finds, they’ve all died, but by natural causes.

Soon after, a young acquaintance of Mark mentions a place called the ‘Pale Horse’ that apparently arranges for someone to die, if one would desire it to be so. When he attends a fete, organised by his cousin, Mark and a few relatives and friends decide to visit the illustrious ‘Pale Horse’. Here they meet the three women, who are supposed to be witches and take orders for a death of your desire. One of these ladies, Thyrza, takes Mark with her and explains the general idea of death by suggestion, which simply means that one could kill anyone from a distance simply by appealing to their own desire to die. Remember, this book was written at a time when Freud was still a big hit. Thyrza is quite casual about it all though, when she explains how she, the medium and the witch might perform a ritual and how anyone could then die of natural causes, because they themselves want to die. This is where Mark starts to find the whole business just a little bit fishy, as did I.

The next step for Mark is of course to find an accomplice in his plan to uncover the practices of these three witches. He tries his old friend and detective-novelist Ariadne Oliver, the coroner and a young friend of his, but no one takes him seriously. Mark starts to give up, that is, until he remembers a rather striking redhead who was a part of his cousin’s party. This glorious girl, who goes by the name of Ginger, is the most level-headed female in this entire book and so, of course, she wants to be part of his investigation immediately. But the problem is, murder by suggestion is hard to prove, so the only way for them to go about it is for Mark to contact these ladies with some strange story about how he’d like his first wife to die in order to remarry. Naturally, Ginger volunteers to play the part of the first wife: what could go wrong, right?

As you might have gathered from my summary, many elements of this story remind us of Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’. These three ordinary village women are most likely the modern day depiction of the witches from Macbeth. One is very flamboyant and has the power to connect with the other realm; one is a cook and does all this primitive and dark magic, with the occasional casualty in the form of a chicken, and the last one is the brains and the head of business of the whole affair. Interestingly enough, because this is a modern-day adaptation, these three women have an agent of some kind who makes the arrangements with a client when they would like to see someone die. You visit him and he pretends to simply lay a bet with you on when this person supposedly could die. All of these different parties know very little about one another, which makes the organisation almost impossible to trace, let alone come to a conviction. They have to get the man behind the scenes, who orchestrates it all, and really the only way to do that is to go through all the steps, even though that’s incredibly frightening. But I really liked how Christie turned the witches of Macbeth into modern village spinsters and keeping them believable in this day and age all the same.

Agatha Christie has written over a hundred murder mysteries, which means that she reuses characters, plot lines and motives from time to time. This mystery contains no Christie regulars, except for Ariadne Oliver and she makes for a very interesting addition. In this book, she’s not a main character, but just a friend of Mark. Through Mrs Oliver, Agatha Christie enters a meta-level on what it’s like to be a murder mystery novelist. At one point in the book, Ariadne discusses with Mark how hard it is to write mysteries, saying: “Say what you like, it’s not natural for five or six people to be on the spot when B is murdered and all to have a motive for killing B-unless, that is, B is absolutely madly unpleasant and in that case nobody will mind whether he’s been killed or not…” It’s like we hear Agatha Christie talking in her own voice, and I really liked that.

On that subject, and this hasn’t got very much to do with this particular book, but I noticed it and I can’t help but mention it, there’s one particular theme that I have seen recurring in three of her books now. In this book, Mark and some friends go out for dinner and his friend tells one of his famous anecdotes. Then he mentions, out of the blue, that he has once met an elderly lady in a home, sipping milk, who said to him: ‘’Is it your poor child who’s buried behind the place?’’ This caught my attention, because the exact same thing happens in Christie’s ‘Sleeping Murder’ when the protagonist visits a home. In these two books, it’s just a random thing that happens and it isn’t part of the plot, but in ‘By the Pricking of my Thumbs’, it is a major part of the plot (you can find a review of this novel here). In all three novels the elements are the same though: old lady, sipping milk, ‘was it your poor child?’. Again, Agatha Christie often reuses scenes, but never with this much detail and never a scene so bizarre. Needless to say, once I had noticed this, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Just reading it freaked me out; so maybe this happened to Christie in real life, scaring her so much that it just keeps popping up?

Back to The Pale Horse: It’s a thrillingly good mystery, but when it comes to writing style and plot, I’d say it’s not one of her strongest. Agatha Christie has a very practical and straightforward style of writing, which I normally really like. This means that she doesn’t write more that absolutely necessary, and so the supernatural, frightening aspects of the book aren’t as scary as they could be. However, I will say this, Ginger is about as level-headed as Christie’s writing style is, and she doesn’t believe that these witches can actually do any damage. But when she starts to doubt, when she has to reconsider, that’s when you might want to snuggle up with some tea and a stuffed animal or two. Actually, I think this is one of the strengths of this book: The Pale Horse deals with the psychological notion that everyone has a death wish, combined with the power of suggestion and occult rituals performed by cosy old ladies. It’s the kind of evil that we can all imagine, that even science can’t deny and even the most rational human being has to admit might be true.

So my last point of critique actually turned into praise there, but her practical style of writing can also be off-putting from time to time. It means that her characters are a little flat in this novel and your hardly get to know any of them. Christie seems to be so focused on the witchcraft element of the story, the other parts move to the sideline. The chapters can have a bit of a scattered feel to them, as many things happen that have very little significance to the plot, unlike in many of her other books. For example, Ariadne Oliver gives us a fun look inside Christie’s own brain, but you never quite figure out why she’s there. And even though the story is chilling, the actual plot was something I figured out quite early on. Lastly, I did have some questions in the end that were left unanswered: Why was the priest murdered exactly? How did the dying woman, who told the priest about these names, find out about all of this? England has had trials concerning witchcraft well into the 20th century, so why would it be impossible to prove murder by suggestion when you have three witches obviously connected to the cases? This bothered me a little, especially when I think about it now.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed  The Pale Horse and finished it in a day: my grandfather would have been proud, I like to imagine. It’s a book that grabs you and fascinates you, to the point that you can’t really think about anything else for a while: is there such a thing as…? Some have told me that the plot came to them as complete surprise, so maybe it’s just because I’ve read so many detectives that I figured it out at an early stage! (Ignore that, I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am) This is however a truely original Christie, who doesn’t usually deal with witchcraft, but I’m glad she did: it was so much dark fun!

Black cat award: because you might not be sure if you believe in it, but you won’t risk it

Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse (Glasgow, 1961)

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Thura Nightingale 

Reading abroad: what to bring when you go away

So, I am going away to Kenya for fieldwork for about four months! This fieldwork is part of the master thesis I have to write to finish my studies, but it is, of course, also a great opportunity for an adventure. The subject of my studies is the conflicts that arise between people when wildlife causes problems: think elephants destroying crops or lions killing livestock. Those conflicts are usually not about the wildlife per se, but about other things such as land use, resource shortages or past injustices. Hopefully, my research will be a small contribution to find out about those underlying reasons.

To do this fieldwork I’ll have to travel around quite a bit. Also, I will be travelling there alone, so it is best to pack light and only bring the essentials. ‘But what about books?’, I hear all the booklovers reading this mutter. Well, those people do not know me very well, because books are essential! In this post, I’ll show you which ones I’m going to bring and also give some tips to get away with as many books in your luggage as possible. These tips are especially useful when you have a mother, or other family members, who start questioning your packing policy whenever you add a book to the pile and remove a pair of socks. Books are essential to bring because they will bring solace, warmth and a way to relax much more than a pair of zip-off pants will ever do.

While I am away I will keep on writing reviews so not much will change for all our readers. The only thing I can think of is that more pictures with elephants will appear because they are the focus of my research. Here are the books I plan to bring. I know it doesn’t look like much yet, but I plan to sneak in some extra books at the last moment.

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This book was given to me by Thura to take abroad. The reason becomes clear when you see the last names we use on this site (Bear and Nightingale). The Goodreads description recommends this for fans of Uprooted, the Nightcircus and Neil Gaiman and I love the first two, so I ready to love this book. The first two books are even reviewed on this site! You can find the reviews here: Uprooted by Naomi Novik and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The book sounds like a mysterious story with dark unknown forces in the cold of Rusland. I always like to read books about cold places when it is warm or vice versa: it’s a good way to cool off. Thanks for the great gift Thura!

Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar: understanding philosophy through jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

This book was gifted to me by another friend. She thought it a funny book and knows I like sociology, philosophy and comedy. I am really curious how the balance between proper philosophy and jokes will be in this book. Also, I am eager to see if I will learn much new philosophical theories through this book or mostly lame jokes. I welcome both.

The four loves by C.S. Lewis

This book is a theological work with a philosophical approach that goes into the concept of love from a theologian’s point of view. I bring it because I want to educate myself more on the different concepts of love and ways of loving people adhere to. It is a subject many people struggle with nowadays, including me, so it’s good to learn more about it. Reading about love, and to an extent philosophy, is a good way to get to know yourself and the world around you better. Trips abroad tend to get me in a philosophical mood anyway, so might as well give myself some new theories to ponder.

E-reader and e-books on phone

Personally, I am not a fan of reading novels with an e-reader. I miss the feel of a book, the smell and the act of turning pages. However, I do see its use for reading non-fiction and scientific articles, because the e-reader and my phone are easier on my eyes than a laptop. Also, it gives me something to read when I finish the books I brought because I put many E-books on both my E-reader and phone. A digital book is better than no books at all after all. Therefore, I will also bring my e-reader stuffed with many academic and non-academic works.

An assortment of notebooks

Notebooks to write down notes, in the hope I’ll finally write my own book, finally. Like many great readers, I have the aspiration to write a book myself one day. A big trip abroad tends to give me lots of free time. Other ways to occupy my time such as friends, television and the internet are not easily available. Also, a change of scenery is often a great motivation to pick up new habits.

The Essex serpent by Sarah Perry

I might sneak this book in at the last moment because I just started it and want to know the ending. It is a story that drags you in and makes you lost to the outside world, which is ideal for long plane journeys. This is one of those books you are never quite sure whether it is fantasy or not. The setting is rural England in the 1890s and surrounds the myth of the Essex Serpent, a dragon-like creature causing havoc. Is the creature real or is it all superstition? I have no idea! I would love to find out though, so this book is coming with me as well.

Tips for the reader who is going away for a long time

  1. Put some books in your handbag or pocket. Contrary to your carry on luggage, these are often not weighted for the maximum amount of kilo’s you’re allowed to bring.
  2. Bring books you don’t mind leaving behind. Often there are places where you can trade books for new ones which will bring some welcome variety in your reading material
  3. Put books on your e-reader and/or phone and bring audiobooks. It’s not the same as real books, but still closer to real books than no books.
  4. Bring a notebook to finally start writing your own book. Travelling involves a lot of waiting, which will give you time to ponder plot lines or character development. Also, writing involves a lot of editing and re-reading so your own book will count for at least five books!
  5. Do not only bring books you ‘should’ read, but also bring books you definitely love to read. This is for the moments you are tired, lonely and homesick and want something fun and easy to read. We all want to read Tolstoy, but there is a time and moment for everything.

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The amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus #1) by Jonathan Stroud

The three of us are all big fans of Bartimaeus trilogy written by Jonathan Stroud and think it is ridiculous it’s not more famous. These books have a Djinni, Bartimaeus, as protagonist who is charming, cunning and a little bit dangerous*, so naturally, we all fell in love with him. The other main character is a little boy, but he is a nasty one: cruel and ruthless. In this review, I hope to convince you all to read this trilogy by reviewing the first book in the series: the amulet of Samarkand. It is time Bartimaeus finally gets the love and praise he deserves.

The story is set in an alternative London around the 21st century, but with less technology. Magic comes from demons, or spirits, as they prefer to be called. The magicians are drilled from a very young age to learn how to summon them, to force them to do their bidding and to protect themselves from retaliation. It’s a great injustice if you ask the demons. The magicians use their spirit slaves for all kind of purposes: protection, surveillance, plotting against other magicians and simple things such as housekeeping or cooking. This ability to summon creates a split in society between magicians and commoners, those who do not have the power to summon spirits. The magicians are in power and look down on everyone else. From a very young age, the magicians are raised with a superiority complex about themselves and their position in the world. This makes the magicians generally nasty people most people would avoid like the plague. They don’t even like each other.

The plot centres on the amulet of Samarkand, a mysterious object of great power. Nathaniel, a young magician’ apprentice, steals the amulet from Simon Lovelace as revenge. Simon Lovelace is a powerful magician who once humiliated Nathaniel when he was about eight years old. I do say ‘Nathaniel steals’, but actually he lets the demon Bartimaeus he summoned, steal the amulet. Being only eleven, Nathaniel has no idea what he has gotten himself into. He has little knowledge of the constant rivalry and backstabbing going on among magicians and the dangerous consequences of crossing the wrong magician. It turns out the amulet is the key element of a coup Lovelace and his cronies are planning against the prime minister.  Suddenly, Nathaniel’s the quest for revenge is turned into a battle for his own life. Bartimaeus is his unwilling sidekick bound to him by the terrible prospective of eternal confinement would something happen to Nathaniel. He is forced to protect Nathaniel and to figure out Lovelace’s plans even though he couldn’t care less about which magician lives and which one dies. Actually, for all he cares they all die so they will leave him alone.

Nathaniel is a young boy of eleven, full of ambition, revenge and pride. He is determined to prove himself, without a clear idea of what kind of person he wants to be. He is lonely and looking for people to connect to. This manifests in his need to prove he is better than everyone else he encounters, especially adult magicians. Jonathan Stroud himself described him as a ‘young cold-hearted kid-magician’ and that’s true. In many ways, he is way more ruthless than Bartimaeus, who is supposed to be a demon, and therefore evil. Bartimaeus is an old Djinni who has been around since the time of King Solomon, and probably even before that. He has seen many great empires and magicians come and go and is therefore not impressed by Nathaniel’s drive for power and revenge. In all his thousands year of existing, he has only found one magician he likes. Unsurprisingly, his only ambition is to get back to ‘the other place’, where demons come from, as soon as possible and to be left alone.  It is an interesting switch of perspective to have a demon character who sparks way more sympathy than a little boy. This is also deceptive, because Bartimaeus has charm, is witty, sarcastic, smart and occasionally would even save your life when it is in his own benefit, but would also definitely eat you, given the opportunity.

The spirits, or demons, are divided into classes depending on their strength and ability. There are seven planes of existence in this magical world and spirits are able to manipulate reality on a number of those planes depending on their strength. An example of that is their shape-shifter abilities. Strong spirits are able to change form on all seven planes, and weaker ones only on the first few. Also, it depends on the ability and strength of the spirits how many planes they are able to witness. Magicians are weak humans, so they can only see the first three planes with help of lenses. Bartimaeus is a Djinni, which are spirits of average strength, although you wouldn’t think that when you hear him speak.  He is so arrogant that it took me about half the book before I discovered he is only of medium strength. A jealous making fact about Bartimaeus is that he is able to have four parallel streams of consciousness, which means he can read four books at the same time and still follow the stories. These streams of consciousness are written down in the form of footnotes**.  These contain stories of his past masters, sarcastic remarks or information about the spirit he is fleeing and are often very funny.

The story, and to an extent the whole trilogy, centres around the relationship between Bartimaeus and Nathaniel. During the books, their relationship changes and something of affection even starts to grow. To me, the strength of the trilogy is this slow unfolding and evolving relationship between the two. It starts with outright contempt for each other because they are enemies. Bartimaeus is forced to do whatever Nathaniel says because of the magic. Nathaniel, on the other hand, always has the fear of being eaten or otherwise annihilated when he makes the slightest mistake. After some time, something like affection grows and something of a friendship emerges. Although it is never an easy friendship because the master-slave dynamic never diminishes either.

I like how the demons have their own humanity with likes (eating magicians), dislikes (technology and earth) social rules (don’t bring up human wars) and friendships and hate among each other. Another thing that makes them more real is that they prefer a certain shape. The stronger spirits, such as Bartimaeus, can materialize in any shape they want, but he prefers the look of a small Egyptian boy. Other spirits prefer the look of a cook or a jackal. This shows the demons have an existence and identity beyond their slavery. They are forced to shape their existence to human’s will but do so grudgingly.  This also makes them not necessarily the bad guys. Yes, they are ruthless creatures and I wouldn’t advise summoning one yourself, but most of the cruel things they do is because magicians ordered them to do so. At some point, Bartimaeus remarks magical tourism disgusts him where people visit places of ‘glorious’ past battles where a thousand spirits died because of the squabbles between magicians. This shows the unwillingness of the demons to partake in humanity’s affairs. The book keeps playing with that dynamic, by both creating sympathy for the spirits and showing them as ruthless creatures themselves.

The chapters are alternately told from the perspective of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus. This works very well for the story and to give information about the world it is set in, in a natural way. Bartimaeus has knowledge of the history of magicians because he has served many masters, among them King Solomon, three thousand years before this story begins. Also, in his chapters, he is able to give us detailed information about the kind of spirits we are dealing with and how the binding of spirits works. This information is related in the form of footnotes**. Nathaniel’s parts, on the other hand, give us information on how the current magicians’ system works. He is apprenticed as a small boy after his parents abandoned him and forced to live without a name until he is twelve. That is because it is dangerous  to give other people your birthname because that allows magic to be directed your way. When a magician becomes twelve he or she adopts the name of a previous magician- why they don’t simply give them a temporary name for the time being is beyond me though.

Considering the plot and characters I would say this book is aimed at teenagers of about fourteen / fifteen years old. That is also when I first read these books. However, the writing style is by no means easy. That might be one of the reasons this book did not become as famous as it should be. It takes effort to read this book: not in a bad way of excessive comma or adverbs, but more in the careful way it’s written. Every sentence and word makes sense and one has no choice, but to slow down your reading speed and let the story take you. It is not a bad thing at all to let teenagers read challenging books, everyone for that matter, because in that way you learn the most. Another strong element of this book is the combination of humour and excitement. That is immediately apparent at the beginning where Bartimaeus sets up a thrilling scene when he is first summoned full of billowing smoke, pattering feet, icy screams and other elements of horror films, to scare the boy. However, this entry falls flat when he ends up in an argument about the charge put on him by his master (steal the amulet).

Bartimaeus’ sarcastic humour and tired sarcasm in encountering another generation of magicians plotting to overtake power makes this book down to earth. Also, the idea that magic is not an easy thing and comes with great danger for the magicians makes it more realistic and interesting. Magic should not come easy. The magicians force themselves to risk their own lives to maintain their power. I feel like I have to mention a downside of this book for the sake of objectivity, but it’s hard. I can hardly claim it’s a bad thing to create a lethal character who is so charming the reader forgets about that – those are often the best characters. The only thing I can think of is that Bartimaeus often falls back on toilet humour, which I personally don’t like. But even that is not really a downside, because it fits with Bartimaeus’ character. If you want an exciting book full of magic, humour, sarcasm and a main character who insults humanity, this is the book for you.

*Alright, he is not a little dangerous, given half the change he would eat your head, but that’s not the point I am making.

** Much like this, Bartimaeus uses a footnote to explain there are five main classes of spirits of increasing strength: Imp, Foliot, Djinni, Afrit and Marit. Within those, there are also power differences. Bartimaeus would also tell you, being a Djinni himself, they are powerful enough. Anything above a Djinni is showing off.

Footnote award for giving us insight into the multiple streams of consciousness of a Djinni through the beautiful medium of the footnote

Jonathan Stroud, the amulet of Samarkand (London, 2003)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Back To School Reading Recommendations

Today the schools are starting again for a new school year, or at least that’s the case here. So what would be a better time to post a list of books that we think all teenagers should read! Together we’ve compiled a list of twenty books, in no particular order, that we would recommend to every school-going teen.

When we were teenagers, when we met each other at school, one of the things that really drew us to each other was our love of books. We were very different people: the saint, the geek and the rebel, that is if we’d been part of some fifties film, that’s how we would be described. So we read very different books, but we read, a lot. When you’re a teenager, the books you read turn you into the grown-up you become, we very strongly believe this. So even though we’ve left school a few years ago, here are the books we’d recommend for teenagers during their secondary school period. These books may teach you a thing or two about history, make you question conventionalities or carry the strong  message of ‘you are not alone’, that we believe every teenager needs to hear every now and then.

  1. Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
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    Many feel like an outsider during high school, doubly so when you’re weird and / or a bookworm. This book shows the good times and amazing friends a weird person can have at school and shows you that strange people are by no means on their own. Charlie, the protagonist, was very afraid to go to high school, but learns that through participating with the right people, strange people can make amazing friends. While doing that, the book does not ignore the tougher things a teenager has to deal with in life, such as mental illness, fights among friends and the expectations of parents: everything while trying to grow up to become a decent person. This book will have you strengthened in the conviction that you are not alone and will give you faith that ultimately weirdos rule the world. Plus the book has a great soundtrack, which can be found here, along with Bella’s review of this book.

  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
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    This book tells us a lot about nineteenth century society in England, which is valuable in and of itself, but relevant to today as well. Modern society has been a long time in the making and Victorian times have brought us much of what we know and love. Feminism, for example! Jane Eyre is the heroine of this book and she breaks with conventions in surprising ways, always clinging to her values and principles. She puts down people who try to break her and even stands up to people whom she loves when she has to. She isn’t perfect, but neither are we. Jane Eyre teaches us that we can make decisions for ourselves and that it is alright to say ‘no’. Add the mystery, the drama and even some horror, and you have a book that is both challenging and thrilling. You can find more reasons to love it here, in Thura’s review.

  3. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
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    In 1949, George Orwell painted a picture of the world as is could become in 1984. This world has turned into nothing short of a totalitarian and bureaucratic nightmare, where all things are observed and controlled, and individuality is in the past. This may seem like a grim prediction on his part, but today, 2018, we have to admit that he wasn’t that far off. I sometimes imagine the ghost of Orwell standing on the corner of every street, screaming: ‘See?!’ But the book is not only a warning of how we are prone to believe in an ideology that only distracts us from the increasing control others have over our lives, it’s also about a man who does try to be an individual. This message cannot be missing from the education of young people: maybe you will understand that this book was meant as a warning, not a guide.

  4. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606)
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    It’s a sad fact that many think of William Shakespeare as dull. We believe that everyone should read some Shakespeare and you can’t start early enough. Not only would we not have the English language and literature as it is today without him, but his plays are also a lot more accessible than people think and were actually written for ‘common’ people! Macbeth is said to be one of the darkest and most depressing plays by Shakespeare, but it’s actually one of the most exciting and funny plays. So many sword fights, betrayal, an evil wife, witches, ambition and blood! So we think Macbeth is the best play to start with and maybe you will discover some of his famous quotes and English sayings that we still use today. In short, read this story to impress your friends and acquaint yourself with the tales and language that became the start of all great English literature.

  5. Zoo station: The story of Christiane F. by Christiane F. (1979)
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    This book is an autobiographical work about a teenager who gets addicted to heroin, and her struggle in trying to kick the habit. Christiana grows up in a poor part of West Berlin in the 70s. She comes from a backgroud of poverty and neglect, which drove her to soft drugs at the young age of twelve and heroin at the age of fourteen. When she was sixteen she opened up to the police about the Berlin drugs scene. The book emerged out of those talks. The book shows from the perspective of someone who understands it how easy it is to get addicted and how near-impossible it is to get clean. The perspective of the young girl who never really manages to kick her drugs habit makes this an important book to read for everyone. This story demonstrates how easy it is to trick yourself when using drugs that you still have control until it suddenly turns out you hadn’t all along. It is not a cheerful book, but not all books one should read have to be uplifting, especially when a book containts a valuable lesson.

  6. Butchers Crossing by John Williams (1960)
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    John Williams is a man who, unfortunately, didn’t sell many books in life, but now, after 50 years, is immensely popular all of a sudden. Though it’s a sad fact, this happens to many authors, which might be a lesson of perseverance in itself. But this is not the reason Butcher’s Crossing has ended up on our list: it is one of the best American novels ever written, or so we think. The Wild West is often a source for fiction and I’m sure we’ve all seen Clint Eastwood many a time, but ‘Butcher’s Crossing’ paints an entirely different image of that time. This story centres on the buffalo and what has happened to this once mighty animal. The full review can be found here, but the central themes of the book are loss, waste and naivety. In the most realistic writing style, John Williams uncovers the myth of some great American dream. In a world where some might simply be living too comfortably, a book about greed could be just the thing we need.

  7. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
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    This is a historical novel about the Second World War, loss, and the great power of words. Words can revive us, comfort us, make us angry or scared or loved or empowered. The child Liesel Meminger, the protagonist, doesn’t know all this but she suspects it from the moment when she steals her first book. Her mother is a communist, which is forbidden under the Nazi regime of Germany in 1939. Liesel is put with foster parents and has to deal with past traumas while grief and fear are still the order of the day. Books bring her solace, which is especially meaningful in a time when the wrong words could get you killed. The story deals with ordinary German people instead of convinced Nazis – Jews, gentiles, soldiers and civilians – during the time of the war. The narrator is no less than Death itself, who pulls you into the story and doesn’t let go until you finish the book, a wreck of emotions.
    Someone wrote on Goodreads that ‘we’ve all heard enough about the Holocaust’. We disrespectfully and vehemently disagree: read about the Holocaust as much as you can, so maybe we can bring true two very powerful words: ‘NEVER AGAIN’.

  8. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
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    This book is interesting for two reasons: first because of the historical setting of World War Two, and it’s written both from the point of view from people at the front and the people staying behind in England. Secondly, the book deals with themes of forgiveness and redemption and how one mistake can haunt you for the rest of you life. Briony was a little girl when she saw her sister Cecilia having an affair with the housekeeper’s son Robbie and misunderstood.  This led her to lie, which unjustly convincts Robbie of rape. This book explores how that lie changed the lives of all the people who were involved. It also shows how one lie can change the lives of people and the things people do to redeem themselves. Besides that, this is also a brilliantly written book, which will be a good introduction to contemporary British literature. Thura has reviewed this book if you want to know more, which you can find here.

  9. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967)
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    We feel that it is important to mention immediately that this book was written by a seventeen-year-old girl! It’s about teenagers, written by an actual teenager who knows what she is talking about. The story, about two rivalling groups of teenagers, was inspired by the hostility Susan Hinton saw around her in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The rich ‘socs’ fight the ‘greasers’ from the wrong side of town. The protagonist, the fourteen-year-old greaser Ponyboy Curtis, feels like he is stuck in a never-ending conflict that he didn’t ask for and doesn’t want. This book teaches about social hierarchies and their consequences, and the power of young people to overcome this injustice as well. You can read a full review of The Outsiders here.

  10. Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende (2010)
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    In our opinion, Isabel Allende is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. As a teenager, you are supposed to fall in love with language and great stories. Stories that sweep you off your feet, and there’s no one better than Allende for this very purpose. But she also writes about characters that come from very humble backgrounds, often women, who are disadvantaged, poor or simply different. But these characters are no victims and they fight against their unfair circumstances. In ‘Island beneath the sea’, Tété looks back on her life at Haiti, where she was born a slave, and her own determination through life to find love, humanity and, above all, her own identity. Every time I read Allende, it makes me feel like I can do anything, and all of that because I am a woman. Shouldn’t every young girl feel this way, and every boy by the way, that it is possible to rise above the cruellest circumstances, just like Tété?

  11. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
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    This is the only book on our list that was never meant to be published. It’s just a diary of a teenage girl, like there are probably millions in existence. What makes this one so special is that it was written by a German Jewish girl, during the two years that she hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam. She writes eloquently about the things that happen in her world that has become so little. At other times, she’s childlike, clearly still growing up. Above all, she is honest and so very hopeful. Throughout the horrible Second World War, she somehow retains her belief that all people are inherently good. You probably know what happened to her in the end. But, by telling her own story, she refuses to be dehumanised: Anne Frank was a girl with hopes and loves and big dreams, and that is how we will remember her.

  12. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)
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    This book starts off with Melinda, who decides to test how long it will take anyone to notice that she has simply stopped speaking altogether. She believes communication is something people appear to emphasize very much, but isn’t practised often. So she stops speaking, slowly, and no one notices. All of this, because she carries a secret around with her, her trauma, that she can’t find the words for and even if she could, would anyone hear her? This book not only deals with the struggles one can have as a high school student, but it also deals with trauma and rape. More importantly, it deals with finding the courage to fight back and stand up for yourself when necessary. We are often told to speak up for ourselves, but it’s really not as easy as it seems, especially when you’re a teenager. However, this book might teach you a thing or two about speaking up, even when you believe no one is listening, but doing so anyway, for no one but yourself. It’s about finding your voice (again).

  13. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1839)
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    If people tell you that you have to read ‘the Classics’: don’t feel daunted! It is not true that old books are boring or long-winded or necessarily difficult to read. Charles Dickens especially can be enormously funny and his books are packed with great characters and action scenes. Oliver Twist is a good book to start with. It’s not too long, has a great plotline and many young characters. Oliver Twist is an orphan boy who manages to escape from a terrible workhouse and flees to London, where he gets entangled with a gang of street children and a rich family who have their own secrets. There’s the Artful Dodger, a cocky pickpocket (and incidentally, Thura’s first crush), the kind Mr Brownlow, Bull’s Eye the dog, a callous undertaker called Mr Sowerberry and a badass and lovely working girl called Nancy. In the end, it’s the women who save the day for once, instead of the men!

  14. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
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    Yes, Holden is an asshole, but that does not mean this book should be rejected. If you look beyond Holden, the protagonist, and his nasty personality, you will see that most of us have much in common with him than you would think. We all have been in that moment in our lives where it is unclear what we’re supposed to do, and everything seems too dark and useless to figure it out anyway. Holden has left school ungraciously, but hasn’t gone home to face his parents yet. He walks around New York City and tries to make sense of his life and future. Everything seems pointless to him and all the people he meets appear fake. He is struggling with depressive thoughts and who he is, and is unable to find a way out. There are many times during one’s educational career these kinds of feelings come up, where feelings of failing or not meeting expectations come up, especially when you are a teenager. This book can help you to make sense of those thoughts when they do come and to feel less alone.

  15. I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
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    We think history is important for everyone, and especially for high school students who haven’t experienced much yet. We think this book is especially important because it deals with a significant part of history, which still influences today’s society and people. Additionally, this is a good book for teenagers because it is told from the perspective of a little girl. This book is the first part of Maya Angelou’s autobiography and tells from the time she was a little girl until somewhere in her teens. She grew up in the American south when the segregation between black and white people was still in place. In the book, you learn what it is like growing up marginalised, poor and with all the racism she experienced as a young girl and woman. Beside that it also tells about other things young girls can experience such as abuse and growing up with unloving family. But most importanty, it shows you how you can rise above a bad start in life and become a great woman full of spirit and kindness.

  16. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)
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    High school is usually the first time pressure will be put on you by other people to excel, grow up, become normal, to forget about your dreams and passions, to become athletic, to be smart, to make many friends, to… You see, the list never seems to end. This book is about a guy who also felt that pressure and decided to turn his back on it. Christopher McCandless disappears from university to travel to Alaska. Before he goes there, he travels around the United States to experience life and to become free of all the oppressions of society. Although we do not recommend you to do the same as Christopher, it is good to read a book about someone who is not afraid to follow his passion. Also, Christopher shows you an alternative instead of following society’s standards and expectations. Maybe Christopher’s efforts to deal with his own issues and others’ expectations will help you to deal with your own struggles and it will help you to focus on what’s important in life. After all, that is also what Christopher McCandless learns at the end of the book: “happiness is only real when shared”.
  17. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
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    First person point of views in a novel are always tricky, but here’s an example of a book that pulled it off perfectly, and that is one of the reasons we would recommend this book to teenagers. In The remains of the day, Stevens is one of the last ‘great’ butlers, who narrates his life as if from a diary. This means that his recollections are often incorrect and his memories subjective, but you slowly become aware of this. Stevens is a butler who is ever devoted to his work and the family he is in service to, and he can never step out of his role. Dignity, decorum and social constraints are therefore important themes when he tells his story of his work in the years leading up to the Second World War. But I think what’s so great about this novel, is that it is not about what is said or what he recollects, but it’s about what is not said out loud. It makes for a very subtle, very British, though heart-wrenching story, about the façade of ‘just a’ butler.

  18. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988)
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    Most young people think a lot about who they are and who they want to be. That’s wonderful and you should never stop doing this! Books can help: they give you ideas, teach you about other worlds and people or simply plants ideas in your head that make you think. The Alchemist is a book in that last category. It’s about a boy called Santiago who travels through the Sahara to find his destiny, his ‘Personal Legend’. The story is highly symbolic, something to read more than once so you can find something new on every re-reading. Rather than selling one particular viewpoint on life, spirituality or faith, the story presents a collection of colourful characters with their own ideas and convictions. It helps to make up your own mind, and to change it again. You can never be too young or too old to think and talk about things like destiny, faith and your life’s dreams.

  19. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
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    Virginia Woolf wrote this brilliant book in 1925, which means that it’s a pioneering modernist work, but quite difficult to read. So, why do we think teenagers should attempt it anyways? Because not all books have to be an easy read to enjoy them, but that’s a bit of a lame answer to that question. Because it’s a book from the 1920’s where the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, has a love interest who is a woman and they even share a kiss at some point? This may seem like I’m only trying to sell this book through sensation, but in this book many people try to break free from the bonds of conventionality. Women dress like men and smoke cigars; people stop trying to appear happy all the time and Woolf comments on mental illness, and its treatment, due to the First World War. If you can get past the curious way Woolf uses time in her books and her complex explorations of the unconsciousness, it really is a marvellous piece of work that says a lot about her time, as well as the woman who dared write it.

  20. I am Malala : How one girl stood up for education and changed the world (Teen Edition) by Malala Yousafzai (2014)
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    As our last non-fiction book on this list, we’ve chosen the autobiographical book by Malala Yousafzai: a young girl who lived in Pakistan under the Taliban regime from when she was only ten years old. Also, she was shot in the head, point blank, when she was only fifteen. Just these two facts chilled me personally to the core, but this is the world we live in today. We often hear the news and think there is very little that can be done, but the truth is that young people can make all the difference in the world: we can shape the world and its future. Malala is a true hero in the shape of a teenage girl: at only sixteen she became a symbol of resistance, but mostly famous as a fighter for peace and education for girls. These days she’s a human rights activist, a writer and she devotes herself to humanitarian work. We’d recommend this teen edition for our readers, because Malala wrote this version especially for her own generation. The adult version offers a bit more detail and a broader perspective in terms of the political history, and if you are a bit older you should definitely give that one a go. But she is trying to reach all teenagers through this teen edition, and she really is an inspiration to all girls, of all ages, women and men all over the world.

So here we are, like three old aunties, being nostalgic over secondary school and the books that we associate with that period. The truth is, we were just outsider kids in school and no one thought we would amount to anything. But we did and so we really do believe young people can change the world. Just think of Emma González, as one of the many brilliant examples. Books will not only teach you, but can make you believe in yourself and we wish that for anyone. So here’s our message to all teenage kids: read, educate yourself, so you can fight back and let your voice be heard. Because it really all boils down to this old saying: knowledge is power.

 

Magical Readathon: Final Grades

Last night, August the 31st, the last day of Magical Readathon Challenge, Jo and I sat reading together to try and finish our book before midnight. We both did it! In a little while I’ll let you know how we both did, but we were both very pleased with our results. Our expectations and possibilities were different of course, as I was just enjoying a little bit of holiday, though I did have quite a few things to do, and Jo was working a 9 to 5 job at the time. However, we both enjoyed this reading challenge a lot and found that it really does help to imagine that you’re taking your exams at Hogwarts, just to give you that little extra push to read more often.

You can find which books we had to read for this challenge, which books we chose and the subjects we took our NEWT’s in here. Remember that you had to achieve at least one Outstanding and one Acceptable to pass your NEWT’s, so two subjects at least. There was also the dreadful possibility of failing a subject all together, like a P (poor) when you read about 80% of a book but didn’t finish it, or a D (dreadful) when you hadn’t managed even half of the book and, worst of all, a T (troll) when you didn’t even start the book or only read a little. Fortunately, we both passed all of our chosen subjects, and these embarrassing marks were avoided.

Jo’s List

These are the subjects Jo chose and the books she managed to read. As you can see, she passed Herbology with an Acceptable, History of Magic with an Exceeding Expectations and Ancient Runes with an Outstanding! Here we have a true Hogwarts scholar in the making.

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

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

Jo’s Experience 

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I made it! While I didn’t manage to read all of my nine books, I did better than I expected. I can’t remember the last time I finished six books in one month.
I loved how quickly I got in the good habit of reading a lot. For some time, I had been annoyed at myself for spending too much time on Facebook or Tumblr or Netflix while not really enjoying it. I wanted to do more useful things with that time but I didn’t seem to be able to break the habit. Now I know that books were the answer all along. Instead of doing more chores, I spent the time really resting and genuinely enjoying my pastime.
Some of the books were easier to get through than others, but I didn’t really experience a slump during this month because I wanted so much to do well on my NEWT’s. The Dutch non-fiction book on my list took the most time. In de houten broek is a collection of accounts of church services in 1939/1940, incredibly interesting (to me) but a book that takes time to read. I combined it with the fiction that made up the rest of my list and finished it over a couple of weeks.
Other stories I read quickly and because I forced myself to read at every opportunity I got, I was regularly so emerged that I had difficulty switching to the real world. I remember an instance when I was on a bus, and happened to catch a glimpse of a roadside announcement of some October festival. Immediately, I thought ‘isn’t that a bit early?’ until I realised that it was almost September and not, as in the book I was reading, early April. At that point I was scrambling to finish the book (Pride and Prejudice) before my time was up. That bus trip was my salvation. I spent about three hours in total on the bus through very scenic landscape that day, and I didn’t see any of it because my mind was with Elizabeth Bennet at Pemberley and Longbourn estate. She finally consented to marry Mr Darcy on the very last day of the challenge.
Thura and I frequently read together at one of our homes. It was lovely to spend time together without the pressure of having to come up with something to do. We both enjoy it, so I don’t know why we didn’t do it more often before. We’ll certainly do it again in the future, hopefully while working on the next challenge!

Thura’s List

Again, I’ve only listed the books I did finish this month. As you might remember, I went for the more practical Hogwarts subjects and in the end I finished my NEWT’s with an Outstanding for Defence Against the Dark Arts, an Outstanding for Transfiguration, and Outstanding for Care of Magical Creatures and an Outstanding for Potions. History of Magic, the only non-practical subject, I ended with an Exceeding Expectations, so I guess we now know where my strength lies.

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 Meyrink
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book published at least 5 years ago. The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

For Defence 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

Thura’s Experience 

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As I mentioned before, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Therefore, it bothers me that I read fourteen out of fifteen books to get full marks. I’m sorry Isabel Allende, ‘Paula’ didn’t make it, but it’s first on my list for this month. Another funny thing, I was a student of history and that being the only subject that I didn’t get full marks in makes me laugh. Again, sorry to all my professors who tried so hard back then.
I loved this challenge, because I do read a lot, but this gave me just that little extra incentive to read. When I woke up, I went straight to my book and whenever I was a little bored and one usually turns to YouTube or Tumblr, I thought to myself: why not pick up a book? Also, challenges like these make you read books you normally wouldn’t pick up first, so your TBR pile remains much the same. But as it turns out, I really enjoyed some of these books! They might not have a flashy new cover, but ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and all that. These are good habits to keep and I’ll definitely work on that.
As for the books I’ve read, some I practically flew through, like Zorro or Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows. Others, like The Golem were very difficult to read. This book especially contained lots of references that required some extra research and the timeline in this book makes very little sense. In the end you can’t even be sure if the main character has hallucinated most of it or not. This is one of those books that I might not have dared to read, but I’m so glad I did. In the end, I loved The Golem, with all its Jewish references and history, and found it a rewarding experience.
Grimm Tales is another book that took me while. Philip Pullman retells the stories of the brothers Grimm here and this means that you never quite get into the book, as each tale is only about ten pages long. However, it was fun to read a few every now and then.
Lastly, I want to mention Stoner by John Williams. The challenge means that you have to keep on reading in order to finish as many books as you possibly can in order to receive great marks, but Stoner made such an impression on me, that from time to time I just had to lay it down and think about it. It was just too beautiful and impressive to rush through, and so I didn’t. I took the time this novel deserves with it.
Overall, I am quite pleased with myself but mostly because of all the stories I’ve been able to absorb during this challenge. As for my final grades, I think Hogwarts’ professors would be quite impressed as well, and this makes me absolutely glow with pride!
So there we are: the end of our challenge. What did you think of this challenge and would you ever try anything like this? What did you think of our books and achievements? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, because the only thing remotely as good as reading books, is talking about books.

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Thura Nightingale