Tag Archives: Book Review

Review: Magisterium by Holly Black & Cassandra Clare

The Copper Gauntlet A boy about to turn 13 coming home from a school in which he learns magic sounds a lot like Harry Potter but don’t be fooled like I was. Within the first chapter of Magisterium, the first book – The Iron Trial –  there are twists and turns and a lot of colour which had me surprised and curious.

The writing is readable and the story consistently manages to surprise but not in a an-over-the-top way.

What the publishers say:

In the Iron Trial, the first book, Callum Hunt has no idea what he’ll come up against in the Iron Trial but if he passes the test he’ll become a student of magic at the Magisterium. All his life, however, Call has been warned against magic and even though he tries to stay away, he fails.

Now He must enter the Magisterium and it’s even more sensational and sinister than he could ever have imagined.

What I thought:

The tone is sent by the prologue which ends in a bit of an unexpected twist and makes the book very hard to put down after that. In the story, Call is 12 and a bit cheeky a bit naughty, a lot sarcastic and not exactly your lovely Harry Potter type character. He has the potential for using magic by drawing on the four elements: earth, fire, air and water.

The background is set out amongst the action so it doesn’t slow down the story much. In fact, all the elements of the story aim to progress the action and are never there just for the sake it. The writing is concise but descriptive and the tangents aren’t really tangents.

I liked it and was happy to move on to the second book: The Copper Gauntlet.

What the publishers say:

Call is now about to turn 13 and has returned from Magisterium victorious. He is now a mage in his own right – a Copper Year student. He has friends; he feels at home in the winding tunnels of the mysterious magical school.

But Call hides a terrible secret.

His soul is not his own. His body is a vessel for a powerful evil mage, wielder of chaos magic … murderer.

Salvation could lie in the Alkahest, a mysterious copper gauntlet. But it is a dangerous object, with a violent history. It could destroy everything Call knows and loves … and release the evil in him.

What I thought:

After a few months of reading nominees for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize I thought I would find this a little too casual for me but I really enjoyed it. This is a character and plot driven novel which gathers pace and then speeds things up even more. The scenes are short and instead of sticking to the same theme they then change.

I thought it was a bit risky starting with a character who was ‘evil’ as such but things aren’t quite how they seem and a lot of humour about the Evil Overlord goes a long way. I found it entertaining. I even liked the Star Wars hints in there, especially with the latest one coming out soon. In Star Wars, in case you didn’t know, the father and son follow similar paths with both having a similar flaw – wanting to rush things and not waiting until they finished their training.

See if you can spot something similar in Magisterium.

The Copper Gauntlet is the second of five Magisterium books by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Holly Black is a prolific author with a few sets of books out there. She has just sold her latest trilogy The Folk of the Air to Hot Key Books and has previously written the Modern Faerie Tale series, as well as co-authoring The Spiderwick Chronicles and Magisterium.

Ask More, Get More by Michael Alden

Michael Alden overcame crime, drugs, and poverty to make millions of dollars in a short period of time. He is an average guy who learned how to “ask more” to “get more” out of life. The strategies and techniques he outlines in this book can help you get just about anything apparently—a better job, a new house, or a great vacation—faster and more consistently if you’re willing to follow his advice.

Alden starts off well. His tone is inspirational, his example motivational and his purpose apparently heartfelt. His work follows similar tales such as those of Tony Robbins who is a world-famous inspirational leader who is both practical in his techniques and electrifying in his words.

Alden doesn’t offer much practical advice until about a quarter of the way into the book and that’s not how to achieve in life, it’s a health and nutrition recipe. He is no Tony Robbins but he is a great example of success. His writing takes a little more perseverance and if I was his editor I would suggest he added the practical exercises much earlier on.

The Secret Keeper, book review

SECRET KEEPER AUSNZAt 16 Laurel witnessed a horrible crime which remained unexplained for years. Now her mother lies dying and it is her last chance to discover what really happened.

The Secret Keeper is Kate Morton’s third book and it is one of the loveliest if not always pleasant stories I have read. The characters are drawn with incredible depth and the lightest touch which makes it hard easy to believe they are real.

The writing is addictive. Morton entices with her plot, settings and style so much that it is impossible to stop reading. From the present to war time and beyond, the back and forth of the storyline never loses its pace.

I found this story as utterly gripping as the characters Morton writes. It’s wonderful and I want to say as little as possible because I don’t want to give away any part of the plot.

I don’t normally rate books but this gets 5/5.

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

From Goodreads

Helen Walsh doesn’t believe in fear – it’s just a thing invented by men to get all the money and good job – and yet she’s sinking. Her work as a Private Investigator has dried up, her flat has been repossessed and now some old demons have resurfaced.

Not least in the form of her charming but dodgy ex-boyfriend Jay Parker, who shows up with a missing persons case. Money is tight – so tight Helen’s had to move back in with her elderly parents – and Jay is awash with cash. The missing person is Wayne Diffney, the ‘Wacky One’ from boyband Laddz. He’s vanished from his house in Mercy Close and it’s vital that he’s found – Laddz have a sell-out comeback gig in five days’ time.


What I thought:

I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes’ writing. She writes strong women and brilliant dialogue which is funny, witty, serious and sexy when it needs to be. And she always addresses real issues which aren’t usually found in the chick lit genre.

In the Mystery of Mercy Close she writes about depression in the context of a detective mystery. There is also exploration of romance and family relationships.

I enjoyed reading this but sometimes it felt a little too flippant on depression although I know that Keyes herself has struggled with the debilitating condition and has been at times unable to write because of it.

I found it hard to suspend disbelief occasionally and some of the characters just didn’t have the depth which I’ve grown used to with Keyes. I found Is Anybody Out There? much better when it came to showing the characters dealing with depression and grief.

Keyes always provides a good read in her fiction however so I would certainly recommend it. I particularly like her idea of a shovel list. A list of people or things or phrases the main character would like to hit in the face with a shovel.

This is one more of the family Walsh series and the fabulous parents, especially the mother, once again play a brilliant supporting role.

Wang, Tova – The politics of voter suppression

I reviewed the Politics of Voter Suppression and you can find the article on New Europe.

Barack Obama’s reelection to the presidency of the United States was fraught not only with worry about whether he would be chosen by the people or get enough votes in the electoral college but also whether fraud would somehow alter the legitimate results.

An electronic voting machine in Perry County, Pennsylvania, selected Romney when the voter chose Obama, automated telephone messages called robo-calls in their thousands told people that the election was on Wednesday rather than Tuesday; people queued for most of the day because manipulation of voting hours meant they were likely to miss out and many states falsely advertised for the requirement of a photo id where none was needed.

Many, if not all of the above, were intentional acts of voter suppression. From state to state and from legislation to personal acts of intimidation there have been myriad ways that political parties have suppressed votes throughout the US’ election history.

Read more on New Europe .

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I didn’t tell a soul I was reading Never Let Me Go because I couldn’t risk anyone spoiling it for me. There was something so precious about these recollections of a former student at one of what seem to be specialised schools around England. Kathy H spends her time driving around the country caring for others and telling her story.

The stories involve a time of gentle and developing friendships between children in what seems like an orphanage. They spent their time navigating the rules of friendship and social relations in a manner so familiar to anyone having navigated school and other people.

The stories go back in forth in time in a story full of foreshadowing and intrigue and of the utter gentleness of these little characters. I fell so in love with them and felt their anticipation and fear at growing up and having to transition into a strange and scary life outside of a known home.

This was a beautiful story, written so lovingly and carefully. I highly recommend it.

Before I go to sleep, S.J. Watson

How do you say ‘this was utterly dreadful’ in 300 words or less because one iota of a sentence more than that would be giving this book space it doesn’t deserve?

The premise of Before I go to Sleep is utterly intriguing but the execution fails to deliver so badly that I worried about even reviewing it. A woman wakes up every day with no real recollection of the past at all. The only information she has is from photos in the bathroom and what her husband tells her. If this is not emotionally difficult enough she then finds her own diary which suggests she shouldn’t trust anything and nothing is as it seems.

An utterly brilliant premise (similar to Memento) but done and delivered quite poorly. The narrator isn’t very likeable, the story doesn’t deliver and the writing is annoying as hell.

Would I recommend it? Hell, no.


Update: voracious bibliophile Leeswammes commented to say that she loved the book and gave it 5 stars. This surprised me even though I had read her post at the time and then ironically, or rather, aptly, had forgotten all about it. Her comment has got me thinking about being more specific as to what makes me dislike Watson’s writing so much.

Part of it is the technique Watson uses of leading the reader and why. Our protagonist is a woman who has no memory and does not know who to trust. In attempting to decipher some meaning from the sparse clues around her she finds something, interprets it and then proceeds as if that is the truth. Here is an early example:

“He put his arm around my shoulder. I began to recoil, then remembered he is not a stranger but the man I married.”

There are two things about this sentence which exemplify the entire style of simplistic-but-not-in-a-clever-way type of writing:

1. That snippet “he is not a stranger but the man I married” is an obvious use of foreshadowing which reads as if it is normal but really is just a cheap narrative tool. Watson could have written it in the non-manipulative way of “then remembered he is my husband”. Some may protest, “but it is not obvious! We are reading to find out what has happened to her.” Then they roll their eyes at my daftness. I roll my eyes right back at you false-made-up-examples-which-I-have-dredged up-to-justify-my-reasoning.

I don’t know what has happened to this woman but as soon as I see a sentence such as this, which can only be part of a story as a cheap tool of foreshadowing although disguised as an ordinary fluttering thought through someone’s mind, because it is a rubbish line, I know exactly what has happened to her. Or if not exactly, then I can guess in a round-about way what we are about to find out and this is on the first day that we meet her!

The words “he is not a stranger” are blatantly untrue because at that moment when he puts his arm around her knowing she does not remember him, he is a stranger. Whether she knew him before or not, she does not know him now. And if he was her husband and there was nothing wrong, there would be no need for us to be reading this book.

The author leads the reader in a way the character wouldn’t. Take for example the following:

The protagonist is on a hill top overlooking London and discussing her past life of which she remembers practically nothing with the man who says he is her husband.

“We had a fire,” he said. “In the last place we were living.”
“A fire?”
“Yes,” he said. “Our house pretty much burned down. We lost a lot of things.”

I sighed. It did not seem fair, to have lost both my memories and my souvenirs of the past.

On first reading it may seem innocuous. Why yes, I guess it would be unfair (of what, life? but anyway, that is an aside) to lose all physical and non-physical things but hang on, isn’t that rather obvious? Does it not sound artificial to anyone else? The (implicit) assumption of such an obvious restatement of a conclusion which the reader will hopefully have reached on their own is that the reader is either too dumb or lazy to put together the sentiment on their own. I could understand this type of writing for children in primary school but this is not for that age group.

And then my second point;

2. There is a real lack of congruence between our character’s situation and her actions. I am not talking about times she fears for herself but doesn’t leave because she has nowhere to go. This would be akin to blaming domestic abuse victims. See the section in the book when her purported husband is having sex with her. No, I am talking about times she clearly feels that things aren’t right but uses language and justifications like above to convince herself that things are the way they appear to be.

I am not saying that this isn’t a normal life skill, it is. If we didn’t convince ourselves that things aren’t how they appear then we wouldn’t be in loveless relationships, hanging on to unrequited dreams, settling for a job which just isn’t working etc.

These are all part of normal life. No, I am referring to Watson’s attempt to let the reader know that things are strange but to also show that the character believes them to be something else. It is that old narrative trick where suddenly we, the readers, know more than the characters themselves do.

It is sneaky in a fun and exciting way if done right. It is that moment when the audience is let in to the secret that Niles and Daphne, after five years of unrequited love, are meant to be together after all and we go “Ooh!” but the characters walk off stage, one of them about to give up on the love of his life and the other saying yes to a wedding proposal from another man (see Frasier).

Watson does it badly. I could find a handful more things to criticise if I browsed through the book some more but I will spare you, and me, the angst and the anger. Instead I would recommend reading a brilliant author who does not need cheap narrative tricks to create something amazing. See Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which was his debut novel just as this is Watson’s.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

I came to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Marriage Plot somewhat disappointed with his previous novel Middlesex which no matter how brilliantly it was written, promised one thing and then failed to deliver.

It has to do with his style of writing, I suppose. Eugenides writes backwards. He presents a beautifully written scene, a believable and slightly perfectly flawed character or two, and then adds the depth and the detail through a lot of backstory but it’s all written so well that it’s hard to tell where the cracks in time appear.

In The Marriage Plot, one third of the book had gone by before I realised we were still only on the first day which is where we started. Madeline, one of our protagonists, wakes up a lot worse for wear on her graduation day, from Brown University, with her parents ringing the doorbell so as to take her out for a celebratory breakfast.

She has broken up with her boyfriend Leonard and outside the cafe, in which she and her parents end up, sits her friend Mitchell Grammaticus, who is no longer her friend but he pretends for a while to please her parents. These are the main characters and this is the starting point. We find out how they got here and where they end up.

Leonard is enigmatic, charismatic and all set to be a research fellow over summer. Madeline is not sure what to do next but is investigating the marriage plot, what happens to women after marriage, in Victorian fiction and Mitchell is trying to find some sort of religious truth which will give his life some meaning.

The time is the early 1980s but luckily Eugenides does not use this as an opportunity to revisit pop culture. The timing, instead, is useful as a backdrop to social conditions and it’s almost a bit of a shock how much feminism has changed the way we live in just three decades. Of course, these characters have parents who were raised in the 50s and 60s.

The role of women in society at that time, did not occur to me as a theme but in hindsight I can see how it works really well. There are many layers and even the unsympathetic parts are ultimately wrapped in compassion by the time we get through them.

Eugenides delivers on every single count in this book and has created a rather wonderful story which is possibly the best thing I will read in 2012.


A brief history of mothers in fiction, Carrie Dunn

A brief history of mothers in fiction: The marvelous, the mean and everything in between by Carrie Dunn. Published by Crooked Rib publishing which is one woman, feminist Sian Norris who is based in Bristol. This collection began life as blog posts and if you want to critique, disagree or comment you can go to the How To Be A Daughter website at www.daughtersnet.com.

To my mind, there is something quite clever about examining the role of mothers in books throughout the years, decades, centuries. It’s like the scene in Austin Powers where we segue to the henchman’s family and friends waiting for him. No one thinks about the henchman, we are told. In that same vein, does anyone think about the mothers?

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t apparently. The role of mothering is not consistent and as Dunn starts from Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare c1594, detours via Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables to the more recent Tony Parsons, Marian Keyes and Nick Hornby we are introduced to varying roles of mothers.

But to what purpose? There aren’t enough examples to allow a pronouncement about any particular time period even though she writes “Romeo and Juliet is also a tragedy about loss, bereavement and parenting. The fact that this element is often overlooked is indicative of the way the parent-child relationship is neglected by critics, writers and readers.”

You only have to look at Hamlet (Google, 11,700,000 search results) and King Lear (Google, 99,800 search results) by the same author to realize that this isn’t true.

Nevertheless, there is a useful point about Juliet’s mother – namely that she was probably only 27-28 years old herself and had probably gone through the same experience as her daughter at being married off to an older richer man. She also suffered the loss of her only child. This is a great example with which to start the book because for one, it points out a rather sad redundancy to women as mothers when it comes to love. This is the time when a child looks away from the parent to fulfil his or her sense of being whole. I hate the term ‘other half’ but here we have a great example of a mother’s influence disappearing and the new loved one being drafted in as adviser and measure.

Some case studies were familiar to me while others are a little more obscure and needed more explanation. A summary of the story was infrequently included in the commentary. Dunn made a lot of assumptions about her readers’ knowledge: the plots, mothering stereotypes, literature critiques, and other narrative styles. I would have liked to have seen this fleshed out a bit more. Often she was answering a criticism, about a character, that she neither explained nor referenced which is a huge shame as I would have enjoyed the greater depth.

In the more modern section about mothers, Dunn writes about Tony Parsons’ work being considered a breakthrough novel, I have no idea to what she is referring. When she writes about Anne Shirley Blythe (better known as Anne of Green Gables) as a mother, she neglects to mention the whole series of literature that Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote and based around Anne herself. She is more than a mother and more detail would have added a lot to our understanding of both Anne and motherhood. Maybe even Montgomery.

This is a clever idea and Dunn makes it look deceptively simple. There must have been a lot of work that went into doing these 20 case studies. However, the limited number of stories and examples of motherhood leave me not only wanting a lot more but wanting it a bit more structured and a bit more meaningful.

Why are we reading about these mothers? What does our new understanding add to our understanding of what it means to be / have a mother? The colloquialisms, particularly the sarcasm, which work well on casual publishing formats such as blogs could maybe be augmented to thoughtful questions and insights which involve the reader.

This is a great idea and the writing is at times a pleasure to dip into but it still feels rough around the edges and too short. Hopefully we will be treated to more at some point in the future.

A Brief History of Mothers in Fiction

The Snowman, Jo Nesbø

From Goodreads:

Oslo in November. The first snow of the season has fallen. A boy named Jonas wakes in the night to find his mother gone. Out his window, in the cold moonlight, he sees the snowman that inexplicably appeared in the yard earlier in the day. Around its neck is his mother’s pink scarf.

Hole suspects a link between a menacing letter he’s received and the disappearance of Jonas’s mother—and of perhaps a dozen other women, all of whom went missing on the day of a first snowfall. As his investigation deepens, something else emerges: he is becoming a pawn in an increasingly terrifying game whose rules are devised—and constantly revised—by the killer.

What I thought:

The Snowman is the latest in the Jo Nesbo series about the Detective Harry Hole. Hole is an anti-authoritarian ex-alcoholic police officer who is the only Norwegian officer to have caught a serial killer. He has issues, both personal and professional. When dead bodies start appearing with signs of being tortured quite gruesomely, it is time for him to figure out what is going on.

Nesbo’s skills at maintaining tension are incredible as the story pitches from one scary high to the next. The plot is vibrant and the action never lets up.

A few of the reasons I loved this book:

  • no crappy tension-building foreshadowing because it was so well written that it didn’t need any emotional manipulation;
  • I genuinely thought that the killer had been captured half way through even though I knew the book was only half done;
  • I found bits of it so creepy and scary that I couldn’t read it right before I went to bed and needed a glass of wine to help me finish it;
  • I had to keep stopping because I was so worried about who would be hurt / killed next and how it would be done;

I did worry at times about the strange description of the woman police officer and it put me off but I later realised there was a purpose to it.

I found this book really addictive and if it hadn’t stressed me out so much I would have finished it much quicker. I have to confess that I spent the entire story thinking that the writer was a woman although I’m not sure how that affected my reading.