Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


Every couple of years, I find myself in the mood once more to read the Harry Potter series. The story never gets old; it’s earned itself a special place in my heart.

harry_potter_and_the_sorcerers_stoneI think people are still drawn to these books because they feel like home. When thousands of people gather to read a story, it creates a sense of belonging which doesn’t fade when we finish the series. I think that’s the reason why Harry Potter will never die.

These books lack the elaborate description to which I am normally drawn, but that is not a weakness. We must take into account factors such as the age of the targeted audience. It surprises me a little that I enjoyed it, being a person who prefers old books with long paragraphs, but I then realize there’s more to a good story than flowery writing. J.K. Rowling is a master at writing action that keeps us turning the page, and I appreciate that, by not over-describing, she gave us room to imagine.

As for the story, I don’t think much description is necessary, however here is a loose overview:

Ten-year-old Harry Potter lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle and cousin, the Dursleys. This family take pride in being perfectly normal and respectable, unlike Harry, who has nothing in common with them at all. He is not normal; strange things happen when he feels threatened or upset. For example, one time Harry jumped onto the roof of his school, when all he’d wanted was to dive behind a trash can.

The worst of his mishaps comes to pass on his cousin Dudley’s birthday. During a trip to the zoo, Harry Potter finds he can talk to snakes. Then, when his cousin Dudley pushes him, Harry–in a flash of anger–causes the glass case to vanish, setting the python free. Though unable to explain how he did this, Harry is punished for it, locked in his cupboard under the stairs for days.

Just when he is convinced that he will never have any friends, a letter arrives in the mail for him. Uncle Vernon does not let him read it, though apparently he knows who it’s from, because it sends him into a panic. It doesn’t end there: soon dozens of letters begin to arrive, identical to the first. Then hundreds come pouring through the chimney and all the crevices along the windows. These letters can find Harry wherever he happens to be, whether under the stairs or at a hotel.

Driven mad by paranoia, Uncle Vernon moves his family to a desolate island. At last he is certain no one will be able to find them, but he is wrong. While on the island, the clock strikes midnight on Harry’s eleventh birthday–which, of course, the Dursleys haven’t celebrated–but he is about to receive the ultimate gift, that which loyal readers long to receive, even after we’ve grown old.

On his eleventh birthday, Harry Potter meets Hagrid, the gentle giant, who breaks into that island shack and hands him a letter like those Uncle Vernon had been hiding. In the letter, Harry Potter discovers that he is a wizard, a famous one at that. Most of all, he discovers that he has a home away from these unkind people, a place where he will belong.

Though we readers will never receive our letters from Hogwarts, dedicated fans will always feel like witches and wizards. This is the belonging: we might have nothing else in common, but our love for Harry’s story will bring us together for a very long time, perhaps for life.

Have you read the Harry Potter books? What House were you Sorted in? I am a Ravenclaw!

Advertisements

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola


The Belly of Paris is a unique, fast-paced novel about justice, revolution, and hunger. It is the third book in a 20-part series titled Les Rougon-Macqyart. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) side, and the disreputable (illegitimate.)

The third installment follows Florent Quenu, a French convict who escaped exile in French Guiana after six years of imprisonment due to a false accusation. The novel opens with a scene after his return to Paris; in the scene, his unconscious body is found on a road by a merchant on her way to a marketplace called Les Halles.

61bziDAYLCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_At once we feel pity for this man who is broken and lost in the world. He spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his horrific escape and the journey back home. Only when he acquires a job and independence does he find his personality, and in it we see how anger has blackened his heart. He wants to revolt against the government.

Quoting a paragraph from the novel, Florent is convinced that “it was his calling to avenge his thinness against this city that had grown fat while those who defended justice starved in exile, he was a self-appointed avenger, and he dreamed of rising up, right in Les Halles, and crushing this regime of drunks and gluttons.”

To understand Florent’s political motives, it is necessary to know about the author. Emile Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France. His views led him to become a controversial man, especially after the publication of his political article, J’acusse. The article called for exoneration of the falsely accused army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Following the backlash, Zola was persecuted for libel; he was forced to escape to England to avoid imprisonment.

The oddest thing about The Belly of Paris is its description. Zola can make the gloomiest scenes comical with his descriptions of food. Vegetables, cheese, beef–all are used to set the mood for good times and bad. What a character eats is a major element in describing their personalities–class and wealth are shown by whether they eat fresh sausage and cheese for dinner, or are forced to beg for leftovers.

The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundness of their cheeks, half-hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by leaves. The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls’ and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Provençal women. The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.

Zola wanted to write a novel where the city of Paris herself was a character; in this book, he did a fantastic job. With poignant characters and backstories, he plays with readers’ emotions, blurring the line between right and wrong. One day I hope to read all twenty books and see the character of Paris as seen by one of the boldest authors of his time.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust


kruse_swanns_wayOccasionally we find books so beautifully written that it seems the style, not the plot, keeps us turning pages.

Though translated from its original French, Swann’s Way did not lose its beauty in the process: every sentence reads like a verse from an old, nostalgic poem. As an example:

Meanwhile the scenery of his dream-stage scattered in dust, he opened his eyes, heard for the last time the boom of a wave in the sea, grown very distant. He touched his cheek. It was dry. And yet he could feel the sting of the cold spray, and the taste of salt on his lips.

That’s not to say the plot was dull–I only mean that I was entranced by the scenes, described in such a way that they drifted before me like dreams. Of the plot, I can say it’s unique in its depth, two points of view cleverly blended.

The two points of view seem as though they shouldn’t have anything in common. In Swann’s Way, the first scenes focus on young Marcel, loosely based on the author himself. This fact adds another layer of mystery. We want to get to know the author, and we wonder what traits he shared with his characters.

Marcel, the character, opens the novel with flashbacks to powerful moments in his childhood. It’s a sad, anxiety-ridden childhood; his fears plague him to a point where he cannot sleep if his mother doesn’t go upstairs to give him a kiss good-night. These kisses become ritual, seldom broken except for when the wealthy Charles Swann comes to visit.

Swann is the second main character. He is a wealthy stockbroker, friends with many important figures in Parisian society, and also controversial because of his marriage to a woman named Odette. Their courtship is a mark on his name forever, a favorite topic of Marcel’s grandparents to discuss when he is not around. His passages in the novel follow that tumultuous time.

We see his admiration for Odette become an obsession, then morph into anguish when she doesn’t reciprocate his love. When Odette distances herself from Swann, he begins to hate her as much as he wants her. Though he once thought her beautiful, he now loathes even her appearance. He fantasizes of a life without her, yet sends friends to stalk her and report her daily activities.

This jealousy is a trap for him as well as for Odette. This is where the story ripples like a reflection on water: as a reader, I didn’t like Charles Swann, but couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I knew he would never be happy, and I read many scenes with a grimace.

Swann and Odette eventually marry and have a daughter named Gilberte. Young Marcel falls for Gilberte in a manner similar to Swann’s obsession with Odette; it is here that their two stories become linked in an intriguing parallel.

Proust wrote this book in a way that he managed to manipulate time, much in the way painters mix color blends that tell stories; if we allow ourselves to soak in the sentences, we feel each emotion until the end.

This book may not be for everyone, because it is a rather heavy read, and a long one. It requires great patience–I found that speed-reading would not do, and forced myself to slow down so I could taste each word. If we miss one phrase, the enchantment does not grip us.

It is ideal for readers who like heavier stories, and those who soak in poetic writing. Swann’s Way will leave marks with the characters’ strong conflicts; there are certain scenes in which my heart will lurk forever.

I know I will read this book again one day.

If you would like to read Swann’s Way, it’s available for download here at Gutenberg! Have you already read the book? What are your thoughts on it?

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell


Jonathan-Strange-and-Mr-Norrell-by-Susanna-Clarke

I have spent two weeks with my nose in this book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a thousand pages long, but its spell extends beyond the pages. Its charm is bolder than its eye-catching cover; this book provides complete immersion in a story I wished would last longer.

It tells of the movement to restore English magic. It’s full of clever political strife, well-written battles, pesky faeries and beautiful forests. Faeries favor the least likely people; those with power and authority often lose faster.

With her magical style, Susanna Clarke takes historical fiction and gives it new depth. She takes England and enchants it with a new system, dynamic characters, and plot twists that creep up to the very end.

If you want a good work of escapism, I recommend this book. It will take some of your time, but I promise you’ll be glad you gave it.

Book Review: Wendy Darling – Stars by Colleen Oakes


25175898

I am fascinated by retellings of classic novels! Some stories are so beloved that they capture imaginations for years, never losing their magic. Often these retellings can be shallow and unoriginal, but Wendy Darling: Stars did not disappoint.

It’s the story of Peter Pan told from Wendy’s point of view, and though it’s been a few years since I read the original book, this version was lovely to read. I enjoyed the care placed in each relationship. Conflicts were added to make characters realistic and believable; even though they’ve been written before, they were pleasantly original here.

No one was perfect in this book. Wendy’s brothers all had flaws, and even her father, though overall kind, still valued the family reputation over her happiness. He won’t approve of Wendy’s relationship with a young bookseller named Booth, and that disagreement creates a chasm between them, one we could feel—because they’d gotten along well before that. There is a scene where she and Mr. Darling are looking at the sky, looking for the second star to the right, and it was so cute that I was sad when they fell apart.

Peter Pan in this novel is more human than in other retellings. His crush on Wendy makes him more than a boy who won’t grow up; here he’s a young man afraid to face reality. There were scenes where he was kind to Wendy, and others where he lost his mind. There were times when he was considerate of others, and dark moments when he thought little about killing. Like Wendy, he’s older and makes decisions that are fitting for his age.

I also liked that the book was well-written. The author put thought into plot and location, and the writing was poetic. This novel took me through the streets of London; I flew in the skies of Neverland, swam with dark mermaids, and stole from pirates.

This book is ideal for people who loved Peter Pan. It made me sad for Wendy and Booth, made me curious about Peter, and took me to a world where lost people never grow up. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Book Review: The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton


faerie-ring-cover-final

The Faerie Ring follows the story of a pickpocket named Tiki. She lives with several other homeless children in Victorian London; together they make a family, looking out for each other when things get rough.

When the youngest child, Clara, falls ill with consumption, they find themselves facing a huge hospital bill. It’s more than they could steal in the time given them. Just when it seems hopeless, Tiki finds a bizarre stroke of luck and seizes it.

She manages to steal one of the queen’s rings. The reward for it is enough to pay for Clara’s medical bills, and even to make sure her little family has a decent home. The challenge is finding a way to trade it in without being caught and arrested.

But it won’t be simple. The ring is not just a bit of jewelry; it represents a truce made long ago between the Faerie court and English royalty. Some faeries will do anything to destroy the ring and what it represents, putting Tiki and her family in danger.

Even though I liked this book, it needed work. The writing could have been tightened up. If not for the several errors I spotted while reading, it would have been one of my favorite faerie stories.

I enjoyed the setting, but I wish the author had elaborated more. There wasn’t much detail for me to explore the streets of London, which sometimes made the story feel flat and a little too straightforward.

Despite it all, The Faerie Ring was a fun read. From the beginning, I wanted Tiki to be successful so she could keep her little family together. I’m going to give the next book a try soon.

Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes


Much has been said about Me Before You. While some people loved it, others disliked the premise enough to boycott the book. I tried reading with a neutral mind, but that didn’t save me from the heartbreaking conclusion.

It felt like a punch to the gut, even though the whole time I suspected how the story would end. This book was written to engage readers, making us feel like we know the characters, and that alone is art.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but friends have told me it’s just as powerful. Hopefully soon I can watch it, too.

Me-Before-You.Cover_

Me Before You follows a young woman named Louisa Clark. After losing her job at a cafe, she finds work caring for a paraplegic man named Will Traynor. He had an accident which left him unable to move from the neck down.

It’s the story of Louisa’s quest to show Will there’s reason for him to live. I thought it a very good story.

Articles have been written about this book. It continues to spark debate, proving books do matter, even fiction. They stir conversation for months, prompting us to examine life and discern right from wrong.

Philosophy aside, what did I like about this book?

  • It showed that love takes many forms. The affection between Will and Louisa was refreshingly honest. With physical interaction limited, they were forced to bond in deeper ways.
  • Louisa isn’t perfect, but her faults make her likeable. She isn’t the smartest sister in the family and doesn’t have much ambition—which makes it more powerful when she sets out to convince Will he has a purpose.
  • Jojo Moyes uses opposites to make the plot stronger. For example, Louisa’s life is dull because she chooses not to take risks; Will’s life is dull because he cannot take risks. Lou’s boyfriend Patrick is a professional runner, but shows little affection for her. Will can’t move, but in several scenes he demonstrates more love.

This book is one of the most powerful I’ve read, because of the mixed feelings it placed in my heart. It made me think and see life differently.

As for the controversy, I don’t understand it.

Storytellers don’t tell people how to live their lives. They find situations that deserve recognition, packing truth into paperback books. The truth can be interpreted in many different ways.

Often it’s difficult to accept, but that’s not the storyteller’s fault.

Me Before You was worth the read. It made me rethink many things I had taken for granted. I didn’t realize how deeply the book affected me until the day after I finished it, when I had a dream I was wheelchair-bound.

I promise you won’t forget this story, whether you like it or not.

Book Review: Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult & Samantha Van Leer


What if there was a character who wanted to escape the pages of his book? How far would he go to live among readers?

Between the Lines tells the story of Prince Oliver, who wants to do just that. He’s lived in a book for as long as he can remember, and doesn’t see magic in it anymore. He wants something new and exciting, because his life has been programmed to always follow the words of the book.

between the lines

Oliver has several reasons for his restlessness, including:

  • Boredom—he is tired of finding himself on Page 1 each time a Reader opens the book.
  • He does not care for the love interest, Seraphima, but has to pretend in scenes where they kiss.
  • It irritates him, seeing how content his friends have become. They don’t wonder about the outside world.

But he never actually thought it possible to leave the book. It seemed pointless to even try. Then a new Reader becomes hooked on Oliver’s story.

When Delilah finds the book in her school library, the story becomes a refuge from the complications in her life. Oliver falls for Delilah so deeply, he gets her to notice him! Then he begs for help escaping the book, and they start experimenting.

Is it possible to change a story once it’s put in ink? Can a character’s will be strong enough to outsmart the book?

This is a charming story because of the questions it makes you ask. How many times have you wished a character could hang out with you? How many times have you wanted to live among the pages with them?

Between the Lines captures the wonder of good story, the pull which keeps us turning pages.

It may be impossible for characters to leap off the page, but this story gives us a comforting thought: If they had the choice to join us, some would without thinking it twice. Some would fight to live with us, just as we long to be near them.

Between the Lines pulls us into a realm where ink isn’t a barrier. In this realm, there is hope that one day readers and characters could meet.

I recommend this book to fans of faery tales and romance—but really, it’s great for any reader who’s fallen in love with fictional characters. Oliver’s story will give you much to think about, and it will make you smile.

Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson


The Bookseller follows a woman named Kitty who lives in Denver, where she runs a bookstore with her best friend, Frieda. In 1962 it’s not usual for her to be unmarried at the age of thirty-eight, but she tells herself she’s content. Having gone through a failed courtship and several dates that led nowhere, she’s come to terms with life at home with her cat.

Things aren’t as stable as she’d like them to be. The bookstore is losing business as customers flock to big shopping centers in town. She and Frieda are struggling to pay the rent, contemplating the idea of moving to a location that’ll attract more business.

In the midst of this uncertainty, Kitty begins to have strange dreams. Each night when she drifts off, she finds herself in an alternate universe where everything is different.

22635858

Kitty’s married with children in this universe. Her husband, Lars, is a man she spoke to once in the waking world, on the phone; they never met, but in the dream they are married. They have started a family; he built a lovely house for her and the children.

In this dream universe, Kitty is wealthy and has plenty of friends. She has a closet of elegant clothing, even a maid. The world she visits in her sleep is full of contradictions to her real life; it’s like the flip side of a coin.

As the dreams become more vivid, readers are left wondering which of the two universes is actually a dream? It becomes hard to decide. Cynthia Swanson has done a good job of taking two outcomes and making both of them plausible.

The Bookseller addresses the timeless question “What if?” We’ve all wondered how our lives could be different if we made that choice differently, or took the left road instead of the right. How would the universe change if we embraced a different hobby? How would it change the future, how would it change us?

This novel drew me in with its poignant writing and powerful scenes, making me question my own life. As the story progressed and fog cleared, I marveled at Swanson’s genius: She took a concept difficult to pull off, writing each reality with grace and elegance. Both of them have their pros and cons. Neither is complete.

But life is never truly complete. This truth doesn’t escape the pages of books. The Bookseller is wonderful because it makes us ponder our own choices, compelling us to ask “What if?” the way we did when we were children.

Life might look better in an alternate universe, but we’d find ourselves missing things we don’t notice now. The Bookseller helps us appreciate what we have, not envying others’ lives or wishing away our truths.

Like Kitty does in both realities, we’ll wake up and realize these little things are gone. But they only seemed little when we took them for granted, because they will leave great voids.

The Bookseller is a beautiful piece of literary fiction, one I can rate five stars without thinking twice. Give it a try and let it change your perspective on life.

Book Review: Unrivaled by Alyson Noel


Success can be a vicious game. Unrivaled by Alyson Noel follows three young people participating in a competition to best promote the hottest new clubs in downtown LA. They all hope to win best promoter and use their victories to pursue other ambitions.

None of them could foresee how fiery the race would become.

Aster, Tommy, and Layla are not the only competitors, but they’re clearly putting the most effort. This whole book follows their often desperate attempts to sit well with the boss, Ira Redman. Ira owns the nightclubs, and he’s going to determine who wins this competition…but since it’s unclear what his standards are, the participants pull strategies of near Hunger Games-level riskiness.26116460

Luring celebrities in is an obvious shortcut; by the midpoint, they’re circling like flies around Madison Brooks, impeccable actress and America’s sweetheart. (I kept thinking Taylor Swift.) Since Madison is almost impossible to come by, their second-best choice is her also-famous boyfriend, Ryan Hawthorne. Through him, they each hope to reach her.

But the quest for Madison’s attention soon becomes a dramatic search—because she disappears. Aster, Tommy, and Layla all wind up as suspects.

This all started because they wanted success, money to make their marks in the world.

LA was a town of actors and storytellers, populated by those more comfortable playing an imaginary role than being themselves, and the prize always went to the one who faked it best.

This is not a genre I typically read. I was sent a copy to review, and found myself hooked by writing that pulled me along with the characters. Some of the quotes were truly beautiful, others intense—there’s enough cussing to make scenes properly intense. All the characters, even Madison and Ryan, were sketched perfectly; they felt like real people.

Having been in LA, it was nice to read descriptions of streets; I pictured myself strolling the Walk of Fame, could almost smell big city air. It was like stepping through a window back into California, a place where you never know what you’ll find around the corner.

The character Aster is my only criticism. Most of her choices were too childish, like she was trying to fit into a grown woman’s shoes. Then again, this is an LA version of the Hunger Games; I can forgive her losing sight of reason in the race to beat Layla, who ironically becomes an ally towards the end.

More than the characters, it’s the situation which I found addictive, like a bad tabloid or a reality show you can’t turn off…except this is well-written, a journey into the dark part of fame. By the end of Unrivaled, you’ll ask yourself what you’d do for success—and if it’s worth the losses.

You might even lose yourself in the process.