Category Archives: Fiction

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My edition (in poor lighting, alas) of A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin
Puffin Books, 1971 (First published 1968)

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I read my first Ursula Le Guin, everyone!

Not having written many posts about books lately, I am a little lost for words, really..

A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of Ged, a boy who we are told will be a great wizard in later years, but of which very little is told about his earlier ones. In A Wizard of Earthsea we follow his training during his first years, as Ged aims to become a wizard. This is training in skills, but also in character. As Ged is tempted by pride, he unleashes an evil that he subsequently has to chase through the archipelago of Earthsea, in order to set his mistake right.

The thing is, I was happy to remember that Ana told me that while this is the beginning of the series, it might not really portray what is so great about it. That later on, more would be done with gender assumptions etcetera that would make it more enjoyable.

I did enjoy reading A Wizard of Earthsea. The prose was wonderful, felt a little lyrical – and yet remained very readable. It drew me in, and the world building that came along with it felt utterly natural.

What remains is the question of immediacy. While I felt for Ged, I missed a certain compunction to really care, that rush that makes you want to turn page after page.. Instead, it were the words and the prose that kept me reading through the first half, while it was only during the second half that I was pulled in by the story (even though, I admit, the sorcery school in the first half was intriguing, as these settings, I think, will always be to me).

The ending was satisfactory, and I liked the exploration of fear and finding the true nature of yourself as empowerment.

I fear there is little more to say, but I am happy I have a few more books left in this series, and a whole lot more of Le Guin. I am very much looking forward to reading more about Ged, and hopefully finding some challenge to the idea that “these are just women” in subsequent novels – which seemed to be voiced by characters a few times during the first half of the book.

Other, much more articulate, opinions can be found here.

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The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret of Platform 13 was my first read of 2014 and the first book for #LARmonth

The Secret of Platform 13 – Eva Ibbotson
Macmillan Children’s Books, 1994

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By the beginning of January, I needed a good comfort read. And if anyone can provide comfort reads, it is Eva Ibbotson. Happily diving into the Ibbotson novel I received as a holiday present those first days of the year, I cannot say I was disappointed.

In The Secret of Platform 13 said platform at King’s Cross Station provides a portal between our world and an island for 9 days every 9 years. When the son of the king and the queen of the island disappears in the world and is unable to return to the island, the queen is devastated. A rescue party is organised nine years later to bring back the prince, among which are a wizard, an ogre, a fey, and the young hag Odge. Can they bring back the prince before the portal closes for another 9 years?

When the rescue party arrives in London, they find that the boy they are told is the prince, Raymond Trottle, is not what they expected. He is a spoilt boy who is given everything he desires by the rich lady who calls herself his mother. Meanwhile, Ben, who helps in the Trottle’s household, does all in his power to help the rescuers, and even if he wishes he could join the rescuers in going to the island he stand by his dying grandmother who he does not want to leave alone.

Admittedly, the story in The Secret of Platform 13 has its predictable qualities. There is a clear set up where the reader finds himself rooting for Ben, while Raymond is portrayed as horrible from the beginning. I find myself agreeing with Ana’s observation that she would have liked it better if the ending had been a little different. Moreover,after reading more of Eva Ibbotson’s book, particularly One Dog and His Boy, I wonder if selfish rich people are a bit of a trope in Ibbotson’s work? She has a definite view of who is “good” and “bad”, and while some privileged people (for example the king and the queen in this story) are portrayed as lovely people, it is clear that Ibbotson did not have much sympathy for rich people who become spoilt and selfish. On the one hand, who can blame her? On the other, it would be nice to see a little more shades of grey built into the narrative at times. Ana’s suggestions for an ending where inheritance is less prominent than upbringing would work wonderfully in that case, I think.

These criticisms aside, I did very much enjoy The Secret of Platform 13. It is always a joy to read Ibbotson’s work. At least part of the reason being that she integrates fantasy with our contemporary world seamlessly. There is no needless explaining; instead the world building simply is, which is something I really appreciate. Another thing I love about Ibbotson is her portrayal of children: with agency, with good intentions, and yet their slight faults.

All in all, The Secret of Platform 13 was a lovely start of the year and of this year’s Long-Awaited Reads Month.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, Yours?

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Wrapping Up War & Peace 2013

During my absence I failed to participate fully in the event Amy and I organised to celebrate reading War and Peace in 2013. I felt I should at least give you the answers to the questions posted in Amy’s wrap-up post for this Read Along, given how much time I spent with the book last year I would feel bad about not writing up my final thoughts in the end.

warandpeace2012

1) When did you finish?
I finished reading War and Peace on the third of November. So yeah, it has been a while! By that time I had been busy catching up with my reading for October, and once I had finished that I felt I might as well try and read through what was left of the rest of the book. I still feel that although dividing the book up into chunks of 100 pages each month made it seem more doable, at the same time I think I might have been less confused and perhaps a little more interested in parts of the book if I had read more of it at once.

2) What surprised you most about reading War & Peace?
I know this must sound silly, given that War and Peace is about, well.. a lot of war.. but I was not prepared for the long battle scenes. Or at least, I was not aware beforehand of how much my mind would wander when reading about battle scenes. I really struggled with those parts, particularly during the first half of the book.

3) Who was your favorite character and did that change during the course of reading?
I think more than anything, I liked the female characters. This might simply show my own prejudice, or the fact that I failed to connect to the masculinity of the male characters (even if Tolstoy undermined the ideal in lots of places). Strengthening my sympathy for the women, particularly the younger generation of Natasha, Sonya, and Marya, was definitely some of Tolstoy’s characters ideas about women (ugh!). As for the women, I had been told to expect to really love Natasha, but I think I felt for Marya more, in the end.

4) Do you feel like a better historian after Tolstoy’s lectures? ;)
Hahaha, do I really need answer this? His lectures were definitely the parts I struggled with most in the second half of the book. I tried to engage with some of it, and I could even agree with some of the sentiments he expressed, but his general philosophy just did not sit right with me. Then again, this is 21st-century Iris speaking, who was rolling her eyes at some of the dated (read: 19th-century, as in, the time during which Tolstoy wrote the book) ideas. I hardly think that is fair on my part. And yet.. it just felt so repetitive, and hardly necessary most of the time.

5) Is there anything you would have changed about the book?
The lectures. That is not to say that I do not appreciate what Tolstoy was trying to do. Or that I think he did not accomplish it. I just think that at times I would’ve liked the story to speak for itself more, with a little less of the explanatory philosophy chapters in between. I think that might have made his sentiments about war, about glorified masculinity that will lead to unmistakable disappointment, about the unfairness of politics that has old men deciding on the fates of masses of younger men more powerful, somehow? They are definitely there, and I think these might be the things I remember most strongly about War and Peace apart from the storylines of the three younger women, I just think I would have appreciated the book as a whole better if there had been less repetition of his central idea in philosophical language.

6) What did you like best about it?
The ideas articulated through stories (see above). Moreover, I enjoyed the family scenes much better than I would have expected. The lives and fates of the different main characters were intriguing and very well-shaped. I felt sympathy for many of the characters, and often felt deeply for their fates. More so than I would have expected 1/4th into the book.

7) What did you like least about it?
The second epilogue! The historical philosophy. And some of the sentiments on women that were occasionally expressed by some of the characters.

8) What advice would you give someone who is planning to read War & Peace in 2014?
Definitely give yourself the time to read the book. Dividing it up in sizeable chunks might work wonders. At the same time, I would not recommend reading 100 pages in one day, setting the book aside for a month, and then repeating the exercise. The book and its storyline are too intricate for that, and I will guarantee that you will have forgotten some of the names or developments. Personally, I seemed to get into the story only after a chapter or 3-4 each time I began reading again. Give yourself time to enjoy the reading. And if you do not enjoy it, perhaps stop reading altogether and try again at some other time in life, or just accept that this might not be the book for you. (although I feel that had I taken that advice, I might not be writing this post right now. And I am not even sure if I would’ve felt that I had missed out on the book as a whole.. But on some of the characters, some of the scenes? Yes, I would miss those).

9) Did you reward yourself when you finished?
No! I feel I ought to though. Is there any reward you would recommend?

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

Suite FrancaiseSuite Francaise - Irène Némirovsky
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Chatto & Windus 2006 (French: 2004)
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I started reading Suite Francaise right about the time when the end of reading War and Peace was in sight. Moreover, I started it right after finishing that month’s  section. Hopefully this will explain why I chose to write about this novel for the War and Peace Carnival, besides the obvious, of course — the fact that it is consistently called Némirovsky’s War and Peace-like epos on the cover and the appendices.

Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise consists of two parts. The first, called Storm in June, follows a number of families and persons as they flee Paris on the eve of the German invasion. The second, ‘Dolce’, depicts live in a small village while it is occupied by Germans. Meant to be a novel of more parts, Némirovsky never got to finish it before she was transferred to a concentration camp by the Nazis. In published form, these two parts are followed by appendices containing her notes about the war and her ideas about Suite Francaise as well as her correspondence from 1936 until her deportation.

There is a certain feel to the novel that struck me as justifying the idea that Némirovsky was aiming to write a War and Peace of her time. I felt there were similarities in how Tolstoy and Némirovsky chose to depict the chaos and yet the familiarity of everyday life during war. How human natures will remain what they are, even if they are undergoing drastic changes at the same time. How people will make choices, one or the other, without knowing the outcome, but mostly trying to maintain a sense of normality. And how some might struggle to hold on to class and all that, even if that should hardly matter any more. (Btw, it certainly seemed that Némirovsky had more sympathy for the working classes than the richer persons she depicts, or was that just me?)

The difference perhaps being that whereas Tolstoy included a lot of battle scenes from the point of view of the army/soldiers, most of the fighting that we see in Suite Francaise is through regular characters. (with one scene with a boy who wants to join the army as an exception, perhaps?) I wonder if this is why I felt more instantly attached to the story and its characters in Suite Francaise compared to War and Peace. Or perhaps it was the length of the –unfinished– novel? Or maybe even the fact that the historical setting is more familiar to me? I do not mean to detract from either novel, it is simply that Suite Francaise was somehow easier to read for me.

There is one thing that frankly surprised me while reading Suite Francaise: the constant feeling that it was written as if the war was already over, as if the author already knew what things were going to happen. There was such a, I guess I could call it knowingness?, about the war. A familiarity combined with reflection that had me wondering repeatedly if perhaps I hadn’t gotten my facts straight, if perhaps Némirovsky did live until the end of the war and revised the novel afterwards. But alas, that was not the case, or we might have had a complete novel instead of a story in two parts. Either way, I think it was that tone that was part of the magic in Suite Francaise for me.

There is a lot more to say about Suite Francaise, but I am afraid that it has been a while since I read it, and that while I knew I was going to write about it in December — close to that time when I would have finished War and Peace – I forgot to make notes of all the other things I wished to say. This will have to do, until, perhaps, I reread it someday?

War and Peace CarnivalI read Suite Francaise as part of my Classics Club list. This post is part of the War and Peace Carnival

Other opinions on Suite Francaise may be found here.

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The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets - Eva RiceThe Lost Art of Keeping Secrets – Eva Rice
Review, 2005
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Last weekend I was on a quest to find the best comfort book, due to being confined to the couch unable to do much besides sit wrapped up in a comfy blanket in the company of tea. I progressed fairly well through a number of books, but The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets — although I only started it at the very end of that weekend — definitely won the title.

Last year while I was visiting Ana in the UK, she pushed this book on me with the assurance that I would love it. Now, I have come to trust Ana’s recommendations blindly over the years – and she was definitely right.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is set in the 1950′s and begins with Penelope Wallace meeting her best friend Charlotte quite by accident when Charlotte insists she takes a cab with her and joins her at her aunt’s for tea. From there on out, the story follows Penelope in her developing friendship with Charlotte, her navigation of the complicated scheme set up by Charlotte’s cousin Harry, her helplessness as she watches her unhappy mother struggling to overcome her father’s death in the war leaving her with a crumbling and large ancestral home, and her relationship with her brother Inigo who only has ears for Elvis Presley.

There is something about Penelope’s story that is utterly charming. Perhaps it is to do with the fact that there is a love story, but it never becomes front and centre. Instead, this is a book about all sorts of relationships, with family and definitely friendship taking centre stage over any crush or love Penelope has or feels. Moreover, as Ana explains in her review, it is interesting that the manic pixie dream girl theme is explored through a different dynamic, namely in a setting of friendship between two girls instead of a romantic relationship between boy and girl. Furthermore there is the prose that is utterly captivating. Plus, there is the description of a love for music that is so utterly true in exploring both its evocation of devotion to persons and to music’s meaning. And last but not least, there is the fact that this compares so wonderfully to I Capture the Castle. I was constantly reminded of my love for that book, which I only read in recent years,while reading The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. At the same time, this reminder of another book never took away from the joy of loving this book on its very ow., for it is most definitely its own novel with its own story.

In conclusion: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a wonderful, wonderful book. It felt like coming home and it made me want to only read books like this from here on out. If only I could find them. I am now debating whether or not I should move on to The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp right away, or if I should keep it on my shelves a little longer to make sure I have the perfect comfort read waiting for me when I need it. Meanwhile, I have Amanda Applewood’s I Love Boys album on repeat, for as Ana told me, Amanda Applewood and Eva Rice are one and the same. Just imagine: being able to combine writing wonderful books and make lovely music

Other Opinions: Write Meg, Things Mean a Lot,  The Indextrious Reader, A Work in Progress, Stuck in a Book, Chachic’s Book Nook, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.