Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Kick-Ass Heroines

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week: top ten kick-ass heroines.  This is something I've been thinking about a lot since I saw the topic as I love strong female characters but I don't just define a kick-ass woman as someone who can kick arse.  It goes beyond that, which is why some of the characters here don't specialise in beating people up but in getting on with things and winning in their own way.  That's not to say that some of them don't do well in fights, but not all of them do.  For a somewhat better put version of these thoughts, see Jamie's post at The Perpetual Page-Turner on the subject.  I'm also looking forwards to seeing other lists because a strong female lead is one of my favourite things in books.

1. Hermione Granger (The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling) - I could include almost every single female character from this series as they all rock in their own way (not you, Umbridge, you go away) but Hermione is my heroine.  She's bookish and clever and she gets teased for being smart, but she never changes to make her life easier and without her the boys would be utterly lost.  I wish I'd been younger when I read the books just so I could have had Hermione as role model.

2. Susan Sto Helit (The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett) - again, just about every main female character from the series could be in this list, but Susan is my favourite (Granny and Angua run her close seconds).  Partly because she's in two of my favourite Discworlds (Hogfather and Thief of Time) but also because she is just awesome and awkward and chilly and fantastic.  And she's Death's granddaughter, you don't get much more kick-ass than that.

3. Nicola Marlow (The Marlows series by Antonia Forest) - Nicola is such a capable character she had to be sent on holiday in The Thuggery-Affair so that she wouldn't get in the way of the plot.  She captains the cricket team, has dire enemies, puts up with some sisters who are frankly infuriating (just hit Lawrie, honestly!), copes fairly well with Patrick preferring Ginty (gah!) and fights German agents.  There's a reason she's the main focus of most of the books.

4. Eowyn (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien) - she goes to war disguised as a man when she's told to stay home - though admittedly she was going to be left in charge of Rohan if Theoden and Eomer died - she takes Merry along with her even though he's been told he's too small for battle and she proves that the Witch King really didn't think things through. 

5. Alanna (The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce) - some of my staple reading as a teenager.  A girl who fights as well if not better than the boys, saves the kingdom, pulls some pretty awesome men (I never liked who she ended up with when I was 15 though that may change now I'm older) and is generally an icon of badass women in fantasy.  Can more really be said about how great Alanna is?

6. Sabriel (The Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix) - I could also put in Lirael who is also pretty damn awesome, but I love the story in Sabriel.  This was my first introduction to Garth Nix and how fantastic his writing and imagination is, and Sabriel - going off completely alone to find her father, fighting the dead and rescuing people as she goes - is fabulous.

7. Frankie Landau-Banks (The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart) - one of the most feminist books I've ever read, it lists and attacks all sorts of misogynist bullshit (damn you, the patriarchy! Thanks for teaching me that, Caitlin Moran) and does so with a great story.  In a fancy pants boarding school, which is one of my favourite settings for any type of story.  Need to reread this.

8. Magpie (The Dreamdark series by Laini Taylor) - not including Kaoru because (shame shame shame) I still haven't read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but I can't leave out a Laini heroine and Magpie rocks.  A fairy who fights devils, stands up to the creator and hangs out with a bunch of cigar smoking theatrical crows?  So cool.  If you haven't read the Dreamdark books but like Lips Touch and Daughter of Smoke and Bone I urge you to read them - they're beautiful and well-written and why aren't there more of them?  I want a full series!

9. Kate Lowry (The Liar Society series by Laura and Lisa Roecker) - I reread The Liar Society on Sunday ready for The Lies That Bind and decided that, yes, Kate definitely needs to be in this list.  Not just because she uses the word "misogynist" to describe the stuff going on at her school, but because she is a pink haired, bicycle riding, mystery solving badass who takes on the main 'villain' at the end with a sword. 

10. All the girls in Beauty Queens by Libba Bray - whether they're setting traps, punching guys, accepting their true selves or taking on a dictator whose real life counterpart I did not recognise at all (oh no) all of the girls in Beauty Queens are amazing.  This book is yet another feminist touchstone for me, and I need to stop telling my flatmate to read it and throw it at her instead (she can do work for her PhD later).

A few are missing who will probably be on a lot of lists but some - Katniss, Rose Hathaway - aren't there because I haven't finished their respective series, and some - Tris, Celaena - because I haven't even started their books yet.  Need to get on that.

And, finally, honourable mention to Buffy Summers, just because no list of kick-ass heroines from any genre, medium or sense would be complete without her.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
In the third Harry Potter book, all the awesome is brought.  Or, to be clearer, everything I love about the series crystalises in one book, including an "oh, J.K. Rowling you did not just do that" moment.  And, on top of all that, one of my favourite characters makes their first appearance.  As nearly perfect as the series gets.

Published: 1999
Pages: 317 (Bloomsbury, 1999)
Series: Harry Potter #3
First Read: Summer 1999
Times Read: At least 10
Part of: The Harry Potter Readalong

Synopsis: The notorious murderer Sirius Black has escaped from the wizard prison, Azkaban.  As a supporter of Voldemort, he is out for revenge on Harry Potter for defeating the Dark Lord.  Harry, however, is more worried about the Azkaban guards swarming around the school - until he learns that there is a greater connection between himself and Sirius Black than he knew...

Review: As with Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, I'm splitting this into two sections for those who haven't read the books and those who have.

For those who haven't read the book(s) before
This is my favourite Harry Potter book, and I think it will remain so even after I've finished this readalong.  To me, it encapsulates everything that makes the books fantastic: the magic, the mystery, the characters, the plot, the sense of a fully formed world, the humour and the depth of feeling.  Everything locks together and the clicks into place perfectly.  More than any other book in the series, it makes you aware of just how well J.K. Rowling plotted the individual novels.

I am tempted to say that if you read only one Harry Potter book it should be this one.  Not only because it is the perfect example of the series, but because there isn't a lot of back story and all of it is mentioned (it's missing from later books) so the basic catch up is easy.

And I really have to stop now because anything I say, however oblique, has the potential to ruin the plot.  Go forth and read!

For those who have read the book(s) before
Before I get truly, ridiculously fangirly, I'm just going to bring up the one thing that has always bugged me about this book.  I hate doing it, because I do love Azkaban, but I notice it every time I read the bok so here goes: there is an error with Lupin's lycanthropy (at least, I've always thought so).  He says that without the Wolfsbane Potion he would become "a fully fledged monster once a month" (258) but he only transforms when his by direct moonlight  it happens as they all return to Hogwarts (278) and he doesn't change on the way to the Whomping Willow because "[c]louds were obscuring the moon completely" (296).  So, why not just stay in a windowless room every full moon?  It may cut back on your social engagements but at least you wouldn't change. 

Sorry, that has just bugged me for ages.  On with my thoughts on the book...

SIRIUS!  Oh my God, Sirius!  And Lupin!  But I like Sirius more (sorry, Lupin)!  And timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly stuff!  And That Plot Twist!  Fangirl flail!

And an invocation of depression through the Dementors, who are terrifying.  I don't think the concept of anything else in Harry Potter is as scary (not even the Inferi).  They make you remember your worst moments and there's no relief from it; that to me is horrible to contemplate.  And Harry has to hear his parents dying over and over - this book, more so then Chamber, builds on what it means for Harry to have grown up without a family, and the thread runs right from his wanting his dad to have cast the Patronus to The Forest Again. 

I was going to say that, much as I love Azkaban, it seems more standalone than some of the others - despite Pettirgrew escaping - but there are themes that are constants of the series.  It's also the first time we see Snape's side of things, and get the first real hints that James Potter was a pillock.  I am on Snape's side in how he viewed the Marauders (though less so on how he chose to deal with his teen angst - maybe don't join a group of evil doers, Severus, at least not till you've given it a good long think).  And as much as I love Sirius there are hints in his entire portrayal that he wasn't as badass a teenager as he is an adult.

This is getting a little muddly, mostly because I can't think of how best to convey my love of this book.  You've all (hopefully) read it, you know how awesome it is.  I really think it is the best book in the series as well as my favourite - though Deathly Hallows runs it a very close second.  I think reading Azkaban is what cemented me as a full on Harry Potter fan; there was no going back after this.

Rating: 10/10

Monday, 22 October 2012

Series Catch-Up: 2012 Sign Up Post

The Series Catch-Up Challenge is being hosted by Brittany at The Book Addict's Guide.  The goal is to try and complete as many series as you can between 1st November and 31st December 2012, posting reviews for those books you read as you go. It's probably a good idea for me to do this challenge as I am so far behind on my series reading, and I have a really bad habit of starting series and then never finishing them as I outlined here

I'm not going to attempt to read all of the series on that list, because that is impossible in this time frame - though when I was planning this post earlier I was thinking "hey, I could read all the things!  No, what am I thinking, I could only do that if I didn't work or do other things.  Be reasonable and pick a few books, a few".  So that's what I'm doing, based partly on how many books I have left to read in the series and how high up my list it.

Over the course of the challenge I plan to finish the following series:
- Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead (2 to go)
- Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness (I'm going to have to reread the 1st one)
- Gemma Doyle by Libba Bray (again, some rereading is needed, this time of the first two - not that that's a hardship)

I did want to put more down but that is 8 books, some of which are quite long, so I'll just say: I also hope to read EITHER The Hunger Games OR The Demon's Lexicon OR Dream Catcher but if I don't I'm not going to consider that a fail.  Those are for if I manage to get through the 8 above in time.

And I'm not including my beloved Lymond in this because those books are long and complex and I want to savour them/spend a weekend lolling in bed drinking too much coffee and reading as much as I can.

So, there, that's my challenge.  Maybe I'll get something done with the many books in my room.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Readalong Part Two)

This review is part of The Casual Vacancy Readalong, which is being hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm and Brenna at Literary Musings.  This is the second of two posts, the first of which was the non-spoilery early reaction post of last week.  This post is the full review, so it will be more in-depth than last week.  I'm not going to post the entire plot or ending, but I will speak more about themes and events than last week (though in a generalised way for the latter).  (Also, I feel really bad for not replying to the comments on the first post - part of that is because I didn't want to spoil, but mostly because I still wasn't sure what I thought. Hopefully this answers some of the matters raised in comments last time, and I'll definitely reply to the ones for this post as now I can stop wondering how far people have got in the book).

Published: 2012
Pages: 503 (Little, Brown, 2012)
Read: 27/9/12 - 29/9/12

Synopsis: The idyllic village of Pagford is ripped apart by the local parish council election and the hostilities, hypocrises and prejudices it brings to light.  The election is seen as a means of finally enabling the council to reassign jurisdiction of the Fields, a council estate that borders the village, to the local town, thus removing the pollution of the estate from the village.   

Review: As I said in my first post for the readalong, I'm really not sure how I feel about this book (even now, two weeks later).  Thinking about it in a bare bones, structural way: the beginning is a little confusing, as there are a lot of characters introduced in a short space of time; the middle is really good as she explores everyone's characters, hypocrisies and prejudices, and applies that to society on the whole; and the ending slips into Dickensian melodrama with a death which is obvious pages before it happens.  Yes, sorry, that's a bit of a spoiler but there are deaths in this book (it's JKR, that's how she rolls) and one of them is very obviously an example of how people can get so caught up in their own problems and reliant upon their own prejudices that they fail to perform an act of basic goodness which could, ultimately, save a life.  Even as I was reading it thinking "oh, no, not even Jo would do that" I knew what was going to happen because it felt inevitable.

I think that that is my problem with the novel: that the ending feels tacked on yet inevitable.  That may not make much sense, but that's how it seemed to me.  There are so many amazing moments in the book, and so many pithy descriptions of how people are that made me think "yes, that is so true!  That is so well observed!" that the ending was a let down.  The book really excels when showing people - especially teenagers - as they really are that the ending came as a huge disappointment, because it didn't seem to gel with what the rest of the book was doing.  As Julie Myerson said on The Review Show last week, it's jarring to go from a comedy of manners to tragedy, and I think that was my major issue with the book.

As for the politics - and there has been a request for my political rant, though I'm still not going to give it as it descends into Father Jack-style swearing - I think the novel was spot on about how many people view the poorer people in society, especially those living in places like the Fields.  Those sections seemed genuine, and as if Rowling was writing from her own experience of living on benefits.  Given what George bloody Osborne has been suggesting this week - slashing benefits rather than taxing the rich; basically taking from those with little so that those with plenty are left feeling happy with the government (which is presumable the whole damn point, mustn't upset your mates)* - I think this was a very well-timed novel.  Although it was started under the Labour government, it is particularly applicable to the coalition, and it scares me that Rowling was originally writing in reference to what the Tories were doing in the early 90s rather than what they're doing now.  I'm not sure how many people's minds will be changed - I've seen some reviewers on the right panning the book (though the main one I saw is someone whose opinion I wouldn't trust on whether milk had gone off) - but I still think it's important that it was written, and that J.K. Rowling is saying these things.

(Hmm, that last paragraph may contain a cleaned up version of my political rant).

To sum up - if I ever will, I could go round and round on this book - I would definitely recommend reading this book, not just because it's "what J.K. Rowling did next" but because it says some important things about the state of Britain today.  Of course, I may just think that because I agree with a lot of her opinions, but I do think it's important that this book was written.  Though that may be why I didn't enjoy it as much I could have done: it felt too much like an issues book, with an ending that served to make a point rather than tell a story, for me to enjoy it as a piece of writing.  As a damning critique of modern society it is excellent; as a novel it is flawed. 

Rating: 7/10

* I also like that he isn't going to go through with a "mansion tax" - essentially taxing homes worth over £2 million more - because too many people would be affected.  I don't know how many people George knows whose homes are worth over £2 million, but I don't know any.  It must be nice to live in a world where everyone has plenty of money and nice big houses.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Childhood Favourites

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week is a rewind topic and I've chosen the very first one on the list: childhood favourites

Most of these are books I remember really loving, but the actual details of them are hazy.  I can remember specific scenes and most of the plot, but that's as far as it goes.  Also, there is quite a bit of Enid Blyton, because she was one of my mainstays as a child - there is also isn't any Harry Potter, because I was in my mid-teens when I started reading those.  And I was about to say that these are books I haven't read since, but I do have the Adventure series as one of my comfort reads (they are amongst Blyton's best work, guys).

1. Matilda by Roald Dahl - my first major book love. Our teacher read it to us when we were in Year One (five-going-on-six) and then I sought it out and read it all by myself.  Matilda was my heroine, because she was bookish and she wreaked vengeance on those who wronged her.  I know I'm not the only clever bookworm who loved this.

2. The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy - before there was Harry Potter, there was Mildred Hubble and her tabby cat, crashed broomstick and potions mishaps.  There was Miss Hardbroom stalking around invisibly, materialising when someone insulted her.  There was Ethel turned into a pig (ha!).  And there was Mildred saving the day.

3. Mossflower by Brian Jacques - I adored this series, but Mossflower was my favourite.  I read my copy constantly until it became soft and battered.  I recently tracked down a copy second hand and reread it.  It is a lot more brutal than I remembered - though as I recall I quite liked the violence - but just as good.  Will definitely be rereading the series.

4. Goodnight Mister Tom  by Michelle Magorian - the first book to introduce me to how much novels can hurt you.  I'd read Little Women before this, but Beth's fate was as nothing to the death in this book.  It utterly poleaxed me.  Books were not meant to do that, and they certainly weren't meant to do that to my favourite character.  Nor were they meant to feature bad parents or corrupt systems or proof that the world isn't safe for children.  This is the book that made me realise books weren't always safe and happy and Blyton-esque.

5. The Girls' Gang by Rose Impey - another one that I read repeatedly but now have little recollection of.  Basically, a group of girls get together and seek vengeance on the boys who tease them, because girls are better than boys.  Feminism before I was ten.  (Though what it would be like on a reread I'm not sure).

6. The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler - if Goodnight Mister Tom was my introduction to the fictional death that hurts, Tyke Tyler introduced me to the really good plot twist.  The sort that you don't see coming and which makes you review everything you've just read.  It was fantastic to read that, and the rest of the book is great as well.

7. My Best Fiend by Sheila Lavelle - why oh why was she still friends with the fiend?  And why did people enable the fiend so much?  Looking back, this is what I remember thinking (tho I didn't use words like 'enable' back then).  The one thing I do remember is the last chapter/short story involving the butterfly project and the fiend finally getting her comeuppance.  Ha!

8. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis - the only Narnia I read for ages and ages, because it was the most fun (I now prefer Prince Caspian because underground resistance movement for the win).  And because I'd watched the BBC adaptation with the lion I was sure was real and just dubbed, and the effects that were much better to my child-eyes. 

9. The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton - the best book in her best series.  Screw the Famous bloody Five and their smug middle-class pompous ways, I'd much rather have the kids in these books who are just middle-class (their mother works herself too hard so they can go to boarding school!  Cut back the hours and send them to the local day school, love).  This book is the most fun of the series, though one of the least preposterous (that's prob The Circus of Adventure because hello circuses and ruritanian royal coups - no, wait, The Mountain because of a madman making wings and trying to throw a teenage boy out of a helicopter).  Seriously, I am just going to have to reread and review this series.

10. The Magical Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton - my grandmother got me all three books in one when I was ten and I read it so much the hardcover binding parted ways with the spine.  I loved these books, especially the bit where they have to get the tree back from the (?)pixies(?) - someone mean who invades, anyway - and climb up the tree inside for a surprise attack.

Looking at all of these, the main features of my childhood reading appear to be: magic, rebellions, battles, and girls who kick ass.  I quite like that combination.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy Readalong: Part One (no spoilers)

The Casual Vacancy Readalong is being hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm and Brenna at Literary Musings.  It's been divided into two parts: this first one is non-spoiler-y general impressions, and the second (next Thursday) will be the full in depth review.

I have finished the book.  I sat up till 3.30 Saturday night/Sunday morning to do so, mostly because I wasn't tired and I only had 100 pages to go so I really thought I ought to finish.  I then sat for a while trying to decide how I felt about the book, sent some sleep-deprived tweets on the subject, and went to sleep. 

I am still trying to decide exactly what I think about the book. 

To be honest, I'm disappointed by it.  Without spoiling, I feel like it started strongly, had a decent middle and then failed at the end.  I think the ending was what J.K. Rowling was writing towards rather than where the story should have gone, if that makes sense; like it was planned so therefore it had to happen.  I don't know, it felt forced.  I'll be able to talk about this in more detail next week when I can say how it ended (to an extent, I'm not going to flat out tell everything) and I'm actually worried that even my disappointment is a spoiler, but the more I think about it the more I dislike how it ended.

Time for some bullet points, I think (this combination of trying not to give anything away and still being unsure how I feel is tricky).

1) A lot of Harry Potter fans have been running around saying this ruins HP for them and it's destroyed their childhood and what?  I treat this as completely separate to Harry Potter.  This is what J.K. Rowling chose to write next, not how Harry's world/life now is. 

2) Having said that, I did spend way too much time going "oh my God, J.K. Rowling used a swear word!" or "oh my God, J.K. Rowling mentioned sex!" like she's not an intelligent, grown woman who's also a bit of a badass.  I found it very difficult, especially for the first 30 or so pages, to separate the book from who wrote it.  Usually I can do that just fine, even for writers I love, so that made this a weird experience.

3) This inability to completely separate who wrote it from the book itself has been what's tripped me up a lot, I think.  I didn't go in expecting to love it like I love Harry Potter, but I did want to like it more.  I almost felt like giving the book extra points for being written by JKR, as if that could somehow mitigate the problems I have with it.  If anything, I wish it was better because I know how good she is.

(This is turning into a circular argument, welcome to my head on this subject).

I was going to write something about the politics of the novel, but both times I tried it turned into a rant about the coalition government which got a bit juvenile.  Suffice to say, this is a very political novel, and it said a lot about what's happening in Britain today.  However, I'm not sure how much it will actually change things, as those who agree with her don't need to be convinced and those who disagree won't be won round.  I do think it was an important novel to write, though, if only because one of the most famous women in the world talking about these things and stating her position is always going to get some attention.

So, in short (and this post is a mess, I know) I'm disappointed by this novel but I'm glad I read it, if only to say that I have.  This is no way changes how I feel about Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling, and anything she publishes I'll buy and read.  I just wish I'd liked this book more.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Month in Review: September 2012

I feel like I got back into the swing of blogging and reading this month.  It's certainly been my most productive stretch of blogging for a while.  And if September had a constant it was J.K. Rowling: I started the Harry Potter Readalong, reread the first three Harry Potter books, read The Casual Vacancy and went on the studio tour.

One of the many photos I took - more on my Twitter profile.

Books Read in September 2012
52. Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood
53. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
54. Montmorency by Eleanor Updale
55. Montmorency on the Rocks by Eleanor Updale
56. All the Conspirators by Christopher Isherwood
57. Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
58. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
59. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Total Books Read = 8
Total Pages Read = 3,074
Average Book Length = 384

Owned Books = 6
Library Books = 2

Books Reviewed
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Most popular blog post
Top Ten Books on my Autumn TBR List

Book of the Month
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
Non-fiction/Collection of columns

I love this book for it's irreverence, it's humour and the fact that I agree with the views expressed (it's always nice to read people whose politics are like yours).  Covers everything from party bags for children to binge drinking to Downton Abbey and Doctor Who.  And I laughed my arse off several times, especially at "Downton needs Elton Drake!".  I recommend this and How To Be A Woman to everyone.  Go forth and read Caitlin Moran!  Then follow her on Twitter (especially when she's watching Nigella as that is fun).

Month Ahead
1) Try and clear my library books.  I have 19 to read from 2 libraries which is a bit ridiculous.  And I really need to read these and not borrow any new books before I start any of the unread books I own.
2) The Casual Vacancy Readalong - two posts, one on the 4th and one on the 11th.  The first is just general impressions, and the second will be the full review.  I'm still not sure what I think about the book, but I did find it disappointing.
3) Keep rereading Harry Potter for the readalong.  I will be waiting till I've done The Casual Vacancy Readalong before I post more reviews, but this gives me time to read the remaining 4, especially the brick that is Order of the Phoenix.

Three TBR Books To Read in October
1. Carnival of Souls by Melissa Marr
2. Deadly Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock
3. For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
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