Neil Gaiman (ed.) – Unnatural Creatures

Turns out my reading slump is still going on in the back of my brain. I think Cat Valente is at least partially to blame because, let’s face it, after reading her work, everything else is a little bland im comparison. But short stories came to save me! I picked this up on a whim – and because Neil selected these stories – and from the first page of the first story I was all in. Thanks, Neil. It’s good to know your readers can rely on you even when we don’t read your own work.

unnatural creaturesUNNATURAL CREATURES
(eds.) Neil Gaiman, Maria Dahvana Headley

Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ISBN: 0062236296
ebook: 480 pages

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: (from the introduction) When I was a boy, the best place in the world was in London, a short walk from South Kensington Station.

Unnatural Creatures is a collection of short stories about the fantastical things that exist only in our minds—collected and introduced by beloved New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman.
The sixteen stories gathered by Gaiman, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, range from the whimsical to the terrifying. The magical creatures range from werewolves to sunbirds to beings never before classified. E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Gahan Wilson, and other literary luminaries contribute to the anthology.
Sales of Unnatural Creatures benefit 826DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students in their creative and expository writing, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.


unnatural introductionThis was an unexptected and incredibly pleasant surprise. I am not a big short story reader, even less a reader of collections, because even if I love one or two stories, I inevitable dislike others. That was the case here as well, but the good stories easily outweighed the bad ones, and almost every single unnatural creature was a joy to discovery. Different as they are in tone, style, and theme, these are all brilliant stories by fantastic writers that will – one day – make a great storybook for my own children.

I wasn’t surprised to love the stories by Nalo Hopkinson and Diana Wynne Jones the most, as these are two writers who have already stolen my heart with their novels. But Samuel Delany’s adventure short story took me by surprise, as did Grahan Wilsons “Inksplot”. At the very end, the list of contributors and the date of publication for each short story, offered another surprise. I had no idea (and wouldn’t have guessed from the stories themselves) that some of them were first published over 100 years ago. That just goes to show how timeless stories are and how undying our love for the fantastic.


Grahan Wilson – --.--

I am not kidding, this is the actual title of the first story, and it set the perfect tone and mood for this collection. One of my biggest worries was that the titular Unnatural Creatures would be dealt with only in a Very Serious fashion, but this little story took turns in making me chuckle and horrified. An aristocrat and his butler are trying to deal with a mysterious black spot that appears on the table cloth but that won’t stay there. In fact, whenever you look away or so much as blink (Doctor Who, anyone?), the spot appears in a different place. And every time it moves, it grows.
What started out as a hilarious story of a gentleman trying to keep his house in order turns into a creepy hunt for a larger and larger black spot. I loved this story so much that I was a bit baffled by the abrupt and rather cliffhanger-y ending. If this were the beginning of a novel or novella, I would buy it in a heartbeat.The way it is, I’m a bit sorry that I don’t know how it all ends… Rating: 8,5/10


E. Lily Yu – The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees

What a strange little story. In it, people find out that when you boil wasps’ nests, the paper shows brilliantly accurate maps of the surrounding country, and so humans go and take down all the nests they can find. But one colony of wasps escapes and settles in the bees’ territory. They enslave the bees, setting up a whole new society which includes brainwashing bees when they are still larvae, making them work for the wasps, and teaching their doctrine to their own young.
As bizarre as the story was, I really enjoyed it. It felt like a surreal, animal dystopia, and made me deeply uncomfortable for the bees. Another thing it made me want to do is read more by E. Lily Yu. Her style really got to me and while I wouldn’t say this was my favorite story in this collection, it did follow me into my dreams. Rating: 8/10


Frank R. Stockton – The Griffin and the Minor Canon

Here’s a story about a misunderstood griffin who has to deal with an entire town’s prejudice. Wanting nothing more than to see his own likeness, he flies into a small village whose church has a statue of a griffin that he wants to admire, lacking a mirror or quiet body of water. People flee in fear, even though the griffin hasn’t done anyone any harm. They send out the Minor Canon, to talk to the griffin and make sure he goes away again. But the Minor Canon and the griffin become friends of a sort, which brings down the people’s scorn on both of them.
This was a bittersweet story that took a few pages to get into, a story that I finished with one smiling and one crying eye. It shows how fear and lack of understanding (or lack of wishing to understand creatures that are different from oneself) can lead to prejudice and cruelty. Rating: 7/10


Nnedi Okorafor – Ozioma the Wicked

This very simple tale tells the story of Ozioma, a girl who can talk to snakes and is shunned as a witch and an abomination. With hardly any friends, she contents herself in small tasks. Until a gigantic snake falls from the sky and terrfies her village. That’s when the people suddenly turn to her for help. Ozioma’s bravery and good heart make her face this snake-from-heaven and try to save her people – the same people who have mistreated her all her life.
What a beautiful story about being an outsider and yet caring about the ones who wouldn’t have you as their friend! The language wasn’t very complex, the plot straightforward, and the theme a simple one. But Okorafor is a powerful storyteller and made me care about her protagonist without being flowery or overly poetic. Rating: 7/10


Neil Gaiman – Sunbird

I almost dare not say it but this was my least favorite story. Not only was it tedious to plough through, the twist at the end was obvious from a very early point and the four main characters kind of mushed together in a way that made it impossible for me to tell them apart – with the exception of Zebediah, who is, to say the least, strange from the very beginning. The Epicurean Society is always on the lookout for new and interesting things to eat. They’ve had everything from turkey, to beef, to unicorn and several types of beetle. It seems only the Sunbird has not been tasted yet, and so they set out for Egypt and prepare to catch and eat that mythical bird that comes from the sun.
I love Neil Gaiman, I really do, but this story was a mess. The pacing was off, the dialogue was boring, and the characters didn’t stand out at all. For a short story, it actually took me a long time to get through it and I thought of skipping it several times. Rating: 3,5/10


Diana Wynne Jones – The Sage of Theare

There is a reason why everybody loves Diana Wynne Jones. This is not only one of the best structured, plotted and paced story in the collection, it also deals with the subjects of free will, free thinking, breaking the rules, and, most importantly, asking questions. The very orderly, very much rule-abiding gods of Theare are afraid of a prophecy that warns of their Dissolution. They try to escape their fate – which of course backfires. We follow the young boy Thasper, who – above all things – asks questions. He questions everything, why the sun is bright, why his father (the god Imperion) is so shiny, why there are rules in the first place. I adored every single page and it goes to show DWJ’s talent that she brought her characters to life on so few pages, made me care about them and made me think for myself as well. All children’s literature should be this way – fun and light, but opening the mind to deeper thoughts and more complex subjects. Oh yes, and there’s a bonus point for the invisible dragon. Fantastically done! (I also went ahead and got the first book in her Chrestomanci series after this.) Rating: 9/10


Saki – Gabriel-Ernest

I was wondering how long it would take for werewolves to appear. The chapter illustration gave it away before the story even started. When Van Cheele takes a walk through the woods on his property, he encounters a naked young man, sunning himself on a rock. This unsettling person refuses to leave the property and explains how he survives in the woods – by hunting. Deer, hare, but preferably human child-flesh. Despite the knowlege of having a werewolf at my hands, the story still sent chills down my spine. This clever, and very short, story managed to build up suspense, keep me on the edge of my seat, and then come to a not-so-nice conclusion. I enjoyed it immensely and I am still surprised that, with only a few lines of dialogue, Saki managed to make this werewolf-boy seem utterly strange and dangerous. Rating: 7/10


E. Nesbit – The Cockatoucan; or, Great-Aunt Willoughby

Ah, now this was a delight to read. The young girl Matilda dreads to go visit her aunt Willoughby as much as she hates being put into tight frocks that scratch her arms and have too many buttons. By a fortunate turn of events, her nursemaid takes the wrong bus and the two arrive at a truly magical place. Here, everything is dictated by the whims of a cockatoucan – whenever the bird laughs, everything changes: men into boys, palaces into butcher’s shops, Thursdays into Sundays, and so on. It is up entirely to Matilda’s wits to bring peace to the kingdom.
I have a thing for whimsy and for stories about clever girls – both of which were represented here and, what’s more, excellently done. Every page solicited a grin or chuckle, Matilda was a delightful heroine with clever ideas and a good heart. This light-hearted romp was just a wagonload of fun. Rating: 8,5/10


Maria Dahvana Headley – Moveable Beast

This story feels like the first modern one, although Okorafor’s Oziama had an iPod (which limits the time frame for the story to pretty modern times), because the language reads like a real modern 16-year-old girl is telling the story of her home, Bastardtown. In this 500-soul-village, things aren’t like in other towns. Angela works at an ice cream shoppe (!) and is deeply annoyed by a Beast Collector who has come to hunt the Beast that lives in their mini-forest. As to the nature of that beast, we don’t find out until the end but it is amusing and satisfying at the same time. The story may be short in comparison, but it had personality and atmosphere and made me want to pick up Headleys novel Queen of Kings which I have lying around here somewhere. Rating: 6,5/10


Larry Niven – The Flight of the Horse

Over 1000 years into the future, one man is sent back in time to acquire a horse – by now extinct and only recognisable through its similarity to a drawing in a children’s book. When he arrives somewhere close to the year 1200, he does find what looks like a horse, with some slight but surely negligible differences. But getting this creature to cooperate and follow him into the future is harder than expected. And then there’s the thing about the horn…
I feel like a broken record by now but I also liked this story. Coming from a more science fiction-y angle, it was nice to see the unnatural creature through the eyes of a man who knows nothing about animals (at least not horses) or, apparently, mythology. The ending gave me a last-minute occasion to chuckle and rounded up the story very well. Compared to the other stories represented here, it wasn’t as memorable or original but definitely worth the quick read. Rating: 6,5/10


Samuel R. Delany – Prismatica

Oh, I do love adventure stories. This one is actually structured in chapters and reminded me very much of a fairytale with its repetitive description and the number three playing a major part. Amos, a young and clever man, meets the greyest person he’s ever seen and takes on the task of retrieving three parts of a broken mirror for the grey gentleman. What starts out as a creepy but fairly straight forward ship journey turns into a fun adventure with cursed princesses, trapped princes, vain North Winds, and lots and lots of colors. I loved that the story was a bit longer and how it showed off Amos’ cleverness. I’ve only ever read Babel-17 by Delany but, after this sample of a very different kind of work, I will be sure to read more.  Because this was excellent! Rating: 8/10

divider1Megan Kurashige – The Manticore, The Mermaid, and Me

Now this was a bit of a mess. Beginning with the protagonist’s age, there were a lot of unclarities that diminished my reading pleasure. What I thought were two grown-ups turned out to be teenagers of an unknown age (I think). It all starts with their visit to the Natural History Museum to see the raccoon with wings some rogue taxidermist had made. But then it is a platypus that is promptly kidnapped and taken home, only to turn into a mermaid in the bathtub. Question marks were popping up over my head like crazy at this point. On their second visit, there is an incident with a manticore which leaves real scars and frightens the shit out of people – but all of these events are so random and make so little sense that I didn’t really know what I was reading. It left me with the feeling of a confused, chaotic thing that I couldn’t call a story if I wanted to. Rating: 4/10

divider1Anthony Boucher – The Compleat Werewolf

This somewhat silly, at times funny, story is about a university professor who finds out he is a werewolf – not the kind that has to transform at every full moon, but the kind that can change at will – rather, whenever a certain word is said. He has the apt name of Wolfe Wolf and drowns his worries about the beautiful Gloria in alcohol. The plan is: Get Gloria to accept his wedding proposal, but things don’t go exactly as he wants them to. Wolf’s mishaps are mostly funny, sometimes a bit bland, but offer a culminating end that was utterly satisfying. Plus, he makes a cat friend while he is a wolf, which lifted the whole story up a notch. I have a thing for speaking cats. Not great, a bit long for my taste, it was enjoyable nonetheless. Rating: 6/10

divider1Nalo Hopkinson – The Smile on the Face

Gilla, a girl living in the here and now, has to read for school but would much rather prepare for the party tonight. Taming her hair, comparing herself to her beautiful best friend, and generally worrying about high school things and growing up as a girl, offer a lot of interesting conflict right from the start. Hopkinson adds a mythology element to do with the cherry tree in Gilla’s yard. Because that tree seems to talk to her. When it drops a perfect cherry into her cloud of hair and Gilla accidentally swallows the pip, things really start to kick off…
The story’s biggest strength is definitely Gilla’s character. Oh, how well I understand this teenager questioning herself and every move she makes. Wondering whether she’s pretty enough, or slim enough, whether she should eat in front of people who already call her fat, why other rounder girls seemed to look beautiful so effortlessly. Any girl who has grown up not being perfect (so… everyone) will understand the torment and self-doubt going on in Gilla’s brain. Maybe the story spoke to me that intensely because I knew exactly what it feels like to be a bit too chubby, to be friends with a gorgeous girl, to get attention only in the form of insults or – worse – to be ignored completely.
The story gets better and better until, by the end, I deeply cared about Gilla and wanted her to gain some confidence as much as the Unnatural Creature represented here. The Smile on the Face may not be an intriguing title, but the story was easily one of my favorites in this collection. Rating: 9/10

divider1Avram Davidson – Or All the Seas With Oysters

I’m not sure how I feel about this story. Its strength is definitely the characters, rather than its particular – if very original – unnatural creature. It’s the story of two bicycle shop owners, one always on the lookout for lady customers he can seduce, the other introvert and bookish. Their relationship was simply charming to read about and their search for paperclips (there never are any paperclips when you need them!) understandably frustrating. I liked it for the protagonists but found the idea of a, if not sentient, sort-of-alive bicycle rather silly. Rating: 6,5/10

divider1Peter S. Beagle – Come Lady Death

The Last Unicorn was one of my first favorite fantasy stories and I can still watch the movie with enjoyment and wonder. So expectations for Beagle’s story were high. Lady Neville wants to throw the best ball there is, being bored with life in general and the endless repetitive balls in particular, and promptly decides to invite Death. The way she goes about handing the invitation to Death himself (herself, as it turns out) was shocking and a little heartbreaking. The ball itself though was a little boring to read, even when Lady Death arrives, and only the very fitting and satisfying ending made up for it. Maybe I am too biased because of my love for Beagle’s Unicorn but the language here underwhelmed me a bit. Rating: 6/10

All things considered, this was an excellent story collection and if Neil Gaiman should ever decide to compile another one, I’ll be the first to buy it. Reading one or two stories before bed was a wonderful experience and I jotted down so many authors’ names whose work I want to read (or read more). Highly recommended to people who like mythological creatures, a diverse range of short stories, and those who want to visit the Museum of Unnatural History with Neil Gaiman.

Review: Robin Hobb – The Golden Fool

I have been following Fitz and the Fool for many years now and Robin Hobb has become one of my favorite writers ever. It is few others who managed to evoke an emotional response of that magnitude by creating amazing characters and putting them through hell. Robin Hobb does it best. And while I always need breaks after finishing one of her trilogies, I feel drawn back into the world of the Six Duchies and that royal bastard I have grown to love so much.

by Robin Hobb

Published by: Voyager, 2002
ISBN: 0006486029
Pages: 712
Copy: paperback
Series: The Tawny Man #2

My rating: 7/10


I actually didn’t post the first sentence because it contains a huge spoiler for the entire series.

Fitz has succeeded in rescuing Prince Dutiful from the clutches of the Piebald rebels, and has returned with him to Buckkeep castle. With Dutiful safe again, Queen Kettricken can proceed with plans to marry him to the Outislander princess, Elliania. However, with tensions building among the peoples of the Six Duchies over Kettricken’s tolerance of the Wittted, even Buckkeep is no longer safe. A reluctant Fitz is assigned to protect the young prince, and also train him in the Skill, and in doing so he finally makes contact not only with his estranged daughter, Nettle, but with someone in Buckkeep who may possess a greater Skill talent even than Fitz. And who may represent a terrible threat to the Farseers. Meanwhile, Elliania arrives and, before she will accept Prince Dutiful’s betrothal, challenges him to undertake an impossible quest. He must kill a legendary Outislander dragon.

Art by John HoweRobin Hobb’s books start out slowly. In light of the events of Fool’s Errand, I knew this was going to be no exception. Fitz has a great deal of drama to get over and it wasn’t until a third into the book that I felt the plot actually dragged. I saw the threads the author was holding in her hands and there is a lot of setting up later events in this middle volume. However, with the first two trilogies in the Six Duchies universe, I always liked the middle volume best. Not so here.

As plot goes, I’d say that more than half of this book could easily have been cut without the readers missing any essential information. But that is another thing about Robin Hobb – she writes carefully and she explores her character’s emotions and actions to the core. If you don’t enjoy things like that, then this is not a book for you. But if you don’t mind slow passages – sometimes very long slow passages – that favor character development over action, and if you enjoy beautifully wordy prose, Robin Hobb is your girl!

No other author – except maybe Cat Valenet – teaches me so many new words and the use of words (to me, English is a foreign language of course, so most of you may not be as impressed with her writing) as Robin Hobb. When I read her books, I feel like this is a woman who not only goes into the deepest depths of her characters’ lives but who also has a very, very firm grasp on the English language. It is a pleasure to read and another reason I don’t mind long-winded descriptions of inner turmoil and contemplation.

Despite all of that good stuff, this book simply lacked an ending. Now that I’m finished, I feel like it exists solely to set up the events that are going to happen in the final instalment. Sure, Hobb makes us extremely curious (and worry about certain characters) but does that justify an entire book? Political intrigue, injuries, family drama, and true friendship feature in The Golden Fool but the usual culmination of all those events at the end of the novel was simply missing here.

There’s little I can say without spoiling things for you so I’ll stop it here. It is a Robin Hobb novel so I recommend it despite its flaws. What it did manage extremely well is making me want to read the next book – and finish the story of the Fitz and the Fool.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language showing strong, independent characters and their incredible development.
THE BAD: Drags a lot during the beginning and doesn’t really have a well-rounded ending.
THE VERDICT: Any Robin Hobb book is worth reading. If you’ve come this far in the trilogy of trilogies, then you’ll like it.

RATING: 7/10  Very good

The Six Duchies Series:

  • The Farseer

    1. Assassin’s Apprentice
    2. Royal Assassin
    3. Assassin’s Quest



  • The Liveship Traders

    1. Ship of Magic
    2. The Mad Ship
    3. Ship of Destiny



  • The Tawny Man
    1. Fool’s Errand
    2. The Golden Fool
    3. Fool’s Fate


Tad Williams – Tailchaser’s Song

My favorite Tad Williams story is still the Otherland quartet. Of the three (in paperback: four) volumes in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, I’ve read the first two and left it at that. When he wrote the latter, Tad Williams was clearly still in his Tolkien phase. While this is a “cat book” you can still (or already) see the heavy influences of that most famous of fellowships’ journey.

by Tad Williams

Published: Orbit, 1999 (1985)
Pages: 290
Copy: paperback

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The hour of Unfolding Dark had begun, and the rooftop where Tailchaser lay was smothered in shadow.

Fifteen years ago, a young author surprised and enchanted readers with his first novel-the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a courageous tom cat in a world of whiskery heroes and villains, of feline gods and strange, furless creatures called M’an. The book was Tailchaser’s Song, the author was Tad Williams. The legend was born. Meet Fritti Tailchaser, a ginger tom of rare courage and curiosity, a born survivor in a world of heroes and villains… And join him on a fantastic quest – all the way to cat hell and beyond.

Fritti Tailchaser, an orange cat with a white star-shaped patch on his forehead, is easy to love. As cats do, he likes to sleep, prowl and hunt, and play with his childhood friend Hushpad. When Hushpad disappears mysteriously and rumors are spread about a strange danger taking cats from their homes, Tailchaser sets out to find his friend. Accompanied by the kitten Pouncequick – who is adorable as all kittens are – and some unlikely friends he picks up on the way, Tailchaser shall take on his quest and find the truth about what’s haunting the cats’ realm.

We are introduced to the characters slowly and carefully. (c) Animetroplolis ( finest Tolkien fashion, Tad Williams shows us a world that we can imagine as real from the point of view of the cats that inhabit it. The first half of this novel is very much traveling and world-building, a lot of setting up plot strings and introducing new characters. It felt like reading the Hobbit with cats (and without Gandalf). However, once you hit the middle portion of the book, Williams’ original ideas shine through and in a certain, very scary passage, he won me over again.

Unfortunately, the ending was too deus ex machina for my taste and came rather abruptly. While I enjoyed the darker middle passage (literally dark, they are underground a lot of the time), once the big evil is thwarted (come on, that’s not a spoiler) things go straight back to being your avarage Tolkien rip-off. What’s more, there is quite a large chunk of story still to get through after the big “mystery” is resolved – and to any experienced fantasy reader this mystery is really clear from the beginning.

This is a well-written book, just nothing I haven’t read a hundred times before. I suppose I should be more lenient because it was published in the eighties and fantasy hadn’t developed then as much as it has now, what with gritty and dark being the norm and authors trying to steer away from the pseudo-medieval European setting. But I am not reading this book in the eighties, I am reading it now and it is very dated in its style and plot. I did care about the characters, especially Pounce, but I would have preferred more character development and interaction instead of Tolkienesque descriptions of the forests and rivers. Looking back at the plot, I can’t honestly say that this was a story worth telling. I believe Tad Williams simply had to get over this phase and happened to write a good, publishable book in the process. Just not a great one.

(c) Animetropolis ( Memory, Sorrow & Thorn are Tad Williams’ hommage to The Lord of the Rings, then Tailchaser’s Song is his Hobbit. Our cat heroes spend a lot of the book traveling, meeting other cat characters who sing songs or tell stories and old legends. There is mythology shimmering under the surface of every page and the reader can tell that Tad Williams put a lot of effort into making the cat universe believable and consistent with the world as we see it. But I would not recommend this to everyone. Young people who have just discovered books or fantasy or Tolkien will probably love this animal twist on a well-known tale. Those of us who have read too much within the genre to be satisified with a knock-off, don’t waste your time on a merely okay book.

THE GOOD: Well-written, lovely characters and some interesting cat lore.
THE BAD: Deus ex machina ending, basically the Hobbit with cats (and no dragon, sorry).
THE VERDICT: Read it if you can’t get enough of Tolkien’s style. If you’re into more recent fantasy novels, give this one a pass. It’s not a bad novel at all, just not really worth your time compared to the great things the genre has to offer nowadays.

RATING: 6/10  Quite okay.

All of the above said, I am very excited about the upcoming animated movie. The concept art is gorgeous and I think Tad Williams deserves finally having one of his stories adapted for the screen. Another version of a story is also always an opportunity to do it better. In this case, I hope for more bonding between our cat characters and maybe some completely new ideas just for the movie.

J. K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone write a review of the Harry Potter books now? Well, I like reading by list (as you can tell from my reading lists button above) and my goal is to read and review all of those books. I am part of that special generation that grew up with Harry Potter. He has been with me from the age of 12 until now. Since my boyfriend is currently reading the first book, I felt the urge to write a proper review about it.

by J. K. Rowling

Published: Bloomsbury, 1997
Pages: 332
Copy: Hardback, ebook
Series: Harry Potter #1

My rating: 8/10

First sentence:Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by an owl, taken to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!

Who doesn’t know the little wizard boy with the glasses and the scar shaped like a lightning bolt? When I was 12 years old, I remember seeing the first three Harry Potter books constantly taking up the top three spots in our students’ newspaper’s best books list. I had never heard about it before but the name caught my eye so I asked my mother to get me the first book. By the time my grandmother got me books 2 and 3, I had reread Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone about four times.

I instantly sympathised with the boy who has to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs, whose aunt and uncle brought meanness to a whole new level. Oh, how I wished that something magical would happen to me as well, that an owl or a dragon would fly by my window and reveal that I am the princess of some unknown fantasy land. I would even have taken a fairy godmother. Needless to say, reality stayed well in place so all I had were books to flee into.

What makes this first novel in the series so great is how approachable it is for readers of all ages. Children will get an amazing adventure, all sorts of magic and the chance to dive into a wonderful world where books can bite you and where there is a sport played on flying broomsticks. If you have a shred of imagination, you can’t help but fall for Harry Potter’s charm. This is a story of friendship and of good versus bad. Everybody who has been to school will understand how awful it is to have a teacher hate you for no apparent reason, how rivalry with other students can get out of hand, and how important your best friends are.

Harry Potter taught me English. I don’t think that without these books I would have been as eager to pick up a foreign language. I have, by now, read it in German, English, French, Spanish and Swedish and if I ever decide to learn another language (very doubtful), I will probably start by reading Harry Potter again. The story doesn’t get old. It offers humor and thrilling action, the most lovable characters around and all sorts of other things I long for in a book.

All praise aside, on rereading it last Christmas, I did notice that it is much simpler in style than the later books in the series. That doesn’t take away the pleasure but compared to what’s to come, it is a rather straight-forward, simple plot of boy saves world. But we all know, it gets much darker soon…

In short, Harry is my personal escapist heaven. I don’t believe I’ll ever tire of this series and I don’t think any other books have been this dear to my heart for so long.

THE GOOD: An explosion of the imagination, a quick read, memorable characters and a series that has moved the world.
THE BAD: Comparatively, the language is simple and some adults may find it too childish.
THE VERDICT: I feel silly when I say, this is wholeheartedly recommended to anyone. It’s a part of my childhood and I will read it to my children. Now that even my sceptical boyfriend is enjoying the book, I can safely say that Harry Potter is special and if you don’t read it, you are missing out on something big.

RATING: 8/10 Excellent

The Harry Potter series:

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  6. Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yann Martel – Life of Pi

Well, I’ve avoided it for long enough. Despite all the praise and the Booker Prize, the religion-factor was keeping me from reading this book. I didn’t want yet another story trying to convert me to whichever faith. But the movie trailer and the consistently ongoing great reviews changed my mind. And I’m incredibly grateful.

by Yann Martel

Published: Penguin, 2002 (2001)
Pages: 367
Copy: paperback

My rating: 8,5/10
Goodreads: 3,8/5

First sentence: My suffering left me sad and gloomy.

The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes.
The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea…

This book surprised me in many ways. It did not – as the author’s note claims – make me believe in God. But it did make me believe even more in the power of storytelling, of writing, and of creating. We get to know Pi Patel right from the beginning, witch the origin of his name. The first third of the book deals entirely with zoo animals, Pi’s childhood, and his pursuit of all religions available to him. If only all religious people were like Pi… I will make myself very unpopular by saying this, but I – as an atheist – believe that organised religion, the way it exists now in our world, is simply terrible. It accosts for so many wars and evil deeds that I find it hard to believe it all stems from the belief in a God that preaches love and truth and friendship. Something can’t be right there…

I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.

But back to the story. Once Pi and a handful of zoo animals are stranded on a lifeboat and commence their incredible journey on the Pacific, I was drawn into his story and caught myself in a state of tense emotion. I cared about Pi, as I cared about Richard Parker. I loved (and hope Hollywood won’t mess this up) that the friendship between Pi and the tiger wasn’t cheesy or unbelievable. They didn’t cuddle up to sleep at night, the tiger didn’t allow Pi to pet him. It was a carefully balanced act of peace, all set around the rules of animal life. It may not make for as soppy a story as some people might like, but I adored the lack of Coelho-like pseudo-meaningfulness. This is just about a boy, pushed to the limits of survival, dealing with a Bengal tiger the only way you can deal with one – on its own terms. These are terms of territory (read: mark it by peeing), and domination.

Yann Martin has a fresh, youthful writing style that makes the story both easy to read but also hits home when intended. Who would have thought that a lifeboat, a boy, and a tiger in the middle of the Pacific could entertain me so much. And for so long? Pi’s character is lovable throughout the story. His application of logic, of reason, made me like him all the more. So people can believe in god (or gods, whichever you prefer) and not lose sight of how the world around them works. Pi is not a zealot, he is not bitter about other religions, he accepts all gods and all manners of faith, because they serve one simple purpose. They help him to live. His belief doesn’t hurt anyone, it doesn’t even show – happily, the author did not go overboard with spiritual musings and pretend it was god who saved Pi’s life. No, Pi’s accomplishments are his own, and neither author nor fictional character attribute it to any deity.

“We don’t want any invention. We want the “straight facts”, as you say in English.”

“Isn’t telling about something – using words, English or Japanese – already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”


“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

This book may have one of the most perfect endings I have read lately (along with N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms). And you see how much it affected me by the way I talk about a fictional character as if he were real. Life of Pi is a book that I didn’t want to read. It will stay with me for a long time and, apart from useful survival tips if caught on the open sea in a lifeboat (with or without the tiger), it showed me once more how powerful a story can be.

THE GOOD: A highly original story with lovable characters, not a boring page, wonderful writing, and a perfect ending.
THE BAD: The blurb is slightly misleading. The story starts quite a while before the lifeboat.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended. I don’t care who you are, what you believe in, or where you come from. If you like stories (or even if you normally don’t), this book is for you.

RATING: 8,5/10  leaning towards a 9

Related Posts:

Scott Westerfeld – Leviathan

My holidays are over and I’ve got some reviews to catch up on. Since the theme of the month over at Literaturschock was “books with extras”, I picked this steampunk young adult book with loads of gorgeous illustrations. There’s a small taste below. I wasn’t totally convinced and I definitely don’t understand the hype, but I did have fun reading this book.

by Scott Westerfeld

illustrated by: Keith Thompson
Simon Pulse, 2009
pages: 246
copy: ebook
series: Leviathan #1

my rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

Genetically modified animals that are used as airships and giant war machines? Yes, please! With my head spinning happily from the wealth of ideas I expected in this book, I dove into the adventure. And was mostly disppointed. Aleksandar, called Alek, was happily playing at war in his room when count Volger and master Klopp get him and flee across the country in a Stormwalker, a rather large machine, whose steampunky-ness was just to my liking. Since they stay in this machine and nothing much happens for about 100 pages, I got bored pretty soon.

But Alek is not the only protagonist. We also follow Deryn Sharp who disguises herself as a boy, Dylan, to enter the Royal Army and become a member on an airship. The author’s plotting, some luck, and a whole lot of suspension of desbelief, lead her to the Leviathan, a whale that is also a ship – and pretty much the coolest thing in this book. Westerfeld’s ideas may not hold up to closer looks and use of logic but they sure are fun to read about. An entire floating eco-system of a whale (inside of which you can wakl around, by the way), bees fléchette bats and dog-like sniffers. That’s what I was looking for.

The characters stay incredibly shallow though and beyond the basic information of who they are and how they got into this particular situation, we don’t learn anything about them, they don’t grow as characters and they don’t show any depth. Side characters are pretty much the same but for some reason, I didn’t mind so much with them. A big minus for characters, though, because you know me… if I don’t care about the characters, the book has already lost a chance at brilliance.

I was surprised to find out how thin the plot was. In a slim novel like this with some great ideas, I was expecting action to follow action. But for a reason. Being randomly attacked while trying to get out of the country may be accurate but doesn’t make for a very interesting story. The plot actually only starts kicking off in the middle of the book, when our two protagonists meet. That’s when I got the Leviathan fever and couldn’t put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half and the ending of the story. However, if books 2 and 3 offer equally thin plotlines, Scott Westerfeld could have just put them into one novel. Just sayin…

THE GOOD: Great and fresh ideas, a new spin on steampunk. Beautiful illustrations make it a vivid adventure that will leave you wanting more.
THE BAD: Flat characters, surprisingly little plot and a very open ending (you kind of want to read on).
THE VERDICT: Maybe I really am too old for YA books. I think if I had read this 15 years ago, I would have loved it. If you don’t mind lacking character growth so much and if you like steampunk, go straight ahead. This ended up being quite some fun after all.

RATING: 5,5/10  Not great but with some potential.

The Leviathan Trilogy:

  1. Leviathan
  2. Behemoth
  3. Goliath

Robin Hobb – Royal Assassin

This is one of my all-time favorite fantasy series but unlike with most trilogies, it was the middle book that I liked best. I figure this must be a Robin Hobb thing because it also happened with the second trilogy, The Liveship Traders. Or maybe I’m just weird and have a thing for volume two.

by Robin Hobb

published: Voyager 1997 (1996)
pages: 752
copy: paperback
series: The Farseer Trilogy #2

my rating: 10/10

first sentence: Why is it forbidden to write down specific knowledge of the magics?

Young Fitz, the illegitimate son of the noble Prince Chivalry, is ignored by all royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has had him tutored in the dark arts of the assassin. He has barely survived his first, soul-shattering mission, and returns to the court where he is thrown headfirst into the tumult of royal life. With the King near death, and Fitz’s only ally off on a seemingly hopeless quest, the throne itself is threatened. Meanwhile, the treacherous Red Ship Raiders have renewed their attacks on the Six Duchies, slaughtering the inhabitants of entire seaside towns. In this time of great peril, it soon becomes clear that the fate of the kingdom may rest in Fitz’s hands – and his role in its salvation may require the ultimate sacrifice.

The ending of Assassin’s Apprentice left me surprised, shocked, shaken, and wanting more. Robin Hobb did not spend all those pages in book one setting up characters for nothing. In this volume, we dive straight into action, not needing to find out who is who anymore. We know everybody and have formed some sort of opinion on their character. The author can thusly use every single one of these 752 pages to drive the plot forward, to have these characters develop and grow and to offer us, her readers, moments of heart-wrenching agony, of suspense and pleasure, of fear and horror.

You can say what you want about Hobb’s slow beginnings, she is a superb writer. What she does with language is outstanding and has never failed to draw me in – even in the really boring books. Fitz grows up a lot in this novel, not only because he hits a certain age but also because his duties – suddenly multiplied – demand it of him. There is a war going on and nobody in the entire kingdom is sure why. The Red Ship Raiders continue to “forge” people, kidnapping them, taking away their souls, and sending them back as lifeless husks who behave like zombies. Even without this threat from the outside, prince Regal and his ambition for the crown offer enough intrigue to fill an entire book. Fitz stays loyal to Verity and does what he can to help him stay alive so he can follow King Shrewd to the throne.
But Fitz is also a little preoccupied. A romance of his own has just started to bud and there is another creature in his life that demands attention and love. The cover of the new paperback edition may tip you off about the identity of said creature.

It is hard to put into words what I felt while reading this book. I had grown to love the characters (and hate some of them, too) in the first novel, so emotionally I wasn’t prepared to see them go through hell again. Fitz does get some precious moments of happiness but Robin Hobb wouldn’t be Robin Hobb if she didn’t end up putting her protagonist thorugh the worst kind of torture she could think of. And, masochist as that must sound, I really enjoy reading this. As Fitz is a first person narrator, I was never truly worried for his life but, trust me, there are enough other things you can worry about. And I got incredibly invested in the fae of this fictional cast of characters.

The Fool, Kettricken, Verity, Burrich, and even King Shrewd revealed new facets of their personalities and made the story just that much more interesting. It was like I grew with Fitz, learning to see the bigger picture and getting hints and ideas about what is really going on. This being the middle novel of a trilogy, hints is all we get and the book ends in quite a cliffhanger.

A ten out of ten rating is rare and this is the first book I am reviewing on this blog to deserve it. If you can write 752 pages of pure enjoyment and make me dream about the characters and hope that they’ll end up safe and sound, all while making me rave about how beautiful the language and writing style is, then you’ve truly deserved your ten points. Re-reads have not diminished my opinion of this book, merely strenghtened it. Even if you didn’t love Assassin’s Apprentice, give this one a try. If it doesn’t pull you into the Six Duchies, then Robin Hobb may just not be for you.

THE GOOD: Incredible characters, beautiful language, a kick-ass suspenseful plot and way more action than book one. Also, bonding with animals.
THE BAD: Uhm… you have to make it through book one first?
THE VERDICT: One of my favorite books of all genres with a great protagonist and an even more memorable and mysterious side character, the Fool.

RATING: 10/10 Perfection!

The Farseer Trilogy:

  1. Assassin’s Apprentice
  2. Royal Assassin
  3. Assassin’s Quest

Peter S. Beagle – The Last Unicorn

This is one of those books that are more famous for their movie adapation. I have grown up with the beautifully animated movie and fallen in love with the story, the music and the myth surrounding Beagle’s unicorn. But – and that’s an important but – the book made me fall in love with this fairy tale even more.

by Peter S. Beagle

published: Viking Press, 1968
pages: 294
copy: paperback

my rating: 9/10

first sentence: The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.

The last unicorn leaves the safety of her forest to find out what happened to the rest of her kind. On the way, she meets Schmendrick, the magician, whose magic rarely works, and Molly Grue, who has waited her whole life to meet a unicorn. Together they make their way to King Haggard’s castle to confront the dreaded Red Bull and save the other unicorns. If it isn’t already too late…

Reminiscent of Le Guin’s Earthsea, Beagle’s style takes you to a place where fairy tales are real, where myth comes to life and where immortal beings don’t behave like your next-door neighbour. Poetic and poignant, the last unicorn’s story is character-driven as well as full of backstory. If you’ve only seen the movie, you know the basic plot this tale follows. But you don’t know how much depth even the less important side characters have until you’ve read the book. Schmendrick, the clumsy magician and Princ Lír especially, become more real and more interesting than they are in the movie. And the unicorn’s innate alienness comes through much better. Any immortal being should behave in what seems like strange ways to us mere mortals. She does and she’s not always likable.

It is the style that made me love this book but it must also be said that the characters are surprisingly well drawn – certainly better than some authors manage on twice as many pages. My favourite is probably the cat, talking in riddles and caring only about himself. The author manages to make animal characters talk and yet retain their wildness.

The bittersweet ending was nothing if not appropriate. It made me weep when I watched the movie as a kid and didn’t even know why I was sad. Now, as an adult (officially at least) I understand what it is that makes the story tragic,  hopeful  and so full of magic. I have reread The Last Unicorns a couple of times but I feel obligated to mention the beautiful graphic novel adaptation. Sure, some of the backstory and depth gets lost in “translation” and the plot will not surprise you if you’ve ever seen the movie. But it features some of the most stunning art I’ve ever seen and is worth reading. Especially if you’re unsure about diving into the novel or if you don’t like Beagle’s style. The language can get a little flowery at times and while it’s a slim novel, if you don’t like the style, you won’t like any of it.

The Last Unicorn has been considered a classic of fantasy literature and, if you ask me, rightly so. I found it more suspenseful and interesting the A Wizard of Earthsea, though similar in style and pacing. Beagle did make me care for his characters and it’s obvious for anyone who’s ever read any of his books that either he’s simply really passionate about them, or he is a true believer in the existence of unicorns.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, doesn’t need many words to bring characters to life, creates a mythical but believable world.
THE BAD: A bit flowery, won’t give you much new information if you’ve seen the movie.
THE VERDICT: A book that undeservedly stands in its adaptation’s shadow. A true classic of fantasy literature that is full of magic and beauty.

RATING: 9/10 Enchanting

Robin Hobb – Assassin’s Apprentice

It took me two tries to even finish the book – how could I know it would turn out to be one of my favourite fantasy novels ever? By now, I have re-read these books many times and am probably quite biased (if you know what’s coming, you’re more willing to put up with a slow beginning). I’m just saying…

by Robin Hobb

published: Voyager/Spectra 1995
pages: 480
copy: paperback
series: The Farseer Trilogy #1

my rating: 7,5/10 (on first reading)
9/10 (after several re-reads)

first sentence: A history of the six Duchies is of necessity a history of its ruling family, the Farseers.

Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill–and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.

He may not captivate you on the first page, but Fitz is one of the most memorable and beloved characters I have ever read about. He tells his story as a grown man, starting from his childhood and how he first came to Buckkeep castle. While stablemaster Burrich raises him, he receives, in secret, training from the dark and mysterious Chade, on how to be an assassin. For a very long time, this is not a swash-buckeling adventure story, it is the story of a little boy, trying to find his place in a court whose rules he doesn’t understand. Yet. As Fitz grows and learns, he evolves and shows the readers a bigger picture of the world surrounding him. His world may start out mainly as the stables and the castle but soon political events and the threat of war draw him into the Six Duchies’ history.

This is a slow book. Do not expect action around every corner or sword fights in every chapter. Fitz’ first person narrative is extremely character-driven and for those who enjoy layered, three-dimensional cast, this will be a pleasure. That said, the last 100 pages or so are so full of action, you won’t want to stop after book 1. The first time reading this, I had some trouble getting into the story, mainly because it felt like nothing was happening. After a few reads, I must say that this is simply not true. Things do happen, they’re just not obvious if you don’t know the players in the game, the political situation and the characters yet. Do not despair! Read on and you will be rewarded.

Robin Hobb does not only have a huge vocabulary, she also has a knack of finding just the right words for what she wants to say. Stylistically, this is a masterpiece (as are any of Hobb’s books that I’ve read so far). She also seems to enjoy putting her protagonists through agony in every single novel she writes. Without conflict, there can be no growth. So Fitz, shunned and misunderstood, has no choice but to get up every time he gets knocked down and make the best of it. There are quite a few scenes in this book that make me cry every single time I read them. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t help – which is all the more proof of Hobb’s writing skill.

Apart from Fitz, there is a hugely interesting cast of side characters, most prominently so probably the Fool. He (or she) is never quite tangible and you can’t be sure if he’s on your side or not. That’s only part of what makes him so intriguing. The other part is his role in the bigger game – and that’s where I stop talking about it. Just find out for yourselves.

This book – and the whole series – counts among my long-term favourites. I still wish I could wipe my memory of Fitz’ story and start all over again. It’s that good.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, characters that feel real, interesting idea of magic and very good court intrigue.
THE BAD: Very slow start, may appeal more to women (despite an almost all-male cast).
THE VERDICT: A must read for anyone who calls themselves a fan of the fantasy genre.

RATING: 9/10  Almost perfect

The Farseer Trilogy:

  1. Assassin’s Apprentice
  2. Royal Assassin
  3. Assassin’s Quest

Terry Pratchett – The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

I’ve had a very ambivalent relationship with the Discworld novels. While I loved two of them (Going Postal and Guards! Guards!), I found some others merely mediocre and got quite annoyed with the humour – it was just too much of the same, repeating itself within one story. However, Discworld never quite let go of me so I gave it another try. And was very much rewarded.

by Terry Pratchett

published by: Corgi 2008 (Doubleday, 2001)
ISBN: 055215783X
pages: 319
copy: ebook
series: Discworld # 28

my rating: 8,5/10

first sentence: Rats! They fought the dogs and killed the cats, and- But there was more to it than that.

It’s a rat-eat-rat world …Every town on Discworld knows the stories about rats and pipers, and Maurice – a streetwise tomcat with his very own plague of rats – has the perfect insider-dealing scam going. Until he runs across someone playing a different tune. Now he and his rats must learn a new concept: evil. And it’s time for everyone to stop relying on stories and to start using independent thought …

I haven’t read many Discworld novels because I usually get annoyed by the repetitious kind of humour once I’m halfway through the novel. This one, however, was one of those rare specimens that – while not laugh-out-loud funny – kept a content grin on my face the entire time. Being aimed at a younger audience, I expected it to be simple with less deep characters. Boy, was I wrong. Terry Pratchett manages to strike a tone that will resonate with young adults (or smaller children, for that matter) and grown-ups alike.

I thoroughly enjoyedthe constant, clever undertone mixed with utterly thrilling scenes. I felt like humor and suspense had a banter going on in this story and the readers are the ones who benefit from it. The way Pratchett plays with tropes of fairy tales, mostly by using his magnificently named character Malicia, gives this book a very Disworld-y feel, even though none of the known characters show up (except for Death, obviously).

Whether you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person, you cannot help but fall in love with Maurice, as amazing as he calls himself, as well as the Clan of rats. Giving such a number of characters a convicing personality must be a difficult feat, but Pratchett pulls it off with ease. Yes, it’s true, Maurice can talk and, what’s more important, think, but he still retains a very catlike personality. I came to care about him so much, Pratchett almost had me in tears at certain points of the story.

It was very unusual for Maurice to feel sympathetic to anyone who wasn’t Maurice. In a cat, such sympathy is a major character flaw. I must be ill, he thought.

Terry Pratchett wouldn’t be Terry Pratchett if he didn’t use his stories to explore – in Discworld – some real-world issues. Again, this may be a book written for young adults but grown-ups (are we ever really?) can get just as much out of it. The miraculously thinking rats see themselves face with some serious problems. They talk and think about what’s wrong and right and who decides on that anyways. Ethics and euthanasia, leadership and culture, are all cleverly incorporated into a tale that can be read just for the fun of it or to reflect upon our own world.

On a sidenote, I have to mention how very cleverly swear words are incorporated into the story. Whenever a cuss word would naturally come up, it is replaced by a word in rat language. For me, that made the read all the more fun because my filthy adult brain inserted whatever swear word I found most appropriate. If you want to read this story to your kids, though, you can simply make a ratty hissing sound. The message getrs across but no “evil words” are used. Well done, Mr. Pratchett!

Pratchett truly is a great story-teller and he shook out a young adult (I’d even say middle-grade) novel that rivals authors who write exclusively for children.

This was tremendous fun and definitely redeemed the Discworld for me. I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one. And who knows, maybe I’m lucky and Maurice will once more cross my path as I make my way through

THE GOOD: Clever, funny, entertaining read about a cast of lovable animal characters.
THE BAD: Where’s the sequel? I want more Maurice!
THE VERDICT: An all-age Discworld novel that turns the world a little bit more magical and makes you want to some pet rats and name them “Dangerous Beans” or “Sardines”.

RATING: 8,5/10   Excellent

The Discworld is a large and hilarious place. If you’re new to Pratchett’s work, just dive right in wherever you want to start. If you are completely lost, however, check out this wonderful Discworld Reading Order (by the L-Space), click to see it in full size. This way, you can first read all the books about the City Watch or the Witches or Death or whoever is your favourite character. But really, it doesn’t matter. They do cross-reference each other and you’ll notice Death always makes an appearance, but each Discworld book is a story by itself and can be read without reading any of the others.