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

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

This novel’s sheer size may feel a bit daunting at first, but once you’ve started reading you’ll know what to expect. If you don’t like it within the first two chapters, you won’t like it any better later. If you do, however, you have about 1000 pages of pure awesome ahead of you. And trust me, by the end you’ll wish there were more…

by Susanna Clarke

published by: Bloomsbury, 2004
copy: paperback (the red one)

my rating: 9,5/10

first sentence: Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England – until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight. Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

If Jane Austen and Charles Dickens had cooperated to write a fantasy novel, this is what would have happened. Susanna Clarke makes the early 19th century come to life with the same wit as any of Austen’s heroines and the same epic scope of some of Dickens’ works. Add to the mix a particularly engaging magic system – that feels a lot like science – and you’ve got yourself a bestseller. I make these comparisons not to diminish Clarke’s work. Quite the opposite, she keeps her own voice throughout the novel and while obviously inspired by these classic authors, this is not a copy or a rip-off. But if you like Austen or Dickens and a fairy tale-like, if somewhat dark, version of magic, then these 1006 pages are truly worth picking up.

While the blurb says as much about the plot as I’m willing to give away, let me just say, this book is about the journey, not the destination. Yes, there are questions that you desperately want answered and there is suspense built up constantly, but simply diving into this alternate England during the Napoleonic Wars, and seeing what Strange and Norrell are up to, was enough for me. I crawled into the book, I found my happy place.

The characters are introduced cleverly and all have their own voice and drive. Mr Norrell especially was outstandingly done. His gruff, secluded self by far prefers the company of books to that of humans or even his fellow magician. His study of magic will remind any college student of sleepless nights, spent pouring over tomes of dry, factual text books. But even that is fun when Susanna Clarkes writes about it. Jonathan Strange, a much more relatable character and in many ways the polar opposite of Norrell, brings balance to the story and gives the reader someone to sympathise with.

Apart from the charming, witty style, what I most enjoyed about this book was the magic. While introduced subtly and not at all epic, there is this underlying tone of magic being much bigger than the reader – or Strange and Norrell, for that matter – dare to believe. Also, the Raven King, the greatest magician of all time, now long gone, was probably the most incredible character I’ve ever read about, if only for the fact that he spends the whole book offstage. Talk about writing skills!

On Susanna Clarke’s homepage, you’ll find adorable interviews of the protagonists on what they think of each other and this novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a charming, dark fairy tale with vivid characters, a slow but satisfying plot and a magic all its own. So far, the only fix for fans like me was the short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu which I also recommend. That said, whatever Susanna Clarke writes next, I’m dying to read it.

THE GOOD: Clever, witty, beautiful prose. Incredible characters, a plot of epic scope, and a believable alternate history novel.
THE BAD: If you don’t like the style, it won’t get better. You’ll hate all of it.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended to lovers of Austen/Dickens and fantasy or anyone who like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey but want more depth and scope.

MY RATING: 9,5/10  Pretty near perfection

Amélie Nothomb – Tuer le père

Amélie Nothomb conquered my reader’s heart with her wonderful novel Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling) and has – with a couple of exceptions – been very dear to me as a writer. Her unique voice (and the fact that I can work up enough gumption to read a French book when it comes to her) has never let me down and while she’s taken one huge misstep with Sulphuric Acid, it was easily forgiven. As all of Nothomb’s novels, this one is really short, more novella than novel. Usually, she uses the lack of pages to show her strengths in story-telling but lately, I feel she’s been slacking and her stories get boring and unmemorable.

by Amélie Nothomb

published: 2011
by: Albin Michel
pages: 162

my rating: 3/10

first sentence: Le 6 octobre 2010, L’Illégal fêtait ses dix ans.

Joe is 14 years old when his mother politely throws him out. He goes to live in Reno, learning card tricks. Soon he’s picked up by Norman Torance and his girlfriend Christina who take him into their home and treat him like a son. Growing up with them, he develops a severe crush on his surrogate mother and learns all there is to know about magic tricks and sleight of hand from Norman.

Mademoiselle Nothomb, I am not impressed. Joe, unlike most of the author’s protagonists, does not feel real so his journey was doomed for me from the get-go.  The things that happen to him feel equally as unbelievable as they are boring. Norman becomes a father-figure to Joe but instead of showing that fragile relationship through one of the many conversations, Nothomb just hammers it into her readers by bluntly stating facts. Even when finally some conflict appears – namely Joe’s crush on Christina – the author manages to play it down so much that I didn’t really care if Joe managed to secude her or destroy her relationship with Norman.

The theme of this book is magic, artistics, players and sleight of hand – while these are all things that I find highly interesting to read about and that offer many possibilities for great writing, Amélie Nothomb chose not to take that opportunity. There is no magic in this book, the writing is just there, it doesn’t leave any kind of impression. Then again, she throws in passages that instantly strike a chord with me and make me reminisce of “good old Amélie” and the wonderful books she’s written.

Les fire dancers n’ont pas créé leur art pour le plaisir un peu vulgaire de faire du trop difficile. Il y a une logique profonde à associer ces deux dieux, la danse et le feu. Regarder de grands danseurs provoque le même émoi que regarder une bûche enflammée : le feu danse, le danseur brûle.

That’s what I expect from a Nothomb book. Concise writing and a story that combines plot with the author’s thoughts on certain themes. Unfortunately, that is the only quote worth mentioning in this story.

Now, it wasn’t all bad. The ending does hold a little plot twist and while it may come as a surprise to some, the lack of interest in the characters left me strangely unemotional about it. This has been a trend in Nothomb’s last few books and I certainly hope she’ll get back on her writer’s feet. Otherwise I’m just going to have to re-read her older works and ignore whatever comes out next.

THE GOOD: Quick read, I improved my French.
THE BAD: If you don’t care for the characters, might as well not read the book. Lame story, not very well-told.
THE VERDICT: No need to read this. If you want Nothomb, pick up one of her older books. You won’t regret it.

RATING: 2,5/10

Ursula K. Le Guin – A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea 1)

Listed among the classics of fantasy, this book has embarrassed me long enough. I finally picked it up, immediately liked it, only to lose interest around the middle. I definitely prefer Le Guin in the sci-fi genre.

by Ursula K. Le Guin

published: 1968
by: Parnassus Press
pages: 198

My rating: 5/10

First sentence: The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

Ged grows up in a little town where he is taught some hedgemagic by the local witch. Soon his overwhelming talent is noticed by a wandering magician who takes him on as apprentice and sends him off to wizard school. During his studies there, Ged accidentally unleashes a dark force that follows him wherever he goes. As he leaves school, he’ll have to decide whether to keep running from this evil shadow or to take a stand and fight it…

Le Guin tells this classic high fantasy story in a fairy tale-like manner. There are very few dialogues, a chapter may months or years go by and action is described to inform, rather than grab the reader’s attention. While the author knows how to write beautifully, I’m not sure this dry style really suited the plot of this particular book. Le Guin’s language was enjoyable to read but the book had many things not working for it.

Earthsea, for example, is – as the name suggests – a collection of islands, groups of islands, and little islets in a vast and unknown sea. I find the idea of such a world quite charming and the cultures that resulted interesting. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see a lot of those. There’s hints, obviously, at people being fishermen and sailors but it didn’t really come alive for me.

Same goes for the characters. While we follow Ged’s journey, he remains kind of in the background. We are told about his feelings and motivations but I didn’t really feel it. As for the other characters, they all felt very much like cardboard to me. There is one rival during Ged’s school time, he meets a ton of people when travelling but nobody came close to me. They are introduced only to have no real part in the story later on. Not caring about the characters, even the protagonist, is a bad thing for me. I’m a huge fan of character-driven books, I don’t have to have a lot of plot or action as long as I find the characters intriguing. I don’t even have to like them. Give me an interesting asshole any day. But this? Meh.

The story arc as such felt unoriginal and standard fantasy, but then this book was published in the late sixties when the market wasn’t as overhwelmingly full of Tolkien knock-offs as it is now. I’m sure it wouldn’t have felt as generic then as it did to me now.

So while I did enjoy Le Guin’s style in general, this book was not a great read for me. The fairy tale-like story telling worked much better in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books (which are aimed at children but are highly enjoyable even for adults) and felt very episodic and disjointed. Since I didn’t care about what happened to the characters, I’m probably going to forget about this book very soon. I will eventually give the second volume in the series a try but I’m keeping my hopes down, this time.

THE GOOD: Short book, nice writing.
THE BAD: Uninteresting characters, episodic plot, not very surprising ending.
THE VERDICT: Interesting to read from a (fantasy-) historical point of view but nothing that will last in my memory.

RATING: 5/10

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London

Eine skurrile Geschichte im modernen London, in dem der letzte Zauberlehrling versucht, Mordfälle aufzuklären. Dabei behilflich sind ein Geist, ein schlauer Hund namens Toby, der mysteriöse Zauberer Nightingale und die Flüsse von London.

Deutscher Titel: Die Flüsse von London
Erschienen: 2011
Seiten: 392 (480)
Übersetzt von: Karlheinz Dürr
Erschienen bei: Gollancz (dtv)

Meine Bewertung: 6/10

Erster Satz: It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden.

Hätte mich nicht die erste Seite schon laut auflachen lassen, hätte ich das Buch vermutlich noch lange auf dem SUB schmoren lassen. Ben Aaronovitch erzählt aber so witzig, dass man einfach weiterlesen muss. Peter Grant, der Ich-Erzähler und Protagonist, wächst einem schnell ans Herz. Seine praktische Ansichtsweise und seine heimliche Vorliebe für Polizeikollegin Lesley machen ihn zu einem überzeugenden und überaus komischen Mann des 21. Jahrhunderts.

Darin lag für mich auch die größte Überraschung. Denn das Cover und die Idee eines zaubernden Polizisten haben mich ein ganz anderes Setting erwarten lassen. Ich hatte mich dem frühen 19. Jahrhundert gerechnet und nicht  mit unserem digitalen Zeitalter mit Handys, Skype und Überwachungskameras an jeder Ecke Londons. Aber dem Autor gelingt es wirklich gut, Magie und vor allem magische Wesen in unsere Welt zu integrieren.
Der Titel erklärt sich nicht nur durch die Flüsse, die es in London gibt (ich hatte keine Ahnung, dass da mehr als die Themse vorhanden ist :redface:), sondern vor allem durch die menschlich aussehenden Wesen, die für diese Flüsse stehen. Diese Idee hat mich stark an Neil Gaiman erinnert und vielleicht auch deshalb sehr angesprochen.

Wenn man bei der Lektüre nicht gerade lachen muss, ist das Buch durchwegs spannend. Denn schließlich gilt es einen – gut, mehrere – Mordfälle zu lösen und Peter weiß noch nicht einmal, wo er mit dem Nachforschen beginnen soll. So zersträut der halb-afrikanische Hauptcharakter manchmal ist, so wirr schienen mir auch bestimmte Abschnitte. Aaronovitch kann toll erzählen, keine Frage, aber besonders bei seiner Mythologie hätte ich mir mehr oder detailliertere Erklärungen gewünscht. Hier passiert in einem Kapitel oft zu viel als dass man als Leser noch allem folgen oder eine Beziehung zu den Nebencharakteren aufbauen kann.

Andere Dinge bleiben bewusst vage. Da spart sich der Autor die Auflösungen wohl für spätere Bände auf. Und das ist völlig ok. Ich persönlich mag es, wenn gewisse Rätsel ungelöst bleiben. Zum Ende erfahren wir auch schon ansatzweise, was Peter und Nightingales nächster Fall sein wird. Und wer da nicht weiterlesen will, ist selber schuld.

PRO: Erstaunlich witzige Erzählweise, liebenswerter Hauptcharakter und unschlagbare Dialoge.
CON: Ein bisschen wenig Hintergrundinformationen zu den Regeln der Magie und den mythologischen Wesen.
FAZIT: Eine tolle und amüsante Lektüre für zwischendurch.