Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

uprootedA DARK ENCHANTMENT BLIGHTS THE LAND.
Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in a peaceful valley. But the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. The villagers depend on an ageless wizard, the Dragon, to protect them from the forest’s dark magic. However, his help comes at a terrible price. A young village woman must serve him for 10 years, leaving all she values behind.
Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choosing, for she’s everything Agnieszka is not – beautiful, graceful and brave. Yet when the Dragon comes, it’s not Kasia he takes.

I absolutely adored this book. It enthralled me to the point that I struggled to write a comprehensible review that didn’t consist of ‘just read it already’ in caps. Novik employs a lot of fairytale tropes and spins them on their heads to produce a fresh fantasy novel that kept me riveted until the final page.

As well as fairytale plots, Uprooted follows the standard fantasy novel formula. Obscure little person ends up encountering and being trained by awesomely powerful but reclusive character, discovers that they are awesomely powerful, encounters and struggles with some form of court or political intrigue, and then battles the Big Bad and saves the day. What kept me captivated was the masterful way that Novik would twist these to create a world and a plot that kept me on my toes trying to guess what situation would come next. Some of my favourite references were to Beauty and the Beast, Baba Yaga, and every Disney princess dress transformation ever. The Dragon teaches Agnieszka a spell that transform her outfits into unbelievably beautiful and impractical clothing, and she takes delight in destroying every single one of them. Agnieszka was written amazingly well: she is clumsy, stubborn, brave, and impetuous. She makes mistakes and tries to fix them, and sometimes makes things worse as a result. She’s Anne of Green Gables living next to a malevolent wood. Her approach to magic left me in stitches. The primary magic used by wizards and witches in Uprooted is based on formulas and specific words. Agnieszka’s magic doesn’t work well within these restrictions: she is able to use a cleansing spell created by a legendary witch with such vague instructions that no one else perform it, but muddles the simple spells that the Dragon gives her because they’re too formulaic. The descriptions of Agnieszka’s attempts to learn left me in stitches, both for the hilarious ways that the spells went awry and the Dragon’s irritated responses to them.

Because of the fairytale setting, the character development feels limited, but I found that instead it was very, very subtle. The characters would respond to different situations and I would think ‘yes this is exactly what would happen’ but I would have no idea why. It was only on rereading that I could spot the places that development had weaselled its way in and I felt I actually understood the characters. The only obvious true insights into the characters and their relationships occurred whenever a spell called the Summoning was performed. The Summoning allows only truth to be seen, and it was a great vehicle for demonstrating how both Kasia and Agnieszka were jealous of each other before and after Agnieszka was chosen. It’s also used to give insight into the moody and taciturn Dragon’s true nature. The scenes are written elegantly and at no point did I feel like I was drowning in exposition. Magic was also used to portray the deepening relationship and trust between the Dragon and Agnieszka. Many times over the course of Uprooted they have to meld their magic in order to complete spells such as the Summoning, and the scenes accurately display how both characters accept each other’s different weaknesses and strengths and how they can complement their own.

Uprooted was utterly divine, and it has driven me to seek out Naomi Novik’s other novels.  This is a book that I will read to shreds, and force upon every number of my acquaintances. Seriously guys, JUST READ IT ALREADY.

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Review: Fox Hat Knitting Kit

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Source: https://www.etsy.com/au/shop/sincerelylouise

Price: 24.63 AUD + 14.83 AUD shipping

I found this gem on Etsy, and my only regret is that I made this on the eve of Brisbane’s 30C summer heat and won’t be able to wear it comfortably for months.  I was drawn to the Fox Hat because it looked both ridiculously adorable and comfortable in the stock photo.

The kit consisted of 200g of orange acrylic, 20g of cream acrylic for the contrast in the ears, 9mm straight bamboo needles, and the pattern. The needles were optional, and the kit was cheaper without them. Everything was packed into a canvas tote that was useful for carrying the hat and materials around as I completed it and I plan to use it for future knitting. The pattern was very easy to follow, and the beginner’s tips were very helpful when it came to decreasing the row for the ears. There was no guide on the mattress stitch for sewing the hat, which I think would be frustrating for someone who doesn’t know how to sew knitted pieces. I knitted the hat after work over 3 days, but I imagine a more experienced knitter would be able to complete it in a few hours. The finished product feels nice: the wool isn’t very itchy and is quite thick and warm. The hat is very roomy, and I wear it pulled backs lightly and covering my ears so that the brim doesn’t cover my eyes. I like that my ears stay warm, but in hindsight I would have sewn the fox ears further on the front so that they would be more visible.

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The finished product! I’m pretty pleased with myself

While my version doesn’t look as good as the ‘professional’ one (observe the flippy floppy ears), I had a lot of fun making this hat. I really look forward to wearing this little cutie around town during winter, and I recommend the kit to both new and experienced knitters looking for a fun weekend/couple of hours. The kit makes a lovely gift to a knitter, even if it’s a gift to self!

Book Review: The Battle of Hackham Heath by John Flanagan

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

hackham-heathWhen the former Baron Morgarath escaped to avoid punishment for treason, an uneasy peace fell on Araluen. But Morgarath, now in hiding, is already planning his next move, recruiting an army of savage, overpowering beasts known as Wargals. Newly crowned King Duncan knows he must prepare for war. To find out the full extent of Morgarath’s plan of attack, Halt prepares for a seemingly impossible task–climbing the deadly cliffs of the Mountains of Rain and Night and venturing deep into enemy territory to spy. After all, the winner of this war could be determined by one wrong move. At the Battle of Hackham Heath, the fate of a Kingdom will be decided. This origin story of how Halt came to be Araluen’s most famous Ranger – and how war will decide the future of the next generation – will thrill Ranger’s Apprentice fans and new readers alike.

Having read all of the Ranger’s Apprentice books, I was pretty thrilled when The Early Years was announced as a prequel series. I couldn’t wait for the chance to experience all of Will’s wise mentors as inexperienced young adults – especially Halt and Crowley. One of the reasons that I loved the first book, ‘The Tournament at Gorlan’ is because it gave me details about Morgorath’s attempted rise to power that I didn’t know. I knew that ‘The Battle of Hackham Heath’ would be different, and would pose difficulties that other books in the prequel series won’t. Hackham Heath is the battle that every Ranger’s Apprentice fan knows; it was the major battle that drove Morgarath back into the Mountains of Rain and Night, Duncan’s first trial as King, and the indirect cause of Will’s orphaning. It’s the battle and enemy that drives plot points in the early Ranger’s Apprentice books. It’s also the battle that people who have never read Ranger’s Apprentice know nothing about. John Flanagan took on a massive task trying to juggle appeasing current fans and trying to interest new readers, and I have to say that he handled it pretty well.

The weapons used in the battle scenes were realistic and well researched. John Flanagan does an excellent job showing that while Medieval weapons are clunky and ineffective in comparison with modern-day warfare, they were absolutely lethal in their own era. Each weapon had shortcomings as well, and both armies used realistic methods to defend against them. The movements of the two armies were also explained and rationalised to the reader, and you could understand how various situations came about. The characters in ‘The Battle of Hackham Heath’ were relatively well rounded, and I found that they dealt with emotional trauma in realistic ways. There was the usual sarcastic banter that I have come to expect from members of the Ranger Corps, and a few surprise appearances from characters I hadn’t expected to encounter yet. Long-time fans beware: you will  imagine characters as their older selves, and you will be thrown when Halt doesn’t have grey hair, and Baron Arald isn’t fat.  It’ll happen, trust me.

The only real flaw with ‘The Battle of Hackham Heath’ is a big old plot hole that yawns between the final chapter and the epilogue. It’s the story of Will’s parents’ deaths, and instead of being experienced directly by the reader, as it were, it’s told second hand by Halt to Lady Pauline. If you’re a new reader and you want to read it, get yourself a copy of ‘The Lost Tales’ and read Death of a Hero. I can only assume that ‘The Battle of Hackham Heath’ was already too long, and the chapter was culled because it’s a story that already appears in both ‘The Ruins of Gorlan’ and ‘The Lost Tales’. I found that this broke up the narrative, and left the ending of the book rather disjointed. It also would have been effective to use the chapter as a means of leading into the Ranger’s Apprentice Series.

Book Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

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“It’s a good time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain…Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should we use Botox? Do men secretly hate us? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby?”

Part Memoir, part rant, Caitlin Moran answers the questions that every modern woman is asking.

 

2016 has pushed me to brush up on my feminist knowledge, and ‘How to be a Woman’ seemed like a good place to begin. The book featured in Emma Watson’s feminist book club earlier this year, and the blurb promised laughter and feminist prose – I was sold.

I really enjoyed the memoir segments of ‘How to be a Woman’. Moran recounts various episodes from her life in which she tackled puberty, recreational drugs, and sexism, and she does so in a manner that made me laugh and cringe – often at the same time. I found her teenage antagonistic relationship with her sister Caz and  her awkward, confused first period to be particularly relatable to my own adolescence. Moran does tend to use outdated pop-culture references as a nod to her formative years in England in the 80’s and 90’s. While this is incredibly effective at setting the place and time, it is also somewhat confusing. I spent a lot of my time wondering if she was quoting song lyrics or trying to be poetic. I already find ‘How to be a Woman’ hilarious, but I can’t help but feel that I’ve missed out on extra ‘in’ jokes only comprehensible to those who could drive in the 90’s.

Moran tied her own feminist theories and ideals in with her memoirs, and I found myself sceptical of some. The foundations laid were good – a personal favourite being:

“So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.
a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

She also raised the idea that women have historically been ‘the losers’ as they are physically weaker and until recently, more prone to infections and death resulting from menstruation and childbirth. Moran drew a link between the rise of Industrialisation and contraception, and the rise of women’s liberation, suggesting that it is not a case of Men hating Women but rather Winners vs Losers. This theory had me spitting mad (and still does), but I do see validity within it. I would have preferred to have more academic backing for both this theory and others present in ‘How to be a Woman’.

The Verdict:

‘How to be a Woman’ is a good place to start if you’re new to feminism, but it definitely isn’t the ultimate guide. I would recommend this book as an entertaining way to laugh a day away while still having your brain provoked into thoughts.

A long Detour, and then a Review

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The longer that it takes for a book to be released, the less interested I become in reading it. I still get caught up in the excitement of the waiting, in the suspense of the inevitable postponements. For the most part I even purchase them on the day of release, unless the postponements have been so frequent and the new release dates so erratic that I give up and end up buying the book 6 months after it was released. This happened with ‘The Golden Yarn’ Cornelia Funke’s latest in the Mirror World/Reckless Series and the novel that I was intending to review this week. I love the series for its use of various Fairy Tales and the awesome characters, and I was incredibly disappointed when ‘The Golden Yarn’ disappeared from my favourite online bookstores (I don’t buy from Amazon. I have a Complex). I gave up for a few years, only to discover last month that it was published last year. It turns out that Cornelia Funke had a dispute with her editor about the manuscript, got the rights back, and independently published ‘The Golden Yarn’. After years of waiting, I finally have that book in my hot little hands, and I am Not Interested. The writing is good, the characters are as excellent as ever, and yet getting through the second chapter was a trial. I’ll have to reread the first two books to get my excitement back, and I’m frustrated that I have to do that.

The same delay has occurred with ‘Rivers of London’, the book I’m reviewing in place of ‘The Golden Yarn’. The sixth book ‘The Hanging Tree’ was originally slated to be released early in 2015, and then late in 2015, and then early in 2016. My pre-order was automatically refunded after the 3rd date change. ‘The Hanging Tree’ will apparently be released on the 3rd of November, and I’ve started re-reading the series to avoid my usual postponement disinterest. Fingers crossed that it works…

Aaand finally, The Review!

As the first in a series of paranormal crime novels, Rivers of London begins well, with probationary police  constable Peter Grant interviewing the witness to a grisly murder…who happens to already be dead himself. As a result of this, Peter is apprenticed to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last known wizard left in England. The grisly murder turns out to be one of a string of assaults and deaths committed by normally benign people, and Peter must work with his friend Leslie – a constable in the murder unit – and Beverley Brooke – the genius loci of a small river in London- to trace the paranormal force behind them.

One aspect of both ‘Rivers of London’ and its sequels that I particularly like is that Peter Grant isn’t an extraordinary gifted wizard/policeman/chosen one. His first attempts at learning magic are almost relatable to anyone trying to learn a new skill, and he frequently makes errors of judgement as he learns to become a better policeman and wizard. It’s nice to see a character learning and growing, instead of having great abilities that they can control almost instantaneously.

The author Ben Aaronovitch also uses a particular method to describe magic, which I find is both incredibly effective as a technique, and super awesome in general. As someone sensitive to magic, Peter can sense vestigium, which is the trace left behind after a magic occurrence, or on an individual who is very strong magically. Synaesthesia  – a condition in which experiencing one sense, such as sight, results in experiencing additional senses such as scent or touch – is used to show this effect. As a result the book is full of interesting descriptions such as the following, when Peter meets the Genius Loci of the River Thames:

‘One beautifully manicured hand rested on a side table, at the foot of which stood burlap sacks and little wooden crates. As I stepped closer I could smell salt water and coffee, diesel and bananas, chocolate and fish guts. I didn’t need Nightingale to tell me I was sensing something supernatural, a glamour so strong it was like being washed away by the tide.’

I do find that the plot lagged in places, and that as a result the whole mystery was wrapped up incredibly quickly in the last two chapters. There is an impressive plot twist, but on rereading I found no clues to suggest it, which was disappointing because discovering the hints in hindsight is half the fun of a plot twist.

Overall, I recommend ‘Rivers of London’ to anyone who likes their characters relatable and their magic realistic.