Book Review: Runemarks

runemarks

Runemarks – Joanne M. Harris
Published by Hachette New Zealand, 2016

In a world where magic and mystery are outlawed, Maddy has always been an outsider. With the strange marking on her hand and her unusual abilities, she’s mistrusted and feared by ‘normal’ folk.

But Maddy’s life is about to change. From learning about the ways of the old gods, to travelling into World Below and meeting the infamous trickster, Loki, Maddy must embark on a journey the likes of which she has never imagined.

As the powers of Chaos and Order prepare for a war to end all wars, it is Maddy who unknowingly holds the key to the Worlds’ survival.

I have a few Joanne Harris novels on my bookshelf: Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners and Holy Fools. All are quite different and quirky, but there’s a similarity in tone or plot that links them, in my mind, to each other. However, none of them are like Runemarks at all; if you’d covered the author’s name and asked me to guess at who wrote it, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed at Joanne Harris.

But here’s the thing: I loved romantic, whimsical Chocolat, and found Blackberry Wine tantalising in its point of view (first person, as a bottle of wine)…and was so gripped by Runemarks that I read until close to midnight on more than one occasion. Very different genres, very different styles, and very different stories, but with one thing in common: very, very good.

With Runemarks, Harris has created a world – nine, to be exact – full of magic and mystery, where a host of characters from Norse mythology mingle with common folk who are terrified of magic. I have a basic knowledge of Norse mythology, so felt familiar with the main players (specifically Odin, Loki and Thor), and found it interesting to learn more about them. I especially liked Harris’ Loki, the Trickster; he was one of those characters that I was instantly drawn too, despite his history of treachery and deceit. I found Maddy, our common heroine, to be far more mature than her 14 years should suggest, but her character was likeable if a little predictable at times.

The story started out slowly, but picked up pace about five chapters in and then raced along at heart-stopping, breath-quickening pace. It was exciting and compelling, and nerve-wracking in parts; a page-turner that I struggled to put down because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. There were a few predictable plot-twists, but some that I didn’t see coming until they were about to happen. It was a cleverly crafted story, and has left me wanting more (which I will find, in the form of Runelight, and The Gospel of Loki). Fantasy isn’t usually a genre I go for, and I’ve certainly not read many mythical fantasy novels (if any!), but Runemarks was a pleasant introduction and a happy surprise.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy, and for the opportunity to experience so many amazing books over the past couple of years!

Book Review: All I Ever Wanted

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All I Ever Wanted – Lucy Dillon
Published by Hachette New Zealand

Catlin’s life is a mess. Her marriage to a man everyone else thinks is perfect has collapsed, along with her self-esteem, and breaking free seems the only option.

Nancy, her four-year-old daughter, used to talk all the time; in the car, at nursery, to her brother Joel. Then her parents split up. Her daddy moves out. And Nancy stops speaking.

Nancy’s Auntie Eva, recently widowed and feeling alone, apart from the companionship of two bewildered pugs, is facing a future without her husband or the dreams she gave up for him.

But when Eva agrees to host her niece and nephew once a fortnight, Caitlin and Eva are made to face the different truths about their marriages – and about what they both really want…

If you need a last-minute gift idea for someone this Christmas, I suggest you race out now (or click here) to buy a copy of All I Ever Wanted. Or if you’re looking for a good book to take to the crib/bach/beach this summer…buy a copy of All I Ever Wanted. I thought it might be a bit “fluffy”, a bit of romcom chick lit, but it is so much better than that. It made me cry, and it made me smile, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable, compelling read that I didn’t want to put down.

The characters are written so well, and through the course of the novel, we get to know each of them quite well through their interactions and relationships with one another. The only characters we merely skim the surface of are Patrick, Catlin’s husband, and Alex, Eva’s friend, yet we still get a sense of who they are. Caitlin is complicated; she appears outwardly confident but constantly battles with self-doubt and regret over what she hasn’t done with her life. Nancy is full of spark and is rather perceptive for a pre-schooler; her brother Joel exudes energy and drama, but is sensitive to everything going on around him, and is fiercely protective of his little sister. Auntie Eva thought she was happy with where life and circumstance had taken her, but spending time with her niece and nephew allows her to see what her heart has always desired: children of her own. Patrick comes across as a busy professional, focused on his career, desperate to live up to an impossible standard he incorrectly recalls from his own father; he is the character who reveals little of himself, until it’s almost too late, and then he became one of my favourites.

And Bumble and Bee, the pugs…well, never have I thought so highly of a pair of fictional pets! They are an integral part of the story, and Dillon has a magical way of bringing them to life. Upon finishing the book, I decided I need pugs.

All I Ever Wanted is very clever – in a subtle, “Oh, I see, and like, what you’re doing here” kinda way instead of a “Wow, I didn’t see THAT coming” kinda way. It’s an extremely satisfying story – the ending was so good! – and thought-provoking, realistic and moving at the same time. It’s not your typical romance novel, especially where the crumbling relationship between Caitlin and Patrick is concerned, which is very refreshing.

I will be sharing this book around my Village mums, for sure.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.

Book Review: Songs of a War Boy

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Songs of a War Boy – Deng Adut with Ben Mckelvey
Published by Hachette New Zealand

The true story of Deng Adut – Sudanese child soldier, refugee, man of hope.

This is the true story of a childhood stolen by war, of a young boy’s life ravaged by politics and tribal greed, and of a brother’s fierce love which endured all of the atrocities of war.

The word “inspiring” doesn’t seem adequate enough to capture how amazing this book, and this man, are. To overcome such adversity, to face such horror, to travel halfway across the world for a new chance at life, and to grab that chance with both hands and run with it…I can’t think of a better word, so inspiring will have to do.

The prologue of Songs of a War Boy begins with a poignancy that is echoed throughout the rest of the book:

Songs are of great importance to my people, the Dinka. They’re our avatars, and our biographies. They precede us, introduce us and live on after we die. They are also how our deeds escape our villages, and they pass on our code of morality, culture and law.

When I was a boy I dreamed of having my own songs, but now I am a man, and I have no songs. It’s likely I never will, in the traditional sense. For the Dinka, these songs are only for me. In the eyes of my culture, I am still a boy.

When I should have been going through the rituals of manhood, I was caught in a vicious war. By the time I was returned to my people, I was very much a westerner. My feet straddle the continents, and also the threshold of manhood.

Deng Adut’s story is not easy to read, in that it is difficult to imagine the horrors he had to endure when he should have been playing in his village with his family. It is powerful and heart-wrenching to read his first-hand account of the South Sudanese conflict; there is no glorification of war, and in his own words, Deng Adut is “…proud of some things I have done, and ashamed of others, but I own all of it, and I’ve reconciled with all of it. That’s why I am whole.”

This is an incredibly poignant, remarkable, inspirational story, and one that will tug at you for days after you’ve read the final page. It’s amazing how a child could endure what Deng Adut endured, yet as an adult, is able to see that life is a gift, and is able – and willing – to go on to do such brilliant things for himself, and for others.

Songs of a War Boy is more than one man’s story about the war that tore his country apart; it is the story of many, and as such, is full of hope not only for Deng Adut’s future, but the potential futures of refugees around the world. At a time when refugees are constantly seeking safety and opportunity far from their natural shores, this is a book that might make some people stop and change their attitudes towards others; reading a first-hand account of the difficulties in transitioning into a new culture will evoke sympathy where before there was perhaps none.

This book is incredibly thought-provoking, hopeful and (I know I’m  repeating myself!) inspiring, and with Christmas fast approaching, would make an excellent gift for the reader(s) in your life.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.

Book Review: Archangel’s Heart

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Archangel’s Heart – Nalini Singh
Published by Hachette New Zealand

Archangel’s Heart is the ninth novel in Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series, and the first that I have read. To say I’m keen to go back and read the first eight is an understatement; as soon as I’ve cleared a bit of a bedside-table-backlog, I’ll be hitting the local library to get my hands on the rest of this series.

That’s not to say I feel I need to read them in order to understand the concept – I want to read them. That’s the skill in Singh’s writing: she has written a novel that stands alone and can be enjoyed as such, but that makes you crave more.

It took me a few chapters to come to grips with the characters and the relationships between them (something that will no doubt become clearer once I’ve read the predecessors), but then I was hooked. I thought the characters were well-written and believable (for immortal beings!), and their relationships echoed that. The romantic in me adores the relationship between Archangel, Raphael, and Consort, Elena, even though the realist is scoffing a bit in the background. However, that realist can just be quiet, because the one of the strongest messages in this book is that love is the strongest power in the world (this one, or Singh’s imagined one). There is something immediately appealing about Elena. She’s tough and determined, smart and more than a little stubborn, all which make for a likeable female protagonist. If I had daughters, I’d think she was a suitable role model.

I like Singh’s dark and intense style. She weaves an intricate and magical story, set in an intricate and magical world, and I didn’t want to put this novel down. The ending was very satisfying, while leaving things wide open for the next installment…usually that annoys me, but I enjoyed this book so much, I wasn’t fazed.

I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this book. It was a great read, and I really liked it. Simple as that.

Thank you Hachette NZ for my review copy.

 

Book Review: Enid Blyton’s Summer Stories

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Enid Blyton’s Summer Stories – Enid Blyton
Published by Hachette New Zealand

School’s out! So go on a picnic, visit the seaside or throw coconuts at the fair in this enchanting collection of stories perfect for summer holidays.

We didn’t save this until the summer holidays, which seem very far away when winter is still peeking its head out of the clouds every once in a while. However, that didn’t stop the six-year-old and I from snuggling up on the couch to read together…until he told me, politely and using different words, to bugger off so he could read to himself!

Here’s what he had to say about this collection of whimsical Enid Blyton stories:

“I don’t have a favourite story in this book – I liked them all. I liked that at the end of some, the author asked me what I thought or what I would have done. Sometimes I thought some of the characters were a bit mean and a bit naughty, but a lot of them were very kind and helpful.

There was a lot of magic in the book. I liked that some of the characters were real and some were pretend. There was a mermaid in the last story [The Galloping Seahorse].

The pictures were really cool. I liked the hedgehog. I think I’ll start from the beginning again…do you want to read them with me, mum?”

Yes, my darling boy, I most certainly do!

Another stellar collection of classic Enid Blyton, with timeless appeal and that magic that every childhood needs.

Thanks to Hachette NZ for our review copy.

Book Review: Cherry Tree Farm Collection

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The Cherry Tree Farm Collection – Enid Blyton
Published by Hachette New Zealand

This collection brings together some of Enid Blyton’s earliest and most imaginative stories – The Children of Cherry Tree Farm (1940) and two further stories about the same children, The Children at Willow Farm (1942) and More Adventures at Willow Farm (1943).

I grew up reading the stories of Enid Blyton, and as an adult, I’m still a big fan. Her stories are appealing on so many levels, and her ability to make adventure and magic from nothing is second to none.

I don’t know who was more excited when The Cherry Tree Farm Collection arrived for review – me or my six-year-old. That night, we sat down together and read a few chapters; the late hour was the only thing that stopped us from finishing the whole book!

There’s something about this bunch of siblings and their adventures in the countryside that speaks of another time, but of adventures that are timeless and exciting. As a parent who is conscious of getting kids outside to play and roam, it was great to read a book that lacks technology and gadgets, but is full of fun. The children are still a little mischievous, and even though Tiny thought they “speak a little funny”, they are still easy for kids to identify with.

The Cherry Tree Farm Collection is a lot of fun to read. It possesses that quintessential Blyton-ness that brings wonder and magic to every page, making it a joy to read aloud or quietly to yourself.

Thanks to Hachette NZ for our review copy.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne
Published by Hachette New Zealand

The much-anticipated special rehearsal edition of the script book has finally arrived, with fans flocking to bookstores across the world to be among the first to read it. The eighth story in the Harry Potter series, set nineteen years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage.

Having finished the book whilst lying in the sun one day last week, here are my thoughts:

  • this edition is the script used by cast and crew during rehearsals for the stage show. As such, it provides an entirely different reading experience to the previous seven Harry Potter books. It’s a decent-sized book, but the format means it takes no time to read. The style of writing is quite different, and plays are always difficult to read as books (remember all those years of trying to read the plays of Shakespeare in English classes??) BUT – if you imagine how it would look on the stage…it would be brilliant.
  • the play is written by Thorne, and is based on a story written by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne; when you have the author of the original series combining with two newbies, you have to expect that it is going to be different in a lot of ways.
  • our favourite young heroes are now grown-ups with families of their own, thus they are less exciting, less excitable, less endearing and less out-of-the-ordinary. The two main youngsters, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, are much more adventurous and fearless that their parents, but they are certainly not in the same league as young Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Draco.
  • the wonderful magical aspects were still there, which was great, and I loved that Moaning Myrtle featured.
  • adult Harry is a bit of a knob. He reminds me of a petulant four-year-old; he’s lost that adorable spark and faithfulness that made young HP a crowd favourite. He says some mean things to his son, and my feelings towards him were lukewarm for the remainder of the book.
  • at the end of The Deathly Hallows, good triumphed over evil, Voldemort was vanquished and all was right with the world (apart from the obvious tragic losses)…the story had an ending; Harry had won. Fans were gutted, but everything finally came together and made sense. I’m not really sure what the publication of this new installment actually achieves in terms of those original books, because it doesn’t really add or change anything; it almost feels like a reality TV show, “Harry Potter: Where Are They Now?”
  • [SPOILER ALERT] the play introduces the child of Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort, supposedly born before the Battle of Hogwarts. I struggled with this concept, but I do remember how much love Bellatrix had for the Dark Lord…so I decided to do some investigating, and came across this interesting piece that made me more open to the idea. Still…I found it weird.

I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I didn’t love it the way I loved its seven predecessors. Read it, but be prepared for it to be very different to the HP books you know.

Thank you to Hachette New Zealand for this review copy.