Books

Talking about books (when I have time to read for fun)

O.W.L.’s Magical Readathon 2020

The O.W.L.’s Magical Readathon returns next month! This month-long readathon is the brainchild of Gi at Book Roast on YouTube and it’s the third year it’s happened. Last year was the first year I took part and after successfully completing my O.W.L.’s and N.E.W.T.’s I qualified to be a Ministry Worker in the Department of International Magical Cooperation.

The challenge is based on the Hogwarts examinations in the world of Harry Potter, but you don’t need to know a lot about it or be a Harry Potter fan to take part in the challenge. The basic premise is that each Hogwarts subject has its own prompt, you read a book that fits that prompt and then you’ve achieved an O.W.L. in that subject. This readathon lasts the entirety of April so it gives you plenty of time to try and cram in as many O.W.L.’s aka books as possible. For more information on the readathon see Gi’s announcement video. It’s clear she puts in a lot of work into this challenge, she makes study guides and a career guide that has information on lots of magical careers and the subjects you need to study in order to be able to progress in that career.

This year there’s some new careers and bonus courses, seminars and training if you want to challenge yourself. I’ve decided that my chosen career this year is Mage of Visual Arts. This sounds like a fun career as you make the pictures and portraits move and it’s the most like the muggle world of film. The O.W.L.’s I need to earn are in Astronomy, Charms, Divination, and History of Magic. That’s four books I need to read but I would also like to push myself and do an extra training course. I would like to learn to operate locomotive trains aka the Hogwarts Express. I love driving cars, so as there’s no course on learning how to drive a flying car (yet!) it’d be fun to learn how to drive a train. The O.W.L.’s I need for that are Defence Against the Dark Arts and Muggle Studies. So, the total number of books I need to read in April is six. That’s doable for me.

I’ve had a look at my bookshelves and below are the books I plan to read to get my O.W.L.’s to become a Mage of Visual Arts. I’ve also got books for the other O.W.L.’s in case I do better than expected and can fit in a couple more books during the month.

Ancient Runes – Heart rune: heart on the cover or in the title
A Dream So Dark by L.L. McKinney
I’m reaching a bit here, but it has the word “heart” and a heart shaped key on the cover, so I think it counts. I read A Blade So Black last year for my N.E.W.T.’s so it’d be cool to read the sequel for my O.W.L.’s.

Arithmancy – Magical qualities of number 2: balance/opposites – read something outside your favourite genre
Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
I’m not even sure what my favourite genre is anymore (I’m going to probably do a blog post about that at some point) but a genre I don’t read that often is sci-fi so that’s the reason I’ve chosen Gemina.

Astronomy – Night classes: read majority of this book when it’s dark outside
Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki
This book is relatively short at 240 pages and is about sisters growing up in the countryside in Athens before the Second World War.

Care of Magical Creatures – Hippogriffs: creature with a beak on the cover
Infinite Son by Adam Silvera
After going through all my books because I really wasn’t sure if I had a book that had creature with a beak, I found one!

Charms – Lumos Maxima: white cover
The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan or The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
The Bloodprint is a book I bought just because the cover was super pretty and all I know is it’s a fantasy. The Architect’s Apprentice is a historical fiction and is set during the Ottoman Empire. Both have white covers.

Defence Against the Dark Arts – Grindylows: book set at the sea/coast
Viper by Bex Hogan or The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
Both books take place on islands and heavily involve the sea. I think Viper is more of a pirate book while The Gloaming is more of a mermaid/fairy tale book – I think!

Divination – Third eye: assign numbers to your TBR and use a random number generator to pick your read
Hawkeye: Avenging Archer by Jim McCann, David Lopez, Duane Swierczynski, Manuel Garcia and Paco Diaz
Putting together all the unread books I have on my kindle, on audio and in my flat (there’s more unread books at my mum’s) I had 47 books for the random number generator to choose from. It picked number 17 which was Hawkeye: Avenging Archer which I couldn’t have picked better myself as comics/graphic novels are always a good idea in a readathon.

Herbology – Mimbulus mimbletonia: title starts with an M
Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi
Turns out I have one book that has a title that begins with the letter M so I guess I’m going to be reading Mama Hissa’s Mice.

History of Magic – Witch hunts: book featuring witches/wizards
Angel Mage by Garth Nix or Truthwitch by Susan Dennard or mystery book
This one was surprisingly difficult. I’m not sure if Angel Mage has witches or wizards in it but there is magic. Based on the title and the premise I’m pretty sure Truthwitch features witches. Or the last witchy-book I could read for this prompt is one I don’t have yet. I’ve ordered April’s Wildest Dreams book box and the book apparently has “Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels” so that could work too.

Muggle Studies – Book from a perspective of a muggle (contemporary)
The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne
This looks like it’s a sad contemporary about a relationship that’s ending and it’s potentially wasn’t a healthy relationship either.

Potions – Shrinking Solution: book under 150 pages
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
I’ve got A Small Place on audiobook and according to Goodreads it is 81 pages long so definitely works for this challenge.

Transfiguration – Animagus lecture: book/series that includes shapeshifting
Downfall by Rob Thurman or The Invasion by K.A. Applegate
This subject was hard to find a book for as I don’t really read many books with shapeshifting in them and I don’t think any of my unread books have it in either. After looking at my bookshelves, the only book I could find that would fit was Downfall. It’s an urban fantasy and I remember earlier on in the series there were werewolves so that’d count. The other option is the fact I recently learnt that apparently all the Animorphs books are available online for free. Animorphs isn’t a series I read as a child but I have vague memories of the TV show, and as they’re children’s books they’re likely to be short and easy to read (which is always a good thing for a readathon) so I could pick up the first book in the series.

That’s my TBR for this years’ O.W.L.’s Magical Readathon. Are you taking part in the readathon and what career are you aiming for? In August there’s the N.E.W.T.’s which can be even more challenging and will be the final hurdle for achieving your chosen career. Wish me luck!

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Spring TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl. This week it’s what books we plan to read this Spring (and what with this coronavirus stuff, I might actually read all of these in the next few months if I can’t leave the house). The first five books are all audiobooks I’ve recently purchased. I go through phases of buying audiobooks – especially when there’s offers on – and they’re all for my Read the World Project.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Now I don’t really know much about this one, just that it’s set in Zambia and I think it follows a couple of families for generations.

United States of Banana by Giannina Braschi
This seems like a bit of an odd book but an interesting one. It seems like it’s an alternate history kind of thing, set post 9/11 the Puerto Rican prisoner Segismundo has been imprisoned for more than one hundred years, hidden away by his father, the king of the United States of Banana. But when the king frees his son, he makes Puerto Rico the fifty-first state and grants American passports to all Latin American citizens, causing an unexpected power shift with far-reaching implications.

The Door by Magda Szabó
The Door is about the relationship between two women of opposing backgrounds and personalities: one, an intellectual and writer; the other, her housekeeper, a mysterious, elderly woman who sets her own rules and abjures religion, education, pretence and any kind of authority.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
An expansive essay on colonialism and its effects in Antigua.

Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko
My read for Ukraine. All I know about this one is that it caused a stir in Ukraine and it’s very feminist.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
I received this via TBTB Santa (thanks again Jocelyn!) and I really want to read it sooner, rather than later. Especially as I think the sequel has recently been published so it’d be nice to read them close together.

Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi
This would be my read for Kuwait and it’ll be the first book I’ve ever read that’s set there.

What Would Boudicca Do? by E. Foley and B. Coates
This was a gift from my best friend and sounds like a great non-fiction read about gaining inspiration from powerful and resourceful women throughout history.

Viper by Bex Hogan
I got this book in a subscription box last year and I remember my friend Bryony reading it and liking it so it’s about time I got to it. It’s kind of a pirate/sea book I think and I can’t even remember the last time I read something like that.

Infinity Son by Adam Silvera
Another book I received in a subscription box. It’s been a while since I’ve read some urban fantasy (I think that’s what this is) or fantasy in general, and I’ve yet to read a book by Adam Silvera so I’m interested in seeing what I make of his writing style.

If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them. What books are you hoping to get to over the next few months?

READ THE WORLD – Angola: Transparent City by Ondjaki

Translated by Stephen Henighan and narrated by Sam Peters.

In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless.

While the blurb focuses on Odonato, really Transparent City is an ensemble book as it follows the many people who live in the apartment block who have connections to it, whether that’s the postman or local politicians and tax inspectors. The male characters are the focus though, with the female characters being cooks, wives, mothers, secretaries and objects of the men’s sexual desire. It’s the men who have pseudo-narrative arcs

Transparent City is such a weird story. There’s the magical realism aspect with Odonato. He slowly becomes more transparent and weightless as he misses his son and he lose hope of seeing him again, or of seeing his city how it used to be. That part, while odd is understandable. It’s a lot of the other things going on with the characters that is confusing and farcical. Confrontations and conversations appear to go around in circles, as they do their best to befuddle whoever they’re talking to with rhetorical questions and agreeing to disagree. It feels like there’s little point to their actions and it’s difficult to gage whether the outcome is in their favour or not.

What is clear in Transparent City is that money talks in Angola and those who have it can pretty much do whatever they want. There’s also corruption and violence. The police will only help people if they are bribed, and the politicians are far removed from the everyday issues an average person may have. There are sparks of goodness and community though. The people who live in the apartment block help each other out, for the most part, and will give what they can to those who need.

I listened Transparent City on audio and to be honest, I found it a struggle to get through. I think that was mostly down to the narrator. There’s a lot of characters in this book, both male and female, and he doesn’t do anything with his voice to differentiate between the characters when they’re talking, or when he’s narrating the narrative. It makes it difficult to follow the story and to distinguish who is who. Also, I think how the book is formatted influences that too as there’s no chapters, instead there’s what I presume to be line breaks when the story goes from one characters point of view to another, but that’s hard to pick up on when listening to the audiobook.

It’s a shame that I didn’t get along with the audiobook, and maybe if I’d physically read the book I might have been able to understand it better, but I do think Transparent City didn’t work for me for reasons beyond the narrator. There often seemed little point to characters actions, and the story itself didn’t seem to have a beginning, middle or end. It was hard to become attached to any of the characters, and there may be somethings in term of the culture and politics of Angola that I didn’t understand or get deeper meanings of, but I should’ve been able to follow the story a lot better than I did.

READ THE WORLD – Taiwan: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Translated by Bonnie Huie and narrated by Jo Mei.

Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.

Set in the late 1980s, Lazi is at university in Taipei but the focus of Notes of a Crocodile are her romantic endeavours and how she tries to open herself up to love. Lazi is quite reserved when it comes to love, and it’s like she gets to a certain point in a relationship and then becomes shut off and terrified about whether she has the capacity to continue to love someone.

Lazi is an interesting character because it’s like she’s searching for love and security but is also fiercely independent. It’s how those two sides of her conflict feels very relatable. She also ponders gender and sexuality, the feminine and the masculine, and where she fits within those binaries and if she even wants to fit in them.

A lot of the conversations she has with her friends are about love and how people feel about themselves and others. Notes of a Crocodile probably has the most communicative characters I’ve seen in a book in a while. There’s still instances where Lazi or her friends don’t find the right words to say at the right time, or she talks to a friend rather than to the person who is breaking her heart, but at least they’re talking and trying to figure out their feelings.

Interspersed in the main narrative, there’s the story of the crocodile – a semi-human creature that the general human population of Taiwan are simultaneously intrigued by and scared of. The crocodile is a metaphor for queer people in Taiwan and how they were treated, and how they can feel isolated and unlovable. It took a while for me to understand these crocodile-segments and how they fit with the story and how they related to what Lazi was going through.

I listened to Notes of a Crocodile on audio and I think the narrator did a good job even though the story was a bit disjointed. A lot of the chapters end abruptly, and sometimes the narrative jumps back and forth in time so sometimes Lazi is with Shui Ling, other times she’s over her, and then sometimes she’s still coming to terms with their relationship ending. Then there’s her friend’s various relationships that you see at different points too. It’s a bit confusing but the main theme throughout is finding somewhere to belong and a lot of heartbreak.

Notes of a Crocodile was an interesting read about a time, place and culture that I knew little about. Lazi is an interesting, flawed and sometimes infuriating character but that makes her feel more real. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Narrated by Michael Page.

Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a small gang of thieves who are masters of the long con. They are not the petty criminals the other gangs of the city of Camorr think they are, instead they steal from the rich putting together heists full of disguises and trickery. The Lies of Locke Lamora follows the Gentleman Bastards as they start the ball rolling on their latest con, but there’s more going on here with challenges to the power structure of the criminal underworld of Camorr and bigger threats than they’ve ever encountered.

I loved this book and I’m annoyed at myself that it’s taken me so long to read it. I started reading it on my kindle way back in 2013, I got about 150 pages in but then stopped even though I did like the atmosphere and Locke as a character. I think the reason I stopped (besides life getting in the way) was because the beginning is a bit slow as it has a lot of things to set up. It’s more character focussed so you learn about who the Gentleman Bastards are and how they work, and how this whole world works with both the upper-class and the lower-class systems of Camorr too. Seven years later I tried again and this time I went with the audiobook which I thought was brilliant. The narrator did such a good job a distinguishing between the many characters in the story and he really brought this world to life, along with its dark humour. The Lies of Locke Lamora surprised me with how funny it is. A lot of that come from Locke’s sarcastic thoughts or his reactions to the situations he ends up in, and I just love characters with deadpan humour and who aren’t afraid to “Well shit, this isn’t going how I thought it would.”

The city of Camorr is kind of Venice-like with its canals and boats and the changing weather. The setting is also a bit historical and feels like the seventeenth century with the clothes they wear, the rules of society, and the style of language they use – though there is a lot of modern and inventive swearing too. However, there’s also some magical elements or alchemy to this world too, but it’s all weaved together in a way that makes it feel so real. Your plopped straight into the story and the setting is built up around the characters and the plot in an organic way and it never feels like there’s an infodump.

The structure of The Lies of Locke Lamora is really interesting. There’s the present where Locke and the Gentleman Bastards are grown up and conning noble people, and there’s interludes or flashbacks to when the Gentleman Bastards are children, where you see how they meet, and how they learn to be great thieves. The flashbacks were so great because they not only added backstory and layers to the characters, but they are just as engaging as the action in the present. I never got bored or annoyed when there was a flashback, even if one happened when the tension and the action was amping up in the present.

The characters are brilliant and are so lifelike. While they are all thieves and conmen, the Gentleman Bastards all have their own distinct quirks and personalities. The relationships between the Gentleman Bastards, in their various combinations, are wonderful too. They are more of a family and brothers in arms than just a gang. They all care deeply about one another and are willing to die for one another, and they all trust one another and it’s the epitome of the found family trope which I love.

Locke is a great leader of this family too. They each have their role and they often fit the archetypes of characters needed for a heist, and Locke is definitely the brains of the operation. That’s not to say he won’t bounce ideas off the others or listen to their advice, but he’s definitely the smartest one – and he’s often the smartest one in the room. His intelligence, and ability to think a couple of steps ahead is his superpower, so when there’s other people or powers who come into play that are potentially smarter than he is, that’s when things get even more interesting and you start to worry that these characters won’t make it out of this situation fully intact.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is such a fun and thrilling adventure story. There’s twists and turns and surprises, as with any good heist story, and there’s bloody fights and verbal battles. The Gentleman Bastards are characters I can’t wait to spend more time with, and I’m tempted to carry on this serious with the audiobooks if they have the same narrator because they were that good. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tibet: Love in No Man’s Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga

Translated by Hallie Treadway.

The Changthang Plateau lies in the centre of Tibet. A vast, rolling grassland stippled with azure-blue lakes and ringed by snow peaks, it is home to seven-year-old Gongzha and his family who live, as their ancestors have done for centuries, by herding and hunting. But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is seeping across China. Not even the grasslands of Tibet are immune. As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet’s monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black Buddha marked with an ancient symbol and a copy of the twelfth-century text the Epic of King Gesar, written in gold ink. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.

Love in No Man’s Land is a sprawling epic that goes from the 1960s to the 1990s. In that time, you see how life for the families who live on the grassland of Tibet change a lot, but at the same time they still keep a lot of their traditions and history. For instance, even though roads and cars start to become more common, there’s still so many places where modern civilisation hasn’t touched it and people still live how their ancestors did before them.

The writing in Love in No Man’s Land is beautiful and evocative. It really paints a vivid picture of both the harshness of the vast grasslands but also the beauty of them too. With the mountains and lakes, the wild animals (wolves, yaks, antelope and bears all play a big part), and the changing weather, it all feels so magical and far-removed from “the real world”.

Love (as you might guess from the books title) is a big theme of this book. Gongzha has a childhood sweetheart, he loves his family and he’s respectful of the grassland and the creatures who live there. He has a big heart and seeing him deal with tragedy from a young age (death and violence are not uncommon in the communities he is a part of) and how that shapes him is interesting.

As well as Gongzha and his personal journey, a big part of Love in No Man’s Land is this mystery surrounding an ancient symbol. It’s in caves, on statues, on bears, and it seems to be a part of the very essence of the grassland. Gongzha encounters it at different points in his life, each time learning a bit more about his people’s past and how they could possibly be connected to the symbol, but it’s not something that he spends his life pondering.

While Gongzha is the main protagonist you meet a lot of different characters. These people dip in and out of Gongzha’s life, and sometimes they’re the children of someone Gongzha used to know, meaning it can be difficult at times to keep track of who is who and how they’re connected to one another. That being said, having so many characters helps this word feel lived in and real. Love in No Man’s Land is in the third person and while the majority of the book is from Gongzha’s point of view, a lot is also from the point of view of the various characters that are in Gongzhas life, even if for a short while. Some might be the focus for only a page or two, while others have more of a decent sized chunk. There are some coincidences where people encounter one another and don’t realise at first that they might have a couple of people already connecting them. But on a whole, these connections seem organic as they are a people who have lived in this part of the world for generations and rarely move far from their families.

I learnt so much about the Tibetan herder’s lifestyle and how it’s evolved over the years from reading Love in No Man’s Land. I think I preferred the atmosphere this book evokes more than anything and I didn’t always feel that connected to Gongzha which is probably down to us having so different lives. It was still a fascinating read – especially this mystery to do with the symbol – and a beautifully written one too. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Venezuela: The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno

Translated by Guillermo Parra.

When leftist revolutionary Sergio’s sniper shot misses the President of Venezuela, he’s thrown into a sudden tailspin. As he attempts to escape the increasingly militarized regime, he winds up taking residence in a bohemian beachside commune, where he keeps a low profile until Lourdes, his former comrade, the object of his desire, and his possible betrayer, turns up one evening. Pursued by their former trainer in guerrilla warfare on the orders of the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, the two team up with unlikely partners to hatch a new plan for their survival.

Reading The Conspiracy is an experience. You follow multiple characters point of views throughout the story, giving you a wider understanding of the events unfolding after the failed assassination attempt than the majority of the characters. The sections from Sergio’s point of view are in the first person and there are often very long paragraphs and run on sentences. His mind is frantic and that comes across in the words on the page. There are times when he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing or doing and sees threats from everyone, making his narrative even more jumbled up and like a stream of consciousness.

The other characters point of views are written in the third person and while there’s still often long paragraphs, they tend to come across more measured and in control than Sergio, highlighting how his grip on reality is loosening.

The women in The Conspiracy are often described in a sexual manner with greater attention paid to their physical appearance – especially when it’s from Sergio’s point of view. It can be uncomfortable and eyeroll inducing due to the overtly sexual and lewd language used to describe them. But, with Lourdes especially, these women aren’t just there to be visually pleasing to the men. Lourdes is smart and capable and can tell when the walls are closing in and will go down all guns blazing if she sees no other choice.

There are a lot of twists and turns in The Conspiracy and while you as the reader tend to have more of an overview as to what’s going on than Sergio, there’s still surprises and people turn on one another or reveal secret plans. It makes it difficult to tell who to trust and while you learn more of Loudres’ backstory, the way the story is written means that like Sergio, you don’t always know if you can trust her motives.

The Conspiracy is full of backstabbing and political intrigue, but the writing style won’t be for everyone though with its manic energy and an unreliable narrator in Sergio. But at just over 200 pages, it’s a story that goes by at a steady pace and is an engaging read. 3/5.