Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wizardry, Hells Bells, and a Talking Skull: What More Could Go Wrong?

Wizard-For-Hire, Harry Dresden.
Courtesy of comicvine.com
Harry Dresden usually gets into deep trouble.  Whether it's with trolls, vampires (of four different courts, but all of the same opinion that he needs to die), fairies, thugs, wizards, women, or his know-it-all talking spirit skull, wizard-for-hire has a knack for getting in way too deep with people (or things) that can kill him.  And, hells bells, he would not change it for anything.  The leather duster wearing and gun toting Dresden is sarcastic, handsome, intelligent, and talented, with a white and black sense of good and bad, a strict moral code, and a devil-may-care attitude which helps and hinders him.  Oh, and he mainly uses spells, a blasting rod, totems for protection, and fights Chicago's, the city he loves, underworld monsters, supernatural and human.  The wizard is the creation of American author, Jim Butcher, and debuted in 2000's Storm Front.  Fourteen more books later, Harry's in for at least five more books, according to Butcher; the ever-growing Dresden fan base has devotedly read the books and watched the short-lived Sci-Fi Channel show for 16 years now and continues to be obsessed with the man who is often described as the "grown-up Harry Potter."

The Dresden Files series can best be described as wry, sarcastic, utterly hilarious, heart-breakingly sad, intriguing, and exciting... yes, all of these.  The series traces several over-arching story lines while simultaneously following one book only story lines.  Dresden himself is the catalyst for several of these story lines; his talent and power become the focus of several groups, none of which are too friendly towards Dresden.  On the flip side, he is the impetus for good in the city, trying desperately to stay ahead of the powers of evil that threaten to overtake Chicago and harm those that Dresden loves.  Butcher writes Dresden in a way that he is under-whelmingly human, despite his magical abilities. The character is extremely self-aware, leading the hilarious inner dialogues about his talent, his failings, and what the hell is he going to do next; aka, every person on Earth's regular inner dialogue.  Dresden is that sexy, lovable man your mother warns you about and your father thinks is awesome; Dresden's character alone makes the novels worth reading.

However, the writing is also noteworthy.  It is not whimsical like most fantasy/sci-fi/magic series. Butcher instead weaves a world where the supernatural simmers barely below the surface and although there are the groupies that want to be supernatural, the regular people force themselves to ignore the weird happenings around them.  Butcher manages to create an entire world of weird and unknown. Although Dresden has great power and glowing talents, he knows that he cannot succeed (or at least scrape by by the skin of his teeth) without help from others.  This is where Butcher's fantastic cast of side characters comes in; magic and supernatural powers are mere cliche lagniappe when compared to the interweaving, repeating characters that love and hate Harry Dresden. Archangels, vampires, fairies, werewolves, and cops all come in and out of Harry's life to help him when desperate times call or just to be present when needed. This is definitely a women-rock series, with strong female characters that Dresden relies on for support, intelligence, and to save his life regularly.  Dresden acknowledges that he would be nothing without the women in life and that he is also constantly running from equally strong women out to kill him.

Author Jim Butcher
This is not your typical series.  When researching it, one struggles to find a consistent genre classification for it.  Horror (fight scenes, gore scenes, and the monsters are pretty intense), sci-fi (magic and supernatural), fantasy (magic and a tall, dark, handsome man with outstanding morals), romance (see above), and mystery (Dresden is a wizard for hire to solve mysteries, not to brew love potions) can all be applied.  However, whatever you read and whatever you call it, Harry Dresden is definitely the man for you.  This series is not to be missed.  It is campy at times, and it hilarious at times, but Jim Butcher masterfully weaves in the underlying story of the struggle between good and evil.  This is the ultimate enthralling series to read; you'll zip through it in no time and be left with the rest of the fans, waiting for Peace Talks, the 16th book, due May 10, 2016. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jenny Lawson is "Furiously Happy"

The world of books is inundated with self-help books.  Losing weight, getting on the right track,
Courtesy of goodreads.com
being happy, successful, healthy, perky, etc... you get the point.  Most of these books are formulaic; if you just follow these steps, life will be shiny, happy, and you will literally glow with all the positive energy and contentedness in your life.  However, as we all know, this is never the case.  Life can be the pits and sometimes hiding under your blanket might seem like the only step to follow.  Blogger extraordinaire, Jenny Lawson, not only is very familiar with these feelings, she revels in them.  The Texas born author and journalist is happily "out" with her diagnoses with a slew of mental illnesses; she blogs about her struggles and published her second book about the subject in September 2015, Furiously Happy.  Furiously Happy is unlike any self-help book you will ever read.  It does not provide answers or give you a goal list to 'get better'; instead, Lawson provides humor and comfort, the entire time reiterating that you are not alone in your sadness, your eccentricities, and your life. Gracing the cover is a picture of her furiously happy, taxidermied raccoon, Rory, who serves as a reminder throughout the book to be furiously happy, a state where one is constantly doing things and having experiences that make them happy, despite impending and inevitable sadness or depression. Lawson's theory is that these experiences will prop you up during the dark times and will serve as reminders that life is worth living and worth experiencing the heck out of.  

Lawson is definitely a breath of fresh air in the area of self-help books.  She has decided to address and tackle an extremely hot button topic with ease and confidence; mental illness is still a taboo topic, one that many books address in either a clinical, matter-of-fact way, or in a 'this is a fight and you need to do this to win' manner.  Yet Lawson's book is more about having adventures and living life to the fullest, along with her mental illness, not despite it.  The book is structured in a series of chapters, consisting of a mixture of  conversations, short stories, anecdotes, lists, and musings.  Lawson captures events in her life, whether the events are fueled by her mental illness or just by the quirks of life that everyone experiences.  Despite the rumor, raunchiness, and eccentricities of life, there is the ever-present theme of the struggles with mental illness throughout.  Lawson does not shy away from the darkness and pervasiveness of her illness; she does not mince words when describing the feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and despair she experiences in her 'down' times.  Instead she uses them as inspiration to live life to the fullest during her 'up' times.  Lawson stresses that, despite being successful and appearing to have everything she could want, she cannot stop the creeping anxiety caused by her illness.  It is a startling realistic portrayal of personal suffering from mental illness, and an accurate depiction of how it can wreak havoc on your perspective and life.  

Author and The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson
Courtesy of changinghands.com
Nevertheless, Lawson maintains a sense of humor and strength throughout the book.  She embraces her 'crazy' side and stresses that mental illness does not take away from one's life, but enhances it in an unique way.  Lawson reminds readers that they are not alone throughout the book; she says that there is a 'tribe' of people with similar struggles and that those experiencing the problems that come with mental illness must remember that they are not alone.  This book is truly an uplifting and encouraging book for people who are struggling; this is not preachy, does not tell you what you should do or what you should have done to prevent problem.  Instead, Lawson is comfort.  She is the friend who makes you laugh, who brings you candy, who is there for you in the 'down' times.  This book is for anyone and everyone; those who struggles with mental illness and those who have experienced sadness or self-doubt.  It stresses that your dark times should be fuel to live furiously happy in the light times; furiously happy will also get you through the dark times. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Creating Cormoran and his "Career of Evil"

The Blue Oyster Cult and a severed leg.  These are the only two clues that face Cormoran Strike in a perplexing mystery that will force him to examine his past and potentially lose his future.  Strike is back for the third installation of Robert Galbraith's hit series featuring the veteran-turned-detective and his clever, resilient assistant, Robin Ellacott. Career of Evil is the latest installation in the seven part series by British author, Robert Galbraith (what a magical name!).  This is perhaps the most twisted book in the series so far; Cormoran and Robin are directly targeted in a mystery that will reveal both Cormoran and Robin's inner demons and force them to reevaluate their lives and each other.

Staying true to form, Career continues Galbraith's gritty, edgy style, with crimes that turn the stomach and suspects that come from all walks of life but all have twisted inner demons and leanings towards evil.  A severed leg is delivered to Robin; this sets off several alarms for Robin, who is convinced that it is not the work of a random psycho but someone who is targeting Cormoran and mocking his amputation.  Cormoran, although slow to agree, comes to the conclusion that there are three main suspects who would have enough resentment towards Cormoran to target him. Cormoran and Robin begin to track down and investigate the three men, discovering that all three have the potential to descend into madness and all three having a burning hate for Cormoran Strike. The novel culminates in a fall that leaves readers anxious and waiting for more.

This might be the best novel of the series so far.  The whodunit was a bit obvious as the novel went on; however, a surprise twist packed a punch so fierce that the reader is almost forced to flip back and read specific passages again.  The journey was definitely the best part about this novel. A lot is revealed about the mysterious Cormoran; these revelations about him force Robin to examine her relationships with him and in doing so, Robin's character is developed to resemble the strong female characters from Galbraith's past works. The Cuckoo's Calling was a refreshing appearance on the mystery scene in 2013, a lackluster year for the genre, and promised a lot more to come from this brilliant author; Career of Evil delivers on that promise and leaves enough cliffhangers to entice readers to anxiously await next year's installment.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane."

Courtesy of goodreads.com
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the final installment in the series that captivated the world and changed children's literature forever.  By this point, the movies had been smash hits, the series had reached rock star levels of fame, with the midnight book premier being more of parties and celebrations than just a book release. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at universal Studios in Orlando, Florida was already being rumored (it was true!) and the last book was heavily guarded, with only two people in the world knowing the exact reasons for everything (JK Rowling herself squealed to British actor who played Severus Snape, Alan Rickman).  The world was hooked.  The Harry Potter series had become so real for so many people that it was hard to imagine a book that would not only satisfy the masses, but that would wrap up everything that had happen in the last six books.  Yet, Rowling delivered. 

Deathly Hallows encompasses all that made the series great: action, mystery, suspense, love, wit, and an ever present sense of hope.  It is needless to say that this book is dark; Voldemort has taken over and the good guys are running out of time (and people) to find the way to defeat him. Rowling creates the deathly hallows, a mystical fable of objects that would overcome death (seriously, the movie version of this part is better than the book).  These objects,  along with another set of darker, more evil objects, drive the story forward. This is the book that, in my opinion, finally showcases Rowling's ability as a fantasy writer.  She has created her own canon of magic, not borrowed and tweaked previously known items; she solidified a new idea of magic in literature.  Deathly Hallows is difficult to classify.  It is not the best book out of the series; there are parts that seem choppy and out of sorts, almost like Rowling was postponing the end herself.  Nonetheless, this is the book that makes the series, that makes the world black and white, and illustrates to the reader Rowling's overall message in the series: redemption, forgiveness, love, and honor will triumph even in the face of the darkest foes.  
Chapter 33 "The Prince's Tale"

There are several things simply wrong with this book.  Several  things made readers cry, rage, throw the book down in disgust.  Things that broke our hearts.  Things that were paramount to reveal the ugliness of war, the brokenness of evil, and the heartache that accompanies taken the hard road, the righteous road.  Rowling did not make a mistake with this book, despite what readers still debate.  The things that seemed wrong, seemed awful, were realistic and relevant.  War and death are not rational, which Rowling stressed to point out.  She took a war (wars are not all that different, even in a magical world) and showed us that divided along good and evil, people die, places get destroyed, lives are changed forever, and things that people dread can happen. Yet, in this book, in life, good triumphs.  There will always be someone to stand up for what is right,  even in the face of death.  Those least likely will be the heroes.  Love conquers all. Always. 

"All was well,"

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

“It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting along in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.”

Straight from the get-go, Harry  Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is probably the most entertaining and most mesmerizing book of the series.  The other books build up the story, enticing you to keep reading to find out what happens next and to continue the journey to the climax of the story;  Half-Blood Prince draws you in by sheer force of storytelling, by the way Rowling weaves the story in a way that you are in the moment, not wondering how this is all going to come together, not wondering what is going to happen next,  but just simply interested in the story plot at hand.  Everything has lead up to this book; all the unanswered questions, not yet solved problems, and the gray areas of loyalty are all made painfully clear in this book.

The book opens with one of the most realistic, most darkly enjoyable  scenes of the series.  The Muggle Prime Minster is in a near panic from all the inexplicable disasters occurring in Great Britain. While in a state, he is visited by the recently sacked Minister of Magic, who explains that all the disasters are related to the revitalized power of the most powerful dark wizard of all time.  This meeting does not go well. Yet, this opening leaves reader caught up with the events since Voldemort's going public at the Ministry of Magic.  We meet Harry once again at Privet Drive; the Dursleys haven not changed much, but Harry sure has.  Quiet, often brooding, and still simmering with the agony of Sirius's death, Harry is quite startled to be relieved of his time at Privet Drive by Dumbledore himself.  A whirlwind manipulation of a former teacher later, Harry is reunited with his friends and they off to Hogwarts for harder classes, complex love affairs, general shenanigans, and to be faced with a plot so simple, so driven with fear, that it entirely changes the course of Hogwarts and of the mission to defeat Voldemort.

Chapter 27-
"The Lightening-Struck Tower"
There are several points of humor in this book (which is turn led to a highly entertaining movie) that balance out the dark forces that are simmering under the surface. The dialogue is more natural and more mature.  For the first time in the series, Rowling finally makes use of flashbacks; however, it is not your typical flashback, since the scenes are memories stored in a Pensive (most useful item in the series after wands!)  When not written correctly, flashbacks can seem campy, unnecessary, or can throw the plot off completely.  This is not the case for Half-Blood Prince; some of Rowling's best writing in the series are these scenes.  They are almost separate narratives in a story, all contributing to the present day situation.  Rowling weaves in tragedy, determination, evil, madness, beauty, and mystery throughout the stories.  The flashbacks propel the narrative forward, revealing Voldemort's past, present, and future. Rowling writes her more mature teen characters with witty dialogue, amusingly accurate portrayals of love, angst, and everything in between, and, most importantly, a near-complete revealing of what exactly is going on.  Why does Harry have to return to the horrid Dursleys every year, what happened to Dumbledore's hand, how was Voldemort able to cling to life, and much, much more, including the revealing of several characters' true intentions.

As I said in the third post about this series, this is the second best book, in my opinion.  It has the elements that made this series great; ingenuity, adventure, fantasy, family, love, great dialogue, and historical intrigue.  This is the most heart-pounding book in the series, the book that ushers readers to the beginning of the end.  The beauty of Half-Blood Prince is that it leaves you sad, hopeful, and completely immersed from beginning to end.  You question gray areas of characters and sitautions: what would you do?  That is the question Harry is asking himself in the beginning; by the end, he has his answers and is preparing to face his greatest foe.

“His hand closed automatically around the fake Horcrux, but in spite of everything, in spite of the dark and twisting path he saw stretching ahead for himself, in spite of the final meeting with Voldemort he knew must come, whether in a month, in a year, or in ten, he felt his heart lift at the thought that there was still one last golden day of peace left to enjoy with Ron and Hermione.”

The end is coming. Wands ready!


Monday, August 17, 2015

“The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.”

Courtesy of amazon.com
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be called the turning point for the series.  It is completely gloomy, dark, and our wizards and witches are growing up.  I will tell you right now, it is not a feel good book.  It signals the now darkness that the British wizarding world is enveloped in and now the gray areas of loyalty are becoming black and white.  The good guys and the bad guys are distinguishing themselves and the underground war is just getting started.

We had been left on a depressing cliff the last book, and we now meet our wizard hero being 15, bullied by his cousin, and blossoming into an angst filled teenager. After being attacked by dementors in Muggle London, Harry is whisked away into hiding with the Order of the Phoenix, the revived group of wizards and witches dedicated to fighting Voldemort.  There we learn more about Sirius Black and his past, the new members of the Order, and what exactly are the odds of success against Voldemort and his growing number of followers.  At school, Harry is faced with new challenges: a teacher who is down right evil, a vengeful Severus Snape, his raging hormones and emotions (angst being the absolute worst part of this book- yet, Rowling masterfully manages to fully annoy the reader with Harry's teen drama, exactly like a real teenager), a sad Cho Chang who needs a shoulder to cry on, upcoming O.W.L.s, and the creeping darkness of Voldemort's forces closing in.

British author J.K. Rowling takes pains to signal that the series is now departing from the feel-good, whimsical first book.  Order is angrier, edgier, and much more adult than the previous books. There is new magic introduced, but is either dark magic or defensive magic.  New characters are also introduced; several of them are endearing, but their very presence is evidence that Dumbledore is padding the ranks with highly trained, deadly, and morally good wizards and witches, preparing for the eventual grand showdown.  On the flip side, we are introduced to a new villain that is most definitely worse and more anger-inducing than Voldemort himself: Dolores Umbridge. American author Stephen King (who knows a thing or two about villians and evil) summed her up perfectly: “The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”  She is mind-numbingly terrible, dripping in pink, cats, and hate for Harry Potter.  She is possibly the best part of the book.  Any interactions with her are written sadistically and cruelly; Rowling's writing genius shines through Umbridge in that any interaction with Umbridge will fill the reader with anger, indignant rebellion, and a realization that sometimes, the real evil is in the weaker people who flock to the powerful.

Chapter 36: The Only One He Ever Feared,
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
In what has become the most horrifying, terrible, tragic part of the series, Order ends with a death that literally hurts.  I have no shame in admitting that my mother and I cried throughout our entire vacation after reading the book (much to my father's chagrin!)  The final blow in the book is devastating; many still criticize Rowling for it.  However, it was necessary.  It warned the reader that war is not for the faint of heart and that good people, people who you love, die.  Fans hated it, but it was the perfect way to initialize what was to come.  This book divided the men from the boys, women from the girls, among the Harry Potter fans.  Order of the Phoenix tested your ability to love the series despite the tragedy, the hurt, the pain, the angst, and Cho Chang.  If you could excuse this book, you would make it to the end.

“Instead he smiled, raised a hand in farewell, turned around, and led the way out of the station toward the sunlit street, with Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Dudley hurrying along in his wake.”

Only two more to go!  Check back for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (my second favorite!)