Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Room on the Broom is a delightful story about a witch riding around on a broom with her cat. Three times, she accidentally drops an item, and it is retrieved for her by a new animal who asks for a spot on the broom (and, of course, there is room). However, when the broom breaks, the witch is chased by a hungry dragon, until her new friends scare it away. They then make a new, and even better broom, together and fly off.

I really enjoyed reading this to my son. The words are fantastic, with a very upbeat, musical rhythm that made it lots of fun to read. The characters are also distinctive enough that I found it very easy to come up with unique voices for each.

The artwork looks simplistic, but gorgeous, at first, but there’s actually a fair bit going on in the background (usually to do with animals who react to the events of the story without being acknowledged by the text). The artwork is very colourful, and the character faces are expressive. My son enjoyed looking through them and telling me his own stories inspired by the background details.

Room on the Broom is a well-rounded, quality children’s picture book.

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The Hollows #2: The Good, the Bad, and the Undead by Kim Harrison

Read: 10 October, 2013

I had a lot of negative things to say about Dead Witch Walking, mostly involving contrived plot hinges and senseless decisions. I had been recommended the series as a friend and wanted to stick it through because of that, but I was unimpressed and waited a long time before I bothered to pick up the next book.

I’m really glad that I took my friend’s advice and kept reading! The second book is a huge improvement. The plot is much tighter, the character motives are clearer, the suspense is more believable… All around, it’s a far better book. It also answers many of the questions from the first that had bugged me, and is much better at asking questions for future instalments (one of the complaints I had about the first book was that there were plot elements that I was confused about and only figured out that I was supposed to be confused by looking them up online – nothing in the text had hinted that the mysteries were still open).

That being said, I did find Morgan’s fixation on Trent rather disquieting. There really wasn’t a reason for her to think he was involved in the murders she was investigating, yet she hounds him down anyway. Then her behaviour in the case was utterly incomprehensible (and her realization of how inappropriate she’d been didn’t seem to explain why she’d ever thought her actions were a good idea in the first place). The lengthy arguments with the F.I.B. officers over her wanting to just accuse and lock up Trent without anything more than her suspicions were tiresome and frustrating.

Even so, I can definitely see the series picking up, and I think I can now consider myself “into it.”

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Night Watch #2: The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 19 December, 2010

During a battle with a powerful witch, Day Watch witch Alisa is drained of all her power. She is sent to a children’s summer camp to work as a councillor while she recovers and, there, falls in love with a young man. Everything seems to be going well until her powers start to return and she realizes that her lover is a witch with the Night Watch!

In Night Watch, we got to see how the Others on the side of the light operate. Now, we get a glimpse into their enemy organization, the Day Watch.

This was a great addition to the series! I really enjoyed how the Dark Others were presented. They aren’t evil, per se, they are just approaching life and relationships differently. In fact, I think that many people would agree with their individualistic philosophy. Lukyanenko did a great job of making the two sides distinct, with thoughts and motives that are diametrically opposed, while at the same time making them eerily similar. I think it’s a mark of a master writer to be able to convincingly write about a feud between two enemies while convincing the reader that both are entirely justified.

As with Night Watch, the book is composed of several short stories that don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with each other. But by the end, it becomes apparent that each has actually been building up towards a particular climax, that every seemingly unrelated event has actually been part of the leaders’ strategies. Again, it’s truly impressive how Lukyanenko is able to pull this off without it ever feeling contrived. The climactic reveals are truly revealing, and not in a cheaty way.

The setting is wonderful. It’s a magical world laid over our own modern day one, and this is done very creatively. But most impressive is how very Russian the magic system is! There is little natural limit to what the witches can do, something that would be a recipe for Mary Sues in the hands of most other authors. But here, the use of magic is restricted by a complex hierarchical bureaucracy. It’s like something straight out of Brazil!

And, as a fan of Russian music, I’ve been having a great time trying to match up the translated lyrics with the original songs.

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Night Watch #1: The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 12 May, 2009

Anton Gorodetski is an Other, a person with magical abilities. In his world, Others come in two types: those who belong to the Light and those who belong to the Dark. These two sides are in a sort of cold war against each other, each polices the other and ensures that neither breaks the terms of their uneasy truce.

Night Watch is arranged in three parts, each an independent story in which Anton must solve a mystery and encounter the Dark Ones. The great twist of the third story is, of course, that the events of all three are actually all related, part of a great plot, and Anton must make an impossible choice that could either save the world or destroy it.

The novel is unmistakably Russian. The magic system, not to mention the model of the truce between the two factions of Others, is ruled primarily by bureaucracy. The sense of humour, too, is fundamentally Russian – as are the character personalities, the descriptions, and even Anton’s final decision at the climax of the novel. All are so adorably Russian.

The bureaucracy makes the magic system interesting. While the magic system itself could allow for limitless power (something generally considered a no-no in the Fantasy genre), the bureaucracy keeps the amount of power any one individual can hold in check. It’s a very unique (and uniquely Russian) solution to a common problem in Fantasy stories.

I found Night Watch to be a delightful novel. It was funny, it was interesting, it was suspenseful, clever, and so very very Russian (can I say this enough?). I highly recommend it for fans of the Fantasy genre (especially the subgenre of Urban Fantasy), as well as any Russia-aficionados.

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Discworld #12: Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Read: 26 April, 2009

A beautiful young servant girl is destined to marry a handsome prince, thanks to her fairy godmother. The ball has been arranged, the gown made, and everything prepared so that Ella can meet her prince charming and live happily ever after.

But there’s a catch. Three witches have come to put a stop to this fairy tale and make sure that Ella never marries the prince. Ella couldn’t be happier!

Terry Pratchett’s twelfth Discworld novel returns to Bad Ass and to the adventures of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat.

There isn’t much to be said about this novel that can’t be said for pretty much any of the other Discworld books. As usually, Pratchett his hilariously funny. I love Granny and Nanny and how they play off each other. The inversion of the classic fairy tale is quite clever as well.

But this isn’t just about fairy tales. A large portion of the novel could better be called a mock-travel narrative, which was very interesting.

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The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

Read: 17 August, 2008

Overall, I’d say that this book is fine if taken as fiction and read for pleasure. If you are interested in serious scholarship regarding the history of the occult, this book would really only serve to help you with modern/Wiccan perceptions of witchcraft. While it does touch on a number of older subjects, the articles are clearly written from a Wiccan perspective.

For example, “altar” is almost entirely defined in the context of goddess worship, never mind that plenty of patriarchal religions made use of altars in their devotion to male gods (Christianity being an obvious example). The book takes the theory that goddess worship was the norm before it was suddenly replaced by male-centred religion as a given.

Even the entries that don’t display an obvious Wiccan/feminist perspective show dubious scholarship. For example, the entire entry for Patricia C. Crowther talks about her relationship with woman she had been in a previous life – Polly. Polly teaches her some spells. The book says that “Patricia had no knowledge of such spells, which experts determined were authentic.” Well, that’s just sloppy. Who were these experts? Were they experts of Elizabethan magical theory and could therefore say that the spells Crowther had learned did match up with what we know of what Elizabethan witches may have practised? Or were these experts in magic who could tell that the spells were true spells with real magical power? We are never told the type of expert and in what way the spells were deemed authentic, which would change the interpretation of the article a great deal.

And then there were some entries that I just have no way of explaining. For example, the entry on “Gypsies” explains that “their language, Romany, is related to Sanskrit,” but it never says that the people themselves are not called “Gypsies.” They are Romani. This is never mentioned in the entire entry – a very unusual little bit of bigotry for a book published in 1999.

This book isn’t a waste in the sense that I did get quite a few story ideas from it. But if you are doing research for any purpose other than the writing of fiction, don’t bother looking here. And, honestly, even if you are writing fiction, use it only as inspiration, not as an information source.

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Harry Potter #3: The Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Read: 2005

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third instalment of the Harry Potter series. The story opens on Harry’s thirteenth birthday. He is staying with his abusive aunt and uncle (muggles, or non-magical persons) for the summer. What follows is a story of his third year at Hogwarts, a boarding school for young wizards, and his discovery of his long-dead father.

Before I begin, I would like to make it very clear that I will only be discussing The Prisoner of Azkaban in this review. I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, so I really can’t comment on how this particular book fits in. Now that that’s out of the way…

I absolutely loved the way The Prisoner of Azkaban brought mythology to life in a modern and relevant way. It’s not Tristan or Siddhartha Gautama anymore, this is just Harry. I have seen many attempts to revitalize myths for children, but this is the first time I have seen it done quite so successfully (at least since The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia).

The plot is undeniably interesting. Many common child issues are brought up and dealt with in quite a nice pedagogical way. Everything from friendships to coping with fears to bullying to dealing with the loss of a loved one. These are all issues that every child faces, and children can learn a lot about how to deal with fear, for example, in the episode with the boggart (just find a way to make the fear look silly, laugh it to death!).

My major qualm with the book was the way that the plot developed. Rather than a subtle movement or clues for the reader to piece together, the plot moves very slowly, takes a huge leap, moves slowly again, etc. Sometimes, an explanation character is thrown in. These characters have no being of their own, no personalities, no relevance to the story. Rather, they are there just to act as Harry’s (and our) surrogate ears. A good example of this would be Rosmerta at the Three Broomsticks pub. The story hasn’t been told in twelve years, and suddenly they are telling Rosmerta every single detail. Of course, it just happens to be right in front of Harry.

The ending pretty much plays itself out in this same way. In a typical Nick and Nora style, all the relevant characters are gathered together and three chapters are spent revealing the truth. A lot of new information is added, sudden leaps are taken so that the reader could not have guessed the outcome for him/herself, and several instances are still left unexplained (for example, why, if Sirius Black is so good, did he break Ron’s leg? One explanation someone has given me is that he’s gone a little crazy with his desire for revenge. Why, then, did he not just kill Scabbers once he had him in the Shrieking Shack? Why did he wait in a dark corner until Harry and Hermione appeared and waited for Ron to shout out that it’s a trap?).

The only other trouble I had with the book was the fact that everything plot critical was repeated several times. So you would have a main character explain something, then someone would ask an idiotic question that pretty much requires that main character to repeat what he just said. I suppose this is technically a children’s book, so it makes sense that it would not require quite so much memory, attention, and piecing together as what I normally read. But as an adult, this was quite frustrating to read. And I feel that, somehow, it’s short-changing children, too. From what I’ve noticed, kids tend to be a whole lot more perceptive than they are typically given credit for.

The use of names in The Prisoner of Azkaban is really interesting and entertaining. The names are whimsical, but also very descriptive of the character. Take “Snape” for example. This man is a jealous, petty, conniving man, one of those bullies in books that the reader just loves to hate. His name sounds exactly like that. “Snape” firstly sounds a lot like “snake,” but it also conjures images of the petty and the low. Then you have “Remus Lupine,” the werewolf. Remus, of course, taken from the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were raised by a she-wolf. And “Lupine” from the Latin word “lupus” which means “wolf.” Playing around with pronunciations and possible meanings of the names is almost more entertaining that the novel itself.

All in all, I did enjoy it. I think Ms. Rowling is certainly an extremely intelligent woman and she puts a lot of that intellect into her work. Getting kids to read on such a large scale is certainly an amazing feat. However, the plot development style does not help anyone. If this is a children’s book, I would like to see more clues throughout the novel so that it is possible (note: not ‘easy’) to figure out the ending. I think it’s not just important that children read, but also what they read. Giving them something that has room for guesswork would do far more to improve their critical and observational skills than just having a couple little stories and then having a complete gear shift for an ending that pulls strings out of thin air with which to tie loose ends. As an adult reader, it would make the novel more worth-while.

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