Month: June 2021

by Lev Grossman

Those who said this was better than the first book, they were right. I’m glad I made the effort to read it, far more interesting, even if I still didn’t like Quentin or find him sympathetic. Julia was far more interesting, but had her own problems, man did she ever. I don’t want to say too much that would spoil this for other readers- but suffice to say, Quentin and his friends have become kings and queens in the magical land Fillory- very much like the four Pevensie kids in Narnia. Also very reminiscent of The Dawn Treader was the quest Quentin and Julia ended up on, that took up much of this book. A quest to save the world of Fillory, though at first they don’t know what exactly they’re trying to save, or how the pieces of the urgent story they keep hearing, fit together. It was rather delightful, how everything did all come together in the end. Also horrifying, in some ways. Lots of very not-pretty stuff happens in this book. People get hurt, murdered, violated, sometimes for no good reason at all. Through it all Quentin is pretty desperate to find something exciting and grand just like he did before he ever got to Fillory- being a king now in a castle with every luxury at his fingertips isn’t enough for him, he has to make up this quest and go on an adventure only then it turns out to be a real quest with very real consequences and dire stakes. He finds out what’s behind some legends or fairy tales of Fillory, how twisted history gets through the ages, even in this magic land. He finds out what his friends are made of, and himself- though he doesn’t change a whole lot even then. He’s still himself- I read in someone else’s review that it seemed one of the author’s main points was to show that if magic were real, it wouldn’t change people. It wouldn’t make people better, or happy. Though it would certainly corrupt many of them!

I think the best part of this book was all the backstory on Julia, though it kind of dragged on me how the interspersed chapters telling what she’d been doing while Quentin was at magic school in the earlier books, were so out-of-step timewise with the present storyline. However at the end I instantly saw why it was done that way- because it kept the reader in the dark about how some things were relevant to others- very much how Quentin was in the dark all this time, about what he was really doing, and why. It all falls together for the reader, about the same time that Quentin has a big realization. Clever, that.

Oh, and there’s dragons in this one. Dragons that live deep in rivers, each one in his own and hardly ever seen. Really wish there’d been more about the dragons, or at least a little more description of them! They had a key part but their showing was so brief. Perhaps in the third book.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
400 pages, 2011

More opinions: The Guilded Earlobe
anyone else?

The Thinking Person's Guide to Good Gardening

by Ken Thompson

Collection of very brief essays on gardening topics, from what was once a newspaper column (seems to be a common source for many gardening books). This one was of particular interest because the author made a point of combing through many many scientific journals to pull out results of studies and reports that he thought common gardeners would like to know about: answering questions, laying to rest long-held myths, or just satisfying some curiosity. Things like- do shards in the bottom of a pot improve drainage (no), does it matter what color you paint a birdhouse (maybe), is compost tea worth making, what vegetables are most worthwhile to grow in your garden, what makes strawberries taste better, which insects are in decline (as of its publication), etc. Some bits were of less interest to me than others, but the sections I actually skimmed were very few. I’m always rather pleased when at the end of reading a nonfiction book, the top page block is crowded with strips of paper I stuck in to remind me to look things up. On finishing The Sceptical Gardener, I looked up more info on: harlequin ladybird beetle, New Zealand flatworm, calabrese, saskatoon, sowbread, flower sprouts (or kalette- I want to grow this!) Some of these are just because the author is British so the terms were unfamiliar. He says for example, that a certain berry is “widely grown and eaten in America, where it is called saskatoon.” I’d never heard of this berry. Looked it up: oh, serviceberry! I know that name. Also, one interesting note for cooking: to make a tomato sauce taste super fresh, add some tomato leaves to the sauce, pull them out before serving.

Rating: 3/5
338 pages, 2015

His Manners and Morals

by Brian Curtis

Subtitle of this book really makes me chuckle. It’s an old book, claiming to be a comprehenisve compilation of all the knowledge about fishes that previously was only to be found in academic journals so not really accessible to the common reader. So of interest, but of course somewhat dated. Like most books I’ve read about fish, it describes their body plan, physical functions, senses and lifestyle. Sounds basic but I did learn some things I hadn’t known before (or had forgotten). Things about how the fish senses function, details their scales can tell you, differences between what are considered primitive and or advanced species. (I rather liked this part: “while some of the fish-fancier’s favorites are in the advanced category, like the bettas, the gouramis, the scalares, and the rest of the cichlids, the majority rank lower in the scale: for characins, danios, barbs, guppies, swordtails and platies are all among the more primitive fish.” I have kept all the species/types mentioned- and the first three are literally my favorite aquarium fishes: bettas, paradise fish and angelfish. I always though my preference was due to the fact those three are among the predators- they are more intelligent and seem more aware of what goes on outside the aquarium- they look at you. Others just kind of flit around doing their own thing, more or less. Beautiful, yes. Intriguingly interactive, not really). Also liked seeing the very simplified diagram comparing brains- shark to fish to dog. The largest area in the shark brain was for smelling, in the fish brain for sight, in the dog brain for reasoning. Some of the more interesting breeding habits from several species are briefly noted- the male seahorse, mouth-brooding cichlids, bubble-nesting siamese fighting fish. There’s more extensive chapters on the trouts and salmonids, as a lot more study was done on those fish to increase efficiency of fishing industries. I found interesting the details about exactly why certain methods in trout hatcheries aren’t in the long run successful, or not worth the cost and effort. Trying to recall from that other book I read on trout, if this has changed much in the meantime. Probably. When this book shifts focus from straightforward information to things more applicable to real-life, it’s mostly about what sports fishermen would want to know, not aquarium keepers. Still I felt it was worth reading.

Rating: 3/5
284 pages, 1949

by Herbert R. Axelrod and Warren E. Burgess

I actually quite enjoyed reading this book, but it’s not at all what it seems. Or what everyone else assumes it to be- most places I saw it listed online had for the description something along the lines of “a complete care guide for angelfishes” etc. Um, not really. It’s actually a collection of articles from early days of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, all on the subject of angelfish of course, published together in this book. Written by two prominent men in the hobby who early on studied, collected and bred angelfishes. Back in the days when tapwater was simply “aged” before using in the tank because dechlorinator wasn’t invented yet. When live foods were collected from ponds or raised regularly, because the only other thing you could feed your fish was scrapings of raw beef heart- flake not yet being manufactured. The first chapter jumps straight into a personal narrative about how Dr. Axelrod got his first pair of angelfish and started a breeding operation. Then there are chapters describing collecting trips to the Amazon and Rio Negro in Brazil, and another about a visit to a large fish farm in Singapore. All quite engaging and full of interesting little details. There’s a chapter on how different angelfish varieties were developed, and some details on the scientific names and identification of species which I kind of glossed over. Next a section on angelfish genetics, and finally one on how to choose good specimens, breed them and raise the fry. Ending is abrupt. Of interest for what it is, but I’d not really consider this a care manual. The photographs of different angelfish types are really good quality, considering how old the book is.

Rating: 3/5
92 pages, 1979

by Lev Grossman

Quentin is a brilliant, disgruntled teenager when this book opens. He’s bored and unhappy and feels like even among other smart kids in a privileged school, he doesn’t fit in. He feels like he’s just waiting for his real life to start happening. Also he secretly yearns to find a magical land from a series of books he read as a kid, a place called Fillory. I loved the fact that the Fillory books were so much a part of this storyline, and how distinctly the characters talked about them. Fillory is very much like Narnia. Except when Quentin and his friends find the real Fillory, it’s much darker, a bitter dangerous place full of unexpected things. But that comes in so much later- literally almost all the interesting action happens in the very last fifth of the book. All the rest before that- is kind of dull. Quentin suddenly discovers that magic is real when he gets invited to a hidden magical school, and starts training as a wizard. It’s a lot of rote work and memorization (very reminiscent of the school in Earthsea, but also with plenty of Hogwarts similarities). At first Quentin is delighted to be there- but he still isn’t happy. He works hard, he makes friends or not, he eventually finds a friend who becomes his girlfriend, and then casually, stupidly breaks her heart. He sees how very very dangerous magic can be. People die from mistakes. In nasty ways. He goes home for a few brief vacations which is surreal as his parents have no clue what he’s actually doing, their memories and perceptions magically altered. When he finally is done with school, he’s at loose ends- can’t find meaning to his life, messes around in a big city just wasting time. Until they find a route to Fillory, and get all excited again that this is the start of something really exciting. Except- it’s mostly not. Not an exciting adventure in a lovely magical land. No, it’s a sudden drop into a foreign place in a long civil war, where they don’t understand in the least what’s going on, and the magic they have worked so hard to learn is sneered at by much more skilled creatures. Yes, there’s magical creatures, but they’re not impressed with meddling humans!

The other reviews sum this up nicely: it’s like an adult, urban fantasy version of Harry Potter plus Narnia with bits echoing The Once and Future King (a Questing Beast) and also Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Some of these were subtle plays on the same ideas, some were nice nods- the characters referring to or admiring the other works- and others just felt like outright copying. The world-between-worlds you have to reach with a small magic object, for example. It was fun to see them worked in a different light, but also a tad annoying, how familiar. All that plus the fact that most of the characters weren’t actually likable or felt very flat- through the whole book I got very little sense of who they really were, even the ones I might have wanted to know (Alice). So I feel like I really dragged through this book, and I was actually relieved when it was over, eager to start something else instead. Not a very good sign, that. But I’ve heard the sequel is more engaging so do want to read it, just not right now.

Rating: 3/5
402 pages, 2009


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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