Category Archives: Pretty Books

These are all my posts about books that have exceptionally nice covers or particularly fancy editions that I have found.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

If you spend any time on the internet at all, you might have noticed that 26 June 2017 was the 20 year anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous books of our time. I don’t reread many books these days, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. I also want to talk about some of the beautiful new editions.

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“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J K Rowling is the first in a children’s book series that took the world by storm. The story follows Harry Potter, an orphan boy who discovers he is actually a wizard, as he learns about his identity, the secret wizarding world and the magical boarding school of Hogwarts. Harry navigates schoolwork, friendship and his newfound fame as the Boy Who Lived with his new friends Hermione and Ron. Together, the three uncover a plot that could spell disaster for not only themselves and their school, but all the wizarding world.

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I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story, but it has been a while since the last time. I recently bought the Bloomsbury 20th Anniversary Edition (pictured at the top) which was available both in paperback and hardback in each of the four Hogwarts house colours. I have come to terms with the fact that I am a Hufflepuff so I bought the Hufflepuff hardcover edition with the yellow and black tinted edges. This edition is simply gorgeous and has plenty of great new content about the house, the common room, famous Hufflepuffs and Hogwarts as a whole.

Last year I also bought the illustrated edition (pictured above) so after having a flick through the bonus content in the anniversary edition, I decided that I’d reread the story together with Jim Kay’s beautiful watercolour artworks. They are absolutely stunning, but there weren’t quite as many as I had expected. There are lots of character studies and sweeping scenery (the Hogwarts Express and Hagrid’s Hut really stand out), but I had expected a little bit more magic.

Then, as a reward for completing something really long and boring last year, I bought this great Harry Potter set where the spines all line up together to make a picture of Hogwarts (pictured below). It matches a similar set I have of the Narnia series where the spines make an image of Cair Paravel. Unfortunately, there’s no bonus illustrations or information in this edition but gosh it looks wonderful on my bookshelf.

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Anyway, enough about editions – the story. It’s been 20 years since this book was published, and I really think that J K Rowling has written something timeless. Apart from the fact that she’s still releasing new books and the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie franchise is going gangbusters, there is a whole new generation of kids who are starting to read these books. At the heart of this story is the classic fantasy premise of:

  • orphan boy discovers magical powers
  • orphan boy goes on an adventure to learn how to use them
  • orphan boy recovers magical object
  • orphan boy save the world from evil

You know, the fantasy story that everyone knows and loves. However, by setting her story with one foot in a magical world (heavily inspired by European mythology) and the other in 1990s England (with all its accompanying cultural references), this book has a modern relevance that no ordinary high fantasy novel can achieve.

I first read this book when I was about nine years old after a friend of mine recommended it to me. Even though I was skeptical of a book called “Harry Potter” (my own nickname being Harry), I was absolutely blown away by what I read. I was also completely swept up in the Harry Potter hype which culminated in the release of the seventh and final book in the series in 2007, and which had a small revival last year. Rereading this book as an adult, I have a more critical eye, but I think this is still an ideal book for children. Scattered with equal parts wonder, humour and social commentary, it’s little wonder children devoured, and continue to devour, this book. The rest of the series grows darker and more mature, and this really is a story that grows up with a child as the child reads it.

Reading it now, it’s not perfect but it’s pretty close. Rowling cleverly drops little hints throughout the first book that have relevance not only to the ending of that book, but to the series as a whole. It’s an ideal book for an 11 year old – the same age as Harry himself – to immerse themselves in and picture themselves getting their Hogwarts letter (I’m still waiting for mine), learning that they are special and going to exciting classes to learn spells. Some of the writing is admittedly a bit simplistic – even for a children’s book. However, that simplicity is also what makes some of it incredibly funny, even all these years after I first read it. There are also a couple of inconsistencies which become a bit more apparent as time goes on. One of these is the rule that underage (or expelled) witches and wizards aren’t allowed to do magic at home, a rule that Hermione, Lily Potter and even Hagrid all break at some stage in this book. Harry has to buy a pointed hat for his school uniform, something which I don’t think we ever see him or his peers wear. The number of witches and wizards in Hogwarts (and in the wider wizarding community) is also not really clear. You’re never really sure if there are 140 or 1400 in Hogwarts, or how many live in the UK as a whole.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a much shorter story that the rest of the books in the series, and you do at times feel like some of the detail of how magic works is glossed over a bit. For example, if transfiguration is turning one thing into another, how exactly is bringing chess pieces to life transfiguration? Wouldn’t that be charms? I feel like Rowling takes her time with this aspect of the story more in the later books as magic and spells are more relevant to the plot. However they are nevertheless a bit relevant to this plot and I think she could have fleshed her concepts out a bit further.

Ultimately though, I only have to ask myself a few questions to determine how I feel about this book. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I read it to my children? Yes. Will I keep on engaging with new content like the “Fantastic Beasts” film franchise and the Pottermore website? Yes. Yes. Unashamedly yes. 20 years on this book is just as popular as ever. It’s now published in nearly 70 languages including Latin and Welsh. It is a literary phenomenon that spoke to a generation and is already speaking to the next.

There will always be Harry Potter books on my bookshelf.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

Somehow, I never read this book when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure how this happened. It was first released when I was 11 years old, around the time the Harry Potter books were gaining traction, and I was a big reader. I think I had heard of them, but maybe I thought they sounded a bit childish, or maybe they sounded needlessly grim. Either way, I missed the boat. Now, you may remember that some years ago a film adaptation was made starring Jim Carrey. I remember watching it and being quite underwhelmed, and the film was not memorable at all. However, recently a new TV adaptation has been made starring Neil Patrick Harris. It’s available on Netflix, it’s gotten really good reviews, so I figured the time was nigh for me to give this book series a go before I watch the show. Canty’s had plenty of copies in stock, and the hardcover editions have really cool roughly cut page edges that add to the ambiance. Also, if you watch the show before reading the book – be warned: there are spoilers in the first episode that aren’t in the corresponding book.

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“The Bad Beginning” by Lemony Snicket, is the first book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series. The story introduces the three Baudelaire children. 14 year old inventing genius Violet, 12 year old bibliophile Klaus and baby Sunny who is good at biting stuff. When the children receive the terrible news that their parents have died from the executor of the will, Mr Poe, they are sent to live with their distant relative Count Olaf. It’s not long before the children cotton on to Count Olaf’s nefarious plans to steal their inheritance.

I think the first thing to say about this book is that it is definitely a book for children. I’m pretty certain that if I had read this book as a child, I probably would have gotten a lot more out of it. Snicket has a that glib style of writing that I remember finding very funny as a kid. He uses lots of “big” words but explains their meaning in a careful way without being condescending. He also gives plenty of examples of the children being independent and being able to capably solve problems, do chores and cook. I think this is a quirky, educational book that would probably be a good gateway book to get reluctant readers reading. However, as an adult (especially an adult that studied law), it’s a bit hard to suspend disbelief enough to really immerse yourself into the story. A big piece of the plot hinges on a “law of our community” that itself is completely implausible in both it’s text and application. I also found the sheer incompetence of the adults (particularly the judge and the banker) to be really annoying. I know this is a bit of a trope in children’s book, but their collective ineptitude was just a bit much.

A solid children’s book that would be perfect to help kids improve their reading, but probably a bit of an eye-roller for parents.

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The Postmistress

This book is part of the Penguin By Hand set and like “The Help“, it has a beautiful embossed cover. The embossing matches the design and you get the wonderful tactile experience of it feeling as though it’s been cross stitched. I’d been eyeing off the set for a while, and bought myself this book as a treat for finishing a unit at university.

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“The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake is a World War II story set in 1941 about three women. There is Iris, who is the postmistress in a small town called Franklin in the USA; Emma, the Franklin doctor’s new wife; and Frankie, an American newsreader based in London that the other two women hear on the radio. The women are united by the increasingly irrefutable impact of the war in Europe on America, and by a letter to be delivered.

I have very complex feelings about this book. On the one hand, Blake is without a doubt a beautiful writer who has brought to life a fraught period in world history from a number of perspectives. Her research is excellent and the detail of her own descriptions of everyday life as well as that of Frankie’s observations in her reports on the radio are very immersive. Frankie is an excellent character and Blake does a great job of handling the peculiar situation women found themselves in during World War II with burgeoning opportunities resulting from necessity and changing social attitudes but the lingering sexism of the past still very much present.

There are some wonderful subtleties in this book, however I did find myself wanting more from the story. I felt that Blake simply did not do the character of Iris, the postmistress, justice. I was completely disinterested in Iris’ blossoming romance with the town mechanic. What I wanted to know more about was about Iris herself. There were only a handful of chapters told from her perspective, and there was scanty information given about all the things I was desperate to know. How did she get the job as postmistress? What was it like working in the post office? I was way more interested in her troubleshooting the machine that printed dates on the letters than I was in her anxiety over her virginity. I feel like with books that look retrospectively at the chronically underwritten role of women in history almost have a duty to look at the influence women had on keeping society running. Blake did a fantastic job in this sense with Frankie, so it just seemed out of step that Iris’ character was cheapened by reducing her to not much more than her relationship with a man.

The other thing that I felt was a wasted opportunity (and this is a minor spoiler, so if you want to read the book completely unsullied, skip to the final paragraph now) was that Blake hints that Frankie’s housemate Harriet had actually met Otto’s wife in London before they were separated in Spain and he went on alone to America. I was hoping that somehow Frankie might have put two and two together, and delivered some of Harriet’s intel or a letter or something but Otto’s story was left in limbo (which, fair enough, it is WWII – that’s realistic) and Frankie’s focus is elsewhere. I think I just felt that maybe where other things had failed and gone wrong, that could have been a nice little thing amongst the collective disaster of war to go right.

This is a well-written book with some great historical and literary merit, and this edition in particular is absolutely gorgeous. A unique take on America’s role in WWII that perfectly captures the senselessness of war, but that I wanted a little bit more from when it came to some of the characters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Penguin By Hand

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

This book had caught my eye for a long while before I actually bought it. I’d seen it in two different editions: one with electric blue page edges, and one with sunflower yellow page edges. I’d ummed and aahed over buying it (I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction) but when I saw a copy with the blue edges on display one day at Beyond Q, I hesitated no longer.

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“The Rest of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness is a somewhat satirical take on the young adult fiction genre. The story is told from the perspective of Mikey, a teenager in his final year of high school who is looking forward to going to prom and graduating with his friends Jarred and Henna, as well as his sister Mel. They’re all trying to live normal lives on the periphery of the “indie kids”; the protagonists in the constant battles against Immortals, or vampires, or zombies, or soul-eating ghosts. While indie kids are dying, mysterious blue lights are appearing and fissures into other dimensions are opening, Mikey’s just trying to sort out some of his own issues as the great expanse of adult life looms closer and closer.

This book was really refreshing. After having read many dystopian YA books in series like “the Hunger Games” and the “Divergent” series which are violent and serious and necessarily far removed from reality, it’s a nice change to read a book that pokes a bit of fun at the genre. I also really liked the way the author handles a variety of mental health issues and deals with sexuality in a modern, fluid and non-judgmental way. I also quite enjoyed the brief summary of the indie kids’ story at the beginning of every chapter which was then juxtaposed against Mikey’s much more mundane, everyday problems. Because let’s face it: coping with mental health issues, dealing with change and figuring out who you are – they are ALL everyday problems.

I think this would be a great book for teens aged 15 or 16 and over – especially those looking for a bit of a break from books that take themselves too seriously.

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I took a second photo without the dust jacket because it’s just such a pretty book!

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Filed under Book Reviews, Pretty Books, Uncategorized, Young Adult

PopCo

This book caught my eye at the winter Canberra Lifeline Bookfair this year glinting like a bright blue treasure. One of the great things about Scarlett Thomas’ earlier books like “The End of Mr Y” and “Our Tragic Universe” is that they were published in these beautiful editions with metallic detail and tinted edges. This one is adorned with silver digits and the most incredible navy blue page edges. I’d been keeping an eye out for this edition for ages and finally it was mine.

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“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas is about Alice Butler, a woman in her late twenties who works for one of the world’s biggest toy companies. While she’s working on a new project to go with her kids’ code cracking kits, Alice is invited to a company conference that ends up being a lot more involved than she was expected. Even more unexpected are the mysterious coded messages that she starts to receive. Among all the new colleagues she’s been meeting, and all the seminars she’s been attending. Alice isn’t sure who the messages could be from. What she does know is that they’re dredging up memories of what it was like growing up with a cryptoanalyst as a grandfather and the significance of the necklace she wears around her neck.

The beauty of Thomas’ writing is that she’s incredibly clever, and writes about incredibly clever concepts, but does so in such a way that she never makes her audience feel stupid and never makes herself seem snobbish. Every book of hers I read, I learn something completely new and, having always enjoyed puzzles and maths as a kid, in this book I got to learn about the fascinating arts of cryptography and cryptoanalysis: making and breaking codes. Then there is all the fascinating stuff on marketing. Thomas is a considered and evocative writer and I always enjoy her slightly off-kilter, very brilliant and quite subversive protagonists. The first two thirds of this story are absolutely engrossing and almost unputdownable (I’m making this a word). While still incredibly interesting, the story does morph into something a little more moralistic in the last third which takes a little of the steam out of the mystery.

I’d been anticipating this book for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. As captivating on the inside as it is on the outside, if you’re looking to read something a bit different and a bit enlightening, see if you can find a copy of this one.

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Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms

This is the perfect spring book. I hadn’t heard of Dr Anita Heiss or her books before I saw she was coming to speak at Muse. I’ve been really enjoying their author discussions that I’ve been going along to this year and I’m always looking to try new, local writers. However, although I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more diversely this year, I’m very ashamed to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever read any books by Aboriginal authors. Heiss was a very engaging speaker, and talked a lot about the research that went into her latest book and the importance of getting diverse books, authors and stories into the mainstream. She also very kindly signed a copy of her book for me at the end, which has a classic Aussie landscape on the front decorated with shiny gold lettering and beautiful blossoms.

“Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” by Anita Heiss is a historical novel set in Cowra, NSW during World War II. A large number of Japanese soldiers are being kept prisoner at a POW camp, and one night they all manage to break out. With some soldiers killed, some recaptured and some who committed suicide, Heiss’ novel explores the idea of what could have happened if one soldier, Hiroshi, managed to seek refuge at the nearby Aboriginal mission called Erambie Station. Banjo Williams discovers Hiroshi under his family’s hut and decides to help him, enlisting his eldest daughter Mary to sneak Hiroshi food. Part romance, part spotlight on the discrimination experienced by Aboriginal people subject to the oppressive Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), this book  uncovers a piece of Australia’s history that is not often discussed.

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This is an important book. As my lamentable reading record shows, Aboriginal stories are not told nearly as often as they should be in Australia. While Aboriginal film and television has been slowly gaining traction over the years, Aboriginal writing is still very much behind where it should be. Heiss’ story cleverly uses the perspective of an outsider, Japanese man Hiroshi, as a critical lens through which the reader can look at the past (and present) treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. By drawing comparisons between the Aboriginal mission, the Japanese POW camp and the Italian POW camp it swiftly becomes clear how much of a factor race was in how well people were treated in 1940s Australia. This book is set in a time before Aboriginal people were allowed to vote and when Aboriginal identity was mutually exclusive to civil rights. Heiss’ novel is very well-researched and draws on academic, community and family resources to paint a vivid picture of 1940s country Australia and how different kinds of people lived there. Heiss has an open, honest style which makes this book accessible to all readers.

Whether you’re a history buff, a romance fan, a lover of Australiana or interested in books about war, I think most people will get something out of this book.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books, Signed Books

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (No Spoilers)

I think it’s safe to say that the book that has generated the most hype this year is “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”. I have vivid memories of lining up early to get my pre-ordered copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” back in 2007. At the time, there was no doubt in my mind that Harry Potter was over. I had grown up with this book series, and this was its end. So when I found out that I was going to be able to experience the excitement of the release of a Harry Potter book one more time, well, needless to say I was beside myself with anticipation.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne is the script of the play of the same name currently showing in London. The story picks up after the Harry Potter series finishes and for all intents and purposes can be considered the eighth Harry Potter book. The story is centred on Harry Potter’s second son Albus, a troubled teen wizard who struggles with living in the shadow of his father’s fame. Albus is determined to forge his own path but things don’t quite work out as expected and in trying to fix them, Albus risks disaster and losing everything he cares about – including himself.

I really don’t want to give away too much in this review because I genuinely think that spoilers would ruin it, so I’ll try to keep this as vague as possible. I absolutely enjoyed every minute of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”. This book is a good mix of old and new with enough references to past events that it’s familiar, and enough new content that it’s engaging. For the most part, the plot held up and the characters were good. I thought that in particular the new character Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy, was outstanding and possibly even the highlight of the book. Harry is still very much Harry. Hermione is fantastic in some points but not so much in others. Ron is hopeless, but Draco is pretty good. The antagonist beggars belief and is probably the weakest part of the whole book, but there is enough going on with the other characters to hold up the story on either side. There are surprises, there are laughs and there are tears. I thought reading it as a play rather than a novel was going to be clunky, but actually it flowed really well.

So, is “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” as good as “Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban” or “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (what I consider to be the pinnacle of the series)? No. Is it as good as the other books in the series? Probably not. Did I love it anyway? Yes. Definitely yes. The enormous nostalgia factor of this book forgives a lot of the issues with plot, character and continuity. Considering nine years ago I thought that I had stepped into the wizarding world for the last time, it was simply a joy to experience the hype and the magic of Harry Potter once more. Sometimes a bit of joy is all you need.

Ten points to Gryffindor.

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