Sunday, 15 March 2015

'Magician' by Raymond E Feist

Colossal, compelling, exciting and imaginative, Raymond E Feist's now classic, original fantasy 'Magician' is as fantastic as I remember it years ago. I was thirteen when my tutor allowed me to borrow this huge book. He told me that he had devoured it in ten hours on one coach journey and thought that as I had expressed a love of 'Lord of the Rings' that I would also love Feist's epic. He was right. 'Magician' is a worthy successor to Tolkien's mythopoeic series and a precursor to the scope of 'Game of Thrones'. And I loved reading it now as much as I did at thirteen when I read late into the night, even dreaming about it in vivid, spectacular detail.

The story may seem cliche today: a young, orphan boy is apprenticed to a master magician, before a great war breaks out threatening the existence of all, until the young boy grows up to be the greatest magician in the land. We've had 'Harry Potter' since, so returning to the character of Pug in a strange, yet familiar world called Midkemia comes with its inevitable baggage. Fortunately, though, any comparisons are swiftly brushed aside. 'Magician' is unique in that once you are accustomed to the idea of Midkemia (a world recognized as distinct as Middle Earth) we are then introduced to a whole new world, Kelewan, which is more Eastern than Western Middle Ages. From Kelewan, the Tsurani  cross a rift through space and time to launch an invasion into Pug's seemingly peaceful world. Immediately this shatters any expectations of cliche we may have harboured. Instead, Raymond E Feist expands our preconceptions of what makes a traditional fantasy and we are quickly consumed by a story far more complex and imaginative. Imagine the ancient Japanese teleporting into Middle Earth using a magic more akin to mastering quantum mechanics, and you get an idea of what 'Magician' is all about. With this twist in concept, the story is propelled from what could have been a bog standard fantasy into something far more dynamic, bold and brilliant.

At a near 700 pages, the story is dense but never without a dull moment. There is a rich cast of characters from both worlds: kings, princes, princesses, magicians, priests, servants, slaves, soldiers, elves, goblins and other strange beasts we have never met before in traditional fantasy. We care for the characters too and they change, for better or worse, over a couple of decades of narrative. There are twists and turns which leave you wondering until the final pages. And then you realize, with joy, that this is actually the first book in a larger series, focusing on different aspects of both Midkemia and Kelewan.

If you love 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Games of Thrones', then 'Magician' will certainly be enjoyed in equal measure. I will hold back from reading the sequels just yet, all else I will read nothing else all year!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Benefits of Mindfulness Part 1

Here we are. Being aware. And I'm aware that I haven't written my blog in a while- for good reason. Despite the fact I have been reading three books at once, I have started my own course of 'mindfulness' based on the hugely popular book 'Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world' by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. Some may approach this with a degree of cynicism, but the benefits of this practice  (and it is a practice) is profound. I am on Week Three and I have already changed my job, stopped drinking coffee and found a sense of calm when usually, as a teacher, I have been stressed to the bone!

All mindfulness demands is a little bit of discipline to practice some guided meditations at least twice a day for no more than twenty minutes at a time. Considering some people will pop a pill or two twice a day to combat depression or anxiety, it is perhaps more beneficial to consider mindfulness as a natural alternative which is ultimately more rewarding. It is your mind, after all, and it deserves special attention.

From the ages of sixteen to about twenty-five I had been vulnerable to bouts of depression and anxiety, It is a brave thing to admit this, and at the time I found it hard to acknowledge or talk about.  Nonetheless more and more people today are 'coming out' about such conditions and I think this is right. At university I suffered such extreme panic attacks that once I collapsed against a fence walking into town. I felt there were no options; I was trapped. Although I don't suffer this anymore, I am, like a lot of people, prone to daily stresses and anxieties which could, if unchecked, spiral down into unmanageable negativity. The world isn't slowing down; it is a mad rush. Internet, social media, mobile phones, a hundred different passwords, emails, busy trains, longer working hours, higher prices, higher expectations and economic instability are all the causes for a very modern set of stresses affecting many people's mental health and well being. Children are being diagnosed with far more conditions and behavioural or emotional issues, arguably as a result of this increasingly frantic and materialistic world, which even the parents find difficult to contend with.

Mindfulness is a practice designed not to remove these stresses but to help discover a sense of calm in our whole being and to accept the world around us. It is also a means for becoming more open, less selfish, and more aware of our relationship between our body, mind and the external world. Of course, some may dismiss this all as New Age mumbo-jumbo or be put off by its religious or spiritual connotations, but it is not this. Mindfulness is simply a set of tools, a practice, to find a sense of peace and acceptance in YOU. It is not critical or preachy and practices involve simple breathing techniques, body scans, basic yoga stretches and 'habit releasers' which include activities like going to the cinema to watch something unusual or watching TV 'mindfully'. By practicing, even for twenty minutes a day, the benefits are felt mentally, emotionally and physically. A scientific study has even proven that mindfulness, done purposefully, can alter brain states to make an individual more happy and more calm by shifting the activity of awareness away from the frontal lobe of the brain.

I am merely on Week Three and I have noticed the benefits. This is not to say that I am calm all the time or that I have run off to be a priest on a mountain. But I have felt significantly calmer and more aware of my thought processes. The result has been that I went to an interview for a new job, at a new school, and taught a lesson completely calmly, enjoying it in fact. When I was formally interviewed I was calm, open and positive and in consequence I got the job. This might have been a bigger deal other times, but I was accepting and a sense of peace washed over me. Even heading off to work, I no longer rush. I am more mindful of eating well in the morning and taking my time to notice the world around me when I walk to the train. And now I realize that I have enough time anyway, and that the rush, the frantic nature of life is pointless. I am developing a greater sense of awareness and I am more willing to accept and enjoy what I have.

Above all else, I am enjoying reading the book (with its CD of guided meditations) which is taking me on a real journey of self discovery. I may have a sudden breakdown, but I feel I could accept that. We shall see. I will keep you posted on how I get along...