Jan 25, 2013

Harry Potter Readalong, Book 1: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

First and foremost, thank you to Alice Reading Rambo for hosting this readalong. Second, thanks to Emily at As the Crowe Flies and Reads for turning me onto it. Having not reread any of the Harry Potter books since they first came out, I can not begin to tell you how excited I am to go back and start reading them MORE THAN A DECADE LATER. I am still young enough where this seems like a long stretch of time. Forgive me.

Unfortunately, I'm a week behind, which means I'm going to be posting about the whole of book 1 here, while everyone else posts about the start of book 2, and then by the next post I hope to have caught up. Because I'm so behind, I'm pretty much just going to post my stream of consciousness reading thoughts on book 1 and the get really into the swing of things for book 2

Also, I have only recently been introduced to the world of gifs. Apparently they're moving pictures that have funny captions, and are in part appropriate here because they're like the moving photographs in the wizard world in Harry Potter, yes? Or something like that. I'll get used to them, I promise, and probably some day figure out how to make my very own, or at least where to find some to post here. I apologize there are none on this post.

Lastly, before we begin, I'm going to make you all hate me by saying I am not a fan of Mary GrandPré's artwork. Go ahead, shoot me. It's just not my style. But I'm very happy for her and her career and for the bajillion fans who love her work who are now burning me in effigy.

So, to begin:

Obviously the book is really enjoyable; let's just get that out of the way. This time around, having seen almost all the films (I think I missed the last one somehow - how DID that happen?) and read all the books, I had a pretty good idea of where things were going, which allowed me to pick up on all those other little subplot moments (not to pat myself on the back or anything).

Right at the beginning, possibly plot inconsistency: Hagrid tells Dumbledore that the motorcycle he rides in on belongs to Sirius Black: "Young Sirius Black lent it to me." (pg 14) But later in the series, Sirius Black is in Azkaban, and wouldn't he have been there already or at least suspect at that point for having supposedly betrayed Harry's Mom & Dad? I hate to point that out, as he's one of my favorite characters, but still, that might be inconsistent with the plot later.

During most of the first quarter of this book, I just kept thinking of Oliver Twist: "...and Harry was left to curl up under the thinnest, most ragged blanket" (pg. 45). "Please, sir, may I have another?" Is that even Oliver Twist? Or is that Tiny Tim? Not going to look it up, you get the point. Later, when he's at Hogwarts, I kept thinking of Charlotte's Web, with all the descriptions of food. Reminds me of Templeton's romp through the fairgrounds that one night.

Ah, the meeting with Professor Quirrell in the Leaky Cauldron. How on EARTH did Prof. Q. get this position in the first place? Who DOES do the hiring for Hogwarts? You would think it would be Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall or anyone else with half a brain who wouldn't hire a trembly Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. And later, his curriculum - someone should really be looking over that, shouldn't they, to see that the kids are actually being taught something useful? I mean, isn't that kind of an important subject? I kind of feel like DAtDA is like Driver's Ed - not everyone may need to use it, but we should all take it so if we're ever forced behind the wheel of a car, we know at least the basics of what to do. Okay, not a great analogy, but can you think of a better one?

"I remember every wand I've ever sold, Mr. Potter. Every single wand. It so happens that the Phoenix whose tail feather is in your wand, have another feather - just one other. It is very curious indeed that you should be destined for this wand when its brother - why its brother gave you that scar" (pg. 85).
Mostly I just loved that whole scene, but I always thought it would be cool if it turned out that the phoenix who gave the tail feather turned out to be Fawlkes (Dumbledore's phoenix. It IS Fawlkes, right?). Also, resisting the urge to comment on wand size being a euphemism for the size of something else...

Moving on: "Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbeldore is particularly famous for his defeat of the Dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon's blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicholas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling." (pg. 102-103)
Though I had a lingering memory that Flamel had a wife, this part still kind of made me wonder if there wasn't something romantic at one point between Dumbledore and Flamel. Even when Flamel's wife is later confirmed, I still kind of hope there was.

Bad idea to read this book while hungry. Also a bad idea to write down notes on your iPhone without saving. Grrr. Learned a new type of food - something about sausages, starts with a c, sounds Spanish, but I think when I looked it up it said it was actually French.

Okay, what's up with no one talking to them after they lost the points for Gryffendor? Fred & George must have lost that amount of points combined with all the hijinks those two get up to. Seems really unfair (and kind of un-kid-like) for everyone to shun the three of them for that ENTIRE length of time.

Ridiculous detention in chapter 15! First-years in the forbidden forest? Isn't that actually helping them break the rules as part of their punishment for breaking the rules? Also, who authorized this detention? Looking for whatever creature is hunting and killing unicorns?!? Oh no, that won't be dangerous at all. And also, how is that so much work, like Filch keeps talking about? Other than staying up really late, sounds more like an adventure to me. As a kid, I would have loved it if my detention actually meant, "Go explore the creepy forbidden forest at night with 3 of your friends (and one eneme), one of whom is the groundskeeper and so knows every inch of the forest." Really tough, that one.

Lastly, where's the hullabaloo about Voldemort being back?!?!? If the centaurs know it's him, and Harry knows, how died Hagrid not? And if Harry told Ron and Hermoine, isn't at least one of them smart enough to know that they should tell an adult? Voldemort hadn't been seen in how many years and suddenly he's seen in the Forbidden Forest on Hogwarts' very grounds? That entire chapter 15 and detention incident is totally unresolved.

"'It's tonight,' said Harry, once he was sure Professor McGonagall was out of earshot. 'Snape's going through the trapdoor tonight. He's found out everything he needs, and now he's got Dumbledore out of the way.'" (pg. 268)
Why are they so convinced its going to happen that night? Just because they're kids and learned the secret today and the world revolves around them? That stranger in the pub nonsense was weeks ago! Wouldn't the cloaked stranger have already made use of the information by now?

"'Not if I can help it,' said Hermoine, grimly. 'Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and welve percent on his exam. They're not throwing me out after that.'" (pg. 271)
Hermoine gets all sassy, love it! If only she stays this sassy throughout the rest.

Forgot there were so many tasks for them to get past on their way to confront Snape/Quirrell; the movie shortened that. Wish they'd kept the logic in, it really underscored how important Hermoine has become to the group. Instead, they kept in the self-deprecating line about friendship and bravery being more important that books and cleverness. 'Cause that was the right choice (heavy sarcasm should be noted here).

ARGH! General rant about the arbitrary points system! Every time a teacher adds points or detract points, I'm like WTF? I guess that's part of the point - oh those kooky wizards, giving out and taking away points all willy-nilly-style - but it drives me a little insane. Neville's additional points at the end are amazing of course, but then Harry only gets 60 points for almost dying? The whole thing smells fishy.

And last but not least, the two times I teared up: when Hagrid gives Harry the photo album of his family and when Neville gets the winning house points. SUCH a spectacular ending.

Oh, also, how attractive did Neville turn out? (Or the actor who played him.) Hubba hubba.

Jan 20, 2013

Book review: Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta

I am overwhelmed by how perfectly completed this trilogy is. One of the most brilliant things about this whole trilogy, but this third and final book in particular, is how seamlessly history and current events are woven together so that you're both reminded of events that took place in the previous two novels, as well as given carefully revealed tidbits of information from the history of these countries, to give context to the action happening in the present. A phenomenal ending, not only with all the loose ends tied up, but some lovely additions or plot asides (such as recognizing the bravery and sacrifice made by a 17-year-old Charynite boy in Lumatere 13 years earlier leading to child care advice for Quintana, or Quintana softening enough to play matchmaker) that balanced out all the sadness that came before. Toward the final third of the book, I found myself crying at the small moments of happiness, the expressions of love, instead of over the horrors that came before.

One of my favorite paragraphs:
"And Phaedra saw her smile, with a hint of mischief in it, and she couldn't help smiling herself and then she was laughing. They both were, and the savage teeth were the most joyous sight Phaedra had seen for a long time. It was as if they were dancing. There it was. Suddenly the strangeness of Quintana of Charyn's face made sense. Because it was a face meant for laughing, but it had never been given a chance. It robbed Phaedra of her breath." (pg. 201)
That, to me, is where Melina Marchetta is truly gifted, in that she can make those sweet moments so profound because of the bitterness that is being let go because of them. She makes forgiveness and love such a powerful force throughout this entire series, but most particularly in this third and final installment of The Lumatere Chronicles, Quintana of Charyn.

I will try to describe the plot without giving too much away. At the end of book 2, Froi of the Exiles, Froi was left for dead with 8 arrows in his body, while Quintana was spirited away through underground caves to no one knows where. Froi is saved by his birth uncle, Arjuro, the gods-blessed priestling, and is reunited in Charyn with his birth father, the genius Gargarin, and his birth mother, Lirah of Serker.

Meanwhile, Quintana has gotten herself to Lumatere, where she is being reluctantly taken care of by Phaedra of Alonso and the other escaped Charynite women living in the valley between Charyn and Lumatere. The women fakes their deaths to keep news of Quintana from reaching the evil Charynite soldiers-for-hire who killed the seven scholars-turned-soldiers (Rafuel's) men, in book 2. All the women are hiding out in a cave a few miles upstream from the rest of the refugees, with only Rafuel knowing their truth. It is when Quintana begins leaving the cave to hunt for food and meets Lady Beatriss's daughter Vestie, and is found by Tesadora, that the plot begins to unfold.

In Froi's adventures, he's traveling back and forth through Charyn with Gargarin and Lirah in an attempt to both find Quintana and raise an army to rescue her from whoever has her. In Quintana's adventures, as more people find out the women aren't dead and that Quintana is there, the more all the women, but most especially Quintana and the unborn little king, are in danger, for Bestiano, the horrible man who raped Quintana and was trying to take over the palace and the kingdom of Charyn, is still alive and has offered gold as a reward to any man who will bring him the little king, not Quintana, alive.

Subplots include a jealous argument between Finnikin and Isaboe that leads to Finnikin accompanying his father, Trevanion, and Perri, on a hunt for Gargarin, who they believe to be behind the attack and slaughter of Isaboe's family, during which they run into Froi, whom they haven't seen in 9 months; Lucian finding out that Phaedra is alive, struggling with his new feelings of love for her, and the two of them learning to trust each other; Isaboe and Quintana's unborn children talking to each other, to their mothers, and helping to explain what happened during the day of weeping 13 years earlier when all the women of Charyn lost the babies they were carrying and Lumatere became cursed, thus causing the last borns to be marked; and how to best avoid war and broker peace between all the kingdoms.

I am pleased to announce that despite all the political intrigue, battles fought, and messages gone astray, there is a happy ending in there for everyone who deserves it, with compassion, forgiveness, and love occurring in the most unexpected, but well-deserved, circumstances.

Definitely one of my favorite books of the year, the only downside is what on earth do I read next?

To read my review of book 1 of the Lumatere Chronicles, Finnikin of the Rock, click here. Though I never reviewed it, I did a Waiting on Wednesday post for book 2, Froi of the Exiles, here.

Jan 16, 2013

Book Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of HerOwn Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Absolutely delightful. I don't know why it took me so long to read it, as it was on my TBR shelf from the moment I saw the title - being a fan of the absurdly long title, such as Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - but I will be forever grateful to my coworker Roger who finally literally pressed it upon me. Much like the content of the books that have those other titles, the content of this book lives up to its title as well. In fact, I'm having difficulty coming up with a book that has such a deliciously involved title that doesn't live up to it. Can you? Any novel with a long name really has to be strong enough (and by that I mean interesting enough) to live up to it, doesn't it?

Clearly I digress. It's difficult to explain why this book is so fantastic, and to explain why, think of The Phantom Tollbooth. I dare anyone who has read that book to sum it up concisely. There were so many times while reading this book that I thought of TPT, not because they're really all that alike in terms of story, but more that they're alike in terms of the sly way the authors used a child's fantasy novel to impart little wise asides about our daily lives. They're similar in that "out of the mouths of babes" kind of thing that you get from other books like Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland, too, where a childlike innocence and curiosity underscores some of our deepest thoughts and brings to light some of our most foolish actions. All without condemning us, simply pointing them out, as if they're saying, just in case you missed the fact that as adults we're sometimes selfish asses, and here's why that might be, and here's how to maybe stop. But, you know, without being too pretentious about it. Now on to what the story is actually about.

September is a little mostly-heartless girl from Omaha who is whisked away for an adventure in Fairyland by the Green Wind and his Leopard. Queen Mallow has gone missing and The Marquess has replaced her and so instead of everything in Fairyland being sugar and spice and all that's nice, the Wyvern and fairies have their wings chained and other bad things like that are happening. September doesn't really know much about the history of this, she is mostly just trying to have an adventure, but she has read fairy tales before and so recognizes a quest when she sees one. In addition to the Green Wind, along her quest September will meet a red Wyvern, a blue Marid, a Panther, a few fairies, a changeling, some witches, a woman made entirely of soap, and last but not least, a paper lantern. All play integral roles - some to hurt, some to help - as September loses a shoe but gets a new pair, is gifted a jacket and sash, collects a spoon, a wrench, and the most loyal key ever, and don't forget, sails around Fairyland on a ship of her own making (losing her heart and her shadow in the process). If all of that doesn't sound intriguing enough to make you read it, then I don't know what will.

Jan 8, 2013

Book Review: Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon

Finding Camlann
by Sean Pidgeon

This book has been described as of interest to fans of the movie Possession starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. While it's true that there are similarities - romance among two people brought together by new findings that shed light upon a piece of British history - the pacing of this novel would have been much better served as a movie. While I am glad I read it, I can't say I simply enjoyed it.

The story got lost for me in the emphasis placed on everything from the detailed descriptions of the British and Welsh countrysides to ancient historical events and genealogies to dreamscapes (which really seemed most out of place) to almost everything but the forward momentum of the story itself. I could see how the sweeping vistas would be gorgeous in a movie, or how the impeccably researched historical elements might appeal to history buffs, but I wanted more meat to the story itself. The very writing itself seemed to contain a kind of stereotypical British constraint that was occasionally swept aside by a fanciful phrase that almost did more to distract than add, it being so out of place.

All of that said, something about it kept me reading, maybe because the pacing was just enough to hook me in as I was about to give up with some new piece of the mystery or new development in a character's relationship. I did like the characters:
Donald Gladstone is the co-main character along with Julia Llewelyn. He's an archaeologist; she's a researcher for the OED. Her husband, Hugh Mortimer, I thought was the least realized character, despite his rather central role in the end. Some intriguing minor characters come in, with Donald's American ex-wife being my least favorite, mostly because she either put on airs as a character or the author genuinely believes American women act like this (either one being of extreme annoyance to me).

A slow build for sure, I was almost most disappointed in the ending, for right as there is a final build-up to the actual find that brings all the various pieces of the historical mystery together, the author prefers to write something prosaic and leave it all to our imagination, what happens next, as opposed to giving the reader some closure - which, ironically I felt, was something several of characters throughout the novel were looking for (closure).