Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (CBR9 #24)

As we’ve discussed before, I haven’t reread the Harry Potter books in over a decade. For Prisoner of Azkaban, that probably puts the last time around late 2003 or early 2004. This is where the darkness of my own timeline greatly affected my reading of the series, and the meaning I have pulled from the books over time. You see, my own dad passed away in 2003 and I had just been sent home from university for failing to maintain my grade point average, which was caused by the worst episode I’ve had to date of depression.

You all signed up for a personal review, right?

When I finally came out of the haze of profound depression and the immediate ramifications of the loss of my father, I was surrounded by the life I could still have, but it was no longer possible to have exactly the life I was on the path to before. I visualized it as a ball rolling down a hill, and as my ball of life headed down the hill, it had just hit an enormous boulder that prevented it from proceeding straight ahead. I could go back, I could go to either side, or I could go around and get where I was eventually going, but with some new terrain added in. This concept brought me a sense of peace. I imagined Harry in this story as experiencing the same kind of cataclysmic feelings. He could still be the Harry Potter who is building his life as a wizard with all of his new friends and found family, but following the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, it is impossible for him to get there in the way in which he thought he was going. A very large boulder (or several) was now in the way.

I do not know if I will ever be able to read this book through another lens.

Structurally Prisoner of Azkaban wastes not one drop of ink in its development. Everything is important, everything is linked, and the narrative is headed somewhere. This is still a book meant for a YA audience and its crisp, economic delivery of events is a positive, regardless of my feelings that it all comes together a smidge too neatly.

In traditional Potter plotting, Harry needs to get out of Privet Drive, but for the first time in the series he is the instigator of his own escape. In the previous books, Hagrid or the Weasleys have come to rescue him. In this book Harry inflates Mr. Dursley’s sister and takes off into the night to escape retribution. Through a bit of luck the Night Bus fetches our boy and gets him to Diagon Alley. During this time, Rowling is able to layer in the goings-on in the greater wizarding world while we’ve been away, including the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban.

The reality of Azkaban is made all the more clear to us, following its introduction in Chamber of Secrets, as the Dementors attack the Hogwarts Express and Harry (and the reader) glimpse for the first time the power of these beings. It is also the introduction of the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to grace the halls of Hogwarts during Harry’s time: one Professor Remus Lupin. The debates amongst the Weasleys to tell Harry about the link between himself and Sirius Black, and Lupin’s hesitation to introduce himself properly or tell Harry what the Dementors are when questioned on the train, feed into what Prisoner of Azkaban is about. By the time we rejoin the characters, this is no longer simply a story about a boy finding out he’s a wizard, this is becoming a narrative about learning to be an adult. Rowling, through the lens of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, is looking at how in our teenage years we all need to learn that the adults around us make mistakes and underestimate the young.

The year at Hogwarts follows the traditional school year, as much as any Potter book does. We trail  our main three as they endeavor on new courses as they prepare for the eventual O.W.L.S. in their fifth year (this is another time when having the Weasley Twins two years ahead of our main three serves to introduce the larger world of Hogwarts to the reader), Hermione is working herself to the bone, everyone fights because they are 13, and the Dementors seem hell bent on ruining Harry’s life including their part in the destruction of his precious Nimbus 2000. As time progresses we track Harry’s progression to defiant youth – he is now in possession of both the Maurader’s Map and the invisibility Cloak and not afraid to use them to get to Hogsmeade even though everyone warns him against it. He is also so typically teenage in that he does seek a way to protect himself, and not rely on others, against the Dementors. But, he also does it largely so that he doesn’t let down his fellow Quidditch team players again should the Dementors return to the pitch.

But with this we get the introduction of the last crucial piece of magical know how that will be in great use in later books: the Patronus. It seems hard to imagine now that this is the first time we’re introduced to such an important piece of the Potter lore. I don’t know that Rowling gets enough credit for the heartstrings she is able to pluck and pull with her creative endeavors. We get our first glimpse of it when the solution to fighting a boggart is to make it ridiculous so that you are able to laugh at it. We can fight our greatest fears through the power of laughter. But then, with the Patronus, Rowling expands this idea that our happiest memories, full of love are what we need to fight what sucks the joy from our lives. It is a nearly perfect analogy for depression (with chocolate being the substitute for SRIs and the like).

Is this book perfect? No. I struggled the first time with monologue after monologue that is the discovery of the truth of Peter Pettigrew in the Shrieking Shack and it was only marginally improved by the audio version and my memories of the movie. Also, the fighting between Hermione and Ron. I understand it, but having the two go through virtually the same arc for two books was tough. We go from how happy Ron and Harry both are to see Hermione return at the end of Chamber of Secrets to instant bickering and fighting about the animals. Sure, we needed to focus on Scabbers, but ugh. Generally, it drags a bit in the middle and the final few chapters contain so much information it can be hard to process all of it.

With all of these things happening, it seems there couldn’t possibly be more, but there is. The past is still very much with us (those boulders again), and adults are dumb because they don’t tell us things we ought to know. Which gets us to the next point that what Harry doesn’t know can hurt him. By attempting to shield Harry from the painful truth, the various adults in his life simply ensure that he will hear about events pertinent to his life in the backhanded and incomplete ways, he will be isolated with his newfound information, and continue to feel as though he cannot trust the adults in his life. The adults in his life who do not keep everyone in the loop cause Harry’s isolation, which will grow to be his true weakness and failure to reach out to others. This happens to us all throughout our lives; it is a harsh but necessary truth. As we see time and time again with Ron, Hermione, and Harry when we have knowledge we are able to more ably fight our battles, even when we lose (Buckbeak).giphy

As to the movie adaptation. While I personally missed a bit of fluff about the edges that the book did still offer (the extended Night Bus scene, the squid in the lake at Hogwarts), the movie is heading in an interesting direction, if slightly thin. We are moving away from the kid movies of Christopher Columbus and into more interesting and intricate fare with the addition of Alfonso Cuaron as director. This is the last movie produced by 1492 Productions, with things handed off to Warner Brothers starting with Goblet of Fire. In its way movie three is the beginning of the teenage phase, shaking off its own childhood. But in that, it is itself looses a lot of its own identity. Cuaron focuses on the physical settings of Hogwarts, grounding the audience, but the screenplay functions as a cliff’s notes as opposed to proper adaptation.

As with the book itself, my favorite section of the movie is (like Angry Dimples) Hermione and Harry re-playing the previous evening as spectators and sometimes participants. My affection for these forty minutes of screen time had erased over time my memory of how much Cuaron and screenwriter Steve Kloves carved out of the original story arc. Rowling’s vision for this sequence works so much better in the visual media, even if it is full of moments which leave fans annoyed (why can’t our heroes freeze Pettigrew? They did it to Neville in book 1!) We see practically no Quidditch, no House Cup, few classes, and no proper discussion of Hermione’s intense workload and Ron’s continuing concern about it.

Which brings me to perhaps my largest complaint about the book to movie adaptation problem: the Assassination of the Character of Ronald Weasley.

There are people who do not enjoy the character of Ron Weasley. I am not one of them. I love Ron, even when he is being a childish brat. Everyone is allowed to be a brat from time to time. The true measure of who we are, both in fictional realms and out here in the real world is how we learn and grow and pick ourselves up off the floor once we are done with our temper tantrums. Ron excels at the picking himself back up part.

I wrote extensively in my review of Chamber of Secrets about Rowling’s use of Ron v Draco, and by extension their families, to hammer home the theme. I also mentioned that one of Ron’s best lines was given to Hermione. In this adaptation when Professor Snape is subbing in for Professor Lupin, trying to drag the class to guess that Lupin is a werewolf, and being his terrible self (as usual) to Hermione, Ron is not given his defense of Hermione and instead speaks the childish answer that everyone thinks in the book. Even when they are fighting, even when he cannot stand her, she is his friend, he is loyal to her, and he will defend her. It goes for any of the other main people in his life. This is the Ron Weasley that we love, and it’s no wonder that only movie watchers don’t get always get him.

This is the only acceptable version of this scene, and I will not except any others.

But the movie does give us badass Hermione punching Draco in the face, so I will forgive it. Mostly.
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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Spectacles (CBR9 #23)

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I have a lady crush on Sue Perkins. I do not feel that this is an unheard of situation. I was introduced to her via my friend Ale, who was watching the series Supersizers Go from the BBC all about food history. We LOVE food history. This lead to my comfort television becoming watching Sue and Giles drink their way through terrible food.

The next great epoch in my Sue fandom was a late to the game discovery of the Great British Bake Off and Sue’s cohosting with her comedy partner Mel Giedroyc. I no longer watch many foodie television programs as I struggle with my weight and overeating and have learned over the years that watching someone cook/eat will inevitably lead to me cooking and eating an extra meal or an extra quantity of food that I do not need. Due to those reasons, I had initially avoided this incredibly popular juggernaut. And then someone sold it really hard, promised that it was more soothing than food porn and I gave in.

Just in time to get addicted before the hammer fell, as Sue and Mel announced they would not be following the series to its new home.

In solidarity with Sue, I tracked down her book and purchased it. Her standing up for what she believed in meant that I would absolutely throw a few dollars her way.

And then Ale read it first. Because I’m a slacker.

So, we’ve gotten over 200 words into this review and I haven’t said much about the book. Its really good friends, in the way that well written and thought out memoirs can be. I don’t know if its very Sue-ness would come across to the uninitiated, but if you are a Sue fan and are looking for more stories of her growing up in Croydon, or attending Cambridge, or breaking into the comedy/television presenter world then this is your book. She’s insightful and honest about her own strengths and weaknesses and you will absolutely fall in love with her parents. She uses her wit and comedic skills to unpack the world around her, and the way she sees it, and asks you to do the same with the world around you. Or just think of some really great double entendres.

Sue is very candid, and her emotions are allowed to shine through which I feel is the strength of the memoir genre. I nearly cried at the end of one of the chapters about her relationship with Mel. “But mainly we leave it alone, leave it all unsaid and carry on regardless in a thoroughly British fashion. What I do know is that this kinship will always remain. It is constant. It is a love that cannot be weathered, not by time, not by circumstance. Nothing can alter it.”

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, write about it, and raise money to support the American Cancer Society in the name of our fallen friend, Alabama Pink. 

Everything I Never Told You (CBR9 #22)

I don’t know how I feel about this book.

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There is so much that this book does well, starting with its beautiful prose. It’s loosely a mystery, but more in the ethereal way that mysteries exist in our lives when tragedy strikes. There are some questions that we will simply never know the answers. This book unravels the ambiguities of familial relationships and societal pressures which shaped its characters and leaves us with enough unresolved to feel real, and true.

Each character in this family is fully formed and three-dimensional, and our central character, the now deceased Lydia, carries the burden of the expectations of those other characters. Her parents, like far too many parents, place the pressure on her to be what they wished they had been. It is enough to choke whatever she would have wanted out of the realm of possibility.

Lydia’s death is not a spoiler; the book opens with its acknowledgement. The greater mystery of the work is how she could have died in the manner she did without anyone truly knowing what happened. No one in her family saw past Lydia’s serene façade.  Her parents viewed her through their own expectations and the show she put on, and her siblings knew her better, they knew of anger, they knew  she could be scheming but also deeply lonely. However, did anyone really know her?

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that does such a good job of capturing the complicated web of family dynamics, and that may be the reason that I was in some ways turned off from the novel. It all rang perhaps a little too true, a little too close to home for me to sink into this work of fiction. For that perhaps I should rank it highly? But what about my overall ambivalence to the work, and coaxing myself to read it? Should that not rank it lowly? Instead, I will demure, and leave it unrated.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (CBR9 #21)

Friends, I finally remembered what initially began the itch to reread Harry Potter. Cannonball Read’s very own narfna, along with some friends, did a Medicinal Re-Read and I remember following along (thanks, Goodreads)! It’s been since 2013! Okay, as you were, let’s get to the actual reviewing.

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I have always thought book four, Goblet of Fire was my least favorite Potter, and that may still be true for the book versions (we’ll have to see when I get there in a few weeks), but I was resoundingly underwhelmed this go-round with The Chamber of Secrets and the movie left much to be desired.

Chamber of Secrets follows the same basic trajectory of its predecessor. First, Harry has trouble with the Dursleys, then he gets to school with some trouble (much bigger trouble this time), something strange is happening at Hogwarts (blood on the walls and petrified people and ghosts), Harry along with Ron and Hermione are in a unique position to solve the strange happening, Quidditch, House Cup.

Tada!

This is not the book’s weakness, really. It is how these pieces come together and how Rowling uses Ginny Weasley as a blank slate that bothered me. I forgot how little of her own character Ginny gets in these first two books and how very little in this book considering she has such a major role in the work of the big bad. I am looking forward to badass Ginny who gets here in later books.

The Chamber of Secrets, for all of my vague disgruntledness, is a story about abilities versus choices, which Dumbledore makes clear in the end. This is an important lesson for all of us. I think the movie adaptation misses the point (and I am glad that we are done with Christopher Columbus adaptations after this) by focusing on the violence of the basilisk. Book Harry is more concerned with the possibility that he should have been Slytherin, and that he could go bad. We are with him through these mental gymnastics and there are few among us who haven’t looked back and thought did I make the wrong choice? Did I use my influence (asking the sorting hat to make us Gryffindor) in the wrong way? Is it all doomed to come apart? Harry is nervous, and scared, when Ron points out that it’s not good even in the wizarding world to hear voices (which is a line that the movies gave to Hermione… just grrr. Ron deserves his moments of ability.)

However, layered onto that is a moral lesson in how we interact with others. I prefer the book’s version of the Weasley/ Malfoy feud, since not only is more fleshed out but it informs the larger story in a more concrete way. While the diary plot plays out in the movie as it does in the book, we get much less of the tension between these two wizarding families, and that is a shame. Rowling is setting up her larger theme with them; on one side, we have the Weasleys who are an open, loving, and inquisitive bunch. Highly loyal and believe in fairness. On the other side are the Malfoys, who are not those things.   As this is a children’s book, Rowling takes the themes that she would explore in any book (and certainly does later in her other adult novels) and breaks them into pieces her younger readers can understand.

In order to do that, she introduces the ways these characters treat people who are not exactly like them. Draco Malfoy’s use of the Mudblood epithet and Ron Weasley’s reaction to it, so much stronger in the book, are perhaps the linchpin between these two worldviews. It also informs the danger of the Chamber of Secrets and the Heir of Slytherin, and shows its readers that every little bit of prejudice can support a larger evil.  This is not to say that Rowling makes the Weasleys perfect. Fred and George join in on the teasing of Harry about being the Heir of Slytherin even though it hurts him, and could support others views of him as a possible suspect. Don’t get me wrong, I love the twins, and was very sad to see so much of their arc hit the cutting room floor in the adaptation, but it is another important lesson to the reader: even those we trust and love the most can hurt and betray us and if that is you, it is important to make it right and apologize.

Once again knowledge, and asking for help when you need it, are crucial to solving the great dilemma. I was struck by the way Gilderoy Lockhart is framed as a know nothing, and how he is the weakest of the wizards present because he does not invest in actually knowing what to do. Through these methods Rowling creates the third of our baddies, in addition to Tom Riddle and Lucius Malfoy. When I read this book the first time I was finishing up a grueling program, and headed off to college. I was affected then as I am now that knowledge can be your best armor against the forces of darkness.

This book is full of future world building, from Hagrid’s trip to Azkaban (sob!) and the introduction of Cornelius Fudge. The work Rowling put in shows. I’ll be embarking on The Prisoner of Azkaban shortly.

“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.”

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Geek Feminist Revolution (CBR9 #20)

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Kameron Hurley’s collection of essays is incredibly prescient to the world around us, as women continue to suffer an unheralded epidemic of violence. In The Geek Feminist Revolution Hurley isn’t just focused on that, but she brings around the idea that the type, quality, and diversity of pop culture we consume and produce is directly affected by the cultural norms which lead to the erasure of women in public spaces, and the violence experienced by this group and others who are erased.

I wish I hadn’t returned this book to the library already. This book clocks in at less than 300 pages, but it is broken up into four sections, and each of those sections contains probably a dozen essays. Hurley writes sci-fi/fantasy novels, is a copywriter for a Marketing firm as her day job, and is a consistent blogger who writes 1500 – 3000 words a day. What that translates to for this work is that there are far more essays than I can recall to tell you about (that, and a fair amount of awe.)

Instead, I’ll talk about the themes these four sections bring together. The first section, Level Up includes essays about improving the craft of writing and the importance of persistence. It was very good, but not necessarily, what I had signed up for with this book and took a bit of time to get through. The Geek section discuss various media and conversations around them. The essay Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max particularly spoke to me (so much so that I took a photo of the opening page) and the next chapter about True Detective season one and the monsters as men narrative it tells had me nodding my head in agreement, even though I never watched that show. These chapters break open important discussions about what behaviors are normalized in society.

Let’s Get Personal is exactly what it says, stories about Hurley’s life to this point and the personal struggles and victories that got her to now. Probably my least favorite section because by this point it felt very repetitive.  The last section, Revolution deals with fandom’s recent dust-ups and a call for revolution, for change, in how fans and creators alike deal with reckoning with their privilege.  This last section includes Hurley’s Hugo Award winning piece for Best Related Work in 2014, We Have Always Fought which discusses the ways in which tropes do the erasing of lived experience.

As I mentioned, these four sections are linked by Hurley’s main thesis: that all we have to better ourselves in this world is persistence, hard work, self-awareness and perspective. She is not wrong, and while this book is far from perfect, it is a good and healthy addition to your reading diet.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Graveyard Book (CBR9 #19)

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I’m slowly working my way through Neil Gaiman’s works. I’ve tackled Neverwhere, American Gods, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (favorite), and his short story collections The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, and M is for Magic. Each has been its own experience, and all generally favorable.

As I go on, I find that the full cast audios are my favorite way to experience Gaiman’s world. I listened to American Gods, and later went back and read Neverwhere after listening to the BBC Radio Drama version (which I preferred). I’ve also listened as opposed to reading the short story collections. Therefore, when I had the audible credit just lying around collecting dust I splurged on another full cast version – The Graveyard Book.

I was familiar with the concept of the book, a chapter of this book appeared in M is for Magic, and crystalclear had already read it (she has read a lot of Gaiman), and the best part about getting your friends to Cannonball is that you get built in suggestions. With no other preparation I jumped into the story of Nobody Owens, the boy who is adopted by ghosts after his family is murdered and raised in a graveyard.

Initially, it felt as though Gaiman was just playing with a storytelling idea: what would happen to a child raised in the quiet and solemnity of a graveyard? Why would a child end up there (the need for the Big Bad)? As the chapters progress we check in with Bod every few years and Gaiman layers in and introduces his signature playing on words (jack of all trades), and builds out Bod’s world, his family, how life progresses, and growing from young lad to young man set out into the world. This journey carried me along and never overstayed its welcome, but left me a tad bittersweet when it all came to an end.

I’d like to see more of Silas, Bod’s guardian, and learn his tale. Or the lady on the grey. Maybe someday Gaiman will come back to those threads and unspool them a bit more. For now, I am satisfied. And supremely happy that the Hempstead witch in this book is related to the Hempstead of Ocean at the End of the Lane.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.