The Disasters (CBR12 #30)

The Disasters by M.K. England

My reading intake has dropped off considerably since May, but book club kept me with my hand in the game so to speak, because I really enjoyed my first choice, The Disasters by M.K. England. This book ended up on our selection list because I saw an interesting write-up about it and thought hey, I want to read that book. Sometimes it pays to be the Book Club Maven. (I also read I Hope You Get This Message, I had previously read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I loved, and while I’m glad so many chose to read An Unkindness of Ghosts I actually put it on the list because I didn’t want to read it – not everyone likes what I like.)

The Disasters is a road trip story – a favorite trope. Our narrator, hotshot pilot Nax Hall, has a history of making poor life choices and getting into trouble with authority figures so it is not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. He’s dejected that his life’s goal of getting out to the space colonies as a pilot is gone, but he’s not surprised per se. Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth (what happens to washouts) is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy before Nax and three others leave. They manage to escape, but they are also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. They are now on the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, and Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy – and stop an even larger disaster from happening. In order to do that they will spend four days traveling between worlds on the run and in hiding and picking up some help along the way.

We’re with Nax through the entirety of this quick 350 page work, and the story isn’t the same in the hands of another lead. England draws her characters so well that any of the others could have been their lead, but there’s something about Nax, how he implicitly exists as the cross-points of defining characteristics, that adds some needed depth to the themes England is poking at. Speculative fiction is built on tales of exploration, survival, ingenuity, exceptionality, and redemption, and this book is not without those things. The crew of The Kick are each exceptional in their own arena and ingenious to boot, they are out to redeem themselves from their failure at the Academy, but also to ensure the survival of many, many people. The world they live in is the product of continued exploration, and the exploration continues in the background of the book.

I also unabashedly love a found family story, and this book also explores that trope. It’s probably because I grew up in a loving, mostly stable home and my parents were and are the kind of people who accept all comers. If you needed some family in your life, they were going to see that you got it. That is in fact how in his early 20s my oldest brother ended up in my family in the first place, but that’s not my story to tell. But the story of a the family of friends created under stress and duress in The Disasters hit all those notes for me, and I’m hoping it speaks to the warmth of both kinds of family (since our narrator Nax’s birth family are pretty great too) that are in the author’s life.

As to the future setting, the universe of The Disasters is a realistic, but hopeful, place. Progress has been made in the 150+ years between now and then, but its uneven and not quite what we might hope. Its also a future with bureaucracy and corruption, but in most places the structures of the new colonies focus on the things that people love, not the things that drive us crazy. All in all, I’m glad to have read this one, and hope you were too if you read it.

#NotYourPrincess (CBR12 #25)

#Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women

I keep doing reading challenges for a couple reasons, but one of them is that it tends to point out areas that my reading habits need to expand. This year the Read Harder Challenge includes tasks for both YA Non-fiction read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author. I’ve already read one YA Non-fiction this year, but while I was hunting up titles I came across #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. It also didn’t hurt that the Reading Women Challenge has a task for reading an anthology by multiple authors.

And this is a really great choice for all those tasks. #NotYourPrincess is a feminist nonfiction collection of poetry, artwork, and personal essays, all revolving around the identity of Native American women aimed at young people. The book contains stories of abuse, humiliation, and stereotyping but it never felt oppressive – there was an underlying hope and pride and reclaiming their self-value, highlighting their struggles. Every single contributor is a woman, and they speak to their own experiences, which are as diverse as they are. The book is split up into four sections: The Ties That Bind Us, It Could Have Been Me, I am Not Your Princess and Pathfinders. While I appreciated the breaks between sections, and some of them held together very tightly, they didn’t all.

The part of the book I liked the most was how the artwork was linked to all the written components. But, the overall format of the book is the only downside. The book is just over 100 pages but it’s the size of what I typically makes me think of a picture book. But more than that, it’s a little tough to maneuver and to hold onto while reading. The physical reading experience wasn’t comfortable, but the art in the book is worth the size.

Ten Days a Madwoman (CBR12 #19)

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly

We’ve reached the first book of the year that I read expressly because it fit a Read Harder Challenge. Task number one is to read a YA non-fiction. I did not have any juvenile non-fiction on my 650 books deep to read list, so I had to go looking. Nellie Bly had recently come up at work and I realized I knew very little about the famous reporter beyond her time in Blackwell or her around the world trip so onto my library request list Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes went.

Its probably been over twenty years since I have read any YA non-fiction, but as soon as I opened the book sense memories of Reading and History classes in my middle school years came flooding back. Its somehow nice to know that the form and structure I had experienced as a youth still existed in a book published within the past four years. Noyes does as promised and tracks Nellie Bly’s life and times, using the standard interstitial asides to build out the larger world surrounding Bly at the turn of the last century. The book is also littered with primary source images and quotes, rooting the reader in the narrative.

I learned things as well, I hadn’t known that Bly spent World War I as a war reporter in Europe or that she had married a millionaire forty years her senior and took over his business after his death, or that she had done an in depth interview with Susan B. Anthony. Bly’s early life was also a mystery to me, but now I know, and knowing is a nice feeling, which is probably why I choose to do history as my profession. This one is a good one for the young readers in your life with questions about any number of things, including journalism and women’s rights.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; P.S. I Still Love You; Always and Forever, Lara Jean (CBR #13-15)

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With the release of the To All the Boys P.S. I Still Love You on Netflix this week I decided to give in and read the series. I really liked the first movie in 2018 but didn’t pick the books up then. I was smitten with the movie and didn’t want to mess with that feeling. But eighteen months later I felt the time had come.

In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before we are introduced to Lara Jean Song Covey, middle sister of three, and a dyed in the wool romantic. Older sister Margot has stepped into the mother role following the accidental death of their mom years earlier. But Margot is about to go to university in Scotland, and just broke up with Josh, her boyfriend of two years who has served as a de facto Covey sibling, so Lara Jean will have to step up to take care of youngest sister, Kitty. Kitty is sassy and the best character in the series, I love her the most. Our other main player is Peter Kavinsky, the most handsome boy in town (with possibly the largest ego) Lara Jean’s first kiss and soon to be fake boyfriend. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

The meat of the story is Lara Jean’s love life or lack thereof. Lara Jean has never been on a date, or had a boyfriend, but she writes letters to the boys she has crushes on and puts them in a hatbox her mother gave her in order to get over the feelings. (Lara Jean is focused on protecting herself, which the series deals with over time.) The letters aren’t meant to be read, but someone sends them anyway. Peter Kavinsky, confronts Lara Jean – he’s a recipient of one of the letters – and as Margot’s ex Josh heads towards them, another letter recipient, Lara Jean kisses Peter in a moment of panic and runs. Following some drama with Peter’s ex girlfriend (and Lara Jean’s former friend) Peter and Lara Jean agree to pretend they are dating. Peter wants to make Gen jealous and get her back. Lara Jean is using Peter to show that she is over her crush on Josh. Fake emotions turn into real ones and Peter and Lara Jean have to decide what they want from each other and if they can salvage something from the deceptions.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before very quietly crafts its complex relationships, taking the time to set up the intricate web of emotions at play. Han dives into the inner life of Lara Jean. We’re with her through her ups and downs and things progress much slower. While the reader never gets inside his head, Peter has as complex an inner life as Lara Jean. The first book ends on New Year’s Eve, with several plot points that the movie adaptation resolved still being up in the air.

P.S. I Still Love You follows immediately picking up on New Years Day. Though Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship has changed from a contracted fake relationship to romantic real one, things do not go smoothly. Freshly after making up (in a scene I liked much better than the movie’s version), a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s romantic moment in a hot tub on the school ski trip (which gets pulled into the first movie) surfaces and goes viral on social media. The book expands the hot tub tape aspect of the story, giving it much of the first half of the book, which felt accurate.

Beyond the tape and all its attendant drama, Lara Jean is having difficulty controlling her feelings about Peter’s continuing relationship with Genevieve. Peter tells Lara Jean that she’s going through a “rough time” and needs him as a friend.  Lara Jean internalized this as Peter putting Gen first even though he is in a relationship with her. As things get complicated, Lara Jean finds herself distracted by the appearance of John Ambrose McLaren, another letter recipient.  As they begin to reconnect, Lara Jean wonders if she can have feelings for two boys at one time, and what that means about her relationship with Peter. This is a book full of teenage jealousy and hormones and misunderstandings and those great aspects of a young adult novel. The second half of the book picks up with the introduction of the Assassin’s game (I’m not a huge fan of the John Ambrose sections), which pits Lara Jean and Peter against each other and their friends. All those messy young adult emotions are in action and moving the plot the way you would expect in a well-written YA.

Unfortunately, the execution of P.S. I Still Love You is a little uneven, and weaker than the first. And my least favorite of the series.  Han sells the subplot on social media bullying and sexual double standards very well, but most of the rest fell flat. I particularly struggled with Peter’s characterization. He is emotionally flat and unavailable in this one and seems unaware of how his actions affect Lara Jean emotionally, and not paying attention to how Lara Jean is negatively comparing herself to Genevieve at every turn.  This doesn’t track with the character development Peter went through in the previous book. Initially Jenny Han was planning to end the series with this book and I’m glad she didn’t.

In the final book, Always and Forever, Lara Jean, Lara Jean and Peter have recovered from their temporary break up in the second book and are a real couple, dealing with real couple things. It’s spring of senior year and a staple of young adult novels comes into play: college decisions. There are also changes on the home front, when her father shares his intention to marry their neighbor, Trina. Lara Jean navigates a lot of adult decisions here, from her choices regarding college to balancing Margot’s dislike for Trina against their father’s love for his new fiancée and her own affection for her. She and Peter also get close to having sex, which is something that had not really been brought up in the books before, although the movies have been dealing with it. Han’s use of it as a plot point is handled in a way I haven’t really run across in YA and I was interested in the way it was woven in.

Overall, the series was as expected, they are sweet and funny and that’s a good thing. The plot of these three novels follow a lot of the topics that YA novels typically hit: conflicts with family, jealousy in relationships, the prospect of college, big decisions regarding life and sex and love. For the depth she manages, Han also keeps the writing light – these are incredibly quick reads, even when they are focused on serious and heavy topics. As to the characters, Peter and Lara Jean felt like teenagers — they made dumb choices and said stupid things and didn’t know how to manage their emotions or communicate them very well. The friendships, especially Lara Jean’s with Chris and Lucas and Peter’s friends on the lacrosse team, dove into the complicated networks that make up our lives. I also appreciated that Margot — who hadn’t been around while her dad and Trina fell in love — resented the engagement and wasn’t interested in the wedding, it all rings true. Thematically I appreciated how much their mother’s Korean culture and family history is woven into the books and how the strong bonds of sisterhood, which are tested several times throughout the book, are never broken. While these books are all three stars for me, I can see their appeal on the larger scale, and look forward to the third book’s movie adaptation which is already filmed and listed with a 2020 release year… so maybe this fall? A girl can hope.

Emergency Contact (CBR11 #39)

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When Rainbow Rowell says a book is her favorite of the year, I am going to add it to my to-read list and am likely to track it down relatively quickly. In the case of Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact it fitting into a CBR11 Bingo Square category (Youths!) made it all the better.

Let’s get the big verdict out of the way early: this debut is very good and Choi does the thing that I like best about Rowell’s work, she builds imperfect and entirely understandable and relatable characters who feel real and whose world feels lived in. If Rowell is your jam, or you are in the mood for a college age YA (several of our main characters are 18, one is 21) then this one should be on your list.

Now to the less fun portion of the review. It would be poor form on my part to ignore the rabble being roused on the internet (and specifically on Goodreads) about this book. There is the debate about between flawed and unlikeable, as well as the notion that a book that contains problematic characteristics for its main characters is, in and of itself, problematic. To the first, I believe that’s a matter of taste – whether a character is too “unlikeable” for you to read the book is something only you will know for yourself, but I find it to be a method of judgement that I have simply moved passed. Penny’s as a character is judgmental and a tough cookie, someone difficult to get to know. She is also at times quite immature and has internalized some trauma – in other words she is 18.

As to the problem of problematic contents… a lot of the criticism I’ve seen elsewhere leave out authorial intent. Or, if they are discussing it, they are undervaluing the craft. Choi’s book contains shaming, assumptions, stereotyping, sexism, and racist comments because the realistic characters she is writing exist in a world that also has these things. This is YA, not a morality tale.

Is it perfect? No, of course not. Choi doesn’t nail the vernacular of young adults today, instead her characters sound more like the young adults we were (Choi and I are of a similar age). Choi’s next book Permanent Record will be released September 3rd, 2019.

The Dire King (CBR10 #55)

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While I have a couple of series underway, there was only one where the final book was the only one I had left to read, so the This Is The End square was a simple choice. The Jackaby series is comprised of four books, Jackaby, The Beastly Bones, Ghostly Echoes, and The Dire King. I have absolutely enjoyed my time with the series over the past few years, but the fourth book was unfortunately the weakest.

The Dire King continues the story of the Seelie and Unseelie War that is enveloping New Fiddleham. Abagail,  an independent, self-assured, feminist, and delightfully sarcastic lead character and assistant to Jackaby, the Seer, who is just kooky enough to be interesting without being off-putting are gathering the forces of good to battle the forces of evil as led by the Dire King we met in Ghostly Echoes. As is often the case in series closers The Dire King takes the status quo and turns it on its head. While there were some tropes that I was happy to see, there were several others that left me wishing that William Ritter had chosen something else. A hero’s journey is expected, but the end game of that journey doesn’t have to look so similar to other journeys out there in the world of YA. But, just as I was feeling the need to roll my eyes Ritter breaks out a few tricks he had hinted at along the way and I was won over again.

My only major complaint (which honestly didn’t keep me from reading the book in two nights) was that this book is very clearly part two of Ghostly Echoes. One of the things I loved about Jackaby was that while it left the door open for more stories in the world, that it was self-contained and complete. The three other books in the series are much more tightly linked and while it didn’t bother me in Ghostly Echoes, it absolutely did in The Beastly Bones and this one.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Ghostly Echoes (CBR10 #24)

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Back during CBR7 I picked up Jackaby by William Ritter because it featured a bit of a paranormal mystery with a sassy female protagonist who doesn’t have a romance with the male protagonist. While I love a Romance novel, I don’t need romance in all my stories. As it turns out Jackaby was a strong book and over the years I’ve kept up with the series in a (mostly) timely manner.

Ghostly Echoes is the third full novel in the series (there’s one short story as well, The Map) and the character who is the driver of the story is the ghostly owner of 926 Augur Lane, the headquarters of Jackaby’s detective agency. There’s corruption and murder afoot in New Fiddleham and it all links back to how Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered a decade ago and the disappearance of her finance the night she died. As Abigail races to unravel the mystery of how and why people keep turning up missing or dead flinging herself more deeply into her friends’ grim histories, Jackaby leads a cast of familiar characters across the cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England and down to the mythical underworld  and back again, solving the case at hand and setting up the endgame in the next book.

The Jackaby series blends a bit of fantasy and folklore with a touch of mad science and its author, William Ritter, isn’t afraid to throw a touch of social commentary into his YA. This time we get a transgender character whom Jackaby speaks to and interacts with using all the care, class, and affirmation that one could hope for.

These books are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for what I’m assuming is the closing chapter in the next book, The Dire King.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Hate U Give (CBR10 #12)

Quick Review: This is a very good YA debut by Angie Thomas and it is important reading to be done in this cultural climate in the United States. Thomas clearly, and evocatively, brings the reader into the layered life of a black teen in today’s United States with its systemic racism. It reminded me of of my own history, and my lived experience, and grew it out. But it isn’t a primer in the way that Between the World and Me is, it is a story, a beautiful narrative of coming to terms with things that are impossible to come to terms with all while living your life the best that you can. I highly suggest this and will be on the lookout for more of what Ms. Thomas writes.

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Longer thoughts:

This book is made of lovely, delicate moments that add up to a complex whole. Thomas, with her first novel, y takes on racism and police shootings through the eyes of her 16-year-old narrator, Starr Carter. Starr is an engaging narrator who straddles different worlds and in unpacking the kind of code switching life Starr leads, Thomas creates a sympathetic and complex protagonist.

There’s so much to notice in this book, so many layers to peel back. The Hate U Give masterfully covers dozens of topics, and with care. Through Starr’s narration we are exposed to what’s it like to be one of the only Black students in a private white high school, life with rival gangs in your neighborhood, code switching and curating your persona based on where you are and who you are with, interracial dating, seeing your friend shot and killed, protests and discovering what purpose they serve and where the line is between protest and riot.

This is an outstanding novel for teens and adults to begin reckoning with what it might be like to witness, and be the victim, of injustice and violence. The nuanced way Thomas treats the shooting of Starr’s friend Khalil, and all the people involved provides any number of entry points for the reader. Thomas even gives nuance to the characters who express racist ideas, imbuing them with the reality of how their individual worldviews would be shaped.

Ms. Thomas also delivers readers a chance to engage in self-examination when it comes to racism and our response to the increase in police shootings of unarmed people of color. In the nearly 450 pages of this novel Thomas gives plenty of examples, but the one that stuck with me the most was the brewing, and then finally exploding, argument between Starr and her white friend Hailey. We have a problem in the United States with the use of the indefinite article in front of the word racist. For my generation of white folks (Oregon Trail Gen X/Millennials) we were raised with the notion that a person was “racist” if they were so demonstratively. What many of us have learned since is that this educational paradigm was wrong. It is possible, and staggeringly LIKELY, that we will all say and do racist things without being the bogeyman that we imagine “a racist” to be. Privilege makes us push back against it, we think to ourselves “I’m not the bad actor here, I’m just saying/thinking what other people are saying/thinking”. Angie Thomas pulls that string and unravels how indoctrinated our society is with the idea that “bad” kids who are acting like “thugs” somehow don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt while the “good” guys who are using “necessary force” must be presumed to be acting correctly. It is shameful, and it is unfortunately nothing new, but we do need to be talking about it and this book is an important component of the conversation, because as a reader you see Thomas call bullshit as she tears apart the idea of the “thug” by introducing us to Starr, and Khalil, and Seven, and Kenya, and Devante, and all of the other characters living in Garden Heights.

Structurally the book has several sections which jump forward in time, some small jumps, some larger. The pacing is built around how Starr must deal with the fallout of being the witness to Khalil’s murder. In this way Thomas gives a primer on the process of how extrajudicial killings by police officers are dealt with in the criminal justice system. It also shows in unmistakable light how the rage of watching unjust things happen turns into flat-out rage at the world around you, and how “thug” behavior of riots and looting occur.

The tension, the twists, the pauses, the resolutions, all of these left me content, but my world wasn’t shattered. Thanks to the #weneeddiversebooks crew, of which Ms. Thomas is a part, we are getting the diverse books we need in our hands. You do need to read this one, even if YA isn’t your genre.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

I’ll Give You the Sun (CBR10 #1)

I start all of my review drafts with the Cannonball Read number because that used to be how we formatted our titles way back in Cannonball Read Four. So, Holy motherforking shirtballs everyone, I just typed CBR10 for the first time as relates to a review. Let’s do this!

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I try to select my books carefully for the “big” reviews of the year, so while packing for holiday travel I grabbed my copy of I’ll Give You the Sun from my bedside table and tucked it into my backpack. The time was now: this book had been on my to read list for a couple years following an enthusiastic review from scootsa1000. Scoots’ review had stayed with me so well that a little less than a year ago I snagged myself a paperback copy at an independent bookstore I was killing time at because I knew, knew, knew that I was going to read it and want a copy to have. I rarely let myself buy books, but this one made the cut sight unseen. If you follow that link you’ll see that review is from 2015 and I said in my comment that it would be a few months before I read it… well it has been three years and I don’t know what took me so long, I could have fallen in love with these characters so much sooner

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This is a lot of preamble to get to the point: if you like YA at all and haven’t read this book you should rectify that pretty quickly.  Jandy Nelson has a way with world building and character development that insidiously sinks into you. During the first half of the novel I was thinking it was quite good and I would probably end up rating it 3.5-4 stars and have some really nice things to say about the characters and the plot, and the easy but satisfying mystery of the missing in-between years (our narrators trade off from either side of a two year gap where we know what happened, but we don’t know what really happened). Then, somewhere around page 200 I fell ecstatically in love with the characters, their ways of expressing themselves, the realness of their lived experience, and the sorrows they carried with them, both before and after the big tragedies.

Jandy Nelson describes her work as a story about artistic passion and pleasure, about the ecstatic impulse, and about split-aparts. It is also a work about self, and being firmly in this life, and also not. Its about solving big puzzles and putting the pieces back together. For me, it is also a fantastic look at family, siblings, and grief and what you use to pull yourself out of the darkness and find your authentic voice.

May we all be like Grandma Sweetwine: have our own bible of wisdom we have gathered and a relationship with the universe so personal that we feel comfortable calling god Clark Gable. Make a wish, take a chance, remake the world.

 

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, now in our 10th year. At Cannonball Read we read what we want, review it how we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society. You can join us, registration is open through January. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (CBR9 #32)

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The great re-read continues.

I feel that I owe this story an apology. I have long stated that its movie counterpart was my least favorite in the series (yes, even more so than all of that camping in movie 7 which I’ve also come around to), and had let that color my memory of the actual book. Friends – I do not remotely hate this book! I might even love it. I’ve been debating with myself for days whether this 4.5 rounds up or down.

In my review of Career of Evil, I extolled Rowling’s ability to build out her universes, and go back to the seeds left in the beginning to grow the middle. This is, perhaps (maybe?), her single greatest strength as an author because she also does it with the Harry Potter books from the very beginning. Here at the halfway point we are seeing the fruits of those earlier seeds, and more seeds are being laid for the final harvest in book seven.

Goblet of Fire is the turning point of the entire series. Voldemort returns and we discover the Wizarding World is much larger, and much darker than we had previously expected. New dangers are introduced, new components of people’s characters are unveiled, and we get our first real taste of the unforgiveable curses. J. K. Rowling also foreshadows the HECK out of this book. Whether its Voldemort telling Wormtail that other of his followers would give their right hands to be of aid, or alluding to the lengths he has gone to extend his lifetime (horcruxes, anyone?) the reader is being guided to what we need to be looking for.

I think when I first read these books I couldn’t fully fathom how Rowling could make this fantasy series so complex and expertly planned out in terms of plot and world building while also keeping it appropriate for its audience. My brain just refused to acknowledge the work and artistry that goes into this kind of writing.   As I went through this time, I can see that she was confident of the story from the time she started writing the first book. Her attention to detail is more than impressive even at this point in the series, and the variety and authenticity of her characters are perhaps underrated even now. Every single character (even inanimate ones) is fully developed, or has the potential to be if Rowling had decided to pursue another avenue. All the pieces are in place, all she would have to do is go back to her files and make a left hand turn instead of a right.

Goblet of Fire is a long and dense book with so many plots and subplots as to make a person a bit crazy, and if I don’t end up over 2,500 words in this review it will be a minor miracle. I will be attempting this review in chunks, so here we go.

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The Goblet of Fire and Tri-Wizard drama:

The book is named for the wizarding competition that Harry will be forced to compete in during his fourth year. But, we spend the first third of the book knowing nothing about it. Instead, Rowling spends time building out her world by having Harry attend the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasleys. (A moment of comic relief comes early in the book when the Weasley men attempt to retrieve Harry from Privet Drive via the floo network. Too bad the Dursleys have a walled off fireplace with an insert. A scene that I wish had made it into the movie.) While Harry is there we are introduced to portkeys, Cedric and his father, veelas, Viktor Krum, Mr. Crouch, and Weezy, all of whom will be vitally important to the plot. We also see the unrest of the Death Eaters and the beginnings of their danger to those we love.

Once our characters are at school we are introduced to the tournament and the competing schools Durmstrang and Beauxbatons – I forgot they were both co-ed since the movie makes them single gender schools! However, Fleur is the rare character that I actually prefer in the movies. She’s a bit of a weak competitor, which if Harry hadn’t been aided he would also have been. But it was disappointing to have a character who doesn’t compete well and is seen almost exclusively through the male gaze.

As to the actual Tri-Wizard tournament. I still don’t really like it. It is the weak point in the story – not the intrigue surrounding how Harry got pulled into this nightmare in the first place, but the actual tasks. I couldn’t find myself invested fully in the tasks themselves or their various outcomes. What did matter to me was how being forced to compete effected Harry’s relationships. His fight with Ron made me feel terribly for both of them. Rowling perfectly captures the feeling of anger and frustration on both sides, which are entirely relatable to anyone who has ever experienced a similar situation of confusion and mistrust with your closest friend. We can see why Ron is so hurt, and Hermione does a respectable job of navigating the waters without becoming too firmly entrenched on one side or the other. However, that does not stop her from being relentlessly supportive of Harry, which is great because he desperately needs all the help he can get.

When Ron and Harry finally get over their fight, and the way each handles it following the “Caught on, have you? Took you long enough” remark from Harry was priceless. Ron can be a bit himself, but then so can Harry as he completely ignores Hermione and Sirius’s valid concerns. All the danger signs are there: his dreams, painful scar, and his name mysteriously out of the Goblet. But Harry is Rowling’s stubborn fourteen year old boy who is more used to being alone than being supported, even this far in (and we know that mindset will continue) and he cannot quite accept help the first time it is offered and he simply doesn’t want to live in a world where he’s constantly in danger. Even the pretending will be taken away from him by the end of this book.

Cedric’s death hit me a lot harder than it ever has before. I’ve always felt that his good guy character was a little underdeveloped by Rowling, and even though we get so much more in the book (him reprimanding his father for being belittling to Harry at the World Cup), he is in so many ways still a cipher. But, that serves the endgame well. We are sad to see such a positive force lost to the world, but it allows Dumbledore’s end of term speech to resonate perhaps a little more as we are able to place our own thoughts of Cedric-like people into our mind’s eye.

“Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”

Rowling gets a bad rap sometimes for the way and amount of characters who die in this series. Its more that she isn’t afraid to show that good, loyal, moral characters will die in the pursuit of defeating Lord Voldemort and all he stands for. We lose Cedric, we have lost others before, and we will lose more before it is all over. Fear and inaction have effects, but sometimes we lose innocents who did not realize that they were fighting in the first place.

The Mystery and the Media

Again, because it has been so long since I actually read the book, I had forgotten that the identity of the person who placed Harry’s name in the cup was a mystery until the bitter end of the tournament. It is one of Rowling’s best-laid mysteries in the series, I think upon reflection. The layers of deception and the way she layers in our knowledge over the length of the book (I have no idea how many hours I listened to, but it was 17 discs worth) keep us in the dark and confused just long enough to keep the suspense up. So, even though I found the tournament itself uninspiring, there was still plenty to unpack.

We also have the problem of the media in the character of one Rita Skeeter. Her reporting is the stuff to make readers of this series seriously doubt anything they read in the media. Which lately, could be a good thing.  I love to hate her and I think adding her in as a foe was an important move in this book. She inherently broadens the scope and gives us a new adult to doubt and distrust as the adults in Harry’s life are getting better at communicating with him about the things that are important. Don’t get too excited though, it won’t last to the end.

But Rita Skeeter’s end, and Hermione’s triumph over a vicious beetle, is the stuff of legend.

Also, we have to deal with the fact that Lord Voldemort is back and he, along with his death eaters, will dominate the remainder of the series. The entire scene after Cedric’s death is even more frightening to me now, in my mid-30s, than it was when I read this book 13 years ago. Perhaps most importantly the refusal of the Minister of Magic to believe and accept what he is told, and the destroying of evidence (in this case the mind of Barty Crouch) is even more frightening to me now. The world we live in is also a dark and scary place, Rowling was just getting us ready.

Dobby, Hermione, and the Will of the Good:

Dobby, and his life as a free elf, are centerpieces to the B storylines running through the book. I put off discussing Dobby in my review of Chamber of Secrets because I knew he reappeared in a big way here. Rowling uses a character we met two books ago to give us a toe-hold into the larger environment of the story, easily moving her readers along the path of greater understanding. Rowling is aware that she has an audience of young readers, and she continues  to use her platform for good with the introduction to Winky, the house elf for the Crouches, as well as the elves working in the kitchens of Hogwarts and Hermione’s warm hearted, but perhaps not fully thought, S.P.E.W. initiative for the “freeing” of all house elves.

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The physical world of Hogwarts is expanded, including the way to the Hufflepuff common room and the kitchens. Hermione becomes in this book focused on the welfare of the elves, and with the formation of S.P.E.W. Rowling is weaving additional layers for her readers to think about. Do we treat people a certain way because we think it is what they want? Or be being fair and equitable? This all brings us to:

Hermione Granger, lady hero. I love how much Hermione stands up for what she believes in. She wants justice for the house-elves, she will not let Ron get away with being an idiot (”So basically, you’re going to take the best-looking girl who’ll have you, even if she’s completely horrible?”). She will also not be made to feel less than, she moves through life as confidently as she can, knowing that if she works hard enough, tries her best, and doesn’t sink to the level of her enemies (Draco, Pansy, Snape) and instead will rise above.

And Everything Else:

The Yule Ball continues to make me happy because it is the perfect microcosm of all the things teenagers love and hate. Parties, food, music, dancing, getting dressed up. Some love, some hate, all have opinions. I also take umbrage with those people that don’t like the Hermione/Ron endgame (spoiler?)  because Rowling makes it so obvious that Ron and Hermione are developing romantic feelings for each other alongside their friendship, and they just don’t want to admit it because teenage reasons. It continues to give me all the feels, especially their fight (“Next time there’s a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!”).

I also get a kick out of the fact that Harry thinks Hermione is a girl he has never seen before. I also love that once Harry and Hermione talk about it, she explains the work that went into making that look happen and how its just too much bother to do it all the time and Harry just lets it be. Because it’s entirely Hermione’s decision what she looks like.

I also got a bit weepy at the end of the book, when Harry’s chosen family is all there. Molly Weasley, Bill, Ron, Hermione, and Sirius. When he chooses to invest in Fred and George and give him the winnings from the tournament since the Diggorys won’t take it.

Because I love all things Molly Weasley, I got a laugh out of how Mrs. Weasley is very disapproving of Bill’s looks. I love that Bill stood up for himself and was able to bring the outside world to bear with his mother, highlighting that no one at Gringott’s was bothered by his hair or earring, thank you very much. It was a nice thing to throw in there, that even young adults, five years out of Hogwarts are still defining their boundaries with their parents and it should be something the younger readers are on the lookout for (it matters what your boss thinks, but not necessarily what your parent thinks).

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

Hagrid and Madam Maxine. How could you not root for our boy Hagrid as he gets himself fancied up for his lady friend, only to have her turn on him when she finds out that he is half Giant? The entire scene in the garden broke my heart.

For such a dark book and series, Rowling wasn’t afraid to bring the humor. For example, when is Vicky short for Viktor? When Ron’s jealous. Socks that screamed loudly when they became too smelly-Harry’s sweetest gift to Dobby and that Dobby calls Ron “Wheezy!”

As we leave this book we are set to head into the Order of the Phoenix. We know why Harry can’t just stay with the Weasleys, even though Molly wants him to, we see Dumbledore sending out the word to bring in those that are loyal and will fight against Dumbledore even though the Ministry officially will not, and Snape being sent to work as a double agent again. These books take a long time to read and for me, a long time to review, but I will be starting in on book five in a couple weeks.

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

This review is preceded by The Prisoner of Azkaban and will be followed by The Order of the Phoenix which until this reread has always been my favorite. We’ll see if it stays at the top of the leaderboard or is supplanted by another.