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. 

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. 

A Spy in the House (CBR8 #74)

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It isn’t a book’s fault when you’ve read a version of it better suited to your own personal tastes. I feel poorly for nor liking A Spy in the House more, since as a straight on 1850s historical fiction mystery should be right up my alley. I am a fan of Alex Grecian’s Murder Squad series which starts with The Yard, which is the same basic set up, but 40 years later. But I was left underwhelmed.

I think it may be because Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series is more recently in my memory and it was quite a bit more enjoyable for me. Here’s a synopsis from Goodreads so you can decide for yourself if this book sounds like fun to you:

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

While I was finishing this book and contemplating both my star rating (2.5) and my review in general the twittersphere blew up about a YA book The Continent, and one of our favorite authors, Courtney Milan, got involved in the discussion, which meant that I got caught up quick. What it basically boils down to is that persons of color in The Continent were mishandled (racist and demeaning descriptors of POC, per the reports), and people spoke out via the methods available to them. The author and her supporters are falling back on a free expression.

But what stood out to me was Milan’s point and emphasis about reading more POC authors, which is actually how I got to this book in the first place, and realizing that I as a white reader need to be aware of my reactions to what I’m reading.  I can’t just sit back and say “I didn’t connect with this for some reason” and not look into the idea of is it simply that this book is handling a viewpoint different than my own, and different to the conventional story arc? I stepped back from this review and thought about it long and hard. Was the trouble I had because the narrative was typical and from a POC author? I’ve come to the conclusion of no, that my real struggle with this book is that it is Y. S. Lee’s first book, the pacing is slow, and it’s a bit more YA than I prefer. But if you are looking for more insight into the conversations surrounding representation in books, particularly YA, Becky Albertelli and Justina Ireland had a great threads on Twitter as well.

 

The Rest of Us Just Live Here (CBR8 #55)

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I have been trying to read some of the runner up choices for book club in addition to the ones we pick. So far, I’ve read Venetia by Georgette Heyer and this book, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. This one feels like a bit of a cheat, since I had already requested it from the library before I put it on the list of voting options (although I had also figured out how to procure The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian before the vote as well).

I was intrigued by the reviews here at Cannonball, and really wondered how the author would tackle the story of all the other characters populating the world in which vampires have already been a scourge, and for a while all those indie kids were dying beautifully of cancer. It sounded to me like it could be a YA version of Longbourn, and since I loved that book so much I should certainly give this one a try. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t spectacular in the way I was hoping.

Patrick Ness can write like a motherfucker. That is not up for debate. If I were reviewing for a more official review, I probably would have rounded this one up to four stars, and not down to three, based purely on his prowess with the craft. But, I am writing this review for myself, and for the Cannonball crowd, where we are equally as concerned with plot and execution as we are with wordsmithing and a good core idea, so this book is rounded down to three.

The story is pretty straightforward – our group of characters are in the final weeks of their senior year and they’re just hoping their high school doesn’t blow up before they have a chance to graduate. In blurbs at the beginning of each chapter Ness outlines the peril being faced by the indie kids (Immortals are trying to take over the world) and the reverberations of that story are felt in the day to day of Mel, Mike, Jared, and Henna. However, while these characters aren’t the indie kids whom are found at the center of crises points, that doesn’t mean that they are without interesting foibles, problems, and inner lives. Ness weaves a story where it is easy for us to realize that even if the things we’re dealing with are “ordinary” they are still ours to combat.

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

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (CBR8 #52 – Cannonball!)

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Normally I have my Cannonball book picked out in advance. I know what my goal book is for the big reviews. 2016 hasn’t really worked out that way, so as I was packing my bags for a quick 48-hour trip to visit my family I had just finished book 51 and knew the next one would be *the* cannonball book. I of course grabbed Cannonball Book Club’s pick, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Can I just say that you all rocked this choice? It was great.

It’s my policy to do pretty vague/non-spoiler reviews of book club choices. Know that I really loved this book and it made my nearly 5-hour flight delay bearable (I probably finished this book in three hours).  Junior is great, Alexie writes him with such clarity, honesty, and truth. And in turn, Junior is able to relate a year in the life to us in precise, genuine, and emotional ways that suck you in. Also, it includes one of my favorite things… a list of favorite books (even if I worry about Junior’s taste).

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Here’s a summary for those of you still on the fence: Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from one life and replace it with another.

The discussion topics and reminder post will go up later this week and we’ll meet over at Cannonball Read on September 1 to chat about the book.

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

The Monstrumologist (CBR8 #44)

Sometimes, a book shows up and you read it knowing full well it isn’t for you. This, friends, is one of those books.

I’m participating in Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge again this year since I’m usually looking for an excuse to read something different and I have been trying to expand my tastes. One of the challenges, number one in fact, is to read a horror book. Fear was struck into my heart because I don’t even watch horror movies, let alone read horror books. Enter my friend Alison, who suggested this award winning YA horror novel to “ease” me in. If she wasn’t my friend, and there wasn’t a check mark waiting for me at the end, I would have put this book down within about 20 pages and never returned to it.

The Monstrumologist is the first in a series by Rick Yancey, published in 2009, and its genres are listed as YA Horror and Gothic Horror. I get it, and the horror portions were not too much for me, probably because of the YA categorization. The book hinges on the idea that it is the diary of one of the main characters found after his death, chronicling his apprenticeship with the titular monstrumologist as they investigate the case of an infestation of Anthropophagi (please don’t ask me to explain these weird monster creatures with no heads and mouths in their abdomens) in their area.

As I mentioned above, I did not enjoy this one. The writing was fine, if a bit longwinded. The characters are relatively well drawn, but I cared for not a one of them, even the child. Obviously this book works for some people as it won the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award of the American Library Association for young adult literature, but not me. I would suggest the Jackaby series instead, and think I probably could have used that book to check off my horror task, even though it didn’t feel scary to me. I am leaving A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay on my to reads list, and we’ll see if I manage to get there.

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

Waistcoats &Weaponry (CBR7 #43)

Sophronia and her friends have grown on me. Waistcoats & Weaponry, the third book in Carriger’s prequel Finishing School series, is much more in line with the early Alexia Tarabotti Parasol Protectorate books (Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, etc.) than the previous two books in this series. What we have in Waistcoats & Weaponry is a good old fashioned caper story. I was delighted.

Waistcoats& Weaponry picks up several months after Curtsies & Conspiracies. Our girls are continuing with their lessons at Madam Geraldine’s and Sophronia and Dimity are awaiting the chance to get off-dirigible to attend Sophronia’s brother’s masquerade engagement party (you can’t accuse Carriger of not giving a crazy level of detail to everything she writes).  Before they go we are treated to lessons with my favorite teachers – checking in with Professor Braithwope the vampire and Captain Niall the werewolf (did I not mention that Carriger’s Steampunk novels include vampires and werewolves and they play a major role in the politics of this alt-history? Because they both do.) However, before Captain Niall’s lesson on bladed fans (I want one) Sidheag is called away because of a letter from home.

What happens next is a series of events that lead to the caper. I don’t want to give much away, so know that *any* event that Sophronia attends *something* goes absolutely haywire. Sophronia, Dimity, Lord Felix Mersey, and Soap (with some help from Dimity’s brother) take off into the night to get Sidheag to Scotland. And hijinks ensue.

I loved this book because there was a mystery as part of the plot that isn’t straight forward, but pulls the world that Carriger is creating more clearly into focus while simultaneously setting up the world we find in the Parasol Protectorate books. It is tightly paced and fun. What more could you want from a Y.A. Steampunk book? The series has gotten stronger as it continues and I’ve gone from feeling “meh” about completing it to being quite excited to eventually borrow book the fourth from Crystal Clear (who graciously lent me her copy of this book as well).

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