Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince & The Deathly Hallows

I haven’t done much reading lately. I started reading a book while I was in Los Angeles in May and I wasn’t enjoying it.

 

After getting home, by the time I finally got around to starting to read again, it was three weeks later. I just wanted to read something that wasn’t going to test me, something that I knew I would enjoy.

 

So, I settled down to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Last summer I started re-reading the series, ready for my trip to see the stage-play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in October this year, and I have been periodically dipping into it since last June.

 

When I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I wrote that it was the book in the series that really opened up the wider wizarding world. I also spoke about how annoying Harry was as he started to go through puberty.

 

In Phoenix, Harry is still kind of annoying, but his anger here doesn’t feel out of place. He went through a lot during Goblet and so it feels completely justified. His arrogance is still present, particularly in his refusal to fully embrace the Occlumency levels, but equally Dumbledore is frustrating, in his absence, in his reluctance to share things with Harry.

 

The beginning of the book, as you might imagine following the events at the end of the previous book, is pretty bleak, and Rowling seems to know it. There’s a line about a third of the way through where Hermione is looking out of the window and says ‘here’s something that should cheer you up. Hagrid’s back’.

 

And though not my favourite character, my heart did lift at that moment. And I remember my heart lifting the first time I read it as well. Perhaps because of the absence of Dumbledore and the in-fighting between Harry, Hermione and Ron anything familiar is a welcoming sight.

 

Books 1 to 5 of the Harry Potter series are probably some of the books I am most familiar with. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows less so, mostly because I was eighteen and twenty respectfully when they came out. There was simply less opportunity for me to re-read the books when I became an ‘adult’.

 

So, reaching the end of Phoenix, I had to go into Prince and Hallows straight away to find out not what happened, but to remind myself how it happened. I read all three across the space of three weeks and it felt so good to be reading books that I enjoyed again, looking forward to picking up my book at the end of the day and not wanting to put it down.

 

I even woke up in the middle of the night worrying about Harry and Hermione while I was reading Deathly Hallows.

 

The last three books work so well together, like one huge book rather than just three big ones. They flow into each other well and Harry matures nicely into a character that you actually like, a great achievement for a character that comes close to being the worst character in the series during book four and five.

 

The last book neatly sews up pretty much every loose thread that had been left dangling from the previous six, even ones you didn’t know were loose. Every minor character gets a moment to shine, a shining example being Hermione saving Lavender Brown from Fenrir Greyback.

 

It’s a small moment, but the previous year, their relationship had been left frosty after Lavender went out with Ron, and Rowling doesn’t forget, she tidies it up, even with a small as interaction like that.

 

And yes… I cried at the end. It’s impossible not to.

 

For those wondering:

 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix scores 4.1 out of 5 (same as Goblet of Fire)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince scores 4.5 out of 5

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows scores 4.6 out of 5

 

What lets Deathly Hallows down? It’s *not* quite as funny as the previous books, and if I’m completely honest the epilogue set nineteen years later… I could do without. Nearly ten years after first reading it, I feel slightly better about it as a precursor to The Cursed Child but it still feels like a bit of a mis-step to me.

And I Darken by Kiersten White

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we’d started a new YA book club at work, and while we haven’t quite gotten around to the club part, I have now read the book.

 

And I Darken by Kiersten White boldly bills the lead character as the latest in a long line of heroines that includes Ellen Ripley, Elizabeth Bennett, Hermione Granger and Buffy Summers.

 

Books that make these sort of claims tend to fall into two categories, the vast majority of them are perfectly good books that are the victims of over eager publicists, or they genuinely are that good a book.

 

The latter are, unfortunately, rare. The reason good characters stand out so much, male or female, is because of their relatively small number among a vast sea of their merely adequate counterparts.

 

Telling your readers that this is the next iconic name in books is a bit like purposefully trying to write a tweet that goes viral. It should just happen naturally.

 

Having said all that, does Lada Dracul warrant being added to the list of slayers, spies and Scarlett O’Hara?

 

It’s a tentative ‘yes’ from me – and here’s why:

 

And I Darken is not just the tale of Lada – it’s also the tale of her brother, Radu (here’s mistake number one in the marketing – it’s not just for girls, Radu is as strong and compelling character as his sister).

 

They are the younger children of the leader of Wallachia, and he is absent from much of their early lives. However as they grow, he begins to sense something about them both. When it comes to leaving the country, he takes them with him, but ultimately has to leave them behind with the Sultan in order to safeguard his homeland.

 

Radu, younger, sensitive, but with a gift for charming people (you can see where this is going) starts to adapt, while Lada contrarian ugly duckling that she is resists, however they both befriend Mehmed, a boy they later discover is the son of the sultan.

 

And so we have our threesome. Every good story needs a trio of central characters be they Harry, Ron and Hermione; Kirk, Spock and McCoy; or Wakko, Yakko and Dot (the Animaniacs for those uneducated of you who need telling) – and And I Darken is no exception

 

Some of the peripheral characters are vague and forgettable, a trait that is unfortunate when a few of them pop up unexpectedly later on, causing me absolutely no degree of the intended surprise as I have no clue who they actually are – but our core characters are well defined, and not just our central threesome.

 

Plot wise the story is a little Game of Thrones-esque, a little hard to follow at times, but you get the gist, and understand all the important bits. There’s also some gratuitous nudity, although no dragons (SPOILER ALERT: Or are there? – that’ll make sense when you get to the end, it’s amused me).

 

I was surprised to discover that the book is largely based on true facts – Radu the handsome exists, albeit largely as a footnote in the story of Vlad the Impaler. Here our writer has taken some poetic licence, namely, taking Vlad and turning him into a teenage girl named Lada.

 

I know when I’m reading a good book, not only do I race through it, but I break my rules of how long I’m going to read for – and on this one, not only did I do that, but I also found myself desperately reading every part of the proof copy jacket to find out if any more were planned (yes they are, this is the first in a trilogy).

 

Does it live up to it’s promise? As I said at the beginning, it’s a tentative yes – I don’t believe anyone would have listed Buffy Summers or Katniss Everdeen great female characters of our time after their first outing, but the promise was there.

 

The promise is definitely there with Lada, but this is more than her. Radu plays a huge part in this book, sharing the narrative as equally with his sister. I await the subsequent books eagerly and hope that Radu continues to share this story with Lada. Together, the two of them could usher in the next big series in teen fiction.

 

And I Darken scores 4.1 out of 5 from me. It is published on 7th July by Corgi Books

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

 

Regular readers of my blog will know two things:

 

  • How important JK Rowling is to me (if you’re not clear on this then click here to read more)
  • Since the summer of 2015, I’ve been re-reading and reviewing the Harry Potter series.

 

(FYI – You can read the first three reviews by clicking these links: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

 

My plan was to re-read them all by October 2016 – which is when my mum and I are going to see the eighth story in the series – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

 

Of course, JK Rowling has gone and ruined my plan by choosing to publish the script of the play on Sunday 31st July (Both Harry’s and Rowling’s birthday fact fans)

 

Aside from causing me a lot of extra stuff to do at work, this means I now have two months less in order to complete the series.

 

It shouldn’t be a problem, but the complication is that starting with Goblet of Fire the books triple in size.

 

In my head I’ve always referred to Goblet of Fire as “The One Where They Stopped Editing Her” – when the books are lined up on the shelf, the jump in size is very apparent, so I found myself approaching this reading what ‘extra’ is in there.

 

If Goblet of Fire had been the same size as the previous three books what would they have cut out?

 

My initial thought was obviously SPEW, the society Hermione forms in response to the unfair treatment of house elves, since this is the biggest subplot that the film cuts out. I also remember being incredibly frustrated by it at the time I first started reading it.

 

But I started thinking about the point of it. There’s a line from the fake Mad-Eye Moody which says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the best way to get the measure of a man is to see how he treats his inferiors.

 

That’s an allegory for the central point of the Harry Potter books. Voldemort wants to rid the wizarding world of half-bloods and mudbloods. They are less than him, inferior.

 

It is telling that it is Hermione (the mudblood of our main group) that is the one to notice the injustice of the house elf situation.

 

In retrospect, the frustrating part of this plotline is that nothing actually changes. It’s not mentioned again in the subsequent books (to the best of my knowledge) and the situation doesn’t improve for the house elves – although it is often stated that the house elves themselves don’t want change.

 

I’m not sure how true that is. It feels like a loose thread to me, but maybe it’s one we’ll see developed in The Cursed Child nineteen years later.

 

So, is there anything else that could have been cut out?

 

The answer is probably, but I’m glad it wasn’t. Maybe some of the scenes in the pensieve didn’t need to be explored in quite so much detail, but the beauty of this book is the level of detail it goes into.

 

If Philosopher’s Stone was about introducing the wizarding world, and Chamber of Secrets was about expanding Voldemort’s story, then Goblet of Fire continues the expansion of the entire wizarding world that was started in the Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

The detail and the plot really help set up where the series is going and for that it needs to be this big, what’s a shame is that in all those pages, there’s not an awful lot of room for character development.

 

As we travel from the Quidditch World Cup through each of the Triwizard Tasks right to the final climax in the graveyard where Voldemort rises again, it does just feel like we’re moving from event to event.

 

All three of the main characters are equally annoying throughout, from Harry and Ron’s stupid male pride to Hermione’s unfailing belligerence, it’s a good job we know these characters from the previous books, because going into this one cold, I can’t imagine that anyone would like any of them.

 

There is a little character development – this is certainly Hermione at the peak of her annoyance, and thankfully Ron’s dented pride doesn’t rear its head again until Deathly Hallows. As for Harry, the events at the end of this book certainly do change him, and he goes from annoying to just plain angry in Order of the Phoenix.

 

The stand out moment in Goblet of Fire are the final few chapters, from when Harry and Cedric Diggory land in the graveyard. SPOILER alert – Cedric’s death up to Harry’s desperate attempts to return his body to his family are pretty darn tear-jerking, especially considering we know what is to come.

 

Despite the lack of character development and the lack of humour (I honestly don’t remember laughing out loud at any point in this book, even Fred and George are too busy tied up in their own subplot to provide any light relief) it’s still a Harry Potter novel, which means it’s going to score highly with me – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire scores 4.1 out of 5.

 

I think going forward, I’ll think of this one as “The One Where They All Begin Puberty”

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

There’s something about time travel, that I struggle to resist.

A good time-travel story is like a farce – in fact, I’m specifically thinking of an episode of Frasier named The Ski Lodge, which sees the characters going skiing for the weekend.

Both Frasier and Niles are hoping to get their end away, and the girls they’re with as well as the handsome gay ski instructor are all hoping for the same. The sad thing is that none of them want to sleep with the one who wants to sleep with them.

The episode works for two reasons. The first, a setting designed to allow the story to take place without hinder it (a large ski lodge with three bedrooms and interconnecting doors) and tight plotting, which results not in a flat sitcom performance, but a well choreographed dance.

The best time travel plots have to be like that as well. They contain plots that revisit the same scenes over and over again, viewed from a slightly different perspective, with the added danger of the characters running into a future or past version of themselves.

The plotting has to be tight and the setting has to be established, or else you risk running up with a mess.

That is exactly what you get in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – which before re-reading it I would have said was probably my favourite instalment of the Harry Potter series.

Now, having re-read it, I can tell you, it IS my favourite. The whole novel, short though it may be in comparison to the subsequent books, spends its time building up to the climax, the moment that begins at the point where Hermione, complete with a melodramatic lip tremble (I imagine) informs the boys that Hagrid lost the appeal for his Hippogriff Buckbeak.

From there, Rowling barrels through plot twists and developments that she’s had simmering along nicely, some since the first and second books, with a wonderful time travel section that I just adore.

However, my favourite part of the book, and maybe my favourite part of the series comes early on. Shortly after escaping the Dursleys and being put up in the Leaky Cauldron, Harry spends his last two weeks of the summer holidays in Diagon Alley.

It seems to me, that when Harry was looking for his happy memory in order to conjure his Patronus, he should have looked to that sunny fortnight in London. It’s the first moment of the series where we truly get a sense of Harry being happy, he is carefree and without responsibility.

In retrospect, it’s also the last time before the end of the series where it feels Harry experiences happiness, a true care-free time. It could be argued that his trip to the Quidditch World Cup (pre the Death Eaters arrival) in Goblet of Fire is a happy time for Harry, but it struck me as I was reading this chapter, how tense he seems to be when with his friends.

He always seems to have a responsibility to his friends, to be the middle-man in the sniping between Ron and Hermione. To downplay parts of himself to make them both feel more comfortable – one of the biggest recurring themes in the books is Harry feeling uncomfortable at having money when Ron doesn’t.

During his ‘holiday’ in Diagon Alley, the biggest worry Harry has is that his hair won’t stay flat. This wonderful little bubble only bursts when Ron and Hermione descend on the Leaky Cauldron.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is a turning point for the series. It marks the end of Harry’s more innocent years, but also fires the starting pistol for the rest of the series. It’s clear from the end of this book that the series is only going to get darker and more epic.

It’s no wonder that the Harry Potter hype that was starting to sweep the world really took hold after the release of Azkaban, it’s probably JK Rowling’s finest piece.

The Casual Vacancy

JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy begins it’s BBC1 adaptation tonight, so a few of you may be wondering whether or not the book is any good. I first read and reviewed The Casual Vacancy back when it was published in 2012.

Below is my review from three years ago…

So my last blog post was about how Harry Potter and JK Rowling has appeared throughout my personal and professional life. The reason for that was so that I could write this blog about her newest book – The Casual Vacancy – purely on the merits of the book itself.

However, now, as I sit down to write this blog, I wonder if that it is possible – and if it is, should I?

With any established brand – and that is what she is – whether it’s a TV series, a musician or a maker of champagne, there is the expectation on the next product to be as good as the previous one, if not better. Executed badly, they risk devaluing a franchise (various film series spring to mind here), but if it’s pulled off, they can reap huge rewards.

Some might say it’s unfair to judge The Casual Vacancy in comparison to the Harry Potter series, but the truth is a lot of people will buy The Casual Vacancy whether they like the sound of the plot or not, because they are fans of Rowling. Her writing, her characterisation, her plotting and her pacing are hallmarks of her writing, and so must be assessed in terms of both their standalone appearance in this novel, and in comparison to her previous publications.

It would, however, be unfair to compare the impact. Potter was a cultural phenomenon, which The Casual Vacancy will never be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t as good as Potter – or indeed, better.

So, now that I’ve set out my stall, it’s time to actually find out if it was actually any good…

I liked it.

The plot is subtle. It concerns a village – Pagford – on the edge of a larger town, Yarvil – and The Fields – an estate between the two. The parish council of Pagford is split into two factions, those who wish The Fields to be governed by Yarvil – led by the pompous, big fish in a small pond, Howard – and those who wish for it to be governed by Pagford.

The second faction was, up until about page 5, led by Barry Fairbrother, but when he dies, he leaves a spare seat on the council, the Casual Vacancy referred to in the title.

The next 500 pages or so are about the three potential replacements, their families and friends and Krystal Weedon a resident of The Fields and her family.

It doesn’t exactly sound very exciting. It’s certainly no “Boy Wizard and friends defeat Dark Lord by destroying seven split pieces of his soul”.

But the plot isn’t really the point. It’s about the characters and their relationships with each other. It sort of attempts social commentary, but I don’t think it really succeeds – the concept of a parish council in a small village is too far removed from the realities of most modern lives.

What it does succeed in though, is the development of a fascinating group of characters. The characters of The Casual Vacancy – specifically Krystal Weedon, Andrew Price and Fats Wall – compare tremendously well to their Potter counterparts.

These characters seem real and of this world. Harry Potter was never supposed to be of this world, but looking back on him and Hermione and Ron now, they seem a bit two dimensional.

Casual Vacancy is told from a number of different viewpoints, something which helps build the scope of the novel, but which also helps to define the characters and their relationships with each other.

All of the characters are horrible. I don’t think I can look back on them and truly say I liked any of them – but I certainly felt sympathy for them, and I definitely got to know them in a way that, over seven books, I didn’t know Harry Potter (who was always a bit coy over defining his feelings).

Maybe that’s the point Rowling is trying to make – we’re all as horrible as each other, and even those people that we like, our friends, our family, our lovers, if we were inside their head and knew everything they were thinking, would we still like them as much? Probably not.

Like them or not, you get to know the characters so well, that you CARE about the results of the election. It feels tense as you build closer and closer to it until you get there, when suddenly it doesn’t matter any more. From the day of the election, the story spirals out of control of the hands of our characters. A chain of events begins that will likely change the dynamics of the village for a long time, and it is, a little bit heartbreaking.

Not bad for a plot-light book about a local election.

Negative bits:

The Weedon family’s dialogue where Rowling falls into the trap of trying to write an accent. It goes over the top a bit, and reminds me of her writing of Hagrid. Also as a resident (sort-of) of the West Country where Pagford is supposedly located, it reads more as Scouse than Farmer…

Rowling’s over-use of brackets to for explanation of back story (sometimes lasting over a page) is distracting.

Howard and Shirley Mollison while good characters, were also good characters when they appeared in the Harry Potter series. They are Petunia and Vernon Dursley, albeit a few years older. They are Mr and Mrs Muggleton of Muggleville.

That’s about it for negatives.

The book certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s not a page-turner, more of a slow-build, but if you have the time to invest in it, and you have a taste for books from the more literary end of the spectrum then I would certainly recommend giving it a go. Even if you didn’t like Harry Potter. Perhaps, especially if you didn’t like Harry Potter. It’s completely different.

I’m giving The Casual Vacancy a 7.5 out of 10. It is by no means perfect, and it’s not going to change anybody’s life, but it is enjoyable, and it is well written.

No Copyright Infringement Intended

While I was writing my last blog post I was trying to remember the very first thing that I wrote.

I will apologise once again for bringing up JK Rowling, but my first piece of fiction (that I can remember) was very similar to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

I was in Year 4 of school and our teacher Mrs McAteer was arranging a class assembly. I can’t recall if there was a theme, or if it was just a loosely-connected series of skits, but I seem to remember that we were all asked to get into groups and write something that we could then act out.

We had a small green triangle, some sort of stone – green onyx or something, the type of ‘gemstone’ that one might acquire for twenty pence in a museum gift shop – as our inspiration. I can’t remember now if we were given it, selected it, or indeed if we got it from a tacky museum gift shop.

I was grouped with three friends of mine, Gary, Christian and Simon, and we came up with a story about four student wizards. We were to play a character each and we wrote the piece together, writing our own dialogue, while I naturally wrote the connecting prose – although a play, it wasn’t written in script form.

I was ‘Stupid Smee’ a dim-witted, simple fellow, Christian was ‘Jungle Jack’ a fairly average student who was actually a bad guy, Gary was ‘Scorpina Scorpion’ a foreign exchange student  and Simon was… ‘Magic Martin’

The stone – acting almost like a portkey – magically transported us across to a jungle, similar to the Forbidden Forest, where we had to fight a Voldemort-like dark wizard who wanted the stone to help him live forever, much like the Philosopher’s Stone.

In Smee we had Neville Longbottom, Scorpina was our Ron Weasley, Martin was our version of Hermione and Jack would have been the equivalent of Malfoy.

We were Harry Potter without Harry Potter.

Thinking back, I found myself amused by just how much like Harry Potter my untitled first project was…. And then I remembered, I was in Year 4 in 1995 – two years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published.

I now can’t help wondering if JK Rowling ever visited a small primary school in Swindon, and watched a group of eight year olds pissing about in a school assembly.

I’ll let her off – I’m sure no copyright infringement was intended.