Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

I decided to read these books all over again. The length of my workdays, and the fact that today I was working at one place or another from six-forty in the morning until nine at night, has put the kibosh on any adventurous reading I might feel like doing. I returned all my library books to the library with the intention of reading my books that I already own (but not yet Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, for which I’m still delaying gratification); and I came up with the bright idea of reading the entire Harry Potter series over from the beginning. My little sister and I have been having a big moan about how much we miss the prospect of new Harry Potter books now that the phenomenon is all, all over.

Also, I decline to call it Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. What is a sorcerer’s stone? The thing is called the philosopher’s stone! It has basis in alchemic legend! Why assume Americans are too stupid for this? Hmph.

In case you’ve been living under a rock: little Harry is a wee lad of eleven, and lives with his awful aunt and uncle and cousin, where nobody likes him and his glasses are broken and he gets in enormous trouble every time something strange happens around him (which isn’t un-often). And then, and then, and then – and then it proves that he’s a wizard, a really famous one because he somehow defeated the darkest dark wizard of all time when he was just a tiny baby, and he goes off to the wizard school Hogwarts, where he has all kinds of exciting adventures and meets loads of new people and flies brilliantly all around on his broomstick. And confronts the aforementioned dark wizard, all over again.

All the problems I remember with JK Rowling’s writing – crazy long sentences which bugs me as someone who likes to read aloud, and also a plethora of unnecessary verbs where “said” should be, and of course the ubiquitous adverbs – are still there. (I realize that last sentence was on the long side, but this is the same blog where I just used the word “unreviewy”, so the standards aren’t quite the same.) I’ve heard people say that JK Rowling is unoriginal, and Harry’s a cliche, and wizard school is a cliche. However, kids who have been mistreated and then find out they’re special are one of those plots that continues to be enjoyable for ages and ages – just like kids who go off to their relative’s strange old house for the summer and discover it is all full of magic. So I am not bothered by this, and since JK Rowling has created an unbelievably thorough and interesting world for her wizards, I can’t support charges of unoriginality.

I have to say, these are charming, charming books. She’s populated her world with good, bright, vivid characters, and she’s made up or borrowed from myth a ton of interesting places and things for Harry (and me!) to be introduced to. I like these books because every one of them introduces new places, new people, new stuff. And as well, I kind of enjoy this one because it’s lighter in tone than the later ones. I want to give Harry a hug and tell him to run away because I KNOW WHAT IS COMING. (JK Rowling was always saying that in interviews – that if she could talk to Harry, she’d tell him she was sorry; if she could spend a day as Harry, she’d run and hide, because she knows what’s in store for him, and I can totally see her point now.) As someone who held out reading them for a while out of a suspicion that they weren’t as good as everyone was saying, let me just say: They’re as good as everyone is saying.

Rereading this, I’m having flashbacks to eighth grade, which is when I first read this book. My friend Rachel lent it to me, and I read it on the bus so I wouldn’t have to talk to the irritating girl who sat with me. Her name was Terri, and she had a high-pitched voice and an annoying little sister who also rode our bus, and she couldn’t understand why it would bother me to have somebody poking their fingers at my face. I finished it, urged my sisters to read it, and ran straight out to the Books-a-Million to buy Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. And then, oh my God, I think I maybe got the third book at the school book fair! I miss the school book fairs!

I’m also finding that I react to every character differently now, because I know the entire arc of their story. (If you haven’t had the joyous experience of reading the Harry Potter books, don’t read this paragraph. I mean it. Even I, queen of reading the end, did not want to know the endings of these books.) So when people show up who are going to die later, I feel urgently that everybody else should enjoy their presence while they can. When people show up who are going to be heroic later, I can only think of their future heroic deeds. I’m having surprisingly (or not so surprisingly, when you think about how tired I am) emotional reactions to everything. When Neville comes into the compartment looking for his toad, I could only think about how he slays Nagini later, oh, how Harry’s going off and he tells Neville, just if he gets the chance, “Kill the snake?” “Kill the snake.” Darling Neville! I wish I could tell him how brave he will be! And when Dumbledore’s giving his speech at the school banquet, I was filled with visceral rage about the nasty things Rita Skeeter was going to say about him later. Oh how I hate her, with her vile insinuations about his very touching paternal relationship with Harry. VILE VILE VILE WOMAN.

Getting the Girl, Markus Zusak (another unreviewy review)

Sheesh, I read this right after Fighting Ruben Wolfe and then completely forgot to review this.  It’s because so many new things are happening.  I’m not just making an excuse.  There are a lot of things going on in my life at the moment.  For instance:

1. New job
2. New commitment to regular writing schedule
3. New phone and laptop
4. New record player
5. Loads and loads of new records – some purchased, some given to me by kind aunt and uncle – and the discovery of a wondrous record store in town
6. New addiction to Jodi Picoult
7. Renewed addiction to cross-stitching
8. Renewed addiction to Gilmore Girls (differing from my previous addictions in that it encompasses the latter four seasons, rather than the first three)

All of these things are time-consuming, particularly the addictions.  I am beginning to suspect that I have an addictive personality.  I get into these manias and I can’t escape until they shake me loose.  The cross-stitching while watching Gilmore Girls thing is just getting started, but it is gaining momentum rapidly.  Plus I am writing for two hours in the morning and then working nine hours after that (I mean eight really, with a break for lunch, but I am out and about all that time), so I have a long and tiring day, and by the end of it I just want to do something soothing and mindless, like read Jodi Picoult or watch Gilmore Girls.  My mum keeps insisting I can’t possibly read Jodi Picoult’s books without thinking about the issues raised in them, but it turns out that I really, really can.  I am willing to entertain the notion that I am just turning off my brain as soon as I leave work, and that’s why I have thought no deep thoughts about Jodi Picoult.

Well, in any case.  (Obviously all this business has given me ADD and I can’t focus on anything.  Oo, and what else is new too also is that it’s fall, and all the fall TV shows have come on, and I enjoy to cross-stitch while watching (on successive days) Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill (Monday is guilty pleasure day), House, Pushing Daisies, and The Office.)  In any case, Getting the Girl was again very good.  Of course.  Markus Zusak is always good.  Of course his other books (other = books not The Book Thief) are less amazing than The Book Thief, but the four I’ve read have all been quite excellent.  At times I thought Getting the Girl was a trifle disingenuous, but overall, I liked it a lot.  So far I have yet to read a book by Markus Zusak without getting choked up and teary-eyed (though of course with The Book Thief I cried many, many tears).

Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Markus Zusak

I read this because I bought Getting the Girl, and then it turned out that Getting the Girl was a sequel to Fighting Ruben Wolfe.  I haven’t liked reading things out of order since I was a young lass reading Patricia C. Wrede’s Dragons books.  I read Talking to Dragons first and found it totally confusing, and after that I resolved to read things properly and in order thereafter.  (The one exception being the Chronicles of Narnia.  I can see a person being just as happy reading those books in the order they were written, which would give them the joyous good fortune of reading The Horse and His Boy rather late in the game.  Also The Magician’s Nephew – it is my fourth favorite, but it clusters high up with the four best ones, rather than down a bit lower with Prince Caspian, The Terrifying Silver Chair, and The Last Battle.  I like Uncle Andrew.

Er, anyway.  Fighting Ruben Wolfe is all about two brothers, Ruben and Cameron, whose father has lost his job, and their whole family is trying really hard to keep its head above water.  And Ruben and Cameron – ostensibly to get some extra money for themselves – get involved doing fights for money.  Ruben always wins, and Cameron often loses.

In fact I wasn’t expecting to like this book much.  People’s first novels are sometimes not very good, and this was Markus Zusak’s first novel.  Furthermore I have only sisters and am greatly averse to pain, so I was thinking that I would be unable to identify with anything here.  But actually it was quite moving.  I didn’t cry at the end – not like when I read The Book Thief and weep helplessly every time – but I got pretty teary-eyed and sniffly.  They fight their circumstances!  They stick together and are brothers!  It’s very uplifting.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

The reason for the brevity of those last two reviews is that I am really mostly just excited about The Graveyard Book, which came out today.  At last!  The Graveyard Book!  I have been yearning and yearning and yearning for it, and at last it came out, and I read it all outside on a blanket in my side yard, and it was nice and shady and breezy, and I felt very, very, very happy!

I went to Bongs & Noodles today to get The Graveyard Book, and they had not yet even opened up the box with the display that The Graveyard Book was going to be on.  The salesperson had to get a pair of scissors and open the box up just for me.  (I offered her my keys, which would have been more effective actually, but she insisted on using the scissors.)  It was very exciting.  I love it when Neil Gaiman writes a new book.  He should write a new book every day, and then I would be happy every day, and I wouldn’t have enough time to read all of them, so that when he died way off in the future I would still have dozens of new books by Neil Gaiman to read.

That would be nice.

The Graveyard Book is all about a boy whose family is killed when he is very wee, but he escapes and toddles away into a graveyard, and the graveyard decides to adopt him.  The ghosts all look after him and teach him useful lessons like Fading and Dreamwalking, and he has got a guardian called Silas, who consumes only one food, and it is not bananas.  He grows up gradually, and they call him Bod (with a D), short for Nobody.  The man Jack, who killed his family, remains interested in killing him, so Silas and the rest of the ghosts do their utmost best to keep him safe until he is a grown-up.  He becomes clever and resourceful, and he doesn’t like people who are wicked.

How I loved The Graveyard Book!  It was such a dear book!  There are all these ghosts you don’t get to know nearly well enough, and every chapter is a little story, and Bod gets into all kinds of trouble and learns valuable lessons and sometimes makes a friend.  I only wished there were more of it.  More Silas and more of the poet ghost, who was extravagant and helpful.  I am not usually overcome with sadness when a book ends, but I was extremely sad when I got to the end of The Graveyard Book.  I suppose because it was rather episodic, I expected it to go on and on and on, and then instead of that it ended, and I felt really sad because I was sure there were more bits that could have happened in the middle before it got to the end.  I was insupportable.  I had to lie on my back and stare at the humongous sky for a while before I was able to overcome my grief and start reading it all over.

Read it!  Neil Gaiman is wonderful!  I am glad he is still so young and can continue to write for many years still!

The Mercy of Thin Air, Ronlyn Domingue

Recommended by my mother.  Of course.

This is a book about a girl in 1920s New Orleans who dies prematurely, before anything about her life gets properly decided, particularly before she makes a decision about her boyfriend Andrew, a fact that proves troublesome to her after she dies.  She is called Razi, and she haunts a Baton Rouge couple, Amy and Scott, who are dealing with the fallout from a loss of their own.  The story flips back and forth between their story and Razi’s life as a – for lack of a better word – ghost, over the years, and Razi’s life when she was properly alive.  She is a really excellent character.  When she is alive she says to her Andrew, “One lifetime isn’t enough to make all the trouble of which I am capable.”

I really love the main character’s name – it’s Raziela, the meaning of which I’ve seen alternately given as God’s secret and My secret is God, both of which are wonderful.  I like My secret is God particularly, to be honest.  My secret is God.  That is a good sentence.  I will have to find a use for that sentence.

The Mercy of Thin Air was good.  I like books about people successfully coming to terms with things that have been problematic to them.  This was melancholy in bits and joyful in bits and with good characters and good dialogue and I just liked it a lot.  Plus, you know, sister’s from the home state and her characters are always going to places that I have been, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans.  Hooray for Louisiana!  We have good food!  We have streetcars!  If anywhere in this country was going to have ghosts, it would be us!  Up with Louisiana!

Blankets, Craig Thompson

On reflection, I believe I am glad I didn’t buy this in my recent spate of bookbuying, because I have still not decided whether I want to own it forever.  It’s very good – a graphic novel memoir about first love and losing faith – and I enjoyed it both times I read it, and I am looking forward to Craig Thompson’s next, whenever that may be.  I don’t have anything bad to say about it, actually.  The drawings are black and white, line drawings, and Mr. Thompson makes excellent use of the whole graphic novel form to do things with implication and without words, which is something I so adore about graphic novels.  For someone who loves words as much as I do, I am incredibly pleased when an author can make something go without saying.

I suppose the reason I haven’t bought this even though it’s excellent is that it’s also awfully sad.  Awfully awfully sad.  I mean not depressing, but just very sad.  Plus memoirs make me a little anxious – which is funny considering how many memoirs I read – but it’s just that people write these books that tell dreadful stories about them and their family members, and it makes me anxious for their family.  Even though I’m sure they asked permission about everything they wrote.

Still it’s very well worth reading.  I shall probably continue to check it out of the library periodically until I eventually cave and buy it so I won’t have to keep getting it at the library every few years.  We’ll see.

Gentlemen and Players, Joanne Harris

Recommended by actually a number of book blogs – A Reader’s Journal and the other Jenny Claire from my lovely home state both reviewed it well.  I’ve been putting off reading this because I didn’t like Chocolat at all – I thought the film was better.  A terrifying and rare thing for me to say, and I generally only say it about The Princess Bride and Cold Comfort Farm; my opinion swayed in the latter case by how adorable I think Kate Beckinsale is, and how all the jokes surprised me in the film but not in the book, which I read subsequently.

However, I eventually decided to check this out when I discovered it was all about someone secretly trying to bring down a British public school.  It made me think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I enjoyed very much, and besides British schoolchildren fascinate me with their dreadfulness.  How can they be so dreadful?  And I discovered I like this quite a lot more than Chocolat, all the nasty revenge things that went on, and Roy Straitley’s rude Latin asides (hurrah for Latin! the Latin teacher was the cleverest!).

I will now commence to spoil everything, so stop reading if you don’t wish to be spoiled.

You get alternating points of view of Roy Straitley, the old and venerable Latin teacher at St. Oswald’s, an old British public boys’ school that is snobby and unassailable, and one of the new teachers at St. Oswald’s, once unhappily a regular school kid looking in from the borders of St. Oswald’s, now back to seek reeeee-venge against everyone, everyone, everyone at St. Oswald’s.  It’s all very cunning and insinuating.  You think it’s Chris Keane all along, but in the end it turns out it’s a girl! Who pretended to be a boy when she was younger so she could sneak into St. Oswald’s and pretend to go there!

I don’t know how well this worked.  I didn’t know she was a girl until the end.  It sort of spoiled the book for me – when the new teachers first showed up, I thought, Well, obviously she’s suggesting it’s Keane, I’ll just skip to the end and discover whether it is really someone else, and I glanced at the end of one of the closing chapters, and someone said “KEANE?” in shocked tones right at the end of the chapter, and I assumed that that meant yes, Keane was the perpetrator of these wicked crimes.  It made me feel very fond of Joanne Harris, as I thought she was putting all the fun into how and why things were being done, rather than by whom.  Which is what I prefer anyway, when you know who did it, you can catch how and why straight along as you’re reading through.  But I didn’t get to have the fun of doing that.  I felt sad and let down when I got to the end and all was revealed.  Pooh.

But I enjoyed all the wicked things she did to everyone.  I did think the sex scandals were a little uninventive – it would have been more fun if she had managed to implicate maybe one or two people with the suggestion of pedophilia and then done something completely different for the others.  And, as I say, I was pleased that the Latin teacher was cleverest of all.  Up with Latin!

All in all, fun and engaging, and maybe sometime when I get over being cross with Joanne Harris for tricking me I will read it again and see how well I feel her twist-at-the-end I’m-really-a-girl device worked.  At the moment I think it was a little cheaty, but since I didn’t know throughout the entire book, I can’t really say.

Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik

For some reason I had it in my head that this was going to be the last of the Temeraire series.  Not really sure why I thought that – evidently Ms. Novik plans to have probably nine of them before she’s done.  She must have many, many facts in her brain to want to write so many books (even though she’s now ditched history entirely).

Yes, at this point she has abandoned real history in favor of stuff that’s more fun, which, hey, I’m completely fine with.  It would be silly to accept dragons and then complain that Napoleon had invaded London, so I have no complaints about Napoleon invading London.  Unless he starts tearing down things that I like, or doing something wicked on the area that will someday grow into the South Bank, my favorite bit of the world.

I enjoyed this book nearly as much as I did the first one.  Temeraire’s a point-of-view character now, off and on, which was fun given how cute Temeraire has always been.  He’s a mighty community organizer dragon these days, organizing the breeding ground dragons into a bunch of fighters for fighting off the wicked French armies.  It was refreshing to have everybody winning battles and having clever ideas, instead of all systems devolving into chaos, as has been the case so much in the last few books.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing Iskierska in this book, I thought she was wasted.  You saw a good bit of her, but she wasn’t really doing that much – or no, I guess what I would say is that I wanted to see her grow up and become useful and clever and do cunning things, and she really didn’t.  She was just a nuisance, requiring to be watched and rescued, and I wanted her to be a mighty fightin’ power!  Maybe in the next one.  I like her and I want her to come into her own at some point.

The books continue to be entertaining.  I continue to like them enough to reserve them at the library but not enough to actually purchase them at the store.

The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott

There has never been a more picked-up-at-random than this book.  Basically I was at Bongs & Noodles before the storm, trying to pick out a good hurricane book.  And I kind of wanted to get Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I had already read it.  And I kind of wanted to get The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, because of how haunting I remember Never Let Me Go was, but I felt doubtful about it.  So I sat on a chair gazing at my options, and then I realized that what I really wanted was to read The Far Pavilions again for the first time.  Darling Far Pavilions!  Or I would have settled for Shadow of the Moon.  I greatly wished for some sort of machine that would have allowed me to revert to my pre-reading-Far-Pavilions self.  (Or my pre-Diana-Wynne-Jones self.  Then I could have looked at my bookshelves and had all these brilliant new books to read.)

Anyway, that was impossible, so instead of that I went and put “the raj fiction” into the Bongs & Noodles computer search thing, and it pulled up The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, and I blew thirty-five dollars on the first two of the four.  Essentially because, you know, the Raj is interesting, and because I just wanted something long to get me through the hurricane, and because I figured if I hated it I could always return it before the two weeks was up.

(I hate the new B&N return policy.)

I actually really, really, really liked it.  It’s a story about stuff that happens towards the end of the Raj.  Basically, a British girl has an Indian lover, and she gets raped by a bunch of not-her-lover Indians.  And that bit of plot is dealt with pretty thoroughly, but what I liked about the book, actually, was the way Paul Scott writes.  He spends the bulk of the book looping around the primary events, having all these different narrators tell different bits of the story, and they’re all telling completely different bits.  Compared to all the background you get, the bones of the story – how Daphne & Hari fall in love, and what happens That Night – only takes up a few pages.  And Mr. Scott didn’t do the looping and swirling in a boring way.  It was all very interesting, with many, many people saying what they thought about The Incident, and also what they thought about the Raj anyway, generally.  Very, very cool.

I wish I knew more about the Raj, because I had a bit of a hard time with some of the politics, not knowing the facts of what was happening at this time.  It was interesting that Mr. Scott wrote almost entirely from the point of view of the British characters – I guess you could see it as him being racist and only giving voices to the Brits, but as a white girl who writes, I wouldn’t feel incredibly comfortable speaking for people whose experiences I could never, ever have had, so maybe that’s how he felt too.

Salman Rushdie was angry at this book because Daphne Manners gets raped, and she’s white, and he thought it wasn’t a good metaphor for the violence Britain was doing to India.  Which I can see.  And I realize that Mr. Scott was saying many other things besides just “A white girl got raped by brown people” when he wrote this story.  But still, there was a fair bit of classism to the whole affair, I thought, messily entangled with the kind of unrecognized racism that’s addressed throughout the book, and it was not very nice to read.

In addition, I found it unsettling because she – this is a spoiler though you’ll probably have figured it out by the time she explains just what happened – gets attacked and raped by a bunch of Indian hooligans when they spot her having sex with her (Indian) lover Hari.  And that was scary and I don’t like rape scenes.

All of which is to say, I enjoyed the bulk of this book enough to think it worth my while to read the second one.  I am interested in what Paul Scott has to say.  It is very difficult to deal fairly with racism and oppression when you are liberal-minded but still, inevitably, one of the oppressors.  As this is something that troubles me (a lot), I enjoy to read books that deal with it.

Anna’s Book, Barbara Vine

I have dreams like this.

I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I should be very calm and relaxed. I shall probably go to the library tomorrow, get sixteen of Ruth Rendell’s books, and find I don’t like a single other one of them.

I liked Anna’s Book.  I read it because I keep hearing everyone going on about Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.  So the last time I was at the library I went to the Barbara Vine section, as I like that name better, and got Anna’s Book because my sister is called Anna.  And it was quite good.  A most satisfying mystery.  I read the end but didn’t catch exactly everything, and I felt clever about noticing that Hansine was on her period.  That’s right.  I can recognize old-timey euphemisms for menstruation.

Anna’s Book is about a woman called Anna (Asta actually, but they changed it for some reason when the book came to the U.S.) who came to England as a Danish immigrant before the first World War, and she kept diaries.  And ages and ages later her diaries got really famous and published, and a mean person wrote a letter to Anna’s oldest daughter, Swanny, to tell her that Swanny was not really Anna’s daughter.  And the book goes back and forth, with excerpts from the diaries and bits about what Swanny did, and bits about what Swanny’s niece Ann did to find out what was what.  Very much with the good structure.

I like these nice tidy mysteries.  Not just because I like to have things squared away neatly, but also because books are fun when they have intricate plots that come together well.  Holes was really good about this, and so was Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  And I liked them both.  And, actually, The Chosen, which was a totally different kind of book.

I finished up Anna’s Book and I looked up Ruth Rendell on the internet and do you know how many novels she’s written, DO YOU KNOW?

You probably don’t know.  I will tell you.

FIFTY-SIX.

And I’ve only read one of them.  Oh, and also, she’s written another one that will be released in November, and another one again (called The BIrthday Present) that’s getting released in March of next year.  That one, The Birthday Present, will be her fifty-eighth book.  This almost shows that it was meant for her to be my next big thing, because my birthday is May 7th (five seven), and the book’s called The Birthday Present.

Actually, she’s British.  So it works out perfectly.  In Britain my birthday is May 8th.  I was born quite late at night on the 7th of May, in America, which means rather early in the morning on the 8th of May, in Britain.  Voila.  The Birthday Present and its number are Signs.  I shall check out and read loads of her other books and it will be exactly like when we went camping and I read all of Elizabeth Peters’ books for the first time.  And I need that kind of cheering-up because my big sister just moved away.

(I’ve gotten a lot of play out of this May 7th-May 8th America-Britain thing.  My mum thought of it when I was away in England.  It is also the means by which I claim that my confirmation name saint has her feast day on my birthday, because she’s British.  Though in fact that doesn’t work at all, because I’m Catholic, and her Catholic feast day is May 13th, not May 8th.  But whatever.  It’s close enough for government work.)