Saturday, 29 September 2012

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Before Harry Potter returns for his second year at Hogwarts he is warned that terrible things will happen at the school.  A wave of mysterious attacks sweep the castle, and Harry finds himself caught up in the efforts to discover the culprit.

Published: 1998
Pages: 251 (Bloomsbury, 1998)
Series: Harry Potter #2
First Read: Spring 1999
Times Read: At least 10
Part of: The Harry Potter Readalong

First line(s): "Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.  Mr Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry's room."

Review: As with my review of Philosopher's Stone, I've split this into two parts - one for those who haven't read the books before, and one for those who have.

For those who haven't read the book(s) before
In many ways, Chamber of Secrets builds on Philosopher's Stone, expanding the world and introducing themes that will run throughout the series.  The main focus in this book is the anti-Muggle prejudice that exists in the wizarding world, and which is J.K. Rowling's means of exploring intolerance.  This may make the book sound heavy-handed and moralistic (and it is the latter) but it loses nothing of the whimsy and humour of the first book.  It may seem like a slight rehash of Philosopher's Stone, but it is a great book on its own and features the fabulous creation that is Gilderoy Lockhart.

I'm trying not to say too much as an in depth discussion would be spoilery, but know this: when you've read this (even if you dislike it, as much of the fandom seems to) you can go on to Prisoner of Azkaban which is oh my God amazing.

For those who have read the book(s) before
I know this is one of the least popular books in the fandom, but I've always rather liked it.  It isn't one of my favourites, but I don't dislike it.  It's funny, and servicable, and it doesn't leave me let down like Order of the Phoenix nor does it seem slight like Half-Blood Prince.  I see that it is a lot like Philosopher's Stone, and it still feels like an introduction, but I rather enjoy the ever-expanding element of the wizarding world and Rowling's way of moving the reader deeper into it as the books progress.

The main flaw with this book it that the mystery isn't completely solvable by the reader.  All the other books provide you with the required information, so that when you read the answer you say "oh, why didn't I see that, it was right there!".  While this is true of the Ginny element of the solution, it isn't so with the answer of the basilisk - it is revealed in a short paragraph that tells what has gone before rather than shows.  It would have been difficult to work the information in without it being bloody obvious, but it feels forced and sloppy when it is revealed.  This is the most disappointing element of the book, which is frustrating as the mystery is usually one of the best things in a Harry Potter.

However, much as I still notived the flaw on this reread, I was most struck by how much Chamber of Secrets foreshadows Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows.  Quite apart from the items in Borgin and Burkes which Draco uses in HBP, and the two Vanishing Cabinets (oh my goodness she really had this planned), there is the diary!  A piece of Lord Voldemort's soul, right there, being flushed down toilets and thrown around by teenagers!  I almost wish there was some way he could learn exactly what happened to the diary after he'd left it with Lucius.  It could be seen as merely important to the plot of Chamber, but the word "soul" is thrown around a lot as Tom Riddle explains what happened, and even on the first read this element seems important enough to be noted though you don't know why.  And that is part of the genius of the series as a whole.

My favourite line from this book though, the one that leapt out at me this time, was "[l]et's match the powers of Lord Voldemort, heir of Salazar Slytherin, against famous Harry Potter, and the best weapons Dumbledore can give him" (233) because that is exactly happens at the end of Deathly Hallows and that says so much about Voldemort's weaknesses and ultimate defeat.

So, despite the fault with the mystery, I really like Chamber of Secrets.  It may seem a more important book now the series is complete, but I've always enjoyed reading it.  Still, I'm curious: what is it about Chamber of Secrets that fans dislike?

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Series I Haven't Finished

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week: top ten series we haven't finished.  I have to admit, that this is one of my biggest bookish confessions/flaws: I constantly start series that I never finish.  And this isn't because I have to wait for the next installment and then forget, as all of those listed below are complete series that I own all of.  I don't know why it is, I'll read the first in a series, buy all the rest of it, and then just don't read them. 

The numbers in brackets are (the number I've read/total number of books in the series) and, as I said, these are all books I own and which are currently sitting in my flat, mocking me.

1. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (2/6) - I have constantly rabbited on and on about how much I love Lymond and Dunnett and yet I've only read the first 2 (and a bit).  In my defence, I only managed to track down book 6 earlier this year, as the series is out of print, but I've had the others for ages and not read them.  I think I'm just worried that it's all going to get 'mean', as I'll phrase it, and I don't want that.  Also, these books are brilliant but long and complex, so you really have to pay attention and I haven't had time recently to set aside for a good read.

2. The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray (2/3) - see, I only have the last left to read!  I even started it!  And I read A Great and Terrible Beauty & Rebel Angels right after each other and loved them and yet The Sweet Far Thing just sits there.  I'm going to have to reread them all again (much hardship that it is reading Libba Bray) as I can't remember all of the fine details.

3. The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness (1/3) - I loved, loved The Knife of Never Letting Go and after the way it ended I had to start The Ask and the Answer and I got a couple of chapters in and sort of stopped.  I think it's because it's so dark and despairing and dreadful that I reached overkill, plus the tension keeps building until you both have to stop reading for your health and can't do so, so all of that together meant I took a break and didn't go back.  But I must.

4. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (1/3) - I am probably the last YA book blogger/fan on the planet not to have read all of these books.  I am ashamed.

5. The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa (2/5) - I'm including The Iron Legends in this count.  This series was one of my surprise finds last year, as I really didn't expect to like it as much as I do.  Despite a few moments of "oh, come on, he's Puck!  That's Puck!" and it being yet another bloody love bloody triangle seriously can't we stop with these? they're still great books and I need to reread the first two and slot the short stories in as appropriate.

6. The Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead (4/6) - another series I didn't expect to like but I love.  Ended up buying them because people kept requesting my library copies before I'd read them (I am v slow with library books) and because I knew I'd want to keep them.  Rose is a badass, and I like the books even when they go all Buffy season 2.

7. The Demon's Lexicon trilogy by Sarah Rees Brennan (1/3) - not only are these badass, funny and smart, the first one is also set in just about every place in Britain that I've lived in.  Seriously, it is uncanny.  Nice to know there were magicians running round Exeter when I was studying there.  I really feel like I should finish reading this series before I start on Unspoken, but there's a good chance that won't happen.

8. The Dream Catcher trilogy by Lisa McMann (1/3) - I love Lisa McMann's writing style and Wake was a quick, chilling read that I thoroughly enjoyed, yet I haven't continued with the others.  I think that, like Lymond, I'm worried about what's going to happen and so put it off as a means of sparing me pain because I is wuss.

9. The Hex Hall trilogy by Rachel Hawkins (1/3) - OK, when I started this one they weren't all published, so there's that in my favour.  But I've had plenty of time to finish the series, especially as I really liked Hex Hall so this is yet another example of laziness as these books are good and I need to know what happens next.

10. The Paranormalcy trilogy by Kiersten White (1/3) - I loved Paranormalcy, not least because I found it refreshingly sane and the things that I considered creepy were meant to be creepy and not an example of oh my God undying love.  Again it wasn't completed when I started reading the series (I don't think Supernaturally had been published then) but given that I specifically order the American hardbacks so I don't have to wait for the British paperbacks I really should have got on this sooner.

Right, a quick tally: that's 16/38 books which I have read, and 22/38 which I haven't.  Time to set myself some personal reading challenges and get on with it.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Orphaned as a baby, Harry Potter is brought up by his neglectful aunt and uncle and thinks he is an ordinary boy.  Then he discovers he's a wizard, goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and fights the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.  And it is awesome.

Published: 1997
Pages: 223 (Bloomsbury, 1997)
Series: Harry Potter #1
First Read: Spring 1999
Times Read: At least 10
Part of: The Harry Potter Readalong

First Line: "Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

Review: This book is very difficult to review, because it's Harry Potter and I just want to bounce around going "it's awesome, if you haven't read it before go and read it, if you have read it before then read it again.  Either way, get thee to the book!" but that probably isn't very helpful.  Also, I want to speak of spoilery things, but that's hardly fair to new readers, so I have divided this into two sections: one for those who haven't read the books, and one for those who have.

For those who haven't read the book(s) before
Part of me wants to say, simply, "remedy that" but that's not exactly a compelling argument.  So I will say: the word 'magical' is constantly thrown around about Harry Potter - especially given its immense popularity and J.K. Rowling's rags to riches story - and it is an epithet that fits.  These books are magical, especially this first one when everything is sparkly and new and the series hasn't yet taken the dark turn it does in later books (oh, the pain those later books can cause).  Yes, the language is simplistic and geared at a young audience, and some of the characters are painted with broad strokes, but it is a fun, fast-paced read that perfectly sets up a series full of mysteries, laughs and drama. 

Read it, and know that people are envying you for being new to the world and to not knowing all the answers (because the films don't include everything).  As a piece of pop culture, it's worth reading; as a children's book, it's fantastic.  Get thee to the book.

For those who have read the book(s) before
This is more difficult, because I feel like I ought to be talking about themes like love, death and loyalty, and basically writing an essay that encompasses the entire series and interviews from Rowling, complete with me fangirling all over the place and going "this is why I love her and her books, because of these moments, and because she'll talk about the coalition and how much they're screwing the country over!  Stuff like this!".  But I'm really not sure if that isn't something better saved till the end of the series as I'm constantly reassessing on this reread - for example, I've realised just how much Chapters 17 and 18 of Chamber of Secrets foreshadow Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows.  There is so much there it's ridiculous in hindsight.

And because, on rereading, this book doesn't contain as much information as some of the later books.  That seems self-evident, but in terms of moments where I was going "oh my God, that's setting up this!" it doesn't have half as many as in CoS.  There's the mention of Sirius, and I really wonder if Harry's dream at the end of Chapter 6 (when Malfoy turns into Snape and there's a flash of green light) is a reference to Half-Blood Prince, but the actual information that Jo gives is minimal.  It's really the introduction to the world and the big mysteries: why did Voldemort want to kill Harry?  How did Harry survive?  Why does Harry's scar hurt?  And how much, exactly, does Dumbledore know? 

I have to admit that, with hindsight, I am watching Dumbledore more closely.  Not in a judgemental way, as you know he doesn't want to use Harry in the way he does (even if it's an action which even Severus 'I want that boy expelled' Snape is quick to condemn) but because you're aware of what his true actions are.  When he tells Harry he isn't old enough to know the truth, you know that he has his reasons for not saying, all of which are explained in Order of the Phoenix - he loves Harry too much to cause him the pain of knowing the truth.  Of course, another part of me was thinking "yeah, plus Jo needs to spin this out for several books" but, at the same time, I don't know that the books would be improved by Philosopher's Stone ending with "hey, Harry, there's this prophecy and you're in it!".

I think the thing that most staggers me, repeatedly, with Harry Potter is: how did J.K. Rowling* pull this off?  The more I read the series, and the more I attempt to write my own books, the more I have to marvel at her achievement.  Yes, there is the occasional plot hole that makes me want to tear my hair out** and yes there are times when I think "wouldn't this have been a bit simpler for the bad guys?" (particularly in Goblet of Fire) but ultimately: how did she do this?  How did she plan it, hold it all in her head, and then get it down on paper over the course of ten years (seventeen including planning)?  Even without the immense pressure she was under as the series went on it would be difficult, but with that media spotlight and the fans' expectations, I really don't know how she did it.  The amount of care and attention and planning that went into these books is phenomenal and one of the things that I take away most from them.

So, I think my reaction to Philosopher's Stone is 1) I'm back at Hogwarts, yay!; 2) how on Earth did J.K. Rowling do this?; and 3) there is so much more to come and I cannot wait.  Onwards!

Rating: 10/10

* I know the correct, academic usage would be 'Rowling' but I feel weird writing that, just as I feel weird writing just 'Austen'.  Though writing Jo also feels a bit too personal as I've never met her, however much I may be 'but that is my name too!'.
** There's one in Prisoner of Azkaban that I will discuss when I get there.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Falsely accused of treason, Edmond Dantes is imprisoned in the infamous Chateau d'If.  There he meets the Abbe Faria, who educates him and tells him of the legendary treasure of Monte Cristo.  After a daring (and somewhat foolhardy) escape, Edmond finds the treasure, re-invents himself as the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo, and seeks revenge on those who betrayed him.

Published: 1844-46
Pages: 1,264 (Harper Perennial, 2008)
Read: 20/8/12 - 6/9/12
Challenge(s): Project Fill in the Gaps

First line: "On the 24th of February, 1815, the lookout of Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the three-master, the Pharaon, from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples."

Review: I have a couple of confessions to make regarding my reading of this book:

1) Although I've owned a copy for years, I only started reading it recently because I'm hooked on Revenge and had heard that the series was loosely based on this novel.
2) A lot of my ideas about the plot were formed by a trailer I saw years ago for a movie adaptation of the book.  Most of these were completely wrong (which I'm glad about, because the trailer made the story look dire and also pretty much told the entire plot in three minutes).
3) I am ridiculously proud of myself for finishing this book.  Given my usual habit of getting distracted and putting books down to pick them up again years later (if ever), the fact that I stuck with this despite its length makes me feel like I'm owed some sort of prize. 

Now that those are out of the way: I really enjoyed this book.  Despite its somewhat intimidating size and the smallness of the text, it's incredibly easy to read - I'd suddenly find that I'd read over a hundred pages and it was a lot later than I thought.  The plot, though convoluted and complex, keeps you reading, especially when Edmond is the Count and wreaking his revenge and you're not quite sure exactly what he's doing or how the vengeance is going to play out.  There are a lot of characters, all with their own agendas and secrets, which all come into play, and despite the sheer number of plot strands everything is wrapped up at the end - possibly a little too neatly but given the juggling act Alexandre Dumas pulled off this is fine.

My main gripe would be that, at the beginning, Edmond is a prat.  The reader is meant to feel sympathy for him - and I did when everything started going wrong - but at first he's a slightly arrogant, thoughtless prat and, while I didn't want him to end up falsely imprisoned for over a decade, I did want someone to at least tell him off a little.  This lack of sympathy continues, to an extent, while he's in prison and after his escape, mostly because the Count is constantly set up as an almost supernatual, utterly inscrutable being.  One of my favourite "oh, you're just messing with the reader now, Dumas" parts of the entire book is how often the Count disguises himself and gets away with it, the height of this being when he is three 'different' men on the same day to the same investigator.  He's up there with Sherlock Holmes in terms of how well he can disguise himself, and it gets more than a little ridiculous.

This, naturally, follows over into no one who knew him before he went to prison recognizing him (with one logical exception).  The people he's seeking vengeance upon invite him to their homes, ask his advice, and blindly accept that this dude has popped up out of nowhere at exactly the same time that their lives start falling apart.  This is often spoken of as divine providence - and the Count sees himself as an agent of God - but it does raise the question of how justified his actions are: yes, he suffered terribly, but he pushes things to such an extent that there are suicides, murders, madness and the near obliteration of an entire family.  And, while Dumas does deal with the downside of this, it's never clear whether he condemns or condones the Count's actions - though, most likely, the latter, while leaving it uncertain for the reader.

Personally, I think it's all a bit overkill, and the ending is a tiny bit too neat.  There are also several moments when I wanted to shout "just tell each other what's going on!" at a few of the characters, and towards the end there's part where the Count really should have just told Morrel what he was up to, it would have stopped a lot of problems.  Yet, despite my ambivalence towards the central figure - and to most of the characters, if I'm honest - I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.  It's not a swashbuckling yarn as I expected, and there are times when I thought Dumas was being more than a bit ridiculous with what the Count could achieve, but it was fantastically readable and fun for all that.

My Final Thoughts: Not the most sensible of books, but it doesn't have to be.  Continuity errors abound, the characters frequently fail to recognise someone they knew well unless it's convenient for Dumas, and the outcome of all of the plotting and conniving is, potentially, not worth it.  But, for all that I can see plenty of faults with the book, I'm glad I read it and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun (if long) read.

50 Words or Less: Enjoyable read, worth the time it took to plough through it, but a bit messy and full of moments of incredulity.  Less swashbuckling than expected but lots of plotting and manipulating, which keeps you guessing (which is why I've mentioned as few actual plot details as possible in this review).

Rating: 9/10 

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books on my Autumn TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week it's our autumn TBR lists, which I'm doing even though my track record for actually reading all of the books on my lists is poor (I've managed two from my summer list), but I'm going to try to read all of these.  The list is a mix of already published books and those that will be published this autumn.

1. The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling (27/9/12) - hell, yes, I am reading this.  Frankly if I fail to do so I need to be hit with a hardback copy of Order of the Phoenix.  I have it on pre-order at my local Waterstone's and plan to pick it up on my lunch break.

2. The Diviners - Libba Bray (18/9/12) - another pre-order.  I love Libba Bray's books, Beauty Queens is one of my favourite books, and this just sounds awesome.  I can't wait for this to show up on my door step.

3. Days of Blood and Starlight - Laini Taylor (8/11/12) - Laini writes achingly, infuriatingly well.  And though I confess I still haven't read Daughter of Smoke and Bone I am getting Days as soon as I can and then I am reading both.  Yes I am.  My excuse is that I'm pretty sure Daughter ends on a cliffhanger and I'm trying to save myself pain; it's def that not laziness.

4. Wanderlove - Kirsten Hubbard - I've seen this mentioned on a lot of blogs, and it's often compared to Amy and Roger's Epic Detour which I really liked so I'm looking forwards to reading it. 

5. Throne of Glass - Sarah J. Maas - another one I've seen blogged about a lot.  Also, assassins.  I love books with assassins (when they're the sword and dagger and political machinations kind, anyway).

6. The List - Siobhan Vivian - I think I saw this on the Story Siren's Books to Pine For ages ago and added it to my Goodreads.  Found it there a month ago when I was browsing for stuff to try and get for my Kindle.  I couldn't get this for that, but did get a hard copy.  Am in the mood for good contemporary which I think this will be.

7. Dull Boy - Sarah Cross - superheroes!  And I read a free sample on Kindle and then bought the book because just from those few pages I knew I'd love it.  A great way to wind up a year of Avengers and Dark Knights.

8. Venom - Fiona Paul (30/10/12) - more blogosphere chatter led me to this.  Renaissance Venice with plots and thieves and assassins and all sorts of other things I love?  Need this book.

9. The Lies That Bind - Lisa and Laura Roecker (1/11/12) - I read The Liar Society last year and liked it, and I'm intrigued to know where the series/characters are going.  I'll need to re-read that one first, though.

10. Bad Hair Day - Carrie Harris (13/11/12) - Bad Taste in Boys is one of my "picked it up, couldn't put it down, lost a day" books, so I can't wait for this one.  And it's werewolves and I heart werewolves a little.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Harry Potter Read Along: The Beginning

The Harry Potter Read Along is being hosted by Jenna at Lost Generation Reader.  It starts today but I'm in York until Monday so won't be starting any reading or reviewing till then.  Still, it's Harry Potter and any excuse to talk about the books is fine by me.  This post is basically all about how I first got into the books; if you don't want to read that (I suspect it will be long) then skim to the bottom of the post where I've listed the books in my order of preference.  That's probably all you really need to take away from this post.

So, Harry Potter.  I think I infuriated my friends and family with how much I obsessed over and talked about those books between 1999 and 2007 (and how much I still do so now).  And it's my mother's fault for suggesting Philiosopher's Stone in the first place.

It was sometime in spring 1999, and despite having lots of books I had nothing to read (a problem which persists to this day).  We were in a bookshop and Mum all but threw Philosopher's Stone at me, saying that a lot of kids at her school were enjoying it and maybe I would too - bearing in mind she teaches infant school and I was 15 at the time.  I took the book, skimmed the back, noted the whole "Harry is a wizard" thing which seemed pretty cool and then checked the copyright page to see who this J.K was.  That she was actually a Joanne, like me, and published, like I hoped to be some day, made me decide that my money could definitely be spent on this book.

We then went to a clothes shop for my sister - because then we were very fixed in our stereotypes of bookish tomboy and clothes-loving girl - and I sat in a corner of the changing room, wedged between the wall and a stack of chairs that were inexplicably there, and read the first sentence:

"Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." (from memory, am both sad and proud of that)

I was hooked.  I polished off Philosopher's Stone that day, got Chamber of Secrets the following weekend, and bought Prisoner of Azkaban when it came out even though my mother told me to save money and wait for the paperback (I waited a couple of weeks so it isn't a first edition, dammit).  An equally obsessed friend and I got Goblet of Fire opening day.  After that it was all midnight openings, though the one for Order of the Phoenix only happened because my mum couldn't sleep and so burst into my room at 11.30 at night saying "do you want to go buy the book?".  I put off writing my MA Dissertation to read Deathly Hallows and paid for this by being the only one of my friends to have finished, meaning that I had all the Feelings and no one to share them with - though I did go into a friend's room and sob uncontrollably for five minutes over one of the deaths in that book, while being unable to tell her who it was. 

I can't really explain my love for these books.  I started reading them when I was in Year Ten at school and depressed and lonely, and finished when I was in my fourth year at university, happy and with some of the most awesome friends in the world.  Eight years of my life had the series as a constant, and a constant I could go back to when life sucked or things got too much.  I know a lot of Harry Potter fans have this sort of relationship and feeling for the series, and that there's something about the world that feels comforting even when all the bad things are happening at Hogwarts, even though it's a something that's hard to pinpoint.  The books are just wonderful and there when you need them.  And much as I complained about having to wait at the time, I wouldn't trade in the theories and speculations and midnight openings for anything, even to have had all 7 in 1999.

Also, J.K. Rowling is one of my personal heroes.  Just throwing that out there because it is so true.

The List
Basically, I thought that before I did this re-read I'd list the books in my order of preference to see if that changed.  The first three were very easy, after that it became trickier.

1. Prisoner of Azkaban
2. Deathly Hallows
3. Goblet of Fire
4. Philosopher's Stone
5. Chamber of Secrets
6. Order of the Phoenix
7. Half-Blood Prince

In fact I have pretty much gone in chronological order from 4 onwards but I'm really not a fan of Half-Blood Prince (I think it suffers from being a prologue to Deathly Hallows).  Anyway, that's my list - and my history with Harry Potter - so let's see how things change in the weeks ahead.
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