August 9, 2016

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, & Jack Thorne

After months of anticipation, I was finally able to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne. Though I easily could have read it in its entirety in one afternoon, I chose to read it slowly and savor the new publication bit by bit. Warning: there will be spoilers throughout my review, so if you've not yet read the book and are just interested in knowing whether or not I liked it I'll tell you yes, I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads. Here we go:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the two-part manuscript of the play currently being performed on the London stage. Though I would have been excited to read it regardless of early reviews, I was happy to hear an overwhelmingly positive response from a friend who was able to see the play in previews about one month before it opened publicly. After reading it, I can easily see what she was talking about: without question given the stage directions and imagining how the production magically whisks through time and from scene to scene, incorporating moving characters in the audience, differences in room temperature, and Voldemort's (that's right, he's back) voice across the loud speakers, this play would be so fun to see performed. I'm not sure how long the play will run in London (I hear mixed reports and predictions), but I hope to get there to see it someday.

The story itself centers on Albus Severus Potter, Harry and Ginny's middle child. Picking up with the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the scene on the train platform nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, we see the familiar faces of Harry and Ginny's family, Ron and Hermoine's family, and Draco's family getting ready to send their kids off to school. Albus, now eleven, voices his anxieties about entering Hogwarts, the possibility of being sorted into Slytherin, and shows clear evidence of the pressures of being the child of the famed Boy Who Lived. This was not at all surprising. If you'd asked just about any Harry Potter fan six months ago what they thought this play would be about, given the title and the cover they would have predicted the same thing: a story of Harry's child attending Hogwarts and dealing with some sort of anxiety or depression, likely connected to his famous parentage. We were not wrong.

Though the premise was predictable, the story that follows has some surprises in store. Perhaps what I was not expecting and maybe liked least about the story, were the liberties with character accuracy that occured throughout the manuscript. If you've read the series you've likely read it more than once, and fans know more than basic Jeopardy!-style answers regarding the characters involved: we know their strengths, their weaknesses, what happened to them then, and we expect to see appropriate continuation and development of these portrayals now. That's not always what happens here and it grated on me a bit. Harry's more abrupt, Ginny's a pushover and less funny, Ron's a complete dolt (and this is true regardless of how he's portrayed in different representations of time), and Dumbledore's portrait shadow is weaker, less helpful, and more prone to emotionally falling apart. This was weird. While other character changes seemed appropriate and plausible (marriage, becoming a parent, and then losing his wife softens Malfoy's exterior), other differences just bugged me. For example, Hermoine and Ron no longer seem compatible at all and the romance between them rings false, and didn't Ron become an Auror? I appreciate why it makes sense for him to join George's joke shop, but his personality has changed and he's just sort of, um, dumb. Did anyone else feel this way?

That sounds like a lot of negativity, but if as a reader you can set those things aside and just enjoy the fact that "Hooray! We're getting another Harry Potter story!" then those minor elements won't bother you too long. In part this is due to new characters who pretty awesome. Though Albus is the main character, he's not my favorite. Who is? Enter Draco Malfoy's brainy, humorous, loner son Scorpius. For me, Scorpius makes the play and without him it would crumble. When Albus boards the train with Rose Granger-Weasley and they debate who to sit with and the impact that choice will have on the rest of their time at Hogwarts, Albus can't help but be drawn to this solitary boy who has a dry sense of humor and pocket-loads of candy he'd love to share. Scorpius is funny and has a degree of Hermoine's bookishness. Furthermore, the burden both Scorpius and Albus share helps them bond quickly: as the son of Harry Potter, Albus feels he can't compete, and though he's the son of Draco Malfoy, rumors persist that Scorpius is the secret lovechild of none other than Lord Voldemort. Albus' worst fears come true when he's sorted into Slytherin (much to the surprise of everyone else at Hogwarts), but Scorpius is thrilled to have a geniune friend, something he's never had before.

Years pass and while Albus and Scorpius age and show little resemblance to their famous fathers, their sense of social isolation intensifies. One day in an attempt to speak to his son, Harry misspeaks, words are exchanged, and his relationship with Albus seems damaged forever. At the same time, Amos Diggory hears rumor of one last Time-Turner housed by the Minister of Magic (Hermoine) and begs Harry to go back in time and save his son, Cedric. Albus is confused by his father's reasons for refusing to do so and when he meets Delphi, Amos' niece and nurse, she joins Albus and Scorpius in their hare-brained scheme to steal the Time-Turner, alter events in the Triwizard Tournament to ensure Cedric never wins, and in so doing save Cedric and prove themselves to their parents. Unsurprisingly, this all goes terribly, terribly wrong and everyone must band together to save the world from the new Voldemort-run future.

As I was reading, I often wondered if out of all of the "please-give-us-more-Harry-Potter" pleas J.K. Rowling heard over the years, the reason this one appealed is because it sort of panders itself to the repeated questions she's pummeled with by fans: Why did Cedric have to die? Couldn't a time-turner have changed everything? Is it possible for Harry and Draco to ever be friends? Was it really the best choice to match Hermoine with Ron? Are prophecies alterable? Does it matter which Hogwarts House you're sorted into? Did Dumbledore love Harry like a son? Could someone have stopped Voldemort before he killed Lily and James and thus prevented everything? Were Bellatrix and Voldemort ever running around together? What if Voldemort had a child? And on and on. Much of the play is an attempt to answer these questions and sort of put those issues to rest. If you're looking for closure, this will do some of that and perhaps lessen questions Rowling gets over and over again, though undoubtedly new ones will also arise.

I enjoyed reading play and really look forward to seeing it on stage. Was it as good of a story as I would have liked? No, it wasn't. At times things happen too quickly and far too easily, and though some of that might be forgiven due to the timing necessary in stage performances, it's true that this story isn't as good as the books. That being said and accepted, do yourself a favor and move on. Don't let this dissuade you from enjoying the story, the humor, and the drama of the play itself. It's fun, fast-paced, and high-stakes entertainment and criticism of the play likely suffers from the same criticism of which it tries to warn you: just as Albus is not his father and must learn to be loved and accepted on his own merit, so too is the fact that this play is not the same as J.K. Rowling's books but has its own fun and enjoyment in store.

What did you think of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Do you plan to try to see it performed on stage? What were your most and least favorite characters, elements, and scenes?

August 1, 2016

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

by J.K. Rowling

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Until then, I'm finishing rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and trying my best to avoid encountering any spoilers of the play online.

Out of all of the installments in the Harry Potter series, the final book is undoubtedly the one where I feel like I learn or notice something new each time I read it. This makes sense as it's usually the one fans have read or reread the least number of times, and also in part because when I first read it, I plowed through it so fast I entirely missed a couple of major plot points. I remember talking about it after its release with a good friend and when she mentioned how surprised she was by a secondary character's death. I was completely surprised too, because I didn't even notice. That's right, I'd flown right past it.

There's so much to love about this book and the high-stakes way in which Rowling concludes the series. [Spoiler alerts from here on.] There's a heightened sense of adventure with Hermoine, Ron, and Harry out on their own, traveling around the countryside trying to hunt and destroy horcruxes while learning about the deathly hallows, Dumbledore's past, and what it will take to kill Voldemort. Separating Harry, Ron, and Hermoine from both Hogwarts and their families really intensifies the sense of urgency and isolation of their task.

Instead of quotes, I've decided to highlight seven of my favorite scenes within this book. It was a bit difficult to narrow them down, but here they are:

(1) Dudley's emotions at his parting from Harry. While Dudley has been a completely unlikable character, I really appreciate moments when Rowling humanizes villains or complicates what might otherwise be flat characters. It's appropriate that there's no crying or hugging here, just Dudley's simple and sincere question of where Harry's going and what's going to happen to him. On Pottermore, Rowling explains that Dudley and Harry continue to meet yearly during the holidays to allow their kids to spend time with each other; though the encounters are awkward, I think the tradition is significant. Because Harry's never had a loving family, and because Dudley's all Harry has left from his mother's line, the choice to break the pattern of the past shows great maturity. Even if they're never going to be friends, Harry and Dudley's reunions provide a satisfying resolution to their relationship.

(2) Luna's painting on her bedroom ceiling. The portrait of Harry, Hermoine, Ron, Neville, and Ginny encircled by a gold chain repeating the word "friends" is sweet and pure, just like Luna. When Harry sees it, he feels a surge of ever-growing affection and appreciation for her. Luna's character teaches so many lessons about not judging others, loyalty, and kindness.

(3) Luna's words at Dobby's funeral. Though her speech is short, in just a few lines she is able to so completely and purely express her gratitude for the elf she only met once and yet at the same time she is able to say the words that Harry is himself unable to speak. Once again, her heart just radiates sweetness.

(4) Hermoine's reaction to Ron's return. I love, love, love that when Ron comes back to help Harry and Hermoine, she doesn't welcome him with open arms. I laugh every time she curses Ron and pummels him with her fists until Harry casts a protective barrier between the two of them. While yes, she eventually forgives him, I adore that she doesn't hide her anger, the betrayal, and the danger they've narrowly survived during his absence.

(5) The Potterwatch Radio Program. Though Ron, Harry, and Hermoine only listen to one full broadcast while out hunting horcruxes, hearing the voices of Lee Jordan, Kingsley Shackleboat, Remus Lupin, and Fred Weasley is a huge boost to their confidence that they are not alone in the fight against Voldemort and that their friends and family continue to engage in the battle alongside them. Hagrid's Harry Potter party makes me laugh and even thought I've written this several times now, I'll mention it once more time: yes, Fred is my favorite Weasley twin and this broadcast is just another small reason why. You can imagine my tears when he's killed during a moment of pure delight that Percy's not only returned to fight alongside his family, but he's also said a joke. Oh, Fred, rest in peace.

(6) Snape's revelation about Lily. This just kills me. I don't think I will ever see the one-word sentence "Always" and not be able to think about what it means in its context here. One of my favorite elements of literature is the use of unreliable narrators or characters who are not fully good nor fully bad, but in this odd liminal space between. I love that Snape becomes that element within the Harry Potter series because often we all feel like we're in that place as well, battling the divide between the mixed elements of our hearts.

(6) The final duel with Voldemort. So many emotions! As Harry exits Hogwarts and walks towards what he knows will be his final moments squaring off against Voldemort, I can barely read the words on the page. The golden snitch finally "opening at the close," the presence of his loved ones around him, his readiness to give his life going down fighting, the battle itself, Dumbledore, Hagrid, the crowd, the spell he ultimately uses--it's just all so fantastic. During the entire book, I find myself counting and recounting all of the horcruxes and hallows to see how everything culminates and to witness strands from the series come full-circle during its ending. It's such a satisfying reading experience.

Have you reread the series? What are your favorite moments in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Have you already gotten your copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? I cannot wait!

July 30, 2016

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

by J.K. Rowling

Is there anything not to love about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? Harry's one-on-one lessons with Dumbledore and the friendship between them as they press forward in the fight against Voldemort is simply fantastic. It is evident from the beginning of the novel when Dumbledore arrives at the Dursley's and takes Harry with him to visit Horace Slughorn, that readers will get to see more of this teacher-student camaraderie than ever before. Even though Slughorn's so-called Slug Club is annoying and ridiculous--as is Harry's dependence on the Half-Blood Prince's textbook to cheat his way through Potions--Slughorn's presence brings with it the presence of the Felix Felicitus potion and the horcrux memory so crucial to knowing how to fight Voldemort. Though some readers find Slughorn as annoying as they found Gilderoy Lockhart, I find him far more interesting and necessary of a character.

Even though I've read this book a few times, I find myself slowing down and having to set it aside once Harry rushes to grab his invisibility cloak, tells Hermoine and Ron he's about to set out with Dumbledore, and advises them to distribute and use the remaining Felix Felicitus potion and to be on alert for an attack. [Spoiler alerts from here on out.] I love the conclusion of the series so much and yet I love/hate reading it. I find myself putting the book down, then picking it up and reading a few pages, then putting it down again, and the cycle repeats. So much occurs that it's difficult to take it all in stride: the journey to the cave, the inferi, Dumbledore drinking the water to get the locket, the locket being a fake, the Death Eater's mark above Hogwarts, the scene with Draco and Snape on top of the tower, Dumbledore's death and Snape's escape, the battle inside the school, Hagrid's house being set afire and when learns of Dumbledore's death, Fawkes' song mourning Dumbledore's death, the funeral, Harry saying goodbye to Ginny, and then Hermoine and Ron volunteering to leave Hogwarts and join Harry in his ultimate battle to kill Voldemort. I can't handle it. It's so great and so sad and so exciting and so awful and so wonderful.

Here are five wonderful quotes from the book before I conclude with some thoughts about Dumbledore:

(1) Albus Dumbledore's words to Harry within Tom Riddle's cave: "There is nothing to be feared from a body, Harry, any more than there is anything to be feared from the darkness...It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more." Considering what happens thereafter, it's perfect that some of the last words Dumbledore uttered to Harry in a relative moment of peace before the storm were about setting aside fear of death and choosing to embrace bravery.

(2) Harry speaking about Album Dumbledore's departure from Hogwarts: "He will only be gone from the school when none here are loyal to him." I like this line not just because of Harry's loyalty to Dumbledore, but because it creates a full-circle moment between this experience and the foreshadowing within Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry likewise declared his loyalty to Dumbledore and was rewarded with the appearance of Fawkes, the sorting hat, and the sword of Gryffindor. His reward here is less tangible, but no less significant.

(3) Severus Snape to Harry: "DON'T CALL ME A COWARD!" A round of applause to J.K. Rowling for the masterful characterization of Severus Snape. While readers don't learn his full story until the final pages of book seven, I love how complicated his character is. He isn't good, he isn't bad, he's completely messed up in this liminal space between the two and I adore Rowling for making him this way. 

(4) Luna Lovegood to Harry: "I liked the DA too. It was like having friends." Does anyone else's heart completely break for Luna? Like Snape, she's so important to the storyline even if she has a smaller role to play. I adore her. So many things about her are endearing: the loss of her mother, the bullying she endures, her sweetness, her loyalty to her father, her ready willingness to join the DA and fight alongside Harry regardless of the cost, and the fact that she and Neville continued to carry the DA coins in their pocket long after the meetings ended. Three cheers for Luna! I think she shows children that it's okay to be different just as it's essential to be kind.

(5) Harry's thoughts at the conclusion of the novel: "But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew—and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents—that there was all the difference in the world." If you're not crying at the conclusion of this book, what is up with you?

If you're reading this review, then you're likely team Harry and you find the banning of the book ridiculous. While the books are certainly not appropriate for all ages, the messages within them are beautiful. Those who call the books anti-Christian must be unfamiliar with basic literary concepts like metaphor, analogy, and allegory, among others. Perhaps this is nowhere as clearly evident as it is within the scene in the cave as Dumbledore submits to drinking the water cup by cup. It's such a powerful scene and testament to sacrifice and courage. More importantly, this moment resounds with readers regardless of religious belief and background because it speaks to the depths of love, a power to which we can each relate.

What's your favorite element of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? I'll be posting my final review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on Monday followed by my reaction to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child late next week. I can't wait to hear what each of you think as you read it yourself!

July 29, 2016

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

by J.K. Rowling

I'm going to jump into my review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix straightaway with four favorite quotes before I give some thoughts on my mixed feelings about the book as a whole.
(1) Dumbledore's advice to Harry: Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” As with so many of Dumbledore's words of advice, this statement applies to so many situations: bullying, friendship, forgiveness, relationships in general, politics, and on and on.
(2) Dumbledore's guilty confession to Harry: “Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.” Even though Harry's being quite a pill, he's justified in his frustrations with Dumbledore--Dumbledore does avoid and detach himself from Harry through much of this novel in order to keep the separation from Voldemort as clear-cut as possible. When Harry throws his tantrum, Dumbledore keeps his cool but expresses some regret and apologizes for not divulging everything to Harry. In part, Harry wouldn't have been ready for those words (the revelation about the prophecy is such a huge burden for Harry to carry), but Dumbledore is right that Harry needs to hear it and he needs to hear it all now. Knowing when you've made a misstep and being willing to own it shows Dumbledore's maturity. I don't believe that Harry actually ever apologizes for destroying Dumbledore's possessions.

(3) The cruelty of Dolores Umbridge etched into Harry's skin: "I must not tell lies." Just wretched. I wonder if Harry had told Dumbledore about Umbridge's corporeal punishment if anything would have changed at Hogwarts? The Ministry had such a strong grip on education there that I wonder if it would have just forced Dumbledore out of his office even earlier. I've seen people with this tattoo and I wonder what exactly they're attempting to tribute or remember with it? That Umbridge is a cow? That sometimes you're punished in unfair and cruel ways? That they are like Harry? That they truly must not tell lies? I'm not sure, but I admire Harry's grit in bearing through detention after detention as best he can. Perhaps he could have lessened the number of detentions by behaving more, but as many of his outbursts are his attempt to defend Cedric's memory and testify to Voldemort's existence you cannot blame him.

(4) Fred's parting words to Peeves as he and George ditch Umbridge and Hogwarts on their broomsticks: Give her hell from us, Peeves.” And some of you thought it was impossible to tell Fred from George! I'm telling you when you reread the series, they are slightly different and Fred is completely awesome here. Yes, they are both joyful troublemakers but this line from Fred is entirely fantastic.

As I mentioned above, I do have mixed feelings about this book. The first three hundred pages are my least favorite pages in the entire series. Harry is so moody and annoying all the time! While I appreciate J.K. Rowling's accurate depiction of teenage mood swings, that doesn't mean I enjoy reading about them or reliving them. Who wants to relive junior high? *shudder*
Remember in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when Hermoine slaps Draco after a Care of Magical Creatures lesson? While I don't want to promote violence, I have to admit my jawed dropped at that bit of her sass. I feel like it would have been equally merited for Hermoine, Ron, McGonagall, or anyone for in the beginning of this book to push back against Harry's constant tantrums. People will hate me for saying that and I get it: Harry's in mourning for Cedric, he's confused, he's a teenager, he's frustrated and burdened, etc. I don't believe, however, that any of those reasons are excuses for behaving like a total git all of the time to the people who love you. He repeatedly yells at Ron and Hermoine and lashes out at them as if they're complete jerks, when in fact they're doing as much as they can to support him. Even though I read the book in silence, Harry's constant yelling makes my ears hurt.
That being said, once you get past that section of the series, the book picks up when Hermoine suggests that the students form Dumbledore's Army. Their meetings in the Room of Requirement are such a wonderful way of using their time to better their skills in fighting Voldemort. I really enjoy these scenes and particularly love Neville and Luna inclusion. Plus, how can you not love a novel that has Fred and George's booming business, their grand exit, the revelation of the prophecy, students uniting to fight against Death Eaters, and seeing into the Department of Mysteries?

What do you love about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? Is Harry's relationship with Cho entertaining or a complete waste of his time? Isn't it nice to see Ginny become more confident and independent? [Spoiler alert] Did Sirius' death make you cry or are you made of tougher stuff than I am?

July 28, 2016

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire really propels the drama of the series onto another level. If you were ever a fan of the TV show LOST, you knew that part of the appeal was that even main characters were at risk. It's not that you enjoy seeing your favorite characters eliminated from the storyline, but rather that the story line itself isn't sacrificed to save a character.

Don't get me wrong [spoiler alert], I totally cried the first time I read about Cedric's death. I still get a bit misty-eyed when I read about his ghost asking Harry to take his body back to his parents. I didn't like that Voldemort kills Cedric--of course not, I'm no Death Eater--but when I read that scene, I knew that J.K. Rowling would stay true to the good-vs.-evil-battle raging within the wizard world of Harry Potter. I knew that Harry wouldn't somehow defeat Voldemort with a bit of luck or trickery. I knew that it would be a real fight with real sacrifice and real consequence. For me, book four marks the series' transition from children's literature to young adult or adult literature and I loved that.

Harry's growth over the course of the series is just one testament to Rowling's skill as an author. So many series' main characters change very little; in essence, they have the bravery within them from day one they'll need on the final page. Harry, however, does not. The Harry Potter who lives under the stairs may be destined to face-off with Lord Voldemort, but he's not destined to win--he has to grow into that person. Even though he fights him at the end of book one, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd disagree that the encounter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is somehow equal to that in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The stakes rise as both the good and the bad increase. Ah, such a great story!

Here are four favorite quotes, followed by one of my chosen contenders for the most heart-warming passage of the entire series:

Sirius Black: "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals." This line is so fascinating because it's not only profound truth, but it's uttered by Sirius when he's condemning Bartemius Crouch for his abuse of his house elf, Winky. Sirius, however, is equally guilty of mistreating his own house elf, Kreacher. I think this is significant because it shows that we are often guilty of pointing out the guilty in others without recognizing it within ourselves.

Albus Dumbledore: "Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory." Dumbledore's rally cry reminds every Hogwarts student that Cedric was innocent and murdered nonetheless. As the fight between Voldemort and the wizard community grows, they can't be passive and not take a side. Ignoring evil can lead to condoning evil. We often think about this in the context of World War II and it certainly seems as true as ever today in the fight against global terrorism.

Albus Dumbledore: "[I]t matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!" Preach, Dumbledore, preach.

Albus Dumbledore: "We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided." *sob*

Without question, my favorite element of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is Mrs. Weasley's love and concern for Harry. Ever since she first spotted him alone on the train platform in book one, she has had motherly concern for him. Her care grows into love and she even defends herself when she states that he's as good as one of her own sons. I love that. At the conclusion of this novel, after everything Harry's witnessed, after everything he's experienced, he lies in the hospital ward completely heartbroken. It is at this moment that Mrs. Weasley's maternal hug that comforts him: "He had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother." Cue rain on my face. This line gets me every single time.

What's your favorite part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? At what moment in the series did you feel the shift from children's literature to young adult literature? Isn't the opening chapter super creepy? The tent! I want the Weasley's expandable tent from the Quidditch World Cup. Where can I get one? Cedric forever or Krum for the win?