Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: J.K. Rowling
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Classics
Pub. date: 1997

I’ve never written a review for Harry Potter before, but I guess there’s no reason not to start now. I’ve probably read the 1st book at least a dozen times over the years, so there’s no pretending it’s not my favourite series.

When you look at the series as a whole, there’s no denying that the first book doesn’t really stand out from the books that come after, but it is still a wonderful example of world building and how much more depth a story has when the author is organized from the very beginning in where she plans to take the story. Whenever I re-read Harry Potter I am always impressed with the scope of Rowling’s vision. She didn’t rush into the creation of her world and gave time and thought up front to the complicated relationship that would exist between Harry and Voldemort. Even from the first book, it’s obvious the forethought that she gave to each character and storyline.

One of the things that I think makes Rowling such a successful author is her ability to extend her mystery elements beyond just a single book. She’s always balancing multiple storylines. There’s the immediate mysteries that get answered within the book (what’s the philosopher’s stone, who’s trying to steal it, what’s protecting the stone); and then there’s the greater mysteries that extend across the series (can we trust snape, why did Voldemort care so much about Harry). The question of what Snape did to unequivocally gain Dumbledore’s trust and whether that trust is misplaced is an element that spans the entire series. Rowling strikes a wonderful balance between sating her readers by asking the more immediate questions, but holding back just enough to keep us enthralled throughout 7 books.

The other thing that I think makes Rowling a great writer is her characterization. Harry Potter is filled with a huge cast of characters, yet it never feels overwhelming. She doesn’t rush the characterization and lets her characters develop naturally over the course of the series, but she still spends a lot time letting them grow. At a certain point, her characters do start to write themselves in that you begin to understand them so well that you can almost anticipate how they will react. But what I also love is her attention to the details when it comes to minor characters. We’re introduced to lots of other students and characters throughout the first book, but each character still has a distinct sense of self and I love how she dedicates time to this minor characters over the course of the books.

This was my first time reading the illustrated edition and it made for a wonderful reading experience. I do wish there were more illustrations though because they are so beautiful and at times felt a bit sparse, but I understand you can’t illustrate everything without having this be a beast of a book.

As usual 5 stars to this awesome book and 10 stars to Mr. Neville Longbottom

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lara Margaret Marjerrison
Genres: Poetry
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Woohoo! First person on goodreads to rate and review this book!

I’ve been going through a bit of a poetry phase and stumbled across this anthology in the Poetry section at Chapters. I had no idea it was a brand new release, but I liked the premise of it and decided to buy a copy. It’s only 50 pages long, so I read through it in 2 sittings.

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex is about all of the above, but mostly grief. Lara’s sister passed away by suicide and this is really her response to dealing with that grief. She includes a prologue about the book and her sister that was really moving, before getting into some of the poetry she wrote about how she was impacted and affected by her sister’s death. I really like her style of poetry. It’s not too dense to read and I like the spoken word feel of it. It has a good beat to it and I like that much of it rhymed. I feel like not that much poetry rhymes these days, which is totally fine, but I appreciate clever and well written prose.

In my opinion, most of the anthology focused on grief and loss, but Marjerrison does start exploring themes of love in the last third. Personally I didn’t find this poetry quite as engaging, but since this anthology very much reads like a personal, healing journey, I don’t think it really matters if it didn’t pull me in as much. There’s a strong emotional theme present throughout the entire anthology and I really do hope that the writing of it helped the author to heal. A great debut – very moving.

Verity

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Colleen Hoover
Genres: Thriller, Mystery, Romance
Pub. date: Dec. 2018 (read Nov. 2019)

Every year I see the new Colleen Hoover book and say, “nah, I don’t think I’m gonna read her new book this year.” Then every year she gets nominated in the Goodreads Choice Awards and I decide to read it anyways.

I heard all kinds of reviews about how f-ed up this book is, which are all totally true. Verity is filled with plot twists, suspense, and a really creepy atmosphere, but the biggest question the book leaves me with is this: who the hell classed this book as a romance?!!!

Hoover is known for her romances, which to be honest I don’t really love, but in the last few years she’s been branching out from her normal material in favour of some more thought provoking storylines and social commentary. But romance has still always been central to her stories, so I was surprised when I started reading this one and found myself smack dab in the middle of a mystery thriller! I like a good mystery thriller, but I find them a bit repetitive after a while. Not Verity though – it gripped me from the very start and held my attention to the last page. Hoover still weaves some romance into the story (which I wasn’t that big a fan of), but I was able to move past it because the rest of the writing was great!

I’ve said this before, but Hoover is one of the best first chapter writers I’ve ever encountered. Starting a new book often feels like a bit of a chore because it takes a while to sink into the writing and the narrative, but once I made the decision to read Verity, I was really excited because I knew Hoover would deliver on a compelling beginning. But it wasn’t just the first chapter that was gripping. I read the whole thing in less than 24 hours and pretty much never put it down except to go to work. Say what you want about her romances, but Hoover is a compelling writer.

So what is Verity about might you ask? I skipped reading the synopsis on this one and honestly, I’d advise you to do the same. If you want a mind-bendy, slightly disturbing book with a killer twist, read no further and pick it up. If you need a bit more to go on, Verity is about ghost writer Lowen Ashleigh. She’s asked to author the 3 remaining books in an immensely popular thriller series because the original author, Verity Crawford, is no longer able to do so. To search for material on the rest of the series, she visits the author’s house to go through her office and strikes up a friendship with Verity’s husband, Jeremy. While there, she discovers a disturbing manuscript that makes her question everything she’s been told about Verity.

The setting reminded me a little of Ruth Ware’s, The Turn of the Key, while the plot and storytelling reminded me a lot of Alice Feeney’s, Sometimes I Lie. Lowen discovers a number of disturbing revelations about Verity’s past as creepy things start happening in the house that make her question her sanity. There’s a few random plot lines that don’t really seem to go anywhere, but they still add to the overall atmosphere of the book.

I’ve also said before that I’m not a big fan of the men Hoover writes as the love interests. This was the first Hoover book I read that focused less on the romance than the other aspects of the story though, so it was a welcome change. Emily May sums of my feelings about Hoover’s love interests well in her review where she notes, “I think I enjoy Hoover’s fucked-up books so much because I usually find her regular romances kinda fucked up. I like her books so much more when she’s writing about trauma and morally-questionable characters than when she’s trying to sell me a douche as a love interest.” Which brings me back to my original question – who decided to market this book as a romance? Everything about this book is “mystery/thriller” and someone needs to get this out of the romance genre so that more people pick it up.

Anyways, to sum it up, I really enjoyed it. The themes don’t have the same significance as some of her previous work, but it was still really fun to read and gripped me the entire time I was reading it.

Wild Embers

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nikita Gill
Genres: Poetry, Feminism
Pub. date: Nov. 2017 (read Nov. 2019)

I read Wild Embers as part of my continued foray into Poetry. Actually, this was the first anthology I picked up when I first got the hankering to read some poetry, but I ended up getting distracted by Andrea Gibson’s, Lord of the Butterflies when the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and ended up putting this one aside for awhile.

I do feel like my review may be a little unfair because I did really enjoy the first half of this book. I was feeling very inspired and enjoyed the feminist angle and unapolegeticness that Gill takes in her poetry. But after I set it aside to read Gibson’s latest anthology, which I think is fantastic, the second half of Wild Embers felt just a little bit lacklustre. Gill’s writing didn’t have quite as much depth for me as Gibson’s, which rings of such emotional authenticity. But I don’t want to be unfair and compare the two too much, because they are totally different and I did still really enjoy Gill’s poetry as well.

Gill is all about female independence and being the heroes of our own stories. She doesn’t want her own children to be handed down the same themes of reliance on men that she learned from fairy tales and Disney princess movies growing up. One section of her book is actually dedicated to rewriting the stories of the Disney princesses and I really enjoyed that part. I just felt some of the themes got a little bit repetitive after awhile, although I really liked how Gill also spent time writing about mental illness and the benefits of therapy.

Educated

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tara Westover
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

Educated was our book club pick for November and I really wanted to listen to it on audiobook, but it took me forever to finish my previous audiobook (The Amber Spyglass), so I was a bit late in starting it and had to really rush through it.

Fortunately it had a good narrator and it was a compelling story, so it wasn’t too hard to listen to and push through. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book since it came out, but I’m not a big non-fiction reader and it sounded a lot like The Glass Castle to me, so I never bothered to pick it up. I was excited to finally read it, but I do have to say that after finishing it, despite some differences, it did still remind me a lot of The Glass Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked The Glass Castle and I really liked Educated, but it was really hard not to compare the two and at times I definitely got some serious deju-vu from Westover’s story. While Tara Westover and Jeannette Walls did have different stories, there were still a lot of similarities. They both grew up in families with fathers suffering from mental health issues who are very much paranoid about the government and as a result, decide to mostly live off the grid – taking advantage of their families by keeping them isolated and somewhat in the dark to what the outside world is really like.

However, Mormonism plays a very large role in Westover’s story and was one of the more fascinating parts of the book for me. I haven’t had much exposure to the Mormon religion and it was really interesting to learn about Mormon beliefs, how they were interpreted by Tara’s father, and how those beliefs oppressed and impacted Tara throughout her childhood, formative years, and even into adulthood.

Despite the title, Westover’s story was about so much more than just education. In retrospect, her education was probably the part that interested me the least. I like how she examines at the end of the book the role her education played in opening up her eyes and allowing her to escape the cycle of violence in her family, but overall I don’t think most people read this book to learn about her education.

That said, how Tara managed to get into college and obtain a PhD from Cambridge with no formal childhood education is still a mystery to me and something that seemed to be glossed over in the book. I really struggled to believe she would be so successful with so little support (emotional and financial) and I did wonder if we were really getting the full story at times. She says she was bad at math and that she really only ever read the book of Mormon, so its a bit mystifying to me how she managed to get through multiple degrees, much less excel at them. But obviously their family life taught the children something because 3 of the 7 Westover’s went on to earn doctorates.

So while I did like this book and Westover’s writing, I was neither shocked by the content, nor totally convinced of the story. What I do admire though, is that Westover actually wrote and published this account of her family. The entire book really is about her struggle to both emancipate herself from her family, but still be loved and accepted by them. She sacrifices a lot in order to gain an education and even though she recognizes the harmful and destructive tendencies of her family members, she still yearns to be one of them.

It was really interesting to read about the long term impacts that Mormonism had on her life and how long it took her to recognize the ways in which she has been oppressed and ignorant. I say her book is admirable because the very act of committing to paper this story of her family and then sharing it with the world pretty much guarantees her continued exile from her family. The ending is very nebulous because her story really is not over yet and her family story is still unresolved. But I admire her for recognizing the harmful parts of her family’s behaviour and deciding to expose them when her family refused to listen to her or to change. Her father has obvious issues, but her recount of her brother Shawn was much more chilling. Good for her for finally saying, enough is enough, if you won’t change, I will expose you.

I still gave it 4 stars, but I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as the rest of the world seems to be. It’s well written and thought provoking and it works well as a memoir, I just found it a bit of a challenge to suspend my disbelief when it actually came to her education. That said, Tara was gaslighted by her family for years and as a result her memories have been tampered with and are likely unreliable. But I guess it just makes her story all the more inspirational and like I said, at its heart, I don’t really think this was a book about education. Still a 4 star read for me despite some of these criticisms.