Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: J.K. Rowling (illustrated by Jim Kay)
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Classics
Pub. date: 1998 (read Nov. 2019)

My re-read of Harry Potter continues! For some reason Chamber of Secrets seems to be one of reader’s least favourite of the series, but I’ve always enjoyed it for the mystery element, and later for it’s heavy foreshadowing of Voldemort’s horcruxes.

Chamber of Secrets builds on the magical world Rowling created in the first book. I do always find it a bit annoying to have to be re-introduced to ‘Harry’s world’ at the beginning of each of the earlier books, as if someone would read it without having read the books that came before. But I guess it did serve as a good refresher of the previous book back before the whole world became infinitely familiar of all things Harry Potter.

I do love how Rowling’s writing style and narrative evolve over the course of the series. Chamber of Secrets (and book 1) do very much read like middle grade, but as Harry is only 12 in this book, it’s not really that surprising. We get the introduction to some more great characters in this book – Dobby, Ginny, Colin Creevey, Lockhart – and we get to learn more about the characters we already know – Hagrid, Dumbeldore, Malfoy, and Voldemort. I said it in my last review, but I have to re-iterate again, I love how Rowling is so good at developing her side characters and keeping them consistent throughout the entire series.

Rowling is also genius at integrating just enough humour and lightness into her stories. While each book has it’s own central plot, I’m still Immensely interested in the day to day of life at Hogwarts. I was genuinely disappointed when quidditch was cancelled and I realized I wouldn’t get to watch Harry square up against his opponents on the field. Rowling’s world is magical and interesting enough to be engaging on its own, yet she never wastes a scene. We attend all kinds of classes with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and everything they learn or experience always fits into the plot or is later applied.

The other thing Rowling does wonderfully is make you feel just the perfect amount of indignation at what happens to her characters. She finds the perfect blend of injustice that makes you angry at how characters are treated, while still being believable (I’m thinking of plotlines like Hagrid being shipped off to Azkaban and Harry being misunderstood to be Slytherin’s heir). Rowling gives us just enough information that we could conceivably have guessed who was opening the chamber of secrets and what the monster was, but still keeps us in the dark until the critical moment, which of course thrills us when all is finally revealed.

Mostly, I just love how this book is so full of foreshadowing and the greater meaning that it will have to the series later on. Rowling’s forethought is what keeps her series so interesting and why I keep coming back again and again for more.

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

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Dan Gemeinhart
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Middle Grade is such an underrated genre and there are so many quality books out there. Even though I generally enjoy it, I don’t read that much middle grade unless it’s by an author I already know and like, but I always pick something out from the Goodreads Choice Awards every year to read in November. The book that appealed to me most in the long list was The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, which I was pleased to see also made it into the shortlist.

Coyote has been travelling America with her dad, Rodeo, in a refurbished school bus for the last 5 years. They’ve been having a great time exploring all over the country, but there is a certain loneliness that comes with always being on the move. Coyote is 12 years old, but she hasn’t really developed any lasting friendships and the only ongoing relationship she has is with her grandma, who she calls once a week on Saturday.

Coyote and Rodeo never talk about it, but they share a secret; they’re both trying to outrun the grief of having lost 3 other family members 5 years prior. The entire topic of their family is a “no-go” with Rodeo and Coyote is fine to go along with that, until she receives a call from her Grandma that really makes her want to return to her hometown, and in a hurry. But she knows Rodeo would never go for it and deceives him on a separate mission that will take them in close proximity to their old home. They’re both on a journey they don’t even really know they’re on and along the way they pick up some individuals who finally start to challenge their lifestyle and make them confront the demons they’ve been running from for 5 years.

It’s a book about grief, but the author balances the story with lots of humour and fun characters. Coyote has a lot of spunk and I loved how the cast of characters kept growing with each new plan Coyote hatches to try and get her closer to home. I love how children’s lit is able to tackle such emotional themes without being dark or upsetting, while also being super perceptive and comforting. Coyote still struggles with losing her mother and sisters, but it’s Rodeo who is really running away from the past. I liked that it’s a book about how a young girl deals with her grief, but also about how she helps her father to finally deal with his grief too.

Ember and the Ice Dragons

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: Oct. 1, 2019 (read Oct. 2019)

I wish I didn’t wait so long to write my review for this book because I really loved it! Heather Fawcett is killing it with her books and I’m really drawn to the settings she creates. I loved her Himalaya inspired fantasy world in Even the Darkest Stars and loved the blend of fantasy she created in Ember and the Ice Dragons.

Ember and the Ice Dragons is a middle grade fantasy series set in our world, but with magic. Ember’s adoptive father is a magician that chases storms because they are where he gets his magic from. On one adventure he discovers a baby dragon, Ember, and turns her into a human to save her life and hide her, because unfortunately the fire dragons have since been hunted to extinction.

As you might expect, Ember struggles in England because she has a tendency to randomly burst into flames and as such, is afraid to make friends. Eventually she convinces her father to ship her off to Antarctica to live with her Aunt because she is much less likely to catch fire in the cold climate. Once in Antarctica, Ember is surprised when two other children, Nisha and Moss, attempt to befriend her. She’s also enraged to discover that the ice dragons of Antarctica are also being hunted and targeted, same as the fire dragons were in England. She teams up with Nisha and Moss to take down the hunt and save the ice dragons.

Like I said, I loved the setting. Most of the book is set in Antarctica and loved reading about it. Fawcett likes to set her stories in the bitter cold outdoors and it just makes for such an enjoyable reading experience in the fall and winter. Ember is the perfect heroine – with just the right amount of spunk and vulnerability. I liked watching her come of age and finally starting to make friends and build relationships with those around her instead of constantly being afraid of being discovered. Fawcett is also good at writing perfect villains and anti-heros and I like that some of her characters are flawed, yet still good.

This read like a standalone, so I’m not sure if Fawcett is planning on expanding the world or not. I kind of hope not because I think this works well as a standalone and I want to see what other types of worlds she will dream up!

The Amber Spyglass

Rating:
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 2000 (read on Audible in Oct. 2019)

I read the first two books in this trilogy about 8 years ago, but never got around to finishing the series. I’ve been wanting to read the Amber Spyglass ever since, but felt I needed to re-read the first two books again since it’s been so long. I don’t regret re-reading the first two, because I enjoyed them a lot more the second time around, particularly The Golden Compass, and I think the full cast audiobooks are wonderful. But after waiting 8 years to read The Amber Spyglass, it was a huge disappointment.

There’s a lot going on in this book. It is significantly longer than its predecessors (at least it’s a lot longer in audio form) and I felt like the plot had no clear direction. The Golden Compass is really an excellent book, with just the right amount of mystery, metaphors about the catholic church, and a feisty main character. The Subtle Knife was not quite as strong, but was still a great exercise in world building. I thought both books were super creative and that the fantastical elements, though seemingly a bit random (talking polar bears, witches, etc), all worked well together.

But wow, The Amber Spyglass just really didn’t work for me. First of all, I feel like it was almost several books in one. When I think back now to the start of the book, I can’t believe that Lyra was unconscious for the entire first section and that those parts were still part of the same book. Pullman goes heavy on the religious symbolism in this book, but somehow it became less obvious to me what his point actually is. He lost the subtlety and I think the story suffered for it. The Golden Compass really made me think critically about the church and it’s roll in government, whereas in this book, there were so many religious references that the themes became confused.

I felt Pullman tried to accomplish a little too much. There’s an entire side story with Mary Malone that I think offers absolutely nothing to the series, as well as side stories with Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, that while more interesting, still felt a little tangential. We also meet the Galevespians in this book, which again, while interesting, still didn’t really add anything to the story. There are a lot of different mystical beings in this series and instead of introducing more, I would have preferred to spend time learning more about the polar bears or the witches, who aren’t really relevant after the first book. It’s not that I necessarily had a problem with any of these elements, I just felt like they made the story unnecessarily long.

Mostly I just wasn’t sure where Pullman was going with this book. At first I thought we were working towards an epic battle between Lord Asriel and his allies against the angels and the “authority”, but the battle with Metatron ended up feeling more like a bit of a side note than a climax. It felt more tangential than central to the story and made me wonder what the whole point of Lord Asriel even was. On a separate note, I found Mrs. Coulter fascinating and really liked how she had a change of heart in this book, but I found her ending to be anti-climatic and would have preferred to see a reunion between her and Lyra. I thought it would be really interesting to explore whether or not Lyra would be capable of forgiveness and whether Mrs. Coulter was even worthy of it after having committed so many atrocities.

Lyra’s plotline with the World of the Dead was a lot easier to follow along with, but it just dragged on forever with a ton of heavy metaphors that were honestly over my head. I’m pretty well versed in Christian doctrine and scripture and I still wasn’t sure what Pullman was getting at or what his ultimate theme was.

I thought the World of the Dead was going to be a side plot that impacted the eventual main plot, but apparently the World of the Dead was really the whole point of the book. Lyra was meant to open up a permanent way out of the land of the dead to free all the trapped ghosts, but I’m not sure what the land of the dead represented – was it hell? purgatory? – I don’t really know. Pullman had obvious beef with the ‘Authority’, but by the end of the book I wasn’t even really sure who I was supposed to be mad at. Was the ‘Authority’ to blame for trapping all the ghosts in the World of the Dead? Because that doesn’t seem very in line with the Christian doctrine of heaven and hell, so I had a hard time buying into it and I wasn’t really sure what the point was. If anyone has a little more insight, I’d love to know.

In turn, I thought the whole ‘Lyra as Eve’ theme was a little overdone and that the ending with Lyra and Will was the stupidest thing ever. Like, they are 12 years old and suddenly they are passionately in love and kissing constantly, envisioning their life together forever? Give me a break. They are 12! It just felt so cheap to suddenly have these two main character mature so quickly. The reader knows that Lyra and Will are both right on the cusp of puberty and that Dust will soon start to collect around them, but like, please ease us into it a little more.

Then there was the whole thing with the witches and closing all the doors between worlds. It just seemed like too neat and upsetting an ending. Again, I’m not sure what message Pullman was trying to leave me with here, but I didn’t like the way he suddenly just tried to tie up all these loose ends after I invested so much time into reading all the stupid and indulgent drama between the other characters.

Anyways, I could continue griping, but at the end of the day this was just a huge disappointment for me. I feel like Pullman went too big with the last book and was too self-indulgent. He lost his subtlety. I enjoyed thinking critically about his themes in the first book, but here I just felt like he was trying to beat me over the head with every problem he’s ever had with Christianity and it just didn’t make sense. But I’ll end it here because I know this is a beloved series to many and I know the series has a lot of merit beyond my criticisms. I’m probably just not advanced enough to really understand what Pullman was going for with book, so any fans are welcome to take a stab at trying to explain it to me, because I really would like to understand.