Sunday, June 28, 2015

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

JK Rowling
Completed 6/6/2015, Reviewed 6/22/2015
5 stars

I finished my quest to read all the Hugo winners last year.  However, there were six books I had read before my quest which did not have reviews, since I read them before I was writing reviews.  “Goblet of Fire” is the last of these.  It was the reason for my reread of the whole Harry Potter series.  When I discovered that Goblet won the Hugo, I couldn’t remember enough of it to understand why it won.  Granted, the HP phenomenon was already at a frenzy, and “Prisoner of Azkaban” had been nominated the year before.  But I think what pushed this book into the winner’s column was that it completed the transition to a darker tone begun in “Prisoner”, while revealing an emotional depth that reverberated with more readers than ever before.

In this book, Hogwarts is hosting the Triwizard Competition with two other academies.  A champion from each school is chosen from the contenders by a flaming cup.  Entrants put their names in the cup and after the nomination period, the cup spits out its champion picks.  On the appointed day, the champions’ names are revealed, but a fourth name comes out, Harry’s.  No one know who entered him.  He certainly didn’t.  The cup shouldn’t have accepted him because he’s underage.  But it certainly seems that whoever did, seemed to want to put Harry’s life in jeopardy, or at least, make public opinion sway against him as a self-absorbed attention-getter.  The plot of the book follows the tournament, the unraveling of who entered him in the competition, and of course, the growing threat of the Dark Lord Voldemort. 

Besides the over-arching theme of good versus evil with Harry and Voldemort, the point of this book is that Harry and the gang are little more grown up.  They act less like children, less like the archetypes of the brain, the goof, and the hero.  Their characters are becoming more complex.  Perhaps the most visible change is in Hermione.  Her black and white world of right and wrong is becoming greyer.  She gets to lose control, grow angry, and have more empathy.  At the annual formal ball, which the fourth year students are permitted to attend, she has a boyfriend, the champion from one of the schools.  Harry and Ron also attend with dates, but exemplifying how girls may be more emotionally mature than boys, the evening for the two is ripe with awkwardness and ignorance. 

Even Hagrid gets a love interest, a giantess named Maxime from the French wizard’s academy.  There’s an awesome scene where Dumbledore dances with Maxime that is awkward and hilarious.  The ball in general signifies the place of the book in the lives of its characters, reminding me of my own experience of freshman year high school.  The awkwardness of fourteen year olds at school dances and the time where you first see teachers as real people.  It’s embarrassing, funny, pathetic, and human.

“Goblet of Fire” is the first of the extremely long books.  What keeps it from seeming too long is the pace of the action.  The competition has three stages, and the tension in the book builds as each stage draws near.  The final stage, keeping with the basic format of all the books so far, is the setup for the next and most terrifying confrontation with Voldemort yet, and the first that deals with the death of a character.  I remember the film’s progression of the competition feeling empty while the climax lacked the emotional punch.  The book’s emphasis on the relationships, particularly the interaction of the competitors, makes it fuller and more emotionally engaging. 

While “Prisoner” is still my favorite book so far, “Goblet of Fire” is complex, exciting, and devastating.  Five out of five stars.  I understand why it won the Hugo.  It’s a transitional book reflecting the teen awkwardness of its readers.  Rowling’s genius is most evident here.  It is not just the complexity of the overall plot and the details of the subplots, but the ability to match the emotional development of the characters with the target age of its readers.   

Monday, June 22, 2015

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

JK Rowling
Completed 5/29/2015, Reviewed 5/30/2015
5 stars

Azkaban is such a relief after the disappointment of Chamber of Secrets.  It’s darker, adds depth to the overarching plot of the septology and characters, and has more complex subplots.  The book begins with the convicted mass murderer, Sirius Black, escaping from the prison Azkaban.  The magical community is terrified; they even let the news leak to Muggles, though of course not saying that Black is a wizard.  Back at the house of his vicious relatives, Harry has an illegal magical blow up and runs away a few weeks before school starts.  Unexpectedly, he’s welcomed by the Minister for Magic to stay in Diagon Alley.  Once school starts, the whole school is on alert for Black and Harry finds his past and present is tied to this crazed killer.  It’s a terrific story, and the book that propels the series into a more mature place.

The characters begin to get more rounded out in this book.  Harry, Hermione, and Ron all act a little more like young adults than children.  They have deeper hurts, fears, and joys.  Hermione steps out of her goody-goody role to yell back at a professor.  Ron, who has never been a stand-out student, puts his nose to the grindstone to help Hagrid defend his soon to be executed hippogriff.  Harry stands up for himself against his adoptive family and begins to grow into himself as he discovers his past and fights for his future.  Even the faculty begins to get emotional depth and back story, particularly Snape, whose single dimensionality gets back story and motivation.

Rowling introduces two new faculty members.  Professor Trelawney is this book’s comic relief, though has an interesting part in the dramatic events.  Professor Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, is the first faculty member to spend time mentoring Harry.  The scenes between the two are quite powerful; being the first time an adult spends quality time helping Harry directly.

My favorite part of this book is the relationship of Sirius Black to Harry.  I can’t discuss it here because it would be a spoiler.  I’ll wait until the next review to discuss it.  But through Black, we start to see more into the lives of Harry’s parents and their friends.  It’s part of what helps Harry begin to grow out of his broody demeanor. 

In fact it’s hard to go on too much about my favorite parts of the book because they are all at the exciting conclusion.  Suffice it to say that even though I may give other Potter books five stars, this one holds quite a special place for me, perhaps being my favorite of them all.  I’ll let you know if this changes as I continue through the rest of the series.  So yes, five stars out of five.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

JK Rowling
Completed 5/28/2015, Reviewed 5/30/2015
3 stars

My reread of the second Harry Potter novel was not as satisfying as Sorcerer’s Stone.  Rowling spent a lot of time world building in the first novel.  Part of the joy of the book was the magic of the introduction to all the delights, the allies, and the enemies.  Chamber of Secrets is missing that magic.  I don’t remember my reaction from my initial read of the book, but this time, I found it to be formulaic duplicate of the first.  The world building is much less dramatic and the new characters not very interesting, though the confrontation with Harry’s nemesis Lord Voldemort at the end is very satisfying. 

Chamber of Secrets introduces my least favorite character in the whole series is Dobby.  In the movie, he was very annoying, but the whole second movie was annoying.  I tried to go into this book with an open mind in hope of seeing Dobby in a new light, perhaps being less critical of his antics.  You see, Dobby appears to Harry before the school year begins, warning him not to return to Hogwart’s because of some mysterious evil.  Because Dobby is a house-elf, and therefore a slave to his unknown master, he can’t tell Harry what the evil is, only warn him.  For revealing even this, the elf literally beats himself up in lieu of the punishment he would get if his master found out what he was doing.  I don’t know if Rowling thought if this would be funny, but it was just pathetic, and not pathos in a good way.  Of course, Harry doesn’t heed Dobby, and through the school year, the elf tries various things to get Harry to go home. 

As I mentioned in my last review, I am often troubled by the whole concept of people not telling the truth and not listening.  I know this device makes for good suspense and is part of literature regardless of genre, but rather than feel sorry for Dobby, I just wanted to shake him, pin him to the floor, grab his face and shout at him.  That was my level of annoyance with him.  I’m not actually happy about using the word “annoying” in my review.  I recently read the review of this book by someone I don’t like from my book club and he used “annoying” throughout it.  Unfortunately, it’s the only word that describes my reaction to the character and his plot line. 

On a positive note, the showdown between Harry and Voldemort at the end is suspenseful and fun.  It also moves the overarching plot of the whole series a little further, demonstrating the growing power of the evil Lord.  Unfortunately, I felt that it was the only place where that plot moved.  Everything else that happens in the book feels more like antics, rather than moving anything forward.  The main characters feel stagnant.  Even the introduction of the new faculty member, Lockhart, provides only wan farce rather than honest comic relief of any significance. 

As a book in and of itself, it’s basically good.  If I was Harry’s age and the intended age of the audience, I’d probably love it, because it’s another story like the first.  As an adult, after the tremendous beginning, knowing how well the characters and the main plot develop over the course of the rest of the books, this one just falls flat.  I give it a limp three out of five stars.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Far-Out Worlds of A.E. Van Vogt

A.E. Van Vogt
Completed 5/25/2015, Reviewed 5/30/2015
3 stars

As I say at the beginning of all my short story collection readings, I don’t really know how to review them.  There’s usually stories I like, some I don’t, so I just give a summary of a few I liked and try to elaborate on them.  This collection is no different.  I’ve never read any Van Vogt before though he’s one of the Grand Masters of SF, as awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It seems like the short story is the best medium for lot of the writers from the golden age of SF.  So when I found this collection at a used bookstore on the coast, I thought I’d give him a try.  And like most golden age writers, I found it pretty good. 

My favorite story was “The Purpose”.  Virginia is a journalist who happens upon the Futurian Scientific Laboratories:  Neurological and Organicological Research.  Finding that nobody seems to know anything about this storefront in her town, she decides to investigate.  Soon she disappears with a woman who walks through walls.  Upon realizing she’s missing, her distraught husband begins investigating the company himself, finding a horrific organ transplant conspiracy that’s intent on taking over the world.  When it was written, organ transplants were still science fiction, although they were probably on the horizon.  Van Vogt took the concept and ran in fascinating directions with it, bridging the fiction gap in a suspenseful way.  It’s like a variation on the college student spends spring break in a foreign country and after a night of raucous behavior, wakes to find himself missing a kidney.  I also liked the fact that though it was written in 1945, the journalist and her abductor are women.  Though they’re not exactly the main characters, they have a pretty large part in the story and aren’t simply stereotypically portrayed. 

“Ship of Darkness” is an odd time-travelling tale of a man who comes upon what seems to be the human race evolved to 3 million A.D.  At first he’s confounded by the people, but slowly works into trying to communicate with them.  Then there’s a great twist at the end.  The story was a little tough to read, but that was best part of it, seeing these people, trying to figure out who they were, what they were doing, and how to communicate with them.  The prose is not great, but where he goes with it is very interesting.  It read a little like Arthur C. Clarke: gazing in wonder at some scientific marvel and then trying to do something with it. 

Two other stories really stood out with their similar themes.  “The Replicators” is a wonderful exploration of xenophobia through an alien encounter.  It’s been done numerous times, but it grabbed me with the revelation of the purpose of the alien’s visit.  “The First Martian” explores racism in the workplace when the whites-dominated train and mining industry on Mars begins bringing in Andean natives to work without spacesuits in the thin Martian atmosphere.  So yeah, the science is dated, but the message is great and pretty well executed.

Though I liked these stories, none were really outstanding.  That’s been my experience with a lot of the golden age authors.  I think what makes them stand out is simply that they were writing about scientific wonders prolifically.  Some of the better ones like Van Vogt were commenting or at least reflecting on the problems of their times within the fantastical worlds they created.  Unfortunately, I think I’ll always compare these writers to Ray Bradbury, who will probably always be my favorite golden age short story writer.  I think it will almost always be difficult to read sixty to seventy year old SF work because the genre has evolved beyond the “Amazing Story”.  But I‘ll continue to read the classic authors to experience the foundation from which our current body of work evolved.  I give this three out of five stars, but I prefer to think of it as another good sojourn into the history of my favorite genre.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

JK Rowling
Completed 5/22/2015, Reviewed 5/30/2015
5 stars

Rereading the first Harry Potter book was a joyful experience.  I was dreading my decision to reread the whole septology, rather than just the fourth book to complete my quest to read and review the Hugo winners.  When I opened Sorcerer’s Stone, I was actually all warm and fuzzy inside, not unlike how it felt to reread The Lord of the Rings.  I’ve only read the series once, and seen all the movies once and one twice.  But it took me to a happy place and the whole book was simply an awesome experience.

Harry is an orphan living a miserable life with his unloving, hostile aunt, uncle, and cousin.  One day, he gets a piece of mail by owl post that he’s been accepted at Hogwart’s School for Wizards and Witches.  Despite the best efforts of his guardians to prevent this, Harry gets to enroll.  He comes to understand his wizard gifts, has friends and teachers who care for him, solve a mystery, and confront the evil Lord Voldemort who murdered his parents. 

What makes a juvenile book a good experience to me is the same as any adult novel.  It’s when I can relate to or empathize with the main character, even though he or she is so young.  One of the reasons I liked to go to school was because it wasn’t home.  Home wasn’t a safe place.  And even though school had its evil nuns and bullies, it was still a place I felt normal.  That’s Harry’s experience and I think that’s the immediate appeal of the book. 

The book tugs at the heart of my inner child with all its candy, feasts, of course magic, and the Halloween and Christmas parties with massive decorations.  But it’s not all lovely.  There’s the teacher who just seems to hate Harry and the bullies who seem to exist just to torment him.  Then throwing in the mystery makes the book un-put-down-able.  And it’s so unpretentious; sweet but not saccharine.

What’s great about rereading the book is finding all the early references to characters and things that come into fuller play later in the series.  I was surprised at how many there were, and fascinated at how well planned the series was. 

There is one thing that I had trouble with, and in general have trouble with in many books:  the main character not opening up to someone in charge or with some authority about a problem or fear.  When I get to a place in the story where that happens, I get very frustrated.  I think, “Just say something!”  But the reality is I, and probably we all, hold back in situations like these when our feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem overpower us.  It’s the “Someone will find out I’m just a pretender” syndrome.  One of my favorite adages from support groups is “We’re only as sick as our secrets”.  Of course if Harry was able to speak openly and honestly with the adults, and the adults actually listened and thought through all the evidence, and maybe throw in some therapy sessions, we wouldn’t have much of a story or much literature in general. 

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is a wonderful book.  It’s a comfort read, where I can let go of my over-analytical and sardonic brain and revel in some naïveté.  Five out of five stars.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Jeff Vandermeer
Completed 5/24/2015, Reviewed 5/30/2015
1 star

“Authority” is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy.  In “Annihilation”, four women are sent to explore the mysterious Area X, a place where something has happened, but no one knows for sure what.  It’s been described to the public as an ecological disaster.  The explorers uncover a much more Lovecraftian evil.  This book picks up at the Southern Reach agency complex outside Area X.  John Rodriguez who goes by the nickname “Control” is assigned to the agency as its new head.  His assignment is to turn the troubled agency around and find the truth about the area from the biologist from that last expedition.  Okay, I cheated.  I pulled most of that from the book summary.  What was it really about?  I’m not sure.  I could barely focus on this mess of a novel.

This book was perhaps the greatest let down of a second novel in a trilogy I’ve ever read.  I think it was supposed to be a character study of Control.  He had a troubled childhood and a troubling journey into this secret service.  Now as head of the agency, he’s having trouble because everybody is uncooperative, the interviewee, the staff, and particularly, his assistant.  I didn’t care; he wasn’t interesting.  So he’s troubled, lots of people are troubled but at least they're interesting.  The revelations from his investigation of Area X are only a little creepy.  It was very difficult staying focused on the book when the author doesn’t make you care about anything.

Another problem with the book is that it is so poorly written.  Vandermeer relies on a lot of prose to set mood and help you get inside Control’s head.  The prose is terse and difficult.  Reading it was unpleasant.  In my review of the first book, I acknowledged that it wasn’t well written, but the mystery of the expedition, the creepiness of the discoveries, and the back story of the biologist kept me focused.  This time, nothing did.  The last book to which I had such a bad response to the prose was Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”.  “Authority” is simply painful. 

When I got to the end of the book, I had a revelation.  There was no point to the book other than to expand it into a trilogy.  I haven’t read the third book yet, but it seemed to me that all you needed to know in preparation for the third is revealed in the last twenty pages.  There’s this guy, he’s troubled, the agency is corrupt, and he will help figure out the mystery of Area X in the third book.  That’s it.  At least, that’s all I got out if it.

I’ve only given one star once before.  I give it sparingly.  I feel like if you at least try, you can get two stars.  All Vandermeer tried to do was waste paper.  Even Chabon seemed to try.  At this point, I would say “Annihilation” can stand as a self-contained, unresolved psychological horror.  Since there is a third novel, I’m hoping that if there is a resolution, it will have something to make the effort worthwhile.