Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by JK Rowling. Scholastic: 2002. 734 pp.
Is it wrong to say I liked the movie better? At least with this one. I totally thought this was my favorite book going in–it used to be my favorite book. I was so excited to get to this one, and the more I read into it the more I realized I liked the movie better.
It just went a lot slower than I imagined. I really like the structure of this story–probably why it was my favorite earlier–because things that are structured tend to relieve my stress. I’m learning this about myself.
I liked how Rowling took a step back from the typical “Harry’s at Hogwarts + Voldemort shows up in some form and threatens the wizarding world = Harry learns more about himself and his parents” formula. This offered a new perspective into the entire wizard movies, especially with the inclusion of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. I want to know more about these schools, though. I think it would be cool to have books written about them (or maybe I just need to find some decent fanfiction about it).
Here’s the thing I don’t get, though. How was no one suspicious of Barty Jr.’s plan? In order to remain disguised as Mad-Eye Moody, he would have to take the Polyjuice Potion every hour, on the hour. On the final night of the Tri-wizard Tournament, Dumbledore noted the excitement of the event may have distracted him from taking the potion on time. So, for the entire school year, up until that moment at the end, he didn’t miss once? Not only that, but Dumbledore didn’t suspect anything until “Moody” took Harry up to his office after Harry reappeared with Cedric’s body. Only then, apparently, did “Moody” act out of character.
I’m getting a little intense here.
Despite the size of the doorstops that await me in this series, I’m looking forward to reading (or re-reading) further. I prefer Harry, Ron and Hermione when they’re all grown up.
Calling Me Home, by Julie Kibler. St. Martin’s Press.
I think I read Calling Me Home in two days. Setting aside the fact that I read quickly, I imagine this book is still extremely readable to those who don’t read three books a week. It’s compelling, it’s interesting, and it’s got a good love story to carry you through (Who doesn’t love a good love story?)
There are really two stories at play here. One involves 89-year-old Isabelle asking her hairdresser to accompany her on a road trip from Texas to Cincinnati. She has to go to a funeral, and while she won’t reveal whose funeral she’s attending, she doesn’t want to go alone. So Dorrie, her hairdresser and close friend, agrees to go with her.
The second story is still Isabelle’s. She’s much younger, in 1930s Kentucky, and she’s fallen in love with the son of her parents’ housekeeper. She’s white, he’s black, and this is a problem. They’re in the heart of segregation, to the point that he’s not even allowed in her city’s limits after dark.
We’ve all read Romeo & Juliet-esque stories before. We’ve all read stories about racial tension. But I like how this story approaches the difficult subject. For one, it’s a lot more realistic than the other stories tend to be. In the others, the characters’ love for each other seems to transcend all other hardships they may face. As long as they have each other, nothing will get in their way.
In Calling Me Home, there are consequences. Whether we agree with them or not, 1930s Kentucky has some pretty strict rules regarding inter-racial relationships. And as much as Isabelle and Robert want to be together, the consequences of these rules don’t disappear once they profess their undying love. They follow them, and the result is heartbreaking at times, but it makes sense.
In addition, the modern-day element adds another level to the story. The entire novel is told in first-person. Isabelle’s portion recounts her younger years, and Dorrie’s portion brings us back to the present. Essentially, Isabelle is using this road trip to tell Dorrie of her life, which comes full circle once we find out who the funeral is for. But the present-day section also serves another person: it examines the current state of race relations. We see, through Dorrie’s eyes, what has changed in the seventy-or-so years this novel covers. We also see, however, what has not changed.
Calling Me Home is now available in paperback. Read an excerpt of the novel, and check back tomorrow for an interview with Kibler.
I’m thrilled to present Julie Kibler as my January featured author! Julie’s novel, Calling Me Home, tells the story of Isabelle, a young white woman, who falls in love with Robert, a young black man, in 1930s Kentucky. In addition, we follow Isabelle at 89 years old, who requests her hairdresser, Dorrie, to accompany her to a funeral several states away. Calling Me Home, in addition to simply telling a good story, explores racial tension both in the early twentieth-century South–a time in history known for the civil rights–and now.
To give you a little taste of Kibler’s novel, I want to share with you a portion from Chapter 2. The story alternates between Isabelle’s childhood and Dorrie’s present-day, though both are told from the first-person perspective. This part is in Dorrie’s voice:
When I met Miss Isabelle, she acted more like Miss Miserabelle, and that’s a fact. But I didn’t think she was a racist. God’s honest truth, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I may look young, thank you very much, but I’ve had this gig a while. Oh, the stories they tell, the lines around my customer’s closed eyes, the tension in her scalp when I massage it with shampoo, the condition of the hair I wind around a curler. I knew almost right away Miss Isabelle carried troubles more significant than worrying about the color of my skin. As pretty as she was for an eighty-year-old woman, there was something dark below her surface, and it kept her from being soft. But I was never one to press for all the details–could be that was part of the beauty of the thing. I learned that people talk when they’re ready. Over the years, she became much more than just a customer. She was good to me. I hadn’t ever said so out loud, but in ways, she was more like a mother than the one God gave me. When I thought it, I ducked, waiting for the lightning to strike.
Calling Me Home is available in paperback.
The Pagan Lord, by Bernard Cornwell. Harper, 303 pp.
I’m going to just come out and say it: I am not Bernard Cornwell’s intended audience.
I’m not fascinated by the Middle Ages, nor about one man’s quest for any crown. While I’ve been wanting to read/watch Game of Thrones because of its popularity, I don’t feel deprived in any way from not partaking (I do know about the Red Wedding, but more because I read a HuffPost article on it the day after it aired).
With all that in mind, I really can’t find anything negative to say about Cornwell’s The Pagan Lord. The writing was solid, the characters were “fleshed out” (pun intended), and the story was well-developed and interesting.
My favorite parts of this book were the characters, hands-down. I loved how Cornwell allowed Uhtred–the protagonist–to be both battle-hardened and gentle. He’s a warrior with his men and against his enemies, but he’s clearly in love with his women. I loved his relationship to Aethelflaed.
Speaking of Aethelflaed: she’s fabulous. She is, by all definitions, Uhtred’s partner. She goes both into battle and into bed with him. She’s completely bad-ass, and she commands control in a time and a culture that didn’t necessarily give women the opportunity for power. She demanded it anyway, and she got it.
Was I completely enraptured by this book: No. But I didn’t expect to be. I honestly didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did, because this isn’t the kind of book I usually like. I was intrigued, however, especially after Cornwell’s 1356 did so well on the New York Times charts. And, from what I can tell of The Pagan Lord, rightfully so. As unlikely as it is that I will ever truly love medieval-fiction, I could definitely see myself picking up another of his books and enjoying it.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling. Scholastic: 2004. 435 pp.
We’re almost halfway through Harry Potter, can you believe it? I’ve enjoyed re-reading these books, though I have to admit I’m not very good at the whole re-reading concept. Maybe it’s just that, between the books and the movies, I know these stories so well already. They defined my generation, and reading them again is like eating your favorite meal every Tuesday for a year. It’s really good, but after a while you know it so well it doesn’t knock you over like it used to.
Fortunately, I do notice snippets of the writing that hit me differently this time around. They’re not usually big: a quote here, a description there, but they’re enough for me to understand why these books are so powerful. They’re not really about magic. They’re about family, friendship, identity, growing up and understanding that you’re a part of something much bigger than yourself. They’re also about loss, adversity, and coping when bad things happen to good people.
There’s a part in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that I thought really illustrated the theme of loss throughout the novels. Harry spends a lot of time thinking about his parents in this book: between the search for Sirius Black and the whole Patronus thing, he regains the hope that his parents aren’t so far removed from him.
In this portion, Dumbledore offers Harry some advice on his questions regarding his family:
You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him. How else could you produce that particular Patronus? Prongs rode again last night. … Last night Sirius told me all about how they became Animagi. An extraordinary achievement–not least, keeping it quiet from m. And then I remembered the most unusual form your Patronus took, when it charged Mr. Malfoy down at your Quidditch match against Ravenclaw. You know, Harry, in a way, you did see your father last night. … You found him inside yourself.
Those we have loved and lost are never truly gone. Regardless of what you believe about the afterlife, the impact the passed have made continues to show long after their passing. It is in their loved ones that we continue to see them, especially in the times we need them the most.
Vortex, by Julie Cross. Thomas Dunne: 373 pp. $9.99
Let me start by saying this: If you haven’t read Tempest, Book 1 in Julie Cross’ Tempest trilogy, you’re going to be very confused. I got about ten pages into this book before I went to the library and checked out the previous installment in the series.
To tell you the truth, I liked Vortex better than Tempest. But I think one of the reasons Vortex was better is because of Tempest. The first book did a really good job of introducing the characters and overall plot, that the second book could really get into the story without having to cover the expositional ground. In Vortex, we already knew who Jackson was and what he could do. This story then could be spent on developing his character even further.
I really liked how Vortex picked up where Tempest left off. It was a seamless connection, especially for someone going right from one book to the other. I also liked the emotion that Cross included in this book. I’ve read a handful of science fiction titles in the past, but I get the feeling with much of sci-fi that the goal is to convince the reader that the concept of the book could actually exist. Everything else be damned, you will believe in the story. What Cross did, which I think was brilliant, was approach it from the characters. Yes, there is unusual technology and story-elements. But if readers can’t latch onto something they already know to be true, it’s hard to take that next step in believing something else.
Cross makes us believe in the love between Jackson and Holly, and in the friendship between the members of the Tempest training group. I loved the relationships in this novel, and because I can believe in those, it’s not hard to believe in Jackson’s ability to time-travel. It seems like the logical next step to the story.
If I did have one critique, it’s this: There’s a lot going on here. While it’s easy enough to believe in the time traveling going on in the book, it’s a little harder to understand that nitty gritty details involved. That, combined with all of the twists and turns, can be a little overwhelming at times. It makes for great reading, but sometimes it all happens so fast you don’t quite know what just happened until it’s all finished.
Vortex is in paperback now, and Cross’s third installment, Firestorm, is coming out pretty soon.
I reviewed this for Friday, but I really wanted to pass along a segment of the foreword I found compelling. The foreword is written by Elisabeth’s grandson, Edmund (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes). In it, he talks about his experience coming across this manuscript–which at the time was untitled–and how certain elements of the novel may have reflected Elisabeth’s life growing up and in exile from Vienna.
The part that I want to share talks about Elisabeth’s love for writing. Edmund had asked her, while she was still alive, while writing mattered, and he never felt she gave him a straight answer. Much later, after she had passed, he came across a single page with this written on it:
Why am I making such a great effort and taxing my own endurance and energy to write this book that no one will read? Why do I have to write? Because I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published … What is lacking? I have a feeling for language. … But I think I write in a rarified atmosphere, I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences, the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves … I distill too much.
I’ve heard a lot of that word: “quintessence.” In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I previewed last week, the photographer Sean O’Connell describes one of his photos as “the quintessence of life.” A large theme of the movie is the search for what this photo really contains, what the quintessence of life (or, in the case of The Exiles Return, what the quintessence of experiences) really is.
The Exile’s Return, by Elisabeth de Waal. Picador, 319 pp. $26
As its title suggests: Elisabeth de Waal’s novel, published posthumously with help from her grandson, Edmund (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes) is a novel of return. In three separate-yet-connected plot lines, her characters find themselves searching for a return to their past, for what was in earlier days.
Professor Kuno Adler, a Jewish scientist who fled Vienna to America fifteen years ago, finds himself coming back to his former home. He anticipates picking up where he left off, and finding that while the Vienna in his memory remained the same, the Vienna he finds has changed dramatically in the aftermath of World War II.
Theophil Kanakis, by comparison, comes to Vienna to pick up the pieces the war left behind. He wants to restore Austria to its former beauty and grandeur, and hopes that in the process his own standing in society would rise further. He is a middle-aged man, nearly forty years old, though he surrounds himself with people much younger than he in part to emphasize his wisdom and experience, and in part to live forever in his youth.
Marie-Theres, or Resi, is sent to Vienna to live with her aunt. In America, where she was born, she lives rather apathetically, and her mother–a former Princess–hopes sending her daughter to her own home might help spark some life in the teenager.
Sprinkled into each of the stories is the Grien-Lauterbach family–Nina and Lorenzo, or “Bimbo.” Earlier generations of this family was considered royalty, though now the titles “Princess” and “Prince,” respectively, are worth little more than the letters they include. Nina is happy to move forward; she goes by “Frauline Grien” rather than the more decadent “Princess Nina.” In contrast to his sister, Bimbo wants to restore the impact of “Prince” to his name and his family.
What I found compelling about The Exiles Return, however, is a far deeper element of redemption de Waal has written into the story. Much as the characters return to something they’d lost, Austria is searching to rebuild itself after the war. What was formerly a noble country has been reduced to rubble, and now the time has come to pick up and begin again.
Elisabeth de Waal wrote five novels throughout her life: three in English and two in German. As stated by Edmund in the foreword, she was a member of the Ephrussi family, a “dynastic Jewish family that had adopted Vienna as its home thirty years before” her 1899 birth year.
The Exiles Return is a novel of great vividness and great tenderness, which at its heart depicts what it might mean to return from exile. Within its pages it reflects a truly ambitious writer and a woman of considerable courage. Elisabeth returned to Vienna weeks after the Anschluss in 1938 in order to save her parents in their moment of greatest need. She managed to get her father to England in 1939. And she returned immediately after the war to find out what had happened to her family. She fought for a decade to get justice for the wrongs that had been done, battling the intransigence, hostility and derision of the authorities in Vienna. Yet she did this without losing her ability to live fully in the present and not be held hostage by the experience of being a refugee.
While Elisabeth was never published in her lifetime, she continued to write. Her first novel, The Exiles Return, was published in London seventy-five years after the Anschluss, the “cataclysmic, convulsive act when Austria allowed Hitler to enter unopposed into Vienna.” Edmund notes the significance of this anniversary in his foreword, and I’m sure this novel may serve as yet another reminder to the world that Austria–and, really, Europe as a whole–has returned.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine Books: 1999. 341 pp.
As I read these seven books, as much “in order” as I can manage with other books to read simultaneously, I think about what I want to say about each of them. With some of the others, the topic comes pretty easily–I read a quote I like and the thoughts flow from there. With this book, the second in the series, I had a tough time finding some unique angle. This is such a discussed series, that to find something new to mention is becoming more difficult.
But then I remembered the scene after the battle with the basilisk went down, when Harry walks into Dumbledore’s office for the first time and notices the Sorting Hat sitting there. He thinks back to his first day at Hogwarts and the hesitation the hat had in assigning him to Gryffindor.
Look back to the conversation Tom Riddle/Voldemort had with Harry while in the Chamber of Secrets:
There are strange likenesses between us, after all. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike … but after all, it was merely a lucky chance that saved you from me. That’s all I wanted to know.
Now, we know that it was more than a lucky chance that saved Harry from Voldemort the first time around. In fact, the further into Harry’s story we get, the more we realize that not much of what happens to him is by lucky chance. That being said, I think part of the power of this series is the fine line that separates Harry from Voldemort. Tom is entirely correct–there are several similarities between them. The Sorting Hat saw this, and originally thought he would be a good fit for the house Voldemort called his own.
But this fine line is all the difference. The fact that Harry is given the choice is what makes him great–and what makes these books great. He has just as much power as Voldemort, perhaps more. With proper training and a little experience, he could be a more impactful wizard. And, had he chosen a darker path, he could have become a more forceful villain to the wizarding community.
The very element that saved Harry from Voldemort’s original attempt, the day he got the scar, is the element that gave him the capacity to become the equal counterpart to his foe: his mother’s love. It’s not lucky chance, but it is a destiny that–as we see in the progression of the series–proves to be much greater than Harry could have ever imagined.