Thursday, 26 May 2011

[037 & 038] Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban/Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban & Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Prisoner of Azkaban:

For twelve long years, the dread fortress of Azkaban held an infamous prisoner named Sirius Black. Convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, he was said to be the heir apparent to the Dark Lord, Voldemort.

Now he has escaped, leaving only two clues as to where he might be headed: Harry Potter's defeat of You-Know-Who was Black's downfall as well. And the Azkaban guards heard Black muttering in his sleep, "He's at Hogwarts...he's at Hogwarts."

Harry Potter isn't safe, not even within the walls of his magical school, surrounded by his friends. Because on top of it all, there may well be a traitor in their midst.

Goblet of Fire:

You have in your hands the pivotal fourth novel in the seven-part tale of Harry Potter's training as a wizard and his coming of age. Harry wants to get away from the pernicious Durselys and go to the International Quidditch Cup with Hermoine, Ron, and the Wesleys. He wants to dream about Cho Chang, his crush (and maybe do more than dream). He wants to find out about the mysterious event that's supposed to take place at Hogwarts this year, an event involving two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn't happened for a hundred years. He wants to be a normal, fourteen-year-old wizard. Unfortunately for Harry Potter, he's not normal---even by wizarding standards.

And in his case, different can be deadly.

Why I Picked It Up:

A continuation of the plan from October to re-read the Harry Potter books.

What I Think:

You may have noticed that I have combined both the third and fourth Harry Potter books into one entry. That is for convenience's sake. There are going to be five novels coming up so I've combined books with similar themes (at least, things I think of as themes) so as not to run out of things to say. Not that a flood of Harry Potter related posts wouldn't be a great thing but I don't want to begin repeating myself.

The first four books of the Harry Potter series have a very different feel from the later three. These books are about the magic of the series, about friendship and school and loyalty and fun. These are the books centered around Harry's Quidditch matches, balls to go to and the hijinks that typical children can get into when they go to school to study magic.

It seems as if this is a reflection of the ages of the characters. Harry and company are thirteen and fourteen for these books. There is still the innocence and wonder of childhood in these stories. Although there are elements of danger and the threat of Voldemort always hanging in the air, it's more of an afterthought, something that one has no trouble believing Harry, despite being a very young boy, will triumph over.

The main reason I think people are able to get beyond the idea of the danger Harry could honestly be in is that the magic world is a place where children get what seem to be life threatening illness almost every day: Hermione turns into a cat for a spell, Harry gets bit by a basilisk or a charm goes wrong and someone walks to the nurse's office with a six foot long tongue. Despite horrible things happening to children almost daily, they become almost an afterthought. All of these problems can be treated magically, if a bit painfully. Harry even has to regrow bones after a bout with Gilderoy Lockhart. This unbelievable remedy in the magical world, however, only requires one (rather painful) night's sleep. 

Yes, Rowling has created a world where anything can be cured by a spell or a potion. The only problem with this is the background that heavily influences the ideas of the books. We have been told over and over again about the old war, about all the people who died under Voldemort's reign of terror, not to mention Harry's own mother and father. All these acts of tragedy seem hard to reconcile this with what we know of Madam Pomfrery and her array of magical remedies. 

So in all of this wonder and magic of childhood and friendship, there is an underlying dissonance between what we see and what we hear. What could possibly be as evil as we're told in a world where nothing is quite as bad as it seems?

And here is where the brilliant transition of the fourth book comes in. In the last fifty or so pages, there is a complete one eighty in tone. So far in this book, Harry has faced dragons, merpeople and the press, all coming out mostly in the clear, not to mention all the creatures he battled in the three previous books. The reader has a vision of Harry as indestructible, a character that faces danger but is never really menaced by it. And then he and Cedric Diggory are kidnapped by Deatheaters and the first real blow to our vision of magic is stuck: someone dies.

The death of Cedric is especially dramatic because it hasn't happened before in the series. Sure, we know Harry's parents died by Voldemort's hand but we didn't witness it and this certainty, this sudden slap in the face of reality really changes the tone of the entire series. Hogwarts is no longer just fun and games; now there is a direct threat to the lives of all of our favorite characters and no one is completely safe.

And so, just like that, Harry Potter manages to slowly move a generation of children into adulthood. But of course, first must come that strange, horrible, delightful period of life known as your teenage years. But that's a post for another day.~

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Where Were You When the Earthquake Hit?

I find it very appropriate that on March 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm, I was sitting in my classroom, awaiting children and reading The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. I only had fifty pages left and I wanted to finish it so I could head to the library on my way home the next day. 

On any other Friday, I would have already been at home by this time or at least, almost there. I usually got off work at 1:30 on Fridays, on account of only having two classes that day and had taken to going on a long walk on my way home. I was working overtime that day, though, due to the fact that one of my coworkers had been hit by a car a few days previous. Looking back, I'm not entirely sure if it's a good thing I was there or not. On the one hand, I wouldn't have had to walk so terribly far but on the other, I had company and could offer a place to go for my friend E, who couldn't get home. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was the first one to feel the beginning of the earthquake, mainly because I was sitting down. I looked up and glanced at my coworkers, trying to figure out if I was really feeling an earthquake. Earthquakes are not a rare thing in Tokyo and most of us just kind of let them do their thing and move on with life. It wasn't until coworker Y in the other room shouted "Earthquake!" that we all got up and started heading towards reception. We could already tell this earthquake was strange; it had been going on for far too long. We all stood in reception, looking at each other blankly when a construction worker who'd been up on the seventh floor burst into the door and shouted at us in Japanese, "You need to get out of here!"

That's when the dam broke. We all rushed to the doorway, shoving our shoes on unceremoniously as we suddenly realized just how much the building was swaying. I have a distinct memory of trying to decide if I should bring the book that was still in my hands down with me and instead, setting it on top of the shelf. We all ran down the emergency stairs, shrieking as they swayed beneath our feet. Jumping out into the street, the whole picture finally became clear. Each building in our surrounding area had evacuated and we all stood in the street, watching the world around us tilt. Skyscrapers swayed from side to side. Streetlamps made strange noises. The ground, the pavement, felt like a very solid waterbed. 

I'm not sure exactly how long it lasted. It felt like ten minutes but it surely couldn't have been that long. Even when it was over and we all stood, catching our breath, we didn't know quite what to do. Go back inside? Stay outside in case of aftershocks? It turned out the decision was made for us. There were only two ways of getting back into our building: elevator or emergency stairs. The elevator's power had gone out in the quake and the door to the inside from the stairs had slammed shut behind us in the shaking. We were, effectively, trapped outside. 

I was the unluckiest, as I was dressed only in a tee shirt and jeans. I got various clothing donations from people around me, including a scarf from a man that was randomly passing on his bicycle. We all made jokes, strange gallows humor, mainly because no one was quite sure what to do. My friend and coworker E showed up, having come from our other building a ten minute's walk away. That's when we had our first big aftershock. We had been outside for an hour at this point.

Finally, we realized that while we couldn't get to the third floor, we did have a room on the fourth floor with a computer we could maybe reach. Safely in our room from the fourth floor, my coworker H bravely tried to kick down the emergency ladder that would take her to the third floor balcony. We advised her against it but like Spiderwoman herself, she made it in and opened the door to all the things we had left behind in the rush: coats, house keys, cell phones. 

Still not really understanding the severity of everything that had happened, I went on Facebook to inform others that I was indeed still breathing and okay. The only immediate problem was getting home. It was already five o'clock by this point and none of the train lines were running. I lived an hour away from work by train and set out google mapping how to get home on foot. The other two native teachers who were there, D and E, set out with me.

I don't know quite how to describe that walk. Since the train lines were down, every person who had been away from home when the quake hit was in the same boat as us. It felt like an exodus. An endless trudge with every other poor person just wishing they were home. The women in their heels. The old people waiting in miles long lines for the buses. It was bizarre.

D walked half of the way with us while E was coming home with me, her apartment being in the other direction and closer to the ocean. It took us four and a half hours and fifteen miles to get to my apartment. It wasn't until we got back and I talked to my mother on Skype when I realized the extent of what we had just lived through. We hadn't seen any of the destruction on our long walk, only talking and scowling and soreness. When we turned on the television and saw what was going on up in Miyagi, that's when it hit us. 

The next few days are a bit of a haze to me, to be honest. I remember some details perfectly but most of it just sits in my mind as a general feeling of dread, a fear hanging over everything I did. 

I went to work the next day, against my wishes. Although the train lines didn't open up until halfway through the school day, our boss opened school, the only English school open in Tokyo the day after. We got in a fight. I came home and my mother called me on Skype, telling me she and my father wanted me to come home. I wanted to come home. I went to work the next day only to quit. My boss wasn't happy about it. He spent an hour lecturing me, making me cry and making up bullshit reasons why I was making the worst mistake of my life. I only remember sobbing and the sympathetic face of my coworker N who was waiting for me outside. At least I got a few pictures with my Sunday kids before I left teaching in Japan for good.

It takes a lot of effort to leave a country and I had to do everything in three days. I cancelled utilities, moved out of my apartment, donated half of my wardrobe to Salvation Army, and just tried to feed myself in a place where every store had been picked over by panic buying shoppers. I fought an old lady for a box of bento and lost one afternoon. I had to eat ice cream for lunch as it was the only thing left. 

My friends in Japan were supportive. I had two last minute going away parties. I tried to give them things from my apartment that I wouldn't need anymore. I still worry about them, although most did leave Japan for a period right after the worst of it hit. All are back now and I do miss them terribly.

I don't miss the general haze of fear that settled over me those last few days, though. Waking up to the earthquake alarms that go off automatically on all cell phones. Sitting there, shaking and just hoping it would stop soon. Having a giant aftershock while I sat at the airport, an hour before I needed to head to my gate and hoping nothing would happen to the runway so I could just go home already. I know this is rather dramatic but I honestly felt like I could die at any moment. There was an 'end of days' feeling that surrounded everything I did and my heading to the airport on Wednesday was a deadline, a beat the clock idea that stuck in my mind. No one knew what was going to come next. Every day was rumored to be the next big aftershock.

I made it out, obviously and now sit here on my parent's couch, comfortably back in Oregon. I've kept up my good reading habits from Japan and still head to my local library every two weeks or so. I will admit, though, that it's not quite the same. I love the Beaverton City Library but there are just so many options. I miss the surprise of not knowing what I would read next. I miss the random footnotes in half of the editions. Hell, I just miss the Ogikubo Public Library. I hope the next new gaijin in Suginami City discovers the treasure trove that I will always miss.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

[036] The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing - Melissa Bank

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Hailed by critics as the debut of a major literary voice, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing has dazzled and delighted readers and topped bestseller lists nationwide. Generous-hearted and wickedly insightful, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing maps the progress of Jane Rosenal as she sets out on a personal and spirited expedition through the perilous terrain of sex, love and relationships, and the treacherous waters of the workplace. With an unforgettable comic touch, Bank skillfully teases out issues of the heart, puts a new spin on the mating dance, and captures in perfect pitch what it's like to be a young woman coming of age in America today.

Why I Picked It Up:

I'm not entirely sure. It looked like an interesting and modern-ish read. I needed something like that.

What I Think:

The age old adage says that "You can't judge a book by its cover." While I appreciate the ulterior meaning behind that saying, I have to say that you can definitely get a good feel on the book from its cover. Maybe it's not what the author intended but publishing companies are very good about giving the potential reader an idea of what they're getting into by the cover of the book. 

It's all about the packaging: a thriller has a target or some threatening shadow, the author's name blazing across the top in a somewhat metallic shade. A romance novel has either the heroine and hero locked in an awkwardly passionate embrace or simply a dark, rich color with the author's name in a flowery script. They may not tell you if the book is any good or not but they do give you a pretty good idea of what you're about to be reading.

This is the best explanation I can give of my picking up The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing: the cover made me think this was the kind of book I was in the mood to read. It had a sparse, modern cover, the kind that recalls contemporary drama. The solitary figure, the fake plaid binding, the fact that it was a Penguin book (I have a strange trust of the Penguin logo that I always intuitively lean towards) made me think "Yes, this is going to be a book that is somewhat modern, somewhat chick lit-y and exactly what I need to get rid of the taste of ridiculous romance and true to life fairies."

One of the things I love about this book is that it is not a straight novel. Instead, it is a series of five short stories, mostly in in the life of the main girl Jane. They go in order of her life, for the most part, and detail moments when you could say she "grows up." Or at least loses some innocence. 

I don't want to say that this is an everyman's book, because it's definitely not. In particular, there is one affair Jane has that I'm fairly certain most people have never experienced. However, the feeling of finding yourself and slowly noticing the flaws of the people around you, when the shine has worn off and the world seeps in, is a feeling I'm sure most people can relate to. 

I loved the narrative voice. There was a thread that ran along the entire novel that made it easy to keep reading. Maybe not a "couldn't put it down!' book but definitely a "hmm, maybe a few more pages before I go off my break." I actually was reading this book in the classroom while on break when the earthquake struck. But more on that later.

The only real problem I have is with the third story, the only one that is not a part of Jane's life but instead, taken from the life of one of Jane's neighbors. I've been trying since I finished the book to reconcile this with the others and figure out why Bank felt the need to include that particular story in her pastiche of a girl's life. Obviously the different characters allow her to explore a story that would not fit in with the narrative she had built up around Jane. But was it necessary? Was it just a short interlude, in case we were getting sick of Jane? Or was it supposed to open our eyes to the sorts of things that can happen in this strange amalgamation of experiences that is a modern life? I'm not sure.

To be honest, I actually really enjoyed the book. It was the exact kind of thing I was in the mood for. I can remember each story very vividly and recall the small feeling of loss that accompanies each. Even the last story, which I suppose for most people might be the most unsatisfying, I found lovely and appreciated the difference in tone to the others. 

I heard this book called a modern woman's Catcher in the Rye somewhere a little while ago and I don't know if I would go that far. However, if you're looking for a somewhat quick read that might make you think a bit, I would definitely pick this up.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

[035] The Case of the Cottingley Fairies - Joe Cooper

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies by Joe Cooper

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

In 1917 two cousins living in West Yorkshire claimed to have photographed fairies. Their story captured the imagination of British society, but why were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the theosophist Edward Gardner and many others so willing to be convinced that the photographs were genuine? Had Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths really seen fairies at the bottom of the garden?

Joe Cooper interviewed Elsie and Frances over six years and he researched the case their prevarications give way to confessions. But to her death Frances maintained that "there were fairies at Cottingley" and the last photograph of 'The Fair Bower' has never been satisfactorily explained. 

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies gives a balanced insider's account of the affair. Joe Cooper, who was an advisor on the film about the affair, Fairytale: A True Story, has uncovered a strange and twisting tale that reveals a great deal about the human will to believe. 

Why I Picked It Up:

I'd always been intrigued by the story of the Cottingley Fairies but had never really read much up on it. This seemed like a good chance to investigate.

What I Think:

Now, I'm not particularly one for non-fiction. I distinctly remember thinking as a young girl "Who would read non-fiction when there's so much fiction in the world?" I'd much rather be enveloped in a strange world or come of age with a confused child or watch two kids overcome a dystopian government than read about something that actually happened. 

As with anything, there are a few exceptions to this rule. I've read (and own) every book that Bill Bryson has ever put out (my hero for all time!) and will devour books on the history or development of the English language. Dorky? Yes. To each their own, I suppose. Everyone has those things that interest them. 

Something else that has always interested me is the unexplained. I love mysteries, both of the literal and the supernatural kind. I read about ghosts and Bigfoot and all that good stuff and have since I was a little girl. So a story about the two girls who claimed to photograph fairies? Right up my alley.

For the surprisingly larger number of people than I assumed that don't know the backstory of the Cottingley Fairies, here's a short idea of what happened: In the 1910s, in a small village in England, two cousins (Elsie, 16 and Frances, 10) went out one day with one of their father's cameras and came back claiming to have taken shocking pictures. Over a period of a few years, five photographs came out of the girls with what appeared to be fairies. Okay, there's one with a gnome, but still. 

This set the rural English community abuzz. They gained quite a reputation for awhile, including gaining the interest of the wonderful but kind of occult-y Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The photographs were published and gained both tons of believers and tons of people calling it a hoax. The girls kept silent, though, claiming that they were real fairies.

Years passed and the photos would come up from time to time. Both girls grew up, married and had families. It wasn't until the eighties, when the girls were both old ladies, that they confessed the the photographs were cardboard cutouts from one of their children's books. Elsie claims this of all the photos while Frances says that the fifth and final of the pictures is real. Both of them have now passed.

It's a great story, to be sure, and definitely made for a good book. This is the kind of thing that makes a fiction girl read non-fiction.

The only problem?

This book was written by perhaps the strangest narrative voice I have ever read. Joe Cooper is a joke (no offense, Joe). He believes in fairies. 100%. He is sure that fairies exist and somehow, some parts of the photos are real. 

Now, I'm all for believing in the unbelievable but it seems hard to me when he has interviewed the actual people, been told to his face that it was a fraud and then still gone on believing it. The book, obviously, is completely biased towards the occult and the existence of many fairy tale creatures. Do I want to believe in elves, fairies and gnomes? Yes. Do I? No. Does Joe Cooper? You better believe it.

This book could have been handled extremely well by someone who wouldn't have taken a personal stance, by someone who wouldn't demonize the girls but also wouldn't claim that fairies existed in real life. It's this over-the-top belief system that makes the book more silly than serious and hard to read. It honestly was a struggle to get through. Read it if you're interested but take everything with a grain of salt.

Friday, 13 May 2011

[034] The Deception - Catherine Coulter

The Deception by Catherine Coulter

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:


The Deception first appeared in April 1983 as a Signet Regency with the title An Intimate Deception. I've completely rewritten the story so that it's now a full-bodied historical romance. It has a brand-new beginning and a brand-new ending, and I've improved everything in-between to make it richer, bolder, more fun, and more adventurous. 

The Duke of Portsmouth offers an impecunious half-French relative a job as his young son's nanny. What he quickly discovers is that he wants her, badly. What he discovers far more slowly is that she isn't at all what she seems.

Evengeline de Beauchamps is in way over her head. She has far more to cope with than a nineteen-year-old virgin should ever have. To top it all off, she must play an experienced widow with a man who knows women as well as he knows his horses, or so he thinks. 

You'll see Phillip and Sabrina Mercerault from The Offer and hear more about the famous cat races of southern England.

Write me and let me know what you think of The Deception.

Catherine Coulter

Why I Picked It Up:

The Countess had been so deliciously ridiculous, I was so excited for a new one.

What I Think:

You all remember (or I hope you remember) the wonder and beauty of B-movie-esque novels that was The Countess. When I was wandering the library shelves and landed upon yet another Catherine Coulter book, with the same ridiculously dramatic cover and strange letter to the reader as a back cover, I might just have let out a tiny squeal of glee. It was like spring break had come early. I was pumped.

Did you read the back of the novel? "She has far more to cope with than a nineteen-year-old virgin should ever have"? "[You'll] hear more about the famous cat races of southern England"? This book promised nothing but amazingness. I can't even get across to you how excited I was about this.

The beginning of the novel was just as deliciously strange as it's predecessor. We found young Evengeline being attacked by some strange force in her apartments in France. Someone, a little unclear who, had kidnapped her father and was forcing her to act as an agent of some evil government. Of course, later it becomes pretty clear that she's working for rebel supporters of the deposed Napoleon. I guess, looking back, that's probably the only feasible evil agency to have attacked her but it begins in such a flurry of activity that you're more confused than scared for her. 

She ends up at the home of a distant relative (by marriage) in order to plead to let her stay with him. Of course, this is all under the secrecy so that she can usher French agents (and British traitors) into England at the nearby cove. The Duke of Portsmouth, meanwhile, is curious about this lady that has showed up and appoints her as governess of his son. 

Obviously, these two fall madly in love while she feels guilty about the deception (get it?!) that she's purporting as a French agent. The duke is somehow mixed up in  Napoleon's defeat in England, not to mention one of his good friends has recently been murdered in the war effort so there's just a whole bunch of nonsense going on. 

The most disappointing thing about this novel is that it is somehow not as ridiculous as The Countess. Sure, the plot is pretty dismal and there are some good scenes where Evangeline is trying to convince the duke that she's a widow with stories about her amazing deceased husband (that never was) but mostly, the plot follows a straight-foward angle and there's just not that sense of whimsy that came out of Coulter's early novel. I missed her rambles and unrelated anecdotes. I wanted some awkwardly placed comedy or overly dramatic declarations. It was all missing from this semi-serious romance.

We never even heard about the cat races! Don't tease me about cat races and don't deliver, Coulter!

Now, I'm not saying this book was good or anything. It was entertaining as the next romance novel.  It's just that what had set The Countess apart was that it was just so silly and this novel just couldn't be anything other than another, typical romance novel.

[033] Even the Wicked - Ed McBain

Even the Wicked by Ed McBain

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:


The police called the death of newscaster Zach Blake's wife an accident. But champion swimmers don't die "accidentally."


Now Zach and his young daughter Penny have returned to Martha's Vineyard - summoned back to the site of the tragedy by a disturbing anonymous letter. But their search for truth in Paradise uncovers a sordid scheme much bigger and far nastier than the death of one woman - placing the bereaved widower and his helpless child at the mercy of desperate men determined to cover up their evil doings with innocent blood.

Why I Picked It Up:

It was really short and looked kind of like an old school sci fi novel. 

What I Think:

There is both so much and so little I have to say about this book. It was written in the early fifties and has that feel about it. You can tell that this is a book written when men were men, women were housewives or femme fatales and Native Americans were Indians. There's nothing quite like reading an older book with a modern, politically correct hyperaware mind. It's a strange mixture of disgust and nostalgia. And sometimes it's just so silly that you can barely take it seriously. Guess which category this book falls into?

The plot is fairly simple: Zach Blake and his daughter Penny go on vacation to Martha's Vineyard a year after their wife/mother was killed out in the harbor. Over the period of a day or two, roughly 118 pages, they solve the mystery of what exactly happened to Zach's wife.

Yes, that's right: this entire book is only 118 pages long. And therein lies it's greatness: it has no time to build a plot so all the mystery elements can only be a few paragraphs long. He goes from meeting the femme fatale to proposing marriage in seventy pages. Also, there are a good number of people killed in a very short period of time. To watch him discover a corpse to hanging out at a party to interviewing subjects to chasing kidnappers in under fifty pages is definitely an experience. 

Beyond that, there are quite of few just ridiculous quotes that pepper the book, reminding you that not only is the page number holding it back, but also it's ridiculous writing style. My personal favorite is after Zach discovers the first murder victim. He notices that there is a blond hair on the body. His thought process goes thusly: "How many blondes had he met on this island? How many blondes are capable of murder?" Like a person's hair color has something to do with their mental well being. I immediately committed this glorious quote to memory so that I could always remember it.

To tell you the truth, thinking back on this book a few months later, I can honestly say that I barely remember it. I remember the blonde quote, I remember vague plot points and I remember the random (but amazing!) ending "twist" that made the whole story possible. Despite that, I don't even remember the main female character's name. I suppose that says something about popular fifties fiction, though, doesn't it?s

I know this entry is short but, in my defense, so is the book. Is it a long read? No. Is it a very intriguing plot? Not really. Despite all that, is it an entertaining read? Absolutely. It will also take you perhaps an hour to read. You'll remember some good quotes for a long time after, though.