Harry Potter, Book 4: There Is More to the Wizarding World Than Hogwarts

Well, there is more to the wizarding world than Hogwarts, Diagon Alley (and Knockturn Alley), and Platform 9 3/4, anyway. This is by far my favorite part of book 4 -- Rowling's reveal of other parts of the wizarding world. And this reveal comes long before the Triwizard Tournament sheds light on other wizarding schools; the Quidditch World Cup is teeming with new wizard-y things we didn't know about before this book:
  • Professional, post-graduation wizards who are not professors, including Bill and Charlie, Percy's new appointment to the Ministry, Mad-Eye Moody's work as an Auror, etc.
  • More about the Ministry of Magic than just the Minister and the occasional ax-man, including a Department of Magical Games and Sports, Aurors (wicked cool profession, no?), the Improper Use of Magic Office, the Department of International Magical Cooperation, the Department of Mysteries, and the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad.
  • Other wizard schools, including Durmstrang and Beauxbatons.
  • The awesome and wonderful and amazing extent the wizarding world goes to to make sure Muggles don't know about wizards at all. Although I do have to wonder if those Memory Charms do lasting damage... seems to me that messing with memory that often is a dangerous thing.
Don't let the Muggles see you.
Also, aren't the Weasleys just the grandest? I was crying from laughing when they plastered their "normal" letter with postage to get it to the Dursleys, and then Mr. Weasley's attempts to fix the living room, and standing up for Harry when his uncle is (yet again) a total jerk to Harry, and then when they get all mad but secretly love it when Dudley eats the tongue-growing candy, and then when Arthur is so awesome with the big scare at the World Cup.

Which brings me to the darker side of the wizarding world that is revealed here--house-elf slavery, Death Eaters, dark marks, painful scars, extreme mudblood loathing. There's a lot of set up in this first chunk of HPatGoF, but it's all pretty spectacular set up.

Hermione after learning her food is made by house elves.
I'd forgotten how much I love this book! (And, let's face it, what I crush I have on Cedric.)

Book Review: Shadow on the Crown, by Patricia Bracewell

This review originally ran in the Tuesday, February 12th issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

In 1002, Emma of Normandy was sent by her brother, Richard of Normandy, to marry England's widowed King Athelred. The marriage, like so many of its time, was political in nature, meant to bind a peace between the English and the Normans in face of the ever-growing threats of Viking invasion. Teenage Emma soon finds herself wed to a much older man who sees her as little more than an annoyance; the only way to secure her place in the English court is to bear the king a son. But when the Viking threat becomes a reality and she finds herself falling in love with a man who is not her husband, she must decide where her loyalties lie--with Normandy or with England, with duty or with passion.

Shadow on the Crown, Patricia Bracewell's debut novel, gives readers this story and more, basing its version of Emma's life on events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. According to Bracewell's author note, Queen Emma commissioned a written history of her life, but started her tale in 1017, leaving no record of her first 15 years in England or her marriage to King Athelred. Shadow on the Crown is the first in a planned trilogy that will recreate this forgotten period of Queen Emma's life, combining historical accuracies with imagined romance and political intrigue in a novel that will fit nicely on the shelf between Gabaldon's Outlander and Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl.


Shadow on the Crown | Patricia Bracewell | Viking | Hardcover | February 2013 | Buy from an independent near you

The Classics Club: The Spin is In!

The Classics Club has spun, and the number is 14! Based on my list from yesterday, I'll be reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn before April 1. Re-reading, to be precise; it was assigned reading in my 8th grade English class. I am excited to revisit it as an adult(ish) and as non-assigned reading.

The Classics Club: Spin!

The rules, as set out by the hosts of the Classics Club:
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by April 1, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)
Since I have well more than 20 books left on my own list, I figured this was a good way to get myself jumpstarted without actually choosing a book myself. Here's my 20:

Five I've been putting off:
1) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
2) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
3) The Warden by Anthony Trollope
4) Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
5) To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

Five I'm excited about:
6) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
7) Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8) The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
9) The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carre
10) The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Five I haven't read since middle/high school:
11) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
12) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
13) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
14) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
15) Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Five I own and have never read:
16) The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
17) Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
18) At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien
19) Dracula by Bram Stoker
20) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Looking Forward: Upcoming Books I Can't Wait to Read

What better way to get excited about a new year than to look forward to all the books we can't wait to read? Even though we're six weeks in to 2013 (how did that happen, anyway?), here are my most-anticipated reads for first half of the year:

The Fall of Arthur, by JRR Tolkien   Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach   Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich
Letters to a Young Scientist, by Edward Osborne Wilson   A Memory of Light, by Brandon Sanderson   The Tenth of December, by George Saunders
Truth in Advertising, by John Kenney   All That Is, by James Salter   A Thousand Pardons, by Jonathan Dee
Woke Up Lonely, by Fiona Maazel   Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by Sam Roberts   How Literature Saved My Life, by David Shields

Also, this fall: Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, and Margaret Atwood's continuation of the Maddadam series, Maddadam.

Harry Potter Readalong: This One Is Still My Favorite

Disclaimer: I fell behind in my reading last week and haven't quite caught up, so some of the thoughts below are based on my skim of the end of the book and/or my memory of the story from my first 47 reads of it. I've got a three-day weekend coming my way, though, so I'll catch up for book 4!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is still my favorite. Sure, the first half is a little slow, but it's also the first time Rowling dives into really setting up more than an obvious good-guy-bad-guy plot, so we can roll with it, right?

Some thoughts on the good guys and bad guys:

I dig Lupin, and hate that he has to leave Hogwarts, because he really is the best DADA professor they've had to date.

Also, does anyone else find that there are times in this book when we can almost side with Snape? I kind of dig it. He's slimy and despicable but also rather pitiable, and god knows the man must be lonely, and imagine if you were Snape and HP comes along and does whatever the hell he wants and gets away with it... yeah, I'd be irked, too. But then he's all willing to throw Sirius back under the bus (A BUS FULL OF DEMENTORS) because of some petty high school nonsense and suddenly I can't side with him anymore, even though he tries to protect the fearsome trio, so screw you, Snape, for being so damn complicated.

And my big revelation of Book 3: I'm not actually a huge fan of Sirius. I mean, sure, his life sucks and he was totally framed for something he didn't do and has since become the most reviled wizard in the wizarding world, and that's completely unfair, but he also kind of acts like a jerk (Shredding the Fat Lady? C'mon!). I guess he comes around eventually with the whole fill-in-parenting thing (the permission slip for Hogsmeade is a nice touch), but I just don't think he's doing himself any favors here.

Other things that generally rock about this book:
  • Patronus Charms (Spells based on happy thoughts? How's that for a good dose of positive thinking therapy?)
  • All the Animagi. So many Animagi.
  • The Marauder's Map

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

This review originally ran in the Tuesday, February 12th issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Lady Isabella Trent is known from Scirland to Eriga as the world's preeminent dragon naturalist, an unexpected and somewhat unorthodox career for a noble woman of Scirland. But before she became famous for her dragon exploits, she was a young woman thrust into society in search of a husband at her parents' insistence, sacrificing her love of books and learning in favor of doing what was expected of her. Little could her parents have known she would land one of the most eligible bachelors in Scirland--or that he would entertain her dreams of studying dragons in far-off lands.

A Natural History of Dragons is Marie Brennan's imagined memoir of this fascinating woman and the creatures to which she dedicates her life. Brennan's skill in developing believable, engaging fantasy steeped in archeological history and folklore is what makes this "memoir" so successful--it is at once as fantastical as it is real. Brennan, writing as Lady Trent, drags readers through lands we have never heard of in search of creatures we have never seen, but never once lets us forget that we are reading about an insecure young woman and new bride, struggling to prove her worth despite her gender and to maintain a ladylike reputation without sacrificing what she loves most. Though dragons may not exist in our own world's history, it is certain that the struggles of women like Trent do, and Brennan captures both with equal elegance in this first volume in the memoirs of Lady Trent.


A Natural History of Dragons | Marie Brennan | Tor | Hardcover | February 2013 | Buy from an independent near you

Reading Together

Book clubs have been around since forever, as far as I can tell, but yours truly has never joined one. I tried, once, in college, to join a professor-led group discussion of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but the group dissolved after three chapters and a round of midterm exams. I joined a local book club in Maryland once and attended exactly twice--once because I really, really wanted to be in a book club and once because I was trying to keep an open mind and give it a second chance. When we spent an awkward 30 minutes staring at each other before deciding there was somehow nothing to say about A Study in Scarlet and calling it a night, I bailed for good. The lack of food (or wine) didn't help.

So of course I jumped* at the opportunity to create a Mini Long-Distance Book Club with my dear friend and fellow blogger Emily. The name, while not particularly inspired, is accurate--the two of us live several states and a time zone apart, but select books to read together and check in periodically throughout our reading to gauge reactions, highlight the important parts, and predict the outcomes.

What I love about this, besides the sheer joy of spending an hour on the phone every week talking with a friend I love about books I love, is the way that our shared reading of each book shapes the way I read them. I read more closely, looking for indications of what is important (and therefore discussion-worthy). I read more slowly, committing character names to memory (confession: I'm terrible at remembering character names, even mere minutes after completing a book). I read with her in mind, wondering what she'll think about this sentence I am underlining now or this scene I cannot believe is happening OMFG WHAT!?

I've written before about how I think books are a kind of social currency, bringing together people who might otherwise have no shared interests. But even more than talking about a book after completing it--whether it be recommending it to someone new or rehashing it with a fellow booklover--reading together is a profoundly different experience.

I've always fancied myself an introvert, recharging my batteries with some serious alone time, preferring one-on-one interactions to large groups, and all the other standard tells of the Meyers-Briggs test. But whenever I actually take the test, I score around a 0 on the introvert/extrovert scale, which basically means the test can't decide whether I am, in fact, introverted or extroverted (coincidentally, the test also reveals that I am a rather indecisive person). Perhaps my new-found love of shared reading is symptomatic of this condition; I read alone, but have simultaneously found a way to share the experience.


* I would have preferred to write "leapt" at the opportunity, but am currently battling with myself/spellcheck over whether or not it should be "leapt" or "leaped" and so have decided, temporarily at least, to proceed with a completely different word in its stead.

Harrius Potter Readalong, Book 3, Part 0.63

This week's readalong post is supposed to be the first part of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but work got the better of me this week so I've only read about 63% of the first half of the book.  I'm also pretty beat from said work this week, have family in town this weekend, and feel a migraine settling in, so apologies in advance for the lateness and brevity of this week's post.

Things I love about HPatPoA and most definitely contribute to it being my favorite:

  • The inflatable aunt. 'Nuff said.
  • The Knight Bus: First of all, it's the Knight Bus instead of the Night Bus, which, while a touch more obvious than some of Rowling's other wordplays (Diagon Alley and Knocturn Alley, anyone?), I still dig it. Also, it has beds that are apparently not anchored to the ground as they shift around while the bus moves, and the driver doesn't seem all that good that good at actually driving.
  • The Book of Monsters that tries to eat its readers. Let's figure out a way to do this on books in our Muggle world, yes? And they say publishing is a dying industry...

I'll be back next week for the end of HPatPoA with more thoughts than my current state allows, and will hopefully be able to articulate, after re-reading this one for the umpteenth time, why, exactly, I've always thought of it as my favorite.

A Bookstore Tour of Brooklyn

Is there a city that can boast a higher concentration of bookstores than dear old New York? My guess is no, though I don't have the data to back up that claim; when I asked Twitter for recommendations on not-to-be-missed stores in NYC in preparation for my most recent visit to the city that never stops reading, I was inundated with suggestions.

The Strand is an obvious choice, but a store I frequented when I lived in NYC (considering that I walked past the store's entrance on my way to and from class every day, it is astounding that I couldn't boast 13 miles of books myself before my move). Housing Works was already on the list, and though I can't rightly use the word "frequent" to describe my relationship with the place, I have been there--which is more than I could say, sadly, for any of the indies in Brooklyn.

And oh my, how many there are in that fine borough! In an effort to visit as much as possible in just one day, I focused on three that could be tackled in one afternoon on foot: Book Court, Greenlight, and Community. Armed with the conversation of a good friend (and her handy-dandy ability to always know where she is and how to get where she is going without a map), a cup of coffee, and an empty tote bag, I set off to explore Brooklyn's indie bookstores--which did not disappoint.

The three stores are remarkably different; Book Court feels open and spacious, with shelves pressed against perfectly reasonable, rectangular rooms. Greenlight is well-lit by a bank of windows in the front, but unlike Book Court, oddly placed shelves in the middle of the room turn an evenly-shaped space into an odd one. Community is dark and long, with black bookcases instead of white and a yawning bookstore cat to top it off. All three are alive with the hum of books well-loved, shelves well-stocked, and booksellers well-read.

How is it that the promising shelf of bestsellers at Book Court can lead us to believe that print is anything but alive and well? Or that we can face the shelves of Europa editions and NYRB titles at Community without feeling that our own collections of these darling books are insufficient? How can we see the children's room tucked into the back of Greenlight and wonder if our next generations will grow to love books as much as we do?

It is easy to sit behind a computer screen and ponder the death of the book, predict the rise of the e-reader, and bemoan the loss of our local bookstores. But in the heart of Brooklyn, where three bookstores thrive within a three-mile radius, "books" and "dead" can scarcely be used in the same sentence, unless it be to discuss The Book of Dead Philosophers


Books purchased:

Object Lessons, a collection of short stories from The Paris Review
Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Stoner, by John Williams
The Tenth of December, by George Saunders  

Book Review: The Start of Everything, by Emily Winslow

This review originally ran in the Tuesday, January 15th issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

When an unidentified body is found floating in the fens outside of Cambridge, Detective Inspector Chloe Frohmann and her partner, Morris Keene, set out to figure out who she was--and how she died--while struggling to come to terms with a near-fatal injury Keene suffered on the job months prior. Meanwhile, Mathilde Oliver, daughter of a Cambridge professor, opens a letter addressed to a woman who may or may not exist and quickly becomes obsessed with finding her. And months ago, two nannies found themselves snowed in with their employers during a particularly bad winter storm--with far-reaching consequences.

These seemingly unrelated stories form the foundation of Emily Winslow's second novel, The Start of Everything, which reintroduces key characters from Winslow's debut, The Whole World (though an understanding of the first is not required to appreciate and enjoy the second). The constantly shifting perspective and perpetually unreliable narrators used to introduce the case can make the novel feel scattered at first, but a little trust goes a long way in allowing Winslow's complex mystery to bring itself together. When it does, the result is a gripping whodunit steeped in lies and deceit and shifting truths that reinforces Winslow's place as a master of psychological mystery. The Start of Everything is a testament to the imagination of its author, dazzling in its ingenuity and gripping in its suspense.


The Start of Everything | Emily Winslow | Delacorte | Hardcover | 272 pages | Buy from an independent near you

Harry Potter Readalong: All the Gifs, Chamber of Secrets Part Deux

The end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets! I wish I could say why I've always considered this one my least favorite of the series, but alas, I cannot. I actually rather liked it this time through. Perhaps our tastes change, or perhaps it's been long enough since my last re-read of the series that I've forgotten how they all fit together and upon finishing it will once again revert to my previous opinion of this being my least favorite of the series except the last one. Who's to tell how the mind of a Harry Potter fanatic may work?


We dove into the second half of this novel with only one Petrification, but it's only a matter of pages before Colin Creevey gets the hairy eyeball. Or snaky eyeball. Then it's Hermione (gasp!), who of course gets hit right after figuring out everything, which leaves Harry and Ron on their own and reminds us how much better the three of them are as a "three of them" instead of the "two of them."

Some questions:

Do all of the students at Hogwarts wear pointy hats? Did I just miss this in the first book when they talked about uniforms, or was this just students of yesteryear? (page 243 of the hardcover: "A boy of about sixteen entered, taking off his pointy hat.") Or is JK just checking to see if we are paying attention? None of these kids have been wearing pointy hats in my imagination. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.

When Harry and Ron go to visit poor Petrified Hermione, they find a torn piece of a library book in her poor Petrified hand. Was anyone else astounded to think that Hermione would tear a piece of a library book out? She is so much more of a badass than I sometimes give her credit for.

And lastly, I swear I did not know that this book ended on a conversation about phone conversations, or I wouldn't have been so hung up on the lack of phone conversations at the beginning of the book. I promise. I'd like to retract my previous statements about how Harry needs to get with it and share his phone number and give him 10 points for thinking of it himself. Now I'll be looking through the rest of the books as I re-read to see if they ever actually do call Harry...

So, to sum up Chamber of Secrets: Not sure why I thought this was my least favorite, though verdict is still out until I finish the whole series. Dobby is still awesome, Lockhart is now doubly awful because he can't even remember who he is. Harry does know how to use a phone, and we can all look forward to less back story in the rest of the series... right?