Monday, January 21, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Philosopher's Stone, Chapters 9-12

This past week I read chapters 9 through 12 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Midnight Duel, Hallowe'en, Quidditch, and The Mirror of Erised. Spoilers may appear in my commentary.

This segment of the book introduces us to the first instance where Harry misbehaves but escapes the consequences of his misbehavior. The fact that Harry is often rewarded for breaking rules came up in a discussion with some other homeschooling moms recently, so I was definitely looking for it, and it will likely be something I touch on in these posts as I read through all the books. In this first instance, Harry disobeys Madam Hooch by attempting to fly on his broom without supervision or permission. Instead of disciplining him, however, Professor McGonagall, who catches him in the act, puts him on the Quidditch team and praises his abilities as a seeker. What I thought immediately, especially given the reactions of all the adult characters in the wizarding world to Harry's return in the last set of chapters, is that it has to be tempting for these authority figures to give Harry a pass each time he does something wrong. Not only is he a hero for apparently vanquishing Voldemort, but he has also had such a tough time, losing his parents and living with the Dursleys for so long. I can imagine them wanting to look the other way just to make his life easier. I'm curious as to whether I'll be able to apply that theoretical explanation to any of the characters as Harry's disobedience becomes more flagrant over time.

The other thought I had is that characters who are special in a variety of different ways are annoying to read about. I couldn't stand it in the Twilight series when Bella Swan was constantly being discovered as the only one who could do this or that rare thing. I hate it when Nancy Drew comes to the rescue of some friend of hers because she happens to be really strong, really brave, and really knowledgeable about some rare medical problem at the same time. And there is something grating about Harry going from rags to riches, and then on top of that, having such a talent for Quidditch, and later, being allowed special privileges such as participating in the Triwizard Tournament.  I can't say it doesn't work in these books, because I love the series, and I enjoy reading about what happens to Harry as a result of his specialness. But there is also a reason my favorite character is Ron.

Speaking of Quidditch, though, I am still impressed by how well Rowling developed this fictional sport. Lee Jordan's commentary during the first match of the year sounds like the soundtrack to a real football or basketball game, and it really helped me visualize everything that was happening on the Quidditch pitch. I also loved the line that compares the hoops of the pitch to the wands children use to blow bubbles. That image really brings the whole concept to life for me.

Finally, I found the Mirror of Erised chapter especially poignant in light of what Rowling has said Dumbledore really sees in it. ("He saw his family alive, whole and happy – Ariana, Percival and Kendra all returned to him, and Aberforth reconciled to him.") The fact that he takes the mirror away to a place where Harry can't find it suggests that he has learned the hard way, firsthand, how damaging it can be to spend time dwelling on what might have been.

Friday, January 18, 2019

First Reads of the Year, 2010-2019: A Reading Retrospective

This month's prompt for the Blog All About It challenge is First. I've decided to do a little retrospective and look back at the first book I read each year since I started keeping track of books on Goodreads in 2010.


Chosen by P.C. Cast and Kristen Cast 

I was working as a teen librarian in 2010, and I had one patron who was really into this series. Since I didn't really like Twilight, but still wanted to put a good faith effort into being interested in the vampire phenomenon that had such a grip on all the teens, I decided to take her recommendation and give this a try. I don't remember this book specifically, or why I was reading it on New Year's Day, but it's interesting to see how different a book it is compared to the others on this list!


Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz 

I read this the same day I started blogging, and my review of it was one of the first reviews I posted to my (now-defunct) first blog. It was the start of my ongoing quest to read more Newbery winners and honor books.


Troublemaker by Andrew Clements

I just read and reviewed Andrew Clements's newest title, so it seems I like to read him in January. I remember liking this book, which, if memory serves, I finished reading at my desk in the library. It must have been a slow day, because I don't think I had many chances to read in that job!


Seeing Cinderella by Jenny Lundquist

Whenever I see the cover of this book, I remember being on a train with it, so I must have been reading it during my commute. I remember feeling dubious about the fantasy elements, but I wound up giving it four stars. I think this was also the beginning of my obsession with Aladdin Mix books, which I read in abundance for several years afterwards.


The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I really liked this series, and had almost forgotten about it! I wish this author had written other contemporary YA stories, though I am also curious about her 2018 release, The Book of Boy.


The Zebra Wall by Kevin Henkes

This was a used bookstore find that I had never seen before, but that now seems to be at every sale and store I visit. I remember being really amused by the sit-com-esque storyline and interested in Henkes's evolution as an author since the 1980s.


Claire's Story, 1910 by Adele Whitby

I loved this series and I wish there had been more titles! The writing was really just adequate, but the concept - exploring the connections between different generations of the same family - was great.


The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett 

This book stands out to me as one of the first I ever borrowed from I had been wanting to read it forever and was amazed when I realized it had been sitting there waiting for me all along. I also remember my review mentioning that I was going to read the other books of the series - it might be time to make good on that promise now!


Amahl and the Night Visitors by Frances Frost and Roger Duvoisin 

This was the first book of last year, and possibly also the best. I just re-read it with the girls at the beginning of the month, and it was just as good the second time around.


The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander 

This year's first book was for my book club. I really enjoyed it, both for the writing style, and for the way it put into words many thoughts I have had in passing but never expressed.

What was your first read of the new year?

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Reading Through History: The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum (1962)

In Nazi-occupied Holland, Joris Verhagen and his family live in a windmill. Though they seem like an ordinary family, the Verhagens' windmill is the site of many acts of resistance toward the Nazi regime, including their adoption of a Jewish baby as their own and the harboring of an English airman right under the nose of their teenage neighbor who works for the Nazis. As this family lives daily life in the months prior to Holland's liberation, the reader gains insight into the differences made by ordinary people during a time of great difficulty in Europe.

What I like most about this book is how Catholic it is. The Verhagens practice their faith devoutly, including celebration of saint days like St. Nicholas Day, participation in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and regular attendance at Mass. Children's books about faithful Catholics are real unicorns in the world of literature, and I am always completely thrilled to find a good one. It is clear that this family's faith is one the driving forces behind its desire to help anyone they can escape from the Nazis, and it is nice to have that expressed so well.

Another wonderful thing about this book is the character of Joris's mother. I have observed in the past that Van Stockum generally writes mothers very well (as evidenced by Mother O'Sullivan in The Cottage at Bantry Bay and Mrs. Mitchell in The Mitchells and its sequels), and this book solidifies that opinion for me.  Mrs. Verhagen is not just a stock character, but a woman of real strength and courage who faces down real dangers on a regular basis and manages to remain calm, cool, and collected. Her relationship to the adopted Trixie is especially poignant, and her worries about the baby's true identity being discovered were very palpable to me throughout the book.

There are so many beautiful passages in this story that explore deep philosophical questions: why God allows suffering, when war is justified, what it means to be wise, to be honest, to be good. Each of these is discussed from a Catholic perspective, and in a way that helps kids break down these issues into their key components and really understand why we believe the way we do. For that reason, of all the van Stockum books I've read, I think this one was the most emotionally resonant and the one from which I will remember the most specific moments as time goes on.

I own a copy of The Winged Watchman and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough to appreciate it. Between this and Kate Seredy's The Chestry Oak, we are well-prepared for introducing them to World War II history. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Reading Through History: Jip: His Story by Katherine Paterson (1996)

When he was very young, Jip, so-called because he may have been the son of gypsies, fell from a wagon in a Vermont town, and no one ever came back for him. With nowhere else to go, Jip was placed on the poor farm, along with other marginalized residents, including the mentally ill and physically disabled. As one of the only able-bodied people at the farm, Jip has a lot of responsibility, including looking after Put, a "lunatic" who has occasional fits during which he becomes quite violent and unresponsive to those around him. When a stranger comes to the poor farm claiming to have knowledge of Jip's true identity, Jip is very suspicious, a feeling which is compounded by some of the stories given to him by his teacher at the school he starts attending simply to accompany another farm resident. When it becomes clear that Jip must run away to escape this stranger, he is torn between the desire for his own safety and his loyalty to Put.

For a short novel, this book covers a lot of ground. Through Jip's eyes, the reader learns about poor farms, the treatment of the disabled in the 19th century, education laws, schoolhouse culture, Oliver Twist, Quakers, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the slave trade, and the Underground Railroad. Paterson does quite a good job of keeping the reader very close to Jip's thoughts so that certain truths about his identity which might otherwise be obvious are hidden until the moment Jip realizes them himself. Because Jip is so isolated from regular society, he and the child reader are often learning things at the same time, which makes the explanation of new facts feel very natural and not at all didactic.

The ending of the book is a bit strange. There is an epilogue of sorts that seems to raise some new questions and encourage interest in hearing more of Jip's story, but there is no sequel, so it feels like we're left hanging. There is, however, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to another Paterson novel (Lyddie), which is a nice Easter egg for those who have read both books. It's a small moment, but it resonates strongly if you enjoyed Lyddie, and it's enough to make me want to recommend that people read Lyddie before Jip.

I'm planning to read a dozen Katherine Paterson novels in 2019, and this was a strong one to start with. I really enjoyed her straightforward writing style in this book and the way each character comes to life in her economical but powerful descriptions. I recommend this book for ages 8 to 12.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

New-to-Me Authors Discovered in 2018

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is New-to-Me Authors I Read In 2018. I discovered quite a few new authors last year, and these are the ten I liked most.

Krista Davis

I listened to the audiobook of book one of Davis's Pen and Ink series, Color Me Murder, in April, and I was really impressed by how well-written it was compared to other cozy mysteries. I also realized for the first time how much more I enjoyed audiobooks when I listened to them at double speed, and ended up reading quite a few other cozies in that format, including The Diva Runs Out of Thyme, also by Krista Davis. I bought two more books from the Diva series in paperback, and my mom gave me the second Pen and Ink book for Christmas, so I'm planning to enjoy those in 2019.

Vivien Chien

Vivien Chien's Noodle Shop Mysteries were another great discovery in 2018. I read an ARC of the first book, Death by Dumpling before its publication in March, and loved it instantly. It seemed like it took forever for the second book to become available on NetGalley, but when it did, I requested it immediately and read and reviewed Dim Sum of All Fears before it came out in August. The third book, Murder Lo Mein, is coming soon, and I can't wait!

Victoria Gilbert

I listened to the audiobook of the second book in Victoria Gilbert's Blue Ridge Library Mystery series, Shelved Under Murder, mostly because of the library setting, and I was impressed from the beginning with both the details about daily work in a public library and the well-developed characters. I haven't yet gone back to read book 1, but I have an ARC of the third book, Past Due for Murder, which comes out in February, and I'm really looking forward to visiting with all those characters again.

Kasie West

After reading several Sarah Dessen books over the summer, I wanted more teen summer romances. I had enjoyed Kasie West's By Your Side early in the year, so I decided to try a couple more of her titles. While cleaning during our move at the beginning of August, I listened to On the Fence and Listen To Your Heart. I also ended up buying the Kindle edition of Snow in Love solely because West has a story in it. Next I'll be reading a digital ARC of her February 2019 release, Fame, Fate, and the First Kiss, from Edelweiss+.

Jenny Han

I tried and failed when I was a librarian to read The Summer I Turned Pretty and Shug, but I decided to try this author once more with her Lara Jean series. I read the first one, To All The Boys I've Loved Before, in January, and loved it.  Then I watched the Netflix movie when it came out in August, and listened to the other two books on audio in December. I'm excited for the movie sequel to come to Netflix!

Hank Green

I have known of Hank Green as one of the vlogbrothers ever since I first read a John Green book during my teen librarian days. I went into his first novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,  with very low expectations, kind of assuming he was only getting published because he's a YouTube personality with a famous author for a brother. But I was so wrong. The book was so good! I'm a little wary of a sequel since I liked the ambiguity of the ending of the first book, but I definitely plan to read it.

Patricia Cornwell

I read the first of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books a few years ago, but then put the rest of the series on the back burner. This past year, faced with the fact that I only have one Sue Grafton book left to read, I decided to try Cornwell again, and listened to the first two books on audio. This time, it seems to have stuck, because book three, All That Remains, was my second read of 2019.

Laura Lippman

I was looking for an interesting audiobook this spring, and chose Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman at random. I enjoyed it so much that I got started on the author's Tess Monaghan series. I read three of those in 2018, and I bought a bunch more in paperback to read this year.

Chaim Potok

My unofficial Well Read Mom book club read My Name is Asher Lev in October, and I just fell in love with the writing style. I really want to read the sequel this year.

Sarah Addison Allen

I read I'd Rather be Reading by Anne Bogel in September when it was making the rounds on #bookstagram, and in it, she mentioned some of Sarah Addison Allen's books. I don't usually like fantasy, but these sounded so good that when I saw Garden Spells available as an ebook from my library, I gave it a try. I enjoyed it so much that I also bought Allen's First Frost for Kindle. It's on my 2019 TBR.

Have you read any of these authors? Which authors did you discover in 2018?

Monday, January 14, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Philosopher's Stone, Chapters 5-8

For week two of the Year of Harry Potter, I read chapters 5 through 8 in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: "Diagon Alley," "The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters," "The Sorting Hat," and "The Potions Master." (Spoilers ahead. Beware.)

I was struck once again by the emotions of the adults of the wizarding world as young Harry returns to them after years of being exiled to the Dursleys' house. Knowing all the backstory that is revealed throughout the series makes the moment in the Leaky Cauldron when everyone falls silent in recognition of Harry's arrival especially poignant. I also felt a twinge of sadness when Harry questions why Snape hates him, and Hagrid seems to know the reason but doesn't say. It pleases me greatly to see how much this book is already rewarding a second reading only 100 pages in.

These chapters also introduce many of my favorite characters of the series, especially the Weasleys, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville. There are tons of characters in general in these chapters, too, but Rowling does a really nice job of making the number of new names feel manageable. It probably helps that I've heard the names of the other first-years many times in the later books, and in the movies, but even so, she handles the sudden character population explosion really well.

I also found myself feeling a bit surprised that Draco is such a blatantly villainous character. I think fans of the series have spoken of him so often as a misunderstood or ambiguous character that I began to think of him that way myself, but in the first descriptions of his behavior, it's clear we're not meant to like him, and that he is not going to be a force for good within the story. And J.K. Rowling herself has written that she "often had cause to remark on how unnerved I have been by the number of girls who fell for this particular fictional character" and that "Draco was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering and prejudice and that no, he and Harry were not destined to end up best friends." This is another reason to re-read this series: to separate canon from fan theory.

Finally, I laughed out loud at how completely lame the Hogwarts school song is. I do like Dumbledore's whimsical suggestion that every student pick his own tune and sing the words along with it, but the words themselves are just ridiculous. It begins with "Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts," and just devolves from there. I'll have to double-check when I get to Order of the Phoenix, but if memory serves, "Weasley is Our King" has better lyrics.

I'll be back next week with my thoughts on the next four chapters, which will focus on dueling, Halloween, Quidditch, and the Mirror of Erised.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Book Review: The Friendship War by Andrew Clements (2019)

Science-minded Grace is a collector of interesting objects, so when she asks her grandfather if she can have the thousands of old buttons she finds in the old building he just purchased, he doesn't hesitate to hand them over. When Grace brings a few of the buttons to school, however, she is unprepared for the sudden enthusiasm for buttons shown by not just her best friend, Ellie, but also her entire class! As Grace and Ellie become consumed with the excitement of crafting, playing, and trading with buttons of all varieties, they also begin to realize the problems in their friendship, namely that Ellie shows off a lot and Grace resents her for it. Before long, the button frenzy becomes less about the buttons and more about trying to one-up and get back at each other. Grace wants to end the button fad once and for all and get things back to normal, but shutting it down proves to be a lot more difficult than putting it into motion in the first place.

This school story does a great job of describing the experience of getting caught up in a fad at school. Clements gets all the details just right, including the way fads sometimes grow and change overnight, and even the reactions of teachers and administrators when a fad begins to consume too much of the students' attention. He also uses the button fad very effectively as a vehicle both for Grace and Ellie to confront the strain in their friendship, and for Grace to become better friends with another classmate named Hank, who shares her scientific interests.

The flaw in this book, though, is how much exposition there is at the start. The strong story at the heart of this book is very slow to get going. The book opens with Grace arriving for a visit with her grandfather, leading the reader to believe that this visit and this relationship will be the focus of the novel. Just as the reader begins to settle into this story, however, Grace is suddenly heading right back home, with the buttons following by mail, and it's clear that this has all just been backstory leading up to the real story the author wants to tell. Only a few of the details revealed in these early pages are even remotely relevant to the rest of the book, and it takes a while to refocus after the abrupt shift in the narrative. I also found it a little unnecessary that Grace occasionally worries about whether Hank thinks she is cute. Not every middle grade novel needs to have a dating-related subplot, even a subtle one.

The Friendship War has some positive wisdom to impart about the importance of honesty and taking ownership of one's mistakes, and about placing a greater value on people than on objects, which I really appreciated. There is also a surprising amount of information about the history of the materials used to make buttons, which becomes interesting within the context of this story. While this isn't Clements's best book, it will satisfy most readers who enjoy his realistic school stories, especially those who see some of their own experiences mirrored by the story.  (Thanks to Random House Children's and NetGalley for the digital review copy!)