Monday, February 18, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Chamber of Secrets, Chapters 5-9

This past week, I read my second installment of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets which covered Chapter 5 ("The Whomping Willow"), Chapter 6 ("Gilderoy Lockhart"), Chapter 7 ("Mudbloods and Murmurs"), Chapter 8 ("The Deathday Party"), and Chapter 9 ("The Writing on the Wall"). This post will contain spoilers.

A lot of information about the wizarding world is crammed into these chapters. This book has the first mentions of squibs and mudbloods, the first howler (from Molly Weasley, to Ron), and it provides details about the founding of Hogwarts. We also meet Moaning Myrtle for the first time, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn a bit more about ghosts at Nearly Headless Nick's deathday party.  We even learn about the existence of Kwikspell courses, which Filch is taking to try and learn magic.

As always, I was on the lookout for little moments that might foreshadow future events, and sure enough, I found a line in Chapter 5 that has much more meaning on a second reading. As the Weasleys and Harry are leaving the Burrow for the train station in the flying Ford Anglia, they have to turn back twice for forgotten items, and one of these is Ginny's diary. I think it's neat that there's a sense of fate to Ginny's role in the opening of the  Chamber of Secrets, that if they hadn't gone back the second time, she might not have been involved at all! I was also amused that, when Harry thinks back on his experience during his Sorting the previous year, the word Rowling uses to describe his feelings is "petrified."

In terms of bad behavior, Harry does seem to get off pretty easy after he and Ron crash the car into the Whomping Willow. While it does seem petty that Snape wants him to be suspended from Quidditch (a punishment that could only help his own house, Slytherin, win) it does seem like McGonagall should have done something besides have him help Lockhart with his fan mail. But, how much of a story would there be if Harry did one wrong thing and got himself expelled? Clearly, misbehavior and the way it is handled is often used to further the plot, and I think most kids can recognize the difference between that and disobedience in the real world.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of this book. I remember hardly being able to put it down the first time I read it, and though I'm intentionally taking it slow this time, that feeling of anticipation about what's going to happen next is already building.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Book Review: Flip-Flop Girl by Katherine Paterson (1994)

When Vinnie (Lavinia) lost her father to cancer, her younger brother, Mason stopped speaking. Now Vinnie and Mason have left Washington, D.C. and, along with their mother, they have moved in with their grandmother in Brownsville, Virginia, where they are starting a new school. Though she really likes her new teacher, Vinnie struggles to fit in among her new classmates, and she finds that only Lupe, whom she nicknames the Flip-Flop Girl based on her footwear, pays any attention to her at all. As the school year gets underway, Vinnie struggles to help her brother's teachers handle his behavior, to make her teacher notice her and understand her crush on him, and to see herself as the kind of person who might be friends with an unusual girl like Lupe.

I would describe this short, descriptive novel as a cross between The Hundred Dresses and The Summer of the Swans. It shares themes in common with both of these books, and it delivers a story that addresses them succinctly, clearly, and with beautiful prose. While this book isn't as deep or layered as something like Lyddie or Bridge to Terabithia, it does reflect upon issues of grief and loss in ways that are very palatable and accessible for kids. This book isn't heart-wrenching, as the death itself has already taken place when the book begins, but instead it focuses on moving forward after the initial shock of loss has worn off, and it gives the reader a sense of hope that things will improve as time goes on.

When I mentioned to my husband that I rated Flip-Flop Girl four stars on Goodreads, he remarked that he couldn't imagine Paterson writing a book that wouldn't get four or five stars, and I tend to agree with that statement. Paterson's writing is consistently of very high quality, and she tells stories that are real, believable, and relevant. Having read her astute observations about writing children's books in Gates of Excellence and The Spying Heart, I am pleased that her fiction, so far, very much lives up to my high expectations.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Favorite Literary Couples

This week's Top Ten Tuesday theme is Favorite Couples In Books. Here are ten of mine, in no particular order...

Ron Weasley  Hermione Granger 
from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I'm re-reading the Harry Potter series this year, and I'm really enjoying reliving the early days of friendship between these two. It will be fun to watch them find their way to each other all over again.

Kate Bjorkman  Richard Bradshaw 
from The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer
This was my favorite book when I was a teenager, and I still re-read it every so often. I can't make a list of favorite couples and not include the stars of my favorite romance novel!

Armand Gamache  Reine-Marie Gamache
from the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Louise PennyI have read seven books of this series (up through A Trick of the Light) so maybe this changes later and I don't know it yet, but so far, the Chief and his wife seem to have a lovely, affectionate, and strong marriage. I always feel a sense of relief on behalf of Armand whenever his wife appears on the scene.

James Herriot  Helen Alderson
from All Creatures Great and Small (and sequels) by James HerriotThe relationship between these fictionalized versions of the author (whose real name is James Alfred Wight) and his wife (whose real name is Joan Catherine Anderson) is one of my favorite things about these memoir-esque books. The way the vet business interferes with their courtship and strengthens their marriage is both amusing and inspirational. 

Lara Jean Song Covey  Peter Kavinsky
from To All the Boys I've Loved Before (and sequels) by Jenny Han
Most YA couples tend to blur together in my mind, but Jenny Han's talent for creating believablecharacters really brings these two to life. I didn't always agree with their decisions in the books, but I always rooted for them.

Jean  Johnny
from Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary
This old-fashioned romance novel was one of my favorites as a young teen. I love how wholesome and sweet it is, and I found Jean to be a kindred spirit. 

Carney Sibley ❤ Sam Hutchinson 
from Carney's House Party by Maud Hart Lovelace
I love the realism of the way these two become romantically involved. At first, Carney thinks he looks like a "baby hippo," and frankly, only an author like Lovelace could turn a guy like that into a romantic hero. As with Jean and Johnny, I also love all the old-fashioned details about dating etiquette in this book. 

Temperance Brennan  Andrew Ryan 
from the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs
This is another series where I'm not caught up, but I do love the on-again/off-again relationship between the forensic anthropologist and the police officer. They're currently off-again where  I am in the series, but I live in hope that it's not over for good. 

Ellison Russell  Anarchy Jones
from the Country Club Murders series by Julie Mulhern
Despite the ridiculousness of his name, and his disapproval of Ellison putting herself in danger to solve crimes, I really do think these two belong together, and I enjoy reading about the ups and downs of their potential romance.

Jim Qwilleran  Polly Duncan
from the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun
I always loved the very proper relationship between amateur detective and newspaperman, Qwill, and library director Polly. Especially endearing is the formal, but sweet way they say "À bientôt" each time they end a phone call. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Chamber of Secrets, Chapters 1-4

Last week, I read the first four chapters of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: "The Worst Birthday," "Dobby's Warning," "The Burrow," and "At Flourish and Blotts." Spoilers for all of these may appear in my comments.

I was amused in the first chapter to be given a recap of the events of the previous book, something that isn't that common in children's series anymore, but which was a standard part of every Baby-sitters Club book I read as a kid. Of course, now that Harry Potter is such a phenomenon, it seems pretty unlikely that any reader coming into book two doesn't know the basics of his life story, but the recap gave me some feelings of nostalgia for the books of my childhood.

Chapter 2 brings us the first appearance of Dobby the house-elf, and the line from the movie adaptation that I repeat the most often: "Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts." My husband pointed out to me that Dobby is basically the Jar-Jar Binks of the Harry Potter universe, and somehow I can't look at the character the same way after considering that comparison. Still, I think Dobby's arrival is a great way to raise a lot of questions and stir up suspense - and magic - early in the story.

It was also lovely to revisit the chapter where Harry comes to the Burrow for the first time. I love everything about it - the banter among the family members, Arthur Weasley's obsession with all things Muggle, Ginny's crush on Harry, and Harry's complete love and appreciation for Ron's home and family, even though Ron is somewhat embarrassed of it all. I'd also forgotten Percy's role in the series, and there are hints even this early on about the mistakes he will make in future books.

Finally, J.K. Rowling does a great job describing Gilderoy Lockhart and the way his fans react to him. Like Dolores Umbridge, he is one of the characters from this series that I love to hate.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Book Review: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (2018)

Mercedes (Merci) Suárez lives in Las Casitas with her parents and older brother, Roli, her Tia Ines, her five-year-old twin cousins, and her grandparents. She attends a private school on scholarship, making her something of an outsider with her peers, a problem which is compounded when Merci is assigned to be the buddy of a new boy on whom her rival, Edna Santos, has a crush. At home, Merci is also struggling to understand the behavior of her grandfather, Lolo, who has begun to behave strangely as his Alzheimer's disease progresses. As her situations at home and school come to a head, Merci will need to learn to adapt to change, a lesson she finds difficult to embrace.

I have to admit to being surprised that this book was awarded the Newbery Medal. While it's a perfectly fine story, there is very little about the straightforward writing style or predictable plot that I would call distinctive. The only thing that really sets it apart is that it's a diverse book:  Merci's family is not white, they speak Spanish, and they have a living situation (three houses side by side) that isn't common in the predominant American culture. Therefore, my guess is that this book was given this award based more on its championing of diversity than on its merits as a work of literature. While I understand that diversity is now considered by many to be an indicator of quality, I don't really buy into that idea, so I was disappointed not to find something new and fresh in the style or characterization in this book that stood out as special. While I don't like seeing the awards go to political books, I also don't like seeing them go to mediocre books for political reasons, and it seems like that might be what happened here. 

Had this book not been the Newbery winner, I am fairly certain I would have judged it less harshly. It truly is a solid novel, despite the cliched dementia storyline involving Merci's grandfather, and the cliched mean behavior of middle school girls. Though the storyline is not that original, it is presented in an appealing way, and I know I would have enjoyed this book when I was in sixth grade. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Spanish phrases, none of which were translated in the text (something that can often be done awkwardly), but all of which I figured out either based on the little Spanish I remember from high school or just based on context. Merci and her brother Roli also have a very positive relationship despite the gap in their ages, and it was nice to see them getting along and supporting each other.

Still, the more I look for those hallmarks of distinction, the more flaws I notice instead: the bike metaphor that doesn't quite work, the lack of a meaningful connection between the grandfather storyline and the friendship storyline, the unresolved tension surrounding Merci's decision to lie about her grandfather taking a fall, etc. Thematically, this may be the book many readers have been looking for, but in terms of literary merit,  it's a good book, but not a great one. While I think there is a definite place for it on the shelves of libraries serving middle schoolers this year and next, I don't see as clear a place for it in the canon of children's literature in the long-term. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Book Review: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (2019)

Carter Jones feels very deeply the loss of his younger brother, Currier, who died after an illness two years ago, as well as the absence of his father, an army captain who has seemed distant from the family for some time. When Carter's grandfather (whom he and his sisters never knew) passes away and essentially leaves his butler, August Paul Bowles-Fitzgerald, to the family, Carter is at first totally perplexed. As Mr. Bowles-Fitzgerald steps into his new role in the household, however, he begins teaching Carter new things: how to play cricket, how to think critically, how to be a gentleman, how to pay attention, and above all, how to move forward in the absence of those he has loved and lost.

In the early parts of this novel, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the whole thing. It felt a bit like someone had stuck Jeeves into a children's book, and I didn't understand what the point  of such a story might be. At first, it just didn't seem like this book would have the same depth of emotion and strong character development that I've so enjoyed in Schmidt's other novels set in this universe, The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now. But I should have known better than to underestimate this author.

This book is not just funny (though there is a fair amount of humor), nor is it simply a sport novels (though cricket and American football both figure into the plot). Rather, this book uses the humorous dialogue between Carter and the butler and the development of a cricket program at Carter's middle school as vehicles for helping Carter come to terms with what is happening in his life. Schmidt reveals the complicated emotions Carter has about his brother and father in waves, over many chapters, so for a while, it is difficult to see where things are heading. When it comes, though, the payoff is huge. Many books will manipulate a reader into crying; this is the rare novel that genuinely moves the reader to tears.

Pay Attention Carter Jones is most appropriate for middle school readers, especially those who have a strong interest in sports and can easily pick up the jargon and rules of a game they may not have watched or played before. Kids who are avid readers might also notice that some of the minor characters share last names in common with some of their favorite authors - a nice touch. As in Schmidt's earlier books, this one also encourages appreciation for the arts: ballet, painting, and the books of E. Nesbit all play a minor role. As a fan of the author, I was definitely not disappointed, and I think readers who share my love for heartfelt and well-written middle grade realistic fiction will be equally pleased with this novel. (Thank you, Clarion Books and Edelweiss+ for the digital ARC!)

Monday, February 4, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Philosopher's Stone, Chapters 16-17

This week, I read chapters 16 ("Through the Trapdoor") and 17  ("The Man with Two Faces") of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, bringing me to the end of book one. There are spoilers for the end of the book in this post.

The first thing that caught my attention is the fact that the entire adventure of sneaking past Fluffy, escaping the Devil's Snare, and winning the chess game only really takes one chapter. In my memory, it seemed like it took half the book. I don't necessarily think it needed to take longer, since it's still exciting and suspenseful the way it's written, but it did surprise me that something I remembered as being so important was such a small piece of the story.

I also have to admit that, for the first time, I found Dumbledore's award of last-minute house points to Gryffindor for the actions of the trio and Neville to be kind of obnoxious. Clearly, they acted heroically, but I think I would have liked it better if they just felt good about what they did without being rewarded so publicly (and after the Great Hall had already been decorated to celebrate Slytherin.) Before it was pointed out to me that Harry gets away with a lot of things in these books without appropriate consequences, I never had anything but a positive reaction to this scene. With that notion in mind, however, it does feel a bit like there aren't really any rules. Dumbledore can always just do what he likes when it comes to Harry. I think there is a lot more of that in the series as a whole than I can even remember right now. I'll have to pay close attention as I read this year.

So far, I'm enjoying having this series as a constant companion week by week. For the next four weeks, I'll be re-reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and next week's post will focus on chapters 1-4.