Harry Potter: a personal history

Cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneWhen I was 7, a substitute teacher read the class the first two chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I thought it was a bit rubbish and told my mother so when I got home. “I think I’ve heard about it on the radio,” she said. “It’s meant to be quite good.” Oh. I gave it another try, this time borrowing it from the library. I read it so compulsively that I finished it on a family visit to a friend’s for dinner, surfacing at the end to ask if there was a sequel. I was hooked.

That was in 1997. Over the next few years the world caught up in the same kind of madness, and I slowly caught up to Harry in age. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the seventh and final volume) was published I was a teenager on a gap year — I still have a photo of myself in a bookshop in France on the day it was released. Like a lot of people, Harry Potter was my first experience of fandom, sharing my fiction affliction with millions of others around the world. There are a thousand stories like mine.

My relationship with the books is a lot more complicated now than it was in the beginning, but they shaped so much of my growing up that I still love them anyway. From making Harry Potter paper dolls with my best friend to writing a fan letter to J. K. Rowling (and getting a reply!), buying my first merch (Hedwig sweatshirt) in Germany in 1998, getting spoiled for who died in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because for once I didn’t read fast enough, dressing up for a launch event at the local bookshop in 2005…

Somehow, as of today, it has been 20 years since Harry Potter was first published. Time for a re-read and a chocolate frog, I think.

Celebrating 20 years of Harry Potter

“Happee Birthdae Harry” as Rubeus Hagrid so aptly said twenty years ago.

Yes, its hard to believe, but this year, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone’ celebrates the twentieth anniversary of its first publication, and my generation of twenty-somethings can now, finally, feel old.

Together we and Harry Potter went through school (admittedly with less owls and enchanted halls on our end), and gradually ‘grew up’ through both good and bad experiences (though again, less trolls and horcruxes’ were involved), losses, and gains. Harry Potter really was the story of our generation. I remember my father bringing home the first Harry Potter book with a casual ‘the woman in the shop said this was quite good’ (yes – they hadn’t quite taken off at that stage).

From then on, as each book in the series was released, there would be a flurried, exciting day where me and my two sisters would charge down to our nearest bookstore and buy a copy each (the only way to avoid an ugly scene). We would then spend the next day (and night) with our noses buried in its pages, never emerging until the very last sentence had been read. One year we were so immersed in the latest installment we let our log fire go out three times, and forgot to eat any food until dinner time (a very monumental thing for us).

Twenty years on from our first introduction to Rowling’s incredible world, I not only feel old, I also feel oddly proud that ‘Harry Potter and Philosophers Stone’ is every bit as good to me as  when I first read it all those years ago. Reason enough, I think, to break out the butterbeer and cauldron cakes.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

As a young girl I loved magic books (what kid doesn’t) particularly E Nesbit’s ‘Phoenix and the Carpet‘ and CS Lewis’ Narnia. I also loved boarding school stories like Enid Blyton’s ‘St Clare’s’ series and Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings’, so finding an author who so beautifully married together boarding schools and magic was simply the best thing ever.

Not only that but Rowling was also incredibly funny. There are passages which still make me gwarff out loud like Lee Jordan’s ‘impartial’ quidditch commentary:

“So-after that obvious and disgusting bit of cheating-“
“Jordan!” growled Professor McGonagall.
“I mean, after that open and revolting foul-“
“Jordan, I’m warning you-“
“All right, all right. Flint nearly kills the Gryffindor Seeker, which could happen to anyone I’m sure…”   .

And Ron’s pragmatic reply to Harry’s question:

“what if I wave my wand and nothing happens?”
Ron: “Throw it away and punch him on the nose.’

Some comic relief and cosy moments at the Burrow actually manage to transform these books into go-to comfort reading for me (except for the last book I guess- and the end of the fourth and the sixth and, well, a few other moments…).

Cover of The phoenix and the carpet  Cover of The chronicles of Narnia: Complete collection

And of course the stories are damn good. Who doesn’t love a story which features the underdog (in this case an unloved orphan) transforming into a honourable hero with the skills and courage to save the (wizarding) world. In addition, as the story grew both in intricacy and character development, so did Rowling’s first generation of readers. The stories’ growth really couldn’t have been better timed. There were always strong themes of sacrifice and loss running through Harry Potters story but, somehow, Rowling managed to introduce more intricate, often darker ideas like Horcruxes, the death of Dumbledore, Snapes’ heartbreaking love for Lily, and the supremely evil professor Umbridge’s ‘takeover’ of Hogwarts, just as her audiences were growing in reading level and maturity.

Rowling always celebrated important character traits too such as loyalty and knowledge, themes which will make her stories timeless. Ron and Hermione sacrifice a happy, normal life to follow Harry on his quest; Snape sacrifices his own name and safety to avenge Lily and keep the mission going and, in the end, Harry makes the ultimate sacrifice, his own life, to rid the world of Voldemort.

Knowledge is celebrated through Hermione, the cleverest witch of her time and Dumbledore the epitome of wisdom. It is doubtful if Harry’s quest would have progressed as successfully had it not been for Hermione swotting up on virtually every wizarding book under the sun including material on horcruxes, and had it not been for Dumbledore’s private lessons with Harry in which they discussed Voldemort’s past.

Cover of Harry Potter and the chamber of secretsCover of Harry Potter and the goblet of fireCover of Harry Potter and the prisoner of AzkabanCover of Harry Potter and the Order of the phoenixCover of Harry Potter and the Half-blood princeCover of Harry Potter and the deathly hallows

And who couldn’t love the world Rowling managed to create? An amazing world of Quidditch, pet owls, wizarding schools, and so so much more. Somehow, Rowling still managed to also ‘keep it real’ by having very real themes of love (in many forms), and painful loss. Perhaps this is part of Harry Potters huge appeal – that perfect mix of magic and reality.

Rowling also includes some great hat tips to ancient mythology. Like St Patrick or Herakles, Harry Potter has power over serpents (though admittedly Harry takes a somewhat more passive approach to Herakles and has a reasoned chat to his snakes rather than killing them in either hand from his infancy). Cerberus, the 3 headed dog like guard of the underworld, even makes an appearance as Hagrid’s beloved pet ‘Fluffy’, and there are frequent references to Rowling’s own personal favourite of mythical creatures – the phoenix, the ultimate symbol of renewal celebrated in Greek, Roman and many other mythologies. Also, like all mythological heroes, Harry is on a ‘quest’ which only he can achieve. Wise as Dumbledore is, and loyal as Hermione and Ron remain to the bitter end, Harry still must go on his own and leave his companions to confront the essential menace and conquer the root of all the evil.

Cover of The tales of the beedle bardCover of Quidditch through the agesCover of Fantastic beasts and where to find themCover of Harry Potter and the cursed child

I also love Rowling’s clever use of latin within spells and potions (For a start, ‘accio’ sounds so much more impressive than ‘fetch’ and ‘felix felicitis’ far more meaningful than ‘lucky day’), and one has to admire the hidden meanings dedicated Potter fans manage to unearth behind seemingly innocent phrases. Take Snape’s first question to Harry:

“Potter! What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
Some dedicated Potter fans insist that what this really means is ‘I bitterly regret Lily’s death’, because, according to Victorian Flower Language, asphodel is a type of lily while wormwood means ‘absence’ and symbolizes bitter sorrow. Just as rabbis take a passage in the Torah and discuss its complexities and multiple meanings for many days, so it seems, do Potter fans for a snarky question from Severus Snape. There exists a sort of Harry Potter midrash. Who knew?

With a gripping, intricate story, quite literally magical setting, strong characters, and great humour, there is so much to love and celebrate about this incredible series. Rowling has helped to inspire a whole generation of bookworms and after twenty years, more beautiful reprints, and more spin off movies, it looks as though she will continue to work her magic for new generations to come.

Further reading

Helen
Central Library Peterborough

Themis Files : Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Waking Gods is the much awaited sequel to Sleeping Giants, Sylvain Neuvel’s first novel of the Themis Files series.

CoverCover

OMG. After reading The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter’s sequel to H.G Wells’ War of The Worlds, this is too good to be true!

Once again, London is visited by Aliens. A whacking great Robot, piloted by almost-human beings. Except for their legs. They bend backwards. And their DNA…

Is it here to attack or protect us?  Or is it dissatisfied with the election? While the reader ponders this question, twelve more appear in the world’s major cities.

In Sleeping Giants we are introduced to a giant female figure, scattered in parts all over the earth. A machine, full of deadly possibilites. Our intrepid hero Dr Rose Franklin’s mission is to retrieve it – her – Themis; assemble her and learn how she works.

The Themis Files are written as a series of reports. Characters are interviewed, recorded or write in their personal logs, while the reader observes and absorbs the information, much as an invading intelligence might.

Neuvel has created some great characters here. In the partnership of the pilots, Kara Resnik and Vincent Couture, he reverses the roles. Kara’s character is a tough cookie, army-trained, who hits first, and wisecracks later. Vincent, scared of heights, self-doubting, is her voice of reason.

Rose Franklin is the scientist who first discovers Themis, falling into a hole and discovering a giant hand, glowing with an unearthly green light. Then there is Eugene, his unnamed Benefactor, and the consultant “Mr Burns”. The leaders of this enterprise aren’t quite what they seem.

Waking Gods introduces a new character, Eva (named after another famous robot or two). But that’s all I’m giving away.

Imaginative, unique and very human, this sequel was worth waiting for. I can see room for more. You’ll laugh, cry and be on the edge of your seat waiting for the Robots to move…

More Robots

Dorothy Must Die!: The End of Oz

“What did you do with the girl, Princess Ozma?” asked Glinda; and at this question everyone slowly bent forward and listened eagerly for the reply. “I enchanted her,” answered Mombi. “In what way?” inquired Glinda. “I transformed her into — into — “Go on!” Glinda said. “To a boy! “―The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904)

Cover of The end of Oz
The End of Oz, 4th title in the Dorothy must die series

Dorothy Must Die! is a young adult fantasy series by Danielle Paige; a new take on The Wizard of Oz, (which itself had many sequels). The End of Oz is the last (4th) book of the series.

I love how this series turns the Dorothy myth around. Dorothy and her cronies have turned BAD; corrupted by power and magic. The ruby slippers, for instance, may have come from a not-so-pro-Oz source…

It’s up to another girl, Amy Gumm, to wipe her out. Amy has been plucked from Kansas in a trailer tornado, and flown to Oz by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked. In this story she is flown on the Yellow Brick road, across the Deadly Desert, with her her boyfriend Nox, and her arch enemy Madison.

Why have they landed in Ev, Kingdom of the Nome King? And why have they ended up at the gates of Princess Langwidere’s palace?

Many familiar characters are revived in the series, including Mombi (the Wicked Witch of the North), who first appears in The Marvellous Land of Oz, a book I remember reading in my childhood.

With peer rivalry between the two female protagonists, and the angst of teen relationships, this novel addresses some teen experiences using the realm of fantasy. It’s hip, using the kind of language teens speak today and references to recent teen culture (there’s a Punk-Goth Munchkin…)

Will Ozma ever be restored to her rightful place on the throne of Oz? Read on…

The End of Oz
by Danielle Paige
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780062660237

The Dark Tower: A Constant Reader worries

Last week’s release of the trailer for Stephen King’s The Dark Tower movie just about broke the internet, with fevered and passionate discussion about just how right or wrong the director had got things. Widely recognised as the most important of King’s works, The Dark Tower series is a ridiculously huge tale, with nearly 4300 words in eight novels, written over the course of 30 years. Simply put, it’s the story of Roland, the last gunslinger, who is working his way to the Dark Tower to take down the Crimson King. He is pursued by the man in black.

As a longtime Constant Reader, I have spent much of my grown-up life reading and rereading Stephen King novels.  My bookshelves are full of scary clowns, weird alien invasions, alcoholic hotel caretakers and needful things. I own all the books, have seen all the movies, and have definite thoughts on best and worst novels. I’ve downloaded the reading maps, sought out the editorials, and even fallen in love with the works of his son Joe.

Every reader who has a favourite author can feel nervous when books are turned into movies.  And it must be said that King’s movie adaptations can vary wildly in success, from the heady heights of The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, through the disturbing Misery, to the adorable but kind of dorky 1408, and the downright embarrassing Langoliers.

So you will understand when I say that I am not alone right now in feeling VERY nervous about the upcoming release of two of King’s most well-loved works. The trailer for It was released a few weeks ago, and in less than 3 minutes managed to scare the pants off most of the western world.  I have yet to watch it without covering my eyes every few seconds. And the Dark Tower trailer is mesmerising for different reasons. How can one movie even begin to show us a world that is described not only in the eight Tower books, but also appears in countless other of his tales, from The Talisman, to Insomnia, to Black House, The Stand and The Shining and more.

Cover of Black house Cover of The Stand Cover of The Talisman Cover of The Shining

There’s totally no time to go back and reread the whole series before the movie is out, and King has already told us that this particular story is not one of the original ones from the novels, but another of Roland’s journeys. So all I have to do now is sit, and wait, and like countless other Constant Readers, hope that this movie is at least good, and hopefully great, that Roland Deschain is a true gunslinger and that the man in black is every bit as dreadful and mesmerising as he is in the books.

And try to figure out if I will EVER be brave enough to watch IT.

Further reading

The WORD on Time Travel with James Gleick

“Quid est ergo tempus?” “What then is time?” (Augustine)

When did Time begin? Was it the Creation, or Big Bang? Is it just an Illusion, a construct of man? Who coined the phrase “Time Travel?”

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickFor the answers to these and many other questions on Time Travel, James Gleick is your man. Come along to his WORD Christchurch session at the Piano on Tuesday 16 May, 6pm to hear him talk about his book, Time Travel: A history.

I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to find out how to Time Travel. I could get so much more done.

My first memory of a Time Travel story would have to be the Time Tunnel. Yet as I look back it’s an element in so many stories – the Pevensies always came back to the same moment they left (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), The guys in Land of the Lost travelled, and then I read The Time Machine.

H.G. Wells is arguably the master, although he was no Newton. Yet he raises a theory (mirrored by Ben Elton in Time and Time Again) that Time exists only in the memory: “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” (p.8).

Susan’s student, Penelope, in Terry Pratchett’s The Thief of Time, asserts that “Its always now everywhere, Miss.”

Cover of Isaac NewtonGleick, a Harvard graduate, explores not just story in his book, but scientific theory also, from the concept of Time to the idea of travelling at will through it. He has also written a book on Isaac Newton.

Time Travel: A history, has a formidable index, and an indispensable book list of stories, anthologies and scientific works on the nature of time and travel.

After a small survey of colleagues and friends I’ve come up with some questions for Mr Gleick. Feel free to ask one at the event. (They won’t let me ask them all!)

  1. Can you meet yourself in Time and not cause a temporal reaction?
  2. Can you move through Space as well as Time?
  3. Did the Time Tunnel guys EVER make it home?
  4. What was the outcome of Predestination?
  5. If you kill yourself in time will you cease to exist in other dimensions?
  6. Can you kill your mother/father yourself and not cause 1.
  7. Why can’t Dr Who fall in love?
  8. If the future hasn’t happened yet, can you only travel backwards?
  9. Can you travel back/forward to wipe someone out and change the future?
  10. If light can split into particles and waves, can a person be at two places in Time?

Time travel fans will want to check out my lists of –

Roverandom: J. R. R. Tolkien

I thought I’d read all of Tolkien‘s works. I even have the Children of Hurin. Then I discovered this little gem.

Cover of RoverandomWritten for children, Roverandom is the story of a naughty little dog and a grumpy old wizard. When the Wizard takes his ball, Roverandom bites him on the bottom and…

…Roverandom is magicked into a tiny, begging, toy dog.

Tolkien delightfully relates this tale, adding all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures, a trip to the moon, and some dragons for good measure.

I recommend this story for Tolkien purists (there are some great colour plates), and also for those who like to read aloud to children. Great for that Pizza Wheel Reading Challenge!

Find out more

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

y648This doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like, but I can honestly say that I loved this book! I’ve only ever really thought of Jackie French in terms of children’s and young adult fiction so was pleasantly surprised to see her grown up offering – If Blood Should Stain the Wattle.

Now it is probably the Australian in me, but I especially loved how Jackie uses famous Australian poetry and folklore that brought a ‘familiar’ spark to the story for me.

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle is full of wonderful, well established characters that have appeared in Jackie French’s earlier ‘Matilda’ series. I haven’t read any of these books yet but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this one; instead it made me want to experience them all.

There are fabulous strong female characters who are making their mark in Gibber’s Creek, finding love and setting their sights on conquering the world. Okay, maybe just Australia. Then we have the odd spiritual moment where they converse with ghosts and even manage to peek through time itself. But this is the seventies so the story wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a hippy commune on the edge of Gibber’s Creek and a ‘cult leader’ who is receiving messages from aliens. Did I mention that this is also the story of the Whitlam government coming to power?

Stop, come back! Don’t be put off by the inclusion of politicians and their shenanigans within the pages. Jackie French has cleverly woven the information into short excerpts from newspaper reports, and by having characters Jed Kelly and Matilda campaigning to support a Labor government. No boring political twaddle in sight; instead we get to experience first hand what it was like when the Whitlam Government came to power in early 1970s Australia and the subsequent historic dismissal of Gough Whitlam by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
This book really does have something for everyone and it won’t disappoint.

The Matilda series began as a trilogy, became a quartet. It was meant to be a history of our nation told from one country town, and the viewpoints of those who had no political voice in 1892, when the series begins: women, indigenous people, Chinese, Afghans.
But, by book four, I realised that history didn’t stop just because I was born, and that the series will continue as long as I live.” (Jackie French)

The quartet Jackie French is referring to is now a sextet – and who knows how many more there may be. So if you want to start at the very beginning the titles in order are:

  1. A Waltz for Matilda
  2. The Girl From Snowy River
  3. The Road to Gundagai
  4. To Love a Sunburnt Country
  5. The Ghost by the Billabong
  6. If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

Cover of A waltz for MatildaCover of the girl from Snowy Riverimage_proxy[3]Cover of To love a sunburnt countryCover of The ghost by the billabongCover of If Blood should stain the wattle

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
by Jackie French
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781460753118

Caraval: Magical fantasy

If George R. R. Martin’s Westeros of the Game of Thrones series is a magical take on an historical Britain, then the world of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is a similarly fantastical Italy.

The story starts on a sun-soaked isle, the home of heroine Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella, but inevitably progresses to the home of Caraval, where potions, wishes and magic are real and wind through it like its twisting canals (making it suggestive of an imaginary, fairy tale Venice).

Cover of Caraval

Scarlett and Tella are the daughters of the local governor, a murderous, manipulative brute from whom both sisters would love to escape. Scarlett, the elder cautious sister, hopes to do just that via an arranged marriage… but Tella has other, somewhat more adventurous ideas, involving a trip to the mysterious, magical game of Caraval.

The game is like a murder mystery dinner, but one that takes place over 5 days, involves a whole town as the set, and is infused with magic. It’s all just a game and nothing is real… but Scarlett, who is drawn into the game by her sister and is forced to hunt for her when she is abducted, comes to believe otherwise.

There are clues, chases, shadowy menacing figures, false leads, magically transforming clothes, revelatory backstories and more than a little bit of heady, romantic entanglement. Perfect, escapist, young adult, fantasy reading for a rainy weekend.

But there’s also character progression as the reader watches Scarlett discover her self-worth over the course of the book, starting out as a fearful, somewhat downtrodden character but eventually, through love for her sister and dogged determination, finding strength and confidence in her own choices.

As far as mysteries go, this one kept me guessing (and most of my guesses were wrong). The story is a bit slow to start, and if you look too closely you’ll start to find plot holes, but that said once the main characters are in the game, the pacing is such that it’s a diverting, page-turning ride to the dramatic conclusion.

Though, be warned, a couple of intriguing plot points are left deliberately open, suggesting a sequel may be in the works…

Caraval
by Stephanie Garber
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473629158

Armageddon – No, not the end of the world…

“Woo-hoo,” I said to my friend “Armageddon’s happening 11th and 12th March, yayee!”

Inexplicably she looked worried, “But I’m not ready for the end of the world yet!”

Ooh, we are obviously talking about two different events – the one I want to go to is the Armageddon Entertainment Expo which is happening in Christchurch at the Horncastle Arena, costs $15 to get in (or $6 for children aged 5-12 years), and involves lots of fun, not the one talked about in the Book of Revelations…

The Guest list shows some great people will be there:

Cover of The Scions of Shannara Cover of The Fellowship of the Ring Cover of A song of Ice and fire Cover of Snowglobe 7, Doctor Who

Or try the following –

Enjoy!