Tag: books

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I have been approaching this write up with trepidation for quite some time.  I devoured Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pretty quickly after Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.  Unlike the previous book, which moved the story along but was frankly rather disposable, it is hard to narrow down what to say about this book to a post that’s less than 5000 words.  Let’s start with the basics.  I read the majority of this 700+ page doorstop in one sitting.  Rowling, in her last Harry Potter novel, has a glorious return to form – managing to avoid most of the mistakes that have plagued creators when we get this far down the road of a saga.

Where we left Harry of course was with his discovery of Horcruxes – objects Voldemort had left all around to assure his immortality.  Harry had been taking special classes with Dumbledore where he was learning about Tom Riddle’s time at Hogwarts and his discovery of the Dark Arts.  Dumbledore had been in the process of destroying Horcruxes and he had taken Harry on a mission to find one of the Horcruxes.  However, upon his return to Hogwarts, we see the school falling into the hands of Voldemort’s Death Eaters, culminating in Snape’s murder of Dumbledore and subsequent escape.  Snape was in the Order of the Phoenix as you may recall, and Harry had been assured of his allegiance, so this betrayal was both shocking while not surprising within context.  Harry decides he has to find the other Horcruxes, and Hogwarts could wait.

This is quite the setup – but there is a LOT more plot.  This is easily the densest of the seven books – no wonder they needed two movies to cover the material remotely adequately – and while only being slightly longer than Half Blood Prince does not slow down for an instant.  Indeed, when the curtain goes up here, Voldemort is clearly winning.  He has taken over Hogwarts, and set Snape up as the headmaster.  Voldemort controls the Ministry of Magic and the Death Eaters are abound terrorizing Mudbloods (part humans) and their sympathizers.  Harry is getting to an age where some of the protection he had is starting to disappear – so they decide he has to get to the Weasleys.  However, he is also enemy number one, so how to transport him?  This trip is an exciting scene, complete with a brilliant plan that Voldemort figures out – and a safe arrival, but not without another Order member dying.

This is an important detail to me.  For a series with so much action, Harry Potter has been very serious and spare with the number of folks who actually die.  So that Rowling kills somebody we know early shows just how serious things have gotten.  Harry was lucky to escape, and if he wants to hunt down these Horcruxes, it will have to be under constant fear of Voldemort.  That Ron and Hermione want to join him only make the journey tougher.  Meanwhile, in the search for Horcruxes, another potential mission reveals itself – all of which comes to a head in the final confrontation you did not need me to tell you about.

The heart of the story is the search for the Horcruxes – and in its telling, Rowling gets down to brass tacks, focusing intensely at the fundamental relationships of this entire series.  The rich other characters we have known – the Weasleys, the Order of the Phoenix Members, Beatrix LeStrange – are almost totally ignored here as we stare down the barrel of what has mattered the most the entire time: the three friends who have endured so much, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape.  And in these relationships and tensions, the real themes of the series are laid bare – a vision of love, empathy, which comes together in a view of what personal growth is all about.

First and foremost, in its bones – The Deathly Hallows is a love story, and when I say this, I mean it in the most personal sense.  What Harry, Ron and Hermione endure in this quest are the challenges and tests of love that only enduring the ordeal they have endured together can provide.  It is the sort of thing that only comes from knowing people at their most petulant, or at their most desperate.  With the dark forces and the constant fear everyone is living with through the quest – and how isolating it has become – the strain on our heroes becomes palpable.  A scene in a makeshift camp where Ron and Hermione reveal feelings is almost unbearable to read.  How much they mean to each other gushes to the service, in a way that will get the hankies out.

But love is also challenged as more is learned about Harry’s two unresolved relationships.  Yes, in previous books we knew how close he was to Dumbledore, but Dumbledore was really presented as a postcard – a blessed saintly figure who has had to endure all sorts of lies and aspersions.  But during this journey, Harry gets to learn that some of it indeed might not have been false.  Albus was not a saint, but a complicated flawed human, who was a great man nonetheless.  But Harry has to deal with Dumbledore in complex human terms – the way I remember as I learned about my own parents being normal adults with normal adult tics and problems, and not just superheroes (or for that matter losers when I was a teen) of my youth.  Rowling develops Dumbledore with such complexity and richness, and forces Harry to deal with him, warts and all.

Conversely, Harry has to deal with what he learns about his nemesis, Snape.  The bad blood and tension between the two (and principally flowing from Harry’s direction) have fueled much of the series, but we never learned exactly what Snape was all about, and why Dumbledore still trusted him the entire way.  Late in the novel here, we get to see the entire backstory in flashback.  The Snape we learn about in flashback, was also fueled by love, in ways Harry never understood before – and ways that Snape refused to reveal.  Indeed, when Dumbledore and Snape are arguing over plans for Harry – it is Snape who pleads for Harry’s case.  It is the flipside of what Harry had to learn about Dumbledore – that here Snape was not some one dimensional horror show, but a three dimensional adult with reasons.  Now this comes a little close to “just trust grownups” for my taste, but the idea that love is all around is valuable.  Moreover, the lesson of not seeing people as one dimensionally good or bad – and accept the frailties and complexities of life – is something many grownups don’t get.  You just have to look at the proliferation of gun nuts and aspiring “freedom fighters” to get that.

Of course, there is more.  There is the Battle of Hogwarts – and the unlikely resistance leader at Hogwarts (honestly, that made me cry as much as anything else).  There is the subplot of the house elves, which has a lovely resolution too – and the final Harry and Voldemort confrontation ends the way it has to, but without being predictable or cheap.  There is Draco Malfoy, who is even given humanity here when a lesser book might have turned him into a paint by numbers villain.  (there is a lot of optimism about children generally, as there should be from us all)  There is even a useful epilogue.  The resolutions for everybody is pretty satisfying.  If there is a flaw it is that Rowling only concentrates on the core characters for the most part here, but in a sense given the trajectory of the saga, that decision is entirely defensible.  I love this series.


Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

And so, we arrive at the darkest hour.  Albus Dumbledore is dead – and Voldemort has set the Death Eaters free from Azkaban.  Indeed, Dumbledore’s death was at the hand of Harry’s bane, Severus Snape – and he is now on the run.  This is particularly a stomach punch of an ending as for the most part, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is something of a breather after the ridiculous pace and tension of the last two books.  It is, for the most part, much more a companion to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a largely Voldemort free episode of the saga where we get a lot of useful exposition, but at the expense of a riveting tale.  As these books get longer, this matters: Rowling is asking a lot of our time, and so this was relatively difficult to slog through.  You basically get a spectacular finish to an otherwise unremarkable tome.

Obviously, as we left everybody after the last book – it seems awfully hard to picture returning to Hogwarts.  How do you go back to school when you know that people in rival houses want you dead?  Of course, Harry has had a staredown already with the Malfoys – but certainly Draco starts to obsess him, including a particularly dangerous mistake early on.  He seems to be going off the map frequently – what is he hiding and what is he up to?  Certainly his mother is very worried, as was shown in the first chapter.

But even with this over his head, he has to start working on his upper level classes.  This includes Potions class with the new instructor (no Snape?  Save that one), Professor Slugworth – who provides Harry with an old Potions book.  The text is heavily annotated by the Half Blood Prince, and somehow Harry becomes a potions genius just following these notes.  Curiously the margins also seem to contain some of the darkest magic he has had to work.  Slugworth is a former Slytherin head who seems like a very interested name dropper – Dumbledore brought him in for some specific information he has, but Harry has to figure out how to get it.

Dumbledore is also giving Harry special lessons, and in some ways this is the heart of the year at Hogwarts.  Dumbledore is not teaching Harry skills – but history, the history of Voldemort.  Harry, via the Pensieve, starts to see scenes from Tom Riddle’s childhood.  How did a half-Muggle become the ultimate booster of pureblood wizarding.  How did he get so cold, and what is the pull of Hogwarts?  He and Harry have a lot of parallel history – orphans discovering their powers by accident, displaying special skills that Hogwarts seemed to help really reveal.  But the key lessons start to relate to talismans which Voldemort found valuable, and one in particular which Dumbledore brings Harry along to check out.

And of course, there is the continuing mystery of the relationship between Harry and Snape, which is the real driving human conflict at this point (it has been building such).  Harry is continually convinced of Snape’s evil intention.  Clearly Snape is not at all sympathetic to Harry outwardly – and now as the Defense Against Dark Arts teacher, he is ever more so.  But he is an Order member, and there is a nagging feeling that there is more.  After all, he has been able to kill Harry for so long and has not done so.  Dumbledore still trusts him implicitly.  That said, in the spectacular conclusion to the book as Harry returns to Hogwarts and Dumbledore dies – some very serious questions come up on Snape.  Certainly the other Order members’ trust is strained, and Harry’s own negative suspicions have much more credence.  It is hard not to think that there is still more left.

This stuff is all very interesting of course, but it is just Dumbledore showing Harry about it.  It is a lot of inside baseball, and frankly only of interest if you have been intimately familiar with the series.  Yeah, new people are not going to pick up the series here, but it prevents the book from being a great self contained entertainment, which it really ought to be for its doorstop size.  The book is fine enough and moves the ball forward – and since I’ve read the seventh book, by no means can I say that you should stop the series here or anything.  But while I have a ton to say about the resolution of the series, we could have gotten to where we are now without so much bulk.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

One of the pleasures of the last three Harry Potter novels has been the way that JK Rowling has played with the scale of the dimensions of her world.  The last couple of books, the flawed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanand the brilliant Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling has taken Harry Potter from the hero of a children’s book to a kid growing up while discovering the awesome responsibility he has been born into.  Like Frodo, or Luke Skywalker – he has started to see how things fit in – and he has stared down the barrel at his rival Lord Voldemort.  We have a sense of the battle for the wizarding world Harry has been thrust into.

But this just makes Harry Potter another epic hero – which is fine and all, but he is also a teenager.  A whiny, snively, angry sulky teenager who has been through a lot, but is increasingly less generous with his friends – and convinced that he has unique powers and understanding of what has happened to him.  It is this spirit that permeates throughout Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a thrilling novel which never relaxes its tension for one moment while advancing the themes from the earlier books.  But for all of its value as a thrilling adventure, it is a superb character study of a teenager grappling with his own issues as well as the issues facing all of Wizarding.

Per usual, we start with Harry’s return to Privet Drive – but this time, something is different.  How could it not be?  After Albus Dumbledore threw the gauntlet down so memorably in the final passages of the prior book, it is hard to think that Harry could just return without having all the chaos surrounding Voldemort’s return just not visit.  Indeed, when an unexpected Dementor encounter trips up Harry and Dudley one night – it leads to both a startling revelation about his neighbors as well as a charge for the improper use of magic.  This leads to Harry being whisked away to the hideaway of the Order of the Phoenix, an organization which had existed and has been revived, now that the Dark Lord is circling his own wagons.  Of course, we see the adults discussing matters without Harry or his friends – a fact which is increasingly not getting lost on Harry.  The resentment that is building comes through in typically teenaged outbursts.  Harry is mean to his friends, and angry that nobody is telling his what is going on.  After all, HE is the one who subdued Voldemort – who else is in a position to understand?

This happens a lot to Harry as he is trying to muck through his key fifth year at Hogwarts.  The people in the Order of the Phoenix are treating him like a kid by hiding stuff.  Dumbledore will hardly look at him – even when he shows up to bail out Harry at his Ministry of Magic trial.  The other kids at school did not get to see him battle Voldemort – they just have the word of Dumbledore that he is back, and the powerful Ministry of Magic is clearly concerned with letting that out.  Frankly, Harry’s tale strains credibility for a lot of the fellow students and their families.  Nobody understands him.  All this, and his key exams at school are coming at the same time, and of course Quidditch.

Indeed, Hogwarts starts really giving him problems, as the Ministry of Magic has started to infiltrate the school to keep a lid on the Voldemort stuff.  Among the changes they force on the school is the inclusion of Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense of Dark Arts teacher.  She prefers however, a theoretical underpinning and pooh poohing the practical need (since dark arts are a non-issue).  This of course, is insane, for anybody who has read this series at all.  Of course her insistence on this worldview and getting the students to toe the line gets her on the opposite side of Harry.  Harry’s first detention with Miss Umbridge might be the scariest scenes to date.

Umbridge herself is one of the best recent literary villains.  Committed to the Ministry of Magic’s view of things, and committed to Dumbledore’s ouster – her decrees and clashes with Harry and the rest of the students is legitimately frightening.  When she starts exerting more power over faculty, it gets even worse.  She makes my skin crawl just thinking about her as I type this.

That said, the book is not all gloom and doom.  There is some lightheartedness as Harry screws up his first dating encounters, and has his first kiss and whatnot.  Ron and Hermione’s sniping continue to amuse in the sort of way that almost makes it inevitable that they will find each other.  And then there is “big story” behind the rest of it.  On that level, this book delivers as much as Goblet as we get an encounter with the Death Eaters, and a prophecy involving Harry and Voldemort’s fates which while interesting, sort of ends up a MacGuffin at the end of it all.  In particular, the revelations about Sirius Black’s family connections and an unexpected encounter with Neville Longbottom were particularly powerful.

There is a ton to unpack in this book – it is not quite Goblet’s  equal in its impact, but is nearly as packed with plot and story and character development.  I am sure I will return to some of these, perhaps as the sixth book unfolds.  But more than anything, we get a sense of who Harry is in a deeply personal way – it is hard not to connect with him if you have had any sort of teenaged youthhood.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

There is one scene that will forever stay with me, and it was when the stakes really changed.  There are some major plot points I will tiptoe through here, so forgive me if I get a wee bit circumspect.  There is a delicious battle scene mind you, and the sort of one-on-one confrontation the first three books of the Harry Potter saga had build towards.  But this takes place a shade earlier, when the confrontation begins.  Harry Potter has achieved one of his greatest, and most impressive triumphs.  However, for many reasons – he decides to share his triumph with Cedric Diggory, fellow competitor and one of the students from another house.  But suddenly, as the victory was being anticipated, Rowling throws us out of the reverie – Harry and the other student end up transported elsewhere where almost instantly, the other student is killed.  

When I read the book (in 2 sittings, mostly on a Transatlantic flight), I could not figure out why the death of a peripheral character shook me so profoundly.  Indeed, the battle continued, Harry was able to stave off Voldemort (there are future books after all), but his mate Cedric Diggory lay there, dead.  He was just a wizard who played Quidditch, played the role of a handsome teenager and hell, I was rooting for Harry to win the prize.  But now he is gone, in a situation he had no way of anticipating, a pawn of something much larger.  What had started as a journey of personal awareness and rivalry with Harry now, in fact, really matters.  Hogwarts is in trouble, and the Wizarding community even moreso.

This is just a small part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the great works of fiction which will (and certainly ought to) certainly still matter when my own child is old enough to begin to take it on.  I had complained about Rowling’s previous attempt to expand the scale of the saga, where we were basically left with a “climax” which involved basically a bunch of people talking, but once you get this book, the entire story ties together.  This is not a rousing compliment to the previous work – you’d like these things to be free standing – but it adds to the richness of this book, a clear leap forward for the entire series, so much so that the first two books almost belong in a different genre.  

As always, we start with the goings on in Privet Drive with the Dursleys.  However, this time Rowling dispenses with Harry’s struggles fairly quickly as the Weasleys whisk him away to the Quidditch World Cup – tickets landed by Mr. Weasley due to his role with the Ministry of Magic, in a particularly hilarious encounter.  While there, things start to become very complicated, as the evening after the finale, there is a sudden appearance of a symbol significant to Voldemort’s return.  This casts a serious pall over the proceedings, as we know how scared the wizarding community is of the Dark Lord’s name.

Soon thereafter, the gang returns to Hogwarts for their fourth year – except this year it is decided that there would be another rendition of the Triwizard Tournament between Hogwarts and a couple of other Wizarding Schools.  (there are others??  You’d think Harry would transfer after all of the issues he has had to deal with).  Normally this event would be focused on seventh years, but somehow Harry is chosen.

The Triwizard Tournament is enough for a novel – at least a novel akin to the first two stories, but there is a LOT more here, and the tournament is really just an effective narrative engine.  Don’t get me wrong, the events themselves are all terrific scenes, particular one involving – well a talent that Harry didn’t actually have.  But Rowling has older readers here, and clearly senses it.  The readers can juggle a lot more, including a legitimate plot and subplot combination that is fully mature.  The Tournament works on its own, but we see the ball continue forward on all sorts of other themes:

  • Snape: Dumbledore’s loyalty to Snape has baffled Harry forever.  He seemed to be behind the plot against Harry in the first book, and he definitely loathes him.  Snape was also troubled very much by Harry’s father – Snape was certainly not one of the popular kids.  We see more on the relationship – especially where Snape’s Slytherin connection.  At this point we probably should not be doubting him.
  • Politics: One of the buried ideas in the books have been that while Harry has gone through a ton – aside from a few people, it is hard for others in the Wizarding community to believe what has happened.  After all, Voldemort is dead, right?  The Ministry of Magic has had the safety of the community as central to its image, so any idea that the Dark Lord is alive and well creates real problems.  We see newspapers spreading misinformation, head functionaries insisting “there is nothing to see here” and that “Dumbledore is an old codger”.  The final scenes in this story where Dumbledore and the head of the Ministry are staring each other down are powerful.
  • Racism: We heard the term Mudbloods as far back as the second book.  For many people, the idea of anything but pure Wizards represents inferiority.  Much of Draco Malfoy’s cruelty is rooted precisely in half-Muggles, half-Monsters.  Indeed, Voldemort’s own self loathing is central to much of what has driven him to this point.  Even in a clever subplot involving Hermione and the plight of the house-elves such as Dobby, the themes of just treating people better permeate throughout.
  • Adolescence: Sort of standing astride the larger ideas are some very personal ones.  Harry’s world is both growing more complex and shrinking.  Meanwhile, we see that he is growing more powerful as a Wizard, but every bit the scared, awkward teenager he should be, especially when he has to do the hardest thing he has ever done to date.  Women might not be the Dark Lord, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t intimidate a first timer.

But I still think of those amazing final scenes after the Tournament ends.  The sheer suddenness and quickness of Cedric Diggory’s death is as powerful a statement on death itself as anything else.  While Diggory was not really a major player (if you want to go there), one day he’s a 17 year old at the Tournament, and then seconds later dead.  There are vanquishings and magical accomplishments in the earlier stories, but to stare down the barrel at a cold blooded, normal, teenaged death is jarring.  Moreover, it was the death of an innocent – just collateral damage to this battle.  THIS is what shifts the canvas.  It’s not just a coming of age staredown with a kid and a villainous Wizard; this is a world being shattered, and people, whether they believe it or not, now truly having reason to be very afraid.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the least of the first three Harry Potter books, but indispensable all the same.  The first two books did a nice job giving us a sense of Hogwarts and Harry’s own world, as well as hinting at the complexities of Harry’s backstory.  What about his relationship with Snape?  What really happened that night when his parents died?  Who were his parents?  Why is Voldemort after Harry in particular?  Azkaban offers a lot of answers here – we learn a lot about Harry, but Rowling does it at the expense of storytelling.  What we end up with is a number of exciting scenes, and a lot of exposition – but the entire recipe does not quite precisely work.

But we’ll get to that in a little bit.  Where did we leave Harry?  But of course, we start with him back at the Dursleys.  As usual, things are not going particularly well.  We learn that there is an escaped prisoner Sirius Black on the loose – at least on Muggle television it seems – and Harry is having his usual difficult times.  Vernon and Petunia still loathe him and love their increasingly portly son Dudley.  Indeed, when Vernon’s sister shows up – she adds to the fun by talking about what a problem child Harry is.  Harry knows he can’t practice magic in Muggle world, but sometimes – things happen.  This one is particularly funny.  As Harry makes his own escape, he ends up on the Knight Bus, where Black turns up to be a very prominent figure in the Magic World also.  Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, the Wizard Prison where Hagrid was sent in the prior novel – and he is alleged to have committed a murder.

It’s a particularly big deal when a Wizard criminal is also being outed as a Muggle one – it’s a high profile case, and Harry is kept close by the Ministry of Magic.  Hogwarts has also been facing new security due to this threat – manned by Dementors, particularly nasty creatures who eat souls and who guard the prison. Indeed, Harry faints every time he sees them.  Back at Hogwarts, this makes things difficult for him, especially when Dementors are at Quidditch matches or on the Hogwarts express.

Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, Harry has another year to trudge through.  Ron and Hermoine are still by his side, though Hermoine’s pet cat is giving Ron’s old family rat Scabbard a good scare.  It definitely causes quite a bit of tension throughout.  Hermoine’s overachieving in class reaches another level – as her class load seems impossibly large this year.  Some of the same professors are still at work – Snape seems to hate Harry even more, if that was at all possible.  The new Dark Arts teacher though, Remus Lupin, is a prize – and actually gave the students some useful advice, as opposed to Gilderoy Lockhart from the prior book.

All of the Hogwarts stuff is pretty good here.  Hagrid as the Magical Creatures teacher is particularly sweet, and his idea of appropriate lessons is very funny.  I particularly liked the introduction of Professor Trelawney, the Divination professor.  It sounds like a bullshit field to me too, although the way the class is run, and her own ways of sounding dire are consistently hilarious – and more or less how I’d imagine a Divination class to be.

But of course, there has to be more to the story than lolling about Hogwarts.  We still have Black to deal with, and this is where the book starts to slag a bit.  I recognize this is a big step up in complexity compared to the first two books, but we get an AWFUL lot of talking here.  First, in a crucial scene at the wizard village of Hogsmeade, we get to hear the Ministry’s view of Sirius Black and his connection to Harry Potter (it’s not a spoiler!  There had to be one, no??!!)  It is interesting, crucial information (particularly once you read the next book – and you must) but we are really just forced to sit through someone else telling us something.

This though, gets much worse in the crucial climax to the story.  Let me tread lightly here on the facts.  Essentially, our heroic three – for whatever – reason, have been dragged into a secret location, and Sirius and Harry meet.  And then Sirius explains how he knows Harry relative to the version Harry had heard before.  Sirius knew Harry’s father – nay, was close friends with him.  Fair enough.  But then we get a very long winded explanation of the dynamic, the murder Sirius is suspected of, and the one that is actually happening.  We also get some mistaken identity, and – God help me – time travel.  What we get a lack of is any real high stakes conflict here for Harry.  Yeah he gets to save somebody, which is nice – but it doesn’t really move the Voldemort ball along, and the scene lacked the sheer excitement of his first two conflicts.  Also, aside from a brief flash of his own abilities, we don’t get a ton new about Harry’s battles or the themes of growing into one’s own which Rowling mined so well previously.

The book that Azkaban evokes more than any other to me in this manner is A Feast for Crows, the fourth of the George RR Martin books.  There is a lot of information that Rowling needed to get out of there, and trust me – it pays off very much in the next book – but there was not really a compelling novel here, not the way she tells the story.  It’s too bad.  This certainly was not bad enough to skip the rest of the series – but it definitely did hit the tastebuds the way the first two books did.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The first time I tried to write this review, I kept on thinking of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. in terms of children’s books – and picturing Rowling’s audience, and how they have grown and the book grew up with it.  But the more I kept reading it, I could not get over what sort of pseudo-academic dirge came out of me and onto these virtual pages.  Screw whether my daughter would like it (she would, but maybe not now when she’d be more likely to tear or chew it), this is a terrific entertainment, a worthy sequel to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, taking Harry’s world and not just re-hashing, but expanding the world and raising the stakes.  Along the way, we see Harry start to have to really contend with things, and with it author JK Rowling sneakily tells a powerful story about personal identity.

Just like in the first book, we start with the Dursleys.  Harry is back here spending the summer after his long, strange, twisted first year at Hogwarts.  As you might recall, and certainly Rowling recaps, Harry is not welcome with his aunt and uncle – pure Muggles – who have a great distrust of magic, let alone Petunia Dursley’s witch sister’s orphaned son.  They have taken care of him, but clearly their increasingly portly son Dudley has taken the brunt of the love.  Once again, Rowling shows traces of Roald Dahl in the portrayal of a truly odious, bourgeois in the worst sort of way, family.  Little Harry stands out here, and you can see a world he is intensely uncomfortable in.  How can a little boy fit in – certainly that need for acceptance from others is understandable.  He clearly is not a welcome part of this clan.  It is not too much of a spoiler to say that Harry returns to Hogwarts and gets to escape the Dursleys – and like in the first book, it is one of the best scenes in the book.

So, hooray, Harry is back at Hogwarts – but of course it can’t be that simple.  The faculty continues to change, with the famous (and as it turns out, a classic “famous academic”) Gilderoy Lockhart taking over as Dark Arts Defense teacher.  Of course the previous dark arts teacher tried to kill Harry (well, ok not HIM specifically) so much suspicion is warranted.  Of course, Snape inspired much suspicion in the first book – so here we have some expansion of the canvas by Rowling.  The scenes with Lockhart are funny – and his continual suspicions with the Famous Harry Potter are very inconvenient for Harry, who is just trying to be a regular student.

But that is just the staff – what about the students?  Yeah, you’d think that saving Hogwarts once would earn him lasting affection, but of course for Harry Potter it is not that simple.  Hermione, Ron and Harry grow closer than ever, but here the book develops the dynamic with Draco Malfoy, Harry’s rival from Slytherin.  He also makes a very useful guy to suspect when things go wrong.

And sure enough, things go wrong – again.  (if nothing else, these books have been poor advertisements for Hogwarts as a safe campus for children – or anyone else)  We see people coming up petrified, and Harry being inconveniently located when the crimes are discovered.  In particular, during one time, when he tries to convince those of his innocence, some of his wizard heritage ends up doing the opposite.  The kid that wants to fit in so badly in a world where he has stuck out like a sore thumb, it gets even worse.

This does not hint at the additional layers of plot of course.  There is a diary and an old student, and of course another encounter with Voldemort.  There is another chance to save Hogwarts – although I suspect Harry will have to reprove himself again.  There is also Ron’s little sister matriculating, as well as a haunted toilet, as well as a hint about Hagrid’s past and his expulsion from the school.  There is just a LOT more here compared to the much more linear plot of the first book.  I don’t think the book is any more difficult to read or follow for sure – but it clearly assumes the audience can handle a bit more, and as a non-kiddo reader, I am grateful.  I felt a letdown when the book was over – and that of course, is the best compliment of them all.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Is it possible that I am the last person on Earth to have dove into the Harry Potter series.  Undoubtedly this is possible – certainly the life partner has read the books, seen the movies etc.  I remember my friends in grad school preparing for the midnight openings and whatnot.  I always sort of glossed over it – I am not sure precisely why – they seemed like kids books (or whatever that means), and there is only so much time in the day to consume stuff.

Preamble aside though, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a terrific book.  It is terrific in all of the obvious ways that a good piece of fiction should be – the plot is absorbing, the scenes crackle with life, and the protagonists and villains are quirkily drawn.  But it is good in harder to see areas – including a writing style which complements the action perfectly.  It is hard to imagine a better piece of “children’s fiction”.

What is funny about reading the book now is that it is really a story virtually everybody knows – I have seen bits and pieces of movies (they are pretty much unavoidable if you have good cable), so even I can’t say I came to this in the dark.  Can I really spoil this?  In any case, as everybody probably knows by now, the first of the Harry Potter books concerns his arrival at, and his eventual first year at Hogwarts, the vaunted school of magic, sorcery and such.  But of course, it is not that simple – even in the beginning.

Rowling, in the tradition of the origin story – shows us Harry before Hogwarts, but takes the time to have fun with it.  We start with a portrait of the Dursleys, a decidedly un-magical family in London with a properly spoiled brat of a son named Dudley.  The details here would have made Roald Dahl weep with joy – as for some reason I was reminded of The Twits as we hear of what classical bourgeois awfulness the family embodied.  To them arrives their nephew Harry (and nearby a very interested feline) – but a nephew whose mother (Mrs. Dursley’s sister) is a subject of great consternation.  Of course Harry’s mother and father were famous in the land of wizards – as you can imagine, there is some X-Men Mutants on Earth level resentment.

This resentment, and the Dursley’s ensuing cruelty lead to both some sympathy for Harry as well as some comic relief.  There is sufficient British wit here to show what buffoons these “muggles” are.  Through these scenes we start to notice oddities – how things just seem to happen around Harry, especially when he is upset.  He seems to be able to talk to snakes or something and perhaps even transport himself.  Of course the folks in the magic side of town know this as well.  The scenes where Hogwarts tries to contact Harry are particular funny.  When he is finally whisked away, there is a sense of triumph – even if we have barely started his journey.

Throughout the book, Rowling is giving a lot of background – but without really stopping the action.  We learn of the various students – Hermoine Granger, Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom.  There is a lot to keep track of, and Rowling uses a sort of literary typecasting to help us along.  Hermoine is the know it all, Ron is the guy whose older siblings went to school there, Neville could use a hug, Harry is a sort of everyman (at least for now) – all stuff we either knew (or were) in grade school.  We meet faculty, rival houses, and even learn about what Quidditch is.  Here, Rowling’s world seems boundless – she has imagined this world pretty fully, plundering lore certainly, but in a way that the corners are certainly filled.

Fortunately though, this is not all exposition.  A plot slowly starts to form as we start seeing parts of the school where students are forbidden.  We see professors and groundskeepers being evasive to the students.  As this happens, Harry, Hermoine and Ron start to get suspicious.  They go to the library and eventually discover the Sorcerer’s Stone and its ability to provide eternal life.  These elements are handled as a good, fast moving thriller.  Harry’s discovery and eventually the pursuit of the secret (really a MacGuffin here) are appropriately exciting and page turning – certainly something that any young reader would appreciate I’d think.  Even the resolution closes this story nicely while providing ample mystery for the future.

Overall, this was about fifty times better than I was expecting – the second book cannot come soon enough.