Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Revisiting Potter, Part 5: The Order of the Phoenix

In The Order of the Phoenix, Harry has been spending another long summer with the Dursleys at Privet Drive with no contact from the wizarding world. And that's distressing, considering his experiences the past spring and the return of Voldemort. A lot happens in Harry's world in this, the longest book in the series. And when I say long, I mean it. LONG. Too long. Way, way too long! [Seriously, it legit took three entire chapters for Harry to even leave Privet Drive.]

But though it could've desperately used a good edit, this installment is just as fun as the rest. I continue to be just as entertained as the first time I read the series! The plot is now getting highly complicated, featuring a more complex array of grown up experiences and feelings—anger, jealousy, confusion, inferiority, uncertainty. And I think that's the most notable new level reached in The Order of the Phoenix; Harry (and his friends) are seeing things for themselves rather than what they're told to see. They are forced to make their own opinions about rules; they make decisions based on what they see and feel rather than do as they're told; and they begin to understand the importance of perspective and gray areas. The Hogwarts student body starts their own secret Defense of the Dark Arts club because they don't agree with a theoretical rather than practical education. They question the official word coming from the Ministry of Magic, about the "non-return" of Voldemort, and understand that denial is the reason behind this disbelief. And, most notably for our hero, Harry sees a new side of his father in his relationship with Snape, one that has him considering other sides to the story he's always believed. For this introduction into the complexities of life, I think this book took an awesome step forward.

Since my last installment of "Revisiting Potter," I've moved back home to Nashville, which means I'm now about a block and a half away from my three school-aged nephews. And after years of urging, the eldest, an 11-year-old, has finally decided he's not too cool for fantasy and is reading the whole Harry Potter series for the very first time! Coincidentally enough, we just happened to be on the same book at the same time, so I thought it'd be fun to get him involved in these posts. It's fun to hear a younger reader's first experience with these stories since they've held a place in my cultural consciousness for so long!

Meet my nephew Jack, who's not only reading the series for the first time but is also watching their movie companions for the first time as well!


What were your initial thoughts on this book? How did it compare to the others?

Some parts got too complicated. It switched from one thing to another real quick, and I was thinking his words were thoughts. It was still as good as the others, but it was way too long. They're all good, though.

What was your favorite part of Book 5?

Probably where he tries to use the mirror and totally shatters it. No no, when Harry tries to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange, because it's when Harry tries to take revenge. 

And your least favorite part?

Probably when they're sitting in Grimmauld Place just waiting. Because it's boring.

Harry showed a lot more emotion in this book than the previous ones. Do you think he's justified in his behavior? Would you have acted the same way as Harry?

No, I wouldn't be so moody or at least I would try not to be. I wouldn't take everything out on my friends. He's too whiny. "Poor me, if my parents wouldn't have died, I'd be fine right now."

What do you think is going to happen in the next book? What do you hope will happen?

Since there's a 7th book, he can't die. I'm guessing that Ron or Hermione gets murdered and Snape kills Dumbledore. I hope Harry kills Snape, Voldemort, and Bellatrix. And Malfoy. 

Who is your favorite character and why?

Ron. He's always "Cheer up, mate!" with his English accent.

And what do you think of the movies so far?

I like them. They're not as good as the books but still good.


Making his librarian aunt proud.

We're going to have to do some covert operation to get Jack the next in the series, The Half-Blood Prince, because, as an elementary student, he's apparently not allowed to check it out from his school's library; it's "too violent." [Censorship!] So join us for the next installment once we've defied the system and gotten our hands on it!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Reading Roundup: Women's Fiction

I remember how huge Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap was when it first came out; this was a book that women came to Sunday School talking about, read during the week, and passed along to another reader the next Sunday. I maintain that in the year 2000, word of mouth had spread Big Stone Gap through women's circles of probably many southern church communities. Well, I guess I was just 14 years behind schedule.

Ave Maria Mulligan is our unconventional narrator—at least, unconventional by the standards of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. She's 35 and unmarried and is such a part of the town that, as the pharmacist, knows just how to handle everyone's little eccentricities. Her life never seemed unpredictable but suddenly it's like the stars are out of line and everything new is happening at once, offering Ave Maria new opportunities she never even imagine. I guess I have to go with the church ladies on this one; wonderfully quirky and lighthearted with a main character to root for—I can understand the mass appeal, because you just want to see where Ave Maria's life leads her. Fortunately for me now in 2014, the success of this one did lead to three more in the series!


So Beth Patillo's Jane Austen Ruined My Life is one I would maaaaybe consider more as "chick-lit" than "women's fiction," because it's really just a romance at its root. But hey, we're a judgment-free zone on this blog, and chick-lit is definitely fine by me! (Although, I will complain if some of their premises are just ridiculous!!) Also to note, this book is the first in Patillo's series of Austen-inspired novels, but they're each an independent story, not a continuous series.

In Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Emma is an English professor that has just been discredited both personally and professionally—her god of a professor husband has just cheated on her and subsequently that "other woman," formerly her own TA, has accused Emma of stealing work and calling it her own. To escape, Emma heads to a cousin's in the London suburbs to regroup and try and find the famed but elusive lost letters of Jane Austen. If you've read any amount of chick-lit, you can probably figure out how the plot is going to go, but it's quick and enjoyable, and the extra mystery of Jane Austen letters is intriguing. Plus, Patillo has a nice, conversational writing style that is lighthearted and not obnoxious.


My favorite of this batch was an NPR-featured book, The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. This story follows three friends—Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean—from their adolescent life in the 60s to their middle-aged present. They've always lived in their same Indiana town with the one constant in their life being Earl's diner, where you can find them in their same booth every Sunday for lunch.

Though I wasn't very impressed with this at the beginning, I got so into it that I read the whole thing in about a day. The characters are wonderful; Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean are so incredibly different from each other, and Moore, thankfully, treats them equally, giving life to all three of his characters in vivid detail. The storytelling is compelling with perspective hopping from past memory to present-day, giving the reader the insight needed to understand the depth of Moore's "Supremes." It's obviously a character-driven, rather than plot-driven, story, and the best kind where you barely care what it is that happens because the entertainment is in reading how your characters deal with it. I find it amazing how well this male author voiced three very distinct women characters! The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat tells the story of very normal things happening to very normal (but extraordinary, lovable) individuals with humor, wit, and a lot of heart—much more than just a "fun" read.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Nonfiction | Riding Through Argentina

Before our travels, I scoured the public library's eBook offerings to find anything relating to our destinations—preferably more than just travel guides. In my search for Argentina, I was happy to come up with a travel memoir by Polly Evans called On a Hoof and a Prayer: Exploring Argentina at a Gallop. This was perfect—here was another experience of a place we were going and, particularly, a part of the culture I had been keen to explore myself; Argentina's gaucho history was something on my list to discover while there.

From my understanding and experience, the gaucho is one of the remaining peripheral cultures that represent a rural, traditional way of life in Argentina. Much of central Argentina is covered in a landscape known as the pampas—vast grassland that has been cultivated for crops and livestock. The "gaucho" would be known in English as a cowboy, and it's a culture that has evolved from a renegade gypsy lifestyle of stealing horses to one that maintains the land and promotes horsemanship.

So now that you've got a cultural backdrop, I'll actually talk about the book!

Evans journeyed to Argentina from her home in England with a mission to master horse-riding, a skill she'd always dreamed about, as any good young English girl is supposed to. Here, though, there are no fancy riding outfits, and the style is far from prim and proper. Evans navigates her way through the country's many regions, learning to ride but discovering the country's history and culture along the way.

I find myself more wary of memoirs as time passes, following my husband's line of thinking and finding them often too self-indulgent. I like memoirs that capture a unique moment of time or a unique experience; what do I care about random person's trip to Europe who thinks herself so cute that she feels the need to share her experience with the world? Evans, though, does a really good job of balancing her own experiences with loads of information on Argentina's history and culture. This was especially fun to read while actually being there, because I was actually learning and could see things firsthand. For me, this memoir didn't fall in the category of annoying, because Evans wrote her stories straightforward, without a forced level of comedy or quirk. It's like she recognizes that her experience wasn't any more special than another person's own unique experience, so she used them as a jumping off point to enlighten the reader about a certain place and culture, perhaps inspiring you to explore it for yourself. It was easy, enjoyable, and educational.

Or maybe I'm just slightly biased, because it's always more fun when you can see it firsthand; but I think Evans is an author I'd be keen to read more from—she's been loads more places and written much about it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading Roundup: Historical Southern Fiction

Robert Hicks' The Widow of the South hits close to home, geographically speaking. Set in 1864 near the end of the Civil War, this novel takes one small part of that four year conflict and tells a detailed story of one town, one family, and how they were affected by the most bitter conflict in US history.

The Battle of Franklin was one of the most disastrous conflicts for the Confederacy, resulting in thousands of casualties from just one day of fighting. Carnton Plantation (a real place near Nashville that happens to be a beautiful modern-day wedding venue!) was right in the middle of the battle and taken over by troops as a field hospital to tend to the injured and dying. In Hicks' story, Carrie McGavock (also a real person) is forced to face the horrors of the war as they literally arrive on her doorstep. As she works with the soldiers and sees the effects of the war firsthand, she finds the strength and passion to stand up for the individual lives that war so caustically simplifies as mere numbers.

This book was partly fascinating just because its setting is one that's very familiar. And contrary to what you may believe, local Civil War battles are not something we learned in school—so I knew very little about the historic events around which this novel takes place! It's also fascinating that much of this story, though fiction, is based on real people and places. Hicks clearly thoroughly researched the time and place and created a very detailed account of the affects of this war. That being said, this is a long book, and I thought it dragged in several places. When I say Hicks was detailed, I mean it. I finished with a better opinion of this book than I had during reading it, which is a rare sentiment, but I was left inspired to further investigate the real story on my own. Also, my mom and sister both loved this.


I last read Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns back in my 10th grade English class, and I remembered nothing more other than my mom also reading it and liking it. It was this memory that inspired me to pick it up again and read it as a grown-up.

Cold Sassy, Georgia, is the type of small town where everybody knows everything about everybody else just about as soon as it happens. It's summer 1906 and the talk of the town is how Will Blakeslee's grandfather has up and married the young Miss Simpson less than a month after his beloved wife has been buried. Our fourteen-year-old narrator Will finds himself in the middle of the scandal, observing the reactions of the town and his family, and trying to see the subjective side of what's happening around him.

For one, the time period of this story is really fun. It's the turn of the century when modern luxuries are a conversation piece. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, automobiles—there's an excitement in the air about what's coming next. As a narrator, Will is fascinating to read, because he's old enough to understand that there's always more than one way to read a story. He's trying to view the world from an adult, unbiased perspective, and he gains an understanding that everyone has their own reasons for their actions. That's a valuable lesson to learn. I'm glad I read Cold Sassy Tree again; it's an enjoyable, humorous story with a lot of heart. Though, I can't imagine it appealing to too many 10th graders—not provocative enough!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fiction | The Quietest Most Eventful Summer

Gail Godwin's Flora is a quiet book. There's no climactic plot line, no gut-wrenching relationships, nor any other real dramatic element. However, this is a book filled with tension simmering to the brim, told eloquently by our precocious 10-year-old narrator, Helen.

Helen is going through one of the rougher patches of her short life—her grandmother and main caregiver Nonie has just passed away and her dad is spending the summer in Oak Ridge doing important war work as WWII draws to a close. While he's gone, he's left Helen in the charge of her long-deceased mother's cousin, Flora. And the personality differences between these two could not be greater.

Describing Helen simply as "precocious" is not nearly descriptive enough. She's incredibly smart but also intuitive and confident and possesses a haughty attitude more typical of a smart-aleck 16-year-old than of someone her age. She's mirrored Nonie's perspectives and attitudes and experiences the world with a more mature level of cynicism, as if she already knows how it all works; she's realistic and reads people for (what she believes) they are rather than how they appear. Flora, on the other hand, is bubbly and outgoing, but her personality is usually just a mask for her lack of self-confidence. She's constantly questioning her own thoughts and actions and desperately needs someone to guide her through young adulthood. Channeling a Nonie-level of knowledge and life experience, Helen immediately considers herself superior to the anxious and inexperienced Flora.

With our two conflicting protagonists isolated in Helen's crumbling old house, Flora explores these clashes of personality between two characters who are each at a poignant moment in their adolescent development and who each desperately need the guidance that Nonie once provided.

I describe this as a "quiet" book, because in this long and uneventful summer is where the meat of the story lies; as the reader, we are constantly assessing and re-assessing the interactions between Helen and Flora with consideration to each's perspective. Helen is remarkably astute for her age, but we as the reader are able to see that the world according to Helen is still skewed with an immature misunderstanding. These are brilliantly crafted characters that allow a lot to be read between the lines. It doesn't feel particularly complex as you read, but the story has depth; these characters—their differences, their misunderstandings, their flaws—will stick with you.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading Roundup: Sweeping Sagas

Because it's probably hard to keep track of my reading tastes from 4 years of random blog posts, I'm just gonna state as a fact that I love sweeping historical fiction sagas. Love 'em. I will devour them. And because such novels are often chunksters, not only are the stories enjoyable, they feel extra rewarding when you finally get through them! I've read a couple lately that I'd recommend to any other fan of such types of books.


The first is another Rosamunde Pilcher pick, Winter Solstice. As I've posted before, she has become one of my favorite authors I would've never picked up, because, if you remember, she was cursed with a publicity department that made all her book covers look like romance novels. And not that there's anything wrong with that genre, it just scares off some folks and is also deceptive...these aren't romance novels!

The main character of Winter Solstice is the middle-aged Elfrida Phipps who's just moved to the quaint village of Hampshire and befriended a local family—Oscar, a retired musician, his wife Gloria, and their preteen daughter Francesca. Then we have Carrie, a young woman returning to England after the end of a relationship in Austria; and Sam, a young man returning to England after a failed marriage in New York to revive a local textile mill. Each having suffered their own tragedies, these people converge at Corrydale, a cozy old Scottish estate, where they each aim to escape and find solace.

Of course their lives intermingle as relationships form between Pilcher's characters that each have their own very different past. Creating these relationships is what Pilcher is good at. Everyone has a story, and everyone is likable; the tragedies and pitfalls are always situational, never the fault of cruelness or selfishness in others. Her stories highlight the positive attributes of people with an always optimistic tone. The endings will always be happy, so I guess in that sense, she does follow the rules of Romance. All Pilcher's novels I've read have a cozy setting, and this one particularly so—perfect for cold winter days bundled under a blanket!


The other family saga I recommend is Leila Meacham's Roses. Set in small-town Texas where cotton, timber, and textiles are in the town's very foundation, Roses tells the story of the three industries' founding families and the choices that led them where they are today.

The story opens with the last day of Mary Toliver's life, when the reader finds out a last-minute change to her will is going to bequeath her cotton empire to timber tycoon Percy Warwick instead of her niece, the always-intended successor. What follows is a decades-long history that explains Mary's decision, revealing the relationships, secrets, and tragedies that have defined the Tolivers, Warwicks, and Dumonts.

Like Winter Solstice, Roses is a chunkster, but it also reads very fast. The narrative jumps between past and present keep attention without confusing and slowly reveal new pieces to the puzzle. Mary Toliver is a really headstrong, independent, and passionate character that you want to fully understand, and you keep reading with the hope the story will help you do so. Ultimately, the story is about making choices about what's most important in your life and living with those consequences. I thought the ending wrapped up a little quickly, but it didn't detract from the reading experience before that; I wasn't ready to see the conclusion of these characters!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fiction | Secrets & Lies in a Thrilling Sophomore Novel

Several months ago, I was sent Justin Kramon's newest book, The Preservationist, after reading and loving his debut novel, Finny. If you've read Finny, let me just say...this follow-up is not similar in style and theme! Kramon has gone dark with his sophomore novel. The Preservationist is all thriller, where you don't know who's good, who's bad, who you can trust, and who's hiding something.

The perspective of this one varies from chapter to chapter, a characteristic I really enjoy in novels. There are three main characters—Sam, Julia, and Marcus—and as the story is told, their lives intersect and relationships are formed. 

The voice we hear most often is that of Sam—a quiet guy working as a cook in the dining hall of the local college. He's approaching his 40th birthday, but he's young-looking and enjoys his work atmosphere surrounded by energetic youth. Kramon seems to write him as one with a bit of arrested development; it's surprising to find out how old he is, because he's constantly questioning his life and past relationships as would someone typically much younger. 

If we hear Sam's voice most often, it's Julia that is most often the focus. She's a freshman at the college and immediately grabs Sam's attention; she's the one that could make up for all those failed relationships of his past. He's smitten with her, and she shows interest too, but Julia is a bit scarred from a tragedy in her own past that she's having trouble coming to terms with.

Then we have Marcus, another guy smitten with Julia. They share several classes and a love of music, but Marcus also his own secrets, so as you can see, we're never really sure who to trust. Especially when violence breaks out on campus with girls disappearing.

I didn't dislike The Preservationist, but it is definitely not what I was expecting!! "Thriller" might actually be the wrong descriptor for it; my heart was pounding like I was watching a horror movie... and I do not like horror movies, because they are scary and it gets they stay in my head and then I can't sleep and become mistrustful of people! 

So in regards to this, Kramon did an excellent job of scaring the crap out of me. [Do not read late at night nor when you are home alone!] Until the climactic ending, I really never knew who to trust and who to fear. So props to you sir, for your excellent creepy writing, but now I'm going to go watch cartoons and the Disney Channel.