childrens

Review: The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, Kirsty Murray

This review is part of the Discover Aussie Fantasy feature, running during July on The Oaken Bookcase. You can find details of the feature and enter the giveaway on the Aussie Fantasy page!


The Four Seasons of Lucy MckenzieThe Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie (Goodreads)
Author: flag_aus Kirsty Murray (website)

Rating: ★★★★★

Lucy McKenzie can walk through walls. Sent to stay with her aunt Big in a hidden valley, Lucy discovers the old house is full of mysteries. One hot night, she hears a voice calling from inside a painting on the dining-room wall…

On the other side of the painting, Lucy meets three children. Together they race horses through the bush, battle fires and floods, and make friendships that will last a lifetime. But who are April, Tom and Jimmy Tiger, and what magic has drawn Lucy to them?

Details

Series: Stand alone
Genre: Middle grade Urban Fantasy (Time travel!)
Published: Allen & Unwin, 24 July 2013
Pages: 199
My copy: the publisher for review (thanks!)

Paper copies: Book Depository (Aug 1) •  Booktopia (Aug 1) • Bookworld
E-copies:   Not available yet..

Review

The room was full of moon shadows and dancing light. But it was the wall around the window that Lucy couldn’t stop staring at, the one with the painting of Spring. It was as bright as a sunny day, and the tiny yellow flowers that covered the fields were moving, as if a breeze had blown through the painting and set all the petals dancing.

When her sister is injured overseas, Lucy McKenzie is sent to stay with her Aunty Big in her old country house west of Sydney for a while. At first, Lucy hates the remote location and lonely old house of Avendale, until one night, she finds she is able to walk through one of the beautiful paintings that cover the walls in the dining room and finds herself in a different Avendale, with a strangely familiar young girl called April. Over the next few nights, Lucy is able to move through different paintings into the different seasons of that other Avendale, experiencing bushfires, floods and the advent of war, and discovering amazing things about her own family past and present.

Throughout the whole story, Lucy develops a love for Avendale and the beautiful valley surrounding it. The images of the bushland around the house, the river and of Pulpit Rock, up in the hills, are very evocative and it reminds me of childhood camping holidays spent exploring bushland (although we didn’t have any horses to ride!).

This story is like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for Aussie kids. The idea of being able to walk into a wall-sized painting is a brilliant one – I remember being about eight years old myself, wishing I could walk through a picture of a forest covering one wall of a house we stayed in for a short time! I just loved that the old Avendale house was still standing all that time later – it makes me wonder what stood on the site of my own house some eighty years ago – possibly an old house like Avendale!

Children of all ages (including grown-up children) will love this story.

About the Author

Kirsty MurrayKirsty Murray writes books for children and teenagers. She was born in Melbourne where she first discovered the power of a good story. Kirsty now spends most of her time reading, writing and hanging out in libraries all around the world.

Kirsty’s works includes ten novels as well as many other books for young people. Her novels have won and been shortlisted for many awards and published internationally. Kirsty writes for young people because they are a universal audience. Not everyone lives a long life but every human being was once a child and the child inside us never disappears.

(Bio and photo from kirstymurray.com)

Review: Dragonkeeper, Carole Wilkinson

This review is part of the Discover Aussie Fantasy feature, running during July on The Oaken Bookcase. You can find details of the feature and enter the giveaway on the Aussie Fantasy page!


DragonkeeperDragonkeeper (Goodreads)
Author: flag_aus Carole Wilkinson (website)

Rating: ★★★★☆

In the year 141 B.C., Ping is an illiterate Chinese orphan who lives on the edge of one of the Emperor’s least-used royal palaces. Her master is a boorish drunk who neglects his duties as Imperial Dragon Keeper. Under his watch, the Emperor’s dragons have dwindled from a magnificent dozen to a miserable two. When the next to last dies, the remaining dragon, Long Danzi, coaxes Ping into helping him flee to the faraway ocean.

Early on in the journey, Ping knows the dragon and the mysterious purple stone he carries are very special. But how is it that a grubby slave girl has come to be the keeper of the last imperial dragon? Only when the friends reach their destination will Ping be able to see herself as Danzi sees her, and learn to use the unique talents she alone possesses.

Details

Series: Dragonkeeper #1
Genre: Middle grade High Fantasy
Published: Black Dog Books (Walker Books Australia), 2008 (originally published 2003)
Pages: 343
My copy: Library

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository • Barnes & Noble
E-copies:  Amazon.co.uk • Bookworld (epub)

Review

In ancient China, a young slave girl lives at one of the Emperor’s palaces, looking after the animals and her cruel master. She doesn’t mind most of the animals, but finds the two dragons particularly ungrateful creatures. When one of them dies, she discovers that her master plans to sell the last dragon to a dragon hunter, and she decides to free him, freeing herself in the process. She soon discovers, much to her surprise, that she can understand and speak with the dragon.

The dragon, Long Danzi, tells the girl that her name is Ping and she must travel with him to the Ocean and look after him and the mysterious dragon stone. On the journey, they encounter many strange obstacles including necromancers, the evil dragon hunter and the Emperor himself. Ping must learn to control the power of Qi if she is to keep herself, Danzi and the dragon stone out of trouble and get them to the Ocean.

Dragonkeeper was the winner of the Aurealis Award for best young adult book, and also the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year in 2004. It’s not hard to see why – this is a tale of a young girl realising her own worth, discovering her powers and beating overwhelming odds. The ancient China of the story is brought to life, not just through the beautiful descriptions of the land and the scenery, but also through the people and creatures who populate it – some cruel and downright evil, others kind and gentle.

The story is told in a simple way without over-complicating anything, and even the most serious moments are made lighter by witty comments from Ping or Danzi from time to time. I loved how their relationship developed and was heartbroken at the end – but I’ll be catching up with the next part of the story to find out what happens.

There are some pretty harsh themes in this story – human sacrifice, animal cruelty, using body parts for magic and slavery might all be a bit much for the very young to cope with, but I think that any older middle-grade reader would devour this book. Don’t be put off by its 340-odd pages, the print in my edition was rather large so it was a quick read.

Children’s literature should have more dragons in it! I loved this book, and any other dragon-lover (of any age) should too.

Warnings: Violence (including towards children)

Dragonkeeper series

Dragonkeeper gardenpurpledragon dragonmoon bloodbrothers

About the Author

carolewilkinsonCarole was born in England. Her family moved to Australia when she was 12. She now lives in Melbourne, with her husband John.

Carole didn’t start writing until she was nearly 40. Before that, she worked as a laboratory assistant, working with a lot of blood and brains. Once she’d decided to try and become a writer, she went to university. She wrote a lot while she was there including her first novel. She showed it to a friend who worked in publishing who asked if she could write a teenage novel. Her first published book was based on something her daughter, who was at high school at the time, was doing.

Carole says she has lots of ideas and so far she’s never had ‘writers’ block’. She might have got a late start, but she’s been trying to make up for lost time and has written more than 30 books, some short stories, a telemovie and some TV and planetarium scripts.

(Bio and image from Goodreads)

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling

hp5Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Goodreads)
Author: Flag_uk J.K. Rowling (website) (twitter)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Harry Potter is due to start his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His best friends Ron and Hermione have been very secretive all summer and he is desperate to get back to school and find out what has been going on. However, what Harry discovers is far more devastating than he could ever have expected…

Details

Series: Harry Potter #5 of 7
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Published: Bloomsbury, 2003
Pages: 766

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies:
Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk  Barnes & Noble

Review

The long summer has dragged on, and despite experiencing a terrible and traumatic event with the death of Cedric and the resurrection of Lord Voldemort at the end of his fourth year, Harry is left horribly isolated with his aunt and uncle at Little Whinging. None of his friends or teachers contacts him or offers him any information about what might be going on in the wizarding world, so it’s not entirely unexpected that Harry, probably suffering from Post-traumatic stress, is incredibly moody and upset at everything in the first half of this book.

To top it all off, not only is the Daily Prophet printing articles calling Harry (and Professor Dumbledore) unhinged and mentally unstable, but the Ministry sends Dolores Umbridge to oversee education at Hogwarts.

Imelda Staunton as Professor Umbridge

Imelda Staunton as Professor Umbridge

Ah yes, Dolores Umbridge. Here is a woman who, despite not being a follower of You-Know-Who, still does an excellent impression of a dark witch – punishing students in horrible and unconventional ways, taking away privileges and has the most outspoken prejudices against “half-breeds” of any villain in the series so far. As she steadfastly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned and that the fifth-years need to know anything about Defence Against the Dark Arts, the students start up their own group called “Dumbledore’s Army”, taught by Harry himself. This gives them a release from the stresses of their school life and gives readers a great opportunity to see more of characters such as Neville and Luna, who are often pushed aside when the action starts. Even Ginny gets more page-time in this book, even if she does spend most of it with Dean Thomas.

The fifteen-year old students are starting to pair up and Harry finally gets together with Cho Chang, his crush of the past couple of years. It’s such an awkward relationship – Cho is clearly rather depressed about the events of the previous year, and Harry has no clue as to how to comfort her. Being in different houses, they hardly ever get to see each other, so it’s really only a matter of time and an extremely awkward Valentine’s Day lunch to break them up again. Ron and Hermione are still delightfully bickering with each other at every opportunity, but I’m not sure even Harry has realised at this stage just how much these two care for each other.

In my review for the Goblet of Fire I wrote that things start to take a dark turn from this book. While this book is certainly dark at times, it is a surprisingly normal school year. The fifth-years do their mountains of assignment work and take their OWL exams with only a few disruptions. Not sure what I was remembering from previous reads – perhaps the memory of Professor Umbridge overpowered everything else!

The confrontation in the Ministry of Magic is a little confusing with all the rooms, objects and injuries involved but it of course leaves Harry with a fresh grief by taking away the father figure he only recently discovered. I always felt Sirius got a bit of a raw deal in the overall story. He’s barely in any of the action and has to stay at Grimmauld Place – a house containing painful childhood memories for him – almost the entire time, then is unceremoniously dumped out of the story again.

At least at the end of The Order of the Phoenix the wizarding world is left with undeniable proof that Voldemort is back and on the loose. What they choose to do about it remains to be seen.

While I really enjoyed re-reading this instalment and seeing all the details left out of the film, I feel this wasn’t the most enjoyable of the stories. The poor kids are swamped with work the entire time and there’s barely any room for the fun that has permeated the previous stories.

On with the re-read!

The Harry Potter series

Harry Potter 1Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in USA)
(1997)

hp2Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
(1998)

Prisoner of AzkabanHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
(1999)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
(2000)
hp5Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) hp6Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) hp7Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Goodreads)
Author: Flag_uk J.K. Rowling (website) (twitter)

Rating: ★★★★★

It’s the summer holidays and soon Harry Potter will be starting his fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is counting the days: there are new spells to be learnt, more Quidditch to be played, and Hogwarts castle to continue exploring. But Harry needs to be careful – there are unexpected dangers lurking …

Details

Series: Harry Potter #4 of 7
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Published: Bloomsbury, 2000
Pages: 636

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies:
Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk  Barnes & Noble

Review

The Quidditch World Cup, Mad-Eye Moody, SPEW, The Triwizard Tournament, The Yule Ball, Rita Skeeter, the events after the final challenge…  so much is jammed into the pages of Goblet of Fire that the Goblet of Fire itself doesn’t even make an appearance until over a third of the way in.

Dark dealings start to make an appearance at the Quidditch World Cup, with the torture of a muggle family and the appearance of the Dark Mark. After that though, the Death Eaters keep a low profile as the Triwizard Tournament kicks off at Hogwarts. Students from the other Wizarding schools of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang arrive for the event, and Harry is mysteriously chosen as the fourth champion (no surprise there).

Meanwhile Hermione is busily trying to convince the House Elves to rise up from their slavery and demand payment and holidays from their masters, an idea most House Elves are horrified by. Ron and Harry are rather embarrassed by her continual efforts to get them to join in with her SPEW (Society of the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) schemes, and while Dobby is pleased she is trying to help his fellow elves, Dobby’s friend Winky is very upset about finding herself a Free Elf. It’s a rather heart-wrenching part of the story!

Of course, the third and final challenge doesn’t progress according to plan – Harry and Cedric are whisked off to a strange graveyard where Harry witnesses the return of He Who Must Not Be Named to the flesh. This scene, the ritual to revive Voldemort and the fight that follows is the stuff of nightmares and I seem to remember being totally blown away by it all on my first read. It hasn’t lost its impact – this is the perfect dramatic ending to the story and the beginning of a much darker time in the Wizarding world.

At twice the length of the previous book The Goblet of Fire is no quick read, but I think I have found my new favourite. This is the last bastion of normality at Hogwarts, even though it’s hardly a normal year with the students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang staying for the whole year. Things are still relatively normal and I think the “normal” Hogwarts happenings are some of my favourite details about this series. After this book, things start to take a definite dark turn.

I recently saw The Goblet of Fire film on TV again and wow, I’d forgotten how many story elements were changed. They had to to fit the whole year’s worth into two hours forty minutes I suppose, but they really did leave out everything but the most basic of plotlines. Harry doesn’t spend any time at Privet Drive at all, but starts at the Burrow already. The entire SPEW movement was missing, as was all of Fred and George’s “Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes”. Major plot details were changed around but I still thought the film flowed reasonably well, even if it felt a little rushed at times. Not my favourite film of the series, though.

I’m not sure if you’d want to be reading this particular one to the very small, but middle-sized kids and all other ages should love it. On with the series!

The Harry Potter series

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Published as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in USA) (1997)
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

 

Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling

Prisoner of AzkabanTitle: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Goodreads)
Author: Flag_uk J.K. Rowling (website) (twitter)

Rating: ★★★★★

Harry Potter, along with his best friends, Ron and Hermione, is about to start his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry can’t wait to get back to school after the summer holidays. (Who wouldn’t if they lived with the horrible Dursleys?) But when Harry gets to Hogwarts, the atmosphere is tense. There’s an escaped mass murderer on the loose, and the sinister prison guards of Azkaban have been called in to guard the school…

Details

Series: Harry Potter #3 of 7
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Published: Bloomsbury, 1999
Pages: 317

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk  Barnes & Noble

Review

The Prisoner of Azkaban brings on a darker tone to Harry’s story that we see develop and grow over the rest of the series. The Dementors, in particular, lend a particularly terrifying aspect to this book and I think I might think twice before reading this one to the very small.

That said, Rowling is really coming into her own as a storyteller here and this is one of the most complex but enjoyable stories so far. There are elements that were changed a fair bit in the film adaptation, not always for the better.

Here are my thoughts from this re-read.

What I liked

  • Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs – the creators of the Marauder’s Map. In the interest of avoiding spoilers I won’t reveal their identities but I just love this little glimpse into the lives of previous mischief-makers at Hogwarts.
  • The Firebolt – Harry and Ron’s love for Quidditch really comes to the fore here as Harry takes his place as the star of the Gryffindor team. The Firebolt mysteriously appears at Christmas, and I love how everyone is in awe of it.
  • David ThewlisProfessor Lupin <3 My favourite Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher! I’m so glad that Dumbledore decided he wasn’t a risk to the students and that the other teachers supported him. He’s such a lovely character, but as I was reading I just couldn’t help seeing him in my head as in the film, played by David Thewlis.

What I didn’t like so much

  • Dementors – so scary! I remember being chilled by them in my original read and then really terrified when I saw them in the film! Of course, they are a necessary part of the story, I just find them scary.
  • The scene in the Shrieking Shack – It’s been a while since I saw the film, but I didn’t remember this scene being as drawn out as it is in the book. They just all stand around and chat for a while, telling Harry the story of his parents and Pettigrew as though they weren’t about to execute their former friend. It just dropped the tension for me. Incidentally, I thought the section with Harry and Hermione using the time-turner had a lot more continuity in the film as well, even though all the same elements were there. Well done, screenplay writers!

The more I re-read in this series the more I remember why I loved it so much the first time around!

The Harry Potter series

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Published as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in USA) (1997)
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

 

Review: Jinx: The Wizard’s Apprentice, Sage Blackwood

Jinx, Sage BlackwoodTitle: Jinx: The Wizard’s Apprentice (Goodreads)
Author: flag_usa Sage Blackwood

Rating: ★★★★½

It’s not every day that your evil stepdad abandons you in the deep, dark forest of Urwald. And it’s not every day that a wizard rescues you from the clutches of gnarly trolls. But for Jinx, this isn’t turning out to be a very normal sort of day…

The bubbling cauldrons and coloured potions of the wizard’s house are a world away from the life Jinx has left behind. Even the walls are soaked in magic, and it’s not long before Jinx begins to unlock his own rare powers.

But Simon Magus is no ordinary wizard. He seems to need something from Jinx – something dark. And Jinx begins to wonder: can he trust Simon… at all?

Details

Series: Jinx #1
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Published: Quercus, February 2013 (also HarperCollins Childrens Jan 2013)
Pages: 360
My copy: For review via The Book Depository’s review program

Get your copy from Book Depository!

Jinx

Review

Jinx lives with his step-parents in a clearing within the Urwald – a vast forest teeming with nasty creatures and nastier wizards and witches. One day, Jinx’s stepfather decides he can no longer support the boy and takes him out into the forest to abandon him. Unfortunately for Jinx’s stepfather, they cross paths with Simon, an evil wizard. Simon offers to buy the boy instead and takes him home to do chores for him. He doesn’t seem that evil to Jinx, but can he really be trusted?

At first glance you may think that this book is another Harry Potter-ish clone, but while there are similarities, Jinx is quite a different story altogether.

Jinx’s story is told entirely from his ten-year-old point of view, but through his observations of the adult characters in the book, I got the feeling that there is a deeper story here that makes it all the more interesting for an adult reading it. Magic is performed by drawing on power, which can be stored in objects. Evil wizards (or those with less morals) can draw power from the lives of others. As Jinx learns more about magic and how wizards obtain and store power, we’re never quite sure whether all wizards are evil or just various shades of unpleasant. Is Simon, who seems kind enough to Jinx at first, actually performing evil death magic on him?

Jinx is a very determined little boy – he wants to get out and see the world, and feels trapped living with Simon. Once he’s set on his quest, he begins to question everything and must stick to his beliefs and trust in his own power to get through the coming trials. He’s quite a grumpy child at times, but is also quite cheeky and there are some very funny moments as he interacts with the world around him.

The only thing I disliked about Jinx is that a lot of the action seems to happen in dialogue between the characters – a device which doesn’t describe what’s actually going on all that well. Apart from those few occasions, I thought this was a very well-written debut with plenty of scope for future tales.

Jinx is a fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and sets a perfect tone for its intended audience. Highly recommended for the middle-grader in your life, or for anyone to enjoy, for that matter!

Warnings: Violence against monsters.

Review: The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson BurnettTitle: The Secret Garden (Goodreads)
Author:  Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rating: ★★★★★

What secrets lie behind the doors at Misselthwaite Manor? Recently arrived at her uncle’s estate, orphaned Mary Lennox is spoiled, sickly, and certain she won’t enjoy living there. Then she discovers the arched doorway into an overgrown garden, shut up since the death of her aunt ten years earlier. Mary soon begins transforming it into a thing of beauty–unaware that she is changing too.

But Misselthwaite hides another secret, as Mary discovers one night. High in a dark room, away from the rest of the house, lies her young cousin, Colin, who believes he is an incurable invalid, destined to die young. His tantrums are so frightful, no one can reason with him. If only, Mary hopes, she can get Colin to love the secret garden as much as she does, its magic will work wonders on him.

Details

Series: Stand alone
Genre: Childrens historical classic
Published: First published 1911
Pages: 331

Paper copies:  Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Available for free at Project Gutenberg

Review

I always remembered The Secret Garden as a book I particularly enjoyed as a child, so I picked it up recently for a re-read. I was delighted to find that while the story itself is very sweet and simple, the writing is just gorgeous, especially the descriptions of the garden and the moors.

Mistress Mary (“quite contrary”) is a spoiled brat of a child, cared for by the servants at her parents’ house in India. One day, she wakes to find she is alone in the house – everyone else has died of cholera. Sent to live with her uncle in Yorkshire, England, she discovers that Misselthwaite Manor is full of strange secrets, including a secret walled garden that no-one has been inside for ten years.

It is quite obvious that Burnett loved the Yorkshire Moors and was a firm believer in children getting outdoors and taking fresh air at every opportunity. She must have also loved gardening, as her descriptions of the gardens coming to life in the spring are just beautiful. There’s just such a feeling of joy about this book that really made me enjoy reading it again.

There are religious overtones present, but only gently shown – Frances Hodgson Burnett herself was an adherent to the Christian Science movement (not the same thing as Scientology), which sees God not as a person or individual being, but as a manifestation of life force itself. They believe that state of mind is very important – that any ailment can be cured or removed with the “correction of mental error” (from the wikipedia article). These beliefs show through in this story as the “magic” the children find in the garden, from the actual physical healing of Colin, to the more gradual awakening of love and empathy in Mary. I have to admit after reading a little bit about the movement, the idea of “thinking yourself healthy” has quite an attractive sound to it!

This is a beautifully written book and although it might be a little slow in pace for the middle-grade readers of today, I hope they find as much joy in it as I did as a child.

Perhaps you northern hemisphere types might appreciate this excerpt – it describes the coming of Spring to Misselthwaite. Enjoy!

Excerpt – Chapter XV

On that first morning when the sky was blue again Mary wakened very early. The sun was pouring in slanting rays through the blinds and there was something so joyous in the sight of it that she jumped out of bed and ran to the window. She drew up the blinds and opened the window itself and a great waft of fresh, scented air blew in upon her. The moor was blue and the whole world looked as if something Magic had happened to it. There were tender little fluting sounds here and there and everywhere, as if scores of birds were beginning to tune up for a concert. Mary put her hand out of the widow and held it in the sun.

“It’s warm – warm!” she said. “It will make the green points push up and up and up, and it will make the bulbs and roots work and struggle with all their might under the earth.”

She kneeled down and leaned out of the window as far as she could, breathing big breaths and snuffing the air until she laughed because she remembered what Dickon’s mother had said about the end of his nose quivering like a rabbit’s. “It must be very early,” she said. “The little clouds are all pink and I’ve never seen the sky look like this. No one is up. I don’t even hear the stable boys.”

A sudden thought made her scramble to her feet.

“I can’t wait! I am going to see the garden!”

She had learned to dress herself by this time and she put on her clothes in five minutes. She knew a small side door which she could unbolt herself and she flew downstairs in her stocking feet and put on her shoes in the hall. She unchained and unbolted and unlocked and when the door was open she sprang across the step with one bound, and there she was standing on the grass, which seemed to have turned green, and with the sun pouring down on her and warm sweet wafts about her and the fluting and twittering and singing coming from every bush and tree. She clasped her hands for pure joy and looked up in the sky and it was so blue and pink and pearly and white and flooded with springtime light that she felt as if she must flute and sing aloud herself and knew that thrushes and robins and skylarks could not possibly help it. She ran around the shrubs and paths towards the secret garden.

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling

hp2Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Goodreads)
Author: Flag_uk J.K. Rowling (website) (twitter)

Rating: ★★★★★

Harry, Ron and Hermione have returned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for their second year. (But Harry and Ron only just made it-they missed the Hogwarts Express and had to get there in a flying car…!) Soon the threesome are immersed in the daily round of Potions, Herbology, Charms, Defence Against the Dark Arts, and Quidditch.

But then horrible things start happening. Harry hears evil voices. Sinister messages appear on the wall. But nothing can prepare the three friends for what happens next…

Details

Series: Harry Potter #2 of 7
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Published: Bloomsbury, 1998
Pages: 251

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk  Barnes & Noble

Review

The second Harry Potter story is slightly longer than The Philosopher’s Stone, and so has room for more action. It actually takes Harry quite a while to get to Hogwarts at the start of this one, but once he’s finally there, there’s a lot to enjoy in this story.

Here are my thoughts from this re-read.

What I liked

  • The flying Ford Anglia. What a way to start this story – with an adventure on the way to school!
  • The Basilisk. An excellent baddie – for most of the book we have no idea what it is, just that it whispers things before striking and is able to petrify people. It’s the perfect mixture of creepy and intriguing! I almost feel sorry for it at the end – blinded and destroyed just for protecting its lair.
  • Moaning Myrtle. Poor Myrtle, forced to haunt the girls’ bathroom where she met her demise… Despite her depressing story she is quite a funny character.
  • Gilderoy Lockhart. Such an awesome character, he manages to charm everyone while remaining completely incompetent both as a teacher and as a wizard! I just can’t get the image of Kenneth Branagh out of my head, since he did such a great job of Lockhart in the film.

Harry-Potter-Quotes-Gilderoy-Lockhart

What I didn’t like so much

  •  Harry, Ron and Hermione kept everything to themselves, even when asked expressly by Dumbledore whether there was anything Harry would like to share. At least they were actually on their way to tell a teacher when the final confrontation began, but through most of the story they insisted on finding everything out the hard way, searching through the library and poking around the castle. Of course, it would have been a much more boring story if they had actually told McGonagall or Dumbledore at the start. Perhaps it’s the adult in me being too sensible 😛
  • Ginny. She’s still a squeaky little Harry fan girl in this one, barely making any appearances apart from the scene in the chamber of secrets. I’m looking forward to the more grown up kick-arse Ginny of the later books.
  • To be honest, I don’t have much to list under dislikes for this one. I really enjoyed re-reading it!

This one has to be my favourites of the series – an easy read but still fraught with danger and scary monsters. Bring on The Prisoner of Azkaban!

The Harry Potter series

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Published as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in USA) (1997)
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

 

Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling

Harry Potter 1Title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Goodreads)
Author: Flag_uk J.K. Rowling (website) (twitter)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That’s because he’s being raised by his miserable muggle aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he’s really a wizard, just as his parents were.

But everything changes when Harry is summoned to attend Hogwarts school for witchcraft and wizardry and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright.

Details

Series: Harry Potter #1 of 7
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Published: Bloomsbury, 1997
Pages: 223

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk  Barnes & Noble

Review

I first read the Harry Potter books some years ago (maybe… 2005?). Since then I’ve seen all the films numerous times, but I couldn’t remember much about the original book itself. It was a complete delight to discover that it was just as enchanting as I vaguely remembered it being!

There’s no way I could do The Philosopher’s Stone justice in a proper review so I’m going to split it up into the like/not like format. I’m trying to keep in mind that this is the first in a seven-book series, and that it has only 223 pages while later books are a lot longer and have much more complex plots (for example, The Order of the Phoenix paperback has 870 pages!).

What I liked

  • The simplicity. A few middle-grade books I’ve read recently have tried to cram everything from a very detailed world into a few pages. The Philosopher’s Stone gradually introduces the wizarding world to Harry, who has no previous inkling of its existence other than a few odd occurences. The plot is fairly basic and not too challenging, and the characters fairly dark or light in their alignment. That’s just perfect for middle-grade readers.
  • Hogwarts1Hogwarts. There’s something about boarding-school books that appeals to me, even though I’m fairly sure the reality is far from glamorous. It’s something to do with living with your friends 24 hours a day, eating and sleeping all together that my inner tribal-community-self likes the idea of. Hogwarts has it all – it’s a castle, it’s full of wizards and witches learning magic and it has plenty of mysterious secrets. Did I ever tell you about the time I visited the castle at Durham and found out it had been converted into residence halls for Durham University? I was in Hogwarts-fangirl heaven!
  • Meeting the characters for the first time, the antagonism between the boys and Hermione at the start and the gradual bonding throughout the story is delightful. Perhaps it’s because it felt like re-uniting with old friends, but it was great to “meet” the Weasleys, Neville, Hagrid, Ron and Hermione, and of course to be introduced to Voldemort. He is certainly a very scary villain, but this is only hinted at in this first book.

What I didn’t like so much

  • The kids get sent off into danger. I mean, it didn’t help that Harry and co. dive into danger on numerous occasions – I’m not sure what makes them think that three eleven-year-olds are going to be able to save the school from some unknown assailant better than the staff of trained wizards and witches can, but I suppose that’s childhood bravado for you. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Dumbledore gave Harry his father’s old invisibility cloak. He was mysteriously out of the way for much of the action and yet appeared just in the nick of time to save the day. It feels like Dumbledore planned it that way all along. As someone who always thought of Dumbledore as a kindly old Gandalf-esque father figure, this rubbed me up the wrong way on this re-read.
  • The confusion over Snape. Through the whole book, Harry and his friends are sure that he is behind everything and yet at the end it’s someone totally unexpected Harry faces. Harry even finds out that Snape was trying to help him during the Quiddich match, but Snape doesn’t make any more appearances after the climax and we’re left wondering what that was all about. I just felt, as a couple of other Goodreads reviewers have stated, that Snape was targeted too much as the baddie and there could have been a few more hints as to who else might be involved.
  • Magic is very easy. I like a magic system to have consequences, to have transfer of energy of some sort. In Harry’s world you just wave your wand and say a few words and bam, someone’s dead or transfigured or the house is clean. It’s too easy. This is the one gripe I have about the way Harry’s world works.

There are plenty of critical reviews of this book and series, but basically what it boils down to is this: Despite the simple characterisation and storyline, Rowling has picked her audience very well. Even though millions of adults love it, this was meant as a children’s book and I feel it is perfect for middle-grade readers to enjoy. There is plenty of darkness in later books for children to grow into.

A very enjoyable first instalment in this longer tale. I’m looking forward to my Sprout being old enough to want to read this with me!

The Harry Potter series

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Published as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone in USA) (1997)
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

 

Review: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Title: The Hobbit (Goodreads)
Author:  J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating: ★★★★★

Bilbo Baggins is a reasonably typical hobbit: fond of sleeping, eating, drinking, parties and presents.

However, it is his destiny to travel to the dwarflands in the east, to help slay the dragon Smaug.

His quest takes him through enchanted forests, spiders’ lairs, and under the Misty Mountains, where he comes across the vile Gollum, and tricks him out of his ‘Precious’ – a ring that makes its bearer invisible, and wields a terrible power of its own.

Details

Series: Stand-alone (but a prequel of sorts to Lord of the Rings)
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Published: First published by Allen & Unwin, 1937. My edition by Unwin paperbacks, 1981.
Pages: 285

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk  Barnes & Noble • Bookworld (epub)

Review

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

The Hobbit was many people’s starting point into fantasy as a child – in fact my father read it to me and my siblings when we were small. It was originally written by J.R.R Tolkien for his own children, but don’t be fooled – this is Epic Fantasy disguised as a children’s book.

Included in this tale are many favourite characters and creatures – hobbits, dwarves, elves and men, as well as Gandalf the wizard and Gollum. Creatures such as goblins, spiders, trolls and the great dragon Smaug round out the cast, and all are characterised and described in great detail.

The journey of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the twelve dwarves is no walk in the park – the party have a rough time of it, getting into trouble time and time again as they pass the Misty Mountains, through the dark and dangerous Mirkwood and to the Lonely Mountain, where the dragon has made his lair. They are constantly grumpy and complain of lack of food and comfort, are miserable most of the time and Bilbo even gets a bad cold at one point – all rather realistic reactions for a journey of such length and hardships! They do find some comfort along the way though – in Rivendell with the elves, with the great skin-changer Beorn, and with the men of Lake-town.

Even with all the trials faced by the company along the way, The Hobbit is told in a more light-hearted tone than the often grim The Lord of the Rings. There are several songs and jokes, and even the section where Bilbo is trading riddles with Gollum in the darkness is not as dark as it could have been.

The tale of the journey itself is fast-paced but still rich with description of each area visited.  I was surprised to find, though, that the story is told almost like a verbal storytelling, with a narrator breaking the fourth wall every now and then with phrases such as: “As you can well imagine.” or “Now we will return to Bilbo and the Dwarves”. It doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story at all, I just thought it unusual in Fantasy – but then this was published well before any conventions were established!

Bilbo is a very unlikely hero, taken unexpectedly from his comfortable home off on an adventure, and although he saves the dwarves multiple times, he isn’t really given the recognition he deserves until the very end of the story when the Elvenking and Gandalf praise him for all his accomplishments.

This re-read has confirmed The Hobbit as one of my favourite books of all time. If you’re looking for a Christmas present for a small (or not-so-small!) person in your life, you really can’t go wrong with a copy of The Hobbit. For a seventy-five year-old story, it stands the test of time remarkably well. Make sure you read (or re-read) the book before seeing the film!

Warnings: Violence and war, but nothing too graphic. Scary creatures (trolls, goblins, giant spiders).

 

The Film

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be released in cinemas on December 14, 2012. I cannot wait!

There’s word that they have split the story into not two, but three movies. The second part, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is due in December 2013, and the third part, The Hobbit: There and Back Again is due in July 2014 (source). I’ll be interested to see how they flesh the story out – apparently they are using extra material from Tolkien’s appendices to add content, and from the cast list it looks like several characters from LotR are included that don’t actually appear in The Hobbit book at all.

From what I can gather, the movies are geared more towards the adult Middle Earth fans than to children, which is a shame in some ways, but does allow the writers to give the story the full epic fantasy treatment it deserves.

I really enjoyed most aspects of the Lord of the Rings adaptation so I have faith in Mr Peter Jackson – and I just love the Kiwi-Middle-Earth settings. Here’s the trailer – I am sooo excited!

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