“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)


“My name is Kathy H.”

Kazuo Ishiguro was this month awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the news marked one of the very few times that I’ve agreed with the results of a major literary prize. I would have awarded it to him on the strength of this novel alone. Despite the huge fanfare that exists around The Remains of the Day, I’ve yet to have read it – the focus of this review and Nocturnes are the only Ishiguro I’ve read, but they’re heaven.

This is actually the third time I’ve read Never Let Me Go, but it had yet to feature on my blog and what with the need to be somewhere familiar and meaningful and the aforementioned award, I felt a reread was in order. I was wary about how many spoilers I would put in here, as I’m not sure how well integrated the story is to the cultural consciousness, but there are aspects I want to discuss that I can’t without giving away major plot points and so I say here now, there are spoilers below – stop reading now if you want to discover this book on your own.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H. She’s a young woman in England, reminiscing about her time at Hailsham, a prestigious school that houses some of her fondest memories. She is now trying to understand her childhood, with her friends including the bad-tempered by innocent Tommy, and the somewhat manipulative and tactless Ruth, and what it means for her adulthood. She now spends her days driving around the country, working as a carer, but it’s quite soon evident that Hailsham wasn’t quite what it seemed to be at first, and Kathy isn’t exactly ordinary.

This is an alternate England, where medical science clones humans and uses them for organ donation freely. Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and all their friends at Hailsham, and at various other schools around the country, are merely clones, and are taught that one day they will grow up and begin donations. As they grow up, their relationships strain, against maturity and the inevitability of their futures, and Kathy now just wants to try and make sense of what she’s been taught. And maybe she’s hopeful … maybe there’s another option. What if they could find their old teachers and ask for help?

The text is haunting in the way it grabs you and doesn’t let go. I first read this as a set text at university – one of the very few I enjoyed – and it hasn’t left me yet. There’s no big reveal as to what’s happening – information just drips in, mimicking the way the students seem to learn about it. This fits, too, given that Kathy is seemingly writing to a reader who is in the same position as her. You can’t help but feel sorry for them all, but the discovery of the truth is so gentle in its delivery that when it arrives, you’re also not terribly surprised and seem capable of taking it all in.

The characters themselves, the main ones at least, feel very rich, and while some people have questioned why they don’t try to run away from their circumstances, they fail to appreciate that psychologically their “purpose” is too deeply ingrained and besides, they have nowhere to run too. Because they can’t reproduce, sex isn’t a taboo among the students and is discussed freely, whereas topics of religion and philosophy are ignored or shied away from. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are all very deep and I enjoy them all. Ruth is catty and downright poisonous to Kathy and Tommy’s relationship, but she seems to be the one struggling most of all with their situation, lying to herself and to others. Kathy is perhaps the most passive, but also the most introspective, but part of that may just come from the fact she’s narrating, so we only really know what she’s thinking.

The biggest aspect of their time at school is that the main focus is on creativity. The best examples of their paintings, pottery and poems are then collected by the mysterious “Madame” for reasons they are unable to fathom at first. When the explanation comes, it will break your heart, as so many aspects of this book do. It’s easy to read, but it’s hardly the most uplifting novel. However, like I said, you get drawn in and if you emerge unchanged, then you might be beyond emotional rescue.

Little is explained about the wider world and exactly how and why this timeline veered off from our own. However, much of England is hinted at being somewhat dilapidated and underpopulated, and it’s explained later that the clones began to appear not long after “the war”, again assumed to be World War 2. But in a creepy England, where science and medical advances run on without much apparent worry surrounding ethics, it’s only later you begin to wonder – who won the war?

As a bibliophile of the highest order, I know I’m not really meant to have an answer when people ask me what my favourite book of all time is. It’s like asking a parent which of their children they love most. In all honesty, I don’t have a concrete answer, but Never Let Me Go sits, without question, somewhere in the top five. I can give little higher praise.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)


“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” by J. K. Rowling (2016)


cursed childThe eighth story. Nineteen years later.

Not much compels me to stop one book in favour of another, but the newest installment in the Harry Potter series dropping onto the doormat will do that to a person. So, here it is. Merlin knows when I’ll ever get tickets to see it, so reading it is the next best thing. This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write, so let’s just crack on. First, the plot.

No. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you anything.

So, now how did I feel about it? You’re asking a very big question there. I guess primarily, I can’t believe that despite the fact the theatre has been previewing the show for months, and the sheer amount of people involved in it, absolutely nothing leaked. Maybe friends told friends, but the Internet in general managed to keep very quiet.

The one thing I will say is that the opening scene replays the epilogue from Deathly Hallows, so there aren’t really any surprises there. But then it carries on and we get the first new dialogue from these characters since 2007 and I got the most ridiculous goosebumps. You forget in between readings that these stories are magical. It takes a moment to get used to reading it in script form rather than as a novel, but I think I understand why it works as a play. Two plays, in fact. There’s a lot here, and to compress it would be a disaster.

The face (and hair) of one struggling with the state of finishing Cursed Child.

The face (and hair) of one who is struggling with his Cursed Child feelings.

The play somehow is nothing at all like I expected, and yet everything I knew it would be. And you can take that in any way you see fit. I’m trying to work out if I liked it, and I think I did, but there’s a lot in here that requires a lot of processing. It seemingly changes a few of the rules that Rowling had previously established, and added something that I don’t think any of us really expected. And even that feels like saying too much.

Many of the characters we know and love are present and correct. Some of them changed somewhat with time, but their cores remain in tact. The children are great, and occasionally you could have guessed what was going to happen with some of them, but there are some surprises present too. There are, however, some absences that are particularly notable. One old favourite is mentioned, but another has been scrubbed entirely from the text. I know they can’t name everyone, but, well, come on. Sadder still is the reveal of a couple of deaths we’ve missed in the last nineteen years.

My brain keeps playing with the question, “But did you like it?” All I can think is that the staging and casting must be the best the West End has ever seen, as I’ve not seen a single complaint from anyone who happens to have seen the show. It’s magical, but it lacks something. It feels too late, maybe. A sort of, “be careful what you wish for” scenario. We all wanted more from Harry, and now we’ve got it, but is it quite what we hoped we’d get? Already I’ve seen polls on Twitter where people are debating whether to consider this addition canonical or not.

I sound negative, and I’m not really. The emotional wallops are very real and Rowling’s world stands the test of time for its depth, breadth and sheer power. I think it’s just because I’ve read it in three hours. I need to go back through, slower, and get to grips with it. That can be a summer project. I may even return to these pages to give a second review. But for now, I leave you with the most wishy-washy vague thing I’ve ever written.

Read it yourself and form your own opinion. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment or find me on Twitter, @fellfromfiction. For now though, I need to go and sort myself and my thoughts out.

Mischief managed.

“The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness (2015)

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We can't all be the Chosen One.

We can’t all be the Chosen One.

“On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.”

Every good story needs a hero. The Buffy Summers, Harry Potter or Darren Shan of the piece who has to save the world (and often just the school) from imminent destruction from the Villain of the Week. But there are only so many zombies, ghosts or dark lords to defeat, so not everyone gets to do it. This is a story about those who aren’t chosen. These are the characters who, rather than wanting to save the world, just want to make it to graduation without the school blowing up or any of their friends being used for a sacrificial ritual. After all, what was Hogwarts like if you actually attended all your lessons and never had to smuggle dragons out the castle or do battle with giant snakes?

Our narrator is Mikey, a high school senior with OCD who is struggling with growing up, the friendships that may be about to end, and his unrequited feelings for his friend Henna. Along with his sister Mel, a recovering anorexic, and his best friend Jared, who happens to be a quarter God, he’s counting down the days until the school year ends and he has to leave his pathetic little town in the middle of nowhere.

He has problems, but they’re mostly ordinary. Jared is keeping a secret from him, Henna seems to have developed a crush on the new boy Nathan, Mikey’s mother’s political ambitions are perhaps getting in the way of letting them have a united family, and to cap it all, Mikey’s OCD is getting worse again. Still, at least he’s not one of the indie kids. They’re the kids who keep getting involved in the strange events around town. Years ago it was zombies, or vampires, but this time the town is at risk from Immortals who glow with a blue light and are killing anyone in their way. But that’s not Mikey’s story – he just hopes no one blows up the school before he can get his diploma.

This is such a cool concept for a story. Yes, there is a massive threat to the town, and possibly the world, but this time we’re not going to be part of it. Every chapter opens with a brief summary of, basically, what we would see in that chapter if we were following the hero indie kids, but then will cut to a very ordinary event with Mikey and his friends. They sometimes brush up against the fantasy story, but they’re not directly connected. This adds so much to the world of fiction, and brings home again the notion that we are all the heroes in our own stories, but every single one of those stories are connected. Some people have to save the world, and some just have to survive the consequences.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, the story details much about the nature of family and friends, especially the family we construct from our friends and how that’s different for everyone. Patrick Ness writes with such warmth and sweetness that you can’t help feel for Mikey, Mel, Jared, Meredith, Henna, and the rest of them with their struggles. Jared is particularly interesting, as I love the idea of someone who just “happens to be a God”, but he doesn’t really let it affect him when he can help it.

A wonderful, funny and sweet novel about growing up, feeling unloved, struggling to move on, and why sometimes it’s best not to be at the heart of the action.

“Shades Of Grey” by Jasper Fforde (2010)


Not everything is black and white.

Not everything is black and white.

“It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.”

I often get asked, as you might imagine, what my favourite book is. This is like asking an Olympic runner which leg they’d most like to have cut off, or a mother which of her children she’d save from a burning building. But, generally, if I don’t want to get into a debate about how books are hard to compare to one another, I refer to this book, Shades of Grey, as my favourite book of all time. Unfortunately a very similarly titled novel has dwarfed this one, which is a shame, because this novel deserves far more praise than that one.

In this book, we are hundreds of years in our future, where the world is very much unlike it was before. Centuries ago, there was a moment in history known now only as the Something That Happened. Now, society runs on a rulebook that seems to owe a lot to private schools of our era: towns are governed by Prefects, cash has become merits, meals are communal and everyone wears a uniform. Some of the rules make no sense – no spoons can be manufactured, for example – but they are treated with utmost authority. This is a world where they have a system of human responsibilities rather than human rights, where everyone is expected to do a certain amount of Useful Work in their lifetime to make them of value to the Collective.

But I’m missing out the most important aspect of this universe. In this future, social hierarchy is decided by your colour perception. Everyone can only see one colour – red, blue, yellow, green, orange or purple – and everything else appears grey to them. Everything from your social standing, the jobs you can have, and who you can marry depends on what colour you can see and how much of it. This is a world where colour comes before all else.

Our hero is Eddie Russett, a Red, who is sent with his father to the small town of East Carmine where he is expected to learn humility and conduct a chair census. Before they arrive even, in the nearby town of Vermillion, Eddie and his father, a doctor (or Swatchman) find a man who has collapsed in a paint shop. He appears to be a Purple – the most respected group of the Colourtocracy – but Eddie realises that he’s wrongspotted – he’s actually a Grey; someone with no colour perception whatsoever. This is a huge breach of the Rules, but what does it mean?

Arriving in East Carmine, Eddie meets Jane, a Grey with a cute nose and a penchant for punching anyone who mentions it. Eddie is immediately smitten, but also concerned that he’s sure he saw her in Vermillion … but there’s no way she could have got there and back so quickly. Trying to avoid being killed by her, he encounters the rest of the village, including the officious and arrogant Yellow, Courtland Gamboge, the conniving and self-preserving Red, Tommo Cinnabar, and the vile and spoilt Purple, Violet DeMauve who wants to marry him to make her blue-end Purple redder again in her descendents. All Eddie wants to do is to conduct his chair census and return home to so he can marry Constance Oxblood and inherit the stringworks. But he’s started asking too many questions, and he doesn’t like the answers. It seems that Eddie is realising that things aren’t always black and white…

Eddie and Jane

I don’t know how to get across how much I adore this book. Imagine if Douglas Adams had written 1984 and you’re halfway there, sort of. The idea of building a society on colour perception is mad, but is it any madder than any other sort of society we’ve tried? All the ideas here are genius, from the implications of how life must be when you can’t see the full spectrum, to having a world run on school rules. Because there are so many unanswered questions in Eddie’s life, we can’t get the full picture either.

Like all Fforde’s work, it’s a book that’s impossible to explain in simple terms. He throws in so many concepts and lets you get on with it, always with remarkable results. Alongside the Colourtocracy, we also have the idea of synthetic colour, a British landscape full of elephants, giraffes and ground sloths, a belief that good table manners are about the most important skill you can possess, the distribution of postcodes that no longer seem to represent their original locations, fear of swans and lightning, and an Apocryphal Man, who doesn’t exist (and more’s the pity if you forget that). It’s a wonderful, fantastic mish-mash of ideas and yet it all works. The characters are fully rounded and believable, and there’s so much material here. It’s also home to the aforementioned Courtland Gamboge who, while an odious character, is one of my favourite people in fiction for reasons I can’t quite explain.

The only flaw in this book? The cliffhanger. It ends promising two more in the trilogy, but we’re in our sixth year of waiting now, and I’m getting antsy. Having now bought this book for several people and had them fall in love with it, it’s become almost joyful for me to see the horror on their face when they realise there’s still no sequel. Fforde has promised them for ages, but the last I heard the next one in the series, when it does finally materialise, is going to be a prequel.

Don’t let that last bit put you off – this is one of the most hilarious, wonderful, intelligent books in existence. I’ve read it three times now in the last six years, and every time I find something new. This is literature at it’s finest, and you will not be disappointed. It’ll also leaving you sort of wishing that you could experience this world for a bit, take your Ishihara, and find out what colour you are…

“Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows” by J. K. Rowling (2007)


I open at the close...

I open at the close…

“The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.”

And so the series draws to a close for me once more. I have finished my re-read of the seven Harry Potter books, and once again found myself shedding a tear, caught up in the drama, finding nuances that I’d never noticed before and generally realising that this series doesn’t just deal with magic, but is imbued with the stuff itself. There are spoilers from here on in; if you’ve somehow never read it and want to remain uninformed, stop reading now.

In the final installment of Harry Potter’s adventures, he, Ron and Hermione are on a journey around the country in search of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, the hidden items that contain parts of his soul. If they can destroy them, then they can finally defeat Voldemort. But things are never as easy as that.

First they have to attend Ron’s brother’s wedding, deal with the fallout from Albus Dumbledore’s death, work out where the Horcruxes are, and avoid Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters. Their journey takes them around the country where they must break into three of the most heavily protected buildings in the wizarding world, deal with dark magic beyond anything they could have imagined, as well as get caught up in a secondary mission to reunite the Deathly Hallows, which will give the holder the power to cheat Death. It all comes to an earth-shattering climax during the Battle of Hogwarts as this thrilling series draws to a thrilling and powerful close.

What always gets me about this book is the sheer number of emotional wallops that Rowling subjects us to. Before it was released, she announced that the gloves were off and anyone could die in this one. I think we all sort of shrugged this off, convinced that she didn’t mean it about anyone too important. But then Hedwig dies just a few chapters in (a moment that represents Harry’s loss of innocence and passage into adulthood) and we all went, “Oh, right, she really did mean anyone.” By the end of the novel, Lupin, Tonks, Snape, Fred, Moody, Crabbe, Scrimgeour, Pettigrew, Dobby, Colin and Bellatrix will have joined the ranks of the dead. With the exception of Crabbe, Pettigrew and Bellatrix, who arguably deserved their fates, the rest all have the power to make one cry. This time round, I only shed a tear at one scene, and it wasn’t even one with a death in it.

The final showdown has begun.

The book presents a cavalcade of activity. Some of the information given is new and, while some people argue that it’s not fair that we didn’t get to know everything before this book (such as the true identity of the Grey Lady, and the very existence of the Deathly Hallows), I beg them to remember that the books are told from Harry’s point of view, so we can only know what he knows. Almost every character from the previous six books turns up again here, if only to be name checked and not actually seen. Harry recalls numerous events from the last six adventures, and patterns often begin to emerge from them.

One of the most interesting sections is towards the end when, during the break in the Battle of Hogwarts, we finally get to see into the mind of Severus Snape and find out his past. It’s moving and heartbreaking, but while this is true, it’s also true that I still can’t find it in my heart to particularly like the man. He was nasty and vindictive, and regardless of which side he was on, he remained a bully.

The whole Battle of Hogwarts is an absolute masterpiece of writing, bringing together all the characters and allowing the story to reach its head. There’s so much going on in these scenes that I almost feel like I’m there, surrounded by wizards both good and bad, house elves, giants, centaurs, spiders, and everything else in between. The teachers come into their own – McGonagall leading school desks into the fray, Sprout throwing dangerous plants at the Death Eaters, Trelawney simply lobbing crystal balls on their heads from a high balcony – and every character we’ve grown to know and love over the series shows themselves to be brilliant, perhaps none more so than Neville. The absolute pinnacle, however, is still Voldemort’s body at the end, dead and very, very mortal. It shows so clearly how he was merely a human, not the super being that he thought he was. The film ruined this moment; sure, it looked more cinematic, but it was not what we were supposed to see.

Nineteen years later…

I have unanswered questions, of course. I want to know what happened to Vernon, Petunia and Dudley when they were sent into hiding. How did Vernon handle any of that? What happened to Hermione’s parents afterwards? Where was Voldemort’s body laid to rest? I want to know how Hogwarts  rebuilt itself, whether Slytherin ever became better thought of, and just generally what happened to everyone else. The epilogue does some service with this (I know some people can’t bear the epilogue, but I happen to love it), and I guess we’ll just have to wait for Rowling to release some more answers, if she ever wants to.

Re-reading the Harry Potter books has proved to me that this is not a series to be taken lightly. Oh sure, they begin with the lightness and fun of a Roald Dahl romp, but very quickly you descend into something far darker. This is one for the ages. Harry Potter is already part of the planet’s syntax – I can barely find a (British) book written post-2000 that doesn’t make some reference to the boy wizard. Rowling is a genius, a queen of world building and characterisation.

What else is there to say about this series that hasn’t already been said?

All is well.

“Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince” by J. K. Rowling (2005)

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Six down, one to go.

Six down, one to go.

“It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping though his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.”

And so the end approaches.

The sixth installment in the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter arrived in 2005, two years after the last one, and changed everything that we thought was true once again. Like last time, this review contains spoilers, so don’t say I haven’t given fair warning if you’ve not read the book.

The book opens with two chapters far from Harry Potter himself. The first involves the Muggle Prime Minister meeting the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who has been updating his non-magical counterpart on the dangers the country is facing from dark wizards and witches. The second has Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy make a house call on Severus Snape, as Narcissa implores him to help her son Draco with the task he has been given by Voldemort.

And then we meet Harry, fast asleep and waiting for Dumbledore. Unlike last time, when Dumbledore was barely present in the novel, here he appears regularly and is responsible for extra lessons with Harry once term starts up. Before then, however, Harry and Dumbledore get hold of former teacher Horace Slughorn and entice him back to the school.

With the whole wizarding world now knowing that Voldemort is back and the Ministry doing its best to protect everyone, including sacking Cornelius Fudge and replacing him with the apparently much more reliable Rufus Scrimgeour, tensions are high, and Harry is soon suspicious of Malfoy who seems to be sneaking around and doing things he ought. Convinced that Malfoy is now working directly for Voldemort, but with little evidence to go on, he becomes obsessed with finding out what’s happening.

Meanwhile, back at Hogwarts, Harry has been made Quidditch captain, has become an expert at Potions thanks to the marginalia of an ex-student calling himself the Half-Blood Prince, Hermione and Ron are barely speaking after he starts going out with Lavender Brown, and Harry’s private lessons with Dumbeldore turn out to be viewing memories that show Voldemort in his youth, piecing together what is known about his rise to power. The magic he used appears to have been even darker than Harry could ever have imagined…

Fig 2: Not boyfriend material.

Fig 2: Not boyfriend material.

Even though the series is nearly over, we are still introduced to a whole collection of new characters, again many of whom are wonderful and interesting additions. Perhaps after people continually wondering why Slytherin still existed when it seemed to be nothing but evil-doers, Rowling gives us Horace Slughorn. He is a Slytherin, but shows the other side of the coin – ambitious, certainly, but only through a desire to be well-connected. He knows his limits. He is charismatic and charming, and displays immense bravery, showing that that is not a trait unique to Gryffindor. Conversely, new Gryffindor characters include Cormac McLaggen and Romilda Vane, who show the arrogant, vain and self-important traits related to Gryffindor.

This book also does wonders in showing that it isn’t just Harry having to deal with horrors. Draco Malfoy is now in too deep, perhaps at first believing that he was strong enough to help Voldemort, but now he’s been given the task of killing Dumbledore, he finds he cannot bring himself to do it. Voldemort, it seems, knows this, and will use Malfoy’s failing as a reason to do away with him. Malfoy remains a wonderfully interesting character, now no longer interested in bullying other students as he has for the last five years. He’s finally been given a taste of the glory he’s sought for so long, only to find that he doesn’t suit his palate. Again, as Rowling says, he may be seen as worryingly handsome, thanks mostly to Tom Felton, but there is no real niceness beneath.

This isn’t my favourite book of the series, and it seems in many places to be a retelling of Chamber of Secrets. Both involve the destruction of a Horcrux (although only this time round do we know that’s what we’re dealing with), and the book is mostly devoted to backstory. Through the use of the Pensieve, Rowling allows us to actually see the action of years previously without resorting to Harry and Dumbledore merely talking it through. These insights into the life of Voldemort before he became powerful, and indeed his family, are rather interesting, but all they do is show the similarities between him and Harry. Harry could easily have become either Voldemort, or Draco, but his choices show who he truly is.

In amongst the darkness of this novel, we also have the burgeoning problem of teenage hormones running as rampant as the Death Eaters. The teenage characters are coming of age and Rowling doesn’t hide away from this change in their personalities. Ron starts dating Lavender, but both he and Hermione are coming to terms with how they feel about each other, and Ginny dates Dean before finally moving onto Harry. The couples are in place, but it will all go sour again before they get their happy endings.

There’s just one book left to go, and everything hangs in the balance.

“Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix” by J. K. Rowling (2003)


phoenix“The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.”

The best and most insane review I ever saw on Amazon was for a regular-sized paperback. The review stated that the book “was too heavy to easily hold”. Clearly the poster has never had the joy of carrying Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix around for a week. Seven-hundred-and-sixty-six pages later, I’ve finished it and can return it to my shelf and start using a smaller bag again.

The following review assumes that you’ve read this book, and contains spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

In the fifth installment of the enormously successful blockbuster series (I’ve already covered the first, second, third and fourth), teenage wizard Harry Potter has been left with his non-magical relatives once again and has had very little contact from the wizarding world. No one seems to be able to give him any information, and it’s clear that his friends are together without him. At the end of the last school year, Harry saw the evil Lord Voldemort return to power, but the Ministry of Magic are pretending that it hasn’t happened. Harry is frustrated, and things become even more confusing when he and his cousin are attacked by two Dementors and Harry ends up having to undergo a trial to see if he will be expelled from school or not.

Once Harry gets to school, things go from bad to worse. It’s their exam year so the teachers are throwing even more work at them than ever before, everyone thinks he’s a nutter as the newspapers are pretending that Voldemort isn’t back, and there’s a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry official who is there simply to make sure that Dumbledore and the students aren’t going against Ministry wishes. On top of that, Harry’s hormones are going wild, he’s having strange visions and Hagrid is nowhere to be seen. The story runs on through the year to the most shocking showdown of the series so far.

Throughout my time in the fandom, I have yet to meet anyone who says that their favourite character is Harry Potter, and I put that fact down solely to this book. Harry is fifteen and, obviously that’s a difficult time in anyone’s life, emotionally, even without the issues of being possessed by Voldemort and having the fate of the wizarding world on your shoulders. But throughout this book Harry is moody, irritable, sulky, and generally not particularly pleasant company. I understand that he’s going through a lot and his rage does make sense, but while Rowling does portray this well, he comes across as melodramatic most of the time and I just want to give him a slap. There’s an arrogance there, and he once again proves that he has a hero complex.

True evil wears pink

True evil wears pink

While this book isn’t my favourite, it does however introduce us to one of the finest characters in literature, Dolores Umbridge. Just as no one prefers Harry over everyone else, absolutely everyone is united in their hate for Umbridge. Whereas Voldemort is evil in more of a fantastical, cartoony sort of way, Umbridge is bureaucratically evil, obsessed with rules and laws, regardless of how they actually impact people. She unswervingly does whatever she is told to do, grasps power wherever she can and never questions that what she’s doing might be wrong. Umbridge is so much more scary than Voldemort because everyone has known an Umbridge. Her high girlish voice and penchant for pink clothes seem to emphasise her nastiness, and she produces such a visceral hate within me (and others) that she really is the pinnacle of Rowling’s outstanding skill at three-dimensional character creation. She gets her comeuppance, although this isn’t the last time we see her in the series, and when it comes, the reader cannot possibly feel sad about it. Indeed, it feels hugely justified.

This book really draws home how many strong characters there are in the series Minerva McGonagall remains my favourite, and even more so after a reread of this, and I also once again found myself remembering how much I enjoy Luna Lovegood, Kingsley Shacklebolt, all the Weasleys and Neville Longbottom.

This book is also notable in being one of only two that make me cry every time I read them. (The other is The Time Traveler’s Wife.) And no, not when Sirius dies. I’ve never cried at that because I’ve never been massively connected to Sirius as a character. Yes, it was tragic for Harry, but their relationship was always a bit too neat for me, and while I do wish he had stayed alive, I’m not upset by his death. The bit I always cry at is when Harry, Ron and Hermione meet Neville in St Mungo’s – the wizarding hospital – where he is visiting his terminally insane parents. Neville’s mum gives him a sweet wrapper in what she presumably believes is an affectionate gesture and Neville, instead of throwing it away, pockets it. There is an implication that this happens a lot and he always does it. It is perhaps the most heartbreaking thing I have ever read and I adore it.

This book is far and away the biggest of the heptalogy, and it isn’t my favourite. As mentioned, there are some very incredible scenes, characters and set pieces going on, but it always feels a bit too long. I realised early on that on page 200 of Philosopher’s Stone, the trio are just going down the trapdoor to face the final battle. On page 200 here, it was the first day of school. There’s a lot of exposition here, but I suppose that’s just how it has to be right now. There’s even more to come in the next book.

The novel ends with the Second War beginning and the wizards preparing themselves to fight back against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. There is a glimmer of hope among the wreckage of what happened in this book. We are left with no doubts at all that whatever’s just happened has changed everything, and the end of the series is rushing ever closer. Soon, all will be well, but not just yet.

“Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire” by J. K. Rowling (2000)


from BBS upload“The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.”

Sometimes you can look back at something you’ve done or said and be proud of it. Other times you can realise you’ve been an utter fool. I mention this because I recently found an old, short review I made on Shelfari where I declared Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire my least favourite of the Potter series. I don’t quite know what made me say such a thing as a simple reread as told me that, actually, this is probably my favourite. And I know I said about the last one too, but as evidenced, I’m clearly allowed to change my opinion.

For those of you reading this, but somehow unfamiliar with the plot, I shall extrapolate thusly: Harry Potter, fourteen-year-old wizard, is stuck at the house of his non-magical aunt and uncle, almost starving and desperate to get back to school. Before that happens, he is invited by his best friend Ron and his family to the Quidditch World Cup final between Ireland and Bulgaria.

After one of the most impressive games of Quidditch ever played, everyone returns happy and excited to their tents, but sleep is disturbed when some wizards start a riot, and things come to a head when the Dark Mark, sign of the darkest wizard of all time Lord Voldemort, is seen above the crowds. Some of the wiser members of the community see that something very wrong is going on indeed.

Meanwhile, back at school, Hogwarts is to be hosting the Triwizard Tournament, a contest wherein the three schools of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang enter one student each to compete for a massive cash prize and the respect of all their peers. Cedric Diggory, Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum are chosen for each house, respectively, but then before anyone knows what it happening, a fourth champion is chosen: Harry Potter.

Harry and his fellow champions must now face three challenges and battle it out to become the winner of the Triwizard Tournament, and as if a dragon, a deep lake and a labyrinth weren’t enough, dark forces are coming together both inside and outside of the school walls, and life for the whole wizarding community is about to become very difficult once again.

Like in the third book, we see the world expanded hugely here once more. Last time we encountered a wizarding village, and this time we get to see wizards and witches from all over the world, revealing for the first time that magic truly is an international operation. We also get a lot of backstory – a couple of the later chapters are almost purely exposition – and begin to find out things about Neville Longbottom’s history, and the relationship between Snape and Dumbledore. There are introductions for new, vivid characters such as ruthless journalist Rita Skeeter (love to hate her), paranoid and insane Mad-Eye Moody, and conman Ludo Bagman, the latter of whom is one of my favourite characters for reasons I’ve never been able to satisfactorily explain. There is even an unnamed cameo by Bellatrix Lestrange, and the Lovegoods are mentioned; these will both bear fruit in the following book.

Rita Skeeter: the nastiest woman to put quill to parchment

Rita Skeeter: the nastiest woman to put quill to parchment

My one issue with the book is that Rowling repeats herself a lot here, traipsing, in early chapters, over old ground and filling in the reader with information they ought to know, as if they’ve never read the first three books. Granted, it was at this point that the books started to become such a phenomenon that required instant purchase (from here on in, all my copies are first editions), so perhaps people were picking it up and thinking they needn’t read the others, but thankfully Rowling still throws in a few references that are unexplained so not everything is spelt out.

I also noticed this time round that this book in particular is setting up Rowling as a future crime writer under her alternate name of Robert Galbraith. It’s something of a whodunnit, and relies on red herrings and neat twists to convince us that something other than the truth is going on. She’s adept at it, leaving out just enough information to make us think that we’ve got it all and not even notice that certain things can be taken in different ways or are being kept from us. Harry is, of course, an unreliable narrator in many ways, being unused to many aspects of the wizarding world and also generally being a little bit slow on the uptake now and again.

I still have some unanswered questions here, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer as the series progresses and Rowling has a clearer vision of her story. But still:

Why does Mr Crouch refer to Percy Weasley as ‘Weatherby’ when he works with his father, and thus would surely know his name? Why does Voldemort refer to Peter Pettigrew as ‘Wormtail’, when that name comes from a different part of his life? Where do the students have their bathrooms and why do we never see them wash or bathe? Where the hell is Durmstrang? And one for the fan fiction writers – what if Hermione and Krum had decided to give a long-distance relationship a go?

The series has now crossed the point of no return – we’re over halfway through, Voldemort is back (er … spoiler), and everything is going to change for every single character. Ollivander makes an appearance here, right in the middle, perfectly complementing his other two appearances at each end of the tale. Rowling has pulled out all the stops, ends the book at just the right moment with Dumbledore setting his plans in motion, leaving us wondering what will happen in the next book. We had to wait three years to find out. This time I will only be waiting a month. I shall return to Hogwarts in August.

The magic is still strong; if anything, stronger than ever.

“Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban” by J. K. Rowling (1999)


azkaban“Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.”

The third installment of the Harry Potter series is generally, I’ve found, considered to be people’s favourite. I think it’s probably mine. It also marks a change in how the series was viewed, as this is the last one that seemed to arrive with little fanfare. After this, the series had really kicked off in the public conciousness and book releases became big events, getting bigger with each novel. But this book isn’t the turning point in the story, that’s really the next one, but it does, in it’s own way, change the game for everyone involved. Let’s talk about this, but first, an obligatory summary.

If you haven’t been living under a rock since the mid-nineties, you’ll know that Harry is now in his third year at Hogwarts and after a disasterous summer which involves him inflating his aunt, he spends the rest of his summer at the Leaky Cauldron pub and wandering Diagon Alley, exploring the shops. He thought he’d be expelled for use of underage magic, but the Ministry seem to be turning a blind eye to it. They just seem happy that he’s alive.

For as it turns out there has been an escape from Azkaban, the wizarding prison. A notorious criminal called Sirius Black has got out and is now roaming Britain. He’s so dangerous even the Muggles have been told about him. Considered Voldemort’s second, he’s back for blood – specifically, Harry’s. Supposedly determined to finish up what Voldemort couldn’t, the wizarding population strives to find Black and protect Harry at all costs. Harry, meanwhile, is trying not to let the idea that he’s about to be murdered get in the way of his new classes, trying to save Hagrid’s pet hippogriff, and winning the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup. It’s going to be a very interesting year…

So, why is this book the best one? Well, I think for one thing we step up in maturity another notch, no one dies (the only book in the series to make that claim), Voldemort isn’t lurking in the background like a Dungbomb about to go off, and the whole wizarding universe is blown so much wider. We get introduced to great and important characters for the first time – Remus Lupin, Cornelius Fudge, Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew – and we find out more about Harry’s parents, crime and punishment and magical creatures. Prophecies are introduced for the first time, setting us up for how important they’ll become two books down the line. Dementors, the Marauder’s Map, more reasons as to why Snape hates Harry – they’re all here now for us to enjoy.

But I think primarily it is the lack of Voldemort that makes this book so good. I’m not faulting him, he’s an amazingly terrifying character and very well rounded, but take him out and we finally get to see Hogwarts a little more like it’s supposed to be. More than any other, this installment shows us the students being students. We get to see more of their lessons, all of their exams, and the B-story is really about winning the Quidditch Cup, something that is actually fairly trivial, but shows how seriously some schools can take their inter-house rivalries. The characters feel their ages, with their excitement at getting to visit Hogsmeade and gorge themselves silly in the sweet shop. They have less pressure to save the world this time round. Malfoy is particularly shown as being an idiotic thirteen-year-old, given that he can’t ever seem to let go of the fact that Harry fainted when he saw a Dementor. I think Malfoy has about three lines in this book that he repeats indefinitely: “My father will hear about this”, “My arm really hurts,” and, “Watch out for the Dementors, Potter!”

I have a few unanswered questions about this book, but not as many as the previous ones. For example, if Sirius shows up on the Marauder’s Map, why did Fred and George never notice (or comment on) Ron sharing a bed with Peter Pettigrew for the last two years? Was the Shrieking Shack really built and immediately considered haunted, or was it bewitched so people thought it had always been there? Did the Care of Magical Creatures class look at anything other than hippogriffs and flobberworms? How did Hermione get 320% in her Muggle Studies exam? What does a Boggart look like when no one’s looking at it? How did Fudge ever get elected?

The explosion of the world in this book is, I think, what really makes it people’s favourites. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but this feels like the first time we get a proper look at the backstory. Remus and Sirius allow us to look at what James and Lily’s time at Hogwarts may have been like, and the discussions of Azkaban show a wider world containing more dark wizards than just Voldemort. He’ll be back with full power in the next book, so maybe this book just feels like the last time we could all be happy. There are dark times coming, and I for one am very excited.

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