Sunday, 30 November 2008

Tomorrow, When the War Began (the series)

I could already tell when I started this book that I liked it. And the series keeps up the pace that the first one set.

This is one of the series that I did not felt suffered from "cleaning up" syndrome - though it could be argued there is a little of feeling of being cheated by the ending. I didn't actually feel that.

One thing that was great about it was that it didn't lose momentum, and it didn't run out of ideas.

The premise is fairly original and cool - kids coming back to their hometown after a weekend away to find it invaded by some unidentified army, but there was a possibility of it fading - were the kids just going to spend the entire time running around scrabbling for survival and every so often blowing up an army truck with a home made bomb?

The series was cleverer than that and thought of several ideas for action and variations, as well as exploring relationships and the way different personalities would react to pressure.

Marsden wasn't in the least afraid to explore grit and violence instead of trying to make it cheesy like Rowling was more apt to do - but then he was exploring a war topic, not a magic story, and writing, at least to begin with, for a much older audience.

The different characters in the group represented a wide number of character traits, and I thought this was a great way of exploring character and story ideas, and allowing readers to have someone to empathise with. Probably people could find one or two people and a few of their reactions they strongly identified with in the book. I also felt it was great that Ellie, the lead, was portrayed as strong, opinionated, yet flawed - an excellent character to see things through, even though I didn't strongly identify with her.

Marsden did use some techniques to allow for the children to have some superior powers to what many children reading his books might have - for instance, they could drive, make bombs, and use guns proficiently. This is explained by them being "country kids" and doesn't feel too much like a cheat.

The fact that Ellie's friends are "not really dead" at the end does not feel too much like a cheat at the end (as I sneakingly suspected that they weren't) and in fact there seemed to be something too "easy" about finishing them all off just to end the story. What in fact seemed more realistic was the fact they survived but that the war tarnished Ellie's relationship with them.

At any rate, I will be reading the Ellie Chronicles later - or at least I will have a go.

This was an excellent ride, and well worth reading 7 books. Addictive!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Harry Potter - Series Comments and Recommendations!

I definitely recommend trying to have a go at this ne in Latin. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll learn some exciting new words! If this series motivated kids to get up and read, imagine what it could do if it were on the compulsory Latin syllabus.

We may have a whole generation of Classics trained, pagan tudents whose first recollections of Latin are not "amo amas amat" or "cerberus est canis" but "Puer qui vixit!" and "Dominus et Domina Dursley".

Harry Potter, for me, was an enjoyable series and I don't regret at all reading it. It was a fast read despite the heftiness of some of the tomes. However, I don't think it will be the kind of series I will go back to over and over.

It started off rather tamely and then suddenly turned into a much more "advanced" series - with subplots, deaths, double entendres and also what seemed to be lots of unnecessary extra info. Not always for the better. While for me the more interesting books were near the end - I liked No.s 4 and 6 best (Goblet of Fire, Half-Blood Prince), I also thought the weakest book was the longest book- the Order of the Phoenix. I felt that a lot could be said for having tighter scripts - say in The Philosopher's Stone, which had a certain charm to them, rather than lashing out and going all over the place. Bigger is not always better!

I think I was one of the later people to get into all the Harry Potter stuff, and while I found them amusing, sometimes charming and entertaining, and imaginative, I was a bit mystified as to what the big deal was - after all, there are plenty of fantastic authors out there and in my opinion many just as good if not better than Rowling, many with wonderful, imaginative ideas, great characters blah blah - so what was so special about this that had kids lining up for this rather than others?

I really don't know. One fan (adult) who was obviously starstruck started gong on to me about how she thought it was because Rowling had "created a whole world" but then, plenty of fantasy writers do just that.

I've watched the first 5 movies. I've heard that the 7th book may be made into two movies because there is so much material; to be honest I don't know if I could be bothered watching two movies for that book, certainly I wouldn't buy two cinema tickets. I'd have to wait til it came out on TV til I watched it.

Anyhow, it was a good experience. Aaaaah!

Harry Potter Awards - as given by OJS

Worst Film Adaptation Award - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (far too sketchy - longest book, shortest movie!)

Most predictable ending - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Cheesiest Ending - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - oh spare me, Gryffindor wins a whole lot of extra points and wins from behind?

The Award for Best Portrayed Defence of the Dark Arts Teacher on film (so far) - Dolores Umbridge by Imelda Staunton - in Order of the Phoenix

The Award for Best Hiding Place for Voldemort - back of Professor Quirrell's head - you really started off well.

The Award for Most Annoying, Perky Character - a toss-up between Gilderoy Lockhart and Rita Skeeter. If Oiliness is an added characteristic, Gilderoy wins.

The Award for Most Sadistic Concept - Harry Potter No. 5 - The Umbridge "I Must Not Tell Lies" Quill (When writing out lines in detention, the words etch themselves as if being carved into the back of Harry's hand with a knife. I think this is even worse than tying Ron up underwater and making Harry find him in Goblet of Fire)

Best Ghost Character - Moaning Myrtle - yes I preferred her to Nearly Headless Nick

Hogwarts teacher who reminds me most of my TAFE photography teacher - Professor Trelawney, by a long shot

Hogwarts subject I would take if I could choose - I'd love to know how to make Potions or be good at Transfiguration - and definitely, how to Fly a Broomstick, if I were studying witchcraft. They would be my top priority! I want to know how to turn a mouse into a pincushion!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This book suffered from the old "cleaning up" syndrome that series often have - clean up loose ends, and you can feel that, somewhat to the detriment to the story.

For one thing, there's a whole lot of carnage. OK, they are fighting Lord Voldemort here; on the other hand Harry has fought Lord Voldemort in six previous books. In the first three books, he escaped without a single death, in the next three, one death at a time. Suddenly they are dying in spades in this one, almost like Rowling is cleaning characters out for springtime. One might argue that Voldemort has suddenly got really really strong but it just seems rather over the top, and gratuitous and unrealistic when compared to the lack of carnage in the other books.

Poor Hedwig! For some reason I felt more sorry about the loss of Hedwig than the others!

I LIKE owls!

I won't say too much about the plot, it's not too bad but it's not unusual either. As could be predicted, a magic mission which is completed, by Harry, with the aid of good friends. He finally learns of the allegiances of some of the greater characters in the series, defeats Voldemort and heaps of people get killed along the way.

This one didn't really grip me but I did want to find out what happened and it didn't bore me, which I can say is in it's favour. It wasn't one that could make me smile a lot or think "Oh, that was fun or imaginative" and that's what I rather like in children's fantasy.

But you end up having all the ends tied up for you, and for those who like plenty of action and want to know "what happened to whom" then this is good.

Note: There are notes on Wikipedia which say things about what happens to which main characters which include details that are not all in The Deathly Hallows, or not that I noted on my reading (maybe I didn't look closely enough). I suspect some of these details may have been released in J.K. Rowling's subsequent notes/interviews etc. For instance, details of the full names of people and their offspring and what they do with their lives after Hogwarts.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I liked this book. I rather did.

Despite my not being a huge Quidditch fan and despite this having a lot to do with Quidditch - Harry becomes Quidditch Captain in this one - I still thought this book had a lot more going for it than some of the others.

It had a nice sense of wonder and exploration in it - Harry's extra lessons with Dumbledore, Harry trying to figure out who the Half-Blood Prince was, with the certain darkness that comes with it - the impending footsteps of Draco Malfoy hot on his heels!

What I think this had in common with the Goblet of Fire was a good sense of pacing and a nice balance of light and dark. That's why it felt good.

Oh, and of course, anything with a bit more focus on Professor Snape - now that has to be a good thing. Professor Snape gets the job he has long coveted - Defence of the Dark Arts - and reveals quite a bit more of his background here - which all has to be good stuff!

This is also the one where Professor Dumbledore died. As did many readers, I likeed Dumbledore, but I felt his death almost inevitable - the martyr and older, wiser, heroic death. At least he went out the way he wanted to.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I have two words for you:

Imelda Staunton

Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the movie adaptation of this book really makes this book, which is overly long and really not the best Harry Potter book in my opinion. However, Imelda Staunton goes a long way to redeeming it.

I believe she is the best portrayed of the ill-fated Defence of the Dark Arts teachers we've had in the movie versions so far, although in the upcoming Half-Blood Prince she may be well-challenged by Alan Rickman when Professor Snape takes the position. I do think Alan Rickman makes a fantastic Snapey ... oooh Professor Snape. Sorry, Dumbledore.

Staunton is admirable, but if you want a really good Staunton movie, go watch the movie adaptation of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals where she plays Mother. It's a much funnier, quirkier movie and the book is excellent too.

The first problem with the Order of the Phoenix is the book is really far too long, and even Rowling has admitted she could have trimmed it.

Also, the story isn't nearly as riveting.

OK, I liked some of the ideas. The whole take-off of bureacracy with Umbridge's silly self-constraining decrees (and the question whether this would mean she could actually stop people playing Exploding Snap in class because of her own decree), and the sadistic Umbridge quill was pretty good. And the side plotline of abuse of authority through prefects seemed to work too - even if it was a little overplayed.

Cho was wet and annoying, thank goodness Harry seemed to grasp this. And Neville grew up in this one - somthing good to see.

By the end of the book it was more like a trek than anything else - and the problem with the movie was it felt more like a sequence of sketches, rather than a really good, strong, well-developed storyline.

All in all - not a fave Harry Potter of mine and despite being the longest of the lot, one of the more forgettables, to me.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Out of the Harry Potter movies, I think this is one of the better ones so far. I really rather liked the Philosopher's Stone as a good intro, but Goblet of Fire is probably second on my list. It's a good mixture of light and dark, and while it does cut out heaps from the book, it keeps in the right bits. In my opinion.

When we've got up to Goblet of Fire, Rowling started lashing out. No more Miss Nice Gal - or Miss Pretty Succinct Story Gal. She went the full hog. So the books had to be cut - a lot - for screen or end up with an epic like Ben Hur or Gone With the Wind just for one book.

Goblet of Fire is quite a fun book and it has some nice mixtures of dark and light. Of course there is the predictability - we know that Harry's name is going to come out of the Goblet despite the fact that he is restricted from enterinig the competition, so why bother stringing out the process?

The whole idea of the S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) was pretty amusing, though possibly a bit overdone. It was a good cultural satire of certain do-gooders who can turn others off, and who may believe they are doing good but are imposing their values on those they wish to help - a sort of "forcing them to be helped by my standards". It was probably wise to leave this secondary theme out of the movie but it was still a good plotline in the book.

As for Cho ... I cannot see what Harry sees in her! Harry shows terrible taste, fortunately he redeems himself later in the series by losing his infatuation. She's a giggly, egocentric, overemotional pain-in-the-butt.

The challenges in the Goblet of Fire are pretty good, satisfyingly dangerous and make for good reading. It's fairly obvious that Harry has been put in the challenge for evil reasons and You-Know-Who is behind the whole thing and Harry will triumph so three more books can be written. However, that doesn't diminish (as it never does in such books/movies) that it's really a great ride just finding out how he accomplishes each feat.

In this book, J.K. Rowling does start killing off characters. In this book it's a fairly minor character, but again, she's not playing Miss Nice Gal any more. In my opinion, the way it ended was "appropriate" and so was the choice of character ... not gratuitous ... and not cheesy. A better ending.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Harry Potter books started lighter and kept getting darker. Darker in a kind of grim way, not in a black, delicious, wicked, delight way.

This one rather reminded me of grey skies and I guess that had something to do with the grey skies in the ending scenes of the movie.

Or maybe it was the Dementors draining the happiness out of me?

Yes, this one's the one when lots of new characters and ideas are introduced - one's Dementors which suck happiness out of you. Another few characters are Professor Lupin, the kind werewolf teacher, Sirius Black (the prisoner of Azkaban) and Peter Pettigrew.

I didn't really dislike this book, I just didn't really fall in love with it. While it was darker it wasn't so much fun and it wasn't fantastic with everyone being upset with each other - Hagrid wasn't so happy and people weren't so happy with his class, Hermione was more grouchy, the skies were darker. And there wasn't intrigue or depth to go along with the darkness.

A couple of things to note about the Potter books so far:

Professor Snape: OK, now that I've read the whole series I can say I know Professor Snape isn't the bad guy. But I figured this out from the first book, although the finer details were yet to be revealed. However it gets increasingly annoying to have every single thing revolve around how Harry and Ron and Hermione have to have arguments and suspicions over Snapey. Snape is cool! The more they whinge about Snape and try to blame him for anything and everything, the more I want to crack a broomstick over their heads and award a thousand points to Slytherin!

The Time-Turner: The Time-Turner concept was not bad but the way it was executed in both film and book (which were both differently done, markedly so) was crude. All the obvious and repeated pointers to "How could Hermione have done that, she hasn't done that class yet?" or "She was standing there and now she's standing here" over and over again were so blatant in the book.

And i the movie - when Harry went on about having seen his father save him - the moment it was out of his mouth, before I knew about the time-turner (I saw movie before read book) I said to myself "that was YOU not your Dad". I don't know how all this stuff is so obvious, or maybe I have just read a whole lot of similar books and too many borrow on the same plot devices.

However, I do not see myself as a huge fantasy fiction reader. I read some, I read it if it looks interesting or some if it's recommended, but I am by no means a buff.

So if I could figure that one out - who knows who else did?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Unfortunately, this book is a lot like The Philosopher's Stone except not that much better. In fact it's the same plot structure - Harry against the enemy at school, and a certain teacher who's the foil, a certian teacher who hates him, others he can trust, plus friends and enemies among students ... but it loses the shine of the freshness of the Philosopher's Stone.

The "anagram of Tom Riddle" device is not really very clever.

This book does introduce Ginny Weasley who turns out to be a better character later on in the series. Right now, she's not very interesting. Wait for her to grow up and gain a personality. Oh and it introduces Dobby, who, along with other house elves, become more interesting later on.

I read this one and watched the movie thinking "A bit more of the same, unfortunately it's getting a little tired now. And what's up with the Defence of the Dark Arts position?"

Some bright spots:

I actually thought some of the best bits worth commenting on were in the movie.

The whole Gilderoy Lockhart character - the vain, pompous, autograph-writing, egocentrical teacher is a good idea - but it's especially well carried out by Kenneth Branagh. And that duel between him and Professor Snape is really nicely done.

And I also liked seeing Arthur Weasley when Harry was brought back to the Weasley's place, and Mr Weasley interrogates him about Muggles (his obsession).

The way he asked Harry "What is the use of a rubber duck?" was actually really funny - and from what I remember, that wasn't even in the book.

(Oh and for the critics who complained that Hermione was not ugly enough in the movies - the scene where she takes Polyjuice Potion and turns half-cat should convince you she isn't always really cute, neither!)

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

This is the order in which I eked the essence out of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

My first acquaintance was the Latin version of it - I tried to translate the first chapter into some semblance of English.
Then I watched the movie.
Then I read the book.

I am, as they say, "The Woman who is Backwards".

The Philosopher's Stone, I thought, was not a bad book. It had a charming simplicity and freshness and fun to it - for younger readers. I guess I don't fall into that category but I'm used to reading kids' books so maybe my brain switches easily into appreciation of that and doesn't need the later bloodsheds and twists of story to think "that's a good book!"

Even if it was a little too predictable for my liking, the characters were very likable. Against the flow, I happened to like Professor Snape. He reminds me of Dr Cox on Scrubs except without the humour and he's not American. But if there were an American Professor Snape and he could just have a little bit of humour, I could see John C. McGinley there. Not that Alan Rickman doesn't do a superb job. He was, I thought, one of the better actors in the cast. I also thought Hermione was brilliantly cast.

And some of the concepts were a bit of fun - like the Sorting Hat, or Professor Quirrell and Voldemort's head! And "Wizard Chess".

However: Some things about the Philosopher's Stone were just plain cheesy. The ending where Gryffindor wins all the points and beats Slytherin - that was too plain cheesy. You might as well have found princes for all the girls to marry.

I found the explanation of Quidditch to be just plain weird. The whole concept of having a game where one team member (the Seeker) be the one who not only can end the match by catching the Snitch, but "whoever catches it usually wins the game" - you wonder why the heck they bother with the Beaters and Chasers at all. Why don't they spend all their time coaching the Seeker and/or hitting the other Seeker of his/her broomstick? Why does anyone really care about the other players at all - the Seeker gets pretty much all the glory?

It seemed to me that the game would be pretty boring most of the time.

I read a whole lot of critics going on about how the Philosopher's Stone was so unique and creative and how it was so like Roald Dahl.

Personally, I thought the writing was entertaining and there were some imaginative concepts there. However I agree with Ursula K. Le Guin (The Wave in the Mind) that those who ranted about its uniqueness didn't seem to note that it drew from two grand literary traditions - the English boarding school and the witches/wizards/magic tradition (with some very obvious nods to established myths and terms in magic).

Even the idea of a "witchcraft school for young witches" isn't a unique one - A set of books by Jill Murphy called The Worst Witch series centres on a witchcraft school attended by young witches of various abilities who have friends and enemies, teachers who are variously likable and dislikable, different "witchcraft classes" and a central character "Mildred Hubble" who gets into trouble constantly but somehow saves the day. The series was even popular to get made into a TV series.

This doesn't detract from Harry Potter as a fun and entertaining series - and most writers either get their ideas from somewhere or have had bits of their ideas "done" before - coming up with a completely unique idea is virtually impossible. However I'd just challenge that particular "school of critic".

The other thing is ... well I'm a big fan of Roald Dahl and when I read the Philosopher's Stone I didn't think that there was a lot to compare Rowling and Dahl with ... oh except they are both popular and successful British children's authors, and Rowling even broke into poetry (with the Sorting Hat) in the middle of her book, which was a popular device of Dahl's.

What marked Dahl's writing for me was not all the weird names he used for his characters (which some people probably felt was similar to all the imaginative names Rowling gave to her characters) but his somewhat savage and often naughty sense of humour.

Kids who get eaten up in a pie. A headmistress who throws a kid over a fence for wearing her hair the wrong way. Farting for sport. Collecting food in your beard for a "snack". Putting worms in the spaghetti, turning children into rats, throwing kids into the garbage chute and then jumping around and singing songs about how fun it is. That's all characteristic of Dahl. Not nearly so in the Philosopher's Stone.

All in all, quite good but not what I would say gripping. Perhaps it would bave gripped me had I been a lot younger.


Even though it wasn't on my list of New Year's Resolutions, somehow I stumbled upon a pursuit this year and turned it into some kind of goal, game, race, whatever. It was an accident that I found it, but I'm glad I did.

I started to read two children's series with seven books in each series. Both well-known. Both highly acclaimed. Both very different. (One I've finished, one I haven't).

The first was the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. I completed the last book in series tonight.

The other was the Tomorrow, When the War Began series, by John Marsden. I've completed up to the fifth book in that one.

Now, first of all, I'll mention that both these series were not just series I forced myself to read to complete a task. I enjoyed reading both - and will definitely complete Marsden's series.

There have been other series which I've heard are good but have been unable to continue going with. I attempted to read Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn. It didn't really do it for me. I pursued with Book 2, then stopped. It just wasn't my thing.

But both these series have been a lot of fun and captured my interest. I was interested in doing a compare/contrast, but the series were so different it was like comparing apples with oranges.

Then I thought, "What the heck? Why can't you compare apples with oranges? They are both fruit!"

So why the heck not? .... just have to finish 2 John Marsden books ...