Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling – A Book/Script Review

I admit that I can typically get caught up in a moment, but Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is my new favorite Harry Potter story.  If you haven’t yet read it, I urge you to do so.

Of course, it must be clarified that while this is in book format, it is not actually a book.  It is the script to the play currently being performed in England and hopefully soon headed to a US theater near you.  So, as one would expect, it reads like a play, not a novel.

With that being said, though, I found the script format a breath of fresh air.  I don’t need any more paragraphs devoted to the sorting hat or the train station – the script takes us right to the heart of the matter.

That word–heart–is something this particular story has in droves.  Is is nineteen years after The Deathly Hallows.  Harry Potter is now an adult with children of his own.  His youngest son, Albus, does not quite find his legacy endearing.

Albus seems to be nothing like his father as he immediately befriends the son of Draco Malfoy and lands in the Slytherin House.  Yet, Harry does not quite seem like himself either, for when it comes to Albus and he, Harry is less than heroic.

This story became my new favorite Harry Potter tale because it shows us a deeply flawed, and relatable, Harry Potter.  Just as his earliest readers are now adults, he struggles with the very same issues we do, especially as parents.

Furthermore, the story is far more complex than I ever expected with relationships fraught in tension, difficult moments between children and parents, and even more potent experiences between friends than I imagined.  Harry Potter’s world and family are far from perfect, and, frankly, I found such conflict vastly interesting and fun.

In fact, the story itself is more ambitious than I believed it would be.  Beyond the very realistic problems each character faces with friends and family, the story itself delves into time travel and alternate realities which allows for old favorites to reappear in logical, if not permanent, ways.

Nothing unfolds the way you would assume in The Cursed Child.  Harry is not the perfect father, nor is Albus the perfect son.  Unlikely friendships are forged even as difficult sacrifices must be both accepted and allowed.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a complex, mature tale firmly rooted in the realty of family life even as it breaks new ground in the realm of fantasy.  It is funny, exciting, heart-breaking, adventurous, and emotionally authentic.  I loved the script and I can’t wait to see the play.

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Barkskins by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

Though I adore Annie Proulx’s work and count her among my favorite authors, Barkskins did not engage me as much as her previous books.

That’s not to say it’s not worthy of praise.  It’s magnificently written.  It’s also intricately detailed.  To declare it as epic may be an understatement considering it follows several generations of two men’s families from the 1700s to present day.  It pays an astounding amount of attention to historical fact, the trends and science of deforestation and reforestation, as well as various cultural customs spanning several centuries.

Honestly, I felt like I’d lived several lives by the end of this book, and it taught me much about how difficult surviving in this country proved to be for both Native Americans and the various early explorers, invaders, and settlers.  After all, nearly every character meets with a difficult end in this novel.  It also made me think about my own family history, as well as what the future may hold for my descendants.

So why didn’t I like it as much as Proulx’s other work?  I suppose I found it a little dense and slow.  Furthermore, part of what made it brilliant is part of why I didn’t find myself engaged – there are a lot of characters.  Too many characters, actually.  Six or seven of them I found captivating, but many of the rest were difficult to track and I lost interest in their particular stories.

Frankly, I may not have been in the right frame of mind for a book so demanding of my time and attention.  Perhaps I should revisit it in the summer when things are a little slower and I can give it more consideration (and possibly take notes).

As expected, Proulx has delivered a masterfully written book full of such passionate detail and historical authenticity that it’s hard not to appreciate its many positives.  In the end, though, I simply found it too long with too many characters that did not consistently hold my interest.

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Books To Win Over Your Reluctant Reader

I have the privilege of teaching a reading class primarily aimed at seniors in high school.  It is by and large a free-choice reading class, meaning students choose to read whatever they desire.  If a student doesn’t like a book, they are welcome to put it down and pick up a different one.

Some of the students come in excited with a long list of what they hope to get through during the semester.  Other students are not so excited to read, and those are the students I most enjoy.  I love those students in particular because I get the honor of helping them to rediscover their love of reading.  It all comes down to finding the right kind of book for them.  Once they discover their niche, they are off to the races.   I’ve had so many tell me that they like to read again because of the class, and I tell you what, you haven’t experienced joy until you’ve heard a student say that to you.

Listed below are books that always prove to be winners with my reluctant readers.  I’ve tried to divide them up by very general genres, and I’ve included a very simple summary.  Though this is but a small sample of literally hundreds I could recommend, I hope one of these will win over the reluctant reader in your life!

YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

Monster – Written from his perspective, Steve is a sixteen-year-old on trial for the murder of a drugstore owner. He says he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and had nothing to do with the killing.  The prosecution refers to him as a “monster,” and the book features Steve struggling to deal with the awful stress of an uncertain future.

Eleanor & Park– Perhaps the most authentic book I’ve ever read about high school romance, this book is funny and heartwarming while still retaining an edge.  It perfectly captures the very adult emotions teenagers experience while still having to abide by their parents’ rules.  Best of all?  It never veers into the dreaded world of “sappy.”

Touching Spirit Bear – Cole, a juvenile delinquent, accepts an offer to follow a Native American practice and live isolated on a deserted island rather than face jail time.  Angry, unreasonable, and bitter, Cole respects nothing until he chances upon the Spirit Bear, a legendary creature that will inspire Cole to change after a violent encounter.

Tears Of a Tiger – When a high school superstar dies in a drunken car accident, his best friend Andy, who drove the vehicle, must deal with the guilt of the horrible tragedy.  It has one of the most shocking endings students will ever read.

The Fault In Our Stars – Though this book deals with very serious subject matter — teenage cancer — John Green somehow blends great humor into his characters.  In order to deal with terminal cancer, the teens make fun of it and riff on it to no end.  A romance ensues, but beware, there can be no happy ending with terminal illness.  Fast, funny, and thought-provoking, this one is always in demand.

Crank –  A brutal book depicting the depravities of meth addiction, this is the story of Kristina, a good girl who becomes addicted and develops a split personality to handle the awful things she does for meth. This book is graphic and pulls no punches, so be aware.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

Batman: Year One – This gritty book depicts Batman during his first year as a crime fighter.  He is raw, inexperienced, and at his most vulnerable.  Fans will love the moody art, quick dialogue, and grim characterization.

American Born Chinese – This book blends Chinese Mythology into a young boy’s life as he must deal with racism we rarely take into account.  Insightful with great swatches of humor, this one very much will make a student look at life a little differently.

Wolverine – Students love this graphic novel because it finally provides Wolverine’s origin story.  They will be shocked to learn Logan’s life is far different, and longer, than anyone expected!

Kingdom Come – Set in the near future, this beautifully painted graphic novel deals with older classic heroes like Batman and Superman coming to terms with new, violent, immoral crime fighters.  Poignant in today’s world, this story delves deeply into the problem of how far one should go to save people from themselves.

The Dark Knight Returns – This graphic novel changed the entire industry.  It imagines a retired Bruce Wayne in his sixties who decides to put on the cape and cowl again.  However, he is not nearly as fast, agile, or reflexive, and so he must learn to become a whole new Batman if he expects to survive.  Dark, violent, and generally unsettling, this story illustrates a side of Batman never before seen.

All-Star Superman – This book will delight even the most casual of Superman fans.  Grant Morrison has taken the best Superman stories since 1938, put a modern twist on them, and connected them into one linear, cohesive story.  The art is exquisite, and this Superman is charismatic, fun, and a true hero.

NOVELS

World War Z – Written as nonfiction, this book will make you forget it’s all make-believe.  Delivered as a series of eye-witness accounts, field reports, and interviews, you will begin to think this book really happened and get more and more unsettled with each page.

Gone Girl – If you’ve seen the movie, the huge surprise is already ruined, but this book is fantastic because it keeps you guessing and virtually none of the characters have any redeeming qualities.  It’s a little bit of a thriller, a little bit of a mystery, and it will keep a student riveted throughout.  Be aware, however, it is written for adults.

The Gunslinger – Part one of Stephen King’s epic series, Roland is a cowboy with a six-shooter forged from Excalibur who must make his way to the Dark Tower in order to restore order to reality.  As the series goes on, it weaves its way into other Stephen King books, and at one point Stephen King becomes a character himself!  This series is amazing because once reluctant readers get into it, the enormous size of the books don’t bother them at all!

The Martian – Set in the near future, Mark Watney is left behind after a manned mission to Mars.  Much of the book is from Watney’s perspective, and it’s fascinating to watch him run though the math and mechanics to keep himself alive on an inhospitable planet.  Though the book is very heavily rooted in science, Watney’s sense of humor as he’s describing it makes it very entertaining to read.  This is definitely a feel good book and a must-read.

American Gods – This novel imagines the gods of the old world covertly battling the gods of the new.  While it can be something of a crash course in world mythology, at its core the book is about Shadow, and ex-convict trying to find peace with his past, his present, and also his future.  Lovers of the fantasy genre will adore the scope and nuance of this masterfully written work.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Don’t let the title fool you, this is the absolute best time travel story that I’ve ever read.  The author goes to great lengths to make sure everything is connected, logical, and executed well.  The main character is genetically predisposed to lose his place in time, and in doing so, meets his wife as a little girl.  But then a question arises … does he condition her to one day be his wife, or, when she meets the young adult version of him for the first time, does she condition him to be her husband?  The complexities of cause and effect mixed with potent emotional moments between man and wife make for a wonderfully written, highly engaging read.

 

The Remains Of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – A Book Review

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book, yet I couldn’t put it down.

The novel details a butler named Stevens nearing the end of his career.  Part of the book revolves around Stevens driving across the countryside in order to reunite with a former fellow servant, Miss Kenton.  He’d like to offer her a position … or is there something more he has in mind?  These are no mere servants, however.  Stevens was once the epitome of perfection as the highest ranking butler in Darlington Hall, a mammoth estate owned by an internationally renowned gentleman.  Though those days are past, Stevens reminisces about them as he travels.

I agree that the plot is not the most enticing, yet trust me when I tell you that as the story unfolds, Stevens becomes a fascinating character.  He is incredibly conscientious, yet emotionally impotent.  His loyalty is unfaltering, but he also lacks critical perspective.  His work ethic is nearly super human; however, he cannot prioritize between his work and his personal life.  And his morality?  Dubious, at best.

These contrasts create a deeply satisfying character study.  Make no mistake, though, it is Ishiguro’s pacing that makes it so captivating.  He knows exactly when to introduce revelations.  Just as things seem to be stagnating, the author embarks upon a relevant piece of information that calls everything prior into question.

Best of all?  The entire book is from Stevens’ perspective, so as these alarming details arise, we must doubt not only the guilty parties, but Stevens himself.  There are moments when the reader suspects Stevens may not be the most reliable narrator …

Because Stevens takes his role so seriously, he is an incredibly well studied, intelligent man.  His vocabulary is complex which results is very high diction throughout the novel.  Consequently, Ishiguro creates beautifully structured sentences that demand both concentration and consideration.  I’m ashamed to admit this is my first Ishiguro book, so I don’t know if this style is a reflection of Stevens’ personality or the author’s typical delivery.

Though I only read the book because a friend recommended it, I’m glad I did.  If you appreciate excellent pacing, engaging vocabulary, and a true character study, I believe you will enjoy The Remains Of the Day.

DC Universe: Rebirth #1 – A Longer Than Intended Reaction

I’ll be honest with you, when I first heard about DC Universe: Rebirth, I didn’t think much of it. I’m 39 and I’ve read DC comics since about the age of 3.  I’ve always loved my Super Friends, but yet another “event” failed to engage my interest this time around.

That is, until DC executed a masterful stroke of marketing – they spoiled the book’s biggest revelation.  Believe it or not, that spoiler is what drew me into the comic book shop today for the first time in over a year.

From this moment on, I will discuss the book as though you’ve read it.  If you’ve (somehow) managed to avoid spoilers and have yet to pick up your copy, turn back now!

Last chance.

Final warning.

I’m serious.

Okay, you’re still here.

Wally West.

Or, as I like to call him, The Flash.

Allow me a brief aside.  As a  7 year old, I felt sure Barry Allen was THE Flash.  When Kid Flash took over the the mantle, I felt cheated.  Yes, even then, my comic book rage was fully developed.  They portrayed Wally as a selfish, immature, horn dog.  But then a funny thing happened.  Wally and I started growing up together.  When I reached high school, Wally realized his full potential under the guidance of Mark Waid.  I watched Wally accept his legacy and role as Barry Allen’s successor.  As I sought to discover my own identity, I cheered as Wally overcame his own doubts and achieved both the respect and friendship of the entire DC Universe.  He became the heart and soul of the JLA, the moral compass of the super hero community, and the guy everyone came to for advice.  I marveled at how a fictional character could go through such growing pains even as I endured similar dilemmas.  He inspired me to make peace with myself, to accept myself, and to realize that I have to believe in myself before I can expect anyone else to do so.

I walked away from comic books in my early 20s, but, of course, Wally reached across the multiverse and invited me back in after only  a few years’ hiatus.  This time he had to learn not just how to love himself but how to love someone else.  I don’t mean just love, I mean truly LOVE.  Geoff Johns gave us a Wally West who gave himself, all of himself, to Linda Park.  Interestingly enough, this story line occurred as I myself got engaged and married.  Just as Wally discovered true love and devotion, real loyalty and humility, I also underwent such change.  Both of us became better men as a result.

My God … I never realized until now just how much I identify with Wally West.  I mean, I knew I did, just not to this extent.  Wow.

Time progressed, and Wally took the final step – fatherhood.  Guess what?  Yep, I’m a dad, too.

Things happened, Bart Allen (aka Impulse/Kid Flash) took over the mantel, Wally returned with Linda and the kids – I loved it.  Here’s my favorite super hero and he’s also a husband and dad!  I literally grew up with this character and enjoyed the same milestones!

When I heard they were bringing Barry back, I felt nervous.  I understood why, I just hoped Wally wouldn’t be tossed aside.  Of course, Geoff Johns did the honors in The Flash: Rebirth, and he gave me exactly what I wanted.  There is a fantastic spread of Wally running alongside Barry, both in a Flash costume, along with the entire Flash Family.  Even Wally’s kids had costumes and were sprinting by their side!  It seemed a new age arrived, one that would be better than ever!  Love, family, legacy – it was all there.

But then Flashpoint arrived.  Long story short, Barry ran back in time, saved his mom, and when he returned to the present, things had changed.  Lois and Clark were no longer married, nor were Barry Allen and Iris West, Green Arrow and Black Canary didn’t even know each other, Wonder Woman was the daughter of Zeus, and Cyborg was a full member of the JLA and had never been in the Teen Titans. In fact, the classic Titans seemed to have not existed at all.  And, there was no trace of Wally West.  No one even mentioned him. A Wally West eventually appeared in The Flash comic, but this was a young African-American man who, while interesting and full of potential, was not the Wally West I’d grown up with.

Of course, this new direction had its ups and downs.  But as years went by, Wally stayed away, and no one really understood why.

Jeeze.  This has been the longest build up ever.  If you’re still reading … thanks for sticking with me.

So the spoiler I mentioned, the one that brought me back into the comic book shop?  My Wally West hugging Barry Allen with Barry saying, “How could I ever forget you?”  Geesh.  I’m tearing up just writing it.  I’m such a sap.

You got me DC; I had to know.  I had to know where Wally had been and what his return had in store for the DC Universe.

This book initiated a change in direction I didn’t even know I wanted, and it’s all thanks to the heart and soul of the DCU – Wally West.

Wally narrates the book.  He’s stuck in the Speed Force.  (This is not the first time he’s been in such a predicament.  I think it’s not even the tenth!  Surely it won’t be the last.)  He’s being held back against his will, but he doesn’t know why or by whom.

Wally needs a tether.  He needs someone to connect with and pull him out of the Speed Force.  He visits several people, all who fail to help him, but those visits set up fascinating plot devices for the future.  He even visits Linda Park, thinking that, like so many times before, she would be his anchor.  It’s a heartbreaking moment, yet not one without hope for days to come.

It’s only fitting that it’s Barry, Wally’s hero, who finally saves him.  Wally appears before Barry, says he’s made peace with dying, tells Barry he loves him, says his goodbyes, and then begins to disintegrate.  Barry, not fully understanding, takes a leap of faith, believes in hope, and reaches for Wally’s hand.  Wally is saved.  And then they remember everything.

Geoff Johns wrote this book, and you can rest assured that his one moment is the mission statement of Rebirth.  It’s incredibly symbolic, perhaps even a metaphor, and it completely won me over.

In the middle of the 1980s, a few books came out that changed the industry.  Interestingly enough, several of them were released by DC Comics.  The Dark Knight Returns was one such book.  The other was Watchmen.  Neither were considered part of “continuity,” but the gritty, adult, psychological approach won fans over and ushered in what some call The Dark Age of comics.  Of course, it devolved over the years into sheer violence without the benefit of intelligent storytelling, then moved into crazy “extreme” versions of characters.   Hal Jordan went nuts and killed the Green Lantern Corps.  Superman suffered death by Doomsday.  Bane broke Batman’s back.  It eventually ran it’s course, and some of these stories were well executed and have withstood the test of time, but several characters were never fully restored to the core of what made them heroes to begin with.

In 2010, after Flashpoint, the DCU wasn’t quite as dark or extreme as it had been, but it seemed to be missing something.  Wally pointed this something out rather poignantly.  What was this “something?”  Love.  Real love.  Family love.  Friend love.  The kind of love that grows over time and bonds people from one generation to the next.  With the New 52, DC abandoned the very thing that made it unique – love, and the legacy that consequently results from it.

In this book we see the pre-New 52 Lois with Clark with their son – love.  We see Ryan Choi working with Ray Palmer – legacy.  We see a meaningful glance between Oliver Queen and Dinah Lance – love.  We see Jaime Reyes side by side with Ted Kord – legacy.  We see Arthur Curry proposing to Mera – love.  We see the other Wally West living up to the name “Kid Flash” – legacy.  We see classic versions of Dr. Fate and Johnny Thunder – legacy.  We see the classic Legion flight ring – legacy.

And just in case Johns hasn’t made it apparent, he kills off Pandora, the driving character of the New 52.  And who kills her?  All indications point to Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen fame.

Mind.

Blown.

Never in a million years did I think DC would go there.

Oh, they went there.

Imagine.  The heart and soul of the DCU has been held prisoner by the harbinger of the Dark Age.  From a story telling perspective, it makes perfect sense.  The DCU is a multiverse, we all understood Watchmen existed in that multiverse somewhere, but I personally never dreamed they would finally integrate members of Watchmen into the mainstream DCU.

Can this renewed direction of love, legacy, and hope start off any better than by having the heroes battle the one character who most perfectly encapsulates the antithesis of those things?  This is a bold step by both Johns and DCU, and I applaud them for taking a pretty big chance.  Watchmen is a seminal work and the author, Alan Moore, has made it explicitly clear he does NOT want his creations mucked with.  Oftentimes publishers purport that a story will “change everything!”  In this case, it’s true.  This has literally never been done.

How fitting that Wally West is leading this charge into a new era.

Arcadia by Iain Pears – A Book Review

Know from the onset that this is a book you will need to read twice.  That’s not a bad thing, though.  Arcadia is so full of plot, so rich in its complexities, so perfectly executed, that I actually look forward to reading it again!

Describing Arcadia is no easy task.  It takes place simultaneously in the future, in the past, and in a seemingly parallel world akin to that of Middle-earth or Narnia (but without talking animals or humanoid creatures).  It delves heavily into the nuances of time travel and alternate realities and provides viable explanations for the possibility of both.

It is at times a work of science fiction, at times adventuresome, and times philosophical, at times social critique, at times pure fantasy, but it is always a well-written book that wastes not a single word in telling a deeply satisfying story.

Be aware, though, that Pears expects much of his reader.  Nothing even begins to make sense until about half way through.  Every moment of this novel demands concentration and engagement.  Everything, and everyone, plays a vital role to the tale.  It is one of those rare novels that keeps the audience enthralled right up to the very last page.

If you love multi-faceted, compelling stories that are delivered expertly, Arcadia is the book for you.

Bats Of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson – A Book Review

I should say from the outset that this book warrants a second read.  I’ll explain why in a bit.

If you’re a book lover like me, you need to own this work.  Not because it’s a terrific story, but rather because it is so original in format.  I often discuss with my friends the next steps that book publishing should take, and productions like this may be the answer.

Bats Of the Republic takes place both in the future and in the past.  It is comprised of old letters, field journal drawings, handwritten notes accompanied by sketches, chapters from a fictional book written to exist within this book, technical schematics, as well as electronic messages.  It boasts photographs, a fold-out map, beautiful illustrations, and a very (literally) long letter you can take out of an actual envelope.

Its overall design is exquisite and it is, undoubtedly, a multifaceted work of art.

So, even with all that being said, the story itself did not satisfy.  It’s an interesting read, of that there is no doubt.  But it is somewhat repetitive, the plot seems to serve the design, the characters struck me as inexplicably motivated at times, and, frankly, there were moments when I didn’t quite follow why anything happening proved important to the overall story.

However, because there is so much to digest, because it is so visually interesting and spans so many different eras and formats, it is entirely possible that I missed an important aspect of the plot.  I plan to reread the book this summer with fresh eyes and see if I pick up on things previously missed.

Even so, if the story proves to disappoint on a second reading, I will still unabashedly recommend this work to friends on the strength of its design alone.  This is a step forward in publishing, and it’s one that needs to be experienced.