Monthly Archives: June 2012

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

It’s impressive how high the Harry Potter books ranked on the Big Read list, particularly when you consider that the books were written by a previously unknown author. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997, and the next three followed at yearly intervals. All four are on the Big Read list – the fifth book was published after voting had started in 2003.

The second book, #23 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, picks up where book one left off. Harry and his friends are returning for their second year at Hogwarts, and there is plenty to keep them occupied.

A school story
The early Harry Potter books are, primarily, school stories. Rereading the novels, I was surprised by how many pages are devoted to lessons, homework and teachers than to plots and villains. It makes sense, and it’s one of the things which makes the world so pleasing but it is odd to realise how many pages you have to get through to reach the memorable, climactic scenes – I think this is true of a lot of dramatic books. I was very surprised by how much time Stoker spends talking about train journeys in Dracula, for example, compared to actually dealing with the count himself.

Part and parcel of this mundane focus is Harry’s relationship with Snape. It’s probably the most complex and well-developed relationship in the series, and it’s fascinating to watch the antagonisms and dependencies play out.

Internally consistent
The books are well written and well-edited – there are a few typos and glitches, but the story hangs together well and the world does too. Screwing up the internal consistency is a real risk in a high-magic or high-science setting but Rowling manages to make the varying abilities of the characters (so you can put out a fire with magic but not start one? OK then…) seem reasonable and natural.

This is partly due to the school setting – the characters learn before your eyes, so it’s obvious that they won’t know everything straight off, or necessarily do things in the best way. Seeing the main characters learn, get it wrong and try again gives the adults space to screw up too. It also stops with wizards becoming demi-gods, able to conjure anything on a whim which, in turn, allows for some plot to happen.

Overall, the second book is much like the first, so if you enjoyed one you’re likely to enjoy the other.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The first Harry Potter book, #22 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone introduces Harry, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and many of the most popular elements in the world. Rereading it, I was surprised at how gentle and age-appropriate the story is, compared to the dragons and drama in later books. The characters are 11, they act like it, and it’s mostly a book about going to secondary school, making new friends – and new enemies – and dealing with new, large classes, strange subjects and piles of homework.

Brilliant world
The world-building is fascinating and very appealing. The novel combines several very popular tropes: boarding school stories (Malory Towers and The Chalet School, for example), magic (Narnia series, The BFG), ordinary children who turn out to be innately special (Ballet ShoesMatilda) and, of course, children solving problems the adults can’t or won’t deal with (oh, every YA book, ever).

What I’m saying, is that I can see why people love the world as much – or in some cases, more – than the stories or the characters. The magic is easy, readily available and cheap. Once you’ve learned the correct spell, you can do anything from turn a rabbit into a top hat to kill someone and all it takes is a flick of the wrist and some cod-Latin.

So in wish fulfilment terms, it’s pretty much top hole.

On top of that, the world is packed with strange creatures, magic devices and curious sweets – and yet, the people are familiar. There’s the stern-but-fair teacher, the school-yard bully, the useless and timid new teacher, the droning bore of a teacher, the class swot, the pranksters, the nice-but-dim kid, the sporting hero…

Adequate plot
The first book isn’t amazing. I realise I’m rereading it as a sceptical adult, rather than a ready-to-be-enchanted eleven-year-old but I do read a lot of kids’ books, and a lot of fantasy, so I feel justified in comparing it too, for example, Diana Wynne Jones’ Homeward Bounders which I reread a couple weeks ago, or the later part of book four of this series, both of which are amazing.

Plus, I don’t believe that the world would hang together the way she says – there must be some controls in place which stop grown up wizards from simply doing – or stealing – whatever they want, otherwise the society wouldn’t function. But when I was eleven, I would have loved to go to Hogwarts and even now I would quite like to work for the Ministry of Magic or the Daily Prophet.

I definitely recommend the Harry Potter series – it’s enjoyable and engaging right from the first page.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Better known as Alice in Wonderland, #30 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is available for free through Project Gutenberg.

Written by an Oxford mathematician, Charles Dodgson, and published in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Alice has been massively popular ever since, and it seems to me that most readers will be at least vaguely familiar with the book.

The novel is really short – it didn’t take much longer than the 37 minutes to read Alice in Wonderland estimated earlier – and describes a bizarre series of adventures which happen to a young girl one sunny afternoon.

Between fairy tale and modern kid lit
The story takes place in a dream, and follows the strange half-logic of dreams, where things may grow large or small, tea parties can last for months, and all this seems pretty normal.

Despite the odd happenings, Alice is internally consistent and easy to read. It’s a hard line to straddle, to create a surreal story which still has a sensible narrative, but Carroll does it well. His world has the blend of familiar and alien which is common in both dreams and fairy tales, where animals may talk but little birds are still afraid of cats.

Like Winnie-the-Pooh, the story in Alice is so familiar that I almost didn’t know what to expect from the original text. Perhaps because the style has become such a staple of children’s literature, it’s not as exciting or intriguing as Pooh from a technical point of view.

Clever exposition
is remarkably concise and – as I mentioned earlier – it does hang together well, guiding the reader easily between rapidly changing scenarios, introducing and abandoning dozens of characters in under 200 pages. I think it would be a good read for any author looking for tips on how to create a believable other-world without dropping in large chunks of exposition.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Alice. It rattles along so quickly that I almost feel I should read it again to find out what it was about.

Good Omens by Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman

Good Omens by Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Book #68, Good Omens is one of my favourite books, written by two of my favourite authors.

Good Omens is the story of the end of the world, the coming of the Antichrist and the final battle between the angels of heaven and the fallen ones.

It’s very funny.

More than the sum of its authors
Both Pratchett and Gaiman are justly famous for their humorous fantasy novels, but they have very different styles. Good Omens is a blend of both; the quirky, zany Pratchett bits mix with the darker, wry humour of Gaiman’s works.

Both authors have a strong grounding in folklore and myth, and the story of Armageddon is one of the most dramatic folk tales in the Western canon. The story has grown from the version in the Bible as it’s been passed down through the generations so that now it’s probably most easily recognisable in its mutated form. But even Hollywood hasn’t put on an end-of-the-world show like Good Omens. Special effects are so much cheaper in word form, and the authors use them to full effect, sliding from funny to deadly and back again in a paragraph.

That said, this isn’t in any way a horror novel, nor is it gory – if you’re looking for The Stand with a few more jokes in, you’ll be disappointed

A clever use of prophesy
As well as being a key part of Revalations, the coming of the chosen one, as fortold by prophecy, is a major fantasy trope. It’s usually handled badly, as though the author can’t quite make up their mind whether prophecies actually work in their world or not. I don’t mind if the audience is left uncertain, and the characters usually need to have doubts, for narrative reasons, but the author ought to know.

In Good Omens the authors do know – prophecies come true, at least the prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch, do. And they share this information with the readers. And then it gets better in ways I won’t describe because: spoilers, sweetie.

The prophecies are one of the things which make Good Omens not only an excellent stand alone novel but also a delicious antidote to badly written fantasy of all flavours. It’s one of my all time top books, and I was happy to reread it.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

I’d only ever read about the Tower of London in books until we happened to walk past it a few weeks ago, changing from the DLR at Tower Gateway to the Tube at Tower Hill. I pictured it being a typical keep, like the one at York or Conisbrough, a single round or square tower, probably on a hill, perhaps a few ruined outbuildings.

Instead, it turns out that it’s massive.

One side of the outer wall of the Tower of London. A massive old stone wall stretches into the distance, encircling a motley collection of old buildingsIt’s not surprising that something which has been used by royalty and rulers of Britain for almost a thousand years has, well, grown a bit in that time. But I was surprised by how much Victorian brick there seems to be within the walls.

The Tower of London, as you can visit it today, is a large clump of government and former government buildings, some of which are still offices or storehouses – you can visit the Crown Jewels in the one shown below – and others have been turned into museums.

We didn’t see everything the Tower has to offer – there is a lot – but we did have a good visit, and definitely got our money’s worth.

A white stone building with two turrets flanking the door, which houses the Crown JewelsThe Crown Jewels
Probably the most famous exhibition at the Tower of London is the Crown Jewels. They are quite impressive – and also, somehow, not. I enjoyed the visit, and am glad we went but honestly, you’ll see just as sparkly (albeit paste) jewellery in films – and you’ll probably get a closer, longer look when the camera zooms in.

The exhibit is permanently popular, so even on a rainy day in April there was a queue to get into the building. Once inside, you queue past various displays describing the history of the jewels and then past various parts of the collection of artefacts which make up the Crown Jewels. The crown Queen Elizabeth II was crowned with at Westminster Abbey almost sixty years ago was the highlight for me, but it turns out that it’s only one of a couple hundred pieces, including gold platters, chalices and spoons, which were used in the ceremony.

The Jewels are guarded by seriously thick metal doors and Beefeaters in their bearskin hats. The doors are a bit creepy – they’re so thick that there’s no way you could get out if you got locked inside in some blockbuster action thriller plot – but the guards aren’t. A soldier in a traditional red uniform jacket and tall, black bearskin hat stands in a guardbox

They look just like in the pictures illustrating a thousand children’s stories, except that they’re real, live soldiers with real, live, incongruously modern guns.

Changing of the guard at the Tower of London. Five soldiers in traditional red uniform jackets and tall, black bearskin hats stand still while tourists look onAnd real, dead, somewhat mishapen hats.

The White Tower
The main museum part of the Tower of London, the White Tower is the old keep and contains exhibits of armour through the ages as well as information about the history of the Tower itself.

It’s an interesting mishmash of a place, and one to take at your own pace. I found the halls of armour a bit repetitive – although I was curious to see Henry VIII’s armour, and the ‘giant and the dwarf set’, a pair of suits of plate armour, one made for a small child, the other for an adult well over six foot tall but then got bored and moved on to look at the block which Lord Simon Lovat was allegedly beheaded on (he’s mentioned in the Outlander books – I hadn’t realised he was real, so it gave me a bit of a shock) and read about the history of the Tower.

A long history of tourism
It turns out that tourists have been coming to the Tower of London for centuries, which I find fascinating. It’s obviously so much easier and cheaper to travel and see things nowadays that it’s hard to imagine what sort of people would have visited the Tower even a hundred years ago, and what they would have seen when they got there.

One of the early exhibitions was, apparently, the kings of England on their horses. Wooden models were made by sculptors and dressed in more or less (sometimes decidedly less) appropriate clothes and armour. These are still on display in the White Tower and seem to be in the process of being restored.

There are also scattered signs of the menagerie which used to be a popular attraction, before London Zoo opened up, and you can still see the famous ravens which visitors have been feeding for centuries.

Tips for visitors
There’s a lot to see, and it’s a good day out but it is rather expensive. When we went, it was about £20 per adult. Luckily, if you’re coming in by train you can get 2-for-1 tickets to the Tower of London (the site also lists other similar offers around the UK) which makes it rather more affordable.

If you go, I do recommend making a day of it and packing a lunch. The queue for the Crown Jewels is quite long, and continues inside the exhibit – you queue around it, it’s so busy – so that can take an hour or two, depending on crowds. If you want to add in the White Tower, visit the ravens, buy an ice cream, walk the walls, visit the Prisoner’s exhibition, you’ll probably find – as we did – that it’s too much to rush round in an afternoon. All we managed on quite a quiet, wet afternoon was to queue for the Crown Jewels and visit the White Tower. That said, that was enough history for us for one visit.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

One of my snobberies is that I prefer things to be in their original language, which means I drop stitches while trying to watch films with subtitles and read #180 The Little Prince in French as Le petit prince.

Honestly, I’m not sure this was a brilliant idea as the original text has a number of arcane words which even my dictionary didn’t understand and which more recent translations have probably dealt with.

I’m surprised I haven’t read Le petit prince before, as it’s a classic and aimed at children, which makes it a favourite of French teachers around the world. That said, I don’t think it’s a brilliant children’s book – it starts off well, but rapidly goes very philosophical. That’s not to say that philosophy shouldn’t be in children’s books, but Le petit prince is more of an allegory, in the style of its Big Read list-mate Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, than a book with both a plot and a moral.

Space travel, snakes and the Sahara
The book is illustrated with charming little pictures, and – as I mentioned – starts off well, with the narrator explaining that he gave up drawing age six, after having his picture of a boa which had swallowed an elephant be mistaken for a hat.

After this introduction, the story starts. Many years later, he is a pilot and performs a forced landing in the Sahara Desert. Over the next week or so he fixes his plane and chats to the Little Prince. And this is where the life lessons really gets heavy handed. The Little Prince teaches the narrator all sorts of lessons about trust, love and beauty.

The narrator doesn’t have much respect for grown ups, and gives the reader bits of advice on handling them throughout the book, some of which are rather amusing, and I did really like the pictures of the boa.

A kid’s book for adults
Perhaps I’m jaded, but this seems like the sort of book that adults would read and enjoy nostalgically, harking back to a simple, joyous childhood. As it’s about a child, they would might expect children to be equally enthused, but I suspect that kids would prefer a book with real, flawed, human children in, rather than this saintly sprite.

Le petit prince suffers from what I think of as Enid Blyton Syndrome: everything is clean and pretty, apart from some mild peril. Unfortunately, the mild peril all seems to happen off screen, so what could be quite an interesting adventure with space travel and desert survival turns into a lengthy, circular conversation.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith

Another vintage novel, #186 The Diary of a Nobody is available for free through Project Gutenberg. First published in 1888, the book follows the exploits of the diarist, a middle-aged, lower-middle-class clerk called Charles Pooter.

The Diary was intended to be funny, and I found it wryly amusing, but it’s also a fascinating glimpse into the mundane, middle-class lives which form a backdrop to novels like Great Expectations or the Sherlock Holmes books.

The joys and sorrows in Pooter’s life are small and recorded in detail. The humour is drawn from his puffed-up sense of self (which often leads him to a cropper) and his interactions with friends, servants and tradespeople.

I don’t think Pooter is supposed to be a well-loved character, and he isn’t terribly appealing. The authors set him up as a figure of fun, and it’s hard to identify with his frustrations and trials when he is clearly such a frustration and trial to those around him. He’s not a bad man, but, outside the confines of his own novel, he’d fit well into the role of club bore or penny-pinching lawyer in an Agatha Christie novel.

The book’s closest relation on the Big Read list is probably Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.  Published about the same time, the latter is narrated by a young, lower-middle-class clerk and also covers small adventures and detailed descriptions of meals. In my opinion – at least, at this point, having not read Three Men for several years – Diary isn’t as funny or as fun. That’s partly because Pooter isn’t as sympathetic a character and partly because it’s not as witty. Three Men has more stories, quips and moments to laugh along with, while Diary is laughing at the main character and being recorded in his hand, suffers from his terrible, belaboured puns.

There’s also a downside to the Project Gutenberg edition, at least for Kindle, which is that it’s missing the illustrations. These are quite fun, and particularly handy for decoding his trials relating to clothes and furniture.

All in all, I’m not sorry I reread The Diary of a Nobody as it’s a great background for other reading I’ve been doing – the Pooters are exactly the sort of family to visit the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, for example – but I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.