Becky’s Two Hundred and Eighty-Seventh Book Review: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” by J.K. Rowling

I’ve mentioned before, there are certain books that I will reread over and over again. Reading books that I’ve read before is a comfort. I love being in a familiar world where I know and love the characters. That is the case with Harry Potter.

SPOILER ALERT
There are some spoilers below if you’ve never read the Harry Potter series. Beware!

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third book in the Harry Potter series. By this point, Harry has become comfortable with life as a wizard. He’s come up against Voldemort twice since he’s rejoined the wizarding world and walked off a little the worse for wear, but alive. When he is at Hogwarts, Harry is immersed in a world that understands him. He has things he loves, things he’s good at, and friends – good friends. This almost makes it worse when at the end of the school year he has to return to life at the Dursley’s. The life he leads in the muggle world is an unhappy one. We also learn – more and more – that Harry has a temper. It’s almost as if he is so angry with being thrust back into a world he doesn’t belong to that he boils over at the injustice of it. He has finally found where he belongs and every summer he is forced back to the place where he belongs the least. So when he is forced to interact with his uncle’s bitch-of-a-sister, Harry loses control. It is after this explosion of rage that Harry leaves his aunt and uncle’s home and goes out on his own. His life as an outlaw is short-lived when he runs into a significant authority figure that was so glad he is safe that there are no repercussions for using magic on a muggle. Harry soon learns the reason behind this is that a prisoner escaped from Azkaban and is assumed to be coming after Harry. Sirius Black is the first person to ever have escaped from the wizard prison Azkaban.

The wizard community is taking no chances with Sirius Black’s escape and so the creatures that guard Azkaban – Dementors – come to Hogwarts. Harry, having faced so much tragedy his entire life, is greatly affected by these horrible creatures. They suck all the happiness out of people they’re around. Their presence along with the added pressures that Harry, Ron, and Hermione find themselves under going into their third year makes for yet another adventure.

There is so much going on in this book. I feel like J.K. Rowling started to really get a feel for who she is as a writer and how Harry reacts to different situations. This is probably my favorite book in the series. Harry starts to show just how strong he is in this book. We learn more about his family and we meet people from his past. Harry is so self-reliant throughout the series and a large part of that stems from his behavior in this book. He is really starting to grow as a character. As he grows, so do his friendships with Ron and Hermione.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, most definitely! Although I feel like it is important to read a series in order, I think the way Rowling writes these books you could pick up quickly the general idea of what is happening and if you didn’t want to start at the beginning, this would be a good one to start with. The first two books in the series are geared more towards a younger audience; it isn’t until the third and fourth books that Rowling moves towards writing for an older crowd. I think it’s great how this series appeals to such a wide audience. If you haven’t given the books a chance yet, I highly recommend that you do.

Becky’s One Hundred and Forty-Sixth Book Review: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

Every once and awhile, a book comes along that is so fantastic that you just don’t know how to go on with your life when it is over. For me, this was “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. It is a book that changes you when you read it.

“The Book Thief” is told from a unique perspective. The story is told by Death and the story he tells is of a girl he has run into a few times. The story he tells is hers. We meet Liesel when she is on her way to a foster home. She is on a train with her mother and little brother. It is the first time that Death meets Liesel, when he comes to collect her brother. “Yes, the sky was now a devastating, home-cooked red. The small German town had been flung apart one more time. Snowflakes of ash fell so loveily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth.” (The Book Thief, pg 13). Throughout the story, Death remembers the colors that he sees and it creates a very visual story telling that I couldn’t help but be captivated by.

Death takes the time to tell Liesel’s story despite the fact that war is a very busy time for him. It was very different reading about WWII from the perspective of Death. It was horrible and fascinating all at the same time.

Liesel becomes a book thief for the first time when she is putting her brother in the ground. The first book that she steals is “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” and she does it almost unconsciously when she sees the book dropped in the snow. Thus begins her life of crime. Her passion for books builds greatly as she discovers the freedom in reading. She also discovers the power that books have and she shares this when she can. “Where Hans Hubermann and Erik Vandenburg were ultimately united by music, Max and Liesel were held together by the quiet gathering of words.” (The Book Thief, pg 248).

Part of what I enjoyed so much about this book is the way I was able to relate to Liesel so well. The way that she feels about books is exactly how I feel about books. I could totally see myself in her shoes. She is a very likable character. “She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.” (The Book Thief, pg 134). This is frequently how I feel when let loose in a bookstore or my personal library.

Would I recommend this book? Most definitely, it was such a good read. I really admire how Markus Zusak writes and I look forward to reading more of his work. I think that reading “The Book Thief” made me see just how war affects the individual. It’s quite different to read about a girl who had the war happen around her as she grew up. How differently it affected her and those she knew. The uncertainties that she was forced to live with. The fear. And through all these trials, she found solace in reading. It was a fantastic read.

 

Becky’s Seventy-Ninth Book Review: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith is a book that I was given the first time by my mom. She handed me a copy and told me to read it. I was appreciative of the gesture, but thought at the time mom didn’t know anything about what I enjoyed reading. (I’ve since learned differently). So it stayed on my shelf for a little while. Eventually I decided to pick it up and discovered a wonderful coming-of-age tale where the main character could very well be me in another life. I’ve always felt parallels with Francie Nolan when reading this book but never have focused on it as much as I did this time while reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” for the umpteenth time. What I found surprised me.

This novel revolves around Francie Nolan, a lonely little girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900’s. The story begins in 1912 and closely follows Francie’s life as she grows up. There are also flashbacks to different members of her family so that the reader can learn about how Johnny and Katie (her parents) fell in love and understand which parts of each member of her family Francie has inherited. There are many things that I enjoy throughout this novel, but I especially admire Katie, Francie’s mom, and how hard she works to make sure her kids have better than she did. Despite all the hardships that her family has to endure, Katie holds everything together. I feel like my mom is similar to Katie. Luckily for us, she never had to deal with a drunk who couldn’t support the family—quite the opposite actually. I really couldn’t have asked for better parents. But my mom always had a way of making everything ok. This is something that Katie demonstrates throughout the novel. She tells it like it is with her kids and doesn’t shy away from the truths of the world. This is especially true when she realizes that the only hope she has for surviving is learning to do so herself. And so she does.

As for Francie being a parallel character to myself, this is something that I see throughout the novel. It is apparent in her hobbies, her likes and dislikes, and even her attitude and demeanor. One of the biggest similarities I find is that Francie is a reader and an avid one at that. She reacts the same way that I do to books. “When she grew up, she would work hard, save money and buy every single book that she liked. As she read, at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house, the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed.” (ATGB, loc 563 – kindle edition). I feel like this quote reflects how I feel about books. Reading and writing is strongly encouraged throughout the novel and not just by Francie. When Katie has her kids she is begging her mother for advice. She says in reply, “The secret lies in the reading and the writing.” (ATGB, loc 1445 – kindle edition). This is something that has always been pushed on me when I was a child. My education was a very important thing to my parents and now that I’m old enough to appreciate it, I understand just how very right they were. Even if it seemed like they were just being mean making me do my homework.

The way that Francie feels when she learns how to read just completely captures the wonderfulness of learning this ability. “She read a few pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could read! From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood…on that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.” (ATGB, loc 2730 – kindle edition). I personally cannot remember a time when I didn’t know how to read because I’ve been doing it for so long. But I do remember once making a similar vow about reading a book a day. Honestly, it just isn’t realistic if you have anything to do. Even then, now that I’m at the reading level that I’m at I choose books that simply cannot be finished in a day. I read Stephen King’s “The Stand” which was roughly 1500 pages. I was recently given a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand which is a very long book in itself. A book a day just isn’t feasible, but if I had nothing else to do with my time, I would certainly try. As is, I tend to get through about four books a month which is more than most people I know. This is in large part to the fact that I commute to work via train and therefore can read for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. I was given the gift of time when I got this job and I use it to my full advantage.

When it comes to preferences in food, I very much enjoy the fact that pickles are popular with Francie because I certainly cannot get enough. This quote reminds me of when my mom would indulge my desire for a ‘big pickle’ and I’d get to pick one out of the barrel. “There were times though, especially towards the end of a long cold dark winter, when, no matter how hungry Francie was, nothing tasted good. That was big pickle time.” (ATGB, loc 855 – kindle edition).

Another similarity between Francie and yours truly is the extreme naivety of her during her childhood. When I was younger I was convinced that my mom had written the song “Zippity Do Da” and that Disney stole it from her. Francie displays her own naivety many times in the book but one of my favorites was when she decided that she wanted to be a teacher’s pet, “She vowed that when she was old enough to go to school, that she would meow, bark and chirp as best she could so that she would be a “pet” and get to clap the erasers together.” (ATGB, loc 2156 – kindle edition). Francie had many ideas about school and she was very excited at the prospect of the whole situation but what she was really looking forward to was school supplies. She describes them with such admiration that I can relate to because that is exactly the kind of weirdo that I am as well. Now that I’m older, I refer to them as ‘office supplies’ but the same principle is there.

As I’ve mentioned before, Katie is Francie’s mother and they have many interesting conversations. One that stood out to me was them discussing friends: “’Haven’t you any girl friends to talk to, Francie?’ ‘No. I hate women.’ ‘That’s not natural. It would do you good to talk things over with girls your own age.’ ‘Have you any women friends, Mama?’ ‘No, I hate women,’ said Katie.” Part of why I like this quote so much is because I feel exactly the same way. I may have a few women friends, but I have more male friends than anything else and the reason is the same.

Although I enjoyed looking through the book for similarities between Francie and myself, I did find a few quotes that I just thought were both a good reflection on the type of book this is and insightful as well. Quotes that I believe would help convince others to read this book. The first one is, “’Why should I want to cheat you, Mrs. Nolan?’ he asked plaintively as he put the money away carefully. ‘Why should anyone want to cheat anybody?’ she asked in return. ‘But they do.’” (ATGB, loc 4716 – kindle edition). The next quote is a good example of how entertaining Betty Smith’s writing is, “Everything, decided Francie after that first lecture, was vibrant with life and there was no death in chemistry. She was puzzled as to why learned people didn’t adopt chemistry as a religion.” (ATGB, loc 7245 – kindle edition).

If it isn’t already apparent, I would highly recommend this book to almost anyone. I think it is an especially good book for young girls who enjoy reading, but I enjoy it as much as an adult as I did when I was a kid. It is by no means a book written exclusively for kids, but rather is an adult novel that is highly accessible. The book is filled with so much and is just so well written that I fall in love with it over and over every time I read it. One new thing that I discovered when reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” this time is that there are MORE BOOKS!!! Betty Smith has three more books written that I didn’t even know about. I’m very excited and determined to track them down.