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Reviews: The Harry Potter Books (ALL of them)

In what must have been 1999, my family went to Chapters on a book acquiring expedition. I must have been out of Animorph books to buy, because I remember wandering around, looking for something to catch my eye. A very nice lady (sigh; she was probably my age now) who worked there brought down a small red book with big yellow letters written on it, and told me and my dad that the books were flying off the shelves in Britain, and were a great read for parents and kids alike. Evidently I got stuck on that, because I remember harassing dad in the car: “Are you going to read it when I’m done, dad? You could read it TO me. She said we’d BOTH enjoy it. You’ll read it, right? Good. You promise? Okay.”*

That book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and after I read it, I immediately snatched up the next one in the series. It’s unfortunate I’m a fast reader (or at least, I was…) because I remember waiting desperately for the third to come out, hopping in and out of book stores. Alas, when I found it in Toys Toys Toys or some such nonsense in the Bayview Village Mall, I didn’t have any money to buy it, but for once, I was grateful for my mom’s inability to spend less than 29 hours at a time in a mall, because I just sat in the store and read as much as I could. I can’t remember how or when I got hold of my own copy of the book, but at this point, I had passed the point of no return. (<– That’s fan art, for anyone who doesn’t want to click. I can also thank HP for getting me drawing again.)


The fourth was a pre-ordered birthday present from a friend (I still remember, Daniel), and the rest were pre-ordered by myself. I’ve read the first three more times than I can count, and the first five, I’d definitely need the fingers on more than one hand, but until the summer of 2011, I hadn’t read the last two more than once. This is because in 2005, my grandmother died and was buried immediately before I read about the significant death and funeral in the sixth book, and I had no desire to revisit that moment for years.

But this summer, I felt the urge (plus, you know, I was getting pretty behind in the CBIII, and it’s not as though HP is known for being a long, challenging read), so I decided to delve into the series again, from the beginning, and the whole way through.

There is almost nothing I enjoy more in a book than intricate, well-thought-out plotting (of course, good grammar, characters, and prose are also important STEPHENIE MEYER). The extent of this isn’t immediately apparent in the first HP book, but the seeds are there. For me, the friendly storyteller tone of this book (which, much like to Hobbit in comparison to the LotR series, dropped off after the first, introductory book) was a great way to enter the series, but I know a number of people I’ve recommended HP to have been turned off by it.

JK is great with little world building details and the passage of time, which is another part of what makes the books such a pleasure to read – you really feel like you’ve gone through a whole year of school with these kids. Much of the praise directed at HP, and the first three books in general, has a very clear ‘good “for a kid’s book”‘ tone. To which I say: bah. This is just a good book period.

Side note to those who’ve read the books: Dumbledore’s a bit of an ass, no? Harry was out for three days, the house points could have been given out then? No, let’s wait until the celebratory dinner and sucker punch those Slytherins in the neck. No wonder they’re pissy.

Rating: 4 stars

(Note: this one is dedicated to the person Jo has referred to as her “Ron” friend.)

I’ve always found book two the least enjoyable of the series to read. I don’t really have a good reason for this – going in, I thought I’d look for one to write for this review, but I have nothing in my notes. I always end up enjoying it more than I expected to. It’s kind of like the Freedom Day episode of Futurama – I never want to watch it (I don’t even want to now, and I know what I’m about to say), but I’m always glad I did.

By the time I first read book 2, complaints of “oh, so Harry’s magical and wonderful AND the best at the big wizard sport and it’s SO annoying” had become pretty common; to that, I would say: the first book is all wish-fulfillment fantasy – as you read on, you begin to see that Quidditch is the only thing Harry actually owns, with no help from friends, teachers, fate, dumb luck, or circumstance.

Reading the first few books in the series after becoming so familiar with the series as a whole over the last thirteen years, you realise how skillful JK is at weaving in information that will become so important later – most of the big, coincidence-y plot developments feel fairly natural, almost inevitable, because she mentions their foundations a book or more in advance of their importance. The fact that the deathly hallows were only really brought up in the last book was a part of that book which did, to me, feel like an afterthought. I know the cloak, and even the wand, were sort of mentioned before (and before they turned out to be different things, I thought the stone was the beozar encountered in book 1, which seemed brilliant), but you’d think the wizard version of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes might have come up at some point in Harry’s seven years immersed in the world (and I mean come on, he’s friends with Hermione. How she could have read that many books and never come across the Tales of Beedle the Bard before?…please.)

Rating: 3 and a half stars

And speaking of intelligent plotting…this is still my favourite HP book (and least favourite movie, but let’s not go there). It is, in my opinion, the most well-plotted and carefully planned, and had the best twist ending of any book I read in my tween years. Plus, here was the intro of my favourite character, Remus Lupin, who is also featured most heavily in this book. (Oh, Remus Lupin. You and Ford Prefect were the major literary crushes of my formative years. I mean, the first thing he does when we meet him is give everyone chocolate. I was in love.)

Sirius Black was introduced in book 1 (in the most amazingly blaze incident of advance plotting I have seen in some time), Azkaban and Whomping Willow in book 2, therefore their existence in book three is already established in the world, and it feels like a fun reveal when their significance is explained, rather than a hollow event. (This is similar to my complaint with some of the Sherlock Holmes stories – hey, the culprit was this criminal mastermind that only someone within the universe of the novel could possibly have heard of! Also, we didn’t know there was paint on his clothes until you told us, Sherlock! Play fair.)

Reading book 3 is a great experience. Like the first two books, it’s all the imagination evident in the little details that make this a true classic, new world, long-lasting book. I mean, her prose s never going to move you to tears, but this series is about plot and character, which are vivid, and the prose is sometimes detailed, sometimes atmospheric, but always in service to the aforementioned, and never flowery for its own sake – you can visualise everything (maybe that’s why the movies pissed me off so much).

Rating: 5 stars

I don’t have very much to say about this one that I haven’t gone over in the last three mini-reviews. There are more continuity mistakes in my 1st edition than I believe there were in others (e.g. Harry’s father coming out of the wand before his mother, “horseless” carriages should have revealed thestrals in the end of the book since we know Harry’s just seen Cedric die, etc).

We never find out who won the house cup, but it should be Hufflepuff. Of course, knowing Dumbledore, he probably pronounced Gryffindor as the victor moments after the moment of silence for Cedric (see review of first book).

Also, it’s interesting to watch the praise on the back of the book go from “wonderful children’s novel” to “publishing phenomenon” – I don’t really see how the latter is a reason to recommend a series to anyone. “Read this! I have no idea if it’s any good, but a WHOLE SHIT LOAD OF OTHER PEOPLE BOUGHT A COPY, so…you know. You buy one too!”

Rating: 4 and a half stars.

As much as I inexplicably dread reading book 2, this one is probably the hardest to get through for three very big reasons: 1) it is the longest (I believe JK herself, and certainly plenty of fans, have stated that this book cries for an editor more than any other; I’m not sure I agree with that last bit, but there is a lot of filler here); 2) angry Harry is just as unpleasant to read about as he (and most teenagers) are to be around*; and 3) UMBRIDGE. Oh my god, Umbridge. I am barely restraining myself from releasing the rant on Umbridge. I remember literally wanting to tear pages out of the book and eat them as a totally useless and impotent display of my hatred of her. Jeebus, what an effective villain. I’m almost tempted to say centaur rape was too good for her. But actually, that’s kind of horrific. I mean, holy shit, Jo.

*I remember that endless, bottomless, helpless rage of being a teenager, but that doesn’t make it fun to read about, especially considering how unbearably selfish that phase of teenagerhood is. It’s admirably realistic, but this is the longest book in the series, and Umbridge AND Harry being insufferable? It’s almost too much to bear.

Rating: 4 stars.

I like the device used in this one and book 4,  of introducing the reader to the plot from the perspective of a character who is not Harry Potter – the deviation from tradition is very effective (much like the absence of Hogwarts in the 7th book); despite grim news, the whole prime minister scene was very funny. JK is very good at low-key humour, and the moments make the grim events of the last few books a bit easier to stomach, and add a level of reality and humanity to the characters. No one in their right mind would deny that LotR is a masterpiece, but it reads more like a bible (in itself an incredible feat of world-building, much like the first Dune novel) than a story about characters you could know.

A note about this one: I remember reading a friend’s new username on msn before this book came out. It said “SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE” and I thought “hahaha, good one.” And then I read the book. So…lucky I’m reverse gullible?

Rating: 4 stars.

I can’t find any notes on this one. Not sure that I wrote any, since I read it when school began in September. Dammit.

So here, I will briefly describe the feeling I had upon opening this book – the last new Bloomsbury hardcover with “Harry Potter” printed on the front and JK Rowling’s name floating around somewhere random. There’s a smell that new books have the bleeds into your mouth, a taste, of crisp, clear pages, untouched by My Brother the Book Destroyer, glue and ink, the promise of a full day or days of reading and discovery, and know you’ll enjoy it no matter what because you already care about the characters, and for once, you have faith.*

I remember I had pre-ordered this one, but the day it arrived in front of every fanatic’s door, my family was on our summer holiday in the states. EVERYONE was talking about the damn thing, and I couldn’t read it because it was sitting and home in the proper cover, and American covers are STUPID.

*I think the reason I was always sure that each new HP book wouldn’t be a disappointment was that I knew that most of the books had been planned out already, so much of the writing was just filling in puzzle pieces and connecting the dots – anything that went wrong would have done so a long time ago. Plus,  I wasn’t a huge “shipper,” and most of the couples I was vaguely interested in I was pretty confident were canon. The most I ever worried about was if/when my favourite character would die. Because it always, always happens. And Remus doesn’t die until almost the very end – I was so hopeful. Sigh.

So yeah, it was a fitting ending. A lot of it was fairly predictable, but there were only so many ways the story could end, and after years of obsessive fandom immersion, it was almost inevitable someone would have suggested each one. I didn’t even really have a problem with the epilogue. It was a bit needless, but I understood the desire to have the audience know that Harry and his friends were fine – in this world of needless sequel milking, it was nice that JK wanted to decisively end things.

Rating: 4 stars.

I don’t have a heck of a lot to say about these ones either. They’re nice little companions, utterly inconsequential to anyone who isn’t a superfan of the world JK created. I probably liked the Tales of Beedle the Bard best of the three – the stories really did feel like old classics, and it was neat to see JK’s drawings. I would have killed (someone who really deserved it) for that gorgeously bound special edition. The other two were entertaining. I know this is a silly complaint, but for a library book and a supposed school text, they really were a little slight for believability. But they were fun, and the amount of thought and detail that is evident throughout is just further proof of the completeness of this wizarding world. Love it.

Rating: 3 and a half stars.

And that’s it. The series is more than the sum of it’s parts – I’d rate it 4 and a half to 5 stars overall, in reverence to the amount of times I’ve re-read it, and the enjoyment it, its characters, and its fandom have given me.

*By the way, my dad STILL has not read any of the books. I was more successful with my brother, who couldn’t get through the first book at first, but now may have read the whole series more times than I have (although I doubt anyone has read Prisoner of Azkaban more times than I have).

Cannonball Read III: 21-28/52