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Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

The book in one sentence: As Harry begins his third year at Hogwarts, he is warned about Sirius Black, one of Voldemort’s supporters who has broken out of Azkaban prison and is looking for revenge.

Rating:  Island collection

Long story long: Rereading the Harry Potter series has been both thrilling and nostalgic. It’s incredible how well the stories have held up over the past 20-something years, and how much of our lives they continue to influence (I mean, I still haven’t given up on my Hogwarts letter).

Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite book so far because it marks a turning point in the seven-book series. It has some of the darkest material we’ve seen– what with an escaped convict, an execution, the return of Voldemort’s servant, and all the Dementors– and more importantly, it connects Harry’s life in Hogwarts to the larger wizarding world outside.

We get glimpses of this world in the first two books, but we start to understand it better in Prisoner of Azkaban. It introduces us to Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, and to the Dementors who guard Azkaban prison, both of whom become important figures in Harry’s story. We learn about Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal and the subsequent deaths of Lily and James Potter, and we meet Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, who is one of the few people who intimately knew his parents.

Continue reading “Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling”

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

The book in two sentences: Harry is excited to start his second year at Hogwarts, but a mysterious, half-forgotten monster begins to terrorize the school. Harry, Ron, and Hermione attempt to stop it before Hogwarts is shut down for good.

Rating:  Island collection

Long story long: I realized after publishing my Sorcerer’s Stone review that that was less of a review and more of me just feeling good about re-entering the magical world (which is totally valid and I don’t feel bad about it at all). I could have talked about more literary things (like all the foreshadowing, character development, etc) but it felt nice to “turn off” the part of my brain that likes to analyze everything (everything) and let myself get swept up in the magic.

Chamber of Secrets, on the other hand, is a great place to start thinking more critically about the story: we’ve had a solid introduction to the wizarding world, gotten to know some of its characters, and we can now focus on the actual storytelling.

My amateur artistic rendering of Harry (who admittedly looks a lot older than 12 here)

Similar to Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets is inward-facing, having more to do with Hogwarts than the rest of the wizarding world. Like all books in the series, it gives Harry more insight into Voldemort’s identity and ethos. If the first book serves as an introduction to Voldemort, the second is where we start to see the real implications of his return. A memory of him is powerful enough to manipulate a student into petrifying her classmates…just imagine what Voldemort at the height of his powers could do.

Continue reading “Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling”

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The book in two sentences: Harry Potter discovers that he’s no ordinary boy as he begins his training at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In his first year he will form deep friendships, make several enemies, and begin to find his place in the larger wizarding world.

Rating:  Island collection

Long story short: I’ve been wanting to reread this series for a while now, and since I won’t be starting school this September, I thought this would be a fitting time to imagine myself at Hogwarts instead.

I first read The Sorcerer’s Stone in fourth grade– I bought a copy through the Scholastic Book Fair because I liked the drawing of the boy on a broomstick– and it wasn’t long before I was entirely consumed by the wizarding world. I’m sure this story sounds familiar to many.

It took about a page and half of The Sorcerer’s Stone to transport me back to Harry’s world. I was clutching Archimedes (my Kindle) and sitting wide-eyed with my heart beating faster and faster. I actually got goosebumps. It was incredible, really, how quickly the same feelings I had the first time around– excitement, apprehension, wonder– came flooding back.

Continue reading “Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling”

Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

The book in one sentence: It’s Sherlock Holmes in space, where Shaharazad Haas, a pansexual sorceress, and John Wyndham, a transgender ex-military officer, fight vampires, necromancers, and the occasional literary critic.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story short: Overall, I really liked this re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes. The characters and some of the settings were similar enough to draw me in to the story, but new enough to make me keep reading.

My favorite things:

  • The queering of Holmes & Watson. I love seeing well-known characters exist outside of the confines of what was once imagined. I also liked that the story didn’t revolve around their queerness; they just exist as queer people.
  • The plot was so twisty. I loved the twists and turns in the story because they were both interesting and easy to follow.

My not-so-favorite things:

  • World-building could improve. Hall created an incredible universe in this story, but perhaps it was too ambitious for this one novel (this isn’t yet a series). He mentions a lot of things superficially, while I would have preferred him choosing a couple of things and giving us a deeper understanding. It’s certainly a self-contained story, so perhaps he wasn’t sure whether he would have the space later.
  • The ending came out of nowhere. After following Haas and Wyndham on an exciting chase, the entire mystery/puzzle comes to an end in about 10 pages and is a little disappointing. Given that literally anything is possible in this universe, it isn’t the type of story that you can try to solve as you go.

Have you read The Affair of the Mysterious Letter or other work by Alexis Hall? What did you think?

Review: Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen

The book in three sentences: As sisters Van and Linny grew up, they also grew apart. To take care of their father, they must learn to reconcile their differences. Short Girls is as much a novel about complicated familial relationships as it is about the immigrant family experience.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long (no spoilers): Short Girls is a unique story about the challenges of growing up as a first-generation Vietnamese-American in the United States. Although the pacing is slow and the characters are not particularly likable, I enjoyed the book because I saw some of my childhood and my friends’ childhoods reflected in this novel.

The story is told through both Van and Linny’s perspectives, each chapter alternating between the two sisters. The more you read, the more you begin to develop a fuller understanding– a more complete picture– of what is going on in their family. I liked this narrative technique because both characters have an opportunity to speak or stand up for themselves, and also offer an outsider’s view of the other.

As the title implies, Van and Linny are short girls. Their father is overly obsessed by this, and when they were young would constantly remind them that there were plenty of famous short people and if they worked hard to prove themselves, they could be well-off too. It doesn’t take long to work out that the sisters’ lack of height is a proxy for their lack of whiteness. Van herself makes the connection when she comments that being Vietnamese in Michigan is like being short in a room full of tall people.

Continue reading “Review: Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen”

Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser

The book in two sentences: Devoney Looser explores Jane Austen’s long and lasting legacy as one of the most brilliant novelists to ever exist. In this book, we see Austen illustrated, dramatized, politicized, and schooled in ways that give voice to Austen’s lesser-known authorities.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long: I made it through a whopping four pages of Pride and Prejudice the first time I picked it up. I was in sixth grade and figured it was about time I started reading “the Classics” (whatever that meant). I wouldn’t end up finishing the book until two or three years later.

Since then, Pride and Prejudice has become my favorite novel. I have read it nearly 20 times, listened to the audiobook version almost twice as much, collected fan-fiction and spin-off books, and been to a number of stage adaptations.

There are many reasons I love Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s biting social commentary on class, marriage, and wealth, to say the least—but the most meaningful to me is that it has helped me track my growth as a reader, and as a person, over the past 18 years. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I’ve either learned something new about myself, or something new about the book and the author; it never ceases to surprise me!

Devoney Looser’s novel The Making of Jane Austen is a wonderful continuation of this tradition. Her book explores the legacy of Austen in four parts through lesser-known historical figures. In the first part, she wonders how “illustrations seen by Austen’s first generation of readers shaped then-developing understandings of the author and her fiction” (15). A number of artistic choices made in the 19th century carry weight even today, and have influenced early stage and screen adaptations of Austen’s novels.

Continue reading “Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser”

Review: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

The book in two sentences: Nadifa Mohamed weaves a beautiful and haunting tale of life in a Somalian city as the country is on the brink of civil war. As refugees, soldiers, and rebels pour in, the lives of three women—a widow, an orphan, and a soldier—are bound forever.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short (no spoilers): In her novel, Mohamed captures the senselessness of war from the perspective of ordinary people. Even Filsan, the soldier, has never been in combat before and is more a civilian in that sense than the widow Kawsar and even the young orphan girl Deqo, both of whom have lost their families to the growing political turmoil.

You see the buildup towards what will eventually become a civil war from the viewpoint of these three women. The increased presence of soldiers and checkpoints, the arrests of students, the kidnapping and killing of intellectuals, the banning of outside news outlets and journalists, the rationing of food and water, all signs of an increasingly totalitarian government. If you are wondering how things can even get this far, this book begins to answer that question, and it is equal parts compelling and terrifying.

Continue reading “Review: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed”

Currently reading: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

The book in two sentences: It’s 1921 and Parveen Mistry joins her father’s law firm as one of the first female lawyers in India. Her past comes back to haunt her as she investigates three widows who left their entire inheritance to a mysterious charity.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short: I had a great time reading this book. While it was a little slow to start, the pacing picks up after the first few chapters and I found it difficult to put down.

Parveen is a wonderful protagonist, and as the story jumps back-and-forth between her past and present selves, she grows as a character. The plot is also very intriguing, and introduces readers to the eccentric blend of ethnic and religious communities in 1920s Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). Having spent childhood summers in that city, it was exciting and emotional to imagine myself and Parveen going to the same places decades apart.

This book is the first in a new series, and I’m looking forward to reading the next when it’s out in early 2019. Have you read The Widows of Malabar Hill or another work by Sujata Massey? What did you think?

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