Harry Potter Series Review

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Review:

Unless you’ve spent the last 15 years in a cave or something, Harry Potter needs no introduction, and I doubt that there’s anything I can say that would convince you to read them if you haven’t already. However, I’m supposed to be reviewing everything on this blog, and the Harry Potter series actually ended up being a big part of my life, so I feel like I’d be remiss not to.

I remember first learning about the series in a Newsweek article about it back in the late 90s, about the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out. The premise intrigued me, and I ended up getting the first book as a birthday present for my younger brother. It was a hit with the whole family (minus my mom, who doesn’t like the fantasy genre and refused to try it until years later, when my daughter cajoled her into reading the first book out loud together). Soon after finishing the second and third book, I went off to college, where I was delighted to discover that a bunch of the other girls in my dorm were fans, too. There was an empty room on our floor and we had fun making it “Harry and Ron’s Room” and leaving messages on the whiteboard from Hermione, You-Know-Who, etc. One of my friends even wrote Harry Potter fanfiction (including a fic that ended up being pretty popular), but I didn’t understand the appeal at the time and never really got into it.

A few years passed and I graduated, got married, and continued enjoying the series. Then my husband and I moved across country for the first time, leaving behind our family, friends, and my job. I started working at home, picking up assignments as a freelance writer, but I still had long hours to kill at home while my husband was at work because we didn’t have any children at that point and I was, frankly, too terrified of California drivers to go anywhere. (I learned to drive on the type of rural Nebraska backroads where you wave at other cars as you pass and anything more than three in five minutes qualifies as a traffic jam; Southern California traffic nearly gave me a heart attack.) I was lonesome and bored a lot, and one of the things I missed was talking with my brother and friends for hours about Harry Potter. So I joined the Harry Potter forums at FictionAlley Park. I was intending to hang around for discussion of the books, not fanfiction, but one of the first things I discovered was that I wasn’t the only person who’d always secretly suspected Remus Lupin and Sirius Black of being something more than simple friends. From the HMS Wolfstar threads it was an easy slide into Wolfstar fanfiction, and from there to reading other Harry Potter fanfiction, and from there to writing it myself.

I’ve never looked back.

Although I’m not really an active member of the Harry Potter fandom anymore, it was my gateway fandom and still my most intense and obsessive fannish experience. I miss it.

What was it that so captivated me about the Harry Potter series?

Probably the biggest single factor was the worldbuilding. Despite its periodic issues with dark wizards, anti-Muggle racism, and the like, the wizarding world of Harry Potter is a fantasy world that you want to be a part of.

Rowling’s heavy use of whimsy and clever wordplay gave the wizarding world a rather old-fashioned, nostalgic atmosphere that felt simultaneously cozy and limitless. Especially in the early books, she did an incredible job capturing Harry’s wonder and awe as he explored his new, magical world.

The characters were another major draw. With a huge and diverse cast of characters to choose from, practically every reader is guaranteed to get attached to someone. Personally, I got attached to many. As a feminist, I especially appreciate the many wonderful and memorable female characters.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Review

The Harry Potter series got off to a great start with this book, which introduced us to Harry and the Wizarding World and made us instantly fall in love with both. As a fan of both the fantasy and mystery genres, I also enjoyed the clever use of mystery elements in the first three books.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Review

The weakest of the early books, but still quite good. A much creepier mystery than the first book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review

My favorite book in the series. The best and most tightly plotted mystery, plus the introduction and largest role for my favorite character in the series, Remus Lupin.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Review

Amazing as it is that JK Rowling had children the world over reading a book longer than The Canterbury Tales, I think Goblet of Fire is where Rowling and her editor started to lose control of the series a bit. The mystery elements were not as well plotted and there was lots of stuff that seemed kind of superfluous and unnecessary. Still enjoyable, but a step down from the previous.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review

I have seriously mixed feelings about Order of the Phoenix. On the one hand, there are few tropes I hate more than prophecy plots. (Ugh.) One of the few happens to be plots that wouldn’t exist if people just sat down and TALKED to each other. Basically the entire plot of this book wouldn’t exist if Dumbledore had just sat Harry down and told him what was going on, and it drives me nuts every time I reread it. Frankly, it ruined my opinion of Dumbledore and I’ve disliked him ever since. Forcing Snape to give Harry occlumency lessons was also inexcusable, imho, both because Harry wouldn’t have needed them so much if Dumbledore had simply told him what sort of manipulations Voldemort would attempt and because Snape is a terrible teacher at the best of times, and even worse than usual with Harry.

On the other hand, Order of the Phoenix has so many of my favorite subplots and scenes it’s probably the book I reread most after Prisoner of Azkaban. I especially love the stuff with Dolores Umbridge (by far the best villain in the series, and one of the best ever written, imho) and the Order itself. As a big Neville fan since book one, it was lovely to see him get to come into his own more with the Order’s help, and I also adored Luna Lovegood, who was introduced in this book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

My least favorite in the series. I disliked it so much that it’s the only one I’ve never re-read, so I don’t even remember entirely why I disliked it, but a big part of the reason was the amount of focus on Voldemort, who is boring, and Snape, who I hate. The romantic entanglements of the characters were also more annoying than interesting.

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Review

Better than Half-Blood Prince, but just not as satisfying or fun as the early books.

My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

The Look-It-Up Guides To Mythology Series Review (Mythlopedia)

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Review:

On our wishlist

My daughter loved the Percy Jackson series and I wanted to get her some books to give her a somewhat more accurate understanding of Greek mythology. Unfortunately, my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths seems to have disappeared in one of our moves and she’s still a little young for Hamilton’s Mythology. While I was browsing through the library looking for an alternative to D’Aulaire (which they didn’t have for some reason), I stumbled across this series. It looked funny and accurate (despite a whole bunch of extremely anachronistic slang), so I checked out the whole series and my daughter LOVED them. I’ve personally only read bits and pieces so far, but her reaction was enough to add them immediately to our wishlist.

The full series is:

My Favorite Horse Novels For Kids

I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I don’t come from a horsey family, so I had the opportunity to ride only briefly, when I studied dressage for a couple years in my late teens. As one of those girls who asked her parents for a horse every year for Christmas, I had to content myself for most of my childhood and early teen years with reading about them. Luckily, there are tons of great horse stories out there. I was desperate enough to read quite a few books that were pretty terrible in terms of the quality of the writing, but also many that are legitimate classics. My favorite horse stories included:

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King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry

My all-time favorite. Based (though with many historical liberties) on the true story of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the founding sires of the thoroughbred breed. Born in Morocco, the fleet-footed but small Godolphin Arabian (or Sham, as he is known in the book) is sent as a gift by the Sultan to the young king of France, who fails to recognize what he’s been given and turns the young stallion into a carthorse. Along with his loving caretaker, Agba, a mute horseboy from the Sultan’s stables, Sham is passed from owner to owner, some kind, some horrible, before his worth is finally recognized by the Earl of Godolphin. It’s a thrilling and emotional story, bookended by an account of Sham’s great descendant Man O’War and his match race with Sir Barton.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

I read all of Marguerite Henry’s horse books as a kid and loved them all. My other favorite was Black Gold, the story of the 1930s-era Oklahoma racehorse who finished his last race on “three legs and a heart.” (Needless to say, a tearjerker!)

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The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

The first and best of the popular Black Stallion series, which I read most of. The series stars another fleet-footed Arabian, the wild and savage Black, who survives a shipwreck and a stint being marooned on a desert island with a young boy before returning to New York and becoming a mystery entrant in the match race of the century. Both a great adventure story and a great sports story!

The Black Stallion was made into a pretty good (though not entirely faithful) film during the 70s, with champion Arabian Cass Ole as The Black. The scenes on the desert island are particularly beautiful and well done.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Farley’s fictionalized biography of the legendary Man O’War is also a great read.

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Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

Fiction with an agenda can sometimes be pretty overbearing, but Black Beauty, which Sewell wrote to bring attention to the widespread mistreatment of horses in the late Victorian era, is a great story as well as a convincing piece of propaganda. Beauty narrates the story of his life, from his happy period as a foal playing with his mother in the green English countryside to the cruel life of a London cabhorse and beyond. It’s probably the world’s most famous horse story, and deservedly so.

There have been several attempts to make a movie out of the story, of which the best and most faithful is this 1994 one, starring Sean Bean (who doesn’t die, for once), David Thewlis, Alan Cumming, Alun Armstrong, and Jim Carter.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Mr Revere and I, by Robert Lawson

A fun historical fiction novel about the American Revolution, told from the perspective of Paul Revere’s horse Scheherazade (aka Sherry). Sherry begins her career as the pride of the British Army and a dyed-in-the-wool loyalist to the British Crown, but is gradually converted to the colonial side after being “liberated” by Sam Adams (who’s given an especially entertaining portrayal here) and given to the Revere family. It’s a very funny and well written book on top of being educational and exciting, so it’s a great read by itself and would also make a wonderful addition to any Revolutionary War unit study.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Lawson’s other Revolutionary-War-from-an-animal-perspective novel, Ben and Me, which narrates the life of Ben Franklin through the eyes of his pet mouse, is also very enjoyable.

Some of my other favorite horse novels for children are sadly out of print and hard to find, such as Sky Rocket: The Story of a Little Bay Horse, another riches-to-rags-to-riches story similar to Black Beauty, and the flawed but interesting And Miles To Go: The Biography of a Great Arabian Horse, Witez II, about a Polish Arabian stallion who was caught up in the events of World War 2 before being imported to America.

What are your favorite horse stories for children?

The Redwall Series Review

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Review:

The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, was one of my favorite series when I was growing up. Although I don’t remember for sure, I think I was about 8 when I stumbled upon Mossflower by accident in the library one day. By the time I was a teen, my brother (also a fan) and I had accumulated a whole shelf full of sturdy hardcover Redwall books, many of them dogeared from re-reading.

The series takes place mainly in and around Redwall Abbey, a sanctuary for woodland creatures such as mice, squirrels, moles, hares, and badgers. They clearly need such a sanctuary, because they’re constantly getting attacked by one foul band of evil-doers or another. High adventure ensues, and I’m warning you now, Brian Jacques is a master of cliffhanger chapter endings, so these books are very hard to put down once you start! For this reason, despite their length, they’re a great choice for reluctant readers. Though I wasn’t a reluctant reader myself, I remember receiving the third book, Mattimeo, for Christmas the year I discovered the series and being extremely proud of myself because I finished the whole thing – nearly 500 pages – in a single marathon reading session on the living room couch, while the rest of the family celebrated Christmas around me.

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In addition to being great adventure stories, the series has a lot of humor, and I also credit it with developing my early appreciation for great food descriptions in literature. The descriptions of the feasts are scrumptious. As an adult, I appreciate the many positive role models it contains for both boys and girls.

Eventually, the books started blurring together and becoming more repetitive, or maybe I just outgrew them, so I ultimately stopped reading in my late teens at book 11 (Marlfox), while the series eventually stretched to 23 books by the time of Jacques’s death in 2011. Despite this, I retain a big soft spot for Redwall Abbey and its furry inhabitants. They were some of the defining books of my childhood.

My favorite Redwall books include:

Mossflower

The prequel to Redwall, and the book that first hooked me on the story.  Martin the Warrior teams up with the woodland creatures to overthrow the cruel rule of the wildcat Tsarmina and found Redwall Abbey.

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Mariel of Redwall

A young mouse maid must save her father from pirates. Mariel is one of the best of many great female characters in the Redwall series.

Salamandastron

This book focuses a lot on the badgers of Salamandastron and features another of my favorite Redwall heroines.

Martin the Warrior

More of Martin’s exciting backstory. I won’t lie, I cried like a baby over a certain scene.

The Pearls of Lutra

My favorite of the later books I read.

The series can be read chronologically or in order of publication:

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Macdonald Hall Series Review

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Review:

When I was about 12, my mom attended a reading conference where Gordon Korman was a guest speaker. She was so impressed, she brought home a bunch of his books. We read This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! out loud together, and my sister, brother, and I have been Korman fans ever since.

The incredible thing is that Korman wrote the novel in 7th grade English class, and it was published in 1978, when he was just 14. Although not as polished as his more recent works (the man is ridiculously prolific and has written more than 85 books total), This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! is shockingly good for a novel written by a kid, and absolutely hilarious.

The Macdonald Hall series revolves around two roommates at an all-male boarding school in Canada. Melvin “Boots” O’Neal is the more studious and well-behaved of the two; his friend Bruno Walton might best be described as a hurricane in human form. Despite their differences, the two are inseparable friends, but in the first book, the school’s headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (aka The Fish) decides that Bruno is a bad influence on Boots and decides to split them up. Wacky hijinks ensue as they try to get back together.

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It is exactly as bromantic as it sounds, up to and including sneaking out at night to meet up, but despite the powerful central bromance and the single-sex setting, the series also does have several fun female characters, including Diane Grant and Cathy Burton, two students at Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies across the road, the grandmotherly Mrs. Sturgeon, and Miss Scrimmage herself.

None of the characters in the Macdonald Hall series is especially well-rounded or complex. In fact, many of the secondary characters are little more than a single characteristic come to life. For example, Sidney Rampulsky’s personality is “clumsy” and Wilbur Hackenschleimer’s is “obsessed with food.” However, the different personalities bouncing off each other make for lots of hilarious dialogue and misadventures, and despite their simplicity, you get attached to all the characters, from Bruno and Boots themselves to crazy old Scrimmage.

Although the series is currently out of print, copies of the books can still be purchased on Amazon and other websites. My favorite novels in the series include:

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This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall!

The book that started it all. I recommend starting with this one, but the rest of the series can be read in pretty much any order.

Go Jump in the Pool!

Macdonald Hall keeps getting creamed in swim meets, so Bruno and Boots decide to raise enough money to build the school a pool. Wacky hijinks ensue.

The Zucchini Warriors

A wealthy former student donates the money for a fancy new football stadium, but unbeknownst to him, his star quarterback is secretly a girl! More wacky hijinks ensue.

Beware the Fish!

Bruno and Boots accidentally set off a police investigation into the activities of an operative known only as “The Fish.” Seriously, this series is basically the embodiment of “wacky hijinks ensue.”

Have fun!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Rascal Book Review

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Review:

Rascal is the author’s Newberry award winning memoir of his experience raising a baby raccoon as a boy in World War I era Wisconsin. It is one of my mother’s favorite books, and one of mine as well. The writing is beautiful, and the adventures of boy and raccoon both funny and touching.

It will also give you new appreciation for the cleverness of raccoons, though beware of actually trying to keep one as a pet! Raccoons are wild animals, not pets, and keeping them as pets is against the law in many states. If you find an orphaned raccoon, make sure it actually is orphaned before you intervene. Sometimes mother raccoons leave their babies alone temporarily to gather food or take a nap. If you believe the raccoon genuinely is orphaned or injured, the best option is to contact a wildlife rehabilitation organization. If there aren’t any local organizations in your area, check out these websites for additional help:

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Review

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Review:

Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, and one of my favorite comfort reads to this day. This funny and exciting series centers mainly around Cimorene, a very atypical princess who decides to run away from her life in the pleasant but boring kingdom of Linderwall and become a dragon’s princess. Wrede gleefully and hilariously demolishes fairy tale stereotypes and tropes throughout all four books of the series, but in the end its real attraction is its memorable characters. Cimorene, Kazul, Morwen, Telemain, and the rest are like old friends, and I never fail to be cheered up by dipping into their lives.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is also great feminist fantasy, as it stars multiple intelligent, powerful, and independent-minded female characters and plays with gender roles in interesting ways. In dragon culture, for example, “King” and “Queen” are the names of positions with distinct duties and responsibilities, and the gender of the dragon who holds them is irrelevant. Over the course of the series, there is both a female King of the Dragons, and a male Queen. It’s also suggested that dragons can choose their gender when they reach a certain age, but this is never explicitly stated.

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Dealing With Dragons

Book one of the series could easily be read as a stand-alone fantasy novel, but I don’t personally see why anybody would want to. It introduces Cimorene, the dragon Kazul, the witch Morwen, and the dastardly wizards, who Cimorene must foil in between whipping up cherries jubilee for Kazul and trying to get rid of the annoying knights and princes who keep interrupting her work to try and rescue her.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Searching For Dragons

The wizards are at it again! This time they’ve kidnapped Kazul and Cimorene must set off through the unpredictable Enchanted Forest to rescue her. Luckily, her companion is none other than the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar. I remember being a little disappointed that the story was told from Mendanbar’s point of view when I first started reading this book at age 10 (or so), but it actually ended up being kind of fun seeing Cimorene, Morwen, etc. from somebody else’s point of view, and though I wouldn’t say Mendanbar is Wrede’s most memorable character, he’s certainly one of the nicest, so I couldn’t dislike him for long.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Calling For Dragons

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The third book in the series ends on a rather annoying and distressing cliffhanger. Apparently, the fourth book, Talking With Dragons, was actually the first book to be written and published, so by the time Wrede got around to writing Calling With Dragons, she was already stuck with having to make poor Mendanbar disappear for 17 years while Cimorene raised their son without him. Nevertheless, the book is tons of fun, thanks in part to the fact that its main POV character is Morwen, so you can understand her cats. There’s also a 6 foot 11 inch floating blue donkey with wings named Killer (he used to be a rabbit) and lots of witty repartee to liven things up despite the disappointing conclusion, so I’ve always considered it my second favorite after Dealing With Dragons.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Talking With Dragons

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A big jump in time and another POV switch, this time to Cimorene’s now 17 year old son Daystar. As I mentioned above, Talking With Dragons was the first book in the series to actually be written, and it follows a somewhat more traditional quest format, with poor Daystar being shoved into the Enchanted Forest with inadequate information (although an excellent education) about what he’s supposed to do and having to unravel it along the way. In the process, he runs into many old friends, including Morwen, Telmain, and Kazul, and makes some new friends of his own.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

If you can find them, I recommend buying the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in hardcover thanks to Trina Schart Hyman’s beautiful cover art:

There is also a story about the Enchanted Forest (set after Talking With Dragons) in Wrede’s short story collection Book of Enchantments. It’s called “Utensile Strength.”

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! Book Review

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! by Pamela F ServiceReview:

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! was one of my favorite books as a child. Mandy and Owen are outcasts at school and start their own club to celebrate weirdness. While collaborating on a school project about mythological characters, the characters suddenly start coming to life – and before they know it, Mandy and Owen are being called upon to help save the world from an alien invasion!

Weirdoes is a funny read, with some great banter between the different mythological personalities (who include Baba Yaga, Coyote, and Siegfried), and I really loved the concept of Otherworlds, where all the different mythological characters and creatures dreamed up by mankind exist somewhere, even the ones that nobody has believed in for thousands of years.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Although I don’t remember them as well, I also enjoyed Pamela F. Service’s novels The Reluctant God, about an ancient Egyptian prince who wakes up in the modern world, and Being of Two Minds, about an American girl who has a telepathic connection with a European prince, a connection that becomes extremely useful when he is kidnapped.

My Favorite Christmas Reads

My favorite Christmas Reads

My family is not very religious, so we never really did the Advent calendar thing when I was growing up. Instead, as a family of incorrigible bookworms (and environmentalists), we saved our used wrapping paper from unwrapping presents and used it to wrap up our Christmas book collection, which was then put away for the year and brought back out again on December 1st. Starting that evening, we would unwrap one or two books per night until Christmas, and read them aloud together to start getting into the Christmas spirit.

Much like real Christmas presents, there was always much poking around to try and figure out what was what (in the intervening 12 months, we always forgot what paper had gone with what book) so we could unwrap our favorites sooner. Here are some of the books that I was always trying to find:

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My 10 Favorite Board Books To Read Aloud

My 10 Favorite Read-Aloud Board Books

I’ll let you in on a secret. I hate to read aloud. Always have, probably always will. But the benefits of reading aloud to young children are so enormous and life-changing (PDF) that I do it anyway, day in and day out.

Naturally, reading aloud is most enjoyable for me when it’s a book that I like myself. Read aloud books that are most fun for me have lots of scope for expression – elements such as silly voices, animal noises, dialogue, rhyming text, etc. Good illustrations are also a must – I especially like detailed illustrations with lots of stuff going on in the background that offers lots of opportunities to build and reinforce vocabulary. These types of elements make it less monotonous to read the same book 1,000 times, which inevitably happens when a toddler starts picking favorites.

Here are the top ten kid AND mom approved books from our personal library of board books:

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