Posted in Reading

Book Review: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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Title: Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave
Author: Jonathan Stroud
My Rating: 5 stars

Rarely do I find a book or a series of books that I love as much as Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud. This weekend, I finished The Empty Grave, the fifth and final book in the series, and the feelings I have about these characters’ stories coming to an end are very bittersweet.

The Lockwood & Co. series is about teenage ghost hunters in London. It is set in a time when ghosts have become a big problem in society. Instead of just one or two popping up now and then, they’re everywhere, and they’re dangerous. Ghost-touch is fatal, and adults are especially vulnerable because they can’t see the spirits. Children and teenagers are the ones with the Talents– the ability to see, hear, and sometimes communicate with the dead– so they are the ones hired to fight the ghosts, locate their Sources, and seal them to protect the living. Most of the agencies have adult supervision, but not Lockwood & Co. This small, independent group works without adults, and they’re not afraid to break the rules (or burn a few houses down) to get the job done.

In The Empty Grave, the Lockwood team, consisting of Lucy Carlyle (the sensitive who can communicate with Type 3 ghosts), Anthony Lockwood (the confident, reckless leader of the group), George Cubbins (the always-messy, expert researcher), and their associates (Holly, Kipps, Flo, and the Skull in the jar) are homing in on something big. They think the head of the top agency in London is not who she claims to be and they may actually be close to solving the ghost problem. But in order to prove they’re right, they have to face more danger than ever before, and may even have to take a trip to The Other Side.

One of my favorite things about this book is the Skull in the jar. The Skull is a character in the story, an unusual one. He is the Source of the ghost of a teenage boy, but he’s trapped in a silver glass jar, so he’s not dangerous, and he can communicate with Lucy. He’s sarcastic and rude to her but sometimes helpful, and I love the interactions between them. In this book, the Skull keeps trying to persuade Lucy to let him out of the jar, though he’s not exactly convincing. Here’s an exchange from page 99 of The Empty Grave:

“‘Say I let you out. What would you do?’
I’d flit about. Stretch my plasm. Might strangle Cubbins. Carry out a spot of casual ghost-touch, now and again. Just simple hobbies.’

I think the author writes the Skull’s voice really well. Although he can be a giant pain to Lucy, I love his wit and humor and enjoy listening to his snide remarks.

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How I spent my Saturday…

I love to read, but I am often a slow reader. However, I flew through The Empty Grave, finishing this 437-page book in less than a week. On Saturday, I read for hours, losing a few fingernails and gaining a LOT of calories in the meantime. (I like to snack while I read.) I kept trying to put the book down to do chores or grade papers, but I couldn’t stay away for long. I couldn’t leave my favorite characters alone in such desperate situations. I had to go back. I had to know what happened next. That’s another reason why I love Jonathan Stroud’s books. His characters feel like friends. I’m never lonely when I’m hanging out with Lucy and Lockwood and George. (And the Skull in the jar.)

That brings me to the only thing I didn’t like about The Empty Grave: it ended. I loved the book, but I hate that this story is over. I will miss my character friends. However, there is a way to keep in touch with them. YOU can read the books, and you can tell me what they’re up to. I’d really like that.

If the Lockwood & Co. series sounds like something you would enjoy, start with book one, The Screaming Staircase, and tell my friends hello for me.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Reuniting with The Outsiders

 

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Some books become part of our lives.

The first time I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was in 1990, when I was in the seventh grade. I checked it out of the library for a book report. I don’t remember why I picked that novel. I wasn’t a big reader at the time, so maybe someone recommended it to me, or maybe it was on a list of options, and I chose it based on the title. I don’t know. I don’t even actually remember reading it, though I know I did and liked it. Honestly, only two things stand out about the experience: the movie and the cover of my book report.

imagesI remember renting the movie on VHS and watching it with my parents. I can vividly picture laying on the living room floor in front of the television, watching the rumble scene. My mom had told me there were a lot of famous actors in it, including Tom Cruise. I had a big crush on him at the time (I was obsessed with Top Gun) so I couldn’t wait to see it. I remember liking the movie but being extremely disappointed with Tom Cruise’s role.

I have no idea what I wrote in my book report, but I remember the cover. I drew a big, pretty house with lots of windows and curtains, and in front of it, I drew a tall wooden fence. My English teacher, Coach Day, took off points for my cover, writing something like, “What does this have to do with the book?” in his comments. I was embarrassed that he didn’t get it and too shy at the time to explain myself. I guess he was expecting greasers and switchblades, but I drew my cover from the point of view of the main characters. They were outside the fence, separated from the big nice house. I loved Coach Day, but my symbolism was apparently lost on him.

Nine years passed before I came across Ponyboy and his gang again. I had just graduated from college and was about to start my teaching career, so I was brushing up on the novels I’d be reading with my seventh graders. The Outsiders was one of them. I bought a copy and read it again.

Over the course of the next thirteen years, I would read The Outsiders forty-one more times.

I read it aloud to three classes a day for twelve years and then five classes a day for one more year. I read it until I had entire sections of the book memorized. I read it until, during the last class of the day, I could stare creepily at an off task student while reading without missing a single word. I read it—the same paperback copy every single year—until every page was marked and highlighted, the paper soft as velvet against my skin. I explained slang terms like “cooler” (jail) and “heater” (gun) to almost a thousand students. I watched their jaws drop when I told them the book was written by a teenager. I perfected my “We’ll just have to wait and see” when the kids asked if Johnny would be okay and cherished the silence in the room when he told Ponyboy to “Stay gold.”

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At the beginning of my teaching career, when we taught a different class novel every six weeks, I always read The Outsiders first. It was the only book every student loved, and it taught them to trust me. As the years went on and education changed and the focus shifted from guided reading to independent reading, the number of class novels dwindled to two. But one of them was always The Outsiders. Every year.

And then I quit teaching.

In my post about why I left the classroom, I wrote, “Although part of me still can’t believe it, after forty-three readings of The Outsiders, I have survived my final rumble with the Socs, seen Dally crumple under the streetlight with a look of ‘grim triumph’ for the last time, and will tell Ponyboy to ‘stay gold’ no more.” Saying goodbye to the gang really was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

Four years passed. Then, last summer, I found out that a new 50th Anniversary Edition of the book was being published on November 1, 2016, the day after my 40th birthday. I marked the date on my calendar and added the book to my wish list, but I was a little sad. Sad that such a big milestone was coming, and I had no students to share it with.

By the time my birthday and the novel’s anniversary arrived, I’d gone back to teaching. Seventh grade. My new school only reads one class novel a year, and guess what it is?

Today, I introduce Ponyboy Curtis to a whole new group of seventh graders. I can’t wait to see him again.

Posted in Reading

Thoughts Upon Rereading Harry Potter

 

All of my Harry Potter books, including Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
All of my Harry Potter books, including Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out in 1997, but I didn’t hear of it until 1999. That was my first year of teaching. I was twenty-two years old, fresh out of college, and just beginning my lifelong relationship with young adult books. I’d read The Outsiders and The Giver and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and some more, but I didn’t know then that the start of my teaching career would coincide with an explosion of young adult literature. I didn’t know Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was about to be published, couldn’t fathom the volumes and volumes of YA and MG novels I would have on my classroom shelves by the end of my teaching career, and had no idea that a seventh grader was about to introduce me to a character who would make a huge impact on me, my family, and the world.

The student’s name was Kelli, and the character’s name was Harry.

I read the first Harry Potter book reluctantly. No, let me rephrase that. I opened the first book reluctantly. It didn’t sound like something I would be interested in. A little boy who was a wizard? But Kelli spoke so highly of it (she was already reading the third book in the series) and I wanted to connect with my students, so I decided to try book one. For her.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone grabbed me from the very first page, and by the time I arrived in Diagon Alley, I was hooked. SO hooked, in fact, that I told my whole family they should read the book too, with as much enthusiasm as Kelli had used to convince me.

Every member of my family, from my niece to my dad, read the Harry Potter series. By the fourth book, most of us were picking it up on opening day. By the fifth book, I was driving to bookstores at midnight for the release party.

I’m obviously not alone in my feelings about this series. Nearly all my friends love the books. What sets me apart is that, until recently, I only read them once.

Most of my fellow Harry Potter fans have read the series at least twice. Some have read it multiple times. A couple of them reread it every summer. This befuddles me. I rarely reread books, because I’m not a particularly fast reader and there are so many titles I haven’t read lining my shelves. I usually can’t convince myself to reread a single book, let alone a seven-volume series.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve been tempted. After all, it’s been so long now since Kelli first introduced me to Harry—17 years, in fact. The age Harry was when the series ended. I’ve seen the movies of course, but that’s just more reason to reread, being able to delight in all of the details left out of the big screen versions. So I decided just to reread the first one, my favorite. And I chose to listen to it on audio book.

I checked out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from the library in February, and less than an hour into Jim Dale’s delightful narration of the boy who lived, I knew I’d be listening to the whole series. From February to August, I went straight through Harry Potter #1-7, reuniting with every character, reliving every adventure, and revisiting every corner of Hogwarts, and I’m so glad I did.

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Thoughts Upon Rereading Harry Potter (via audio book)

[SPOILER ALERT! If you’ve somehow gone this long without reading Harry Potter or at least seeing the movies, STOP! Go instead to the closest library or bookstore to pick up a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.]

* Jim Dale does an amazing job of narrating these novels. I love the voices he gives to Hagrid and Dumbledore and McGonagall, and, well, most of the other characters too. One thing was funny though. Mr. Dale didn’t pronounce the T at the end of Voldemort for the first three books, making me think I’d been wrong all along when saying it. Then suddenly in the fourth book, he added the T, so I thought I’d been right after all. But THEN I found this article about the pronunciation of the dark lord’s name, and now I think we should all just go back to referring to him as He Who Must Not Be Named.

* On this read-through, I noticed that none of the professors at Hogwarts are married or have any children. Further proof that it’s very difficult to devote your life to teaching while also raising a family.

* I can’t remember how I pictured Severus Snape before I saw Alan Rickman play him.

* I’m done watching the movies. I only ever tolerated them before, but now I will no longer idly sit in front of one on a Saturday afternoon. I want the words and the words alone to stay with me. Watching the movies makes me forget more than I remember, and I want every little detail to stick.

* Some things I had forgotten: The ghost professor of History of Magic, who died at Hogwarts but continued to teach; How little Dumbledore was in the first two books (yet how much he pervades the story even when Harry rarely sees him); How scary the cave lake/potion/horcrux scene was in The Half Blood Prince.

* What I loved even more this time: Ginny. What a strong, outspoken, independent, funny young woman. I missed her so much in book 7; Lee Jordan’s quiddich commentary (which was even better on audio); Dumbledore’s Army.

* I loved the fact that this time in book 4 when Dumbledore described finding a room filled with chamber pots when he was looking for a restroom, I knew it was foreshadowing the Room of Requirement in book 5. 🙂

* On this read-through, SPEW (The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) made me uncomfortable. Hermione’s heart was in the right place regarding house elves, but the way she went about trying to force freedoms onto them didn’t seem right.

* I still hate Umbridge more than I ever hated Voldemort. I actually yelled out loud at her once while listening to book 5 in my car.

* I have a list of questions ready to ask my friends and loved ones if I ever suspect them of being imposters using polyjuice potion.

* It was no easier listening to Dumbledore’s death and funeral than it was reading it in print. 😦

* Let’s talk about The Deathly Hallows. Strangely enough, the last book in the series is the one I remembered the least. And, upon rereading the series, it was also the one I liked the least. The beginning is great. The scene about “the seven Potters” is still one of my favorites. I love how everyone starts changing clothes out in the open and Harry’s embarrassed at how immodest they’re being with his body. The scene that comes next, when they’re all flying and trying to escape the Death Eaters, is awesome too—so intense and heartbreaking. (I hated it when Hedwig died.) The end of the book is also great. Neville’s a badass, and Harry sacrifices himself with his parents’ spirits by his side, only to survive again, and then he has that magical talk with Dumbledore in “King’s Cross,” ending with one of my all-time favorite quotes from his extraordinary headmaster: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” But the middle, ugh! The middle is a long, boring, repetitive slog through forests of indecision with a bunch of wand confusion thrown in for good measure. All they do is argue and apparate. I missed Hogwarts! I missed Ginny and Hagrid and Professor McGonagall and the Weasley twins. I can only figure that the first time through I read the book so fast, in such excitement to see how it ended, that I didn’t notice how bored I was through most of it.

* Lastly, I’m still a little disappointed that my prediction about Harry didn’t come true. In July of 2003, when I was reading the newly-released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I wrote in my journal, “Prediction: When Harry graduates from Hogwarts, he will become the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.” I thought it was so perfect. He was a natural teacher, as evidenced by his lessons in the DA, and he was obviously skilled and knowledgeable about combating the dark arts. And since Hogwarts couldn’t keep a Defense teacher more than a year, I thought Harry would defeat Voldemort, break whatever curse was on the job, and become the best professor Hogwarts had ever seen. But he didn’t. And I’m still kind of sad about that.

Photos from the midnight release party at BookPeople for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July 2007. Left = a person dressed up as a moving portrait. Center = me clutching my copy of book 7. (Side note: I still have that t-shirt. I wore it yesterday.) Right = the Voldemort dunking booth. Step right up and dunk the dark lord!
Photos from the midnight release party at BookPeople for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July 2007. Left = a person dressed up as a moving portrait. Center = me clutching my copy of book 7. (Side note: I still have that t-shirt. I wore it yesterday.) Right = the Voldemort dunking booth. Step right up and dunk the dark lord!

In conclusion…

I still love these stories. (Even the last one.) I owe Kelli for introducing me to them. I don’t know if I’ll ever reread the whole series again or not, but I suspect I’ll pick up the first one from time to time and rediscover the magical world along with Harry.

As for the new book? I don’t have strong feelings about the existence of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I haven’t read it. I might someday. I might not. This post isn’t about that book. It’s about the world of Harry Potter as I first experienced it. That’s the world I love.