Book Review – “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Cursed ChildI’m not going to reveal any Cursed Child spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin it for people who haven’t experienced the story for themselves. But there are a lot of things that happen in this script, so I will delve into the plot some. If you haven’t read the story yet and want to be totally surprised when you do, skip this review for now.

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, I was reasonably satisfied with the ending, but devastated that the series had finally ended. At the time, I was honestly kind of disappointed that the series concluded with Harry, Ron, and Hermione all grown up and sending their own children off to Hogwarts – I wanted to see what life was like a year after The Battle of Hogwarts, how they were adjusting, how the wizarding world had changed. I almost felt robbed of the ending I felt I deserved, and resentful that the distant future had already been laid out for me – I wanted to be the one to imagine what happened as they grew older, I wanted to decide their fates and the names of their children (I love J.K. Rowling, but “Albus Severus”? I can’t get over that mouthful. And seriously, what pressure to put on a little kid!) But in retrospect I realize that my feelings stemmed from my own desire to see the possibility of the trio’s adventures continue – a need for the story to not really be over.

Well, little did I know that the story was indeed not really over. When I found out that there was a sequel coming out in play format, I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive. I’ve often thought about how lucky I am to have grown up with these characters, to wait for the books to be released and witness history happening, to finally be alive at the same time as a favorite author and to see her clear up any ambiguities or misconceptions about the universe and characters she created. I was excited and grateful for the privilege of getting to see the author create more content in the here and now. But another part of me said “let sleeping dogs lie.” I had accepted the ending of the series and didn’t want the story to be tarnished. But, obviously, my curiosity won out, and I somehow managed to walk right in and pick up a copy of the book/script at Target on the day it was released (everywhere else was sold out and had people waiting on orders – FYI, always try Target!).

I was immediately surprised and pleased to find that story picks up exactly where Deathly Hallows leaves off, with Harry, Ginny, Hermione, Ron, and Draco dropping their kids off at Platform 9 ¾. At this point, Harry is a man stretched too thin – he has too much work to do at the Ministry, is trying to be a good parent with almost no example to follow, and is still navigating the trappings of a celebrity life he never asked for. Ron is still Ron – irreverent, always eating, always a beat behind, but still a strong and loyal friend. And Hermione is the freaking badass she always was, wielding the strength and authority she was always destined to wield. (I pumped my fist and shouted when I found out where she had ended up, career-wise.)

The Potters, Weasleys, and Grangers are all related at this point, so their kids are all brothers, sisters, and cousins, and there are too many of them for me to keep up with, honestly. But the story centers on Albus, Harry’s youngest boy, and Scorpius, Draco’s only son, who strike up an unlikely friendship on their first train ride to Hogwarts. Albus is the most like Harry (kind and unsure, but bold, reactive, and hotheaded at times) and, of Harry’s three kids, feels the pressure of his father’s accomplishments to most. Scorpius is witty, very intelligent, and instantly likeable (he’s basically Ron and Hermione combined, oddly enough), but bears the weight of coming from a family of former Death Eaters, and of his father’s expectations for a type of greatness he’s not sure he’s capable of. So these two boys bond over their shared “outcast” status. The story jumps years at a time, and we witness Albus grow closer to Scorpius as he drifts further from Harry.

It has to be mentioned that Harry is, unsurprisingly, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are subtly and sadly reminded that he grew up in an abusive home, that his whole existence has been riddled with struggles, that things will probably never be easy for him, and that his demons will never truly leave him. So, on top of everything else, as the distance between Harry and Albus widens, Harry starts to experience pain in his scar again. Uh-oh.

When Albus is about to begin his fourth year, a Time-Turner prototype is recovered from dark wizard Theodore Nott’s home. Because all of the Time-Turners were thought to have been destroyed during the battle at the Ministry of Magic, this is a huge discovery. Of course, rumors start to fly, and Amos Diggory pays a visit to the Potters’ home, with his niece and caretaker Delphi in tow. While Harry refuses to even acknowledge to Amos that a Time-Turner exists, Albus hatches a very Harry-like plan to, with the help of Scorpius and Delphi, right some “wrongs”. Unfortunately, Albus, Scorpius, and Delphi are no Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and there is no Dumbledore to oversee their shenanigans…. Yikes. Suffice it to say that things go very, very wrong.

I won’t go any further plot-wise, for fear of ruining the spectacular, gut-wrenching ending. But I will say that although I’ve never understood the love for and obsession with Draco Malfoy that many people have (I find it kind of disturbing, as he was an incredibly cruel, unsympathetic character for about 6 books, and imagine it has something to do with good-looking Tom Felton’s portrayal in the movies), in this play we see Draco in a new and forgiving light. I suppose there was always a kernel of good in there, and his goodness is allowed to grow and shine here. I actually ended up really liking the sucker. Who would’ve thought? Also, I laughed a lot, felt a true and profound sadness for Harry, and cried twice while reading: once during a scene between Harry and Dumbledore’s portrait, and once very close to the end. I’ll leave it at that.

If you love the wizarding universe and you haven’t managed to or wanted to or really felt compelled to read this, please do so. I was ambivalent at first, but I was so moved and satisfied by this addition to the series. The only thing that would make it better would be seeing how they manage to pull all of this off on a stage.

 

Recommended For:

Potterheads who can’t afford to fly to London to see the play, but feel like getting their little hearts ripped out again by words on paper.

Book Review – “Beautiful Darkness” by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

Beautiful DarknessWell, Beautiful Darkness most certainly lives up to its name. This short graphic novel has beautiful artwork by Kerascoet entwined with some truly dark subject matter written by Fabien Vehlmann. I got a sense of the story from the cover of the book, which shows a tiny blonde girl peeking around a gigantic grey hand that appears – accurately – to belong to a dead person. However, I didn’t anticipate it being as raw and dark as it is. When I finished this short book, I was left thoughtful and, frankly, pretty bummed out.

The story begins with three squeaky clean, charming little people living a fairy tale life, when they are suddenly hit with a deluge of pinkish fluid that forces them out of their habitat. Chaos ensues, and we see more of these little people fighting their way to safety. The facts of the story are not completely spelled out, but in just the first five or six pages, we see these people crawling out of the orifices of what is revealed to be a dead schoolgirl lying in the forest.

We immediately begin to see these hordes of tiny people rebuilding their lives outside of the dead child’s body. They construct homes with her school supplies, eat her crackers to survive, and start breaking off into different factions. Subsequently, the best and worst facets of human nature are explored through the lives of these factions of small people, and through our speculations about the horrors that this young girl has clearly experienced. We can only infer what terrible things have happened to the little girl as we get further into the story, but we visually witness the equally horrifying ways in which these little people begin to behave. Death is commonplace, murder is just a fact of life, executed with little thought and no remorse, and only the most cunning survive.

As the story progresses, we witness the young girl’s body transform and decay while simultaneously watching the main character, Aurora (also the name of the dead little girl), change from a kind, youthful, hopeful girl into a hardened, disillusioned survivalist. And as a result, the ways in which the reader comprehends the story begins to change too. Because the landscape is mostly painted from the small people’s point of view, it’s only once we’ve acclimated to the darkness of the story that we begin to realize that things are not immediately what they seem. I had to go back and really study the artwork to get that the pink fluid forcing the little people out was actually blood filling the dead schoolgirl’s nose, and that the little fishing pond they find is not filled with tadpoles but is actually made of semen. Yikes.

This book is so complex and intentionally vague that it is completely open to interpretation. I couldn’t decide if these little people living inside of the girl are different aspects of her personality, or different aspects of human nature in general. Or both. For example, the little Aurora is loving and helpful, seeming to represent the best in people, while her larger and equally beautiful counterpart Zelie is cruel and conniving, representing the worst. Jane, the only small character who is an adult, is sad, resourceful, wise, and knowing. I took her to be the lost adulthood of the murdered schoolgirl, which is heartbreaking. But I could be totally wrong – and that is part of what’s so intriguing about this book. It can be interpreted in so many different ways, and leaves several unanswered questions that we are left to puzzle over long after the book has ended.

My interpretation is that Beautiful Darkness is basically the human experience writ tiny. It manages to realistically detail the best and worst aspects of human nature in all of their beautiful and gruesome glory. This is a deeply affecting story that is definitely not for the faint of heart, but is a short and absolutely worthy read.

Recommended For:

Adults who will appreciate striking, lovely artwork juxtaposed with weighty subject matter.

Book Review – “Vaclav and Lena” by Haley Tanner

Vaclav and Lena
goodreads.com

Vaclav and Lena is gorgeous from beginning to end. The writing flows easily and the story is sad, but lovely. We meet Vaclav and Lena when they are 10 and 9 respectively, practicing for their first real magic show. They are both Russian immigrants, and it’s immediately clear that they are best friends who love each other very much. Though they have been friends since they were small, they are at the beginning of their prepubescent years, and their bonds are just beginning to be tested. Tragedy strikes right before their big magic show, when Lena mysteriously vanishes and leaves Vaclav confused and completely devastated. Seven years later, a long-awaited reunion reveals how they have both changed: Lena is damaged but recovering with her devoted adoptive mother, and Vaclav is a handsome, popular fellow. They are, however, still fundamentally the same two people, and they still deeply love each other. This love very quickly gives way to an impetuous romance, which threatens to be ruined yet again by the secrets surrounding Lena’s disappearance.

We don’t get the full story until the last quarter of the book, but when the pieces all finally start to fit together, we realize, along with Vaclav, that things haven’t always been quite as they seem. This book provides an interesting look into immigration and the emotions that swirl around such an upheaval. Vaclav, Lena, and both of their families deal with a lot of uncertainty and fear, and their stories give a realistic look into some of the difficult things people do and sacrifice for a better life.

Although I loved this book, there were a lot of ideas crammed in, which in my opinion tended to dilute the importance of some of the major themes. For example, the love of magic is a major thread running through the story, and it is probably meant to show Vaclav’s innocence and childlike wonder – which presents a stark contrast to Lena’s worldview. Although sweet and kind of cute, this enduring fascination with magic becomes a bit of a stretch as Vaclav moves into adulthood and the darker elements of the story are revealed. After a while, it starts feeling like the whole magic theme is just that – a theme. To me, the bones of the book were peeking through, and it temporarily yanked me right out of the narrative.

The love story was also a bit hard to swallow, but only because it reads kind of young to me. I’m a little more than a decade away from 17, so the speed and intensity with which they jumped into their relationship was hard for me to read without rolling my eyes. But I was a teenager once, and all of this is definitely an appropriate reflection of what love is at that age. Vaclav and Lena’s relationship definitely embodies the kind of passion I longed for at 17, and as a high schooler I absolutely would have devoured that section of the novel whole.

Regardless of its few faults, at its core, this is a beautifully told story of profound love, hope, and belief. Vaclav and Lena are at the center of it all, and the love that they hold for each other is the foundation of their lives. It helps them find each other, it roots them, and it protects them. The only redeeming force in their lives is love, and in the face of some genuinely dark subject matter, that’s incredibly heartening to see.

 

Recommended For:

Those who like a good love story but can handle some details about abuse.

Book Review – “Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham

Delicious Foods Let me start by saying that this book is not to be missed. It upset me, made me shout rage, and had me punching my fist in the air yelling, “Yes!” I read several sections out loud to my sister, who became invested in the trajectory of the story just through the bits and pieces I shared with her.

Despite the compelling story, it did take me quite a while to read Delicious Foods. I borrowed it from the library and renewed it once, which is to say that it took me around two months to read. Truthfully, this was partly because I was dealing with my own issues, but also because Delicious Foods is simply a harrowing read. This is an undoubtedly intelligent, complex, moving book, but was just difficult for me to get through. The story is enthralling, but is also intentionally violent and off-putting. It is by no means supposed to be a pretty story, but I tend to empathize too much with the characters in such well-written books, and I had to take a break every now and then to reorient myself with and appreciate my much happier life.

The story revolves around Darlene Hardison, her son Eddie, and the drug Darlene is addicted to – “Scotty” or crack cocaine. The story is told from each of their perspectives, with Darlene’s and Eddie’s chapters told in the third person, and Scotty’s chapters told in first person. It’s unusual to hear from the perspective of a drug, but Scotty has his own clear voice and tends to give a clearer, more brutal picture of what’s going on in the world than Darlene and Eddie sometimes can.

The prologue of the book begins with Eddie driving like mad, trying to keep a car steady while bleeding profusely from the ends of his wrists. We don’t know what’s going on at this point, except that he has just escaped “the farm” and has recently had his hands cut off. Undoubtedly a jarring way to start a book, but what’s even worse is that poor Eddie is more worried about getting pulled over and arrested for driving a “stolen” car with no license than about the fact that he may very possibly bleed to death. It definitely sets the tone for the rest of the book. Not until about 300 pages later do we find out what has led Eddie to careen away from Delicious Foods like this, hand-less. In the intervening pages, we witness how one major tragedy in Darlene’s and Eddie’s lives sends their future into a tailspin and lands them at Delicious Foods.

This book, perhaps most ostensibly, is a modern-day slavery story. The ways that Darlene, Eddie, and the rest of the workers at Delicious Foods are treated (mistreated, left untreated), kept ignorant, in debt, and in the dark, all hearken back to the days of American slavery. The workers are all minorities, mostly black. They sleep padlocked in a chicken coop on bunk beds that have rusty coils poking out of dirty mattresses. The farm’s owner has his own mansion (master’s house) on the premises – “Summerton” – where Eddie and his mother are eventually invited on dubious pretenses. The workers are all supplied with a steady stream of “Scotty” to keep them addicted, needy, and complacent, despite their inhuman, unlivable conditions. It is appalling, to say the least.

I had to keep reminding myself that this story is set in the present-day American South. I am a descendant of slaves on my dad’s side of the family, and kept thinking about what terrible obstacles some of my ancestors must have overcome for me to even be born. Without going too in depth about this theory, my opinion is that this book is at least in part a quiet commentary on American consumer culture. I think Hannaham is saying a lot about how, to this day, we as a culture still profit from the effects of slavery, from poverty and the disadvantaged. It’s unfortunately not hard to believe that a lot of the food we eat and clothes we wear are products of such dubious practices. This book serves as a good reminder that we are not so far removed from the days of slavery.

Toward the end of the book, we are fortunately rewarded with some forms of redemption, comeuppance, and hope for the future, small as they may be. Suffice it to say that if I wanted to write a dissertation on all of this book’s layers, I could easily do so. But that’s not what this blog is for, so I’m going to stop here. Please just read the book.

Recommended For:

Those who can handle some graphic violence and enjoy gritty tales of survival, slavery narratives, and eye-opening literature.