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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” – Shakespeare

So. Many. Thoughts. Where do I begin? Perhaps at the very beginning – when a little magical baby survived a deadly attack from a very cruel wizard setting in motion events that culminated in the Battle of Hogwarts in which the evil wizard was finally defeated. But what if the magical baby did not survive? Or what if that cruel wizard did not kill him? What would have happened then and what would the world of Harry Potter look like today?

The Cursed Child may be a story in the future but its feet are planted in the past. At the heart of it is the misunderstood Albus Potter and his troubled relationship with his father, Harry. Albus is Harry’s middle child, mediocre in his magical prowess, forever in his dad’s shadow and a Slytherin. Can you imagine being a Potter and a Slytherin? Though 22 years have passed, the prejudice dividing the houses remains unchanged. He is further alienated from his friends and family because of his close friendship with Scorpius, Draco Malfoy’s son. Scorpius is rumored son of Voldemort which makes him very unpopular in school. Scorpius maybe Draco’s son but to me he seemed to be Ron & Hermoine’s progeny. He is funny yet nerdy and by far the most lovable new character in the series.

All through the story, Harry and Albus have a difficult relationship. Albus resents that his father’s celebrity status and is determined to find his flaws. Harry does not know how to deal with this moody, rebellious kid. Their failing relationship drives impetus to Albus’s mission to undo the wrongs of his father. A chance encounter with the Diggorys, Amos and Delphini, set Albus and Scorpius on a quest to reverse the past and save Cedric Diggory’s life. Time-Turners come into play and famous landmarks are revisited. We skirt the forbidden forest, swim through the pipes in the 1st floor girls’ bathroom at Hogwarts, take a dive into the Hogwart’s lake and find ourselves inside the Whomping Willow. Every time Albus goes into the past, he changes the future. The Cursed Child is a chance for JK Rowling to legitimize all the alternate endings which would have swirled in her head when she wrote Harry Potter the first time. There is a lot of fan service as we go back to some of the most pivotal events of the series. The most poignant is when we along with Harry witnesses the death of Potter’s parents – the gravity of letting fate take its place for the greater good.

I found the book to be surprisingly consistent to most characters. It’s not strange that Harry is not the greatest dad, he had after all very little experience with his own parents. It’s also not unusual that he is a bit self-absorbed by his past. He has been a celebrity since he was 11 years old and no one lets him forget it. He of course suffers from PTSD. Hermione has become the Minister of Magic and continues to be bright and resourceful. Ron has been reduced to a bumbling idiot – which was his point wasn’t it? Hermione’s daughter would of-course be named Granger-Weasely. All three of them would of course be celebrities – their lives well documented and well known.

This books is full of self-references and tongue in cheek humour. The irony of Albus, Scorpius & Delphi polyjuicing into the Ministry of Magic as Ron, Harry and Hermione isn’t lost on us. Inside jokes abound – lax security of Hogwarts, how you ‘must’ find life-long friendship on you first time in Hogwarts Express and so on.
There has been criticism on the quality of writing and stupidity of the story arches of The Cursed Child. I wholeheartedly agree. The writing is sloppy and simplistic at times. Scenes are wrought with high emotions. In one scene Dumbledore & Harry are crying and declaring their love for each other (not what it sounds like!) which seems quite out of character. Two young kids hoodwinking enchantments set by Hermione in the library scene seems far-fetched. Hermione repeatedly fooled experts when she was 17 – there is no way her enchantments would be this lame. What really saddens me is that somehow with age Harry & Hermione have become more of the politicians and less of the righteous wizard that we knew.

JK Rowling’s strength has always been in the storytelling – intricate plotlines that form pieces of a larger puzzle that keep coming together. She loves exploring relationships – with a lot of focus on friendships and familial bonds. You see patterns in our first seven books. Harry’s abusive childhood would lead him to form strong attachments with Hogwarts and the people he met there. With Albus, the story is inverted. Hogwarts is place he hates. But both share an unhappy childhood and both feel isolated. Both carry resentment for the life they were given are quick to anger and reckless. Both rely on friends over family. Both share a love for foolish adventure.

As The Cursed Child is a script, readers have complained that it doesn’t do a great job in creating a visual spectacle of magic that prose format does. I don’t necessarily agree. Magical is secondary in this story. The assumption is that the people reading are inherently familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Magic just happens and does not need to be explained. The story is really about love and friendship and loss. It’s about good versus evil. That’s what Harry Potter has always been about.

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The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place

Just a few weeks ago, Amazon was having a major Kindle sale, as a part of which it was selling some popular books for as low as $0.99-$3.99. I ended up buying quite a few – it was a great way to try new stuff without spending too much money. What caught my attention about this book was the lovely jacket cover and the basic plot line – “Young governess has been hired to educate three children who have been clearly raised by wolves”. I usually don’t read children’s book, but this novel appeared intriguing enough.
Once you start reading, it does not take you long enough to build affection and respect for the determined governess, the very young Penelope Lumley, who has been sent from the Swanburne Academy to Ashton Place to take care of three kids of questionable origins. Penelope, an orphan herself, forms a very strong empathetic bond with the children – Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia. It is extremely amusing to watch her struggle to teach the children Maths, Geography, Drama and Latin, when they are determined to behave like pups. On top of this, she has to deal with her immature and melodramatic mistress, Lady Ashton who sees the children as an unnecessary burden. Penelope is also angered and flustered by her master, Lord Ashton’s callous attitude towards the children – who he treats as his furniture and not as his wards. It was he who found the children in his forest grounds , hunting one evening. Having discovered these wild and howling kids, he kept them in the barn where Penelope first met them, when she arrived at Ashton Place.
Penelope deals with all crisis and demands of her employers with the courage and good sense that she inherited in Swanburne Academy. She often falls back on the legendary and extremely practical preachings of the Academy’s founder – Agatha Swanburne. I quote one of my favourite “Agathaism” :

“That which can be purchased at a shop is easily left in a taxi; that which you carry inside you is difficult, thought not impossible, to misplace”

Penelope, being fifteen, is almost a child herself with stars in her eyes, and sometimes you can glimpse that when she lets her imagination run away with herself. For instance, in one instance, she is to be accused of stealing the almanac from the library and her thoughts go something like this –

“It had even occurred to her that the police might be summoned and criminal charges be filed, after which she would have to bravely defend herself in front of a stern, white-wigged judge. Her eloquence would earn a standing ovation from the dazzled spectators, who would find it impossible it to believe that this mere girl of fifteen was not a trained lawyer”

But things are not all as they seem in Ashton Place – Why does Lord Ashton insist the children attend the Christmas Ball when they are clearly not trained in social etiquette? Why does he himself disappear on the day of the Ball? Why were the children abandoned in the forest in the first place? Who are their parents? Why does Old Timothy keep appearing in the most unlikely places? These questions add a bit of gothic element to what I would consider a light, funny and entertaining children’s book.
Most of these questions remain unanswered in the first instalment of the series – The Mysterious Howling. Though not exactly a cliff-hanger, if as a reader you have invested enough interest in the characters, you are bound to pick the second book: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place – The Hidden Gallery.
In the second book, we follow the escapades of the Ashton household into London. After the catastrophic Christmas ball, Ashton Place is undergoing major repairs. Lady Ashton convinces her husband the need to move to London till the renovation is completed. Penelope is extremely excited about this change in location – she has never been to London and only read about it in books. She sees this as an opportunity to expose herself and the children to some real art and culture. Once in London, Penelope is clearly overwhelmed by the city and is a bit depressed. Enter Simon, a young struggling playwright (obviously, for a young governess of fifteen, a romance is needed) who befriends her and the children and proves to be a valuable companion during their stay. The open questions from the first book remain unanswered and the plot thickens. First there is the gypsy soothsayer who warns the “hunt is on”. Then there is the hopeless Hixby’s guide to London- a gift from Penelope’s teacher and friend – which proves to be extremely useless in all regards with the exception of its directions to the hidden gallery no. 17 in British Museum. On top of this all, there is Judge Quinzy, whose unusual and unwelcome interest in Penelope and the children worries her. And most importantly is the mystery of the color of Penelope’s hair! While a lot more happens in the second book, as a reader you are really no further then where you started and that is a bit irritating. One has no choice but to look forward to the third book!!
Maryrose Wood is without doubt, a very good children’s storyteller. The writing is rich, witty and the language makes for very good “reading aloud” to kids. Some of my favourite sentences are as follows:

“ As you may know, travelling alone is quite a different kettle of fish from travelling with companions. It tends to make people anxious, especially when enroute to a strange place, or a new home or a job interview, or ( as in the case of Miss Lumley) a job interview in a strange place that might very well end up being her new home”

“ There is no alarm clock like embarrassment”, and by the time the conductor spoke the word luggage, Miss Lumley was far more awake than she wished to be. Had she really said something about bandits?”

“The truth is that one cannot go through life without being annoyed by other people, and this was just as true in Miss Penelope’s Lumley’s day as it is in our own. Annoyance is a fact of life; one ought not to lose one’s grip because of it..”

“Penelope had read several novels about such governesses in preparation for her interview and found them chock-full of useful information, although she had no intention of developing romantic feelings for the charming, penniless tutor at a neighbouring estate. Or-heaven forbid!- for the darkly handsome, brooding, and extravagantly wealthy master if her own household. Lord Fredrick Ashton was newly married in any case, and she had no inkling what his complexion might be.”

Penelope, Simon and even the children are good role models. The children though naughty also possess a grateful, kind and generous nature. The moral messaging of the overall story is sound. The Incorrigible.. is clearly written not only to entertain but also to educate children. Words and phrases are explained as a part of the narrative without breaking the plotline –

“This is called “selective truth telling” and it is frequently used in political campaigns, toy advertisements and other forms of propaganda”

“Viola – as you may know, is a French word that means “there you are”. Like “Eureka” or “By Jove, I’ve got it” is sometimes exclaimed by people who have figured out the answer to some sort of problem or riddle”

If you have kids who still like to be read at night or who are still a few years away from their teens, this is a really perfect book for them


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Watching the seventh movie, made me go back and read the books again. Although I have re-read almost all the books several times, it really amazes me that these are still as engaging as in 2000 when I first started with the series.

In this post I will attempt to analyze the first book and a bit of the series and why it works. After all, fantasy fiction genre has a lot of literature to its credit – what was so unique about Harry Potter that it “revived” the reading culture, spawned a multi-million dollar movie franchise, gave a new life to fantasy literature and basically created history. Yes, savvy marketing and media generated hype for sure – but there is surely more credit to be given.

Let’s take a look at book one specifically. The book starts with an unusually quiet scene in a non-descript suburban neighborhood with something extraordinary going on – a cat that can turn into a woman, a flying motorcycle, an orphaned child and old man who most definitely is a sorcerer. You have to know what comes next! So in the very first chapter an interesting premise has been established.

Then the theme of the series is established in the first few chapters – “underdog wins the day”. No matter how many books and movies use this theme, it always works. Even though Harry Potter is this really famous wizard and is a celebrity – he is still the underdog. Its remarkable how JK Rowling creates this dual persona for him – super famous wizard since 1 year old, but orphaned, abused as a child, love hungry, dying to be someone. He comes to Hogwarts with no advantage – right from the beginning your heart goes out to him and you want him to win.

The third thing that interest you are the characters – for me a book never works if I can’t somehow empathize with the characters. And it’s easier said than done. JK Rowling does that with not just creating one but several immensely pleasant characters. But mostly she creates three very likeable protagonists – again not easy.

Harry, by the age of eleven, has had a pretty miserable life. It’s high time he was happy.  As a person he is quite nice – he is witty, intelligent, a little rebellious, eager to learn and so desperate to be loved. He may not be the perfect role model like “Hermione” but he has his heart in the right place – he inherently wants to be good. He is a believable hero.

How can you heart not go out to Ron Weasley – the youngest of six brothers, always getting hand me downs , destined to be friends with the most famous wizard in school – always living in the shadows.  In spite of his disadvantages, he is friendly, kind and fiercely loyal.

And then there is Hermione, my absolute favorite  character of the book. She may be slightly bookish and very competitive but she is intensely loyal, earnest, generous and the most compassionate of the three. She has the most defined moral values and sees generally sees things in black and white unlike her two best friends. Without her brilliance and presence of mind, Harry and Ron just can’t get very far.

Hagrid and Dumbledore are also very important characters in the first book. I believe that these two characters sort of fill the “paternal void” in Harry’s life as they mentor him through his first year at Hogwarts. The fact that they knew his parents also ties them to Harry strongly

The other ingredient to the story is the magical world that JKR creates – Hogwarts is fascinating and your mind leaps and bounces as you try to create mental images of moving pictures, hidden staircases, dark dungeons and the great hall. Wouldn’t a place like Diagon Alley be fun and entertaining? The attention to detail in creating this other world makes you almost wish that it was real.

The last but not the least, and what I believe is the defining reason as to why everyone is hooked from Book 1 is that, at the end of the day the saga of Harry Potter is really a puzzle. Every chapter in the first book reveals little pieces of the puzzle, and as we will read ahead, every book is a huge chunk of the larger story, but the complete picture remains  elusive till the end. As you read book one, there are so many questions to be asked – Why did Harry survive Voldemort’s attack? What was stolen from the safe at Gringotts? Why does the sorting hat suggest Harry be in Slytherin? What is the significance of The Mirror of Erised? Why does Dumbeldore see socks in it? Why is it “curious” that the wand that has chosen Harry is the twin of the wand that left the scar on his forehead? Will Voldemort return? What is Snape’s agenda? What were Harry’s parents like? Why did Voldemort attack Harry? What is Harry’s destiny?

Some of the questions get answered in the first book and others later. And sometimes, there are people, incidents and conversations that seem irrelevant but make much more sense later on.

The Philosopher’s Stone’s main purpose is to basically lay down the main characters, relationships, plot and landmarks for the larger story to unfold. It’s a very good start to a very entertaining story.

If you are interested in the movies, do check out  my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part


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Of living and loving and hoping and dreaming

I  got acquainted with Anne Shirley through the 1985 CBS television Series. I was instantly hooked and started hunting for my own copy of Anne of Green Gables. I first read the book at the age of 12 and it instantly became my all time favorite children’s book. I eventually read all the other books through the rest of my teenage years. However, for several years every summer I went back and re-read Anne of Green Gables. As a child, the book had this fascinating hold on me about this magical place called Avonlea with this really interesting and delightful creature called Anne Shirley. I completely related to her growing pains, her passionate friendships ( haven’t we all sworn undying friendships in our childhood and have we have ever found anything like that again! ) her flights of fancy and her struggle to find a balance between what was right and good to what she desired. As Anne grew up and went to college, so did I.  Again, I could relate to endless college studies and revelries , of love lost and found and of new bonds of friendships. Then somewhere I drifted away from the books and had not touched them for ages.

Recently, I saw some discussion on LMM and some reviews on Anne of Green Gables in the blogging world and decided to reread this book again. I decided to listen to the audio version that LibrivVox offers. As I “re-read” the first five book of the series I noticed things that as I child that I had missed. I knew for sure that LMM was brilliant in creating engaging and interesting characters but its only now that I notice the slight nuances that she gave to each character. She had a genius for character development. And I never noticed how hopeful the stories were – and I don’t mean romantically over optimistic in a very typical novel kind of way. It was more real somehow. Anne’s hope of going to college, her hopes of being a teacher, her hopes of being able to give back the love and happiness that Marilla & Matthew had given her, her hopes of being married – these were not over ambitious or unrealistic but just ordinary hopes of an extraordinary person. Whenever I read the “Anne ” books I am suddenly filled with a joy for living !

Another thing that I noticed was LMM’s genius in understanding the man-woman relationship. The books are peppered with wisdom on friendship, love and marriage. LMM definitely believes that a man and woman cannot be lovers unless they are good friends. And a relationship with laughter is more satisfying than a relationship with lofty ideals and bookish romances. It only takes our heroie “Anne” some 5 years to figure that for herself !

Gilbert and Anne are definitely my favorite relationship of the book , closely followed by that of Anne and Marilla. That is one of the most beautifully understated yet strong maternal relationship in any piece of literature ! And then Anne and Diana  – because their friendship reminded me of unselfish innocence of childhood where our mind has not yet learned to make prejudices.

I thoroughly loved the first four books of the series. I also enjoyed Anne’s House of Dreams as it was about her early years of marriage with Gilbert but I have to confess that after that I just could not enjoy the series as such. My sentiments can be described from an expression from the “Anne” series. When Anne refused her suitor of two years, Roy,  in Anne of the Island, moaned “”I want some one who BELONGS in my life”. That is the kind of feeling that I get when I started reading Anne of Ingleside. All the books before had characters that we have known from the first book and that we have grown to like and love. Anne is still the central character and this is truly her story up to that point. However, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside is no longer about her but her kids. She is often referred to as “Mother” or Mrs. Blythe and though the books are about her family – it is no longer about her. Its as if suddenly there are no new dimensions to her story. All the Avonlea characters fade away – Gilbert , Marilla , Diana and Mrs Rachel Lynde were all central to Anne’s story till book 5 but they all fade away. The last three are good books but they are not really about Anne and I rather treat them as separate novels not connected to the series.

However, Anne of Green Gables and the other “Anne” books will always be for me about living and loving and hoping and dreaming!