Ordinary Wizarding Levels Edition
I will admit, April was a pretty wonderful reading month for me! It was the month of the O.W.L.s Magical Readathon created by BookRoast, a completely engrossing Harry Potter themed reading challenge in which you pick a Wizarding career to pursue from a full lexicon of options and complete the appropriate Ordinary Wizarding Level Examinations- also known as- read books! I had so much fun searching for books that met the criteria for my career path and “studying” to pass my O.W.L. exams, as all exams (aka books) had to be completed within the month of April.
In honor of how fun and delightful the Magical Readathon was for me, this month my Book Wrap Up will be a Harry Potter themed summary of my April Reads as I endeavored to become a…
Here are the Curse Breaker O.W.L. Examination requirements (and a list of my admirable attributes *hair flip*):
With trepidation in my belly at the thought of reading 6 books in 1 month, I carried on. After all, when in doubt, go to the library! In actuality, I only got 1 of the books from my local library, but I did manage to knock a couple books from my ginormous TBR shelf!
Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! And without further ado, let’s get started!
The Night Country
by Melissa Albert
And check out that anatomical heart on the cover. Win!
“The Night Country” is the sequel to “The Hazel Wood”, one of my favorite reads of 2018. I absolutely adore the spooky, eerie atmosphere prevalent throughout the narrative, and I just love the idea that storybook characters, and in this case the stuff of nightmares, could have been real the whole time with supernatural powers and perhaps, just perhaps… they are out to get you.
The world building (or story building) of “The Hazel Wood” is stellar, and you get a hint of that in “The Night Country” as well. The sequel was a good follow-up, a focus on the consequences of your actions and your effect on the world (and a reminder to trust the tingle on the back of your neck that tells you someone is watching). Alice is trying to start her life again in New York with her mom, but her past follows her around like a shadow. The other Stories, as they are called, are loose in New York and as their hate for humans and anxiety from losing their homeland grows, they start to gain a new purpose and danger brews.
While I enjoyed it, I can’t say “The Night Country” was as robust or engrossing a story as the first one. The atmosphere was still eerie, but not as spine-tingling as the first, and had a slower pace. If anything, though, it made me really eager for the author’s release of “Tales from the Hinterland”, the fictional book (soon to be an actual book) that contains the stories of all the, well, Stories- including Alice-Three-Times’. I love how Albert weaves a tale, and I cannot wait to be engrossed and chilled by her clever Stories.
“Are all these books doors?”
“A book is always a door.”
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Green River, Running Red
by Ann Rule
I’ve always wanted to read a book by Ann Rule. As a fan of true crime shows and podcasts I have somehow read surprisingly few books on the matter, which fit perfectly for the Arithmancy requirements of reading something outside your favorite genre. I decided to begin with her book on the Green River Killer, one of America’s most prolific serial killers who resided in the Seattle area.
I was interested in this story for 2 reasons: First, a Seattleite serial killer that somehow I never hear stories of? Yes, please. Second, I enjoy watching reruns of Anthony Bourdain’s show, and upon his visit to Seattle he could not stop referring to the GRK, like, every 30 seconds. It was weird, and hilarious, and so here we are.
The Green River Killer operated in the 1980s in Seattle, killing and raping prostitutes and leaving their bodies in the Green River, where they would later be discovered sometimes immediately, sometimes not for years, and sometimes not at all.
I really appreciated the author’s perspective as a former police officer, focusing on the police force’s relationship with the local prostitute and street communities. Her compassion for people in this position was very evident as she recounted the womens’ lives, the timeline of when they disappeared, and finally when their bodies were found. Every time their body was discovered she would make sure to tie the event back to the victim as we last knew them in life from the perspectives of their friends and family. This gave a sense of realness to each woman’s life. Not many serial killer victims get that level of attention with all the sensationalism that comes around a serial killer’s actions, and while some may find the stories repetitive due to the sheer number of victims (and tragically, there were a lot), I felt it really gave the book a weight and seriousness- a sense of reality when it can otherwise be easy to lump tragedies like this into one surreal event.
In particular, I loved hearing about Hope Redding, the only woman to escape from the Green River Killer. She fought, kicked, and hid in bushes in the middle of nowhere and later identified him as the person who attacked her when he came under suspicion. Her triumph was real, and I loved hearing her story.
However, I do feel like GR,RR could have been a lot shorter than it was. There were a lot of tangents that could have been edited out for the sake of a clearer depiction of events and timelines. While it was interesting to hear about the attention-seeking psychic(s), the many random tipsters, key figures in the Seattle (and many other) police departments they definitely distracted from the focus of the story and caused me some confusion when the timelines jumped around from decade to decade.
As for the Green River Killer himself, I was interested as his childhood and adolescence was narrated (without ever naming him) and then I found myself enthralled as the investigators were finally able to identify him. This was very well done, and very unsettling.
Overall I thought GR,RR was a good book but I wouldn’t say it was written as clearly as I thought it would be.
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From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
by Caitlin Doughty
I’m a pretty big fan of Caitlin Doughty. I follow her “Ask a Mortician” channel on YouTube, and have read her other books and happened to have “From Here to Eternity” on my TBR Shelf, just sitting there. At a loss to find a YA book with a primarily white cover (do you know how rare that is to find? Maybe it’s just me) I stumbled upon this one as I was moving my non-fiction books around. And voila! What joy- an excuse to read a book that has been on my TBR for at least a year!
In “From Here to Eternity”, Caitlin Doughty navigates the death practices of quite a few different (and occasionally remote) cultures, always with an emphasis on keeping her mind clear, her opinions unbiased, and a focus on that which unites us as humans around the world: our love for and connection to our loved ones.
As she points out, typically the best thing to have when getting through the painful loss of a loved on is a purpose, and you can see that in the recounting of her visits. From Mexico to Japan, you can see that culture’s emphasis on the family having a duty to fulfill, something to do for the care of the deceased. Having that purpose helps quiet that sense of anxiety, and gives the family a secure space to grieve as they help their loved ones one last time.
The author points out that this is what we are generally lacking in the U.S.: a sense of “holding the space”, or creating a safe, secure space for the family to grieve however they need to. Typically, the deceased is whisked away and prepared for a funeral, removing the family entirely from the process, allowing people to not have to process the death of their loved one or even confront their own mortality, in many cases. This deprives the family of celebrating their loved one, or of even having that safe space to grieve.
In many parts of the U.S., grieving must be done with dignity, quietly and discreetly. Anything else is unusual, and people will avert their eyes from such indecent displays. In my experience, I find that to be absolutely true. And how tragic is that? Right when you need someone’s support the most, people uncomfortable with outward displays of emotion might turn away from you to protect themselves.
I find this topic particularly interesting for some reason. I’m not sure why. But it strangely does make me feel better to think through and share what I would like in the event of my untimely demise. Losing me would be too hard on my loved ones, and the last thing I would want is for them to have to pay thousands of dollars and make painful decisions because I didn’t take the time to do it myself.
“From Here to Eternity” is a combo travel narrative and death preparation guide, and I absolutely loved it. The author takes time to emphasize finding what works best for you, and to just be open-minded and educate yourself to help you decide what you want, and to not judge others for choosing a practice you wouldn’t. You do not have to be embalmed, and cremation isn’t always the best option for Christians despite how common it is, but most of us will do it anyway. It’s okay to have these tough conversations with your loved ones, and I believe doing so will take a lot of guess work out of what will inevitably be a painful experience.
Apologies if this review got a little dark and sober for a Spring time book wrap up. I was the kid who thought Thestrals were freaking awesome, and went on ghost hunts with my cat as a wee one, so… consider the source.
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Defense Against the Dark Arts
The Guest List
by Lucy Foley
It may not come as a surprise to you that I subscribe to Book of the Month, and for April they had a solid option- one that would fulfill my Defense Against the Dark Arts requirements. “The Guest List” is a thriller that takes place on a secluded island off the coast of Ireland.
You may (or may not) also be aware that I went on my Honeymoon last Fall to Ireland (Yes, it was magical, and yes, it was super gloomy and rainy and awesome). So when “The Guest List” popped up as an option for April, I basically insta-bought it.
“The Guest List” is about a high-profile wedding and the wedding party that gathers on the island. All have reasons to be uncomfortable around each other, and all have dark pasts and/or secrets they carry. It’s told from various point of views, so you get a little insight into different parts of their lives, which I thought was well done.
Overall, I wasn’t blown away by this story. Although I understand many people really enjoyed it, I simply wasn’t kept interested. Happily, the writing was smooth and easy to read and I just flew through the pages, but I can’t say I was sitting on the edge of my seat for the big reveal.
Honestly, it was just as much a mystery to me who died as it was who killed them. But when the big reveal came, I felt kind of… underwhelmed, and then the story quickly ends.
The best thing about “The Guest List” was how perfectly it captured the atmosphere of a stormy Irish island. I enjoyed the details shared about Irish mythology, such as what hares and coromorants represent, and the description of the island and the ocean felt very reminiscent of our honeymoon trip to the Cliffs of Moher during a weather warning.
That in combination with the wild and unsettling feeling you get as the characters lose control over an alcohol-fueled night does make this book worth a read, but just be warned it’s a very fast, very atmospheric, and not so thrilling read about imperfect people forced to stay on a beautiful, stormy island.
…. But our most important invitees will stay on the island tonight and tomorrow, in the Folly with us.Jules the bride, pg 17
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Rossum’s Universal Robots
by Karel Capek
I have to admit that this book was barely on my radar! I had probably a 1% chance of reading it any time soon if it wasn’t for the O.W.L. exams. Happily, the requirement for this exam was a Shrinking Potion, requiring a book shorter than 150 pages- and do you know how hard it is to find a book that short? Even the graphic novels I wanted to read were too long (although to be fair, I only have collections).
My choices came down to two suggestions offered by my husband: “Rossum’s Universal Robots” and “Go Dog Go!” Having already once read “Go Dog Go!”, I opted for the robots. And I am so glad I did. I am blown away with how much I liked this book!
R.U.R. is a stage play (and I someday hope to see it performed!) best known for giving the world the word “robot”. It was written exactly 100 years ago in 1920 by a Czech man who had experienced World War I, but died just before World War II. His vision of the world at that point in time is fascinating, and the parallels between themes of his time and ours is nothing short of uncanny.
Capek was tired of the age old trope that villains are pure evil and heroes are pure good; after traveling much of Europe before and after the Great War, he saw that people can do all the wrong things for all the right reasons (and vice-versa), and you can see that reflected in R.U.R. How exciting is it that 100 years later we have circled back to that idea, with anti-heroes like Dexter and Walter White, Kylo Ren and Zuko?
In “Rossum’s Universal Robots” (R.U.R.), it’s the near-future, and robots are the new hot item on the market. They can do anything! Humans need never lift a finger again! (Except to cook, robots are bad cooks. Bender B. Rodriguez, is that you?) Prices are at record lows, because it doesn’t cost anything to produce goods since robots aren’t paid for their labor! The downside? People are kind of weirded out by how much they look like, well, people. The resemblance is described as so remarkable that one of our characters cannot distinguish when she is talking to a person versus when she is talking to a robot.
The second downside comes in that a few years after manufactured, robots have a tendency to… glitch. It causes them to become angry, act emotionally and erratically. In short, their programming wears out and they start to act independently, questioning their place in the world alongside humans.
So begins what is now an age-old dilemma:
Can Should we create artificial life? Can they be considered truly “alive” (how would one even determine that?), and do they deserve basic human rights?
While the only female character in the book is treated mainly as a perfect creature that they all love and dote on but don’t take seriously, Capek writes this with a strange sense of self-awareness, as though he is writing this to highlight how wrong it is to idolize and disregard a person, just as he does for the robots. There is an emphasis on equality, even as his characters embody and encourage the inequalities of the world, sometimes despite their best intentions.
There is so much more I could go on about the various ways this book struck a chord with me, but here is one more: Dogs won’t take food from the robots, they tuck their tails and whine when they come near.
It’s clear to me that R.U.R. struck a chord not just with me but in much of our society and pop culture. I limited myself to just 2 giphies and 1 Futurama reference in this wrap up, but that was SO hard. There are so many nuggets in this book that clearly made an impression on some groundbreaking story-tellers as we know them today.
And finally, I would like to leave you with my favorite part from the whole book, the end to Act 1:
(The R.U.R. Factory whistle blows for the Noon break)
Domin: “it’s not noon yet. That’s probably… it must be…”
Domin: “the signal to attack.”
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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J.K. Rowling
Is there a better way to honor and participate in a Harry Potter themed Readathon challenge than to read a Harry Potter book? I think not! I am on a non-urgent side goal of rereading all the HP books, having already made it through books 1 & 2, and The Prisoner of Azkaban perfectly fits the Transfiguration exam requirement!
I love Lupin. And while he is not technically an Animagus, he is a shape-shifter.
I won’t mince words and pretend that this book is anything other than my favorite of the lot! It’s the perfect combination of nostalgia and a gripping story, at least for me, and I just love all the little touches Rowling weaves in as you watch her writing grow in its potential, something I didn’t notice until I was reading this as an adult.
For example, did you know that everything Trelawney predicts does actually come true, in some form or another? That’s a key tidbit in what will develop to be a much larger plot point in future books. Also, Rowling has a killer sense of humor: she played the long game with the flobberworms joke. The children spent ages feeding the flobberworms lettuce, only for them to die from eating too much lettuce! The delivery is hilarious and I actually laughed out loud when it all came together.
Not to mention the tension between Lupin and Snape, and then Sirius when he appears at the end. Rowling knew exactly their backstories when she wrote this, and you can tell because it doesn’t all make sense without the context of later books. Snape is absolutely irrational when it comes to the Marauders or Harry, and you see that when he loses control in the Shrieking Shack. Granted, Harry, Ron, and Hermione then knock him out with a trio of Expelliarmus spells, but if they hadn’t he would have caused some serious harm purely out of spite.
The same can be said for Sirius, who actually breaks Ron’s leg in his desperation to get to Peter Pettigrew (totally forgot about that by the way, what the heck, Sirius?).
Sanity only returns to the crew in the Shrieking Shack when Hermione addresses Lupin, careful to keep her tone to that of a student inquiring of her professor. Lupin responds calmly and in kind, and that sort of… breaks most of the tension. Lupin remembers his role in that moment, and Hermione should earn a Master’s degree in sociology for knowing how to instinctively de-escalate a hostage situation.
I did find 2 plot holes I couldn’t get over. One I loved, and one doesn’t make sense. Here are my thoughts:
First: When the children return to Hogwarts, Harry and Hermione are called to McGonnagal’s office before the great feast. After getting checked over, Harry waits a few moments outside before Hermione and McGonnagal re-emerge and they head to the feast. Now, we know in this moment McGonnagal gave Hermione the Time Turner, but I imagine a quick “How To Use a Time Turner” course would last much longer than a few minutes, so I propose that McGonnagal and Hermione took a mini time-turn to show her the ropes, leaving Harry to only wait a few minutes for what probably actually took quite a bit longer. In my mind, this means Hermione had her own “I knew I could do it because I had already done it” moment, like Harry with his Patronus, and that there were in fact 2 Hermiones and 2 McGonnagals in the office while Harry waited outside!
In addition, I know I’m not the first to mention that it’s pretty impossible that McGonnagal and Dumbledore were the only 2 people to know Hermione had been issued a Time Turner. She says herself that McGonnagal had to write loads of letters to the Ministry to get approval, and yet not Madam Pomfrey, nor Snape, nor the Minister himself suspected that maybe Black escaped against all odds at the same time that a student was issued a Time Turner? No one even considered that as a possibility? Am I supposed to believe that at no point throughout the year did the professors not chat in the teacher’s lounge about how Hermione was impossibly in all of their classes on a given day? And we know there is a teacher’s lounge because that’s where Lupin took the students to fight the Boggart. And we know the professors talk about Hermione because she’s annoying, and I’m sure her reputation precedes her.
That aside, the growth of our three main characters continues to develop, and I really loved watching that. They can be petty, like when Ron is mean to Hermione; and sometimes they are too passive, like when Harry doesn’t do anything about Ron being mean to Hermione; and sometimes they are just scared children, like when Hermione turns in Harry’s mysterious new Firebolt that was, in fact, delivered by a prison-breaking Sirius Black. It lends a sense of genuineness to what is an otherwise wonderfully outlandish and magical world, and I can’t wait to return to it!
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Thanks for joining me as I wandered down Memori Alley, a name I just made up because I really wanted to say “Diagon Alley”, but that made no sense. The 2020 O.W.L.s Magical Readathon really made my April a whole lot more fun, and happily it doesn’t have to end there!
BookRoast also has a N.E.W.T.s Challenge that takes place in November… perhaps I will go all the way with my Wizarding education. Or I could ditch and blow off fireworks like the Weasley twins…. I guess we’ll see how it goes!