Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Yes, I know. Guess you could say I'm a little behind in my -- um -- reading.

HARRY POTTER and THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN follows a more vocal and mature Harry, Hermione and Ron through their third year of wizardry training at Hogwarts.

Plot Synopsis (Skip to "The Writing" if you've read book.)

Harry discovers that Sirius Black, a madman believed to be responsible for Harry's parents' death, has escaped from The Prison of Azkaban and is en route to the castle to kill him. Making matters worse, Harry learns that Black attended Hogwarts with his parents, was their best-friend, and Harry's godfather.

Dispatched from Azkaban to keep Black out of Hogwarts are frightening, soul-sucking, flying dementors that look like grim reapers with wings. Whenever Harry is around these horrid creatures, he hears his mother's cries for mercy just before Voldemort takes her life. The dementors represent Harry's worst fear and become a power to be reckoned with when he's forced to face them at the end of the book.

Although I sympathize with Harry and his plight, the character whose struggles resonate with me the most are Hermione's. Her sincere effort to always "do the right thing" gets her into trouble throughout the book, and her dogged determination to be the "best" student she can be comes at a cost. Her relationship with both Harry and Ron becomes further strained when she reveals that Harry received an anonymous gift, as she's convinced its been cursed and sent by Sirius Black. Although Harry's safety is at the top of her mind, her actions further complicate her situation. Additionally, her cat, Crookshank's repeated attacks on Ron's pet rat, Scabbers, don't help matters.

Hagrid, Hogwart's groundskeeper, gets his heart's desire and finally becomes a professor. And what better class for him to teach than The Care of Magical Creatures? His confidence is shattered when on the first day of class, Draco Malfoy provokes Buckbeak, a winged hybrid eagle-horse creature, that Hagrid incorporates into his lesson. Harry, Hermione, and Ron must then race against the clock to save Buckbeak after he's sentenced to death by the Ministry of Magic for having attacked Malfoy.

The Writing

As a student of writing, I can't help but wonder about Rowling's creative process. What's her secret sauce? Does she write at 4 a.m. or 4 p.m.? Does she surround herself with flow charts, characterization sheets, and note cards? Where does she get her ideas? Does she produce a meticulous outline the length of a manuscript, prior to starting to write, with various what-if scenarios hashed out?

Otherwise, how might one explain this author's ability to plot so many overlapping story lines that leave not one loose-end untied, revealing clues throughout the story and delighting the reader with a satisfying pay-off at the end? Is it enough to say that she's just a gifted writer with years of experience?

Aside from being a "master plotter," Rowling engages the reader with the subtle lyrical tone of her work, writing in clear and concise sentences. She also breaks a few rules. For example, I was surprised by her repeated use of exclamation points, sometimes WITH entirely capitalized sentences. Rowling also frequently uses adverbs both in and outside of dialogue tags. So what?

Although the majority of the story is told from Harry's perspective, Rowling slips in-and-out of Ron's and Hermione's points-of-view in a manner that is neither jarring, obtrusive, nor annoying. She changes perspectives in a way that flows naturally with the storytelling, only when necessary, and for very brief periods of time.

In case you're thinking I loved everything about this book, I didn't. Two things drove me nuts. First, had I known there were going to be "so many" creatures, I would've kept a sticky note with the book and listed them, as by the time I got three-quarters of the way through, and a creature's name came up, I didn't remember which creature was which. Second, although Quidditch is a clever sporting event for wizardry types, I couldn't get into the matches and skimmed these portions of the book, which really isn't surprising, given that I don't even watch Muggle sports.

Some of you die-hard Potter fans and devout YA readers might be asking, what's taken me so long to get with the program? Don't shoot me for admitting to this, but I've been reticent to reading a series intended for nine to twelve-year-olds. Having said that, I'm delighted at how much Harry and his friends matured over the course of the first three books and anxiously await discovering what the future holds for them.