Sunday, June 29, 2003

Review: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" by J.K. Rowling

The cover of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" ($29.99, Scholastic) lets the reader know exactly what to expect inside. It's a dark cover - black and deep shades of blue - appropriate for the troubled state of mind Harry's entering in the fifth volume of J.K. Rowling's series.

Those middle teen years are bad enough for most people, but when you've got an evil wizard plotting to kill you, they're much, much worse. That's what Harry is finding out in "Order of the Phoenix." The problem is, no one seems to believe him. The Ministry of Magic is officially denying the return of You-Know-Who, and with the exception of a few of his friends and teachers, most in the wizarding community consider Harry's story the tall tales of an attention-seeking teenager.

Harry is also dealing with one of the toughest years of school at Hogwarts. The O.W.L. achievement tests, which will likely determine the path of his wizarding life, are coming up. He's dealing with yet another Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (one who has her own agenda and rivals Snape for sheer malice). Dumbledore seems to be ignoring Harry, Hagrid is missing in action and Sirius is stuck in London in hiding. Add to that a love interest and a particularly nasty house elf (sort of the anti-Dobby), and Harry's an emotional wreck - but he's still got to deal with the return of Lord Voldemort.

I was worried when it was announced that "Order of the Phoenix" would be nearly 900 pages long. "Goblet of Fire," the fourth book in the series, wasn't even that long and it felt uneven and padded in places. But all of the problems of that book have vanished just like Harry's fouled-up potions in Professor Snape's class. "Order of the Phoenix" easily justifies its length and then some.

There's no lengthy recap of what's happened before, just a headlong sprint into the action that takes the reader all the way to the finish line.

For adult readers, "Order of the Phoenix" is perhaps the most satisfying of the five books so far. There's an emotional depth that hasn't been present in the previous novels. Adults who have been there and teens who are currently going through that phase of life will easily relate to Harry's struggles. They're something everyone's been through - even those of us who didn't have a dark wizard trying to kill us.

Some of the subjects may be a little heavy for readers on the younger end of the spectrum, but they can still enjoy the whiz-bang action and engaging characters that have become Rowling's signature.

The ability to evoke strong emotions in a novel is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity. I love a book that can make me cheer for the good guys and absolutely despise the baddies. As with most of Rowling's work, I did both with this book.

Though "Order of the Phoenix" took three years to arrive, it was well worth the wait. It's obvious that Rowling spent that time focusing on quality, and she has delivered the best installment of the series so far.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Review: "People of the Owl" by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

Thousands of people visit Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana every year, but no one's ever seen it in quite the way Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear present it in their latest book, "People of the Owl" ($25.95, Forge).

The book is the latest installment of the Gears' "People" series, which chronicles the prehistory of North America through fiction. In the novel, the familiar Poverty Point is transformed into a thriving hub of Native American life called Sun Town by its inhabitants.

We're introduced to six distinct clans that live in the different sections of the city. For years, the Owl Clan has held the reins of power in the matriarchal city, but the reign is coming to an end.

Wing Heart is the last female of her line but determined to hang on to her power. When her brother dies, she has to rely on her sons to perform the duties of Speaker. Her eldest son, White Bird, is perfect for the role. He's daring and heroic and has just returned from an amazingly successful trading journey far to the north. The other son is less likely to offer any assistance. At 15, Mud Puppy is a dreamer who seems a little slow-witted to most people.

When things go wrong, though, Mud Puppy, now known as Salamander, is thrust into the role of leader with all the political machinations and intrigue that go along with it.

Even though I've visited the Poverty Point site a number of times, the Gears were able to transform it into a new place for me, a much more vibrant place. Several of the ideas they presented in "People of the Owl" were intriguing to me.

One of the biggest battles the Gears say they face is against Native American stereotypes, and I understand that statement a little better after reading the book. There's a tendency to think of Native Americans as the warlike savages of the old Westerns or as an idyllic grand, noble and wise race.

There were certain elements of the book, such as the political backstabbing and intrigue, that I initially had trouble accepting. But the more I read, those things began to make sense. After all, we're not talking about mythical creatures, but people with all of the same virtues and vices that people have always had.

Though the people and events in the book were obviously fictional, I had the feeling that they could have been real. It also helps if you're familiar with the site and can visualize things more vividly than someone who hasn't been there.

It's been a few years since I visited Poverty Point, but after reading "People of the Owl," I'm ready to go back to perhaps sit at the top of the bird mound where Mud Puppy found his spirit guide or imagine the buildings of Sun Town sitting on the ridges.

With "People of the Owl," the Gears have accomplished what they intended. The book delivers what any novel should - an exciting, intriguing story with believable characters the reader can care about. But at the same time, by the end, I felt I understood the original inhabitants of Poverty Point just a little better.

Interview: Kathleen O'Neal Gear

Anyone who has ever visited Poverty Point has probably wondered what life was like at the site 3,500 years ago, but archaeologists Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear took it one step further.

Their latest book, "People of the Owl," is set right here in our back yard and tells a fictional tale of a time of tribulation for the tribes that lived there. It's the 11th book in their series, commonly called the "People" books, that uses fiction to teach about Native American cultures.

"What we are doing in the novels is detailing 15,000 years of North American prehistory," Michael Gear said. "The important thing about doing a novel is that you can put real people there in that time. People can relate to fictional characters in a story better than they can to dry facts in an archaeological report."

Kathleen Gear agreed that fiction can make a powerful teaching tool.

"What we try to do is entertain at the same time we educate about North America's archaeology," she said. "If we have done our jobs well at the end of the book, the people who read this novel will understand Poverty Point culture because they have lived in that time, in that place, with those people."

The Gears said they began writing the series because they thought Americans' knowledge of the continent's past was woefully lacking. With 16 million copies of the books in print worldwide, the Gears may be making some headway in their battle. They're surprised by the popularity of the series, which has now been translated into 18 languages, but they say they still have a long way to go.

"More Americans can name archaeological sites in Cambodia than in their own country," Michael Gear said. "In a sense, it's the world's lost heritage. We don't think of North America as being a lost continent, but its prehistory certainly is."

During their research for "People of the Owl," the Gears went to great lengths to find out all they could about Poverty Point. They spoke with local and national experts, analyzed the archaeological reports and used an ethnographic analogy, which means they studied the social, political and religious structures of other tribes in the region and tried to fill in gaps in the archaeological record.

"Archaeological data is like a shredded black and white photograph," said Kathleen Gear. "We piece it back together as best we can, but there are huge gaps in the information. At the Poverty Point site, for example, only one-half of 1 percent of the site has actually been excavated."

With so little to go on, the Gears say it's tough to try to give an accurate portrayal of what life might have been like at the site. But they do try to back everything in the book up with facts.

"Everything that we speculate on in the book is something that we can support to our academic colleagues," Michael Gear said.

As an example, he points to the fact that there are six clans in the book. The idea is based on geography and culture. He said the layout of the city itself indicates that there were six divisions, and the cultures that are descended from Poverty Point all hold the number six sacred.

One of the things the Gears most enjoyed about the study of Poverty Point was doing research on the Poverty Point objects, which are the clay objects the natives used to regulate the temperature of their ovens.

"We did a study to find out what they were cooking in the earth ovens, and there were a couple of things in there that are still a mystery to us," Kathleen Gear said. "We found spruce cells and sage. There isn't spruce for miles, and the closest sage is in southern Missouri. They must have been importing these things, and we're still not sure what they were using them for."

The Gears say they find Poverty Point fascinating for a variety of reason, the biggest being that it could be the first city in America. Michael Gear points to the massive moundworks, the population of the Macon Bayou area in general and evidence of trade with tribes as far away as current-day Wisconsin.

"We think that we're justified in making the assertion that it's America's first city," he said. "We think that Poverty Point is where a lot of the ideas came together which would create the eastern culture which would terminate in people like the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Tunica, Caddo and Cherokee. It's the place where everything starts."

As for the Gears, they'll keep writing the "People" books, and they have plenty of cultures left to explore.

"All that we've done so far is touch - just barely touch - the most important cultures in North America," Kathleen Gear said. "There are thousands of cultures left to study. We've only surveyed about 4 percent of North America for archaeological sites, which means there is an extraordinary amount out there that we still don't know."

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Review: "Club Dead" by Charlaine Harris

A lot of folks might roll their eyes at the mention of a vampire story, but when it happens in your own back yard, it's a different matter. In "Club Dead" ($6.50, Ace Books), Charlaine Harris returns to the fictional northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps and her heroine Sookie Stackhouse.

This time, Sookie's vampire boyfriend Bill Compton disappears while on a secret mission from the vampire queen of Louisiana, who has sent him to treat with the Mississippi faction. The Louisiana vampires can't risk a war with Mississippi by moving openly to find him, so that leaves it up to Sookie and her guide, a suave werewolf named Alcide Herveaux.

But Sookie isn't sure she really wants to find Bill. She's discovered that at least part of the reason he went to Jackson was to meet a former lover, another vampire. In fact, Sookie's not entirely sure that Bill even wants to be found.

Before you roll your eyes at the plotline, know that this isn't your typical vampire novel. If you're imagining a redneck Lestat, think again. Harris' vampires are rougher and less refined than Rice's, and these books don't take themselves too seriously. Unlike many vampire novels with dark, gothic moods, these books are intended to be fun - and they are. Quite a lot of fun, in fact.

While the town of Bon Temps is fictional, there are plenty of local landmarks for readers to associate with. During the course of the stories, action happens in Shreveport, Jackson, Ruston and even right here in Monroe.

Harris, who lives in Magnolia, Ark., is also able to capture the character of our area pretty well. While I did groan at a few stereotypical characterizations, I also had to admit that for the most part, she gets it right.

As an added bonus in "Club Dead," Harris offers a possible explanation for quite a few tabloid stories in the character of Bubba. I won't reveal the secret. I'll leave that to the reader to find out, but it's an original idea that had me rolling with laughter.

"Club Dead" is the third in Harris' "Southern Vampire" series, and it's just as lively and entertaining as the first two. They're part horror and part mystery with a healthy dose of biting (pardon the pun) humor.

If you're looking for darkened corners, melodramatic images and dialogue and "proper" vampires, I'd suggest you find them somewhere else. If you're looking for a fun supernatural romp across a Southern landscape, you won't do much better than Harris' books.