A children’s Harry Potter birthday party

My son just turned nine (wut) and had requested a Harry Potter party. Our house is very small with no discernable yard — and it’s winter here — so we decided on a “movie” pyjama party, based on my misguided theory that kids in their PJs would be less likely to run around shouting.

Needless to say, very little movie-watching took place. But fun was had regardless. I thought since it was a book-related party I’d share my experience here, in case it is of benefit to others.

(Note: Check the run time of the movie before you start. I forgot quite how long Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually runs — we didn’t quite make it through the movie before the other parents came to collect their kids. It wasn’t a big deal, though, given how little time was spent in front of the TV.)

The Food

Our budget didn’t stretch to actual Harry Potter brand food, especially since I’d have had to order it in from the UK, so I made do. We bought lolly snakes, chocolate frogs and other snacks, but then I gave them a Harry Potter theme by labelling each bowl with Honeydukes-inspired labels. (This also meant I could flag the contents of each for those kids with dietary requirements.)

For example, the snakes became “Basilisk Bites” and our Jelly Belly jellybeans were “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans”. My son and I got around the fact they weren’t every flavour by faking it, which the other adults got in on. “Oh, gross, I just got a soap-flavoured one!”

The “Cake”

My son doesn’t like icing (I know, right?) so we decided to do homemade muffins in house-coloured cupcake wrappers instead. I googled “butterscotch muffins”, thinking I’d claim they were butterbeer, and ended up using this recipe from taste.com.au. I found it was a little dry, so added a little extra buttermilk, and because we didn’t use the caramel sauce due to my fear of sticky pre-teens, I added a splash of maple syrup as well. I’m not a baker, generally, so I was pleased at how nicely they turned out.

The one Potter-ish food thing I did order was the cupcake toppers, which were super-easy to apply. I did have to add a very thin layer of icing sugar (with a splash of boiling water to make a paste), just to get the toppers to stick, but I got away with it. 😉

Wizarding Accessories

Wands

Far and away the most time-consuming (but satisfying) part of the party prep was making the wands. My talented friend Craig and I spent hours on these, though the materials themselves were quite cheap: a packet of wooden chopsticks, a glue gun and a packet of beads. Craig already owned the paint, which would’ve been a huge extra expense if I’d had to get it myself.

Each kid got to chose a wand — there were six children and twelve wands, so I get the spares! — and I’d done up a card for each one with a core and wood based on this page, so they all had unique “powers”. The kids spent the vast majority of the party dividing into tribes and flinging curses at each other. It was a little Lord of the Flies, not gonna lie, but they had fun.

Photos, detail work and amazing talent by Craig. Dribbly “organic” wands by me.

Wizard Hats

I painted the party hats black and then used my glue gun to stick stars all over them. Quick and easy!

Party hat graciously modelled by Professor McGonagall

The Games

Sorting Hat

All the kids who came knew their Hogwarts houses in advance (because we’re those sorts of people), but I’d downloaded and printed a couple of origami “sorting hats” from this site, which got quite a bit of use.

Pass the Parseltongue

This was regular pass the parcel, but with toy snakes, lizards and frogs in each layer.

Stick the Sock on the Dobby

I drew Dobby onto a sheet of A3 cardboard and then made socks for the kids to stick on him with sticky tac. I had prizes for those that got their sock into his hand and for the funniest placement (which ended up being an earring).

Musical Statues

As well as pausing the music, I used my wand to cast the charm “immobulus” (the freezing charm). It was a bit of a juggle managing both, so I had to get the other parents to judge who was out each round.

Other Games

I had organised a few other party games that we didn’t get to because the kids wanted to get back to flinging curses.

  • A “Celebrity Head” style game — I had a plain black party hat and some stickers that I was going to write Potter character names on so each child could have a turn at guessing who they were.
  • Memorise the spell — Starting with a “base spell” word, each kid has to repeat what has been said previously and then add a new word to the spell, going around in a circle, so that you end up with a string of gibberish.
  • Transfiguration class — I found a packet of animal noses and was going to get each child to cast a spell on themselves to “transform” and draw a nose from a bag.

The Prizes

Again, I didn’t have a huge budget for prizes, so I went for theme rather than brand. As well as the parseltongue lizards etc, I found a cheap pack of dragons at the local two dollar shop. I stuck some googley eyes on pompoms and called them pygmy puffs. I bought a grey Ikea rat to be Scabbers, and a little while owl to be Hedwig.

I had more prizes than we actually needed, so I divided up what was left into the party bags at the end. (Except for Scabbers. He lives with me now.)

Conclusion

All in all, everyone had fun — including me, as the whole thing appealed to my inner Ravenclaw. My boy has already told me he wants a Doctor Who party next year, which I think will be trickier.

For now, I’ll be over here, collapsed in a pile of wizarding robes and left-over lollies.

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Review: ‘Unearthed’ by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

When Earth intercepts a message from a long-extinct alien race, it seems like the solution the planet has been waiting for. The Undying’s advanced technology has the potential to undo environmental damage and turn lives around, and Gaia, their former home planet, is a treasure trove waiting to be uncovered.

For Jules Addison and his fellow scholars, the discovery of an alien culture offers unprecedented opportunity for study… as long as scavengers like Amelia Radcliffe don’t loot everything first. Mia and Jules’ different reasons for smuggling themselves onto Gaia put them immediately at odds, but after escaping a dangerous confrontation with other scavvers, they form a fragile alliance.

In order to penetrate the Undying temple and reach the tech and information hidden within, the two must decode the ancient race’s secrets and survive their traps. But the more they learn about the Undying, the more their presence in the temple seems to be part of a grand design that could spell the end of the human race…

A lot of people are describing this book as Indiana Jones in space, which I get, but I think it has more of a Lara Croft vibe. That might be because Jules is English and relatively rich, or because Mia is an athletic young woman who’s used to scaling things in order to steal other things. (Yes, I’m splitting hairs here!) However, the main difference between the characters in Unearthed and either Indy or Lara is that Mia and Jules are teens, and neither of them knows how to use a gun. I liked that about them. If they’d been dual-pistol-weilding superheroes, the book would’ve felt far less authentic.

Unearthed is a dual-point-of-view story with alternating chapters told from Mia’s and Jules’s perspectives, but both characters carry the story equally well and I didn’t find myself hating one perspective and always wanting to get back to the other. They are quite different personalities, in that Mia acts on instinct and is all about survival, whereas Jules is a thinker, a linguist who wants to preserve the ancient temple sites and understand those that built them. (And hooray for the non-stereotypical gender roles there — I loved that!) But both of them are also there because of love for a family member back at home, which gives them common ground on which to build.

(On that point, it’s possibly unavoidable from a story point of view that both characters spend a bit of time naval-gazing, thinking about why they are on Gaia in the first place. Given the story starts after they are on Gaia, how else would we come to understand their motivations? I could have wished for a little bit less introspection, but I could see why it was there)

There is, of course, a budding romance between Mia and Jules. I say “of course” because anyone who has read any of the other books by Kaufman and Sponer will know that this is a hallmark of their writing together. (Likewise, Kaufman’s Illuminae books with Jay Kristoff each have a different romantic pairing take the lead in each book.) Unearthed is set over only a few days, and the characters spend so much time just trying to survive that they don’t really make it much past the mutual attraction stage. For me, that’s a good thing as it makes their relationship feel more realistic.

Some parts of the story are fairly straightforward and what you’d expect. The puzzles aren’t generally described in enough detail that you could solve them yourself, and — unlike Mia — I’m not a maths brain, so I’d definitely have been squished by falling rock or dropped into a ravine fairly quickly. Other parts of the story, though … I can’t go into details without spoilers, but there are a couple of massive plot twists in here, and I only saw part of one coming. I always love it when a book pulls the rug out from under me like this one did, so huzzah!

What I don’t love, though, are cliffhanger endings. The first sentence of the author acknowledgement is “Sorry about that.” All I have to say is YOU SHOULD BE. So I’ll just be sitting over here, crying quietly until the next book comes out in seven months.

 


Review: ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks–and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It’s then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart–an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests — or she’ll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.

A bookseller told me that Nevermoor was being touted as the new Harry Potter. But publishers have been making that claim for years, trying to tap into JK Rowling’s huge success, so I was a little scepitcal. Still, I’d already bought the book by that point (I am a book hording dragon, okay?), so I decided to give it a go anyway. And … I can see why they made the comparison.

This review might be a little gushy. Try to bear with me!

Morrigan has a couple of things in common with Harry in the first book of that series. Both are eleven, and both come from mundane families that intensely dislike them. However, Nevermoor isn’t set on Earth or any parallel thereof but in a fantasy world which has the states of the Republic and the more magical Free States. The former are still kind of magical — they use an energy called Wunder in a manner similar to electricity, but dragons are real and children born on Eventide are seen as cursed, causing all manner of disaster to befall those around them. The Free States are truly, spectacularly magical, though, and make the Republic (or at least those parts of it that we see) seem drab by comparison. They are quirky and fun, and I loved them.

Jupiter chooses Morrigan to be his first ever candidate for the Wundrous Society. He is an adorable, bizarre character who makes Dumbledore seem staid, but both men share the ability to dissemble, never answering straight questions. This is to Morrigan’s intense frustration, because she knows she can’t get into the Wundrous Society without a knack, and Jupiter, while assuring her all will be fine, refuses to answer questions about it.

I really enjoyed Morrigan. She’s bright and determined and just wants to find a true home and friends (and not be deported and face her fated death). She also dresses all in black (well, you would if your name was Morrigan Crow, wouldn’t you?) and is scared of the idea of acid-spitting land dolphins. What’s not to love? My other favourite characters were Jupiter and Fenestra, the giant talking cat who works at the hotel where Jupiter and Morrigan live. Fen is snarky and a little callous, but ultimately comes to regard Morrigan the way a mother cat might her kitten.

One interesting element of the book is the way that Morrigan — who entered the Free States illegally, without the appropriate immigration paperwork — is treated by the border police. One of them in particular is an a-grade bigot who regards illegal immigrants as less than human. There’s an opportunity for parents to discuss the concept of refugees with their kids after reading this book.

Nevermoor fits into the middle grade category rather than young adult. There are a few scary scenes, but nothing graphic, and no sexual content or bad language that might deter some parents from buying this for their kids. Or for themselves. I won’t judge!

After all, I’m super-keen to snap up the sequel myself. 😉


Review: ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

I can’t remember how I added Boneshaker to my TBR shelf on Goodreads, but I was recently looking for inspiration for something new to listen to on audiobook and came across it. So I gave it a go.

Boneshaker is an alternative history steampunk with zombies, which you can pretty much get from the blurb and is frankly what sold me on the book in the first place. It’s also a lightning-paced story with very little downtime or introspection, and a badass leading lady.

Let me just say how much I enjoyed Briar Wilkes. She’s had a rough life — a father who’s renowned throughout Seattle’s outskirts (ie the remaining part of the city, outside the zombie-filled walls) as being a criminal cop who conducted a jail break right before his death. Even worse, she’s the widow of Leviticus Blue, the man who unleased the Blight in what people think was an attempt to rob the banks in the heart of the original city. As a result, she’s the most despised woman in the outskirts, and it’s made her hard.

She’s also a fiercely protecitve single mother to a slightly brash and reckless teenage boy. And that was my favourite thing about her. I can’t recall the last time I read a piece of genre fiction where the main character is a mother to an older child. (Briar is in her mid-thirties.) She’s not a robot — she gets scared and feels sad, though she’s been conditioned by the world not to show it. More than anything, she’s scared of losing Zeke.

I feel that.

Zeke himself is more frustrating. For a boy who considers himself to be worldly, he is at times incredibly naive — and his tendency to backchat when he’s unsure of himself did make me clench my teeth more than once. But he’s at heart a good kid, and I can’t for a second argue with the characterisation, even if I did want to smack him at times.

The story is fast-paced; the characters rarely get to rest, and the zombie scenes are good enough that it was a mistake listening to one as I was wondering through the mall, let me tell you! (I was wearing headphones, at least, so I only scared myself.) The dialogue is at times a bit stilted in the way it’s expressed — not so much the lines themselves but the way they are presented, the order of ideas. I don’t know if this would’ve annoyed me more on paper, but in the audiobook format it wasn’t too bad.

I love quite a few of the side characters, especially the other two female ones (Angeline and Lucy), as well as Swakhammer. I’m hoping that the other books in the series let us catch up with them all, because they deserve more page time.

If you like rollicking adventure/survival stories set in a highly polluted city where the air can kill you and super-fast zombies want to eat you, then definitely give Boneshaker a try.

 


Review: ‘Scrappy Little Nobody’ by Anna Kendrick

A collection of humorous autobiographical essays by the Academy Award-nominated actress and star of Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect.

Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen starring in films like Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air, Twilight, and Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.”

At the ripe age of thirteen, she had already resolved to “keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here’s the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.” In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.

With her razor-sharp wit, Anna recounts the absurdities she’s experienced on her way to and from the heart of pop culture as only she can—from her unusual path to the performing arts (Vanilla Ice and baggy neon pants may have played a role) to her double life as a middle-school student who also starred on Broadway to her initial “dating experiments” (including only liking boys who didn’t like her back) to reviewing a binder full of butt doubles to her struggle to live like an adult woman instead of a perpetual “man-child.”

Enter Anna’s world and follow her rise from “scrappy little nobody” to somebody who dazzles on the stage, the screen, and now the page—with an electric, singular voice, at once familiar and surprising, sharp and sweet, funny and serious (well, not that serious).

I’m a relative late-comer to Anna Kendrick fangirl status. I’d seen her in various shows, but got a crush on her as Beca in Pitch Perfect. (I fairly regularly get crushes on people who can sing. It’s a thing.) Then I listened to Scrappy Little Nobody on audiobook and it went from crush to true love. ❤

The first thing you should know is that Anna narrates the audiobook version of her autobiography, and she reads it in a conversational way that made it feel like she was sitting in the car beside me (I listen to audiobooks while I commute, mostly), ranting about her first relationships and her childhood awkwardness. And the thing was, it was all so relatable … despite me not being a cute actor and Broadway star. (I am about her height, though, and I’m a brunette, so we’re basically twins?)

Anna focuses for the most part on the first 20 or so years of her life — how she got into acting, her first few roles, her first crushes and sexual partners. After that, the chapters/essays tend to hop around a bit more, dipping into various, celebrity-based experiences, like dodging the papparazi and presenting at an awards show. Anna more or less admits that she could have gone into a lot more detail, hinting at the various assholes she’s worked with over the years, but that she still wants to be able to get a job in the industry afterwards. (I look forward to the tell-all book she writes when she retires.)

For me, the single most relatable part of the book was the section about Anna dating. She says at the start of the book that she’s changed the names of a lot of the non-celebrities she talks about. Given how raw she is about some of them, I can see why! Her first three partners were assholes in one way or another, or had asshole-ish moments, and she is brutally honest about how she put up things from them that she shouldn’t have, simply because she was young and inexperienced and didn’t think she deserved any better. That basically describes most of my twenties (Anna was a faster learner than I was). She describes how her first partner slut-shamed her for enjoying sex, her second one was a self-absorbed “musician” with whom she couldn’t enjoy sex, and her third called her a slut because she refused to tell him how many partners she’d had before him.

Ugh.

Anna is also rather casual about mentioning drinking and drug use (mostly weed), and even more casual about swearing (I never found it unwarranted, but I do occasionally have a potty mouth myself). Those combined with her mention of her shoplifting phase are the sorts of things that might discourage some parents from letting their teens read this book, but that would be a shame. There are lot of good messages to be found in here, especially for teenage girls.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes, so you can see what I mean:

“Don’t try to participate in anyone else’s idea of what is supposed to happen in a relationship. You will fail.”
“But at nineteen I did spend a short and regrettable period in a classic trap: trying to fit into something I hated, just to prove to myself that I could.”
“Some bitter boys reading this might accuse me of ‘friend-zoning,’ but I’d like to say that even if a girl has misinterpreted a situation that someone else thinks was obvious, she does not owe her male friends anything.”


Review: ‘Obsidio’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza — but who knows what they’ll find seven months after the invasion?

Meanwhile, Kady’s cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza’s ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys — an old flame from Asha’s past — reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heroes will fall, and hearts will be broken.

This series, you guys.

Obsidio is the third book in The Illuminae Files trilogy. (You can read my reviews of the first two books, Illuminae and Gemina, here and here.) It continues in the same vein as the first two books, told through “found footage” and transcriptions of camera footage. There is some art included, as was the case in Gemina — though not as much this time.

I love love love this series, you guys. I love the way it’s presented. I love that we get a sense of these characters through chat logs and camera footage and diary entries. I love that the lines of dialogue describing the actions of spaeships themselves swoop and twirl across the page, and that the lines belonging to everyone’s favourite crazy computer, AIDAN, are filled with glitches and code. As well as being a great story, this trilogy is a work of art, in the visual sense. Everyone should own it.

As far as Obsidio goes, specifically, I gave it five stars — the same as for the rest of the series — though, if I had to pick a favourite of the three, I think Gemina would win. It’s a near thing, though.

Asha and Rhys are older than the other leads in this series. They had a history as teens, and are now meeting up again in their twenties. But they aren’t the stars of Obsidio the same way that the other two couples are of their books, because Kady, Ezra, Hanna and Nik are all part of this story as well. The book switches between events on the Mao and events on Kerenza, the planet where everything kicked off in the first place.

It’s sometimes easy to forget how old the protagonists are in these stories; one of the things I liked about Obsidio was how some of the minor characters expressed horror at being expected to take directions from teenagers. (I’m not saying I like people ignoring teens — I wouldn’t read so much YA if that were the case — but it was very realistic to have a seasoned, grizzled adult express incredulity at some of the things that our four teen heroes have done. These kids have had a very bad few months.)

The Illuminae Files have broken the mould. I can’t wait to see what other books follow in their footsteps — and I can’t wait to see what Amie and Jay get up to next.


Review: ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli

Straight people should have to come out too. And the more awkward it is, the better.

Simon Spier is sixteen and trying to work out who he is — and what he’s looking for.

But when one of his emails to the very distracting Blue falls into the wrong hands, things get all kinds of complicated.

Because, for Simon, falling for Blue is a big deal …

Before I start this review, let me just express my disgust at myself that I accidentally bought the movie cover edition of this book (which is the one I’ve included above, so my rant makes sense). Normally I don’t care much about that sort of thing, but in this case the movie cover edition actually renames the book to the movie name (Love, Simon) rather than the actual name of the book, and I can’t even. I mean, Love, Simon is a fine name for a book, but it isn’t the name of this book. Ugh! You’ll see in the pic below that I hid the stupid fake title so that you read the real one.

Now I’ve gotten that out of my system…

I’m coming to the love of Simon quite late, I admit — and not because the movie came out, as I haven’t seen it, but just because my TBR pile is two entire bookshelves and, like, a Kindle full of goodies, and I can’t seem to stop myself buying more books. (It’s a problem. Send help. Or a TARDIS so I can catch up.)

Still, I can now confirm first-hand that everything everyone has told me about this book is absolutely true. It really is an adorably cute story about a couple of in-the-closet gay guys who fall in love via email while remaining anonymous to one another. It’s told from Simon’s perspective, and so a huge part of the story is spent trying to figure out who the mysterious Blue is. (BTW, I don’t mean to brag here but I totally guessed it from the first scene he was in. Ok, I guess I do mean to brag. >.< )

As much as the romance is adorable, the story also explores bullying, blackmail, complicated friendships, coming out and families — but at no point does it seem preachy or overwrought. It’s basically the best.

If you like contemporary young adult, flirting and drama geeks, this book is totally worth a look.

Excuse me, I have to order the sequel.