Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban By J K Rowling Bloomsbury pound;10.99 I sat through a rather worthy children's concert recently as a bunch of 10-year-olds in the row behind spent the performance speculating on the content of the third Harry Potter book, with publication and the school holidays then a whole half-term away.
The year between each volume (there will be seven, following Harry's career at Hogwarts, the wizard school) seems interminable to child Potter fans, while this adult reader, at least, can't believe that another has appeared so quickly. (J K Rowling has won a stack of awards judged by children but no major ones judged by adults.) I am a late convert to Potter's kingdom (I've only just worked out what's so funny about the name of "Diagon Alley" the secret wizard high street somewhere off Charing Cross Road) and found HP3 more polished, more complex and generally more interesting than HP1 (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) or HP2 (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
The content has hidden depths which the earlier books only hinted at: the buried terrors of Harry's family history and the events that surrounded his parents' murder by the arch-enemy Voldemort get their first real airing.
There are touching moments when the orphan begins to imagine a home life away from his cold-hearted Muggle (non-wizard) guardians. He gains maturity to keep pace with his growing magical powers, but remains enough of a schoolboy to keep his child appeal. Rowling's stream of jokes continues to pour forth and one of the latest ones, in which Harry's friend Ron changes the pompous head boy's badge to read "bighead boy", made me wish I'd thought of it myself.
I'd be happy for the magic Potter bus to stop here, less than halfway through the ride, leaving to the imagination the fragile balance between good and evil, the answers to the big questions (is Snape, the unpalatable Potions teacher, OK or not?) and the finer as-yet-unwritten details of Harry sitting his OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) and getting a girlfriend (I think the girlfriend has made her first brief appearance, but only the crystal ball will tell). But don't worry - there'll be another one along in a minute, or Harry's fans will riot.