Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — J. K. Rowling
By this point, Rowling has hit her stride — which is both good and bad. Having sold millions of copies of her first three books, she had evidently outgrown the commercial need for editing … but not the artistic need. As a result of Rowling’s power by this stage of her career, Goblet of Fire is flabby where Prisoner of Azkaban was taut. If you recount the plot beats in each, the two stories turn out to be about the same length — as testified by the running times of the movie adaptations, 141 and 157 minutes repectively. Yet the book’s 636 pages take literally twice as long to tell that story as the 317 pages of Prisoner.
How does this happen? Events are stretched out. The writing becomes indisciplined, indulgent. Minor school events that in earlier books would have been skimmed over in a half a page are drawn out into multi-page scenes with each aspect described in detail. As a result, the book is somewhat slow-moving, and I didn’t find myself drawn propulsively through as I did with the earlier books.
Oh, but Rowling can still construct a story, and that is really worth something. However bloated some individual passages may be, they still make up a whole that is both fascinating and in places genuinely moving. Put it this way: it wasn’t long after finishing this that I started Order of the Phoenix.
The Body in the Library — Agatha Christie
One of the more intriguing mysteries in Christie’s series, this time fulfilling the title perfectly by presenting a dead body in the library of a colonel’s home: the body of someone unknown to all the residents of the house (or at least, so they claim). The premise is among Christie’s best. Surprisingly, though, 80% of the book takes place at a hotel in a nearby town, leaving the poor library quite unregarded. I enjoyed this, but can’t help thinking that the first few chapters could have turned into a much more interesting book.
The Body in the Library represents Miss Marple’s second outing in a novel, after The Murder at the Vicarage, having previously appeared in the rather better short-story collection The Thirteen Problems. She is treated in rather a heavy-handed way this time, with much made of her habit of recognising motives based on parallels with mundane happenings in her village of St. Mary Mead. While Hercule Poirot hits the ground running in his books, recognisable from his first appearance, it’s taking a while for Miss Marple to settle in.
Stalky and Co. — Rudyard Kipling
I started reading this story of boys at an English private school because of a passing comment in something else I was reading — it may have been Chesterton. Having never read any Kipling before, I thought it would fill a gap in my education.
Instead I found it downright unpleasant, with the eponymous Stalky an unrepentant bully who is just as ready to make the lives of his friends miserable as those of his enemies. I made it through the first chapter, thought the second had to be better, and got half way through it before realising it wasn’t. That’s where I got off, which makes Stalky and co. one of those rare books that I just gave up on.
Bridget Jones’s Baby: The Diaries — Helen Fielding
The fourth of the Bridget Jones diaries (and the third that I have read, as I missed number three). This is not by any means great literature; and almost without exception, the characters are appalling. Nevertheless, there is something very enjoyable about it, and it’s very easy reading if you’re not too put off by the completely gratuitous bad language throughout. I doubt I’ll ever re-read it, but it was a lot of fun.
UPROOTED — NAOMI NOVIK
A truly fascinating novel which is difficult to write about without giving spoilers. The setup is that the narrator is seventeen-year-old girl in a medieval-style village, one of a dozen or so in an area overseen by a wizard known as The Dragon. The wood that grows near the villages is hostile, and causes strange changes to come upon people who go into it, and it is the Dragon’s job to prevent the wood from spreading its corruption. Every ten years, the Dragon takes a girl from one of the villages to become his servant for a decade.
From here, a story develops. If The Body in the Library falls short in not quite delivering on its premise, Uprooted is the exact opposite. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what the substance of the story is going to be, it builds on that to become something greater. And it does this repeatedly. It keeps cranking up the stakes and making little turns to the left and right, generally keeping you off balance.
I could criticise Uprooted. The actual writing is not the best, and often feels clunky. There is a sex scene that feels terribly misplaced, quite out of sympathy with the rest of the text, and explicit enough that it will rule out a lot of potential readers. But I can forgive it these failings because the story is compelling and climactic and ultimately very satisfying. Everything makes sense in the end, and that is a rare quality in fantasy novels.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — J. K. Rowling
This book, the fifth in the series, represents Peak Potter, at least so far as page-count is concerned. My paperback comes in at 766 pages — 20% longer than Goblet of Fire, and three and a half times as long as the first book in the series. After this one, the last two books in the series are a little shorter, and I seem to remember rather better for it (though I will revisit that verdict when I re-read them, as I shortly will).
Despite the even greater flabbiness of Order — examinations are described in minute detail and seem to go on forever; Harry dreams the same dream over and over again — it scores over Goblet in one very important respect. The whole book turns on the appalling character of Professor Dolores Umbridge, who Steven King has described as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter”. Umbridge is not actually evil — at least, she doesn’t appear so at first — merely irritating, overbearing and authoritarian. One of the great strengths of Order is how her true nature becomes apparent only as the story progresses, until she is seen as quite as awful as Voldemort, in her very different way.
(Obligatory political comment: as I re-read the account of how she gradually claws her way to the top of the Hogwarts hierarchy, despite a lack any very obvious actual ability — as she becomes increasingly authoritarian as she does so, and ultimately stamps out all dissent through a network of surveillance –I could not help but be reminded forcibly of Theresa May.)
As for the actual story: it is not among Rowling’s best, depending too strongly on dreams, on Harry’s now ubiquitous anger, and on adults concealing information that the kids really ought to be told. The whole Grawp subplot adds nothing but more complication at a stage where the book needs to be limbering up for the sprint down the last straight — it’s a fine example of where Rowling really needed a firm-handed editor, but had become too powerful to have to submit to one.
The climactic battle in the Ministry of Magic is good, though. In some respects, it’s actually done rather better in the film than in the book, especially Harry’s escape from Voldemort’s attempt to possess him. But the film almost entirely cuts the long and crucial aftermath scene where Dumbledore explains to Harry what’s been going on all this time. It was good to re-read this, and remind myself how it all hangs together.
The Children of Húrin — J. R. R. Tolkien
I re-read this on the back of Matt Wedel’s old review — nearly ten years old, in fact. It is an excellent review, and you should go and read it instead of this one. Better still, if you are sufficiently interested in Tolkieniana, read Andrew Rilston’s review, which helpfully comes complete with an equally detailed and fascinating review of John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit.
So much for reviews of Children of Húrin that you should read. Should you read the actual book? Heck, yes. So much has (rightly) been written about Tolkien’s astonishing world-building that his actual writing often gets overlooked. But at its best, it’s starkly beautiful, crisp and austere, deeply moving without seeming to attempt to be. And much of The Children of Húrin is indeed Tolkien at his best, especially the earlier chapters. I don’t mind admitting that I was moved almost to tears even by parts of Christopher Tolkien’s introduction (though presumably only because of its allusive quotes from the main text).
The tale of Húrin’s imprisonment by Morgoth (Sauron’s boss), and how his curse works out in the lives of his son Túrin and daughter Niënor, is a brutal and harrowing one. I’m not giving a lot away if I tell you that not many people make it out alive. (The chapter headings alone make that pretty clear: three of them are of the form The Death of X.) It evokes a profoundly different age and culture — in striking contrast to the way nearly all modern fantasy shows us characters with essentially modern mindsets and morals transplanted into a mediaeval-themed setting. Tolkien does a much more interesting thing: he draws us into an honour-based warrior culture that is consonant with the Norse and Icelandic mythology he loved, and whose remnants echo in the better known realms of Rohan and Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. But whereas LotR feeds us this culture in digestible packets, and shows us how it looks through the eyes of hobbits who are essentially mid-20th-Century Englishmen, The Children of Húrin gives it to us straight, mainlining an alien but wholly credible culture straight into the veins. It’s magnificent.
The General Danced at Dawn — George MacDonald Fraser
As I write this, I am just back from a couple of days in Tenerife with Fiona. While we were out there, my Kindle died. (More accurately, I could say that I broke it, but let’s not bicker and argue about who is to blame.)
Happily, I had taken with me an emergency backup book in dead-tree format: The General Danced at Dawn. I’d picked up a second-hand copy at the suggestion of my friend John Rowlands. It’s a heavily fictionalised account of the author’s experiences in the army, and the characters he met there.
I was delighted by and enjoyed its gentle, humane humour — it was exactly what I needed as our homebound plane sat on the tarmac for two hours due to the inevitable strike of French air-traffic controllers. What it reminds me of more than anything else is James Herriot’s books — If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, etc. If Herriot had been a junior officer in a highland regiment in the Middle East just after the war instead of a newly-qualified vet in 1930s Yorkshire, I am pretty certain he would have written The General Danced at Dawn.
The Salmon of Doubt — Douglas Adams
When Douglas Adams died, very suddenly and unexpectedly, in 2001, he was part way through writing a book that started out as the third Dirk Gently novel, but which he had started to think might work better as a sixth installment in the Hitch-Hiker trilogy. There was nowhere near enough for someone to do a Christopher-Tolkien-fabricating-Children-of-Húrin job on it, but enough that Adams’ friends and relatives decided it was worth publishing the fragments. I concur.
The book is divided into four sections: Life, the Universe, Everything and The Salmon of Doubt. The first three sections are an interesting enough collection of Adams juvenilia and miscellanea, encompassing a broad range of subjects from charity runs dressed as a rhino, through some naive speculations about computers, to some rather dispensable dismissive-atheist stuff. It’s worth reading for fans, but far from essential.
But the Salmon material that makes up the last third of the book is just lovely — the best parts ranking up at the very peak of Adams’ writing. The early sections in which Dirk talks first with a would-be client and then with his friend Kate Schechter (from Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul) are just superb: effortlessly witty, charming, endearing, They are a welcome reminder of both Adams’ supreme artistry and his outstanding craftsmanship. I deeply regret that we’ll never get to read the whole story.
Systems of Survival: a Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics — Jane Jacobs
Recommended to me by my colleague Jason Skomorowski, this is a fictional series of six-way discussions between a group of professionals in different fields who are trying to get to the bottom of why conceptions of morality differ in different workplaces.
The central contention that quickly emerges is fascinating and credible: that there are two (and no more) quite separate systems of workplace morality that have have both emerged repeatedly in different civilisations across the world: a “commercial syndrome” that governs occupations like trade, manufacturing and financial services; and a “guardian syndrome” that governs occupations like policing, the armed forces and government itself. Jacobs (through her mouthpiece characters) claims that corruption and other breakdowns occur when the two syndromes mix.
Unfortunately, like a lot of books written around a single key idea, this one is stretched out rather longer than it needs to be, and I found the later chapters to be a bit of a slog. The attempt to leaven the philosophy with some personal interactions also falls a bit flat, as the six characters are rather bland and all speak with exactly the same voice. I never believed I was hearing a group of different people all bringing their own perspectives.
Still, I am glad to have read it. That central observation is a powerful and important one. (Whether it’s true, exactly, is another question.)