What I’ve been reading lately, part 20

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.


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’s terribly misplaced, quite out of sympathy with the rest of the text, and explicit enough that it will rule out a lot of potential young-adult 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.)


13 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 20

  1. If you haven’t read them already you should look at The Expanse series of books. They’re some of the best hard SF space opera I’ve ever read. Huge productivity hit will ensue though because you’ll end up reading the entire series as quickly as you can.

  2. If you ever want to retry Kipling, I suggest Kim. It’s the only work of his that I’ve read, but I found it light-hearted and fun.
    This is a pretty good review of it: https://zompist.wordpress.com/2016/06/19/kim/

  3. Thank you both for your recommendations. drewish, I’m interested in what I’ve mentioned in this post that made you think of The Expanse. Pedro, I do feel I ought to give Kipling another go some time.

  4. Interesting comments about Harry Potter. I prefer the first four books to the later ones. I like the structure in those early books, while the later ones seem to blend in one another in a manner that is less impactful. What’s the point of Dumbledore’s Army?

    I always get book five and six mixed up, and I’m ashamed to say I had to look up the ending of book six. It also contains a lot of dynamics which I don’t really like, such a Dumbledore being stupid in book six, and Harry, Ron and Hermione bickering and generally trampling around wasting time in book seven. It’s frustrating and there is relatively little payback for it (unlike say, Game of Thrones where there is plenty of conflict, but it always adds to the story rather than detract from it).

    About that, you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones books), have you? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it.

  5. Having sold millions of copies of her first three books, she had evidently outgrown the commercial need for editing … but not the artistic need

    People say this, but I think they are wrong. Specifically, they have misunderstood what Rowling and her editors are trying to do with the later books. That is, they were at that point not trying to construct the best books possible; rather, they were trying to occupy as much as possible of their readers’ minds.

    And to that end, a long, but not so artistically good, book, is much better than a short, but artistically better, one, because it engages the reader’s mind for longer: not just that it physically takes longer to read, but also that it makes it less likely that it can be read in one sitting, and therefore between reading-sessions the reader will still be thinking about the book and where the plot might go next.

    Same principle whereby US TV companies churn out twenty-plus episodes of mostly-rubbish filler per year of their programmes, drama and comedy, while the UK concentrates on six or eight of good quality: the US networks are aiming, because of advertising*, to have their programmes, and their characters, become part of their audiences’ lives, week in, week out, a comforting routine that they will return to.

    [there are other secondary reasons for the longer productions schedules, such as achieving higher production values by amortising costs over a higher number of episodes, but it all basically comes down to wanting the programme to become a regular appointment in the audiences’ lives]

    In order to achieve that, quantity is more important than quality; and the same is true for the later Rowlings. So, it’s not that she ‘had outgrown the need for commercial editing’; not a bit of it. Rather, it’s that she, and her editors realised that to maximise the commercial potential of her creation, longer books were more desirable than better books; and so that is what she produced, that is what they sold, and, you know, it turns out, given the billions they made and are still making, that they made the right call.

    * this is changing due to the decreasing reliance on advertising as a funding model, but still holds true where advertising is the main source of revenue

  6. I’m not sure I buy that. It makes sense as a model for low-quality TV, but not so much for the last half of series of books — and it doesn’t at all accord with what I know of Rowling’s character. By the time Goblet of Fire came out, she already had all the money should could need; I don’t see her deliberately degrading the quality of her work in the hope of making yet more. In other words, I am following Hanlon’s razor here: I believe more readily in Rowling’s incompetence as a prose stylist than in her malice as a commercial exploiter.

  7. I wouldn’t characterise it as ‘malice’, more ‘giving the audience what they want’: as the sales figures prove, the lowering of quality did not lead to a drop in interest, so clearly people weren’t buying them for the quality. Or rather, they wanted a certain minimum level of quality, but once that was reached, they would rather have more than better.

    Like, you know, chocolate. Assume you have two chocolate bars retailing at the same price. One is lower quality, but you get more chocolate for your money; one is higher quality but you get less. Both have their audiences, and their audiences are wanting different things, and it’s not ‘malice’ for a chocolate company to produce lower-quality, more plentiful chocolate, for people for whom quantity is the deciding factor in their purchase rather than quality.

  8. Thanks for the tip on Uprooted – I had a momentary lapse in my reading pile and found it online in my local library. I found it a fun and compelling read in between some other “hard” sci-fi I’ve been into lately.

  9. Thanks, Shannon, glad to have helped!

  10. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 21 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  11. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 22 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  12. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 11 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  13. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 27 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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