Tag: J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

harry-potter-and-the-cursed-childby J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Note: This is going to be a #KeepTheSecrets review, so I am mostly going to talk about impressions and feelings in a very vague way. I’m writing this fresh off finishing the play, so these are more preliminary thoughts than you usually get from me. I won’t spoil any significant plot points, but if you want to know absolutely nothing before you read for yourself, then please skip this review!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins where Deathly Hallows concluded, and the opening scenes are rife with echoes that go back to the original series. Harry’s son Albus is headed off to Hogwarts, nervous about the expectations for him to live up to his father’s legacy. Though the wizarding world has been peaceful for nineteen years, the scars of the Battle of Hogwarts still linger. Meanwhile, Harry is struggling with his role as a father, partly because he never had one himself.

Overall, The Cursed Child strikes a decent balance between nostalgia and new material, though there are certainly plenty of fannish moments (and I’m sure the fandom will have a heyday with this). Plus, through the clever use of storytelling tools like dreams and memories, as well as established magical elements of the Potterverse, I got a few things that I never would have expected. The scenes with the younger characters are, understandably, less weighted with nostalgia and expectation. Interestingly, it makes a rather good metaphor for Albus trying to stand apart from his father’s legacy.

The Cursed Child is, of course, a script, not a novel. However, I found that I was able to sink right into it. I have a tendency to think of plays as hard reading, but the fact of the matter is that most of the plays I’ve read were about four hundred years old; it is the language, not the form that is the barrier. I actually quite enjoyed reading this in script form–the dialogue was generally good if occasionally a bit sappy–because I could really let my imagination loose on how the scenes could be staged. I’m dying to know how they pulled some of these scenes off, and I fully expect that the stage production has magnificent sound engineers and special effects! I think it is probably helpful to imagine a play in your mind, rather than trying to read this like a new Harry Potter novel.

I was definitely a little nervous about stepping back into Harry’s world in a new story–I reread the originals all the time–nervous enough that I decided to borrow The Cursed Child from the library rather than preorder it, in case the magic just wasn’t there. My reading notes will attest that I have a few criticisms–most of which are much too spoilery for me to even begin to touch upon–but I enjoyed my time back in the Potterverse. And I seriously wish I could get some tickets to this play.

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Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike #3)

Cover image for Career of Evil by J.K. Rowling writing as Roberth Galbraith  by J.K. Rowling writing as Roberth Galbraith

ISBN 978-0-316-349925

“Death and hatchet had reduced the unknown female to a lump of meat, to a problem to be solved and she, Robin, felt as though she was the only person to remember that a living, breathing human being had been using that leg, perhaps as recently as a week ago.”

After two successful, high-profile cases solved with the help of his assistant Robin, business at Cormoran Strike’s private detective agency has never been better. But when a dismembered leg arrives in the mail, addressed to Robin, suddenly no one wants to employ a detective with such violent enemies, and their cases begin to evaporate. Worse for Robin, that fact that the leg was addressed to her has led Strike to believe that this killer with a personal grudge is trying to use Robin to get to him, and he responds by trying to sideline her from the case over her protests. Strike can think of at least four people who might have done the deed, but can he figure out who it is and track them down before they get to Robin?

Inevitably in almost any detective series, eventually the author will try to raise the stakes with a case that comes after the detective in a personal way, threatening themselves or their loved ones, and clouding their judgements. Such is the case for Career of Evil, the third volume in the Cormoran Strike series. If, like me, you are not particularly fond of this trope, then this may not be your favourite case.

Meanwhile, Matthew’s worse fears about the dangers of Robin working at a detective agency are coming true, making him even more insufferable than usual. Rowling reveals him to be more of a cad than in previous volumes, but I couldn’t find it in me to dislike him more than before. He is the character we are supposed to love to hate, but I value him primarily as a barrier to the tiresome hints about Robin and Strike possibly getting together. He is less a character than a conflict, but if you don’t ship Robin and Strike, then he is a useful impediment.

Rowling also finally delves further into Robin’s back story, revealing the events that led her to drop out of university, and give up her dreams of pursuing criminal psychology. Unfortunately, the back story is the most tired and least imaginative option of the many I considered as I puzzled over Robin’s secret past while I read the first two volumes. Robin has been fighting to be regarded as an equal in the business, but between this disappointing revelation about her past, and being targeted by a serial killer, she is facing a serious setback.

The mystery itself is quite twisty and intriguing, as Robin and Strike divide their inquiries amongst three serious suspects. One is Strike’s step-father, revealing more about his family life and his mother’s death, while the others come from his military past, making it a little difficult not to confuse the two. But given that the trappings are some of my least favourite aspects of the mystery genre, the twists and turns of the case couldn’t entirely make up for the deficits.  As a matter of personal taste, this wasn’t my favourite installment of the series thus far, but your mileage may vary.

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Cover image for Angel Killer by Andrew Mayne Angel Killer by Andrew Mayne

Very Good Lives

Cover image for Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowlingby J.K. Rowling

Illustrated by Joel Holland

ISBN 978-0-316-36915-2

“We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

J.K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement speech, given at Harvard, joins the ranks of other such small gift books, including Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman, and This Is Water by David Foster Wallace. Such books are often relatively expensive for their short length, in this case $15. However, like some of J.K. Rowling’s other short works—Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the AgesVery Good Lives benefits charity, in this case, her own children’s charity, Lumos.

Very Good Lives begins with a funny, self-deprecating opening that gives way to an honest and heart-felt address dedicated to learning from failure, and the importance of imagination and friendship. Subtitled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination,” Rowling draws on the lessons of her early failures, while refusing to romanticize poverty or ennoble suffering. Instead, she acknowledges that sometimes failing is inevitable, and, given that inevitability, worth learning from. Among other things, it clarifies priorities: “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.”

Rowling’s conception of imagination and its value is broad, touching not just the creative realm, but the humanitarian one, and our capacity as humans to imagine a better world, and then work to realize it. Given this second theme, it is even more appropriate that the proceeds of the book will be donated to charity. Like many, I expected this section of the address to be about writing or art, but Rowling instead draws on her time working for Amnesty International when she was in her early twenties.

You can watch Rowling’s speech on Harvard’s YouTube channel, or read the text of the address online, but this small book, in addition to benefiting charity, is also quite beautiful. The basic red and white colour scheme echoes Harvard’s school colours, and Joel Holland’s illustrations are simple, but well-executed and carefully laid out. I borrowed a copy from my local library, but I suspect I will be buying a copy to grace my own shelves sometime soon.

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)

Cover image for The Silkworm by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraithby J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

ISBN 978-0-316-20687-7

“As he headed down Store Street, squinting through the downpour and concentrating on maintaining his footing on the slippery pavements, he reflected that his palate was in danger of becoming jaded by the endless variations on cupidity and vengefulness that his wealthy clients kept bringing him. It had been a long time since he investigated a missing-person case. There would be satisfaction in restoring the runaway Quine to his family.”

Cormoran Strike has been working long hours on tawdry divorce cases, labouring to pay off the debt that enabled him to start his private investigation business. Despite the need to keep his eye on the bottom line, Strike feels compelled to help the wife of a missing author, even though she cannot pay his fees. The author, Owen Quine, is known to be flighty, with history of running off to escape his family obligations, or to pout when he doesn’t get his way. His agents and editors seem to believe Quine has disappeared in an effort to drum up publicity for his controversial new novel, but as Strike investigates, he begins to suspect something more complicated is going on. It seems that Bombyx Mori, Quine’s latest manuscript, is not just controversial, but possibly libelous, containing scandalous poison-pen portraits of almost everyone in his life, providing ample motive for foul play. Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott, longs to help Strike crack the case, but her work with the private investigator continues to spark tension with her fiancé, Matthew.

Thus far the plots of the Strike novels have been tied up in worlds J.K. Rowling has come to know well since the success of Harry Potter. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike investigated the supposed suicide of super model Lula Landry, who was being stalked and harassed by the paparazzi. In The Silkworm, Rowling turns to the behind-the-scenes intrigues of the publishing world, where the cut-throat nature of the business is embodied by epigraphs from grisly Jacobean revenge tragedies. Celebrity continues to be an important theme, in this case the celebrity of an author, but Strike’s famous father, rock star Jonny Rokeby, is also never far from Strike’s mind. Nor is his former fiancée, Charlotte, who is constantly in the society pages as her marriage to a Scottish aristocrat draws closer. Even Strike himself has gained a measure of notoriety, both as Rokeby’s illegitimate son, and as the investigator who cracked the Lula Landry case. Rowling has turned her experience with fame into excellent fodder for a crime novel not once, but twice.

One of the highlights of The Cuckoo’s Calling was the partnership between Strike and his accidental secretary, Robin, and Rowling further develops this in The Silkworm. Although Strike continues to find Robin attractive, if off-limits, the book focuses more on their professional relationship by delving into Robin’s secret desire to become a private investigator, and her worry that Strike sees her as merely a secretary. Her professional ambitions continue to cause problems with Matthew, but Rowling is more focused on how this impacts Robin’s work. Their arguments are often recounted in retrospect rather than shown on page (“the row escalated with alarming speed…”) so that is the dynamic between Strike and Robin that takes centre stage, with Matthew’s resentment as a complicating factor. While the mystery is intriguing, it is the character development, and further hints at their backstories that really make up the meat of the book.

Whereas I had mixed feelings about Rowling’s first post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, the Strike novels are a much more promising encore. In The Silkworm, she plays her cards infuriatingly close to the vest, while still abiding by the rules of fair play, making for a mystery that is highly recommended for those who always figure out who-dunnit.

Vacation Reads

While I was away on holidays, I needed a little bit of light reading to unwind at the end of a hard day’s sightseeing. That being the case, I decided to get caught up on the latest volumes in a few of my favourite urban fantasy series.

Cover image for Cold Days by Jim ButcherCold Days (9780451464408)

The last novel in the Dresden Files, Ghost Story, was an interesting lull in Harry’s story line, as he found himself trapped between worlds following his self-planned assassination/suicide at the end of Changes. Harry’s return to life means a follow up on a plot point that has been a long time coming; if he isn’t dead, then he is bound to fulfill his promise to serve Mab as the Winter Knight. Although the ostensible purpose of the Winter Knight is to kill mortals that Mab cannot touch, Mab instead demands that Harry kill an immortal, and provides a powerful incentive to do it. With an impossible task set before him, Harry will need every ally and resource at his disposal, but will his friends be able to trust him now that he is the Winter Knight? And does he really want to involve them in faerie business? This novel gives the strong sense that Jim Butcher is opening a new chapter in the Dresden Files universe. Newly immersed in the politics and intrigues of the faerie courts, Harry finds that there may be more to the balance between Earth and the NeverNever than he ever suspected.

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

 

Cover image for Frost Burned by Patricia BriggsFrost Burned (9780441020010)

Out Christmas shopping with her step-daughter, Jesse, Mercy gets into a fender bender, and is alarmed when she finds that she has a mysterious voicemail from Bran, and that she cannot reach any of the pack by phone. All of the Columbia Basin werewolves have simply disappeared, and the pack bonds tell Mercy this isn’t a game. Only Ben has managed to escape the kidnappers, who are still after him, and Mercy and Jesse, to boot. Those who preferred Mercy before she and Adam got together will be happy to see her flying solo once more, though the plot relies heavily on their mating bond. Those who enjoy the Columbia Basin Pack will miss their presence. The trade off for the separation is that Patricia Briggs gives us two chapters from Adam’s point of view in a series that has always been from Mercy’s perspective. However, the absence of the pack did make room for some of the other secondary characters to shine, particularly Kyle. The book gets off to a slow start, but makes up for it with a rapid fire conclusion.

Categories:  Urban Fantasy, Mystery

 

Cover image for Dead Ever After by Charlaine HarrisDead Ever After (9781937007881)

Things aren’t going well for Sookie with the men in her life. Sam has been cold and distant since she used the cluviel dor to raise him from the dead, and Eric is furious that Sookie used it to save Sam rather than extricate him from his dilemma with Freyda, Queen of Oklahoma. With Sam keeping his distance, Sookie is left to run Merlotte’s alone, so it is she who has the unenviable task of refusing her old friend Arlene a job when she is granted an early release from prison. Then things go pear-shaped, and Sookie is accused of murder in an all-too-neat frame up job.  Although this is the final book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, much is left open, as if the story will continue on beyond the pages of the books. Charlaine Harris answers a lot of the important questions, but fans who dislike open-ended conclusions will definitely be left wanting. And of course, there have been rage-filled reactions to Harris’ decision about how to conclude the romantic storyline. I assiduously avoided all those spoilers, so imagine my surprise when Sookie ended up with the guy I thought she was going to be with all along.

Categories:  Urban Fantasy, Mystery

 

Cover image for The Cuckoos Calling by Robert GalbraithThe Cuckoo’s Calling (9781408703991)

News about the true identity of Robert Galbraith broke while I was in England, and when I found out J.K. Rowling had written a detective novel, I knew I was going to have to read it, even as I sympathized with her desire for anonymity. Down-on-his-luck detective Cormoran Strike is living in the office which he is on the verge of losing when a new case and new secretary land in his lap, all on the same day. A barely remembered childhood acquaintance shows up on Strike’s doorstep, asking him to investigate the supposed suicide of his sister, international super model Lula Landry. The new secretary, Robin, has always secretly dreamed of being a PI, and her knowledge of celebrity gossip turns into a surprisingly useful resource as she and Strike delve into the world of fame and fashion that Landry inhabited. In addition to being a bang-up detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling is an introspective look at our fascination with celebrities, and the rabid power of the British paparazzi. While the ending will probably not come as a terrible surprise, what Rowling has written here is classic hard-boiled detective fiction, and I will definitely be looking forward to the next Cormoran Strike novel.

Categories: Mystery

Your regularly scheduled, full-length book reviews will resume on Thursday, beginning with If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan. Thanks for sticking around!

The Casual Vacancy

Cover Image for The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowlingby J.K. Rowling

ISBN 978-0316228534

In English literature, country life is often held up as the idyllic contrast to the immorality of city living. In The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling uses the event of an unexpected election after the death of a parish councillor to expose the bitter feuds and tensions that lie beneath the romantic image of the English country village. Although firmly rooted in its British setting, the situation should be recognizable to small towns everywhere. The reduced degree of separation between the people of town means that every bit of personal gossip becomes hopelessly entangled with issues of municipal politics. This is sharp social commentary in the tradition of Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell, but without the delicate squeamishness with which those genteel writers handled their topics.

The Casual Vacancy is almost soap opera-like, not because it is melodramatic or low quality, but because it requires the reader to become intensely involved in the sordid private affairs of the cast of characters. Rowling uses multiple points of view so that the reader sees the worst and most private thoughts everyone in the fictional village of Pagford. Characters who seem likable or sympathetic when seen from the perspective of one narrator subsequently have their worst weaknesses exposed by their own narration, and may then appear again, caricatured as a villain from the perspective of yet another narrator. Character and personality become matters so subjective that it is impossible to judge anyone. The exposure is so complete that it is difficult to summon much for than pity for most of the characters; there is so little kindness in the midst of the petty viciousness and self-interested machinations. Despite the ambiguity of the characters, and the lack of a clear protagonist, Rowling skillfully manages the nearly twenty characters that bring her multiple storylines together.

If Harry Potter was about friendship and loyalty and bringing out the best in people in the face of danger, then The Casual Vacancy is about exposing the worst in people. This is not the Big E Evil of Voldemort, but the petty and mundane indifference to everyday suffering. The characters fail to consider the consequences of their actions any further than they benefit themselves or punish their enemies, leaving a trail of collateral damage behind them. Rowling adds many darkly humourous touches but the core of the novel is formed by the depressing reality of drug abuse, self-harm, infidelity, racism and rape. It is rather as if Harry has gone off to Hogwarts, and we have been left at Privet Drive with the Dursleys; these characters, however real, simply do not make for pleasant company. After ambling slowly along for 350 pages gathering little momentum, the story comes to crashing conclusion in the final 40 pages. This ending verges on the soapy melodrama Rowling skillfully avoids for the majority of the book. Rowling’s writing is strong and the village feels so real you would swear you had been there, but it is difficult to face the depressing reality of Pagford, knowing you could be at Hogwarts instead.