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May/Jun/Jul 2016
Last year I spent seven weeks travelling in Australasia with only an e-reader for company. Here is what I took with me.

The Hallowed Hunt - Lois McMaster Bujold - Tor, 2005 (Kindle edition)
* * *
This is the third novel set in Bujold's world of Chalion but you would hardly know it. None of the characters or locations from the previous books appear - the only connection is the five-fold religion of Father, Mother, Son, Daughter and Bastard, and even this is subsumed into an older belief system involving animal spirits.

The story is engaging enough - a lady in waiting (Ijada) kills a prince when he tries to rape her, and a lord called Ingrey with a wolf problem is sent to escort her to trial but finds himself trying to murder her instead. The reasons for this are to do with an exceptionally complicated magical plot that I must admit I could not really follow in the jetlagged state in which I read it. The ideas were nice but the characters were very much stock Bujold romantic leads and overall I found the thing unmemorable.
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Feb 2016
The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith - Sphere, 2015
* * * *
Now I know I have complained about books featuring authors and publishers in the past, but I am going to give this one a pass, largely because they are victims or possible perps rather than protagonists. This is a proper whodunit with an intriguing set up, plausible suspects and proper clues. And unlike The Cuckoo's Calling, it doesn't make a mess of the ending.
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July 2014
The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith - Sphere, 2013 (Kindle edition)
* * * *
After wrestling with the dry complexities of Spinoza's Ethics for several weeks, and having - rather remarkably - run out of books to read, I felt it was time for something light and fluffy. So it seemed an appropriate moment to find out what J.K. Rowling has been up to since the end of Harry Potter. Well, she hasn't been working on her writing style. I tried a taster of A Casual Vacancy because Ayckbourn-style black comedy is usually up my street, but bounced off the lumpen prose and unmemorable characters of the first few pages (if it improves, do let me know). The Cuckoo's Calling seemed more promising. I know I have inveighed against poor writing in genre fiction in the past, but truth be told, a clumsy style is less of a problem when there is a compelling plot or an interesting world to explore. And Rowling is not a bad writer, merely an inelegant one. You aren't brought up short by solecisms, but simply by the thought that a particular sentence could have been phrased better. Well, you know what? This is a good detective novel, not startlingly original but with interesting characters, a believable setting and an intriguing plot. And if it were not for one fatal flaw, it would be a great one.
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Jan 2009
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling - Bloomsbury, 2007
* * * * *
Books are like savings accounts. The reader makes an investment in them and expects a return. The more time spent with them, the larger the payoff has to be, which makes the final book in a multi-volume series particularly important. If done well, the reader’s investment in the major characters is repaid with interest and they are left with a feeling of satisfaction that overcomes any niggling objections to plot developments, characterisation or writing style. If not, they are left feeling short-changed and disappointed.
J.K. Rowling has more to do this in this respect than most. The high number of books in her sequence and the ungainly lengths of the last three means that a reader who has followed the entire story will already have invested in over 2500 pages of Potterishness (that’s over twice the length of Lord of the Rings). So has she pulled it off? Somewhat to my surprise, I’d have to say that she has.
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30 Aug 2005
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling - Bloomsbury, 2005
* * *
Were it not that she has become one of the richest people in the country, it would be tempting to feel sorry for J.K. Rowling. The huge weight of expectations that the Bloomsbury marketing machine has generated must have placed a tremendous strain upon her as she was writing this book. In addition she has the problem of the law of diminishing returns that afflicts any sequel set in the same location and with the same characters. So how has she fared? Well, the good news is that on the whole this book is up to her previous standards - the inventiveness is still present, there is at least one entertaining new character (the celebrity-obsessed Professor Slughorn) and the dialogue sparkles as always. The bad news is that some of the plotting flaws are even more in evidence than in the previous one.
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21 Mar 2004
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J.K. Rowling - Bloomsbury 2003
* * * *
One has to admire the woman. There can't be many authors living today who could persuade millions of people, young and old, to read out of choice a book which rivals some of the more substantial Dickens novels in length. With a bit of luck they'll be less afraid to tackle a long novel in the future. Just as well, probably, as at the rate that the length of the Potter books is increasing , the last one will be well over a thousand pages.

Having said that, the length of the book is not a bonus. A sort of heaviness comes over one when faced with such a monster which a book of, say, four hundred pages doesn't engender. Reading it is still enjoyable, but the enjoyment is tempered by the thought that there are other things that you should perhaps be doing. In the case of a Dickens novel, this is made up for by the wonderful characters, the witty dialogue and the sharp observations about what it is to be human. "Order of the Phoenix" offers all of these to a certain extent, but it is certainly not in the Dickens league.

There's another problem. When you've waded through all 760-odd pages, you realise that actually there is no more plot than there was in the previous books. The result is that the build-up to the big climax takes longer and there is a fatal diminution in the energy and pace of the plotting. Compared to the previous books, this one felt enervated, and it never really became a page-turner for me.

So why is it so long? One reason of course is the "Big Name Author" effect, which means that editors become scared to cut a word of their cash cow's output or to suggest that some scenes might need a little trimming. This has been the undoing of a number of authors - Tim Powers, for example, having written some extremely good books that were four hundred pages or so long (The Anubis Gates, Dinner at Deviant's Palace), was evidently told by his publishers to up the length to six hundred pages. The result has been a series of mediocre books which had some good ideas but which all felt two hundred pages too long. To be fair, I don't think that this is the chief reason for this book's length - with my editor's hat on, I can say that the book lacks energy in the plotting, but I am hard pushed to say what, precisely, could have been cut to improve the pacing.

The seond reason why the book is so long is Rowling's increasingly desperate attempts to break the formula with which she saddled herself from book one. She painted herself into a corner by basing her books on the school year, which means that they all follow the same sequence - Harry has a hard time at the Dursleys, goes somewhere in the magical world, goes to Hogwarts, autumn term, christmas, spring and summer terms (curiously there doesn't seem to be much of an Easter break), Voldemort manifests in some new form, Harry defeats him, Dumbledore says how well he's done, Harry goes home to the Dursleys, the end. Rowling tries to disguise this by increasingly elaborate world-building. This is reasonable as Harry gets older and his horizons expand, but the increasing amount of background dump slows everything down, especially early on. In this book, Harry doesn't even get to Hogwarts before page 200, whereas in the first few books he was more than halfway through the school year by the same point.

Rowling's other trick for distracting us from the formula is to increase the complexity of the characterisation. If you assume that children's characters are simpler than those of adults (a common though rather patronising assumption), then this again makes sense as the characters get older. Unfortunately, the more mature he gets, the less convincing Harry becomes. Forgive the indelicacy of this point, but he must be the first fifteen year old male in the history of the world to be apparently totally unaware of his genitals. Nor do spots or breaking voices ever become a topic of conversation or comment in the classroom. Now it was obviously a deliberate decision to avoid dwelling on the more icky bits of male adolescence (and Rowling does do a good job of conveying the moodiness and the embarrassment of being attracted to someone that teenagers suffer), but not even to hint at Harry's sexual development firmly relegates the book to the children's shelves and makes the justification for investing so much time in reading it less strong, at least for adults. I could be wrong of course - perhaps we'll discover in book six that Harry is a late developer. But somehow I doubt it.

As for the plot - well, compared to the others, it was disappointing. It relies heavily on several important people behaving like idiots - Cornelius Fudge, Dumbledore, Sirius and Harry himself. Whilst all are given justifications for what they do, the reasons are weak. Even Voldemort behaves like a bit of a fool - the maguffin he is after turns out to be a let-down, and the direct attack in which he engages to get it feels out of character compared to his previous sneakiness, and would, at least on the face of it, appear to have been a major tactical blunder in his ongoing campaign to take over the world. Presumably Rowling will turn this around in book six, but whether she can do it plausibly remains to be seen.

Lest this seem too negative a review, let us finish with the good points. The imaginative inventiveness of Rowling's magical world is as rich as ever, the humour and characterisation are still great, and for adults there is the pleasure of seeing Rowling's satirical commentary on modern Britain becoming ever more overt. I would love to know who the Ofsted inspector was who so got Rowling's goat that she created the wonderfully dreadful Dolores Umbridge, who with the pink ribbons in her hair and the awful kitten plates on her study walls is possibly the best villain that the series has yet had. Whilst the multi-cultural nature of Hogwarts clearly indicates Rowling's liberal credentials (though no overtly gay characters as yet), she is clearly no fan of the present government's educational policy of diktat from the centre. I look forward to seeing her take on President Bush and the war in Iraq in the next book.


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