Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

In this latest instalment of the Harry Potter series, we roll the clock forwards to Harry and Ginny as parents of three children. The youngest, Albus Severus, is about to embark at Hogwarts School of wizardry.

Albus is the main character, and the Cursed Child narrates his struggles living in the shadow of his famous father. He is not a great wizard, or a particularly enthusiastic one. His best friend is Scorpious Malfoy, son of Harry’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy. The Cursed Child tells the bumbling antics of these two, with Albus wanting to make an impact, and trying to undo a great harm that involved his dad, with Scorpious up for the adventure. They try to right the wrong of Cedric Diggory’s death. This involves time travel via a Time Tuner to unexpected consequences, as the meddling of time brings Voldemort back from the dead.

Unlike the other Harry Potter books, the Cursed Child is a play. I should begin that I loved the entire Harry Potter series, re-reading all six volumes before JK Rowling released The Deathly Hallows. I forgave her this long book that could have been edited back, for her story-telling and rounding of different threads of plot and character. I didn’t re-read any Potter books for this one, and didn’t even read it immediately on release. If anyone wants to re-read, I would point them to reading The Goblet of Fire, as the Tri-Wizard Tournament is drawn on to develop the plot.

That it was a play didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, in fact, it was a kind of novelty given the books I’ve read in the last few years. If anything, it made me wish I’d seen it in the west end – but perhaps it will tour, and reach Cornwall…

The plot is cleverly crafted, referencing the Tri-Wizard Tournament in which Harry competed as a young wizard, but it is the themes that touched me most. There is the angst of adolescence, but the antagonist to Albus is his father. It is a neat exploration of the theme of father-son relationships, with orphan Harry having no role model of his own, as he stumbles to reach out to his youngest son.

For any Potterphile this instalment is glorious, and one to devour in one sitting. Ice cream in the intermission optional.

Book Review: Precious and Grace, by Alexander McCall Smith

Another in the series of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which sees Mma Remotswe and Mma Makutsi solving mysteries in the bosom of Botswana. This is the 17th in the series, and is as predictable and as comforting as a pot of roobush tea.

The characters are the same, and are as you left them. The same kinds of things happen. It is not exciting reading, but it is engaging. It the literary equivalent of putting your feet up and hearing from old friends.

Of course there are problems to solve, a white van to be driven. Rich fruit cake to be eaten at the Orphanage. There is a certain rhythm that McCall Smith takes the reader through. And yet, despite its predictability, I am charmed by the books, the happenings, and the loose plot anchored by the characters we love. What endures is the themes. This one is forgiveness. Beautifully executed by McCall Smith, which remains long after the book is closed. Charming and rewarding. What else is there, at one level? It is like being kissed by the Botswanan sun. No bad thing.

Book Review: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

From Kristin Hannah’s website (as I couldn’t fathom, again, how to describe it. Lazy me).

FRANCE, 1939
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

This book was a gift. A mother and daughter, both who’d adored and were moved to tears by The Nightingale. We shared a love of All The Light They Cannot See, The Night Circus, both spectacular books in their own rights. The Nightingale was a shadow in comparison. In truth, I nearly abandoned it. The writing strangled me, in a cliched, sycophantic noose. In the dilemma of whether to continue, or not. I sought out some reviews – the readership split. Some glowing, some disparaging.

In April, I took a five hour train ride to London; this might be the space to get me over the hump, the desire to throw the book against the wall. Several reasons, Kristin Hannah is a successful novelist, she makes income from her work. This was slush in places. A better edit, and a better discipline in writing. That irked me. In the early pages of the book, I could have photocopied a page, and edited the hell out of it – superlative, cliche, over-writing. It smacks of early draft writing in places. And then the crux of historical novel writing, credibility. Lazy Americanisms in the European setting, when in WWII, this was not influence (that really came later). Language that rubbed, like sand between damp toes. Sooner or later, it’s going to blister.

And yet, I went back to it. The story was one that needed to be told, the female heroes of the French Resistance, quietly going about their work. Hannah has a good story, this reader had to work, patiently, for it to be revealed. Her characters, moved her plot along, yes. Some were better defined than others, but the relationships let the story down. A perfect husband, sent to war. Sisters, one feral one good. A bad father. A mother died too soon. A kind Nazi. A sadist Nazi. A rugged lover who dared not to love. These were all a bit ‘flat’. No one that I really cared about as the story developed, And yet, at the close, as the threads of the past and the present knotted together, I was moved. The story shone through.

A month since I read it, and I’m still not sure whether to recommend it or not. That’s clever in its own right.