Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Special Rehearsal Edition, Parts I & II)
by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, & John Tiffany
Published July 31st 2016 by Little Brown UK

Welcome back to Hogwarts.

This is an 8th Harry Potter story, but it is not an 8th Harry Potter book. It is just the skeleton of a work in a very different medium, and it’s important to remember that. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see the play, and I’m sure I’d be swept away by the magic, the acting, design, staging – but the script leaves me, as obsessed a Harry Potter fan as ever spent an obscene amount of money on a wand, a bit cold. Some characterizations feel drawn more from the weaker fanfics available online than from the original series, and the two-play structure is about a third longer than it needs to be (I’m not sure how I’d solve that, dramaturgically; one insanely long play or two awkwardly short ones? Maybe two long but reasonable plays was the right answer for a real production, but I’m only reading it, and this script could benefit from an edit). My biggest problem, though, is that the premise of the play fundamentally contradicts the denouement of Prisoner of Azkaban, and one of the real laws of the wizarding world. I haven’t figured out yet how to reconcile these two contradictory pieces of canon, at least in my head, and unfortunately that’s preventing me from enjoying the script as much as I want to.

The good? Though I complained about some character interpretations, others – a select but significant few – are exactly right and well-drawn. As an exploration of the generational ripples – in every direction – of trauma, of pain, of loneliness, it works very well. As a part of the Potter canon, I’m less sure. I hope I get to see the full production sometime and have my mind changed.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

The Quick
by Lauren Owen
Originally published April 2014, by Random House
Audiobook read by Simon Slater

The Quick is Lauren Owen’s debut novel, an ironically named Victorian gothic rambler that is presumably intended to begin a series, but which desperately wants to be a TV show or a movie trilogy instead. While there are many things to enjoy – a macabre but inventive world, two vastly different but equally delicate love stories, and a reckless willingness to leap off narrative cliffs and abruptly kill characters which, I have to say, I genuinely appreciate – the boldness of these qualities is undermined by the inconsistent, weak pacing.

We’re introduced to our presumably (though not always) main characters, siblings James and Charlotte Norbury, first as children; then, we jump forward to adulthood, when we get to know James much better but see nothing of Charlotte for so long, it makes it difficult to believe in or care about her relationship with her brother when she does finally show up. That being said, everything leading up to Charlotte’s arrival in London, searching for her now missing brother, is strong – decent pacing, good energy, fleshed out characters in a believable, if some what trope-riddled, setting. There’s even a surprisingly touching romance, handled rather delicately. Then the plot takes the first of its several cliff leaps, which frankly left me gasping (Spoiler McSpoilerson, we hardly knew ye), and The Quick turns into another kind of book entirely.

It’s after this first, and most dramatic, twist that the novel becomes epistolary, left-turning into a transcription of the journals of Dr Augustus Mould, who details his scientific experiments and cryptic exposition for us. Many reviewers have complained about this change in narrative style, and I don’t entirely disagree, but in this first moment, as a “wait, WHAT?” change of course from the drama of the event that precedes it, I’m completely on board with a chapter or so of Mould’s journal. The problem is that this goes on far too long, much longer than is necessary either for the exposition (we get it, seriously, the vague hints aren’t as vague as Owen thinks they are) or for the story switch. If it was a brief departure, before a return either to James’s story or, even, over to the long absent Charlotte, then it would be good – it would feel like spending a moment in the cool hush underwater after the jump and fall and crash of the cliff dive. But we stay in that water for…a really, really long time. And we never fully emerge.

The rest of the novel never recovers the steady energy of that first section. Some story lines are drawn out in unnecessary, tedious detail (Adeline Swift’s obvious backstory, for instance, could have been summed up in a few lines and had more of an emotional impact for its brevity), while others are bizarrely compressed (think, “and then, fifty years later…”). Which plots I felt were too long or too short may have a lot to do with which characters I simply was most interested in (the “undid” little girl, Liza, will probably be a fan favorite in the TV adaptation, but really, let’s move on), but it has as much to do with their placement in the book. After spending so many pages drawn into the life and problems of James Norbury, I want to know what happens to him and those closest to him – I don’t want to suddenly swerve off to several chapters of backstory for characters I hadn’t met until halfway through the book. I spent the entirety of this section tapping my fingers, waiting to get back to the real action, and discovered too late that this was what I should expect for the bulk of The Quick.

These all sound like a lot of negatives considering I did end up giving the book four stars on Goodreads. And honestly, I enjoyed it. I found myself thinking about it in between reading sessions, I was often eager to pick it back up and see what came next. I was more attached than I should be to some of these admittedly archetypal characters (an American named Arthur Howland, really? Is that an homage or a parody?), and I wanted to know how everything would turn out for them. Owen’s willingness to take sudden leaps and swerves, as proved so early on, makes for inconsistent pacing, but also makes for a definite “what comes next…?” excitement (which was, unfortunately, not always fulfilled). I’m glad I read it, I enjoyed it more often than not, and when the inevitable sequel is published, I’ll happily read that, too.

But I’m not sure if it’s a positive or negative quality of a novel to spend most of it thinking how much you’d enjoy watching a TV adaptation of it instead.

3 stars for Owen’s writing, bumping up to 3.5 or 4 for the audiobook. I listened to Simon Slater’s quite good reading, and it suited the story and most characters well; he’s a slow reader, taking full stop pauses during commas, which sometimes muddles the flow of a sentence, but other than that fairly small complaint, I found his narration solid, and I think I enjoyed it more as an audiobook than I would have reading the text.

P.S.
Since finishing The Quick, I’ve read several other amateur/fan reviews. I’m glad I didn’t read this when it first came out or in advance, and I didn’t know anything about the hype – I literally just picked it out of a digital library shelf because I liked the one-sentence synopsis and the cover – because if I’d had some expectation of a dramatic Major Twist, I would have been really disappointed. As it is, the Twist that everyone else is so cryptically alluding to is…pretty obvious. And I was fine with that, because I didn’t realize until afterwards that it was meant to be a startling revelation, and I just went along from page 1 expecting it to be a, you know, Secret Word novel. (Amusingly enough, the reluctance to say the word, while hinting so heavily at it that no one can avoid knowing what you mean, is part of the story just as much as it seems to have been part of the marketing.) I admit I wouldn’t have given it this high a rating if I’d had all this hype and suspense built up beforehand.

 

The Piper on the Mountain, Reviewed

The Piper on the Mountain
#5 in the Inspector Felse series
by Ellis Peters
Published 1966, Mysterious Press from Warner Books

Ellis Peters always crafts delicate and enchanting prose, and the lyrically lovely Piper on the Mountain is no different. The murder mystery is almost an afterthought, the adoring descriptions of the Slovakian geography and culture taking precedence, and in fact by the time the true mystery is revealed and solved, I felt like brushing it off and reading more about the fujara and local lakes and mountain climbing. Part Cold War spy thriller, part murder mystery, it turns out to be, really, not quite either.

Disappointed not to have George and Bunty present in this one. I’m reading the series for the first time, going through in order, after years of knowing Peters only for the Cadfael mysteries, and I’m surprised by how often these “Inspector Felse” novels are really just Dominic.

A charming and old-fashioned little love letter to the region, but I’d pass if you’re looking for a typical suspenseful whodunnit.

A Beautiful Blue Death, Reviewed

A Beautiful Blue Death
#1 in the Charles Lenox series
By Charles Finch
Originally published June 2007 by Minotaur Books

What a disappointment, from beginning to end.

I only finished (painstakingly dragging myself to the last page) because it’s a mystery, and it’s hard to give a full judgment of a whodunnit without the solution. I needn’t have bothered – the solution was as bland and illogical as the rest of the plot. Historical errors and jarringly anachronistic language were rife throughout the novel, the mystery plodded along without a decent clue or interesting twist for chapter after endless chapter until Lenox – practically a parody of a Phineas Fogg archetype, without every single thing that makes Verne’s character interesting – finally leaps to some conclusions and the culprit shows up at his doorstep to confess. Convenient. There are also several weird, irritating stylistic flaws – like brief, abrupt switches from Lenox’s perspective to sudden omniscience, or one single, late-in-the-game authorial voice intrusion, or the time jump near the end explaining what happens for the next few decades of one character’s life…before sliding back to the regular time line for another couple of utterly unnecessary chapters. An example of one of these flaws — when Lenox visits Skaggs, Mrs. Skaggs says she has never met the gentleman detective before, though she’s seen him through his carriage window. A page later, as Lenox is leaving, she says it’s always a pleasure to welcome him to her home. Which is it, Completely Unnecessary Character? There’s so much padding – largely in the form of “and then they had tea and they had toast and it was nice and the fire was warm so Lenox felt warm and then he had a nap and then he woke up and had some coffee” – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author, Charles Finch, was paid by the word.

A Beautiful Blue Death completely fails as a mystery, as a work of historical fiction, and as anything like an interesting or engaging novel. It boggles the mind how there are several more in the series, but needless to say, I won’t be reading any of them.

Maisie Dobbs, Reviewed

Maisie Dobbs
#1 in the Maisie Dobbs series
By Jacqueline Winspear
Read by Rita Barrington
Audiobook edition published March 1st 2006 by Audiogo
Originally published July 2003 by Soho Press

Maisie Dobbs: Such a disappointment. It started well, a bit flat but with a solid premise (spunky female private eye in 1920s with a foot in both the upper and working classes), but it derailed when it dived into a massively long cliche-ridden flashback that took the bulk of the book and added nothing to the theoretically central mystery or making me care about Maisie. The boringly perfect heroine’s origin story turned out to be exactly what I assumed from a few lines… But it took Jacqueline Winspear about ten million lines to tell every tedious detail of it. Then, finally, back to the mystery – only to have that wrapped up in a bewildering and laughable few chapters in which the original client was no longer relevant, the denouement literally hinged on the power of music, and Maisie’s annoyingly Yoda-like Wise Old Mentor predicted the rise of the Nazi party. Um, okay.

Rita Barrington’s reading for the audiobook was a 3.5/4 star narration for me, but unfortunately she had terrible material to perform. There’s about a dozen more books in the series, and I plan to avoid them.

Why They Run the Way They Do, Reviewed

Why They Run the Way They Do
By Susan Perabo
February 2016, Simon & Schuster

Every story in this collection fits snugly into place like a puzzle piece. Not one story was weaker than the others, and each had me gasping a little for air at the end. Susan Perabo crafts small, sharp, perfect little portraits out of broken marriages, adolescence, motherhood, the minute details of a day and of a lifetime, and a surprising number of dogs – not to mention the one and only time “it was all a dream” has ever been an effective storytelling technique. Incisive, insightful, raw and compassionate.

I received this book free through Goodreads Giveaways.

The Monogram Murders, Reviewed

The Monogram Murders
The New Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot Mystery
By Sophie Hannah
September 2014, William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers.

 

If you pretend this isn’t Hercule Poirot, but some character original to Sophie Hannah who simply bears a passing resemblance to that most famous of literary Belgians, The Monogram Murders is…well, it’s still a pretty bad novel, but at least it feels less blasphemous. It’s one thing to write a lousy murder mystery – it’s another to inflict it upon the beloved Poirot canon.

Poirot’s narrating sidekick in this new endeavor is Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool, who has been placed in charge of the initial murder investigation, though he quickly gives it up to Poirot’s absolute authority. This faux-Hastings is possibly the worst fictional detective to ever try his feeble hand at detecting. He leaves the crime scene overnight without putting any procedures in place to deal with the bodies – just leaves them lying there on hotel room floors so he can go home and angst, as if he’s never seen a dead body before in his police career; he totally fails to interview almost anyone, including one witness because he made some asinine promise not to pester the man; he starts out whining about Poirot taking over his case, but then immediately just gives up and lets Poirot do everything; he does virtually no actual investigating, no interviews of witnesses beyond Margaret Ernst (who isn’t a real witness), no digging into the victims’ or suspects’ pasts. At one point, he literally thinks, “No one was interested in my ideas.” Well, Catchpool, maybe that’s because you have no ideas?

His complete empty-headedness can be summed up by the fact that he’s apparently been working on this same crossword puzzle “for months” and yet can’t come up with a 6-letter word for death that begins with a D. Also, why all the pages spent on his Tragic Backstory, especially since nothing came of either the dead relative or the un-subtle hints at closeted homosexuality? Why not just use Hastings, or Japp, or Ariadne Oliver, or for the love of god, anyone else? Why did Catchpool even have to be the cop in charge of this case? It would all have made considerably more sense had Poirot, a famous detective often consulted by Scotland Yard at this point in his chronology, been called in on his own merits? Why did he have to interfere and let Catchpool pretend to be annoyed at his job being taken over? What is going on? Why is this book so bad?

I have so many questions.

The mystery itself is convoluted, bizarre, and full of holes big enough to pull Rafal Bobak’s laundry cart through. The denouement reads like a parody of a classic whodunnit – it seems Poirot issued a general invitation to all of London and Great Holling to be there. When a couple of minor characters (are we supposed to think them real suspects? There was never any reason to, not that reason is much at play here) try to offer Poirot vital new information at the beginning of the scene, he shuts them down because he already knows (without hearing what it is they want to say, of course) – not that that’s supremely out of character for the arrogant Hercule Poirot, but it just adds to the sense that the whole scene is a spoof. The revelatory italics are over the top, simply ever single piece of information revealed is written to be dramatic! This, again, feels like a parody of Christie, rather than an homage or remake.

The denouement is even TWO CHAPTERS LONG. Two! It’s even longer than this review! Somehow, that feels particularly offensive to me when connected with Agatha Christie, whose best work was in concise plotting and tight little puzzles.

The conclusions to which Poirot leaps in the course of this mystery are staggering. With absolutely zero evidence or reason to see a connection, he decides a scared woman he encounters in a coffee-shop in one part of London MUST be a potential fourth victim of a killer who went to town at a ritzy hotel. Why? Because cufflinks come in pairs, and she used “their” as a singular. That’s literally all the evidence he offers. Of course, he’s right. I suppose that’s still better than Edward Catchpool, who couldn’t leap to a conclusion if he tried, because that would require having a thought or being a detective at all.

I’m not asking for Sophie Hannah, or anyone, to try to re-create Agatha Christie’s iconic style. I picked up The Monogram Murders looking for a good detective story with, perhaps, the treat of some beloved characters present in name, at least. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most nonsensical, illogical, and overwrought whodunnits I’ve ever read. It’s certainly no Christie, but it’s not even a decent read in its own right.

Name Change

A brief post- I obviously have changed the name of this blog. I was never totally in love with “Peacoat & Pixie Cut” anyway, and now my hair is growing out and it’s inaccurate to boot, so the times they are a-changin’. Doesn’t make much of a difference, but welcome to the newly christened Sage & Spyglass. 

101 in 1001 – 26 Down

Last updated 3-2-2015, with adjustments to the original goal list (total complete: 26).

Running, Writing, and Recovering

The last time I updated this blog was exactly 1 year and 1 day ago. I had just finished the Race on the Base 5k 2014, the last in the tri-city series I needed to get my medal and cross a major goal off my 101 things in 1001 days list. (I was also making Plans to Eat Better for March, and had just gone to the Contemporary Jewish Museum for the first time. The museum was great, the plans petered out as they usually do. But I did avoid soda for that month.)

I didn’t realize until I’d already opened up wordpress to get back to this thing that that was the last post. I didn’t realize it had been so precisely a year, or that I had last written to talk about the Race on the Base.

Well- here it is one year later, and I just got back to San Francisco from a weekend home where I ran the Race on the Base 2015 5k. Last year’s time, according to this blog, was about 47 minutes, and I was embarrassed by that; this year, I lumbered across the finish line at just over 51 minutes, but I’m okay with it. I’m proud of myself that I ran the race at all, I wasn’t last in my division (by several people, actually), I had plenty left in me to sprint the last yards. And I’ll get back into running, slowly. (Remove the comma and it still works…)

The other things that have changed for me in the last year- well, this blog title is no longer accurate, since I’ve been growing my hair out from my old pixie. More significantly, I no longer live with the same roommates, in that house on top of a mountain. Having my own room + zero cats (I’m allergic; last year we had 3) is great, but the comparative ease of transportation (multiple bus/train routes nearby! Walking distance to things! Walking on not-mountainous-steepness to things!) is even better. I’m busy busy busy- school & thesis & internship & two shows & work & PhD applications & self-improvement goals, as always. And it’s easy for me to look at myself and my life right now and only see the things I haven’t fixed – the weight I’ve gained, the veganism I preach but don’t practice, the overspending & overeating, the fact that my 5k time is clearly getting worse and I’m not doing yoga every morning or running regularly –

but in July 2013, right before I moved to San Francisco, I wrote this:

“So I’m scared. I’m scared that moving to a new city, starting a new graduate program, and getting a new job won’t be enough. I’m scared that I’ll realize, a month or two or three into this new life, that the depression, weakness, and anxiety is part of who I am. I’m scared because I don’t know how else to fix that, if all these major life changes don’t do it.”

It was enough.

I still have days that are lower and greyer and duller than others. And I’ll have more. And maybe there will come another time in my life where the greyness lasts too long again. But the problems and the ongoing fog and the everyday-crushing-weight-ness of that year of my life are, at least for now, at least for a while, gone. Moving helped, being busier helped, changing my focus to theatre instead of history helped. It’s been a good year and a half, and it keeps getting better. So it was enough.

I’ll be leaving San Francisco this summer, moving to New England (most likely Boston area) for the next degree and the next chapter in my life. And this time, I’m excited and looking forward to it – without putting pressure on it to solve all my life’s problems – while already feeling a little sad to leave this city by the bay. It’s better than it was two years ago. I’m better.