Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (by JK Rowling)

I’m so glad I decided to re-read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series this year, at a rate of around one book per month. I have read others of my favourite authors too, and some books that were new to me. It was with a little trepidation that I embarked on the sixth volume, ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, a few days ago, as I could recall the dramatic - and traumatic - climax.

But now I’ve finished it, I am once again awed at the quality of the writing, and the way the author pulled together so many subplots and strands. The first time I read this, in 2005, it was shortly after publication. I read it aloud to my teenage sons, and had no idea what was coming. We were all shocked by the ending, after much discussion about the starting chapters. The second time I read it was in 2007, immediately prior to the publication of the final volume in the series.

But I had not read ‘Half-Blood Prince’ for twelve years, nor since reading ‘Deathly Hallows’. So I had the benefit, this time, of knowing a few of the secrets that were revealed, and was able to read this in the light of future knowledge, so to speak. I could see more clues, and some deliberate ambiguities.

The story opens with a light-hearted scene as the Muggle prime minister has a meeting with the Minister for Magic. It’s no longer the somewhat bumbling Cornelius Fudge, but the rather more organised Rufus Scrimgeour. However Fudge arrives first and makes the introduction, and it’s a very cleverly written scene, with the clear implication that all the British prime ministers have known about the magical world.

Scrimgeour passes on some dire warnings, and they take us neatly into the second chapter, one which takes us into the dark wizarding world. Professor Snape meets some of the Malfoy family, and makes an unbreakable vow… although we don’t actually know what it refers to until later in the book. We don’t learn why he is willing to make it until the final book.

Harry doesn’t appear until the third chapter; once again he has spent the summer with his caricatured non-magical relatives. He has heard nothing from anyone, and is depressed anyway after the events at the end of the fifth book. Then Professor Dumbledore appears, and meets his aunt an uncle in another scene which is light-hearted, in contrast to chapter two.

Dumbledore takes Harry to meet an elderly wizard who is possibly going to teach at Hogwarts, and then to the Weasley home, where he spends the last few days of his holiday. And then - amidst much high security - to Diagon Alley to buy more text books, and eventually on to Hogwarts for his sixth year.

Harry and his friends are sixteen now, and there’s rather more discussion of romantic interests, with a large amount of kissing and cuddling - although only as sidelines to the story. Hermione and Ron don’t speak to each other for a while, each pursuing other people, although it’s clear from the text that they’re rather keen on each other. And Harry realises that the person he cares about most is someone who has had several boyfriends…

There are private lessons with Dumbledore, gradually piecing together some past history that sheds light on the rise of the dark Lord Voldemort. There are potions lessons with a new master, in which Harry suddenly shines; this is due to a borrowed text book which has notes in the margins, and which originally belong to someone calling himself the ‘half-blood prince’. Another sideline story is the ongoing quest to discover who this might have been.

Harry is also very concerned about Draco Malfoy, suspicious that he is involved in a terrible plot, determined to find out what it might be…

The book has many twists and turns, with close escapes by two people, some Quidditch - Harry is now the captain of the Gryffindor team - and some discoveries. It wouldn’t work well as a standalone story; it’s far better read after the earlier ones, as there are so many characters and important history that would make little sense if this was read alone.

But it’s an excellent read. The film of ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ is good too, but the movie versions inevitably miss a great deal of what happens in the books. This volume isn’t as long as the previous two, although it’s still just over 600 pages, but that’s far too much to fit into a two-and-a-half hour film.

Despite knowing what was coming, I found the final chapters tense, and the ending extremely poignant. So much so that instead of reading another nine or so different books before the finale, I’m going to re-read the last volume immediately.

This book is more for teenagers than young children - while the romantic interludes are extremely tame, and there is only the mildest of bad language, there's some violence and extreme tension - and the traumatic ending - which could be disturbing to younger or sensitive children.

Highly recommended, but I would strongly suggest that you read the earlier books first. They are:

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Facing the Music (by Mary Sheepshanks)

I discovered Mary Sheepshanks (now known as Mary Nickson) nearly twenty years ago. I liked the novel I read by her and then gradually acquired all her others. I enjoyed them very much. But I’m only re-reading them for the first time now, at a rate of about one per month.

I first read ‘Facing the Music’ in June 2002, and have re-read it in the last few days. Although I had forgotten most of the storyline, I did recall a strong feeling that one main character was treated quite badly by the author (albeit in the hands of another character). I was pretty sure this was near the end of the book, when a relationship ends through no fault at all of one person.

So it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I started re-reading the book. I was soon drawn into the storyline; it primarily features a young woman called Flavia. She is a top class flautist who is being brought to the public's attention by a conductor called Antoine. She is in love with him although he’s clearly using her, and is unpopular with most of his orchestra. But he is also respected as an excellent conductor.

Disaster strikes when Flavia suddenly becomes very ill during an important concert. She pulls through, but has a long convalescence, and Antoine drops her. She’s not sure if she wants to continue as a solo musician, although her mother pushes her to practice and get back on stage. So when she’s offered a temporary part-time job teaching music at a boys’ prep school, she accepts - and finds it rewarding and enjoyable.

Much of the story takes place in the school, and we get to know several of the staff members. Gervaise, the Head, who is friendly with Flavia’s father (Head of the connected secondary school), is kind-hearted and gentle, albeit somewhat naive. I liked him enormously. One or two of the staff are caricatured, including an unpleasant and rather lecherous man, but others are believable and well-drawn. I particularly liked Meg, the matron, who is secretly keen on Gervaise…

There are other supporting characters who are also caricatured. There’s Gervaise’s eccentric sister, for one, and Flavia’s flatmate in London, Trish. And there are several of Flavia’s relatives, most of whom are warm and caring - and who haven’t really let her grow up. She’s used to being admired and looked after, and although she is not at all selfish or spoilt, and is quite independent, she does like the feeling of being protected.

Various people make mistakes, but I found myself more in sympathy with several characters this time. While the final chapter is still somewhat poignant, I knew what was coming and realised that the ending does leave someone else with hope for the future.

The writing is excellent, the conversation believable, and the conversations between adults and children (mostly boys at the school) works well. The pace is good, and I found it quite difficult to put down by the time I was around half-way through. There’s some bad language but it’s not excessive, and mostly used for effect. The romantic threads are fairly low-key, and the bedroom doors firmly closed behind the few mentioned scenes of intimacy.

Definitely recommended if you like women’s fiction with rather more plot than many.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


This is Going to Hurt (by Adam Kay)

I had never heard of Adam Kay. That’s not surprising, as ‘This is going to hurt’ was his first book. I suppose I saw it advertised on Amazon, or perhaps in someone’s home, shortly after it was published in 2017. Then I saw it bestseller lists, and award-winning books. I had no plans to buy it, until I was ordering some books on special offer earlier this year, and this one was just a couple of pounds…

I had gathered that this book is a semi-biographical and somewhat humorous diary of a junior doctor. Reviews were mostly good, but a few suggested that these diaries were self-absorbed, that the author should never have been a doctor, and that it wasn’t at all amusing. There were strong indications that it was far from politically correct, too.

I finally picked it up a few days ago. I was immediately drawn in; the author gives extensive footnotes which explain medical terms and other words that might be unfamiliar to the readers. Footnotes work well; those who know the terminology or phrases can ignore them. I knew some of the words and concepts, but found the notes well worth reading anyway; there are some cynical comments, and some random asides as well as the explanations.

I had not realised when I started that Adam Kay specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology after his first few years in medicine. So he delivered a lot of high risk babies, mostly successfully. He advised on fertility problems, did some rather gruesome surgeries at times, and generally became involved in life in the hospital. Such as it was. He stays light-hearted in the writing, most of the time, but the hours he had to put in were extensive, often more than double a standard 40-hour week.

The book gives a good insight into life as a junior doctor, and there’s some humour here and there. I didn’t laugh aloud, but I chuckled a couple of times, and smiled a few more. The amusing anecdotes are interspersed with some that are poignant, some that are depressing, some that made me cringe. But that’s the nature of the job; the diary format (albeit with considerable editing, as explained at the end) works extremely well to give the author’s viewpoint.

Clearly Adam Kay was deeply compassionate, often working well beyond anyone’s expectations, always aware that if he left early or worked too fast, people’s lives were at risk. He charts, as an aside, an ongoing relationship with someone outside the medical world who evidently becomes increasingly frustrated with being stood up on dates, having little time to talk and no possibility of going on holiday.

The book was written partly to educate the public about working for the NHS and life as a junior doctor, and I think it succeeds admirably in that aim. There is no criticism of any of the author’s colleagues; he recognises their value and importance, and seems to have been excellent both at delegating where appropriate, and taking over when he was the best person for the job.

There is much that’s politically incorrect in the book; doctors have their jargon as much as those in any other profession, and sometimes they refer to patients or departments in ways that could be considered offensive. I didn’t have a problem with it; the book was taken from personal journal entries which were not originally intended to be shared with anyone.

There’s a lot of bad language, too; rather more than I’m comfortable with; but, again, that’s the author’s style. And it’s not the kind of book I would lend to a child or young teenager anyway. Not that there are gratuitous details of the author’s work, but there are inevitably some disturbing scenes and he regularly finds himself splattered in blood and other body fluids.

If those things don't bother you, I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know a bit more about life as a doctor.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Stormy Petrel (by Mary Stewart)

I started reading Mary Stewart’s light ‘romantic thrillers’ when I was a teenager, and have gradually collected them and re-read as an adult. In a charity shop in the UK a month or so back, I came across three of them which I didn’t think I had read, in a relatively new paperback edition. They were in excellent condition so it was not a difficult decision to decide to buy them.

I started reading ‘Stormy Petrel’ a couple of days ago. It was first published as late as 1991, so is not one I read during my teens. However, a chapter or two in, it felt familiar and I realised that it’s one of a trilogy of Mary Stewart books which I read back in 2011. Not that this is a problem - the trilogy is quite an old copy, so I’m quite happy to have one of the individual books on its own.

The story is narrated by Rose, a young woman who is a lecturer at Cambridge University. She wants to take a break, somewhere where she can do some writing without distraction. She sees an advert for a cottage on a remote Scottish island, and decides to rent it for a couple of weeks. Rose’s brother Crispin, who is a doctor, decides to join her there; he’s an enthusiastic bird-watcher and won’t interrupt her when she’s busy.

The cottage is basic, but adequate, and the air is wonderful. All is going well until Crispin is involved in a rail accident, and while nothing serious is wrong, he is delayed for a few days. Meanwhile Rose has two visitors one night; a young man called Euen who has a key to her cottage and says his parents used to own it, and another young man who seems quite antagonistic, and introduces himself as Andrew….

The blurb on the back implies that Rose doesn’t know which of these young men to trust - if, indeed, either of them is who he says he is. Perhaps, she thinks, they arranged to meet at the cottage and just pretended they didn’t know each other. But it doesn’t take long for her to realise, after talking with one of two of the islanders, that while one of the young men gave a false name, it’s the other who really can’t be trusted.

Or so she believes… it’s not actually obvious to the reader whether she is correct in her assumptions, and I had entirely forgotten how the story pans out. So while I hoped she was right, I didn’t know until several chapters later.

It’s not my favourite of Mary Stewart’s books, although the tension isn’t as great as in some of her earlier novels, and there’s no car chase or anything too unpleasant. But there’s rather too much for my tastes about bird-watching. I got the point: the island is a haven for many kinds of wildlife, in particular sea birds including the rare stormy petrels. But I skimmed a fair bit of description.

The writing is as good as I expect from this author, and the pace works well. It’s not a long book; only a little over 200 pages, and I read the last half in one sitting. The romance is so low key it has only the faintest hint of what might happen in the future, but the ending is basically satisfactory.

Recommended as a light read, particularly if you’re interested in Scottish islands or ornithology, and don’t mind a bit of mild tension.

As with other novels by Mary Stewart, 'Stormy Petrel' has been republished a couple of times in paperback in the past decade, and is now available in Kindle form too.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Inspired (by Rachel Held Evans)

I so enjoyed Rachel Held Evans’ book ‘Searching for Sunday’ a few years ago that I put her newer book ‘Inspired’ on my wishlist earlier in the year. I was given it for my birthday in April - and then learned, from her blog, that she was in hospital in an induced coma, after some seizures. A couple of weeks later, tragically for someone so young with two small children, she died.

I only knew of the author through sporadic reading of her blog, and from the biographical nature of the first book. But I was shocked, as were so many in the Christian world. It took me a while before I could bring myself to start what turned out to be her final published book. I have been reading a few pages each day for about a month, and have just finished it.

The subtitle of ‘Inspired’ is: ‘Slaying giants, walking on water and loving the Bible again’. It’s an honest exploration of the Bible, and the author’s own struggles with it. She gives brief anecdotes from her life, growing up in the evangelical tradition, and mentions some of the Bible stories she heard as a child. As with so many young people, she heard stories of heroes and villains, without much indication of timeline. Worse, she had no explanation as to why God in the Old Testament seemed to send his people into battle, telling them to slaughter thousands, as stark contrast to Jesus, in the Gospels, telling us to love our enemies.

Rachel Held Evans went from believing everything in the Bible to doubting it all as she discovered inconsistencies. Gradually she realised that the Bible contains sixty-six individual and quite diverse sets of writings. Much of the New Testament consists of letters, written to a specific audience. The Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is a mixture of historical books, painstakingly written down by scribes, stories passed down by oral tradition and eventually transcribed, prophecies, proverbs, and more. It’s an astounding collection of ancient documents, and contains a great deal of wisdom. But while undoubtedly inspired, the Bible was written down (and later translated) by fallible humans.

I found the book extremely thought-provoking. In part this is because the author’s journey from blind belief through skepticism to a healthier understanding mirrors my own changing view of the Bible over the past few decades. But there’s a lot more besides. The writing is good, with some mild self-deprecating humour.

The explanation/exposition sections alternate with some shorter sections where the author rewrote short sections of the Bible in modern language from differing viewpoints. We see Job’s comforters sitting in a canteen, for instance, the text written as if it were a play. And there’s a very moving chapter, exploring how people might have felt when one of Paul’s letters was read aloud for the first time. We see a mixture of cultures, rich and poor, slaves and owners, men and women… and I could see afresh just what some of the familiar passages must have meant to those from the original churches, meeting in ordinary homes.

While there wasn’t much that was new to me, the style of writing made me think again, to see differing viewpoints. Rachel Held Evans emphasises the importance of story-telling, both ancient and modern. As she points out, stories change in their telling, even details of personal anecdotes are adjusted, depending on the audience. And when they’re passed into family lore, they may change beyond all recognition - other than the message, the point of the story. And that’s what matters.

We’re encouraged to think about the Bible at a meta-level. What do the stories teach us? When we look at some of the prohibitions or commandments in the Bible, what were they intended to say to the people at the time? Many issues, as the author points out towards the end of the book, are not so much, ‘Is it right or wrong to do this thing?’ but, ‘Is doing this thing helpful or harmful towards the spread of the gospel?’

Rachel Held Evans raised questions that many people think and don’t dare to express. She makes some excellent points, and her research and understanding were superb. Some conservative evangelicals might denounce the book ‘Inspired’ as heresy, but I would recommend reading it anyway, with an open mind.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews