John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)

I never thought I would say something like that about a Harry Potter book but this one left me “meh”. It sure isn’t awful but there’s nothing to rave about either. Mostly, it felt a bit pointless. The Deathly Hallows offered to all fans a climax and a closure; it’s really tough to have anything come after that.

So what can The Cursed Child offer? A revisit to best loved characters, almost twenty years later. Time is not kind to anyone, and fans probably hate to see the kind of adults Harry, Hermione, Ron and the others have become. I don’t mind so much, but the whole thing about parenting is hard felt rather heavy-handed.

It offers also a new visit into famous moments of the canon, thanks to time-travel devices. But after the first moment of surprise the whole time-travel thing feels more like a gimmick. (And we all know that I’m not allergic on principles to time-travel in literature) Even my son commented that there was enough back-and-forth to give you motion sickness. The plot itself was not really what I expected of J.K. Rowling. There are really implausible parts (I don’t want to go into spoilers, but there’s a particular awkward detail that really beggars belief), inconsistencies and some predictability, which does not make for a good cocktail.

I love the Harry Potter series (still love it despite this one, which I don’t really consider part of the story), and I transmitted this love to my elder son, so that was only logical that I would buy him this book. It was perhaps a fault of mine that I didn’t read it before giving it to me. My son rather enjoyed it (but not to the degree of the rest) and when he told me to read it, I added it to the pile… for a full year and then more (to my shame). I picked it up for the Summer reading challenge (#20BooksofSummer organized by Cathy from 746 Books) because I wanted to something easy and light. In that respect it was alright, and it was entertaining in a fully nostalgic way, plus it was a good opportunity to talk again about Harry Potter with my rapidly-growing teenager.

I have a mild curiosity about how all this magic and time travel translates onto the stage but I surely wouldn’t pay a fortune to get tickets.

The One with Cormoran’s Arch Nemesises

Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike #3; 2015)

It was probably not a good idea to take this mystery as a summer easy read for the holidays. Not enough time had passed since I’d finished the previous book, which was entertaining (especially the satire of the publishing world) but not over-the-moon great. But the book did tempt me from its library shelf (in English version this time, since I hadn’t enjoyed the French translation of #2) and I took it home, and lugged it around on our annual family trip.

This time, J.K. Rowling is not making fun of a particular milieu: not the fashionista like the first book, Cuckoo’s Calling, not the publishers and agents like the second, The Silkworm. She “just” tackles violence against women in its every form, and well, it doesn’t have the fun, slightly tongue-in-cheek element of the other books. It is dead serious… and so heavy… and so long… and gruesome (serial killer, assaults, abuse and body parts included).

[Spoiler Ahead]

I nearly DNF this book so many times. But I was on a trip and didn’t have much else to read so I kept on reading, if actually skimming through many pages. If it hadn’t been a library loan I would have abandoned it in one of the holiday rentals. Yes, it’s that kind of book, sorry.

No amount of fondness for Robin will make it shorter, especially since from the get-go we have a choice between 4, very quickly down to 3 suspects. Those happy few are bad guys who have a long-term grudge against Cormoran Strike, which is the pretext for a stroll into memory lane. I don’t mind back stories, but I did find it so convenient – why only those 3? By the way, what is the correct plural form of Arch Nemesis? Nemesises? Nemesiss?

I was moderately engaged with the plot, but I did appreciate the developments of the relation between Cormoran and Robin, biding my time until she would become not a mere secretary, not an assistant, but would work on an equal footing with Cormoran (pun unintended?). Given that I don’t care for Robin’s fiancé Matthew, their on-off relationship was again grating on my nerves. I expected more from J.K. Rowling, especially on two points. First, that Robin’s secret-in-the-past has to do with sexual assault, because, ugh. Second, the very last scene, which is such a terrible cliff-hanger that no seasoned writer should be allowed to get away with that one.

Conclusion: only if you’re a fan. I might go for #4 in the series (if it’s less than 500 pages) but not before mid-2020, lesson learnt, I promise.

The One with the Grotesque Writer

Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm (2014 – Cormoran Strike #2)

I listened to The Silkworm on audio-book in French, and it was over 17 hours long. I can’t deny that the plot was good, because I would have given up halfway through otherwise. The only thing is, I don’t think I can give an unbiased opinion, as I was heavily influenced by 1- the translator, 2- the professional reader. The book seems overwritten, full of adjectives and with some weird choices of turn of sentences, but it might be the translator. As for the reader, who is a French professional actor, he really grated on my nerves as soon as he read female characters’ lines, because they took all a whiny, ridiculous voice. Was all this intended? I cannot say.

I won’t go into any plot details because there are literally 15,000 reviews of this book on Goodreads. The short version is that The Silkworm is the second Cormoran mystery by J.K. Rowling, and I found it better than the first. It deals with writers and agents and publishers, a thing Rowling knows one thing or two, and I liked this tongue-in-cheek approach. The duo of Cormoran and Robin has already been introduced and doesn’t need as much backstory as in the first book. Galbraith is very good at weaving a lot of stories together and at planting clues here and there, so that the whodunnit works for me, although my credibility was stretched like after an intense yoga session.

Now, it does not mean that this book will join my favorite mystery books shortlist of all times. Many of her characters are caricatures to me, and I really can’t warm up to Cormoran. I want more of Robin, but this misogynist, tough guy with a heart of gold? Mmh, not so much. I skipped all the bits about his ex-boyfriend and her ridiculous fiancé, because it made my eyes roll too much. But to be honest, I’ll probably go for the next book despite these flaws, because you can’t deny how entertaining it is.

The One with the Odd-Named Gumshoe

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Couldn’t resist the pun

I haven’t yet found out what kind of magical ingredient J.K. Rowling puts in her novels that hooks me even if the subject doesn’t appeal to me in the least. The spell has worked like a charm for The Casual Vacancy, where she managed to interest me in a small village council politics (in the least noble sense of the word – think rumors, backstabbing and shenanigans around the petits fours). With any other writer I would have abandoned the book after twenty pages, but instead I gulped happily the 15ish hours of audiobook.

And oops, she did it again. (I’m not really sorry to drop Britney Spears references in a so-called literary blog, after all I have been known to drop secret Frozen references in professional meetings just for the fun of it). A private investigator down on his luck taking in the  case of a supermodel’s pseudo-suicide. Yes, I have a soft spot for unlucky gumshoe à la Marlow, but supermodels? Fans and paparazzi ? I couldn’t care less.

I can’t say that the plot was riveting and that the twists and secrets the P.I. uncovers along the way took my breath away or were even watertight for the murder explanation (after all, the solving of classic whodunit revolves around some misinterpretation or some key clue that is suddenly shown under a new light, here the issues of the supermodel schedule on the day of her murder and who came in and out of the victim’s buildings dragged forever and proved quite laborious).

No, I just stuck with it because of Cormoran Strike, and let’s be real, not because of his improbable name. How did J.K. Rowling come up with such a name? I thought it was a joke at first, but I guess he’s supposed to be a regular ex-military who tries to  He’s just a very likeable character, and flanked with a young, ambitious and very efficient secretary, Robin, I loved every bit of banter they had between those two. This is far from being an original pair, but it was fair game and rather entertaining, especially if you count that I didn’t care about the main topic. I guess I’ll try her second mystery since the action seems to center on writers and publishers.

The one with too many Muggles

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy (2012)

Back in February Mr. S. got me the audiobook of The Casual Vacancy from the library and it took me a while to fully enter the atmosphere of the book: it wasn’t before I reached the third of the 500 pages, that was cut in no less than 110 audio chapters, that I started being hooked in: I was in for the long run!

I wasn’t expecting anything like Harry Potter. I knew by reputation that Rowling has now the ambition to write for grown-ups, but I can also see why the die-hard fans of Harry Potter were unsettled and disappointed: nothing could be further away from Hogwarts than the small English town of Pagford, with its typical picturesque setting, its petty intrigues, and the feeling that you can’t escape anywhere. Here, no world to save, no extraordinary creatures, no bigger-than-life saga. And yet, when I come to think of it, I can see something of Harry Potter’s world in this book: its mean and selfish Muggle relatives, Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and the meanest boy Dudley.

How do you deal with books that are fascinating but incredibly bleak? I was in a sort of funk in the last few days, and I realized that I’d probably overindulged in The Casual Vacancy.

This book is a world in itself, a small town packed with people and rumors and back stories and tiny plots, but these people… argh, they are all so terribly depressing! If they’re not petty and violent and jealous and arrogant, it might be that they are stupid, or weak, or blind. Their children, their spouse, their neighbors and siblings… They are all on edge with secrets, scandals and rancor that threaten to spill over any instant. Sometimes the characterization verges on grotesque, but most of the times, they feel very human, with flaws and moments of redeeming aspirations.

Even if you can’t relate to any of them (I’m a city girl at heart and have never lived in a small town), you can’t escape being sucked in, because they are all living under your gaze and you’re like a semi god watching the anthill and seeing the path of one insect inescapably cross the path of another one. Rowling is so clever at creating a collective life made of tiny little seemingly random acts, a tragedy in the making. I just found the ending a bit too melodramatic, but I still enjoyed the experience: it was as if I was living in Pagford for a few months. I won’t definitely be moving in for good, knowing what I know now, but how Paris’ anonymous crowds seem alluring and comforting by comparison!

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

During winter dark days, I needed to find solace and comfort in my commute reading, because days are long at work. So in 2011, I am at long last starting the Harry Potter series (I watched one or two movies a long time ago, but it doesn’t really count, does it?)

 A few months ago, I asked everyone around if it was better to wait until Baby Smithereens was old enough to start the series, and the answer was to read it first and then perhaps enjoy it as a re-read later on if and when he would get interested (perhaps by this time, Harry Potter will seem completely moth-eaten and unfashionable). I’m glad I did so, because the story requires a child to be quite familiar with the school system, and I guess it’s not so enjoyable to read it before he is 7 (if the blog is still up and running by then, I’ll duly report)

I swallowed the book (in the French edition, more compact) in a few days’ time and had a lot of fun. The fact that the story is so popular let me concentrate on other topics, notably on the plot and the translation issues. (I must confess that I read it in February, see how late I am…, so my mind was full of translation due to Verbivore’s project to translate and publish a short story of mine)

The first thing that struck me is that the title was changed: French children didn’t read anything about Philosopher’s Stone or Sorcerer’s Stone, it was translated as “Harry Potter at the Sorcerers School”. I found it a daring shift, but it works just as well because Rowling spends a lot of the book building up Harry’s world and explaining the school organization. The philosopher’s stone itself plays a minor role, in my opinion. But the result was confusing to me (and to the amateur librarian who helps at my company’s little library).

I soon discovered the different challenges that the translator had to tackle, and it must have been a pretty steep summit to climb: accents, personal names loaded with allusions and possible meanings, a whole world with places, familiar objects, cultural references to rebuild in another language. The result has to be fluent and simple enough for children to appreciate and keep in mind. And it works!

I tried to pay as much attention as possible to the choice of words and it was a real pleasure. Some translations were very good choices in my opinion, such as “Serpentard” for “Slytherin”. It creates an unpleasant, hissing sound and the ending in “ard” puts the school under a negative light. I also loved “Moldus” for “Muggles”. It rimes with a lot of stupid expletives in French and sounds highly comical. What does “Muggles” sound like? Sometimes, I was “lost in translation”, like when Severus Snape becomes Severus Rogue. I would have preferred to keep the alliteration of the triple “s”, but instead “rogue” brings “arrogant” and “bulldog” to mind. Not bad. “Snape” brings “snake” and “snap” to my foreign mind, is that what’s intended? Other attempts seemed more forced, like for the Sorting Hat, that became “Choixpeau”, a funny combination of choice and hat that sounds close to “chapeau”.

After this first instalment, I’ll probably choose an English edition for the next one, or maybe go back and forth between French and English. Did any of you read Harry Potter in different languages?