Poverty, material and spiritual

This memoir/sociological analysis came out last summer, but Bob Moyer finds that it’s just as relevant now as it was during the thick of the presidential campaign.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

HILLBILLY ELEGY. By J.D. Vance. Harper. 261 pages. $27.99.

elegyAccording to J.D. Vance, you may be a hillbilly if you do the following during a marital conflict:

Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you — if she or he knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much and you departure won’t be as effective.”

Vance has produced a remarkably poignant portrait of that Scots-Irish-Appalachian group known as hillbillies. He intends, he says, to portray the “spiritual and material poverty” that affects this oft-maligned, oft-ridiculed segment of the population, and why that condition remains chronic. With vivid detail, he describes how this “ancient family structure from the hills” did not thrive in the suburban setting they found themselves in when they made the journey up Route 23 from Kentucky to Ohio.

That’s where Vance hails from. Born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, he knows whereof he speaks. Growing up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, he experienced that much-studied milieu of single-parent homes and economic segregation that Middletown became. He also graduated from Yale Law School, and he brings a fierce, unsentimental ability to conflate his observations and experience with the many studies that have come down. In other words, he walks the walk and talks the talk with authority.

One of the problems he tackles throughout the book is the “…reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others.”

Although he give some credence to the observation that factories around the country “…are going out of business and (the workers’) skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy,” he lays part of the fault on the hillbilly himself.

He cites the culture brought from the hills, in which a man doesn’t do “women’s work.” In this model, it is not clear what work, if any, is acceptable to a man. Vance recounts the warehouse where he worked in high school with a constant flux of workers who simply didn’t want to work that hard. In other words, “…many folks talk about working more than they actually work.”

Vance blends personal experience into the cycle of lost opportunities in Middletown, as people can rise neither above nor out of poverty. He catalogues drug abuse, his mother being driven away in the back of a cop car, frequent moves just within the community, and the penchant on the part of a hillbilly to go from “…zero to murderous in a f*#@ing heartbeat.” Up against that negative force, he came out with an optimism which he credits to his own “god#@*n terminator,” his grandma. Not only did she provide him the succor that kept him going, as well as kept him from harm, but she also provides a few unintended moments of humor. In order to keep him away from a certain unsavory character, she threatens to run the kid over if she ever catches Vance with him again:  “No one would ever find out,’ she whispered menacingly.” Both she and his grandfather were part of the “…loving handful of people” who rescued him.

That’s it. No panaceas, no pronouncements, no prescriptions, just a clearly wrought conclusion with no fanfare. Vance makes clear that love and a stable place to live enabled his “escape.”  Without sounding the least academic, he has produced a most profound sociological study of the dysfunction of the American working force, and the vicious cycle of poverty that makes it nigh onto impossible for people like him to escape it.

He’s proud that he escaped it, but, to his credit, he’s also proud to be a hillbilly. That pride manifests itself in the deeply empathetic but pointedly accurate portrait that has put this book at the top of the best-seller list.

 

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Pirates, beware

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI: Lieutenant Putnam and the Barbary Pirates. By James L. Haley. Books on Tape. Read by Paul Boehmer. 15 ½ hours; 13 CDs. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 464 pages.

tripoliWow, what a book – a naval adventure tale full of action, interesting characters and fascinating history. The Shores of Tripoli is a highly entertaining and enlightening beginning to what I hope will be a long series of novels.

Our hero is Bliven Putnam, a New England farm boy who is thoughtful, well read and eager to see the world. With misgivings, his father lets him join the fledgling United States Navy when Bliven is 14. It’s not long before the boy is educated in the ways of the sea and toughened in battle. He becomes a midshipman and moves on to lieutenant while still a teenager. One of the many details that you will learn from this well researched book is that service at such a tender age was not unusual in the early days of our country’s Navy. Bliven was a midshipman decades before there was a Naval Academy (or, later, ROTC programs) to educate and train future Navy and Marine officers.

The book starts in 1801, when the American Navy is still in its infancy and politicians argue over the wisdom of spending the money to build and maintain ships and keep them manned with trained crews.

President Jefferson, however, has decided that the young country must do something to stop the menace of piracy in the Mediterranean, where the Berber States of Northern Africa believe that their religion entitles them to seize foreign ships and make slaves of the “infidels” who make up their crews. The Berber States, especially Tripoli, demand tribute to leave U.S. ships alone and ransom to free those sailors who are captured and enslaved.

While on his first ship, Bliven is part of a fierce battle with the pirate ship Tripoli. After an extended time at home, he is assigned to the USS Constitution, under the command of Commodore Edward Preble. In addition to the action he sees on the Constitution, Bliven is temporarily assigned to accompany Army Gen. William Eaton on a daring march through the desert to mount a surprise attack on the Libyan city of Derna. Students of history will know Bliven is in the thick of actual events with real people.

James L. Haley must have done extensive research into the history of the Navy, the United States and early 19th century wars and politics, and, like the best historical novelists, he works his knowledge smoothly into the story he’s telling.

Bliven sees a lot more of the world than he had imagined, learning much about human nature, politics, military culture and, yes, women. In 1801, he’s a bright but naïve young teenager; by the end of the book, he’s a man, even if not yet in his 20s.

Haley does a grand job of bringing the story alive. With Bliven, we brave the seas, face terrifying foes, visit exotic places and meet interesting people.

Although fans of historical fiction in general should love the book, those with an interest in naval history will be especially pleased. Those familiar with today’s Navy will be intrigued, amused and even horrified by some of what went on in those early days. One challenge, for example, involved trying to figure out how to keep worms from infesting the hard bread that kept sailors alive on long stretches at sea. Another was the lash, which some officers were all too ready to wield for any infraction.

If you like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin (Master and Commander) nautical novels, you should love Haley’s book. It’s set at about the same time, but from the perspective of the U.S., not the British Navy. And you, like Bliven, will pick up on the reality that tensions between the United States and Britain may well lead to war before too long. Bliven, too, is increasingly conscious of tensions within his own country between people from the North and those from the South, between those who believe slavery should be abolished and those who think it must be continued.

The U.S. Navy, we know, will have many more vital and adventurous missions in the years immediately following 1805. I’ll be surprised and disappointed if Bliven Putnam is not in the thick of them.

 

 

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Murder in Atlanta

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

OLD BONES. By Trudy Nan Boyce. Read by Rebecca Lowman. Books on Tape. 10 ½ hours; 8 CDs.

oldbonesjpg-89c804bdb98533d0Atlanta is a powder keg after someone fires on a group of students from Spelman College who are demonstrating for police reform. One student from the historically black women’s college is killed, and several others are fighting for their lives. People are demanding answers. Sympathizers are pouring in from other cities. Police detectives are trying hard to figure out who the shooter was, trying hard to solve the other murder cases that haunt their thoughts, but having to take time from their investigations to don uniforms and help deal with riots in the streets.

The situation that unfolds in Old Bones is not exactly just routine work for an Atlanta police detective like Sarah Alt, but it isn’t that atypical, either.

For fans of detective and mystery fiction, it’s always a pleasure to discover a good series, with the prospect of many more books to come. I somehow missed Out of the Blues, the debut of the Detective Sarah Alt series by Trudy Nan Boyce. But now that I’ve found No. 2, Old Bones, you can bet I’ll go back to find that first one and eagerly await Boyce’s future offerings.

Sarah Alt, known by most people as Salt, is a young woman who, after doing her years on the streets of Atlanta as a beat cop, has recently become a homicide detective. Her father was also a cop in Atlanta, and her family’s roots are deep in rural Georgia near the city. She’s a police officer who strives to do her job well, and who also thinks about such issues as justice and fairness and what kind of prospects the kids who grow up in the projects have in life. She gets to know the people she deals with, and she cares about them.

Boyce obviously is writing what she knows. She spent more than 30 years as a police officer in Atlanta, including time as a homicide detective. Before that, she earned a Ph.D. in community counseling.

In the midst of the fallout from the Spelman shootings, Salt discovers that the decomposed body she’s called out to investigate is that of a teenage girl she arrested a couple of years earlier. Salt didn’t even know the girl was out of custody, but she feels a responsibility to find out what happened. Unfortunately, both events and people with questionable motives interfere with her investigation.

This book has it all – the plot is taught and believable, with enough action and suspense to make it gripping. Salt is a complex and likable character, struggling with her own problems even as she devotes herself to her demanding job. There’s a romance, too, and it blends seamlessly into the rest of the story. Boyce portrays the tensions of Atlanta as a New South city, with plenty of good people, to be sure, but also slums, drugs and gangs intertwined with the legacy of slavery and racism.

Boyce’s story and her prose are rich and accomplished. Rebecca Lowman’s reading of the audio version is a pleasure, and I’m happy to say she does not exaggerate Southern accents.

 

 

 

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What the tide brings

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BRYANT & MAY: STRANGE TIDE. By Christopher Fowler. Bantam. 436 pages. $27

bryant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confession: I was so despondent upon finishing Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May and the Burning Man last year that I never wrote the review. Something terrible had happened to Arthur Bryant, that most eccentric of brilliant detectives. It all seemed so final, and so sad. I feared that book marked the end of the series, for how could it survive without the outrageous old man who, more than anyone, accounts for the success of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit?

I should have had more faith. No matter how fervidly the powers that be try to shut it down, no matter how badly Bryant, his longtime partner John May and those who work with them might break the rules, no matter how much they are reprimanded, punished and shunted aside, the PCU always manages not only to survive but also to excel at solving those particularly difficult crimes.

And, at least for now, no matter how gravely ill he may seem, no matter how often he is ordered not to leave the office or stray from his keepers, Bryant also keeps going.

He’s back, and this time, Bryant and the rest of the crew tackle perhaps their most baffling case. It starts with the discovery of the body of a young woman who had been chained to a stone post at the edge of the Thames and left to die a horrible death. But how can it be that only one set of footprints leads to the place where she died? And why would anyone go to the trouble to chain her to that post? What does it mean?

Before the detectives can answer these and other questions, more bodies begin to litter the river. The Thames has always been a dumping ground, but these bodies seem to have some connection – or do they?

Bryant, with his vast knowledge of history, not to mention esoteric arts, would seem (as so often happens) to be the unit’s best bet for solving the case, but Bryant’s grip on reality and the present seems to be slipping away ever more alarmingly.

Will Bryant and the PCU survive? Can they solve this maddeningly complex puzzle?

Christopher Fowler has written another delightfully intelligent, zany, fascinating Bryant & May novel, chock full of interesting but arcane information, intrigue, social commentary, humanity and sly humor. May the PCU keep going for many years to come.

(And by the way, Bryant & May and the Burning Man is also well worth the read. And you’ll know, as I didn’t, that Bryant survives.)

 

 

 

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A haunting novel

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO. By George Saunders. Read by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and George Saunders, with a full cast of others. Random House Audio. 7 ½ hours, 6 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Random House.

bardoGeorge Saunders has earned his literary laurels through writing short fiction, as well as essays. Although he’s been writing for many years, has earned prestigious awards and honors, and teaches in the creative writing-program at Syracuse, this is his first novel.

And what a novel it is.

In a way, Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel about President Abraham Lincoln and how he dealt with the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862, during days that were already grim and distressing as deaths began to mount in the still-new Civil War.

But readers who are looking for a traditional historical novel will not find it here.

In fact, readers who are looking for any sort of a traditional novel will not find it here.

This is a brilliant work of art that, I suppose, is called a novel because it’s fiction, prose, and it’s longer than a short story or novella. But the term novel seems too confining for what Saunders has created.

I listened to the audio version, which, recorded by a large cast of excellent performers and readers, inevitably brings to mind a stage production. The words the characters speak, the actions described, evoke vivid images.

I felt at times that I was listening to, or watching, a Greek chorus, but one that includes some interesting and even disreputable American characters. Another comparison that comes to mind is a stage adaption I saw many years ago of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short, free-form poems in which the dead of the small town of Spoon River tell their own stories. This book, however, is much more complex than that.

Saunders builds this book on the historical fact that Lincoln, distraught with grief, visited his dead son in his crypt in a cemetery in Georgetown.

Much of the story is told by ghosts, or spirits of people who are dead but remain on Earth in a sort of purgatory, or in-between state, called the bardo by Tibetan Buddhists. These spirits emerge from their “sick boxes” at night and wander the cemetery, talking, quarreling, reminiscing, seeking revenge and even indulging in bawdy behavior. Part of the tension in the book has to do with whether Willie, reluctant to leave his father, will remain in this in-between state, which we learn is especially terrible for children, or whether he will leave his decaying body and head on to whatever awaits him.

Saunders has clearly done a great deal of research. But unlike most writers of historical novels, who strive to work what they’ve learned seamlessly into their story, Saunders intersperses the accounts of the spirits and descriptions of Lincoln with many direct excerpts from journals, letters and other sources, including his references, complete with footnote conventions such as “op. cit.”

This is not an easy book to listen to, and I suspect it’s equally challenging to read in print. In fact, I stopped after a few chapters the first time I tried, substituting a more straightforward and less emotionally draining book of popular fiction. But something drew me back to Lincoln’s story – I was, I suppose, almost literally haunted by the voices Saunders had presented – and I gave the book another try.

There is much emotion in this book: pain, suffering, love, violence and even, at times, hilarity. Saunders spares nothing as he reveals much about the human condition.

Although I’ve read a fair amount about Lincoln, I never quite realized how terrible it must have been for him to deal with his beloved son’s death even while he was agonizing over whether the war into which he had led the country was worth the lives of the many men – all sons of someone – who were dying on the bloody battlefields.

The unifying theme, and there is a theme in this most unusual novel, has to do with persevering, keeping on with a life that means something, even while surrounded by the reality that human lives, loves and achievements are so fragile, so transitory.

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A good thriller, laced with romance

Bob Moyer’s not particularly into vampire romance fiction, but if a vampire writer wants to try writing a thriller, he’s willing to see what she can do.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE CHEMIST. By Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown and Co. 528 pages. $28.

chemistStephenie Meyer came out of left field with her Twilight series and dominated the vampire-themed fantasy romance genre some years back. Now, she comes out of another left field and deposits her latest book at the top of the thriller list.

It will be difficult to topple The Chemist from that position. A torture specialist for a secret government agency, she’s already survived three attempts on her life by her own agency; she’s “…a machine. Pitiless and relentless…She had a natural affinity for the capabilities of the human body and was a genius with a beaker.” She’s always on guard, protecting herself from getting knocked off. When a former superior contacts her about getting off the hit list by doing a job right down her alley, she takes on the task, albeit warily. It’s all a trick, of course, and she ends up in a reluctant trio, which includes another endangered secret agent from another agency.

The accumulation of agents increases the fascinating details of survival that keep the pages flying by. As they jump from one site to another, the trio slowly turns into a pas de deux. Meyer knows how to do romance, and she does it here in context. Where a lesser writer would play down the intrigue while playing up the love, she integrates the romantic … er … chemistry between two of the characters into the action. The author weaves romance and violence into a narrative that keeps the reader wanting to know not just what will happen, but also how it will happen.

The less said about the what and how the better for your enjoyment. Meyer uses detail with such nuance and ingenuity that any revelation would be a spoiler. Her fans will be pleased with the romance; others will probably be surprised that she does thriller as well as anyone currently writing.

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While you were sleeping

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SLEEPWALKER. By Chris Bohjalian. Read by Cady McClain and Grace Experience. Random House Audio. 9 ½ hours; 8 CDs. $47.

sleepA new novel from Chris Bohjalian is always cause for celebration. It’s not just that he is a fine writer. He also is brave and inquisitive enough to tackle new and unusual subjects, so that each of his works is like a revelation, whether he’s writing about the Armenian genocide, a midwife in rural Vermont, animal rights, human trafficking, a nuclear accident or something else. This time, the subject is a particularly troubling variety of sleepwalking.

In The Sleepwalker, we meet the Ahlbergs of Vermont during a devastating family crisis. Annalee Ahlberg, wife and mother, has disappeared and is feared to be dead. Annalee, a beautiful woman and a gifted architect, suffers from a bizarre form of sleepwalking that sometimes takes her out of the house and into perilous situations. Once, her older daughter, Lianna, saved her as she was about to plunge off a bridge near their home into the Gale River. Annalee’s episodes usually happen only when her husband, Warren, a college professor is away from home. After therapy and medication, Annalee has been free of sleepwalking for quite a while, so Warren dares to travel to an academic conference in another state for the first time in years.

When Annalee disappears while he’s gone, Lianna and her younger sister feel both devastated and responsible.

As the search for Annalee drags on and then is more or less abandoned, Warren and his daughters struggle to deal with their loss. Not knowing Annalee’s fate makes things even worse.

Annalee disappeared at the end of summer, and Lianna finds herself unable to return to college for her senior year. She finds herself drifting aimlessly through the days, providing a semblance of meals and routine for her father and her sister, Paige, who’s middle-school age and a gifted athlete. In a way, Lianna is sleepwalking through life – or, more accurately, walking, dazed, through a nightmare,

But she’s also trying to learn more about her mother in hopes of solving the mystery of what happened to her, and what she discovers is more and more unsettling. Her mother didn’t just walk in her sleep; she engaged in risky behavior, and that fueled the tensions between Lianna’s parents.

And then there’s Gavin Rikert, a handsome young detective who shows up on the day Annalee is discovered missing to help with the case. Then he comes back, again and again, and soon he and Lianna are in a clandestine relationship. Gavin, Lianna learns, knew her mother from the sleep center where her mother went for treatment. As time goes on, Lianna is torn between her attraction to Gavin and her suspicions about his relationship with her mother as well his intentions toward her.

Bohjalian also has the commendable gift of being able to create women characters who are entirely believable rather than, as so often happens when men write about women, a male fantasy of how women think and react. This book works particularly well as an audiobook, with two women voicing the primary and secondary narrators.

The novel at first seems low-key and almost slow, but the suspense steadily builds as Lianna, bit by bit, learns more of her family’s secrets. Finally, Bohjalian delivers an ending that will leave your head spinning before you realize the truth of what he’s written.

 

 

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A fresh perspective: What happened to the baby?

Here’s another review by one of Paul O’Connor’s students in opinion writing at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Reviewed by Lauren Tarpley

THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR. By Shari Lapena. Pamela Dorman Books (Viking). 320 pages. $26.

coupleA couple in New York attend a dinner party at their neighbor’s house, leaving their beloved infant daughter home, but taking the baby monitor with them and checking on her every half hour. Then they return home to find that the baby has vanished. Their motion detector has been tampered with, and the front door is unlatched. A typical kidnapping case … right? Wrong. What follows is not your standard story surrounding a missing child.

In her novel The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena examines the fear Anne and Marco Conti face as they try to piece together the night before in hopes of finding their daughter, Cora. As more evidence is uncovered, more about the couple next door comes to light, and what they find is unsettling.

Lapena does an excellent job of keeping the narrative moving by providing a seemingly endless array of action and plot twists. Just when you think you’re one step closer to figuring out who took Cora, Lapena throws in a new detail to stop you in your tracks.

From Anne’s wealthy parents to the beautiful and charming woman next door, the characters throughout the novel might appear clichéd at first. Yet, the characters that Lapena has created are just as dark and complex as the narrative itself. Whether because of mental illness or family secrets, nobody within the novel is to be trusted. However, since the novel is so fast-paced, there is little time for character development. The reader is still trying to unravel the characters up to the very last page. On the one hand, because the characters are so complex, I would have liked to get to know them earlier in the novel. But, on the other hand, perhaps this slow character development feeds the suspense of the novel. The reader doesn’t know whom to blame or trust — just as the characters in the novel don’t know.

Lapena excels when it comes to giving voices to her varied characters. Anne, a distressed mother with postpartum depression, never sounds crazy or objectified, which can be a difficult task when giving voice to someone with mental illness.

In what could have been your stereotypical suspense novel revolving around a kidnapping, Lapena does an excellent job of making sure her plot line is new and captivating. Through vivid detail and fast-paced action, Lapena is able to completely immerse the reader in the story.

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In treacherous territory

Bob Moyer wrote this review a while back, but either because of human error or a disturbance in the force, it never made it onto the blog. The book has been out since last summer, but never fear if you missed it – it’s still around, and still good.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE JEALOUS KIND. By James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster. 382 pages. $27.99

jealousJames Lee Burke has a penchant for placing his heroes in treacherous territory. Pity poor Aaron Holland Broussard. He’s confronted with traps, peaks and valleys, bogs, shifting ground, all with no charts, in that dreadful place called — Young Love.

It’s Houston in the 1950s, and convertibles and hotrods fill the parking lots of drive-ins everywhere. It’s in one of those that 17-year-old Aaron intervenes in an argument between Valerie Epstein and Grady Harrelson. He gains two things with that move — the love of his life, and a sworn enemy.

Grady, it seems, is The Jealous Kind, who “…don’t love themselves, so they can’t love or trust anyone else. There’s no way to fix them,” says Valerie.

Grady is also the dangerous kind. His daddy is a mobster, and Grady launches inconceivable ferocity on Aaron and his family. Instead of worrying “…about dealing with a collection of spoiled rich kids, (they were) a few feet away from men who fixed prizefights and trafficked in narcotics and prostitution and committed murder for no other reason than greed.”

In a bow to the world of folklore, Aaron descends, literally, into the underworld to do battle with the forces of evil, and to become a man by finding the courage his father had found as a soldier in the Great War.

The forces of evil take on a variety of vivid faces: the high school shop teacher who preys on young boys; the mobster’s son disfigured by botched plastic surgery; the gangster’s moll who makes moves on Aaron; and, of course, Grady himself.

In his picaresque but perilous journey, Aaron is joined by his very own Sancho Panza, Saber Bledsoe, who can get everybody in trouble but nobody out. In the middle of the swirling, emerging class war that winds its way through Burke’s narrative, there’s also a murder, a crime that complicates Aaron’s rise against evil.

And the course of true love, two people “…unable to enjoy pleasure without the presence of the other.” A binding love carries Valerie and Aaron through the conflict to a place where “…life was a song, eternal in nature, and the smell and secrets of creation lay in the tumble of every wave that crested and receded into the Gulf.”

Aaron’s story is another chapter in the Holland family history, which stretches across many years and many books. With his usual unsurpassed skill, Burke blends the natural world with the nature of the human beast known as Holland.

He also manages to balance the love story with the lawless violence of the plotline. That balance makes this quite possibly the best book in the series, and one of the best he’s written. It fills out the history, while also standing on its own. Quite a feat. Quite a read.

 

 

 

 

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A fresh perspective: The cursed Harry Potter

Again this year, students in Paul T. O’Connor’s opinion-writing class in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have contributed book reviews to Briar Patch Books. We welcome these reviews, which offer some different fare as well as fresh perspectives. Thanks to these bright students!

Reviewed by Rebekah Dare Guin

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD. By J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne. Scholastic, Inc. 320 pages.

cursedJ.K. Rowling cursed her legacy by releasing the script to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a book that’s part of her franchise.

The magic was back. Potterheads around the globe dressed in black robes and flew to bookstores in hopes of reliving the wonder of the bestselling book series of all time.

But Cursed Child deviated from the earlier works in the series in distinct ways. First, the book was not a novel but a script from the West End play that opened the same weekend. Second, Rowling was not the primary author of the work. Her name is on the cover in thick black type, but she only consulted on the script with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. Last, the play and script cast Potter’s gang in secondary roles and focus instead on the second generation of wizards.

The script starts where the books left off. The first scene is a re-enactment of the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry is sending his second child, Albus, off for his first year at Hogwarts. The next few scenes quickly move through time until it settles on Albus’ fourth year at the school, where most of the action takes place.

The script focuses on Albus’ struggle to accept the legacy of his father and to solve the mystery of a prophesied “cursed child.”

On the surface, this script should have been a welcome addition. The plot follows the narrative that fans have come to expect, and it answers the never-ending question of what happened next. However, page after page proved that the script was a great idea in concept but was very poorly executed.

The characters are flat and one-dimensional. Unlike in the books, their dialogue feels flat and forced. Of course, some of this can be chalked up to differences in media. The characters would gain dimension on the stage that was lacking on the page. It is possible that watching the play leaves the viewer with a completely different feeling and impression. As a reader, I found it hard to care for the characters, even the ones from the original work. They lack the authenticity that made Rowling’s books famous.

Additionally, the script panders to fans. Throughout the work, we reunite with many characters from the original books. However, clearly they are included as fan service rather than to move the plot forward. It is a common fan theory to believe that Snape has a heart of gold under his tough exterior, and the script plays into that so heavily it feels disingenuous to the saga as a whole.

The script is a mess. One premise of the plot is time travel, and the principles applied in this script do not match with the laws of time and magic that Rowling laid out in her books. It seems silly to bicker about the technicalities of an impossible phenomenon, but if you accept the laws in Cursed Child, the whole plot of the third Harry Potter falls to pieces.

Lastly, the plot is weak and predictable. Rowling was known for using plot twists and surprises to set her work apart, enabling her to transcend children’s literature and appeal to millions of adult readers. The Cursed Child plot reverts to simplistic and predictable children’s work.

As a staged performance, Cursed Child might provide a valuable addition to Harry Potter world, but releasing it as a book tarnishes Rowling’s reputation and offends her fans. It might be worth £100 to see it live, but it will never be worth the $20 to read.

 

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