Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling

The Prime Minister drew himself up to his fullest height and replied, ‘I am perfectly happy with the security I’ve already got, thank you very -‘
‘Well, we’re not,’ Scrimgeour cut in. ‘It’ll be a poor lookout for the muggles if their Prime Minister gets put under the Imperius Curse. The new secretary in your outer office -‘
‘I’m not getting rid of Kingsley Shacklebolt, if that’s what you’re suggesting!’ said the Prime Minister hotly. ‘He’s highly efficient, gets through twice the work the of them -‘
‘That’s because he’s a wizard.’ said Scrimgeour, without a flicker of a smile. ‘A highly trained Auror, who has been assigned to you for your protection.’

So the world has finally woken up to the fact that Volde- “He-who-must-not-be-named” is back and Dumbledore realises it’s time for Harry, still grieving over the loss of Sirius, to learn about the dark wizard whose destiny is linked to his. He turns up himself, complete with a shrivelled blackened hand to pick up Harry from the Dursleys. En route back to Hogwarts they stop by to hire Professor Slughorn as a Professor at Hogwarts.

Meanwhile, somewhere else, Snape is making an unbreakable oath, that he will help young Draco Malfoy complete the task set to him by the dark lord. Unbreakable eh? What are you going to do about that Snape? This far in and no one really knows what side you’re on.

And so back to Hogwarts, Slughorn is introduced as the new potions master at the welcoming feast. But hang on, if Slughorn is potions master, then what’s Snape going to do? You don’t mean? Yes, Finally, Snape is the Defence against the dark arts teacher! This is obviously bad news for Harry but great news for Draco. It’s not all bad though for Potter, in his first potions lessons, which are much more bearable without Snape, Harry is given an old potions book that has been heavily annotated by the Half-Blood Prince. Despite having no idea who he is Harry benefits from his excellent potions knowledge, much to the annoyance of Hermione.

As the terms roll around Harry (and us) finally learn about Voldemort’s (that’s right, I said it) past and the awful truth about Horcruxes. There’s one bit missing though, and Slughorn is the key. If only there was some way Harry could wheedle the truth out of him. Luckily, quite literally, Harry won a vial of luck potion from Slughorn in his first lesson, that should come in handy.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, in keeping with accommodating the hormones raging through most of the protagonists, Harry finally gets a girlfriend!

A roar of celebration erupted from the hole behind her. Harry gaped as people began to scream at the sight of him; several hands pulled him into the room.
‘We won!’ yelled Ron, bounding into sigh and brandishing the silver Cup at Harry. ‘We won! Four hundred and fifty to a hundred and forty! We won!’

Harry looked around; there was Ginny running towards him; she had a hard, blazing look in her face as she threw her arms around him. And without thinking, without planning it, without worrying about the fact that fifty people were watching, Harry kissed her.

But the time for celebrations is soon over, It’s time for Dumbledore and Harry to start destroying old Vordy’s Horcruxes. The first one they find is well protected and Dumbledore and Harry only just escape back to Hogwarts…where Draco is waiting with a group of Death Eaters! Luckily the order of the Phoenix are also on hand but they are too far away. Even a severely weakened Dumbledore seems to much for Draco, then more death eaters burst through. But just when it looks like all is lost, Snape arrives…

It’s no secret now what happens, and as you hit the end of the book, knowing there’s only one book left you can barely see how Harry is going to do it, and surely he must do it? Surely Voldemort has it coming?
Rowling seems to accelerate the story in volume 6, we learn how Voldemort became the greatest dark wizard in the world, and how he has protected himself against death and the daunting task ahead of Harry. But Rowling as sprung out hope throughout, as always though the book is shot through with humour to offset the tension. Ron and Hermione’s cat and mouse with each other continues, the Order of the Phoenix’s continuing resistance, Dumbledore’s searching for a way to finally defeat the Dark Lord . Even as the Half-Blood Prince closes at the series darkest moment, and the hero is a rage driven teenager full of testosterone, you still believe that he can pull it off.

Bring on the Deathly Hallows!

Ginny and Demelza scored a goal apiece, giving the red-and-gold-clad supporters below something to cheer about. Then Cadwallader scored again, making things level, but Luna did not seem to have noticed; she appeared singularly uninterested in such mundane things as the score, and kept attempting to draw the crowd’s attention to such things as interestingly shaped clouds and the possibility that Zacharias Smith, who had so far failed to maintain possession of the Quaffle for longer than a minute, was suffering from something called ‘Loser’s Lurgy’.
‘Seventy-forty to Hufflepuff!’ Barked Professor McGonagall into Luna’s megaphone.
‘Is it, already?’ said Luna vaguely. ‘Oh, look! The Gryffindor Keeper’s got hold of one of the Beater’s bats.’



Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind – Jill Cook

Th absence of reindeer could mean that the representations are not purely concerned with important food animals, whereas the preponderance of mammoths, horses and lions within the known sample of works suggests an aesthetic and psychological interest in animals that please, fascinate and generate respect even today. If the animal sculptures were worn, were they simply ornaments, did the wearers wish to identify with the qualities of the animal or was the creature a spiritual helper?

The book that accompanied one of my favourite exhibitions at the British Museum, it has taken me a good long while to read this, in it’s coffee table hardback format, although recently it has given me a resfreshing break from Westeros as I plough through all 486 books of the Song of Ice and Fire saga.

Covering the width of Europe, Cook evaluates the fascinating array of objects from the Ice Age, from small anatomically correct miniatures to large scale cave paintings. While I would suggest that this is not quite a casual read, due to the subject matter, if you have even a slight interest in this, the book is interesting and accessible.

Brilliant pictures that mostly sit within the correct place in the text (i.e you can see the object that you are currently reading about, it’s not 4 pages on) and detailed analysis, as humans developed the ability to abstract from themselves and nature, create musical instruments, life like representations of the world around them in miniature and ornamental form. Sculptures that took a high number of hours to create through manual labour, but seemingly have no practical function. Others provoked a lot of thought, such as the miniatures that had holes so they could be worn as a pendant or necklace. However they would be upside down, so that the creature would need to be held up to be the correct way up and appreciated, completely opposite of how pendants and necklaces are worn today.
The chapter on the female form is particularly interesting, how much did these people know of conception? The highly stylised depictions of expectant mothers amongst the female sculptures lead to any number of conclusions. Later depictions of the female form are so stylised there were certain objects where I thought the idea that they represented females was completely made up.

Mostly hypothetical, we can never know, but well thought out analysis is given by Cook as to the reasons or suggestions she gives behind the pieces. She also notes the difficulty in some respects, where initial interpretations are coloured by they prevailing thoughts at the time of excavation, such as the 1800’s.

The more the objects are studied the more theories abound. As the objects become more detailed or stylised, they effectively took the maker out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for hours if not days at a time, this meant that others in the group would have to sustain them, indicating the importance of the objects they were crafting. Some of these were deliberately smashed after, for reasons we will never know. For practical tools this is understandable, for what could be considered works of art, it is less clear, particularly examples of worked beads, each one taking two to three hours to complete, and from materials that would have had to have come from a hundred kilometres away.

The carvings, engravings and drawings of animals on stone, antler, bone, tusk are incredible, particularly in the cases where they are anatomically correct, even down to hair and features, some were in miniature, some were massive cave paintings, were they decorations, weapons or functional tools. Cook give’s expert analysis, but even so there is still a part of your mind that says, surely we can never know what any man or woman was thinking 17,000 years ago?

And maybe we can’t, but we can give it a well thought out analysed guess, and that’s exactly what Cook does here.

The frieze is placed 3m above the floor of the chamber and is one of several in the Nave that would have required some sort of scaffolding to enable the artist to work. Like the ivory swimming reindeer from Montastruc and the La Vache engraving, it is a reminder of how much time and effort had to be put in to the artist’s work. Collecting and preparing pigment, making and maintaining torches and lamps, as well as making ladders or platforms required an investment in art that reflects its value and significance to the community.

Joan Miro – The Ladder of Escape [Edited by Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale]

This is the book for the Tate Modern exhibition from years ago, which I finally got round to reading, an essay at a time.
Miro and Picasso are two of my favourite artists, and while my knowledge of the world of art is quite limited, is is their bright and bold compositions that I love.

This book, a collection of essays focused around the work displayed in the exhibition gives an in depth portrait of Miro the artist.
A born and bred Catalan, no matter how far he travelled or what direction his art took him, the roots were always buried in the earth of the Catalan countryside.  From his early head of  a Catalan peasant series to his constant insistence at being called Joan, Miro never left the soil of his homeland.
Through the essays you can trace a line from his more traditional early works through to the abstract, the burnt canvases and his epic triptychs.  Deeply affected by the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship, Miro chose internal exile in Mallorca, and refused all overtures from the General’s administration.

He was exiled from his homeland only though, internationally his fame grew, and some of his works were subtle and not so subtle attacks on the Spain’s leadership and isolation, while he remained on a mission to ‘assassinate painting’ throughout his life.  The exhibition also included sculpture, which was an area of Miro’s work I was unaware of, and these are just as abstract, although he still managed to use some of the same motif’s from his paintings.

Complete with decent sized reproductions, the ladder of escape is a great insight into one of the twentieth centuries greatest artists.

The New Spaniards [John Hooper]

So I am wading through the thousand paged, unabridged classic, The Tale of Genji, but as it’s way to big to fit in my bag for work, I slipped in The New Spaniards by John Hooper to transport me away from my tube seat (when I’m lucky enough to get one).

Covering Spain’s most recent history and the breakneck pace at which it has, and continues to change, Hooper’s depth of knowledge and research is immense, yet the book flows along and is never bogged down by facts and figures, and through it you get a clearer picture of a country that must barely recognise itself sometimes.

From post Franco politics, the waning influence of the church, the strengths of the family and regional identity, royalty and the army to welfare, education, an absolute lack of ballet, law and the love of radio, all these are focused on as Hooper lifts the lid on the average Spaniard, their championing of the individual, propensity of easy money over hard slog, a fierce love and loyalty to their family over and above everything else along with their drive to embrace modernity as Spain moves forward.

There are a number of factors that will influence Spain’s future, not in the least the pull of the strong regional identities while the army sits in the middle waving the 1978 constitution, in which it is entrusted with the defence of Spain’s territorial integrity (and which one General has already alluded to, although he was quickly removed).  Yet as the immigrants pour in, and start to slowly reverse the decline in birth rates, Spain is becoming a more tolerant society, yet without losing it’s renowned Passion, and Hooper easily articulates how and why this is happening.

In much of South Amercia, gallego is synonymous with ‘Spaniard’.  Perhaps the most contemporary descendant of Galician immigrants is Fidel Castro, whose surname derives from the Galician word for a Celtic hill-fort.

The Wrecking Light [Robin Robertson]

So I read the Fernando Pessoa collection as part of my Portugal trip but this was the first proper poetry collection.  The book itself is different, a sturdier cover, the paper is thicker and stronger, perhaps better to hold the majesty of the words printed upon it in a relaxed spaced font.

Having just finished Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna I was looking forward to this.  Forna’s prose is as beautiful as poetry, but I wasn’t sure how, I mean, how do you read a poetry book?  Do you read one poem a day, take in all it’s meanings? Look up words and learn it off by heart? I don’t know.  So I did neither of these.  It was hot, I took it to Wandsworth common and read it, intersped with podcasts (History of China, Notes from Spain, Shakespeares restless world..), in fact completed it, over a weekend.  24 hours.  That can’t be right? But I loved it.

From the opening poems, including the cold Signs on a White Field, Robertsons poetry is a beautiful trip through a natural and human dreamscape.

in the railway lines
from a train about to arrive.

The Tweed is short, sharp and funny, that you will re-read as you laugh, just to enjoy the humour again.  About Time is a poignant look at lifetime, mundane events are juxtaposed with epic events.

Cat, Failing
And with that
loss of face
his face, I see,
has turned human.

Strindberg in Berlin – A portrait of a man facing up to what he has gambled on and lost (details are in the notes at the end, if you like me, have no idea who Strindberg is)
I’ve now pulled out
every good tooth
in search of the one that was making me mad

The second part begins with a simple brutal scene in Law of the Island and continues with Khalighat a vivid observation on a sacrifice.  Pentheus and Dionysus is an eloquent retelling straight from Greece, beautifully set down, as is The Daughters of Minyas, a much darker telling of the powers of the gods, but told true to it’s tradition.

The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala is a haunting description, a man walking through the darkness after a feast.

The poems are all evocative and powerful.  The collection paints a bleak landscape that is punctured with some sharp humour.  I can’t say I understand the binding of the poems to a theme, and that is completely my failing, not the poet.  I have since dipped back in to read certain poems, and indeed merely to pick one out at random to enjoy.  The simple Hammersmith Winter beautifully ends the collection, but not my thirst for poetry.

Ancestor Stones [Aminatta Forna]

Stories that started in one place and ended in another, worn smooth and polished as pebbles countless retellings

Reading Aminatta Forna is like reading a bar of Cadbury’s dairy milk, delicious. (Other chocolate bars are available).  Or if society calls me from afar and demands a more manly metaphor, it’s like reading a cold pint on a hot day.  You enjoy and saviour every mouthful, not wanting it to end and after there’s a warm happy appreciation of what you’ve just finished.

The shadows are solid, sharp, small.  A dog lifts it’s head.  A nose swings our way like a weathervane, marks our progress for a while and then is tucked back beneath a tail.

Ancestor stones tells the stories of four women, four aunts of Abie, daughters of four wives of a wealthy plantation owner.  Each one full of tales from various points of their lives, that together create a tapestry of customs, beliefs and everyday life of these women and a nation, going through profound changes.

For here the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a person’s history is captured in the shape of an ear, and those most precious memories are hidden in the safest place of all. Safe from fire or floods or war.  In stories. Stories remembered, until they are ready to be told.  Or perhaps simply ready to be heard.

Written in the first person, but not to you the reader, to Abie, the listener.  Every now and then there are questions, accusations to the westernised young woman that remind you of Abie, as if she too is only just gaining insight into this world and it’s people, to which she belongs.  Abie’s voice is barely a whisper that bookends the stories of the four aunts.

As with The Memory of Love, it is Aminatta Forna’s beautiful, evocative and understated prose that carries the book along and brings the lives of the women, the plantation, and the country to life as each aunt recalls her past.

I started writing down my favourite bits as usual, but had to stop myself, I was almost writing every line

Here boulders are scattered across the sand, black pearls at a Tuareg woman’s throat.  It is morning, raining.  Drops of rain splash onto the water, as though on to a scalding pan.

The aunts are all individual, their lives take different paths until Abie returns to their life, lives that have changed irrecovably, as has their country, but those changes have not diminished their stories

As I watched, a single bat shifted, unfurled a wing and enfolded it’s body even more tightly. For a moment a single eye gleamed at me from within the darkness.


Sea of Poppies [Amitav Ghosh]

So it’s been a while since I’ve done a book post, and it’s because I’ve been trying to write my review of Sea of Poppies, and it’s taken me ages because of this:

Sea of Poppies is not The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  That’s a pretty obvious statement to kick of the review.  I had just finished reading Thousand Autumns and loved it, like a fat kid love cake, so for the opening few chapters of this book, I had to carry on reading, even though my brain was going, this isn’t Thousand Autumns..but the Sea of Poppies swept me out of the Bay of Nagasaki at the end

So I was back on the sub-continent, which I had left behind after I toiled through it by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The last sigh of the Moor and Roshin Mistry’s A Fine Balance, all of which had left me gasping for air after submerging me in Indian life like I was a pickle in a jar.

Set amid the opium wars (like so much history of this part of the world, something that I am completely ignorant of) Sea of Poppies is the first of the Ibis trilogy and this book centres around a collection of people, who are lightly linked like wires on a net, which is pulled together tightly as they end up on the Ibis, a slave ship heading out across the Black Sea.

Paulette sensed that he had something to add, but now there was a sudden interruption, caused by a thunderous detonation.  In the awkward silence that followed, nobody glanced in the direction of Mr Doughty, who was examining the knob of his cane with an air of pretended nochalance.  It fell to Mrs Doughty to make an attempt to retrieve the situation. ‘Ah!’ she cried, clapping her hands cheerily together.  ‘The wind is rising, and we must make sail.  Anchors aweigh! We must be off!”

Once you get used to the fact that you will probably understand only two thirds of the words, unless I believe you go to Amtiav’s website the story seems to meander slowly like the mighty Ganges until at the end it hits the throttle as it finishes.

This is the first of the Ibis trilogy, and in the end I was hooked and caught in the net, wondering if the Ibis would reach shore.