'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'
As I have noted before, I come to read the Harry Potter series from watching the movies more than once each. This book marks a jump in length from its predecessors; my edition had 636 pages. As with the previous volumes I have read, the story largely focuses on Harry's life at school. The adventure element forms a smaller part than in the movies.
The book introduces characters that do not feature in the movie, including magical creatures, additional house elves and members of the Ministry of Magic and of the Weasley family. There is also a sub-plot about Hermione Granger campaigning for the rights of house elves, an enslaved species in the magic world. The gaps between the three trials that Harry has to undertake are longer but the portrayal of the challenges themselves, especially the first one, are far shorter than how they are shown in the movie. This is a shame especially as little Quidditch features in this book. It also includes lengthy exposition especially towards the end.
I like the book because it has these various sub-plots and the reappearance of teachers who largely disappear in the movie. It is also good at seeing the qualms in Harry's mind, both standard teenage concerns and the risks of facing his nemesis, Lord Voldemort who experiences a leap forward in strength in this book. Overall it is not a bad book, but I wanted more of the adventure and less of the vacillations of Potter, but then I guess it is aimed at someone who is 14 and not 48. As yet, however, I have not been put off completing the series.
'Rumpole's Return' by John Mortimer
Though, as I noted last month, Horace Rumpole, unlike the characters around him, never seems to age, in this book he has retired. He has gone to live in Florida where his son is an academic. Interestingly his daughter-in-law is pregnant but continues to smoke. Rumpole soon tires of life in Florida and returns to his old chambers when called upon by a former colleague. The story is pretty much a murder mystery with Rumpole and his son gathering evidence on both sides of the Atlantic to help Horace make a defence in a murder case. The story is alright but is a little unsatisfactory in the comings and goings of Rumpole and the question whether he could really retire and then return. He has not sold his London flat and his wife comes back from Florida after him too. By the end of the book the status quo ante has been re-established. I accept that some of this stems from the fact that these are stories based on what was proving to be a successful television series and so the drivers are those of broadcasting than how an author might work a novel or series of short stories. The notable change especially from the first book in the series, is the lack of humour, the only funny bit is a repeat of a joke told in an earlier book. It passes the time to see Rumpole and the quirky characters around him with the addition of interesting aspects of English law and forensic science, but it lacks the engagement of the first book and I do wonder if it is a case of diminishing returns.
'Flight of A Witch' by Ellis Peters
This is another of Peters's books featuring members of the Felse family. This one was published in 1964 and so George Felse has just been promoted from Detective Sergeant to Detective Inspector and his son Dominic is a sixth former. Both appear in this book, but as is common for Peters, they are supporting rather than leading characters. As in many of her books set in England it is based in the border region with Wales, but unlike in 'City of Gold and Shadows' (1973) by which time George is a Detective Chief Inspector, the region is portrayed very bleakly. The story is centred on an 18-year old girl (the age of majority until 1970 was 21 so people below that age were still considered children though they could have sex at 16, they could not vote), called Annet [sic] Beck. One difference from the mid-1960s compared to today when more people have children in their 40s than their 20s in Britain, a child of a couple who had turned 40, as Annet is, was expected to be 'wrong' in some way. Annet disappears for five days and is connected to a crime committed in Birmingham. The bulk of the story is about finding out what happened to her during those five days and who was the man with her involved with the crime. There are a range of suspects and George Felse aided by Dominic and a friend of his, plus one of Dominic's teachers, Tom Kenyon, seek to eliminate the suspects and force the actual man involved out of cover.
Ellis does jump around between points of view but less often than in some of her other Felse books. The steady investigation and the elimination of a number of seemingly likely suspects is handled well. The main problem is how bleak the book is. This is not simply a result of the dreary setting, but also because so much of the story is seen through the eyes of Tom Kenyon, foolishly besotted with Annet who is the daughter of his landlord and bitter throughout as a result. He comes across as a very pathetic character able to contribute much to developments and in fact spends the bulk of the climax a dumb, incapacitated spectator. The trouble is that you often identify even if only distantly with the perspective of the one showing the story. Looking through the eyes of George or Dominic consistently would have been alright. However, seeing so much through Tom's eyes makes you feel dirty. Unlike Annet he has no form of redemption or even like the criminal, of release. He ends being humiliated by one of his pupils and has any potential for affection spured. As a result you feel that his life is pointless. That is no way to be engaged with a novel.
'Stars and Stripes Forever' by Harry Harrison
I know there is a current tendency for many authors to write 'what if?' novels which accentuate the greatness of the USA or show how it would have benefited from having more of the attitudes of the Confederate States in its make-up. This book published in 1998 can certainly be seen as one of the first such alternate history books. It starts well, looking at the real incident of the stopping of the British ship, the 'Trent', in 1861 which was carrying two representatives of the Confederate States to address Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III, by a Union naval ship. This was violation of Britain's neutrality in the American Civil War and added to British support for the CSA. Due to its military failings, Britain never formally recognised the Confederate States but did build warships for their navy. In this alternative, Queen Victoria is angered and her husband Prince Albert is weakened by the illness that was killing him, slightly earlier than in our world. As a result a strongly worded ultimatum goes to President Lincoln and this leads to Britain entering the war on the side of the Confederates. So far, so feasible. These elements take you to almost half way through the book.
Of course, some people argue that no 'what if?' book is feasible, because it is not what happened. This is despite the fact that in real history it is the least likely thing that happens. In this book, one British naval party makes a mistake in bad weather and so assaults Biloxi, a Confederate town rather than Deer Island which is occupied by Union troops. The British forces go on the rampage for some reason through the town looting and raping. This is seen as sufficient to immediately encourage the Confederate forces to call for a ceasefire from the Union. Within a day of the British mistake, Union and Confederate troops are fighting side-by-side against the British both in the Mississippi and then in New York state. Very quickly President Lincoln meets with Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA and they agree on joint action against the British in 1862, setting aside the two years of civil war and the issues that provoked it, very speedily. The combined forces not only go on to eject the British from the USA, but provoke the French-speaking Lower Canada to break from Britain, then seize the remainder of British territories in North America bar Newfoundland and easily capture all the British Caribbean islands. A Francophone uprising against British rule is probably the most feasible of those steps, there having been one in 1837-38 which had to be put down by the military. Setting that aside, at the same time the CSA Congress agrees to the ending of slavery and then abolishes itself effectively returning all the seceded states to the Union by 1863.
There seems so much which is rushed through in this alternative. Yes, Lincoln wanted to end the war but would not do so at any cost. He did not recognise the CSA as a legitimate state or Jefferson as a proper President. Meeting him in the way he does in this book would suggest to many that the CSA was being treated as a sovereign country. In our history, even after the CSA had been soundly beaten in 1865, many found ways around abolition of slavery and did not roll over easily. Harrison points out that at the end of the war in 1865, combined, the USA and CSA had an army larger than any European country and he believes that this army could have defeated all those armies fighting in unison, let alone just the British armed forces. This overlooks the fact that it took the Union Army until 1865 to defeat the Confederates, even with a comprehensive blockade. Furthermore it overestimates the strength of the Confederate forces, dependent on poor equipment, to fight British regulars and win easily. Somehow, overnight the two sides of the bitter conflict set aside their differences and they are empowered, especially the Confederate troops, with a new vigour and indeed skill.
The other thing is that the British keep making mistakes and the Americans make none. In addition, new equipment and weapons are pressed into service with minimal difficulty and are used appropriately throughout; the ships needed are always in the right place at the right time and do not malfunction when needed for victory. The British, in contrast, cling to old ways. The war portrayed is largely a re-run of the War of 1812, which is a fair estimate of what might have happened. However, everything that could go wrong does so for the British and even the civilian population of Washington D.C. prove to better, more committed fighters than British regulars. The Confederates are shown largely, with a few notable exceptions, as being happy in an instant to stop fighting the very men who drove them to leave the Union and throw over their hard-won allies, the British immediately, making no use of them to leverage any concessions from Lincoln; they simply swallow return to the Union as it was and abolition of slavery just because John Stuart Mill says it is the right thing to do.
Overall the book suggests somehow that the American Civil War was simply an error and the two sides were only fighting half-heartedly for what they believed in, despite their differences being so severe to lead to war in the first place. To Harrison it only needed a rather feeble invasion in a couple of points to overcome these differences in a matter of days and set the USA to be able to severely damage the largest empire of the day with a handful of iron-clad ships, almost always in perfect working order. This book starts well, but then Harrison slips into a jingoist fantasy. He could have reached a similar conclusion much more feasibly, especially given that this is the first book in a trilogy. Yet, for some reason he feels compelled to rush it all through making it highly unrealistic. I can only think this comes from a great deal of arrogance as he writes at the end of the book: 'Events, as depicted in this book, would have happened just as they are written here.' Even an author of a novel about true historical events cannot claim that. In this case many historians and authors would argue that the path this book lays out is far from having been likely even with the British error. This could have been a far better book, but for a fan of alternate history books it will be very frustrating to read.
'The Economic Impact of the Cold War' by James L. Clayton
This book was published in 1970 so only covers the first half of the Cold War and it is primarily focused on the impact on the US economy. It starts by looking at a range of economic/political perspectives on what defence spending does to an economy. However, its central focus is a very astute analysis of the so-called military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower identified in 1961, i.e. the intimate connections between government departments, especially the Department of Defense and big companies particularly in aeronautics, ordnance and engineering. It shows that despite the USA portraying itself as the home of free enterprise, in fact the billions of dollars in defence contracts from 1941 onwards led to a large chunk of the US economy really being a complicit cartel, a kind of corporatist economy more familiar in Fascist states than democratic ones.
The book draws on a wide range of contemporary sources, putting both sides of the case, both broadly, e.g. on whether defence spending boosted or drained the economy and on specifics such as the Vietnam War and ABMs (Anti-Ballistic Missiles) both of which were controversial at the time. The book is very interesting on how uneven defence spending has been across the USA and shows that the current day prosperity of California and Texas was promoted by vast defence-related spending in these states in the post-war period. It reminds of schemes that have long been forgotten and highlights the waste and poor quality often produced from such expenditure. Thus, the analysis is of the kind which could be applied to governmental spending today as we are familiar with similar stories for example in software developed for the health service and air traffic control. It is also the only book that I have read that presents a negative view of the US efforts to put a man on the Moon and how the money spent on the missions provided little benefit for the country and could have been better spent.
While the book looks at a single country over a particular period of its history, the way it analyses the situation and provides frameworks for this analysis, it is an engaging book which can be taken forward to use as a basis for analysis of state-commercial relations especially on vast schemes the output of which is difficult to measure in tangible terms of success.