The Rise of the Great Powers 1648-1815

The Rise of the Great Powers 1648-1815The Rise of the Great Powers 1648-1815 by Derek McKay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Rise of the Great Powers, 1648-1815” is the history of how the European State system that existed in the century before World War I, given that premise historians Derek McKay and H.M. Scott focus on the diplomatic developments from the end of the Thirty Years War to the end of the Congress of Vienna.  Even with the focus of the book being on the diplomatic side of events, the complexity of events from military events to economic concerns to internal state struggles over foreign policy are discussed as all three and more influenced how diplomacy was handled.  In the course of approximately 170 years, the landscape of European power shifted numerous times as old powers fell away (Spain) or the new grew in strength (France, Britain, Russia, Prussia) or briefly existed (the Dutch Republic and Sweden) or endured despite weakness (Austria); all told in clear language and easily readable for the history enthusiast to get a general perspective of the time period.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Hogwarts #6)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second time I’ve read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but the first since finishing Deathly Hallows and first time reading it critically. I’ve tailored this review in the following in mind: the intended audience for the book (much younger than myself) and its place in the series.

“Half-Blood Prince” is over 200 pages shorter than its immediate predecessor in the series as Rowlings transitioned from focusing on the events in Hogwarts to worrying situation in the Wizarding World since Voldemort’s public appearance near the end of “Order of the Phoenix”.  Turning the focus away from what was occurring in most of Harry’s classes and more about his nonacademic life, especially in relation to his love life.  Once again the past history of the wizarding world is a central theme of the book, but this time centered on Tom Marvolo Riddle aka Voldemort, to understand how Harry can defeat the Dark Lord.  With considerable skill Rowlings crafted all these new elements in the series, but seemed to shortcut her development of major established characters that took something away from the narrative a tad.

[SPOILERS BELOW]
“Half-Blood Prince” finds the series’ overall story having entered into the Wizarding World in a time of war, fully transitioned into a darker mood that only gets darker with what is learned and what occurs.  Before even getting to Harry, we follow the Muggle Prime Minister and learn of Snape’s residence while learning about an order that Draco Malfoy is to carry out at Hogwarts.  Throughout the book, Harry and Dumbledore interact more than they ever have before as they navigate the past through other’s memories to find out how Voldemort survived his first encounter with Harry, through use of Horcruxes.  The major subplot of the book is Harry’s investigation of Draco throughout the year even though his friends and even Dumbledore tell him not to worry about it, however the events at the end of the book seem to prove Harry correct.  The academic develops in “Half-Blood Prince”, save for Potions, take a backseat to everything else going on which given how “Deathly Hallows” is written is foreshadowing what is truly important for the story as a whole.  The relationships of Ron-Hermione and later Harry-Ginny seem both confusing and rushed, but given Mrs. Weasley’s comments about Bill & Fleur it seemed that Rowlings’ gave herself some literary cover on this point.  As it turns out “Half-Blood Prince” is both a book in itself, but also setting up the events of the final book given the mission Harry commits himself to by refusing to return to Hogwarts.  And with Dumbledore’s death, the stage is set for anything to happen in the growing darkness.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince continues the dark trend the series is headed towards, though even as the Wizarding World gets embroiled in war, Rowlings shows that rays of light do pierce the night. Unlike “Order of the Phoenix”, Rowlings included only a few new additions that were strictly to help the narrative of the book along in certain places while also helping create important segments in the overall story.  While not as long as the previous two books, “Half-Blood Prince” is its own narrative while building the overall story towards the series’ climax and setting up for “Deathly Hallows”.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Film)

 Slight Missteps Don’t Harm This Very Good Adaptation

The film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth in the franchise, brings darker themes to film that were prominent in the book to life both in and around Hogwarts as well as the wizarding world at large.
As with the last two films, “Order of the Phoenix” was boiled down to the essential plot and foreshadowing elements needed for future films. Unlike its immediate predecessor the film “Order of the Phoenix” was almost as well done as “Prisoner of Azkaban” with only minor transitions and plot tent poles either mishandled or poorly represented. The bureaucratic terror inflicted upon Hogwarts by Dolores Umbridge, brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton, is well handled as well as the subplot of Dumbledore’s Army along with its discovery. The climactic battle within the Ministry was a mixture of more good than bad, however there were elements that hurt the over presentation that hurt the overall product, namely how much weaker Dumbledore appeared during his duel with Voldemort.

Besides the brilliant work of Staunton, the rest of the main cast that has grown with the series did tremendous jobs though Emma Watson seemed to particularly stand out in every scene she was in. The older members of the cast, including those from previous films that returned in this film, did well as could be expected with the roles they were given in this particular film. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore doesn’t look as impressive in action as the character is written in Rowling’s book, which I fault film’s writers and director instead of the actor. Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black hits all the right notes throughout the film so as to make his exit all the more impactful.

The fifth installment of the Harry Potter franchise is a pretty good film, although it stumbles here and there it is clearly a step above “Goblet of Fire”. The darker themes present in “Order of the Phoenix” herald the trouble ahead mirroring the book in a very good adaptation of the book making this film deserving of its 4-star rating.

Soul Music (Discworld #16, Death #3)

Soul Music (Discworld, #16)Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Disc is experiencing some supernatural change as Death becomes existential and music gets itself some soul.  “Soul Music”, the 16th installment of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, focuses once on Death along with his family and a professional colleague as they deal with him letting off his duties again, only for the power of music to interfere in Death’s duty as well.

The death of Death’s adopted daughter and his former apprentice leaves “him” feeling existential and looking for answers in total contradiction with his duty, however unlike before there is someone to fill in for him—his granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit.  However getting Susan to take up the position is up to Death of Rats, who attempts to help the novice Grim Reaper learn the family trade.  However, Susan comes up against something “supernatural” that prevents her from fulfilling her duty to an aspiring musician in The Mended Drum in Ankh-Morpork.  Imp the Bard, aka Buddy, wants to be the greatest musician in the world and attracts that attention of the Music embodied in a guitar that Buddy purchases after his harp is destroyed.  Buddy along with Glod the dwarf who blows his horn and Cliff the Troll who drums his rocks create a new sound, Music with Rocks In.  It is Buddy’s prevented Death that forces Susan and then dear old Grandfather to deal with the Music in the end.

“Soul Music” is a mixture of good and bad making it one of Pratchett’s weakest works so far.  The positive parts all deal with Death, Susan, Death of Rats, Archchancellor Ridcully, and the always funny Librarian.  However, almost in a direct counterweight is the bad which deals with almost everything connected to parodying of early rock and roll music and the popular cultural surrounding it.  The parody and jokes almost seemed copy and pasted from “Moving Pictures” only being changed from films to music in presentation.  Given my low rating of “Moving Pictures” it effectively forced my rating of this book as well.

Overall, I think “Soul Music” is a good fun book to read but not up to the earlier Death books of the Discworld series which is a shame considering the great new character of Death’s granddaughter Susan Sto Helit.  I recommend readers looking to try a Discworld book not to read this book first, check out some of the better books before trying this one.

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