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A-red-lipstick-wearing bibliophile extraordinaire. Word nerd & Joss Whedon fangirl; Literature lover & book reviewer. Lady Libertine; Tea collector; Potterhead.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy

Reasons why I won't be comparing this to the Harry Potter series:

  1. It's a muggle story.  It's not about witchcraft or wizardry.
  2. No Hogwarts, Hogwarts. Hoggy, Warty, Hogwarts.
  3. The distinct lack of one beautiful Potion's Master.
  4. Its target audience isn't young wand wielding, Quidditch practising muggles. 
Reasons why you shouldn't to read this book.

  1. If  you're expecting a murder mystery, it isn't one.
  2. If you think it might secretly be about Gryffindor house. it's not. Don't let the colours of the dust jacket fool you. 
  3. If you're easily offended, disturbed or expect that Jo won't kill your heart with words of sadness and mercilessly throw you in a dark, bleak hole of blackness.
I unashamedly admit that ever since I heard this book was being published I've been a simmering pot of excitement. The Harry Potter series has been a predominant force in my life since the age of 8 and Rowling? Well, I've pretty much looked up to her as a hardworking role model for more than half of my life. With that in mind, I pushed down any expectations I had of The Casual Vacancy, while I have a blind faith in Rowling's writing skills this is about as far as way you can get from the Castle walls. True to form, she certainly doesn't hold back on the depressing factor, the novel has sadness, frustration and a whole lot of angst woven within the pages. I managed to read this fairly quickly and with ease regardless of its grim nature; I would definitely pick it up again.

Barry Fairbrother quite suddenly dies on the evening of his anniversary and the small town of Pagford finds its Parish council with a 'casual vacancy'. The death shakes the community down to its very foundations and behind the scenes, we find a town that is indeed 'at war with itself'. They are desperate to fill the the empty seat and will stop at nothing in order for that to happen in their favour. That's pretty much the plot line here, nothing more.

As the story unfolds, we are introduced to a plethora of unlikable characters as they all scheme, back-stab, bully, intimidate and double cross one another into gaining an upper hand. I've not read a book all year where I've wholeheartedly hated every single character.
I couldn't hand out the award for most hated character in a book this time, as there were simply too many to choose from. Do I go for the crack whore? The cheater? The rapist or the abuser?
Of course, there is also the selfish widow, the gossip queen, the overbearing mother and the rebel without a cause to choose from. (I finally decide to award it to everyone. You're welcome, Pagford.)
The only saving grace seems to be the late Barry Fairbrother himself, although I'm fairly certain if he wasn't surrounded by the halo effect and I did manage to get inside his head, I would hate him just as much as the rest.

This novel is not without faults, the character-jumping chapters got very confusing at times and at the beginning of the book I was simply overwhelmed with the sheer number of names that were thrown at me. I quite unashamedly admit that I had to map down the family trees in order to keep on top of it. It didn't really help, I struggled throughout. At times, I did feel there were profanities that were slipped in for no other reason than 'just because'. 
Tiny chapters of 3 or 4 pages send me round the twist, I have no sense of understanding for them and they serve no purpose for me. There was an abundance of them in this book and sometimes it was a little more than small irritant, I was longing for fleshed out chapters after a while. 
It's quite a shame really that modern culture was used so freely, while I respect the right of authors who wish to do this, I was expecting more from Rowling. It gives the book an instant shelf life and in 10 or 15 years the references will mean little, if anything at all. She's managed to keep her books timeless up until now, I just wish she'd carried on doing so. 

Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and as a first adult novel I think it was pretty great. I really do believe she successfully pulled of the transition from writing for children to writing for adults. There were times and passages that quite simply took my breath away. The writing style is magnificent and while unlikable, the characters at times, were wonderfully insightful. 
Obviously, a novel by Rowling isn't a novel by Rowling unless she successfully tears your heart out and feeds it to a meat grinder in the process. That was something  I welcomed with open arms, it truly felt like coming home and being hugged by your slightly sinister mother.

So, should you read this attempt at literature for adults? Absolutely. If you've enjoyed Rowling's writing style in the past, then it's a given you should pick this up immediately, she's only improved with time. If you're not familiar with her work, I'd still pick it up, it is a page turner if anything. Mainly though, I believe it deserves a fair chance, without Harry Potter looming over it like a great smoky Dark Mark in the sky. (Finite Incantatem your Morsmordre, you guys.) 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Review: The Lifeboat

The year is 1914.
A mysterious explosion sinks the Empress Alexandra and Henry manages to secure his wife a last minute seat on (what turns out to be) an overcrowded lifeboat. Now lost at sea, the 39 survivors discover what it is to have a true willingness to survive.

Through a series of flashbacks, the story is told from the point of view of newlywed 22 year old Grace Winter, who is now off the boat and standing trial for murder.
Adrift somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Grace recounts tales of the forming of alliances and rivalries, the crumbling of hierarchy, the shift between trust and suspicion; and not knowing whether you are going to live or die.
This has all the elements of a typical survival story: lies, deceit, moral ambiguity, some form of mystery and the questioning of faith and humanity. With some politics and possible ulterior motives thrown in for good measure.

I started reading this with a very cynical mindset, it's not the sort of thing would usually pick up, even on a recommendation. The only other lost-at-sea book I've read is The Life of Pi, which has since turned into one of my favourite books. This already put The Lifeboat in an impossible situation of filling a pair of gigantic shoes.

The novel isn't jam packed with action, in fact this is more of a thought provoking book if anything. (At times, I admit the book seemed to crawl a bit.) There isn't a disaster at every turn of a page and people don't start dropping like flies. It's not a white knuckle book, nor should I have expected it to be- there's about as much action as you can expect in a tiny lifeboat in the middle of a vast body of water. Where is lacks in this respect it makes up for in the introspection of the main character, the novel is pretty much fueled by it.

Grace however, isn't a likable character in any way; her obvious attraction to powerful people is unbecoming and it fuels her motives in every aspect of the book. She seems to get what she wants through a series of calculated plots and the manipulation of others, there doesn't seem to be any warmth to her at all.
Speaking honestly, I don't think I really took to any of them, none seemed to possess any redeeming qualities, so I their fate meant little to me. There were a lot of characters, some of them barely mentioned which led to some confusion on my part as I had no prior experiences or memories to attach the names to.

My inability to fall in love with at least one of the characters usually ruins the experience of a book for me, I don't do well with feeling cut off. It is beautifully written though, so I did enjoy it in spite of myself and it was entertaining enough for me to read it fairly quickly.
I really enjoy the writing style of the first time author and I think it's definitely worth reading The Lifeboat just to experience it. While I know I won't be rereading this book, she's already persuaded me to pick up her next book when the time comes.


Monday, 1 October 2012

Review: The Origins of Sex

Faramerz Dabhoiwala explores the shift in attitudes of all things sex from seventeenth century England and how the changes have ultimately affected the present day. Or in short, 'A History of the First Sexual Revolution'.

I'm positively terrified of non-fiction, injecting it with a dose of social history will have me cowering in a corner. It most likely has to do with my rubbish memory and my short attention span so I'll freely admit I wasn't excited about reading this book. Although I was willing to power through it in hopes of some interesting tales of debauchery.

And tales of debauchery there was. Dabhoiwala covers everything from Church law and state regulation to bawdy houses and good old fashioned Buggery. The book is divided into subtopics where the author is free to explore certain topics in more detail be it the change in attitudes to prostitution and the rise in sexual celebrity.

This book should definitely be aimed at an academic audience and not a curious reader, at times I felt as though I was reading a string of words and sentences without fathoming a single meaning from them, so at best I got a very vague idea of what I was being told. However, when I begin to understand what was being said I did start to find the information interesting.

I noticed throughout the book that there were a fair amount of quotes from Lord Byron and I'm not entirely sure what they were doing there. Lord Byron left the country in 1816 because of the sexual repression, never returning to England until his death in 1824. With this in mind, I feel that the quotes were an unnecessary and inaccurate addition and it made me wonder which other parts of the book have questionable historical merit. With my limited knowledge on the subject (save the free love movement) I have no other choice in believing it to be a true depiction of life at that time.

Overall, it did make for an interesting read although I do wish that a wider perspective was used. After all, you can't have a complete sexual revolution without the world following suit. I would have seen how the rest of the world dealt with the changes.
I'm offering up a word of caution to anyone who wants to pick up this book- it is fairly academic and very verbose. Full attention is required.