The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling 1st (first) Edition (2012)

Five words from the blurb: English, town, Council, revelations, duplicity 

I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but wasn’t interested in reading Rowling’s books for adults as I didn’t think her writing quality would stand up to the transition. I was convinced that the hype surrounding this book was due to who she was, rather than the book itself. Then my book group selected The Casual Vacancy for its September read and I had no choice but to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised and think this book deserves the attention it received.

The Casual Vacancy is set in a small English town where Barry, a respected member of the community, dies suddenly. This leaves a “casual vacancy” on the Parish Council which warring members of the committee are keen to fill with their own supporters. The book investigates the dynamics of a small community and shows the divides between working and middle class people.

The writing was better than expected, but all inadequacies were more than made up for by the emotion. I was gripped throughout and felt deep sympathy for most of the characters. The book contains many different social problems including divorce, drug use, neglected children and bullying, but all were handled without bias or judgement. I loved this realism and felt that Rowling highlighted many of the problems within British society today.

The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, were being ashamed of what they were, lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted.

The Casual Vacancy isn’t a short read. The massive cast was initially hard to grasp, but by the end I felt I knew and understood the motivations of the everyone involved. The 500+ pages were a considerable investment of time and I felt that the book could have benefited from being slightly shorter and with fewer characters – I’d have preferred the entire book to concentrate on the story of Krystal and her three-year-old brother as this family, living a troubled life on a council estate, were by far the most interesting in the book.

Overall this was an entertaining read that revealed many uncomfortable truths about English society. Recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I absolutely loved this book! Leeswammes’ Blog

Rowling seems to have squeezed too many “issues” into the book. Katie’s Book Blog

 A few days after finishing the novel I can see the points where I can criticize, but while I was reading it I was spellbound. Keep Going You Fool


2012 Memoirs

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, living, volcano, people, remote

A few years ago I read Night Waking by Sarah Moss and loved it, so when I discovered that she’d written a memoir about her year living in Iceland I was especially keen to read it.

In 2009 Sarah Moss got a job teaching English Literature at Reykjavik University. Names for the Sea explains what life was like for her family as they adapted to the new culture. It details everything from how her children settled into local schools, to historical facts about the Icelandic people. It could be criticised for not focusing on one genre, but I liked the hotchpotch of interesting facts as it enabled me to find out about everything from its politics to what Icelanders do on cold, dark days. The 2009 academic year was especially interesting as it meant Sarah Moss was present to witness both the financial collapse of the country and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.

I’ve been fascinated by the absence of apocalypse here. We’ve been told to keep young children inside if ash is present in the air and that a group of medical researchers is taking this opportunity to investigate the long-term effects of ash-inhalation, which is not currently believed to cause more than passing symptoms. The English headlines, read online, are much more panicky than any in Iceland, fearing ash drifting over the North Atlantic, causing lung problems and possibly affecting crops and groundwater.

I had an unusual relationship with this book because I read half of it before travelling to Iceland and the second half once there. Reading the book in England I was preparing myself for a very different experience to the one I encountered. I’m not sure if this is because Iceland has changed a lot in the few years since Sarah Moss was there; if things were different because I was simply a tourist with no intent of living in the country; or because I am more used to travelling in different countries, but I found the book exaggerated things.  For example, the book spent a lot of time talking about the limited food options. I was prepared for a country with next to no fruit/vegetables and nothing but fish or lamb in the protein department (fine for a two week holiday, but I can see why this might have been a difficult adjustment when living somewhere for a longer period)  Instead, I found the supermarkets to be very similar to any other European country -the brands were slightly different, but there appeared to be a reasonable range and lots of fresh produce.

Food wasn’t the only thing that appeared exaggerated. I read some sections of the book whilst I was staying in the places mentioned and was surprised by the way she described things. Perhaps I’m just not used to the direct comparision between text and landscape, but she saw things in a much more extreme way than I did.

Despite these minor issues I really enjoyed this book. I loved the personal insight into the problems of relocating into such a tight-knit community and her mishaps and adventures were heartwarming and exciting in equal measure. This book probably has limited appeal to the majority of the population, but if you have any interest in Iceland then this book will be a rewarding read.


2012 Thriller

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

I Remember You Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, isolated, suicide, vanished, terrifying

Iceland is very suited to scary stories – the isolation, the dark days, and the snowy weather all combine to produce a chilling atmosphere. I planned to read this book in Iceland, but after reading the quotes on the cover about it being “seriously scary” and “not to be read alone”, I decided to read it before I went. I’m really pleased that I decided not to read it in an isolated Icelandic cottage, but part of me wishes I’d read it after I’d come back!

This book is very creepy. It begins with a group of three friends heading to an isolated village in order to renovate an old cottage. They soon realise that they are not alone and whatever is out there doesn’t want them to stay. This narrative alternates with one in which a doctor, whose six-year-old son recently disappeared, investigates the suicide of an old woman. The two stories eventually combine to become a very cleverly plotted thriller.

I almost abandoned this book after about 50 pages as I found it too scary. I don’t normally read horror and some scenes in this book really spooked me. Luckily the plot was intriguing so I stuck with it, reading only short sections so the atmosphere didn’t become overwhelming. I also admit to skimming over some of the more disturbing scenes in an effort to keep the worst images out of my mind altogether. 

The author did a fantastic job building the tension. Even the most mundane scenes could become scary at a moment’s notice:

It was then that Putti stopped abruptly and started growling again. Although Katrín couldn’t work out how it was different from the previous growl, it was, seemingly loaded with gravity and fear, as if the dog sensed something threatening it. Or them.

As the book progressed I became less fearful of the story. This was mainly because I realised it was a ghost story. The supernatural element was good in that it allowed anything to happen, but it also didn’t scare me as much as strange people lurking in the dark.

The only problem with the writing was that the characters all sounded the same. They had a few interesting flaws, but this wasn’t enough to make them into well-rounded individuals. The benefit of this was that I didn’t care if/when they died!

Overall this was a compelling chiller-thriller with all the elements needed to keep you awake at night. Recommended to anyone who likes to be scared.


2012 Non Fiction

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens


Five words from the blurb: cancer, pain, moving, personal, death

I hadn’t heard of Christopher Hitchens until my book group suggested this as our next read. Having researched his life I’m sad that I wasn’t aware of him before, but I hope to read more of his books in the future.

Christopher Hitchens was a controversial journalist who wrote numerous columns and books, many of which criticised religion. In 2010 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and needed Home Care Assistance. Mortality is a collection of essays that he wrote during his final year alive; a time during which he suffered from much pain and pondered on society’s attitude to illness and death.

Mortality was eye-opening for me. I don’t think I’ve read anything in which a person is so unafraid to air controversial opinions. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I admired his honesty. The writing was so clear and thought provoking that much of it made me look at suffering in a slightly different light.

Many parts of the book satirised people who prayed for him or those who looked to religion as a way of comforting him as he neared death.

I don’t mean to br churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please don’t trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.

He also described his pain and the terrible ways in which his body began to fail him. His honest, unflinching descriptions of his deterioration were heartbreaking.

It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. It’s also impossible to warn against. If my proton doctors had tried to tell me up front, they might perhaps have spoken of “grave discomfort” or perhaps a burning sensation. I only know that nothing at all could have readied or steadied me for this thing that seemed to scorn painkillers and to attack me in the my core. I now seem to have run out of radiation options in those spots (thirty-five straight days being considered as much as anyone can take), and while this isn’t in any way good news, it spares me from having to wonder if I could willingly endure the same course of treatment again.

The end of the book contained fragmented jottings, discovered after his death. These provided an insight into his writing process and were a sad reminder of what might have been if he’d lived longer.

Christopher Hitchens wont be to everyone’s taste, but his discussions were eye-opening and a refreshing change from the sentimental, rose-tinted descriptions of death that we’re used to.

Recommended to those with an open mind who’d like a realistic description of what happens to a person as they die.

Have you read any of Christopher Hitchens’ books? 

What did you think of them?


Absolution by Patrick Flanery


Five words from the blurb: South Africa, past, family, crimes, truth

Absolution is set in post-apartheid South Africa and looks at truth, censorship and whether or not it is possible to forgive past mistakes.

The book concentrates on Clare Wald, a South African novelist, who has decided to commission a biography of her life. She hires Sam to write the book and it quickly becomes obvious that they have a shared past. The connections between them are slowly revealed through a multi-layered narrative that is often confusing and contradictory.

Until these interviews began, in my mind she was her surname, a name acquired through a marriage that has now ended. Wald meaning ‘forest’, ‘woods’, ‘wood’ or simply ‘timber’. The surname has made me think of her and her work in this way – a forest of timbers that might be put to some practical use. Out of the forest emerges the person I’ve created in my head: half-ogre, half-mother, denying and giving, bad breast and good breast, framed by wood or woods. I try to find my place again in the list of questions I’ve prepare, questions that now seem rude, reductive, too peremptory, too simplistic and ungenerous in what they appear to assume.

The writing in the book was of a very high quality and individual scenes were vivid and packed with atmosphere, but I disliked the disjointed nature of the narrative. I appreciated what the book was trying to achieve, but the structure meant I was often frustrated. I disliked  being continually misled and ended up feeling I couldn’t trust anything that was being said. This led me to disconnect from the characters, so I failed to have an emotional response to the text.

The book feels like an accurate depiction of modern South Africa and it brings up many interesting moral questions. There is a lot to like, but I felt that understanding everything was too onerous a task. Sometimes less is more.

Recommended to fans of literary fiction who enjoy piecing together a complex narrative.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a complicated but beautiful book about the secrets that some people try to leave behind. A Bookish Affair

…a staggering, wonderful and accomplished book. Boston Bibliophile

It’s a book that asks difficult moral questions for which there may never be any satisfactory answers. Literary Corner Cafe


2012 Thriller

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

The Uninvited

Five words from the blurb: child, violence, Asperger’s, psychological, connect

As you may know, I make an effort to read as many books as possible that contain characters with Asperger’s syndrome. On Autism Awareness Day Hannah pointed out that The Uninvited fitted my criteria and so I added it to the top of my wish-list. By a strange twist of fate I was offered a review copy just a week later and so I accepted, keen to try one of Liz Jensen’s books for the first time.

The Uninvited is a psychological thriller in which children start attacking adults for no known reason. The central character, Hesketh, is an anthropologist. He is sent to Taiwan to investigate fraud within the timber industry, but quickly finds himself involved in the global child violence crisis.

The book begins well, with a vivid scene in which a seven-year-old girl kills her grandmother with a nail gun, but unfortunately that level of tension failed to re-appear later in the book. The scenes of violence were too fragmented and the explanations for the attacks were too far fetched for me to become fearful.

Hesketh has Asperger’s and I found him to be well developed, with realistic traits for someone on the spectrum. I liked the way Asperger’s was portrayed in a positive light, but I found mentions of the condition too frequent. The reader is made aware of the Asperger’s early on, but I found the continual reference back to it burdensome. If you don’t know much about the condition then you will find it useful, but I wish it hadn’t had such a dominant role.

One of my chief coping mechanisms, in mental emergencies, involves origami: I carry an imaginary sheaf of delicate rice paper in my head, in a range of shades, to fold into classical shapes. When the image of Freddy shooting Kaitlin first reared up I swiftly folded eleven of the Japanese cranes known as ozuru, but I couldn’t banish it.

The Uninvited has a lot to recommend it. It is a fast paced, entertaining read that treats Asperger’s with sensitivity, but I’m afraid the plot lacked the realism required to give it real impact.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…one of the most genius and bizarre pieces of literature I’ve read in a very long time. A Bookish Libraria

…everything was bogged down in tedious and ultimately tiring details… Judging Covers

 While the book showed lots of promise, ultimately the ending ruined it for me. Book Addiction