Book Review 15 – The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I may, in the course of the past 14 weeks, have mentioned, once or twice, that I am a tad obsessed with Harry Potter. I’m not just obsessed, I am Obsessed (capital ‘O’ you see.) I don’t care if it’s unseemly for a woman in her late 30’s to take such delight in children’s fiction. A world without Harry Potter would be a much worse place as far as I’m concerned!

So considering my fandom. It may come as a surprise that I have as yet never read any of J.K Rowling’s adult fiction. The reason for this is that I am aware it is the world of Harry Potter I am particularly in love with. The peripheral books and films, whilst interesting, don’t speak to me in the way that Hogwarts and The Burrow do. So I have always worried that Rowling’s adult fiction wouldn’t hit the spot for me either. I’ve been in fear of toppling Rowling from the dizzying pedestal that I have put her on.

But this week I decided to take the plunge nevertheless. When better than during the 52 week challenge? What I found when I opened the book was unmistakeably Rowling. Short, punchy chapters and strong characterisations. Her voice came through very clearly. It was familiar and comforting. What I also found after a few pages was that I had watched the TV dramatisation of the book a couple of years ago and forgotten all about it. Till now. As the storyline started to shape up I began to remember. Annoying! I hated the fact that I knew how some of it ended. Luckily I couldn’t remember it all and the detail of the book seemed to be slightly different to the programme, so I whole heartedly enjoyed reading it even with the big spoiler swirling through my mind.

There are also some that say whilst ol’ J.K. is a master page turner her writing style lacks something. To those people I say this:

I shall illustrate my point by giving you an example of the antithesis of Rowling’s apparent flaw. My favourite book of all time is ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. Roy’s writing is sheer genius. No-one can hold a candle to it. I am getting déjà vu so I think I’ll keep this brief in case I have mentioned it before, but after twenty years of waiting for her to write another novel I finally got my hands on ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ a few months ago and there she was, Roy in all her glory. Sentences so delicately hewn and crafted that you were scared to breathe too heavily lest you pollute them with your presence. Prose so mind numbingly good that it made you want to weep. The only problem was she forgot about the flipping storyline! She got right up on her activist stage and clean forgot that she was writing a novel. If you’re going to be an activist then, by all means, be an activist, but don’t come here telling me you’ve written a story when you’ve done nothing of the sort. In short (or actually, I’ve now gone on about it for rather a long time) she failed to grasp my attention. That is not what I am looking for in a book. Rowling however knows how to tell a story. She knows how to create strong characters, to engineer plotlines that keep you hooked, she knows how to draw her reader in. I’m afraid that when it comes to the tug of war between prose and plot, I would go with the latter… I’d rather have both of course, but if I had to make a choice then Rowling gets my vote every time.

Back to the book then. ‘The Casual Vacancy’ revolves around the fictional village of Pagford and the events that unfold after the sitting councillor dies mid-term. Elections are called and rival factions get behind their candidates, but the focus of the story is not political. It is the carefully crafted characters that steal the show. The prickly neglected child, the self-aggrandising old man, the brute of a father, the jaded wife, the non-committal boyfriend, the vulnerable teenage girl, the village gossip; and more besides. They are all here. All brought to life with Rowling’s crystal clear precision.

This book doesn’t shy away from gritty realities. So if you are looking for happy-ever-afters then I would suggest you look elsewhere. I recently mentioned to a colleague that I was reading The Casual Vacancy. ‘I had that book,’ he replied. ‘But I watched it on TV and it was so sad that it put me off reading it.’ I totally get this. Sometimes you think, I could just do without that enormous injection of melancholy into my life thank you very much. And honestly if you thought the TV version was sad, it left out further horrors that you do actually have to wade through in the book. The toughest part was there weren’t really happy endings for most people. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It provided a sense of realism and the feeling that the end of the book wasn’t the end for these characters. I’m kind of wondering what they’re all up to these days, continuing their fictitious lives in Pagford. A few years have passed, some will have moved, some will have changed jobs, the kids will have grown… Some things will be better, others will be worse. That’s life. And that’s how J.K Rowling turned from a children’s author to an adults one and stayed right up on the pedestal that I rightly put her on.

Next Monday I’m going to be reviewing a book by debut author Chloe Mayer. ‘The Boy Made of Snow’. Come back next week and check out out more of my literary ramblings then!

Book Review 14 – The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The first thing that jumps out at you about this book is the extra-long title. At 58 characters ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson, is the longest title that I have come across. It got me wondering what the longest title ever was. So I turned to my old friend Google. However the outcome wasn’t entirely clear. There were some indications that it could be a whopping 4805 characters and others saying it was as many as 5820 characters for a badly edited book about Daniel Radcliff. Needless to say, and for reasons of pure untweetability, I will forgo reviewing that particular book.

For those of you who haven’t guessed, this week’s book is about a hundred year old man who climbs out of a window and disappears. (I know, my skills of perception are unparralleled.) This particular centenarian is called Allan Karlsson and our story begins by him escaping from the retirement home that he lives in, where the rest of the gathered chumps are about to celebrate his hundredth birthday, or so they think. Allan has no intention of hanging around for another day in that dreary place and makes his escape even while the mayor and local press are arriving for his party. Then follows a man hunt involving the police, some gangsters and the press. Every scenario that unfolds is more unlikely than the last and yet the chase keeps going.

Whilst we don’t meet Allan till he is one hundred, the story oscillates between the scrapes he now gets into and his colourful past. Allan’s life has been jam packed with adventure. The irony of the book was that whilst Allan himself was as apolitical as a goldfish, his lifeline took us on a political romp through history. Allan met national leaders the way you or I meet acquaintances. In passing, nonchalantly and without the slightest sense of awe.

Allan had a laissez-faire approach to life which I sincerely wish I could emulate. No matter how grave the situation he just thought “Oh well there’s nothing to be gained by worrying about it. What will be will be.” Not that he ever needed to worry. His luck was so remarkable that he always managed to work his way out of a difficult situation in the end. More than once had he been in the jaws of death to find himself delivered by luck or his own keen wits. This repeated good luck lasted him a hundred years.

The Hundred Year Old man who blah, blah… is at its heart a comedy. By this I don’t mean daft chuckle-brothers-esque to me, to you, type of slap stick. But a more subtle, almost Shakespearean sense of comedy. Nothing is too morose. No-one is too desolate though some of the situations are pretty dire. There are of course bad things that happen. It couldn’t be possible to live for a hundred years (particularly with a life as varied as Allan’s) and not have anything bad happen, but if anyone can deal with bad stuff it is Allan.

This is fiction at its best. Fantastical, fun and with a sense of being on a roaring rollercoaster where you wonder whether every abrupt turn is going to send you crashing. It never does of course. You’re picked up again and thrust in a new direction and you hold on for dear life, marvelling at the force making this happen. Never, ever wanting it to end.

But end it did of course as all good things do. Mind you that’s not so bad because it means I get to move on to something that has been on my TBR (to be read) list for a ridiculously long time. Next Monday’s review will be on ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by a little known author called J.K. Rowling. In the words of Tinie Tempah please do go ahead and tell J.K I’m still rolling… Till next Monday anyway!