The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling: Book review

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling, coverIt’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again to play it safe: The Casual Vacancy is not a book for children. Do not gift this book to a young Harry Potter fan. Not even a charmingly precocious seems-wise-beyond-her-years one. There’s a C-bomb about five pages in.¬†When J.K. Rowling said she intended to write a book for adults, she was not messing around.

Rowling also intended to write a book that isn’t fantasy, and Vacancy‘s story is as muggle as they come: a council election. The residents of Pagford, a stock-standard quaint English town, must elect a new member to their parish council when Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly. Barry had been an advocate for a nearby council estate called The Fields – “council estate” being the polite name for “drug-addled rathole” – and his successor will determine the estate’s future.

The good guys and the bad guys are easy to identify, but they’re not heroes and villains. They’re marked not by their virtues or their flaws but I guess by their regard for humanity: for all their failings, the good guys understand that other people are all people, that everyone has an internal voice and hopes and roots; the bad guys don’t look beyond shallow stereotypes, beyond throwing people in or out of particular cliques, beyond their own problems.

Not everyone rates her prose, but Rowling is brilliant at creating these full, organic worlds. It’s an underrated talent of hers – it’s why the worlds created by her Potter imitators often feel so hollow – and her imagination extends not just to these huge wild ideas but to the small little ones too. The world Rowling crafts in Vacancy is a real one, brimming with detail and too-familiar human pettiness.

It’s also an unexpectedly bleak world. If Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows tricked you into thinking that Rowling can’t resist a sappy ending, think again. It becomes clear pretty early on in Vacancy that not everything will be resolved with a nice bow – it’s just not that kind of book – but it’s a shock how brutal (and, to be honest, melodramatic) the final chapters are. Rowling, though a clear advocate for social equality and fairness, is ultimately a realistic, or a cynic: the cruel, hard-hearted currents of human nature are too powerful to be dammed. Society’s worst problems can’t be fixed. It fits that Barry Fairbrother, maybe the only effortlessly moral and good man in Pagford, dies in the first couple of pages. It’s not Voldemort-style evil that’s undoing the world. It’s just indifference to other people.


Dumble-war: ranking the Harry Potter films

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

"If Voldemort doesn't have a nose, how does he smell? Terrible!"

To prepare for the recent release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2: The Lengthily Titled Sequel, my Significant Other and I spent one whole weekend watching all seven previous films. (Which is not as arduous as you’d think! Two on Friday night, three on Saturday, three on Sunday. It’s easy to be an obsessive nerd! ((Of course there’ll be an extra movie to wedge in there once Part 2 is released on home-entertainment media, but you can squeeze it in!)))

So here are all the Harry Potter films ranked from worst to best. (Minus Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Needs time to settle before it can be given a proper rank.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Gilderoy Lockhart was pretty good, I guess, even though it's weird that a 12-year-old girl would swoon over Kenneth Branagh

7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Poor Chamber of Secrets, wedged between the freshness of the first instalment and the maturity of third. The best you can say about Chamber, really, is that it’s okay. (The worst you can say is merely “Dobby”.) ((This is all relative, of course; it’s only lame compared to the radness of the other books. And because it has Dobby in it.)) The book is notable because it has that “Harry destroys what later turns out to be the first of many horcruxes, and hey, isn’t it awesome how Jo Rowling included one even back then? She really did plan out the whole thing in advance! Neat!” thing going for it. Aside from that, it’s largely skippable and for completionists only – just read the Wikipedia summary.

In the film’s favour, the climax in the titular chamber has that bit where Harry clambers all over Salazar Slytherin’s face, a nice reference to the well-known scene from North by Northwest. Way to be creative and subtle, director Chris Columbus! Too bad you didn’t do that more often. … 


Harry Potter advocates the death penalty

Bellatrix Lestrange

Helena Bonham Carter does "Psycho Bitch" so well

Some criminals are so bad that the only punishment for them is death. At least, this is the view seemingly endorsed by the Harry Potter universe – which is otherwise pretty liberal in its worldview.

Bellatrix Lestrange is locked up in Azkaban, the most fearsome of all wizard prisons, for her role in torturing Neville Longbottom’s parents Frank and Alice (presumably she committed a bunch of other crimes during Voldemort’s first reign of terror, too). Several years later, turncoat Dementors break Bellatrix out of Azkaban; when she escapes, she’s still loyal to Voldemort, and still determined to bring down the wizard/Muggle status quo.

So basically, her time in prison hasn’t rehabilited her even a bit. It hasn’t deterred her from committing future crimes. Nor has it ultimately deprived her of anything: she comes out of Azkaban and instantly resumes her magical power and position at Voldemort’s right hand. Bellatrix demonstrates the failure of incarceration as a means of punishment. The only way for society to deal with criminals of this nature, then, is to execute them, and Molly Weasley comes Bellatrix’s executioner during the Battle of Hogwarts.

And, of course, there’s Voldemort himself. Through the series Harry knows that at some point he’ll have to defeat Voldemort – and it’s made clear, first implicitly and later explicitly, that “defeat” actually means “kill”. It’s not like Voldemort can be locked up in a tower for the rest of his life, Grindelwald-style (though Deathly Hallows hints that Grindelwald eventually felt remorse for his crimes, suggesting rehabilitation does work in some circumstances). The only punishment suitable for the Dark Lord is death, and while Harry technically doesn’t kill Voldemort, Voldemort does end up dead.


Book review: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness

Honestly, Patrick Ness couldn’t have ended the Chaos Walking trilogy in a more perfect way.

The first two books in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, stand out for their inventiveness, their fierce pace, and their vivid characters. Monsters of Men meets their standard, then ups the stakes, then ups them again, and then again. There are a billion points in the story where I didn’t think Ness could ratchet up the tension any more – and then he does.

Avoid spoilers, if you can. I’m not giving anything away, so, vague summary ahead: Monsters of Men is about young people coming into power, guided by those who are in power already (and who, in most cases, have been corrupted by it). Our heroes Todd and Viola are mostly back together again, in the sense that they share many more scenes than they did in Ask and find ways to communicate even when they’re apart, but they’re still constantly buffeted and battered by the competing forces of Mistress Coyle and Mayor Prentiss.

Who, by the way, is the strongest and most difficult character. Is he really the villain of this story, or is he its hero? Ness doesn’t answer that question (and nor should he), instead crafting a character who is at once charismatic, paternal, untrustworthy and chilling. Of all the characters in Chaos Walking, the Mayor will stay with me the longest.

(And maybe Manchee. Love that dog.)

Kudos to Ness for avoiding the drippy sentiment that often plagues finales (Deathly Hallows, anyone?), but he does cheat a few times: a lot of the support characters feel stand-in-ish, and a couple of the plot twists seem like they’ve been thrown in for shock value rather than to enhance the story. (Particularly the very final twist, which came thisclose to ruining the whole series for me. Ultimately, though, Ness turns it into a very satisfying conclusion.)

I’ve been lucky with the series: I only started reading it in the month leading up to Monster‘s release, meaning I didn’t have to wait a year between instalments like everyone else. I literally read all three entries one after the other. So I’m not sure what the feeling is in the Chaos Walking fanbase – but I have a feeling they’ll like the final book as much as I did.


Likeable characters who kind of aren’t, actually

I’m sure there’s got to be plenty of characters who fit into this category: on first reading/viewing, they seem like bang-up guys (or ladies), but a few re-reads/views later you start to realise that they actually kind of aren’t. Three examples off the top of my head…

Ariel, The Little Mermaid. After bragging to Flounder about all the cool shit she has stashed in her cave, Ariel laments “But who cares? No big deal. I want more.” Jeez, Ariel – you’re already a beautiful mermaid princess whose father dotes on her. What more could you possibly want, you spoiled bitch? (This also kind of applies to Simba, though at least he’s meant to sound bratty when he sings ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’.)

Luna Lovegood, Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the intrepid trio visits the home of their schoolchum Luna, who up till this point has seemed like a spacey but innocent weirdo. But when they stumble into her bedroom, they discover “ceiling portraits of [Harry], Luna, Ron, Hermione, Neville and Ginny entwined with the word ‘Friends'”. Cue creepy stalker music. (This is nothing against Evanna Lynch, who is brill.)

The parents, The Parent Trap. So here’s the deal. Nick and Elizabeth (Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson, RIP) hook up, have identical twin daughters, then endure a break-up so painful they can never see each other again. Each returns to their respective country – America and England – each taking a daughter with them. And they both agree never to let the twins see each other, nor tell them about the other’s existence. That is horrible. And we’re meant to root for these abusive chumps to get back together?! No wonder Lindsay Lohan is so fucked-up. (For the record: I love The Parent Trap. But, wow, the titular parents are jerks.)


Book review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling, read by Stephen Fry

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI read an article recently in which Stephen King described J.K. Rowling as “a terrific writer”. Which is a perfect description: J.K. may not be the best writer, but she can tell one hell of a story. (Incidentally, it was the same article in which King said that Stephenie Meyer “can’t write worth a darn”, which – no comment.)

And Deathly Hallows is one hell of a story.

Mostly by virtue of being the last book in the Harry Potter series, meaning by default it includes the thrilling climax – ie, Harry defeats Voldemort. (And I am so not putting a spoiler alert around that, because first, the book came out two-and-a-half years ago, and second, if you didn’t know that goodies always defeat baddies, you need to get out more.)

It’s only the second time I’ve read the book since it came out, and what struck me on re-reading is how little action there is in the story – sure, there’s the bits at Godric’s Hollow and Gringotts and Hogwarts, but most of the story is very dense exposition (same goes for the preceding entry, Half-Blood Prince). Since Hallows was released in 2007, several wags have commented that the book’s plot basically consists of Harry et al camping in the woods for a year. Which is true. But I kinda like all that backstory, particularly Dumbledore’s backstory. It makes the earlier books and the characters in them all the richer.

(I’m also impressed that J.K. left it till the last book to reveal the Hallows themselves, given they turn out to be one of the central tenets of the finale.)

That said, the book isn’t perfect. It needed a more thorough edit – it’s loaded with sentences like “Harry could hear…” which ought to have been replaced by “Harry heard…”, and there are superfluous weres and wases all over the place. But the most egregious offence is that syrupy epilogue. Every time, it makes me groan – it’s so sappy. I generally don’t care for stories that drag on beyond their “proper” end point, so I kinda wish that whole last chapter had just been cut.

Also, I didn’t technically read Deathly Hallows: it was read to me by Stephen Fry. Sadly, he did not read it to me in person; it was via the magic of audiobook. But if you have a lengthy road trip coming up, I highly recommend his readings of Harry Potter – he is just fantastic. You know a man is exceptionally talented when he makes an already magical world even more magical.

Lastly, I’m predicting that Deathly Hallows: Part 1 will conclude after Harry and Hermione’s ill-fated journey to Godric’s Hollow. That seems like a pretty logical end point.