The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling: Book Review

Casual VacancyWhat is says on the inside cover:

A big novel about a small town… 

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. 

And the empty seat left by Barry on the Parish Council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? 

A big novel about a small town, The Casual Vacancy is J.K Rowling’s first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other. 

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Having heard so much about J K Rowling’s debut into adult fiction I was insistent that I just had to have a copy of The Casual Vacancy and I felt it was burning a hole in my desk throughout the day until the evening came when I could finally step into Rowling’s world. Despite my excitement, I stepped with a certain degree of trepidation, having not read any of the Harry Potter series and I must say I admire Rowling’s courage in moving away from her comfort zone in children’s fiction.

The book opens with a councillor’s untimely death and the subsequent effects that resonate through all sections of the local community and local council; Rowling’s writing captures the humanity, confusion and ultimate selfishness of death. Having experienced the death of a parent, she clearly writes from truth which added much authenticity and realism to the story.

Having said this, Rowling tends to dispense too much detail about council relations  and she seemed to take a long time to get to the point. Some portions of book read as a textbook and there were a number of pages without speech, which for a work of fiction does not always read well and more often than not, I found myself skipping a number of pages or forgetting a lot of the detail. I felt that Rowling had made the mistake of ‘telling’ more than ‘showing’ and having read the amount of books I have, I’ve discovered that you can learn more through dialogue than reams of text. In hindsight, it may have been more beneficial to the reader if Rowling provided a list of characters at the beginning of the book along with their role in the story and relationship to other characters to lower the confusion level for many of her readers.

Reading The Casual Vacancy, I felt that Rowling had incorporated too many characters into the story and it seemed they were vying for the reader’s attention and unfortunately I lost the potential message or theme of the book. Even pivotal events were lost to me in the constant council in-fighting and back stabbing, which on some occasions left a bad after-taste and I found myself only able to read a certain amount at a time. None of the characters are particularly likeable even the antagonists and I found much of the text read as a lecture rather than a tale of action and suspense.

I feel that perhaps Rowling was fighting against having to write for the public and after Harry Potter she is now in the enviable position of writing what she wants. Although her position is a dream for any writer, I believe you still have to write for your public to a certain degree in order for your work to be appreciated fully. The Casual Vacancy addresses many of society’s discriminatory judgements on  certain sections of society, particularly the lower classes. Unfortunately too many causes are trying to be addressed and too many characters are vying for the protagonist’s role. Even Harry Potter was ultimately about one character while all others were involved in a more supportive capacity.

Rowling’s poverty stricken life prior to her Harry Potter success has been no secret, for this reason when Rowling writes of the poverty and harshness of her a particular set of characters, she writes with the authority of an insider, of having “been there” and of understanding what they are going through and how their lives are affected by society and politics.

In the  end, if you are interested in politics or have experience of politics (as does Rowling), The Casual Vacancy will appeal to you, however if you are more interested in the social aspects of community life, you will not find Rowling’s debut into adult fiction  particularly engaging.

Opening Image: my own

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The Rose Petal Beach: Book Review

What it says on the back:

‘I could kill them for what they’ve done to me’.

I said those words. And I meant them at the time. But what would you do, what would you say if your husband was accused of something terrible and the accuser is someone you trusted with your life?

That doesn’t mean I wanted this to happen. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And I didn’t want to be scared that every knock on the door is going to be the police, coming to take me away. What’s going to happen to my children? What’s going to happen to me?

My name is Tamia Challey and this is my story. 

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As I eagerly accepted the book shaped parcel from the postman one morning and ripped open the packaging, I knew that great wonders lay beneath.

Dorothy Koomson outdoes herself each time and she definitely has provided her readers with a tension packed tale of love, lies and unforseeable twists in this emotional, heartbreaking tale. As you tentatively turn each page you will find yourself wanting to cry, smile, even hide behind a cushion all at the same time. The Rose Petal Beach is definitely the penultimate emotional  thriller which keeps you guessing until the very end.

A number of people have remarked on the pastel shades of books adorning my bookcase, querying how I can read such ‘chick lit’. I reply with the well founded come back that Dorothy Koomson is not chick lit (not that there is anything wrong with such books), Koomson has in fact created her own genre of emotional thrillers. The Rose Petal Beach for me also read like a crime/who done it, to the extent that it could easily hold its own among the Patricia Cornwell’s of the crime genre. The lesson here, is to never judge a book by its cover, no matter how beautiful and stunning it may be. I must mention here that the cover to Koomson’s latest work of art is in itself magnificent and my current favourite. Even when I wasn’t reading the book, I would want to stare at the cover and take in its mystery and beauty.

In my opinion, Rose Petal Beach is Dorothy’s most  confrontational and thought provoking and what I can only imagine as her most emotional demanding. There are a number of leading characters involved in the story each with their own agendas, I was amazed at how Koomson flawlessly adopts each persona, writing so powerfully from each perspective that you forget what you are actually reading is fiction. During her public engagements, Dorothy often states she gains her inspiration for her writing from real life stories from the news and newspapers. For this reason, she is so concerned with portraying the victims’ stories correctly that her research is so detailed that she steps into each character’s shoes and describes human nature so perfectly that I had to remind myself to breathe as I furiously read the story of the Rose Petal Beach with bated breath. She has provided justice to the victims of such crimes so successfully that you feel you can actually touch the reality. Koomson is so in touch with her characters that you actually hear them talking to you; they very quickly get into your head and you begin to understand them. You feel and empathise with the desperation in each character. As someone who has experienced an aspect of the story, Dorothy’s depiction is so close to reality it sent shivers through me. Koomson soon has you feeling the emotions right down to your bones. Rose Petal Beach definitely comes across as a labour of love on Dorothy’s part  – the fast pace of the story keeps the reader on their toes to the point that even when you are not reading it, you are thinking about it, longing to go back to it. I personally carried it around with me in the hope that I could steal five minutes alone to immerse myself once more in the story.

The Rose Petal Beach is ultimately a lesson in denial, in understanding yourself, in questioning what you would do in similar circumstances; putting your own coping mechanisms into perspective. Essentially it is a reminder that your past never leaves you but very often catches up with you in later life, highlighted by the back story with which Dorothy Koomson develops the legend of The Rose Petal Beach. It attests to the love is blind belief of many and proves that everyone is capable of both good and evil.

Throughout reading the book and in writing this review, I have tried my hardest to find negative aspects of the book and/or Koomson’s writing but have failed to do so. This story will stay with you long after the last word has been devoured.

 
Title image from Quercusbooks.co.uk 
Final image: my own 

If You Have To Cry Go Outside by Kelly Cutrone: Book Review

For those of you familiar with American reality series The Hills and The City you will be familiar with the phenomenon that is Kelly Cutrone. I liked Kelly from the outset, particularly with her ‘taking no prisoners’ method and admired her for her integrity in the largely dishonest world of fashion. I would highly recommend you buy this book and would defy you not to finish it without learning one thing and without feeling empowered. Never mind the Spice Girls, Kelly Cutrone is the queen of ‘Girl Power’!

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What it says on the back:

Kelly Cutrone has long been mentoring women on how to make it in one of the most competitive industries in the world. In her trademark, no-[nonsense] style, she combines personal and professional stories to share her secrets for success without selling out. Raw, hilarious, shocking, but always the honest truth, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside calls upon you to gather up your courage like an armful of clothes at a McQueen sample sale and follow your soul where it takes you. Whether you’re just starting out in the world or looking to reinvent yourself, this book will be the spark you need to figure out what you have to say to the world – and how you’re going to say it.

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I must admit I was slightly hesitant to buy this book, thinking it was about how to succeed in the fashion world. However even before finishing the introduction, I knew I made the best decision. Kelly Cutrone deletes the word “can’t” from your vocabulary.  I was charmed by her lack of arrogance or self-righteousness. The entire book is unlike any of the other self-help books out there and I have read a few! Cutrone teaches her readers life lessons through sharing her own mistakes and I have to say a lot of what she wrote struck a chord with me:

‘…This is an important lesson to remember when you’re having a bad day, a bad month… Things will change: you won’t feel this way forever. And anyway, sometimes the hardest lessons to learn are the ones your soul needs most. I believe you can’t find real joy unless you’ve felt heartache… [I have been] forced …to learn to trust and love myself and really know that I’m not what I do for a living.’ (Pg 57)

Kelly Cutrone show a genuinely deep side for someone so successful in what the perceived shallow world of fashion. She credits a certain degree of success on her spiritual beliefs and delves deep into the religion of materialism, encouraging her readers to embrace all religions and find their own form of spiritualism, as she has done. There is so much I could expand on but I fear in sharing more Cutrone pearls of wisdom, I will be depriving you of the joy and excitement of discovering that you really are a ‘Babe In Total Control of Herself’ – you just don’t realise it yet.

Reading ‘If You Want To Cry’, I felt that Kelly was talking directly to me and all the examples and lessons she bought to the fore seemed so relevant to my own life. It really was as if she knew me personally. In my opinion Kelly Cutrone’s integrity is highly admirable, she has opened the doors to the fashion world and has destroyed its shallow stereotype. She gives hope to those struggling to reach the top in their own field:

‘…the roads to your dreams are not paved with yellow brick; in fact, they may be paved with rejection letters. The people who succeed are often not just the people with the best-articulated brands; they’re the people who respond to rejection by brushing themselves off and moving on, again and again’ (pg 123)

Now what better advice than that could an aspiring writer wish for?

The Cypress Tree by Kamin Mohammadi: Book Review

‘We Iranians are like the cypress tree. We may bend and bend on the wind but we will never break’ 

 What it says on the back:

Kamin Mohammadi was nine years old when her family fled Iran during the 1979 revolution. Bewildered by the seismic changes in her homeland, she turned her back on the past and spent her teenage years trying to fit in with British attitudes to family, food and freedom. She was twenty-seven before she returned to Iran, drawn inexorably back by memories of her grandmother’s house in Abadan, with its traditional inner courtyard, its noisy gatherings and its very walls seeped in history. The Cypress Tree is Kamin’s account of her journey home, to rediscover her Iranian self and to discover for the first time the story of her family: a sprawling clan that sprang from humble roots to bloom during the affluent, Bibi-clad 1960s, only to be shaken by the horrors of the Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and the heartbreak of exile, and toughened by the struggle for democracy that continues today.

——

Mohammadi’s vivid narrative brings the sound and taste of Iran to the reader, she brings the history of Iran to life in a way that at least I have not seen, read or heard before and provides a first-hand insight to the experiences of the revolution and Iran’s development to a near Middle Eastern superpower. Even to those like myself who are widely read on Iran, Kamin brings something new to the fore. She writes from a personal perspective, of what she felt, heard and experienced around her, with the Iranian culture illuminating from every page. You find an understanding of Iran and Iranians through each sector of society from upper to lower classes, which for a half Iranian herself was enlightening. The exiled second generation Iranians all know what happened in 1979 but rarely do we get an articulate first hand insight as this.

Mohammadi writes with charming Farsi interspersed in her story, and you soon hear yourself reading like an Iranian. There is definitely something about Iran that gets under your skin and does not leave you. In the words of Mohammadi:

‘Our culture and our history continue to enrich the souls of new Iranians born to families far from home, and from Los Angeles to Perth, a  new generation of Iranians are growing up with a longing they can hardly understand, a heart beating with the yearning to visit the land of our ancestors, to lie under a tree in the soft sunlight and become intoxicated by the fragrance of jasmine and orange blossom – to repossess our own personal paradise’.

I could not help but feel a little envy as I read her story and how so immersed in Iranian culture Kamin was while growing up and continues to be. The Cypress Tree is a book that provides an opening to Iran that people in the West have never encountered until now. It’s a book for politicians, for teachers; for Iranians; for non Iranians; for anyone who wants to know the real Iran.

Effective change can not come in Iran without fully understanding Iranians themselves and especially their patriotism for their country, despite who is currently governing their land. The Cypress Tree brings that understanding to our fingertips.

Millicent Marbleroller and the Bear Monster Army by Wayne Roseberry: Book Review

The Info:

‘All of Millicent’s dreams had come true. She was now the sole heir to the legendary Crackerhead Toys Inc., and owner of General Crackerhead’s mansion. But even more important, the magical pipe organ was all hers.

But that is where the trouble begins. Millicent has to make lots of “Jolly Good Toys” now for the mysterious People in the Black Vans, and everything she tries to make comes out strange and frightening. To make matters worse, the General’s scheming brother, Admiral Algernon Crackerhead, is intent as ever to get his hands on the mansion and rip it apart to find the secret plans to the Crackerhead Yo-Yo.

Meanwhile, Millicent is unlocking even more secrets of the mansion as she tries to stay one step ahead of the Admiral. Millicent musical adventures continues on…’

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Having received the latest adventure of Millicent in the post, I was eager to read what additional excitement she discovered in the Mansion of the Toymaker and who or indeed what was the Bear Monster Army.

With the brief yet detailed prologue at the beginning, this book could stand alone as a separate story in its own right. The setting and descriptions are more developed, with pictures to add extra clarity. The characters come alive within the pages and I have a feeling that as Millicent’s story develops and matures, we too will grow with her.

I very much enjoyed the idea of making toys through music and in reading Millicent’s story was reminded of my own childhood. What child would not want to have toys at the tip of her fingers? Roseberry effortlessly draws out the imagination of children and this in no way is a criticism. I could even hear the laughter of my six-year old niece among the pages.

As with the prequel, the chapters are short, encouraging young readers to read further. The drama within the story is far more in-depth, which may very well invite a new age group of readers through the doors of the Mansion of the Toymaker. Millicent sets an example for her readers, lessons in problem solving, calmness, the benefits of hard work and patience in achieving your goals.

The only misgivings I have is that I found it sometimes difficult to imagine the actions of Millicent and her fellow characters and can not help but wonder how children can imagine them. On the other side, perhaps their imagination is a lot less overcrowded with reality, a curse of the elder generation. The cover may come across as a little scary for the younger generation of readers and may as a result deter parents from purchasing the new edition to Millicent’s adventure in the Toymaking Mansion. However, having avidly read the old Point Horror series as an 11 year old, I am estimating that it is this  age group that Roseberry is aiming for.

The storyline again recaptures the imagination of Roald Dahl. The ending, although completes the story leaves aspects of it open. For this reason, a sequel I am hoping will soon grace my bookshelves. I can not wait to hear what else Millicent will find within the keys of the infamous organ and the secret passageways of the Mansion!

Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom: Book Review

‘ “Dear Friends. I’m dying.

“Don’t be upset. I began to die on July 6, 1917. That’s the day I was born, and, in council with what our psalmist says, ‘We who are born, are born to die’

“Now, I heard a little joke that deals with this. A minister was visiting a country church, and he began his sermon with a stirring reminder:

” ‘ Everyone in this parish is going to die!’

“The minister looked around. He noticed a man in the front pew, smiling broadly.

” ‘Why are you so amused?’ he asked.

” ‘ I’m not from this parish’, the man said. ‘I’m just visiting my sister for the weekend.’ ”

(Albom 2009)

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Why do good things happen to bad people?

If there was a God,why do bad things happen to good people?

Why does God allow war?

How can you forgive?

Where can I find peace?

For those of us who have searched for these answers, you have to read this book. This book may be about faith, religion, love and even death but it is also about answers.

Even before the story begins. Even before you finish page one, already you know the ending is not a happy one. However, this does not in any way detract from its power to move you, to give you hope, to rock you from your core. Mitch Albom sprinkles humour effortlessly throughout this book that you forget what the outcome will eventually be. This book is not for Jews, nor Christians, nor Muslims, it is for everyone. To quote from Mitch Albom himself: ‘…while this book is about faith [it is not] a how-to guide for any particular belief. Rather it is written in hope that all faiths can find something universal in this story… in the beginning, there was a question. In the end, the question gets answered. God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it’s all one song – one same, wonderful, human song.’

That is why you have to read this book.

There is a famous saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. That is very true, but as in Albom’s case you should also never judge a book by its title. My fear is that people when in scanning bookshelves and download lists for their bright shiny Kindles, will pass by this book simply due to the ‘F’ word. Maybe it’s the cynical in me, but the new religion these days is money and success. Even by Albom’s own admission:

‘ …I pretty much walked away from [my faith]. …It was if I’m, honest, apathy. A lack of need. My career as a sportswriter was blossoming , work dominated my days…Who had time? I didn’t need to ask God much, and I figured, as long as I wasn’t hurting anyone, God wasn’t asking much of me either.’

This is what gives Mitch Albom the authority to write this book. The book is a journey for Mitch in as much as it is for the reader. It does not endorse any particular religion and in fact, Albom writes mostly of people who either have no faith or walked away from the faith or the religion they once followed. In my opinion, Have a Little Faith is relevant to those of every denomination and to those with no religious convictions. Albom’s grace in writing about a sometimes ungraceful topic leaves you thirsty for more. As I regretfully neared the end of this book, I was desperate to read on and to finish the story; to hear the eulogy, yet desperate to stop reading, to keep the story open.

This book gives you hope that no matter how bad you are; how many bad things you have done in your life, there is always the opportunity to change; to be better. I have tried searching for negative aspects of this book but have yet to find one. There is a reason Mitch Allbom is a best-selling author and this book is one of them.

Mitch Albom has proven his eloquence and it seems only fitting that I should give him the last word:


The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

 I have read many a book in my twenty-eight years but never one that has left me with such a bad taste in my mouth. The Almost Moon is a morbid account of severe dementia sufferer, Clair Knightley’s murder at the hands of her daughter, Helen Knightley. What follows is Helen’s account of events as she attempts to hide her crime in the following twenty-four hours. In doing so she selfishly forces her ex-husband into the cover-up and effectively places him at the scene of crime.  She jumps backwards and forwards in describing her childhood and subsequent difficult relationship with her mother as if that would excuse her of her horrendous crime.

 Having watched The Lovely Bones, I held high hopes for The Almost Moon. I have yet to read the written version of The Lovely Bones and quite frankly I am highly hesitant to do so. Although the storyline around The Lovely Bones is a tragic one, the film did not leave me with such depressing feelings as this book. Even the first sentence is drowning in hatred and I think it was only my sheer stubbornness that pulled me kicking and screaming to the end, which in itself was highly disappointing.

There are even sections in the book that were very crude in description. Having read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire’s Chronicles, I am not one to shy from explicit romance. However, the way in which Sebold uses such scenes in her book is quite vulgar.  Other events, which are descriptive of Helen’s life and history are very disjointed and often do not correspond with one another. Other descriptive details, such as any passing scenery are so long and detailed I often found myself skipping paragraphs. As soon as something remotely exciting happens there follows a lengthy description of an event from the past which has no significant to the current event.

I say the book is based on events over a twenty-four hour period, however reading it felt like a lifetime.

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