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

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Published by Little, Brown and Company

When Barry Fairbrother dies of an aneurysm in a parking lot, the town of Pagford is thrown into chaos. Not only are the gossip mills working overtime, but Barry’s death throws into disarray the Pagford town council, which now has a casual vacancy. Barry was one of the leading supporters of the Fields, the low-income housing at the edge of town and the nearby addiction clinic. Without him, Howard Mollison may just be able push through the reassignment of the Fields to the larger town nearby and the retraction of the addiction clinic’s lease. In the days following Barry’s death, many long-dormant hostilities flare up, as the election to fill his seat forces people to examine their own beliefs and relationships.

At its heart, The Casual Vacancy is about the politics of small town life, both the actual governance and decisions made by a (theoretically) elected few and the politics of interpersonal relationships in a place where everyone is connected to everyone else in one way or another. There is a strong theme of social responsibility and the social contract in The Casual Vacancy, as citizens of Pagford debate what should become of the Fields. Opinions run the gamut, as prominent characters include the old guard such as the Mollisons, as well as a young woman growing up in the fields with a drug addicted mother, a social worker, and many others.

It is this thread that makes the timing of the The Casual Vacancy release in the United States so interesting, as many similar issues are being debated in the lead up to our national election. Obviously with a world-wide English release this is unlikely to have been calculated, but I can see this working both for and against The Casual Vacancy, depending on the reader. Many US readers may not want to indulge in political rancor and electioneering during this final stretch of a seemingly interminable political cycle; others, however, may have a heightened appreciation of just what the stakes are in this fictional election due to the high profile of political decisions in the US at the moment.

All this is not to say that civic politics is the be all and end all of The Casual Vacancy, relationships are just as crucial to the story Rowling is telling. There are tense relationships between parents and children, affairs, relationships that have changed over time so they are no longer recognizable to the people within them. There are friendships and mentoring relationships as well. Although not unendingly bleak, there is certainly more darkness and less support in most of these relationships than in Rowling’s Harry Potter wizard world. There are times that Pagford seems to have echoes of her Muggle world, Howard Mollison called to mind Vernon Dursley occasionally, albeit the more complex Vernon Dursley of the later books.

The Casual Vacancy probably has much less universal appeal than Rowling’s Harry Potter books, both for the cynical look a life and for the focus on politics. The writing is not going to blow anyone away – and Rowling uses parentheses strangely to indicate that characters are recalling something, sometimes with up to half a page contained in a single pair – but it is strong enough that it generally does not distract from the fascinating story Rowling is telling.

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A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir – Book Review

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

In less than a century, England saw two rulers who would be recorded in the popular history as usurpers: Richard III and Lady Jane Grey. When Jane Grey is overthrown by Queen Mary Tudor after ruling for only nine days, her younger sister Katherine Grey feels that her life has been torn asunder. Not only is she no longer the sister of the Queen and instead the sister and daughter of traitors, but her marriage to her beloved husband is annulled by his father, who no longer sees their match advantageous. Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had a happy early life, but after the death of her uncle, King Edward IV, suspicion begins to invade her life as her father’s actions in regards to the kingdom and his nephews seem increasing suspect. As relatives to unsuccessful claimants to the Crown, Katherine and Kate have many parallel experiences and a shared obsession with the fate of Edward IV’s sons, the boys who would become known as the Princes in the Tower.

I have had mixed reactions to Alison Weir’s fiction, but really enjoy her nonfiction, so when I heard she had a new novel coming out I was excited check it out. I was not terribly sure about the idea of dual historical time periods going between the reign of Richard III and the reigns of the three Tudor women; it seemed likely not to flow well, or to be too contrived. As I began reading Kate and Katherine’s stories, though, I realized just how many similarities there were in the broad strokes of their stories, with the ascension and dethroning of their family members with pretensions to the throne. This was even more true as both women underwent these experiences when they were quite young and thus had to deal with the way that these events influenced their matrimonial prospects.

Early on it seems that Kate and Katherine’s shared interest in the Princes in the Tower was going to be unsatisfying and a bit of a loose thread, but a little over halfway through A Dangerous Inheritance the pieces begin to come together and this commonality between the women weaves their narratives together even more coherently than their shared status as the kin of traitors. Ultimately A Dangerous Inheritance is a captivating pair of stories with incredibly appealing and sympathetic main characters and I can definitely recommend it.

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Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
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A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick – Book Review

A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Elizabeth Chadwick is perhaps best known for her historical fiction featuring William Marshal. In his A Place Beyond Courage, she returns to his family in order to tell the story of his infamous father, John FitzGilbert.

As the marshal of King Henry I of England, John FitzGilbert knows the court well, and he knows how hollow the vows to support Henry’s daughter Matilda as heir are. God willing the king has many years to live, but Matilda and her estranged husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou have no children and no immediate prospects for one as they refuse to even live together. As such, and because it is doubtful that the men of 12th century England will ever really accept a woman on the throne, the succession of the country is in question should anything happen to Henry. And, all too soon, something does happen to Henry. A batch of bad fish, possibly murder, and suddenly the country is in an uproar. Henry’s nephew Stephen seizes the crown, while Matilda, who by then had three very young sons by her husband, challenged from Normandy.

For John FitzGilbert, life at home is no more peaceful than political life. His wife, Aline, is meek and biddable, but she is also fearful and overly pious, to extents that annoy John terribly. They are quite horrible mismatched and their marriage is not a happy one for either of them.

John FitzGilbert and his famous “hammer and anvils” speech make an appearance in Chadwick’s novels on the lives of William Marshal, John’s fourth son, so having the opportunity to delve deeper into his psyche and discover how he became a man who would say such a thing about his son. By the  time we got to that point in his life, it was completely understandable how and why he could do something that was seemingly so uncaring. It seemed initially that he would be an unsympathetic character, but the more I read, the more I understood him.

The only thing I disliked about A Place Beyond Courage is the way that John’s wives were characterized. Aline is obviously not meant to be a sympathetic character: she is cold in bed, spends too much time and money on the church, and is unable to satisfactorily order her household. If she was more sympathetic, it would be difficult to like John with how he sometimes treats her. Still, at times it seems that Chadwick goes too far in trying to make her weak and unwomanly, because I was all too aware of how I was not meant to like her. His second wife and William’s mother, in comparison, is young, lovely, and beyond competent.

Despite some manipulative characterizations, I did very much enjoy A Place Beyond Courage. It is a good look at the civil war between Stephen and Matilda for the future of the English throne and John FitzGilbert is a fascinating character, if somewhat less sympathetic than his famous son.

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Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham – Book Review

Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Although he marries six times, Henry VIII has only three children who were at least arguably born in wedlock, one each by each of his first three wives. The eldest two, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, are both considered illegitimate at different times according to Henry’s whims and the laws of the land. Only his son Edward, by his third wife Jane Seymour, truly has a clear path to the throne. Unfortunately, Henry dies while Edward was still in his minority, leaving the young king to be ruled by prominent men of the kingdom, including his uncles on his mother’s side. The result is a period of upheaval, as various men succumb to the seduction of power and vastly overstep their boundaries. In the midst of this, Edward is growing increasingly radical in his Protestantism, and when he begins to get sick, he is determined that his eldest sister, the staunchly Catholic Mary, will not succeed him. As both of his sisters have been considered illegitimate at one point or another, disinheriting both of them seems the easiest and wisest course. Henry’s will ensured that if his children died without issue, the crown would go to children of his youngest sister, Mary. Luckily, Edward has an equally Protestant cousin in that branch of the family: the lady Jane Grey.

Jane Grey and Edward VI are perhaps the least written about Tudor rulers, so I am always drawn to books about them, as authors are less likely to be simply rehashing the same old thing. In this case, the only other book I’ve read about Jane Grey is Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor, which I read shortly before I started blogging and so haven’t reviewed. The Jane of Weir’s story is meek and mild, but also very against taking precedence over her cousin Mary, who she believes is the rightful queen after Edward’s death, despite her Catholicism. Higginbotham’s Jane, on the other hand, thinks very highly of herself, her own intelligence, and her religion. Frankly, she’s a bit of a brat and you sense she would be an unmitigated disaster as queen.

Thankfully, with a Jane like this, Higginbotham does not tell her story from Jane’s own point of view, which might well be insufferable. Instead, we see the events from Edward’s ascension to Mary’s through the eyes of her mother Frances Grey and her future mother-in-law Jane Dudley. In addition to saving us from some of Jane’s high opinion of herself, these women are better placed to let the reader experience more of the drama of Edward’s reign and death first hand, which makes for a more interesting and informative book than we might have had from Jane’s eyes alone.

Her Highness, the Traitor is perhaps the strongest of Higginbotham’s books thus far. It is well-edited and the story flows smoothly and quickly. It also may have the broadest appeal because, although Jane Grey and Edward VI are scarce topics as far as the Tudors go, they are still Tudors and thus more familiar to many readers than some of Higginbotham’s other subjects. Recommended.

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Gilt by Katherine Longshore – Audiobook Review

Gilt by Katherine Longshore, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda
Published in audio by Penguin Audio; published in print by Viking Juvenile, both imprints of Penguin

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

When Kitty Tylney’s best friend, Catherine Howard, worms her way into King Henry VIII’s heart and brings Kitty to court, she’s thrust into a world filled with fabulous gowns, sparkling jewels, and elegant parties. No longer stuck in Cat’s shadow, Kitty’s now caught between two men–the object of her affection and the object of her desire. But court is also full of secrets, lies, and sordid affairs, and as Kitty witnesses Cat’s meteoric rise and fall as queen, she must figure out how to keep being a good friend when the price of telling the truth could literally be her head.

Thoughts on the story:

Oh, you guys, I loved Gilt so hard. SO hard. Catherine Howard is a hard wife of Henry VIII to know what to do with. Unlike Anne Boleyn it seems likely that she was actually guilty of the crimes of which she was accused, so then the question becomes whether she was naïve or calculating; did she somehow fall into a trap of adultery or was she out to get what she wanted? The problem with telling her story is that the naïve girl who simply wants to love her dear Thomas Culpepper is sort of boring, and the young woman who is not above using her sexuality to manipulate situations in her favor isn’t the most likable of characters.

Katherine Longshore solves this problem by giving us the spoiled, manipulative Cat that we love to hate, but not forcing the reader to experience the entire story through her unsympathetic point of view. Instead of we are treated to Cat’s meteoric rise and downfall through the eyes of Kitty Tilney, a hanger-on and distant relation who always considered Cat Howard to be her best friend. Cat uses and abuses Kitty in ways that increase the drama of the story without giving way to melodrama. It also allows for a story of Kitty’s personal growth in a real and organic way, which means that Gilt isn’t just repeating a tired old Tudor storyline.

One note: Gilt is being marketed as a young adult novel and certainly works as one, partly because of the ages of the main characters, but it is a very mature young adult novel and doesn’t shy away from the adultery, rape, and politics happening at court. There is no reason why adult fans of Tudor historical fiction should shy away from this one based on the marketing label.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Jennifer Ikeda does a great job narrating Gilt. She’s believable as Kitty and does a good job with the voices. Like Longshore, she does a wonderful job finding the balance between expressing the drama inherent in the story and avoiding unnecessary melodrama.

For more on the audio production, please see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

I have every confidence that I would have loved Gilt in print, but the audio is a fantastic option as well. Really, I’m just glad I got to experience Longshore’s version of Catherine Howard.

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I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Audiofile Magazine.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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