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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Source: Library.
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Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin – Book Review

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of Harper Collins

Life has been tough for Charley. His mother has been gone – not dead, but not around – for as long as he can remember, and his father is not the most reliable of parents. In addition to moving them around a lot and cutting off contact between Charley and his aunt, Charley’s father doesn’t always come home, sometimes preferring to stay out all night, or even for days at a time, with lady friends, leaving Charley short of both food and money. To fill his time before school starts, Charley begins hanging out down by the racetrack, where he picks up a job with Del, an ornery old man who treats his horses like commodities – and not very valuable ones at that. Charley, though, bonds quickly with one of Del’s horses, Lean on Pete. When his father is brutally assaulted by the husband of one of the women he is sleeping with, it is in Pete that Charley finds solace.

“Lean on Pete” was not the easiest book to read. Charley’s life was a very difficult one, and he was in a position in which no 15 year old should be placed, especially after his father was hospitalized. There was nobody around to take care of him, nobody who really even knew he needed taking care of. He found himself essentially homeless because he was too afraid to return to the scene of his father’s assault. Eventually he found himself entirely on his own. The way that Del and others around him used and abused their horses, too, was extremely difficult to read. Lean on Pete and the other horses were not living beings to Del, but instruments to make him money. He was less purposefully cruel than neglectful to the point of cruelty. It is hard to know whether or not to recommend this to horse lovers, because Charley’s connection with Pete was very moving, but a lot of horses are treated very badly throughout the book

I tried over and over while reading this to convince myself that this book was set in the past, that these sorts of things couldn’t happen in modern U.S. society, but given the discussion that Charley had with his father about possibly getting cell phones (an idea that his somewhat-paranoid father nixed) just couldn’t support this.

Vlautin matches his prose perfectly to his subject, with a high degree of realism that made me feel more that I was experiencing Charley’s story than that I was reading it. This work of fiction could easily have been memoir, for how convincingly real it was.

Recommended.

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A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
* 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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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – Book Review

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Okay, who is that neglected to tell me I should read this book years and years ago? Whoever you are, you are TOTALLY fired.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is the story of Francie Nolan and her family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Nolans don’t have much money, scrimping and saving to even get by, but they do have determination. Francie’s mother, Katie, is determined to do what it takes to keep her family together and keep them from feeling too much deprivation. Francie is determined to get as much education as possible and frequently loses herself in the world of books.

I remember this being one of the books in the Readers Digest Condensed Books series we had when I was growing up. I know that abridgments are mildly evil, but the books were beautiful and I loved to pick them up. I know I read many of the works out of those books, but I always avoided “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” because I thought the title sounded totally boring.

I really, really wish I hadn’t prejudged this book, but I’m also really, really thankful to Heather for picking this for our Classic Reads Book Club. I loved it. L.O.V.E.D. it. First of all, Betty Smith’s writing is gorgeous and completely evocative of time and place. Besides that, Francie is a girl after my own heart, working her way alphabetically through her local library, getting so excited about schooling.

If you have reached adulthood without reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, ” please do yourself a favor and read it as soon as possible. I think it might join “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck in the group of books that I reread regularly.

Buy this book from:
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A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book I purchased myself.
* 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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The Heart is Not a Size by Beth Kephart – Book Review

The Heart is Not a Size by Beth Kephart

When Georgia sees a notice on the corkboard at the grocery store about a summer trip to Anapra in Juarez, Mexico, she knows immediately that she needs to go.  The first step is to convince her best friend Riley to go, the next to convince her parents to let her go. Promising to spend the rest of her summer corralling her younger brother Kevin should do it, though. Georgia and Riley really need this escape from the ordinary; Georgia has panic attacks and Riley’s mother dismisses her as ‘average.’ Something seems particularly wrong with Riley, actually, she is disappearing almost before Georgia’s eyes. Although Ampara was a bit of a whim initially, it will end up touching the girls in a very special way.

Beth Kephart’s writing is, as always, gorgeous. There was a lot in this novel: eating disorders, panic attacks, poverty, invisible people, rape and murder and disappearances. One thing that was particularly interesting to me was that Georgia was supposed to be somewhat heavy – her friendship with the much smaller Riley being the origin of the title – but either the reader doesn’t get any hint of this until at least a third of the way through the book or I totally missed it until that point. I appreciated that, this wasn’t a ‘fat girl’ book, but a book about the live of a girl who just happened to be somewhat overweight, but whose weight is not her main attribute.

I sort of wish “The Heart is Not a Size” had been about twice as long as it was. So much really wasn’t explored as much as I would have liked: Georgia’s weight, her panic attacks, the lives of the people in Juarez and Anapra, the muertas, and more. However, none of those things was really the point of this book, and that’s okay. As with the other of Kephart’s books I read, “The Heart is Not a Size” was really about a regular girl finding irregular strength to deal with the difficulties that arise in her life.

I don’t think I liked “The Heart is Not a Size” quite as much as I liked “Nothing But Ghosts,” but that’s a little like saying I don’t like chocolate quite as well as chocolate mixed with peanut butter; both are fantastic, one is just ever so slightly more fantastic than the other. If you haven’t read anything by Kephart yet, you really need to get on it ASAP – she’s not just for the young adult audience, but for everyone who likes lyrical writing and thoughtful stories.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book received from a friend.
* 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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