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.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Library.
* 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 Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin – Book Review

The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin

Florence Forrest is a an eleven year old girl living in Millrose, Mississippi in 1963. Her home life is not good – her father is rather scary and mean and clearly involved in the KKK (although Florence doesn’t realize it), and her mother, who grew up in a well-to-do and fairly liberal household drinks excessively to deal with what her life has become. Neither one of Florence’s parents seem particularly keen to spend much time with her, either. As a result, Florence is shipped off to her grandmother’s house during the day, but be minded by her grandmother’s maid, Zenie. She goes home with Zenobia after work, as well, until her father comes and gets her at the end of the day.

Zenie’s full name is Zenobia, named after the Queen of the Palmyran Empire from the 3rd century, a woman purportedly more beautiful than Cleopatra. Zenie delights in sharing with Florence – who most of the time she merely tolerates – the stories of the Queen of Palmyra. Life for Zenie and Florence isn’t particularly easy or comfortable, but they get by. Until, that is, Zenie’s niece Eva comes to town and life begins to get complicated – and scary.

If you’ve been around the book blogosphere lately, you’ll know that almost everyone seems to really love this book. So, I have to admit, my expectations were very, very high when I started this book. Unfortunately, “The Queen of Palmyra” didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was good, and it came close, but it just fell short.

I adored Florence’s character. She was such a real little girl, strong and yet fragile, desperate to be loved. I also really appreciated that she and Zenie didn’t have this ultra-fantastic relationship crossing race and employer/employee lines. Florence loved Zenie, definitely, but that didn’t stop her from occasionally addressing Zenie in a voice of white privilege. And as much as Zenie seemed to feel a certain fondness for Florence, she also regarded her as one more take, one more chore. Zenie watched Florence because she got paid to do so, not out of a deep motherly love. That may seem like an odd thing to appreciate in a book, but I think the close relationship between the young white girl and older black woman is a little overused. Although I’m sure there were examples in 1963 of deeply caring bonds between young girls and their maids or governesses, I think there were likely a lot more were there was simply fondness or the love was only one-sided, and I was glad that Gwin chose to present that more realistic view of their relationship.

One thing I wish had been done a little differently is Florence’s voice and the tense of the book. As was said in the Book Club Girl show with Minrose Gwin, there were basically two narrators: Florence as an adult, looking back at the narrative and, inside of that, Florence as a child. Essentially one might say that most of the book was told inside Florence’s memory. It was as if the child’s voice was a movie of the events and the adult voice the director’s commentary. This was an interesting way to structure the book, but it lent a little unevenness to the writing. I didn’t necessarily notice from sentence to sentence what tense the story was being told in, but when it changed too often within a short period of time, those sections felt rough to me.

Overall I did very much enjoy this book, and I think it would be a fantastic book to discuss with a book club, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectation.

For those of you who have already read this book, or don’t mind spoilers, Minrose Gwin was on Book Club Girl’s show on Blog Talk Radio earlier this week and you can listen to the show.

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

This review was done with a book received from Erica at Harper Collins.
* 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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Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman – Book Review

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

CeeCee Honeycutt’s life in Georgia is tough. Her father is technically in the picture, but travels so much he might as well not be and her mother, well, is a little crazy. CeeCee’s mother Camille is obsessed with her life back in Savannah and her illustrious past as the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen. One day when Camille runs out of the house in what basically amounts to a prom dress, she does not return. With Camille’s passing, CeeCee’s father no longer feels that he can (or wants to, really) take care of her. Luckily, CeeCee’s Great Aunt Tootie comes to the rescue and whisks CeeCee off to Savannah to live with her.

Sweetest. Book. Ever.


So last Tuesday, I was having a terrible, terrible day. Nothing earth-shatteringly bad, don’t worry, but just a whole mess of annoying things, like only getting 3 hours of sleep and having to entertain a baby for 90 minutes while the REALLY flat tire on our car got fixed when we couldn’t just walk because it was pouring rain. So yah, not good.

But then, when we came home and Daniel went to sleep and I laid down on the couch and picked up “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.”

It isn’t every book that can turn your day around, but “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” did exactly that for me. It is a light read, but not insubstantial; sweet, without being saccharine. Hoffman has skill as a writer and CeeCee is a very engaging character. Not only is it a great book, it was the perfect book for me the day I read it.

I’m so happy that I had CeeCee to spend time with when I was having a bad day. Pick it up and hold onto it for the next time you need a pick me up.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound

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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