The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling

rowling_casualSo I’ve read it. And what did I think? Well, to start with the obvious: It’s not Harry Potter. And while it is not Harry Potter in all the obvious ways, it is also not Harry Potter in a more fundamental, affecting-how-I-feel-about-it way. Let me try to explain:

The Casual Vacancy, as most people will have gathered, is a realistic novel. It is set in Pagford, a smallish town somewhere in England. The novel stars off with a member of the local council unexpectedly dying, which sets off a series of events mostly related to his now vacant seat on the council and the question of local politics. However, though certain aspects of local politics are very central to the story, it is not a book about politics as such, it is more about fairly ordinary people, the lives they actually live and the fronts they try to keep up – the lies they tell themselves or others to maintain the facade.

I had gathered before I started to read that there were a lot of characters to keep track of. Being terrible at names I was bracing myself to make an effort in order to make any sense of it all. However, once I did start reading I found it was not at all hard to keep track. Firstly, the number of characters to keep track of is not that high. Ok, there are rather a lot more «main» characters than in Harry Potter (where there is basically ONE), but when I got to the point where it was obvious everyone important had now been introduced, I thought: «Huh. Well, that wasn’t so bad.» Secondly, everyone is sufficiently unique, and concisely described, characterised and placed in the imaginary landscape to make it quite easy to tell everyone apart without any effort at all, as far as I was concerned. And where I give up with novels like these, with a plurality of characters, is when I start mixing them up so that the plot loses its sense. Rowling, it seems, is much too good at her craft to let this happen.

However, this overabundance of characters had certain other effects: It took me longer than usual to get caught up in the story. I think I spent over two weeks on the first two hundred pages, and I even read a couple of other books in between. However, once I got to page two hundred or so, I was hooked, and the remaining three hundred pages were consumed in a matter of days. And here we touch on why The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter in a more fundamental way than the obvious «not about whitches and wizards and magic and all». The Casual Vacancy does not have a clear main character. Even if, after a few hundred pages, you, as a reader, start rooting more for certain characters than for others, no one or even two or three main characters ever receive more attention than others. And so you, as a reader, do not get as emotionally involved with the fate of one person, simply because the author doesn’t let you.

But it works. And it works quite well. And you really should read it. If you love Harry Potter you should read it because Rowling really does know her stuff. And if you never read Harry Potter or you read it and hated it (what’s wrong with you anyway?) you should also read it because it really isn’t Harry Potter or anything remotely like, and it is really very good in all sorts of ways having nothing to do with magic and saving the world from evil.

(Though that last part is not entirely true, I suppose it does, actually, concern itself partly with saving the world from evil.)

And I will keep on reading Rowlings books. Because I hope there will be more.

Another roundup

Not to be avoided, obviously.

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith – charming.

The Rune Blade Trilogy by Ann Marston, consisting of The Kingmaker’s Sword, The Western King and Broken Blade. Engaging, well worth the time. My one gripe, if you can call it that, was that I’d have preferred to stay with the same protagonist throughout the trilogy. But I suppose that’s more of a «the books were too short» kind of complaint, which isn’t neccessarily a bad thing. Picked up the whole set as bookcrossing copies and have been meaning to release them, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Must see about picking up further books from Marston.

One of our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde. A delight as usual, even more twisted than its predecessors, though I’d hardly have though that possible.

At Home by Bill Bryson. If anyone can tip me off about other authors who are as good at collecting, organising and relating anecdotes as Bill Bryson, please, please do.

That Old Cape Magic and The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. Both quite magical in a very everyday, humdrum sort of way, if that makes any sense. Confirms Russo, again, as one of my all-time favourite authors.

And that’s mostly what I read during the holidays. Now, what did I read between March and July I wonder? Think, think, think.


Update number 1: Well, of course, I reread the whole Harry Potter series. That took a couple of days.

Update number 2: The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I’ve never read any of the Chalet School books before, and found this copy by chance so thought I’d try it. It’s niceish. I’ll probably buy more from the series if I come across them second-hand, but I doubt I can be bothered to search very hard.

Update numer 3: Karin Lindell, better known as Ketchupmamman, of course. I even registered it on Bookcrossing before passing it on. Her blog is hilarious at times and thought-provoking at times, which is a good mix. The book follows along the same lines, and is highly reccommended as a present for any new parents.

Summarising again

Really, where does the time go? Recent (well, since may…) reads in no particular order (and probably missing a few):

The Harry Potter series. All in a row. Lovely. I am still pretty happy with the ending, but noticed a few minor inconsistencies along the way this time. Not that it matters much, it’s still a fantastic series.

Lessons from the Land of Pork Scratchings by Greg Gutfeld. Abysmal. Didn’t finish it. I’ll be writing more about it at some point, because, really! But, you know, take this as a warning to stay WELL away.

Packaging Girlhood. Quite illuminating. Meant to write more on this, too. Ah well.

Consumer Kids. Followed naturally. Very informative on how kids are not only inundated with ads, but used to advertise to friends and provide market research, quite frequently unknowingly. Should probably be read by every parent.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith. Perfection, as usual.

This Charming Man by Marian Keyes. Keyes back on great form and with a serious theme this time, which she excels at treating.

The Brontes Went to Woolworth by Rachel Ferguson. Reread because I had to take it down to copy out one of my favourite quotes ever:

A woman at one of mother’s parties once said to me, «Do you like reading?» which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation.

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer. As usual Archer spins a pretty – and gripping – tale. However, knowing how it all ends spoiled it a bit for me. Not that I know all that much about Mount Everest climbs and such, but I do know a little, and the prologue reveals what I didn’t. I suppose part of it is knowing it doesn’t end in «they lived happily ever after», which I’m a sucker for and which Archer frequently delivers with aplomb. Still, exceedingly readable.

And that made me realise I’ve forgotten to note reading A Prisoner of Birth, also by Archer, which was REALLY good, just what the doctor ordered, and Archer – to me – at his best. I happen to love courtroom dramas, too, so this had pretty much everything. No idea when I read it, though, so I popped it in here… Probably shortly after the paperback was issued, but I’m not sure.

All autumn

I have been slacking. In my reading, yes, but obviously even more so in my blogging. Anyway, here is a – I believe – complete list of what’s been «going down»:

Sahara – Michael Palin
Pretty good. Informative, evocative, serious and occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny. Reminded me that I need to get hold of the follow-up to Travels with a Tangerine.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones – Alexander McCall Smith
Quite delightful, as always.

The Tales of Beadle the Bard – J. K. Rowling
The best part being Dumbledore’s notes, and the wonderful confusion between Rowling’s footnotes and Dumbledore’s, that is: Between reality and fiction. You’d probably need to have read the whole Harry Potter series to really enjoy this (and if you’re into metaliterature as well, you’re in luck), but since that includes everyone and his grandma, I guess The Children’s High Level Group will see a nice profit, and nothing could be better. I had a cracking good time reading this, and managed to amaze my colleague by finishing most of the book during a one-hour flight. Yeah, impressive, I know. *rolls eyes*

Freedom’s Landing – Anne McCaffrey
As mentioned here, I got rather annoyed with McCaffrey for using «specimen» for «species» (twice!) and for including a couple of prejudiced, half-witted so-and-sos in order to introduce some conflict. I realise the second gripe is unfair, a conflictless book would, after all, be pretty boring, and so I put that down to my ongoing disagreement with Fiction in general. I rather enjoyed most of the book, and am looking forward to reading the sequel when Fiction and I are reconciled in the hopefully not too distant future.

Nød – Are Kalvø
In truth I only read about 50 pages, then started skimming and then I read the last few pages. I don’t know if it’s Kalvø or me, but it all seemed pretty pointless and tiresome.

Which brings the total tally this year to 45, methinks, and unless I am to fall short of the rather wimpy goal of one-book-a-week (oh, horror) I really need to get in some serious reading time over the holidays. We’ll see.

June to October

Dreadful. And now I can hardly remember what I’ve read all summer (and autumn…). I’m bound to leave something out.


The Imperfectly Natural Baby and Toddler – Janey Lee Grace
Interesting and contains lots of tips for things I hadn’t heard about before, but reads a blit like a list of weblinks at times (this is good for usefulness but for readability? Not so good.)

First Among Sequels – Jasper Fforde
Brilliant, but missing something that I can’t put my finger on. Still, definitely brilliant. Just not quite perfect.

Harry Potter 1-6
Just to make sure I was prepared.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling (duh)
Ah. Finally. Pretty happy. The first half was really rather depressing and dreary, but then again that’s a pretty good description of what being at war is really like, and the second half was a whole lot of tell in proportion to the show which we are told is a bad thing, but I really do not see how she could have managed it better. Hats off to Ms Rowling. I hope no one ever persuades her a sequel is a good idea after all, but I do hope she gets an idea for a completely different series (though if she does I’ll wait until the last book is published before starting the first, I’m not stupid).

A Widow for One Year – John Irving
Yay! I finally got around to finishing a John Irving novel! I brought A Widow for One Year to Austria planning to release it once I’d finished, but somehow didn’t get as much reading done as I’d intended. For a long time I thought I might just leave it even if I didn’t finish, as I didn’t feel compelled to keep reading, even half-way through the book, but that would have entailed having to buy something else to read, and I never found anything I wanted to buy. By the time we were packing our bags to go home I only had a couple of hundred pages left, and found that the story had grown on me and that suddenly I could hardly put it down. Strange stuff. I might just have to buy some more Irving (especially if I find more cheap second-hand copies like this one).

Death at La Fenice – Donna Leon
A bookcrossing copy I picked up in Vienna. Pretty entertaining, I’ll probably read more Leon.

The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
On the 1001 books list. I can see why.

Intimacy – Hanif Kureshi
Also on the 1001 books list, which is why I read it. That is, I read the story actually entitled Intimacy, and struggled to get through that, despite its relative briefness and it’s status as a «classic». I’m sure it’s a brilliant portrayal of a middle-aged guy planning to leave his wife, but I just thought it was dreary. I then read the following story in the book, something Night-ish, and found that it was basically about a middle-aged guy who’d left his wife. And then I gave up. I’m sure I’m at fault rather than Kureshi, we all have our hang-ups and one of mine is that my empathy fuse blows when you mix infidelity into the story and so I fail to connect with the characters at all, which takes the fun out of it.

So Many Books, so Little Time – Sarah Nelson
Unfortunately not as good as I’d hoped. As many of the other readers of the bookcrossing-copy I read I would have liked more books and less life, I guess, but my main gripes were with Nelson’s way of presenting herself and her reading. Firstly, she talks about her «discovery» that you really don’t have to finish books you don’t like as if it’s something profound – a rite of passage, «growing up» – which rather irritated me, but then she goes on to say that she doesn’t want to discuss or give her opinion on books she’s given up on. What? You read 200 pages of a 400 page novel and then decide you really can’t be bothered to finish it, but you maintain that you don’t have the «right» to say that the book sucked (or wasn’t quite to your taste) since you didn’t stick with it to the bitter end? Seriously, if a novel doesn’t manage to capture your attention sufficiently to make you finish it has fundamentally failed in its object and you’re entitled to say whatever you like (well, ok, I’d stay away from such statements as «the ending sucked» if you haven’t actually read the ending, but you know what I mean…). It made me suspect that Nelson really hasn’t «grown up» and that she’s still uncomfortable about leaving books unfinished, for all her protestations that this is something she has learned to do. The other is with the project itself: She reads books for a living, for goodness sakes, and still 50 books a year seems to have been a daunting task? Even last year, when I really didn’t read a lot, I read that much, and I’m up to 43 (and two halves) this year, despite giving birth in January (which everyone told me would be the death of reading novels, as I’d never be allowed to, or indeed able to, concentrate for long enough). I’m not impressed.

The World According to Bertie – Alexander McCall Smith
Perfect, as usual.

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

A straight-forward reread of books 1, 4 and 5 of the Harry Potter series, though I started way too late and realised I’d have to skip to have any chance of getting done in time. Despite skipping 2 and 3, I still had about half of 5 left when I got my hands on 6, so I ended up reading 6 first and finishing 5 this morning, but never mind.

Problem, of course, is that I now feel I ought to read 6 again, to get things in the right order… We’ll see.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


Well, I’ve finished it. We popped down to one of the shops that started selling the book at 00:01 UK time, meaning 01:01 local time last night and I read about 35 pages while queueing, and then I’ve had most of today (it’s now half past four in the afternoon), and I’ve finished.

What can I say? Well, I’ll tell you this: I’m mightily glad the next on is the last one because getting to the end of the book and knowing you have to wait another year or two for the next installment is not getting easier.

I’m not going to reveal any major plot details obviously, I assume that if you’re interested you’re alrady reading it yourself. Structurally, I think THBP is better than Order of the Phoenix was. I’ve been doing some rereading – started a bit late so I only got half way into OtP last night – and though the basic plot still seems good it also seems to contain rather a lot of waffle. I wonder if Rowling’s just got a grip herself (THBP is shorter, after all) or whether she’s finally gotten an editor who does their job properly. Anyway, this one reads much better. I am also chuffed at having figured out the identity of the half-blood prince pretty early on. Which is not to say I’m a happy bunny, because I am not. But you’ll have to read it yourself to find out why because I’m not telling…

Now, if someone could just invent a time-travelling machine so I could pop a few years into the future and get hold of the seventh volume, all would be good (or at least better, all would not be good, as such, but you know…)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I have finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I giggled, I laughed, I chortled. I laughed hysterically once. I had to get up and pace the room to work off some energy twice. Twice, also, I shouted «No, no, no!» at the book.

I am sure this is quite normal behaviour.

It is quite brilliant. When is book 6 coming out?