The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling is obviously an author I know. She is an author that everyone knows. That hermit living under a rock for the past ten years still knows who J.K. Rowling is. But I am going to attempt something ambitious. I am going to write this review without mentioning those other books she wrote because, while we all love and cherish them, one thing does not equal another.
When Barry Fairbrother drops dead of an aneurysm on his wedding anniversary and leaves behind a seat on the town council, the small town of Pagford is sent into turmoil by a number of factors, not least of all the question of the Fields, a crumbling council estate which the town believes should fall to neighboring city Yarvil, who built it, but on Pagford land. Barry, from humble beginnings, believes in the advantages those from the Fields can receive from Pagford (primarily the school system) and he’s taken on Krystal Weedon as his example. From a rough background no one has ever given Krystal a chance, but when Barry starts a rowing team and encourages Krystal to join, she, for the first time, has faith in herself and is a part of something positive. Barry is joined in his opinions by local doctor Parminder Jawanda, an outsider herself, who may or may not be in a sort of platonic love with Barry. On the other side of the spectrum lie the odious Mollisons. Howard, corpulent local business owner and favorite son, and his wife Shirley, who’s very proud that she runs the council website.
When Barry’s seat goes vacant both sides scramble to fill it. On one side is Colin Wall, friend to Barry, who wishes to honor his legacy despite his crippling OCD and anxiety. On the other sits Miles Mollison, Howard and Shirley’s son. Finally, dark horse Simon Price, a shady man with a temper who wants the seat because he heard Barry was receiving kick backs from local companies (not true as far as anyone can see).
But these are not the only characters by a long shot, joining this motley crew is Samantha Mollison, Miles’ bored wife; Andrew Price, Simon’s good natured but fed up son; Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, Colin’s trouble-making son; Gavin, Barry’s best friend and lawyer; Mary Fairbrother, Barry’s widow; Kay Bawden, Gavin’s suffering girlfriend and social worker to the Weedons; Gaia Bawden, Kay’s daughter and Andrew’s crush; Sukhvinder Jawanda, Parminder’s tortured daughter; and Terri Weedon, Krystal’s junkie mother. I have probably missed a few because the mountain of characters in this novel is immense
I have read books like this one before, where there is a central theme and the reader gets the points of view of everyone involved. No sturdy narrative, no lead character to cling to. It’s not my favorite style and had I stopped reading halfway I would have given a tepid review about unlikable characters and hardly any action. Both of those things are true. The characters are all deeply flawed individuals. There is not one character that emerges from this novel unscathed. Everyone has negative traits, and the reader must choose which negatives they can look past. There are definitely some characters that are more sympathetic than others, Barry for instance (though we never get his point of view past several pages leading up to his death) and Krystal, the rough daughter of a junkie who has never truly been given a chance in life. And, I found myself falling on a particular side of the central argument so I tended to lean towards a liking for those characters on the side I preferred. This could easily be true for everyone. However, a little bit past halfway I felt like the story really took off. It became more coherent as one story as the characters started to interact more and their actions had consequences for others. By the end I found myself liking it quite a bit, and found the ending perfect. Not everything was tied tight in a bow, but the reader could get the sense of what was to come.
This is an ambitiously political book. I did not feel as though Rowling went out of her way to hide her feelings on the matter, but she did create a troubling question: get rid of an estate that’s been a blight on the community since it was built through back dealings or help people who need help. At points I could see both sides. ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was definitely well written, it’s nice to see that Rowling’s talents don’t lie entirely in the fantastical (that was NOT bringing it up) but also in the gritty reality of an everyday world that we have to actually live in.
The White Forest – Adam McOmber
(**** of five)
I picked this up at a thrift store as an advanced copy, so I knew it had to be relatively recent. And lo and behold it was. Getting recent books at thrift stores always titillates me so that I didn’t have much choice but to purchase it. The subject matter didn’t hurt, as I’m an avid fan of Victoriana and the occult. I thought much of this book worked on every level, but I also thought there were several large things that didn’t.
Jane Silverlake has always had an unusual gift, she can hear and see the souls of inanimate objects. As she grows, isolated, next to Hampstead Heath she eventually finds comfort in two friends, demure Madeleine, and aristocratic Nathan Ashe. Thick as thieves the trio are quite happy being thus, until Nathan becomes obsessed with the occult and fascinated with Jane’s gift and the girls realize they’ve been in silent competition the whole time. Maddy is Nathan’s ideal wife, and Jane knows it, but she quietly holds out hope that his fascination with her talent will drawn him in her direction. But when Nathan becomes involved in a dangerous cult led by the shady Ariston Day and then goes missing both girls mourn, sleuth, and betray each other to get back the man they both love. Soon Jane realizes reason alone will not solve this puzzle and she must turn to her abilities to turn things right again.
I liked the basic premise of this, girl with extraordinary ability, missing friend, love triangle that’s not overblown, Victoriana… and all of that was very well written. I was impressed, also, that such a convincing female narrator was written by a man. Not that it hasn’t been done before. Jane’s ability of seeing and hearing the soul’s of objects was intriguing and much more useful than it sounds. I was also totally on board with Nathan’s obsession and decent into Day’s cult, which was clearly inspired by Alistair Crowley, and his troupe of blind followers called Fetches.
In some ways this reminded me of another novel, ‘The House of Dead Souls’, which had two storylines. One that took place in the current and one in the twenties. Both involve cultish leaders, sacrifice, and a young woman caught in the middle but the reason for my comparison is not plot, it’s tone. Both books held the same sort of intensely dangerous occultish storyline yet both managed to be somehow… off. The finale of ‘The White Forest’ was wholly bizarre and I did not like it. It was a shame because I felt completely involved with this story until then, and was then left with a sense of “Okay, well there was that”. Still, I gave the book four stars because of its sturdy build up and fascinating plotlines. I just wish that the payoff had sat better with me.
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
(**** of five)
Holy shit. You know when someone talks about something so much that it builds in your mind until it becomes so epic that there’s nothing on the planet that could ever live up to the expectations? This did. I am not sure there’s anyone in the country that hasn’t seen someone toting around a copy of ‘Gone Girl’ or heard someone talking about ‘Gone Girl’ or tried to borrow a copy of ‘Gone Girl’. It seems like I am the last one who hadn’t read it and I was expecting a lot. Thankfully, I got a lot. This was a very taut very intriguing page turner and exactly what I needed. I’ve read a lot of good books lately that I’ve just not been that interested to get back to. This was the opposite. I could not put it down.
Nick Dunne and his beautiful wife Amy has a seemingly perfect life. Recently transplanted from New York City, where they began their romance, to Nick’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, Nick is flourishing with a new job teaching at the local college and a bar he’s opened with his twin sister, Margo, with this wife’s money. But Amy is not as content and it’s soon evident that this woman, bored, is not a good thing. When, on their fifth wedding, Amy disappears from their home it is clear that beneath their veneer of perfection it’s clear to the reader that things are horribly horribly wrong. But in what way? With Nick’s swarmy comments and dazed indifference to his wife’s disappearance the reader can’t help but wonder if there’s something he’s not telling us. And as Amy’s diary entries become more and more desperate and more erratic it’s clear that the truth, as it usually is, is much more complicated than what’s on the surface.
This first, and perhaps only, thing about this book that is worth pointing out is the characters. For a mystery/thriller, what have you, this is almost entirely character driven. What’s more, it’s character driven by characters that aren’t particularly sympathetic. Nick does and says all the wrong things while Amy is clearly not the perfect wife she’s always tried to be. Even in the end it’s pretty clear that we don’t really know this characters at all because they are still holding out on us. Some of their motivations are suspect and their truths a little too convenient. Still, likable or no, they are completely compelling. Lines are drawn, sides are taken, and I am more convinced than ever not to ever get married.
I feel like I can’t really continue because there’s too much about this book that the reader shouldn’t know before diving in so I’ll leave it at that, except to say this one is well worth the read.
The Ghost Orchid – Carol Goodman
(**** of five)
I’ve read several books by this author, and I have always notated the others in my reviewers because I have noticed that, while it’s a winning combination for this reader, a lot of her books are basically the same with names and situations swirled around a little. I’ve never had a problem with that, but I found while reading this I was actually glad for the change. A lot of the same elements apply here, but the format really was something else.
Ellis Brooks is a first time novelist writing a novel about Corinth Blackwell, a respected medium in the late 1800s, and the infamous summer of 1893 when Corinth disappeared from the Latham estate, Bosco, in Upstate New York, along with a former magician and current Latham employee, Tom Quinn (the author is clearly a MI5 fan), and the Latham’s young daughter Alice. Corinth was invited to Bosco by Aurora and Milo Latham to attempt contact with their three children, recently deceased and the common story is that Corinth and Quinn kidnapped the girl and were never seen again. Ellis isn’t quite sure that’s the whole story. She takes a residency at Bosco, now a famous artists colony, to dig into the past and write her version of events. But it is soon clear that the past is not done with Bosco. As winter descends and four writers and one landscape architect dig in for a quiet winter of productiveness they learn more and more about the secrets of the past, but can they prevent history from repeating itself?
I felt like both storylines, told linearly alternating chapters, were well developed and interesting. One would think the action of 1893 would be more entertaining than someone writing a book about the action of 1893. Not so. I found myself equally entranced by both. Perhaps with a slight leaning towards the writers. In a lot of ways it was as if the current story was a continuation of what happened all those years ago and only needed certain people to complete the circle. And, as usual, the setting is glorious, even more so since I’ve actually been to the area. However, as was my complaint with an earlier of her novels. There are only so many times I can read the words ilex grove before that looses all meaning. She walked into the ilex grove and touched the ilex trees, it was lovely in the ilex grove. She could have changed up words a little, I would think. But, as distracting as this was, it didn’t ruin the story for me, at all. Not the writing either, because despite the repetitiveness there the rest was full of stunning descriptions. Bosco is clearly Yaddo. The author even goes so far as to talk about Saratoga Springs when the characters go into town. It was so clear to me, in fact, that I had to google it to be sure and discovered that Ms. Goodman was the secretary at Yaddo for about eight months in her early twenties. But I also found it amusing that the name of the house, and then colony, was so similar to Boscobel, another estate in the Hudson Valley area.
This is essentially a ghost story. There are ghosts galore. In fact there are so many ghosts that you sort of expect them to be even more present than they are. Such as, it’s mentioned that a certain character enjoys his scotch and then the characters in the present start drinking it. My immediate thought was “They’re possessed!” I wont mention whether or not I was right. It’s that sort of story. And a well done one.
The Distant Hours – Kate Morton
I was a little bit wary going into this. I’d read a lot of negative reviews regarding this from fans of the author’s previous two efforts. Being a big fan of both ‘The House at Riverton’ and ‘The Forgotten Garden’ I didn’t want to be disappointed by ‘The Distant Hours’. I wasn’t. No, this is not quite as good as Morton’s first two, but it is a solid read with interesting characters and sufficiently twisting plotlines.
When Edie Birchill’s mother receives a letter fifty years too late it propels Edie into a search that encompasses three ancient sisters, their enigmatic author father, her mother’s adolescence, and the disappearance of a man in the middle of World War II. At their center of all their stories is Milderhurst Castle, a crumbling estate in Kent. It was wear Raymond Blythe resided with both his wives and where he wrote the children’s classic ‘The True History of the Mud Man’ about a terrible creature who rises from the mud and causes adventure. It was where his three daughters, Persephone, Seraphina, and Juniper, grew and remained. Where Meredith, Edie’s mother, lived as an evacuee during the war, and where a young soldier went missing on a stormy night. Edie arrives searching for understanding of her mother and leaves with far more secrets than she could have counted on.
There were times when it was needlessly long and overly verbose. It’s over five hundred pages, which is not a fault in and of itself, not to me, but I did feel as though it didn’t really need to be. As if the author was trying very hard to write this book. And perhaps she was, I wouldn’t be surprised, after coming off the success of her first two. The ideas were great, she could have written it better.
But! That is not to say I was bored. Not at all. I sped through this book in much less time than I anticipated. I couldn’t wait to get back to Edie and Percy and June, to unlock the mysteries that lay at the heart of the crumbling castle with a muniment room.
The supporting characters, particularly Raymond Blythe, interested me as well. Though they did not all have full stories, what we got was great. Particularly the little hints at even more fullness. In the end I left feeling breathless. Not Morton’s finest effort, but still a solid novel.