December 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
Tell me, reader, are you a self-professed bibliophile? A lover of literature? A fan of fiction? If so, this book is for you.
Or are you a techie, trending the most up-to-date applications on the internet? This book is for you too.
Maybe you’re the quintessential thinker, Saint-Exupéry or Jostein Gaarder style? Then this book is for you.
This first novel by Robin Sloan is a quaint gem, blending story, technology and philosophy into a heartwarming page-turner. Old meets new meets the universal in this memorable triptych, which is a mystery, romance and fantasy rolled into one.
Sounds confusing already? It might. But Robin Sloan never lets you feel it, even as the characters fly from West to East (San Francisco to New York, to be precise), fall in and out of love, discovering and losing great secrets before rediscovering them. At its simplest and deepest, his message is a tribute to the power of friendship and the importance of faith in those whom you love. Which is not really a new lesson for anyone, is it?
Twenty-something-almost-thirty year-old Clay Jannon is a San Francisan IT savant recently retrenched from his job as web designer and social media manager of a tiny bagel outfit, which went under in the recent fast-food industry slump. To Clay, it was a “great food-chain contraction” that left “bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake”, which gives you an idea of Sloan’s flair for the imaginative and dramatic right from the start.
Clay is demoralised by his mediocre accomplishments, especially when compared to those of his peers. Walking around his city, Clay stumbles upon the titular bookshop which eventually becomes his new place of employment. The eccentric owner, Mr. Penumbra (which owner of a dusty little bookshop would not be eccentric?), hires Clay on the spot after he successfully answers some questions, chiefly: “What do you seek in these shelves?”; “Tell me about a book you love”; and “Can you climb a ladder?”
As he serves as book clerk, Clay soon learns that there is a deeper meaning to at least one of these questions, playing host to a slew of puzzling patrons who seem less interested in the bookshop’s main fare than the mysterious volumes tucked deep inside the shadowy shelves he dubs the “Waybacklist”. Together with his friends, Clay digs deeper into the secret of Mr Penumbra’s bookstore and realises that the readers are really searching for the answer to Man’s greatest question of all: “How do you live forever?”
Top-secret cults, baffling codex vitae (roughly translated “book of life”) and sinister robed figures feature prominently in the story, and you might be forgiven for thinking this is not totally out of Da Vinci Code territory. Yet there are pleasant surprises via Sloan’s injections of modernity; with a background involving a stint at Twitter and colloquialism. Ruby, a programming language, is “friendly, accessible poetry”, while Hadoop (a large-scale data-processing software) and Mechanical Turk (a web service that can request for human assistance with various tasks) becomes “King Hadoop and ten thousand Estonian footmen”. Even Google itself features in lots of code-cracking and impressive displays of technology. It doesn’t hurt that Clay and more than a few of his friends happen to be really smart and/or good with computers–his buddies include a Google employee, a special effects artist, and a self-made CEO of a software company. Just how lucky can one get, really?
Sloan would argue that such characters are essential to the story, because each of them has a particular role to fill. Clay is the rogue who does the dirty and dangerous work; Kat, his love interest, is a wizard of data and code, while his childhood best friend Neel is the warrior with a horde of gold to boot (fun fact: he made his money inventing a software that allows computer game and movie companies to create really realistic-looking boobs). In searching for the answer on how to live forever, the characters and their journey attain a kind of immortality themselves — through the literary motif of the quest. That Clay’s all-time favourite book was a fantasy tome is no coincidence; even the author returns from the grave to give help and reveal himself as a secret cult member. Yet the final treasure for these characters isn’t gold or even mere heroism, but the wisdom that immortality can come in more than one way or one form.
Sloan’s novel reveals nothing new, no lesson that was not already apparent. His gift is the combination of seemingly disparate ideas, transformed into alchemical perfection. For any book-lover who has bemoaned the death of brick-and-mortar bookshops while fervently clutching a Kindle in his hand, any technophile who still yearns for the good old schooldays of yore playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, this story will help them bring those threads together, with the assurance that eternal life is available to all and that “all the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight”. It is a story will make you pause, wonder and understand, eventually, the truth of how to live.
This review was written by a guest writer for The Novelettes, Nicola Cheong. Thanks Nicola!
Want to visit Bent Books, but don’t live in Brisbane? Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can! What an age we live in, right folks? Take a virtual tour of Bent Books by clicking on the link here.
November 25, 2013 § 5 Comments
Being a booklover yourself, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to do some holiday shopping for the other bibliophiles in your life. So, what to buy? To some, the answer would be obvious: a book. But we readers know that picking out a book for someone who collects them can be a little hit and miss. What if they already have it? What if it’s not quite their style? It can be kinda risky. So, I’ve put together a list of the top ten book-related gift ideas for the holiday season that booklovers are guaranteed to love.
Okay, apologies for the immediate hypocrisy – I did just say that buying books for other readers can sometimes be risky. However, when the book in question is stamped “Man-Booker Prize Winner” the risk is nearly entirely eliminated. The Man-Booker prize is one of (if not THE) most prestigious literary awards, and this year, twenty-eight year old Eleanor Catton’s hefty historical novel has taken the cake. I treated myself to a beautiful hardcover edition a few weeks ago and I can’t wait to start. By all accounts, The Luminaries is a life-ruiner – you won’t be able to do anything but read once you’ve started it.
2. Frostbeard Studio Candles
Tom and Rox, the married couple behind Frostbeard Studio, are nerds, just like me.Being the creative powerhouse that they are, they drew upon their vast well of nerd-culture knowledge to create beautiful handmade crafts that you can buy online. Frostbeard Studio’s candles take their inspiration from books, games and literary goodness. Tom and Rox are the makers of the infamous Bookstore candle, which will fill your home with the scent of timber, driftwood and just a little coffee. Featuring scents such as Sherlock’s Study, Dumbledore’s Office, Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey, Mockingjay and The Shire, I guarantee you will find the perfect scent for each and every booklover on your Christmas list. Check them out here.
Spineless Classics are the ultimate wall-art for literature lovers. High quality posters with entire manuscripts printed on a single page, they are designed to fit easily obtainable frames from Ikea. I was lucky enough to be given a Spineless Classics copy of Macbeth, my favourite Shakespeare play, and I love it. Macbeth is printed in the shape of Scotland and although tiny, its text is entirely legible. Spineless Classics are a perfect gift for someone who already has every edition of their favourite book!
4. Megan Lara’s Artwork
Megan Lara is a self-proclaimed pop-culture addict and a highly talented artist. Famous for her stunning art-noveau style portraits, Megan portrays her favourite fictional characters to life. Her digital artwork is nothing short of phenomenal, and I don’t think there’s anything else like it out there. I have her Katniss and Luna Lovegood shirts, and I just placed a rather large order of her prints in sticker-form on Red Bubble. Her art is available on t-shirts, stickers, high-quality prints, tote bags (my next purchase) and more. I suggest checking out her store on Red Bubble and also liking her page on Facebook. She also does a mean Rose Tyler cosplay!
5. Gaming Concept Art books
I am a horrible gamer. I have no hand-eye co-ordination and watching the screen swing around makes me dizzy. I do, however, appreciate the incredible amount of effort that goes into the artwork behind the games. In fact, I love it. I recently bought the art book for The Last of Us, which features countless portraits of Ellie and Joel, as well as in-depth drawings of the transformation of the in-game monsters. The book itself is a lovely keepsake, but the artwork is what really makes it special. The CGI characters are the result of hours of tireless sketching and re-working, and the concept art books let non-gamers like me see this process. On top of that, they explore the story too! Pulp Fiction Booksellers has an excellent range of gaming and general fantasy art books, including a few that you’ll have trouble finding anywhere else!
The Goldfinch is the highly anticipated third novel from reclusive author Donna Tartt. After the wild success of her debut, The Secret History, and the dismal disappointment of The Little Friend, the release of The Goldfinch had fans waiting with bated breath. But the reviews are in, and it’s decided: The Goldfinch is a masterpiece. I’m a quarter of the way through it at the moment (review to come, naturally), and I’m engrossed in it. There’s something about it that reminds me of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind – that intangible compulsion to explore. I tentatively suggest that this book will be beloved by readers all the world over.
7. Pulp calendars
Who doesn’t love pulp art? If it were up to me, I would wallpaper my house with the stuff. Seeing as that option is not available to me, I will have to settle for one of these awesome pulp calendars, available from Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Give the gift of pulp art all year round!
8. Catching Fire Soundtrack
In the interest of transparency, you should probably know that I am one of the original Katniss fangirls. I also adore Jennifer Lawrence in her own right. On top of this: I love Lorde, cried at a Coldplay concert, secretly believe that The National is the soundtrack to my life, watch Imagine Dragons’ video to Radioactive when I need a pick-me-up and listen to Ellie Goulding just about daily. So I was always going to recommend the Catching Fire soundtrack to you, given that it combines so many of my favourite things. I’m just sorry about the Christina track. I don’t know why it’s there. Otherwise, Catching Fire’s soundtrack is a brilliant album, and a lovely gift for the musically inclined readers out there!
9. Audible Membership
If you haven’t listened to an audiobook recently, you’re missing out. Since the advent of the iPod, audiobooks are enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. No longer are we forced to listen to the droning voice that George Castanza despised when he listened to his books-on-tape. Stephen Fry, beloved by humans in general, read the entire Harry Potter series. Could you think of anyone more perfect to undertake such a task? Listening to your favourite books is a whole new way to experience them, and when it’s done right, it’s wonderful. Audible has a whole variety of gift packs you can buy for the busy reader, starting at $45 for a three month pack, which entitles the giftee to one audiobook per month.
10. Folio Editions
If you know someone’s favourite book, why not treat them to a Folio Edition? I think the Folio editions are some of the most beautiful hardcovers in the world. Although they don’t come cheap, they make a lovely gift for someone special, and are sure to be treasured for a lifetime. The Folio Society has a surprisingly large range of hardcovers available, so you’re bound to find a favourite in stock!
November 17, 2013 § 7 Comments
The debate about the merits of e-readers over books has been raging since the Kindle rose to popularity. There are those who condemn the e-reader for the downfall of the major book stores, and to some extent, I sympathise with that perspective. Yes, e-books led to a decline in the sale of hard-copy books. When the three-story Borders in the middle of my city closed, Brisbane lost something special. Jobs were lost and an important part of the cityscape was gone. I felt this loss acutely, as I visited Borders several times a week since early high school.
But something has begun to bother lately: the statement that one must have an “actual book” in order to read. If I had a page for every time someone said to me, “Oh, I can’t use an e-reader, I need to hold a real book”, I’d have a tome the size of War and Peace. Now, I believe you when you say this. Really, I do. But you’re missing out.
Books are irreplaceable. This, I will not deny. E-readers and digital books cannot replicate the feeling of opening an anticipated book to its first page, or the exhilaration of turning its final one. Books are emotional objects. Every book I own holds a memory – where I got it, why I bought it, how I enjoyed it, the people I shared it with. My first edition of The Hunger Games, with its childish cover and Scholastic branding, is evidence that I trusted my good friend’s recommendation enough to read it long before Jen stepped into Katniss’ worn leather boots.
My copy of Fight Club has seen better days. I’m pretty sure that someone I loaned it to spilled beer on it, but it kind of added to its authenticity, in a meta-fictional sense. My Harry Potter novels are in perfect condition, so much did I treasure them, but their pages are beginning to yellow with age. My handwriting, on the top right corner of each title page, gets more and more legible with each volume, as I grew up in time with my collection’s expansion.
My collection of books is testament to my obsession with fiction. I long since gave up on using a bookshelf. My last one collapsed in on itself with the weight of my books, so for now, three quarters of my collection is housed in air-tight crates. The remaining quarter of it is sitting in stacks all around my house. You’ll find my books on the arms of chairs, under my bed, on my desk, on my living room table. It makes me happy to see all my messy, mismatched editions sitting cheerfully on top of one another, wherever you look in my house. I love to lend my books to others, especially when someone has taken me up on a recommendation. I’ve lost more than a few books to irresponsible readers, but somehow, it’s worth it. Well, mostly.
Above all, my favourite thing about hard-copy books, though: bookstores. I go to a bookstore nearly every day: Second-hand book shops, with unimaginable range and unshakeable character; on-trend book stores with tattooed staff and eclectic selections of vintage novels; academic bookstores with hidden gems tucked in amongst the scholarly volumes; and a specialty bookstore with a genre-specific catalogue and staff patient enough to sit through my constant questions about upcoming releases and ETAs on my many, many orders. If I only ever bought e-books, I would lose out on the richness of these stores, and the books I would never have picked up if they hadn’t been recommended to me by someone who has come to know my tastes. This is what I’m paying for when I buy my novels in hard-copy. These are the experiences that are as much a part of my book collection as the tomes themselves.
However, does not mean that my e-reader does not have value in its own right. Tucked inside a pocket of my hand-bag is an entire collection: hundreds of books, literally at my fingertips. I think I first began to truly appreciate my e-reader when I was reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. If you haven’t heard of WoT, each of the fourteen novels is enormous. Having the entire collection on my e-reader meant that when I finished a book mid-bus ride, I could just open up the next with no pause at all.
Obviously, price is a factor with e-books. With prices so low, I’m much more tempted to try an author or genre that I wouldn’t risk my spending my money on in hard-copy. And thanks to Project Gutenburg, there are many e-books available for free. I have a small confession to make, also. I have, at times, read pirated copies of books on my e-reader. I endeavour to be an ethical pirate. When I finally decided to read Ender’s Game, I couldn’t bring myself to give royalty to Orson Scott Card. So I read a pirated copy, loved it, and didn’t have to feel guilty about having supported a homophobic asshole.
On the flipside, digital publishing offers a legitimate, accessible platform for new authors. I recently read, and loved, A SINGLE GIRL’S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. I bought this book purely because the title was funny and it was $5.99. It was an excellent read, and I was glad to be able to support a new author. On top of this, I could recommend this book with complete ease over the internet to my international readers, who could own it within seconds if my review persuaded them to read it!
I believe there are those who love books, and there are those who love to read. Of course, you can be both, but I think many people love the idea of being a bookworm more than they love to read. If you truly love to read, the format of the story is secondary to the story itself. The oft-repeated “I have to have an actual book in my hands” is a materialistic sentiment that belittles the author’s work. You think that just because you’re turning the pages on a screen, you’re not reading the book? You’re wrong. Yes, I prefer print books over digital books, but it’s not because I have to hold the book in order to enjoy it. I regularly use my e-reader in order to read books that aren’t available in print format, and if I refused to do so because it was not a physical copy, I would be cutting myself off from an enormously rich market.
My Gran, who endured endless conversation about the books I was reading, would always remind me, “No matter what, you’ll always have your books.” She’s right, of course – I live in the many worlds of the fiction I read. A piece of me resides in Fillory, another in District Thirteen. Most days, my mind has wandered to the Gryffindor common room, or possibly to the decks of the mad ship, Paragon.
I’m dependent on reading. If I’m having a bad day, I console myself with the fact that I can vacate reality and step into fiction. I am a reader. It is what I do, who I am. And I am bewildered by the fact that this is called into question when people see me reading from my e-reader. Read. Read everything, every way.
October 5, 2013 § 4 Comments
I buy books frequently and with very little impulse control. I am surrounded by stacks of novels, both at home and at my desk at work. I lend out my novels like I’m donating a kidney – with a wrench of effort, but no hesitation. I reread books whenever I can, because I believe that if you really love something, you can’t let it go. I recommend books to anyone who will listen to me, and sometimes, to those who won’t. I have read hundreds of books – maybe even thousands. I have read across many genres, countless authors, and endless topics.
Sometimes, I come across a book that is such a blinding example of originality that it is shocking; a book with some kind of intangible element I have never come across before. Being a seasoned reader (albeit a young one), I think that this must mean that these books are something special.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is one of these books.
After reading Patrick Ness’ recent release, More Than This, I decided to bite the bullet and delve into his prolific trilogy, Chaos Walking. I had a vague idea of what the book was about, but didn’t really know much about why this series was lauded so much more than many of the other dystopian trilogies that have recently populated the YA market.
Todd lives in Prentisstown. There are no women in this place, and therefore no children. Todd is the youngest boy in the community, and in a few short weeks, he will become a man. Prentisstown is an agricultural society, and Todd has been raised by two sheep farmers, Ben and Cillian. He is forever accompanied by his dog Manchee, who he begrudgingly loves.
Prentisstown is a settlement on New World. The colonists of Prentisstown, who are loosely based on the Aamish, established their lives there in order to live a simpler, more wholesome lifestyle. When they landed on New World, the settlers were shocked to find it already inhabited. The indigenous aliens, referred to as the Spackle, launch a biological attack on their invaders. While the settlers are able to decimate any Spackle opposition to their newly claimed land, they find that their culture has been permanently altered by the Spackle’s attack. Animals can now talk, and, more importantly, the settlers of Prentisstown find that their thoughts and emotions are now projected, constantly and involuntarily, for anyone around them to hear. The settlers call this “Noise”.
The Noise has two main effects: firstly, the settlers can’t help but project their own thoughts and feelings at all times; and secondly, that they cannot stop themselves from hearing the Noise of others. This dramatically alters the interactions of the people of Prentisstown.
To tell you any more about the plot might be to give important information away, but I can tell you this: there’s a girl. The first Prentisstown has seen since all the women died, and she brings with her an unexpected silence. There’s a lie, and it’s a big one. There’s a death, and it’s heart-wrenchingly awful. There’s a murderous preacher with the violence only a zealot can truly possess. And there’s a secret…Oh man, is there ever a secret.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is written from Todd’s perspective. Never having been taught to read, Todd has some odd pronunciations and verbal tics. These are a little difficult to get used to at first, but I found that they quickly became quite endearing. Todd is forcibly innocent (a concept you will understand once you finish the book), but he isn’t naïve. It’s impossible to be, when you are constantly in the presence of the most intimate, base thoughts and feelings of everyone you’ve ever known. Ness writes with a simplicity that is both lovely and brutal, a dichotomy which encapsulates Todd’s story in general. Incidentally, I think this passage is beautiful:
In Todd, Patrick Ness has created a highly original incarnation of the unreliable narrator, and he does this with finesse that many adult novels are lacking. Todd is an interesting mixture of ignorance and worldliness; although he has only ever known the tiny world of Prentisstown, his access to the entire town’s thoughts and memories mean that he has been exposed to concepts and ideals far beyond the reach of his own experience. Trust means something entirely different when you can hear what everyone is thinking.
Also, just as an aside, Todd’s dog, Manchee, is hilarious. Although he can speak, he still has the intellectual and philosophical concerns of a dog. Usually, this manifests itself in him bugging Todd to let him do a poo (which I, being very immature in my sense of humour, find unspeakably funny).
The Knife of Never Letting Go has joined the ranks of Books That Have Made Me Cry on the Bus. I think I can safely say that this book was a much more emotional read than I was expecting. Although it is technically classed as young adult fiction, this is only because the protagonist is young. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction, or sci fi in general, regardless of their fondness (or otherwise) for YA. You might think you’ve read about every kind of dystopia that could possibly eventuate, but Patrick Ness is here to tell you you’re wrong. This book is different, and this author might just be my new favourite.
Tanya, over at The Yeti Says, wrote a letter to The Knife of Never Letting Go. You should check it out here.
Without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.
July 31, 2013 § 5 Comments
If I’m honest, I didn’t expect to enjoy Red Moon. I knew nothing about the author and the blurb on the back cover was less than enthralling, but I bought it anyway.
Boy, am I glad that I did.
Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon is to werewolves as Justin Cronin’s The Passage is to vampires – a modern, gritty novel that brings new life to a centuries-old concept. In Red Moon, werewolves, known as lycans, exist as a sort of international minority group. In American society, they are thinly tolerated, at best. They are the direct result of a virus called lobos, which effects a physical and neurological change in the sufferer, rendering them forever in the debt of the moon.
Plagues don’t just kill people – and that’s what lobos is, a plague – they kill humanity.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to several characters, whose storylines ultimately converge in a chaotic cliff-hanger at the novel’s close. Patrick Gamble is an awkward teenager, forced to live with his estranged mother when his father is deployed for service in the Lycan Republic. Chase Williams is the charismatic and roguish governor running for President, his parasitic associate Buffalo at the helm of his campaign. Miriam is a battle-weary survivor of the Lycan Resistance, and she’s constantly prepared for a violent confrontation she knows is inevitable. Miriam’s niece, Claire, is a typical teenager in every sense except for her lycanthropy. Her parents are advocates of lycan rights, but Claire just wants to manage her disease and get on with life.
When a terrorist cell of the lycan resistance co-ordinates a destructive attack on three planes, Patrick is the only passenger who escapes with his life. The attack sets a new wave of the Lycan Resistance in motion, affecting lives across America, the Lycan Republic (located between Finland and the USSR) and the globe.
She does not understand people – whether infected or clean – for their capability and appetite for violence. No other organism besides a virus seems to hungry to savage everything in its way. Violence defines humanity and determines headlines and elections and borders, the whole world boiled down to who hits whom harder.
Red Moon makes no bones about the fact that it is a metaphor for 9/11. Terrorist attacks on three planes, a Republic defending itself against occupying US forces seeking to mine for the valuable uranium it harbours, irrevocably damaged social and cultural relationships, and a retreat to oversimplified political platforms are all aspects of what is meant to be a very apparent allegory.
She does not understand people – whether infected or clean – for their capability and appetite for violence. No other organism besides a virus seems to hungry to savage everything in its way. Violence defines humanity and determines headlines and elections and borders, the whole world boiled down to who hits whom harder.
As a vehicle for social criticism, werewolves are a rather clever choice. The lycans of Red Moon have no choice over their “condition”, given that they have fallen prey to a vicious disease. Once they’ve contracted lobos, though, they do choose how to deal with it. There are those ignore it as much as possible, those who incorporate it into their everyday lives and work with it and those who change every aspect of their lifestyle in order to reflect their new state of being. While we, as the reader, get to know lycans from all walks of life and differing degrees of sympathy with the extremist Lycan Resistance, we also see how American society at large judges the many by the choices of the few. Sounding familiar?
This is one of the many reasons I enjoyed Red Moon so much. Percy takes the well-worn concept of the werewolf and turns transforms it (pun intended) into a nuanced Other, at once impossibly alien and uncomfortably familiar. The lycans allow for a very harsh social commentary – particularly through sleazy Chase, whose perspective shifts drastically as his circumstances evolve without his consent. Red Moon features an engrossing array of characters whose lives interweave in unexpected and surprising ways. I particularly liked how several characters who began as periphery figures ended up as major players later in the story.
The end of the Red Moon shifted into my favourite genre – the post-apocalyptic. Percy writes scenes of chaos with a masterful hand, and the book’s messy, frenetic and unexpected climax had me desperately hoping he writes a sequel.
I truly could not put this book down, especially the further I got into it. Don’t listen to the bad reviews, where people are criticising how obvious of a metaphor the werewolves are. In my opinion, Red Moon’s statements are as relevant and incisive as those of Animal Farm, and we all know how thinly veiled those pigs’ identities were!
Grab a copy of Red Moon. Clear your schedule, and prepare for a wild ride, because you’ve never seen werewolves like this before.
July 20, 2013 § 8 Comments
With the recent revelation that Jo Rowling has decided to try her hand at a detective novel, we thought it might be prudent to revisit her first novel for adults – The Casual Vacancy.
When Barry Fairbrother, a council member and former “Fields” resident, dies unexpectedly, Howard Mollison is elated; his main opposition to his anti-Fields campaign has been conveniently eliminated. A casual
vacancy arises in Barry’s wake, and several members of the community, each with a different motivation and stance regarding the Fields, step up to fill his shoes. These include Miles, Howard’s mini-me son; Colin Wall, the nervous and emotional school principal; and Simon Price, dodgy employee of the local printing shop. From this premise, Rowling spins her story of small-town corruption and secrecy. Each of the characters has a secret, and some of them begin appearing on the parish council’s website, published by an anonymous user, ominously titled The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother. The skeletons in respective townspeople’s closets begin to appear, and as the past is dredged up, the very fabric of the community begins to change. For some characters, these exposures effect positive changes in their lives, and for others, they bring the walls crashing down around their ears.
Rowling’s characterisation simply shines in The Casual Vacancy. Each and every character is so vivid that the reader’s response to them, whether disgust, sympathy or pity, is visceral and lasting. Rowling imbues nasty, vicious characters with semi-redeemable qualities that leave the reader doubting their absolute opinions, and she renders small behaviours of the most admirable characters hateful. In the broad spectrum of characters Rowling has drawn in The Casual Vacancy, there are those whose cruelty stems from ignorance or misunderstanding; there are those whose apparent charity is nothing more than a carefully constructed social veneer; there are teenagers who appear spiteful and selfish to their parents, but who carry the burden of a grief to which their parents are oblivious; and, perhaps most importantly, there are people who are dirty, foul-mouthed, ill-educated and promiscuous, who, as Rowling points out so very clearly, are human after all.
This brings me to Krystal Weedon, whose struggle to care for her four-year-old brother Robbie continues throughout the story. Krystal is a native of the Fields, and her mother, Terri, is a long-term heroin addict. Krystal has a reputation for being violent, and is generally thought of as a disgusting, foul-mouthed example of why Pagford should excommunicate the Fields. Despite this, though, several characters throughout the book have unexpectedly fond memories of Krystal which often showcase her bravery and confidence in difficult situations. She’s written off by the majority of the community as a no-hoper, and, although she is oblivious to the goings-on of the council, it is she who will be most affected by their decision to cut Pagford’s ties with the Fields.
A lot of fuss has been made about Rowling’s fairly explicit criticism of the striation of the British social classes in this book. Of course, this is a huge part of the novel, but I felt that it was done masterfully. Krystal’s story ends with a sort of tragic dignity that is both fitting and highly confronting.
She kept asking herself whether, if he had looked cleaner, she might have been more concerned; whether, on some subliminal level, she had confused his obvious signs of neglect with street-smartness, toughness and resilience. ‘I thought he’d come in there to play, but there was nobody with him. He was only three and a half, Miles. Why didn’t I ask him who he was with?’ – 494
And while the novel’s close sees the redemption of some characters, others are too mired in their own prejudices to see past the fact that Krystal was from the Fields, and therefore not worthy of their concern or even pity. But Rowling, master storyteller that she is, finds some subtle way to punish these characters, ultimately elevating Krystal as the heroine of the story.
Many readers seem to be searching for the link between Hogwarts and Pagford. Rowling has been quite explicit about the fact that there is none. You might see glimpses of some of the same issues that were embedded in the fantastic world of Harry Potter, such as the class divide, but The Burrow is far from the Fields of The Casual Vacancy. In this novel, poverty is not quaint and cozy, but is the cause of disease, neglect and death. That said, I do see a connection between the Harry Potter novels and Rowling’s first adult novel. The world of Harry Potter contains many moral lessons for the millions of fans who read the books. For example, issues of discrimination are addressed perhaps without many young readers realising, when lupine Professor Lupin is driven from his post at Hogwarts for a condition he cannot help having. Similarly, we are positioned to be somewhat repulsed by the Malfoys’ decadent mansion, and to feel at home in the dilapidated house of the Weasleys, subliminally coming to associate wealth with evil, and poverty with good, hard-working people (Harry himself always says he would give up his wealth for the Weasleys if only they would let him). The Harry Potter novels, therefore, are a sort of fable – they contain moral lessons imparted by the behaviour of the characters.
I see The Casual Vacancy as a moral tale for adults. The way in which the villagers of Pagford are bound up in their own lives and petty concerns may seem extreme to us, as readers, but when examined closely, is recognisable. Through superficial Samantha Mollison, misogynistic Gavin, cruel, cold-hearted Fats Wall and nervy Sukhvinder, Rowling expounds a new moral message – look around, and take note of those who need your help. Put aside your own concerns, and listen to those of the people around you, even if they are not being spoken aloud. Use your resources for the greater good, and not for the immediate gratification of the few.
Yes, The Casual Vacancy is about social class, and yes, there’s a lot of swearing, abuse, drug use and sex in this novel. No, of course it isn’t another Harry Potter, it’s far from it. But it is just as good.