Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Audiobook narrated by Tom Hollander
Description (Courtesy of goodreads.com):
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

My Thoughts (Warning: Contains Spoilers):

If there's anything that the Harry Potter novels have in common with J.K. Rowling's first adult novel , it's the quality of the writing. The language is fluid and brilliantly sets the tone, and creates a vivid setting of a town that feels like it's bigger than it probably is. The reader is introduced to so many characters in such a short span that even though I was a bit overwhelmed and nervous about being able to keep track of everyone, but it was surprisingly easy as the novel went on. The characters are distinct and Ms. Rowling does not shy away from any of the ugly details of their lives. Abusive husbands / fathers, prostitution, drug addicts.

The plot is where The Casual Vacancy does not particularly work for me. It kicks off when Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council, passes away, leaving what is called a "casual vacancy." As inciting incidents go, it's compelling, but what follows does not adhere to the usual plot structure that readers expect. It all seems to be leading up to the election of Barry's successor on the Parish Council, which, when the successor is revealed, I was not compelled to feel a sense of catharsis. Similarly, when several children reveal the sins of community members (often their own parents) via the Parish Council Website using the pseudonym The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother, instead of leading to a huge climax in which the town confronted its problems and decided (or refused) to make amends, it just gets cleaned up neatly without any sense of consequence, which left me asking "so what?"

Given how intricately Rowling plotted all seven of the Harry Potter novels, I was a bit disappointed here. I thought with a few hundred more pages she could probably have shown us a town undone by its own vices. Instead, we get more of a slice of life on a plate with no commentary.

"Yet what stands out to me is the writing. The character material is brilliant. I don't think there's a clear protagonist in this novel and I loved the way that Rowling balanced her characters in such a way that it didn't feel like there was one. When I was reading A Game of Thrones I made the enormous mistake of assuming that the first people I was introduced to were the protagonists. That's difficult to do in The Casual Vacancy, I think because of how quickly the reader is introduced to all of them. I got the sense that Krystal Weedon was at the center of the various plot lines, but she didn't feel like a protagonist to me.

I loved the way that Rowling created a firm sense of negative space left by Barry Fairbrother's passing. There was a great sense of mutual respect among the citizens of Pagford for Barry but he wasn't perfect. Even without the "Ghost" business, I was able to feel the sense of loss his death provoked.
I seem to recall that J.K. Rowling said that she had considered using a pseudonym when publishing this book and I'm glad that she didn't. The character of Simon Price, an abusive father to Andrew and Paul, and husband to Ruth made for an interesting comparison to Voldemort.

What interested me was how much more terrifying I found Simon than I found Voldemort. Part of this, I think, is that we actively witness Simon bullying people to exert his power in a way we don't really see with Voldemort. It may also be a bit of desensitization. Perhaps I can easily distance myself from a fictional sociopathic mass murderer in a way that I can't from a fictional abusive father/husband.  This is strengthened by the fact that we see Andrew, Paul, and Ruth afraid of Simon in a way we never really saw people being afraid of Voldemort.  Had Ms. Rowling published this novel under a pseudonym, I would not have made that connection.

All in all, I think there's a lot of interesting things in this novel, but the ending was a disappointment.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Insurgent by Veronica Roth (Divergent #2)

Title: Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #2
Description (courtesy of Goodreads): 

One choice can transform you—or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves—and herself—while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.
Tris's initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable—and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.


In Insurgent, Veronica Roth delivers an out of the park home run as we pick up right where Divergent left off. My decision to listen to the audio version of Divergent the day before Insurgent's release was prompted by this post at Ms. Roth's blog.  I had intended to just check out the recap and go on my merry way but the memory of the awesomeness that was Divergent came flooding back and I knew I had to read it again.


I was rewarded for my diligence by not being disoriented when we pick back up on a train with Tris and Tobias.  I think the author absolutely made the right decision not to take time out for a history of all that came before because it would have slowed down the breakneck pacing she's established in the first book and continued here. Insurgent, like Divergent before it, is a literary roller coaster ride.


My non-spoilery review of Insurgent is: Drop what you're doing and read this book.  You haven't read Divergent yet? Read that first, then read Insurgent.

Having said that, I don't really feel I can talk about the book without discussing spoilers, so consider yourselves warned.  If you haven't read or haven't finished the book, what could you possibly be doing here?


Spoilery Thoughts:




1)As I mentioned above, I loved that we picked up with Tris and Tobias on the train to Amity without so much as an introduction.  This helped maintain the momentum built in the previous book, and I was quite impressed at the way it was sustained throughout the entire book.

2)I think Ms. Roth has an expert's understanding of how to create, maintain, and resolve tension.  Given where Tris' relationship with Tobias ended in Divergent, their being at odds with each other for much of this book, keeping secrets and what not, she did an excellent job of keeping their relationship interesting for the reader.  I began to get a feeling for how much each needs the other to be whole and I am hoping that, given where Insurgent ended, they proceed from that moment as a complex hero, like Frodo & Sam in The Lord of the Rings.  They would be much more effective.

3)I had a little trouble stomaching Tris in this book when she goes off to martyr herself.  From what I've seen on Twitter, I'm not alone.  However, I still think that Ms. Roth did a good job of depicting a young character who is grieving. Although, my gut reaction to Tris' realization that her death would not validate the deaths of Will and her parents was that it was not fairly earned.  It seemed epiphanic to me and I would have liked more to justify that conclusion when she reached it.  I thought she was too stewed in her own self image issues to have realized she wants to live just as her life is about to be extinguished.

Also, She walked into the Lion's Den with (as far as we can tell) no plan other than surrendering herself to stop more murders.  I wouldn't have taken Jeanine at her word so I thought that was incredibly foolish of her.  Although, Harry took Voldemort at his word in a similar scene in Deathly Hallows, but Voldemort did die shortly thereafter.  Jeanine took a bit longer.


Having said that, even though I thought Tris was a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of the book, I never questioned her as a character.  I saw more of myself in her than I was comfortable with as she placed unbelievable expectations on herself, which bonded me to her in spite of the fact that I wanted to strangle her as she all but begged for death.


4)I loved seeing Amity, particularly the way they discuss things and then eventually come to an agreement.  I, like Tobias, thought that was fascinating.  I would have liked to have spent some more time in the scene where the Dauntless traitors and the Erudite come looking for the Divergent before the fight breaks out.  I thought that would have been a good opportunity to escalate the tension.


5)I'm glad that the book ended on a cliffhanger with the big reveal at the end so that it can ride all the momentum of the first and second books into the final chapter of this trilogy.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review: Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir by Chris Mitchell

Cast Member Confidential by Chris Mitchell
Description (courtesy of Goodreads.com):

What do you do when everything in your life falls apart? If you're Chris Mitchell, you run away from home--all the way to Disney World, a place where no one ever dies--and employees, known as Cast Members, aren't allowed to frown. Mitchell shares the behind-the-scenes story of his year in the Mouse's army. From his own personal Disneyfication, to what really happens in the hidden tunnels beneath the Magic Kingdom and what not to eat at the Mousketeria, it was a year filled with more adventure--and surprises--than he could ever have "imagineered."

Funny and moving, Mitchell tracks his ascent through the backstage social hierarchy in which princesses rule, and his escapades in the "Ghetto" where Cast Members live and anything goes. Along the way, he unmasks the misfits and drop-outs, lifers and nomads who leave their demons at the stage door as they preserve the magic that draws millions to this famed fantasyland--the same magic that Mitchell seeks and ultimately finds in the last place he ever expected.

I recently decided that this year, I would take my tax refund and the extra pay I'll be getting for not using sick time and take a vacation to celebrate my 30th birthday, which is in July. I was considering either Universal Studios, because I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and wanted to check out the Wizarding World park, or Disney, because, aside from Disneyland Paris when I was eighteen, I haven't been to Disney in over twenty years.

Note: There are still spoilers below, not just for the book, but the inner workings of Disney World. Consider yourselves warned.

 

I had read about this book on Amazon, I think, when searching or books about Disney or some such thing. I downloaded a sample to my Kindle, expecting just a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's most iconic vacation spots.

Mitchell delivered on that front, describing in detail what it was like to be a professional photographer at Walt Disney World. He explained the theory of how Disney treats its guests and how ironclad a grip it has on things that go on within the park. He told stories of how as the new kid on campus he had to earn the trust of his fellow employees, who lived within a caste system based not only what their job was, but what type. Characters were the top the pyramid, but all-fur characters (such as Mickey) were beneath "face" characters, whose actual faces were on display. At the pinnacle, were the Disney Princesses.

Mitchell described the audition process and how characters are typed based on height and build. For example, because of height restrictions, most Mickey characters were female.

Although I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes stuff (which was, after all, why I started reading in the first place) I was quickly invested in Mitchell as a character. We learn early on that his mother has been diagnosed with cancer and his parents are trying to keep it from him. He learns about this from his brother, from whom he is more or less estranged. He loses his job and his girlfriend. His reaction to it all is to go get a job at Disney World, the one place from his childhood that was sacred to him.

Mitchell gets a job in Disney's Animal Kingdom snapping photos of children with Disney characters, which are then sold to the parents at a high markup. At first he struggles a bit with fitting in with the Disney culture, and also with making friends with his co-workers.

He goes to some trouble before he does finally earn their respect, and rises fairly high in the social strata of the Disney caste system. Still, all that glitters is not gold, as they say. He eventually manages to lose both his job and his girlfriend (an "Ariel" named Calico who turned out not to be what she seemed). However, he does gain some valuable perspective, so although that was a hard blow for the reader, it didn't sink the ship for me.

There were a couple of spots where I could have used a little more fiction and a little less fact. For example, when it comes out that Calico has been false, even though he was warned about her from the start I would have liked to have seen a more gradual change in her character. She went from Ariel to Cruella DeVil too quickly.

Still, it's an enjoyable read with an engaging narrator who is dealt a rough hand and attempts to deal with it in the best way he can think of, and it came with an insider look at Walt Disney World.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Description (Courtesy of Goodreads.com):

In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

This was another book I found out about thanks to Grace over at Feeding My Book Addiction. I remember liking the premise and Grace's review, so I added it to my ever-growing To-Read list over at Goodreads and forgot about it for a little while.

Then it started calling to me. Every time I perused Grace's reviews or my To-Read list, I would see it. Finally, I could stand it no longer and I downloaded it to my Kindle and dug in the same night I finished reading Bird by Bird. Had I not been completely enthralled by vacation planning yesterday, I might have finished it a day sooner.

Note: The following review contains some spoilers.

Divergent takes place in a dystopian version of Chicago. The ancestors of this society decided that it was human nature, rather than political beliefs, race, or creed that was to blame for a world at war. It was our human proclivity towards evil that was to blame, so society divided itself into five "factions" according to where it saw the fault. These factions then sought to eliminate these vices:

The Abnegation blamed selfishness.
The Candor blamed duplicity.
The Erudite blamed ignorance.
The Amity blamed aggression.
The Dauntless blamed fear.

When children in this society turn sixteen years of age, they are given an Aptitude Test. This test tells them in which faction they most likely belong. They then participate in a Choosing Ceremony, in which they choose for themselves whether to return to the faction they were raised in or a different one. If they choose a different one, they essentially turn their backs on their families and the community they've known all their lives, and are often seen as traitors.

We meet Beatrice "Tris" Prior the day before she and her brother, Caleb, will be taking their Aptitude Tests and then undergo the Choosing Ceremony. We learn that she feels she does not belong in Abnegation, that she feels she is selfish, that she is not content to sit quietly at the dinner table while her parents are talking, that she is inappropriately curious in the faction she's grown up in.

If for no other reason than I was presented with a protagonist who doesn't fit into the society she's raised into and is about to have to make a commitment about how she will live the rest of her life, I was on board from the first few pages. She's jealous of the way her brother seems to fit in with her parent's lifestyle

When her brother unexpectedly decides to transfer from Abnegation to Erudite, Beatrice feels enormous pressure to conform, to want to be in Abnegation for her parent's sake. The choice she makes will send her on a journey filled with adventure, friendship, betrayal, and even romance as she struggles to come to terms with the person she is.

Everything about this book is phenomenal: The characters, the plot, the pacing. I felt grabbed by the shoulders and dragged along as the novel took off at breakneck speed, leaving me to catch my breath when I finished. The plot in this novel is so tightly knit it could hold water. The tension, the suspense, the just-beneath-the-surface romance, are all electrifying, like holding a ball of lightning in the palm of my hand.

Divergent is Veronica Roth's debut novel, and Insurgent, book two of the Divergent trilogy will released May 1, 2012. I can't wait. Based on Divergent, I think we can expect great things from Roth's writing in the years to come.

Weekly Roundup: February 3, 2012

It's difficult to believe it's February already. It seems like only yesterday I revitalized this blog by transitioning it from being about writing to reading. I'm extremely pleased with the results.

It's been an interesting week for me. I finished and reviewed John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. I also listened to P. G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves. Although I did thoroughly enjoy Right Ho, Jeeves, it didn't seem to have the momentum of the other Jeeves novels I've read. Even though I understand how funny it is to let Bertie screw things up only to force him to swallow his pride, I found myself getting antsy in parts and just wanting to get to the next thing. It was the third Jeeves novel I'd listened to in a rather short span and maybe that was a little too much for me. But, I soldiered through and, in the end, I really did like it.

When I finished Right Ho, Jeeves, I downloaded Veronica Roth's Divergent. I remember reading Grace's review of this book over at Feeding My Book Addiction and thinking it sounded interesting.

Imagine my surprise when it began calling to me, much like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I think it's been nagging me for a while, to be honest, in a "you really want to read me" type way. So I caved, bought it on Kindle, and tucked in.

I'm not finished with it yet. I'm about 70% through, but it gripped me from the opening pages and has never really let me go. I don't want to go into detail yet because I want to do the book justice in my review when I finish it. Suffice it to say that this book has a fierce young female protagonist who is a fish out of water in a dystopian version of Chicago.

The energy of the writing and the strengths (and weaknesses) of the characters combined with the obstacles they face is like holding lightning in the palm of your hand. If you like: strong female protagonists, dystopian literature, fish out of water stories, coming of age stories, or just a damn good read, get thee to a library or bookstore and check out Veronica Roth's Divergent. If that hasn't enticed you enough, my review of the full novel should be along in the next few days, but I suggest you take my word for it, or check out Grace's review (linked above).

I'd like to give you an idea of what's coming up on my reading list, but I'm so enthralled by Divergent that I can't think about other books right now. Perhaps Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks, maybe I will finally sit down and read Stephen R. Lawhead's Hood, though I'm really digging first-person narrators right now so I might continue in that vein and start The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Time will tell.

Are you reading Divergent yet? If not, what precisely are you waiting for?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
Audio version read by Jonathan Cecil
Description (courtesy of Goodreads.com):

Has Jeeves Finally Lost His Grip? When Jeeves suggest dreamy, soulful Gussie Fink-Nottle don scarlet tights and a false beard in his bid to capture the affections of soppy Madeline Basset, Wooster decides matters have definitely got out of hand. Especially when it comes to a disagreement over a certain white mess jacket with brass buttons. Taking Jeeves off the case, he embarks on a little plan of his own to bring Madeline and Gussie together. But when things go disastrously wrong who can Bertie turn to in his hour of need but Jeeves?

My Thoughts:

This is another adventure featuring half-wit Bertie Wooster and his canny manservant Jeeves. In this tale, Bertie has spent two months in Cannes with his Aunt Deliah and cousin Angela, during which he purchased a white mess jacket that seemed to him all the rage but which, upon returning home, he learns that Jeeves feels is not fit for someone of Bertie's station. It is this incident that causes Bertie to think that Jeeves has lost his touch.

Bertram decides he must take matters into his own hands where it concerns solving the problems of his friends and relatives. Thus, engagements made and broken and made again, Aunt Dahlia's supreme cook, Anatole, resigns, and many other mishaps ensue as Bertie presses ahead advocating his own misguided (if well-intentioned) advice rather than consulting Jeeves.

I think this is another great romp with the characters of the Wooster universe. Wodehouse made me feel sympathetic for Bertie who, having employed a brilliant manservant whom people always approach for advice, feels insignificant and tries to assert himself to less than desirable, but quite funny, results. At the same time, however, I wanted to shake some sense into Bertie, who should know better than to spurn Jeeves' advice.

One thing leads to another and things escalate in this comedy of errors until it falls to Jeeves to save the day.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Month in Review: January 2012

At the end of my first month of focusing on reading and reviews rather than writing, I must say I'm pleased with the progress I've made I've pushed myself to read more and managed to review seven out of nine books that I read.  Here's a look at what I accomplished on the reading front in January 2012:

The first thing I finished in January was George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons, book five of his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.  I was overjoyed at finishing this book, though mostly because I'd been listening to all five audiobooks more or less straight through.  I'm glad I read it but I'm also happy to wait however long for the next installment while I immerse myself in novels with fewer characters and more plot.  For now at least.  When I finished that one, I went on to read the following nine books:

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King:
3. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
4. Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman
5. The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
6.  Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
7. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
9. Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

What's Coming Up?

In February, I plan to continue reading as much as possible and may even try and read ten full new books.

Here's a look at a few things I've got my eye on:

Feed by Mira Grant (as part of the Feeding My Book Addiction Horror readalong in honor of Valentine's Day.)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Mistery by Stephen King

Those are just seven possible books I may review.  Perhaps I'll toss in another P G. Wodehouse novel, as there are several left I wish to read.

If you've read something lately that you think I should check out or have read something on my reading list you have an opinion on, please feel free to hit the comments!
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