Monday 16 June 2014

Book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling

I enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy so much that I didn't want it to end. It was like a comfy pair of slippers, a favourite blanket,  a hot cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. Whenever I wanted to be distracted from the annoyances of life, I would turn to The Casual Vacancy and not be disappointed.

The novel starts with a heart attack. Councillor Barry Fairbrother collapses outside the restaurant where he has taken his wife, Mary, for supper, and, by the time the ambulance arrives, Barry is already dead. And so follows a chain reaction involving a wide cast of residents - posh - middle class - poor - old - middle-aged - young - which has them catapulting into each other's lives in a way few of them would have expected, or, in many cases, wanted.

The setting is the fictional, small, attractive town of Pagford uncomfortably close to the city of Yarvil. Uncomfortable because most of Pagford's residents consider themselves superior to the residents of Yarvil, and in particular to those who live in the large council estate The Fields which is 'perilously' close to Pagford. And it is this irritation that divides those on the Pagford Council. On the pro-Fields side was Barry Fairbrother, who had been brought up in the Fields and was a keen advocate of close links with the estate and in particular supporting the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic ; whereas the anti-Fields (and definitely anti-Bellchapel Addiction Clinic) group is headed by the odious Councillor Howard Mollison, who owns Pagford's delicatessen. With wife Shirley (bitchy and snobby), son
Miles ( weak and smug ), daughter-in-law Samantha ( bored and frustrated ) and business partner Maureen (way too close to Howard as far as Shirley is concerned), they are Pagford's unofficial 'first' family'.

The plot revolves around the fact that with Barry's death there is a vacancy on the council, hence the title. Whoever wins the seat will determine the fate of the Fields and in particular the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. This clinic is important because one of the many families that Rowling introduces us to is the infamous Weedon clan whose home is a bare, filthy hovel. Mother, Terri, is a heroin addict currently on a methadone programme. She is desperate to keep her toddler son, Robbie with her as is her daughter, Krystal. Krystal is a teenager who at first appears to be a nasty piece of work., but gradually we see that she has a far more complex personality. In her own way, she is far more honest than many of the 'respectable' inhabitants of Pagford. It is easy to feel both disgust and sympathy when we step inside the Weedon's chaotic life. They and the Mollisons are light years away from each other and the other characters fall in between.

Initially, I wanted to describe the novel as a highly sophisticated soap opera, but it's actually far more than that. It's an utterly riveting and highly believable reflection of modern life, its problems, its absurdities, its humour, its tragedies. I felt as if I knew the characters that Rowling has created and I got great pleasure when a number of them got their well-deserved come-comeuppance.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. I am full of admiration for J.K.Rowling's skills as a novelist. She tells a cracking good story in a beautifully crafted way.

Monday 21 April 2014

Audio Book Review: "Oh Dear Silvia" by Dawn French

Dawn French is one of my favourite comedians so I was expecting "Oh Dear Silvia" to be a laugh a minute. But it's far more complex than that. Yes, it's funny in parts - particularly when Silvia's sister, Jo, is involved. But it's also sad in parts, uncomfortable in parts, and disturbing in parts.
The premise is an intriguing one. Silvia has fallen off a balcony and is in a coma. As she lies in her hospital room, seemingly totally oblivious to what is happening around her, she receives a series of visitors who talk to her about what is going on in their lives and dissect and comment on their personal relationships with Silvia.
And so the process starts of uncovering layer after layer of difficult truths ... about the visitors and about Sylvia.
The cast

  • Winnie, her nurse, is a warm, funny person. As she lovingly tends to Silvia, she tells her about the goings-on in her gospel church choir.
  • Ed, her ex-husband, talks about his period of extreme despair, and how he found a way to enjoy life again.
  • Cassie, her estranged daughter, is, at first, reluctant to even enter the room, but eventually does so, taking with her, Willow, Cassie's young daughter. Silvia has never seen her grand-daughter and Willow has no idea who this lifeless body is.
  • Jamie, her son, sends her a letter (read out by Cassie) about Afghanistan, where he was on active service, explaining why now he has no feelings for Silvia, but then describing life as a soldier in a war zone.
  • Jo, her elder sister, is a complete fruit-cake. There are obvious rivalries between them, but Jo does try to draw Silvia out of her coma using bizarre and often funny methods.
  • Tia, her cleaner, tells Silvia gossipy news about celebrities from magazines and explains why, because she's not being paid, she is taking possessions from Silvia's house, roughly in value to what she's owed and selling them on ebay.
  • And finally there's the poisonous Cat, her best friend and lover, who becomes more and more creepy each time she visits
I liked the way that not only does Dawn French act as the narrator but different actors played out the narratives of the visitors. So, the wonderful Maggie Steed becomes sister Jo, James Fleet is Ed, ditsy Pauline McLynn is Cat, and so on. This meant that each voice is quite different and adds a variety that perhaps is less so on the written page.
Generally, the production worked, but as the story unfolded, I increasingly wanted Silvia to wake up and respond to the accusations levelled against her. Whether this happens or not is up to you to discover, if you so choose.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Audio book review: Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Knots and Crosses is the very first of the D.S. Rebus novels and I chose to listen to it as an audio book. It didn'r take long - there were just three CDs and about half of the first one was taken up with Rankin talking about the character of Rebus (including the ending of the last book - thank you very much - an unwanted spoiler) and how he, Rankin, was encouraged by his editor to drastically pare down his writing- something on the less is more principle.And certainly you do get less. Very much less.

The plot is simple: two young girls have been kidnapped and murdered and a third one is now missing. Rebus is part of a team working on the case and pretty quickly he starts to receive bizarre messages consisting of string  and matchstick crosses. So, quite clearly, there is a link between Rebus and the murderer. Can Rebus work out the significance of the messages before the third girl is murdered? Not wanting to deliver a spoiler myself, I'll leave that for you to find out if you so choose.

There is also a sub-plot involving Rebus' brother, who is not as respectable as he appears. The two brothers have a strained relationship, but that's hardly surprising:- Rebus has a strained relationship with nearly everyone he knows. He has just one friend plus a sort of girlfriend, but his colleagues find him difficult and when he has sex with a woman he has only just met, he tries to throttle her in his sleep. Plus he steals bread and milk from a shop which I found weird.

In Knots and Crosses, there is less emphasis on the victims and their abductions and more on show-casing Rebus and placing him firmly within the setting of Edinburgh. This Rankin does successfully and I do admire the way in which he uses language effectively, conveying details in an almost throw-away manner. It is here that the less is more works. Where it doesn't, certainly for me, is in the lack of depth of the plot.

And then there's Rebus himself, a deeply flawed man. He's anti-social, boorish, and difficult , with no apparent endearing qualities. Many great literary detectives are flawed in one way or another: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennison, Inspector Morse, Detective Harry Bosch to name but a few. I'd find them fascinating dining companions. But not Rebus. I'd want to steer clear of him , and that is exactly what I'll be doing.