A Casual Vacancy

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This month’s book club choice was A Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling. Coming off the back of last month’s shocker, I was looking forward to reading a proper book ie a book that has a story, characters and dialogue. Well I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s worth saying up front that I came to this book fresh to Rowling’s writing. She has made her millions of course as the creator of the Harry Potter universe and although I’ve seen most of the films, I haven’t read any of her books. I don’t think her skill as an author has ever been in doubt as the Potter franchise demonstrates a vivid and lucid imagination at work with a steady storytelling hand on the tiller. But what would her first ‘proper’ book be like?

A Casual Vacancy is a real departure for Rowling in that a) it’s a book for adults and b) it’s a book about modern life in all its tedium and tragedy in suburban Britain in 2013. She’s clearly had enough of wizards and mudbloods and is now focusing in on the minutiae of ordinary life in the home counties. Set in the fictitious town of Pagford, A Casual Vacancy uses the death of a local parish councillor and his replacement’s election to tell a number of stories, each delicately weaved around each other.

Rowling zooms right in on the themes of class, social mobility, drug issues, poverty and wealth distribution with plenty of sharp insights. At times it felt a little like she was ticking off boxes – social alienation, tick. Teenage self harm, tick. Cyber bullying, tick. Posh folks having run ins with local chavs, tick. She definitely piles it all in.

Interesting to note that the adult characters she portrays are all pretty unlikable, apart from the dead councillor who we never meet. Predictably Rowling shows more compassion when writing about the teenage characters which is perhaps where her true feelings lie.

It’s over a week since I’ve read this book and that’s always a good test – what has stayed and what has started to fade. I found this book entertaining and as the book reached it’s somewhat predictable denouement it certainly engaged me but at the same time I was left wanting more. Maybe the book spreads itself too thin, trying to cover all the key issues facing modern suburbanites or maybe Rowling is just too lightweight a writer to really go for the jugular, I’m not sure.

But it’s worth a read: the pages skip by and her style is light and engaging, quickly eating up the hefty page count. The book club discussion was, as usual, insightful and enlightening with a good range of scores making for a great evening’s discussion.

I’m glad we read it but I’m ready for a literary heavyweight to my teeth into and the next book we’re reading (at long last) is The Great Gatsby. Tune in next time to see what we made of it!

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Michael Morpurgo – Shadow

This weekend saw the first meeting of the book club of the year, which as always was a great night out.  Over the years that we have been meeting we have read pretty much every genre of book; classics, contemporary, sci fi and sly fi (!), poetry, graphic novels as well as novels from different countries and cultures.  What we have never done up till this point is read a book that is solely aimed at children, which is how we came to be reading Michael Morpurgo.

When reading this book I reflected very much on the state of children’s literature. Of course when you start out with your kids you will, if you are anything like me, read to them as much as possible and surround them with great fun books so that hopefully they will come to love the written word and all the escapism, adventure and knowledge that good books can provide.  As they get older they begin to find their own likes and you end up reading to them less as of course they don’t need you to do this.  However this means that you have much less knowledge of children’s books.  What I have realised though is that with the likes of Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, JK Rowling, Philip Pullman etc great stuff is being written for our younger ones to discover.

In Shadow I was amazed at the breadth of subject matter that was covered in an intelligent way all wrapped up in a great story.  The main character Aman is an asylum seeker from Afghanistan and is detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre awaiting deportation to Afghanistan with his mother.  His story unfolds as told through his friend Matt and Matt’s Grandad who go to visit him and begin to understand why he is there and all that his family has been through.  So complex themes unfold: why is there a war in Afghanistan, different religions and ethnicities, death and grief, people trafficking, asylum, corruption and war to name a few.  Now that might seem a grim read but it’s anything but, Morpurgo handles the story brilliantly and while doing so brings more light to the subject matter than many British newspapers and never patronises his readers.

Of course in reviewing the book the book club was split as it is after all a children’s book and we are looking at it through adult eyes, however what I do know is that children’s literature is in very safe hands if books of this quality are being written for them to discover.