The Casual Vacancy- J.K. Rowling

I remember there being a lot of hype about The Casual Vacancy when it was first published. Personally, I couldn’t believe how an author that had spent so much of her time creating such a detailed fantasy world could ever come out of that, and authentically write about something different. I made this judgement without even having read the blurb of this new venture, and I had no idea what the book was about. However, after having recently rejoined my local library and finding it on the ‘suggested reads’ shelf, I decided I had nothing to lose by giving it a try.

The first thing I have to say is wow. Why  did I not read this book sooner? My judgements about J.K. Rowling couldn’t have been more wrong, and I severely underestimated her. I have never read a fictional novel, set in a fictional place, that is so representative of the ‘real’ world and the people that live within it.

Even once I had began reading, I had no idea what the title actually referred to, and I am truly amazed by Rowling’s ability to display how, what is effectively a mundane event, can have such a huge impact on the lives of so many people. She also captured human nature wonderfully, and the fact that, in such a small geographic space, people can have such different attitudes. The narrative follows a series of different people, who are all affected in a different way by this ‘casual vacancy’. I must admit that some of the characters are more memorable than others, and some are definitely more likeable, but as I was reading I could envisage exactly what each looked like, without any real time being spent on their physical description.

My favourite aspect by far was that of the Weedon family. It wasn’t so much that they were likeable, but rather that, as a reader, I had an intense desperation for their situation to better. For them to somehow surmount their unfortunate situation, and prove other characters wrong.

At no point did I feel I knew where the novel was heading, but this made it such a pleasure to read. Though Rowling’s narrative destination wasn’t clear, the message she was trying to convey was, and it really made me reflect upon how I view other people without really knowing or understanding their situations.

The book was deeply upsetting at times, but I could not read it fast enough. Desperate to see how the narrative was going to unfold, and who was going to be proven wrong and right. It was written so beautiful, and it was clear how much thought and consideration had been put into every word chosen, and the structure of every sentence to achieve this magnificent end result. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I spoke to about how amazing it was, insisting they must read it.

The narrative resolution is abrupt and shocking, but I believe that, once again, this is simply a reflection of the path that life can take, and this was just another technique Rowling used to made The Casual Vacancy such a fantastic reflection of this.

Parole de femme- Annie Leclerc

I have always been interested in feminist literature, and feminism as a theory in general. My favourite type of feminist literature is that from the personal point of view, but I don’t appreciate when authors become too righteous as, in my opinion, it detracts from the issue in hand  – I really enjoyed Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoire d’une jeune fille rangée, for example- the perfect balance of a serious, important message mixed into personal life, with just the right balance of confidence.

I thought Leclerc’s Parole de femme was just as good, if not better than Beauvoir’s Mémoire, strangely because it wasn’t mostly based on in-depth information about her personal life. What I liked most was that I could tell her beliefs come from a deeply personal place, based on important experiences that she had had- and to which she alluded- but she didn’t make the argument entirely about her. Instead, it was about femme as a whole.

Studying French, I am also deeply interested in language and its connotations, and I find myself analysing author’s word choices almost subconsciously and as a matter of habit. But what I loved about this book is that it consciously brought the issue of language to the forefront…I suppose this is hardly surprising given the title…parole. But I loved how Leclerc tore into the meaning of certain words, and how this differed for men and women, but also for different types of women. She repeats this words both explicitly and implicitly- as if she is trying to rid them of meaning- proving that language isn’t really gendered, it is we who make them so.

I genuinely enjoyed the entirety of Parole de femme, and found it one of the most interesting non-fictions I have read, and I really couldn’t get enough of it. I was stuck in the dilemma of wanting to read faster in order to learn more and more, because I have never agreed with any text more, and not wanting to read too quickly so that it didn’t finish too soon.

One of my favourite arguments within the work ( it is not merely a book, its messages and arguments are too important), is that in order for women to be liberated, they must become liberators. I wholeheartedly agree. And not even necessarily just in terms of gender. I feel that, too often, people hold onto the things that hold them back, almost as if they thrive on this inability (as odd as it may sound). It is only when we work to free ourselves and believe ourselves free of limitations that we are able to succeed.

 

I would thoroughly recommend Parole de femme to everyone. Just because it is a feminist work, it hold important messages for men, too (yes- I know men can be feminists). Even though I would have considered myself a feminist before I started reading, it definitely opened my eyes even more, and changed my thinking even more….read it!

One Perfect Summer- Paige Toon

Paige Toon is a name I’ve heard about lots, and I knew that people tended to enjoy her work, but I’d never got round to reading anything of her’s myself. I chose My Perfect Summer in the same pattern that I usually choose my reads: a heavy, gritty thriller of some sort, followed by an easier-to-read ‘girlier’ book.

If one thing is certain it’s that One Perfect Summer is girly. It follows Alice’s life as she loves and loses- and loves again. I thought Toon captured the concept of a teenage, first-love, holiday romance perfectly, as a slightly over-the-top and tongue in cheek experience as Alice and Joe experience these feelings for the first time. At times this was a little irritating, but the promise that a twist was coming kept me reading.

Though I did know a twist was coming, I wasn’t actually expecting the severity of what was to come- and I certainly didn’t expect the narrative to extend as far into the future as it did. This longer time-frame meant that the emotions that originally seemed over-the-top could actually be played out, and the impact that Alice’s summer romance at 18 years old had on the rest of her life. In fact, this almost made me feel bad for initially writing off her feelings as exaggerated and  juvenile.

The second part of the narrative is set in Cambridge, where Alice attends university. As I was reading I matched settings to places I had visited in the city, which really helped to bring the book and its characters to life. Again, as the characters became more tangible, I was able to empathise with and believe their emotions.

Something I found a little strange, however, is the stark contrast between Alice at the beginning of the novel, and the Alice at the end. Of course, years have passed, and she would have inevitably grown up, but she also seems to have changed significantly- almost to the point that she’s a different character. I understand that the trauma and heartbreak she would have felt would impact her personality, but not in the way it seems in the novel.

 

I found One Perfect Summer a pleasant read, though I wouldn’t offer a more exciting adjective than that. There was nothing to particularly dislike about the novel, but there was nothing that impressive, either. It would be perfect for someone looking for a book that doesn’t require too much concentration and isn’t looking for a fast pace. Having said that, I would be interested in reading the e-book sequel One Perfect Christmas to see how the cliff-hanger ending plays out.

Perfect Remains- Helen Fields

When I first began reading Perfect Remains, I wasn’t fully convinced that it was going to reach my standards of a crime thriller. Yes, it was set in the UK; and yes, it featured a weird individual who manages to fool the police (at least for a while). But something just didn’t feel right.

I think I hadn’t full registered the novelty of what it was that this novel’s killer was doing differently to criminals in other books I had read: he wasn’t actually killing. Or rather, he wasn’t actually killing who everyone thought he was. The clever thing about King is just that: his crime is so intelligent; he pre-plans every piece of minutiae that the police may be interested in when exploring the disappearance, and murders, of people. This meant that there was always tension when the police believed they had discovered something about their criminal, but the reader already knows better.

I liked that Detective Inspector Callanch’s character has depth: his story is about more than what we read in Perfect Remains, and it’s great that Fields lets this seep into the narrative, as it gives an explanation to his reasons for making certain choices- whether he is aware of this or not. I must admit, however, the focus on his ability to speak french does seem a little forced at times. Obviously it is another level of his personality, but it did seem that the author allowed this to take up more of the narrative than really necessary.

I didn’t necessarily develop empathy for any character in particular, but I did come to feel very strongly about King by the end of the narrative. It was frustrating that someone who appeared so ordinary and harmless to the outside world could be so twisted behind closed doors. This meant that the anticipation of his capture was constant throughout the novel- he couldn’t have been discovered fast enough. Though, I must admit, his name did rather appear out of nowhere: apart from the initial false suspect, the police didn’t need to waste their time with anything else- I wonder how close to reality this is.

What I liked most about Perfect Remains was that the reader always knows everything. It creates a sense of power over the narrative, and means you can almost feel like you’re outsmarting the police (even though, in reality, you are simply being handed the information). In spite of its minor flaws (namely the heavy focus on Callanch’s bilingualism and the fact that the discovery of King as a suspect happened very conveniently), I would definitely recommend this book. It has the perfect amount of suspense, with the right balance of realism and gore. Have a read!

The Apple Orchard – Veronica Henry

This book’s description deemed it “A heart-warming short story to curl up with” and it really was just that. Admittedly, it didn’t take me long to read at all (hence the shortness of this review). Even in the very few pages the narrative takes place over, it really holds some heart-warming messages.

The reader is instantly welcomed by the friendly voice of Joe, which immediately made me want to read on to see how his story unravels. The fact  that the narrative starts with his voice  allows the reader to identify with him and build a sense of empathy, meaning that you care even more for him when things start to go wrong.

As someone from a small rural village, it was lovely to sample a piece of fiction that mirrored the same kind of close-knit community feeling that I have experienced as I was growing up. I especially loved that the main relationship between Joe and Emilia shows that a difference in age doesn’t affect the strength of a friendship.

It takes much less than a day to read, but I would recommend The Apple Orchard  to anyone in need of something to lift their mood. It most definitely fits the cliché ‘short but sweet’.

All That Remains – Hannah Holborn

Having read a handful of romantic novels recently, I was craving something a little more ‘meaty’ and intense. The first few words of the book description was enough to draw me in “Meet detective Harvey Sam” as, like I’ve mentioned before, I am obsessed with the ITV series Broadchurch, and it has seriously whetted my appetite for detective drama- in television or book form.

Firstly, I think it is important to say that I read All That Remains from start to finish in a matter of hours- once I got into the narrative, I couldn’t bring myself to put it down!

From the very first page I could tell that the book was going to be a little on the darker side, mainly because of the confusing, messed-up nature of the criminal. In fact, Willard is so odd that it did take me a little while to properly understand what was going on- especially as Holborn doesn’t make it as clear as possible- which is definitely a good thing as it adds to the feeling of suspense. As the narrative unfolds, the reader begins to learn Willard’s reasoning behind his crime, which does evoke some sympathy- though not enough to condone what it is he has done and continues to do.

In fact, I find it interesting that the entire book forces the reader to ‘feel’ about different characters. For the most part, it is empathy and sympathy that the reader feels towards a handful of characters that wish, ultimately to do well, but past life experiences and circumstances perhaps prevent them from doing to their best potential (for example, Detective Harvey Sam’s family situation influencing his attitude towards his job, and Chase’s ability to do the right thing, out of fear that she will trip herself up and get herself in trouble. However, ultimately, the most sympathy the reader feels is for Gabriel Wheeler, whose mother is so infuriatingly uninterested, who can never see the bad in people, because he has grown up thinking that this ‘bad’ is actually normal.

Holborn is great at creating characters that really make the reader feel, and this is an important factor of any book for me. The narrative wasn’t necessarily the most surprising I have ever read, but there certainly were points that could have let it go either way- and it is these points that kept me turning the pages. I also liked that the narrative resolution wasn’t clichéd- it wasn’t convenient and easy, as often happens with mystery novels, and up to the very end it was unclear how the book was going to end.

I would definitely recommend All That Remains  to anyone with an interest in drama, mystery and suspense. It’s got the suspense without the gore or violence that can often come with these types of novels, which means that it is perfect for those newer to the genre. Also, whilst the base of the narrative is fairly common (a missing child) the other issues in the book, as well as the way the narrative pans out is much deeper and more interesting. A satisfying read for anyone.

Love For Scale – Michaela Greene

One of the reasons that I chose Love For Scale as my next read was that, not only did it seem like a light-hearted, easy-read, romantic comedy novel, the protagonist seemed to have more of an interesting story than similar books. The more I read of the novel, the more I began to appreciate that it really was the characters that made this book so enjoyable.

I finished this book in just a matter of days, not only because it was an easy and enjoyable read, but because I actually really liked the characters. I thought everyone in the book could pass as ‘realistic’, which is an important element of a book for me.

Rachel and her best friend spend their weekends trying on wedding dresses, in spite of the fact that neither of them have any intention (or rather, hope) of getting married any time soon. This, along with Rachel’s rather overbearing Jewish mother, constantly concerned with feeding Rachel and trying to put her marriage in place, contributes to the general humour of the book.

 

Naturally, the narrative follows Rachel’s journey in love. However, this doesn’t happen without a journey of self discovery and growing confidence, which makes for an endearing read. She finally takes control of one of the things that bothers her the most: her weight. The great thing is that Greene actually shows this in a realistic light- joining a weight loss group doesn’t necessarily make for an easy ride, and she shows this in Rachel’s behaviour- towards other people and towards herself. It is also encouraging to see that, although Rachel wishes to change her weight herself, no other characters have any negative perceptions of her weight, and they even reassure her that, even if she weren’t to change, she would still be perfect as herself. I think this is important in a time where, thanks to the media, people are more conscious than ever of their body shapes and sizes.

In spite of the difficulties she does face, it is great to see how Rachel’s weight loss journey helps her to take control of other parts of her life, such as moving out of her parents’ home. Although the news is broken under far from comical circumstances, the way other characters react to her decision manages to add to the novel’s comedic value.

Whilst even at the end of the novel, it is clear that Rachel is not entirely confident in herself, the transition between her character at the beginning is astounding, and incredibly encouraging.  In my opinion, ending on a point that doesn’t show the completed journey helps to give more dimension to the narrative as the reader gets the impression that the characters’ lives continue beyond the pages of the book.

Even though this may not have been the most complex novel, I definitely think it’s worth a read because it is so easy to establish similarities between your own life and Rachel’s. Whether you are on a similar weight loss mission, or a self discovery journey, or not, I think everyone would be able to compare the novel’s characters to people in their own life- which usually means you become more invested in the novel.

 

Kill Someone – Luke Smitherd

I wanted to read another action-filled book after my previous read, and the book description for Kill Someone seemed like it would do the trick.

My first impression was that it was very easy to read, Smitherd doesn’t use overly complicated vocabulary unnecessarily, which is something I really appreciate. We also get to know the main character very quickly, which makes it easy to become invested and interested in what the narrative may have in store for him.

Though I found the concept of The Man In White a little tongue in cheek and a little odd given that it is so removed from the reality of life, especially in semi-rural England, I was intrigued to see how a character, so obviously exaggerated, could fit into the narrative.  It turns out that having a character so removed from what is real helps to emphasise what is real, and helped to highlight the question of human nature and what we believe to be right and wrong. Chris is faced with a lose-lose situation, but he is forced to make a decision because The Man In White is able to put such an intense pressure on his conscience.

At the beginning, it seemed that the novel would be full of action and tension, wondering whether Chris would manage to achieve the goals he had been set, and what the consequences would be. However, the reality was that it seemed sort of a half-hearted attempt. Yes, there were moments of tension, but nothing that matched up to the promises that the Amazon book description seemed to make. In fact, after the initial uncertainty as to what might happen next, I found the narrative rather predictable: not in the way that I knew exactly what was going to happen and how, but that I could predict a general narrative arc.

I did like that the consequences of Chris’ actions were followed up towards the end of the book because it helped to complete the narrative- it also helped to build empathy for Chris as his personality is put under scrutiny.  But, once again, I didn’t really feel like this was done to its fullest potential- there were still questions left unanswered It was interesting to see quite a serious issue portrayed in a narrative form: how having a dark secret can force an individual to distance themselves from their family and friends. Also, I felt that the book showed that just because a person does bad things, they aren’t necessarily at peace with themselves afterwards. This meant it was a pleasant surprise to see Chris figure his life out and become more settled, in spite of the darkness that does surround him.

I was a little disappointed by the ending, as I felt that I had a lot of unanswered questions that I couldn’t begin to answer for myself. For some people, this would be a positive thing as it allows the reader to use their own imagination, but I like to be given concrete evidence (or at least a hint) of the future of the narrative after the end of the book.

Overall, I wouldn’t discourage people from reading this book- I was always interested in the narrative and never got bored of reading it. However, I would just warn that it is not as dramatic or impressive as I was expecting.

Doll House – John Hunt

After the slightly more relaxed, romantic novels that I have been reading recently, I decided that it was time to give something a little more meaty a read. The description on the Kindle Store is very minimal, so I didn’t have much of an idea what I was getting into, other than that it was a part of the crime genre.

From the very beginning, I was invested in the story, mainly because I was interested in the relationship with Olivia, the protagonist, and her father. They seemed like best friends and, as I have a very close relationship with my own dad, it made me smile to see them get on so well. When I first started reading Doll House I only had fifteen minutes to spare, and left myself on a small cliffhanger, aware that drama was going to unfold very soon, but I never anticipated what exactly was to come. I am cautious of talking too much about the plot because I really don’t want to give anything away.

Hunt does a perfect job at making the reader detest (hate isn’t a strong enough word in this case) the men that take Olivia through the incredibly detailed descriptions of what happens to her when she is under their control. I was horrified at the situation Olivia found herself in and that, even at less than halfway through, so much action could take place. I found myself actually cringing with disgust at certain points, but I still couldn’t read the page fast enough out of anticipation to find out what was going to happen next- reading from 40% to 70% on my Kindle in one go. At no point did I ever think I knew how the story was going to unfold, and when everything finally unraveled (it doesn’t happen until the very end, so you’ll have to bare with- though you won’t mind!) it certainly came as a surprise. The build up to this revelation is incredibly tense, and I genuinely couldn’t stop reading- even though I was due back in work. However, I must say that in spite of the huge amount of tension that leads up to the big revelation, the outcome was actually quite disappointing and I feel that perhaps it could have been developed a little further.

Just because I found the ending a little disappointing, the rest of the drama and tension and intensity in the narrative more than makes Doll House one of the best books I have read in a long time. It made me feel sad, it made me laugh and it made me smile- and I think when a book as dark as this can do all of these things, that shows the true talent of the author- especially considering this is his debut novel.

Olivia was the perfect main character; the type of young woman that I think most girls wish they could be- though I’m not sure I could be as strong as her given her circumstances.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who likes suspense and anticipation in a novel, but I should warn you that some scenes really are only for the strong-stomached. Also, don’t expect this to be a leisurely read- you’ll be hooked and finish it in a matter of days!