Book Review: “The Casual Vacancy” (2012) by J.K. Rowling

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Michael Gambon in the BBC adaptation.

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After the Harry Potter series left a terrible, gaping hole in my hearts (in all of our hearts, I should say), I had mixed feelings about the very thought of a new book by J.K. Rowling. What if it wasn’t as good as the Potter series, which had made such a profound impact on my life? What if I actually hated this new novel? Was I ready to be let down by a writer who had been with me from childhood all the way to my first year of university?

I bought The Casual Vacancy the week it came out – and then left it on my bookshelf for three years, untouched. Every once in a while I would glance at the shining red-and-yellow hardback, glaring at me from the other side of the room. I felt guilty, like some sort of literary coward. So what if this book wasn’t any good? Did I really think that would taint my love for Harry Potter? And what if it did? Isn’t taking off the nostalgia goggles and facing inevitable disappointment a part of growing up? With the BBC adaptation coming out this year, I decided that it was finally time to face the music of mediocrity and tackle The Casual Vacancy once and for all.

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Book Review: “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” (2009) by E. Lockhart

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This was a first for me – a book cover that informs you of the main elements of the plot (see picture above). Pranks? Infiltration? Secret society? Boys? How thrilling! On top of this premise, I had heard good things about this author’s other book, We Were Liars, so I was very excited to start reading this novel. In some respects The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks was better than I had expected it to be; Lockhart manages to tackle issues of gender and power in a thoughtful yet accessible way. How many young adult books introduce their readers to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon? I know sixteen-year-old me would have been hooked (and would have worked the Panopticon into every single one of her school essays and presentations for the rest of the year).

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Book Review: “Last Night I Sang To The Monster” (2009) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz AND “A Monster Calls” (2011) by Patrick Ness

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“A Monster Calls” illustration by Jim Kay.

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We tend to think of grief and mourning as maladies of the mind, but the loss can grow and expand until it feels like more like a presence than an absence. In the poem “Death Barged In,” Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno describes her pain as a mysterious figure in a Russian greatcoat who barges in, slams the door, and now makes all her decisions for her:

Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
clamping two
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck,
From now on,
you write about me.

I read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Last Night I Sang To The Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz back to back on a whim, only to find out that they have much more in common than just the word ‘monster’ in the title. Both are by incredibly talented young adult authors, both are about troubled families, and in both books, the loss these protagonists so desperately refuse to acknowledge takes on the physical form of a monster, looming over them.

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Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman” (2015) by Harper Lee

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I felt bad buying this book.

I felt bad reading it.

And now I feel bad writing about it.

I have avoided Go Set a Watchman as long as I possibly could; every time I saw it in a bookstore, I frowned and looked the other way. I didn’t want to be a part of it. In the end, I did give in. “You’re a literature blogger,” I told myself, “you can’t not talk about this book. You have a responsibility, this is one of things will you have to write about eventually.” So I took a deep breath and bit the bullet. I carried Go Set a Watchman around with me for a week, and every time I took it out, one of my friends or colleagues would point at the cover and say: “I’m so curious! Is it any good?” I have avoided giving a definite answer. “I don’t know yet, I’m only on page six.” “Too soon to say, I’m only halfway through.” Now that I’ve finished it, I can’t get away with this anymore; I have to have an opinion.

My opinion is that this book makes me sad – for so many reasons.

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Book Review: “More Fool Me” (2014) by Stephen Fry

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“More Fool Me” book cover.

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When I was a young girl (she said, at the ripe age of 26), Stephen Fry was my hero. He was intelligent, funny, eloquent, charming, talented, well-travelled, well-connected, and well-read – everything I wanted to be. Like a lot of people, I put him up on a pedestal and idolised him. His first memoir, Moab Is My Washpot, brought him back down to earth for me. In this book, he talked about his fears and insecurities, and it helped me see him for what he truly was: just a man. He wrote about his first love, feeling like an outsider, his criminal record, and his eventual suicide attempt in a way that felt deeply, deeply personal and honest. It took the halo away for good, but if anything, I liked him even more now that he was vulnerable and flawed. Even Stephen “Britain’s National Treasure” Fry is wrecked by insecurities. Read more

Book Review: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” (2014) by Dave Eggers

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Picture Credit: Der Irische Berliner.

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Dave Eggers and I go way back. It all started when one of my friends got me A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for my twentieth birthday – I fell in love instantly. In a very short period of time, I bought You Shall Know Our Velocity, How We Are Hungry, The Wild Things, and even hunted down a secondhand edition of Short Short Stories in a desperate attempt to keep my Eggers momentum going for as long as possible. The only book that was left for me to read was What Is The What, just one more… But I couldn’t bring myself to read it. If I finished that novel, there would be no more Eggers for me to read, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it. For some reason, seeing that book in stores, knowing that it was right there, waiting for me, was comforting. There was still one left.

As years went on, Eggers kept writing and publishing books, but I still couldn’t bring myself to read his new work. At university, I had spread my wings as a reader and I was afraid that I had built him up too much in my head, that I wouldn’t be nearly as impressed now as when I was younger. Would the thrill be gone?

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Book Review: “Blue Lily, Lily Blue” (2014) by Maggie Stiefvater

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I think I finally understand the true meaning of the phrase “one step forward, two steps back.”

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a bad book – even worse, it is disappointing. Stiefvater showed me in The Dream Thieves that she can create something exciting and thoughtful, but where this previous installment in the Raven Cycle series was focused and coherent, Blue Lily, Lily Blue is all over the place and flies right past a few crucial loose ends without looking back. The two-star rating is harsh, but it comes from a place of love, because I know that this could have been so much more.

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Book Review: “The Dream Thieves” (2013) by Maggie Stiefvater

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It seems that Maggie Stiefvater has heard the prayers from my last Raven Cycle book review (two years after this book was first published whatever shut up), because The Dream Thieves fixes many of the flaws of the first installment and turns to where the focus of the story should be. Sure, Blue’s name is still Blue, and sure, the love triangle has turned into a love pentagon I’m sure fanfiction writers are having an absolute ball with. …And I don’t mind. Not one bit. That’s how entertaining this book is.

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Book Review: “On Beauty” (2005) by Zadie Smith

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

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It should be obvious from the first line that this novel is inspired by a love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.

So let’s talk about E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), one of the last great “condition of England” novels. In this genre, the writer draws a picture of English society and its many problems, often showing that change is necessary for a better future. In this book, Forster examines class relations in particular and argues that the strict social hierarchy of the Victorian age has no place in the modern world. He is critical of Edwardian society, but also seems hopeful that these issues can be resolved and that people will be able to find a way to connect despite their differences.

In On Beauty, Zadie Smith takes the plot of Howards End into the twenty-first century. There are still two families, one liberal and one conservative, who find their fates intertwined by a sudden engagement. There is still a young man looking to climb up the social ladder and, like Forster, Smith asks the reader to rethink the meaning of identity in a multicultural world. However, she adds an extra dimension, one that makes this novel instantly relevant to today’s society: race.

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Book Review: “The Raven Boys” (2012) by Maggie Stiefvater

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First things first: every time I read the name “Owen Glendower,” this Horrible Histories song popped into my head. This is not a bad thing.

Now, full disclosure: I did not expect to like The Raven Boys, especially not after reading the first couple of pages. The main character is a girl called Blue (because of course) who was raised by a family of witches and has to live with the knowledge that, if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. She is just another girl, but also Super Special, has a slightly eccentric fashion sense, and her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Basically, Stiefvater has taken every single supernatural YA cliché she could think of and put them in a blender to create her protagonist.

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