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: “Small Gods” (1992) by Terry Pratchett

 

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Cover art by Marc Simonetti.

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After Pyramids (review here), I decided to continue on the “Ancient Civilisations” path and picked up Small Gods as my next Discworld read. In this installment, we follow the formerly great god Om as he and his prophet Brutha as they battle zealotry, discuss the nature of belief, and try to restore Om to his former glory. As a classics nerd with an interest in philosophy and mythology, watching Pratchett throw around references to Archimides, Diogenes, and the Library of Alexandria is a ton of fun as well as a great challenge; every time I could whisper “I see what you did there Pratchett” to my book, I felt a small sense of accomplishment. See that Marcus Aurelius joke there? I caught that! Go me!

However, there is a lot more to this book than Horrible Histories-worthy slapstick. Like all Discworld books, Small Gods has a fundamental question at its core, only barely covered up by a layer of jokes.

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Book Review: “Ross Poldark” (1945) by Winston Graham

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Still from the 2015 TV adaptation.

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I have a confession to make: it’s been three weeks since I finished Ross Poldark (life got the way of my review, my apologies), and even though I’d jotted down some notes at the time, I can already barely remember this book. This is a problem – not just for me and my review, but also for the author, Winston Graham. The plot of his first Poldark novel has potential, but its execution is far from memorable.

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Book Review: “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is one of the quintessential queer coming-of-age novels (well, more like a barely veiled memoir, but okay). It tells the story of a young Jeanette, growing up in a strict religious household in a small English town. Because of her upbringing, she has trouble fitting in both at school and in the general community. Her mother bears this outsider status as a badge of honour, but young Jeanette sometimes feels frustrated that some people don’t understand her. And then she falls in love with another girl.

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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: “The Once and Future King” (1958) by T.H. White

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This summer, my parents and I went on holiday to Cornwall and visited Tintagel Castle, which was supposedly the place where King Arthur was conceived. It’s a popular tourist attraction, surrounded by gift shops where you can buy your kids a toy Excalibur or Merlin’s pointy hat. Since I love to buy books in the place where they are set or were written, I decided to buy a copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (and a beautiful hardcover edition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca). I knew that it told the story of King Arthur, that it was on every single list of best fantasy books, and that my sister-in-law, who is an avid fan of Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Terry Goodkind, had been begging me to read it for years. I figured that it would be an epic fantasy story with lots of drama and violence – which it is. It is also nothing like that at all.

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Book Review: “Kiss Kiss” (1960) by Roald Dahl

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Illustration by Elise Stevens.

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If you thought that Roald Dahl’s children’s books were deliciously gruesome (and they are), wait until you see what he has in store for the adults. In Kiss Kiss, Dahl combines horror and comedy to give us eleven memorable short stories. He obviously delights in making his readers feel as uneasy as possible right before pulling the rug out from under them, grinning at the shocked look on our faces. As a teacher, I get to experience some of this joy myself. I am currently teaching this collection to a group of sixteen-year-old students, and every week, I get to watch them as they slowly realise what is going on in each story. One by one, they all suddenly turn to me and go: “Ooohhhhhhh! Oh God, that’s terrible!

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Book Review: “Lucky Jim” (1954) by Kingsley Amis

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Old Penguin book cover.

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This book tells the story of a middle class white man in his early thirties working as a lecturer on medieval literature who thinks he deserves a better job and a prettier girlfriend, but spends most of his time complaining and drinking instead of actually working for either of these things. Most of the novel is spent making silly faces, lying, avoiding his responsibilities, and playing immature pranks on the people he loathes. In the end, he gets his rewards without making much of an effort and walks off into the sunset, having learned nothing at all.

Yeah.

Lucky Jim has not aged well.

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Book Review: “Wide Sargasso Sea” (1966) by Jean Rhys

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In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys tells the story of a young Creole woman, Antoinette Cosway, growing up on the island of Jamaica. However, you probably know her as  Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Mason, the iconic “mad woman in the attic.” We follow Antoinette as she tries to navigate racial tensions, her ultimately doomed marriage to Rochester, and the many problems in her family. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is a furious spectre, barely more than a grunting animal trying to scratch our heroine’s eyes out. Wide Sargasso Sea, on the other hand, gives Antoinette a voice, her own story to tell, and even her own name (I’ll get back to this).

If you have ever taken any class that touched on postcolonial literature in your life, you already know this title. Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the ultimate must-read titles in the field, a work that other postcolonial rewritings of classic literature are measured by; this is how it’s done. As a fan of both Jane Eyre and reworkings/reimaginings of well-known stories, it is downright embarrassing that I have not read this novel until now. However, when I came across a copy in a second-hand bookstore, I decided that it was finally time to correct this oversight. So did it live up to the hype?

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