“THE CASUAL VACANCY.” J. K. Rowling.
2012. Little-Brown. Hardcover. 503 pages. $35.00
when J. K. Rowling decided to break from what made her wealthier than Queen
Elizabeth II, she decided to go back in time and use Anthony Trollope’s comic
satire “Barchester Towers” as a template. Wanting to be considered a “serious writer”
worthy of presenting herself at the high altar of ART (despite the fact that
children’s and young adult books are the biggest cash cows in the publishing
business and, therefore, the hardest markets to get into – not to mention all
of her critical accolades), she further decided to expose the dark and seamy
side of 21st century England.
story begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford
Parish Council in his early 40s. Barry was the head of a faction of the council
that wanted to retain municipal control of a zone known as the Fields. In
America, we’d call them the Projects. It’s peopled mainly by the unemployed and
drug users and is generally an unsafe area to live in.
death sets off a jockeying for position to fill his seat on the council and,
thereby, tip the balance of power in the vote over the Fields. It’s at this
point that the similarities to Trollope end. More’s the pity.
in some interviews, has referred to this as a dark comedy. There are some comic
moments scattered widely throughout the book, but it’s hardly a comedy in any
way, shape or form.
her “Harry Potter” books, she worked with a cast of thousands, as it were. When
you’re doing that over seven titles – the shortest of which was just over the
300-page mark – it’s easy to do. Not so much in 503 pages. For a book this size
– a standalone at that – she has far too many major characters and players.
worsen things, not a single one of these characters is likeable. One or two
straddle the line between pathetic and tragic, but not a single one is
likeable. And, essentially, there is little growth in anyone from the climax.
prepared for language that could make a sailor scream “Enough!” I don’t
consider myself to be easily offended when it comes to language – Nick Hornby
is one of my all-time 20 favorite writers, after all, and his language can be
quite rough – but the language here is rough by even Hornby’s standards. And
then there’s the sexuality. It’s hardly pornographic, but often unnecessary. She
adds details that aren’t needed.
for exposing the dark, seamy underside of modern England, so what? Again, Rowling
goes overboard: pedophilia, self-mutilation, infedelity, drug use,
prostitution, kids being cruel to other kids and to parents, parents abusing
children, rape. What has she left off the list? I have to say, tell me
something I don’t know.
still, Rowling forgot everything she learned about storytelling in writing this
book. It took me three weeks to wade through it all. (I finished the final “Harry
Potter” volume – over 1,000 pages – in a week and a half.) It’s boring.
wasn’t expecting “Harry Potter,” and I was excited to see if Rowling could
write as well in other genres. But I wasn’t expecting something as bad as this.
For those of you who will tell me I just don’t like my little Mormon
sensibilities shocked, all I will say is this: Shock me all you want, but when you’ve
shocked something out of me, you better have something better to replace it
with – something that’s going to move me to be a better person. Rowling didn’t
be honest, in many ways this reads like a high school creative writing
assignment on steroids. Rowling is a much better author than this.
be sure, this isn’t “Harry Potter,” so please keep this away from your kids. In
fact, this title will damage Rowling’s brand – how much remains to be seen. I
know many parents will think twice about buying another of her young adult
titles after this.
want my three weeks back.
“ALIEN ON A RAMPAGE.” Clete Barrett
Smith. 2012. Disney/Hyperion. Hardcover. 296 pages. $16.99
tell the truth, I moved this book up in my review list after reading “The Casual
Vacancy.” I needed a mental shower and a break and a good laugh. And I got it.
is Clete Barrett Smith’s follow-up to 2011's “Aliens on Vacation.” Here, David
is actually glad to be back at his grandma’s Intergalatic Bed and Breakfast – a
nice little B&B catering to off-worlders who want to get away to our quiet
little planet. But all that changes when he meets the new handyman – a tall,
white-skinned alien named Scratchull. Oh, and David has found a new pet – a
six-legged, huge-mouthed creature called a snarffle.
is sure Scratchull is up to no good – plans of dominating earth, if not the
galaxy– but no one will believe him – not his grandma, not Amy and certainly
not Amy’s father. Grandma is busy perfecting her pies for the upcoming Pioneer Days
Festival, and Amy is busy trying to find a way to get Earth to become part of
is a lighthearted romp through the Pacific Northwest with giggles aplenty. I
love the whole Sasquatch storyline.
is a fun and inventive author, just perfect for kids – and adults. Last year, I
gave “Vacation” to a good friend for Christmas, suggesting he might want to
read it as something for his kids. He passed it on to his son and daughter, and
his daughter had this one out of the library before he even knew the follow-up had
for a fun, relaxing read.
“BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH.” James
Martin, SJ. 2011. Trade Paperback. HarperOne. 236 pages. $14.99
Martin, a Jesuit priest and inveterate joke teller, presents a delectable treat
for us. The premise is that a sense of humor is necessary to a fully complete
makes clear at the beginning that this is not meant to be an exhaustive
scholarly look at humor in the scriptures – yes, it’s there in spades – and the
curative power of humor. It is, however, an insightful, soul-satisfying look at
the need for a sense of humor, laughter and joy at the center of any full
say you can’t find humor in the scriptures? Well, there are a few reasons for
it, and Martin delves into them. One of the main reasons is cultural
differences. What was funny to Jews around 30 A.D. isn’t necessarily funny to
21st century Americans or Westerners. But there is one that jumps to mind that
translates fairly well. When the future apostle Nathaniel is first told about
Jesus by a friend who says, “You should come hear this rabbi from Nazareth,” he
responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a very
backwater town. Jesus hears Nathaniel and says, “Behold, an Israelite in whom
there is no guile.” The answer itself says Jesus was laughing at Nathaniel’s
center of Martin’s thesis here is that humor and being able to laugh at oneself
is central to being humble and having joy. And God wants us to have a joyful
life. Martin illustrates his point with jokes aplenty and several stories from
his own life, in which he finds himself humbled and being able to laugh out loud
quotes the Catholic saint St. Teresa of Avila: “From somber devotions and
sour-faced saints, Good Lord, deliver us” (Page 69). He also quotes an
American saint, St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia-born heiress, who said,
“Please don’t say that some great sorrow drove me into the convent. That’s
nonsense. I am and have always been one of the happiest women in the world” (Page
me, this book has been a wonderful, delicious tonic. It’s worth every minute
it’s taken to read it. Take some time, lighten your load a little and read this
book. You’ll be glad you did.
welcomes questions and comments from readers. You can reach him through this
paper or by e-mail at email@example.com.