Tag Archives: J. K. Rowling

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy Casually Showcases Rowling’s Grasp of Raw Humanity

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, author interview, and author bio.

Sometimes you really understand a cliché. Reading J. K. Rowling’s first post-Potter and first adult book is like watching a train wreck—but not in the way that you are probably suspecting.

The Casual Vacancy was received with very mixed reviews but more often than not I heard responses that were at best lukewarm and at their worst negatively incendiary, so I was not greatly moved to read it, not wanting to blemish my already waning love of the author with a less than worthwhile book.

The Casual Vacancy exceeded my expectations. Rowling’s style—which I have with older eyes recognized as not spectacular—is still visible in places (though I doubt I’d have been able to recognize it as hers if she had written beneath a pseudonym). I was, however, impressed and somewhat justified by Rowling’s handling of adult subject matter (—justified as a member of fandom and an adherent to some fanon, which is often darker than the middle-grade readers of Harry Potter ought perhaps to be exposed to, Rowling’s recognition of the possibility and existence of these darker realities seems to make possible for her YA world some of the ideas that adults fans have tried to impose upon it). Here we find drug abuse, poverty, workaholism, picket-fence-syndrome1, domestic violence, mental illness, teen angst (we all grumbled at Harry’s nosedive into angst during book 5, but Harry never achieved anything near the angst of Fats Wall or Sukhvinder Jawanda), self-harm, prostitution, rape…. What I mean to say is that this book is only lacking in rock ‘n’ roll, and it would complete the gamut of subjects unsuitable for children.

Rowling’s ability to play on either side of the Age Line has propelled her back towards a spot among my favorite authors. And speaking of Age Lines, can we give her a round of applause for mastering both the child and the adult POV in a single story? Though I would say here that she more clearly captures humanity. All characters speak with a rather accurate childlikeness. The children are just more aware of authority figures above them whether these authority figures are respected, feared, or despised.

I have always admired Rowling’s ability to handle a large cast. Here, I feel as if with her multiple close third person perspectives, she actually handled this less well than she did in Harry Potter. In Harry Potter, I always had the sense of every character having a complex back story and emotions of his or her own but I had Harry’s perspective to fall back upon for solidity. Without a grounding character, the back stories and emotions are all manifest in The Casual Vacancy, and the characters are made to seem more complex, but it is also more difficult to grasp the whirl of skirts and suits as I am offered varying and sometimes conflicting ideas of each character in rapid succession. Multiple readings might help to solidify these characters and make each more visible, but I somewhat doubt that I will readily reach for The Casual Vacancy again, suffering as I do from an acute desire for escapism in place of realism.

Perhaps what can be said of both books and both worlds is that Rowling brings to each a stark realism but that we would rather believe in and escape to a world where magic, prophecy, and good-versus-evil battle can often cast a veneer over the darker aspects of socially acceptable prejudice and racism and enslavement than the one of Casual Vacancy that strips away the veneer and leaves us stranded nearer home and seeing even more of the darkness of humanity.

The Casual Vacancy is largely character-based, so I really have very little to say about the plot.

****

1A colloquialism that I’m here defining as the unrelenting desire for perfection or the appearance of perfection sought after to the detriment of self or others or morality.

Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2012.

This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The House of Hades Asks Readers to Rethink

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This review contains MAJOR spoilers.

It was a long wait for The House of Hades, fourth in The Heroes of Olympus, the sequel series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan.  The third book, The Mark of Athena, left our heroes literally plunging to a fate worse than death, and it didn’t seem likely that a rescue was possible without death or the sacrifice of someone to that worse than death fate.

Given all that, I was pleasantly surprised by the comparatively happy ending of The House of Hades.

Frank’s and Jason’s characters are greatly built up in this latest novel, as is Percy’s.  Riordan questions as he never has before the morality of the demigods’ way of life, killing to survive and drawing black-and-white battle lines, where all monsters are bad (Percy Jackson and the Olympians has previously questioned if all demigods are good).  Tartarus’ description never failed to be appropriately terrifying and disgusting.  Leo’s story is given a sharp plot twist, that I think has all of us cheering for him.

[The major spoilers begin here.]  The big story around The House of Hades is likely to be Nico’s revealed sexual orientation.  Riordan has said that Nico’s non-heterosexual orientation arose organically, that the character told him rather than Riordan telling Nico—and that’s as it should be; I’m pleased to hear it.  Though I recognize that Rowling revealed Dumbledore’s sexual orientation because she was prompted by a fan’s question and because to do so showed her support for LGBT community and because it did not effect her plot, doing so did not effect the plot or explain any actions that otherwise seemed out-of-character (I would have believed—and do believe—that Dumbledore’s instinct would not have been to kill Grindelwald, even if he and Grindelwald had never loved one another, and I did not question why it took so long for Dumbledore to confront Grindelwald because it didn’t effect the present plotline).  Revealing Nico’s sexual preference within the contexts of the plot, I am more open to hearing about it.  It reveals more about Nico’s prickly hesitation to try to belong or to become close to anyone.

But Riordan did not continue (or has not yet continued) along the plot trail as far as I wanted him to do (for the sake of good storytelling not because it is pleasant).

I have a greater understanding of the term “head canon” than I perhaps ever had before.  Nico’s distrust because of his sexual orientation and his fear that he will be rejected for it ought to be worse for him than for any other character who could reveal himself to be of a LGBT orientation because he is a child of World War II Europe.  Had it been any other character with the exception of Hazel, they would have been children of the 1990s.  Growing up and coming to realize that they were attracted to the same gendered characters, they might have feared bullying and social isolation, but in the 1930s and 1940s, had Nico not been whisked away to America and to the Lotus Hotel, he would have had to fear being dragged from his house and thrust into a crowded railcar.  He’d have had to fear forced labor, unethical scientific experimentation, gas chambers….  And this is why Nico’s painful confession, dragged out of him against his will through taunting, necessity, magic, and a beating, hurt me so much.

In my head canon, Hades, being a god, knew and took Nico away from Europe and away from his half-brother, Adolf Hitler, because he couldn’t bear to have one son kill another and wanted to protect Nico—because Hades really has seemed to be a surprisingly compassionate and present parent.

Many people have also been lauding the burgeoning of new powers in Hazel and Piper, both sorcerous.  While interested in the power to bend the Mist, I actually felt that very little was done with their characters this book.  I think partially because Piper’s and Hazel’s new powers are of a similar vein, I had a difficult time keeping the two of them distinct from one another.  Also, sorcery has often been viewed negatively in Greek mythology and within Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus, and while I don’t think it is Riordan’s intention to any way create negative associations for Piper or Hazel, I worry that I could academically argue that he has done so by making them both sorceresses in the vein of Circe, Medea, Pasiphaë (all villains in both Riordan’s series and most of mythological stories), and even Hecate, a minor goddess who had previously sided with the Titans.

I’m also very interested in the revelation that Greek and Roman may not be determined by birth, that a side can be chosen.  I think that that will have a major effect on the whole of the plot—and probably Jason ought to have revealed what he has learned about the definition of Greek and Roman to Reyna before they parted ways again so that she could reveal it to the Greeks and Romans in America—though I totally understand why he did not.  How does one casually tell a friend that one has decided to disown one’s race to identify with another race with which one’s birth race is currently at war?  Will deciding to identify as a child of Greece rather Rome affect Jason’s powers or personality?  I think not.

Peppered with the usual Riordan humor and plenty of “Perceabeth” moments, this was a well-paced novel, still not as breakneck as The Percy Jackson series, but more quickly paced than The Mark of Athena.

****1/4

Riordan, Rick.  The Heroes of Olympus, Book Four: The House of Hades.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Hyperion Books, Disney Book Group, or Rick Riordan.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

A Christian’s Defense of Fantasy and Particularly Harry Potter

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A quick look around my blog will tell you that I’m not the bookseller to ask about books that are “nothing like Harry Potter because I’ve heard too many negative reviews about it being satanic.”

Chances are that this customer is probably the bookstore equivalent of a “Christeaster”1, and I will never see her (at least till next year) to give her a history lesson in fantasy and a lesson on not judging a book by the outcry of a few—but that doesn’t prevent me from doing so here, does it?  Maybe she’ll even stumble upon this post while looking for articles to bolster her delusion.

Fantasy in general is not satanic.  In fact, it can be a great vehicle for Christian morality and theology.  The Chronicles of Narnia have brought nonbelievers and believers a greater understanding of the nature of God for nigh sixty years now.  This portal fantasy series (the same subset as Harry Potter) is written by one of the best-known names in Christian inspiration and especially Christian fiction—C. S. Lewis.  Lewis is especially well-remembered because he brought his Christian message to those outside the faith, something well-known modern Christian writers like Rick Warren and Joyce Meyer cannot claim to anywhere near the same extent.  His stories scaled the walls of ivory tower Christianity and wiggled into the hearts and bookshelves of many within and without those walls.

Yet, while Lewis’ books I would argue are Christian fiction, they are not so because of Lewis’ profession of Christian faith but rather by his decision to include Christian allegory in his texts.

Lewis’ friend and fellow Christian J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I would argue, is the founder of modern-day high and epic fantasy and a hero of many modern fantasy writers.  His books, despite Tolkien’s public profession of faith and J. K. Rowling’s silence on the subject, are as Christian as Harry Potter.  Neither Tolkien’s nor Rowling’s books preach Christian theology like Lewis’ Chronicles, but their books teach a good triumphs over evil worldview, that not only the mighty can have great influence, that friendship and loyalty are immensely important, the power of persistence in the fight against evil, forgiveness, the possibility of redemption from great sin and evil….  Harry Potter’s Christian morality is in fact stronger than that of its main fandom rival, Twilight, though Twilight is written by an openly religious Christian writer.

When Harry Potter’s morality began to waver, Rowling had made it so clear that Harry’s actions were illegal and punishable by life in prison that I can only assume that she meant to lead the fandom into the discussions that we had about Harry’s uses of the Unforgivables, as Les Misérables asks if Fantine’s prostitution is forgivable or Jean Valjean’s thievery and evasion of the law.

While some may have picketed Harry Potter (oddly, Meyer’s declared Christianity seems to have widely saved Twilight from the same condemnation), just as many Christians and Christian media outlets, including the magazine Christianity Toady, have positively reviewed the series.

So, don’t judge a book by a few negative reviews.  Don’t judge a book by its genre.  Don’t judge a book by how open the author is about his or her faith.  Do your research.

1A term for those who show up in church only on Christmas and Easter.

This rant is not endorsed by the authors or the estates of the authors here mentioned nor any of their publishers.  It is an independent, honest rant by a fan.