Monday, November 26, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling

For those quick to make comparisons between J.K. Rowling's new adult debut and the cultural monolith that is the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy could not be more different from Harry Potter. There is no magic to be found in The Casual Vacancy. Quite apart from the fantastical veneer that made even the darkest moments of Harry Potter magical, The Casual Vacancy portrays reality with the unforgiving zoomed-in hyper-clarify of high-definition. Ostensibly about filling the casual vacancy left by the sudden premature death of parish councilman Barry Fairbrother, the story more substantively concerns itself with the occupants of Pagford (a small, idyllic town in the British countryside), their private lives and their politics.

The Casual Vacancy is an unromantic group portrait of small town British life; it is British (and Western) society in microcosm. From death to disease to addiction to bullying to the hardships of marriage and the trials of teenage-hood to psychological troubles to petty self-serving local politics, JKR tackles just about everything that might hide behind the picturesque doors of countryside cottages. She unearths the big problems eating away at the fabric of an outwardly charming small town (and, extrapolating, the society that subsumes it), and she does so with tight, engaging, and creative descriptive language that as an aspiring writer I could only admire in awe. Her characters, as usual, are three-dimensional, interesting, and well-crafted. And the plot, while not reaching the riveting, can't-put-it-down enthrallment of the Harry Potter series, marches along at a steady pace to reach the final dramatic and unexpected, yet satisfying, conclusion.

Though I can't pretend it's not jarring, at first, to find swearing instead of spell-casting, drug-using instead of potion-making, you grow used to it; eventually the swear words, like the spells and other magical lingo, stop being jarring and become just the language of the story, a language the reader achieves fluency in as naturally as the magical dialect of Harry Potter. Each instance of harsh adult reality that shocks at first soon stops catching you short; after a while you accept these divergences from the reassuring voice of the Harry Potter books and become - just as you were with Harry Potter - immersed in the story. It helps that I can fully understand why she chose to embark on such a departure from the fantasy of Harry Potter and flex her story-telling muscles in a completely new and opposite manner. I can see it being a case of wanting to prove herself a versatile writer to herself as much as to any naysayers who might've had her pegged as one genre wonder, or an exclusively children's author, or an out of control instance of beginner's luck, or whatever other ridiculous things people come up with to try to belittle the phenomenon that is Harry Potter by trying to squeeze it into some contrived, constrictive box. That said, due its grittiness and frequent use of profanity, The Casual Vacancy won't be for everyone. Especially those expecting something with the charm and positivity of the Harry Potter series.

The Casual Vacancy, although not going to worm its way into a place next to Harry Potter in my heart, does its job as a sophomore (in terms of being a distinct work) debut. It reaffirms what devoted fans already knew without question: JKR is a Talent.

Comment questions: Have you read The Casual Vacancy? If not, why? If so, what did you make of the dramatic departure, the swearing and the grittiness? 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Darkest Minds

By Alexandra Bracken

**Doing a standard review rather than a poem for this one because I was lucky enough to get access to an advanced copy via NetGalley and want to give it the full treatment!

I have been a bated-breath fan of Alex Bracken ever since her 2010 release of Brightly Woven which was reminiscent of Tamora Pierce's fantasy classics in all the best ways: a vibrant, original fantasy world; interesting and likable heroine; a charming and loyal if troubled and mysterious rogue of a romantic interest (not to mention a deft balance between romance and friendship, romantic development and actual action). I was totally enamored of her debut and have been eagerly waiting to see what she would do next ever since. The Darkest Minds, her forthcoming second novel (released on December 18; I got my advanced copy via NetGalley), absolutely lived up to my expectations. Girl delivered.

A fusion of the supernatural and dystopian genres, The Darkest Minds is set in a dystopian, economically broken United States in the not too distant future.  In the midst of economic collapse, a mysterious disease ravages the country's children, attacking them as soon as they enter puberty. The unlucky majority die; those that survive develop supernatural abilities instead of succumbing to the disease. Abilities they don't understand, that make them a threat to the fragile US government, who decides the best course of action is to relocate these children to "rehabilitation camps." This is where we meet 16-year-old Ruby, at a rehabilitation camp called Thurmond, where she has been an inmate since her 10th birthday when her own parents called the police to come pick her up. When the truth about her powers risks exposure, Ruby makes her escape from Thurmond. On the road, she finds herself in the company of an eccentric band of fellow escapees - including their charming leader, Liam - in a race against time and truth as they attempt to outrun enemies who would exploit their powers in a fight against the government and make it safely to the East River, reputedly the last outpost of kids with abilities left free from the clutches of outside forces. But life outside the camp is a lot more complicated and a lot more dangerous than Ruby could've known and it's not always clear who the real enemy is - least of all when Ruby fears it could be Ruby herself. As Ruby grapples with her powers and the mixed dangers and responsibilities that come with them, she must decide where her loyalties lie and what side she must take in order to protect the ones she loves.

From page one, Alex Bracken immerses you in the dark world the US has transformed into at the hands of the disease and economic crisis. Thurmond is an unsettling place and the dangers Ruby faces feel all too real - not quite distant enough from reality for the reader to feel entirely safe, either. I thought that Bracken's development of the kids' powers and the five categories they fall into - green, blue, yellow, orange, and red - was quite creative, and if I sometimes didn't feel like I fully understood them, it was only because the kids themselves (especially Ruby) didn't either. True of Brightly Woven but all the more so in The Darkest Minds is how well Bracken creates the subtle dynamics of characters' histories and personalities, and how those play into their relationships with other characters. Each character's personality is fully developed and unique, and the report between the characters - especially Ruby, Liam, Chubs, and Zu - is delightful. It invites you not just to read and observe but participate in the story. And when the story reaches its emotional and plot climax - woah, boy. Watch out. The Darkest Minds wriggles into your heart and forms a soft spot there, then the ending punches you exactly where it knows it will hurt. And you won't see it coming - at least I didn't. I can't wait for Book 2!!!