Fiction, Reviews

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

This book has been a mixed-bag of reviews. Here’s mine:

I want to preface this by saying I haven’t read a Harry Potter book since the last one came out. So, I think it was much easier for me to distance myself from Rowling, the-author-of-Harry-Potter, and to think of her just as Rowling, author.

As I was reading this book, I kept having a recurrant thought which built on each reappearance. 503 pages later, here is the finished product: This is an ugly novel about ugly people with ugly lives.

Which, I think, is what she was trying to do all along. People mentioned that they didn’t like any of the characters, didn’t like the sex/drugs/affairs/rape/insert-morally-offensive-topic-here, and just generally found the whole thing to be overwrought, too long, too much, too this, too that.

I read some snippets of Renee’s review (The Quick Red Fox) and find myself inclined to agree with her. This book reminds me very much of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Steven Gilbert’s A Lovely, Indecent Departure. All three novels are a bit ugly, about ugly people and ugly lives. In order of likeability and degree of ugliest, Plainsong emerges top of the heap and The Casual Vacancy squarely at the bottom.

In an odd way, I think slice-of-life novels are among the most difficult to pull off. I should know. I’m writing one. For one thing, they don’t rely on a super-charged plot. It’s amazing how much readers will forgive if the plot is exciting/interesting. I’m extremely guilty of this. But in a slice-of-life, you have nothing to hide behind. There is only the strength of your own writing and your own characterization. No mystery, no magic, no thriller. Only words on a page and how you convince the reader to keep going.

I sat next to someone on the plane yesterday who asked me about the book. He didn’t even know the premise. I had a hard-time explaining it.( At that time, slice-of-life was evading me. ) It’s odd though. We don’t have a lot of ready-made words for these types of novels. Partly, I suspect, because slice-of-life novels often find themselves thrown underneath the umbrella of something else and partly because stories of this kind have greatly fallen out of fashion. I can certainly think of more “classic” slice-of-lifes than their modern counterparts.

I liked this book. I did. Do I see why people didn’t like it? Absolutely. In fact, this book probably would have been better hailed if it didn’t have Rowling’s name on it. I remember, once, I was reading an article in which someone postulated that Rowling might take a penname for all future works. At the time, I didn’t see that it mattered. Now, I do.

I do like that this novel was so ugly in so many ways. People and real-life are often quite ugly. That’s why some of the best novels about crime are the non-fiction ones. Because truth is often stranger than fiction.


Fiction, Giveaways and Freebies

A Lovely, Indecent Departure FREE Today and Tomorrow

Just a quick note to let you guys know about a promotion going on through Today and tomorrow only, Steven Gilbert is offering the Kindle version of his book, A Lovely, Indecent Departure for free! This was really a lovely book (read my review here) and if you’re at all interested in checking it out, don’t miss this opportunity!

Fiction, Reviews

A Lovely, Indecent Departure

A Lovely Indecent Departure by Steven Lee Gilbert

A Lovely, Indecent Departure is the riveting and emotionally-charged debut from a promising new voice in literary thrillers, and a captivating story about a mother’s love and desperation set amidst the heart wrenching landscape of child custody.

Anna Miller wants only one thing, her son, and she will do anything to keep him. When a district court awards custody of Oliver to his father, she abducts the five year old and flees to Italy where with her family’s help they disappear into the fabric of her native homeland. Told in prose that is both stripped-down and overpowering, Gilbert shapes the everyday conflict of child custody into a stunning search for sense of worth. Standing in the young woman’s way is Evan Meade, the boy’s guileful and mean-spirited father, who hires a private investigator when the efforts of the embattled local sheriff, Monroe Rossi, fail to track them down. But as the investigation draws them all closer to Anna, Evan’s true nature betrays itself and the question of what’s in the child’s best interest becomes not so clear anymore.

Objectively detailed, in a voice that refuses to intrude on the minds of its characters, A Lovely, Indecent Departure, captures in stark detail a world in which modern archetypes are turned upside down and shows what an extraordinary splash Steven Lee Gilbert has made with his first novel.

I was really excited when Steven contacted me about reading and reviewing his debut novel, A Lovely, Indecent Departure. He explained how the novel is somewhat similar in tone to Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. You all remember how much I loved that novel. I had to put off reading and reviewing Steven’s novel until now, but it was a great and quick read.

The style of voice is somewhat strange to get used to at first, but after a few pages, you cease to notice it. I was immediately drawn into Anna’s story, as she tries to wrest Oliver away from her ex-husband. I liked that none of the characters were clear cut into “good” and “bad”. Morals, ethics, and laws form a triangle of conflict in this novel. Characters whom the law deems “bad” are redeemed as “good” by their morals and ethics and vice versa. I enjoy characters who aren’t cookie cutter and who you struggle to identify with, because the novel doesn’t make it easy for you to decide whether they’re good or bad, hero or anti-hero.

I enjoyed the shifting points of view between Anna, Evan, and Monroe. Especially because this novel spans an ocean and several different countries, it was great to get perspectives from all areas of the situation. I enjoyed Anna and Monroe the most, mostly because I didn’t like Evan. I started out liking him a bit, but quickly changed my mind. Which is exactly what the novel wants you to do.

The prose is very simple and pure. There’s description, but it’s not highfalutin. It’s simple, accessible, but poetic. In fact, the great portion of the poetics of the novel is born from the character’s interactions with each other and their worlds. It’s Hemingwayesque (though I don’t really like Hemingway) and Harufian. Steven’s work is an unassuming work, one that doesn’t seek to draw you in with cheap gimmicks and plot tricks. It presents itself as it is, quiet, steady, and ultimately charming.

Part of the novel is set in Florence, which I appreciated. I’ve actually been there so it was a nice thing to use my own memory to augment those sections of the novel. It’s a special thing to come across a place in novel you’ve lived in or visited.

About the only thing I didn’t like was the amount of Italian in the book. I understand French and some Spanish and puzzled out some of the Italian, but sometimes I felt like I was being cut off from things I wanted to know. I understand why it’s there and there’s certainly not an easy fix to it. A lot of what I read tends to be Spanish works translated into English and so there is a great deal of Spanglish going on. But I don’t think Italian really participates in such a language exchange. I knew some words, but I wish I knew more. I imagine if you have a working knowledge of Italian, you will get even more from those parts than I did.

One other thing I’d like to note: this one was the first fiction novel I’ve read from start to finish on Kindle. This was a great one to start with: not too long (as far as I can tell), making it a great way to get your feet wet if you’re looking to break into reading on an e-reader.

You can find Steven’s author site here. He’s offering 50% off his e-book through July 31st!

Note: I received a free copy of this novel from the author, in exchange for an honest review.