I was in Baltimore this past weekend for a friend’s record release show. I swear next time I go to Baltimore I will do more than just eat crêpes and visit the National Aquarium. Until that day, enjoy these pictures of various sea creatures.
Setting: Pagford, United Kingdom
The Casual Vacancy is a witty and gripping social commentary on contemporary British society, played out in the fictional town of Pagford, an idyllic little village in England where various types of unrest are fomenting beneath the town’s sunny and charming exterior.
Barry Fairbrother, one of Pagford’s parish councillors, dies unexpectedly leaving a casual vacancy that various town members seek to fill for their own personal or political gain. The novel tracks how the conflict over the council seat, and the underlying issue of the area known as the Fields, affects the lives of the residents of Pagford, young and old, rich or poor, and shows how small behaviors can resonate and have big consequences.
The Good: Rowling is a fantastic writer, and while this novel is utterly different in subject matter and scope than her famous Harry Potter series, her style is easily recognized within these pages. She proves her satirical prowess with this novel, and her wit in exposing the flaws in the Pagford residents’ behaviors and thought patterns is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. Each character viewed individually seems so uniquely human. Rowling really knows how to make the reader appreciate gray characters. This book acts as a mirror that can be held up to recognize parts of our own personalities that we might rather not admit to having. I personally don’t believe that J.K. Rowling ever had anything to prove, but for those who were unsure whether or not she’d be able to pull of a more “adult-themed” novel, I imagine with this book their fears can be laid to rest.
The Bad: My main complaint with this book is that she was a little overzealous in creating dysfunctional families and relationships. I understand that it wouldn’t be very interesting to focus on healthy romantic or family relationships and that struggle and conflict are necessary to drive narrative, HOWEVER, in a book that is populated by a considerably large cast of characters, there is not one single healthy relationship between a husband and wife or (less surprisingly) between teenagers. Instances of infidelity, domestic abuse, or dissatisfaction in romantic partnerships are all real issues, but Rowling’s decision to exclude the presence of even a single happy relationship causes the novel to traverse beyond the land of realism into the slightly ridiculous.
Would recommend? Absolutely! The merits of this book far outweigh any scruples I have with it
About a month ago I went to New York City to meet up with some friends who were visiting from Northern Ireland. I have complicated feelings about NYC. Sometimes it feels so overwhelming and full of all the things I dislike about human nature. Paradoxically, and perhaps necessarily, it is also full of all the things I love about people. As a lover of art though I can never stay away for too long before something calls me back.
Here are some pictures from my weekend:
A large portion of the first day was spent in Central Park catching up with friends. I mean hours. The day was cold, but the sky was clear in the morning so the park was quite populated. There is something so nice about being in a place surrounded by strangers who don’t know each but who are each sharing the simple joy of being out in nature on one of the first warm days of the year. We talked long enough for the bright morning to turn into a misty late afternoon.
Day two was spent almost entirely in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t know if I could live in New York, but I think I could live in the Met.
As the last photograph shows, I am not above a shameless mirror selfie even if that mirror is couched in a French Rococo drawing room.
A series of snapshots from my gardening journal.
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror(ish)
Setting: Alternate Universe, no specified time or place, landscapes similar to the American West
The first time I attempted to read the first title in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series I was probably 11 or 12 years old, which was way too young to tackle this novel by all accounts. Reading The Gunslinger again at 24 gave me a greater appreciation for it, but parts of the book remain obscure. When reading this review, keep in mind the Dark Tower ended up being an 8 book series and as of writing this I only have knowledge of the elements of the series that are contained in the first book.
The Gunslinger follows the path of Roland Deschain–a man who is the last of his order–across desert and through mountain, on his journey to find and capture the Man in Black and in so doing gain more information that will help him in his overarching search for the Dark Tower. The novel sustains a dreamy and mystical quality throughout mixed with a gritty realism that it gains from the tropes it pulls from the American Western.
I’m going to deviate momentarily from my typical review routine of breaking the novel down into “the Good” and “the Bad,” simply because this book was such a mixed bag for me it is difficult to separate its positive and negative elements so categorically. The world-building is pretty murky to start off with. First of all, Roland’s world at times seems to be our world after some sort of apocalyptic event, or perhaps just after an inordinately long passage of time, but peppered with some obvious fantasy features that don’t exist in our reality. This opinion is formed by in-world references to things that exist in our universe, such as the song “Hey Jude” and the occasional appearance of technologies such as railcars that have since become obsolete in The Gunslinger but are familiar to readers if not always to Roland.This gets muddied even further, however, when Roland hypnotizes the young boy, Jake, who accompanies him throughout part of his journey. In Jake’s memories the reader is given a glimpse of what is apparently real world Manhattan, but Roland doesn’t recognize this world. Again, I will reserve final judgement over this confusing concept of setting because it’s entirely possible the issue will be cleared up in one of the subsequent novels in the series. It is also worth mentioning here that all of Stephen King’s novels apparently occur in one overarching universe that he has created, but given the depth of his oeuvre I don’t care to resolve that issue in my understanding completely. At least not yet.
Another issue for me is that there are some very abstract moments in the novel that are convoluted and confusing rather than artful. They don’t distinguish themselves with a purpose, so much as they drag in their obscurity. I won’t speak too much more on this because I don’t wish to offend people who are in love with the series, and it’s worth noting some readers consider the Dark Tower series one of the pinnacles of fantasy literature.
There are a couple things I was grateful for in reading The Gunslinger. First of all, there wasn’t too much weird sex stuff. This might seem like a ridiculous statement to anyone who isn’t accustomed to reading Stephen King, but if you have read even one of his novels, chances are….you get me. I am never of a fan of the sexual situations that King dreams up because they are always awkward, often disturbing, and sometimes don’t do anything to serve the story in any way. Bizarre sexual encounters aren’t completely nonexistent in The Gunslinger, but thankfully, they were kept to a minimum.
The second thing I appreciated was the conversation between Roland and the Man in Black. I enjoyed the Man in Black’s way of speaking. In a book that was occasionally mired in abstraction, the Man in Black had a lovely way of waxing philosophical with surprising clarity and simplicity. King introduces some deeply metaphysical themes in this conversation between his hero and antagonist and despite the weighty concepts, it is probably one of the most easily understood parts of the entire novel, and it serves to put Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower into better perspective. For me this conversation was redemption for the rest of the novel and I will definitely end up reading the second title in the Dark Tower series, The Drawing of the Three. If nothing else The Gunslinger peaked my curiosity, and while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea, I can definitely see this being a worthwhile read for lovers of science fiction and fantasy.
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Setting: 1830s, Scottish Highlands
After reading Faulkner’s Light in August, I needed to relax with a book that was easy reading and had a lighter tone, so I picked up The Anatomist’s Wife. To what extent a murder mystery can (or should) be used to decompress is arguable, I suppose. Nevertheless, Anna Lee Huber’s first novel in her Lady Darby series did much to ease my mind, providing a very enjoyable read, and I’m excited to continue the series.
The Anatomist’s Wife is told from the POV of a female member of the Scottish nobility, Lady Kiera Darby. Lady Darby has a dark backstory, having worked as an illustrator for her deceased husband while he performed surgical autopsies (a practice still very much taboo at the time). Therefore, when a female houseguest is murdered at her sister’s estate suspicion falls on her. Lady Darby has to work cleverly and covertly alongside fellow houseguest Sebastion Gage to determine who among the remaining guests is the murderer, before the procurator fiscal arrives.
The Good: I loved the setting of a castle in the Scottish Highlands. If you are a fan of the Outlander series this might be a book for you. I also found the narrator, Lady Keira Darby, to be a compelling character. She is smart and independent and the darkness in her past makes her a sympathetic character. There were moments I was worried she would be the type of woman who was perfect in her imperfections, and all other female characters would be cast aside as deeply flawed creatures with no redeeming qualities in a move to further bolster Lady Darby’s position as heroine. This is a trap that the Outlander series falls into at times, and I was worried based off the early character portraits sketched from Lady Darby’s POV (a bit of a pun, as Lady Darby is an artist who excels in painted portraits) that this was how the story was going to play out. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case. First of all, Keira Darby seems to view the men in the story equally as disdainfully as she views women. Secondly, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the novel that her outlook is built upon the treatment she has received from upper class society following her husband’s death. Thirdly, her interactions and thought processes regarding specific female characters evolve in such a way that, at times, the novel seems to be a poignant critique of various toxic societal norms and conventions and a conscious rebuff of the manifestations of internalized misogyny.
The Bad: The plot is pretty predictable, which isn’t too much of a problem if, like me, you appreciate the effect of good storytelling. It didn’t matter to me that I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer because Huber’s writing is smooth and lovely, and I enjoy watching the unique ways authors choose to craft their stories and reach their endings. The only other complaint I have was that after interviewing each suspect, Lady Darby immediately expressed her doubt as to whether the character was capable of murder. This is the primary reason for the relatively predictable ending, considering Lady Darby does not come off as an unreliable narrator.
A series of snapshots from my gardening journal.