The Casual Vacancy

…by J. K. Rowling.

Welcome to the town of Pagford. An idyllic and beautiful place where everyone knows everyone. But while on the surface Pagford is an epitome of goodness, upon closer examination, this is certainly not the case. Barry Fairbrother, a local councillor, dies of a stroke in his 40s. As a result, his council seat is left vacant and must be filled. His death also influences the little community in different ways.

For starters, there is his family that he leaves behind: his wife Mary, and children Fergus, Niamh, Siobhan and Declan. Two of his closest friends are also distraught at his death: Colin ‘Cubby’ Wall and Gavin Hughes. They each deal with it differently; Colin whose anxiety disorder increases in severity and Gavin, trying to avoid it all. Colin receives support from his wife Tessa Wall who is also Mary’s best friend but none from his adopted son Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall. Gavin on the other hand, is stuck in a relationship (with Kay Bawden, a social worker who moved to Pagford from London with her daughter Gaia to be with Gavin) he does not want to be in and uses the Fairbrothers as a way to escape. Then there’s Dr Parminder Jawanda, another councillor and the local GP who got along well with Barry and has difficulty coming to terms with her death. While attempting to help everyone else, she is oblivious to the pains of her youngest daughter Sukhvinder.

Barry’s death has the opposite effect on Howard Mollinson, who is also on the local council and akin to a mayoral status. He and his wife Shirley could not be more pleased given that Barry was fighting a cause against what Howard wanted. Howard’s son Miles is hoping to stand for Barry’s vacant seat along with Colin and another Pagford resident, Simon Price. Miles is nothing short of a mama’s boy while Simon is a domestic violence perpetrator towards his wife Ruth and children Andrew and Paul, as well as a small-time thug.

Finally, despite most people not realising it, Barry’s death has also affected one other person deeply: Krystal Weedon. A 16 year old in the same school and year as Barry’s twin daughters, Sukhvinder, Fats, Andrew and Gaia. Unlike the others, Krystal doesn’t live in Pagford. She lives in a housing estate in The Fields which despite being in the neighbouring falls in the Pagford local district. She lives with her junkie mother Terri who falls off the wagon of her methadone program at Bellchapel clinic several times and her younger brother Robbie.

The Casual Vacancy follows the journey of all of the above individuals and those related to them. It follows the repercussions after Barry’s death and all that he was fighting for. The main thing being continuing to include The Fields as part of the local district and continue to have Bellchapel running. Something which Howard Mollinson and his cronies did not want.

Now, after giving you that massive summary, let me talk about my views about the book.

I LOVED IT!

I loved the manner in which the characters were all set out, each which their quirks and most with shades of grey. Some were possibly more despicable (Howard Mollinson and Simon Price, for instance), some positive all over (Tessa Wall and Kay Bawden for instance) while others were complex and intriguing (Krystal, Sukhvinder, Colin, Fats, Andrew, Gaia to name a few). More than the plot, the focus is on the characters. How each of them think. How each of them feel. How each of them behave. And most importantly, how each of them tries to survive whatever is thrown at them. As I read the book, I felt a range of emotions: happiness, sadness, despair, disgust, helplessness, anger and frustration to name a few. I laughed. I smirked. I shook my head. I cried.

Rowling has done a fantastic job in her first book for adults. I was worried I’d be comparing it to Harry Potter. But you know what? A few pages into the book and Potter and his world were kicked out of my head. Despite Pagford being a make-believe place, it could easily pass off for society today. I loved the teenagers with their complexities. I think Rowling has got into their psyches perfectly. I see clients like Sukhvinder and Krystal and Fats. And I think that made the book hit closer to home for me. The pain they go through in different ways, the struggles with their identity and of course, the difficult upbringings and attachments all lead them to cope in a variety of ways. Krystal uses casual sex, Sukhvinder uses deliberate self-harm, and Fats with his desire to be ‘authentic’ in order to rebel. Rowling has described Colin’s anxiety disorder perfectly and once again, it is so realistic and gives you a great insight into what mental health is like for some people. Howard’s attitude is pretty much what you would see with people in society these days too. They don’t understand drug and alcohol abuse. They don’t understand the need for clinics that dose out methadone to drug addicts. All they see is people falling off the wagon. They don’t see that success in mental health and drug health is defined differently.

I know Rowling has copped a lot of flak for this book. I still don’t know why. Some people were offended by the sex and the swearing. It didn’t bother me one bit because that’s what society is like. Teenagers do have sex. Adults do have sex. As for swearing, well, to me it’s just like another word, possibly because I do it too.

I could go on and on about how great this book is. J. K. Rowling has in fact gone up even higher in estimation for me (she already was way up there) with the manner in which she has covered serious social issues and mental health issues in this book. They are all very realistic and beautifully portrayed. Her writing style as always is impeccable. You get the accents and the mannerisms and all the nuances in between. If there was one gripe for me, it’s the cover. Not a fan of the cover. ūüôā There were 500 pages in this book. 500 pages of a wonderful journey into people’s minds.

Thank you again for this masterpiece J. K. Rowling!

I rate it a 5.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Note: This post was originally posted on my personal blog.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The final¬†book of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. A few days before his 17th birthday, Harry waits for his ride to move away from Privet Drive altogether. Once he comes of age, he can do magic without being traced. And in these hard times when Voldemort is taking over most of the magical world, this is a good thing. Harry knows what he has to do this year: complete the task left to him by the late Albus Dumbledore. Harry has to find the remaining Horcruxes and destroy them and eventually destroy Voldemort. As a result, Harry knows he won’t be returning to Hogwarts this year. Ron and Hermione¬†both intend on going with him on this journey. Harry has broken up with Ginny due to fears that Voldemort¬†may use her as bait; a decision that he continues to regret due his strong feelings for her. Voldemort and his Death Eaters take over the Ministry and Hogwarts with Severus Snape¬†being appointed Headmaster. Harry still has immense hatred towards Snape¬†for what he did to Dumbledore¬†and continues to think Dumbledore¬†was a fool to trust Snape. As Harry, Ron and Hermione search for the Horcruxes, they are faced¬†with obstacles including wondering just how much they knew Dumbledore¬†given that they find out he had a Squib for a sister who was apparently locked away; meet¬†Death Eaters and Voldemort¬†himself more than once; deal with goblins and Umbridge; and of course, the Horcuxes¬†themselves. They also have decipher why Dumbledore¬†left them a few things in his will: a snitch¬†for Harry, a book of wizarding¬†fairy tales for Hermione and a deluminator¬†for Ron. Through their travels, they also discover the story behind the Deathly Hallows and figure out what Voldemort is eventually looking for — something that will fight Harry and his wand once and for all.

Being the final¬†book of the series, this one is obviously action-packed. There are more tears and fewer laughs compared to the previous¬†books. It is fast-paced and the adventures are brilliant. Ron and Hermione’s relationship and their feelings for one another have never been more apparent. The final¬†battle scene between the Voldemort and his Death Eaters and Harry and his friends and the Order of the Phoenix is one to behold! You find yourself literally holding your breath and wanting to know more.

The book has several themes with one of the most prominent ones being death. The fear of death versus the acceptance of¬†this fact of life is explored¬†through the book of fairy tales as well as through Voldemort¬†and Harry’s characters. It was Voldemort’s¬†fear of death that led him to want to be¬†immortal and therefore create the horcruxes. Another theme is how power can be blinding. Voldemort¬†has always thought of wizards (particularly pure-bloods) as all-powerful but under-estimates the magic of house-elves, centaurs and other magical creatures. This is a weakness given the important roles house-elves end up playing in his own downfall. The book also looks at the importance of second chances. We finally learn why Dumbledore¬†trusted Snape all along and gave him a second chance to redeem himself. Given that no one is perfect, you can see why it is important to sometimes give a person a second chance. Love, which is a theme talked about right from the first book, is once again prominent here along with sacrifice. The power of love and how protective it can be. Lily’s love for Harry created a protective charm around him. In a similar way, Harry’s love for his friends and his willingness to sacrifice his own life for the greater good creates a similar protective charm for them. Several people Harry loves too end¬†up sacrificing their lives fighting Voldemort or standing up for Harry.

It is a fitting finale to an enthralling series. Yes, it is quite sad with the deaths of loved characters. I was in tears several times through the book. But if there is anything to learn from this book it is that death is not necessarily final. And the dead shall always live with us in our memories. The last chapter though which goes ‘nineteen years later’ is a bit of a cheesy ending but I think J. K. Rowling did that to ensure that she ended the book and the lives of her heroes on her terms. All in all, another brilliant book and truly deserving of a rating of 5.

If you want to check out the reviews of books one, two, three, four, five and six, click on their respective links.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry, Ron and Hermione enter their 6th year at Hogwarts. This time though, Harry is dealing with the death of Sirius a few months ago at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange¬†in the Ministry of Magic. Simultaneously, he has to deal with knowing a prophecy made years ago which states that neither he nor Voldermort¬†can live while the other survives. Harry now knows that he has to vanquish Voldermort or be vanquished himself. This year, Harry suspects¬†Draco Malfoy¬†of being a Death Eater — an idea scoffed by his best friends as well as Lupin and Mr Weasley. At school, Harry who now does Potions with a new teacher, Professor Slughorn¬†(Snape¬†now teaching Defence Against Dark Arts) is given a text book which is turning him into somewhat of a genius at the subject. The book belongs to someone who referred to themselves as the ‘Half-blood Prince’. This year, Harry is also given extra lessons by Dumbledore¬†and these lessons involve delving into Lord Voldermort’s¬†past and trying to understand him as a child and later a student at Hogwarts. Harry finally learns about Horcruxes. Basically, through the lessons he learns that Voldermort¬†split his soul into 7 pieces thereby ensuring his immortality unless and until these Horcruxes¬†are destroyed. Thus making his attempt to overcome Voldermort that much harder. The book looks at life in general for Harry at school, battling feelings for Ginny Weasley, while at the same time dealing with his suspicisions¬†of Malfoy¬†and Snape, learning about Voldermort’s past all culminating to a thrilling yet sad end.

Trust and betrayal¬†are one of the main themes in this book. Harry trusts Ron and Hermione with no doubt whatsoever. Yet, he has difficulty with Dumbledore¬†trusting Snape¬†especially when the former never gives a reason for his trust. And for the reader too, there is that doubt as to¬†why Dumbledore¬†continues to trust Snape. Especially as we know he makes an Unbreakable Vow to help Draco Malfoy and keeps his word in the end. There also exists the theme about self-sacrifice¬†which is seen¬†through Dumbledore’s character in the end as well as Harry’s attempts. Another important and interesting thing spoken about is the prophecy. Dumbledore¬†attempts to make Harry understand that it is not just because of the prophecy that was made¬†that the situation between him and Voldermort¬†is as it is. Voldermort¬†chose to take the prophecy seriously and hunt Harry down and kill his parents in the process. It is Harry’s choice and decision following what Voldermort¬†did to avenge his parents’ deaths and not just because the prophecy says so. In other words, nothing is necessarily destined in our lives. It is the choices we make that pave the next path in our lives.

As always, this is yet another book with humour and an engaging narrative that keeps you going and wanting to know more. It raises several questions particularly about Snape¬†and his motives. At the same time, the Horcruxes and the ending leave you intrigued. Let’s just say if you haven’t read the books and will now, it’s a good thing you don’t have to wait a couple of years for that! Like I did initially.

I give it a rating of 5.

To read reviews of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth book of the series, click on their respective links.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The fifth book begins with a very disgruntled Harry spending his summer holidays with the Dursleys¬†and itching to find out what has been happening in the wizarding world since the return of Lord Voldermort. However, he can’t seem to get straight answers from anyone and this only fuels his anger. Eventually he is taken to Grimmauld Place where he finds the members of the Order of the Phoenix. The group of witches and wizards who are planning to fight Voldermort. However, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Fred, George and Ginny are underage and hence not permitted to be part of the Order or know too much about their undertakings. That doesn’t stop Sirius and Lupin¬†informing them that Lord Voldermort¬†this time is after a weapon.¬†A weaapon¬†that is very powerful. However, the details remain unknown to Harry and his friends. After Harry manages to get acquitted in a trial for using underage magic outside of school and in front of a muggle¬†(Dudley), he gets back to¬†Hogwarts with Ron and Hermione being chosen as prefects for Gryffindor. They are in for a surprise in their crucial fifth year where they have to take exams known as the O.W.L.¬†(Ordinary Wizarding Levels). The Ministry of Magic appears to be infiltrating Hogwarts with one of their staff being appointed as the Defence against the Dark Arts teacher: Dolores Umbridge. They still do not believe Voldermort has returned and the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge¬†is adamant that Dumbledore¬†is plotting against him. As Umbridge wreaks¬†havoc as a teacher with the help of the Ministry and refuses to teach her subject to the standard¬†it should be taught, Harry and his friends on Hermione’s idea, start secret meetings of their own practising defence against the dark arts. Taught by Harry. Harry’s school year continues as he goes on a forgettable date with Cho Chang, gets banned from playing Quidditch, has visions of walking through a dark passage, sees Dumbledore¬†ousted as principal, wonders why Dumbledore¬†doesn’t make eye contact with him and also has visions occasionally of Voldermort’s¬†experiences. He is asked to practise¬†Occlumency¬†with Professor Snape¬†by Dumbledore¬†in order to¬†be able to block his mind from¬†the visions he has been having; however,¬†being a teenager and¬†not liking Snape result in him not¬†really learning this skill. Which¬†consequently results in a thrilling¬†and heart-wrenching finale.

After the third book, I think this is probably one of my favourites. I did not see the ending coming and the loss of one of my favourite characters had me in tears. In this book though, Harry is not very likeable particularly in the beginning where he seems to think every one is against him and he is better than Ron and Hermione. Furthermore, his anger at them is a bit too egocentric given that they have stood by him through a lot. Yet at the same time, this depiction is that of any teenager. The egocentrism, the flouting of rules, the mood swings, the impulsive behaviour — very common of adolescence¬†where consequences of ones actions are not always thought about. And Harry, makes¬†a big mistake by letting his arrogance get the better of him when it comes to learning Occlumency.

The role of the corrupt Ministry is not dissimilar to governments we see in so many countries around the world. The ease with which educational decrees are passed all for the benefit of the Ministry with no thought of the students or others, reminds you of the power governments can hold, particularly in some countries where democracy is but a farce. The Ministry hears what it wants to hear and chooses to speak ill and come down hard on those against it. Almost like a dictatorship. The role the media plays in printing and delivering the community with lies is also an important factor especially when you think about the power of the media in our world. How many people make up their minds just based on what the media tells them? In the same manner, majority of the wizarding world makes up its minds about Harry and Dumbledore and how the former is just craving for attention and is nothing short of a lunatic thanks to the Daily Prophet.

The importance of education¬†is also highlighted in this book where the Ministry through Umbridge threatens to deny first Harry’s individual right to education, and then the rest of the students’ rights by teaching them a tame version of an important subject. But by educating themselves in this area, a number of students are empowered. Finally, an important theme in this book is unity.¬†Dumbledore¬†is trying to get the giants and the goblins on the good side because only then can they fight Voldermort. The Sorting hat talks about the students being united and fighting the war. However, the manner in which students are segregated into houses itself kind of defeats this. At the same time, Harry’s friends stay united in their attempt to help him — Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny and a new character, Luna all insist on coming with him to the Ministry of Magic in the end and by keeping a united front, they are able to stave off the Death Eaters until members of the Order arrive.

Once again, a fantastic piece of work by J. K. Rowling. There is the ever ongoing theme of bravery and the discrimination that exists in the wizarding¬†world. Her characters are brilliant. Umbridge is a new addition and is a fantastic character in that you loathe her with¬†all your heart.¬†You get annoyed with the “hem, hem”¬†by Umbridge¬†because you just know she is just going to say something horrible. You can visualise her toad-like features and it makes you squirm. Luna Lovegood¬†too is an interesting quirky character. I love how Ron is developing, how Hermione is so smart and a great friend to have¬†and how Ginny is no longer shy but outspoken and funny. And of course, Fred and George Weasley are absolute riots!

I give it a rating of 5. [You can read reviews of Books 1, 2, 3 and 4 if you want]

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In the fourth installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry, Ron and Hermione attend the Quidditch World Cup finals between Ireland and Bulgaria with the rest of the Weasleys. Following the game, a sign is seen in the night sky — the Dark Mark. The sign that Lord Voldermort used with his faithful followers, the Death Eaters. As Harry returns to school, troubled with his scar hurting during the holidays and the sight of the Dark Mark, he and his friends are in for a surprise. Instead of Quidditch this year, there is to be the Triwizard Tournament. It’s a competition between champions chosen from each of three schools — Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Drumstrang. The rules are that the contestant has to be 17 years or older. A champion from each of the schools is chosen by the Goblet of Fire — Cedric Diggory, Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum from each of the aforementioned schools. But everyone is in for a surprise. A fourth name is called out — Harry Potter. Who doesn’t meet the age requirement. Harry’s entry causes a rift between his and Ron’s friendship. Harry and the other champions go through the tournament escaping dragons, saving people from the bottom of the lake and going through a maze with several obstacles. But the question is — who put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire in the first place? And why? The twist in the end will shock you.

The fourth book is a lot darker than the previous books and a lot thicker. While bravery is once again a predominant theme, there is also the message of teamwork and community spirit. Harry is able to succeed on the tasks thanks to help prior to the tasks from Hermione and Ron as well as from Professor Moody, Dobby, Hagrid and Cedric. Another predominant issue and theme discussed is that of slavery. House-elves (like Dobby) are the lowest of the low in the wizarding world and work for no pay. Hermione is used to pass this message against slavery by standing up for elves’ rights. Once again, discrimination and prejudice as exists in our world is viewed in the magical world with pure-blood wizards and witches humiliating Muggles, negative judgements about giants and the continued battle against half-bloods and Mudbloods. The power of the press is also explored as articles in the Daily Prophet which are clearly lies and exaggerations are taken as gospel by some readers, similar to what occurs in the world today.

Once again, a brilliant piece of literary work by J. K. Rowling. I give it a 5.

To read the first three reviews click: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The third book of the series and my personal favourite has Harry Potter and his friends in their third year at school. (Read the reviews of the first and second if you haven’t already). It begins with the summer holidays at the Dursleys where Harry loses control when uncle Vernon’s sister Marge comes to visit resulting in her blowing up like a balloon. Consequently, Harry who has broken the law that underage wizards and witches are not allowed to perform magic outside of school, packs his things and runs away. He is picked up safely and not expelled (as he originally feared) and resides at Diagon Alley the rest of the summer. However, all is not well in the magical kingdom. A mass murderer and loyal supporter of Voldemort has escaped the most secure wizarding gaol Azkaban. His name is Sirius Black. No one knows how he managed to do something no wizard has ever succeeded in doing. For the prison is guarded by Dementors who pretty much suck the happiness out of every individual there. The problem with Black’s escape now is that Harry is his target. Resulting in security being tightened around the school and Harry being watched. The term involves adventures and escapades for Harry, Ron and Hermione including flying on a hippogriff, having Hagrid as a teacher, learning how to tell the future through Divination with Professor Trelawney, and learning to conjure the Patronus charm to ward of the Dementors with Professor Lupin among others. Will Sirius Black ever be caught? Or will he get to Hogwarts first?

This by far was one of the most exciting books. I fell in love with it on reading it…the suspense, the humour, the thrills…brilliant! The overarching theme is loyalty as portrayed through not just Harry, Ron and Hermione but also through Lupin and Sirius. Rowling also seems to be making a comment on the death penalty and whether it is justifiable for even the most heinous of crimes. Sirius if caught, faces the Dementor’s Kiss, the wizarding version of the death penalty where his soul will be sucked out. Furthermore, the best way to fight fear is through laughter and facing it and this is a message that we could all use in our lives. Comments are also made about the vagueness of fields such as astrology through the Divination course. And finally, there are things that happen in your life which cannot be meddled with. So even the worst thing that might happen, still shapes your life and you in a certain way. It isn’t destiny necessarily but about how different events in our lives can shape us to be who we really are.

I would love to give this book more than the highest rating if possible…but because I can’t it gets a 5.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The second book of the Harry Potter series by J. K Rowling sees Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione enter their second year at Hogwarts. (To know about the first year, click here). During his summer holidays with the Dursleys, Harry receives a visit from Dobby, a house-elf who warns Harry to not go back to school because his life is in danger. However, Dobby cannot provide any more details. Harry does not heed Dobby’s advice and goes to school any way, arriving in rather a dramatic fashion with Ron. The youngest Weasley, Ginny also starts Hogwarts and is in her first year and visibly has a crush on Harry. As the term continues, weird things begin to happy. Yes, weird even for witches and wizards. For one, Harry hears a voice no one else can hear talking about wanting to kill. Apparently, hearing voices is considered just as bad in the wizarding world as it is for us Muggles. More importantly, something is harming students, animals and ghosts. More so, students who are not of pure-blood (i.e. don’t have a rich heritage of witches and wizards in their families). A monster that resides in the Chamber of Secrets has been let loose again. Only problem is, no one knows where the chamber is or what the monster is.

This is where the series starts to develop deeper themes. While the first book dwelled on bravery and friendship, this one tends to continue in the same drift but has something more to it. For instance, the issue about the pure-bloods versus Mudbloods (i.e. someone with Muggle parents). Rowling looks at some wizarding families like the Malfoys who think all witches and wizards should be of pure-blood and this is akin to white supremacy. The fanatic pure-bloods do not like witches and wizards marrying outside i.e. marrying Muggles and therefore producing half-bloods. In a way, it’s a wizarding form of the caste system or racism. Then there is the theme of loyalty. Pure, unflinching loyalty which Harry has for Dumbledore. It is this loyalty that saves his life. Finally, there are the house-elves. House-elves are treated badly by some witches and wizards in what I thought was another form of the caste system. And through Harry’s character, Rowling manages to portray breaking through those barriers and of class or caste as Harry treats Dobby with respect and kindness. These are themes that continue through the series.

All in all, an engaging read. Some bits scare you and honestly leave you intrigued. The mystery and suspense element when read the first time is also quite compelling and you don’t want to put the book down. As for the humour, it’s top-notch. The crazy new teacher Lockhart, the mishaps with Ron’s broken wand, the encounters between Harry and Malfoy, and so much more.

I rate it a 5.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!