Sunday, 14 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy is Rowling's first foray into the world of adult literature, coming after the infamous Harry Potter series. Consequently, it's going to be a bit tricky to avoid comparisons between both her ventures. Or at least, that's what I thought before I started reading The Casual Vacancy. There are comparisons to be made, of course - whether she likes it or not, Rowling must know that anyone who's ever read a Potter book would be intrigued to see the direction she takes in her next book, and that the probable majority of purchasers of The Casual Vacancy would be the same adults who read Harry Potter to their children, and people like me who grew up with Harry and are now (technically) adults. I have to say that, initially, I had absolutely no interest in reading this; being such a massive Potter fan, and being very aware of the fact that it was not a Potter book, I just didn't care very much. It's not that I am of the ilk that believe that Rowling should churn out Potter books for the rest of her natural life, writing spin-offs and prequels and sequels and all the other money-making ventures she could wheedle out of her hugely popular characters; on the contrary, I think it's time for her to move on, to stick to her original plan and to allow Potter to be the shining beacon of excellent children's literature that it is, without compromising it. My reluctance actually came from simple disinterest; I'd heard the story began with a man dropping dead in a village, and that just didn't pique my interest. Eventually, though, once the book did come out, I thought I would quite like to read it, and gave it a go. It's a tale of the aftermath that reverberates through a small village when a Parish Councillor dies suddenly, leaving behind a casual vacancy - a post on a council that has come free through unexpected means, such as a death or a resignation. Subsequently, a number of petty rivalries and disagreements swell into a festering ball of resentment, anger and revenge that threatens the supposedly close-knit community of the seemingly idyllic village of Pagford.

It's nothing like I ever expected. It doesn't even read like Rowling has written it; in fact, if she had decided to have it published under a pseudonym, I wouldn't have had an inkling it was by her, and that's because the language is a lot more grown up. I don't just mean the dialogue of the characters; descriptive passages also felt different, somehow. This was initially off-putting; it's a bit like when your phone rings, and a familiar name shows on the screen, but the person on the other end of the phone doesn't sound like them when you answer. There's an initial jarring moment as you wonder if someone else has rung you, and you struggle to realign yourself to the change in dynamic of the ensuing conversation. It doesn't matter if it turns out it is who you thought it was, and that they just had a cold, or had just swallowed a swig of tea quickly; there's still that moment of discomfort when you're not quite sure who you're dealing with. For a good 40 pages or so, I struggled to acclimatise myself to The Casual Vacancy in a similar manner, and so it took me longer to get into what was actually a very compelling story than it usually would.

The main plot - if there is one, as there are several storylines running alongside each other - focuses on the election that needs to take place now a spot is available. The three candidates are all running for very different reasons; one is compelled by his puffed-up sense of importance, another by the hints of bribes and backhanded dealings that he could benefit from, and the third by the need to continue the now-dead councillor's work. As they each struggle to persuade the village to their cause, an outside, underestimated force finds a method through which they find they can wreak vengeance on the wrongs perpetrated against them, without considering the consequences. This makes for fascinating reading, as it highlights the damage that gossip can do, and how you should never assume that everyone is on your side.

Many of the characters, however, are unsympathetic. To begin with, there's almost too many - it seems Rowling has tried to portray each member of the entire village, and as a result I struggled to keep track of who was who at different points; names would crop up and I would have to take a few moments to recall exactly who they were, and how they were connected to other people (and all the characters were connected to each other in some way). With such a large cast, it was difficult to feel anything for all of them - and that was without the vast majority appearing to be a stereotype; the single mother, the drug addict, the mouthy rebel, the resentful, neglected wife... they seemed to be stock-characters, taken from the usual supply, and I felt that it had become a case of quantity over quality, with Rowling trying to cover all her bases, and so that made it difficult to root for anyone - if you haven't got anyone to be on the side of, it makes getting involved in the book much harder.

However, even if the number of characters was depleted, and I found it easier to remember them, I still would have struggled to enjoy this novel, due to one key factor: the content seemed to be all about deliberately shocking the reader. Literally, every possible vice, crime or sin was shoe-horned into the plot, with characters either committing or alluding to these evil deeds and thoughts. Seriously, there is every kind of wrong being perpetrated in this novel; it's like Midsomer Murders, how corrupted can one community be?! Initially, these evils shocked and appalled when they cropped up, as they were probably meant to, but after a while it just got boring, to the extent that, after each reading session, The Boyfriend was subjected to an updated list of the latest wrongs that had occurred. Maybe this was the point Rowling was making, together with the dirty secrets of the characters, that every community, no matter how idyllic it might appear, has cankers at the core. This might be true - I'm sure every family has a few skeletons in the closet, or a relative no one talks about, or 'the black sheep' - but after a while these constant crimes, these supposed shocks, just got dull; nothing really surprised me anymore, beyond the fact that these imaginings came from the same brain as dear old Ron Weasley came from.

I wouldn't say I would never read this book again; I probably will, because despite the bleak content - and it is very bleak at times - I did find it an engrossing read, and difficult to put down, probably because the way in which all these secrets erupted to the surface of the calm Pagford community appealed to the gossip in me; I think we'd all be lying if we claimed we'd never discussed someone behind their back, or kept a particularly close eye on a neighbour we didn't quite trust. It's a very clever novel in that respect; it plays on the guilty pleasure that gossip is to most people, whilst also demonstrating the damage it can do. It didn't make for comfortable reading though, and this was probably the most off-putting thing; I never expected a Potter-esque novel, partly because that kind of thing comes along once in a generation, and partly because if I were her, I'd probably want to make it clear to the world that yes, I can write a magical world, with amazing characters and fantastic places, but I'm also capable of being really gritty and real too. Perhaps that's why The Casual Vacancy plays out as it does; it's a deliberate juxtaposition between the black-and-white morality of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, and the stark reality of the 'Muggle' world. However, when you think you know a writer's style, and then find they've written something that is not just completely different in content, but also feels different to read - that can be, and was for me, unsettling. Next time I read it, however, I'll be prepared, and maybe I'll find a bit more to enjoy than the gossipy tone.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Review: I Am The Secret Footballer, by Anonymous

I am about to astound you all with a fact that you may  have difficulty in believing: I do not know much about football. I mean, I can tell my Chelsea from my Celtic, I know that Joe Cole and Ashley Cole are not related, I know that Cristiano Ronaldo is such a good diver he should be doing it into a pool, and if you give me five minutes to think it through first, I can explain the offside rule in a relatively stilted way. Beyond that, I'm stumped. I'll only really watch football when it's the World Cup or the Euros - although on those occasions I will enter into it with a passion you may not expect (I actually got sent out of the room this summer by the Boyfriend in the Spain v Portugal match because I was being too loud in my support of Spain). So I'm not going to lie - I was as surprised as you probably are by my reading this. The Boyfriend was reading it whilst we were on holiday last month, and I was so intrigued by some of the anecdotes he related from the book that I felt I had to read it myself - and against the odds, for the most part, I was hooked, and I read it in less than a day. It's not exactly hard reading, I'll admit - whilst TSF is clearly an intelligent man, he's no Dostoevsky - but it certainly is gripping.

Based on his column in the Guardian, I Am The Secret Footballer is an insider's view of the so-called beautiful game - the dressing-room banter, the effect of a good manager, the money, everything. It's a light on what is actually quite a secretive world; as he points out, for the most part we spectators only get to see a certain amount of a footballer, upon which we base entire judgements of their characters. It's the same with all celebrities, but I suppose with football there's a certain aggression to it; for starters, it seems like a pretty easy job to earn so much money, and most of them seem to be jumped-up, idiotic cheats. Told from the point of view, however, of a man who admits to depression, hints at money woes and clearly knows his Shakespeare, it certainly made me re-think my opinions on certain footballers. I never considered it before, but the pressure they must be under, with fans, managers, teammates and families dependent on their good performances for so many reasons - faith, jobs, money, support... Of course, the same can be said of many jobs, but we don't all perform them under the media's scrutiny, do we?

But that's, of course, not the main reason for why I enjoyed this book. I can harp on as much as I like about how it's changed my viewpoint and taught me not to judge people and all that jazz - and to an extent, it has - but the real reason for why I liked it? The excess, the gossip, the dirty little facts you can't believe he's getting away with spilling. No names are mentioned in the dirty bits, of course, but there's enough to speculate on. Even without the names, there's enough going there to satisfy even a Hello! magazine reader; for example, there's a trip to Las Vegas which results in a Champagne War, in which groups - in this case, TSF's team and Barcelona - try to effectively bankrupt each other for the night by sending increasingly expensive drink orders and champagne to each other, until one can't afford the bill and has to be escorted from the premises. Then there's the Ferrari that got damaged by a game of Lets-Try-To-Surf-A-Baggage-Trolley-Through-The-Revolving-Doors-Of-A-Hotel-Into-The-Car-Park, and the subsequent denial of all knowledge. For a view on how the other half live, it really doesn't get much better.

However, it's not all Champagne Wars and Ferraris; there's a serious side too. TSF recounts stories of bad management from both managers and the higher-ups, in which clubs are driven into the ground (he actually refers - indirectly - to the poor management of Leeds United, by Peter Ridsdale), and the emotional impact of chants from the fans. We're all disgusted by the monkey chants that are still heard in some grounds, but it does tug at your heartstrings to read of an unnamed young footballer sobbing in the changing rooms after being shouted at by some so-called 'fans'. TSF refers to the sense of entitlement fans feel towards the players - they've paid their money, bought merchandise, cheered down at the pub - but no one deserves to be bullied, for whatever reason. Having said that, since TSF mentions how some older players bullied him when he first made the bigtime, I suppose there must be culture of it in the game - doesn't excuse it, though.

Not all of it was enthralling; I completely lost my way in a chapter devoted to, and entitled, Tactics, and there was one about Agents too that I sped-read so fast I may as well have skipped it; I know that when you're reading a book, you should give it the attention it deserves, but honestly? I know so little about the sport, I barely had a clue what I was reading, and I'll admit it, I didn't pick it up to read about the best way to score a goal. Kick it in the right direction, yeah? Just kidding. But nevertheless it was one I was surprised to find I enjoyed, and I would read it again. Part of this can be attributed to the mystery of just who TSF is - a happily married footballer who's been elbowed in the face by John Terry is what I would've thought a fairly narrow enough margin, but apparently it isn't (for in-depth speculation, visit the website). Whoever it is, I have to applaud them - even with the anonymity, it's a brave step to take, to openly discuss some of the subjects mentioned in the book. As well as that, they've crafted an intelligent, interesting, funny insight into an exclusive world, making it more accessible to football novices like myself.

Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson

Have you ever been on holiday, and found a corner of the place you are staying in is piled high with books other guests left behind? I always find these books to be a bit mysterious; who left them behind, and how long ago was it? And why did they decide not to take them back - was it a bad story, or were they offended by the content, or were they simply forgotten and the loss was discovered too late? I myself have left books behind at holiday destinations twice before; once was earlier this year, with The Map by T.S. Learner, a story with a plot so unbearably convoluted, and characters so one-dimensional that after one read I abandoned it to it's fate on a communal bookshelf in a hotel. The other was years and years ago, when I was a moody teenager, and was called Tin Grin by Catherine Robinson. I have only the vaguest memory of the plot - I know it was a typical teenage story; some bullying, a new step-family, a few illicit rendezvous with the local bad boy who fancied the main character - the usual drivel. I don't remember being particularly offended by it, but as I made the decision to leave it in a holiday villa I evidently didn't care a great deal for it. We returned to the same villa on two more occasions after that, and I was both gratified and annoyed to find Tin Grin was still on the shelf; gratified, because it was dog-eared, so had obviously been read by other teenagers visiting the villa, but annoyed, because they hadn't loved it and taken my offering away. To be honest, they probably didn't love it because most books in holiday residences have probably been left there because other people didn't want them; but then someone else will come along, and they may find that this abandoned book, which wasn't gripping enough, or funny enough, or clever enough for someone else, is actually perfect for them. This is how my family discovered Cooking With Fernet Branca; some previous holiday-maker had left it, my dad picked it up, and that was that.

Cooking With Fernet Branca is a parody of two genres; firstly, it satirises the countless novels that revolve around Brits making a new life for themselves abroad, whilst also gently mocking the sometimes ludicrous recipes found in celebrity cookery books. The novel relates the story of Gerald Samper, a man of indeterminate sexual preference, and a ghost-writer for celebrity autobiographies, who rather fancies himself a chef, and so moves to Tuscany in order to explore his questionable culinary skills. Unfortunately, he discovers that the peace of his quiet retreat is disturbed by Marta, a composer from a fictional Eastern-European country, who he professes to despise and pity, but can't seem to stay away from. What follows is a series of increasingly ridiculous events, told from both Gerald and Marta's points of view, involving crossed wires (a staple of British comedy), a touch of xenophobia and several crates full of a spirit called Fernet Branca.

Gerald - or Gerree, as Marta calls him - is a buffoon. He is pompous, ridiculous and full of false modesty; some examples of this are the several 'recipes' for his culinary creations, which are peppered throughout his chapters, including Fish Cake (literally, a sponge cake flavoured of fish) and Alien Pie (ingredients of which include cat meat and a dash of kerosene), as well as his constant singing of ridiculous arias from made-up operas.  At one point he sings, 'Vedi, vedi vedi il fondo del barattolo!', which Marta translates for us as 'see the base of the container', perfectly depicting his ludicrous behaviour. Yet despite all his pretensions, he is endearingly clueless, and this is his saving grace - moments such as his tumble down a steep hill whilst attempting to dismantle an outhouse take the edge of off what could be a hideous character.

Marta, however, is far less entertaining, probably because she is far less eccentric. Whereas Gerry is mostly there for the comedy value, most of the key plots are driven by Marta and her life, which consequently impacts Gerry's. Without Marta, Gerry wouldn't have much of a story - he'd just be a flamboyant, narcissistic man playing at being a chef in Italy (could even be Jamie Oliver!... just kidding, I love that guy). With Marta on the scene, he is exposed to an Italian director with severe delusions about the subject matter of his latest film, the rebirth of a pop group fronted by an ageing star with interesting theories on extra-terrestrial life, Eastern European mafia... the list could go on. What Marta lacks in characterisation, she more than makes up for in plotlines.

No one would pretend for a second that this is world-class literature; it's simple, good fun. There's innuendos, battles of the sexes, explosions and even a bit of unexpected hanky-panky thrown in for good measure (and not between who you would think). I think what I enjoyed so much about this book was that I didn't expect to like it; my dad kind of insisted that I read it so many times that in the end, I just read it to shut up him up, so the pleasure I derived from it was heightened by my low expectations. Hopefully I haven't put it on a pedestal too much; I'd rather it was something people accidentally found entertaining, rather than it be one of those disappointing ones where you're told it's hilarious, but it isn't, because it's the kind of book that benefits from that - it's a slow-burner, one that you increasingly enjoy the more you read it. It's one of those books with jokes so subtle that you don't always pick up on them until the third, fourth, even fifth, read. I'm certain, however, that if it doesn't make you laugh the first time, it will at least raise a smile - and who knows? By that fifth time, you'll be laughing almost as loudly as I do.