The Casual Vacancy – Review

I may be on a temporary blogging hiatus, but how could I resist the temptation to briefly return and share my hot-off-the-press thoughts on The Casual Vacancy, the latest from one of my favourite authors, JK Rowling?

There’s been much speculation in the book world over her first adult novel. Will it live up to Harry Potter? Will she fail miserably? Why is she writing a book for adults? Why is she writing at all? WHAT THE HELL IS THIS BOOK ABOUT?

With little to go by but a fairly inscrutable blurb about a dead man named Barry and a town “at war”, I set my expectations as low and as neutral as they could possibly go, the Harry Potter fanatic inside me squealing desperately at the opportunity to once again get inside JK Rowling’s brain, and eagerly anticipated the hour in which we were allowed to open the embargoed boxes at work and start reading.

Two and a half days and little sleep later, I finished the last page of the book and sat down to make some sense of my thoughts:

A dark but fascinating social commentary by an exceptional writer. 

Barry Fairbrother’s death is the precipice on which we, the reader, meet the inhabitants of the small town of Pagford, each self-righteous in their perception and judgement of everyone around them. The only decent person in town seems to have been Barry himself, which is the standard by which the rest of the characters are measured, all of them falling short in their own way. The story itself follows the lives of these characters, as they move from Barry’s death, to his funeral, to the election to fill the council position he so “casually vacated”, and the aftermath of every complication along the way.

There is no real plot that I could identify, just the simple act of observing a town in crisis and sensing the rising tension as families and relationships unravel. I suspect this lack of discernible storyline will be its undoing for many readers, but in many ways it is the novel’s greatest strength; relieving the reader of any misplaced presumptions that things will be okay, that a hero/heroine will save the day, that things will wrap up nicely. Instead it frees the reader to just go with it, get to know the characters, and watch them fumble about in the mess that is their lives.

Whilst The Casual Vacancy may show no evidence in subject matter of the JK Rowling we are so used to – preaching hope and goodness to the masses, comforting readers that good will always overcome evil – it is no small consolation that in the writing itself, Rowling excels. There were hints of Dickens, Austen and other wordsmiths of centuries past in the darkly comic tone and particularly unhurried pace of the narrative. Quite simply, the writing was magnificent and never fell short of the expectations placed on her by the simple but sophisticated standard set in Harry Potter.

With the ugly realities of poverty, rape, suicide, abuse, pedophilia, politics, class struggles and mental illness* setting the sombre tone of the narrative, I don’t think this is a book any reader can “enjoy”, so much as appreciate for its stark candidness, captivating characters, and wonderful writing.  It is a brave novel, an almost cruel reminder of how easily we judge those we perceive to be “below” us, the self-sabotage we envisage got them there, and the vicious cycle that ensues when it appears that something, or someone, is beyond help and therefore not worth the time to help.

I don’t think The Casual Vacancy will be for everyone; it’s comfortless and often downright depressing, something I usually steer well clear of in my reading (and had me certain for at least the first 200 pages that I wasn’t going to like it). But despite all that, it turned out to be one of those rare books that on the last page had me mourning the characters I had come to know so well and sitting in silent awe at all the extraordinary things they had to say.

Have you read/will you be reading The Casual Vacancy? Tell me your thoughts, dear readers!

*They really do mean it when they say “adult novel”. No wizards or dragons here. Move along, kids.

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Scrivener – The Writer’s Tool

So in a further attempt to move the novel along, or more accurately, get it started, I purchased the well reviewed Scrivener program today.  I had heard many good things and after watching a few video tutorials on the Scrivener website and seeing some of the nifty things I could do with it, I was sold.  I was also pleasantly surprised at the $AUD38.04 education price tag … which for any program, not to mention one so highly regarded, is pretty amazing.

Check out the video below to see all the basic fun things Scrivener does.  Obviously I’ve had only a little time to play with it yet, but I especially like the split screen editing tool, being able to have your research all in one program i.e. not having to click on multiple browsers/windows to access all your information, and the ability to create ebooks (check out that video tutorial here), which seems very cool to me.

As a writer’s organisational tool, this program seems invaluable.  I was only today reading an interesting blog discussing the different organisational and methodical approaches writers use when they are drafting their stories, whether it be freestyle or intense plotting.  Either way, I figure it would be more a help than a hindrance with an 80,000+ word novel to have a program that helps organise, streamline and keep everything neatly together.

Most importantly, however, is that so far it’s all been very simple to pick up and use.  There’s nothing worse than a program that offers to clean the car, do the washing and write your story for you, only to discover that the damn thing is so hard to operate that any person with an ordinary sized brain never gets to utilise any of those functions.  Scrivener doesn’t seem at all pretentious in that way, which is good news to my cerebrum.

~storytelling nomad~

My love affair continues…

Assassin's Quest - Robin Hobb

I think I’m in love.  The subject of my affections? Robin Hobb and her Farseer Trilogy. It’s a fairly recent love affair but I can just tell it’s going to stand the test of time.

I only yesterday started the final book in the series, Assassin’s Quest, so perhaps this might be a little preemptive, but honestly, I simply couldn’t imagine being disappointed by this writer.  She has such an economical use of language, nothing too flowery or long-winded, and yet the writing is still so amazingly colorful, intelligent and imaginative.  While I was waiting for Assassin’s Quest to arrive in the mail from The Book Depository, I started on another of her series – The Rain Wild Chronicles, and although I missed Fitz, the Fool and Burrich from The Farseer Trilogy, I found her writing equally impressive.  Not to mention, all her books have been recently re-released with beautiful covers, and although you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, feel free to judge away with these.

These books really have been a pleasure to read…easy reading without the simplicity.  It’s not one of those books where you find yourself reading a paragraph over and over to make sure you’ve understood what is going on (insert frustration here), but neither does it make the mistake of underestimating its readers’ intellect.  I believe these books to be an excellent example of how to ‘show not tell’, a writing principle that makes all the difference in a good book.

I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre…and even to those who don’t.  This is not a point-your-wand/alohamora/Hogwarts type fantasy, for anyone out there put off by that sort of thing.  It’s fantasy for adults, a story of intrigue, loyalty and a boy’s often agonising journey to becoming a man.

In conclusion, read it! You know you want to…

~storytelling nomad~

How to know when the critics are right

For writers, I think one of the hardest things to overcome in order to succeed, is their critics.  Considering that writing is a relatively solitary activity, it is often difficult to make that big scary step towards sharing your work with others.  It is a widely known fact that writers regularly suffer from what I call, the it’s-not-ready-yet complex.  Redrafting and editing seem like tedious tasks, but somehow we thrive on the tweaking and rewriting, always under the pretence that we can make it better, that it’s simply not ready to be shared with the world yet.  At the end of the day, there’s no way to really know when a piece of writing is finished, or ready, but eventually we take the plunge and the deed is done.

It is at this point that we are granted with a fairly brief moment of relief.  Hoorah! I never have to look at it again!  This moment of ecstasy is shortly followed with absolute fear at the knowledge that we must now await the onslaught of our critics.  What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t like me? Or worse, what if no one reads it at all?

I have found that writers often choose writing as a career/state of being/lifestyle choice, precisely for the benefits of being able to work independently, to engage in a creative art which doesn’t require you to make speeches in front of a load of people, and to know that your work will be judged independently of your age, looks or social standing.  I believe that generally speaking, a writer’s primal instinct is to create, and to create alone.  Unfortunately, a writer must have its readers, an audience as such.  In writing courses, it is drilled into you that you must ‘know your audience’, ‘know your readership’, ‘know who you’re writing for’.  Kids, adults, fantasy enthusiasts, sci-fi buffs, romance addicts, crime fanatics.  Knowing your reader helps with your tone, your point of view, your language.  And yet, despite the fact that we write for an audience, we are often reluctant to share our work with them.

Obviously we are hard-wired to want to succeed in life, to be good, the best even, at the things we do.  So, after we have spent hours, weeks, months, years, slaving away at our work in progress, refining it and cherishing it like a newborn child, we, like a new parent, want everyone else to see how wonderful it is too, and if they don’t like it, well inevitably we take offence.

Now, back to the underlying question: how do we know when the critics are right?  Well, to begin with I’m the first to admit that I hate receiving negative feedback, but I realise that if there’s a problem with my work which readers are noticing, whether it be a grammatical error or a character flaw, I kinda need to know about it.  I understand this because deep down I know that if the readers aren’t happy then I’m doing something wrong.  This does not, however, mean that we need to change and edit every suggestion made to us by our critics.

I take you back to the concept of knowing your audience and writing for them specifically.  If you are writing a young adult fantasy novel aimed at current readers of books like Twilight, then you cannot expect to win the hearts of say classic literary buffs.  You might want to write a book about your family history, where your audience makes up less than a handful of people, and no-one outside that small group will ever be interested in, or enjoy reading it.  This doesn’t mean your writing is no good, it just means that you haven’t won over a readership that essentially you didn’t write for anyway.  I’ve had pieces of writing that some people have hated, and others have loved.  I’ve read stories that I’ve loved and that others have hated.  It all comes down to the old adage that everyone is different.  How can we possibly please everyone with our writing when not everyone likes the same thing?  Hence, finding your audience, and trying to keep them happy.

Ideally, when you receive feedback for your writing, take it all on board and try to stay objective.  It’s difficult to hear people finding fault with your hard work, and a lot of the time it might just be that they’re not who you’re writing for, your audience.  But, a lot of the time, these are the people who are going to end up helping you make your writing better.  If you receive recurrent feedback about a particular issue, theme, character, paragraph, then it’s probably worth at least taking a look at.  Get people who would be in your target audience to read over your drafts and see what they think, too.

In the meantime, remember that the positive feedback is equally important in improving your writing, because in my opinion, that’s when your readers are telling you that you’re doing something right.

~storytelling nomad~

Review: Inception

Inception
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Rated: M15+

I am mildly curious at the anxiety that creeps up on me when I consider expressing my opinion of the film Inception, foreseeing riots, hate mail and possible exile. My concern is that the majority will poorly receive my theory that this recently released American blockbuster is, well, grossly overrated.

There, I said it.

Now, before you start steaming from the ears and shaking your fists at me in rage and disbelief, perhaps you might ask what would bring me to such an outrageous notion?

Firstly, you would probably be delighted to know that the aforementioned sentiment in no way signifies that I either disliked or felt great aversion to the film. Rather, I enjoyed it and was only acutely aware of the loss of feeling in my backside during the near two and a half hour mind-marathon. There is no denying director Christopher Nolan’s film-making talent. Most recently praised for his excellent execution of Batman: The Dark Knight, he loads Inception with rich scenes of roads folding upon themselves as the characters actively build and transform their dream world in their minds. The laws of gravity are excitingly absent as fight scenes take place on corridor walls and ceilings, making it fascinating to watch.

All this as we follow a fine performance by Leonardo Di Caprio as Dom Cobb. His job is to enter dreams and steal ideas from them, a process known as extraction. The trickier part comes with the planting of an idea in a dream, known as inception. A sub plot surrounding his wife (Marion Cotillard) leads us to discover the reason behind his spinning-top obsession, essentially used as a ‘totem’ to determine whether he is still stuck in a dream or not based on the spinning-top continuing to spin, or not, respectively. Back-up performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun), Tom Hardy (Star Trek Nemesis) and Ellen Page (Juno), are impressive, even if their scripts offer the viewer little in the way of empathising with any of them. As far as sci-fi thrillers go, this one was certainly worth the meagre $8 I spent on my ticket.

Nevertheless, now brace yourselves, I am genuinely mystified by declarations of “masterpiece”, “genius!” and “instant classic”, in reference to Inception. Perhaps being one of the more superior cinematic mainstream blockbuster releases of late, people are rather taken aback at the notion of not being spoon-fed their entertainment and find that their brains getting a work out during a causal trip to the movies quite a remarkable concept. Furthermore, despite the fact that having the masses leave the theatre with the incredible urge to discuss at length “what the hell just happened!” with great delight being a feat in itself these days, I am still unconvinced that this all amounts to an “instant classic”.

The question ‘what is a dream?’ is not a new one. Neither are movies that rack at the brains before the slightest inkling of comprehension settles in. The Matrix amazed us all at the end of the last millennium, pushing the boundaries of cinematography and profoundly amazing audiences with a complex and solid plot. Mulholland Drive comes to mind as another exceptional but particularly baffling movie which required more than one viewing to ascertain what had gone on and to pinpoint exactly at what stage I had been fooled. Even another of Nolan’s movies, The Prestige, with exceptional performances by Hugh Jackman (X-Men) and Christian Bale (Batman), offered a tricky plot with a superb twist at the end to make the audience “ooo” and “ahhh”. The point is, there are more than a handful of movies out there which make you really think, ask you ‘what is reality?’, and which require a second viewing because of a sly twist or unresolved clues. I just don’t think Inception is up there with the best of them.

To begin with, the levels of the dream are so over-explained that it leaves little work for the average mind, even if you’re only half paying attention. I’ve heard many people announce proudly that if you don’t think the movie is utter genius, then it’s simply because you haven’t understood what’s going on. Although I was not aware that the ultimate motion picture of all time is defined by its ability to render an audience utterly clueless, my primary concern is, that I’m fairly certain that I have understood what’s going on. The inception team are hired by big shot Saito played by Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins) to enter the layers of a man’s dream one by one to plant a seed of an idea in the deepest level, so that when he wakes up he thinks he came up with it himself. The three levels of the dream in question were easily identified by a van, a corridor and a lot of snow. On top of all that, there’s a limbo land where you get stuck if you don’t come out of the dream, or you die in the dream.

Blah blah blah. We get it! And I think most people don’t give themselves enough credit to realise they get it too, or, if they do, they are inexplicably fooled by the very last scene which in my opinion is not an extraordinary twist, but your average cliff-hanger, which with a little thought people may realise really could only result in two scenarios, neither particularly impressive or mind-blowing. Unfortunately, I think more worthy of discussion is the comment Nolan makes on how we know what is reality, which is eclipsed by the majority of audiences who see the ending as a magnificent twist that puts the entire two and a half hours, rather than the more applicable final five minutes, into question.

I’m sure there will be die hard fans lining up to tell me exactly what it is that I have missed. But, until a more convincing argument than “I had no idea what just happened…genius!” comes along, I am prepared to remain relatively entertained, mildly thought-provoked, and most of all mind-blown, but less by the film than by the hype behind it.

~storytelling nomad~

Review: The Khareef by Pico Iyer

Travel literature is often regarded as boring and unvaried. Personal tales of “getting off the beaten path”, discovering the “inner journey”, finding romance on a moonlit night in Paris, or being rendered speechless by one of the many colossal icons across the globe have been overdone, and the small shelf allocated for travel literature in bookstores bears testament to its limited demand. With readers often slightly bewildered by a genre that offers an obscure mix of fiction and non-fiction and few fresh ideas to spark interest, travel literature seems to have been becoming a forgotten genre.

Thankfully, Pico Iyer offers a refreshing change amongst the underdogs with his enchanting tale The Khareef. This piece, from his collection of travel stories Sun After Dark, details Iyer’s 2001 trip to Oman. As he reflects on the Oman as it was, as it is, and later as it will come to be, Iyer illustrates a place far removed from the rest of the world, triggering colourful images of a magical, otherworldly and far away land, somewhat stuck in the past, but juxtaposed with snapshots of contemporary influences.

Those unfamiliar with the travel writing genre, may be unacquainted with the British born novelist, who in 1995 was named by the Utne Reader as “one of the 100 visionaries worldwide who could change your life”, next to the likes of Noam Chomsky and Václav Havel. A regular essayist for renowned Time magazine since 1986, Iyer has also made a name for himself contributing to prominent publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic and Harper’s. He is also the author of Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk and The Global Soul, to name a few.

With all this behind him, The Khareef doesn’t disappoint as a travel piece to outshine travel pieces. The word khareef refers to the south-western monsoon that passes through the southern tip of Arabia each year, and it is with this image that begins visions of a “heavy chill mist” falling over Oman with its veiled women, “only their mascara’ed eyes looking out”.

There is a distinct feeling of isolation highlighted through vast desert images, abandoned hotels and little to no connection or intimacy with any people or of the place itself. Little dialogue gives the impression that Iyer is simply observing and reporting what he sees rather than interacting or becoming a part of it. He describes a place somewhat resistant to receiving foreigners as its own, stuck in an odd limbo between past and present, yet ironically destined to continually and dramatically change and transform within the restrictions of its isolation. There is little magic in Oman, but Pico Iyer shares with his readers the enchantment that veils this far away place.

Without warning, readers are led on an unexpected path of deeply thoughtful explorations as Iyer begins his piece far from where it finally ends. Late night encounters with young boys and their guns “guarding their turf as in East L.A.”, black veiled women tapping away on their slow computers “linked to a world no one really believes in.” Curiously, his detached voice offers a distinct undertone of discontentment with Oman as Iyer passes through, observing but never engaging. He evokes the feeling that foreigners are from too different a world to ever truly belong there or understand it, and yet despite this, sanctions a deep appreciation for its uniqueness, antiquity and detached charm.

Iyer’s command for language is flawless. The words roll off your tongue like poetry, each line evoking an image that draws you further into the desert, carrying you along as if swept up in the khareef. In an interview with travel writer Rolf Potts, Iyer stated that the writing process for him involves trying “to catch the feelings — the sound, the smell, the tang, of a place” (cited in Potts n.d. ⁋10) Indeed, colourful images of the landscape, the sounds, the people, all contribute to a read which takes all the senses on a memorable ride.

The Khareef liberates itself from the more mundane in travel writing. In a rare moment, it succeeds in delivering a place both desolate and neglected, yet also alluring and irresistible. It is hard to say how exactly Iyer manages to make his readers both distance themselves further from Oman and at the same time yearn a closeness to it.

If you are looking for a travel story that strives valiantly to set itself aside from the rest, look to The Khareef. Let Iyer take you on a magical journey to a particular kind of cheerless hell that leaves you wanting more, without suffering the reality of it. And brace yourself for the ending. It will undoubtedly remind you that despite our absolute dislocation from Oman, it really isn’t that far away at all.

~storytelling nomad~