Reviewing Modes of Transport [Incomplete]

Having experienced several new modes of transport on my recent holiday to Paris, I thought it’d be worthwhile comparing the different ways humans have invented to get from A to B.  All of these can also be considered pleasurable activities (perhaps some more than others), but the fact we’re not all using the same method of transportation suggests each has their pros and cons.  Why do we choose to travel the way we do?  Here are some of my reasons.

Buses

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who likes buses as much as me.  Most people treat them as a necessary evil to be abandoned by the young as soon as they learn to drive or endured by adults unfortunate enough to be unable to use a car for whatever reason.  I mean, I can’t say I enjoy buses and I certainly wouldn’t ride about them for pleasure; the screeching noise of people packed within layers of metal accompanied by a constant stop-start and eventual motion-sickness is hardly pleasant.  Yet I’ve found buses to be the most useful and cost-effective way of traveling long distances.  And they’re not all bad – if you’re a people-watcher like me you can find the most interesting people on them.  It also entirely depends what sort of landscape you’re traveling across; taking a bus across Shetland is vastly different than across Edinburgh, for instance.   I suppose I could review Edinburgh buses and Shetland buses entirely differently.  On one hand, Shetland buses are generally quieter and pass through the most beautiful scenery; on the other, they’re bumpy, unfit for the topography and so annoyingly infrequent.  I suppose what I’m describing is a love-hate relationship, but I can’t deny that they’re so very handy for my purposes.

8/10

Canoes

I’ve only ridden in a canoe once, up in the Scottish Highlands a few years ago, so I couldn’t call myself an expert on this mode of travel.  An obvious problem is its limitations; there aren’t many places a canoe can take you to.  I suspect they’re too frail to be taken out into open sea for long journeys and lack the storage space for provisions.  I suppose you could travel through canals which would give you access to most major land areas, though you would make slow progress.  No, canoes are primarily used for pleasure.  And for this they are truly excellent – my memories of sliding down meandering rivers beneath overcast trees still fill me with joy.  But for practical purposes, I can’t see them being taken seriously.

5/10

Cars

Oh, cars.  By far the most popular and widely-used mode of transport on this list – there are 32 million cars in the UK alone.  It’s easy to see why.  Cars are undeniably the most practical way of travelling, being able to cover hundreds of miles in a single day without causing severe exhaustion to the driver.  They can be used to drive to work, to travel on holidays or jaunts, to attend events – everywhere except perhaps in the most congested town centre can be arrived at using a car.  Yet, beneath all this, there lurks a dark side to our favourite automobiles.  In environmental terms they’re catastrophic; 30% of US carbon emissions comes from its traffic, while cases of city air pollution are as notorious as they are frequent.  And these millions upon millions of cars are soon to become totally obsolete once we reach peak oil.  Once we’ve transitioned to much more efficient cars (electric cars?  Hydrogen cars?) I’ll have to come back to this review.  They’re also incredibly expensive to operate: from the cost of lessons to insurance to petrol to the car itself, owning a car will set you back many thousands of pounds.  Yes, cars are extraordinarily handy, but come with some heavy costs.

6/10

Cycling
Bicycles are a wonderful thing.  Cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly, they’re growing in popularity among many of the world’s cities.  I’ve never had much opportunity to use them for recreation, firstly due to living in a sparsely-populated rural area and then, when at university in Edinburgh, down to the difficulty I might face when having to travel back and forth from home.  I am beginning to give serious thought to buying a bike to use for traveling around Edinburgh next year for the wonderful positive reasons I’ve listed above, but one thing holds me back: safety.  Cycling remains one of the more dangerous ways to travel.  In a Geography class at high school last year, shortly after accepting my offer to study at Edinburgh, we were using the city as a case study for urban development.  I asked what it was like for cycling, having noticed some cycle lanes near the city, but she replied “I would be terrified to cycle in Edinburgh!”  Given that my cycle route would take me through Princes Street and the High Street – the two busiest streets of the city – I’m inclined to agree.  Cycling should be the unequivocal best way to travel, but poor previsions for cyclists in most cities is sure to put many people off.

7/10

Ferries

Ugh – do I have to talk about ferries?  I do?  Hmph.  Ferries are similar to buses in that they depend entirely on what kind you’re on.  A standard travel ferry is much different to a cruise (I imagine), while the Northlink ferry between Shetland and Aberdeen is much different to the ferry that takes you between the different islands of Shetland itself.  I’ll review ferry journeys like the Northlink ones.  Imagine 12-14 hour slogs across open sea, being entirely bound by the whims of the weather conditions.  Will it be a calm sailing or your shuddering nightmare that refuses to end, minute after minute after minute?  If you have £100 to throw away you can at least hide in a cabin but for common students like myself you have to simply rough it in reclining chairs, ‘sleeping pods’, or anywhere else you can find.  You have to deal with people vomiting around you if the sea is rough – or vomiting yourself – as well as put up with the drunken antics of many rowdy passengers on that poorly-policed ferry.  On my recent trip down I left the Sleeping Pod Lounge ay 2am for fear of a fight breaking out.  And you never sleep, either, causing the agonising journey to drag out even longer.  Yet, it’s not all bad.  If you travel during the summer you have enough light to watch some brilliant views go past through the windows, or it can be quite tranquil just watching the velvet sea.  A lot of ferries allow you to go ‘up top’ to get a better view.  Just be careful you don’t fall off into the sea.

2/10

Horse riding

Horse riding!  Here’s a fun one.  I have a fair bit of experience with this because of the pony stud my Auntie owns.  Well – of pony riding, I suppose.  This can be a very pleasant way to travel as you never feel lonely when with a horse, and can experience the journey in its company.  There’s a very powerful bond you can feel with a horse when you’re riding it.  On the other hand, in today’s age riding horses isn’t a very practical way of traveling at all.  Nowhere is equipped with stables for your horse and they’re far surpassed in speed by most longdistance modes of transport.  I also suffer the unfortunate curse of being allergic to horses – it can make traveling difficult when you can’t see through running eyes.  Horse riding is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable ways of traveling for people who can last a minute without sneezing, but it’s sadly no longer that workable.

5/10

Planes

Airplanes are undoubtedly the Kings and Queens of transport when it comes to long-distance travel.  The idea of traveling between Europe and America, or from Britain to Australia, any way other than by airplanes is unthinkable for all besides the most adventurous.  A journey that would have taken weeks a century ago and months several centuries ago can now be completed within a matter of hours.  What’s more, they’re statistically the safest form of transport.  And yet, I can’t stand them.  A significant part of that is an entirely irrational fear I have, based upon the fact that although I’m much less likely to die in a plane, if I am to die I’d rather drown or be crushed than find myself hurtling to the Earth at multiple metres per second amid burning wreckage.  Sorry, got morbid there.  They also have a terrible impact on the environment, contributing to as much as 9% of anthropocentric climate interference.  There are always news story of various environmentally-friendly forms of aviation, such as solar planes, but these are very far off becoming the norm – or even practical.  Airplanes are a necessary part of our modern globalised world, but like cars they come at a massive cost.

5/10

Dammit, WordPress.  I had another 1,500 words [needlessly] reviewing the remaining forms of transport on this list, clicked ‘publish’, got an error message then found it had all gone.  I don’t have the energy or the will to write it all again, so I’ll leave you with summaries for each one and this video summarising my feelings.

Subway: exciting rabbit warrens, incredibly useful, though the stench of urine and angry shouty people (still don’t know what that Frenchman way saying to me) are two minor negative aspects.  8/10 

Taxis: can be a lifesaver but expensive and not environmentally friendly. 5/10

Trains: I LIKE TRAINS. 9/10

Night trains: These are even better. 9/10

Walking: Fun, good exercise, hippy stuff about experiencing the world around you; but not good for long distances. 9/10

Image credit: By Vince pahkala (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

Book Blogger Challenge!

I think this is supposed to be done over 15 days but I don’t want to spam my blog full of rather dull posts individually, so I’m gonna collect these together!

Make 15 book related confessions.
Oh, this is actually rather hard.  Um.

  1. I kind of enjoyed Twilight.  Morally abhorrent and dull at times yet felt kind of fresh.  Don’t get me wrong – I still hated the rest of the ‘saga’.
  2. I must have read the Harry Potter books around 8 times.  They’re the reason it took me so long to expand my reading tastes!
  3. I’m not actually that great a fan of Shakespeare.  His language is unparalleled, but some stories – like Othello or Romeo and Juliet – I just find absolutely ridiculous.
  4. Though both are preferable, if forced to choose I would favour plot and characters over a skilled writing style.  Hence why I love The Hunger Games so much.
  5. Adding to this, I really hate a kind of ‘literary elitism’ you can get.  “Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed the book… But I wouldn’t say it’s a great piece of literature.”  Isn’t enjoying a book all it needs to be good literature?  Well, that and being thought-provoking, I guess.
  6. I own a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.  It was a dubious birthday present!  And has since been on permanent loan to whoever will take it…
  7. When I was 11 I once cursed at a book and got angry at school for making me read it.  I still blush at the memory.
  8. Since 2011 I have been trying to read more books each year than I managed in the preceding year.  My 2013 target is currently 4o books, and I’m on track – having tallied 21 thus far!
  9. I find much Victorian literature extremely difficult to get through.  There’s just something in the writing style that dulls my imagination.  Though I’ve yet to try Dickens.
  10. I talk about books way too much.  I generally mention one or another in every conversation I have!  It must get so irritating.
  11. The longest story I’ve ever written is 36,000 words, when I was 14 – almost a novel!  Of course I read it now and regret everything.  Now I struggle to even reach 1,000 words – though I’ve recently begun a writing régime that will hopefully rectify that.
  12. I sometimes wonder whether I like the idea of reading books more than the actual reading.  This is usually shattered when I find a truly engrossing book, but that doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
  13. My limitations bother me.  Reading 40 books a year may seem like a lot but it’s barely a fraction of those published in one month, let alone all of human history.  It saddens me that I’ll never get close to reading everything out species has produced.
  14. 9 times out of 10 I would rather read a good book than go to a party or attend most social gatherings.  Of course, a social gathering where you read or discuss books is best of all!
  15. [REMOVED AS A VIOLATION OF RULE 1]

What’s your bedtime reading ritual?
I usually try to read a bit as I lay down in bed, but sometimes I’m too tired and skip the reading bit.  I used to use this as my sole time for reading but I’ve since tried to find time throughout the day, as some texts are just too difficult to read when that tired.

Who are your blogging BFFs?
I’m afraid I’m too reclusive to have made any blogging friends yet!  Though there are a number of blogs I regularly look at and enjoy reading.

What’s the last book you flung across the room?
The last book I *wanted* to fling across the room was Fight Club, but unfortunately it was a borrowed copy.

Recommend a tear jerker
I’ve never cried a book, however I once witnessed a friend cry at the ending of The Road so I guess that’s a proven facilitator of tears!

Describe how you shop for books.
I’m a bit of a scrooge so I tend to mainly go for second-hand bookshops or borrow form libraries.  When I’m older and [hopefully] wealthier I intend to buy lots of books to keep the industry going!

Talk about your blogging quirks.
Do I have any blogging quirks?  My blogs are pretty simply, actually – I really just write down my thoughts and ideas on various topics and leave it at that.  I suppose you could say I sometimes have a thing for unnecessary figures and details, especially when it comes to elections.  And there are select topics I like to rant about given even the vaguest opportunity *cough* First Past the Post *cough*.

Write 15 bullet points of things that appeal to you on blogs.
You’re obsessed with the number 15!

  1. Simply discussing things which interest me: generally books, politics, astronomy or traveling.
  2. A clear, coherent writing style.
  3. Also a semi-sensible writing style.  Humour can really aid a blog but one which drives in too many jokes or forces an ‘attitude’ leave me cold.
  4. Updating regularly – don’t create the appearance of being dead.
  5. Not too regular updating, though – blogs which post more than perhaps twice a day get tiring quickly.
  6. Trying to encourage debate.  Either through polls or questions, ones which make the viewer feel welcome to comment.
  7. A nice design – not too cluttered.
  8. A detailed ‘about me’ page.  Perhaps this is my nosy nature coming out but I like to know a bit about the person behind the blog.  Though it doesn’t matter all that much – I also respect the right to privacy.
  9. Writing from a fascinating country like Iran or Egypt.
  10. Conversely, writing from my own country – either Scotland or the UK.
  11. I naturally tend to veer towards bloggers of my own age – I feel intimidated and inadequate around older, more experienced people – though if the quality is good enough I certainly won’t ignore blogs not written by my peers.
  12. Charitable or humanitarian support – from groups like Amnesty International or projects such as Kiva.org, I enjoy seeing humanity working as one for the benefit of us all.
  13. This sounds terrible, but blogs which have the same opinions as I do.  Like everyone, I like to read things which confirm my pre-existing biases.  That said, it’s fascinating when a particular blogger who I know has similar views to me posts something I completely disagree with, because then I can’t just dismiss the idea as being propaganda for an alternative ideology and am forced to reconsider my views.
  14. Blogs which don’t try to find more things to say than they can think of.  Like this current question is making me do.
  15. Blogs which end segments well.  Also unlike this.

Why do you blog about books?
Because I love books!  And I love talking/writing about books!  And as an attempt to reduce my raving towards Real People, I guess.

How do you choose what book to read next?
I actually have a quite complex system for this.  It goes: “home fiction, library fiction, home non-fiction, very old book; library fiction, home fiction, library non-fiction.”  This way, over a cycle of 7 books I’ll read a mixture of books from both my home shelf and the library but also a rough 2:1 ratio of fiction:non-fiction.  The actual book itself: I try to choose a different genre than the one I read before and I informally alternate between authors I know and those I do not.

Show off!  5 of your best blog posts.
Hm…

  1. Democracies in the World by far is the most popular post I’ve made (it’s been a bit butchered by my recent attempts to remove copyrighted images; I’ll need to fix that).
  2. I’m really pleased with my literary analysis in Cloud Atlas [Novel] Analysis.
  3. Death on Mars is also quite ‘popular’ and one of my better cosmology posts.
  4. Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War is one of my better posts on international relations, back before I became too exasperated with the situation in Syria to keep updated with it.
  5. Problems with First Past the Post – see above…

How do you fight blogger fatigue?
What is blogger fatigue?  My own?  I generally enjoy writing and blogging – and it’s a less scary distraction from writing fiction – so don’t experience it all that much.  Unless you mean the fatigue of my readers?  In which case, I fail miserably.

Describe one under-appreciated book EVERYONE should read.
There’s many books that fit this category but my decision is easily J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.  I awarded it the position of being my 5th favourite book of 2012 and it really is more special than most critics would have you believe.

Tell us your deal breakers.
Uh… I don’t understand this question!  If someone says they don’t read then I tend to break all deals I’d previously made with them… ?

Who are your book blogging mentors.
I wouldn’t say I have mentors, but there’s a few book bloggers I enjoy following – The Bookshelf of Emily J, to name one.

Well, that was 40 minutes I’ll never get back!

The Cuckoo’s Calling by… J. K. Rowling?

This story fills me with joy.  J. K. Rowling, known of course for the spectacularly successfully Harry Potter series of novels between 1997 – 2007, and also The Casual Vacancy last year (which I’m in the minority for loving), has released a third book.  Why no hype?  Why did nobody know of this?  It turns out she’s been using a pseudonym.

The Cuckoo’s Calling was quietly published earlier this year in April by an author called ‘Robert Galbraith’.  It’s a crime novel and received wide critical acclaim, with many reviewers expressing surprise that a first-time author could produce a work of such quality.  It has now been revealed that this was, in fact, the work of J. K. Rowling.  Speaking to the Sunday Times, she said:

“Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience.  It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

I find this story incredibly amusing.  It’s boosted my already-high respect for Rowling, disproving any cynical claims that she’s “only in it for the money.”  I can easily understand why she chose to do this; The Casual Vacancy was, wrongly in my opinion, unfairly judged by a comparison to Harry Potter.  Every established artist’s work will be compared to their former work, but this went further.  Despite being a very decent book it received harsh criticism by people who, I suspect, were hoping for another Harry Potter.  How liberating it must have been for Rowling to escape that!  I’m pleased to see The Cuckoo’s Calling getting such positive reviews, which I hope will discredit everyone bent on labeling her a one-hit wonder.   I, for one, look forward to reading it!

Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Contains spoilers.

Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, is arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays.  It has definitely been the one I’ve been most aware of since childhood, though that might be due the fact our school got us to do a production of it when I was 8 – which was very fun indeed!  I played Paris and relished the death scene.  Probably the best role I’ve ever had in a play, actually.  But that’s digressing.  I remember thinking at the time I wanted to read the ‘original book’, but was put off the idea when I found out it originated from a 400 year old play.  Now, 9 years later, I decided to finally read it.  Because of its immense popularity and widely renowned nature, this is a hard play to discuss objectively.  I knew the story off by heart before reading it so that will also have affected my response.

I think my main reaction was shock towards the plot.  I’d heard beforehand that Juliet is far younger than Romeo and that their relationship only spanned 3 days, but I had no idea just how distastefully this would come across even in the writing itself.  There’s a whole spiel about Juliet being ‘not yet 14’ – it’s never said how old Romeo is but we can presume he is older than 13, and Paris is probably around the same age.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it quite creepy that all these men should be chasing after a girl so young.  I could perhaps just forgive this, except the timescale of the play is so ridiculously played out:  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party he’s crashed, and within a page they’re tasting one another’s saliva.  That’s not love, that’s a hook-up at a party.  I can only presume they’re both drunk (actually, that might explain the entire play).  The fact that their first conversation has the form of a sonnet is a nice touch, but alone is not enough.  The next day they are married because, you know, they’re in love.  Like the people who go to Las Vegas for a party and wake up the next day married.  I had a similar problem with Les Misérables.  Thing is, I highly doubt Romeo actually loves Juliet.  To begin with he’s sulking over this girl called Rosaline, partly because she doesn’t love him but the main focus seems to be on her insistence to ‘remain chaste’.  Suddenly Romeo’s intentions become a bit clearer.  Friar Lawrence gets is right on the mark when he says:

“Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

This might indicate that even Shakespeare disapproves of their relationship.  Is Romeo and Juliet supposed to purport the same idea as his Sonnet 130; to make fun of traditional relationships?  The play does begin as a comedy, after all, only then collapsing into a tragedy.  Was Shakespeare having a laugh?  If that is his intention, he has certainly failed!  Romeo and Juliet has somehow, perversely, become the archetypal love story of “star-cross’d lovers”.  Though I would prefer the alternative of it being a ‘Great Hormone Story’, personally.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical; there were other elements I enjoyed.  Most of all, of course, was Shakespeare’s masterful use of language.  This, again, was held back by the poor plotting of the romance – beautifully written dialogue about love makes the situation even worse, in fact – but the language can be appreciated in isolation as lyrical and deeply poetic.  No examples spring instantly to mind, though again I find myself impressed by just how many modern phrases Shakespeare coined.

Romeo and Juliet does beg a question, for me, on the relationship between language and plot.  Some ‘literary elites’ may argue that true value is found in the skillful and original use of language, but I’m very much on the side of having a detailed, convincing plot, even if this means sacrificing the language.  Which is why I prefer the perhaps sometimes blandly-written Hunger Games or Harry Potter to Shakespeare, simply because they develop characters and stories to a much greater degree.  Other than being ‘star-cross’d lovers’, what development did Romeo and Juliet really have?  When they fall in love, I’m unconvinced.  When they commit suicide, I’m bored.  When Juliet says she would rather her parents die than Romeo be banished from Verona, I’m repulsed by the character.  The reader/audience is supposed to be on Juliet’s side, not cheering when she dies.

Sorry, ranting again.  The use of a chorus interested me.  Is it a technique Shakespeare uses a lot?  This is only my fourth of his plays (after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello), but I’ve never seen it before.  I also felt the concept of feuding between the Montague and the Capulet families was initially well established, with the point becoming really well made of the futility of such a strife (even if I would argue Juliet’s death is more a reaction to her father’s patriarchal dominance, trying to force her into an arranged marriage, than the quarreling between families).  

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great story that’s let down by lazy* storytelling.  Most of my criticisms do, I admit, come from applying a 21st century worldview onto a story written in the 16th.  Is it wrong to look at old plays from the perspective of modern values?  Well, I am a reader in the 21st century and if the play no longer feels convincing then it simply hasn’t stood the test of time.  That’s not to say there’s no value for Shakespeare in the modern world; many aspects of his plays remain hugely relevant today, which is a testament to his skill as a writer, and I don’t think his mastery of the English language will ever stop provoking awe.  I’m just afraid that, in this case, it didn’t work for me.

Final rating (if forced): 6.5/10

*Oh no, it’s a mortal sin to call The Bard lazy, isn’t it?  Well, while his use of language may be unrivaled, the plot is lazy.  The amount of times I’ve bitten my tongue to stop myself arguing with a teacher who kept finding excuses to cover up Shakespeare’s plot holes…  The unquestioning reverence our society holds Shakespeare in is wrong.

[I should probably point out that there is a lot of Shakespeare’s work I like.  Sonnet 130 is a really interesting subversion of poetic conventions at the time and most of Macbeth is a complete joy to read].

The Casual Vacancy Review

Contains spoilers.  Is also excessively long.

Any artist’s work will be judged in light of their previous work, and this has never been more true than with J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy.  As everyone knows, Rowling is famous for the worldwide hit Harry Potter books which combined have sold over 450 million copies – the best selling book series in history.  The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, and Rowling has retreated from public attention since, as can be discerned from her quiet Twitter account.  But in September this year The Casual Vacancy became Rowling’s first published non-Potter book, open to scrutiny from the world.  Cue millions of people expecting Harry Potter 2, despite Rowling making clear from the outset that The Casual Vacancy is a far different, more adult book.  I began the book with the expectation that I would enjoy it, but that it’d be nothing special.

The book is set in the modern day, evident from references to austerity and other features of modern politics, as well as including Facebook and online forums featuring heavily in the plot.  The lives of the residents of the town Pagford are followed, with particular focus giving to an election to fill the seat of Barry Fairbrother, who recently died of an aneurysm.  The council is split over a run-down estate called The Fields; half wants it to be reassigned to nearby city Yarvil, the other preferring it to remain part of Pagford.  This is where the characters can be loosely divided between progressives and conservatives, Rowling I would imagine placing herself on the side of the former.  Despite her public support for the Labour Party, Rowling does well to avoid her biases slipping through into the politics of the story.

The Casual Vacancy is, ultimately, a story driven by characters, and so the simplest way to review the book is to review each character individually.  I’ll start with the Mollison family, the most powerful clan in Pagford.  Howard is the ‘First Citizen’ of Pagford – the equivalent of mayor – and involved in every going on in the village.  He prides himself on being able to name every inhabitant, and possesses a smug knowledge of local history.  He’s an insufferable character with a likeable personality, making for an odd mesh of traits.  Despite his despicable attitude to poverty in the Fields (basically: “I worked hard for my wealth so why can’t they?”) he is not a malicious character and I am unsure of my opinion of him; I like him more than I know I should.  If he was someone in my life I expect I would find his hunger for power unsettling.  Perhaps I am never invested enough in the Fields debate to feel strongly enough about his actions?  When he suffers a heart attack I neither feel pity nor retribution, also indicating the limited impact he had upon me.

Howard’s wife Shirley is worse: she is utterly devoted to him and ignores his flaws, rapt with jealousy over Maureen’s involvement in his life, wishing she could work with him at the butcher’s instead.  She enjoys the defamatory posts about the other residents which end up on the council’s forum that she administrates with great pride, only removing them when pressured to.  She is her husband with charm subtracted – to such an extent that she is among my most hated characters.  Her psychotic nature is revealed when she plans to kill Howard after discovering his affair with Maureen.  Her downfall feels more just than Howard’s; her pride and blind loyalty fatal flaws.  I do not believe she would have killed Howard, but the fact her knee-jerk reaction is to do so says enough about her character.  Not entirely convinced this is a realistic reaction; the book does descend into mellodrama towards the end, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism.

The Mollisons’ son Miles is less belligerent in his beliefs than his parents.  He doesn’t seem to have a lot of character, other than what we see through Samantha: his main traits appear to be ‘boring’ and ‘turning into Howard’.  Miles is a great example of how children can unknowingly develop into their parents.  Despite playing a pivotal role in the election, going on to win the seat, he never gets a great deal of development and acts largely as a pawn in Howard’s schemes.  That said, he does himself agree with his parents’ position on the fields and I can envision him one day taking his father’s place as Pagford’s chief authority – perhaps sooner rather than later.  Miles felt realistic to me.

I seem to have had an opposite opinion of Miles’ wife Samantha than most people.  Going by reviews I’ve read, a lot of people disliked Samantha to begin but softened their view towards her as the character developed.  I, on the other hand, felt mildly affinity towards her, understanding how trapped and frustrated she must feel by her family.  As the story went on she began acting more and more unacceptably, becoming ruder in Miles’ presence, developing an unhealthy obsession with a pop start her daughter’s a fan of, and eventually intentionally kissing 16 year old Andrew at a party.  Samantha is the definition of an unfulfilled life, yet tragic as she is, summons little sympathy from within me.  She merely comes across as pathetic.  I may be too young to understand her; with all my dreams and ambitions I can’t appreciate how it would be to be trapped in such a way.  However she does start to move in a positive direction by the novel’s end, deciding to enter into the council and planning to oppose her family’s plans for Pagford, turning her feelings of despair into something constructive.

Howard and Shirley’s other child, Patricia, only appears briefly towards the end of the book, having moved away from Pagford.  It’s no coincidence that she is my favourite member of the family.  She sees their small-minded obsession with village affairs and all their prejudices, such as their inability to accept her homosexuality, for what it is.  She is a character who, unhappy with her life, managed to escape Pagford and do something about it.  Unlike Samantha, for instance.

The Jawanda family, Sikhs from India who emigrated to the town, are the Mollison’s main adversaries – at least, Parminder is.  Parminder is a councillor and local GP, arguing for maintaining the Bellchapel addiction clinic and keeping The Fields part of Pagford.  The subtle racism she receives, on one level as simply an ‘outsider’ to the village, and on another because of her ethnicity, is shocking yet very believable, and I’m glad it’s something Rowling has explored.  Parminder is a character I initially rooted for, believing her to care for the people of The Fields and their needs.  She never loses this allegiance with the worse-off, but her flaws gradually rise to the surface until she is unable to continue the fight and, after losing her temper with Howard during a meeting and disclosing confidential medical information, resigns, thus granting victory to the Mollisons.  This also has the effect of creating a second casual vacancy, ensuring the book both begins and ends with one.  The dismissive way she treats her daughter Sukhvinder, ignoring her problems, does not reflect well on her.  Yet, once again, I believe Parminder to be a realistic character but very flawed – like every resident of Pagford.

Parminder’s husband Vikram is expanded little in the story.  His sardonic attitude to the village is interesting to follow, though he prefers to stay out of its affairs.  He appears as bored with his marriage to Parminder as she is, and although they are friends, there is no love between them.  It is revealed that they had an arranged marriage so this is not surprising.  Vikram is fancied by virtually every women in the village, which resulted in what I found one of the more shocking aspects of the book.  In Samantha’s self-pity and overactive fantasies, she imagines the joy of being ‘forced’ to marry someone like Vikram.  This disregard of the social consequences of arranged marriage is another example of how sheltered Pagford is.  I’m not sure if Rowling intended this trail-of-thought to be so odious; I can’t imagine her taking arranged marriages anyway other than seriously.

Their daughter Sukhvinder is one of the more interesting characters in the story, and one of the few whom I actually like.  She has her flaws – low self esteem, self harming – but seems a good person nonetheless.  We her pain as she experiences bullying at school. The act of cutting herself is described in graphic detail, which I think the queasier reader would struggle to get through, but it’s necessary to explain her suffering.  It feels wrong to call this my ‘favourite’ moment in the book, but it’s certainly among the most effective.  Sukhvinder develops after gaining Gaia as a friend, who looks out for her and helps raise her confidence.  I think Rowling was showing in Sukhvinder the effects emotional neglect from parents can create, in addition to bullying.  She feels very realistic to me, and the only time this is broken is when she hacks into the council forum as The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother, which isn’t something I believe Sukhvinder would do.

Moving on to the Wall family: Tessa and Colin wall are an interesting couple.  On the outside they’re the ‘perfect’ parents; Colin’s deputy headteacher and Tessa’s the guidance counsellor at the same school.  However in reality they’re a couple, who live a strained life due to Colin’s OCD which causes him to suffer from severe anxiety.  They are both rare characters who I feel no disgust towards.  Deeply flawed, yes – particularly Colin – but decent people.  I never quite understood what the whole thing about Colin’s paedophilia was about; some analyses have said his secret is that he is one, but that’s not how I took it.  I took it to be part of his uncontrollable anxiety, like that he was responsible for Barry’s death: Colin feared he was a paedophile, but in reality was not.  A very interesting concept.  There are layers and layers to the characters Rowling has created.  To me, they are real people who live on after the book ends.

Colin and Tessa have an adopted son called Stuart, referred to by his peers at ‘Fats’.  Fats is an interesting character in pursuit of ‘authenticity’ – to lead a life of truth, to be true to himself and the world.  This translates as a licence to do what he pleases without consideration of the consequences, of which there are many.  As with many characters I hesitantly liked Fats when he was first introduced, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting an intelligent teenager, but my respect soon dropped as his bullying of Sukhvinder become apparent and his general disregard of people’s feelings.  I couldn’t comment on whether he is a realistic teenager considering nobody knows what goes on in a teenager’s mind, not even ourselves, but I’ve certainly never met anyone like him.  After the catastrophic events of Robbie Weedon’s death which Fats is indirectly responsible for, he does appear to be changing to a more realistic philosophy.  Following several different temporary life ideas is definitely a trait common among teenagers.

The Prices.  Simon Price is perhaps both the most ‘pantomime’ comic character in the book and the most grittily unnerving.  He abuses his family either verbally or physically in several uncomfortable moments throughout the book.  While his reactions and temper are completely over the top, I have no doubt that people exist just like Simon.  Ruth is almost as irritating in that she simply takes it and always defends her husband; more blind loyalty.  Simon sinks lower, if possibly, through his criminal antics to make money fast.  Though there is some retribution when he is sacked once this is revealed, by the novel’s end he is taking the family away to a new job where most likely the abuse will continue.

Andrew, as I see him, is The Casual Vacancy’s interpretation of a ‘typical teenage boy’.  He’s covered in acne, smokes and is into girls, but is an alright person when you look past the teenage angst.  Andrew becomes, surprisingly, one of the most significant characters in the book and has a major impact on Pagford politics, in creating The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother and setting off all the anonymous posts.  I have a lot of respect for the character in standing up to his father’s abuse.  Although originally a silent aid to Fats’ bullying, as the novel progresses Andrew begins to distance himself from Fats and the friendship disintegrates.  His crush on Gaia in explores is, er, colourful detail, but always feels convincing.  Ironically Andrew is a far more ‘authentic’ character than Fats, in that he always acts as himself and doesn’t plan out his personality.  Andrew is among the better crafted characters.

The Bawden family, comprised of mother Kay and daughter Gaia, are also newcomers to Pagford, after Kay moved to be closer to her non-committal boyfriend Gavin.  Kay is new to Pagford affairs, and as a social worker reacts with understandable shock towards the state of The Fields which has been blunted for most Pagfordians.  I love when Kay has a passionate argument with the Mollison family, outnumbered but sticking to her values nonetheless.  Another very likeable character.  She gains the reader’s pity as Gavin endlessly leads her on; Gavin in complete contrast gains the reader’s scorn.  He’s weak, cowardly and naive.  He leaves Kay to confess his love to Mary Fairbrother, a week after her husband died.  Gavin, as a solicitor, ought to have more wherewithal than to be so stupid – perhaps unrealistically so.  He receives no reprieve and deserves none.

Gaia is very much a typical teenage girl – a good match for Andrew -and therefore realistic.  I didn’t warm to her as much as Andrew and Sukhvinder, but she’s also a good person.  In this novel most of the likeable characters are either teenagers or ‘outsiders’; those born and bred in Pagford have been too corrupted.  Her support and defence of Sukhvinder is endearing, and the reader can empathise with her desire to escape from Pagford.

The Weedons are the family which the entire novel centres around.  The family is comprised only of mother Terri, her children Krystal and Robbie, and several other extended family members who have washed their hands of Terri.  The children have been in and out of care but, by the beginning of the novel, are back with Terri.  Terri is battling a heroin addiction, and only managed to stay clean for the sake of her children.  Her career seems to involve a mixture of prostitution and storing stolen goods.  It is easy to understand why Krystal and Robbie are so damaged.  Their household, in all its detail, is intended to disgust, and disgust it does.  Terri is an utterly abysmal, irresponsible, weak character, yet despite this does deep down care about her children and wants to give them a better upbringing than she had; an ambition she utterly fails in.  Worse than Terri is her part-time boyfriend Obbo, the most hateful character in the book, who ultimately rapes Krystal.  Terri’s reaction, as ever, is to deny any wrongdoing.  I felt utterly drained during these chapters.  The profanity, the broken lives, the arguments… I have no idea whether this is a realistic portrayal of a family in poverty, but it certainly terrified me with the thought that anyone could live this way.

Despite the bullying, despite the irresponsible, promiscuous behaviour, I liked Krystal.  Beneath the ‘chavvy’ exterior is a vulnerable girl wanting to break out and lead a successful life.  This is evident from her memories of Barry and the rowing team; the pride she felt to be a part of it; the hope it gave her.  This, above all else, makes Barry’s death a huge tragedy.  Krystal spirals and spirals throughout the book, culminating in Robbie’s death and her eventual suicide by overdosing on her mother’s heroin.  Her story is utterly heartbreaking.  Perhaps even more tragic is Pagford’s opinion of her, the opinion which shall go down in history, as a selfish brat – the worst which The Fields could produce.  This is the version the Mollisons will produce, and therefore become the accepted account.  This has to symbolise the demonisation of the working class which occurs in some – not all – sections of right-wing politics.  It’s brilliantly done.

There is little to say about Mary Fairbrother.  She’s an object of pity due to Barry’s death, but there’s little development beyond that.  She has a fixation on Krystal due to the fact Barry spent their anniversary – and the last day of his life – writing an article about her involvement in the rowing.  While this is unfair, it’s understandable.  More interesting is the opinion created of Barry.  Rarely is a bad word spoken of him; in fact, I think Mary is the only character ever to do so.  Even the Mollisons, his political rivals, refrained from doing so too heavily.  It is easy to understand how Barry’s death caused the village to erupt into chaos in such a way; Barry seemed to be the force knitting various elements in the village together, not only politically, but also in that he was willing to listen to all sections of society.  Truly a man of the people.

Phew, that character analyses dragged on longer than I expected.  Just a few more points now.  The variety of different narratives allow Rowling to explore every character throughout the village so that it feels like a living, breathing entity.  It’s a soap opera in novel form, but better written.  I particularly enjoyed how she introduced characters in the first section, describing one family who have some form of interaction with another character, the narrative then switches to this new character, etc.  It flowed seemingly effortlessly.  I often have trouble identifying characters in novels for at least the first few chapters, but, bizarrely, I remembered exactly who every character is in The Casual Vacancy – a testament to Rowling’s skill at creating memorable, distinct characters.

The pace is a feature which has been criticised by much of the readership expecting another Harry Potter, decrying the fact it’s ‘slow’ and ‘boring’.  Yes, the pace is slow, but that’s what makes the story so rich.  There’s time to develop and explore the characters and the intricate web of relationships and alliances which weaves Pagford together.  If the pace had been faster from the beginning this sense of normality and realism would be lost.  And for those readers who seek action and drama, the pace certainly quickens in the final 100 pages or so, which sees death, hospitals, heroism, downfalls, and a conclusion to every story.  Not necessarily a satisfactory conclusion, which is fine – life goes on.  Realistic once again.

I also appreciated the use of technology in the book.  Computers and the internet have taken a while to translate into literature, with many writers feeling that over reliance on them destroys dramatic tension.  Rowling, however, has found innovative uses for computers, and without them the plot would be far poorer.

In conclusion, I think The Casual Vacancy is a fantastic return to the literary world for J. K. Rowling.  I think my enjoyment of the novel may be due to my age, as I can relate to several of the issues covered – even though there is no character I feel is very similar to myself, which is more proof of Rowling’s ability to write relatable characters.  My own opinions of the issues are thus: the Fields should be reassigned to Yarvil and Bellchapel should stay open.  Throughout most of the novel I was in favour of The Fields remaining part of Pagford, but then I had an epiphany: the residents would quite simply be better off not under the jurisdiction of the snobby, middle-class Pagfordians who neither understand poverty nor care to.  Despite this, if I had to choose one of the candidates to vote for I would probably have gone for Colin.  The Casual Vacancy was an extraordinarily and unexpected good book.  I cannot wait to discover what else Rowling is working on.

Final Rating: 9.5/10