The Casual Vacancy: A tale of life, and tragedy

This is not a review of J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy. There are plenty of professional, well-written analyses of this much anticipated book out there (look here and here).

This is simply a post about my thoughts on the book upon completing it yesterday evening.

It’s very difficult for a writer who has become synonymous with her work, to carve a new niche for herself. There’s, for one, a lot of expectation about what the new work will be about. It will undoubtedly be judged against her previous works. For Rowling, I felt that she handled this book with brilliant deft of hand, switching gracefully to the realm of adult fiction.

The Casual Vacancy is a far cry from the Harry Potter series. Whilst Potter had its moments of seriousness and plenty brooding darkness, this latest novel ups the notch on the gritty factor.

Vacancy is a book about death, life, tragedy and triumph. It’s about all that occurs in a small British town – gossip, revelations, feuds and friendships tested. The cover jacket captures the book’s essence quite aptly: “A big novel about a small town…”

More than anything, it makes some stark statements about life. This was especially apparent in the final pages of the novel, at its climax and resulting dénouement. It makes one pause for a moment, and consider that life is happening around us, and we should take it in as much as possible.

Interestingly, there is no main character in this book, as there was so clearly in Harry Potter. Sure, we can argue that Barry Fairbrother is a central character, yet we only glimpse him in the first few pages; thereafter, he prevails as an essence that binds the multitude of characters together.

There’s a lot of characters in this book. I mean, a lot. It often gets difficult to keep track of relationships, but I found that as I got further into the book, and became once again ensnared by Rowling’s storytelling charm, everything just seemed to flow. Yes, it is difficult to begin this book, but trust me, about a third of the way in, it becomes very difficult to put it down.

I think this book is important on a number of levels. It serves, as I’ve mentioned before, as a comment on today’s society. It comments about the suddenness of life, and of death. It comments on the fickleness of people. It comments on greed and power, on traditions and culture, and the clash of ideologies. It follows multiple characters, allowing us to get into their heads and try and grasp the contrasting views bottled-up in the picturesque town of Pagford, a world imagined a million times differently to the warmness of Hogwarts.

I try to refrain from making this thought-piece out like a review, but it really is just my take on this book. The ending will stick with me for a long time; Rowling allows us to amble comfortably through the book, and incrementally increases the pace into a devastating climax.

The mistake many readers might make is to expect this novel to be on the lines of the Harry Potter series. And it couldn’t be any more different. There’s strong (and I mean disgustingly strong) language. The book is edgy, gritty, and very brutal in portraying these diverse characters. Yet it still contains Rowling’s soul in its execution; it’s honest and captivating. If you’re a Potter fan, and don’t wish to have your view of Rowling tainted by this novel, perhaps, then I suggest you steer well-clear from it. But if you like to read with an open mind, and enjoy getting lost in a book, then this is certainly a novel for you.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed it.


2012 for BlackBerry: A New Hope?

From Rendering of the BlackBerry "Milan", a new BlackBerry that will run OS 10.

Let’s face it: Research in Motion (RIM), the company behind the BlackBerry smartphones, floundered dramatically in 2011. What with the near-week-long international outage, a failure that is the PlayBook, and a series of hit-and-misses, there’s no doubt that its leadership will be wishing for a miracle to launch them back into the smartphone game.

You must understand, BlackBerry was, not so long ago, the leader in the pre-smartphone era, when it came to email and instant messaging on-the-go. However, like Nokia, they did not see the phantom iPhone storm that changed the entire notion of the mobile phone.

So, after the average attempt at modernizing the operating system that powers their phones in 2010 (with BlackBerry OS 6), RIM brought out OS 7 earlier this year, along with new phones that integrate the touch screen and physical keyboard that so defined these phones.

Now, RIM is pinning their redemption hopes on a new, modern operating system they call BlackBerry 10 (formerly BBX). It’s based on the strengths of the PlayBook, and supposedly aims to bring the aging smartphone brand into the race with the likes of iPhone and Android.

Whilst I lambast the BlackBerry on a daily basis (my own phone, a BlackBerry Bold 9700, crashes daily), and I continuously tout the brilliance of the iPhone, I do hope that Research in Motion will take heed of their mistakes in 2011, and launch courageously into the new year with the promise of a better start. If anything, it’ll force the market leaders (iPhone) to be on top of their game.

RIM must realize that you can’t hope for success in this arena by simply sticking a touch screen onto an existing, old platform. You need to rethink the entire concept of the mobile phone in this age. That’s what Apple did with iPhone, and the success speaks for itself. BB10, then, should re-envision the BlackBerry product, not merely updating it to fit today’s standards. They need a better application store (App World), and they need to entice developers. They need to make the platform lucrative, and prove that they’ve got something that can hopefully withstand the might of the iPhone. Yes, BBM is a selling point (and a customer magnet). It forces most consumers to stick to the platform, as most of their friends are reachable in an intuitive manner. RIM has already begun to leverage this strength with BBM Connected Apps. But they need to do more; they need to have an holistic, complete developer toolkit similar to what Apple offers with Xcode and the iOS developer programme. Once developers realize that they can, in fact, work on this platform, there will be better content available with which users can interact with. And content, as we’ve seen with the iTunes and Apple App Store model, are what work best to entice consumers.

However, things are already not looking too good: BlackBerries running the new OS 10 will only be available in the third quarter of 2012. So, in the meanwhile, we’ll have to remain content with the current, rather lackluster series of devices running OS 7. Don’t get me wrong; OS 7 is still a significant improvement over the previous software, but it remains no match for what the guys over at Apple, Android and Microsoft are up to with their respective mobile products.

Looking forward to seeing how RIM will fare in 2012…

Thoughts on “Inheritance”

So, I finally finished reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance. All 849 pages of it. I’ve followed the journey of protagonist Eragon for five years now, ever since I heard about the books from a classmate who delivered a book review talk for English in Grade 8. The story piqued my interest back then, and I’ve become engrossed in the richly-imagined world created by Paolini ever since.

However, upon completing the fourth and final book of the Inheritance Cycle, I’m left with a bitter aftertaste. I won’t divulge any details (to avoid spoiling the story), but the last 100 or so pages just seemed to waffle, sputtering the story to a forced conclusion. It was quite obvious (and Paolini did mention it in the afterword) that there will be an inevitable return to the land of Alagäesia (and beyond…).

These characters’ stories have yet to conclude. Whilst I would’ve liked to have a proper, full conclusion, providing closure to the cycle, I am somewhat excited at the prospect, no matter how small it might be, that there will be a Book 5.

Overall, I do recommend Inheritance to all fans of the fantasy genre, and of the series.