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 CrackBerry.com: 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.

Another Tale On Its Way

Just an update to inform you that a new (very) short story is on its way out. It’s currently sitting in longhand form in my Moleskine, and when I find time (hopefully soon) I’ll transcribe it into digital format, and post it here.

To whet your reading appetite, the tale is called Rendezvous with a Killer.

Look out for it!

Is This The Way to Educate a Nation?

Tomorrow I’ll be off from school due to the current public servants’ strike going on across South Africa. Whilst my school isn’t affected by the strike, security has been threatened by the enraged strikers who could, at any time, picket outside our gates. Not the best image to project to the city of a prominent school in the province, having those pesky strikers toi-toying outside.

But what has really struck me with this recent strike (because, you see, South Africa is vunerable to strikes, and even has a so-called “strike season”), is the manner in which union members are protesting.

Now whilst the act of striking is condoned in our Constitution, it is only accepted as a peaceful manner of protest. Not the brutal, uncivilised way in which citizens of this nation are acting because our government can’t come to a simple conclusion.

You see, these people who are protesting in a way so embarrassing it makes me wonder what the world must be thinking of us mere months after the World Cup, are the very same people who, during the rest of the year, are meant to educate the future of this country – teach them how to improve the nation and step forward as a united people. Yet here they are, running into schools, vandalising and threatening non-striking teachers and students with violent acts if they don’t follow in their lead and down tools.

And I ask you, is this democratic in any way?

It’s barbaric. Simply put: Disgraceful.

South Africa already has an education system that has let-down a large portion of the population. And now a strike that hits like a knife into the very sector aimed at moving us forward is crippling the entire nation. Without proper education, a nation is nothing. And yet, every year, there has to be a situation with this particular sector and the government. Can’t the guys who we supposedly voted into power realise that, instead of spending exorbitantly at hotels in Cape Town for unreasonably long stays, channel that portion of tax payer’s money into actually doing what it’s meant to do: fund public services like education and health care?

By striking so frequently, and whenever there is a minor dispute, we are showing the next generation of South Africans that yes, whenever you can’t settle an agreement with your boss, just down tools and start picketing – and oh yes, don’t forget to resort to threats, no matter how violent they may be, to get everyone involved in your cause, even if they aren’t interested in joining you.

Is this the way to educate a nation?

No.

Whatever happened to civil, professional debate between the concerned parties, and civil, professional agreements that honour the needs of both sides being reached? The first step to educating a nation is to set the example for those who will be next in line to follow. And unfortunately, at this rate, we’re far-off from doing so.

The Genius of Tolkien

I’m currently reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I actually bought the box set of the famous definitive trilogy and The Hobbit about eight years ago, but was far too young to make strong headway into such elaborate prose.

I’ve finally got round to pursuing The Fellowship of the Ring, and am captivated and amazed by what one man could achieve through such a simple yet abstract medium. Like a praise on the back cover of my edition of the novel says,

The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them. (– Sunday Times)

That a novel of this nature – a fantasy/sci-fi one at that – has become such a defining point in the broad-culture of the English-speaking world really struck a chord with me. But looking deeper into what I’ve previously read and loved in the genre, and comparing it in the larger perspective of what Tolkien has created, I’m beginning to see just how important the trilogy has become.

As I make may way though the tomes of fantastic text, I will certainly be posting my thoughts on the blog. Stay tuned.

Understanding Your Limit

I learnt a very important lesson this past week, primarily through my extensive karate course that the karate organization I belong to ran, and also through the stresses and challenges that a typical week at my high school offers.

Many times in life we’re always seeking to push the limit, and continuously put ourselves in the spotlight particularly because it’s to look good. We’re caught up in the rat race of modern civilization, our minds a swirling mess due to the influences modern media possesses.

Now you might think this last statement strange, considering that I am such a proponent of the Internet and Web 2.0. But sometimes we need to understand something about ourselves that I think is so drastically overlooked 90% of the time.

It’s a simply thing called your limit.

An abstract concept, yes, but it has solid groundings in who you are as a person, and how you perceive yourself to be. A strong ego in some of us can really influence this, and so too can small things like over-confidence. And so the important lesson I learnt this week was that we must understand ourselves on a deeper level, to the extent that we can establish our limit.

By knowing your limit, you know when and how to react to a situation. For example, I chose not to participate in a major upcoming competition due to the fact that I haven’t been training properly for it. This was due to the fact that I have indeed been very busy with other work lately, and haven’t managed to channel the right amount of time. Perhaps this also alludes to the management of a proper schedule that we must ensure be kept, but the main thing is that you know your limit.

It can also be transcended into writing, and technology. Companies need to know to what extent they can push the design and architecture of a product before they need to move on. Case in point: Microsoft. Windows Mobile is an ageing operating system – something that can clearly not compete with the upstarts from Apple, Google and BlackBerry. So, the Redmond giant decided to revamp it into Windows Phone 7 OS (confusing name, but a drastic improvement over its predecessor). They understood its limit.

And so when next you too get a fragment of time in this cacophony of chaos that we all live in, perhaps take the time to understand to what extent you can push yourself before you realise that you should step down. It can uphold your dignity and show the calibre of person that you are.