Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Beautifully read by Tom Hollander. The casual vacancy of the title arises when a member of the local council suddenly dies, leaving his seat vacant. An election can be held to fill the spot.

At first the novel is a bit like an experiment in the literary genre: Lots of angst and no plot, which is great because if you’re listening while doing something else it doesn’t matter much if you miss a bit. There are some lovely descriptions of things, if you care about that sort of thing, and I was reminded that in the Harry Potter series the author’s most beautifully realised character was that of Neville Longbottom. Neville, however, gets to grow up and rise to the occasion. Casual Vacancy is full of characters who don’t.

In the later part of Casual Vacancy all the threads start to come together in a plot the climax of which you just know can't be good. There are some very vulnerable characters in the story, and they have very limited ideas of how to get out of the traps they’re in. The final line of the book, I think, shows what Rowling thinks has been the problem all along.

It’s an interesting thing to read after having read Life At The Bottom. Dalrymple believes people have choices but are refusing to take them. Rowling describes people too bewildered by their lives to understand their choices.

Personally, I would still look back at Charles Dickens, and the memorable speech given by Patrick Stewart in one of the films of  A Christmas Carol, about poverty and ignorance. Ignorance and poverty, the two evils that together keep people in misery. I don’t feel I can do much about poverty, but schools and libraries can be supported, governments encouraged to keep funding them, and anti-intellectualism pushed back against. So many people are not only ignorant but proud of it and, worse yet, don’t want anyone else to know anything either.


Life At The Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple

Life At The Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple

Life At The Bottom is a non-fiction work about the lowest classes of people in England, and why they are there. I thought that was a good question: what is it about a poverty trap that keeps people in poverty? Why can’t they work their way out of it, or educate themselves out of it? Dalrymple, a doctor who has worked with the poor in Africa and in England, would be someone with some insight into this.

Dalrymple begins by saying that there is a hopelessness in the lowest classes of English society that he doesn’t see elsewhere. There is something peculiar to England. He sees women, not just patients but even the nurses he works with, who go from one abusive relationship to the next. One reason they give him is that they see the abuse as a sign of passion. They are so used to abuse that it looks normal to them; a man who is not abusing them just isn’t really interested. A second reason, which Dalrymple doesn’t really examine, is that without a man in their lives, they are likely to be attacked by any other of the men around.

The people don’t educate their way out of their situation because they are anti-intellectual. Equality, to them, means that whatever they think is as good as anything that anyone else thinks, so they don’t have to study.

Dalrymple blames it all on the middle-classes. The middle-classes came up with notions of equality, sexual freedom, and freedom of speech, without any thought as to the effect these philosophies might have on the uneducated lower classes who grab the slogans as a call to action without further thought. In fact, he sees the middle classes as dumbing themselves down, taking up the speech patterns of the lower classes, taking on the form of the working class that doesn’t actually work, and taking up footy hooliganism. An example of what Dalrymple is getting at would be that phenomenon on the web where people think their own opinion on anything is as good as anyone else’s, and that experts have no more right to be heard than someone who is merely het up by a headline.

Basically, people are trapped, according to Dalrymple, because of the ideas they hold. They don’t improve themselves because they see themselves as fine. Since he, as a doctor, is constantly patching them up, he doesn’t see them as fine at all.

So far so good. Really, the only reason I didn’t finish reading the whole book was that I felt that I had got his point and didn’t need it hammered home in example after example. There’s only so much hammering a girl can take.

Naturally, a book like this cannot be read unquestioningly, because that would defeat its purpose. My first question was whether it was fair to blame the middle-classes for the actions of the lower classes. My thought is that they were trying to save their own souls from quiet lives of desperation, and where did these intellectuals who came up with these dastardly ideas of freedom and classlessness come from anyway? Upper classes aren’t mentioned.

Talking about this, it was pointed out that the middle-classes are disappearing anyway. The loss of the manufacturing industry may have had something to do with it. Anyway, the middle-classes are being squeezed into the lower classes. Which is to say that there are outside pressures at work which are not taken into account by Dalrymple. This isn’t that sort of book.

I should probably add that I don’t really understand the class system anyway. That there are stratas of income, that because of wealth some people have more resources, and are more aware of the possibility of using them, such as not only going to school but endeavoring to do well there, of using the public libraries, I understand. But I gather that there is more to it in some places. 


Serial & Undisclosed - True Crime



Serial season one, is a non-fiction podcast about the murder of an American high school student, Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is convicted and jailed for the murder. His family, believing in his innocence, have written to many people in an effort to get help. Journalist Sarah Koenig responded with the first season of Serial.

Koenig tries very hard to be impartial. Sometimes she is sure Adnan is innocent, particularly when she has been talking to him and he seems so innocent, and other times she looks at the evidence and feels that he must be guilty. Rather than go down a rabbit hole, though, of trying to find out for sure one way or another, she puts a time limit on the research and when she gets to the end of the series she stops.

However, Serial, Season one, spawned a lot of interest, leading other people to blog about different aspects of the case, and leading to a sequel podcast called Undisclosed, in which the makers do not bother trying to be impartial, but say up front that they believe Adnan is innocent and go from there.

The story is roughly that in 1999, Hae, on her way after school one winter’s day to pick up a young cousin from daycare, disappeared. Six weeks later she was found dead.

In Serial, Koenig’s concern is the fluidity of memory. Six weeks after Hae disappeared, her high school friends were called upon to remember a bunch of details about what happened that day. (Say what? Who can remember yesterday?) Sometimes they recalled incidents around a sporting event, something that happened at practice, or when they played another school. Sometimes these memories could be proven wrong because the date is wrong: the school didn’t play against that other team that day, or even that week or month. There is a calendar of events to check against. Often there is nothing to check against. To top it off, the students, including Adnan, were hiding their involvement in drugs; finding alibis got complicated.

Then a young man told the police a story about Adnan murdering Hae and hiding her body in the trunk of his car.

Serial was interesting because it showed the law in practice, as opposed to theory, but it drew no conclusion about Adnan’s case.

The cew of Undisclosed take a harder look. At first it seems exciting: it turns out that the reason Hae’s disappearance was taken seriously by the police from the very first, rather than waiting a day or two, was that there was not one but two serial killers out of jail and in the vicinity when she disappeared. One had form for killing Asian girls, the other high school girls. One of them was in a house opposite a bank teller that Hae might have used on her way to pick up her cousin. Despite the police concern, they apparently didn’t think to put out a request for sightings of her car. Consequently, traffic police in a neighbouring district noted the presence of the abandoned car but didn’t know to advise anyone of it.

Episodes of Undisclosed describe ineptitude after ineptitude, and yet don’t seem to go anywhere in the end.

PS: I saw in the newspaper a few days ago that Syed's case is going to be retried. It seemed from the article I saw that the main reason for this was that there was a witness chatting with him in the school library at exactly the time the police believe the murder was committed. If you listen to Serial, you'll find there is an episode w here it turns out that the witness herself had not realised what the timing of that chat signified. So the story continues.


PodCastle 336: “Why I Bought Satan Two Cokes On the Day I Graduated High School,” by Nathaniel Lee

PodCastle 336: “Why I Bought Satan Two Cokes On the Day I Graduated High School,” by Nathaniel Lee 

Read by Dave Thompson

I like many podcasts, and PodCastle, the fantasy arm of EscapePod, is one of them. A few of my favourite stories come from there. This year, my contribution to our armory of things to listen to on our way to South Australia for Christmas, was “Why I Bought Satan Two Cokes On the Day I Graduated High School.”

It’s a long title, but when the story has finished, you need it as a clue as to what happened in the end, if you’re the sort of person to whom the final line seems ambiguous.

It’s a post-apocalypse story in which the angels have defeated Satan and are now on earth enforcing curfews and beating Satan up whenever they see him. The narrator, a high school misfit, has kind of made friends with him. They shoplift together. One of the narrator’s problems is that he has to choose an angel to align himself with when he graduates in a few days. He’s not keen on that whole thing.

It’s a fun story, sometimes sad, the kind of thing you’d expect from PodCastle.

Read it here


Pleasant, chatty Science Fiction Podcasts

Renay and Anna chat exuberantly about their interests in SF. I discovered them through Galactic Suburbia. In a way, the two podcasts are similar, in that they are women discussing in each episode an SF topic that interests them. Fangirl Happy Hour tends to make me laugh, while my favourite episodes of Galactic Suburbia are really thoughtful. What I like about Galactic Suburbia is its unabashed intellectualism. They take their feminism and run with it. It’s strangely peaceful. My favourite episode of Galactic Surburbia would be episode 125 on James Tiptree Jr.

Tea and Jeopardy is another SF related podcast that I enjoy in which an author or illustrator is interviewed each episode. It’s a very calm, peaceful podcast despite the slight hint of jeopardy.



Welcome to Night Vale is my new favorite thing. It’s nicely weird. It’s a fictional podcast that takes the form of a community radio announcer, Cecil, broadcasting information to the local community of Night Vale. Information includes the arrival of some scientists who have come to investigate the town. One of the scientists is Carlos, who has perfect hair, and teeth like military tombstones. Other characters include ‘the faceless lady who secretly lives in your house,’ a five headed dragon who is running for mayor, a cat who hovers in a fixed position four feet above the floor in the men’s bathroom. And so on. Despite the weirdness, there is enough continuity to make you wonder what is going to happen next. Little bit horror, little bit SF thriller, bit comedic, and very clever.

Find episodes at


Audio: Brighton Rock BY GRAHAM GREENE

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene,
read by Samuel West

I listened to this and took it as a kind of thriller. From the first, we know who was killed, and by whom, and pretty much why. In fact, much of the book is a study of the murderer, Pinkie, who, at the ripe old age of sixteen, has taken over a small gang in Brighton after the original boss was killed in an earlier novel, Gun For Sale. Covering up the one murder leads to other murders. However, his thought about the young girl Rose, another potential witness, is not to murder her but to marry her so that she cannot be compelled to give evidence against him. He makes her believe he loves her. It helps that, as Catholics, and coming from impoverished backgrounds, they share a culture. They understand each other.

Against them is Ida Arnold. The victim, aware that he is being stalked, latches onto Ida in the hope that his pursuers will avoid making their move while there is a witness present. His death, when it comes, seems natural, but Ida becomes suspicious. Besides this, her own zest for life leads her to want to speak up for the dead.

When Ida is first introduced, she seems to be one of those female characters who are just there to decorate a scene and have no real function in the story. However, something about her made me wish that she was the main character, the detective. I was a bit surprised when it turned out that she was. On the other hand, is she really a hero, or just a careless do-gooder? For instance, in the end, she assumes that Rose will be comforted by her loving parents. The reader knows, though, that Rose’s parents are not loving: They pretty much sold her to Pinkie. Wondering about these things, I checked some reviews online. One suggested that Greene hated Ida, that for him she was the evil element in the story, as evidenced by the constant mention of the heaviness of her breasts. That surprised me; I’d interpreted these references to her breasts as matronly, a mother-of-the-world figure. It was also suggested that Greene preferred characters who would commit a mortal sin, eg murder, than those who didn’t take a side in the battle of Heaven and Hell. That sounds like a particularly sick notion when considered in the context of Pinkie’s comfort with committing murder but terror of sex, as against Ida’s ease with sex although it’s always a disappointment to her.

Although it’s possible that Ida has not saved the lives she thought she saved, I’d like to read more detective stories with an Ida-like character as the lead.