The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling by Matt Burkhardt

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Audiobook narrated by

Tom Hollander

Description (Courtesy of

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

My Thoughts (Warning: Contains Spoilers):

If there's anything that the Harry Potter novels have in common with J.K. Rowling's first adult novel , it's the quality of the writing. The language is fluid and brilliantly sets the tone, and creates a vivid setting of a town that feels like it's bigger than it probably is. The reader is introduced to so many characters in such a short span that even though I was a bit overwhelmed and nervous about being able to keep track of everyone, but it was surprisingly easy as the novel went on. The characters are distinct and Ms. Rowling does not shy away from any of the ugly details of their lives. Abusive husbands / fathers, prostitution, drug addicts.

The plot is where The Casual Vacancy does not particularly work for me. It kicks off when Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council, passes away, leaving what is called a "casual vacancy." As inciting incidents go, it's compelling, but what follows does not adhere to the usual plot structure that readers expect. It all seems to be leading up to the election of Barry's successor on the Parish Council, which, when the successor is revealed, I was not compelled to feel a sense of catharsis. Similarly, when several children reveal the sins of community members (often their own parents) via the Parish Council Website using the pseudonym The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother, instead of leading to a huge climax in which the town confronted its problems and decided (or refused) to make amends, it just gets cleaned up neatly without any sense of consequence, which left me asking "so what?"

Given how intricately Rowling plotted all seven of the Harry Potter novels, I was a bit disappointed here. I thought with a few hundred more pages she could probably have shown us a town undone by its own vices. Instead, we get more of a slice of life on a plate with no commentary.

Yet what stands out to me is the writing. The character material is brilliant. I don't think there's a clear protagonist in this novel and I loved the way that Rowling balanced her characters in such a way that it didn't feel like there was one. When I was reading A Game of Thrones I made the enormous mistake of assuming that the first people I was introduced to were the protagonists. That's difficult to do in The Casual Vacancy, I think because of how quickly the reader is introduced to all of them. I got the sense that Krystal Weedon was at the center of the various plot lines, but she didn't feel like a protagonist to me.

I loved the way that Rowling created a firm sense of negative space left by Barry Fairbrother's passing. There was a great sense of mutual respect among the citizens of Pagford for Barry but he wasn't perfect. Even without the "Ghost" business, I was able to feel the sense of loss his death provoked.

I seem to recall that J.K. Rowling said that she had considered using a pseudonym when publishing this book and I'm glad that she didn't. The character of Simon Price, an abusive father to Andrew and Paul, and husband to Ruth made for an interesting comparison to Voldemort.

What interested me was how much more terrifying I found Simon than I found Voldemort. Part of this, I think, is that we actively witness Simon bullying people to exert his power in a way we don't really see with Voldemort. It may also be a bit of desensitization. Perhaps I can easily distance myself from a fictional sociopathic mass murderer in a way that I can't from a fictional abusive father/husband.  This is strengthened by the fact that we see Andrew, Paul, and Ruth afraid of Simon in a way we never really saw people being afraid of Voldemort.  Had Ms. Rowling published this novel under a pseudonym, I would not have made that connection.

All in all, I think there's a lot of interesting things in this novel, but the ending was a disappointment.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth (Divergent #2) by Matt Burkhardt

Title: Insurgent

by Veronica Roth

Series:Divergent #2

Description (courtesy of Goodreads): 

One choice can transform you—or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves—and herself—while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.

Tris's initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable—and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

In Insurgent, Veronica Roth delivers an out of the park home run as we pick up right where

Divergent  left off. My decision to listen to the audio version of Divergent the day before Insurgent's release was prompted by this post at Ms. Roth's blog.  I had intended to just check out the recap and go on my merry way but the memory of the awesomeness that was Divergent came flooding back and I knew I had to read it again.

I was rewarded for my diligence by not being disoriented when we pick back up on a train with Tris and Tobias.  I think the author absolutely made the right decision not to take time out for a history of all that came before because it would have slowed down the breakneck pacing she's established in the first book and continued here.  Insurgent, like Divergent before it, is a literary roller coaster ride.

My non-spoilery review of Insurgent is: Drop what you're doing and read this book.  You haven't read Divergent yet? Read that first, then read Insurgent.

Having said that, I don't really feel I can talk about the book without discussing spoilers, so consider yourselves warned.  If you haven't read or haven't finished the book, what could you possibly be doing here?

Spoilery Thoughts:

1)As I mentioned above, I loved that we picked up with Tris and Tobias on the train to Amity without so much as an introduction.  This helped maintain the momentum built in the previous book, and I was quite impressed at the way it was sustained throughout the entire book.

2)I think Ms. Roth has an expert's understanding of how to create, maintain, and resolve tension.  Given where Tris' relationship with Tobias ended in Divergent, their being at odds with each other for much of this book, keeping secrets and what not, she did an excellent job of keeping their relationship interesting for the reader.  I began to get a feeling for how much each needs the other to be whole and I am hoping that, given where Insurgent ended, they proceed from that moment as a complex hero, like Frodo & Sam in The Lord of the Rings.  They would be much more effective.

3)I had a little trouble stomaching Tris in this book when she goes off to martyr herself.  From what I've seen on Twitter, I'm not alone.  However, I still think that Ms. Roth did a good job of depicting a young character who is grieving. Although, my gut reaction to Tris' realization that her death would not validate the deaths of Will and her parents was that it was not fairly earned.  It seemed epiphanic to me and I would have liked more to justify that conclusion when she reached it.  I thought she was too stewed in her own self image issues to have realized she wants to live just as her life is about to be extinguished.

Also, She walked into the Lion's Den with (as far as we can tell) no plan other than surrendering herself to stop more murders.  I wouldn't have taken Jeanine at her word so I thought that was incredibly foolish of her.  Although, Harry took Voldemort at his word in a similar scene in Deathly Hallows, but Voldemort did die shortly thereafter.  Jeanine took a bit longer.

Having said that, even though I thought Tris was a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of the book, I never questioned her as a character.  I saw more of myself in her than I was comfortable with as she placed unbelievable expectations on herself, which bonded me to her in spite of the fact that I wanted to strangle her as she all but begged for death.

4)I loved seeing Amity, particularly the way they discuss things and then eventually come to an agreement.  I, like Tobias, thought that was fascinating.  I would have liked to have spent some more time in the scene where the Dauntless traitors and the Erudite come looking for the Divergent before the fight breaks out.  I thought that would have been a good opportunity to escalate the tension.

5)I'm glad that the book ended on a cliffhanger with the big reveal at the end so that it can ride all the momentum of the first and second books into the final chapter of this trilogy.

Review: Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir by Chris Mitchell by Matt Burkhardt

Cast Member Confidential

 by Chris Mitchell


 (courtesy of

What do you do when everything in your life falls apart? If you're Chris Mitchell, you run away from home--all the way to Disney World, a place where no one ever dies--and employees, known as Cast Members, aren't allowed to frown. Mitchell shares the behind-the-scenes story of his year in the Mouse's army. From his own personal Disneyfication, to what really happens in the hidden tunnels beneath the Magic Kingdom and what not to eat at the Mousketeria, it was a year filled with more adventure--and surprises--than he could ever have "imagineered."

Funny and moving, Mitchell tracks his ascent through the backstage social hierarchy in which princesses rule, and his escapades in the "Ghetto" where Cast Members live and anything goes. Along the way, he unmasks the misfits and drop-outs, lifers and nomads who leave their demons at the stage door as they preserve the magic that draws millions to this famed fantasyland--the same magic that Mitchell seeks and ultimately finds in the last place he ever expected.

I recently decided that this year, I would take my tax refund and the extra pay I'll be getting for not using sick time and take a vacation to celebrate my 30th birthday, which is in July. I was considering either Universal Studios, because I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and wanted to check out the Wizarding World park, or Disney, because, aside from Disneyland Paris when I was eighteen, I haven't been to Disney in over twenty years.

Note: There are still spoilers below, not just for the book, but the inner workings of Disney World. Consider yourselves warned.

I had read about this book on Amazon, I think, when searching or books about Disney or some such thing. I downloaded a sample to my Kindle, expecting just a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's most iconic vacation spots.

Mitchell delivered on that front, describing in detail what it was like to be a professional photographer at Walt Disney World. He explained the theory of how Disney treats its guests and how ironclad a grip it has on things that go on within the park. He told stories of how as the new kid on campus he had to earn the trust of his fellow employees, who lived within a caste system based not only what their job was, but what type. Characters were the top the pyramid, but all-fur characters (such as Mickey) were beneath "face" characters, whose actual faces were on display. At the pinnacle, were the Disney Princesses.

Mitchell described the audition process and how characters are typed based on height and build. For example, because of height restrictions, most Mickey characters were female.

Although I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes stuff (which was, after all, why I started reading in the first place) I was quickly invested in Mitchell as a character. We learn early on that his mother has been diagnosed with cancer and his parents are trying to keep it from him. He learns about this from his brother, from whom he is more or less estranged. He loses his job and his girlfriend. His reaction to it all is to go get a job at Disney World, the one place from his childhood that was sacred to him.

Mitchell gets a job in Disney's Animal Kingdom snapping photos of children with Disney characters, which are then sold to the parents at a high markup. At first he struggles a bit with fitting in with the Disney culture, and also with making friends with his co-workers.

He goes to some trouble before he does finally earn their respect, and rises fairly high in the social strata of the Disney caste system. Still, all that glitters is not gold, as they say. He eventually manages to lose both his job and his girlfriend (an "Ariel" named Calico who turned out not to be what she seemed). However, he does gain some valuable perspective, so although that was a hard blow for the reader, it didn't sink the ship for me.

There were a couple of spots where I could have used a little more fiction and a little less fact. For example, when it comes out that Calico has been false, even though he was warned about her from the start I would have liked to have seen a more gradual change in her character. She went from Ariel to Cruella DeVil too quickly.

Still, it's an enjoyable read with an engaging narrator who is dealt a rough hand and attempts to deal with it in the best way he can think of, and it came with an insider look at Walt Disney World.

11/22/63 Read-along Parts 4-6 by Matt Burkhardt

You can read my review of parts 1-3 of Stephen King's 11/22/63 here.

What follows are my thoughts on parts four through six and the novel as a whole.  I have tried to refrain from including plot spoilers as much as possible but if you're sensitive to that sort of thing, it's probably best you finish reading the novel before checking out my comments.

Having said that, I thought this book was brilliant.  King expertly brought the time period of 1958 through 1963 to vivid life for me. Through his simple yet elegant prose, his complex characters, and setting, he managed to create a sense of nostalgia in me for an era before I was born.  I identified with protagonist Jake Epping, not because he and I have a lot in common, but because I tried to imagine what it would be like to be told there's a wormhole in time in my favorite restaurant that would allow me to travel back in time for an indefinite amount of time and, although I would age accordingly, when I returned to the present only two minutes would have passed since I left.  Then to be charged with the task of picking up where the amiable proprietor of said favorite restaurant left off and attempt to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  I can't imagine what I would do. I had no idea, so I had to find out how Jake managed this quest.

Right along side Jake Epping, we plunged down the rabbit wormhole and into 1958 where he financed his operations by using information about major sporting events to lay substantial bets on things where he knew the outcome.  He got a job, first substitute teaching and then teaching full-time, and he fell in love.  More than anything else, it's the texture of the novel that really brings it to life.  This is not just about a man on a mission.  This is a novel about a man who travels back in time and fully immerses himself in it.  Of course, on some level, at least, he's got to, lest he stick out more than he already does.  He meets Sadie Dunhill, and falls in love.  This causes at least as many problems as it solves.

There's a nod to conspiracy theorists, too.  Before Al, the diner owner who charged Jake with this quest, could feel certain enough about Oswald, Jake was asked to look into the attempt on General Edwin Walker's life, citing that if Lee Harvey Oswald was alone and not convinced by a third-party to assassinate the general, then it was 95% probable that Lee acted alone in the Kennedy Assassination.

The second half of the novel takes Jake Epping (or George Amberson, as he is known in the past) through to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and beyond.  The "obdurate" past is after him with a vengeance.

Does Jake succeed in saving Kennedy and thus providing a better future, or past, depending on how you look at it?  I highly recommend reading this fantastic book to find out.