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The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling

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  • Realistic
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  • Not a 'happy' story
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      17.07.2013 20:08
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      A disappointing read with stereotyped 2D characters and a basic plotline.

      The Casual Vacancy is J K Rowling's first novel since she finished the Harry Potter series of books. I had my name down to get it on the local Waterstones waiting list well before it had been printed, and I started reading it the first day I brought it home from the store, as I am a huge Harry Potter fan and I was looking forward to another Rowling fix.

      I could not have been more disappointed, but that is not entirely fair to this book, so I will elaborate. The Casual Vacancy is nothing like the Harry Potter books. First, it is not at all intended for a young audience, and second, it seems to me that Rowling wrote this book hoping to step away from her Harry Potter author image by proving that she can write for a solely adult audience. Well, I think this is a shame. It is rare for a book to catch the imagination of both adults and children, let alone for it to do so the world over, and the HP books ticked all those boxes. Personally I have never doubted her skills as a writer or wondered whether she is capable of writing just adult fiction, but if you do seek proof, here it is, in this book.

      The Casual Vacancy is set in the countryside, in Pagford, a fictional sleepy village in the West Country, although as a West Country gal I will air my suspicions here that Rowling took the name from Chagford - a sleepy village community not far from me in Devon. The book revolves around a central character who we never properly meet, as he dies right at the start of the book. His name is Barry Fairbrother and we quickly learn that he was a loved local figure and also a Parish Councillor, which means that a seat has become vacant on the council due to his death. This is what the title of the book refers to - the 'casual vacancy'. If this is boring you, bare with me because the book does not have much to offer beyond this. The story revolves around the various local villagers who wish to gain the seat by any means they can. These people are well-to-do, middle class folk who would like nothing more than the stature and local power that they believe the position will bring them, and this is the central theme of the book.

      I wish I could say that this theme has more to it than that. I wish I could say that it is funny to see them squabble, to see their underhand tactics and sad desperate attempts to win. But in fact they just made me feel sad, and a little ashamed of British people in general. Unfortunately there is non of the Vernon Dudley-esq satire and facetiousness that is found in the Harry Potter books, despite the fact that most of the residents of Pagford are founded on the same principles as him and his family.

      The second major theme of the novel ties into that of the vacancy, and it has to do with a newly erected local council estate known as The Fields. Here we find the absolute dregs of society whom no decent human being wants to live next to, and here they are encroaching on the long-established peace of wealthy Pagford residents. The deceased Barry supported The Fields and wished to connect with the estate residents and integrate the into Pagford community, which earned him both friends and enemies. However many of the villagers do not feel this way, and so the council seat comes down to this - whoever wins it will likely sway the vote as to whether The Fields should officially be considered as a part of Pagford or not, ie whether or not it gets to share their local amenities and so on. Barry and his followers are convinced that the estate will get worse if it is linked with neighbouring Yarvil instead of with Pagford, and this is the main feud in the book.

      Whereas the residents of Pagford are unforgivably 2D and exasperating, the most interesting characters in this book, who dwell in The Fields, are unfortunately equally simple and stereotyped. I find this extremely baffling as in my mind Rowling proved with the HP series that she is capable of creating lovable, very real characters who have depth to them and strive to overcome the worst human qualities. On the other hand every character in The Casual Vacancy seems to stand for all those horrid traits and not much besides, creating disappointing tabloid newspaper-like figures who are exhausting to read about and ridiculously, tiresomely predictable. It seems to me that Rowling showed through the narrative of the Harry Potter books that love and good intentions can overcome all evils, whereas in The Casual Vacancy the obvious and simple message is that actually adults like these evils and in fact thrive on them. Apparently in Rowling's mind such is the world in fiction written solely for adults. And if she's right, then what a rubbish world it is to live in - for adults at least.

      But I digress. The most notable characters in The Fields are 16-year-old Krystal Weedon, who is your typical British 'Chavvy' teenage girl (this is Rowling's stereotype, not mine), her mother Terri who is a prostitute and drug addict, and her 3 year old brother Robbie. We also meet the local drug dealer, Obbo, and a handful of other unruly and low characters. The way these characters are portrayed in the book are not as victims, but the undertone of their rubbish lives and cycles of drug abuse and poverty that are hard to break do run through the book, so it's hard to blame them entirely for their actions and circumstances. Krystal seems like a horrid teenager to begin with but we soon learn that there is depth to her character, for example her love for her younger brother, who she cares for better than her useless mother does. Perhaps many readers might transfer their hatred and disgust to her mother Terri then, but we learn through subtle storytelling that Terri has had an awful life of abuse and addiction and an extreme lack of care, which is what leads her to sleep with people like Obbo and do favours for him which jeapordise her family. As a way of escaping from her bad memories and rubbish life she takes to drug abuse, and this is where The Fields meets true Pagford society, as social worker Kay - who has relocated to Pagford for the love of her life - attempts to rehabilitate Terri and generally improve her life's circumstances. This is an interesting depiction in the novel as we see that Kay has a lot problems herself including mental instability and bad parenting, but she is well off and lives in a nice area of the village, so she is free to do as she pleased. She really has no idea what life is like in The Fields and I'm sure if she did she would take Robbie away from his absent mother, but instead she is constantly optimistic and enrols Terri in the local methadone rehabilitation clinic, Bellchapel, time and time again. There are subtle hints here of the system failing people like Terri, and I have no doubt that this happens in real life, but what the solution to it is I can't tell you, and, it seems, nor can our writer.

      You have probably gathered by now that the subject matter of this book is 'heavy'. I found it really heartbreaking and difficult to read about the people in The Fields as there is so much abuse, including against children, suggested and also things like rape and murder. I felt depressed and helpless while reading the book and really only finished it with the faint hope that Rowling would provide a nice happy ending for all of her characters. Well, I won't tell you whether she does or not, but I will say that some lessons are learned that make the reader think and you have to respect Rowling for that as it is not an easy thing for a writer to do. I stayed with even the worst characters to the end, hoping for a number of things to improve or resolve themselves, while at the same time admitting to myself that there really is no way to stop the evils in this book. It's not just what happens at The Fields and those cycles of abusive behaviour that are so hard to break, but also the small evils of Pagford society - the intolerant attitudes, the petty bickering, the silly feuds and especially the small mindedness. These issues are brought to light with no subtle attempts from Rowling - they hit the reader in the face and the closest thing I can liken them to is that old classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. The issues of class difference, local politics and social issues are all covered in this modern-day version of Ragged Trousered, and the message is just as blunt and striking.But whereas I really enjoyed reading Ragged Trousered, I found The Casual Vacancy a bitter pill to swallow. In part this is because the problems Rowling raises in her book are so true to British society, and like most people I would prefer to sweep them under the carpet rather than look at them as products of an unequal society and attempt to rectify the problems, whereas Tressell's old tale of underpaid builders is not at all relevant to me. But partly I just dislike having these morals thrown at me the way Rowling has done in this book, because she offers no solutions and by the end I just felt awful and depressed and I had horrible images of child abuse and rape running through my mind for weeks.

      Of course this is in part due to the fact that I expected another all-problems-solved Harry Potter-style novel, and that was of course my own mistake. But even aside from that error of judgement, and even taking into account that this book is well written and covers some extremely difficult and pertinent social issues, I really hated this book. I mean, really, I hated it all. The 2D characters, the lack of humour, the endless mundane interactions and above all the harshly taught morals. These we mostly learn through the school-age residents of Pagford who seem innocent on the surface but are in fact carrying their families' mental baggage - 'Fats' Wall, Simon Price - yet more simple characters but through their self absorbed pranks and attempts at creating 'cool' images for themselves for purposes of stature and power at school, they are just as bad as their parents and they have just as much impact on the residents of both Pagford and The Fields due to their silly pranks and general spoilt antics. I found them exasperating to read about and would not have been upset if the entire town of Pagford was destroyed at the end of the book - along with The Fields of course. I can't imagine that this is the effect Rowling wished to create though so it does leave me confused as to her attentions. She clearly wanted to highlight the poor human behaviours in both well-to-do villagers and rough, uncultured estate residents, but beyond that I haven't a clue why she wrote such a depressing, upsetting, dark and heavy book.

      I also think that it's unfair that she based the book in a Devonshire village of smallminded folk as I live in one of these villages and the people here are lovely - nothing like those described in the book. Rowling's characters rely on an old stereotype of petty minded country individuals but this is not the case in most West Country villages; after all even old farm houses have phone and internet access and TVs now - ie mind-opening connection with the outside world. Also, I relocated from Birmingham to be here so that I could give my children a better life, and I admit I would be upset if an estate like The Fields was developed near our village, as I have fought hard to break cycles of behaviour for my children by relocating, which has meant leaving behind both family and friends. This was not an easy choice to make, but I know it was the right one for my children when strangers say hello to us in the street instead of pushing drugs or offering verbal abuse, as happened to me so many times on the streets of Birmingham as a child. So I resent being put into the category of a well-to-do petty-minded country bumpkin who has an easy life, and also Rowling's portrait of people either being in that group or drug-taking abuse-craving estate dwellers. Human beings can be many things and we cannot be separated into 2D categories like that, yet this is what Rowling has done in her book.

      There is no light in this book, no humour, no way to connect with the good things in the human world, and I would give it 1 star if it wasn't so well written and a clearly brave attempt to tackle some important social issues. I would not recommend that you read it, but if you do, you have been warned.. I paid £10.99 for a new hardback copy of this book, and if I could I would get my money back.

      A middle and begrudged 3 stars from me.

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        17.07.2013 15:10
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        J K Rowling, is tonight gonna be Robert Galbraith!

        J K Rowling is to children's wizardry books as is Adam Woodyatt is to Eastender Ian Beale. I am mildly sympathetic to Rowling as the critic-eye sure was perusing for wands and what-have-you's in her first adult book. Ian Beale doesn't have the same issues. His magical business mojo inevitably had a sell-by-date destined for several demises via the 'Ender' script writer's pen. Rowling also didn't have to compete with 'Corrie' for viewing ratings and I guess it really didn't matter what she wrote - her fan-base are as loyal as a St Bernard carrying a canister of 'Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne,' across the Grand Canyon in stifling heat. I'm not going to rub out the doggy illusion but prop up the Rowling career by pouring admiration on an author who has dipped her wand into the ocean of experimentation. By no means is the Rowling writing machine entering into an unfamiliar paradigm- however, to the naked-eye the genre swap is a bold move; without her aging protagonist Harry Potter. Equipped with the tools of narration, configuring scenarios and structure, you can be sure to have a sound foundation, in case of a critic's typhoon. To keep Rowling at home with the ghosts of the past, she swaps Harry with a Barry. See what I did there readers, she spurts out, ah, no it isn't a mistake - how novel, experimentalism it is then, nothing like the good old slap the thigh quips. Barry dies at forty three, a vacancy is made on the Town Council of Pagford; a town that would not be out of place as a Victorian hamlet. She is no Julian Fellowes imitating a Downtown though; Pagford is comparably ghetto orientated as Rowling descends into fouling her written language, crass small-talk enveloping sexual deviances and over-indulging on character portrayals of the habitants of the district. Odiously conversational - I found myself thinking; 'I bet you're feeling better now.' Total liberation indeed, after being chained to a dorky, pimply protagonist - it couldn't have been magic. Rowling enters into the adult genre resembling an exploding water-melon. Years of 'pent-up pottering' employs 512 pages.

        Election paraphernalia of a Town Council following a resident's demise, doesn't exactly want to make you buy the book on narrative alone and if you are an unknown writer it won't necessary bolster up book sales. Name alone may give book sales a leverage; although, it is short-lived. Madonna went picture book English with her effort for children, albeit got lost in the plethora of 'same-ness' - Casual Vacancy is equally nondescript in content, it barely triggers a creative synapse, maybe that is it's intention. For all it's worth this is likely to be Rowling's therapy to rid her from adolescent whims, wands and magical pottering. I don't blame her and just by thinking about it - Casual Vacancy must have been the most cathartic experience to endeavour. Her politics, her small-talk, her conversational choices, her characters are as stringy as camembert cheese and emotively detached. In all honestly, I'm relieved Rowling didn't get seduced down the Nicholas Sparks route; this is easily done - they're of the same age and movie writer's talk and get influenced. Frivolous sex is far more palatable to read than reading the pretentious intense sex dribble that excretes from the keyboard of Sparks. It doesn't ignite any sparks for me. This is the thing, writers' allow themselves to get entrapped by 'style and fads;' especially if their narrations have gone to the big screen - Sparks and Rowling are in that privileged group.

        Throwing off the restricting language shackles of being predominantly a children's author has resulted in an over-cooked adult debut. After the initial shock of a councillor's demise, it opens up the human condition of extremes. A rollercoaster of pedantry, blasphemy and crudity - a buy-able concept I may add. My ire lies in the sub-conscious script the reader is subjected to churlish elaborations, elaborating for the sake of elaboration: "Gavin had forgotten where he had parked the car. He had marched out of Mary's and walked straight down Church Row, only realizing that he was heading in the wrong direction when he drew level with Miles and Samantha's house. Not wanting to pass the Fairbrothers' again, he had taken a circuitous route back to the bridge. He saw the boy, chocolate stained, and unappealing, and walked past, with his happiness in tatters, half wishing that he could have gone to Kay's house and been silently cradled, she had always been nicest to him when he was miserable, it was what had attracted him to her in the first place." Oh this is all well and good, but did Gavin find his car? Rowling's unhinged, open-ended style of converse begs the question is the content believable, has the experiment of adult writing highlighted discrepancies or habits? If Casual Vacancy was purposefully an abstract in the social and political sense, forgiveness is due - nevertheless the cohesion is amiss. The character narratives were intended to unify just like in the Peter Howitt's 1998 film; 'Sliding Doors,' it should've worked although the main ingredient of plausibility lacked mustard, due to the lackadaisical style of the social converse. To add to the mix Barry's Ghost floated in onto the proceedings - unleashing truths as if a Pagford prophet had dare I say it, used magic! The Minister of Magic, Rowling's future political post.

        Rowling attempt to exaggerate the lack of humanity may have paid the ultimate price of misconstruing the adult readership. Identifying politics and unhinged dalliances in social discourse doesn't equate to a readership having a kinship with a certain character. The Potter phenomenon was built up over a number of years, even those who haven't pottered knows who and what Harry was. The media hype went into the stratosphere; you can forgive the anti-climax of Casual Vacancy, it is only the second biggest seller, by the richest author on the planet after-all. I do not blame the Rowling writing machine overdosing on Jeremy Kyle depicted folk, or Matt Lucas's tourette frenzies. It is a brave, admirable move by Rowling. I'm sure that Keith Harris has dreams of setting fire to 'that duck called Orville.' Sadly, he is chained to a duck and a monkey for his so-called bread and butter. Something that Rowling doesn't have to be concerned about.

        Recommended.

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          21.05.2013 16:16
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          A decent first non-Harry Potter novel

          The Casual Vacancy is the first book by JK Rowling which is not set in the world of Harry Potter, the book is aimed at the adult market. The book tells the story of the modern small town of Pagford, it tells of the events after the untimely death of Councillor Barry Fairbrother.

          JK Rowling
          In case you've been living under a stone for the last 10-15 years, JK Rowling is the biggest selling novelist of modern times with her Harry Potter books aimed at pre-pubescent readers but enjoyed by adults as well.

          The Casual Vacancy

          After the huge success of the Harry Potter books, I was curious to read JK Rowling's new novel wizard based book set in a modern English town. The book begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, an eminent councillor who has a huge brain aneurism whilst at the local golf club and dies instantly. Barry is well liked but outspoken; he also has influence with the local school and wants to save the local addiction clinic. Against Barry are the Millfords who wish to close the clinic and move the troublesome Fields estate from Pagford into the local big city. The book soon spins into little stories, Krystal the troubled girl, the local Asian doctor, her daughter, Barry's scarred wife, the violent local printer, his son Andrew who is obsessed with the new girl called Gaia, whose mother is a social worker who looks after the case of Krystal's mum Terri, Fats whose Andrew's friend and who is racially abusing the doctor and her daughter and so on. Each story tries to be a thread which is part of a bigger story; all begin with Barry's death and the election for his replacement.

          This book is a classic small town examined for neurosis and small mindedness; it aims to throw a spotlight on classic Daily Mail reader's mentalities. There is plenty of hypocrisy, selfishness and sheer unpleasantness, in truth the depiction of a small minded town full of unpleasantness is a little overdone at times. There are plenty of chapters in which the characters slowly show there vileness, the story of Barry's re-election gives the writer a chance to expose the worries and concerns which ravages the English middle class.

          Reading and reviewing this book is one which is difficult, how would you review this book if you'd never read any of the Harry Potter books. To be fair to this book I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, it has a reasonably pace and tells the story of the machinations which surround the electing of a small town councillor. This is after all only a minor position and only has a modicum of power and importance, but here it is the focus of a novel about the English and how we view ourselves. There are the usual classic JK touches, a fast pace of the story and minimum attempt at true character development. I think JK Rowling is a decent writer without really being a great one; however, she does have a decent habit of producing a very readable story.

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            21.04.2013 14:44
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            I never thought the same book could have me crying with laghter, and crying with sadness

            I really don't get why this book has had such bad press. I love the fact that JK Rowling is writing something different and is targeted a whole new type of audience. People seem to be comparing the book to the Harry Potter series - witch is ridiculous, there is no way you can compare these books they are completly different. The Casual Vacancy is an adult book about real life situations!
            (now that's my rant over - sorry, I'll write the review now).

            Plot:
            The Casual vacancy is 'a big novel about a small town', the story is set in Pagford, a small town neibouring the city of Yarvil. One of the local councillors, fighting to keep 'the fields' a run down council estate, part of Pagford, dies and the 'casual vacancy' on the council needs to be filled. The main story running through the novel is about the local people and their day to day lives, the effect of the Barry Fairbrothers death, and the competition for filling his place on the council. The plot is dramatic, and takes some surprising twists and turns. The book does come to a tragic ending - but again, it was written so beautifuly I even enjoyed the sad bits. There is also some comedy in the story that had me in stiches.

            Characters:
            In my opinion JK Rowling always creates very well rounded characters. In this novel she uses her characters to tackle some very taboo subjects, that I my opinion are not talked about enough. The characters range from, a local doctor who is oblivious of the distress the self harming daughter is in. A new 'pagfordian' social worker who had moved with her daughter to get together with a man who isn't happy in the relationship at all. A nurse and her two teenage sons, victims of their fathers outbursts of violence. Two teachers, and the teenage son. A soliciter (and his unhappy wife) the son of Councillor Howard Molison, and his judgemental wife Shirley.

            My two favourite and the most influential characters for me were Krystal Weedon, a 'chavy' teenager, who we almost frown upon in the beginning. However my views changed very quickly towards this loveable character, Krystal, who is daughter of a heroin addict Terri Weedon. Krystal is trying desperately look after her younger brother as well as trying to keep the social workers of their back. Krystal is effected deeply by the repercussions of Mr Fairbrothers death. This was a wake up call for me, not to judge someone because of their back ground.

            Another was Colin Wall, a teacher at the local school, who suffers the mental health problems and OCD. This is a subject very close to my heart, and it's lovely to hear it talked about seriously, clearly by someone who knows the illness well.

            Overall
            This is defiantly not a book for children, as there is very strong language and some sexual scenes. I am 16 and felt I was ready for this book, and my Mum was happy for me to read it. I think it healthy to read about those more taboo subjects (like mental health, and drug addiction).

            I have little to criticise about this book, it kept me hooked from start to finish. I don't think its every ones cup of tea, but if you enjoy real life stories, loveable charcters, and plot twists and turns, I'm sure you will enjoy this book.

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            25.03.2013 11:59
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            This is not Harry Potter, but an excellent read

            Don't read this and expect Harry Potter.

            The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling's first book for adults, and could not be further from the world of Potter. The story revolves around a small town and the in-fighting between families over an available seat on the Parish Council.

            The story takes you into the homes of several families, revealing all the hidden fears and shames of the characters. The novel is not especially pacey, focusing more on the internal struggles of the characters than any real 'action'. The story does gather momentum at the end, making the twist ending even more shocking, after the slow pace of the build-up.

            The characters are interesting, but not exactly likeable. Few people in the story are 'nice', but I enjoyed reading about them and their personalities. I particularly enjoyed reading about Krystal Weedon. She turned out to have a lot more going on beneath the surface than her first appearances in the story would suggest.

            I tried to go into this story with an open mind, not knowing what to expect from Rowling's first adult novel. It's not for those looking for another Potter; this is definitely an adult story with bad language, sex scenes and some uncomfortable subject matter. This does not mean it isn't very good though.

            Some parts were slow-going, but this book is something of a slow burner. In the final chapters, all that slow-pacing comes to a head with a shocking, but excellent finish.

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            04.01.2013 02:09

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            I would recommend to a friend

            When I heard J K Rowling was writing a book for adults, I knew I was going to read it and in my mind I assumed (like most people) it would be full of exciting adventures just like Harry Potter but my assumption was wrong and off the mark by a long shot.

            The novel follows the lives of a number of different people living in Pagford and the surrounding area, from young teenagers such as Andrew up to older members of the community such as Shirley. The main story is focused around the fact that Barry has died leaving a space open on the Parish Council in which a number of people want for themselves, but not everyone around them is so happy about the idea.

            It's the sort of novel where you get to go behind closed doors and discover what other families are like, which can be very interesting, exciting and sad. J K Rowling describes in perfect detail, everything that is going on and you begin to get a clear picture of each individual and the area they live in. Since I was thinking this was going to be an older version of Harry Potter, I found myself shocked when I read swear words, a sex scene and drug taking, but then again I suppose it is exactly like the real World and once the shock had gone from me I knew this was completely different to Harry Potter, in a good way.

            Although I enjoyed the twists and turns of the book, there were a few paragraphs in which I found myself getting bored with talk of the Council (just like some characters in the book) but again that was my fault for choosing to read a book about that topic, but as I say it was only a few paragraphs and then I found myself back into the flow of the book.

            I would recommend this to older readers, as well as people who find themselves wanting to know that they are the same as any other family proving that not every one in the World is perfect as we all have flaws in our lives. In any case I did enjoy the reading of the book and found myself loving one particular character more than others.

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            13.12.2012 11:52
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            A great book from a great author, well worth a read.

            The Casual Vacancy is the first book aimed at adults written by J.K. Rowling. Those of us who have read her previous works will find it VERY different. The story revolves around the fictional town of Pagford. When Barry Fairbrother dies, there is a vacant seat on the Parish Council, and the story takes us through the families this vacancy affects.

            Unlike her other works, I felt that in this story, there aren't really any likeable characters. They are interesting, they have great storylines, but they don't really come across as nice people. I think that's a very interesting way to take a book, because although the characters are unlikeable at best, utterly horrific at worst, you still want to know where the story will take them. The most interesting character, I felt, was Krystal Weedon. I felt that she definitely had it hard, and although I didn't particularly like the girl, I did feel for her. I don't want to give too much away, especially because the review is probably for those who haven't read it yet, but her story is pretty tragic, and right the way through, I just wanted something to go right for her. I can't say whether it did or not (you know, spoilers, frowned upon and all that!) but what I will say is that the end of this book made me cry. Actually, scratch that. It didn't make me cry. It made me sob uncontrollably for ages. And I know that this might be just me, I'm the sap that cries at everything, but it was sad.

            Overall, I think that this is a great book. It feels a little slow in places, but the more fast-paced parts more than made up for this. I felt that this book is well worth reading, although it did take me quite a while to finish it.

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