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on 30 September 2012
Oh dear! There seems to so much negativity on this review board that it is difficult to start a positive review without dealing with some of it. I think I will therefore start with some advice as to who shouldn't buy this book, this might save some people some money and also stop this board from filling up with largely unhelpful 1 star reviews.
Don't buy it is you resent paying a tenner. That's how much it costs. It's a new book by a much loved best -selling author and you're reading it within a few days of publication. Get over it.
Don't buy it if you want a roller-coaster fast- moving plot. This is a quietly written character driven novel that requires a bit of patience and thought. It needs its length for the many characters to develop. You can't really comment on it until you've read it right to the end.
Don't expect any magic. This is a starkly realistic novel. I would view this as one of its strengths but if you can't take "warts and all" characterisations of ordinary people and some pretty unsavoury behaviour than stay away.
Don't buy it if you have knee jerk political opinions. Many people seem to see this book as a snobbish and judgemental duffing up of the poor old squeezed middles. This isn't in fact the case, everybody gets a pretty good duffing up but if you believe everything it says in The Daily Mail (or The Guardian for that matter) it might be an idea to stay away :-)
You need to have a bit of patience with the characters. They are not at first sight loveable (any of them) but if you've read the first few chapters and have decided (correctly) that Samantha is a first class bitch and Fats is an appalling little shit then please give them a little more time. Character development is a lot of the point of this book. You will know most of the major players a lot better by the end.
Who then should buy this book? I think basically if you enjoy literary fiction then you are in with a chance. Having said that I still think there will be plenty of "high brows" who will dislike it. It is very plainly written with a slow linear plot line. You will find no hint of Amis type literary smart-arsery so don't expect it. Secondly (shock horror) the book has moral content, in fact the last few chapters of part five are basically the parable of the good Samaritan and in part six some of the cast find a kind of "redemption". I'm surprised no-one else has pointed this out. If you are going to be dreadfully offended by this then again, stay away.
For myself I liked it a lot, I can't think of another modern novel to compare it to, with its slow pace, large cast of well-drawn characters and slight preachiness it is curiously old fashioned. If I have any criticism at all it is that one or two of the large cast do remain a little 2 dimensional but Fats, Andrew, Krystal and a few of the others will stay with me for a long time. To flesh everybody out in the same detail would have required an even longer book, as it is I read the whole 500 pages in two days, I wasn't a particular Harry Potter fan, If I hadn't been enjoying it I would have given up. Draw your own conclusions.
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on 3 January 2013
My desire to read this book stemmed purely from a love of J.K. Rowling's previous work (You-Know-What, or They-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named). From the off, I knew to expect something different. I'd seen the poster at the books store. It stated categorically that her new book was for adults (funnily enough, this poster was in the children's section). Regardless, I knew that I was going to read whatever she brought out next, having already been impressed by her writing skill. Yes, before I'd even begun reading, I had "baggage"; expectations of a certain standard of story-telling. Once the book was out, I heard a number of bad reviews. I was not put off, and I was not disappointed.

Pagford is a picturesque, parochial town with cobbled streets and quaint little cottages. Just beyond is the council estate, The Fields; a crime-ridden, concrete-crumbling embarrassment to the Pagford old guard. When Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, leaving his seat in Pagford Parish Council open - a Casual Vacancy - old grudges break to new grievances. The council are divided by pro-Fielders and those who wish to see Pagford restored to its supposed former glory. It soon becomes clear, as the town's pretty façade begins to crack, that this division will inevitably lead to a disastrous conclusion.

This Dickensian approach, of telling the story of a town, rather than a character, is a marvellous example of just how good an author J.K. Rowling is. She weaves a rich tapestry of characters and situations together in a masterful and undeniably thought-provoking way. This story is told from the different perspectives of a number of complex personalities, young and old. For instance, you'll find yourself casting judgement on an individual; only to have your opinion receded by the next chapter. Gritty and controversial themes are explored throughout. It may not have the same "page-turner" appeal as her previous books, but it certainly leaves an imprint in the mind. I could go for days without picking this book up, but when I found time to read, I remembered exactly what had happened up to that point. This is great story-telling. I highly recommend this book, and eagerly await Rowling's next offering.
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on 12 June 2015
J. K. Rowling’s first “adult book” certainly generated some interest. In its first week, it sold 124,000 copies in the UK and three times that in the USA. It also got a good kicking from some of the critics, and readers – after all, Rowling is quite a target. She is rich (worth about £620m, according to Sky News, though one wonders how they can know). She is massively successful as a writer and generates plenty of jealousy (another writer once accused her of “sucking the air” out of the market, apparently). She is politically on the left despite a massive fortune. Many critics, I am sure, would have liked this book to be rubbish; they could then wag their fingers and say, well, she’s a one-trick pony, isn’t she? All she can do is wizards really.

They must be disappointed. Rowling really is a good writer, and The Casual Vacancy is a good book. Whether it’s a very nice one is another question.

The Casual Vacancy is a portrait of Pagford, a small town in the West of England, said to be based on the one where Rowling grew up (she has never confirmed this). It begins with the death of a decent local councillor who has opposed attempts to shut down the town’s methadone clinic and to rid the town of responsibility for the local sink estate – “project”, in American parlance – called the Fields. The election that follows for the dead man’s council seat is the frame upon which Rowling has hung her portrait of the town’s people.

They fall into three basic categories: smug, ineffectual, and disgusting.

The smug include the conservative “first citizen” of Pagford, Council chairman Howard, a shop and cafe owner, 65 years old, of mighty girth and opinions; and his wife, Shirley. Like others in the town, they hanker after the company of the local aristocrats, although the latter are clearly bored by them, and indeed sold the land for the sink estate Howard wants to be rid of so much. The smug also include Howard’s son Miles, a solicitor (lawyer), who stands for the dead man’s council seat, and his wife Samantha, who has huge breasts and fantasizes about sex with a singer from her daughter’s favourite boy-band. And there’s Parminder, the doctor, who holds liberal views but makes no effort to communicate with her unattractive daughter and is unaware that the latter is quietly mutilating herself with a razor-blade in the night.

The ineffectual include Kay, a social worker who is deluding herself about her relationship with a man who doesn’t really want her; Colin, a deputy headmaster who lacks social skills and is mentally ill; and Ruth, a nurse who tries to be bright and jolly in a home dominated by a violent inadequate of a husband. The disgusting include Colin’s vile teenage son, who despises his parents and uses his wit and popularity to inflict cruelties on others; Simon, Ruth’s husband, who stands for the council hoping to get kickbacks; and Terri, a middle-aged junkie and occasional whore who lives on the sink estate but whose daughter Krystal could maybe be something better. Rowling uses Krystal as a dramatic cipher in a battle between good and evil.

Rowling serves up many characters – in fact, too many too quickly, so that the first half of the book is confusing. Yet she has got inside their heads, and shows us who they really are. Thus Howard dreams of the Pagford of his youth, where the poor grew runner beans and potatoes, and hates the Fields with its boarded-up windows, graffiti and satellite dishes. Miles and Samantha must entertain Kay and her reluctant partner to dinner and try to impress, though they have little in common with either; the evening that follows is pure agony – Abigail’s Party writ large. Parminder does not communicate with her daughter but half-knows it, and keeps meaning to try. Kay’s reluctant partner does know that, somewhere along the line, he should have ended the relationship. Colin’s horrible teenage son is determined to be “authentic” and does not know that he is just pretentious. Neither does he really know that he is vicious; in class, he mutters savage insults at Parminder’s miserable daughter, wanting to impress the friend next to him. He is unaware that his friend finds the girl’s pain discomfiting.

Not every character works so well. Colin’s mental illness does not convince; it is so dramatic that one does not see how he functions at all. The crooked, violent Simon is just too without redeeming features. As for Terri, the tragic junkie, she is a type that exists, to be sure, but seems too obvious to be here. She might have seemed more real, and sympathetic, had she been one of those who do manage their addiction better.

The book ends with a tragedy that a number of the characters might have prevented, either earlier in the book, or in the hour or so before it happened. Several people get their comeuppance, for this or other reasons. In fact, the book is, for all its satirical modernity, a very old-fashioned morality play that, with a slight change of characters and messages, could have come from someone on the right as much as the left.

That’s a point that clearly went over the head of the Daily Mail’s reviewer, who called it “500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature”. The council chairman, Howard, is “middle class, so, of course, he is a racist, pompous twit”. Ms Rowling is, says the reviewer, “on a mission to portray the poor underclasses as plucky but blighted, and the British middle classes as a lumpen mass of the mad and the bad.” The Mail had an agenda; it usually has. Actually, Rowling could just as easily have been slammed for failing to include normal balanced working-class characters rather than the awful Terri. But the charge is not totally unfounded. Even the progressive Independent said: “The snobbishness and hypocrisy of the Pagford residents is held up for mild satire throughout, while the deprivation of the Fields is played with a straight bat, and that unevenness of tone rankles.”

I won’t pretend I found this book a life-affirming experience. It’s a very cynical view of life; the fact is that most people are nicer than The Casual Vacancy would have you believe, in England as much as anywhere else. I also have a certain distaste for English people who leg it north of the border (Rowling lives in Soctland) and then drone on about how ghastly the English are. One wonders, in fact, what the Scots think of them.

Even so, I think some of the criticism of this book, and of Rowling, has been unfair. She has some prejudices; well, she is scarcely alone in that. She could have stopped working, shut up and enjoyed her vast wealth. Or she could have trotted out any old trash, knowing that, with her name on it, it would at least sell a few copies. Or she could, like many British novelists of the last half-century, have written genteel novels about middle-class marital difficulties. Or books about food for people who already eat too much; or she could have restored a farmhouse in some fashionably unfashionable part of France or Spain and then written an amusing book patronising the local peasants.

Instead, she is, as one says nowadays, “engaged”; she has painted a vivid, well-written warts-and-all portrait of modern Britain. To be sure, she has majored on the warts; but, well, there are a few, aren’t there? Some of the characters, it’s true, don’t come off – but others do, and the book is a genuine page-turner. The Casual Vacancy is not always an attractive book, and it is not always just. But it’s a gutsy attempt to write about the way we English are in 2013. And any doubts as to whether Rowling can do “adult” books should be dispelled forever.
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on 20 November 2013
Dear oh dear, some people have really got the hump with this one haven't they? Too much swearing...too many nasty characters...not enough humour and a real shortage of magic! For goodness sake, get over yourselves. J.K. Rowling made her name and fortune through Harry Potter. She has won the freedom now to write exactly what she likes and in my opinion she has, in so doing, come up with a wonderful and thought provoking novel. Not everything she writes has to be about fantasy, magic and wizardry and it is to her eternal credit as a writer that she is able to change to an entirely different genre with such apparent ease and success.
The Casual Vacancy is a novel about the state of Britain today. Pagford and 'the Fields' are a microcosm of what our country has become in a land riddled with hypocracy and complacency where drugs, prostitution, rape and child abuse/neglect have become all too prevalent and where - sorry to have to explain this to the easily offended - those trapped, often through no fault of their own, within the 'underclass' will sometimes resort to bad language and unpleasant acts - shock, horror!
The novel is, at times, brutally realistic and contains a huge cast of characters including some, Howard Mollison and Simon Price spring most readily to mind, who stand comparison with some of the great Dickensian grotesques. Indeed the work as a whole could be described as a Dickens for the 21st Century and the Internet generation. Above all though it is an exposé of Cameron's 'we're all in it together' sham society. Because really we're not, just ask Krystal and Barry Fairbrother.
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on 9 October 2012
The casual vacancy.

I may be unusual amongst reviewers of J.K.Rowling's latest book in that I have never read a Harry Potter story, not being drawn to the celebration of public schools, nor to fantasy stories of wizards and dragons (nor to Tolkien, Wagner, or model railways, but that's another story).

Here we have a further iteration of the English village novel, but in this version not a celebration of the genre, nor of the people or their manners. It is more a full frontal assault on the complacency, hypocrisy , selfishness, narrow-mindedness and sheer unpleasantness of the great majority of the inhabitants of Pagford, somewhere not far from Bristol. I have to confess that for long parts of this book I asked myself the question 'why bother?' Why does the author bother to skewer these people so relentlessly, what animus drives her to spend so much time and effort revealing their nastiness as if we didn't recognise it already? Settling scores? And if so, do we need to be there?

But, and there is a but, JKR brings forward some characters who are rarely encountered, and insists we notice them. Most notable is Krystal, school age daughter of a drug addict, resident of a 'sink estate' as other people in the village would term it, foul mouthed, sexually promiscuous, and the carer of her 3 year old brother. She is both brave and desperately in need of affection. Krystal is one of a range of teenage characters who JKR is able to present persuasively, as if from the inside. Others include Sukhinder, a self-harming Sikh girl, from the only Asian family in the village; Andrew whose crush on Gaia is brought to life with complete conviction, and who brings back vivid memories for the non-teenage reader; Gaia herself, exiled from London by her single parent mother's move from Hackney, privileged by good looks but enraged by her mother's unpleasant boyfriend; and 'Fats', whose lacerating wit covers his unhappy home and hatred of his father. The families that these young people live in are mercilessly exposed by JKR as nests of mutual dislike, infidelity, backstabbing and cruelty. Did Harry Potter go to boarding school? No wonder.

And of the adults only Val the social worker, Parminder the doctor and just possibly Colin the teacher with OCD come out, despite severe personal challenges, as having any sympathetic treatment at all.

There is a problem with the sympathetic treatment, and of its more dominant opposite, contempt. Rowling's authorial presence dominates the narrative, imposing moral judgement, left and right. The narrative is manipulated like a children's story to deliver punishment to the wicked, and then to the innocent as well. Grimness is all. JKR is a moralist who has not yet wholly learned to reveal rather than instruct. At the same time, while most of us walk away from the pain of others- it challenges our own wellbeing and threatens to make demands - JKR walks towards it.

By the end of the book this reader did care, in particular about the children for whom JKR has a special insight, and for the poor, who are so completely p******d on by the comfortably off. There is a wellspring of compassion in this author that is welcome in the world of contemporary fiction. While JKR has joined the super-rich in terms of wealth, she has not joined them in terms of attitude. She does not have to write, unlike in her earlier days as a single parent living on benefits, and is brave to set out after Harry Potter to stake a new claim. I hope she does so again, as she has something to tell us.

Alan Tait
October 2012
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on 10 February 2015
I think 'muddled rubbish' could best explain this story. It has a certain fascination I suppose, and the characters are well drawn, but all have flaws and there is no respite from the revolting endless use of the F... word. I can only think the author is only able to find a publisher because of Harry P.
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on 27 March 2013
Must say I do not agree with the majority of professional book reviewers who have slated this. I found this book witty, gritty and an authentic insight into the day to day life of a middle England, wannabe posh rural community. Where the author has got it so right is how believable the characters are. From the bored middle aged housewife to the angst ridden spotty teenager and inbetween. All have their qualities and faults and all are authentic. Certainly not a feel good story but realistic and enjoyable.
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on 4 October 2012
Many reviewers of this book who have been disappointed have primarily objected to the length, tone, or message of the story, or else complained about the dissimilarity to Harry Potter.

Actually, it is a very uplifting book. True, it depicts many of the problems in our society, very vividly and very well, which might be unsettling. But more importantly JK Rowling shows how a single person's contribution to other people's happiness can be so great: the death of Fairbrother demonstrates how many people he was helping in his local society and what a difference he was making. That seems to me more a message of hope than despair, that people can make a difference and it is very worthwhile trying to do so.

It is most impressive that JK Rowling, flush with success, did not decide to take the easy option and write another Harry Potter story with guaranteed sales and film rights. That would have been the easy option and guaranteed success whatever the reviewers might say. Instead she used her position to actually make a serious and powerful contribution by writing about the society we live in and how that can be improved. She's following in a great tradition of authors who have now been recognised for the value of their commentary: Dickens, Trollope etc.

It's a well written, powerful book. It isn't for those who would prefer to close their doors and imagine all is well with the world, but I would bet this book will be seen retrospectively as a turning point that compelled early 21st century society to confront itself and to achieve more.
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on 19 January 2016
It was with some relish that I learned that J K Rowling has written a satire on parish councils and small town (or large village) life. Having wrote an allegorical short story about such matters in my own book Seven Dreams of Reality, I thought I had stuck a necessary boot into the pomposity and self interest disguised as 'concern' experienced in many villages. However, J K has pushed the envelope still further in this acerbic and satirical tale.

Firstly, there are several connected stories taking place simultaneously (like the two interwoven threads that eventually link in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, except here there are around half a dozen strands). I personally had to write down the characters' names in order to remember who was who, but this multi-faceted approach does keep the book interesting throughout its 560+ pages, and after having read the first volume of Proust before this, The Casual Vacancy was a positive breeze.

I must admit I found the colourful language and sexual references a bit too 'Goodfellas meets Last of the Summer Wine.' You can expect plenty of four and seven-letter profanity from the two teenage boys, Krystal Weedon's clan and a family-beating Neanderthal named Simon. Some may find this off-putting and consequently find themselves sent scuttling back to their Harry Potter books. Sadly this may discourage the readers who perhaps need this book's message the most:

Those we judge as undesirable can exhibit positive qualities, whilst those who society reveres can often be power hungry sociopaths.

In this harshly judgemental age this could be the sobering message that we need. I love the English countryside and its villages, but full marks to J K for exposing their dark side. File next to that DVD of Dogville.
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on 28 October 2015
I have no idea why I put this off for so long. Rowling is as sharp as ever here, blending the creativity that she first showed in Harry Potter with a darker look on the real world, as she shows in her work under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. At the risk of simplifying such a stunning and complex book, it’s about the small town of Pagford in which a councillor dies and leaves a vacant seat on the Parish Council.

Some of the older characters get embroiled in the ensuing election, all fighting for their own unique agendas, which Rowling reveals slowly and expertly throughout the narrative. But it’s the youngsters that interested me, especially because I feel like the author captured my own generation perfectly, despite not being a native.

I read this book as part of my 24-hour Dyslexia Action charity readathon, and I can honestly say that even though it took me around six hours to finish it, I was never bored and for the majority of the book I was actively participating in the story, coming up with my own theories to describe erratic behaviour and deciding how I might have ended it. The Casual Vacancy was one of those rare books which kept me hooked from start to finish, and while I’m too manly to shed tears over a novel, I did feel my eyes beginning to moisten towards the end.

Or perhaps that was because I’d been reading for twelve hours. Either way, I have no qualms about heartily recommending The Casual Vacancy to pretty much anyone, except for little kids who are still working their way through the first Harry Potter books. This is a distinctly adult novel, both because of the story itself and the themes that it contains, but it makes for a great addition to the library of anyone who’s grown up with Rowling, whether they were reading her stories at the time or not. And let’s face it, it was pretty difficult to avoid them.

This book hasn’t achieved the same level of recognition as the Harry Potter series, but I have a feeling that that would always be the case. Don’t let that put you off, though – if this had been published pseudonymously, and if Rowling hadn’t been caught out, people would still have raved about how good it was. In fact, seeing as from what I understand, the novel didn’t do well with the critics, I’d guess a lot of that negativity is because nobody could get over the fact that it was Rowling.

She even has a knack for sprinkling her work with swear words – most authors make them seem unnecessary when they slip them in to their work, particularly in dialogue. Irvine Welsh is the only writer that I know of who makes swearing look completely natural, all of the time – Rowling isn’t in his league, but then she hasn’t had as much practice. All I know is that she’s better than most, and this novel is better than most of its competition.

So what are you waiting for? Whether you’ve read Rowling before or not, if you’re in the mood for a gripping thriller and a good, long, unputdownable read, you’ve come to the right place – buy it now.
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