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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
on 28 September 2012
When Rowling released her first book in 1997, I was the same age as the eponymous Harry Potter - 11. Now, at the age of 26, I came to her debut adult fiction as perhaps the definition of its target audience; someone who had grown with Rowling's book into an adult with a consuming love of fiction in every form. I have her to thank for that, and so it was with no little amount of trepidation that I bought a copy of The Casual Vacancy on the day of release and sat down to read it.
It isn't without its faults. At times the editing is sloppy, and you get the feeling that the editor was perhaps slightly in awe and afraid to correct her. Rowling has an annoying habit of enclosing entire chunks of text inside brackets, and even her most fervent fans would struggle to hold her prose up to the true literary greats. On occasion sneeringly judgmental, you are left with a slight nauseous sensation that no doubt she intended for you to feel, but nonetheless makes it difficult to view the book with any affection after reading it. It seems to read more like an embittered social commentary than a novel in the truest sense of the word.
Yet despite that, Rowling's enviable talent doesn't fail to shine through. Even through the fugue of a rambling mess of characters that are near impossible to empathise with or even like in the least, her writing flows and draws you in just as Harry Potter did in its finest moments. I found myself awake until 2am - on a school night, as well! - devouring every devious twist and turn the story took as it raced towards its bleak conclusion.
When I set it aside, in spite of the cloud of unnerved gloom that had settled over me, the overriding sense I had of The Casual Vacancy was that Rowling had held nothing back. I had just read the precise book that she intended to deliver, conveying a strong and unflinching message in defiance of the expectations upon her. For that, she must be applauded.
Set aside all pre-conceptions and approach this book for what it is, not the identity of its author, and you won't be disappointed.
on 25 October 2012
If it had been written by anyone else, it would have reviewed so much better, but no story could ever live up to the expectations surrounding this one.
The Casual Vacancy is a cleverly woven story, with a large cast of characters, and short snappy chapters that move things along nicely. None of the characters were really likeable, and at times it feels as if the book might be veering into some sort of middle-class-bashing nonsense, but thankfully this is not the case.
Overall, a very satisfying read.
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.
on 16 November 2012
After reading a sample I was intrigued and wanted to know what would happen to the characters in the story. I felt some sympathy for the woman whose husband had died. I was interested in the plot line. I wanted to know what where the story was going. Having just moved to a village myself I was interested in the setting. Unfortunately I found little to enjoy or excite consideration. All the characters are unpleasant with no redeeming features. I kept thinking this has got to improve. Everyone has something pleasant but these characters are totally mean. In every way. Towards each other, themselves, their children... Everything and everyone is hard, thoughtless, shallow and generally selfish. The weak are totally spineless. The aggressive would not just pull the wings off flies, they would take pleasure in ripping Granny's nails out one at a time. It's not that I expect to like characters in a story but you have to have some sympathy for them. I lost interest in whether their lives would change. I didn't care whether their lives stayed the same, improved or got worse. When I fell to looking out of the train window instead of reading I knew the story had lost me. I ploughed on to the end. I did not want a happy ending which is good because I did not get one! It reminded me somehow of Under Milkwood. A bitter attack on society. It is a well written but very harsh view of current British society. Be prepared for misery, cruelty, brutality, sexism, bigotry and a complete lack of humanity if you decide to read this book.