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When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early 40s, the little 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 at first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the town's 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?
Blackly comic, thought-provoking, and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults.
I read Rowling's other non-Potter book (the one she wrote under a pseudonym) and found it entertaining but mediocre. I expected the same reaction to this one and had therefore put off listening to it. When I did, I was totally surprised by how much I liked it. So much so that I laid in bed until well past two in the morning listening to the end (something I rarely do)--ergo the five stars even though this is not 'high' literature.
The Casual Vacancy is a story about the dark hidden lives of the inhabitants of a small country town. (Yes, not a very original theme but so very well done by Rowling.) The characters are dark, Very dark. Sometimes their meanness astounds you. In fact, they are all mean, except in varying degrees -- the only 'solid' good guy appears to be the character who dies in the first few pages of the book, leaving "the casual vacancy" in the town's council. (Had he lived, no doubt we would have found he had his secrets as well. Nobody is blameless here.)
The things that happen as a result of the characters inner flaws and demons are catastrophic, but easy to believe. In fact, Rowling makes them seem inevitable. A train without brakes going downhill.
I hope she writes more novels like this. And I hope Tom Hollander reads them. I will be sure to listen.
37 of 41 people found this review helpful
Or perhaps a better title for my review would be: You don’t have S3X near unicorns. In some ways this novel seems like a more middleweight 21st century counterpoint to Martin Amis' novel 'Money'. J.K. Rowling's new "adult" novel could just as easily been titled 'Poverty' or 'Mortality' (sorry J.K., but Hitch beat you to that title), both of which are themes that play throughout this novel.
It is weird for me, as a reader of all her juvenile fiction, to think of her in the same way with 'Casual Vacancy'. It appears it is hard for J.K. too. Rowling clearly is strongly connected to young adults, because the best parts of 'The Casual Vacancy' orbit the novel's younger characters.
In 'Casual Vacancy', Rowling falls back into writing about factions and tribalism in communities. Instead of a sorting hat, Pagford's tribes are sorted by money, by politics, by class, and in the case of those around Barry Fairweather -- by luck. It really seems like you can't write about England's poverty or class struggles without a little bit of dark humor and tragicomedy.
But, there is a real danger in writing a novel your loyal readers might not be ready for. We are creatures of habit and expectation. Go back and ask Melville how his loyal followers liked Moby Dick. I am positive that there will be scores of readers that will be upset, disenchanted, and disallusioned with Rowling's new book. But that is OK. In a greater way that is probably just what JK wants and expects (obviously on top of being read).
The British actor Tom Hollander's participation in the audiobook was a brilliant (seriously brillaint) move. The tecture of his voice is easy, lyrical and clear. He is able to subtly voice the many shades and variations of English class (Ruth and her husband Simon are good examples of his deft reading). The clarity and crispness of his voice also makes this an audiobook that you can listen to ALMOST as easily at 2x speed as 1x speed (although as an American, I didn't dare listen to it for long at 3x speed).
I'm not sure I would call it a great book (sorry folks, it isn't 'Bleak House' or 'Les Miserables'), but neither my money/credit nor my time was wasted listening to it.
293 of 338 people found this review helpful
Oscar Wilde's famous line "The good end happily and the bad unhappily, that is what fiction means" sums up the hero's journey that is the Harry Potter series. Inventive and imaginative, the reader enters a world that could never be, and encounters characters full of the greatest attributes of mankind: kindness, loyalty and courage prime among them. Goodness inevitably triumphs over evil, and the victory is won by not a single hero, but a band of friends exhibiting humanity at its best.
Humanity is not at its best in "The Casual Vacancy", far from it. Readers who found it exhilarating to imagine themselves soaring through the air on a broomstick or a hippogriff are rudely dropped onto the hard asphalt of contemporary class and racial bias. It is not a pretty sight or enjoyable experience. It is not meant to be.
I responded the same way many readers did by realizing that there isn't a single character that is not deeply flawed, and in many ways, unlikeable. The one person we would actually like to have as a friend dies at the outset of the book, and even he has imperfect relationships with those closest to him. His presence created equilibrium between warring factions driven by prejudice and mistrust. His death upsets the balance and begins a cascade of events which ends in tragedy. A more hopeful book would have the characters experience epiphanies which would change them internally and the world around them externally.
But this is not a hopeful book. I don't think it was meant to be. The author masterfully weaves the strands of the plot until all the characters have to look at themselves deeply if they are capable of it. Many of them are not, and are not changed by the losses they experience. This is where fantasy and reality collide, good is not going to triumph over evil, and that is depressing and heartbreaking.
The point, I believe, is that complex problems do not have easy answers, and sometimes have no answers at all. The Potter series is about finding the hidden power within you. This book is about the hidden powerlessness we feel as a society when confronted by the fear of those who are not like us. While we have best of intentions, our fear triumphs over our desire to do the right thing.
I believe Ms. Rowling's intent was to make us think deeply about intractable problems, and I think she was successful in doing so. It is not an enjoyable read, but it is an important one. It makes us uncomfortable, this time she didn't want to entertain us with fantasy, but to give us a big dose of reality as seen by a skilled storyteller.
65 of 76 people found this review helpful
I mean that in a good way. I've never read or seen a Potter, but love witty light Brit lit. This IS a fun listen, though some of the characters and observations are mean-spirited. This also does a novel's job - observes and comments on the human condition, so although light, it is in the tradition (though not same fighting class) of a Trollope or Austen - keen observation of daily life beyond the surface, and well-expressed. Rowling makes even a journey across a parking lot interesting, and the narrator is A+
I downloaded this only out of curiosity and lost a night's sleep because I couldn't stop listening. If you like story-telling and don't need a happy -ever-after resolution, this may be for you. If you like sparse, taught prose and postmodern-y novels, maybe skip it.
I usually avoid novels with adolescent characters and their concerns, but. like Paul Murray, Rowling makes even that age group interesting for me. (Sorry if that sounds ageist; I'm a self-absorbed babyboomer - and we're in the novel too)
82 of 97 people found this review helpful
When I finished listening to this book I immediately wanted to talk about it. My initial feeling was one of bafflement, mostly because, while this book was not what I consider "enjoyable" by most of the definitions I use for that word - I did enjoy it.
I tend to be drawn to books that will allow me to disappear into them. I want to escape from reality and inhabit a different world for a while, fall in love, have grand adventures, make new friends. This was not the book for any of that. Instead The Casual Vacancy keeps you right here in "the real world". More than that, it shines an unforgiving light into all of the dingiest, ugliest, saddest and most tragic corners of the world and introduces you to a whole town full of despicable, ugly and tragic characters and it does it in a gorgeous way. The world is painted with the skilled brushes of JK Rowlings fantastic command of language and brilliant story-telling.
This is the first Tom Hollander narration that I have listened to. I have listened to A Lot of audiobooks though, and have experienced that a narrator can make or break a book in audio format. I enjoyed Tom Hollander very much.
Like the rest of the world, I became a fan of the author through the charming and magical world she created with Harry Potter. Those audiobooks are some of my absolute favorites. I have listened to them over and over - they are a great thing to just throw on when I am bored and have nothing new to listen to. It has been my experience that JK Rowling's books have many and unexpected layers, so I WILL be listening to this book again once it has had a bit more time to digest in my head, though I don't see it going onto my list of often repeated files.
Because I do enjoy that world so much I really wanted to support the author in this newest endeavor. I went in knowing that this was an adult book, not a fantasy/sci-fi book and most definitely NOT HP. Even so, it was difficult to divorce myself from those preconceived notions and just give this book a shot on it's own merits. There were a few spots in the book where I found myself pulled out of the story a bit by the swearing. I found myself wondering how much of it was necessary to the story and how much of it was an artifice to break from the HP mold. I do not have an issue with swearing, and it is clear that some measure of it is completely appropriate, and perhaps even necessary to illustrate the world created in The Casual Vacancy. There were still a few spots where it seemed - contrived almost - and reminded me that I was reading a JK Rowling book rather than getting me to forget about the author and immerse into the story.
I don't want to live in this world (even though I am aware that I do). All in all though, I am glad I made the purchase, and though this book had a lot of hurdles to jump - I think that it was worth the effort to experience what I view as a piece of art. The characters in this book are not the loveable oddballs of HP, but they do show that Rowling can create the rainbow of despicable humanity just as well.
I don't feel like I have said a whole lot to really encourage anyone towards this story, but I do think that any book that makes you think, makes you want to talk about it, makes you pause and reassess the way you view the world, is a good book. The Casual Vacancy did all of those things for me. Instead of wanting to escape into it's world it made me relieved to return to my own. Instead of falling in love with the characters, it made me recall why I love the people in my own. Instead of making me want to escape, it actually made me want to take action.
39 of 48 people found this review helpful
It's the minutia of small town life in Britain, the struggles of middle schoolers everywhere: sex, parents, dysfunction; of parents - relationships, appearances. There's a lot of truth and understanding and humanity in her writing. Given some of the reviews, I didn't expect to find the power and insights I did. It starts with high level quarrels and slowly descends beneath the surface to anger, revenge, and deeper still.
9 of 11 people found this review helpful
I can't identify a single, admirable character in the entire cast. Everyone was flawed, and most, fatally. Yet the author takes the reader into their lives so deftly, I was enthralled. Felt a bit like the proverbially bird watching a snake. Narrator Tom Hollander did a superb job, especially with the voicing of different characters. So much so, that I will search his name for other books he has narrated. Following a narrator, rather than only the author, is something I rarely do. All in all, a very, very good book, but if you're looking for something cheery and uplifting, do pass on this one.
5 of 6 people found this review helpful
Originally posted at: A Girl that Likes Books
Why I read this book?
Ever since the book came out I wanted to read it even though it got so many bad reviews from a lot of people. Having it available as an audio book gave me the option to give it a try, without getting the physical book.
What's the book about?
This book tells us how the lives of several inhabitants of Pagford after Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council dies.
What about the main characters?
This book has several main characters in my opinion; this "main lines" will tell the story of all at the same time. I found both Crystal and Suckhvinder as different as they are, they were very well written, and I could feel for them more than empathy. I had a bit more of a problem sympathising with any of the adults in the book, since they all seemed whiny and funny enough, behave as teenagers as much as the teens themselves. I found Samantha very entertaining, but even then, it didn't fully click.
I believe that most of the people who were "disappointed" at this book it was because they were expecting something like Harry Potter...and this is so not that type of book.
Now that we have established this, I will tell you that I actually quite enjoyed the book. For a book with so many characters it was easy to follow what was happening to whom. There is a lot of social critic without being a "soap box" book.
Funny enough this book reminded me of Under the Dome, simply because of how a single event modifies so drastically everyone else in a tiny town. In a way the people of Pagford are also under a bubble, except that in this case is of their own construction.
There were some very crude moments but this brought deeper "humanity" to the characters and by the end the felt quite tangible for me. The end was unexcpeted enough to surprise me, but not out of the blue in a way that would've ruined the whole dynamic of the book for me.
I really enjoyed Tom Hollander as a narrator, his tone is very pleasant and although, as non native speaker, I'm more used to an American accent I had no trouble whatsoever following him.
8 of 10 people found this review helpful
I don't usually rate books so late, but I had to add my two cents to the reviews about this book. It is not a easy read, but Rowling has great insight into the teenage psyche. That said, this book is for adults. Not an easy or fun read but worth the trauma for the beauty of a story well told.
13 of 17 people found this review helpful
*Making the leap from the world of magical youth to all-things-adult is not always and easy transition...how many jaws hit the ground when Hannah Montana dropped it like it's hot with a pole on the Teen Choice Awards, a move unanaimously considered by critics to be *inappropriate* and *ill-advised*. I am NOT saying this book is inappropriate or ill-advised -- only noting that there is always a risk involved when a anyone makes a 180* turn from the iconic role people have readily and so fondly associated them with. And this is a certainly a complete change of direction from an enchanted world to a mean gritty village on the opposite pole.
Apparently this turn-about was also difficult for the professional critics (and amusing): 1) Time magazine went so far as to *award* Rowling the Booker Prize, raving that it is *brilliant* and full of *literary intelligence*, going on to quote, "Rowling shows off a new descriptive dexterity, an extra verbal gear that until now she kept in reserve: a used condom in the grass is 'the gossamer cocoon of some large grub.'" 2) The NY Times called the novel *dull* and *crudely staged*, quoting the exact passage (that so moved Times Entertainment) as an example: "a gross description of a used condom 'glistening in the grass beside her feet like the gossamer cocoon of some large grub.'" Who am I to argue with the pros...
My unprofessional opinion: I agree with Time Magazine somewhat, but I experienced what the NY Times observed. I struggled to stay with this and admit I probably would not have were it not for Rowling's name and my expectations. Any book about hard drug abuse, violence, rape, bullying, suicide, and skanky sex, is of course a demanding read...combined with a roster of mean and nasty amoral characters-- and the demand is not worth the reward. Yes, the wretched characters tugged at my emotions, (the teen characters were the highlight of this book), but they were largely already so irrevocably damaged, or so repellent that it was logically impossible to cling to any hope. The first 2/3 of the book is burdened with descriptions, the dreary town, the residents, the politics, the history, the mundane day-to-day -- so slow and ponderous that it feels almost like it is written in real time. The novel picks up speed towards the end, but not the mood -- depressing and disparaging, perhaps Rowlings views of some of society, and her rally for change.
There are moments of brilliance, some great socio-political agendas going on, and some satirical humor, but I have to disagree with reviewers that compare this to other great English novels and their dark humor. The humor here is much darker than the British classics; it's black, mean-spirited schadenfreude and I almost felt guilty for even thinking of a grin. There will be some that will pass on this book because of the subject matter or be turned away by the language, others will find it slow, some may not be willing to allow Rowling such a reversal, and I'm sure there will be those that unfairly compare this to her monolithic HP series. Myself, I'll be recommending Casual Vacancy very judiciously to just a few friends. Rowling is an immensely talented writer and thinker, and I understand where she was going with this, I just couldn't go there with her, but admire her willingness to explore and take us along. I'm looking forward to her next transition, and not looking back. Even with the *brilliance* and *literary intelligence*...this just wasn't my preferred cup of tea.
32 of 43 people found this review helpful