Book Report: The Casual Vacancy
Most people that have been reading this blog for awhile know that I’m a pretty avid reader, and try my best to stay on top of the buzziest fiction, nonfiction, and YA fiction alike (in fact, stay tuned for my top picks in each of those categories come Christmastime!) Every year it seems there are one or two books that become publishing juggernauts, and where I often make an effort to read these types of books close to their release date, I’m happy to share them with you. Because here’s the thing: when everyone is talking about it, you really do want to know what it’s all about before you buy it as a no-brainer gift idea for a friend or family member. With that in mind, when these massive books hit the shelves, I’m going to try and give you all a little unconventional peek into the book – a try before you buy, if you will – in the form of answering five questions that might be running through your head when browsing the bookshelves, be they real or digital. Without further ado, let’s talk about The Casual Vacancy.
What’s the buzz? JK Rowling is one of the world’s wealthiest women, and authors, after selling over 450 million copies of her treasured Harry Potter children’s series. Although some authors may have been content to hang up their hats after that kind of staggering success, Rowling took a few years off before picking up her virtual pen to write her first novel for adults, which just hit the shelves on September 27th and quickly climbed to the top of major book charts.
What’s the story? A beloved (and somewhat stubborn) local politician of a small British town dies unexpectedly, leaving a ‘casual vacancy’ on Pagford’s Parish Council, in a role that is essentially equivalent to being Mayor. Various members of the town start jockeying for the spot, motivated by everything from finding a shortcut in life to paying homage to an old friend to being pumped up by some particularly calculating parents. The most important issue on the table? Redirecting an unsavory government housing area that is currently the bane of Pagford’s picture postcard existence to be maintained by their nearly invisible (and less desirable) northern neighbours, Yarvil. The twenty or so characters that colour the pages of Rowling’s novel are all tied to this core plot element, but they each have their own meandering daily experiences – from boyhood crushes to loathsome in-laws to tenuous family situations, every little thread of each character’s story builds up to shape the overall arc, whether each character realizes it or not.
I’ve read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series…will I like this? That’s a tough one in many ways. What was revered about Harry Potter was the fact it was incredibly sophisticated for a children’s series. The same could be said of Rowling’s adult outing – it’s an incredibly sophisticated book for adults. If you (or your giftee) loves literary fiction in the vein of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) or Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) they’ll probably adore the incredible layered story taking place here, and find the beauty in the minutiae that Rowling picks up. If they’re expecting a moving yet light read a la Potter, they may be frustrated at how dense the book is. Both, of course, are incredibly well-written – so there’s that.
What makes this a ‘book for adults’? Sex, drugs, swearing – it’s all on the table in this one. Freed from the shackles of first kisses and shy glances, Rowling’s adult book is not suitable for young fans of her writing. Interestingly it tackles a lot of the same issues Potter dipped its toe in – class, poverty, the misabuse of power, rebellion, and of course, politics – but it grounds the book in a very real, darkly comic reality. There are no veiled references here; what you read is what you get, and it’s not always a pretty picture.
Who should read this book? Truthfully, and what makes this an interesting mega-release, I wouldn’t necessarily say Rowling fans. The only real similarities between the two are jabs of dry British humour, the English setting, and the quality of writing. That’s not to say Rowling fans won’t like the book, but it is to say it’s totally based on what you appreciated about her writing. I’d say don’t gift this to anyone younger than University age – not because of its ‘adult’ subject matter, but simply because any younger, and I think you’d have a hard time grasping it. If your giftee loves to read, stays on top of the major literary awards, or is the de facto queen of your book club? Then you’ve got a winner on your hands. One final note: what may actually work against Rowling is her body of work to date. Literary snobs may look down on ‘that wizard author’, while Potter fans may be shell-shocked at the leap up in difficulty. Be prepared to prepare your giftee with just why you chose it for them, if you think they fall in that sweet spot of both appreciating the book and adoring the author’s talent.
BONUS: Are you by chance giving a copy away? You bet! Here’s how to enter:
1) Leave a comment by November 1st on why you’d like to read JK Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy.
2) Entries are limited to one per person / per email address / per household (or more if you score bonus entries). A random draw will be conducted on or around November 2nd to select the winner, who will have 48 hours to respond before another winner is chosen in their place.
3) Entries are limited to Canadians that have reached the age of majority in their province. Quebec is not eligible to participate in this promotion.
4) Bonus Entry: Like Hachette Book Group on Facebook to get the latest on their releases! Drop your username in the comments below.