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Monday, October 15, 2012

Muggle Monday (23): The Casual Vacancy Review

It's time for Muggle Monday, in which I post a quote, a video, or a significant piece of news from the Harry Potter franchise. This is somewhat inspired by the Mundane Monday posts by The Mundie Moms.

But let's be real as to why I made up this meme: I just want the opportunity to post something about Harry Potter.

This week, I'm posting my review for The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling's first post-Potter book:

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Published: September 27, 2012
Pages: 503
Source: Purchased
Rating: 5 Stars


When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the 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 fa├žade 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 first seems.
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish 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?

Disclaimer: This may be already evident to anyone with eyes, but I would like to point out that because J.K. Rowling is the person I worship above all, my review may be biased.

In short: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling is brilliance personified, demonstrating Jo's genius at creating complex and insightful story lines and authentic and intricate characters.
It was with bated breath that I opened up the first page of The Casual Vacancy, all my immense expectations over the course of the previous months leading up to that moment. I was majorly excited to finally have something new to read from Jo, incredibly interested in what she could have to offer for adults, and... admittedly terrified that I wasn't going to love what she had written. That it was going to be too different, too foreign from my idea of J.K. Rowling and all she represents to me.

And it was. Different, I mean. The Casual Vacancy is very ADULT. That's not to say that there aren't any mature themes in Harry Potter, mind you, but all the story lines in The Casual Vacancy were definitely meant for adults only. And it was a shock. We're talking a story that involves hard drugs, teen sex, and rape. To go from the MG/YA story of Harry Potter, with maybe the occasional curse word, to the very mature and occasionally crude use of language in The Casual Vacancy was a bit stupefying at first.

Add to that that I had a hard time becoming invested in the story right at the start. I'm not sure if it was because the tone was shockingly adult and I didn't really know what to make of my childhood hero using such mature language, but I wasn't immediately taken into the story. And then there were all the characters. There are about 15 different main characters who all have chapters written from their point of view. FIFTEEN. And I was struggling in the beginning to keep track of them all. And I was just feeling underwhelmed by the story.

But then about a fifth of the way in, I realized that I was enjoying myself. REALLY enjoying myself. It sort of snuck up on me. I had been trundling along, trying to sort out the characters and becoming accustomed to Jo's new mature tone - and it all just came together for me. I understood it. Not just the characters and their complex relationships - I understood the story, the themes, and the message J.K. Rowling had been trying to get across. And I LOVED it. And that feeling continued for the rest of the book. Just like that, I realized I was invested in the story and the characters and I NEEDED to read more.

The incredibly mature tone and language that had shocked me so much in the beginning became more refreshing to me as I read on. It was authentic, it was gritty, it was REAL LIFE. I become complacent sometimes as I read my more tame MG and YA books and I forget about the gritty reality of real life. The Casual Vacancy is not a story about beautiful teens who realize they're special and fall in love and have incredibly banal romantic feuds, like the stories I am so used to reading. It is a story about real people, dealing with real situations, and there aren't necessarily any happy endings because life is crappy and unfair. And I truly appreciated that (not that I don't love my fun, easier reads at times, as well).

The characters all struck me as very genuine and credible and HIGHLY complex and well defined. Also - and this may be a turnoff for some readers - they were VERY flawed. There was not a Mary Sue or Gary Stu in sight, not in the slightest. They ranged from positively cruel-intentioned (inciting me to Umbridge-levels of RAGE) to well-meaning, but none are saints and none are entirely likeable. For me though, it was Barry Fairbrother, the amiable and benevolent people-lover who's death at the start sets off a wave of unease and turmoil throughout the small town of Pagford, and Krystal Wheedon, the tragic and foul-mouthed teen, who really emerge as the story's champions. Barry's presence - and the lack thereof - and his message that he so passionately promoted in his waking life, had a profound effect on the rest of the town as does Krystal's authentic attitude and raison d'etre.

My worry that The Casual Vacancy would be so different from Harry Potter that J.K. Rowling would be unrecognizable to me turned out to be completely unfounded. Her stamp was clearly over every inch of it - from the complex characters to the gorgeous and clever writing to the political views promoted in the story's message. And just like with Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling was able to create a story that rendered me breathless at times, so powerful were the words I had read. The ending had me gasping, sobbing, and meditating. It was simply MINDBLOWING... and a tad sickening, as well. Jo's brilliance is at full capacity in The Casual Vacancy.

Okay, okay, but as much as I thought The Casual Vacancy was brilliance personified, I can admit that it is not the book for everyone. And because I'm all about realness, I'm going to try to lay this out as plainly as possible in the hopes that anyone still on the fence about reading this may come to a decision: DO read this book if you are a mega fan of J.K. Rowling's even if this isn't the type of book you would normally read. DON'T read this book if you are turned off by strong language and graphic content. DO read this book if you are looking to read outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. DON'T read this book if you prefer lighter, easier reads. DO read this book if you prefer character-driven stories. DON'T read this book if you prefer fast paced and action-packed plots. DO continue to read this book if you stopped and gave up reading near the beginning. DON'T read this book just because of all the hype. DO read this book if you love insightful, highly intelligent stories that make you think and leave you breathless.

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24 comments :

  1. Very interesting take on it, Aylee. I was wondering what a mega HP fan would think of this one.

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  2. I also liked how Krystal did become such an unlikely heroine... she comes across as skanky and moral-less at first, but actually ended up becoming my favorite character. Glad you enjoyed the book, Aylee!

    It wasn't my favorite, despite a bias towards anything JK Rowling writes-- but I definitely found myself enjoying it as well. I heard today that Rowling's next book will probably be for "young children"-- don't know if she means more like the earlier Potter books, or actual picture books, but I can't wait to find out. Great review. :)

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  3. I'm about a third of the way through this book. I'd say that I respect it but I don't totally enjoy it. That's mostly because it's not the type of book I would ordinarily be into but I'm reading it because it's Rowling. I agree that the characters are incredibly well described and the book is well written. I am interested to see where the rest of the story goes although it's a tough read because it's so dark.

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  4. Sounds like a really good book, I'm also hesitant to read it because it is so different to her other writing. Great review though, might actually read it now!

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  5. This story is told from the POV of 15 people? Whoa. I'm not a huge fan of multiple POVs when it's more than 2, so 15 kind of freaks me out. That being said though, if anyone one can pull such a feat off it would be JK Rowling, and I like that your love for this book sort of snuck up on you and you found yourself invested before you really knew it was happening:) Definitely going to be giving this a try Aylee!

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  6. FABULOUS review.
    Honestly.
    I love your dos and don'ts.
    This sounds like a don't for me but I loved your review.

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  7. I've come straight to your review from a less favourable one, so it's good to read both points of view. I haven't yet read this book, and to be honest am a little intimidated by the apparent bleakness of it, but I am very curious to see what else Rowling can do, and am sure I'll read it at some point. Great review, thank you.

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  8. What a fabulous review. You touched on just about everything I was curious about. The length of the story and mature content send me running, but the fact that it would be a book to challenge myself to read outside of my comfort zone entices me. I am a big Harry Potter Fan. I read all the books - not on my kindle either - they are all pretty long reads, especially the last few. I'm not a huge fan of books with lots of sex scenes either, like I probably will never be interested in reading Fifty Shades of Grey. However, cuss words or flawed characters don't bother me at all. I'm a little concerned about the POV of 15 people to keep track of, but since you did it and lived to rave about it motivates me to give it a try. This is certainly one I feel like I should try and read, but maybe something I attack later and not rush right into. Thanks Aylee!

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  9. WOW. I just received my review copy in the mail this past week and am hoping to jump into it really soon. I'm glad I read your review, so I have an idea of what I am getting into. Perhaps I won't be disappointed now that I have your DO/DON'T list to keep in mind. :) Great review!

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  10. What an awesome review, Aylee! I really like everything you have said about The Casual Vacancy. I have ,y copy and taking your advice, I'm gonna read it ASAP because I worship JKR too. :)
    Thanks for this review! It's really made me wanna read it. I'm off to grab the book off of my shelf now. ;)

    Happy reading!

    Sarika @ The Readdicts

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  11. I think this is the best review of the book that I've read.
    You're a fan but you're not letting that blind you.
    And 'm really glad that you loved the book, I don't know if I'll read it though, because it's really out there for me and you know I prefer fluffy books.
    :P

    But who knows! Maybe I'll try it sometime that I want to challenge myself.

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  12. I fully agree! This book was amazing and snuck up on me, and before I knew it I was loving every minute of it!

    Great review!

    Sugar & Snark

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  13. Holy shiz, 15!! O_O I have this one but I'm kind of scared hehe. Seems like it has so many mixed opinions. I know it's not another HP books though which is what a lot of the negative reviews mention, they went in thinking it would be an adult HP. I'M glad that you enjoyed it! I'm definitely going to try it just bc it's JK Rowling >.<

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  14. Absolutely fantastic review! To be honest, this is the first positive review I've seen for this book. I kept reading about how dull it was and I just can't imagine JKR writing anything boring. lol I'm not the least bit surprised that she had such a large number of characters and I believe it that they're all wonderfully written.

    I do want to get around to reading this at some point, but, unfortunately, I can't see it being anytime soon. Still, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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  15. I had a hard time reconciling the author of Harry Potter and this book, too. I didn't make it far enough to really get to know the characters. Mature content like that is really not my thing. But it makes me so glad to see that as the story goes on, it gets to be very complex and interesting. You have me dying to know what the ending is now! That was an amazing and honest review. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  16. "I would like to point out that because J.K. Rowling is the person I worship above all, my review may be biased."

    AHAHAHA! Aylee! Oh my goodness. I kind of love this :D

    And oh my word... This is AMAZING! "It was authentic, it was gritty, it was REAL LIFE. I become complacent sometimes as I read my more tame MG and YA books and I forget about the gritty reality of real life. The Casual Vacancy is not a story about beautiful teens who realize they're special and fall in love and have incredibly banal romantic feuds, like the stories I am so used to reading. It is a story about real people, dealing with real situations, and there aren't necessarily any happy endings because life is crappy and unfair."

    :O :O :O

    This is an AMAZING review! I'm so so SO excited you enjoyed it so much, I'm really, really, looking forward to reading it myself and... seriously. WOW.

    Also, your dos and don'ts are WONDERFUL :D

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  17. Wonderful Aylee. I still need to get a copy of this but I'm really hoping that will be soon because it sounds amazing. I really love realistic, gritty novels that focus on characters and aren't afraid to lay it all out there...so basically, this sounds perfect for me. It will weird that it's coming from Jo of course, b/c we only have Harry Potter to go from when it comes to her stories...but that doesn't mean I don't think I'll love it since it sounds like the type of books I read and love from all these other authors.

    -Lauren

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  18. Yay I am so happy and relieved to hear how much you enjoyed this book! I just started it last night myself (only on chapter II so I don't have much of an opinion yet). I do feel, however, that for the first bit I'll be reading with a bit of tension and expectancy and nervousness. It is such a huge deal that this is her first book for adults, and also her first book after five years. As with you, I've become very accustomed to reading YA books and their familiar tropes and themes and all. But I want more adult fiction in my life too. And I've always found the reason that I was most invested in the Harry Potter series was never about the magic and completely about the characters. Characters make or break a book for me, and it sounds like I don't have to worry at all on that front with The Casual Vacancy. Wonderful review and I really appreciate how you went into detail about the different aspects that make this an adult book, and also the aspects that still make this a J.K. Rowling creation. Eager to continue reading it!

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  19. Uh 15 POVs? Lol, I can only handle 3 at best :)

    I'm still hesitant to read this one just because it sounds so adult but I'm hoping to give it a try one day. In the mean time, I found your review really insightful as to what I would potentially have problems with too (e.g. multiple POVs, graphic content, slower pacing, etc.) :) Oh, and your recommendation for who should read this book was helpful too.

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  20. Great review, Aylee! I still haven't picked this one back up again after putting it down at about the page 105 mark. It just wasn't holding my interest and nothing was happening that told me to keep reading. It's unfortunate because I do love a good adult read, but I'm still glad I gave it a whirl.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  21. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    I love when an author develops a style that we may recognize but can write different types of books and have the ability to step out of their comfort zones.

    It must be difficult for her too because she has so much to live up to after HP and fans that are expecting a certain kind of book.

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  22. Man, the reviews for this thing have been all over the place. I don't even know what to think anymore, but you definitely clarified some things. I appreciate your dos and don'ts. :) I think I'll give it a miss for the pacing problems and too many characters, but I'm glad you liked it!

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  23. I am very excited about this book, and I think I am even more excited about it having read your review. I haven't bought this one yet, mostly because if I buy it I won't read it right away, but if I get it from the library I'll have to read it. This means I have to wait for the other 143 people on the library list to read it before I get to.

    I am glad you weren't disappointed with Jo's more mature work.

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