My amazo BF gave me a Kindle for my birthday and I immediately downloaded JK Rowling's new novel. This worked out for me because a) it was cheaper than buying a hard copy and b) you can't tell how long it is in electronic form (normally I can't be bothered reading books over 400 pages...this one was about 500).
But it didn't feel like 500 pages. The Casual Vacancy was very easy to read, with the same ambling, evenly toned and often comic writing style as the Harry Potter books; its characters that were clearly illustrated in terms of appearance and personality; and its storyline (that sounds boring to the untrained ear) was extremely gripping.
JK's newbie is set in Pagford, a small English town, which is thrown into turmoil when Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town council dies very suddenly. While his friends and family grieve,
the town council goes to war. Barry's death has left a 'casual vacancy' on the council, and his supporters want someone like Barry in his place, who will lobby to keep the Fields (the local housing estate) within the district boundaries and to keep Bellchapel (the local addiction clinic) open; other councilors, like the detestable, morbidly obese, and mayor-like town pillar Howard Mollison, want to co-opt anti-Fielders to the team to protect their precious, hard-working, historic, snobby and largely white Pagford.
It's a dark novel, which exposes the horror under the veneer of a tidy small town - domestic abuse, lies, prejudice, racism, bullying, the trials of mental illness, bullying, suicide, swindling, etc - as well as the horror of life in the housing estate, like heroine addiction, poverty, illness, rape, etc.
JK creates the town dynamic exceptionally well: there are about 14 main characters, and we know all about whom they like and hate, their insecurities, their jobs, their home lives, their family relationships, their goals in life. Most of them are quite complex - Howard's wife Shirley is as horrible as her husband, but her bitterness is understandable considering her circumstance; teenager Fats Wall is the meanest, most selfish and frustrating character I've read about in years, but it's clear by the end why he acts the way he does.
There were passages that were difficult to read: many of the male characters were selfish, arrogant, violent, or self-obsessed to some degree, and Gavin's treatment of his girlfriend Kay (whom he can't stand, but whom he is too weak to actually leave) is painful and awkward to get through, as are Simon Price's constant bouts of angers and the consequent beatings of his children and wife. I should note that most of the female characters were majorly flawed too. The most likable characters were Andrew Price (Simon's son), his school girl crush Gaia and her friend Sukhvinder, who formed solid friendships with each other based on truth and respect.
While totally un-put-downable, The Casual Vacancy seemed overwrought in its determination to reveal the true of grit of English life. By using every possible negative social problem in the UK as a major plot point, JK detracts from the seriousness of these problems. The resolution of Krystal and her brother Robbie's story seemed particularly strained. Also, JK sometimes over-explains her own plot, as if the audience won't understand what she's talking about. Which is ludicrous, because her writing style is otherwise quite clear, and the overwriting actually made me feel patronised.
What JK does best, though, is create people and describe their motivations not only clearly, but in ways that are relatable. I identified with every single character at some point during the book - many of which times made me very uncomfortable - but mostly just made me look forward to her work, post-HP. Kudos.