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The Casual Vacancy Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel Carriere

Updated on April 18, 2020
Mel Carriere profile image

Book Blogger Mel Carriere is Machiavellian in his quest for good reads. He will take candy from a baby, he will steal a book from his kids.

I found The Casual Vacancy at my local Goodwill, sitting abandoned and forgotten there, like orphaned Harry Potter exiled to the muggle Dursleys
I found The Casual Vacancy at my local Goodwill, sitting abandoned and forgotten there, like orphaned Harry Potter exiled to the muggle Dursleys | Source

Dusting Off Old Clichés, Favorite Writers

Has it really been that long? Seems like yesterday - to dust off the old cliché, but it had to have been the year 1999 or 2000. Then, we were right on the cusp of the new millennium, shadow boxing with the daunting Y2K, a phantom villain that failed to materialize, now laughable in the face of society's very real coronavirus meltdown.

My oldest son must have been in either second or third grade when he brought home a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, probably purchased from a classroom Scholastic book order. Up until then I had seen Harry Potter festooned on posters and cardboard displays in every bookstore I walked into, particularly the now defunct Borders I frequented. At first, I laughed off the boy wizard as a pulp fiction trend for kids, somewhere along the lines of the Goosebumps book I read the boy one evening, but wouldn't do again because it kept him up at night, seeing phantoms in every corner of the darkened room. I scoffed at the Harry Potter fad as something similar, in the category of Harlequin romances or dime novel westerns.

Nonetheless, I was curious to see what the craze was all about, so I picked up my son's book and started reading, not expecting to last long.

I think I was hooked by the end of page one, or maybe paragraph one. I didn't give the book back to the lad until approximately 300 pages later, when I was finished. I have to do my parental duty and make sure there's nothing indecent in here for you, I probably told him, or some nonsense like that.

From then on, it was a running battle to get to the Harry Potter books before my kids could. I ordered in advance and patiently counted down the days until the next installment. I even wound up buying two copies of The Order of the Phoenix when my child left the first one at Grandma's house. I was completely enthralled by the saga - the complexity of the fantastic backdrop, the mystery surrounding the resurgence of the evil Voldemort, but particularly the depth of the series' characters. The exquisitely skilled storyteller, JK Rowling, was an expert at arousing feelings for her cast of wizards, witches, and muggles, both good and bad, particularly for the downtrodden orphaned waif of her title character, who rises from a lowly cupboard beneath the stairs to become the hero of the wizarding world.

The years since have whizzed by like a Quidditch Seeker racing after the golden snitch. The Harry Potter epic ended a decade and a half ago, but remains relevant to our culture through the endless television rotation of movies it spawned, the theme park attractions built to capitalize on its astounding popularity, and the recent Fantastic Beasts cinematic serial. The boy wizard retains a tenacious hold upon the minds and hearts of fans he thrilled at the turn of the millennium.

Therefore, when I spotted Rowling's The Casual Vacancy at my local Goodwill, sitting abandoned and forgotten there like young Harry exiled to the muggle Dursleys, I knew I had to rescue it. A great writer is a great writer, right? - no matter what genre he or she ventures into. Such was my thinking when I picked this book up, and I wasn't disappointed.

Around the turn of the millennium, you couldn't go anywhere without bumping into the boy wizard.
Around the turn of the millennium, you couldn't go anywhere without bumping into the boy wizard. | Source

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Although in most jurisdictions theft from minors is either illegal or highly frowned upon, in our little district of Lunchtime Lit Land the practice is not only sanctioned by higher authority, it is actively encouraged. Therefore, stealing away your childrens' Scholastic book order to enjoy on your 30 minute postal lunch break is perfectly fine, as not as it is not brought home for nighttime reads. That would most definitely be cheating, and we don't endorse such immorality here.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
Power in the Blood
A Suitable Boy
Death Is a Lonely Business
The Casual Vacancy

**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.

*Twenty-five other titles, with a total estimated word count of 5,349,725 and 815 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

Vacating The Goodwill Bookshelf

This recent Goodwill encounter wasn't the first time I had seen The Casual Vacancy. Upon its publication in 2012, I was immediately aware of its existence. Rowling's insane fame gave her head of the line privileges in local bookstores, where the hardback was prominently displayed upon its release, albeit fleetingly. It was everywhere for a minute, and I had picked it up once before putting it down again, daunted by the price, a price I would have happily dished out twice over for any of the Harry Potter books. But why not give it a whirl? - I thought that second time, for the couple bucks it will cost me here in the thrift shop.

The truth is, I don't think this post-Potter publication was marketed correctly. The dust jacket billed it as a political tale, a struggle for a vacated council seat in some lackluster English muggle town. The idea didn't seem all that appealing to me, so I left the book where I found it, until seven years later there in that Goodwill shop, where I was willing to take a gamble on a cheap, used copy.

I soon found out that yes, Vacancy is a political tale, but it is much more than that. The story turns out to be a penetrating expose of a superficially pleasant, peaceful English burg, whose pretty exterior is peeled back to expose the stinking viscera of the place. The staid, respectable councilmen of Pagford all have rotten skeletons in their closets. Even their children are dysfunctional, as well as the town's youth at large, both the offspring of the reputable inhabitants, and those outcasts at its rejected margins. Everybody in Pagford deals with personal Dementors, but real ones relevant to all our lives, not the fantastical contrivances of an author's imagination, lording over some fictional Azkaban dungeon.

All the people who appear in The Casual Vacancy have chronic character flaws. The only really good man in Pagford, Barry Fairbrother, dies on page 5. He was the glue that held the town together, the one who supported the flimsy house of cards. His unexpected offing not only leaves a vacancy on the city council, it rips the place apart at the seams, exposing the dirty, festering cancer at the heart of the burg.

Character development was one cornerstone of Harry Potter's success, and Ms. Rowling demonstrates she is still superb at it here. There is nothing cardboard or stereotyped about the citizens of Pagford. Much like real people in real life, they are all a balance of good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, phony vs. authentic. The least likely of them eventually reclaims the moral high ground abandoned when Fairbrother died, but she too has a dark, secret side.

The fictional town of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy may be inspired by Yate, Gloucestershire, the West Country town that was Ms. Rowling's birthplace.
The fictional town of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy may be inspired by Yate, Gloucestershire, the West Country town that was Ms. Rowling's birthplace. | Source

Darkness Among These Muggles

There is a darkness among these muggles in The Casual Vacancy that the wizarding world can't copy. The villains in Pagford don't need a wand and a cruciatus curse to bring down their enemies. Just a little knowledge of sql injection website hacking and the willingness to use it, is enough to bare the ugly truth about foes and family members alike, unleashing a small town s**tstorm.

Warning - Just because this novel is written by your grade school kid's favorite author, probably the only author most of them have read, don't be thinking it is going to be PTA approved. So if you intend to seek this out for your reading pleasure, don't waste your time looking in the local elementary school library.

It is almost as if Ms. Rowling wrote the tale as a reaction to being mother-approved for so many years, a kind of big eff-you and the broomstick you rode in on. Among other indecencies, Vacancy contains both snogging and sagging between minors. There are cougar mommas lusting after teenage boys. There are all kinds of bad word bludgers being beaten about, oaths and imprecations that Professor McGonagall would definitely give you detention for at Hogwarts.

I, for one, admire Rowling's pluck, her willingness to step outside her safe, luxurious, lucrative genre box, and go to places where she would risk being lambasted by outraged parents who now have to cover their kiddies' virgin eyes and ears, lest they be exposed to the ugly reality in which we live. She could have gotten away with writing about dragons and horcruxes into infinity, but she chose to venture into forbidden territory, to put her immense talents to work on a very human story.

So go ahead and have your witch hunt, if you like, but I think I'll sit this one out. I thoroughly enjoyed The Casual Vacancy and I thoroughly enjoy its author, the lovely and talented JK Rowling, whether she's writing about the magical or the mundane. But then again, I like brainy girls. I'm not at all intimidated by them, I think I have a Freudian urge to be dominated by them.

JK Rowling reading from Harry Potter at the White House easter egg roll.  I dig brainy girls.  I think she's a hella hottie.
JK Rowling reading from Harry Potter at the White House easter egg roll. I dig brainy girls. I think she's a hella hottie. | Source

"There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children's babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I'm a writer, and I will write what I want to write."

— JK Rowling - The New Yorker


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    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      2 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Yeah Lawrence she has a mystery series under a pen name but this came before that. And it's not a political thriller at all. It kind of defies definition, which is part of its strength. Thanks for dropping in.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


      A very good review, though I'm a bit surprised at this, because she normally writes her political thrillers under a pen name.

      Maybe this was her test case.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Edward she's a fantastic storyteller, a regular 21st century Homer. The difference between your parenting skills and mine is that I didn't give the book back until I was finished.

      I appreciate you dropping in.

    • EdwardLane profile image

      Edward Lane 

      5 weeks ago from Wichita Falls, Texas

      Great article, Mel! I remember Y2K like you do. I suspect some people made a lot of money off that hoax. As to Harry Potter I had a similar experience. I read a page of Harry Potter before my daughter stole it! I had to wait!! Rowling is entertaining isn’t she?

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Davika. Yes those little kids have all grown up now. I was trying to watch a Netflix series yesterday with Rupert Gint, the young man who played Ron Weasley in the series. They are all adults, and have moved on. Thanks for dropping in.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 weeks ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Harry Potter is one of the best and I read a few of his books. I recently watched a movie of Harry potter acting in Guns Akimbo and was surprised of how much older he is. Great review and you enlightened me on this one.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda. I hope you like it as much as I did. Some people have said it's too slow. I didn't think that, but there are definitely extreme opinions on this one.

      I appreciate you dropping in. Stay well.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Your review is intriguing. I've read all of the Harry Potter books, but not the one that you've reviewed. I can tell that it's a very different type of book, but I'm looking forward to reading it.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Meg. I hope you are not disappointed. Others here have not been as enthusiastic about the experience as I was. I really appreciate you dropping in.

    • DreamerMeg profile image


      6 weeks ago from Northern Ireland

      Great review. I read all the Harry Potter books, not by stealing them from my kids, or grandkids but by being offered the loan of them by a work colleague who borrowed them from her kids after they had read them. As a fast reader, it only took me a couple of nights reading to be able to return them, very grateful for the opportunity to read them. I must look out for the casual vacancy. I prefer magic to politics but J K Rowling is a great author.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      John, I've gotten mixed reviews of my review, so watch out. Some are claiming there is not enough action here. That may be true, but I thought it was very captivating non action.

      Anyway, this book might last you a couple days worth of sheltering in place. I hope you are doing well down there. Thanks for dropping in.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      Wow, what a rave review you gave this book, Mel. It seems J K Rowling is certainly more than meets the eye. Sounds like A Casual Vacancy is certainly a must-read for me. Thanks for sharing this review.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Bill if you're like I was you will start the Potter series and not come up for air until it is over. I don't know if you're a speed reader, but seven very thick books will put you off the map for a while.

      I hope you are doing well. Thanks for dropping in.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I admit it now to the world: I have never read a Rowling's book. Seems odd to say that. I would imagine that puts me in a very exclusive club,don't you think? Having said that, your review of this book has me curious. There is a very real chance I might give it a go.

      Stay safe my friend, and Happy Sunday to you!

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Pamela, if you like a good mystery with very strong characters you can both love and hate, I think you would like Harry Potter. Its one of those sagas that transcend age boundaries.

      Unfortunately, the virus is not far away anymore. One of my coworkers came down with the bug and I am hiding out for a few days. I had some symptoms that are probably not Covid-19 related, but they are having me stay home just in case. I feel like a coward but here I am, obeying the doctor's orders.

      I hope you are doing well there in sunny Florida. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      6 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Mel, I hope you are well and the vrus is far away. Let us know if that is not the case.

      I have never read any of the Harry Potter books as I really thought they were for kids and I didn't think I would enjoye them. LOL

      Maybe it is time for me to rethink my attitude. If you read it then so can I read this book. I know Rowling has been considered a very good author, so I think it is time for me to reconsider my attitude. Enjoy your weekend.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Mills. Maybe that's why Ann didn't like it, because she paid full price, and I practically stole it for a couple bucks off the Goodwill rack. I don't like paying full price for any book, because I'm incurable slob and I don't treat them kindly.

      I hope Rowling will write more for us. I think she wrote some mystery novels under a pseudonym, and I am kind of curious about those too.

      I appreciate you dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      I'll be here, Ann, I'll be here. I appreciate the concern.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 

      6 weeks ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      This sounds like the very definition of a bargain book. Thanks for showing a different side to the one that made Rowling so successful.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      6 weeks ago from SW England

      Then I hope you feel better quickly. You are wise to obey orders! Happy writing! I'll be checking on you...


    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Ann. I have been put on a temporary stay at home by my doctor. Someone in our post office caught the dreaded bug, and since I had the sniffles I thought I better report it. I am pretty sure I am fine, but am complying with the order. It gives me some time to catch up on writing.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      6 weeks ago from SW England

      All reading is subjective of course but it's rare that an author I like doesn't appeal with every story. You might be right but there are plenty of British authors whose work I like.

      I think she has sons, doesn't she? So maybe she's seen enough of their teenage behaviour to be able to get into their psyche!

      I had to see what you thought about it and I might just give it another go.

      Yes, we're doing fine, thanks; in fact, we're enjoying the tranquility that enforce staying at home brings! Lots of things get done too!

      Keep safe and well.


    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Eric, I think you should read the whole darned set. It's not just for kids, big people get addicted too. I had a 70 year old coworker I lent the book to and she took it and ran with it. What else do you have to do while you're sheltering?

      Funny you are a technical writer. You are the most unrestrained, undisciplined writer I know, and I mean that in a hella good way. Maybe your HP work is a reaction to the techy drudgery you endure every day.

      I am glad I am not the only one who thinks JK is a hottie. Thanks for dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 weeks ago from San Diego California

      Hmm...I don't know Ann. Maybe it's like the Russians reading Russians. They don't like Tolstoy but I do. Maybe it's the same thing with Brits reading other Brits. Something is lost in translation when Yanks try it.

      Then again, maybe it's because my reading was broken up into half hour chunks, so I didn't have time to get bored. I really dug its darkness, and all of its shady, multi-layered characters.

      No need to apologize. One thing I forgot to mention in the article that I kick myself for now, is that her description of the thought processes of teenage boys was precise. I don't know how she got into the head of a hormone crazed teenage boy but she sure did, and I could identify with it. That could be the problem. I might go back and edit to clear up this problem.

      Anyhow, I am delighted you still stopped by to read this review and make your critique. I hope you are hunkering down and staying well.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      6 weeks ago from SW England

      I'm sad to say that, for once, I disagree with you, Mel. Sorry!

      I didn't expect a Harry Potter type story but I did expect good writing. I didn't find it. I was bored, surprised and really disappointed. How could someone who came up with that amazing wizardry write something so slow and plodding?

      Maybe I read it on a couple of bad days, in a bad mood. Maybe I should re-read and see if it's more acceptable second time round. You certainly seem to think it's worth it, so maybe I will. What am I missing in this story? Maybe you can tell me.

      With apologies,


    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Hottie is right. Wowsa. This is so cool about learning about her. My son keeps being snagged by required reading so he is slow on Potter. But we have the whole darned set. Maybe by the time he is off to college or better UPS school.

      I still have not been smacked down enough heading off to different genre's. Did you know I am a technical writer. Crazy me.

      Once again you delight, with a mix of rancor and decorum.


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