The parade of Collingswood Book Festival titles continues!

The Casual Vacancyby J.K. Rowling was the most expensive of the batch – it cost me a whopping $5. That’s a lot more than most vendors were charging for used hardcovers, and the guy tried to hard sell me on it by saying it’s a first edition (yes, a first edition Harry Potter might be worth something, but this? Eh). But since I so loved the Harry Potter books, I figured Rowling was worth a fiver.

The Casual Vacancy looks at what happens to a community after one person dies, though Barry Fairbrother’s death doesn’t cause the problems in Pageford Parish. It sets forth a series of events that take place revolving around who will take Fairbrother’s seat on the parish council (because he died, his seat being open is called a “casual vacancy”)

That’s because Fairbrother had been on the side of council that didn’t want to relinquish control of a poorer part of town. The other side thought that section, called the Fields, didn’t belong in good ol’ Pageford, and never should have been put under their control in the first place. Fairbrother also advocated keeping open an addiction clinic where other members of council wanted to see it closed.

Even though The Casual Vacancy is set in England, its themes are very in tune with what’s going on in the U.S., given that just Friday, food stamp benefits were cut for 47 million Americans. The council members in Pageford who want to give up the Fields say a lot of the same things as politicians say about people who receive food stamps: that they caused these problems on their own, if they wanted to, they could get out of poverty and stop sucking off the government teat (even though a lot of food stamp recipients do work but still can’t afford to feed their families on minimum wage). The Casual Vacancy goes deeper into the issues of poverty and gives the backstory behind people who are written of by Pageford residents (the heroin-addicted single mother; the trashy teenager who sleeps around) and shows why a lot of people are trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. These kids were born down. They never really had a chance. A lot of these characters come out looking despicable. I didn’t like many of them.

These issues are timely, but I wasn’t in love with the book. If the author hadn’t been Rowling, I might have DNFed it. There’s a lot of people in this novel, and I still confused some of them more than half way through. That’s, in part, because you hear inside the head of different characters within the same chapter. The revolving narrator can work very well, but not when it jumps from person to person within paragraphs of each other. The book improved as it went along, but I’m still labeling this an okay read.

Two months and 11 books to go! That’s more than one book per week. Can I make it? I think so.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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