A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

After delivering seven magical books about Harry Potter, Rowling had raised high expectations for fans with her new book – A Casual Vacancy.  Harry is a hard act to follow, especially when the magic is missing and only the Muggles remain.  If you can forget who the author is and imagine she is a gritty British version of Jonathan Franzen, the disappointment is easier to digest.

The story centers around the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, chair of the parish Council (equivalent to a small town mayor), and the rippling effect on the lives of those who knew him in Pagford.  The little town problems of petty jealousies and back-stabbing gossip are matched against drug addiction, child neglect, self-mutilation, prostitution, and rape.  Rowling also adds profane language – just to be sure you know this is not a children’s book.

The slice of humanity represented in the flawed characters includes universal antagonisms between the haves and have-nots, those who long for the good old days and the young who cannot change the world fast enough, the struggle between social responsibility and self-preservation.  Rowling’s strength is in her descriptive back-stories, introducing you to small-minded people you already know; this is a small town and secrets are hard to keep.  The foil is Krystal Weedon, the deprived teenager desperate for a better life – the life that Barry was about to launch her into with an interview with the local newspaper – before he unexpectedly died of an aneurysm. From the other side of the tracks, Krystal’s struggles are overwhelming: a drug addict mother and a life of poverty and filth.  The possibility that she will be saved kept me reading, but she was the doomed tragic heroine.

People can be cruel, and Rowling brings out the worst in them, as she exposes their weaknesses and dares them to be civil, in the wake of the one dead man who seemed to have kept the monsters at bay.  As the story marches slowly past Barry’s funeral, facades fall aside and the race to fill the dead man’s Council seat is on.  The action escalates to a brutal exposé of small town politics with teenagers hacking into the Council’s website, creating chaos and feeding the misery, while seeking revenge for parental injustices.

The story is divided into seven sections; by the fourth section, I could not imagine that life could get worse but I was wrong. With little comic relief, the story heads nonstop into a Shakespearean tragic ending – dead bodies and ruined lives.  The small town goes on being small-minded.

Rowling clearly makes her point that she can write stories for adults, and over 500 pages of A Casual Vacancy raise serious social issues that adults need to address – all in an unsympathetic view of the human condition.  If I had not known about Harry Potter, I may not have missed the hope and possibilities that are deliberately avoided.

The Sins of the Father – sequel to Only Time Will Tell

Archer’s first book in the Clifton Chronicles ended with a cliffhanger; he continues the tale of Harry Clifton in the sequel – The Sins of the Father. After leaving poor Emma at the altar when he discovers she may be his sister, Harry Clifton sailed to New York City, and has changed his identity. Unfortunately, the man whose identity he has taken, has a miserable past that is waiting to sabotage Harry as he steps off the boat – into jail.

If you didn’t read the background story in Only Time Will Tell, Archer brings you up to date as he backtracks to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, the steady tread of information slows down the action in the beginning of the story, but quickly recovers as Harry makes the best of his new identity and surroundings.

Archer divides the chapters among the Cliftons and the Barringtons – Harry, Emma, Giles, Maizie, Hugo – juggling subplots, with Harry and Emma at the center of the action.

A fast-paced mystery thriller with World War II as the backdrop, Only Time Will Tell is a fun read. Archer books are addictive; once you get into the world of Harry Clifton, you won’t want to stop reading. Archer sets the bait once again at the end of this one, stopping abruptly (I thought I missed a page) – agh! another agonizing wait for the sequel.

Only Time Will Tell

If you like cliffhangers, Jeffrey Archer’s Only Time Will Tell has them in every chapter. Unfortunately, the ending also leaves you hanging; this is the first book of a trilogy in The Clifton Chronicles.

Each character narrates his or her own chapter, dropping the line at the end to be picked up midway through the next chapter in another voice. Harry Clifton anchors the action as a young poor but talented Pip-like character, who has secret benefactors as well as hidden tormentors. Harry’s miserable life changes for the better when he wins a choral scholarship to a prestigious prep school where he meets his best friend (who may also secretly be his half-brother).

The plot twists a few times, with the rich villain getting the upper hand now and then, until good overcomes evil. Harry manages to study his way all the way to Oxford acceptance, but throughout Harry’s young life, the mystery of his background lurks in the wings, promising to derail his success. Is he the son of the shipping magnate who may have killed the man he thinks of as his father? or not?

The supporting cast is predictable – the sacrificing mother, the elder mentor, the genius buddy, the beautiful maiden – and the plot is downright soap opera. To tell more would spoil the adventure. But I was hooked in the first pages, and never stopped until I read the book straight through into the night. Archer’s ending was clever – with World War II looming – a seasonal cliffhanger that could hold its own with any television series. I can’t wait for the next book to find out what happens to Harry.

J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter

When one of the cable channels aired a biopic of J.K. Rowling, it seemed a good time to revisit the first Harry Potter.  I have the complete set on my bookshelf, and it’s comforting to know that a single mother down on her luck was able to imagine a world of wizards and magic that would make a better place.  Maybe it helps to be angry and tired to tap into words that are consoling.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you…Ray Bradbury

Rowling was talented and imaginative and lucky.  Other books have offered entrance into a magical world – sometimes wizards – but none had the following of Harry Potter. Rick Riordan’s superheroes series comes close in popularity, but Percy doesn’t seem to have the same appeal to adults as Harry.

Rowling cleverly gave the reader installments that teased into an excitement of expectation.  What would happen to Harry in the next book?  And the formula worked well –  a poor orphan who was relegated to an unloving home, only to find himself a prince of the extraordinary.  Doesn’t every little girl and boy – and adult – dream of being discovered and powerful?

Rereading Harry and the Sorcerer’s Stone was just as much fun as reading it the first time – maybe more so since now I know how it will all end.