The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling 200+ pages in and I gave up. It's rare that I leave a book unfinished and even more uncommon that I rate an unfinished book (see my review of A Clockwork Orange), but in this case I made more than enough progress to justify a rating.

To state my opinion bluntly: I just didn't like it.

J.K. Rowling's writing isn't solid enough to support the material she's handling or the visceral reactions she's playing with. A Casual Vacancy nurtures a growing sense of dread as one reads. Rowling presents a panoramic view of life and yes, life is gritty, dirty, hard, and sometimes horrible. People are self-absorbed, commit crimes, do terrible things to each other, and eventually die. That's life and that's Rowling's entire focus: the shit. I normally love the dark, the gritty, and the unrelenting, but as Rowling gives these characters no redeeming qualities and keeps piling on the shit, the dread intensifies without any break provided by the author. The reader suffocates under the fact that things are already bad and will only get worse.

(Looks like I bailed on this one just in time. Domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, drug abuse, bullying, cutting and self-injury, adultery...all spread generously between several families and all before I quit reading. From what I've read in reviews and other spoilers, things do get much worse, right down to the unsatisfying and depressing ending. Could someone maybe explain to the author that, sometimes, less is more?)

When reading, I should feel a lot of things for the characters and the story. As things progress towards the climax, I should be feeling anxious or nervous for the characters, I should be as invested in each twist and turn as they are.

What I should not feel is a sense of foreboding when I pick up the book to continue reading. I should not have to talk myself into sitting down and reading more than I already have. There's something very wrong if I'm asking myself, "Which would be more enjoyable? Reading another chapter in this book? Or scrubbing my entire apartment with an old toothbrush?"

When I realized my answer was "scrub with the toothbrush," I knew there was something fatally wrong. A Casual Vacancy is not a story meant for me.

For the record, I'm not flailing about the use of profanity or explicit sexual references. Such things don't offend me, they don't affect my enjoyment of a book, and they never sway my ratings. I've read Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and even the Marquis de Sade without flinching, and in comparison Rowling's work is damn near virginal.

(Allow me to insert a rather catty aside here. Another reviewer compared this to Vonnegut. Really? In what universe? Vonnegut was a master of satire and black humor. To put it mildly, Rowling is not.)

A brief note: Rowling's handling of "subtlety" needs some work. She's no longer writing for the YA audience, so dropping the overblown explanations and hammer-to-the-head foreshadowing would be a wise move.

Other reviewers have already stated the characters are all unlikable, and I agree, I think this is something Rowling did on purpose. Unfortunately, she made a potentially brilliant decision that fell flat due to the sheer number of point-of-view characters and an inability to entirely flesh out the individuals behind the dozen different perspectives from which she tried to tell her story. Characters don't have to be likable, but if the story is presented from their viewpoints, every single one of them had damn well better be more than two-dimensional caricatures. A couple (notably the teenagers) are well-formed and fully developed, but many are downright interchangeable for the first 100 pages. The more points-of-view a writer chooses to use, the more complicated the storytelling becomes and the more talent is required from the writer. An ensemble cast with one main POV (like, yes, Harry Potter) and an ensemble cast with multiple main POVs are two very different things requiring different handling. Rowling's adept at the first but proves here that her skills don't support the second.

To put that in a slightly different context: the characters don't have to be likable but the writer still has to make me care. I don't necessarily have to care about them but I do need to care about the story. If I'd given a flying fuck about even one of the characters Rowling wrote about here, I probably would've finished reading the book.

So, to wrap things up, I give a rare (for me) one star rating, which specifically states "didn't like it."

Because I didn't like The Casual Vacancy.

In fact, I disliked the book so much that I wasn't willing to force myself to finish. After investing the time and effort to read more than 1/3 of it, I put it down and walked away. I'm leaving the bookmark so I can find my place later if I have a change of heart, but realistically that means I'll probably never see that bookmark again.