Rowling launches novel to fanfare, mixed reviews

British writer J.K. Rowling poses with her new book, titled: 'The Casual Vacancy', at the Southbank Centre in London, on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012.  The book, published by Little, Brown Book Group, is Rowling's first novel for adults after writing the Harry Potter series.

Photo by Associated Press

British writer J.K. Rowling poses with her new book, titled: 'The Casual Vacancy', at the Southbank Centre in London, on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012. The book, published by Little, Brown Book Group, is Rowling's first novel for adults after writing the Harry Potter series.

— J.K. Rowling launched her long-anticipated first book for adults to publishing hype, mixed reviews and an enthusiastic welcome from Harry Potter’s legion of now grown-up fans.

The lines were shorter and the wizard costumes were missing Thursday but “The Casual Vacancy” appeared to some of the same fanfare that greeted each Potter tome, with stores wheeling out crates of the books precisely at 8 a.m. as part of a finely honed marketing strategy.

Almost 1,000 people were attending a reading Thursday evening at London’s Southbank Centre, most of them clutching copies of the book to be signed by the author.

Many were young adults who had grown up with Rowling’s boy wizard and wanted to see what the author would do next.

“She’s been such an inspiration to everyone,” said 18-year-old university student Milly Anderson. “She’s not just influenced people’s childhoods — she’s molded them.”

Anderson said she was loving “The Casual Vacancy” — once she’d got over the change from reading stories about Harry and his Hogwarts chums.

“There’s swearing and sex,” she said. “It’s a bit of a shock.”

Published five years after the release of the last Potter book, “The Casual Vacancy” is already at No. 1 on Amazon’s U.S. chart. Betting house William Hill put 2-1 odds on it outselling “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which sold 2.6 million copies in Britain on its first day.

A story of ambition, envy and rivalry set in the fictional English village of Pagford, the novel recounts the civic warfare sparked when the unexpected death of a town official leaves a vacancy on its governing body. Characters set on a collision course range from the affluent lawyer Miles Mollison to the Weedons, a ramshackle clan living in The Fields, the run-down housing project on the edge of town.

Many of the early buyers were Harry Potter fans who, like the author, have moved on to more adult fare.

“I just like how much excitement there is about a book,” said 23-year-old Grace Proctor, a “massive” Potter fan who was first to buy the book at one London store.

“I think there are going to be people who will hate it just because they can hate it,” she said. “But she’s such an amazing writer, I don’t think she can go wrong.”

Rowling has said she was aiming for Dickensian sweep in the multi-character saga, whose doses of sex, satire and swearing mark a distinct departure from wholesome Harry.

Reviews have been mixed. The Associated Press judged it a challenging but rewarding read full of emotion and heart. AP’s Deepti Hajela said while its troubled characters mean “this isn’t a book that’s easy to fall in love with ... what could have been an unreadable story becomes something else in Rowling’s hands, thanks to her gift of being able to make her characters complex and really, just human.”

But The New York Times’ influential book critic, Michiko Kakutani, was damning.

“The real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly cliched that `The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing — it’s dull,” she said.

The Guardian newspaper’s reviewer, Theo Tait, said it was “no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny.”

The Independent’s Boyd Tonkin found the sometimes “long-winded and laborious” writing soared when Rowling focused on her teenage characters.

Others, though, felt the lack of likable characters might alienate readers. The Daily Mail reviewer Jan Moir also slammed Rowling’s stark focus on Pagford’s haves and have-nots as the work of a “left-leaning demagogue” painting “a bleak and rather one-sided vision of life in modern England.”

It’s likely nothing Rowling publishes will ever match the success of the Potter books, which have sold more than 450 million copies around the world.

But booksellers are confident “The Casual Vacancy” will be one of the year’s best-sellers, whatever reviewers say.

“A lot of children have grown up with Harry Potter. They’re now adults who love books,” said Susan Sinclair, divisional manager for the Foyles bookstore chain.

“I think it’s going to be a really big seller at Christmas. It’ll be an easy gift — but also a good one.”

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