A look at the latest releases, plus what's new in paperback.

By Kate Whiting

New fiction

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling is published in hardback by Little, Brown, priced £20. Available now.

Picture, if you will, JK Rowling, sitting down to write her first post-Potter novel, for adults.

She scribbles down a checklist of all the things that are the opposite of the wizard world fantasy, firmly rooted in ugly, everyday realities and 'adult' themes.

It reads something like this: Swearing, especially the c-word, smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, self-harm, child abuse, rape, and having sex in a graveyard.

Then she decides on the plot into which she will rather self-consciously weave these cliches: the death of a parish councillor and the election that ensues to fill the 'casual vacancy'.

The book is mired in secrecy by her publicists and when it's finally launched, readers find that, unlike her best-selling Harry Potter series, it's sadly devoid of any magic.

None of the ensemble of adult characters are particularly likeable, they are crudely evoked stereotypes of small-town England; nothing much happens over the course of the book's 500 pages and it's 200 pages too long.

Barry Fairbrother, perhaps the most heroic character, is killed off in the first chapter (that tried and tested chestnut of an opening device), leaving a grieving widow and a hole in pretty Pagford's Parish Council that needs filling.

He was at loggerheads with the obese deli-owning chair, Howard Mollison, over the rough Fields council estate which he'd grown up in and which Howard wants to pass over responsibility of to nearby city Yarvil.

Three candidates come forward to stand for the vacancy: the local school's deputy head Colin Wall, who wants to carry on his friend Barry's good works; Simon Price, a mean wheeler dealer, whose son Andrew is best mates with Colin's son 'Fats'; and Miles Mollison, Howard's son, who he thinks is a shoe-in.

Smoking-and-swearing duo Andrew 'Arf' Price and Fats provide the alternate reality version of Harry and Ron, with an unlikely Hermione character in the dyslexic, self-harming daughter of Dr Parminder Jawanda, Barry's closest council ally.

All three get back at their parents by independently hacking into the council's website and leaving defamatory posts about their parents from the 'Ghost of Barry Fairbrother'.

Meanwhile, Fats starts sleeping with Krystal Weedon, whose mum is a heroin addict and sometime prostitute, but who was championed by Barry, who ran a rowing club at the school.

The myriad interactions and grudges in the small town simmer away slowly, building up to the book's morbid conclusion.

Rowling's vision of Middle England and the class war is frankly a depressing read. At the end of chapter VII, she writes: "Both... were contemplating the casual vacancy: and they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magician's pocket, full of possibilities." Sadly, this Casual Vacancy did not live up to its promise.


(Review by Kate Whiting)

Lifesaving For Beginners by Ciara Geraghty is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £13.99. Available now.

Dublin-born author Ciara Geraghty's fourth novel starts on a tragic note - a lorry driver falls asleep at the wheel and changes the lives of two women forever.

The story is told from the perspective of two main characters. Milo is a nine-year-old boy who loves his mam's peanut butter and banana muffins and never has cause to think about his future.

Kat Kavanagh, on the other hand, is fast approaching 40 and spends most of her life hiding behind her writing pseudonym.

Inexplicably linked, the crash brings these two families together and uncovers a secret that Kat has been running from since she was 15 years old.

Reminiscent of Maeve Binchy's work but without the saccharine overtones, Geraghty's novel is a beautifully written story that offers vivid, believable characters who will stay with you long after you have finished the final page.


(Review by Lyndsey Cartwright)

Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99. Available now.

On the back of winning the 2010 Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson emerges from two years of graft with his next comic novel, Zoo Time.

A love triangle dominates the story, in which once popular writer Guy becomes obsessed with his mother-in-law - familiar Jacobson territory - but his provocative wife proves an obstacle to his desire.

This doesn't stop him from all sorts of lurid imaginings, as is the tendency for introspection by the author, and he certainly hopes to consummate his secret desire.

All the while, he bemoans the state of publishing, his career seemingly dead, and pretty much everything else about modern culture.

Even though the book is thin on plot, which is fitting as Guy abhors plot, the moments of intimacy between the characters proves rewarding, and Guy's diatribes are often enjoyable, if not as funny as expected.


(Review by Ben Major)

The Mystery Of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes is published in hardback by Michael Joseph, priced £18.99. Available now.

It all began for best-selling Irish author Marian Keyes in 1995 as Watermelon introduced the Walsh family to an unsuspecting reading public.

They've been back intermittently ever since, and The Mystery Of Mercy Close features youngest Walsh daughter Helen in a story that will have you laughing out loud.

Helen is a private detective hit by the economic downturn. Work has dwindled - and so has her cash flow, resulting in the repossession of her flat.

Time to move back to her parents - but when a tempting job offer appears, she is torn. The client is a former boyfriend, and her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to find a pop star who has gone missing days before a reunion gig with the boyband which made him famous.

A delightful read from a writer on top of her game.


(Review by Sandra Mangan)

A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks is published i hardback by Hutchinson, priced £18.99. Available now.

Critically acclaimed novelist Sebastian Faulks has written five beautiful short stories centring around love, relationship and family - with smatterings of pain and betrayal.

Each tale is uniquely different - spanning a different time, area or part of society - yet each is equally captivating and emotive.

In one, a soldier in the Second World War is sent to organise a French resistance cell but is captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp.

And in another, a boy is put into the workhouse by his struggling parents, then makes the most of his lot.

Arguably the best tells of a quiet, introverted girl who is drawn out of her shell when her father decides to adopt an orphan.

Faulks's stories are touching, revealing and almost tangible with points of both joy and sorrow. It's a wonderful, can't-put-it-down read that spans the ages.


(Review by Caroline Davison)

Children's book of the week:

The Diviners by Libba Bray is published in hardback by Atom, priced £12.99 Available now.

New York-based author Libba Bray returns with a supernatural mystery.

It's 1926 and 17-year-old Evie O'Neill has a secret gift for reading objects. After insulting the son of a prominent businessman, she is sent to live with her bachelor uncle, who is obsessed with religion and the occult, and his mysterious assistant Jericho in New York.

The teenager is quick to reinstate her friendship with Mabel, who lives in the same building as her uncle, as well as befriending actress Theta and pianist Henry.

Evie is soon frequenting the popular speakeasies and hanging out with the Ziegfeld girls.

When a murdered girl with a strange symbol branded on her body is discovered, the police call on Evie's uncle for help. With no concrete clues to go on, Evie uses her gift to assist her uncle in catching the serial killer.

Will Evie succeed in piecing the puzzle together? It's a fantastic read against the backdrop of the 1920s.


(Review by Julie Cheng)


Vanished Years by Rupert Everett is published in hardback by Little, Brown, priced £20. Available now.

This latest autobiographical volume by actor Rupert Everett, enfant terrible of the British thespian world, is as gloriously outrageous as its predecessor, Red Carpets And Other Banana Skins.

Now aged 53, Everett is less of an "enfant" and more of a splenetic middle-ager, but his vices, virtues and caustic view of life seem untouched by time.

Vanished Years is a nostalgic, sometimes poignant, ramble into his past. A medley of episodes - sad, hilarious, or painfully evocative - is peopled with a cast of mainly oddball characters, such as tragic fashion journalist, the late Isabella Blow.

Everett has always been a rebel. He is scathing about Hollywood, but also about people in his own country. He vigorously demolishes a number of UK luminaries, especially one leading TV personality.

Vanished Years displays an almost poetic literary talent, and hopefully more books will follow, but there is always the risk that, with Everett's penchant for doing the unexpected, he might take up holy orders instead, and disappear indefinitely into a monastery.


(Review by Anthony Looch)

My Animals And Other Family by Clare Balding is published in hardback by Viking, priced £20. Available now.

As the new darling of television sports presenting, Clare Balding would have been forgiven for releasing a glamorous 'celebrity' autobiography detailing her rise to fame.

However, it is with the dignity and integrity one expects from Balding that this, her first book, is a more intelligent memoir.

The book is based, as the titles reveals, on the animals - and occasional human - she grew up with while being raised by her racehorse training family.

Whether you're an animal lover or not is irrelevant, because the descriptions of Balding's animals, and her relationships with them, transport you right into to her world, where you're able to almost smell her dogs and stroke the horses.

And she is funny, injecting laugh-out-loud humour into the tales of her experiences.

She has a wonderful knack of making a privileged and glamorous upbringing - complete with audiences with the Queen - seem completely ordinary.

All this is what makes Balding a great broadcaster and storyteller. And this is why, if you didn't love her before reading this book (there can only be a few of you left), you certainly will do after reading it.


(Review by Debbie Murray)

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, And The Real Count Of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is published in hardback by Harvill Secker, priced £20. Available now.

Tom Reiss has made a name for himself by shining a light on some of the less well-known corners of history - and his new book is no exception.

He criss-crosses the globe and trawls through archives in search of the man he calls the "real Count of Monte Cristo" - General Alexandre Dumas - the father of The Three Musketeers writer of the same name.

What comes to light is a fascinating tale even more incredible than those penned by his famous son.

The general - the son of a slave and a French nobleman - rose through Parisian high society, became a revolutionary hero and one of the most famous men in France, only to be thrown in jail by Napoleon.

Reiss writes his history with a suitably swashbuckling edge and brings to life a man who deserves to be remembered in his own right.


(Review by Robert Dex)

This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, And Other WTF Research by Marc Abrahams is published in paperback by Oneworld, priced £10.99. Available now.

Marc Abrahams, father of the Ig Nobels (an annual Nobel prize parody that rewards obscure science), has trawled through scientific literature to bring us a compilation of bizarre investigations and studies.

Highlighting papers on whether yawning is contagious in red-footed tortoises, to the similarities in natural mineral water preference between college girls and rats, it seems no topic is too eccentric or irrelevant to be up for analysis.

What should be a hilarious romp through the twisted back alleys of science is somewhat muted and uninspiring.

Funny subject matter discussed in a serious manner leads to dull reading. Unlike Richard Wiseman's Quirkology, there is little input from Abrahams on the subjects he brings up. It's as though he pieced together his list and had no reflection on it.

Rather than finding it comical, I found it frustrating.


(Review by Wayne Walls)

Best-sellers for the week ending September 29


1 The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

2 The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year, Sue Townsend

3 Thinking, Fast And Slow, Daniel Kahneman

4 Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James

5 A Street Cat Named Bob, James Bowen

6 Double Cross: The True Story Of The D-Day Spies, Ben Macintyre

7 Fifty Shades Darker, EL James

8 Fifty Shades Freed, EL James

9 The Hairy Dieters: How To Love Food And Lose Weight

10 The House Of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel, Anthony Horowitz


1 The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

2 Ratburger, David Walliams

3 Dodger, Terry Pratchett

4 Jamie's 15-Minute Meals, Jamie Oliver

5 1356, Bernard Cornwell

6 My Family And Other Animals, Claire Balding

7 Emerald Star, Jacqueline Wilson

8 Guinness World Records 2013

9 Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration, Nigella Lawson

10 Nice To Meet You, Jessie J


:: Note to editors: This is a resend of Book Reviews column transmitted Wednesday, October 03, adding the latest book chart from Waterstone's