Monday, September 30, 2013

Books: September 2013

image via Hypable
It's kind of hard to review The Cuckoo's Calling, as has been evident in all of the reviews written for it since it was revealed that Robert Galbraith is actually Jo Rowling.  Because of my deep respect for Rowling as an individual, I'm definitely upset that someone would betray her confidence and ruin this experiment she had set up- to write an entirely new series of books in an entirely new genre and release it to a world who had no expectations for what it should be.  She didn't need the sales figures or the profits- she just wanted to write something new, let people read it, and hear what they thought.  That's never going to happen now, as people will forever read this and any future stories about Cormoran Strike as a mystery series by J. K. Rowling and not just as a mystery series.  Just as A Casual Vacancy was an amazingly complex novel that was different from Harry Potter in every way imaginable, and harshly criticized by people expecting a quick, easy, fun story with clear morals, this book will not be well-received by someone expecting what they think a J. K. Rowling book is or should be.  But that's the thing- J. K. Rowling is technically a penname, too- it was the persona under which she wrote my favorite series of books, under which she created an incredible world that we keep going back to- and that she's even coming back to as a screenwriter.  Her publishing company had her release A Casual Vacancy under the same name because they knew they'd sell millions of copies of "J. K. Rowling's newest book" and that's exactly what they wanted.  Robert Galbraith, in turn, is a penname under which Jo has created a new set of characters- including Galbraith himself, whose biography is obviously just as fictional as that of the book's main character.  Both of these personas were created by Jo as a way to explore different genres, different types of characters, even different audiences.  But although J. K. Rowling is Jo, Jo is not J. K. Rowling- or, at least, she's not just J. K. Rowling.  She has far greater range than even the incredible depth explored in the Potter series.  To read and enjoy the other books she has written, I think it's important to look beyond the initials J. K.- especially when they're not present on the cover- and read the books for what they are, not what you hope them to be.

Which brings me to my second point about this shocking revelation- I really am glad this news came out.  Again, it pains me that her great experiment will never pan out- unless she's got other books out there that we don't know about!- but truly, if it hadn't been announced that Robert Galbraith was Jo Rowling, I would not have picked up this book.  Traditional mystery novels are just not my thing- when I'm in a bookstore, I hover around the shelves stocked with YA, sci-fi, and fantasy books, never pausing to glance down the mystery aisles.  Also, the cover of the American edition is just not appealing to me- if I saw it lying on a "best sellers" table not organized by genre, I would assume it was some sort of romance novel in the style of Nicholas Sparks.  Well-reviewed or not, it's just not the type of book that would have otherwise drawn my attention.  And so I am so, so glad that she was revealed as the author because yes, that's the only reason I read it- because Jo is an amazing author, no matter what she's writing.

And this is an amazing book.

This is definitely a mystery written in the tradition of a good-old-fashioned detective story, complete with all the character archetypes and narrative tropes of the genre.  Maybe it's because Mr. Geek and I watch so much Law and Order, but it really feels like Jo did her research on the police bits- lending credibility to Galbraith's supposed career in the military police, where all of those details would have been a normal part of his life.  This isn't exactly a "whodunnit", in that you're not given all the evidence as the reader and are therefore unable to reach your own conclusion- but that's not to say you won't develop your own theories.  Mr. Geek read it first, so on my read-through I would stop periodically and say, "Oh, I think the killer is so-and-so," and give my reasoning- which was, more often than not, based on the character's motive alone, logic which Strike points out early on to be an amateur detective's mistake.  The killer is truly a surprise- the narrator is deliberately vague about some evidence so that there's no way you can reach the right conclusion until it's explained to you in gritty detail by our clever detective- because that's how those sorts of mystery stories are written.  Is it a cliche way of concluding the story?  Yes- but this whole genre is cliche, so it makes it feel authentic.  The character development is very film noir as well- as our private detective is digging into the personal lives of the victim, her family, and the suspects, his own background is revealed to us in flashbacks so that we're also trying to solve the mystery that is Cormoran Strike.  Is that a cheesy way of telling a story- to stop the action so that it almost feels as if the character is speaking directly to the camera, explaining his thoughts and motivations and personal history before stepping back in to what's going on around him?  Yes, but again, that's what makes it feel so authentic.  Perhaps I was able to enjoy these cliches so much because I don't typically read mystery novels and therefore they don't feel overdone to me.  I wasn't expecting this to feel like a book by J. K. Rowling- I was expecting it to feel like a mystery novel written by Robert Galbraith.

But Robert Galbraith is Jo Rowling.  Some early reviewers, just after the announcement, confidently claimed that they could definitely tell that this was Jo as they read it.  The book reviewer who inadvertently started the scandal commented that it was hard to believe that this book was written by a first-time author.  So can you tell that Galbraith is Rowling, just by reading it?

Well, yes and no.  Had I not known, I don't think I could truly have made the connection.  But knowing it was her, I think I was sort of subconsciously looking for clues she may have left in the narrative to tip off her biggest fans.  But she didn't leave clues- at least not on purpose.  She wrote this book as Robert Galbraith, not as J. K. Rowling, so any similarities between this and her other works are purely in her skill as a writer, not some stylistic tells.  For example, her character development is, as ever, superb, even for the most insignificant of characters- before the first chapter is finished, I had a clear picture in my head of the people we were introduced to, both based on physical descriptions and their distinct mannerisms.  When Jo writes a character, you know that character.  You learn more as the story progresses, and you may have to adjust your first impressions, but you can see and hear and get  these people within a few pages of being introduced to them.  But do any of the characters in this book feel like any she's written before?  Does she describe them with the same words, give them the same motivations?  No, believe it or not.  Between Potter and A Casual Vacancy she has created hundreds of characters and yet each person we meet in The Cuckoo's Calling is someone entirely new- which is what makes them feel so real.  Each character looks differently, acts differently (and for different reasons), and is described in different ways than everyone who came before him, just as each individual human being in our non-fictional world is different.  Some reviewers have said that the descriptions of the clothing are so accurate that this book was obviously written by a woman- but then again, the murder victim is a supermodel, so Galbraith could have just done some thorough research (perhaps he has a very fashionable sister?).  And yes, the ending, where our private detective sits at his desk and we, the reader, feel as though we're sitting in front of him as he describes in detail exactly how and why the murderer pulled off his crime- it feels a bit like Dumbledore sitting Harry down at the end of the book to explain what was really happening this school year and why he's not dead yet.  But again, I'm going to assert that this form of storytelling has more to do with the crime drama style than Jo's personal style.  I think maybe all along, as she was writing Potter, she wanted to write a classic mystery series, but what we saw instead was a coming-of-age tale, a fantasy series about an unlikely hero with a great destiny who saves the world.  And Potter was all of these things- but it was also a crime drama, seven mini-mysteries within the greater mystery of who Voldemort is and how Harry can possibly defeat him.  I think if the Robert Galbraith books had become popular first, and then she had published Potter, and it was revealed that the writer of the Cormoran Strike novels had secretly written this story about a boy wizard, people would see those "let me 'splain it to you" moments between Dumbledore and Harry as proof that this fantasy series was written by an author who typically writes mystery novels.

Regardless of who wrote this book, it is indeed very good, and worth reading whether or not you're a fan of mystery novels.  I hope she is able to continue this series- I want to read more about Cormoran Strike and his clever assistant as they solve crimes and catch bad guys when the police are unable to.  (Like my favorite consulting detective named Holmes...)  It's not necessarily an incredibly quick read, but it is fun, and does not require the emotional dedication of A Casual Vacancy which, let's face it, I had to close at times to go cry a little bit as my heart broke for some of those characters.  It's a testament to her literary genius that Jo has been able to write in three completely different genres-  two of which I don't typically explore as a reader- and I've been entertained by all three, and adore them all for their own merits.

So have you read The Cuckoo's Calling?  Did you like it?  Do you think you may have read it if you didn't know it was Jo? 

What did you read this month?

Much love,
The Geeks


  1. I had heard such good things about the book and was not disappointed. I really enjoyed the story and agree with your review. I have not heard as many good things about The Casual Vacancy.

    1. I think a lot of die-hard Potter fans didn't like TCV because they were expecting something shorter and less complicated, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. You should read it!