The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The SilkwormI read the first Galbraith book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, long after it had been revealed that he was actually J.K. Rowling (writer of a kids series you may have heard of) and probably just after all the controversy had passed, which is clearly a good time to read things because I thought it was super awesome.

This second book is probably equally awesome. There are all the twists and turns and broken alibis of the first novel, as well as all the introspection and cinematic writing (which are an odd combo, to be sure) and excitement. Really, if you liked the first one, you should just go read the second. Well, unless you’re easily squicked out by gore and weird sex things, which this book has just enough of to be kind of icky.

See, our dead person this time is a fellow called Owen Quine who is a writer of books with weird sex things in them and also kind of a huge drama queen, to the point that his wife only comes to our hero, Cormoran Strike, after he’s been missing several days, and she just wants Strike to go get him back from some writers’ retreat that she’s sure he’s run off to.

But of course it’s more complicated than that, as Strike finds out that Quine went missing shortly after writing a new creepy book that is pretty blatantly about basically everyone Quine has ever known. His friends, fellow writers, mistresses, publishers… almost everyone is painted in a hugely unflattering light. The book hasn’t even been published and there are fights and lawsuits aplenty that would make any writer go into hiding for a while.

Except that when Strike finds Quine’s hiding place, Quine is there and also dead and also really gruesomely dead, tied up and covered in acid and with his guts missing, which conveniently mimics the ending of his already pretty awful novel. It seems likely that someone didn’t like what Quine had to say about them, but with so many suspects, it’s going to take a while for Strike to figure this one out — especially with the police blocking his every move in an effort to save face after that whole Lula Landry debacle.

Meanwhile there’s quite a bit about Strike’s assistant, Robin, and her fiancé issues and her Strike issues and the fact that if she would just use her freaking words her life would be a lot better. I may be projecting that last part. There is also, as you might expect, a lot of talk about the publishing industry, which makes me wonder what could have been if this book had been written after the whole Hachette vs. Amazon shenanigan began. A lost opportunity, really.

There’s nothing particularly new or noteworthy about this book compared to The Cuckoo’s Calling, but it is a solid work of mystery fiction and I am super looking forward to whatever Rowling writes for me next. As long as it comes soon!

Recommendation: For fans of non-Potter Rowling, crazy-pants mysteries, and characters saying “I have a plan” and then not telling you the plan, just doing it.

Rating: 9/10

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The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's CallingI put this book on hold at my small library system maybe a couple of days after it was revealed that one J.K. Rowling had actually written it, back in July, and it only took three months for it to make its way to me! I was pretty excited to see it arrive, finally, after I had seen it go out to so many other readers, and it went straight to the top of Mount TBR.

When I started reading it, I was less excited. The story was incredibly cinematic, with people doing things while they talked and every little thing being narrated and I was like, hey, there’s a dead person, how about we focus on that, maybe, and not this Doom Bar beer that your PI is obsessed with? But soon either Rowling let up on the description or the awesome mystery just overshadowed it, and the book got pretty dang readable.

The mystery at hand is that there’s a pretty model girl who fell to her death from her apartment balcony and everyone was sad but it pretty much had to be suicide and so life went on. But then the pretty girl’s brother shows up at the office of Cormoran Strike, hard-up private investigator who agrees to take the brother’s cash even though he’s pretty sure that he’s going to call it for suicide also. Of course, things quickly get more interesting and complicated and Strike starts to think maybe there was a murder here after all.

Throughout this whole murder mystery story, we also learn a lot about Strike, who we meet as a guy whose PI venture is about to go bust and whose relationship just has and who becomes by the end of the story a pretty nuanced guy with a rocky relationship history and family issues and a military background and one leg and a serious obsession with this Doom Bar beer. Rowling devotes a lot of time to making all of her characters pretty rounded, largely by throwing red herrings at them and ruining their alibis and such but whatever, it counts. She also brings in a lot of class and social issues that I did not know were a thing, or were still a thing, and as you figure out how all of these characters and their various societal constructs interact and relate to each other you also figure out how this mystery is going to end.

Well, maybe not so much that last part, because when it was revealed whodunnit I was like, I’m sorry, whodunnit? Really? Are you sure? And then Rowling was like, of course I’m sure, I wrote this whole book about it and maybe if you’d read it closer, but whatever, let me explain this to you. There was a little Holmes-ian “I have solved the mystery before you even heard it, here are some details I made up on the spot that just so happen to be absolutely right” to the solution, but those details were certainly borne out in the text and it made sense with the characters and what we had thus far learned about them. I may think that the murderer is a complete idiot, but a) of course, we’re talking about a murderer and b) of course, this murderer has been kind of an idiot the whole time.

There was a bit of controversy all those many months ago about the fact that Rowling used a pseudonym to write this book, and blah blah tricksy and blah blah marketing ploy. While it’s true that I had never heard of the book until I found out Rowling wrote it, it’s also true that if I had heard of it I would probably have ended up reading it and I still would have kind of loved it. The only thing I really object to is the fake bio made for Mr. Galbraith, which appropriates a very specific identity that is patently false and makes an intriguing juxtaposition with the concepts of identity in the novel, but only if you know that there’s a pseudonym involved.

I also find it odd that the publisher apparently chose to do the bare minimum to promote the book, because it is quite good and should have gotten at least as much press in my own bookish circles as many terrible books I’ve recently read did. I don’t know if this was some big conspiracy to make people read less-promoted books, but I’ve certainly been looking at my library’s big shelf of New Books I’ve Never Heard Of a little differently.

Recommendation: Read books that sound interesting! Also read this book, because it’s pretty awesome.

Rating: 9/10

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

The Casual VacancyFact: I would never have read this book if it weren’t for my book club. I have no idea what the reviews look like, but I heard that someone called it “Mugglemarch” and I was like, oh, good, epic domestic fiction, that’s a thing I don’t need to read.

But alas, my dear friends were like, “J.K. Rowling? Harry Potter? Do want!” and so I waited patiently for my library copy, and then slogged through the first hundred pages or so, and then smartly took the book with me on an airplane. Seriously, I think they may have invented airplanes just for the purpose of reading books you wouldn’t otherwise spend time on. I basically tore through the remaining four hundred pages, and I even liked a lot of them!

The problem I had before reading this book, and probably right up through those first hundred pages, is that it’s one of those literary books that eschews plot for meaning and social commentary and blah blah whatever. Booooring.

However, it’s also one of those books that has multiple points of view, with almost every character of the large cast getting a chance to lead the story (though in third person, so if you’re a first-person hater, you’ll be okay!), and also they’re all totally unreliable in their characterizations of themselves and others, as humans are, and they contradict each other almost constantly and I love that kind of writing. Even better, basically every character is a terrible person, which doesn’t sound like a good thing but I think we’ve established that I’m a sucker for hating people.

So, on the whole, I thought it was pretty okay. Rowling’s writing was great, the characters were super interesting, and I really started to feel invested in the town and its future. The things that actually happened in the novel were sometimes ennnhhhh (that is totally a word today), but seeing how said things played out and changed people was delightful.

And now I find myself wanting to read some of those classic epic domestic fictions, which kind of terrifies me, actually, but is probably a good thing. Perhaps Rowling will start a resurgence of Victorian literature that isn’t Twilight-branded! I’m all for that!

Recommendation: A fantastic book club book, but probably not for those who like to like the characters they read about?

Rating: 7/10

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling (25 July — 27 July)

My goodness, this book was long. How did I read this in one night when it first came out? A mystery of the universe, that.

So. HP4: A New Hope. Harry goes to the Quidditch World Cup, where quidditch happens but also some bad wizards do bad things and then the mark of the Bad Wizard shows up in the sky and everyone flips. Then, at Hogwarts, there is a Tri-Wizard Tournament going on with four champions — someone put Harry’s name in the Goblet even though he’s underage, and now Harry has to fight dragons and merpeople and a hedge maze. But, oops, at the end of the maze Harry gets transported to meet the Bad Wizard, who does some magic and is now scarier than ever. Then three more books happen.

A few days ago, I would have told you with absolute certainty that this is my favorite Harry Potter book. Now I’m not so sure. Azkaban may have beaten it this go round, and of course there are still three more books to go. But it was really long, and even though it was really long most of the scenes still felt truncated! I had forgotten just how short the World Cup really is, how little there is to the Tournament, how much I don’t care about house-elves… bah.

But! I did like the fact that, knowing the story well, I could see how things would fit into the ending — Winky at the World Cup, Moody and his dustbins, Bartemius Crouch in Snape’s office. And I like that all of the help Harry was getting was really part of the story, instead of convenient to the end (Dobby bringing Harry gillyweed vs. Ron’s expertise at wizard chess).

Also, Fudge is an idiot. But more on that, sadly, later.

Rating: 7.5/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling (23 July)

Uh, what’s that? Oh, um, yes, I did read this in the same day as book two. -cough- Moving along now.

Book 3: Harry returns to school again, but this time there is a Secondary Bad Wizard just escaped from Azkaban (wizard prison and thought to be impossible to escape). Oh, and, bad news, Secondary Bad Wizard might possibly want to kill Harry. Seriously, this kid’s life kind of sucks. Primary Bad Wizard doesn’t make an appearance in this one, but his presence is felt and in the end a Very Tertiary (Vigenary?) Bad Wizard is presumed to have gone off and joined Primary Bad Wizard. Then four more books happen.

Since this is my favorite of the movies, I found myself many times wondering why things hadn’t happened/weren’t happening in the book. Sigh. I certainly missed Alfonso’s Knight Bus. But, interestingly, I feel like I enjoyed the book better than I did when I first read it.

I have to say my favorite part was the time travelling, what there was of it. Rowling followed my favorite of the time-travelling conventions — that of each timeline being dependent on the others. And no changing the course of events! I did think the bit with Harry thinking Harry Prime was his father was a bit contrived, but, well. I don’t know how it could have been done better (do you?).

I also appreciated Dumbledore’s handling of the Buckbeak and Sirius problems; he seems to love, as my LIS textbook would call them, “wrong way” approaches. It might not be doing it right, per se, but it’s getting it done well that matters. I think that’s why I like Dumbledore so much.

This book is where Rowling also starts to tear down Harry’s “good guy” persona; he jumps to conclusions without full facts, he flaunts rules meant to protect him, and he is accused (rightly) of ignoring the sacrifice his parents made for him. And he’ll continue to do that right through to the end of the series. It makes me dislike him rather a lot at times, but it really does show that he’s a teenager and I respect Rowling for that.

Rating: 8/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling (23 July)

The second book! I’d forgotten how addicting these are… I might not get around to reading anything else until these are done. No! Help me! Make me read something else!

Anyway. HP2: Electric Boogaloo. Summary: Harry returns to school. He learns even more new things and then a monster starts Petrifying (literally: turning to stone) students and then Harry fights the Bad Wizard, again, in memory form (yes, really), and then five more books happen.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed parts of this book. Lockhart is hilarious, and I’ve certainly met plenty of his type in my time. All of them deserved a memory charm to the face. I also thought that the big plot line was better paced and required much more effort on the part of three twelve-year-olds to solve. The adults could probably have solved it if those darned kids would just trust them, but I certainly didn’t trust adults when I was twelve. Just ask my mother! Similarly, I initially thought it odd that Ginny gets all but ignored throughout the novel, for the integral part she plays in the plot, but then I remembered that this is really from Harry’s point of view and I would probably ignore Ginny, too. I was sad that the bit that actually takes place in the chamber lasted all of ten minutes — I really thought it was more involved, but that’s probably the movie instead? I don’t know. Nonetheless, I want a phoenix.

One last thing: Dobby is so annoying. I do not look forward to his presence in the remaining books.

Rating: 8/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling (21 July)

Things I forgot about the first Harry Potter book: 1) It’s short! 2) It’s cute! 3) It’s not very British! (Silly American translations…)

I really think that if you don’t know what the Harry Potter books are about, at least slightly, you have to have been living under a rock under a larger rock for the past, um, 12 years? Wow, that’s a long time. I’m old. Anyway, summary: Harry Potter is a wizard. His parents died at the hands of a Bad Wizard when he was but a little thing. Now he is eleven and off to wizarding school. He learns things and fights monsters and learns that the Bad Wizard, who all but disappeared after not killing a little thing, is back and coming to get him. Then six more books happen.

It was kind of weird reading this after seeing the most recent movie, because I kept imagining the twenty-year-old actors instead of the twelve-year-old ones. Then I thought about how my youngest brother is turning eleven this year, and I just about laughed out loud at the thought of William fighting trolls and Bad Wizards. I don’t doubt that there are eleven-year-olds that could, I just don’t know any, is all.

I also realized just how contrived the ending was (oh, let me alone, I last read this book nine or ten years ago!), what with all of the little tests fitting in with the main kids’ skills so well. And while I dare say they probably couldn’t have got past Fluffy (teehee, it’s still funny) without Hagrid’s help, the mirror was probably the only thing actually guarding the stone. I mean, three eleven-year-olds beat every other test. Really. Just put the mirror up and be done with it!

But! I still love this book, even if I’m shocked that Rowling earns a couple hundred dollars every minute off this franchise. And even if the movies are terrible.

Rating: 8/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge, My Year of Reading Dangerously)