international review: robert galbraith, the silkworm

Once upon a time I used to love smashing through books in a day. I’d surround myself with snacks, arrange a thousand cushions in a comfortable fashion on the couch, and just read the hell out of something until it was done. I didn’t have to hurry: I’d have a whole, leisurely day in which to get through it. I’d get up to pee, and to refill my glass of water, and to tear apart the cupboard hoping I’d left some snacks behind after accidentally consuming everything unhealthy during the first four hours of my reading, but otherwise: reading. Glory days, as Bruce says.

I haven’t done that for a while. I hate to blame a child, but it’s my kid’s fault, of course. There are no longer eight-hour stretches of the day in which to read unencumbered with someone throwing Matchbox cars at your face unless you are willing to stay up until four in the morning, which, of course, I am not willing to do because I have already suffered through two-and-a-half years of terrible sleep and every minute is a precious and glorious thing. So books become a lesser priority after 1. Keeping child from unpacking every drawer in house and 2. Sleeping. And 3. Working to be able to afford books. And I guess also 4. Other assorted loved ones. It is definitely 5. though. Or equal 5. with the internet. Which is a different and eclectic type of reading.

The reason for two entire off-topic paragraphs is that I finally read an entire (non-Seuss) book in a day for the first time in years, and it was Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm. Galbraith, if you hadn’t already heard, is a nom de plume for one Joanne Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, an obscure fantasy series that is definitely out of print. This is her third book for grown-ups (well, marketed at grown-ups; I mean, we all read them, right?), after The Casual Vacancy (published under her own name) and The Cuckoo’s Calling, the book which precedes The Silkworm. I read CC after finding out it was Rowling, because a) I wasn’t sent a reading copy when it was Galbraith and b) with the yawn-inducing cover I would never have picked it up on my own accord. Surprisingly, it was excellent, and I genuinely wished characters Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott would return. So it was that on the past Thursday at 9:01am and so help me not a minute before, they did. I had my copy by 9:02am, with enthusiastic encouragement by my colleagues that perhaps I could get a review out shortly afterwards. Because I love a challenge, I thought: I can probably do this by Friday, right? And so I got to ignoring my kid, pleading with her to take extended naps, and feeding her elaborate lunches in front of the telly so I could read with every spare moment. I finished it by around 11:50 that night, and sent a surprisingly coherent review to my overlords by about ten past one the next morning, after which I fell dramatically into bed and then spent the entire next day bragging about my feat, because I am insufferable. And here I am doing it again five days later. Because I am insufferable.

So, 500 words and I haven’t even reviewed it yet. (In case you’re wondering why I don’t blog much: it’s because of this. Sometimes I get to 400 point-avoiding words, throw my hands up in the air, and kick myself off WordPress in irritation.)

Cormoran Strike is so large he almost expands out of the pages of this book. He’s tall, a bit wide thanks to terrible dietary choices, and fit to burst with character. He’s in almost constant pain from the injury he received at war, and wears a prosthetic foot which he doesn’t take enough care of and frequently falls over while pursuing some kind of criminal. He’s a bit emotionally scarred from his chaotic ex-fiancee, Charlotte, who has thrown herself into the arms of another after he finally left her. He’s also a bit broke, slightly in love with his assistant, and rubs up basically everyone the wrong way, except for a few ladies who find rubbing up against that kind of thing attractive. His assistant, Robin, is tenacious, clever, and has the most frustratingly dull fiance in current fiction: he is humourless, jealous, and whiny. To the credit of the author, he’s still not a monster: you just feel kind of sorry for him, being a bit pathetic and insecure, hiding it behind being smug. Anyway, it means you kind of want Robin and Cormoran to shack up, but then kind of not because you want them to be friends forever and never break up, even if they are frequently sulking and fighting because they are essentially children. Robin wants to know where she stands with Strike but can’t bring herself to ask; Strike hates being shown any kind of affection; they both need to grow up, but of course, I don’t really want them to because they are such fun as it is.

Which isn’t to say the plotlines are fun in any type of G-rated way. When Leonora Quine turns up all mousy and odd in Strike’s office, he shouldn’t say yes to taking on her case – her declaration of payment is muddy at best – but he does, because he’s quite lovely. Her husband has vanished and Strike sets out to find him; it seems like it will be easy, because Owen Quine, a moody and pretentious artist if there ever was one, does it a bit to be dramatic. This time, however, things aren’t so simple, and when Strike finally locates him, it is one of the most vividly disturbing skip-to-the-next-sentence scenes of carnage I’ve read since I almost had to put down Robert Gott’s A Good Murder (a gross fucking murder, more like, but I guess the publishers wouldn’t come to the party on that title.) Anyway, it’s not for your nine-year-old who’s just started The Philosopher’s Stone, is what I’m saying.

So who killed Owen Quine? The likely explanation seems like just about everyone, because he had just handed in a manuscript of a surreal, slightly nauseating book where all of his friends and family are portrayed in various offensive ways. No one gets off lightly, and so now everyone despises him. But who would actually kill him for what he’s said? The police think it’s his scattery wife; Cormoran is paid (or will be, in theory, probably) to figure out otherwise.

I’ve said this in my other reviews: Galbraith isn’t really doing anything different or original in crime writing. What they are doing is taking a known genre and doing it very well. It borrows from an Agatha Christie gentle type of investigation in many ways – there are a lot of lengthy conversations over pub meals, and he does a lot of thinking, and despite the blurb saying frantically that there is a “RACE AGAINST TIME” to figure this out, there are very few moments of immediate danger. Which is fine, of course; I get enough of that in other books. Perhaps blurb-writers could read these books? Though of course everyone was embargoed against reading it before last Thursday; I even suspect the editors were too, because it is not quite as tight as The Cuckoo’s Calling, back when only Rowling’s agent knew her true identity. Later Potters suffered from this too, hence why book seven is four hundred times longer than book one and a third of it is spent sulking in a forest.

Still, I had a lot of fun with it, and I think if you were the kind of person who pays attention when reading (unlike me) you may be able to figure out whodunnit. If I need to binge-read the sequel I might get some babysitting so I can do so in a less urgent manner and enjoy it more, but sometimes I also want to pee in private and I don’t get that either, so you can’t have everything. The cover remains just as useless as the first book – another fucking wrought-iron fence (RAAAGE) and a moody silhouette of someone much shorter than Strike walking in a photoshopped way down an alley – but read it, because you should, because it’s good.

review: sulari gentill, gentlemen formerly dressed

While I am a month behind on reviewing this here, know that I have been verbally reviewing this to anyone who has come within a five-metre radius of me at work who has requested my opinion. (In previous bookstores, offering advice about what to read was how I spent the majority of my time; at my current job, it seems all the customers are far too independent to want to know what I can offer. It’s like they’ve grown up, and I’m still a mourning parent who wants their kids to ask them for help again. So when someone asks my opinion, I essentially become an attack dog of information.)

This is Gentill’s fifth Rowland Sinclair book, and the first I’ve read. While coming to the series later means I’ve missed some entertaining-sounding past capers that are commented on during the book, nothing that is necessary goes unstated, and if anything, this fabulous book has just made me want to go back and read everything. Rowly, an Australian who has just spent part of 1933 being tortured in Germany, escapes to London, ally to Australia and his ancestral homeland. With his arm still broken from his attack, he gathers all of his considerable wits and money, deposits himself and his bohemian sidekicks in a swish hotel, then decides to use his aristocratic background to gain audience with someone who will listen to his story and heed his warning about Hitler really, seriously not being a great guy. Upon opening the door to his first meeting, said contact is found skewered to his bed with a sword and in a state of dress not generally seen on men of his calibre in public. Such shenanigans embarrass the police sufficiently that they do not feel compelled to spend a large amount of time investigating; thus, Rowland and his cohorts now have two things on their to-do list: warn of impending danger, solve crime. Put this on your list: read this book.

I enjoyed this so immensely that I read parts out to my partner, laughed out loud, did some vocal cheering and always put it down with a smile on my face. It’s not that it’s exclusively light-hearted – fascism and murder isn’t an endlessly pleasant topic – but the characters, from Rowly’s artistically inclined inner circle (from poets to sculptors, and progressive to fuddy-duddy, but all loyal and clever) to those he encounters along the way (from friendly strangers to cameo appearances by such folk as HG Wells), just enliven the book completely. There is a brawl with fascists using some interesting props, and an incident at a train station that caused a fainting epidemic and had me in stitches. There are set pieces and characters I’d love to revisit. As it is, one reading has left me entirely happy for now, and the delight in this book should be shared. Good for young(ish, I mean there is scandal) and old (my grandmother would have been thrilled with all the good manners the roguish Rowly knows, and that he bumps into members of the monarchy), it’s a good present for about everyone you know, including yourself.

tram stop international review: val mcdermid, cross and burn

A review just long enough to get you to the next stop. Just don’t forget to get off.

DCI Carol Jordan’s last case damaged her team and her self-worth irreparably. While she hides in her brother’s house, former colleague DS Paula McIntyre is on the hunt for a serial killer, and not happy with the route her new boss is taking. Can she solve the case with the people at her disposal or are her old team—from profiler Tony to computer whiz Stacey—the only solution? This is a great but standard English crime read with a psychotic bad guy with no redeeming humanity and women being tortured in boxes, but is elevated by its neat sidestep around the straight white drunk male protagonist and the comforting, Agatha-Christie type way that one person’s little grey cells can help solve a mystery.

fathers day special edition international review: robert galbraith, the cuckoo’s calling

Today is Fathers Day, as you may have noticed from all the cordless drill ads on tv lately. Neither my partner, celebrating his second Fathers Day, nor my own dad (celebrating his forty-second) are particularly cordless drill types, but, luckily, they’re both literary types, which clearly suits me fine. My beloved dad especially loves crime fiction, which is great for both discussion of books we’ve both read and for being a handy depository for all the crime books I can’t fit in my house.

At the moment, he’s reading my copy of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, and enjoying it, much as I did. In case you missed the furore, Galbraith is actually one J K Rowling, showing that she is a more than capable crime author and someone who needs to get a new cover designer (which is a rant for a future post.)

Cormoran Strike is a private investigator as down and out as they come: he has just broken up with his girlfriend Charlotte, has now set up a home in his office, and has only one case. Then along comes John Bristow, whose superstar sister has recently died. The case was ruled a suicide, but he doesn’t agree with the findings, and finds his way via an old childhood connection to Strike.

Cormoran’s is incredibly named and great fun; he’s physically imposing but never anything less than empathetic. His successes are yours, and when he finds himself a new secretary named Robin who becomes, well, the Robin to his Batman, it sets the stage for a beautiful friendship that I could quite happily have read on every single page.

His ex-girlfriend Charlotte feels like a bit of a red herring, always discussed but never physically present; the name Lula Landry feels overly contrived; finally, I did think that the conclusion was one readers would be unable to come to using only the information supplied in the book. Still, I rarely try to figure things out myself—I’m just not that clever—and beyond those very minor squabbles I was wholeheartedly delighted by The Cuckoo’s Calling and hope she releases a sequel, or three.

In the meantime—Happy Fathers Day, dad. May we share many more crime reads and you enjoy many more days babysitting my kid so I can go to the flicks.

review: annie hauxwell, a bitter taste

As I mentioned in my Melbourne Writers Festival post, there’s an event on tomorrow morning called Crime Through Time. One of the authors is the wonderful Annie Hauxwell, so it seems a good time to post this review from her June release A Bitter Taste.

Frequently in crime books the gritty reality of those in unfortunate circumstances is considered other: the characters used as people to bribe for information or to be killed off with little remorse. In Hauxwell’s Catherine Berlin series, she takes us into a world not every crime reader is prepared for. Berlin is a fifty-six-year-old mostly-high-functioning heroin addict, attempting somewhat to get clean with methadone to assist her physical and internal scarring, and working with little money after her career as a private investigator was ruined. Now unhappy enough to accept crappy jobs and be paid in booze, she carries on through the heat of a blistering summer until an old acquaintance turns up with a request Berlin—the root cause of her downfall—cannot bring herself to refuse: a missing daughter.

Yet another example of how excellently painted main characters and thrilling but not cheap action can plunge you directly into a world: this was a book I really hated to put down, saying “just another chapter” before bed but secretly reading eight more. With London’s grime on show, and Berlin often more at home bunking down with the homeless, trying to find the girl, than in the bright and untrustworthy world of the authorities, this was a book with enough of the originality I so require in crime reads nowadays, and one that I would recommend heartily.

A version of this review was originally published in Readings Monthly.