Silkworm (2014) by Robert Galbraith

SILKWORM

I made a quick lunch-break dash to the library in order to pick this up and still had enough time to read some of the first chapter on a park bench before heading back to the office. It was a lot of effort to go to for a book I hadn’t really planned on reading so soon after The Cuckoo’s Calling – usually I get a bit bored if I work my way through a series too quickly – but the recent TV adaptation was getting discussed in great detail in my office and it was driving me kind of nuts. I was worried that if I didn’t read it soon then someone was going to spill too many beans and ruin the ending.

(Incidentally, I am currently a week behind on ‘Bake Off’ and having a very similar problem. I have to go make a cup of tea whenever my colleagues start discussing it.)

In Silkworm’s opening chapters, private detective Cormoran Strike takes up the case of missing author Owen Quine. Quine’s last act, in the days before his disappearance, was to send draft copies of his latest bizarre novel to everyone he knows including his wife, his mistress, his editor, his agent, his biggest rival and his publisher. Unfortunately for them the novel contains some vicious, thinly disguised poison-pen portraits and reveals some deep, dark secrets they’d probably rather not share. Under the circumstances it’s clear that there are several people who might have liked to get their revenge on Quine, or prevent him revealing further unpleasant truths, so Strike and his assistant Robin have to work out precisely who appears in the novel, who read it and who has the most to hide.

It’s a much darker, grittier novel than The Cuckoo’s Calling but I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much. The plot is cleverer and just like Cuckoo it’s carefully put together with no worrying loopholes or loose ends. I’ve said before that I really love the way that Rowling builds vivid, believable worlds around her characters and this isn’t an exception. I particularly like the way that she describes real London places; it makes Strike’s world feel tangible. Similarly, however, I’ve also said before that I wish some of Rowling’s later novels were shorter and I stand by that here too. I think this novel wouldn’t have started to drag so much if Rowling was better at staying on topic. She wastes too many precious words on scenes that don’t matter, that slow the pace and become an annoying distraction from the real story. I liked Silkworm but would have enjoyed it even more if it had been a few pages shorter.

I’m also starting to wonder whether Robin might be a better central protagonist. Strike’s ok but I think telling the story from Robin’s point of view might actually feel just a little fresher. At the moment her relationship with Strike is straying into clichéd territory and I’m scared it’s going to get a bit predictable in the end. I’ll keep on with the series, since I’m quite enjoying them and they’re very easy to read. Maybe Rowling will surprise me.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith

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“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.” 

I came back from France with a nasty cold and was pretty much useless for anything requiring an upright position (or breathing) for a few days after our return, which put a very definite stop to my Doctor Zhivago reading plans. Something light, entertaining and plot driven was in order so I reached for The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in the J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith mysteries. I have vague memories of having bought this at a library book sale when I was still at my old job so it’s probably been lurking in the unread pile for about two years at least. It was clearly high time to knock this one on the head.

As I said, The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in the series and introduces us to Rowling’s private investigator Cormoran Strike who, as the book opens, is newly dumped, broke and living in his office. Strike is asked to investigate the supposed suicide of a world famous supermodel and – no surprises – it quickly becomes clear that her family were right to suspect foul play all along. Over the course of the investigation Strike interviews anyone with a known connection to the victim and meticulously reconstructs her last movements, all this while his disastrous private life disintegrates around him.

This is fairly standard detective fare but, for all its occasional sweariness and talk of rap megastars, Twitter and Boris Johnson, The Cuckoo’s Calling feels somehow endearingly old fashioned. There’s no pathology or forensics here but a lot of time is spent combing over minute details gleaned from interviews with witnesses and there are some traditional red herrings to misdirect you along the way. Strike is an old school private detective with a background in the military, woman trouble, a fondness for drink and the ability to handle himself in a fight. He’s not, however, such an enormous cliché that he feels derivative or that you can’t believe in him; in fact, I warmed to him quite a bit and particularly enjoyed his interactions with Robin, the fresh faced secretary from the temping agency who arrives on page one. Their mutual embarrassment and wariness of each other was kind of heartening and I’d consider reading the next in the series just to see how this relationship develops.

Like the later Harry Potter books this suffers from a lack of editing and I couldn’t help thinking that a little careful cutting here and there might have made this novel feel a little tighter without necessarily sacrificing any of the momentum or atmosphere that Rowling is so good at creating. And she does that exceptionally well here, I think; The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t an astounding work of art but it is engrossing and the world she creates for her characters is vivid and believable. In spite of its flaws it succeeded in cheering me up at a time when I was feeling pretty rubbish. It got me through my cold, its after effects and the depressing post-holiday return to work which, in all honesty, is the worst. I was grateful to have this book to look forward to on my lunchbreaks during that first week back.

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I Love to Hate

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

This week’s theme is character focussed and gives me the perfect opportunity to think
about some of those characters I get a real kick out of hating. They’re not always the main villains but they’re the ones I can’t wait to see get their comeuppance.

I don’t know if I’m just an angry, resentful person but I didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble putting this list together.

1. Daisy in The Great Gatsby. I will never forgive Daisy. What an awful, awful human being.

2. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. Why won’t he see sense? It’s infuriating.

3. Elizabeth in the Poldark series. Ross is an idiot.

4. Almost everyone except Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. Austen’s
books are full of perfectly silly, intentionally annoying characters who make the real heroes shine in comparison.

5. Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre. Although, in fairness to Blanche, Rochester’s behaviour to both she and Jane at this point of the novel is kind of, well… he’s a bit of an arse here, isn’t’ he? Sorry.

6. Grima Wormtongue in the The Two Towers. Having manipulated, lied and flattered his
way into a position of power his downfall is so satisfying to see.

7. Cathy and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. I love the book but it’s hard to watch them deliberately hurt each other. They’re selfish, hateful people.

8. Mrs Trunchbull in MatildaA properly terrifying children’s villain.

9. Mondego, Danglars and Villefort in The Count of Monte Cristo. By the end of this book I was egging the Count on with real bloodthirsty gusto; I was so desperate for him to get his revenge.

10. Delores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She deserves everything she gets.

This list is quite classics heavy although that certainly wasn’t my intention when I started writing it. Maybe more recent novels have moved away from this sort of character? Or maybe I don’t read the right kind of modern books. I don’t know.

Top Ten Tuesday: Tyrants, despots and dictators

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. 

I had already half decided not to involve myself in the next few Top Ten Tuesdays, at least until I had a bit more time to spare. However, as soon as I realised that this was a freebie week, the idea for a post on tyrannical regimes in literature immediately leapt into my head fully formed. It would have been wasteful to ignore it or to put it off until another week when the subject would be less relevant (although I guess it’ll remain relevant for at least the next four years). But still, it seemed like an apt week.

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, in which a revolutionary extremist Christian movement seizes control of power and strips women of their rights and freedoms, with horrifying consequences. I’ve read this a few times now and it never fails to scare me.

2. 1984 by George Orwell. An obvious choice perhaps but I don’t think this list would be complete without reference to 1984. Winston Smith exists in a nightmarish world where the state controls the truth and every move is watched by Big Brother; there’s no privacy, no freedom, no love.

3. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. I think the dystopian world in V for Vendetta is disturbing because it’s just about recognisable. This is a police-state London in the 1990s, post civil-war and run by the fascist Norsefire party.

4. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The White Witch’s tyranny over Narnia has lasted a hundred years and caused a deep, deep winter to settle over the land.

5. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare. Weird choice maybe but I quite like this play, although it is rather harrowing. Coriolanus’ tyranny over Rome eventually collapses because he is completely unable to compromise.

6. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. A slightly more light hearted entry on the list here although it’s still fairly dark. The action here takes place in Chromatica, where the social hierarchy is determined by ability to see colour.Woe betide you if you’re a Grey caught fraternising with a Violet…

7. Animal Farm by George Orwell. The farmyard setting is used here to comment on the high ideals of the Russian Revolution which had quickly gone astray and been replaced with Stalin’s reign of terror.

8. Harry Potter and the … by J.K. Rowling. In the Deathly Hallows Voldemort seizes power and begins his own renewed terrifying reign over the magical world, but you could argue that Delores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic had been verging on the despotic for some time anyway.

9. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. Another alternative history but in this one the people from the African continent have used centuries of technological advantage to subjugate the Europeans. Now the Crosses (Whites) are at the mercy of the more powerful Noughts (Blacks).

10. The Wave by Todd Strasser. A clever classroom experiment – and an attempt to show what life was really like in Nazi Germany – goes horribly wrong when a new movement sweeps through the school.

I realise that this week would also have been a good week for a TTT list on protests in literature but sadly that proved a little harder to write. I’ll bear it in mind for a future week though – suggestions always welcome!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to read this autumn

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the folks at the Broke and Bookish. This week the theme is all about the top books we’d like to read this coming autumn.

Before writing this post I looked back at my TBR list from the start of the summer and realised, with dismay, that I have only read three of the books that I listed. Three! Well, three plus one short story. Good grief.

I said at the time that I don’t really plan my reading ahead because I’m too fickle, too easily distracted. I believe I have just proved my point. So here’s the latest attempt but with the usual disclaimer: this list will have very little bearing on what I will actually end up reading in the coming months.

1). The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. I’m looking forward to reading something a little more grown up from Rowling. I know absolutely nothing about it – I didn’t even read the blurb before buying it – so whatever happens hopefully it’ll be a nice surprise!

2). The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. This was on the TBR list I made in June and I’m still desperate to read it. I think I have to be in the right mood for Hardy and lately I just haven’t been.  Sometimes I just want to read a book where I know all the main characters will survive to the end, is that too much to ask?

3). The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I loved this book when I read it back in 2005 but until last week I hadn’t even thought about it in ages. It wasn’t until I saw the advert for the latest BBC adaptation that it all came flooding back to me. I’ve recorded the show but I think this needs a reread first.

4). The Warden by Anthony Trollope. After months of searching I finally found a second hand copy of this amongst some new donations at the charity shop. About bloody time. Who knew that the residents of this little town were so keen to hold onto their Trollopes?

5). The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I’m so ashamed of not having read this yet. It’s been sitting unread on my shelf for at least ten years. Possibly more.

6). War and peace by Leo Tolstoy. Another example of the BBC shaping my reading habits. I was only saying a few weeks ago that I want to have another go at this and then I heard that there’s a big adaptation planned for next year…. but maybe I’ll leave it a little longer. I’ve had enough big books recently.

7). The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth. P’s dad lent me this nearly a year ago and has been far too polite to ask for it back. I need to get on this soon.

8). Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories by Rex Collings (ed). I don’t plan on reading these all in one go but I think I might try to do one a month or so. Now the nights are closing in they’re pretty perfect for some ghost stories by the fire I think.

9). Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. This has been lurking at the top of my TBR pile for ages and there have been several times when I’ve reached for it…. and then changed my mind. Soon, Lady Audley, soon.

10). Something, anything at all, written by Sophie Hannah. I’m going to an author talk in October and it occurs to me that besides some poetry and The Monogram Murders, I haven’t actually read much by Sophie Hannah. I know I’ll get more from the talk if I’m reasonably well prepared before hand.

Voila! Do other people stick to their TBR lists? Or is it just that I’m a bit of a flake?

Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite female characters (some of whom are also introverts…)

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week there was no set topic, I was free to choose my own… 

This started out as just a plain old list of some of my favourite female characters in literature but it got out of hand pretty quickly…. I kept thinking about how much I hate it when writers think that a female character has to be ‘feisty’ in order to be interesting. I mean, honestly, that word is overused. I can’t see it or hear it without wanting to headbutt something.

It makes me wonder about all the introverts out there who aren’t represented in fiction. Why don’t we get a look in? Can you have a strong, interesting female character who isn’t (urgh) ‘feisty’? Or are the thoughtful, more reserved, characters destined to always be the weak and simpering damsels in distress?

Eventually I decided I was being a bit unfair on the world of literature, partly because it turns out that quite a few of the characters on my list fall somewhere towards the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum. Clearly they do exist. It got me to thinking though, are they on my list because there’s something more relatable about characters who have more going on inside? Or am I just drawn to characters who seem a little more like me?

And then I started to wonder, why does everything have to be so black and white? Why should any character be an extrovert or an introvert? Or clever or stupid? Or kind or cruel? Aren’t the best characters the ones who are a little bit of everything and nothing and one thing one day and another the next? The ones who are like actual people.

And then I thought: Stop it, just write the list….

1, Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. The first time I read this book I felt like I’d known Cassandra forever. Her narration is so easy to read and she’s so likeable that it’s impossible not to get swept up in her life. Like any normal human being she’s sometimes surprised by her own feelings. I like that.

2, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. There’s something about Esther that makes me uneasy but I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is. I suspect it’s possibly because she’s so perfectly written that you almost feel like you are descending into the darkness with her. It’s quite unsettling.

3, Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She doesn’t have much to say for herself but there’s so much going on under the surface with Jane. I love the fact that she absolutely insists on doing what she thinks is right, in spite of all the entreaties from the man she loves and even though she knows it will make them both bitterly unhappy. It’s hard not to respect that (even if you do kind of want to give her a good shake…).

4, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. No introduction needed. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Hermione is the best character in HP, right?

5, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch by George Eliot. I won’t lie, I hated Dorothea for ages. She comes across as very self-righteous in the beginning but you eventually learn that she just wants to feel like her life has some value. She’s full of so many worthy intentions but she makes some really daft choices.

6, Dinah Glass in The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross. Without Dinah that wicked headmaster would be ruling the world by now and then where would we be? Huh? That little girl kicked ass.

7, Miss Marple in the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie. Never underestimate Marple, that’s the first rule of book club. She sees, hears and understands everything, all over a nice cup of tea and a piece of fruit cake on the lawn. The old dear runs rings around all those patronising, young detectives.

8, Amy March in Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. I know Jo and Beth get all the love and I admit they’re pretty great but I think Amy deserves a little recognition. She’s vain and whingey and has a weird obsession with limes that I’ve never understood….. She’s not as placid as Beth and Meg, nor as fiercely independent as Jo, but you could argue that she matures, and learns, the most over the course of the novel. She’s a nicer person at the end of it.

9, Guinevere Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. I’m ridiculously fond of this book and of Miss Pettigrew, the downtrodden, middle-aged governess who turns up for a job interview and gets caught up in a glamourous whirlwind of parties, filmstars, nightclubs and fashion shows. It’s silly but I’m always thrilled for poor Miss Pettigrew. I’m glad she gets to have some fun for once.

10, Estella in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I’m usually a bit dismissive of Dickens’ female characters but I’ll make an exception for Estella (and Miss Havisham too in fact). I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Estella, I feel sorry for her. There’s a bit at the end of the book where she says to Pip, “Suffering has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken but I hope into a better shape…” It’s practically my favourite thing ever. 

So there we have it, some of my favourite female characters. Is there anyone you’d add to the list? Who have I missed? (Besides Elizabeth Bennett obviously!).

In the interests of fairness I may well devote my next TTT freebie to my favourite men in fiction!

Top Ten Tuesday: Most read authors

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke And The Bookish. This week’s theme is all about the authors I’ve read most.

I had a wee break from TTT because I found the last two topics a little tricky, a bit too niche for my reading/blogging habits. This week’s theme is more general so you’d think it’d be easier, wouldn’t you? My trouble is that although I like to think I’ve read books by a wide variety of authors, I don’t tend to read more than two or three books by any one of them. In reading terms I like to get around a bit. I’m a commitment-phobe.

1 Enid Blyton. Famous Five, Mallory Towers, Noddy…. I read them all. But not Secret Seven. Eurgh. I hated Secret Seven. Favourite: The Hollow Tree House.

2 Charles Dickens. I don’t want to sound like a stuck record but Dickens is one of the only authors I go back to again and again. I’ve read eight of his novels and some short stories too. Favourite: Probably Our Mutual Friend.

3 J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter was one of those very rare occasions when I read an entire series all the way through from beginning to end. It may only have been possible because I spread it out over fifteen years but still, quite an achievement in my eyes. Favourite: Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

4 Agatha Christie. When I’m feeling lazy, or I really just don’t know what to read, I turn to Christie. I’ve read so many over the years that the titles, plots and characters are starting to blur a little. Favourite: Murder On The Orient Express.

5 Roald Dahl. No surprises here. I had the complete set. I read them all. Repeatedly. Favourite: Either The Enormous Crocodile or The Fantastic Mr Fox…… or maybe Matilda.

6 Margaret Atwood. My old roommate was responsible for getting me completely hooked on Margaret Atwood. I never finished the Oryx and Crake series so one day I’ll go back and do that…. I hope. Favourite: The Blind Assassin.

7 Jacqueline Wilson. I read tons of these as a child and then read a load more when I was trying to finish the BBC Big Read. They were great. Favourite: Double Act.

8 Winston Graham. I discovered the Poldark books while I was staying at my grandparents’ house in Sussex one summer when I was about 12. Over three successive summers I read them all. Favourite: Ross Poldark.

9 Judy Blume. She understood teenagers. ‘nuff said. Favourite: Superfudge at first, Deenie when I was a bit older.

10 Graham Greene. I’m scraping the barrel with this one since I’ve only read four GG books, but that’s still more than I have most other authors. I got a bit obsessed with Graham Greene for a while. Favourite: Brighton Rock.