Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling: Robert Galbraith (Rowling)

Before I review a book (but after I’ve read it) I like to have a good old read of its reviews. Not the ‘official’ ones in the papers and the like (those tend to always be biased, you never know how much money the publishing houses are playing (wow, apparently cynical me is on a day trip)) but the ones that appear on sites like Amazon and Goodreads written by your average reader. Generally speaking, they normally follow a pretty usual trend with the outliers of those who really liked and those who really didn’t but scores tend to mostly match up.

Galbraith was different. His/her (not sure what the appropriate one is in this case) reviews fall into three categories.

1: I love JKR and she can do no wrong.

After it was ‘accidentally’ (I’m still sceptic) released that she was the brains behind Galbraith, sales of this book went up somewhat (which was no real surprise to anyone). A lot of people idolise Rowling and so there are a lot of reviews that pretty much sing her praises. I sense the book could be written in text language and about the day in the life of a one pound note and these reviews would not change.

2:  I wanted Harry Potter

Rowling gets a bit of a workover here. These range from “Why are there no wizards?” (to which I would answer, why is anyone allowing you to review a book. You clearly don’t understand how this thing works) to more generic comments about losing its charm.

 And; 3: The rest of us.

The people who actually just read the book and reviewed it.

I consider myself in this group because a) while I love HP, I would not profess that Rowling is completely flawless, b) I went in wanting a crime fiction book (and as it is generally a genre I dislike, I was looking for a good one) and c) because I think this book should be allowed to stand alone. I will be utterly honest, the only reason I read this book was because I knew it was Rowling’s work. And so, I suspect, did a lot of others so comparison, I suppose, should only be expected but the magnification on this particular lens is over the top if you ask me.

Story wise, this is your usual crime jaunt. It had all the necessary tick boxes and ticks along at a slow, steady pace. Galbraith takes his/her time on this book. Unlike usual crime novels that are very point, click, written-for-TV style books that bound from action point to action point, this moves a lot slower. There are no cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, there are no real big action sequences, and it is, in the most part, a story told verbally rather than physically. As it happens, this tends towards my preference of novel. I happened to like her writing style. I do agree in places it feels like she is trying too hard to be ‘adult’ but I love the way she absorbs you into the environment. But then, like I say, I don’t tend to enjoy normal crime dramas. I find her amazingly eloquent with a better grasp of the English vernacular than just about any of the other writers on my bookshelf. I love some of the words she uses and the images she creates. Some people find this heavy and the main cause behind the book’s ‘plodding’ nature. I don’t disagree to the latter, I’m simply saying it didn’t bother me.

She does have some weird quirks. Firstly, she seems to be obsessed with writing characters phonetically. As a general rule, I hate (actually loathe) authors that do this. Still to this day I have no idea what the groundskeepers in Wuthering Heights says. Just tell me he is Scottish/Jamaican/Italian/Cockney/Whatever and let me make the rest us. I have no problem to a few dialect driven words thrown in e.g. Aye for Scottish, Ain’t for Southern/Cockney, Yah for South African and Bella for Italian but the dialogue in this book often had more apostrophes than letters. I can live with cut off ‘g’s’ and to’s and of’s but this was to a level that was almost a foreign tongue. Her spell-check must have been going mental. You end up with these weird situations where the security guard who was supposed to be Jamaican ended up sounding South African in my head because of her choice of phonetics. That for me, made this book hard to read. Bringing me neatly to her second usual quirk…

This book is all dialogue. As a new writer I always get two pieces of fun and contradicting advice.

1. Always write conversation out in full. Don’t use reported speech as this is your best way of exploring character development and;

2. Show, don’t tell.

The characters literally ‘tell’ you this story. Like I say, there is minimal action. So you do end up feeling like you are sat on a jury listening to person after person telling you just slightly different versions of the same events. It gets a bit dull. I started skimming (and probably missing clues) because of it. Rochelle in particular drove me nuts, between the pages of dialogue and her awful phonetic accent, I gave up and hoped he’d summarise for Robin later. She also makes a few odd narrative decisions. Often Robin would go of and actually do some detectiving but instead of taking the narrative with her (the prose switches between third person with Strike and Robin), she just tells Strike about it verbally. And I think the book loses momentum because of it. *SPOILERS* Also, and this proved almost universally true, if Robin went off some place and I didn’t get to hear about it, it almost certainly was because if we went it’d give away the plot so whatever she said was of vital importance. *END SPOILERS*

My final, and massive, bugbear with this book is its editing. As regular readers know, I’ve spent the last year of my life editing my book so I know the pain. Which means now when I read a book that is badly proofed, it makes me angry. Because as far as I am concerned it makes it seem like good formatting and all that stuff is only important on the way up, once up it’s, “nah, don’t bother, they’ll buy it anyway”. The errors in this book are all over the place. From extra spaces before dialogue, to not closing speech marks (which is infuriating as you have to backtrack to work out what is going on), double words, and extra fun in the phonetics, she regularly skips the ‘d’ off the end of ‘and’ and dumps it on the beginning of the next word (which I’m pretty sure is a typo). You’d have thought the great JKR might be able to afford a proofreader or two?

Thus rant ends.

However, and this is a big however, despite the above, I enjoyed this book. The story was engaging and less predictable than reviews make out (though that might be my inexperience with this genre showing again). It kept me going from page one to the end. I think both Strike and Robin are interesting characters and nice steps away from clichés. (Though I agree with a fellow reviewer who suggested for the (let’s face it) inevitable film adaptation that Nathan Fillion as Strike and Karen Gillan as Robin would be a match made in heaven). The supporting cast are no Larsson creation but they are fun and quirky. You get all the stereotypes from bimbo supermodels to big black rappers and all in between. Oh and the gay fashion designer. Oh for the day someone writes a straight fashion designer. Just to be different. For once.

This is a story about fame and Rowling’s opinions come out in force. You can feel her anger against the paparazzi palpably through the pages. She makes very pointed statements about fame, phone hacking, Gordon Brown, and the press. Never let it be said that Rowling does not know how to use a stick to make a very deep point. As I happen to agree with her on all points, I enjoyed this indulgence in political ranting. Others may not.

It does strike (no pun intended) me as odd that she time-locks this book so badly. And place too. I don’t know London. Despite what all American’s seem to think, just because I’m British does not mean I live in London so this book felt a little alien to me. Like listening to my parents speak of their childhood home-town that I’ve never seen or visited. She describes it well but it always seems just slightly out of focus for me. As I say, she also time-locks this with cultural references that will mean nothing to anyone not British. You can date this book to the day thanks to Mr Brown and his lousy people skills. This book will age. And fast.

Like I say, I enjoyed this book. I did not feel like I dragged myself from beginning to end. It was easy, well-written fiction that captured at least a portion of my imagination. And I think she will grow into it. I’m yet to read The Silkworm but just like it took Rowling a few books to settle into Potter, I think the same will come true of Strike and Robin too. This book is still trying too hard to be adult. There is too much unnecessary swearing just to remind us ‘this is for adults’. And Robin in particular has moments where she is more teen than adult. There are eye-roll moments (I would love to see anyone pull off Robin’s stunt in a high-end fashion store – pretty sure those girls want their jobs more than the commission) but for the most part, a well handled, enjoyable read.

Rating: 5-10 – neither excellent nor awful but somewhere between. A good old yarn to read on the train home.

Favourite Quotes (4): “He knew more about the death of Lula Landry than he had ever meant or wanted to know; the same would be true of virtually any sentient being in Britain. Bombarded with the story, you grew interested against your will, and before you knew it, you were so well informed, so opinionated about the facts of the case, you would have been unfit to sit on a jury.”

“A hundred years after Emmeline Pankhurst, a generation of pubescent females seeks nothing better than to be reduced to the status of a cut-out paper doll, a flat avatar whose fictionalised adventures mask such disturbance and distress.”

“Sometimes illness turned slowly to nillness […] sometimes nillness rose to meet you out of nowhere.”

“The press in this country are lower than scum.”

Favourite Character: Ciara Porter (I don’t know why, she just sort of became endearing, like a small child or a kitten)

Least Favourite Character: Rochelle