The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling

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I was curious about the title after the revelation of who Robert Galbraith was and I’ve been waiting for another chance at her writing an adult novel other than Casual Vacancy. But thankfully I was able to read this book without any much bias and expectation about who Galbraith really was. So I treat it as such. I also listen to the audiobook narrated by Robert Glenister to help me dredge through this novel with some ease.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a mystery drama novel about a suicide of a supermodel and the investigation by a noirish private investigator, Cormoran Strike, at a request by her brother. The straight-forward novel revolve around Cormoran Strike interviewing and navigating through his suspect list until he uncover the truth in the end.

Divided in five parts, The Cuckoo’s Calling is nothing but not predictable. I’d suspect the reason why Rowling insisted on a pseudonym was to get a proper response to her own writing capabilities because this novel definitely is an amateurish attempt with lack of planning and wit for it to be more than a copy of anything in the market. The novel is a stereotyped pulp crime only with literary fiction style of writing which does nothing to the content except to add fillers in it.

The beauty of a complex crime novel especially with murder being covered up as suicide is in its planning and the breadcrumbs that lead to the end. This is what made “Cuckoo” bland and disappointing especially if you’re also a crime mystery fan such as me. I know that it was also intended to be social commentary on the upper echelon of London and its fashion industry but she could have just use her observation skill to a more practical use rather than churning out needless unnecessary imagery and details which bulk up the book but didn’t do anything to the strength of her puzzle. I adore puzzles and hers are more like a kindergarten-grade paper maze. This can be easily fix had Rowling did more research and planning or confide in anyone about her novel rather than publishing as it is.

Rowling even use the same stock characters in the crime fiction and the recurrent theme of incompetent of British law enforcement. Another male white with some war history and bad history with the ladies, near to middle age, probably pot-bellied which similar to Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) and imitating Hercule Poirot. In fact, Glenister perfectly conjured Coltrane in place of Cormoran that I suspect that Rowling envision the character to this image. Robin also another wink at the sidekick reference who is a temp for Cormoran who was in between job. Her characterization also fit to Hermione with accuracy. Lula is also a stereotypic model character with some added humanity to put her as a victim. Funny thing is, I pictured Freema Agyeman as Lula Landry and I had a laugh when the last name pop up suddenly while reading.

There’s a lot of things that I notice about the failings in her style of writing which tell a lot about her own stunted ability as an adult writer (for clarification, an adult could write a young adult novel and a young adult could write an adult novel). The contemporary setting doesn’t suit her at all. She could have work better if the story was set close to a noir classic era since her character’s interaction proven to be unrealistic and dull at most of the time. I know that its fashionable to write profanities in dialogues to portray some sort of realism in modern discussion but I genuinely think its distracting and didn’t add anything when the narrating style seem to stuck back in the 1900s.

Rowling could have use her extensive time to research on all types of crime novels instead of focusing on Roman literature reading and citation. I’ve read Virgil recently and I really don’t understand why she still insist on putting multiple Latin quotations between her stories rather than add more intricacies into her storytelling. To make the book appear more literary distinguished?

And I still can’t find myself praising her style since at times she does inserted her own politics and views within her narratives and her observation seem to focus more on superficiality and rather crass and inaccurate.

“I don’t know,” she said irritably. “Anything. Macc’s got a huge following; Freddie wasn’t going to pass that chance up. He’d probably have had a part written specially for him if he’d been interested. Oh he would have been all over him. Telling him all about his pretend black grandmother.” Tansy’s voice was contemptuous. “That’s what he always does when he meets famous black people: tell them he’s a quarter Malay. Yeah, whatever, Freddie.”
“Isn’t he a quarter Malay?” asked Strike.
She gave a snide little laugh.

Well, I am Malay although I am half Javanese on my dad’s side. We’re hundred percent Asian. I have nieces living in Birmingham who is quarter Malay but look white with blonde hair and blue eyes. So I’m not sure how JK Rowling herself would think that that was a funny or reasonable argument to lump my completely Asian race as African black.

There’s also another phrase that caught me by surprise:

Down a whitewashed corridor they passed an open door, and a flat-faced middle-aged oriental woman stared back at Strike through the gauzy film of gold stuff she was throwing over a dummy.

“Whitewashed” indeed. I still haven’t decided if she’s racist but I know that there’s wasn’t a feminist bone in her but frankly this is ridiculous. “Flat-faced”? And you wonder why rhinoplasty were the most common surgery next to double-eyelid surgery in Asia. Of all things to describe an aging Asian woman, she choose “flat-faced”. That is downright insulting if you did that to anyone – unless you’re a billionaire writer apparently.

As for the anti-feminist comment, I am confident that Rowling didn’t really view her sex favourably even without me having to read Casual Vacancy as a comparison. First with her choosing another male pen name. Female crime writers are rare as it is and often sideline for espionage or thriller novels which are dominated by male writers and she could have taken the niche in consideration. And what was up with her female characters always sidelined for the main male character despite having courage and intelligence to be a primary character. She even have her own rather contemptuous view on her women characters in this book. Lula, Cormoran’s ex-girlfriend, Lula’s mothers, Lula’s friends etc. The only positive character was Robin the assistant who is smart and loyal to the main character who by far without any relatable personality and probably based on Hermione and by default Rowling’s image of the perfect representation of herself. Was a woman’s role belong only in the sidelines as an assistant to a man without a back story of her own other than her male problems despite her inner strength and intelligence?

If I hadn’t known this book was written by her, I still would comment on how often the author write about nipples showing through their the female character’s clothes. Normally, this kind of objectification is what I abhor in male POVs novels and I know this is about a fashion model but if you want to do a social commentary about how soulless the industry really was, was it necessary to spend a long paragraph about how the nipples hardening and peeking through their layers and how white creamy breasts they have? I could have leave it off as a random coincidence but it does seem to pop up more than twice and weirdly enough it was dull as the rest of the narrating. I know that this is just a bland observation but there’s more to a woman’s figure than her boobs.

I wished this book could have been better at what it should have been. I don’t heavily dislike this book but I don’t think this book have a chance to compete with the others in the market as it is had Rowling haven’t been exposed. We already have Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Karen Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, Lene Kaaberbol’s Nina Borg, Dashiell Hammett’s, Veronica Mars, Sherlock Holmes, Olivia Dunham, Bones and Booth, Gill Grissom, Hawaii Five-O etc. Cormoran Strike doesn’t shine as much as an original character and doesn’t differentiate itself from others. I don’t think this book deserve a continuation from the quality, the characterization, the storytelling and the mystery elements but sales from a famous novelists usually say otherwise. It’s barely a good case and its barely a good pulp. And its in dire need of a more critical editor service and beta readers if Rowling really want to continue on with this series because “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is boring, predictable and forgettable and in lesser known novelist, it wouldn’t even be in a bestselling list to begin with.

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville

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Bartleby The Scrivener are a ridiculously significant modern tale from late 19th century which question morality and humanity that goes beyond the world of productivity and capitalism. As much as Melville drawing the humanism inspiration from Hawthorne in science, he did it by human ethics. In a simpler way of generalizing this book, this is one weird crazy book. They call this book an absurdist and existentialist fiction but I find its a lot harder to round up the author easily. I genuinely prefer the discussion on this book than the book itself because the book is confusing while reading but became more clear when you’ve find that its filled with metaphors on some kind.

The story is narrated by a lawyer who told a story of the most peculiar person he ever met; Bartleby. He had problems regarding his scriveners, Nipper and Turkey who have their own temperament which leads to the hiring of Bartleby. At first, he was a good and wonderful employee until one day when asked by the narrator to proofread a document, Bartleby would say “I would prefer not to”. The narrator let it slide until Bartleby grew increasingly unproductive and eccentric with his repetitive that he would prefer not to do everything asked by everyone even for his own well-being that it alarmed the narrator that he tried to persuade Bartleby to give a reason why but Bartleby would say continuously, “I would prefer not to”.

A scrivener is a copyist. You could say it is a modern equivalent of a xerox machine. While in this story, Bartleby became the main focus due to his persistence and curious way of conduct that frightened everyone around him.  He contrasted the world the narrator lived in. His depression became so infectious that the narrator who sympathize but fear him enough that he relocated his business after failing to nudge Bartleby to any form of work or life that Bartleby caused the tenants and new occupants trouble which lands him to even worst condition.

Some would consider Bartleby as a language and by his action, he became a verbal succubus sucking emotions around him just by his verbal persistence. He can also be seen as a victim of the modernity and this degradation began from his previous employment which the narrator sadly mourn the lost of humanity in him. The novel even question about the right of the living if only the living could choose to not proliferate under productivity. It also shows how being different can be misinterpreted if not being understood and in search of knowing, the narrator found himself unwittingly empathized with Bartleby who continued to eluded him by being passive until the narrator became helpless as it destroyed Bartleby from the inside. Maybe Bartleby aren’t meant to be understood nor to be saved but the situation around him are relevant in this time to ignore the underlying clues embedded inside the novella. Even still, it alludes me.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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The last time I read this book was when I was a teenager, I didn’t think of it much until I had to reread it for “Fiction of Relationship”. But now that I fully comprehend the title and its content as an adult, I didn’t think I’ve changed my initial perception on this book. Its a difficult book in content and atmosphere. The title are more appropriate autobiography of Jane Eyre unlike the Manon Lescaut.  The more I studied the novel, the more I find its harder for me to completely dislike the book and completely like it too. I find its puzzling when people constantly associate this novel with grandness of love. Sure the most memorable part of this book was a romance but I find the majority of the book quite hard to define on certain trope genre except to say that the book is just about Jane Eyre’s life herself. If I were to classify the novel, its a fictionalized autobiography divided in parts from a broken childhood where a child grew up too fast, a romance about the plight of a grown girl in face of a man who tempt her soul, the come of age of a child-woman into adulthood, a deeply religious novel with various embedded indoctrination, a satire and rebellion on the polite society and also a gothic tale of horror.

The book started with Jane reminiscing about her childhood in Gateshead Hall where she lived with her abusive cousins and unloved by her stern aunt who took delight in making a 10 year old suffer in misery. After a traumatic experience inside the Red Room (a word pun for “Murder” dont you think?), the apothecary who treated her recommended that Jane should be sent to a school. Instead, her aunt gave her to Mr Brocklehurst who managed the Lowood Institution where he believe that the more abusive nature he cause against the students, which are essentially by beating, starving them and depriving them from many things, for the sake of building good Christian ‘habits’ among the students. It was until an epidemic that wipe out nearly half of the students that left Jane mourning after a dear friend and the Lowood shift in management that Jane began to appreciate a new life in the school. She stayed for more years as a teacher until she decided to leave the school when she lost her reason to stay after the leaving of her teacher, Miss Temple, who somehow became a mother figure to her. Then she came to Thornfield Manor to teach the ward of a Mr Rochester, Adele Varens and found herself intrigued by her new master.

Jane Eyre is a very deathly long book to read for studying and as an assignment. Although I do enjoy the descriptive of the book, from the details of the interior of the manor, the fashions and textiles of 18th century which made Brontë a faithful contemporary writer of her time and also the beautiful nature the book explores which complement to the darker side of the novel where supernatural theme are quite prominent in dreams, interpretation and the secrets that alluded Jane so much.

As a character, Jane Eyre are quite a passionate proud independent woman and ahead of her time in a society where woman are encouraged to be sensible, demure and submissive. Even as a child, she basically reduce her aunt into tears and fears when Jane was accused to being a liar and spiteful child by her aunt which guarantee Jane a difficult life in Lowood. Although she soon grew up and leaving her childish fits, this streak of rebelliousness is obvious in her interaction between Mr Rochester, her reaction against the guests in his house who belittle and insulting her status as a governess, her fight with inner demons, her confrontation against the difficult St John Rivers and her stubbornness and loyalty with the Rochester in the end. Since I remember the story more from Ruth Wilson’s take on Jane Eyre, I do find its hard to completely interpret Jane into any adaptation. I became more sympathetic towards her in the book and understand her world and her personality more than I do from the various novel adaptations  I chanced to watch. Its hard to not like the obvious fire inside of her which became alive when someone torment her enough until she reach her limit. I do find its intriguing between the polarity of Jane and Bertha, especially the fact that they virtually mirror each other. I guess thats the purpose of the author.

Personally, I don’t really care for Jane Eyre and her relationship with Mr Rochester. I know, that he’s supposed to be a Byronic fallen hero figure and the story have been emulated into hundreds of historical romance with governesses and their liaison with their masters. But I do find Rochester simply too hateful to be liked by me. I do notice he had moments when he was too sarcastic, too masculine, too abrupt. He even enjoy torturing Jane to gauge the level of her love for him instead of giving her hints or even seduces her or display some sort of kindness for her. He even flaunt his past rendezvous and listing his lovers to Jane who seemingly perfectly fine with a guy detailing his past romances and neglected to mention about his marital status at the same. As much I love reading Alpha male dominance, I don’t think being jackass is right up in my alley. And although he completely changed after Jane left him and became what he is in the end after he lost her, I dont think its healthy to anticipate some God-like convenient intervention to punish the character. In fact, I am puzzled by Jane’s reaction on his sexual activities and she only took it as his “passionate nature and manly needs”. Up until she was back to Thornfield, she seemed to be accepting that about it and the fact he’s readily wanting to commit adultery with her and the fact she accept it as she convinced that Rochester have been outside England and back to his wicked ways. Which made Jane’s complexity and mood swings bewilder to me as her reader. But one thing I like about the two of them is that Jane saved his life from the fire and douse it alone without him waking up. That’s really impressive even to me.

As a prominent male historical romance figure, I keep drawing a comparison between Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), Mr Rochester and Mr Thornton (North and South). I still insist that Mr Thornton are realistically more appropriate and admirable male figure rather than the other two and probably because Elizabeth Gaskell choose to write in third-person omniscient than the first-person narratives between these two novels. I seriously don’t get the whole excessive hero worshiping between Darcy and Rochester who apparently doesn’t do much except being  richly inherited (Thornton grew up poor and work his way up and are married to his work unlike the other two romantic heroes). Although I do find Jane Eyre and Margaret Hale (North and South) with obvious similarities but I think Jane are more concerned about her own welfare than the world around her unlike Margaret. Margaret were born in an easy middle-class life only to have her world, family, reality crumble all around her even when she tried to make some differences and try to understand it. Jane however instead of confronting her problem, she kept it all in her inside until it burst or until she couldn’t handle it anymore and run away and keep making everything worst and leading everyone around. Throughout her novel, its so apparent that the things that drove her on was her own need, her happiness and the fault of her pride which kept getting in her away which was often confused as being passionate. This book is maze of confusion and the fact that it kept jumping multiple genre until the author gave up the charade near the end which reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey at some point.

I think the only thing that made me emotionally invested with the story was when Jane found out that she’s not alone in the world and that she has living relatives. The story started as a story of abuse on a child who are so alone and unloved and jealous of others with family only to be a grown up teenager trying to be an adult and only to find the world continue to disappoint her happiness again. At this, I had wished the book explore that side of her more especially her solitude and loneliness instead of diverting toward longing for a male companion and the endless descriptive on the weather and insertions of constant foreboding Gothic descriptive atmosphere, and observance of people, religion and Jane’s monologues et cetera. For a thick book, it does feel like a patchwork of stories compiled into one. But as a thick book, I wished it could have been more revolutionary instead of a master guide toward modern romance writing.