The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

Rowling is still a fine writer, but, with this first attempt, she has not yet grasped the forward-moving structure so necessary to a mystery novel. She begins beautifully, as supermodel Lulu Landry falls from a balcony during a snowstorm, and the media, the curious, and paparazzi flock to the scene. Galbraith also introduces the interesting detective, Comoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, who have a complicated relationship. Finally, the author (whom I will now refer to as a “he.”) astutely captures the psychology of many of the characters.

The first problem is that Strike’s pursuit of how and why the girl fell involves a lot of sleuthing in the form of interviews and exchanges of information; but there is little action. And as this stretches out to more than 450 total pages, the lack of forward movement is telling. One knows that the author is setting up the solution step by step, but so many people are involved, and there are so many interlocking relationships, that the reader finds it difficult to fit the pieces together and thus see where the story is headed.

The title comes from a Christina Rossetti poem, which asks why one was born when the snow is falling, in winter, rather than when the cuckoo is calling, that is, in summer. And the victim, the beautiful supermodel, does die to begin the novel because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is also called the Cuckoo because she flits around town, catching everyone’s eye with her beauty.

But she is half black, making her an exotic beauty, and is adopted, which introduces the many mixed relationships, including love affairs, that complicate the story. Her tale begins when her brother John Bristow, not adopted, hires Strike to prove Lulu’s death was not a suicide, as the police proclaim, but was murder. Events then involve the entire Bristow family, including her nasty uncle Tony and her adoptive mother Yvette Bristow. It will also involve, as Michiko Kakutani writes in The New York Times, “a posh world of supermodels, rock stars, movie producers, and social-climbing wives.”

More specifically, it includes a weird clothes designer, Guy Some; Lulu’s boyfriend, Evan Duffield; her rehab girlfriend, Rochelle; her model friend, Ciara Porter; her birth mother Marlene Higson; the rapper Deeby Macc; and movie producer Freddie Bestigui and his estranged his wife Tansy. Plus many others. But who has played a significant role and who a minor role in Lulu’s death? This is difficult to determine as we follow Strike in his pursuit of what Lulu did the last two days of her life, and particularly what happened around her in those final moments when she plummeted from the balcony of her luxury apartment building. Strike’s 400 pages of conversation with those who knew her last days and witnessed those final moments becomes too detail oriented to move the story ahead. Nor do the various incidents seem to have any connection. Whereas, if the author had been wiling to suggest some of those connections, perhaps the reader might have been enticed to commit himself deeper to the story.

What is more interesting than the mystery, however, is the relationship between Strike and his secretary/assistant Robin. In fact, my interest in that relationship is similar to how I reacted in Galbrath’s follow-up novel, which I had read earlier. The mystery in both cases takes second fiddle. In the meantime, in this first novel, because he was an illegitimate baby himself, Strike relates to Lulu; and because he also has known the Barstow family before, he commits himself to resolving Lulu’s untimely fate.

Galbraith creates an interesting background for Strike. He has lost part of a leg in Afghanistan and is continually troubled by the prosthesis he wears. He is also near broke and has just separated from his dominating and long-time girl friend, Charlotte. Whereas, Robin, the temp he can barely afford, is already engaged to Matthew. On the other hand, she is drawn to the free-thinking Strike almost against her will. She is also fascinated by the detective profession itself, and often takes the initiative to help Strike find an answer to specific questions. One senses they will make an ideal team in future cases.

The story does falter in its conclusion, for it depends on a long, drawn-out explanation by Strike that is often typical of an authors’ early effort at a crime story. That is, the explanation of exactly how Lulu died has too many pieces to tie together, and is thus too drawn out to be interesting. The identity of the villain is also intended, I think, to offer a surprise; but the identity here is less surprising, since it is of one who is often found in detective novels. There is, however, one real surprise within that identification—being about another crime that personally affected Strike.

As I said, this is the second Galbraith novel I have read, and the fact that I have found the relationship between Strike and Robin again more interesting than the crime itself, well, this is not good news for the author. But I have the hope that Galbraith will improve, because he does have interesting insights about all of the characters, even the most minor. He just has to develop a more interesting but less complex case, and more dramatic events (or dramatic reversals) leading to an exciting conclusion. A lower page count in future works might be a key in determining if the author has succeeded in doing so. (June, 2017)

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Dreamcatcher, by Stephen King

This is the first fiction that King wrote after his drive-by accident that left him severely injured and in considerable pain. Unfortunately, it does not reflect the movement away from horror that I have detected in later novels written after the accident. Indeed, one wonders how much the pain he was enduring at the time prompted him to emphasize it here, especially the damaged hip suffered by Jonesy, one of his characters.

King’s begins this 2001 novel with news reports about flying saucers. Then he introduces his story. It is about four men who make a hunting trip to Maine each fall. And what happens to them when they are confronted by a stranger, a fellow hunter named Richard McCarthy, who has been infected by a mysterious phenomena. The phenomena turns out to be an alien with no good intentions, for aliens have landed on these forest hunting grounds in Maine, and they need to take over human bodies in order to survive.

The four men whose lives we follow are Beaver, a carpenter; Jonesy, a university professor; Henry, a depressed psychiatrist; and Pete, an alcoholic car salesman. They bonded as boys, and then more deeply when they protected Duddits, a smart, physically retarded boy who was constantly bullied at school. And these friends develop a kind of telepathic connection as a result, a precursor to telepathic skills that the aliens would bring. Indeed, this ability helps the five to collaborate here when they are faced with danger.

The core of this novel is the confrontations with evil that these five adults will have, confrontations involving other human beings as well as with those aliens. One also senses early on that King is a God-like author, and that not all of his heroes will survive. But which ones, that is the question.

The novel starts very slowly for me. There is too much of the boys’ past, how they make their connection with Duddits, and too much detail about the hunting trip that touches off their adventure. That is, how they get separated, how they encounter fear, and how the alien monsters enter their life. This is a normal approach by King, as he builds his story naturalistically, in order to get the reader to identify with his characters. But there is too much here. There is also too much farting, in which gestating alien monsters expel a terrible smell as they grow inside human bodies. This is a juvenile King at his mischievous worst. Indeed, he seems to take delight in describing these monsters and how they arrive on the scene—as if he is trying to revert to the scenes of horror that had made his work so popular before his accident.

Interestingly, the alien invasion is revealed to offer no immediate threat to all mankind, since these creatures cannot survive in the cold Maine air. Is this a cop out? To enable King to focus on his story in the second half of the book? On the gestating monsters and on Mr. Gray, who does offer a threat to some of our five friends. As well as to a part of New England, with his dastardly plot to poison the water supply.

And so…we have the army to the rescue! Ah, no, not quite. For King introduces the bloodthirsty Kurtz, who is intent on making a name for himself by not only killing all the aliens but also his own soldiers who disagree with him. And with Kurtz (note the name), the author introduces a familiar King theme, a distrust of government methods to protect its citizens.

But now, King puts his imagination to work, and creates a fascinating novel on two levels. The first step becomes confusing at times, for the aliens can read the minds of those they infect, which, in turn, enables the humans to also read their minds. Moreover, such humans can sense their own bodies being acted upon by aliens. Such as Mr. Gray, who inhabits Jonesy’s body. But this also means that Jonesy can read Mr. Gray’s mind. And plot against him. And, given all this reading of minds…well, this brings confusion at times, since certain characters are living on two levels, and King has to distinguish, for example, between whether Jonesy is doing certain things with his body or Mr. Gray is.

The title, Dreamcatcher, adds a vague explanation of this power of the five heroes to communicate with one another since their youthful protection of Duddits. It is like a fishnet of string, a charm from Indian lore that hangs from ceilings to guide and protect humans, and to ward off nightmares. For example, the horrors of this novel.

The second imaginative step is the chase scene that fills the final third of the book. In the lead car is Mr. Gray, in the body of Jonesy, racing with a dog about to give birth to one of the monsters. They are racing down the Maine coast to a Massachusetts reservoir to poison the waters of southern New England. Behind them is a second car with a soldier, Owen, who wishes to atone for the violence he committed in the army’s battle with the aliens and whom Kurtz believes has betrayed him. With Owen are Henry, the intellectual, and Duddits, whose communication abilities seems to hold the key to their survival. They want to prevent the poisoning of the water supply. And behind them in a third vehicle is Kurtz, who is determined to kill Owen for disobeying him, and two soldiers, Fredericks, who is driving, and the hapless Perlmutter, who is belching and farting, and about to “give birth” to another monster.

The reader races with King toward the conclusion, to the final confrontation of the people in the three cars. One expects a positive ending, but how it will work out keeps one in suspense. And then one is rewarded with the expected confrontation, the expected violence.

But there is an Epilogue. Which I usually don’t prefer. However, King becomes provocative here. He suggests that Jonesy’s liking of horror movies and books left him susceptible to Mr. Gray taking over his mind. Because he believed in the possibility of beings like Mr. Gray. And what does that say about all of King’s readers liking such tales as this?

Also, one more thing: King introduces God as a potential being that oversees mankind’s complex world and complex connections. “Who sings the lullaby,” Jonesy asks, “helps us go to sleep when we’re sad and scared?” And Henry answers: “Oh, God still does that.” But then kicks himself. He will not commit to God’s existence, no, but the possibility of Him remains. Perhaps as a kind of dreamcatcher? (June, 2017)

Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen

I have long liked Quindlen’s work, but this 2016 novel is a disappointment. It is about the Miller family, whose ancestors founded a Pennsylvania farm village named after them. The story is also about this village and its future, and is narrated by Mimi Miller, whom we first meet as a child in the 1960s. Unfortunately, her family appears to be an ordinary one, with its typical loyalties and typical disputes, typical silences and typical black sheep. And its members rarely impact one another or the world about them. Instead, they let things happen, from accidents to strokes, from being seduced to refusing to challenge others. And, above all, they never resist the major change the government plans to make in their lives.

The government has announced that the Pennsylvania valley where they live is to be flooded, that a dam is to be built for flood control, as well as to create both a new source of energy and a recreational area. The title suggests that the flooding of this farmland is to be the underlying theme that ties this novel together. But it does so only at the end. For most of the novel, this work is about the Miller family; and, as I said, this family, especially Mimi, mainly reacts to the events around them.

The structure of the novel follows Mimi, from her school days and school crushes, to a long affair and a desperate abortion, to a casual scholarship recommendation and the casual return of a lost love. She has to deal with her farmer father, Buddy, also the town handyman; her close-mouthed but wise mother, Miriam; her rebellious brother, Tommy; and her recluse aunt, Ruth. But while we learn a lot about this family, there is little conflict among them to draw the reader on.

In addition, there is a girl friend LaRhonda, who simply fades from Mimi’s life after high school. And there is also Winston Bally, who represents the government threat and is rather obnoxious; but he is eventually disposed of quite casually—and maybe ironically in the author’s mind. Perhaps Mimi’s mother is the most interesting character, because of her mysterious dislike of Ruth, but even more because she recognizes that her daughter must escape this town if she is to fulfill her potential.

In the foreground, meanwhile, Mimi is simply reacting to the people and the events around her, especially to her troubled brother Tommy. She herself does not strive to create her own future. It is the author who moves the reader on to the next stage in her life, rather than Mimi herself who does so. Such as not knowing her future, until a teacher sits her down and points to a scholarships to the University of Pennsylvania and then to its medical school. Such as delaying her career when her father suffers a stroke. Such as being pursued by the seductive Steve, and, later, tracked down by a man, Donald, who long ago faded from her life.

My reaction to this novel is opposite to my recent view of Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland. There, I was very involved in narrator Ben’s family life (and note the similar structure of that family and this one). But I was not drawn into the local government’s resistance to desegregating its schools. Whereas, here, I was not at all interested in Mimi and her family, but was hoping there would be more involvement between her family and the government’s plans to flood their valley. One does wonder if the author deliberately made Mimi’a family so passive regarding the threatened flooding, intending it to reflect Mimi’s own passivity in her personal life. Or perhaps vice versa. In any event, passivity does not bring conflict; and that, for, me is the key to keeping a reader interested in a novel.

Quindlen does write an interesting ending, a poetic ending, a kind of summing up of these characters’ feelings about their land and their valley. I wish I had felt some of that emotion earlier, however, as the threat of the dam filled more and more of their future landscape. Yes, it is natural to feel helpless against the plans of the government, but that means there is no story, when no one is fighting the government’s decision. Instead, we have the passive Mimi, who mainly worries about, but does little to help, the rebellious Tommy. And he is fighting not the government but his own demons. Indeed, his story almost belongs to another novel.

There is also a tiny surprise toward the end. We learn why Ruth has been such a recluse. And it explains the actions of certain people in the family. But it has no broad repercussions on the life of Mimi or anyone else. Indeed, Mimi discovers the secret almost accidentally, and does not allow it to alter her opinions about anyone in her family. While the reader achieves a brief “aha” moment, and then moves on. It is merely the high point in a final chapter that rounds up these people’s lives, especially Mimi’s—a roundup that many authors think their work needs.

I should note that my response to this novel is completely opposite to that of Caroline Leavitt in the New York Times Book Review. She called the novel “mesmerizing,” and the characters “richly alive.” Which only goes to show how subjective book reviewing can be. Usually, I like novels in which a mature character narrates his or her youthful experiences, and how those experiences helped that person grow into maturity. But I did not find that here, as I have explained. Usually, I also enjoy reading fiction about a disappearing way of life. But I also did not experience that here. In part, because the threat was in the background for much of the book. As if the author was torn between two stories. One, about a family; and the other, about a change in their way of life. I simply think she did not sufficiently merge the two—although other critics have thought that she did.

This does not turn me away from future Quindlen novels, but I do hope she returns to family rivalries, family disputes, and stories of inner turmoil, rather than to sociologically significant subjects. Novels should be about people, and about their interaction with society, yes, but about what is happening in society only through their own personal stories. (May, 2017)