JK Rowling

JK Rowling masters her new genre with The Silkworm

the silkworm

You can’t plot murder like a novel. There are always loose ends in real life.

― Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm

With The Silkworm, JK Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, secures her spot in a new niche. As in the first novel of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, private detective Cormoran Strike finds himself amidst a high profile investigation, swatting at paparazzi’s flash bulbs and scanning news headlines for his name.

The Cuckoo’s Calling explored the world of the glamerati, those untouchable rich and famous, as Strike investigated the supermodel Lula Landry’s suspicious suicide. In The Silkworm, Rowling gets her hands dirty much closer to home, when Strike stumbles into an ugly case involving the publishing industry. Strike seeks the missing author Owen Quine, whose desperate but nutty wife Leonora may or may not be giving the PI all the information on her husband’s whereabouts. Quine’s last book was a grotesque mockery of all those he knew and loved, so he had reason to flee on his own, but also reason to be killed.

As the investigation thunders through London, swirling between an endless array of loathsome characters in the publishing industry, the underlying tension between Strike and his assistant, Robin presents a delicious side plot. Strike’s brutish character, and Robin’s naivety, each polish here so they feel more fully realized than they did in the first novel.

Rowling masters all the elements of a great story in The Silkworm with the precision of a master storyteller. She combines the more irresistible, exposé elements of high profile cases with the best parts of the cozy mystery. She’s also building up the tension of a love affair between two wildly different people who respect each other in a way most others around them fail to see. Hopefully we see more of Strike’s entitled half-brother Al, as well. I’d love to see the trio of Al, Robin, and Strike work together to solve a case surrounding Strike’s rock star dad in the next book.

The Silkworm on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon – What went wrong?


I recently read the “highly anticipated” novel The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon.  Reading this book just confirmed two of my beliefs:

1)  Marketing campaigns can easily hurt the books they are promoting.

2)  The best non-fiction authors do an amazing job of incorporating facts seamlessly into their stories.

First, point one.  Marketing campaigns can hurt books and disappoint their readers.

All the readers who reviewed The Bone Season on Goodreads seemed to feel the same way about it I did.  Way too much information being thrown out, with a beginning that is almost comical thanks to its info-dumping.  I wanted to love this book so much (as did every other reviewer on Goodreads, it seemed).  A cool young woman publishing a hit?  What isn’t there to love about that story.  Someone, somewhere compared this poor girl to JK Rowling and immediately set her up for failure.  As we saw with The Cuckoo’s Calling, JK Rowling’s writing can’t even build a new JK Rowling-level of success.  The blurbs for this book are also overly optimistic–U.S.A. Today called The Bone Season a combination of George Orwell and J.R.R. Tolkein!  No pressure, right?  What this means is the expectations for The Bone Season were incredibly high.  Readers were expecting an Orwellian brand-new Lord of the Rings series that could create a Potter-worthy hysteria.  With that sort of hype, of course readers are going to be disappointed.  I often feel this way when a book is declared a “hit of the summer” or “next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or “new Hunger Games”.

In Janet Maslin’s brilliant and brutal review of The Bone Season at the New York Times, she calls it “a human interest story, not a book.”  She points out that much of the hype around the book has been on the author and her success-the movie options, the money.  Obviously the average reader isn’t looking for a literary masterpiece, but the fact that books have become hollow hype machines similar to blockbuster movies is something to notice.

And that brings me to point two:  The Bone Season’s writing itself.  It takes skill to make information become digestible  and the best non-fiction authors are masters of this.  I think studying how great non-fiction incorporates facts into vivid stories would absolutely help The Bone Season become readable.  This is such an information-laden book (granted, the information conveyed is regarding a fictional world but there is a ton of it), I think it would have benefitted from a more journalistic narrative.  Great non-fiction books pack an incredible amount of information into a readable story.  I think The Bone Season would have benefited from the focus on creativity and details which build a picture of the facts.  There is a saying in writing that you “Show, don’t tell,” and The Bone Season is a book of telling.  Great non-fiction manages to show all its information.  Spillover, a non-fiction book by David Quammen about the spread of zoonotic diseases, is 600 pages of scientific facts and history.  Quammen is such a brilliant writer that these facts go unnoticed in the story.  Bad Pharma, a huge non-fiction book covering the pharmaceutical industry’s faults, reads more clearly than The Bone Season.  I think great non-fiction has the ability to place the reader in a story rather than simply conveying a story’s information.  I also think this was exactly what The Bone Season was lacking.  The Bone Season was a textbook of information, a list of ideas with little explanation as to why we should care.

How would I fix The Bone Season?  Clearly there is a world inside Samantha Shannon that needs to get out.  We all want to hear about this world she has created and fall in love with it, we just need her to show us what its like there.  I would start with Paige at the protests in Ireland when she was six.  Make that the introduction to a book entirely based upon Scion’s beginnings in a world which sees ghosts, and Scion’s growth from Paige’s view.  Cut the rest of the plot, with its aliens and secret islands.  Get rid of some action and focus on the context.  I would focus on conveying all that information thrown at us in The Bone Season’s first chapter into an entire book, tidbit by slow tidbit.  Once we understand the creepy world under Scion rule in a clear way, other books could bring in more information.  The second book could focus on Paige’s gang, and allow us to get to know them better.  And maybe, by the third book, when all this information is embedded into our memories in a less overwhelming way, we could approach the whole alien demon species thing.  We’re all cheering for you, Samantha, but please give us something we can work with next time!

There is some absolutely great and really dark stuff in The Bone Season.  The idea of masks that seal to a person’s face, making them unrecognizable, was wonderful.  The terms of endearment were beautifully executed in the dialogue, pulling off a new-world slang that rang true.  There is a lot of great stuff here, and I will definitely read the next book with hopes of a smoother story.

The Bone Season on Amazon.com

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


I previously wrote about The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Matthew Effect, in the aftermath of the big reveal of J.K. Rowling as the true author and Robert Galbraith as her pseudonym.

I’ve been putting off a full review of The Cuckoo’s Calling because I think it is so hard for me to separate the actual book from the hype surrounding J.K. Rowling.  In a way this shows how relative everything is – how much an opinion of a book can be influenced by factors other than the actual text of the book itself.  Books just can’t be read in a vacuum, so life goes on.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is like this:  Idolized celeb-model falls out apartment window, police deem this a suicide.  Down-on-his-luck, ex-military, prosthetic legged PI Cormoran Strike and his eager, recently acquired temp worker Robin are approached by the model’s family to investigate the death.

The concepts here are current – J.K. Rowling has crafted a plot which is culturally relevant and very now .  The focus on our obsession with celebrity culture and the paparazzi reminded me of Between You and Me by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.

Rowling is clearly a wonderful writer, and there are scenes throughout the book illustrating this.  In one scene Rowling describes Strike’s experience amid the paparazzi snapping photos madly as he tries to escort a model out of a club.  The description of the madness of being submerged in this sea of cameras is vivid and almost horrifying, and makes me have a bit of sympathy for celebrities who are constantly caught in flash bulbs.  Rowling also aces internal dialogues, all that talk/fear/story each of us has going on in our head.  PI Cormoran Strike and his temp worker Robin have wonderfully depicted internal debates about their interactions with each other, as so often happens in reality.

That being said, I think the appeal here of both subject matter and characters is strikingly female.  As other reviewers have mentioned, it would have been difficult to believe that this book came from a man, a war veteran, as Robert Galbraith is presented.  Strike’s concerns in life seem written by a woman to me and incongruous with his character – he waits until his temp is gone to use the restroom, is constantly spraying air freshener in his office, is hesitant to speak his mind to Robin or reveal to her that he has only one leg.  Cormoran Strike is not truly a gruff PI, but perhaps what a woman would love a gruff man to be.  Presented with the popular Scandinavian mystery characters of our time, Strike appears rather tame.  Think of Inspector Erlendur of Jar City, who abandoned his wife and children as a young man and only visits his home to fall asleep in a lounge chair;  Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual, unfriendly hacker who tortures for revenger;  Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole, who sinks into opium addiction and leaves his job at the police force entirely. Strike’s character works for the tone of the book, and will appeal to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries more in the style of Agatha Christie than the currently popular fare of bleak dysfunction.

The great joy of the true cozy mystery is its simplicity – instead of hackers, serial killers, torture, gore, chase scenes, or other bells and whistles, cozies present a crime, a scene of the crime, a list of suspects.  Rowling has created a baffling mystery out of these simple elements.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith on Amazon.com

The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Matthew Effect.


Let’s talk about this new JK Rowling book, shall we? Quick summary of events thus far: A new mystery novel is published in April, by “Robert Galbraith”, called The Cuckoo’s Calling. There’s no excitement at its release – according to the nytimes.com the book sells about 500 copies in the US.  And then, last week, the big reveal, in a tweet: Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling. This is leaked to the friend of the wife of someone at JK Rowling’s law firm, who tweeted a hint to a Sunday Times reporter. He investigated, confronted the Rowling camp, and they confirmed. This is the stuff epic films are made of.

And now we’re here, all caught up in this present moment. The secret is out, and it is big news. Bloggers, blogging.  Reporters, madly covering the story.  Readers, reading. And suddenly, this book is hot. I’m reading it – but I’m not alone, because everyone else is reading it. As I’m writing this, The Cuckoo’s Calling is #1 on Amazon.com both Kindle store and book store; it is #1 on Audible.com; bookstores are ordering more copies as they can’t keep it in stock.

And yet – we’re looking at the same book, the exact same work of mystery fiction, that has been in existence since April.  It was there, and none of us took note or cared to read it.

This is an amazing real life illustration of what sociologists call the Matthew effect, name from this Bible passage:  “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.”  – Matthew 25:29, King James Version

The idea here is that success breeds success – the most renowned scientist gets all the credit for the discovery, although the others working under him or her may put in more work.  Researchers have shown that bestseller or top ranking lists influence what we think we like and what we decide to purchase.  If you are already famous, we want to make you more famous.  If you aren’t famous?  We might be a little less interested in what you’re selling, and it might be a little bit harder to break through.

JK Rowling illustrated this for us in a glaringly obvious way.  She made The Cuckoo’s Calling an overnight success, thanks to her existing fame.  The quality of her novel did not change. She is reportedly sad that she was outed so soon, and I am too.  It is now impossible to listen to The Cuckoo’s Calling on my delightful little wireless headphones without some sort of bias in mind.  As I’ve read most of the Potter books quite a while ago, and I read a ton of mystery fiction, I keep thinking of the writing as somehow cartoonish or fanciful.  But is that really there, in the book?  Or is it just in my mind, an association with a children’s author?  I can understand why JK Rowling would want to break away from all the baggage her other tales bring, as they are so stylized.

I think keeping her identity hidden would have been a wonderful sort of social experiment.  What would we all really say, if we never knew it was her?  More importantly, what would everyone not say as we were all too busy reading the other things we were planning to read, before this secret was revealed?  Would the book just fade away, a sequel never published?  The Matthew effect and book sales before the big reveal say yes, it’d be difficult for The Cuckoo’s Calling to gain success without that Rowling glimmer, shimmer, and shine that we all want to touch.

Further reading:

Robert Galbraith’s official page

nytimes review of Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Merton’s ‘The Matthew Effect in Science”

The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage by Daniel Rigley on Amazon

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell on Amazon