Robert Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowlings) mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with the apparent suicide of a troubled super-model who falls to her death from her posh apartment balcony. Only her half-brother believes it was not suicide and hires down-on-his luck private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate. Cormoran has no shortage of troubles of his own–just tossed out of his home by his fiancé, his business failing and in debt, and health in crisis, he takes on the case not quite believing it wasn’t indeed a suicide. He soon starts to have his doubts. Cormoran’s investigation is aided by a “temp agency” gal who shows up and stays long after her contract, drawn by the excitement of the detective work and maybe just a bit by Cormoran himself. The novel’s plot is very slow and consists mostly of the investigator interviewing various family members and friends in an attempt to piece together the model’s last day alive before her death. It is full of wonderful prose and vivid descriptions from the worlds of high-fashion to that of drug rehab programs. Galbraith has a talent for painting a vivid picture of these people (most of whom were quite unlikeable) and surroundings, for example, she described the mouth of a wrinkled, aged woman sucking on a cigarette to the anus of a cat. Try to forget that image. For what it lacks in compelling plot twists it makes up for in interesting heros. Cormoran Strike, the bastard son of an aging rock star, Iraq war veteran, amputee, and large hairy man comes to life as a sympathetic and believable character. His temp gal, Robin Ellacott, plays well off his character and we soon suspect that she is attracted to the big lug (even though she’s engaged), which lends the novel a bit of romantic tension. After all, who wouldn’t fall for a homeless, one-legged, big hairy failure of a private eye? Galbraith makes it work. All in all I would say that I finished the impressive 456 pages of the story not so much for the solution to the mystery, but just to see how Cormoran makes out.
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Author Laurie Halse Anderson took on a tough issue in her new YA novel The Impossible Knife of Memory. The story opens with the main character, Hayley Kincain, attending high school in her dad’s home town and feeling alienated from the other kids, who she terms “zombies.” This is the first time Hayley has settled down in one spot since her dad returned from the war in Iraq with severe PTSD. Her life up to this point has been on the road in his rig, lurching from job to job, town to town. He has resolved that his daughter needs to be in one place for a while, but he has not resolved to seek help for himself–which is the real problem. Hayley has been forced into the role of parent to her dad, who is sometimes violent, moody, often drunk or drugged, and is becoming increasingly unstable. She hides the severity of his disfunction from friends, school officials, and her ex-step mother–the one person who understood and was willing to step up and help. Laurie Halse Anderson, author of such prize-winning works as Speak, does a masterful job illustrating the tension in Hayley’s life as she tries to keep her dad safe from others as well as himself. What the author fails to do is write a believable love story between Hayley and an oddball student, Finn. The dialog between these two characters is awkward, out of character, and often breaks the mood of the rest of the novel. I liked Finn and wanted to believe in their romance, but for me it didn’t work. Hayley in the beginning of the novel is such an unlikeable, bitter, and arrogant character that I was bored with her and tempted to put the novel down, but pressing on and with the revelation of more of her background, she became more sympathetic and softer. A good story, but overly long.