Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Hello, book lovers! If you’re searching for your next great read, you’ve come to the right place. Today I’m talking about The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, who is actually J.  K. Rowling via pseudonym.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling is actually the first book of Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, of which I believe there are three now. I wasn’t aware that it was a series when I picked up the first book, but I did like it enough to recently pick up a copy of the second book, The Silkworm. I love discovering at the end of a great story that there’s more.

About the book: Private detective Cormoran Strike is struggling to keep his business afloat despite creditors calling daily for repayments on loans and a new secretary lined up by the temp agency to add to the costs, when the brother of his dead childhood friend approaches, asking for help in proving his celebrity sister’s death was not a suicide.The investigation into the girl’s death is told from the perspectives of both Cormoran and his  resourceful secretary, Robin.

I usually need a little romance to get fully invested in new characters, but not every book needs a love story. I had a lot of respect for this one, in fact, in which a man and woman could work together with mutual appreciation for each other, without a romantic entanglement getting in the way of the main plot line. Both Cormoran and Robin have their own separate and complicated love lives, and they’re real, gritty characters. By which I mean, they have their faults and make mistakes, giving them a very real feel. One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is characters who feel obviously fabricated–a little too perfect or convenient–so I almost always need to remark on my impression of the characters.

“She consulted her watch. Having allowed her usual margin of time for getting lost, she was a quarter of an hour early. The nondescript black-painted doorway of the office she sought stood to the left of the 12 Bar Cafe; the name of the occupant of the office was written on a scrappy piece of lined paper taped beside the buzzer for the second floor. She checked her watch again, then decided, in a burst of euphoria, to go up early and show herself keen for a job that did not matter in the slightest.”

But it does prove to matter, and turns into an exciting job for Robin after all. Not only does she dive in to help with the single, practically-hopeless open case, but she stays on at the small detective agency longer than she planned or needed to. Together, Robin and Cormoran create and eliminate a list of suspects, encounter danger as they discover even more truth than they sought, and unearth a murderer’s long-buried secrets. To add to the fascination, there’s an interesting contrast between the lives of the celebrity victim and her famous acquaintances in comparison with the lives of the willingly underpaid secretary and the detective who finds himself virtually homeless for the duration of this book. The characters are diverse, interesting, and suspicious, but rarely predictable, which is a great feature for a murder mystery. The tension in this one is also more psychological than gory, which I would also consider a plus.

On Robert Galbraith: although I completely understand a writer’s desire to use a pseudonym and have no complaint whatsoever about that practice, this is one series that J. K. Rowling should be proud to put her own name on. Although the similarities between Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter are basically nonexistent, the same high-caliber writing is in play, and the story, while notably more adult than that of our beloved wizarding world, is equally captivating. I read Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy a couple of years ago, but my first impression of that book was nowhere near as favorable as my opinion of The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’m giving 5 stars, and I’m excited to see what the second Cormoran Strike book has in store for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Obviously, if The Cuckoo’s Calling creates any new Rowling fans, check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry Potter is such a staple of modern literature at this point that I have to recommend the series at some point, and this seems like a great opportunity.
  2. For more murders and mysterious surprises, as well as a little more gore, try my current favorite mystery series, The Women’s Murder Club, the first of which is 1st to Die, by James Patterson. These books are fast-paced, with tiny chapters, strong female characters, inevitable crazies, and unique crimes.

Coming up next: I’ve been trying so hard to choose between two Margaret Atwood novels. Because I read it most recently, I’m going to review The Handmaid’s Tale next, which is a dystopian novel that I’d consider a modern classic.

As usual, please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions for me! I need great new books to keep me motivated to meet my reading goal for 2016, and I’m determined not to fall behind so early in the year. Are any of you still holding strong to a reading challenge this year? Or just reading insatiably for fun? Both? Regardless, happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: find my thoughts on the second book in this series, The Silkworm, here.

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Review: At the Water’s Edge

It’s a beautiful day to make up some missed blog posts! I wanted to post every week, mostly to keep myself on track with my reading goal for the year, but it turns out it’s not the reading schedule I’m having a hard time keeping up with. I hate to abandon a challenge though, so after a brief hiatus, I’m back to catch up with my reviews. Today I’m going to be talking about At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen.

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I like a good historical fiction novel every now and then, but Gruen’s books are more than that. The plots are fast-paced and addicting, the characters–both good and evil–are fascinating, and the settings are vivid and exciting, even when circumstances are dismal. In fact, there’s only one aspect of Gruen’s books that I have a consistent complaint about; more on that in a minute.

A little about this story: Maddie, her husband, Ellis, and his ubiquitous best friend, Hank, begin the novel in 1944 as nothing more than spoiled rich kids without much sense of the world beyond their endless parties until Ellis’ father cuts them off and kicks them out. Bankrolled by the omnipresent Hank, Ellis decides the three must best his father by setting out to discover what his father tried and failed to prove years ago–the existence of the Loch Ness monster.

” “Look!” Hank screamed, and his voice was so guttural, so uncontrolled, we couldn’t help ourselves. He was filming furiously. He stuck his other arm out from under the raincoat just long enough to point…Ellis’s expression shifted and he twisted in his seat. I grabbed the edge of the boat and leaned over to look. Something large, dark, and rounded was moving quickly beneath the water. By the time I realized it was rising, it had rammed the bottom of the bow and flipped me into the air. My mouth and nose filled with water before i fully comprehended that I was beneath the surface. The cold was shocking…I looked up at the surface and, as though through thick, wavy glass, saw Ellis standing in the boat holding an oar. It sliced through the surface and came to a stop against my chest. With an enormous force of will, I managed to bring my hands back in front of me and locked my fingers around its shaft, just above the blade. I kept hold of it, and after what seemed like an eternity, wondered why I wasn’t moving toward the boat…He wasn’t saving me. He was making sure I stayed under.”

Maddie develops immensely throughout the narrative, and the true nature of her friends and acquaintances are unveiled as the story progresses. In the middle of the war, Maddie finds herself stranded in Scotland on a trip she’d rather abandon, stuck between building relationships with good people she meets there and trying to extricate herself from under the controlling thumb of her ignorant and self-centered husband. There’s romance, travel, a little mystery, and a lot of adventure between the covers of At the Water’s Edge, and once I started, I didn’t want to put it down.

But. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I do have something to say about it. The ending was a relief, in that I generally want things to work out well for the characters I’ve grown attached to in a book, but there’s just something about a neatly wrapped-up conclusion that leaves me a little unsatisfied. It feels less realistic for nothing to have gone irrevocably wrong. This is my one complaint about Gruen’s books generally, although I was more willing to accept the end of Water for Elephants than the end of this new novel.

More mild disappointments: It was moderately difficult to connect with the characters at first. There was a lot more context about the characters’ lives before the trip to Scotland than I thought strictly necessary, and at that point none of them were particularly likable. I was propelled onward by my intrigue with high society activity in the 1940’s more than the characters, which made the first several chapters feel rather slow and distant. The actual opening of the story, in contrast, was particularly interesting and the characters immediately likable, but they vanish completely for quite a few chapters, and when they return, the romance that will unfold becomes obvious and inevitable, despite Maddie’s hesitancy to put the pieces together.

This isn’t to say that I disliked the story, however. Despite the transparency of the romance and the tidy ending, this book made me long to visit Scotland myself, and I was undeniably happy about the good guys joining forces and overcoming their obstacles. I was saddened at first by Maddie’s apparent lack of agency in the novel, but as her character grows she does become more active and vocal, in which case her habit of following orders and doing what she’s expected to turned into a character win that I was happy with by the end. Furthermore, even the more predictable aspects of the book didn’t deter me from wanting to find out how the story would reach point B from A. If the destination was clear, the journey remained a twisted mystery that kept me turning pages. Overall, I give At the Water’s Edge 3.5/5 stars.

Further recommendations: whether you like At the Water’s Edge or not, I’ve got two books for you that struck me as similar, but rated higher on my list of favorites:

  1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. This one focuses on the lives of traveling circus employees. The gloriously amusing main character is a man narrating his past with the circus and his present at a nursing home, which the circus is visiting. This book is a magical must-read with the same great setting, character, and plot elements that Gruen handled well in At the Water’s Edge.
  2. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read this around the same time as At the Water’s Edge, and enjoyed the irony of having unintentionally picked up two historical fiction books set in Scotland around the same time. Well, Outlander starts in the 1940’s, but turns into a sci-fi time-travel novel. It’s got the captivating setting, the expectedly unexpected romance, and so much action and adventure that I almost felt like I was getting a workout just reading about it. I’m currently forging my way onward through this intriguing series, so I’ll probably have a review of at least the first book up soon. But first:

Coming up next: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling). I loved murder mysteries so much a few years ago that a good detective story feels like a palate cleanser when I’ve been reading a lot and need a break without actually stepping away from the bookshelves. This one’s nothing like Harry Potter, but J. K. Rowling’s a great writer and it really shows in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as well. Stay tuned for my full review later this week!

Please share your thoughts on At the Water’s Edge with me; I’d love to hear your opinions or feedback. Also, drop any recommendations/requests you have for me in the comments below! Happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant