The Cuckoo’s Calling

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The Cuckoo's Calling (Photo: Hachette Book Group)It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a sucker for the Harry Potter series. When I was in high school, or possibly just about to start high school, my dad – who was then the principal of a small rural K-8 school – came home with the first two Harry Potter books during the summer holidays.

I had heard about the Harry Potters, but had dismissed them as kid stuff. But when my dad asked if I would please quickly read the first one and help him decide which grade it was most suitable for, I said I would. After all, I’m a quick reader, it was a free book, and it was summer break. So I brought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on a weekend camping trip and was hooked (I guess, on reflection, this story also shows plenty of evidence that I would fall into teaching one day. What 15-year-old kid gauges the age-appropriateness of school library books?).

Only four Harry Potter books were available in the summer of 2000, and I blazed through them all in about a week, sharing them with my brother and my best friend. My parents have a really hilarious picture of the three of us sitting in lawn chairs next to a campfire, each with our noses in a Harry Potter novel. They were brilliant. By the time the next two came out, I was working in a bookstore and got to slice open the box of new Harry Potters at midnight. The women who make up my current book club (on hiatus for a few months because everyone but me is having babies – Monique just had a lovely baby girl and Courtney is expecting her second little one) were the same girls that hosted elaborate Harry Potter-themed parties in high school. And when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in 2007, I was a recently-graduated intern reporter/researcher/producer for the CBC in London, England. I helped produce a lot of the coverage the CBC broadcast about the book launch from the UK, and attended a midnight launch at an awesome children’s bookstore, which I am pretty sure was The Owl & Pussycat.

In my post-Potter withdrawal, I waited eagerly for JK Rowling to publish something new, but I was so bitterly disappointed in the humdrum misery of The Casual Vacancy that I actually didn’t finish it and I asked for a refund on my Kindle. I wasn’t expecting witchcraft and wizardry from her adult novel, but I was expecting something more than an ordinary tale about ordinary people who weren’t even all that likeable. After that, she sort of fell off my radar. I knew she was writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith thanks to the news headlines and the scandal about her publisher’s lawyer’s wife’s loose-lipped friend. But I don’t often gravitate to crime novels, and The Casual Vacancy was so disappointing that honestly, I didn’t really care.

But fast-forward a couple of years. I work in a bookstore again, and this month, The Silkworm – Galbraith’s second book – hit the shelves. And my coworkers went absolutely bananas for it. At least three people expressed great shock that I hadn’t climbed right on the Galbraith bandwagon yet.

So after an entire weekend of shuffling my feet and shaking my head every time an excited work friend asked me if I had read The Silkworm yet, I decided to bite the bullet and go back to the beginning of the Cormoran Strike series – The Cuckoo’s Calling. Because of all the hype about The Silkworm, the Cuckoo’s Calling paperback only retails for about $11. It was a risk I was willing to take.

And guess what? I LOVED it. I picked it up after work on Saturday, started reading on Sunday night before bed and polished it off late in the night last night. I’m suffering for it today – I’m exhausted – but I stayed up all night for Deathly Hallows. Staying up until 1AM for The Cuckoo’s Calling didn’t seem like that big of a stretch.

It’s definitely not a kids’ book – there’s a lot of swearing, a bit of sex, some domestic abuse and some very dark subject matter (it is, after all, a murder mystery). But it’s completely absorbing. One of my coworkers wasn’t wrong when he said that he got lost in it the same way we all got lost in the Harry Potters. It’s obviously not the same – it’s adult fiction that is firmly grounded in reality – but Rowling’s (Galbraith’s?) gift for description, character development and a pacey plot is firmly on show.

I especially loved that Robin, her lead female character, is a temp. This summer, temping is my dayjob – and if I could get an assignment half as interesting as Robin’s, I would count myself lucky. Robin should have gone to journalism school. She’s a natural.

I admit that I came to this one reluctantly, but I am thrilled to say that it was well worth $11. It’s an excellent summer read, and I can’t wait to dive into The Silkworm.

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

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The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (Photo: HarperCollins)Hello! I’m sorry that I’ve been AWOL for a little bit. For most of May and the rest of this month, I’m in the unusual position of having four (part-time) jobs. This will even out at the end of this month, but that, combined with a little bit of travelling, a birthday celebration and some family committments, has meant that there wasn’t a ton of time for reading in May.

Something I did make time for, however, was the latest offering from Sweden’s Jonas Jonasson, who you may remember as the author of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which I thoroughly enjoyed last spring. Matt and I spent part of my birthday in a bookstore, and when he noticed The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, I snapped it up right away.

Unfortunately, while its predecessor was delightfully rompy, well-paced and very funny, I felt this one fell a little flat. On Friday, I explained it to a friend as being about a third longer than it needed to be. This may be my journalistic background talking, but there is certainly something to be said for concise writing.

Like The 100-Year-Old Man, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden tells a story that sweeps through much of the mid-to-late 20th century to present day and gives more than a knowing nod to many historic and pop cultural events. We see Nelson Mandela freed from prison and elected president of South Africa; we recall Prince Harry dressed up as a Nazi and running around naked in Las Vegas. We even get a likeable heroine – the plucky Nombeko, who ascends from the slums of Soweto to save the King of Sweden. In doing so, she encounters a series of one-dimensional and largely unlikeable characters with complicated backstories. We have identical twins Holger One and Holger Two, raised by a lunatic republican father. There are also Celestine, the inexplicably angry girlfriend of Holger One, three South African Chinese women who make elaborate false copies of ancient pottery, an American suffering from PTSD, an incompetent South African nuclear engineer, world leaders, kings and many more.

There’s more plot than story in this book – in short, there is too much to follow and not enough to care about. While The 100-Year-Old Man was a fun, Forrest Gump-style romp through a century of politics and science, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is messy and complicated. It’s clever, to be sure, but there’s a lot more style than substance happening here. Light-heartedness and bright satire doesn’t save it from being a little too overdone for my liking.