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.

The Humans

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The Humans (Photo- HarperCollins Canada)Happy Easter, everyone! This long weekend is especially exciting for me – I wrapped up three weeks of student teaching last week, which means I’m halfway though my teacher training. Even more exciting for the short-term is that I have some free time to read again!

First up on my summer reading plan is The Humans by Matt Haig, which was a loan from my friend and fellow future teacher Angelo. It’s a bit The Rosie Project-meets-Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, and it was exactly what I felt like reading as a hectic few weeks of lesson planning, student teaching high school and presentations drew to a close.

The Humans is narrated by an unnamed alien, a Vonnadorian, who is sent to Earth in the form of Andrew Martin, a British math professor. The real Andrew Martin has been killed by the Vonnadorians, and our narrator’s mission is to live among human beings and eliminate anyone who knows that the Riemann hypothesis has been proved.

Humans, according to the narrator are barbaric and primitive. But as he spends time getting to know Martin’s wife and son – and inadvertently picking up the pieces of the professor’s messy personal life – he starts to believe that life on Earth might be more beautiful, peaceful, hopeful and happy than he had ever imagined.

On the surface, this book seems like it might be crazy, but it’s sweet and sharply observed (imagine trying to teach yourself English armed with a British Cosmopolitan magazine at a Texaco gas station). I thought it was the perfect kick-start to a summer of great reading.

You Should Have Known

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You Should Have Known (Photo: Hachette Book Group)I read an advance review of You Should Have Known in the LA Times about a week ago, and I was intrigued enough to pre-order it on my Kindle. It came out on Tuesday – my last official day of classes – and what better way to celebrate than with a new book? I’ve been reading The Spark off and on for about a week, but it’s heavy, which doesn’t make it a great bedtime read. So $12 seemed like a risk worth taking for some light, well-reviewed fiction.

Well as it turns out, I didn’t get to it until Thursday. But it’s such a quick read that I finished it by mid-morning on Friday – and after the disappointment of The Maze Runner, I quite enjoyed it. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around New York therapist Grace, who is about to publish her first book. The book, also called You Should Have Known, smugly suggests that from the beginning of any relationship there are signs that the person may be a less-than-ideal partner, but many women choose to overlook these signs in the name of love. But then, an event happens that shakes Grace’s world to its core and makes her question whether she has really practiced what she preaches.

In many ways, it’s Gone Girl-meets-The Husband’s Secret. It’s perhaps a bit more predictable than the former and a bit over-American compared to the latter, but it’s really very enjoyable. It’s long (Amazon.com says that the hardcover version is 440 pages), but quick, and light without being fluffy. It has tension that kept me reading late into Thursday night and talking points that make it work with book clubs. You Should Have Known is exactly what I wanted to read this week.

One More Thing

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One More Thing (Photo: Random House)I was really excited to learn that BJ Novak (you know, Ryan from The Office) was coming out with a book of short stories. He was a writer and co-executive producer of that show for years and he’s really, really talented. Also, did you see him in Saving Mr. Banks over the Christmas break as one of the young Disney songwriters working on Mary Poppins? Brilliant.

Also, Novak made a really silly trailer for this book with his pal Mindy Kaling (I listened to her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? back in November), which is really worth checking out.

So when One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories came out a few weeks ago, I instantly ordered it and put it on my to-read list for the February break. I’m so glad I did, because it’s genuinely my favourite thing I’ve read so far this year. There’s a really comprehensive New York Times review of the book here, but the book is basically made up of 64 vignettes, or short stories. They range in length from two lines to several pages, which makes it a quick, fun read.

Some are funny, some are touching, some are silly and some are quite thoughtful. All of them are very, very clever. My favourites were “Everyone Was Singing The Same Song”: The Duke of Earl Recalls His Trip to America in June of 1962 (in which the actual Duke of Earl doesn’t understand why everyone seems to be humming the same song when he introduces himself), and A Good Problem to Have, in which Novak imagines the frustrations of the man who invented the style of math problems in which two trains pass each other while travelling at different speeds in opposite directions.

I’m not normally drawn to short stories, but I’m so glad I bought this one. I have a feeling I’m going to be lending it to a lot of people.