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.

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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.

The Maze Runner

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The Maze Runner (Photo: Random House)I knew it. I knew that eventually in 2014, I would stumble across a book I did not like. It’s bound to happen eventually, but I was hoping that with a streak of 10 really excellent reads in January and February, March would continue to be awesome.

Enter The Maze Runner, which I actually finished last week but am just getting around to posting about now. Next Wednesday is my last day of classes before a long-ish field placement that will take up most of the month of April, so it’s deadlines galore round these parts.

A couple of weeks ago, my English specialization class (I’m a pre-service secondary English language arts teacher) spent some time at the University of Calgary’s Doucette Library of Teacher Resources, which is a fantastic place full of knowledgeable staff who love talking about books for children and young adults. I had heard The Maze Runner was a popular read for kids who liked The Hunger Games series, and with a male protagonist, boys seem quite drawn to this series. So at the end of the seminar, I signed it out.

Maybe the problem is that I’m not a teenage boy, but of all the teenage dystopian fiction out there, I’d say this one is comparatively pretty weak. Yes, we’ve got the familiar theme of teenagers being thrust into uncomfortable situations of leadership as they are manipulated by corrupt adults, and yes, we have lots of pacey, semi-violent combat and strategizing, but that’s about where the similarities end.

The basic premise of The Maze Runner is that 16-ish-year-old Thomas (nobody is really sure how old he is) wakes up in an elevator, which deposits him at a place called the Glade. The Glade is home to several other teenage boys – no girls. Like all the boys, he has no memory of the past. The Glade is surrounded by a maze that is populated at night by creatures called Grievers, which are basically cow-sized slugs covered in saw blades that sting you and/or kill you, depending on their mood. Oh, and the walls close in on the Glade every night, while the walls of the maze outside rearrange themselves into repeating patterns. The boys have been living in the Glade, trying to solve the puzzle of the maze, for two years.

So far, so good, right? Except that where Thomas falls flat is his complete lack of personality. The thing that makes The Hunger Games a bestseller and draws teenagers (and adults) in like moths to a flame is Katniss’s complex range of emotions as she handles truly appalling situations. Katniss is a sharp tack who plays her cards close to her chest. She’s loyal and selfless, but also selfish. She’s confused about love. She’s brave and scared and pragmatic and resourceful and funny and beautiful and complicated. She makes considered decisions sometimes and rash ones at other times. In short, Katniss is human. (This is why the first movie in The Hunger Games series was met with some criticism by fans, because you don’t see a lot of what is going on inside Katniss’s head. However, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did a really, really good job of capturing the spirit of the book.)

By contrast, Thomas tends to feel one emotion – frustration. Thomas is frustrated when he can’t remember anything, frustrated when he can’t do the jobs he likes to do, frustrated when nobody will listen to him when he is new. He isn’t lonely, he’s sort of passively protective, he’s brave out of necessity, and he’s kind of a jerk, taking on a leadership role that nobody wants him to have after two days when all the other kids have been there for two years. When a girl shows up, she’s described rather flatly as black-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful. Oddly, she’s telepathic, too. (Perhaps James Dashner  was watching Star Trek: TNG reruns when he wrote this, because she’s kind of the equivalent of an early Counselor Troi before they gave her actual stuff to do.) Descriptions of the girl, Teresa, never move beyond how beautiful she is, how Thomas feels protective of her, and a couple of times, how she is ‘smart’ (without getting into any specifics about how she is smart, like she might be really good at reading maps or doing math or something). It actually really bothers me that some teachers use this book in junior highs and high schools, because it confirms all kinds of gender stereotypes that I don’t think are fair.

To make matters worse, all the kids in the Glade speak in an absolutely hideous made-up slang-language, which they apparently developed after only two years of living in isolation from the rest of their society.

Because we don’t know anything about these characters, it’s very difficult to care about them. Like all good dystopian YA trilogies, this one ends on a cliffhanger, but unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, there’s no emotional connection to anyone. I hate to admit it, but I kind of don’t really care about what happens to Thomas or any of the other kids in this book. They’re really irritating and flat. After I read The Hunger Games and Divergent, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequels, but I think I’ll pass on The Scorch Trials.

I’ll also pass on the movie. Even these poor actors in the trailer hate all the slang they’ve been forced into saying. And Teresa isn’t blonde in the book. I feel like they’re likely to make a bad thing worse.

*UPDATE* Whoops, thanks to Mariana, who noticed that the trailer below is the book trailer, not the movie trailer (in which case, I’m still not sure why Theresa is blonde? Though it does explain the acting…). The movie trailer comes out next week, so that is something to look at!

Sin Eater

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There are a lot of nice things about being in a book club. For starters, because my book club is small (there are only three of us, and we’ve known each other since we were 15), it’s a great opportunity for us to have a good catch-up on each others’ lives every few weeks. In the past year, we’ve celebrated family milestones (Courtney’s daughter’s first trip to Disneyland), new relationships (me) and a baby-to-be (Monique). It’s great to see how far we’ve come and so exciting to look forward to everything that’s going to happen next!

The other great thing about being in a book club is that because we take it in turns to pick our next read, we’re often exposed to titles that we may not have chosen for ourselves. It’s because of my book club that I’ve not only found the spectacular young adult novel Eleanor & Park, but also Daughter of Smoke & Bone and Divergent.

This month, however, we decided to do something completely different. Courtney’s mom Dee Van Dyk is a writer, and so we agreed to give the manuscript of her teen-horror novel Sin Eater (a working title) a try. This is the first time I’ve ever been involved with a book that hasn’t been published yet – and the first time I’ve ever been asked for feedback – so it was a pretty cool experience.

I popped the PDF manuscript onto my Kindle and polished it off in a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning reading extravaganza so it would be fresh in my mind for book club. I wouldn’t say that horror is a genre that I’m naturally drawn to, and there’s no denying that Dee’s subject matter is a little darker than I would normally choose for myself, but I had such a great experience reading Sin Eater. It was a really pleasant surprise! Dee’s clearly done her research when it comes to mythology and she’s managed to weave together a compelling tale that explores the themes of good and evil in both present-day and historic settings.

There’s a reporter who plays a crucial part in the plot of Sin Eater and I happen to have some experience in this area, so my main feedback points for Dee were suggestions about how to develop him more fully. I think it would be really cool to insert some more of his ‘voice’ into the story by including some of his newspaper articles, which would also provide additional context for some of the other events that take place as the plot moves forward.

I don’t want to say much more, because this is a work in progress, but I’m so thrilled that Courtney and Dee felt comfortable sharing this book with our group (I know both of you read this blog – thank you). Book club is going to take a short hiatus for a few months while Monique enjoys being a new mama, but rest assured, we’ll be back. And in the meantime, I’m not going anywhere!

Perfect

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Perfect (Photo: Random House Canada)I read Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry last year and really enjoyed it. It was a hand-me-down from my mom’s book club, which can go either way (some of their choices, like Gone Girl and The Husband’s Secret, have been brilliant, while others, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, have not been so great).

So when Val, who I work with at the bookstore, chose Rachel Joyce’s new novel, Perfect, as one of her staff picks, I figured it was worth a read. I’ve been craving a little taste of the UK and there’s something about British books that I just love. Perfect is quite different than Harold Fry (this is good, because who wants to read the same thing over and over again?). The story alternates between Jim, who is in his 50s, suffers from OCD and lives in  Cranham Village, and flashbacks to the summer of 1972 when best friends James and Byron unwittingly set off a series of unlikely and catastrophic events when they realize that two seconds will be added to the world clock.

The Guardian did a really nice and accurate review of Perfect, which it called “more ambitious, darker and more honest” than Harold Fry. I’d be inclined to agree. It’s not entirely a happy book, although I was thoroughly entertained by it (and who says all books have to be happy, anyway?). Perfect is a story of friendship, but it’s also a story of family love, manipulation, good and evil – and it’s also a bit of a mystery with a twist ending I genuinely didn’t see coming.

I’ve been plugging away at this in the evenings (alternating with an amazing piece of nonfiction that I’ll probably finish up on the weekend) since classes began in mid-January, and I would say that it’s a pretty quick and easy read. I probably could have polished it off in a night or two if this pesky little thing called homework would stop getting in the way! I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes contemporary British fiction, gentle mysteries and books with lots of talking points.