Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

cuckoo

Like the rest of the world, I was very excited when it became known that JK Rowling was writing books for adults. I read The Casual Vacancy about a year ago, but a year later all I remember was that it was okay…with a lot of characters to keep track of.  The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, has one strong main character, good supporting characters and an interesting story.

The main character in The Cuckoo’s Calling is Cormoran Strike, a private detective whose business is failing. Strike’s creditors are circling and the love of his life has kicked him out of her home, leaving him sleeping on a camp bed in his office and showering at a local gym.

When a temp agency erroneously sends him a secretary, Robin, Strike is too embarrassed to send her away, even though he hasn’t had an business-related email or phone call in weeks.

Luckily, John Bristow, who was the brother of an old school friend of Strike’s, employs Strike to investigate John’s sister’s death. (Luckily for Strike I mean, not the victim. Not that it matters though, the victim is a made up character for the book. You know what I mean). Bristow’s sister was a supermodel known as Lula Landry, who died when she fell from a balcony. Lula’s death was officially recorded as a suicide, but Bristow believes Lula was murdered.

The story is told in chapters which move back and forwards between Strike and Robin’s viewpoints. Strike is a former soldier with only one leg. Despite Strike having the face of a boxer, pube-like hair (the author’s description, not mine), overweight and a smoker, he comes across as surprisingly attractive. There is also an undercurrent of an attraction between Strike and Robin, although maybe this is more on Strike’s side than Robin’s. Strike certainly admits to himself he is in an emotionally vulnerable state after his recent break up.

Robin is thrilled to be working in a detective agency, which I can well understand. (Images of seedy but glamorous pulp fiction book covers are racing through my head right now. I can picture myself in an emerald green evening dress – I’m five – no, ten kilos lighter in my imagination – holding a handgun on a criminal who looks just like James Bond – the Sean Connery version of course – who I’ve just caught stealing secrets from the government or something. Working in a detective agency would be the most exciting… whoops, I got a little carried away there. I’d better get back to the review…)

Robin is a good secretary, empathetic and smart. I liked her character very much and hope that in future novels she evolves further. In this story, Robin was newly engaged, and spent a lot of time admiring her engagement ring in an unsustainably happy state. As we all know, that can’t last forever, but I’m sure she has more to offer. She certainly didn’t like being left behind in the office while Strike got to do the investigating, but maybe if Robin makes it into the next book she can wear that glamorous green dress of her own).

Strike’s investigations find that the Bristow family was (and is) dysfunctional, (although aren’t all families?). Lula, John and Charlie Bristow, who Strike was friends with in childhood, were all adopted by Sir Alec and Lady Yvonne Bristow. Lady Bristow is now dying of ovarian cancer. John works in the family law firm with his uncle, who holds most of the family Bristow in fairly low esteem. There are a number of potential murderers, from Lula’s no good boyfriend, her junkie friends, fellow supermodel and celebrity designers, family members and wannabees, who are desperate to be rich and famous too.

The story moves along quickly and provides enticing glimpses into the lives of the beautiful, rich and famous. There is one thing about the story that really annoyed me which I want to have a whinge about but can’t as it is a massive spoiler, but regardless, I would read more novels in this series and by this author, even if the author was the unknown “Robert Galbraith”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lesson of the Master by Henry James

lesson

When I read Washington Square by Henry James earlier this year, I was really excited and hopeful that I had found an author whose work I would treasure as much as Jane Austen’s.

The Lesson of the Master is good too. Better than good actually, the writing is beautiful, the pacing is perfect and the story is subtle and comes very close to being exactly right, but I didn’t feel that emotional connection with the main character of with the story that I have with Jane Austen’s characters. This may have been because, as a female, I relate better to Austen’s heroines.

The Lesson of the Master starts with Paul Overt, a young writer who has had early writing success, visiting a country house where he hopes to meet his idol, Henry St George. St George is a celebrated novelist who Paul rates very highly, while acknowledging that St George’s most recent novels are not of the same high quality as his earlier works.

Paul meets St George and his wife who is an invalid. Mrs St George shocks Paul by telling him she has burned books written by her husband which she didn’t think saleable. Paul is idealistic, and despite falling in love with the beautiful Marian Fancourt, he gave her up after St George suggested to Paul he would be a better writer if he doesn’t marry and have children. The implication is that St George has sacrificed his own art to support his family.

Paul goes abroad and writes a masterpiece, but when he returns to England he learns that Mrs St George has died and that Marian Fancourt is now engaged to marry St George.

I finished the book feeling as if young Paul had been scammed by the master, (St George), but I didn’t really care much. Maybe Paul was scammed and maybe he wasn’t, but would he have written his later great work had he become engaged or married to Marian himself? We will never know, because this is a novel and Henry James was the person who determined that particular point. According to the introduction to the story by Cohn Toibin, this story was based on the author’s own experiences and was in part, a justification of his own choice to remain unmarried.

As I’ve written this review, I’ve realised that the plot is cleverer than I originally believed, but still think the characters needed filling out more emotionally. I liked that the characters names were descriptive, for example, Marian Fancourt couldn’t have been anything but a beautiful, literary groupie and Paul Overt is an undisguised, open young man. Even the name of Henry St George has connotations of the saint who died for his beliefs. Summersoft, the name of the country house where the story begins, sounds like an ideal place to sit on the grass with friends on a warm Sunday afternoon.

I won’t give up on Henry James just yet, even if the moral of The Lesson of the Master was ‘do as I say and not as I do.’

 

 

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The Cove by Ron Rash

cove

The Cove by Ron Rash is a tragic story of worthy but unfortunate characters, living in remote and miserable surroundings, as semi-outcasts from their community. The story sounds pretty dreadful when I read that sentence back, but The Cove was actually really good.

The story is told by Laurel Shelton, a woman lives on a remote farm known as ‘The Cove’ with her brother Hank. Laurel is an outcast because the few locals living in the nearby village believe her large, purple birthmark marks Laurel as a witch.

Hank, who recently returned from WW1 with only one hand, is working to make the farm profitable, as he is planning to get married to the daughter of a successful local businessman. Despite having lost his hand, Hank never complains or allows his loss to stop him from living the life he wants. Eventually though, Laurel realises that Hank intends to leave Laurel at The Cove alone, as his new bride refuses to live in the gloamy, miserable surroundings. (Isn’t gloamy a great word? I’ve never heard it before, but it instantly made me think of damp, misty surroundings).

Laurel’s feelings are hurt that Hank didn’t tell her of his intentions, although she can understand his fiancée’s reluctance to live at The Cove.

One day, while Laurel is in a sunny spot waiting for her washing to dry, she hears music and follows the sound to find a stranger camped out in the rocks above. When the stranger is stung almost to death by wasps, she brings him back to the Cove, where she and Hank nurse him back to health. The stranger, who doesn’t speak at all, has a note on him that says his name is Walter, that he is mute and that he would like to purchase a train ticket to New York.

Walter is a talented musician whose only possession is his silver flute. After recovering from the wasp stings, Walter worked for Hank on the farm for a week to earn some money while waiting for the weekly train. During the evenings Walter played his flute, as Laurel began to fall in love with him and his music. After a week Walter went into town with the intention of catching the train to New York, but mysteriously returned to the farm, leaving Laurel hoping Walter returned because he had also started to fall in love with her.

The story of The Cove is very subtle. It started slowly, but by about the middle of the book I realised that I really cared about what happened to Laurel, Hank and Walter. I hoped and hoped for a happy ending, but was terrified throughout the second half of the story that tragedy would continue to dog these characters, the way it always had. Laurel is a good woman, beautiful inside and out, although she doesn’t realise how attractive she is. Like Hank, she lives her life to the fullest in her own quiet way.

The Cove is an enormously satisfying story and I am very excited to have found a ‘new to me’ author. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of those stories that stays with me for years.

 

 

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The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

Valley

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is really two stories, loosely linked by several characters. The first story regards the murder which occurs in a moated manor house in a quiet country area in England.

Sherlock Holmes does his usual thing and investigates and solves the mystery surrounding this murder, with the assistance of Dr Watson. To be completely honest, there wasn’t much to this part of the story at all. I guessed at how it all happened and was fairly close to working it out without Sherlock having to tell me. My powers of deduction obviously work.

The second story is set in the American mining town where the owner of the English manor previously lived. The Valley of Fear is an apt name for the mining town and surrounding area which was ruled by a wicked set of men known as Scowrers, who become rich and powerful through blackmail, violence and murder. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson do not feature at all in this story, which precedes the English murder.

I found this part of the story fascinating. The Scowrers, who call themselves Freemasons, are merciless and the control they had over The Valley of Fear is almost total. Again, I guessed at how it would all unfold and my deductions were correct, but that did not detract from my enjoyment of the story at all.

If you are looking for a Sherlock Holmes story where you will be too terrified to sleep, read The Hound of the Baskervilles instead of The Valley of Fear. But if you enjoy Sherlock Holmes at work, read the story and as for the prequel, or whatever the American bit of this book is called, take it as an enjoyable bonus.

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Foe by J.M. Coetzee

foe

I’m a book snob, who would rather be caught reading ‘Literature,’ (however boring), than fun and frivolous chick-lit, (which I actually really enjoy).

So it serves me right for choosing to read Foe by JM Coetzee based on the author having won the Nobel Prize, rather than an erotic version of Wuthering Heights, although to be completely honest, when I opened Wuthering Nights the first paragraph I read made me blush. I quickly closed Wuthering Nights and shoved it back on the shelf, hoping the shop assistant wasn’t looking at me. (I’m obviously 50 Shades of Too Repressed – you’re reading the blog of the last woman left in Australia who hasn’t contributed to the wealth of whoever that author is).

Anyway, back to the worthy choice, Foe. Foe is a spin on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, as told by Susan Barton, who becomes a fellow castaway on ‘Cruso’ and Friday’s desert island. (How good would a ‘dessert’ island have been instead? Chocolate mousse, sticky date puddings, crème brulee… I could expand on this theme with pleasure, but sadly, it wasn’t that type of island).

I found the idea of the additional character intriguing initially, but soon felt bogged down by the story and although I finished the book, I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t particularly like the original Robinson Crusoe either, so I think my problem is with the story rather than the writing, which is very good.

To quickly rehash the story of Foe, Susan was searching for her lost daughter in Bahia when she was castaway from the ship on which she was returning home by mutineers. She rowed to the island where Cruso and Friday were already living. Over the year Susan lived on the island, Susan came to suspect Friday of being a cannibal and Cruso of removing Friday’s tongue. The horror of Friday’s tongue-less state haunts Susan.

Susan was desperate to escape the island, but Cruso would have been happier never to leave, as the king of his own realm. Eventually though, they were rescued, but Cruso died on the journey back to England.

Susan was saddled with the responsibility of looking after Friday. In an attempt to earn money, she enlisted Foe, a writer on the run from his creditors, to write their story. Susan and Friday spend a quarter of the book living in Foe’s house and selling his possessions to survive. During this time a woman presented herself to Susan claiming she is her daughter, but Susan rejected the woman as an imposter. Eventually Susan and Friday found Foe, who was hiding from the bailiffs, but to Susan’s annoyance Foe was more interested in using Susan’s search for her daughter as a framework for the story, while Susan believed the time on the island to be the whole story.

Since Penguin liked this book enough to have published it, and JM Coetzee is a ‘Literary’ writer, Foe is obviously a good book. But if I ever get stuck on a dessert island and can only have one book, I’ll take a recipe book instead.

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Me and Mr Darcy by Alexandra Potter

me

I haven’t read anything I’ve really enjoyed for ages. I’m bored with ‘Literature,’ tired of mysteries and crime and can’t be bothered with romance. There is obviously something wrong with me, because I don’t even feel like looking at photos of cakes in cook books.

Sometimes when I feel jaded, reading something light and bright cheers me up. I was hopeful that Me and Mr Darcy by Alexandra Potter would work, but unfortunately this book has also gone onto the list of books which I found a bit blah.

Emily Albright is an American who loves Pride and Prejudice. She impulsively decides to go on a guided tour of Jane Austen country and finds herself on a bus full of old ladies, an elderly male bus driver and a young, cute but arrogant, male journalist.

I might as well stop telling the story right now, because I expect you’ll be able to figure out how this one ends.

Possibly I’m not being fair to this author as I’m a bit tired lately, (long hours at work), but I truly wish I hadn’t wasted the hour I actually spent reading this book and the half hour I spent skimming through the remainder of the book, (just to make sure of the ending).

I know I have said this before, but I have to stop reading Jane Austen Fan Fiction. It’s too much like having a drink of water when you really want a frothy hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream. No more! (Until next time).

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Third Girl by Agatha Christie

third

I have a question for all of the people who say they always know ‘who did it’ when they read Agatha Christie novels. How do you figure it out?

I don’t think I’m particularly stupid and I’ve read loads of her books, but I never manage to pick the murderer before Agatha Christie tells me in the last chapter who it is, why they did it and how it all happened. Third Girl was no exception, I had no idea of the murderer.

Third Girl is a Hercule Poirot mystery. Mrs Oliver, the renowned novelist and great friend of M. Poirot, plays an important part in this novel also. Mrs Oliver, in one of the first chapters, tells M. Poirot how much she hates the much loved fictional detective who has starred in a great many of her own novels. I had a bit of snicker to myself, wondering if Agatha Christie used Mrs Oliver as a mouthpiece to have a gentle dig at her own star detective?

Anyway, on with the plot of Third Girl. The ‘third girl’ is Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat during the 1960s with two other young women. Worryingly, Norma may or may not have murdered someone. Norma visits M. Poirot, seemingly for help, but then tells him he is too old to be of assistance and leaves without giving him further details of the murder.

I found the ‘too old to be of assistance’ angle to be quite interesting, because the characters in this novel are divided between young, arty, long haired mods and the older conservative people, who disapprove of the drugs, long hair and free and easy ways of the younger crowd and my feeling was that Agatha Christie tried a bit too hard to keep up with the times during this novel. I suspect she belonged on the side of the older, disapproving point of view too. I’ve no idea how old Agatha Christie would have been when she wrote Third Girl, and am too tired to ‘Google’ this information, but I strongly suspect she wasn’t wearing mini skirts and taking purple pills during the 1960s, although her characters certainly were.

Despite his hurt feelings at being thought old, M. Poirot and Mrs Oliver investigate Norma and her family, (Mrs Oliver has run across the Restarick family socially) and they find more and more mysteries as they snoop around in Restarick’s homes and lives. Not surprisingly, Mrs Oliver gets ‘coshed’ on the head while snooping.

In order to solve the mystery, M. Poirot ‘reflects.’ I don’t think he actually mentioned his ‘little grey cells’ once in this novel, but he certainly worked it all out in the end, although sadly after several people were actually murdered. Still, in Agatha Christie novels, murders happen.

I don’t think Third Girl is one of Agatha Christie’s better novels, but it is still an enjoyable read.

 

 

 

 

 

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Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

case

After reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson last year, I couldn’t resist reading Case Histories. I don’t think Case Histories is as good as Life After Life, but since Life After Life is an exceptionally good book, that doesn’t mean much. Case Histories is still a very good book.

The actual case histories in this novel don’t seem to have a common thread in the beginning, although they all tell a story of something going terribly wrong in somebody’s life. There is the disappearance of a dearly loved child, followed by a young mother hitting her husband over the head with an axe after he woke up their baby, (this may seem extreme when you haven’t had a baby in the house, but those who have would understand this young mother’s frustration, and think it a miracle that this kind of murder doesn’t happen more often). The last of the main case histories in this story is the brutal and seemingly random murder of a bright young woman at her father’s workplace.

Understandably, the lives of each of the remaining family members in these cases is changed forever.

Two sisters of the child who disappeared are desperate to learn what happened to their beloved little sister, although that doesn’t stop these women in their forties from constantly bickering and trying to score points from each other.

The now grown up sister of the young mother imprisoned for the murder of her husband is searching for her niece.

The father of the murdered girl wants to know who killed his daughter and why they did it.

Jackson Brodie, a Private Investigator who used to be a Police Inspector becomes involved in each of these cold cases in a professional capacity. He is the only common thread in the stories which become loosely entwined as you get further into the story.

Jackson is a great main character who suffered a sad loss in his own family. Jackson’s daughter Marlee is probably the only really joyful character in the whole book, and her funny little personality balanced out some of the sorrows and shocks in this story.

The characters are funny, and likeable, and annoying, and sympathetic and shocking. I was genuinely surprised in the way some of the mysteries in the case histories were resolved, or in some cases, not resolved. Everything I thought I knew or discovered during the reading of this novel was handed to me by the author when she was good and ready, and not before. Some of the answers to the mysteries were very complicated and others weren’t satisfying, but my enjoyment of the characters in this book made up for this.

I believe Kate Atkinson has another novel featuring Jackson Brodie and I’m looking forward to reading it too.

 

 

 

 

 

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