Marie’s Reading: “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith

cuckoo's callingI’m late to the party here, but I’m glad I finally gave the Cormoran Strike books a try!  I just finished the first in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

This novel introduces us to Cormoran Strike, a wounded veteran turned private detective.  He’s just broken up with is girlfriend and is living in his office, which he can already barely afford.  He’s also got a temporary secretary named Robin, whose services he also cannot afford.

Strike takes the case of Lula Landry, a supermodel who fell to her death from her balcony months earlier.  Her brother is convinced it was murder, and wants Strike to prove it.  Soon the detective and Robin are drawn into the world of celebrity and wealth, where digging up the truth turns out to be exceedingly difficult.

I love Galbraith’s use of language.  The names all have an almost Dickensian ring to them, and the descriptions are clever and evocative.  The settings are very richly described, too–the world-building of London and of Strike’s dingy little office are both great.  Given the subjects of fame and celebrity, there’s a lot of social commentary going on here as well, and it works as another level to the investigation.

Strike is a fun character.  He’s very much the damaged PI type, with a difficult childhood, personal trauma, and relationship problems.  Yet he also comes across as a decent, intelligent, and generally kind man who is dogged in  his pursuit of the truth.  Robin, playing a Girl Friday kind of role, is also great–she’s torn between her disapproving fiance and her love of the excitement of solving a crime.  She proves herself very talented at sleuthing, too.  The partnership that builds between Strike and Robin is very nicely portrayed, and they make a great team.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is fun, compelling, and a great crime story filled with multiple layers and entertaining characters.  I’m looking forward to reading the rest!  If you like Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, you might like these, too.

–Marie

P.S.
Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling. Just in case anyone hadn’t heard that yet.

 

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Marie’s Reading: “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” by Winifred Watson

miss pettigrewA charming book with a delightful main character!  This screwball comedy from the 1930’s follows Miss Pettigrew as she’s swept up into the world of Delysia LaFosse, a nightclub singer.

Guinevere Pettigrew is a 40ish governess who desperately needs a new placement.  She shows up at an apartment in London expecting to find children to take care of.  Instead, she finds Delysia, an elegant young woman who needs to get a gentleman caller out of her apartment and enlists Miss Pettigrew’s help.  From there, it’s one adventure after another, with Miss Pettigrew swept up in the middle.

Over the course of a day in Miss LaFosse’s company, Miss Pettigrew blossoms.  She proves herself smart, loyal, good under pressure, and even might find a beau of her own.  Her progression is really fun to read–the  more she gets drawn in to the kind of world she’s only ever seen in movies, the more she finds she loves it.  This does not remain a fish out of water story for very long–it’s more like a fish finding the right water kind of story.

pettigrew illustrations
The illustrations are fun, too.

The friendship that develops between the women is great to read, too.  They complement each other nicely, and each has lessons to offer the other.  Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse have an excellent rapport, and the way the day winds up for the both of them is sweet and fulfilling.

The dialogue is crisp and very 1930’s, along with the fast pace and lots of supporting characters popping in and out (in very dramatic, theatrical fashion, of course!).  Everything hinges on one misunderstanding, and you  hope that Miss Pettigrew will keep quiet about it and enjoy her day of really living.

While this book doesn’t share the satirical edge of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, you might give that one a try if you enjoyed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  It was definitely in my head as I read this.  Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons could be another good readalike, for the humor and tone.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig

how to stopTom Hazard has a rare affliction: he ages incredibly slowly.   Each year for him is more like fifteen for the rest of us.  As a result, Tom, born in 1581, is still alive today looking as though he’s in his early forties.

Tom’s under the protection of a shady sort of society, as are others like him.  They’re the ones who keep him in fresh identities as the years pass, in return for some “odd jobs” now and then.  And as long as Tom keeps a low, lonely profile, never falling in love or making long-lasting connections with others.  But Tom is getting tired of the lifestyle.  The only thing keeping him going is the memory of his long-dead wife and the hope that his daughter (who has the same affliction he does) might still be alive.

The book follows Tom in modern-day London, and fills in the backstory of his life.  There are wonderful historical touches, particularly the scenes set in Shakespeare’s London.  The glimpses of the past help to drive home the point that people have always, always been the same–and you get the sense of how annoying it must be to have to watch the same cycles played out over and over again over centuries.

Haig has such a compassionate way with his characters.  The message of his novels, particularly this one, always has to do with the importance of being as good a human being as one can possibly be–to love one another, and to recognize one’s place in the grander scheme.  In his novel The Humans, that scheme was the universe.  Here, the scheme is time.  It’s a funny, touching, hopeful, and humane study of love, loss, and history.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Not Working” by Lisa Owens

Not WorkingI agree wholeheartedly with the marketing on this one–Not Working by Lisa Owens is very much reminiscent of the classic Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Where Bridget is a thirty-something in the late 1990’s, Not Working has its feet firmly planted in the 2010’s.

As long-time readers of this blog know, Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of my favorite books of all time.  Honestly, I want nothing more than to write a compare/contrast essay in finest middle-school fashion about these novels.

Where Bridget Jones drinks Chardonnay and eats cheese, Claire Flannery downs Prosecco by the bottle and main-lines wasabi peas.  Bridget Jones has Mark Darcy, who loves her just as she is, and Claire Flannery has her neurosurgeon boyfriend who puts up with her for some reason.

More than anything, there’s a definite shift in neuroses.  Bridget was considered a freak in 1997 for being over thirty and unmarried–this was the entire focus.  By 2016 it’s totally normal to be together for seven years or more and never think of getting married–you’re a freak if you haven’t found something “meaningful” to do with your working life.

That’s our set-up for Not Working.  Claire Flannery has quit her job to follow her passion.  The only problem is that she has no idea what that is.  So she spends her days in that Chekhovian fug of having so much of nothing to do that it’s overwhelming.  Throw in some family misunderstandings, young workers who are making more than she ever dreamed of, a long-term boyfriend who might be having an affair, and day-to-day musings, and you’ve got a funny, entertaining novel with an upbeat and promising ending.

Claire is a fun character, but not always entirely sympathetic.  The tone is conversational and sardonic, and veers into absurdity every so often.  She is a completely self-absorbed young woman, one that expects everything in life to fall into her lap.  Sometimes, like other characters in the book, you get a little tired of her. Which I think might be the point.  Even Claire gets tired of Claire after a while–of being unable to find a focus, of how she lashes out at people, of how much she drinks, of how life isn’t quite what she expected.

I’ll go ahead and say this because I am of Claire’s generation: Millennials, by and large, have trouble with growing up.  The adult world stinks and we all know it, you don’t get a job at the plant and stay there 40 years anymore, and we use nostalgia as a coping mechanism.  Claire behaves and drinks and just generally conducts herself as if she were still 21, much to the chagrin of a lot of people around her.  It all rings scarily true, which is where the cringe-humor comes from.

Owens really creates a wonderful voice here, and her observations about daily life and relationships are spot-on and insightful.  And always funny, even when they get a bit dark.  I spent a lot of time making comparisons with Bridget Jones, but Claire Flannery is a great creation on her own–the satiric, drunken, ultimately hopeful voice of white upper-middle-class quarter-life crisis.

Just like Bridget’s obsessive calorie counting and weight maintenance, a lot of this stuff is funny ’cause it’s true.  And you know it’s true, fellow college-educated, middle-class 30-year-olds.  You know it’s true.

The format reminded me a lot of Helen Ellis’s brilliant American Housewife: Stories.  A couple stories in that collection started out as tweets.  If you haven’t checked out her American Housewife Twitter yet, do.  Here’s the link.

And Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding.  You might like that one, too.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

Girl-on-the-TrainWithin the first few pages of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, we learn that our primary narrator regularly gets drunk on the train and has made up names and life stories for a couple whose house she watches out the window at a regular stop.

Yes, I thought to myself.  Totally off her nut.  This is going to be a great story!  Yes!

I wasn’t wrong.

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Marie’s Reading: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

paying guestsIn the interests of full disclosure, I have to tell you right off that Sarah Waters is one of my favorite writers.  Ever.  I have never been disappointed once by any of her books, including her latest, The Paying Guests.  So any and all reactions I give  in this post might be construed as biased.

That said: I loved this book!!

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