book review

The glare of celebrity: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

 

cuckoo's calling

“Somé picked up his mint tea. ‘Why do women do it? Cuckoo, too. . . she wasn’t stupid—actually, she was razor sharp—so what did she see in Evan Duffield? I’ll tell you,’ he said without pausing for an answer. ‘It’s that wounded-poet crap, that soul-pain shit, that too-much-of-a-tortured-genius-to-wash bollocks. Brush your teeth, you little bastard. You’re not fucking Byron.'”

The Cuckoo’s Calling, JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

Well, we all know the secret of Robert Galbraith and his debut novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. Galbraith, of course, is the pseudonym of JK Rowling. (If you somehow missed the story, check out this article in the New York Times.) Unfortunately, I would likely not have heard about this book if its provenance hadn’t been revealed, but I wish I’d read it unhindered by the knowledge of who its author is. It’s impossible to read without bring a boatload of expectations and assumptions to the table. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read my beloved Harry Potter books, and yet I absolutely despised Rowling’s adult debut A Casual Vacancy. How, then, to read a mystery that was published with the specific intent of enjoying critical reviews and audience response without being associated with the Rowling powerhouse?

Fortunately, The Cuckoo’s Calling returns to Rowling’s greatest strength: compelling narrative. Rowling is a master storyteller, and in this contemporary murder mystery there’s plenty of story to go around. Private investigator Cormoran Strike is physically imposing, mentally sharp, and socially a bit gruff. His girlfriend has left him (again), he’s sleeping in his office, and he’s in pain due to the leg he lost as a Military Policeman in Afghanistan. Not to mention he can barely pay his bills, including the salary of bright, eager temp secretary Robin Ellacott. When John Bristow, an old school chum, turns up with a case, Cormoran can hardly say no, especially because Bristow is prepared to overpay him grandly. Bristow’s adopted sister, ultra-famous supermodel Lula Landry, has apparently committed suicide, but Bristow is convinced she was murdered.

Continue reading “The glare of celebrity: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith”

book review

The story I am in right now, with you: a review of MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

The end of the world has come and gone, and a handful of humans and post-humans are left in its wake. In MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood returns to the near-future apocalyptic world of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood to tell us what happens next. Sort of.

MaddAddam

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

– MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

The end of the world has come and gone, and a handful of humans and post-humans are left in its wake. In MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood returns to the near-future apocalyptic world of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood to tell us what happens next. Sort of.

Before I can talk about MaddAddam, some background: I’ve had a difficult relationship with this series. I love much of Atwood’s wit and cutting social commentaries, especially in books such as The Handmaid’s TaleGood Bones and Simple Murders, and Lady Oracle. I enjoyed Oryx & Crake very much: an allegorical tale that examined transhumanism, genetic engineering, and all-powerful corporations in a mega-capitalistic near future. But then The Year of the Flood arrived, and I was so let down. The neat, clever lessons had been taken away from their allegorical underpinnings and thrust into a real-world setting. Suddenly more characters were operating within the parameters of a world I had never read as “real,” and certain things really grated for me as a reader.

Continue reading “The story I am in right now, with you: a review of MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood”

book review

On the surface: a review of Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Windsor, Ontario, may not seem like an obvious setting for a novel, but in Wayne Grady’s fiction debut Emancipation Day, tensions simmer beneath the surface, and things are not always what they seem. Jack Lewis is one of three children born to a working class black family. But Jack is born different—his skin is white.

Emancipation Day

“It felt safe, but it was dangerous for Jack in this house. He was pretty sure Peter and his mother didn’t know anything about his family, but he couldn’t be certain. Peter probably wouldn’t rat on him if he did know, but he couldn’t be sure of that either. The Barnses were white and they were rich, and he didn’t really understand such people, didn’t know what they were capable of, how fiercely they would protect one of their own. Coming to Peter’s house, talking to Peter’s mother, even calling her Della, was like putting his hand  on a hot stove to see how long he could stand the heat.”

Emancipation Day, Wayne Grady

Windsor, Ontario, may not seem like an obvious setting for a novel, but in Wayne Grady’s fiction debut Emancipation Day, tensions simmer beneath the surface, and things are not always what they seem. Jack Lewis is one of three children born to a working class black family. But Jack is born different—his skin is white. Not albino, but to all appearances caucasian. And growing up in the 1930s and 40s across the border from Detroit, this doesn’t make for an easy situation for anyone involved.

Race, family, and identity form the central tensions of the novel, each pulling at and playing with one another. Jack rejects his blackness and, in doing so, his family, passing for white as much as possible. A talented trombone player, he joins the Windsor All-Whites (who are) while rejecting the jazz music that’s rising in popularity particularly among black musicians and music lovers. When he joins the Navy during World War II, he is transferred to Newfoundland and sees the opportunity to distance himself from his family and community entirely. And when he meets, woos, and eventually marries Vivian Fanshawe, he doesn’t inform his new wife and her family of his own heritage.

Continue reading “On the surface: a review of Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady”

book review

Here’s to memories: a review of The Truth about Luck by Iain Reid

What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.

Truth About Luck

“Grandma slowly brings her glass up, asking for a cheers. I clink hers with mine. ‘Here’s to stories,’ she says. ‘Old and new.’
‘And memories,’ I say.
She holds up her glass a moment longer as I take my sip. ‘Yes, she says, ‘and to not letting them go to waste.'”

– The Truth about Luck, Iain Reid

What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.

Reid offers to take his 90-year-old grandmother on vacation for a week to celebrate her birthday. He doesn’t mention that due to cashflow issues, the vacation is going to take place in his apartment in Kingston, a couple of hours away from her home in Ottawa. Grandma doesn’t mind, though. In fact, she tells him that all her friends simply couldn’t believe he was doing such a nice thing for her. Reid’s guilt and neuroses that he can’t show Grandma a better time are overwhelmed by her relentless optimism and genuine pleasure at spending time with her grandson. They roadtrip together from Ottawa and over the course of the week go out for dinner, enjoying reading on rainy afternoons, take a ferry out to Wolfe Island, and find their conversation flowing more and more freely.

Continue reading “Here’s to memories: a review of The Truth about Luck by Iain Reid”

book review

Darkness fell: a review of Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

In 1939, a young woman walks into a German bar. She greets a group of people she knows sitting in the back. She steadies herself, draws her father’s revolver from her purse, and shoots Hitler. Darkness falls. On the next page, we are reintroduced to the young woman at the moment of her birth—and immediate death, because the doctor and midwife were both delayed and the cord is wrapped around her little neck.

Life after Life

“The woody fragrance of bonfire smoke drifted through the window and into the little attic room She could hear the clopping of hooves followed by the rattle of the coal as the coalman emptied his sacks into the coal shed. Life was going on. A thing of beauty.

One breath, that was all she needed, but it wouldn’t come.

Darkness fell swiftly, at first an enemy, but then a friend.”

– Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

In 1939, a young woman walks into a German bar. She greets a group of people she knows sitting in the back. She steadies herself, draws her father’s revolver from her purse, and shoots Hitler. Darkness falls. On the next page, we are reintroduced to the young woman at the moment of her birth—and immediate death, because the doctor and midwife were both delayed and the cord is wrapped around her little neck.

This dramatic juxtaposition, two very different endings to the same life, is how Kate Atkinson introduces us to her main character Ursula, and to the central conceit of her new novel, Life after Life. Jumping back and forth over a period of several decades from 1910 onward, we see Ursula die in countless ways. Drowning in the sea as a child, murdered by an abusive husband, bombed during the war. The variations are endless. And what could have been gimmicky or confusing in less talented hands becomes a tour de force for the formidable Atkinson.

Continue reading “Darkness fell: a review of Life after Life by Kate Atkinson”

book review

Lines and linkages: a review of The Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Domingue

In a fantastical medieval kingdom, an extraordinary girl aspires to more than a strategic marriage and many babies. Daughter of the king’s most trusted advisor, Aoife is drawn to maps.

Mapmaker's war

“Wyl trusted you because of your work. You were a mapmaker. You had studied a navigable world in miniature, hadn’t you? But you followed more than land. You looked to the skies, the stars, the movement of birds.” 

– The Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Domingue

In a fantastical medieval kingdom, an extraordinary girl aspires to more than a strategic marriage and many babies. Daughter of the king’s most trusted advisor, Aoife (pronounced “Ee-fah”) is drawn to maps. From an early age she notices things like the geometry of spiderwebs, the planes and angles that make up the world around her. She becomes apprentice to the kingdom’s mapmaker and then succeeds him, with the help of her father and of Wyl, crown prince of the realm and childhood friend. While mapping the river that forms one of the kingdom’s borders, Aoife crosses to the other side and discovers a settlement unlike any she has ever known before: a people, a way of life, and a mythology that are truly magical.

But her discovery, and the rumours she brings back of great wealth guarded by a dragon, sparks a war. She follows Wyl , who wants more than just friendship from her, on his quest to find the dragon, while insidious younger prince Raef accelerates hostilities. Aoife finds herself with a burgeoning allegiance to the people across the river, known as Guardians. Soon her life is torn in two and she must begin again, leaving behind her family, her children, and her kingdom.

For all that I found charming  and original in this book, I was also frustrated throughout. Continue reading “Lines and linkages: a review of The Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Domingue”

book review

Getting a callback: a review of Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

It’s the mid 90s, and Franny Banks is in New York City, trying to make it as an actor. She’s had a few successes–getting into a coveted acting class, working on a commercial, doing some theatre. But is it enough success to justify staying? Franny has given herself a three-year deadline.

Someday, Someday, Maybe

“I sit in the chair and do the monologue into the camera lens, my too-tight khakis split open in the back, my too-loose shirt gathered with an industrial-looking clamp sticking out from the middle of my back. From the front I look put together, but every other angle would reveal how false the front of me is, how much effort has gone into presenting a one-sided image of perfection.”

– Someday, Someday, Maybe, Lauren Graham

It’s the mid 90s, and Franny Banks is in New York City, trying to make it as an actor. She’s  had a few successes–getting into a coveted acting class, working on a commercial, doing some theatre. But is it enough success to justify staying? Franny has given herself a three-year deadline. If she can make it, really make it, as an actress in New York City by the end of those three years, she’ll keep at it. If she fails, she’ll go home and become a teacher like her dad. As the novel opens, Franny realizes she is six months away from her deadline and nowhere near fulfilling her dreams.

Debut author Lauren Graham is herself an actress who got her start in New York City. Beloved for her roles as Lorelai on Gilmore Girls and Sarah on Parenthood, it turns out Graham is no slouch at writing stories, too. Someday, Someday, Maybe is a light, charming novel, wonderfully witty and full of heart. Its setting allows for great moments of 90s nostalgia, from Franny’s dad asking her if she’s thought about “applying” to be on that Friends show everyone’s talking about to Franny’s religious use of her Filofax calendar. We get to see Franny’s actual calendar throughout the book, pages of her Filofax filled out in her handwriting and doodles (drawing of grass, note that said drawing is more interesting than her career at the moment; notes on meetings with agents, going for runs, grocery lists, doodled freakouts about possible dates). It’s a sweet way to put us directly in touch with Franny’s most private thoughts, and it’s also a cute nod to Bridget Jones’ Diary, an obvious influence.

Continue reading “Getting a callback: a review of Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham”