CBR-V Review #65: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

I am, unabashedly, a J.K. Rowling fangirl. I grew up with Harry Potter and my devotion the series has only deepened over time, and in my eyes, Rowling can do no wrong. Although I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Casual Vacancy yet, I most certainly will at some point. However, given the mixed reviews of her first foray into adult literature, I’m glad that The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under a pseudonym) was my first exposure to her non-Harry Potter work.

I do want to say that I think I would have loved this book even if it hadn’t been written by Rowling. I might not have ever had the opportunity to pick it up, given that it wasn’t hugely successful before the reveal of its author’s true identity, but I would have definitely still liked it. And if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have given it a strong review just because of who the author is (as much as I adore her).

The Cuckoo’s Calling is an old-school detective novel, featuring the hardened-yet-lovable protagonist of Cormoran Strike, a former soldier in the British army and a current private eye, struggling to make ends meet and dealing with a recent breakup with his beautiful ex-girlfriend. He’s approached by a wealthy lawyer who wants Strike to investigate the suspicious death (deemed a suicide by the police) of his sister, a beautiful and famous model named Lula Landry. With his new assistant, Robin (a practical young woman caught up in the excitement of detective work), in tow, Strike sets out to find out what really happened to Lula.

I could not stop reading this book. It was just so, so good.

I appreciated, first and foremost, that this was simply a really good mystery. Nowadays, I feel like a lot of mysteries are closer to the horror and/or psychological thriller genres, which can be good, but aren’t my favorite. What can I say–I’m a scaredy-cat. This was just a fun read, with nothing too grim or disturbing to weigh down the enjoyment of figuring out whodunnit. It’s a lot like an Agatha Christie mystery, complete with the dramatic, chapter-long monologue at the end revealing who the culprit of the crime is, and I loved that.

In that same vein, Rowling keeps the tone light and the prose fast-paced. This is where her years of Harry Potter experience really benefited her, because she was really able to use her (underrated, in my opinion) knack for humor here, while also keeping things moving and giving the reader some exciting action and a twisty, unpredictable mystery (along with the requisite red herrings, which were convincing and deployed well).

Rowling is also so good at creating unique and memorable characters, as evidenced by the amazing cast of the Harry Potter series. She lives up to that reputation here. Not only is Cormoran Strike a perfect protagonist (something of an anti-hero, complex, with a good backstory), but her supporting characters are brilliant as well. Robin is a great foil to Strike–somewhat naïve, but smart and capable too–and the people they encounter throughout the investigation are just so well-rendered and so believable that they practically jump off the page. She also doesn’t disappoint with her creative names, which were one of my favorite things about the HP series–we’ve got Lula Landry (a superstar name if I’ve ever heard one), Guy Sommé (a flamboyant fashion designer), Deeby Macc (a popular rap star), and Tansy Bestigui (a young and obscenely wealthy housewife), just to name a few.

I’m pretty sure this is going to become a series (I’d be disappointed if it didn’t), which makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot more to discover about Strike, I think, and I’m excited to see where his relationship with Robin goes (and what mysteries come next). Given how good this book is, it seems like Rowling may have struck gold twice in terms of successful series.

I really don’t have anything bad to say about this novel. With it, Rowling has proved that she’s not just a kid’s writer, and can hold her own as a writer of adult fiction as well.


CBR-V Review #59: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix a few weeks back–I know it’s a little weird to be working backwards, but it’s actually been sort of fun to read in reverse, making it easier to catch references and foreshadowing that I might not have remembered otherwise.

I always forget how good the fourth book is! The titular Goblet refers to the prize at the end of the Tri-Wizard tournament, an infamous, dangerous competition between the schools of the wizarding world. For the first time in years, it’s being hosted at Hogwarts–and Harry, despite being too young to enter, finds himself competing as one of two representatives of Hogwarts. Once again, Harry finds himself thrust into the spotlight, which is hard to deal with while also trying to figure out how to get through the tournament without embarrassing himself (or worse, being killed).

I mentioned in my last review that the 5th book seemed like it was a turning point in the series, but this is the book that lays the groundwork for that shift in tone/plot structure. While there’s obviously darkness to be found in all the HP books in the series up until this point, this one has the biggest stakes, in that Voldemort and his followers are regaining power, and the biggest consequences (namely, death, although I won’t name names if you for some crazy reason have never read this). I still can barely get through the first and second-to-last chapters of this book; they’re truly disturbing and scary.

This book is also important because the world of Harry Potter–previously confined to, essentially, the Muggle world, Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, the Weasley home, and Hogsmeade–expands dramatically here, in geographic scope, in background information, and in characters. Accordingly, this book is significantly longer than any other in the series up until this point–I remember being shocked at how huge it was when I first got my hands on it at age 10. It’s the first book that shows us that there’s a wizarding world outside of England, with wizarding schools and Quidditch teams. It’s in this book that we get important background information/world-building, with details on Voldemort’s supporters and their time in power, insight into magical creatures and wizarding world history, and more. And we also get a whole new cast of characters, many of them some of the most memorable in the whole series (I’m particularly fond of Rita Skeeter and Mad-Eye Moody).

This is a great installment of the series–I’m guessing most people have read it already, but if you haven’t, it’s really worth a read. (I know I’m clearly a HP fangirl, but really…it’s great).

CBR-V Review #51: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

I listed to this on audiobook over the last few months–I’ve done a lot of driving recently and I just finished it yesterday, on a drive from Vermont to Massachusetts. This is the only Harry Potter book I own on CD, so I’ve probably “read” it more times than any other in the series (besides #1 and #2, which I re-read obsessively when I was younger, waiting for the rest of the series to come out). I haven’t listened or read it all the way through in a long time, though.

I’m just going to go ahead and flag this review with a SPOILER ALERT for the first four books, although I kind of feel like the statute of limitations on spoilers should run out at some point…it’s been like 10+  years, folks!

Order of the Phoenix picks up a few weeks after the events of the fourth book, and Harry is in a bad place. He’s still traumatized after witnessing the murder of his Tri-Wizard tournament competitor, Cedric Diggory, and he’s being painted as a liar and attention-seeker by the wizarding media, who don’t believe his statement that Lord Voldemort has returned. To make matters worse, once he returns to Hogwarts, he finds that Dumbledore is acting very strangely around him, and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge, is perhaps the worst one yet.

Order of the Phoenix is underrated, I think–a lot of people dislike it because “nothing happens” and there’s a lot of teen angst mixed in with the usual adventure and danger and magic, much more so than in any other book in the series. I like it a lot though, because it’s the book that best demonstrates how Harry is actually a pretty flawed character, and has some pretty bad traits (like any real person) that have, ultimately, huge consequences. This book is also a turning point in the series, in that it’s the first that doesn’t have a book-specific, self-contained adventure or mystery to solve (like discovering the wizarding world in #1, the Tri-Wizard tournament in #4).  There’s the problem of Umbridge, of course, but her presence serves more to show that the world Harry lives in is an extremely dark one, and this is the first book in the series that kind of makes you realize that the series is not going to end without a whole lot of trauma. It’s also the first where Harry is disparaged and perceived, overall, in a very negative way, which is an interesting change from the first few books. I love it because it really does mark a shift in the series towards extremely serious and intense, more adult themes, and sets the stage for the last two books very well. It also is very important for the backstory it gives us, and for the fleshing out of the Harry Potter mythology.

I also think that Umbridge is a really fantastic villain, and I liked having a diversion from the typical Malfoy-Snape-Voldemort trifecta of evil in the books. She’s truly loathsome, and brilliantly portrayed–one of the most vivid characters in an incredible cast, which is saying something. I also loved the new character of Luna Lovegood–she’s one of my all-time favorites.

As for the teen angst complaint, I truly didn’t mind this aspect of the novel. It never overshadows the actual plot, and I think it was important for Rowling to introduce crushes and moodiness to establish a sense of reality among the fantastic and the magical. I honestly think it would have been weirder for her to continue writing about a teenage boy without delving into any kind of mention of sexuality and crazy hormones, and by bringing this side of things in, Rowling gets to play with humor (which is one of her biggest strengths–I don’t think she gets enough credit for being very, very funny).

Anyway, this is a really great book on its own, and a very solid entry into the series. Read them all!