Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling

   On Monday and Tuesday this week, just in time for it's famous author's birthday today, I read 'The Cuckoo's Calling'. There can be few members of the news-consuming public who haven't heard the recent story that this crime novel, published in April under the name of Robert Galbraith, was actually written by the world's richest and possibly most famous author, J. K. Rowling. After a nasty period during which sceptics proclaimed that the leak of this information was undoubtedly a marketing ploy undertaken by either Rowling herself or her publishers, it was announced that the information actually reached the public domain through the indiscretion of a lawyer, who let the secret slip to a personal friend. 
   In my opinion, it's unfortunate that the truth of the novel's authorship has been revealed at such an early stage - it would have been very interesting to see whether it could have become a success based on its own merits, and whether its popularity would have taken another book or two to really gather momentum. The subject also provokes some thought about a publishing environment in which a debut by an unknown author which garners universally high reviews from a few critics and other crime authors still only sells a few hundred copies. What hope is there for authors of similarly accomplished novels who don't happen to have a famous name to fall back on? Anyway, I like to think that word-of-mouth would have built over the course of the next couple of years for this, as was the case with Harry Potter, and that it could have been a success even without the recent revelations. Because this is a novel that always deserved success.
     I had unwittingly been preparing very well for reading 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by almost
Sphere, £12.99
exclusively reading Agatha Christie for the last few weeks. Declan Burke says in his Irish Times review
that 'Rowling is reported to be a fan of the Golden Age of British crime fiction as written by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy L Sayers' and I agree that this is very much a classic puzzle-solving detective mystery in the vein of those. I was certainly pleased that any violence depicted bears a closer relationship to those classics than to more modern, and more gruesome, novels. 
   Briefly (since I know it would have been next to impossible not to have read a review of this already somewhere), Cormoran Strike is a private detective who is down to his last chance. He's just left his girlfriend so he's living in his office, he's deeply in debt, his business is failing due to lack of custom, and his prosthetic lower leg is making life difficult. One Monday morning, Robin Ellacott turns up, sent as a temp secretary by the agency to work for him for a week. She is thrilled by the sign on the door - 'Private Detective' - sensing possibilities for more exciting work than endless photocopying and filing. Not long after she arrives, something very unusual happens - a new client presents himself, asking Strike to investigate the sudden death of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry, three months previously. Robin plays the efficient secretary and offers refreshment to both Strike and his client, and it is only as she leaves the room having taken an order from each man that Strike remembers 'that he did not have any coffee, sugar or, indeed, cups.' Strike initially agrees to investigate the case due to presence of ready money, and at double his usual rate, but he quickly finds his innate sense of justice and his conscience leading him onwards.
   While I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, I admit that I did not particularly enjoy Rowling's literary fiction offering last year 'The Casual Vacancy', so it wasn't an absolutely foregone conclusion that I would like this one. However, Rowling's newest creations are enormously interesting and appealing - I felt myself invested in the characters by the time I was 20 pages into the novel. While the narrative is as satisfyingly complex as a Poirot mystery and as thrilling, it never feels as if characterisation, character development, beautiful language and description have been sacrificed to serve a fast-moving plot. Indeed, I felt that 'The Cuckoo's Calling' had the largest cast of fully fleshed-out characters that I've read in a while. Strike and his sidekick Robin make an unlikely but thoroughly fascinating and entertaining pair, so I'm delighted to read that Rowling has reportedly already finished the sequel, which will be published next year. 
   Go forth and read, folks!

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Slow Month for Reading

So I have rediscovered during this last few weeks the delight of rereading as a fantastically comforting occupation in rough times. During June I've reread some Wheel of Time, a couple of Agatha Christie mysteries, my favourite Fred Vargas, and my ultimate happy-time in book form - Harry Potter. It's been an enjoyable, but not very productive, reading time. Of course, while familiar settings, characters, and ideas are very comforting, there should also be time for the more positive and forward-thinking activity of discovering new favourites. The two books I've read for the first time in the last month have been 'Toby Alone' by Timothée de Fombelle and 'Proxy' by Alex London.
   'Proxy' was released a few weeks ago on June 18th by Penguin US. Here's the blurb:

Knox was born into one of the City's wealthiest families. A Patron, he has everything a boy could possibly want—the latest tech, the coolest clothes, and a Proxy to take all his punishments. When Knox breaks a vase, Syd is beaten. When Knox plays a practical joke, Syd is forced to haul rocks. And when Knox crashes a car, killing one of his friends, Syd is branded and sentenced to death.

Syd is a Proxy.  His life is not his own.

Then again, neither is Knox’s. Knox and Syd have more in common than either would guess. So when Knox and Syd realize that the only way to beat the system is to save each other, they flee. Yet Knox’s father is no ordinary Patron, and Syd is no ordinary Proxy. The ensuing cross-country chase will uncover a secret society of rebels, test both boys’ resolve, and shine a blinding light onto a world of those who owe and those who pay. Some debts, it turns out, cannot be repaid.

   I really enjoyed this one. It was a lightning-quick read - I finished in a matter of hours. Syd is an extremely sympathetic main character - generous, compassionate, and practical. The relationship between him and Knox, from whose point of view the story is also told, starts off on a very rocky basis as Syd is Knox's 'whipping boy' - taking severe punishments every time (and there are many) that Knox breaks the rules. While some of the science didn't fully make sense (I thought), I'd thoroughly recommend this to fans of 'The Hunger Games' - it's also a whirlwind adventure which does provoke some deeper thought about class structures, democracy, and justice. Great summer reading for adults too!
    'Toby Alone' was first released as 'La Vie Suspendue' in France in 2006, and was
subsequently translated by Sarah Ardizzone and released for the UK market in 2008. As well as being on my 'Books About Tiny People' list, I decided it was a good time to read this one at the moment because of the opportunity to compare it to an animated movie with some similarities - 'Epic', released in May. Both feature tiny people living in the forest, and both promote a environmental message. Both put this message forward in quite a simplistic way - the two dimensional 'baddies' try to destroy the tree or forest, and the equally two dimensional heroes try to stop them. I never felt that the sizes described in 'Toby Alone' would be at all feasible - is 1.5 millimetres small enough that most of the characters in the book believe that their Tree is the whole extent of the world, making talk of other Trees tantamount to heresy? I'm glad I read this, and it was an enjoyable and at times very fun read, but I probably won't bother reading the sequel. I'll just have to find more of my 'Books About Tiny People' to obsess over - possibly Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad trilogy - 'Truckers', 'Diggers', and 'Wings'.