The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Published by Mulholland Books

From the publisher:

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.

I’m one of those people who only considered reading The Cuckoo’s Calling once it was revealed that Robert Galbraith is actually a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I am also one of those people who MUST read everything Rowling writes, so there you go – obviously at some point, I had to get to reading this book. And I’m incredibly happy that I did, because although it might be my bias that leads me to believe J.K. Rowling can do no wrong, she solidified that once again with this fantastic and wonderfully written mystery.

Despite everything that is unfortunate about Strike, I couldn’t help finding him incredibly endearing. His life is just SO depressing, and yet he continues to put his blinders on and never really deals with the real issues in front of him. The fact that Bristow asked him to take this case is a complete miracle and exactly the thing he needed to get his mind off all of his failings and faults – so the fact that he ran into the opportunity full steam ahead was something I absolutely loved. I read someone (can’t remember who, tell me if it’s you!) compare him to a smaller in size, non-magical Hagrid, and oh my goodness I can totally see this and I love the comparison. He’s just so unappealing as to make himself appeal to me – does that make sense?

I also loved Robin, Srike’s temporary assistant, who over time grew just as invested in the murder as Strike did. I actually thought her character could have been used a little more to further the story and so I’m excited to see where Galbraith takes her in the next installment of this series.

Murder mysteries aren’t totally my thing, although I do enjoy the ones I read, so I don’t have the experience to be very critical of the specifics of the plot in The Cuckoo’s Calling, but I will say that I thought it was well done. Maybe I’m naive, but I definitely didn’t see the ending coming, but I do think, looking back, that the clues were placed in such a way that it was possible to guess the killer, which I think is kind of the point of these kinds of books. Although maybe I’m wrong about that? You can see my unfamiliarity with this kind of read – but whatever, I really loved where the book went and I was kept on my toes the entire time.

Where Rowling always shines, and continues to do so in The Cuckoo’s Calling, is her incredible writing and great characters. As always, her writing is super descriptive, to the point that I can picture characters, scenes, and events in my mind with crystal clarity. And as I’ve already said, I found these characters incredibly interesting and well-drawn. I couldn’t put this book down and I’m anxious to read The Silkworm, the next book in the series. No matter what name Rowling writes under, her talent truly shone through here for me and I’m so glad I got to discover another batch of her excellent characters with this novel!

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs, #1)Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Penguin

From the publisher:

Maisie Dobbs isn’t just any young housemaid. Through her own natural intelligence—and the patronage of her benevolent employers—she works her way into college at Cambridge. When World War I breaks out, Maisie goes to the front as a nurse. It is there that she learns that coincidences are meaningful and the truth elusive. After the War, Maisie sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment, seemingly an ordinary infidelity case, soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets, which will force Maisie to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind.

The Maisie Dobbs series has been a favorite among book bloggers, which is why the first two books have been on my shelves for years. When I finally dug into the first installment, I could see why bloggers have been delighted by Maisie – I was definitely charmed by her intelligence and pluck – but at the same time, I was slightly underwhelmed by the overall experience of reading the novel.

The best way I can think to describe Maisie is a grown-up Nancy Drew. The mystery, while being of a serious nature, is relatively tame overall, and the plot and getting to the bottom of things isn’t very complex. Maisie is extremely smart, driven, and will do just about anything to get to the truth, and since the book has a historical setting, these qualities weren’t exactly encouraged in women at that time, making her even more fun to read about and get to know.

There’s a love story intertwined with the mystery, and I think that was a nice departure from the rest of the novel – Winspear struck a good balance between solving the mystery and giving the reader adequate insight into Maisie’s life before becoming a private investigator. The war setting is a compelling one, too, as we learn just how deeply Maisie and those around her were affected by it.

I think because I was expecting a lot from this novel, it didn’t quite live up to what I was hoping for. But I still enjoyed Maisie Dobbs and will probably continue with the series. I think as I get to know the character of Maisie, her story and the mysteries she solves might become more compelling.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This House is HauntedThis House is Haunted by John Boyne
Published by Other Press

From the publisher:

Written in Dickensian prose, This House Is Haunted is a striking homage to the classic nineteenth-century ghost story. Set in Norfolk in 1867, Eliza Caine responds to an ad for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives at the hall, shaken by an unsettling disturbance that occurred during her travels, she is greeted by the two children now in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There is no adult present to represent her mysterious employer, and the children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, another terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.

From the moment Eliza rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence that lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realizes that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past. Clever, captivating, and witty, This House Is Haunted is pure entertainment with a catch.

I don’t read ghost stories all that often, but when I do, I need them to also have good writing and well-written characters I connect with, otherwise I’ll simply get scared and want to put the book in the freezer indefinitely. I was super excited upon picking up this book and reading the first ten pages or so, as I discovered that This House is Haunted has both of those things. I was captivated by Eliza from the very instant I met her, and I absolutely loved Boyne’s writing – even though I anticipated hating it as I didn’t think Dickensian prose did anything for me – so while this book wasn’t perfect overall, it was perfect for me.

The fact that the creep-factor in this novel starts before Eliza even gets to the house added to my enjoyment of the book. Right from the start, I knew I was in for a sinister, twisty novel that wouldn’t provide easy answers. The kids are super strange and Isabella especially is like something out of Children of the Corn. Just NOT normal. I was pulled into This House is Haunted so quickly that I read this book in pretty much one sitting, racing through the pages to find out what exactly is haunting this house and why. And WHY on earth were these parentless children so freaking strange?

I read this for one of my book clubs and not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. A few of us felt that the ghost story part was too obvious, too contrived, that Boyne did way too much explaining, especially toward the end. Not everyone likes their ghost stories to make sense, I suppose. I totally get that – and I agree – but since I read so few of these kinds of books, when the writing is this good and the characters as interesting, I don’t really care. So the lack of ambiguity didn’t bother me one bit.

Oh! And I loved that just when I thought things were wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end, BAM! – so not the case. Boyne made me want a sequel!

I really liked This House is Haunted and can definitely recommend it. Highly entertaining, is what this novel is.

Return to Tradd Street by Karen White

Return to Tradd Street (Tradd Street, #4)Return to Tradd Street by Karen White
Published by NAL Trade
Review copy provided by the publisher

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love Karen White’s books, and the Tradd Street series in particular is one of my favorite things (as a whole) that she’s done. So when I learned she was coming out with another book about Melanie and Jack, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to read it right away. Warning – this will contain spoilers for the first three books in the series.

The book begins with Melanie, sick in her first trimester of pregnancy, and utterly devastated at the fact that she and Jack are not currently together (not that she’d ever admit that, of course). After Melanie declared her love for Jack, and he responded with “thank you”, she turned down his marriage proposal. Of course. So now she’s alone, again, in this big old house she’s renovating, when yet another ghost comes into the picture and demands answers – and Melanie, as always, answers the call and begins hunting for clues to solve this new ghost story.

I have yet to be disappointed by Karen White and this new installment of the Tradd Street series was another hit with me. I love the dynamics between Melanie and Jack – just when I think I’m over their bantering back and forth and not being honest with one another about their feelings, another book comes out with the exact same dynamic and I’m hooked once again. I just love these two! Add to the picture them having a baby together and things just got crazy, in the best possible way.

The ghost story in this book was another good one, the fact that it was about a mother and baby was that much more relevant to Melanie as she is pregnant and then gives birth herself over the course of the novel. The ghost was truly speaking to her, mother to mother, desperate for Melanie to uncover the secrets of the house’s past and let the ghost go “home”. The way the truth of what happened to this ghost was revealed was done slowly and expertly, as White knows how to do perfectly.

I absolutely loved the ending to Return to Tradd Street, and although it ended in a way that suggests White is finished telling Melanie and Jack’s story, there were a few hints at the very end that suggest that might not be the case. I would of course love another book about them, but I also feel satisfied with how this book ended so I’d be okay with the series finishing with this book. Either way is good with me!

I highly recommend this series of books for a combination of ghost story, historical old homes, romance, and a main character in Melanie that you can’t help but love, frustrating as she may be at times. Highly recommended – but start with the first book if you haven’t read the rest of the series!

The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

The Next Time You See MeThe Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones
Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

The small town where Ronnie Eastman lived isn’t altered too much by her disappearance, but the situation does seem to have a ripple effect on a few people’s lives. Ronnie’s sister, Susanna, a teacher who is unhappy in her marriage but passionate about her daughter and students, becomes fixated on Ronnie’s disappearance and obsessed with finding her, despite the fact that Ronnie’s always been quite unpredictable and could have very easily just run off somewhere. Tony, former baseball star turned police detective with a long-ago connection to Susanna, takes the case and begins to hunt for clues right alongside Susanna. Emily is an incredibly unpopular thirteen-year-old whose fascinating discovery is just about to change her life. And Wyatt, a solitary guy who works at one of the town’s factories, decides to indulge in a rare night out with the guys and is surprised to find himself falling for a woman he meets there. These people seemingly have nothing in common, but they are connected to one another in ways they cannot begin to imagine.

I’ve been hearing good things about The Next Time You See Me for several months now, so when I saw the author’s name on the list of UCF Book Festival authors, I thought it was the perfect time to pick up this novel I’d already been interested in reading. Overall this book didn’t disappoint – it was suspenseful, held my interest, and I engaged fully with the characters while reading it – and the experience definitely made me look forward to seeing Holly Goddard Jones in April.

While this novel centers around the fact that Ronnie is missing, it’s more about the four main characters than anything else. Each has a unique point of view and each one of them is connected to Ronnie in some way – although we don’t find out how exactly until the very end, in some cases – and I loved getting to know each of them and figuring out how their stories were all interconnected.

Of the four main characters, I definitely felt the strongest connection to Susanna. I felt deeply for her, as she was struggling in her marriage, yet still focused on being the best teacher and mother she could be. I empathized with her desires to have everything she wanted in life, and felt torn for her when she couldn’t decide what to do about her dissolving marriage. I can’t exactly condone some of her actions, but at the same time I can’t say I blame her for the choices she made either. She was also the only person in this entire novel who gave a damn about the fact that Ronnie was gone. Nobody else seemed to think anything of it, but that sisterly connection, that women’s intuition if you will, told her something wasn’t right. And she didn’t give up, not for one minute, until she figured out what was going on. I admired that about her character.

What I liked a lot about this novel was the way each character’s piece of the story was completely different, yet they came together brilliantly and seamlessly in the end. Jones weaved everything together just so, and just when the reader was convinced of how things would work out, she threw just a little curve ball – not the kind of manipulative ending I don’t enjoy, but just enough of a twisty ending to make you go, “ahhh, now I get it.”

I truly enjoyed The Next Time You See Me and can solidly recommend the novel. While not a typical thriller, it has plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader’s interest, while also containing a well-developed and interesting cast of characters. I really liked this one.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

From the Hardcover editionThe Expats by Chris Pavone
Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House

Kate Moore quit her (secret, even from her husband) gig as CIA agent when her husband’s job gave them the opportunity to move to Luxembourg for a year. And even though Kate’s life in Luxembourg consists of play dates, coffee with other expat moms, and weekend trips to beautiful cities in Europe, she can’t detach herself fully from her spy roots. She is distrustful of everyone, and she begins to think that the American couple she and her husband have become close with are not who they say they are, so she starts to investigate them. What she finds causes her to turn her suspicions on her own husband, and the more she learns the more she realizes she isn’t the only one who’s been keeping secrets all these years.

The Expats was another book club pick that I wouldn’t have chosen to read on my own, and yet another time when I remembered to be thankful for my book clubs. I was highly entertained by this novel and truly had a difficult time putting it down. The twists and turns Pavone takes the reader on start right from the beginning and don’t end until the final page is turned. The book is really plot-driven, which I loved, but the characters are still developed enough to make me interested in them. A winning combination, at least to me.

It’s difficult for me to say too much about this book because SO much of it is about the plot, and to say anything specific about the plot would spoil what makes the novel so great. I definitely wasn’t expecting everything that happened, and what I loved about it is that Pavone truly made the novel an adventure to read. My mind was spinning while reading, trying to stay a step ahead of Kate and figure out what she was trying desperately to figure out, but I just couldn’t get there. It was only at the very end, when everything comes together, when Kate finally learns the truth, that I also had the ah-ha moment Pavone handed to me. And there’s even one last thing, a secret that Kate has been keeping from the reader, that hit me like a smack in the face when it was revealed. It was a great moment and an excellent ending.

I don’t know what else to say other than The Expats was pure entertainment for me. I truly enjoyed it and it was exactly the type of novel I needed when I read it. If you’re looking for an, exciting, twisty book chock-full of plot, look no further than The Expats.

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

From the Hardcover editionCover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House
Review copy received at SIBA

Nora Hamilton wakes up one cold, snowy morning in her home in the Adirondacks to find her husband, Brendan, absent from their bed. A careful search of their house leads Nora to the shocking discovery that he has committed suicide, leaving her devastated and asking the obvious question of “why?” In the haze of her grief, Nora devotes herself to the task of answering that very question. She is beyond surprised to learn that Brendan had kept many secrets from her, and as she begins unraveling the secrets of her husband’s life, she learns that his past is inexorably tied to the secrets of the small town she calls home.

I have to be upfront about something here, and that is that I met Jenny Milchman at SIBA this past September and I absolutely adored her. Which is why it breaks my heart to have to write about Cover of Snow because … well, I thought overall it was unsuccessful. I can definitely appreciate what she was trying to do with this novel, but unfortunately it just didn’t work for me.

The novel starts out with a bang, as Nora wakes from a peaceful, but dead-to-the-world slumber to find Brendan missing, and the concept is certainly promising, and when she finds her husband hanging, dead, I was definitely excited by where Milchman was going to take this strong start to the story and how she would run with it. It does get rocky from there, however, when Nora quickly learns some major facts about her husband’s life he had kept secret from her, as she learns them in very coincidental, incredibly improbable ways, and rather quickly following the discovery of her husband.

After the first 75 pages or so, I became hopeful for the novel to change my initial opinion (and skepticism) as things begin to pick up and the mystery started to become more interesting and mysterious. I found myself trying to figure out what was really going on in this small town, what was behind the facade of the perfect police department, and why on earth did Brendan have such a difficult and hostile relationship with his mother. I also found myself charmed by Nora’s relationship with her sister, Teggie, and while they went through something of a rough patch over the course of the novel, I liked the sisterhood dynamic, as it’s something I can relate to myself.

And to be honest, I was even somewhat impressed with the way Milchman resolved everything – the answers Nora found took a turn I wasn’t expecting and I did find creative. However, overall the beginning was really rough, the middle felt entirely too long, and there were so many aspects of the book I was trying to overlook because of how much I enjoyed the author and wanted desperately to like the book. The writing was clunky, the characters didn’t seem fully realized or at all complex, and the book didn’t always travel logically from point A to point B. I found myself confused a few times, lost by a discovery Nora made that didn’t make a ton of sense, and I couldn’t discern what anybody’s motivations were for much of anything until the absolute end.

I’m sad to write this because as I said earlier, Jenny Milchman is awesome! But sometimes books just don’t work for me, and this was one of those times. While the novel showed promise at certain points throughout, overall Cover of Snow was disappointing to me.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

jacket image for The Art ForgerThe Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Published by Algonquin Books, an imprint of Workman
Review copy provided by She Reads book club

Claire Roth is a struggling artist who makes her living reproducing famous masterpieces for an online retailer. When Aiden Markel, a local gallery owner, comes to her with the request to reproduce one of the original Degas masterpieces stolen in the famous museum heist in 1990 in exchange for her own show at his gallery, she can’t refuse. But when the painting arrives at her studio, Claire begins to suspect that this painting itself could be a forgery, and this discovery entangles her in a web of crime with incredibly long ties in history – and she has no idea what she’s stumbled into.

Let me begin by saying that I know absolutely nothing about art, and not only that but I’m not even really interested in art. I’ll look at a piece of art and think “hmm, that looks pretty” and truthfully, that’s about the extent of my interest. So I was a little concerned going into this book that I wouldn’t “get” it, it wouldn’t resonate with me, and simply that I just wouldn’t like it. Happily, none of those things happened – I truly enjoyed the ride Shapiro took me on here and the fact that I am not an art person did not hinder me one bit!

One thing I really enjoyed about this novel is that Shapiro gave the reader snippets of information about the time, three years before the book takes place, when Claire was involved in another situation with a famous artist and there ended up being scandal attached to her name because of it. There’s also a few letters from the late Isabelle Gardner (of the Gardner museum, where the 1990 heist took place) to her niece, Amelia, that hint at the heart of the mystery Claire is trying to solve. These dual narratives added complexity to the story and really kept me on my toes, turning pages anxious to find out how these three stories would all come together.

I have to say that while I enjoyed most things about this book, and I liked Claire as a character, I didn’t feel particularly close to any of the characters. I’m totally okay with this as, for me at least, this book was much more about the plot and the mystery than about the characters, but it’s definitely something to note. I felt that Shapiro created interesting, complex characters, I just didn’t particularly feel connected to them. But that could just be me, after all I said before that I am not into art, and Claire and I are such drastically different people I wouldn’t be able to connect to her in real life, I’m sure, so why should in fiction be any different?

But that aside, I really did enjoy this book. The Art Forger kept me on my toes, it took me on a ride I wasn’t expecting, and I couldn’t put it down. I truly enjoyed it and would definitely recommend this novel!

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor by Tana French
Published by Viking Adult, an imprint of Penguin

From the publisher:

Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the brash cop from Tana French’s bestselling Faithful Place, plays by the book and plays hard. That’s what’s made him the Murder squad’s top detective—and that’s what puts the biggest case of the year into his hands.

On one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.

At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half-dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointing at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spains’ computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks.

And Broken Harbor holds memories for Scorcher. Seeing the case on the news sends his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family one summer at Broken Harbor, back when they were children.

Tana French is something of a genius, in my humble opinion. I have loved every book she has written and I couldn’t ask for her to do anything better in her novels. With Broken Harbor, her talent once again shines as she writes yet another member of the Murder Squad, Scorcher Kennedy, as he solves this grisly murder while battling demons of his own.

One thing I love about French, and she’s done it again in this book, is that she creates characters that are so REAL it’s almost unbelievable. Scorcher is a deeply flawed person, but deep down he’s trying to do everything he can to hold his life and his very messed-up family together. But at the same time, he has a majorly important job to do and he must keep laser-focused on finding the person who killed the Spains. His struggle to balance these two huge responsibilities resonated with me so deeply and I felt that he was such a genuine, true character, thanks to the mastery of French’s writing and character development. He jumped out of the page (as her characters all have in the past) and I couldn’t stop reading with the goal of getting to know Scorcher even better.

And the mystery! I was literally kept guessing this ENTIRE book. There is a point where the detectives think they know who did it, and they even get the person in custody, but even at that point I was completely up in the air and thought it could have been any one of, say, four people. French does such an excellent job crafting her mysteries every single time and Broken Harbor was no exception. I was riveted by the complexity of the thing and read this 400+ page book in one day.

I highly recommend you pick up any of French’s novels if you haven’t already. And if you are already a fan (can’t think of why you wouldn’t be) definitely put Broken Harbor next on your list. My favorite of her novels will probably always be The Likeness, but I think this one comes in at a close second. Very highly recommended!

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

The Gods of GothamThe Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin

Timothy Wilde makes his living tending bar in New York City in 1845. But when a fire devastates much of Manhattan, including his home and job, Timothy’s brother gives him an offer he can’t refuse – to be one of the first police officers ever in the brand-new NYPD. One night, during his routine evening rounds, Timothy runs – literally – into a ten-year-old girl covered in blood. The little girl tells him that she is from the local brothel, and has escaped because there is a killer on the loose, targeting children, and that in fact there are dozens of bodies buried nearby. While Timothy doesn’t know whether to believe her or not, he sets forth on investigating her claims, and what he learns is that her stories are intricately tied to the details of his own life, and by investigating this his life will never be the same.

I wasn’t incredibly interested in reading The Gods of Gotham based on the description of it. Don’t ask me why, but for whatever reason it wasn’t speaking to me. Then my work book club chose it as our July read, and thank goodness we did because I absolutely loved this book! Everything about it was fantastic and I could not put it down. I don’t even know how to properly explain everything that I loved about it, but here goes an effort on my part to do just that.

First we have the characters. Obviously Timothy was the star of the show and I did really like him, but everyone in this novel was just so well-drawn and realistic it was hard for me to believe they weren’t actual historical figures. Valentine, Timothy’s older brother, is on the surface difficult to like but as the novel goes on we find there may be more to him than meets the eye. Silkie Marsh, the woman who runs the brothel that the little girl, Bird Daly, ran away from, is the character that the reader loves to hate – based on every piece of information given about the brothel and about Silkie herself, she is a completely despicable person, but even she can be seen in a slightly different light by the end of the book. And Mercy Underhill, Timothy’s crush and the reverend’s daughter, is a character that on the surface seems perfectly likable but I felt while reading that something was just off about her. She was elusive and so perfect in Timothy’s eyes as to cause me to think that she wasn’t so perfect after all. All of these characters, as well as many of the more minor ones, were so well-crafted, so realistic, as to make me immerse myself completely in their story – I felt that I was reading about real people, truly.

Next we have the writing. Oh my goodness does Faye know how to put a sentence together. The prose is perfect, drawing me into the story while also allowing me a few extra seconds to pause and enjoy her beautiful writing. It’s compelling and interesting while not being too flashy – perfect. The use of flash, an Irish dialect, was difficult for me to appreciate at first, but once I got into the rhythm of the novel it just added to the overall atmosphere of the novel.

And then we come to the actual plot, the mystery if you will. It wasn’t a traditional mystery, of course, but there was a huge question running throughout the book that needed answering, and let’s just say the answer to that question shocked me. Faye kept me on my toes throughout the entire book, and just when I thought I knew or understood something, she would shake things up and make me question what I had been thinking.

So can you tell I loved The Gods of Gotham? I did, so much. It was even more of a treat for me because I wasn’t expecting to like it, and wouldn’t have read the book if not for my book club. Don’t you love when that happens? Anyway, read this one! I highly recommend it for fans of mysteries, literary fiction, books with great characters, etc. … basically everyone!