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THE CUCKOO’S CALLING | A Review

jk-rowling-the-cuckoos-callingLet me start at the end and work my way backwards, which is pretty much what happens in a detective thriller, at least a classic one anyway. Someone is dead, and the detective is hired to trace the story back to its origin. Why is that person dead? What was the motive, be it suicide or homicide? Then, the story ends when the detective susses out the true cause of death, the motivation that would surely be the beginning if it were most other sub-genres of fiction. That’s what happens when the detective genre works well, which it does for J.K. Rowling (pseudonym Robert Galbraith), in the beginning of her new Cormoran Strike series.

First, I’ll admit that I knew it was Rowling when I first read the novel, and of course that changed the way I approached it had I thought it was simply a new writer named Robert Galbraith. That being said, I had recently tried reading Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and it was not the page turner I had expected from her, even without the famous Mr. Potter in the narrative. So, my recent history suggested that I should be more open-minded about this book, to not expect a Harry Potter, but also not to expect anything like Vacancy. Otherwise, why would she have chosen a pseudonym?

The story is simple enough. A supermodel’s adoptive brother hires private detective Cormoran Strike to figure out what really happened to his sister when she sailed to her death out of a high-rise window. The police had ruled it a suicide, but the tale just didn’t ring true to the brother, so he sees Strike. What I loved about the story from the beginning was its vivid descriptions that didn’t linger but that simply explained and then moved on. That’s what I’ve come to expect from Rowling, and she returns to form from the very start of this one.

Strike is in the mold of such rumpled detectives as TV’s Columbo, not stylish like Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and I think that suits him. He has a bright mind, and the rumpled facade causes others not to take him or his mind seriously, so he can really delve into the situation at hand, which in this case is a supermodel’s supposed suicide. Needless to say, he uncovers layers to the case that give him pause, in the end realizing a conspiracy of unfathomable depth. Of course this puts him in personal danger and he must figure out the true depth of things before anything befalls him or his associate/secretary Robin.

There’s of course a latent sexual tension between Strike and Robin, but it remains under the surface, unlike so many detective stories I’ve read where the P.I. is a rogueish ladies’ man who gets not only the secretary but any other woman who is even tangential to the case at hand. Oh yes, and Strike is missing a leg. While that is not really central to the story, it still affects it, however, because I sense his discomfort and embarrassment about the missing limb that keeps him somewhat humble throughout.

As for Robin, she is new to Strike’s office, but she proves herself more than adequate with her assistance. I sense the two of them will keep up their subtle tango as the series goes on, but I think the dance itself is enough to keep the energy charged without them ever becoming physical. Some of the best collaborations really exist because of that tension, and if it stretches too thin it will snap, and then their connection and the help they offer each other will be at an end.

What I love so much about The Cuckoo’s Calling is its sense of timing. It reads quickly without flying through important details. Rowling set up the pace well, and incorporates her reveals at just the right places for them. I forgot pretty fast while I was reading it that 1) it was written by the same woman who wrote Harry Potter, and 2) the characters weren’t real. That is the mark of good fiction, in my opinion, that you get so involved in the story as a reader that it blurs the line between reality and fiction.

I look forward with baited breath to the next book in the series (The Silkworm), coming this summer. I would recommend this book and series to anyone who enjoys the classic detective genre. I would leave Harry Potter expectations at the door, too, because this is a completely different kind of animal.

I give this novel FIVE stars.

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CITY OF BONES | A Review

city_of_bonesWhat are the Mortal Instruments? Why, they are fantastic implements that become necessary to the existence of the world populated by Shadowhunters, Downworlders, and Mundanes. Wow, and you thought Muggles were interesting enough. Welcome to the sordid world of Clary Fray and Jace Wayland, the two erstwhile lovers who can’t seem to get together while also battling demons and others who wish to take over the world.

Cassandra Clare delves into that and much more in the first book in the Mortal Instruments series, City of Bones. It can be confusing at times because as a reader you have to learn a completely new lexicon and the people who embody each part of the code. There’s the bad guy — Valentine — the damsel in distress — Jocelyn — the boy caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time — Simon — and the warlock who just can’t help getting mixed up in it all, for the sake of love — Magnus. These characters are polarizing, every single one, which makes for a fantastic reading experience.

You know the types of books that make you talk back to the characters as if they’re the children and you’re the parent who knows best for them? This is one of those books, and indeed the entire series can be defined in this way. Each character is given an extensive back story, and then left to his/her own devices, and the interactions between them makes for high drams, particularly when there are misunderstandings (and there are quite a few along the way).

For starters, Shadowhunters have magic that they utilize though steles (instruments that draw runes on their skin). They can be invisible, get more powerful, and heal themselves, along with a host of other amazing possibilities. Clary has lived her whole life ignorant of this whole other world, but things are starting to clarify themselves to her one night at a club when she sees the hidden world for the first time. The rest of the book is basically one revelation after another, not the least of which is who her true parents were, and why she’s been hidden from this world for so long.

Oh yes, and the quest for the Mortal Cup, a dangerous but significant artifact in the Shadowhunter world. The evil Valentine wants it, so the good Shadowhunters must get their hands on it before he does, and save Jocelyn from his clutches as well. But things don’t go as planned and they have to adjust their mission more than once along the way. It all sets up for a showdown at the end of the book that you don’t want to miss.

If there’s any negatives about the book for me it’s the length. Clocking in at a whopping 503 pages, quite a bit of it is going in-depth in many avenues that simply aren’t necessary to understand the plot. I’ve read every single book in the series, and even after reading those I still don’t see the need for most of the filler in this book. That’s not to say that those parts aren’t well-written (they are). They just don’t add anything to the plot, and can generally be skipped by all but the hardiest of fans. That being said, the book shines through its interactions.

And the City of Bones is an enchanting place, even if it is cold and impersonal. It drew me in during the very small amount of time we actually spend there with the characters. If I had something I would change, it would be the time spent in this place. After all, it is the title of the book. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys alternate realities, and creatures like vampires, werewolves, and other magical sorts. It won’t disappoint.

I give the novel FOUR AND A HALF stars.

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UNDER THE DOME | A Review

thIf there’s one thing Stephen King is known for besides the supernaturally horrific overtones to his books, it’s their page lengths. Many readers agree that if you take out the filler in any King book you would end up with a 200-page novel at most. If you remember that most of his books clock in at 1000 pages you can understand the consternation. Rarely do you find any work of fiction that large that actually works as is with no skimming necessary or wanted. Under the Dome is that book.

The town of Chester’s Mill, Maine, is just like any other. There are corrupt politicians, people fighting to survive, a small clinic, and a place where everyone goes to hear and to repeat gossip. But on one cloudy day the impossible happens: an invisible dome drops down over the town, entirely cutting it off from the rest of the world. Now, perhaps you’ve seen the television series of the same name. Forget about that here. While the concept remains the same, the story is a different — and more formidable — one in the novel.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the plethora of protagonists in the sealed-off town. I will  be the first to admit that initially it can be difficult to keep everyone straight. You’ll more than likely get the “light vs. dark” characters from the start, and you’ll support one side against the other. However, just as in real life, the sides aren’t always clearly delineated, because people aren’t always one way or the other. That’s where King excels, fleshing out his characters so that they appear in 3D instead of as flat people with straight agendas or unwavering stoicism.

Dale Barbara (Barbie) has secrets, and he’s not a native to the town, so the seeds of distrust are sown when he’s trapped in Chester’s Mill on that dark day and somehow gets woven into the fabric of the plan to get rid of the dome. “Big Jim” Rennie is the epitome of the seedy politicians who has hoodwinked many into thinking he has their best interests at heart. Both of them would probably draw attention to themselves anyway, but being trapped under the dome reveals them more clearly than anything ever could, pitting them against each other in a war of wills that could ultimately destroy the town.

Where the book truly excels, however, is in its pacing. Revelations and suspense are interchangeable as the plot moves swiftly in and out of issues, dreams, and the supernatural. Nefarious plans that would have never come to light without the dome’s presence suddenly lead to mortal consequences, and it truly is a race against time and ignorance to try and save the dying town from itself, much less from the overarching invisible dome.

I hadn’t been intrigued by any King book in a long time before I picked up Under the Dome at the library on a whim soon after it was published. Previously I had tried to get into Cell but it wasn’t speaking to me like classic King used to do back in the early ’80s. But the cover and the idea of the novel intrigued me, despite its 897 pages, so I went with it. And I read it in seven days from start to finish.

It’s easy to get into the characters, to choose a side, and to be aghast at the nature of good and evil in the microcosmic environment of Under the Dome. The ending is also ultimately satisfying, showing that King can still craft an intricate work with a purpose and a destination. I would recommend it to anyone who loves suspense and isn’t put off by the graphic nature of many things that go on in the town, like violence at its severest.

I give the novel FIVE stars.

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THE STORE | A Review

6dde02bfc992e5ba0529ef49d8f4d429Have you ever been in Walmart and thought, “this store is evil?” You are probably thinking about the corporate greed that drives mass chain retail stores like that one and many others, or about the young workers overseas who are getting paid less than your child’s allowance to make the goods so that you can get them cheaply. And of course all of these things are true, even though those kinds of stores spend their time and energy trying to make you think otherwise. But imagine if the store itself actually was evil.

Bentley Little delves into exactly this scenario with The Store. He sets up a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and where nothing of any real interest ever happens… until The Store arrives, gives jobs to the community, and begins to literally take over the town. At first it’s seen as a positive, and indeed, to many people it remains that way, but that’s because The Store is brainwashing them, and a whole lot more.

Bill Davis feels like he’s the only one to recognize The Store’s undue influence over the vast majority of the small town in Juniper, Arizona, and as the book progresses we as readers start to realize that he’s right. The Store hasn’t just showed up out of nowhere, but it feels that way, and as he digs deeper into its history and finds out more than he ever wanted to know, The Store fights back. It’s this personification of the store as an entity that sets this book apart from all the others that deal with corporate greed. At least then there’s a solid reasoning and motivation for individuals. None of that exists here.

The book is a thrill ride of horrific proportions. Every time you think the worst has happened, it descends into a new type of horror, and while readers identify with Bill, it becomes very difficult to maintain support for him in the face of everything that happens to him and because of him. In order to fight the monster, Bill must become a monster, but can he find himself again before it’s too late?

I recommend this book to anyone who appreciates the nuances of horror, but I strongly warn against those who are faint of heart. Bentley Little pulls no punches, preferring instead to lay it all out in the pursuit of showing you both sides of this horrendous war between Bill Davis and The Store. I keep hoping he will write a sequel to this book because he sets it up beautifully at the end. There are so many comparisons you can draw between what goes on in mass retailers and the world of The Store, but also so many subtle differences. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the past 20 years.

I give the novel FIVE stars.

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THE DRAGON’S PATH | A Review

thRemember high school? The best years of our lives, right? Sure. For many of us those four years were incredibly difficult, dealing with the spoiled preppies, the privileged jocks, and the punishing bullies. That’s because we were on the bottom of that caste pyramid, content to try and fade into the woodwork, which sometimes worked and sometimes simply led to swirlies anyway. Now we look back on that experience and thank God we survived.

The world inhabited by the characters in Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path is amazingly similar to what we remember of high school, just on a much grander scale, with warlike implications and grudges that are centuries old. It is told from various perspectives representing the different social and economic divisions in the society central to the book. While each faction is interesting in its own right, it is the individuals who draw the reader in closer, that demand to be understood and appreciated in their own right.

Representing the bullied and oppressed at the beginning of this dynamic series (there are at least three books to date) is Geder Palliako. He comes from a family that is neither noble nor particularly exceptional, but he gets lucky during the course of a battle and we are forced to change our view of him and his possibilities. In fact, I would venture to say that he becomes the most important character as he exacts his revenge on those who bullied him.

In the opposite corner is Dawson Kalliam, a highly born nobleman with a spectacular estate. He and the king grew up together and have an impressive personal history. But he is worried about his country, and as the book progresses we see the true depth of his loyalty expressed in ways we wouldn’t have expected. While he was the popular “kid” that everyone loved to hate or were jealous of, getting inside of his mind reveals a lot more.

The other two major characters are Cithrin, a slight girl with grand ideas, and Marcus, a soldier who has taken it upon himself to protect her at all costs. Both have complicated histories, and intricate futures that seem woven together after they meet. But just like everything else in the society there are extenuating circumstances and diversions they have to deal with in order to merely survive, much less flourish.

What I love most about The Dragon’s Path is its ability to thread a tale between the four characters, not unlike what George R.R. Martin does with his Song of Ice and Fire series. Abraham, however, takes the extraordinarily magical as well and puts it into service from the very start, daring readers to contradict the power it has over everyone, from the lowest to the highest in the book’s caste system. This book is the first in his The Dagger and the Coin series, and it sets up the world very nicely, getting readers caught up in the successes and failures of its protagonists. We are invested, and that’s the mark of a good story told well.

I recommend The Dragon’s Path to anyone who likes questions that don’t always have answers, or at least answers that we can approve of, because not one of the characters is entirely sympathetic all of the time, but neither can we hate any one of them constantly. The characters are for the most part well-rounded, which is the important mark of good, quality characters. The plot, however, tends to drag on occasion when we’ve spent too long with any one protagonist. The book moves along best at a fast pace, switching seamlessly back and forth between perspectives. But it’s a good start to a series that I will read to its conclusion.

I give the novel FOUR AND A HALF stars.

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THE FERMATA | A Review

400000000000000460646_s4It was my first semester of college, and I was working at the campus library. On my breaks I began wandering the stacks, searching for interesting books to pass my leisure time when I got off work. It’s not like I actually studied for my courses or anything, so it was a daily task, finding these books. I clearly remember one day finding a small book tucked away on a shelf collecting dust. I instantly knew I had to check it out. That book was Vox, by Nicholson Baker, an intriguing story about phone sex that wasn’t really about phone sex. The writing style had me hooked from the start, so I searched for more from Mr. Baker.

Enter The Fermata. The library had just purchased the book. Indeed, it was still brand new when I was the first to check it out in the spring of 1994, and it was so scandalous that I was constantly looking over my shoulder when I would read it in the stacks. Or behind the circulation desk. Or sitting on a bench anywhere on campus while eating my lunch. Despite the embarrassment that I would get from reading such material, it still drew me in. Because it wasn’t pornography, not in the classical sense of the term. Neither was it purely erotica. It was an amazing mix of sexual experimentation and scientific discovery.

You see, Arno Strine, the book’s protagonist, can stop time. Meaning that time stops for everyone else in his world, but not for him. Of course you can imagine what he does when he stops time, the situations he can get himself into with this power at his disposal, and the book heartily explores so many of those situations. But the book is not just about how he delves into his own sense of sexual self. It’s about his reasoning for what he does, and about where he is going in his life.

What honestly amazes me about the novel is Baker’s writing style. It’s matter-of-fact without being judgmental. In fact, it is quite conversational, drawing in readers not with its sensational subject matter, but with its naked analysis of Arno, his emotional issues, and his connections (or lack thereof) with humanity. It’s a story more about discovery and redemption than it is about anything else. What Arno realizes at the end of his journey is something that many people take a lifetime to find out.

And yes, there is the sexual element. There’s no getting around it, no matter how much analysis and character realization goes on. But even when the writing is at its most explicit it maintains its literary chops, not devolving into mere pornography for pornography’s sake. What I honestly love about Baker’s writing is that no one writes quite like him. When I first picked up The Fermata I didn’t know what to expect, but after I finally put it down, I knew I had to own it. Baker has a fresh voice and an inimitable style that keeps drawing me in.

I would recommend The Fermata to those who aren’t faint of heart. It truly is explicit, but if you have the ability to get beyond the sexual situations, you will see the genius that I see.

I give this novel FIVE stars.

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SYCAMORE ROW | A Review

9780385537131_custom-09f63369bbf1c9f41599f09c870087ed41eaf082-s6-c30There’s something to be said for nostalgia, that warm feeling you get when you think about those people who shared wonderful times with you. Or at least you remember them as wonderful because time has put distance between you and what you felt at the time. Maybe you were there for the trial of Carl Lee Hailey, and the sensational nature of that verdict still lives in your veins. That trial turned the lowly street lawyer, Jake Brigance, into a celebrity in Clanton, and even now, three years later, he still enjoys that status, at least in your recollection. But you’ve been gone for three years, and there’s a new trial in Clanton, one that also has enormous ramifications. Welcome back.

Like a lot of people, I read A Time to Kill 17 years ago, but it doesn’t seem that much time has passed. Indeed, since Sycamore Row picks up a mere three years later, not much time has passed, at least in Jake Brigance’s world. But the real world has moved at a fast pace, and John Grisham himself has put out a ton of books since then. Many of those books dealt with the law, as this one does. Many of those books had complex family situations, as this book does. But not a one of them made me as invested in the outcome as this one did. Well, not since A Time to Kill, actually.

I had high hopes for this one, too. Since I first heard that Grisham was releasing a sequel (at long last) to A Time to Kill, I couldn’t help but get hyped up, even though I haven’t read many sequels done right lately, especially not in the law genre. Usually my high hopes fizzle, though, and the magic cannot be recaptured once it’s let out of the bottle the first time, to dance and play at will. Well, this book proved to me once more that Grisham can accomplish some things other authors wish they could do, which is create a credible sequel years after the first was released.

At the start of Sycamore Row, Seth Hubbard writes a will leaving his immense fortune to his black housekeeper, and completely cuts out his adult children. Then he commits suicide, and leaves a note asking Jake to protect the handwritten will at all costs. The story is one startling revelation after another that all team together to make that a daunting task, even for Jake Brigance. What I still marvel about, when it comes to Grisham, is how he makes his protagonists imminently believable without being saintly. Jake is a regular lawyer, with a massive ego, but he makes you want to be on his side from the start regardless.

Numerous references to the Hailey trial make it seem like Grisham is trying a little too hard to remind you that this is a sequel, but even that doesn’t come across too heavy-handed. It has, after all, been a very long three years for us readers. With surprises and twists at every corner, the book drew me in and made me want to finish it in one sitting. While life did not make that possible, I did read it more quickly than anything I’ve read in a long time.

The biggest recommendation I can give to Sycamore Row is that it made me want to return to that small courtroom in Clanton one more time, just for nostalgia’s sake. I know it won’t disappoint.

I give the novel FIVE stars.

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OPEN | A Review

open-agassiImagine it is the year 2000; you are at the Australian Open in Melbourne, and you hold in your hand a ticket to the semi-final, an all-star matchup between Andre Agassi, the number one player in the world, and Pete Sampras, his long-time rival who always seemed to get the better of the man from Las Vegas in the big matches. Agassi is the defending champion, but many still believe Sampras is the best in the world. You leave the venue after four hours of sheer playmaking ability and absolute guts from both sides, with Agassi emerging the victor and solidifying his number one ranking in the process. It is not a final, but it is one of the defining moments in a career that had more ups and downs than any other in the history of professional tennis, an intriguing footnote in the annals of tennis history that may never have even happened if it wasn’t for a harsh upbringing. Open is the story of that life, told by the one person who knows it better than anyone else — Andre Agassi.

My wife bought me a copy of Andre Agassi’s autobiography on the day it was released to the public, knowing as she did that I’m the biggest Agassi fan in the world. Now, I hardly ever read autobiographies, or biographies either for that matter, but I honestly couldn’t wait to read Open. By that time of course it had been reviewed by many who focused on Agassi’s admission that he used crystal meth for quite some time while he was playing (and poorly at that). But as astounding as that admission was, it is just one of many interesting facts I would have never imagined if not for the book.

The best part of Open, for me, was the revelation that Agassi hated tennis, that his father had spent so much time and effort forcing him to be the best, to advance quickly through the ranks, that Andre ended up hating the one thing he associated with his father’s ire. It became a fueling fire, the passion behind his fiery wins; but it was also the reason he tumbled so precipitously from the ranks and spiraled down into the depths of depression and ended up taking crystal meth.

“Image is everything.” Those were the commercials that Agassi did for Cannon, the camera company, but the phrase also became his own calling card, even if fans didn’t know it at the time. He started losing his iconic hair not too far into his career, and began using hairpieces in order to keep up the appearance. It is one of the saddest parts of the book, when he talks about how he felt trapped under the idea of how he thought he should be, and what image he should project.

Then there were the comments about Sampras being dull as dishwater that did not play well in the press, and for which Agassi later apologized, but I don’t think he should have had to apologize. It was his impression of his rival, and one that he felt contrasted greatly with his own gregarious nature. That was all water a bridge, in my opinion, and also a very small part of the book. What I truly loved about Open was its juxtapositions of Agassi’s early family life, his current life with his wife and young children, and his playing life, all compartmentalized by chapter so the reader knows what to expect. I also really enjoyed his story of his resurrection, both personally and professionally, and how he knew when it was time to really hang it up.

Open reads like a confessional of sorts, but it also gives absolution to many people who affected Agassi in negative ways, like his father, and his first wife, Brooke Shields. But it doesn’t slam these people and hold them up as excuses for anything. It just lays the facts as he saw them out on the table for us to see and to figure out for ourselves. That’s why this autobiography is different from so many others I never finished. It’s a story of one human struggling to be better than he thinks he can be, of a person who fought celebrity by seeming to embrace it, and a man who knows his place in the history of the game he played.

I recommend Open to anyone who even remotely likes a story of redemption because it’s a coming of age story that keeps coming until you realize that none of us really stops growing and learning, even if we think we do.

I give the book FIVE stars.

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