Review: The Silkworm

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although not quite as strong as The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm is an enjoyable read which expands the world and characters from its strong and confident predecessor.

Despite Private Detective Cormoran Strike’s imposing figure the story does not rely on physical altercations and chases to generate drama. Strike is focused, patient, observant and clever. His thoughtful interviews guide the subjects to talk freely and fill their own uncomfortable silences. The case is built in layers as each interview adds, underscores, contradicts or attacks previous testimony. This process gives the reader access to the case in a way a Sherlock mystery never could. Strike’s capable assistant Robin Ellacot again provides a vital sounding board for his analysis and compliments with her own insight. Her role as an investigator grows with more time in the field and increasingly working on her own. More attention is focused on her personal life and her fiance, Matthew Cunliffe, introducing his POV for the first time.

I appreciate the the violence, sex and gore of the case is cataloged and scrutinized; while again refraining from explicit detail of Cormoran or Robin’s sex lives. It would be easier to write those scenes then what Galbraith does, to focus on the state of mind of the investigator, rather than go for salaciousness. I appreciate the arc Robin and Matthew go through in this novel, which should only make Robin stronger as the series progresses. For Cormoran it seems his romantic life is still finding familiar patterns but his interaction with his family and friends show potential for some level of happiness. It is my sincere hope the in the next novel Cormoran’s prosthesis and amputated leg are less of a focus. I like it as a character trait, but Cormoran’s swollen aching stump is practically the fourth most discussed character in the book.

The Silkworm proves that The Cuckoo’s Calling was not a fluke. As Robert Galbraith, Rowling knows what she is doing. The pacing, characters, and subtly of tone far outstrip her work in the Harry Potter series. Some crutches remain, such as protracted misunderstandings due to lack of communication, but even there it is improved from the previous novel. I definitely would recommend this series to anyone familiar with the genre, and although flawed, The Silkworm successfully transitions Cormoran Strike into a series stable enough for many stories to come.

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Review: The Speed of Dark

The Speed of DarkThe Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems like I mention empathy in every review I write. All writing is an act of empathy, but some shifts of circumstance and perspective are greater than others. In Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark we are in the near future where our understanding of genetic disorders has generally eliminated disease. The story is told from the point of view of Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged man with autistic spectrum disorder. He was born at a time when some treatment was available but a cure still eluded science for several more years. He has high social functioning, lives independently, has a complete work and personal life – but he is also aware that he is different. Some of his differences make him exceptionally talented, but his inherent difficulty with social cues and language isolates him and restricts his ambitions. When a promising treatment for adult autistic spectrum disorder makes headlines, he and the others within this last generation with autism are faced with difficult choices.

I have no idea what it would be like to be autistic and if this portrayal is accurate. It is noted that Lou has undergone some treatment in his childhood which would not be available with current science, which might afford some leniency from readers with a closer relationship to the condition. Even if it is not a realistic depiction of autism it is a fascinating mental framework to experience a story through. I listened to the audiobook version which is a little uneven across the various voices with some sounding a bit cartoon-y, however Jay Snyder’s rendering of Lou Arrendale throughout the very dynamic character arc was superb and subtle. The variations in the meter of Lou’s speech patterns are clear enough in the text, but the performance amplifies the changes by almost downplaying them. I know I am being a bit cagey but I would prefer to let the author reveal plot at her own pace. I have to give additional credit to Elizabeth Moon for not taking the easy path in telling this story. After building such a wonderful character as Lou she rightly lets his personality guide the resolution. There are difficult choices with real consequences and each choice feels right for the character even if it runs counter to convention.

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Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What Erik Larson does in his novels is so difficult for me to define I don’t have a category for it. I labeled it as both “historical fiction” and “non-fiction”, he calls it “narrative non-fiction”, but by any name it is mesmerizing. In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson synthesizes a staggered amount of meticulous research to provide an intimate vantage point within The White House, British Intelligence, the passengers and crew of the Lusitania and the captain of the German submarine that sank her.

Larson works by aggregating enormous amounts of data, newspapers, autopsies, museum collections and reports. He then incorporates the actual voice of the characters from their journals, ship logs, letters and interviews. He builds from their list of possessions a portrait of their final moments and with the benefit of one hundred years of distance can unravel the events with clarity and context. The story is immensely compelling. When laid bare with the benefit of hindsight and the combined knowledge of all participants I think it is even more tragic. I was surprised at the extent of the culpability of British Intelligence and their leadership. While the actual act of war was committed by the Germany captain of the U-20; the circumstances had seemingly been arranged through both planned action and inaction by the British with the specific goal of bringing America into war.

I only had a vague framework of events which lead to The Great War; the paragraphs read and forgotten in high school history courses. Larson breathes life and bares witness to these pivotal moments in our past. I am astounded by his gift for forensic and empathetic storytelling. Highly recommended.

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Review: Practicing Mindfulness

Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to MeditationPracticing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Mark W. Muesse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last The Great Courses lecture series I listened to was Exploring Metaphysics, and while I had a lukewarm response to it, it did make me think about some more esoteric sciences and beliefs. An old friend of mine has encouraged me to try meditation for over 15 years. Not as a component of religious practice, but scientifically. In finally deciding to investigate this field I selected this lecture series because The Great Courses have proven to be consistently strong, like TEDTalks with a deeper focus. I also decided if I was listening I should practice as well, so throughout the duration of the lecture series I practiced meditation each day as guided by the course.

Caveat – I also primarily listened to the lectures either A) while driving, or B) while on the elliptical, and always at 3X speed. This sounds like I wasn’t giving it a fair shake, but 3X speed is actually pretty natural. 1X is artificially slow, and while 3X is probably a bit quicker than Mark W. Muesse’s regular lecture pace, listeners minds acclimate quickly and it doesn’t sound hurried at all (also Mark is from Texas so could use a pick-me-up to my northern ears).

Mark W. Muesse does a solid job walking the listener through the essential methods of meditation, establishing social and historical context, and describes some potential psychological and biological benefits. I appreciate that he manages expectation as well, underlining that it may take years to advance beyond introductory methods and results. He also supplies many anecdotes from his personal life and experience with meditation, but mostly these felt impersonal and unemotional. It sounds like he is speaking to an empty room, and to a point about 18″ in front of him. Undoubtedly this is the reality, but most of the other lectures I have heard were infused with more energy and personality. He did frequently recite mantras from his religious beliefs which I am innately unreceptive to, but other people may find kinship there.

A few odd outcomes. During the lecture #8 on the “body scan” technique I discovered that I have been practicing this form of meditation since my second year of architecture school, and was (and occasionally is) the only way I could still my mind so I could sleep during those long and stressful years. Also, during the lecture #21 on “pain” I discovered that I have been faithfully practicing this technique for pain acceptance and mitigation for nearly 30 years. I have had migraines since I was nine and also been through two notable bouts with cluster migraines and this technique is largely responsible for my day-to-day function. So I came into this experiment as a devote skeptic (and equally devote practitioner).

While Muesse didn’t necessarily open new doors to mindfulness for me, he did draw my attention to the very real applications which are integral to my life and work. You will get the basics, some of the history and science, a fair amount of Buddhism, and potentially a valuable toolkit of self-awareness.

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Review: Cold City

Cold City (Repairman Jack: The Early Years, #1)Cold City by F. Paul Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had heard good things about Repairman Jack, so I grabbed book one and dove in. Well apparently it’s not that easy. This is book one of the Repairman Jack: The Early Years trilogy, not to be confused with the Young Repairman Jack trilogy, which along with the Repairman Jack (currently a quinquadecology) are all spin-offs of The Adversary Cycle.

Entering the series with Cold City [Repairman Jack: The Early Years 01] you will find a young man looking to lose himself in New York City, shedding his name and all contact with his past. At the start of the book he is working as a landscaper on a mixed-race (I’ll get to it) crew when he gets bullied by one of the other men and seemingly has a psychotic break, nearly beating the man to death. Apparently this is not his first murderous episode having previously (and ritually) killed a kid who thoughtlessly killed Jack’s mother. Our titular psychopath then looks up a family friend and gets involved in the lucrative field of trafficking stolen goods and worse.

From my vantage point he is aimlessly drifting from scene to scene. He stumbles into various characters but with the compartmentalization of illegal enterprises and cabals he never learns anyone’s last names, history or true motivations. Most of the character development is based on the most base stereotypes of various racial/ethnic backgrounds. It is shorthanded and lazy writing. Realizing far too late that this is a prequel I imagine all of these are important figures and settings in the primary spin-off series. It is probably a highlight reel for anyone already familiar with the series, but on its own is frustratingly directionless, then ends with numerous unresolved story lines and cliffhangers. As a stand-alone story is falls short of recommending.

Side note about the Goodread blurb:

…one of the most popular characters in contemporary dark fantasy: a self-styled “fix-it” man who is no stranger to the macabre or the supernatural…

At no point in this book is there any hint of anything supernatural. It is shelved as Horror, Urban Fantasy, and Mystery and it is literally none of these things. It is barely a Thriller and definitely a Crime book, but only because Jack is committing the majority of the crimes. If you are curious about Repairman Jack my guess is to start with The Tomb [Adversary Cycle 02], and perhaps loop back to Cold City when you feel nostalgic.

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Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leviathan Wakes is a great introduction to a sci-fi series. It has great characters – smart, complex and a perfect small group dynamic. Holden’s moral compass guides this team and it doesn’t feel like a cliche. That is part of what separates this from Firefly which would be a close comparison. Holden is not a rogue, or at least not aimin’ to misbehave – he is a rogue by being honorable, even somewhat righteous, in an environment where self-preservation is expected.

Set mostly on small ships in the hard vacuum of space James S.A. Corey’s story get another thing right – physics. You are always aware of the relative acceleration of each scene and its effect on the characters and their decision making. This isn’t Star Trek where character casually stand and chat while they jump into “warp” speed. Here the ships have mass and inertia, and people are fragile who must orient themselves to their changing forces. Also, space is huge* and traveling between Saturn and the asteroid belt takes time and involves risk. Acknowledging that changes who your characters are, understanding gravity changes what they look like, understanding the scarcity of resources changes how they act.

The plot involves mystery, daring, and politics, and maintains a quick pace. In a series opener you always run the risk of getting a lot of worldbuilding and little resolution, but Corey manages to make a satisfying conclusion, tying up all of the major plot threads. You could definitely stop after this book and feel that you had a complete experience, but leaves fertile ground for future stories. I absolutely recommend Leviathan Wakes to sci-fi fans, and I will definitely be adding the next book in the Expanse series to my “to read” list.

*Space is really huge. If you have not seen Josh Worth’s If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel website, then you should definitely check it out. Just for fun, when you get to the Sun click on the “C” in the lower right corner to scroll at the speed of light… you will find it tedious and end up manually scrolling, which if that does not tell you how big the solar system is I don’t know what will.

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Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good fairytale should breathe magic into a familiar place. It should be a little dark and scary, and it should have a lesson or at least a reflection of who we are and who we could be. This is a great fairytale. Set in New York City in 1899, The Golem and the Jinni is an immigrant story of two neighborhoods – one Jewish, one Syrian, and their cultures, community and mysticism.

Ahmad is a thousand-year-old jinni. Born to be shapeless and free – he is bound to human form and chafes at his restricted life as a Syrian tinsmith. Chava is a newly created golem. Made to serve, Chava finds herself without a master and overwhelmed. There is a wonderful counterpoint at play between the two. They clash in almost every impulse, but are united in their loneliness and the weight of the secrets they must keep about their natures. The primary themes of free-will and destiny are revealed in complex layers and reflect through the relationships they have formed.

Beyond the fairytale aspects, it is just wondrous to see New York through their unique perspectives. The immigrant experience is thoughtfully illustrated and breathes more life into the struggles and joys than most historical fictions. Helene Wecker’s incorporation of mysticism does more than just provide the fantastical elements, it grounds the cultures in tradition. The Golem and the Jinni is an excellent book and highly recommended.

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Review: All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All The Old Knives is a masterfully plotted psychological spy thriller. Henry, a CIA operative, and Celia, and ex-CIA analyst, are reunited six years after a disastrous terrorist operation which was never fully resolved. Henry seeks out Celia to find clarity in the events which lead to 120 civilian casualties, her resignation from the CIA, and the end to their romantic relationship. Over the course of a single dinner the novel alternates perspective to tell their individual accounts of the events, both then and now.

This was my introduction to Olen Steinhauer’s writing which combines complex four-dimensional characters with riveting intrigue. I was impressed with the composition of the operatives in the Vienna field office. Each character had a clear role, personality, and flaw. The interior dynamics of the team was rendered deftly to provide for each to contribute, reveal their allegiances and weaknesses. The humanity and vulnerability of the agents sets this apart from so many other books in this genre. Both cinematic and intimate All The Old Knives earns a solid recommendation.

I received this book free from the publisher, Minotaur Books, which is an imprint of MacMillian and St. Martin’s Press through NetGalleyAll The Old Knives will be released for purchase on March 10th, 2015.

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Review: Frankenstein

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Frankenstein
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frankenstein is a classic novel, that could have been immeasurably improved by being a classic short story. There are aspects I have problems with. Victor Frankenstein is impossibly brilliant, but a painfully forgetful and self-deluded man. I cannot help but wonder where the story could have gone if he had remained engaged in the implications of his creation.

The creature himself is astoundingly well-spoken and far more astute than the tremulant Frankenstein. With his inexhaustible capacity for self-awareness and self-improvement I would hope that he would sequester himself in some Swiss cabin and become a philosopher or poet rather than a murderous wretch. I also cannot think of a more distanced POV than having a meaningless frame story (in the form of a letter to an unseen character) where the actual narrative is told as a dictation, which includes a…

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