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: 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: The Pain Scale

The Pain Scale (Long Beach Homicide)The Pain Scale by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Pain Scale is somewhat less personal than A King of Infinite Space and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah which are the first and third books in the Long Beach Homicide series respectively. It loses a bit of the intimacy and unique empathy Tyler Dilts infused the other novels with, but this is still a very good book.

Detective Danny Beckett is back on the job after a lengthy leave due to the fallout from A King of Infinite Space. His descent into alcohol, medication and depression continues as he copes with physical and emotional pain (thus The Pain Scale). His focus on the job is the only thing that seems to keep him going. Second novels in a series are difficult to pull off. This time the murders under investigation involve powerful people and it seems everyone gets involved: FBI, congressmen, military, mafia, and more. It almost gets too big and the characters and their intersecting relationships start to blur, but Tyler Dilts keeps it just grounded enough to prevent this from turning into a “thriller”.

I would have been worried about the escalation (and continued depiction of violent crimes against women) if I hadn’t already read the next in the series which is his best yet. Smart, character driven, and compelling – if you enjoy detective novels, this is a series you should be reading.

Also check out my review of A King of Infinite Space [Long Beach Homicide #1] and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: A King of Infinite Space

A King of Infinite SpaceA King of Infinite Space by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second Tyler Dilts book and before I get into the review I just want to acknowledge that Dilts’ book titles are fantastic, lifted from brilliant quotes tied to the theme, and his music tastes are impeccable. If I ever write a book I want Tyler Dilts to name it and make me a mix tape.

Detective Danny Beckett is a thoughtful and diligent cop, haunted by the violence he has seen on the job and the loss of his wife. He can barely sleep for the nightmares and settles himself a little to frequently with vodka. Neither of these things are out of control, but you get the sense that Beckett is on the precipice and only the job and his partner, Detective Jen Tanaka, keep him from giving in.

Generally in a mystery/crime novel I get pretty disappointed if I can identify the killer in the first interview. While I think Dilts played his hand too early, this isn’t a book which relies on the collar for the drama. The characters, especially Beckett, are so well written that it is the methodical, procedural working of the case that sells the story. The work is hard, slow, and takes its toll. I think it is easy to render a detective who stands as witness for the victim as a sap, or a tired trope of the genre, but Detective Danny Beckett’s portrayal feels sincere. There is an honesty and integrity in the Long Beach Homocide novels which makes them well worth recommending.

Also check out my review of A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great detective story with fully fleshed out characters. The young attractive temp secretary Robin is earnest and resourceful. You can believe she would be endeared to the job and a capable foil to her guarded and intimidating boss, Private Detective Cormoran Strike. Strike is a physically imposing everyman character who is clearly intelligent, diligent and determined. It was truly satisfying to see their respect and trust in each other grow without resorting to sexual undertones. Cormoran Strike is by no means perfect, he slips into the bottle and into a bed as his life descends towards rock bottom, but the case never strays.

The story is appropriately complex, and through Strike’s dogged investigation we get to hear the witness accounts layered over each other with all the subtle differences and personal biases. There are very few aha moments, instead it is like a slowly retracting, slowly focusing lens. The cases expands from a balcony and apparent suicide to incorporate connections, relationships and decades of history. All of which is carefully sifted, categorized, weighed and quantified by Strike. I love the slow methodical pace – the work. Strike meticulously takes notes and records; builds his case in convergent scraps of conversation and miniscule gaps in recollections.

I was impressed with the confidence of the storytelling and strong voices of the characters. All the useful, familiar tropes of crimes stories are represented; including the second floor, two-room office, the hard detective who can handle himself, the beautiful assistant, the agency’s eminent financial ruin, witness backstabbing and red herrings. What has been excised is equally important, namely everything I despised about Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Strike is respectful, disciplined, honorable and doesn’t resort to violence or vice lightly. I very much enjoyed and recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling and look forward to reading The Silkworm and much more from Galbraith.

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Review: The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barbara Kingsolver has a complex relationship with Africa. You can read the love and respect as well as the frustration and despair. There are two characters who act as catalysts. First, Baptist Minister, Nathaniel Price, driven by guilt and shame to dedicate his life to the service of his god and save the souls of unenlightened Congolese. He is arrogant, obstinate and abusive to his flock and family and fails to open himself to any wisdom beyond his limited interpretation of his bible. And later Ruth May, the youngest daughter, whose cultural development is equally African and American, and is the focus of the family unit – binding the women of the Price family together. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Oleanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, starting with their arrival in Africa and continuing to adulthood and beyond.

Each member of the Price family reflects an archetype of foreign involvement and perspective of life in the Congo. Overall the narrative voices are strong and distinct, offering numerous small revelations as each awakens to realities of this very different life and culture. Other aspects of the narration were painfully rendered. The oldest daughter’s speech is so full of malaprops that I could have sprained myself eye-rolling. I get that she is the least intelligent but that is established in her word choice and limited perspective. A few malapropisms would have been fine, but it is constant and disruptful. She offers a folksy pragmatic approach to the challenges of the Congo without introspection. Also, the palindromic journalling of Adah Price was often unnecessary, but clever often enough to overlook the awkwardness. Barbara Kingsolver has great command of descriptive language, in particular for emotional landscapes. The arch of Oleanna Price is expertly delivered, both through the early self-disillusionment then through her awakening and grief.

I enjoyed the story the most when the focus was on the girls, not as archetypes, but as children struggling to understand and be understood in this small village which was foreign in so many ways. I appreciate that Barbara Kingsolver’s motivation in writing The Poisonwood Bible was to educate the world about the international meddling; taking and giving without first understanding. Her sincerity and her disgust is leaping from the page, but whenever the intimate story expanded into the overarching lesson, you feel that you are being preached to.

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Review: The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Pillars of the Earth is brilliantly set in the 1100s between the actual historic events of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Beckett. This period of time was marked by anarchy as the succession of the English throne was broken by naval tragedy and the confrontation between the rival heirs and their varying alignments to the Catholic church created political and religious battlefronts. Ken Follett chose to geographically locate his story between the fictional Earldom of Shiring and Kingsbridge Priory. The political and religious successions and alignments are mirrored within this small corner of England where two warring families fight over the Earldom as the Priory struggles between pious tradition and political authority. As England wars with itself to remake the monarchy, Shiring and Kingsbridge battle for the site of the archdiocese’s new cathedral church and the political and economic power that it commands.

The diegesis of these parallel frames does paint our characters into heightened stereotypes as they allegorically represent the various philosophies, political and religious institutions and castes of England in the Middle Ages. But Follett provides enough humanity to make them relatable. The world can also seem pretty small when all plot lines come down to the same twelve people controlling the fate of the region, but in a time when most people would not travel more than fifty miles from their home I imagine it is probably closer to reality then I am capable of appreciating.

The analogy of the cathedral is more than simply the rebuilding of England and re-balance of church and state because this period also coincides with the development of the gothic architectural style. This is significant because architecturally gothic cathedrals were a technological leap forward with soaring heights, vast interior volumes all the while reducing the structural mass to bring light and air. They were in every way superior as buildings to the roman style they replaced. Through this lens we can see that England, now rebuilt, is greater than the nation that it had been. Unfortunately the gothic style then converts toward exponential focus on ornament over technology and loses its way which also parallels the regression of England at the end of the middle ages, but that is a conversation for art class.

Historical fiction is a tremendously difficult genre to write. Ken Follett had to research every aspect of life, politics, philosophy and definitely architecture of the era. Many of the characters are anachronistic, but I think we want it that way. We want to be teleported into history, but if you teleport us you have to bring our modern values with. I wish there was a little more gray area in each of the characters, and that there had been a lot less rape in the story, but we were dealing with extremes and allegory which elevates the scope of the work a staggering degree. Pillars of the Earth is epic by any measure and absolutely deserving of all the accolades it has received.

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Best of: Historic or Realistic Fiction 2014

As I described in my introduction this Best of list reflects my favorite Historic Fiction or Realistic Fiction books I read in 2014. It is less an awards kinda thing, and more a distillation of my year of reading and a short list of recommendations. Here’s a link to all of my Best of 2014 lists.

The MartianAndy Weir – The Martian
This debut novel is funny, smart, thrilling and among my favorite books I read this year in any genre. Andy Weir’s adventure is set in the near future during a manned mission to mars that goes disastrously wrong. What follows is some of the most scientifically accurate and engaging science fiction you are apt to read.

Everything I Never Told YouCeleste Ng – Everything I Never Told You
I don’t read as much contemporary fiction as I should, possibly because I am too soft-hearted for the emotional pummeling this book put me through. It is both absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful. Like The Martian, this is a debut novel for Celeste Ng. She tackled a tremendous amount of sensitive social issues in this novel with equal grace and authority.

Looking for AlaskaJohn Green – Looking for Alaska
Looking for Alaska was my introduction to John Green’s writing although already a fan of his youtube series Crash Course (which you should definitely check out). His young adult novels never talk down to the characters or audience. Looking for Alaska is a bildungsroman which yanks away each vestige of childhood from our young protagonist, Miles Halter. Through Miles we have some of the most frank and raw discussion of innocence lost and a reminder how vulnerable we all are at that age.

The Fault in Our StarsJohn Green – The Fault in Our Stars
John Green’s tremendous year includes the cinematic release of this young adult best seller. My reaction to this novel was very personal and affecting and only loosely in response the the actual character drama within the book. In my mind that makes it no less effective or resonant. We all have or will be affected by cancer in our families, friends or selves. John Green has made a thoughtful story which attempts to reflect the many and diverse relationships we have with the disease and those living with the cancer.

A Cold and Broken HallelujahTyler Dilts – A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
Detective Danny Beckett is practically the opposite of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He is thoughtful, diligent and fully engaged in his investigation. Unlike Sherlock Holmes it isn’t an intellectual interest, or the love of the game. The game is killing him and he cares for each of the victims of the crimes he is unraveling. It may be odd to describe him for what he is not, but this was unlike any detective story I had read before. It is personal. The answers don’t come easy and the process takes a toll. It is a counterpoint of melancholy and hope and a great read.

Review: Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking novel. Celeste Ng’s debut describes love and loss with delicate prose. Everything I Never Told You is told in first person point of view from each of the five members of the Lee family, each feeling so achingly alone.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . .

As far as opening lines go, this one is crushing. There is never a moment in this novel when you are not under the weight of their loss. Even reading about Lydia’s mother and father’s childhoods, the challenges they faced and their dreams, their discovery of each other – the specter of their daughter’s death precedes them. Everything I Never Told You is an unconventional and superbly paced mystery, piecing together the events of this tragedy. There is a great deal of sadness and frustration in this story, but rendered so honestly and with so much love that it completely enveloped me.

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