Review of “The Innocent Sleep” by Karen Perry

Irish authors Karen Gillece and Paul Perry, writing as Karen Perry, have created a dark mystery with plenty of tension, with a minatory tone from the very first chapter.

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The story begins with a literal earthquake in Tangier in 2005 in which husband and wife Harry and Robin lose their three-year-old son Dillon. The ground continues to shift under this husband and wife as their lives unfold five years later in Dublin, and their relationship has definitely undergone a seismic upheaval. Told alternately from each of their perspectives, we learn that truth is on a slippery slope with these two, and trust is a topic best left unexplored.

While this plot might sound like Gone Girl and is in some ways reminiscent of it, the characters in this book are somewhat more likable, or at least, more realistic.

Evaluation: This psychological thriller is a page-turner, and appears seamless in spite of being a collaboration between two writers. There are some great twists that will provide plenty of discussion for book clubs.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2014

Review of “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss

This is Book One of a very popular fantasy series (“The Kingkiller Chronicles”) recounting the story of Kvothe, a self-effacing innkeeper not yet thirty, currently going by the name of Kote. His saga is told by the literary device of the “frame story” or “Mise-en-abyme” – a story within a story. (Compare, for example, One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), a story about stories told by Scheherazade, tales which occasionally include other stories narrated by characters within the stories.)

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A historian, called the Chronicler, comes to the inn and recognizes Kote as Kvothe, and asks if he can record the truth about Kvothe. The Chronicler argues:

…you of all people should realize how thin the line is between the truth and a compelling lie. Between history and an entertaining story. … You know which will win, given time.”

Kote recognizes the Chronicler’s ploy, countering, “Nothing but the truth could break me. What is harder than the truth?”

But Kote decides to do it, telling the Chronicler it will take three days. (Thus, this book is called Day One of the Kingkiller Chronicles.)

The telling of the story is central. As Bast, Kote’s assistant and student, explains to the Chronicler:

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

Kvothe (“pronounced nearly the same as “quothe”) came from a family of traveling performers, so he learned early how to act, how to pretend, and how to make music. He associated music with his family so much that when his family was gone, music became his grounding, his identity, what kept him sane. But as the story begins, we learn that now his life is filled with a silence, a silence that is all the deeper for being absent of music.

Kvothe was always an intellectual prodigy, and was mentored as a young boy by a traveling “arcanist” or scientist/magician who accompanied his troupe. Kvothe was fascinated by his teacher’s magical ability to call the wind by naming it, and later went the University to develop his own skills in “sympathy,” or magic. But he had a broader agenda as well: his whole family was massacred while he was out gathering herbs, and he desperately wants to find those who did it and exact revenge.

Discussion: There is so much going on in this saga that it would be impossible to summarize. In fact, there is a chapter-by-chapter interactive exegesis online conducted by author Jo Walton. I have read this also (the index is here) and was astounded at all the layers and nuances I missed. I would recommend that anyone who reads the book consult Walton’s analysis afterward.

Some aspects of this fantasy I particularly liked:

  • This is a medieval sort of world, and yet it is one in which there is knowledge of “germs” and the theory of conservation of energy (energy can neither be created nor destroyed: it can only be transformed from one state to another); popular but expensive treats are coffee and hot chocolate; there are problems with drug addiction; and there is a wonderful mix of fantasy elements tempered by skepticism about their very existence. Running through the story also is a commentary on the means by which stories – both good and bad, true and outrageous – get broadcast and changed in the retelling. This practice also easily allows for the weaving of prejudices into the tales, such as the biases in this book against the Edema Ruh. The Edema Ruh are traveling players, like Kvothe’s family, who clearly evoke the Romani people.
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  • The theme of the criticality of naming, and the importance of the accuracy of names, underlies the plot and serves as a motif for many of the stories told. It is significant that some of the central characters keep changing their names as the story progresses; they are no longer who they were before, or maybe they are just changing who they want to be.
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  • Rothfuss makes the characters come alive, even when it is not always clear whether they are altogether “human.”
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  • The world building is extensive and full of fascinating arcana about chemistry, physics, medicine, languages, religion, poetry and mythology.

Evaluation: This is only “day one” of the story of the life of Kvothe, but if you are like me and hundreds of other rabid fans in the readosphere, you will not be able to wait to start the next book, The Wise Man’s Fear, which picks up with day two of Kvothe’s story. Can this one be read as a standalone? Sure, but I bet you can’t read just one….

Rating: 4/5

Published by Daw Books, 2007

Kid Lit Review of “Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson” by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Subtitled “Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History,” this book tells the story of how Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman broke the color barrier in entertainment when, along with Gene Krupa, they formed the Benny Goodman Trio.

Jacket Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson Holiday House

The story alternates between the childhoods of Wilson, a young black boy growing up in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Goodman, the son of struggling Russian-Jewish immigrants from the West Side of Chicago. The text explains how they each fell in love with music and studied and practiced and played whenever they could. Race divided their experiences however:

Benny’s clarinet blew
Into town/West Side, SouthSide, downtown
And out again
All sweet
All dance
All white
All the way to New York”

Teddy tickled the keys in Texas
In Nebraska
in Louisiana
All hot
All rhythm
All black
All the way to New York”

When the two met in jam sessions and recording sessions in New York, they found they loved to play together. Goodman said “We were thinking with the same brain”:

It wasn’t soft
It wasn’t black
It wasn’t sweet
It wasn’t white
It was swing.”

Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson 1938

Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson 1938

They decided to play together in public, getting Gene Krupa to join them on drums – “the three of us, as if we had been born to play this way.”

Later they were joined by Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and they became a quartet. They performed in public for the firs time as an interracial band in 1939 at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. Audiences loved them:

they blew
they tapped
they banged
they strummed
The stage was hot
The dance floor was hotter
The music was hottest.”

An extended section at the end of the book provides more background on Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson, a time line, and a “Who’s Who” in jazz.

There are so many great videos available of these musicians on Youtube. You can see each of the quartet member’s skills featured serially – first Hampton, then Wilson, then Goodman, then Krupa, in this short but amazing 1937 recording:

But if you really want the full impact, watch this longer recording of their Carnegie Hall performance of “Sing Sing Sing” in 1938:

The watercolor illustrations by James E. Ransome almost seem alive, as if the music is really playing and the dancers are really moving.

Evaluation: This book not only introduces children to some great musicians, but shows that the passions and joy we can share by working together is so much more powerful and productive than the superficial things that divide us.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Holiday House, 2014

L-R:Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. Photo by John W. Mosley, courtesy Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries

L-R:Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. Photo by John W. Mosley, courtesy Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries

Review of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith

This is the first installment of a new crime series by J.K. Rowling, writing pseudonymously as Robert Galbraith, and it’s terrific.

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The main protagonist is a private investigator in the London area named Cormoran Strike. Strike, 35, is an ex-military policeman who lost his foot in Afghanistan two and one-half years earlier while he was heroically saving the life of one of his fellow soldiers. He is also the product of an affair between his rock star father (who he only saw twice in his life) and a drug-addled groupie.

When we meet Strike, he has only one client, he is saddled with debt, his rent is due, and he is on the verge of ruin. He is disheveled, out of shape, drinking too much, and he and his fiance, Charlotte, have just split up. Strike doesn’t even have anywhere to sleep except inside his office.

Into this less than promising situation comes Robin Ellacott, 25, who has been sent as a receptionist; Robin is working temporary jobs while she tries to secure a permanent position. Unlike Strike, Robin’s life is a bed of roses: she is young, beautiful, and is ecstatic to have just become engaged to her boyfriend Matthew. But Robin has also had a secret, lifelong ambition to become a private detective herself, and this temp job seems like fate.

As the plot unfolds, the methodical Strike increasingly makes Robin part of his “team” when a wealthy lawyer, John Bristow, hires Strike to look into the alleged suicide of his supermodel sister Lula Landry.

Discussion: While the bones of this plot may sound like a typical detective noir story with the hard-nosed detective and the pretty and resourceful female office worker, Galbraith has fleshed out these black-and-white bones into a full-color criminal procedural. The character development is first-rate; the streets and alleys and pubs of London are painted as if in rich oils; and the pacing and suspense are fine. But what is exceptional about this criminal procedural is the writing – not only how well the plot is structured as it unfolds, but also because of the many felicitous turns of phrase that cue you in to the fact that a very experienced and expert writer (rather than “newcomer” Robert Galbraith) is behind the book. There are so many examples of well-wrought scenes from which to cite by way of example – one of my favorites is when Strike goes to a bar to meet a contact:

Strike had to wait to be served, giving him time to look around. The place was full of men, most of whom had military-short hair; but a trio of girls with tangerine tans stood around a high table, throwing back their over-straightened peroxide hair, in their tiny, tight spangled dresses, shifting their weight unnecessarily on their teetering heels. They were pretending not to know that the only solitary drinker, a handsome, boyish man in a leather jacket, who was sitting on a high bar seat beside the nearby window, was examining them, point by point, with a practiced eye.”

Well, maybe just one more. Strike is inventorying his meager possessions, now piled in boxes outside his office door:

Other people his age had houses and washing machines, cars and television sets, furniture and gardens and mountain bikes and lawn mowers: he had four boxes of crap, and a set of matchless memories.”

Evaluation: I don’t know why I would have drawn the vastly unfair and prejudiced inference that Rowling could only write in the niche in which she gained her fame. This book was an absolute pleasure to read, and Cormoran Strike – shambling and hurt, self-deprecating and honest, impressively smart, sweet and considerate, is as lovable as they come. Upon finishing, I immediately purchased the next book in the series.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a member of Hachette Book Group, 2013

Meta Note: Almost as fun as the book to read are the many reviews that can’t resist throwing in Harry Potter references. The two I liked best: NPR calls Strike “Hagrid in a trench coat,” and Kirkus begins its review with “Murderous muggles are up to no good…”

Joint Review of “Extraordinary Rendition” by Paul Batista

What would it be like for an American lawyer to have the job of defending an accused enemy of the state in a dictatorial country? It would be much like fictional Byron Carlos Johnson’s undertaking in Paul Batista’s Extraordinary Rendition, except Johnson was working in the United States of America. Post 9/11, there were many changes in the legal system in response to concerns for national security, including establishing a new category of “enemy combatants,” whose rights are extremely limited. Batista’s novel takes this factual state of affairs somewhat further.

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Byron Johnson is a successful partner in a large New York law firm. He has been asked to represent Ali Hussein, a suspected Al Qaeda money manager. Hussein has been the subject of “extraordinary rendition,” the practice of sending prisoners to countries that allow torture of those prisoners. Hussein was held and routinely beaten for several years in various countries, but has not been charged with a crime, and has not been allowed to see any visitors.  The U.S. government has finally decided to bring Hussein back to the US. for trial.  Johnson accepts the case on a pro bono (without charge) basis. The government allows Johnson to speak to Hussein, but only for very brief meetings.   

Johnson is not even told what the charges are against Hussein.  The government insists that Johnson should just get Hussein to confess, because the need for “national security” overrides any democratic principles relating to the rights of the accused. But Johnson wonders:

…did the Constitution give Ali Hussein as a foreign national arrested overseas the right to a speedy trial, to effective representation by a lawyer, to a freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and to other constitutional guarantees?”

It’s a reasonable question, but the answer is fairly clear: No.

Johnson’s work on behalf of Hussein begins to take so much time (on a non-paying) basis that for this and a few other reasons his partners expel him from the firm.  Nevertheless, he soldiers bravely on with the assistance of Christina Rosario, a beautiful Columbia law student who had worked for his firm as a clerk the previous summer.  Johnson’s burden is greatly increased because, not only is he not given a copy of the indictment, he is also denied access to the government’s evidence due to “national security” concerns.  

[The state secrets privilege is a common-law evidentiary rule that permits the government “to block discovery in a lawsuit of any information that, if disclosed, would adversely affect national security.”  (Ellsberg v. Mitchell, 709 F.2d 51, 56 (D.C. Cir. 1983)  The Department of Justice (DOJ) under George W. Bush radically expanded the use of the state secrets privilege, transforming the privilege, according to critics, into an alternative form of immunity that shielded the government and its agents from accountability for systemic violations of the law.]

Johnson enlists the aid of Simeon (“Sy”) Black, a free lance reporter closely modeled on Seymour Hersch.  Through Black’s contacts, one of whom is a very competent private detective, Johnson learns a great deal about some shadowy (presumably CIA and Department of Homeland Security) thugs who are dictating case strategy and management to the government’s lawyers.  

All of the people helping Hussein come into danger themselves, as the tension ratchets up for a riveting conclusion.  

Evaluation: Jim and I each had fairly similar reactions to this book. In brief, we thought the legal portions were well done, the caricatured bad guys unnecessary, and that the “romantic” scenes should have been omitted, or at least, rewritten. We have made more extensive remarks on our other blog, Legal Legacy, if you wish to see our thoughts in detail (skip down to the Discussion section, as the basic review is unchanged).

Rating:  3.25/5

Published by Astor + Blue Editions LLC, 2013

Review of “The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The premise of this new series isn’t terribly ground-breaking, but nevertheless it has some very winning qualities.

Seventeen-year-old Kestrel is the daughter of single parent General Trajan, the highest ranking general of the Valorian Empire, which now rules over the lands conquered ten years ago from the Herrani. The Herrani serve as “slaves” to the Valorians, but the slavery is depicted as more of indentured servitude. Kestrel has been brought up with the help of a Herrani woman, and so is more compassionate than other Valorians towards Herranis, and more conflicted about the whole slavery system. Nevertheless, she doesn’t question it too much; it is the world into which she has been born.

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Mentored by her father, Kestrel has a great mind for strategy, whether in games of cards or games of war, but is resisting her father’s efforts to enlist in the military. (Her choices, like those of all Valorians whether male or female, are the military or marriage, the latter option becoming mandatory by age twenty for anyone not a soldier.) Kestrel is not interested in either.

As the story begins, Kestrel and her BFF Jess are at the outdoor market, and end up at a slave auction. For reasons she can’t articulate even to herself, Kestrel is drawn to the rebellious and handsome boy of 19 promoted by the auctioneer as a blacksmith and singer. Kestrel’s father needs a good smith, and Kestrel loves music, so she impulsively bids on the boy, whose name is Arin, and brings him back to her estate.

Thereafter, two very significant things happen to change Kestrel’s life: first Arin is not who he seems to be, and second, Kestrel and Arin fall in love. The complications are enormous, and the resolution possibly tragic.

Discussion: The two main characters are extremely appealing. Both are victims of a past they didn’t choose, and both must come to grips with the moral implications of that past. The feelings that grow between them are complex and seem realistic.

The prose is well-done, and sometimes more than that. (I am not providing examples because they all happen to be spoilery, but the author occasionally waxes quite poetic in her descriptions.)

Although weightier topics like the fluidity of definitions of freedom and justice depending on who are society’s victors are not treated with the gravitas they might merit in more realistic fiction, neither are they ignored. 

Evaluation: I really liked this first book of a new trilogy, in spite of some weak world-building (which I actually don’t mind since it makes the plot easier to follow). The writing is quite good and the two main characters are great. As for the ending, well, it’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but it would be better to have the next book at hand to proceed with the story. However, since this first book just came out in March, 2014, it might be a while. But so far, I can definitely recommend it.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014

Review of “Half A King” by Joe Abercrombie

I loved this coming-of-age fantasy about the young prince of Gettland named Yarvi, who was training to become a minister (a celibate advisor and healer in service to the King) but unexpectedly became King himself when his father and older brother were ambushed and killed. Yarvi is not only still a teen, but worse, has a crippled left hand, which meant that he did not have the respect of the kingdom’s men, for whom the ability to fight is what makes you a “man.”

Half a King

Yarvi may be smart, compassionate, and blessed with a good singing voice, but he still feels tormented. This passage nicely encapsulates his situation:

How he loathed swords and shields, and detested the training square, and despised the warriors who made it their home. And most of all how he hated his own bad joke of a hand, which meant he could never be one of them.”

And this:

He had always been weak, but he never felt truly powerless until they made him a king.”

Yarvi vows to do his best and to avenge the death of his father and brother, but soon, he is betrayed from the most unexpected quarters, and is forced to grow up to be a man in ways he never would have anticipated.

Evaluation: This book has all you could want of a heroic epic saga. It is impossible, in my opinion, not to fall in love with Yarvi, and not to be drawn in by the exceptional nature of the trials that form his life’s journey. While it does have an ending, two sequels are scheduled, and I, for one, can’t wait. If you have not yet read anything by the very talented Joe Abercrombie, this book will serve as a great introduction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, 2014

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