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.”

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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

Review of “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

This is a very accomplished book that reminded me of Death of A Salesman in its subject matter, tone, universalism, and perceptive look at the American middle class in the changing world of the latter half of the 20th century.

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For six decades, we follow the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her Irish-American family. The saga begins in Queens, New York, but as the neighborhood becomes increasingly global in nature, it feels threatening and less prestigious to Eileen. She aspires to move with her husband Ed and son Connell to the more affluent neighborhood of Bronxville, “surrounded by people who looked like her family.”

Like Willy Loman, Eileen is fixated on external markers of success, with a warped understanding of internal value. In fact, a major theme of the book is about how we judge ourselves and judge others – ranging from guilt and self-castigation over unexpressed thoughts to an assessment of worth founded on what sort of car we drive or clothes we wear or even the way we smell.

Ed, eccentric and nerdy, has no interest in accumulating wealth; rather, he is dedicated to continuing his research on rats in a second-rate college. Moreover, he has the quixotic idea (as Eileen would identify it) that what counted in life was not “victories and defeats” but “to love and be loved.”

In spite of Ed’s recalcitrance, Eileen doesn’t give up,and keeps pushing herself, Ed, and Connell, even if she has to scale back her aspirations. When Ed is stricken by early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, Eileen transfers her relentless dedication to the care and preservation of her husband, and to a fierce determination that Connell succeed in the way she never could.

It is up to Connell then, as the story draws to a close, to decide whether he will pursue the dreams of his mother or honor the lessons from his father. And always, hanging over him, is the frightening specter of genetic possibilities; early-onset Alzheimer’s disease runs in families, and is incurable.

Discussion: The theme of the title is played out in several ways in this story. Most obviously, with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, Ed Leary becomes someone else. Like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (a story Ed’s son Connell teaches to his students), Ed’s thought processes gradually get truncated and more bizarre, and he becomes increasingly burdensome to his family. But Ed’s family never stops loving him, even as he becomes less and less like himself. In fact, both Eileen and Connell insist on thinking of Ed as he used to be, rather than the shell of himself he has become.

But there are other, less obvious, manifestations of not being “ourselves,” from the adoption of social conventions, to the facades put on for social interactions, and even to the “Potemkin Village” of a house that Eileen finally buys – beautiful on the outside, but falling apart in its bones.

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Evaluation: This is a moving – often heart-breaking, and well-crafted story with a scope and thematic depth that make it seem like the kind of book taught in schools, or at least, that should be taught in schools. It goes without saying that this would make an excellent choice for book clubs. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2014

Review of “The London Magazine” (August/September 2014)

“The London Magazine” (more like a booklet, actually) advertises itself quite accurately as “intelligent criticism, original poetry, short fiction, cultural reviews & literary essays.”

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As readers of this blog know, I occasionally – well, more than occasionally – read a lot of books that will never be featured in courses on English literature. This doesn’t mean, however, that I have lost my appreciation for elegant and richly-textured writing. I think such writing has the capability of making a person happy, maybe because of the way it elevates us from the quotidian and allows us even an ephemeral glimpse of beauty and truth. How often do we decline to express our thoughts because we haven’t the words to do so? And how much delight are we afforded when someone is able to shine a light on those interior landscapes with a well-chosen phrase?

Thus I was more than happy to spend hours perusing this collection of writing, which is, I might add, occasionally accompanied by beautifully reproduced photographs, such as in the case of the essay on folk art. That essay, by the art critic and historian Edward Lucie-Smith, explains the increasing synchronicity between “folk art” and “avant-garde” art, and examines the modern breakdown of artistic hierarchies. It’s all very interesting stuff, as fans of quilts-as-art can attest.

Patchwork bedcover made by James Williams, Wrexham 1842-52, from the British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain.

Patchwork bedcover made by James Williams, Wrexham 1842-52, from the British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain.

Beautiful color photos also accompany the appraisal by Paul Williamson of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I wasn’t as impressed with the exterior as Williamson (being partial to The National Gallery of Art’s East Building designed by the architect I. M. Pei, and probably having been ruined by my persistence in envisioning The Cheesecake Factory when I see any building by Gehry), but I think I would have had a much greater estimation of the collection housed within had I Williamson as a guide. I was particularly enlightened by his description of Pere Serra’s “St. Peter Preaching” which begins:

Gesture is eloquent in this picture. Peter points up with his left hand, down with his right. Heaven or hell, he seems to be saying: the choice is yours.”

The Guggenheim in Bilbao

The Guggenheim in Bilbao

An article on “the two different Irelands” of J.M. Synge and Heinrich Böll will delight fans of either or both (I’m a great fan of Synge, not so much of Böll), not to mention those who have been to, or feel an affiliation with Ireland. I especially loved reading Synge’s impressions of the Aran Islands. The author, poet and novelist Michael Thomas, writes:

…there is an acceptance that life and death are intertwined in this place which, from what Synge can see, appears to manufacture its own mist, fog and rain. Sometimes, that acceptance becomes literal: the bodies of lost fishermen and cargo-men occasionally drift back to the islands on the tides.”

And Thomas records how Synge observes that in the islanders’ culture, “paganism forever presses against Christianity like one of the recalcitrant fairies that populate so many of their stories.” He then provides examples from Synge about the place of fairies in Irish stories.

Cliffs of Moher in the Aran Islands

Cliffs of Moher in the Aran Islands

The article on “The Hanoverian Succession” by Tom Sutcliffe takes some lovely sarcastic jabs at Britain’s homages to the first and second world wars. And from Michael Karwowski’s piece on Dylan Thomas, I learned that Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was actually derivative of the ideas of the poet (you shall have to purchase this issue to find out why).

Speaking of poetry, there are some fine original poems in this magazine as well. I admit that some of the lines in some of the poems are opaque to me, and yet, still, I found them mesmerizing for their rhythm and imagery.

Two short stories round out this particular issue. (You can peruse the entire table of contents for this issue on their website, here.)

If you are interested in subscribing, there are six issues a year, and electronic options as well.

Evaluation: We already get a few literary magazines, but I had not much familiarity with this one. Obviously that is something I mean to correct. This publication has a great deal of content that will make aficionados of literature, poetry, and art very, very happy.

Rating: 4/5

Kid Lit Review of “Shapes in Math, Science and Nature” by Catherine Sheldrick Ross

This book is incredibly interesting, very fun, and full of suggested activities that real people can do (unlike many books with experiments or crafts for “kids”).

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Jim and I both love this book, but I suspect we are not the intended audience, which would be kids a bit younger than we are. We have also found that kids sometimes resist reading about “educational” topics in their time at home rather than school.

But this author makes sure to include plenty of fun facts that will pique the interest even of kids who claim to be not so wild about math. For example, in the chapter on triangles, you can read about the Bermuda Triangle. In a chapter on building with triangles, you learn how a computer science professor (who worked on the movie “Star Trek”), helped design a giant (31 feet high) Ukrainian Easter Egg for the Royal Candian Mounted Police in 1974. The book explains why the author chose the triangle shape for the tiles making up the egg, and why this egg was more enduring than Humpty Dumpty.

Giant Ukrainian Easter Egg located in Vegreville,  Alberta, Canada

Giant Ukrainian Easter Egg located in Vegreville, Alberta, Canada

In the chapter on squares, you learn about mazes, and how one maze in the abbey of St. Bertin at Saint-Omer in France was so fun, the church had to destroy it. The noise of all the people in the maze was distracting during services (and no doubt interfering with attendance as well). And the information on circles is replete with entertaining facts, such as how the artist Giotto – using only a simple circle, convinced Pope Benedict XI to let him decorate the first St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The authors also share theories about the Stonehenge stone circles in England. In the part on cubes, famous buildings are shown that used cubes as a basis for their architecture, and in the one on cylinders, you learn why castles were built with cylindrical towers.

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Along the way, you will learn math information too, of course, such as about the Pythagorean theorem, how Thales figured out the height of the Great Pyramid (and how to build your own), and all about Fibonacci numbers.

And there are projects galore, from making paper airplanes, kites, tops, and pinwheels, to making a model of a railway truss (the bridges built for trains to span rivers and gorges), to creating your own kaleidoscope, and of course, instructions for making your own Moebius strip. Some of the activities are tricks and/or games you can try on your friends and family.

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The colorful and whimsical illustrations by Bill Slavin enhance the appeal of the text immeasurably.

At the end of the book, there are answers to quizzes posed earlier, a list of simple formulas, a glossary, and an excellent index.

Evaluation: This is a fabulous book. The 9-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy in our kid test group loved it as much as we did.

Rating: 5/5

Published in the U.S. by Kids Can Press (New York), 2014

Note: Check out the Kids Can Press website for other great materials that combine education and fun.

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