Book Review 43: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA JK Rowling

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I had made it a personal policy to not read and review for this blog the hottest or most publicized novel of the year.  However, I did almost break my policy last year with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  But, I decided against it.

Well, my resistance has finally dropped with The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA J.K. Rowling. I must admit the pseudonym controversy got me intrigued and I knew I had to read and review this novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling tells the story about the death of Lula Landry, one of England’s most famous supermodels.  She fell from her high-rise loft in London and the police have ruled the death as a suicide. However, John Bristow, the deceased’s brother refuses to believe it was a suicide and hires private investigator Cormoran Strike to investigate the supermodel’s death.

Strike is a hard-livin’ detective who is on the brink of financial and personal ruin when Bristow arrives at his office to see if he will take on his dead sister’s case. The private investigator agrees to Bristow’s request and enters the world of high fashion, fame, and how wealthy Londoners really live.  Also, he is the son of a famous singer and because of that connection gets him entrance into this world without much resistance.

Rowling creates various twists in the plot in order to keep the reader guessing if the supermodel’s murder was really a suicide. The strength of the novel was her descriptive narrative and keen observation of human behavior.  Here’s an example:

“Her antipathy towards Strike seemed to have evaporated. He was not surprised; he had met the phenomenon many times. People liked to talk; there were very few exceptions; the question was how you made them do it. Some, and Ursula was evidently one of them, were amenable to alcohol; others liked a spotlight; and then there were those who merely needed proximity to another conscious human being.”

That passage was early in the novel and it showed Rowling’s strengths of the aforementioned traits that made The Cuckoo’s Calling an excellent  read. But, I must admit there is not a lot of action in the story.  It made me think if Rowling was writing this novel as a tip of the cap to P.D. James.  I could see James writing a novel like this one as well.

I came to reading The Cuckoo’s Calling as someone who had never read the Harry Potter books or her first adult novel, Casual Vacancy.  I had read one of the reasons Rowling wanted to write under a pseudonym was that her work could be judged on the basis if it is good or not.  And not to be judged through the lens as a celebrity novelist.

Well, if this was a first novel by Robert Galbraith…..it would be an outstanding first novel.  But it is Rowling’s second adult novel and deserves to be judged on its own merits as a crime fiction novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is one of my favorite reads of 2013 and Rowling is an engrossing, powerful storyteller.  It was worth breaking my personal policy.

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Book Review 42: A Mind To Murder by P.D. James

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P.D. James has been given the unofficial title, Queen of Crime, and after reading A Mind to Murder showed why she has earned this moniker.

A Mind to Murder began with the murder of Enid Bolam, the administrative head at the Steen Psychiatric Clinic in London. She had a chisel through her chest and a wooden phallic symbol in her arms. It appeared like we have the main culprits of sex and violence intersecting once again.

When Adam Dalgliesh arrived to investigate the murder, he found out that Miss Bolam was a goody, two-shoes stickler and having that phallic symbol was a ruse put there by the murderer. The detective was put through various twists and turns until the mystery of Miss Bolam’ death was solved at the end of the novel. Even though, that’s a simplistic overview of most mystery novels, James has really elevated the genre to show that literature can emerge from the murder mystery story.

Her ability to write beautiful passages of setting and place, to have excellent narrative flow, to create solid characters and to have the main character’s personality be revealed like a chef peeling an onion has made me want to read the entire Adam Dalgliesh oeuvre.

This is my second Adam Dalgliesh book I have reviewed for the blog. I reviewed Cover Her Face last year and both books have given me a wonderful reading experience even though they were published in the early 1960’s. A Mind To Murder does have its antiquated values interspersed throughout the novel, but James still deals with the universal themes of death, greed, and ambition that we can all relate to.

I can unabashedly recommend A Mind To Murder and I’m already looking forward to reading and reviewing Unnatural Causes, book three of these delightful novels.

Book Review 41: Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

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Middle Passage is the story of Rutherford Calhoun, a free black man, living in 1830’s New Orleans.  Rutherford is a thief, hustler, and womanizer who has lived a nomadic, vagabond life and somehow stayed out being sold into slavery. Well, there’s a prim and devout woman named Isadora Bailey that is in love with Rutherford and wants to marry him.  However, he refuses to marry her and ends up leaving New Orleans via the ship called The Republic.

On the ship, Rutherford learns the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the convoluted relationships between blacks and whites of that time.  The captain of the ship, Ebenezer Falcon, is a hard-driving, eccentric disciplinarian that’s hated by his crew. But, he is fond of Rutherford and two men develop a surprising friendship that will eventually test their loyalty to each other and the rest of the crew.

Rutherford gets caught in the middle of a slave rebellion of The Republic which eventually leads to the ship’s demise. He is deeply affected after the outcome of the slave rebellion and begins to examine the true meaning of his life. There is a surprise ending that caught me pleasantly off guard and brings the novel full circle.

Johnson has written an intellectual, philosophical page-turner that is part Moby Dick, part Gulliver’s Travels and part Invisible Man. I can see why Middle Passage received the prestigious National Book Award in 1990 for best novel.  It deserves to be mentioned with Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Kindred by Octavia Butler as one of the best novels ever written about slavery.

Book Review 40: Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

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A little over a decade ago, I went on a Dean Koontz reading binge.  I read at least ten or eleven of his novels and I couldn’t get enough of them at that time.  However, my reading tastes has changed quite a bit over the years and I really didn’t have a desire to go back re-read any of his books.

Well, I looked on my bookshelf  a couple of weeks ago and saw I had a copy of Cold Fire. I must admit that Cold Fire is the one Koontz novel I have kept on my bookshelf since that reading binge. I don’t have a reason why I’ve kept that novel. But it was still there and I decided to give it a second reading.

Cold Fire is the story of Jim Ironheart, a mysterious man who has a supernatural ability to save random strangers from perilous life-altering events.  As a result, Jim has become an unlikely superhero.

One of his missions to Portland, Oregon, he has a chance encounter with Holly Thorne.  She’s a local reporter that was interviewing a teacher who recently published a book of poetry. Upon leaving the school, Holly sees Jim rescues a student from being hit by a truck. Jim treats the episode like a policeman or firefighter doing their job and Holly is taken by his modesty and self-effacing persona.

Afterwards, she decides to use her journalistic skills and track down this modern-day superhero.  Holly’s investigation into his background leads her to travel to Southern California and ends up becoming a part one of his missions.  By the end of that mission, Holly is convinced there is a lot more to discover about Ironheart.

Eventually, Holly persuades Jim to explore his past in order to find out about his supernatural ability and that’s where the painful memories of childhood, family abandonment, and the ability of books to create your own world comes into view.  By the end of novel, Jim faces up to those issues and learns where his gift actually came from.

Koontz’s strengths as a page-turning storyteller were on full display in Cold Fire.  He is a master at creating suspenseful scenes that makes you want to keep reading.  Also, Koontz has the ability to combine science fiction, fantasy, suspense/thriller, horror, and even aspects of spirituality into a genre gumbo of best-selling commercial fiction.  In this aspect, Koontz is similar to the musician, Sting.  Both men in their respective fields have taken various genres like a master chef would for a meal and use the right ingredients from each genre to create popular art that is uniquely their own.

After reading it for the second time, Cold Fire holds up surprisingly well. It will be the one Koontz novel that remains on my bookshelf.

Book Review 39: Captives (Safe Lands #1) by Jill Williamson

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What is freedom?

That question is the one that kept coming to mind as I read The Captives (Safe Lands Book 1) by Jill Williamson. It is a YA Dystopian novel and not a genre usually read. (However, I did read and review the wonderful Book Thief by Marcus Zusak last year.) This novel was recommended to me by a blogger and reader I trust and I’m thankful for her recommendation.

The Captives is set in a futuristic Colorado and revolves around a family that lives off the land in a village named Glenrock.  The family believes in Christianity and follows its values. However, one of the sons decide he’s had enough of the old ways and beliefs of his family and is determined to make a name for himself in Denver City.  Denver City is a modern utopia and has everything one wants especially for a teenager.

The son devises a plan to get his family to leave Glenrock and join him in Denver City.  However, the plan doesn’t go as expected and there are some disastrous results because of his choice.

While in Denver City, the family learns how the people of the city lives and is in stark contrast to how they lived in Glenrock.  Pleasure and Entertainment is the main lifestyle for people of the city.  Women are used as baby factories for the state and being in a committed relationship or marriage is considered outdated by the citizens.  The city decides on where you will work or what career path you must take and there is a harsh punishment for those who try to buck the system.

However, the eldest son of the family was not around when the rest of his kinfolk were taken into Denver City.  He decides he must go into the city in order to rescue them.  But, he learns quickly that once you come to Denver City it’s not that easy to leave.

Since this is the first book of the series, the author finishes the novel with a few open-ended questions that needs to be answered in the subsequent books of the series. Williamson has written a solid, thought-provoking YA novel that put a smile on this middle-aged reader’s face.  This is the one of the best novels I’ve read so far in 2013 and would recommend it for readers 14 and up.

Book Review 38: A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

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“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money.”  {Ecclesiastes 5:10}

This verse of scripture from King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes summed up my feelings when I finished reading, A Touch of Death by Charles Williams.

The straightforward plot of the novel focuses on Lee Scarborough, ex-football player, drawn into a scenario where he could have $120,000 dollars that was stolen from a bank by the bank president who is now dead. However, the key to getting this money is having to deal with Madelon Butler, the bank president’s widow.

Madelon Butler is not your typical heroine and her relationship with Scarborough was the most fascinating part of A Touch of Death. She’s vicious, cunning, manipulative, loves to drink and listen to jazz music.  Scarborough in trying to deal with her reminded me of this:

There are four things I don’t understand,

The first is the way of an eagle in the sky,

The second is the way of a snake on a rock,

The third is the way of a ship on the ocean,

And the fourth is the way of a man with a young woman.

{Proverbs 30:18-19 New Int’l Readers Version}

While Madelon Butler is not a young woman, I think that Scarborough could still relate to this verse of scripture from the Book of Proverbs. If you are reader of mystery novels of the pulp fiction variety, then you can figure out what the rest of the story is about.  Williams creates some interesting twists and turns that rushes into a satisfying conclusion.

If you are looking for a solid and engaging story that will keep you up into the wee hours of the morning. Then, I will recommend A Touch of Death to you.

Book Review 37: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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“For me writing has always felt like praying.”

“Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”

Those touching, powerful quotes are from Minister John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead tells his story in letter form to his young son about his life and struggles as a man of the cloth in the town of Gilead, Iowa.

Robinson creates a three-dimensional picture of Minister Ames through his belief in Jesus Christ, the struggles with his faith, and the relationships with his family and others in the town.

There were two relationships in the novel that I believe truly formed Minister Ames.  The first one was with the atheist, Edward Feuerbach and this comment said a lot to me about their relationship:

“Boughton takes a very dim view of him, because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issue as much with those people as with Feuerbach. It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.”

Ames was willing to risk having a friendship with a man that could shake his faith. It exhibited the depth of his conviction and a genuine love for humanity not something learned from seminary or taught over the pulpit.

Even though, I thought the relationship seemed distant and remote at times, Ames clearly loved him and mentioned in the story his failed attempt to convert him to Christianity.

The second relationship was with his best friend, Jack Boughton’s son, John Ames Boughton.  The younger Boughton believed in Christ growing up but drifted away from the faith as he got older.  However, he always had a respect for Minister Ames and came to him often for spiritual questions. Even though, Minister Ames answered his questions, the younger Boughton could never get over the intellectual hurdles he had in order to become a believer.

This relationship with the younger Boughton was more dynamic than his relationship with Feuerbach.  As a result, it showed a man who truly believed the gospel was for everyone.  From those who believed blindly and uncritically to those once believed and rejected it to those who never believed in the gospel.  Minister Ames walked the walk as well as he talked the talk.

Gilead was the first novel I’ve read that grew on me.  It was okay at first, because the lack of action or suspense and even no chapters.  As I kept reading, I began to like the novel more and Robinson created such a full, rich character that it made me think of my own spiritual journey.

I would highly recommend Gilead and consider it to be the best novel I’ve read and reviewed in 2013 so far.