Wednesday, August 29, 2012

THE DESCENDANTS by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I haven't seen the movie, but I can see why this book was made into one.  Matt King is a mostly inattentive father whose wife is now in the hospital from a boat racing accident.  We learn a lot about Joanie from Matt's and his daughters' reminiscences, and I expect readers either love her or hate her.  I fall into the latter category.  She's a department store model, obsessed with her looks, who competes with her daughters, drinks late into the night in bars, and engages in high risk activities.  One of them is an affair, reported by the older daughter, Alex, to her clueless father, who now starts to wonder what he should have done differently to keep his wife from straying.  His 10-year-old daughter, Scottie, is sending hurtful texts to a classmate, and Alex, found drunk and out past curfew at her boarding school are clearly out of control as well.  It's hard to ascertain whether Joanie is a good mom and the girls are just acting up due to her absence and uncertain prognosis, or if this behavior is the norm.  We suspect the latter, given that Alex's substance abuse is the reason she's in boarding school in the first place.  Matt definitely has his hands full and doesn't know where to start.  Plus, he's hurt and angry about his wife's affair.  In walks Sid, a friend of Alex's, who obviously has issues of his own, but he serves as sort of an impartial moderator—a role for which he is probably ill-equipped, given that he has been banished from his mother's house.  He's a trip, though, and unknowingly spreads comic relief all over the pages.  A series of darkly hilarious events unfold, as Matt grapples with how to approach his wife's lover with the news that Joanie is being taken off life support.  The scene in which he finally does have that uncomfortable conversation, making the man squirm, is just splendid and seems to be the pivotal moment in which Matt takes control and shows us what he's made of.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


How about a futuristic novel that takes place in the present?  Our narrator, Zed, has time-traveled from the future to present-day New York, where his mission is to make sure that the historical agitators ("hags") do not alter the course of history.  The hags have tried to prevent the Holocaust, the 9/11 tragedy, and now the Great Conflagration—presumably a nuclear event.  Zed's employers want to ensure that the peace and prosperity that follow the Great Conflagration remain intact.  Now Zed's gadget for identifying hags has gone on the fritz, and he meets a fellow employee with instructions that conflict with his own.  Zed belatedly starts to suspect that his employers are not the good guys.  Caught in this web of intrigue are Leo (a former CIA operative), Tasha (a corporate attorney who secretly leaks a corporate greed scandal), and Sari (an Indonesian woman in the employ of a Korean diplomat and his cruel wife).  The author weaves a pretty good plot here, but the characters are stilted, and the various tragedies each has endured somehow fail to arouse sympathy.  I found the final outcome puzzling, and I can't even blame the time-travel aspect for my confusion.  Leo's anonymous client is a shady company called Enhanced Awareness, who also employed Troy Jones, whose identity Zed is using in the present.  I never quite got what that company's evil mission was or what its relationship to Zed's employer was.  One reviewer assumed that Zed was from another planet.  What??  I didn't think that at all.  Apparently I'm not the only reader whose awareness could use a little enhancement.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly

Mickey Haller is back, in this sequel to The Lincoln Lawyer.  He's now representing people who are in the process of losing their homes to foreclosure, although I'm not sure how they can afford an attorney if they can't pay their mortgage.  Oh, well.  One of his former clients has now been charged with brutally murdering a bank executive, causing Haller to dive back into criminal law.  In this instance, movie rights are expected to cover Haller's fee when the case incites a media circus.  The bulk of the novel follows Lisa Trammel's trial, with lots of bumps and surprises along the way, all of which Haller twists to his and his client's advantage.  With conclusive DNA evidence on the murder weapon and the defendant's shoes, and an eyewitness who places Lisa near the scene of the crime, Haller pursues another angle—the victim's personal financial difficulties and a shady foreclosure processing company—in order to prove that his client was framed.  Most puzzling of all is how a 5'3" woman could bludgeon a standing 6'2" man on the top of the head—an anomaly that the prosecution fails to address.  The plot lacks the nail-biting timing of The Lincoln Lawyer, and the outcome and aftermath of the trial are a little predictable.  Even so, I still really enjoyed the ride, and the book's finale is very satisfying, with things playing out perfectly for Lisa Trammel and for Haller's career.  After all, what's Haller's overriding personal objective?  To get his ex-wife and daughter back.  I hope there's more to come.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

James Witherspoon has two wives in Atlanta, with a daughter by each.  Wife #1, Laverne, and daughter Chaurisse are oblivious to the existence of wife #2, Gwen, and daughter Dana.  Gwen and Dana, however, are fully aware of their secondary status, despite their beauty and intelligence, and frequently sneak clandestine peeks at their rivals.  Meanwhile, James, with the help of his ever-present business partner, Raleigh, is barely maintaining a precarious equilibrium, keeping both households happy and, by all means, separate.  This balancing act teeters toward destruction when Dana and clueless Chaurisse become acquainted, due to Dana's morbid curiosity, coupled with Chaurisse's envy of Dana's looks and attitude.  Both Gwen and Dana realize the dangers inherent to revealing themselves to Laverne and Chaurisse, since James has made it clear that having both families in the same place at the same time is strictly taboo.  For example, James cannot allow Dana to take a summer job at Six Flags, since Chaurisse is planning to work there.  Dana's frustration leaps off the page and drives her to test the boundaries of what she can get away with, where her relationship with Chaurisse is concerned.  In some ways, she is taunting both Chaurisse and James, dropping obvious hints on Chaurisse that should raise suspicion with James when the fallout reaches him.  When circumstances make it virtually impossible to keep their friendship a secret, Dana realizes that she has stepped over the line and does her best to keep the resulting upheaval at bay.  If James's elaborate ruse crumbles, someone will have to pay, and this knowledge, on the part of everyone except the unsuspecting Laverne and Chaurisse, infuses the plot with tension.  Plus, the mention of many Atlanta landmarks brought a nostalgic and knowing smile to my face.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler

Here's another violent Swedish thriller, but I didn’t find it to be of the same caliber as the Stieg Larsson trilogy.  The first half was very promising, with two possibly related crimes.  One is a spree in which an entire family is murdered, except a teenage son, Josef, who survives the rampage, and an older daughter who had moved away.  Detective Joona Linna enlists the assistance of Dr. Eric Maria Bark in gleaning information from Josef by hypnosis, despite Bark's decade-old vow never to hypnotize a patient again.  Then someone kidnaps Bark's teenage son Benjamin, while Bark is in a drug-induced sleep.  So far so good.  Could Benjamin's abduction have been plotted by a gang whose members name themselves after Pokemon characters?  Or by Josef, who is angry at Bark for having hypnotized him?  Or by one of Bark's deranged ex-patients?  The plot temporarily derails during a rather long section in which Bark recounts the incidents that led up to his vow to stop hypnotizing.  He had been performing group therapy on several patients who relived traumatic events via hypnosis, in order to confront and thus thwart their inner demons.  This section drags on, and then we finally get back to the present-day crime-solving efforts, prompting Bark's wife Simone to remark, "Everything takes such a bloody long time."  My sentiments exactly.