Wednesday, August 28, 2013

THE CUCKOO'S CALLING by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

This novel is not as magical or as imaginative as a Harry Potter novel, but then what book is?  Cormoran Strike's private detective business is floundering, and he has debts he can't repay, when supermodel Lula Landry's brother John hires him to investigate Lula's death.  The police have ruled her death a suicide, but John is firmly convinced that Lula did not kill herself.  Strike's able assistant is Robin (not to be confused with Batman's assistant), a temp whose fiancĂ© encourages her to find stable employment somewhere else, but she's Watson to Strike's Sherlock Holmes. During the course of his investigation, Strike questions Lula's scumbag boyfriend, her handsome driver, her biological mother, her adoptive mother, her pal from rehab, her neighbors, the building security guard, and her assorted other friends and relatives.  They're mostly a sorry lot with something to hide and questionable alibis.  I love a good whodunit, and this was a fun, breezy read.  However, when Strike flushes out the murderer and recounts the entire sequence of events, I thought that the whole scenario was a little absurd.  Plus, Strike has proved himself to be pretty crafty and wise, with regard to the case, if not to his personal life, but I thought it reckless of him to describe to the murderer how the murder was carried out.  In other words, if you're expecting something gritty and realistic, you'll be disappointed, but if your fiction tastes run more toward the cozy mystery, this could be right down your alley.  Ms. Rowling certainly leaves the door open for more adventures of this dynamic duo and a possible romantic liaison between Strike and Robin.  I'm already hooked.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller

Bangley is a survivor; he has an arsenal and knows how to use it.  Hig has something that Bangley needs, though—the ability to pilot a plane.  In post-apocalyptic Colorado, these two men have an uneasy symbiotic relationship, as they fiercely guard their perimeter surrounding a small airfield against ruthless intruders.  After tragedy strikes Hig, the narrator, he flies off toward Grand Junction, where he picked up a radio transmission from the airport tower three years ago.  He's not exactly sure what his purpose is, but he has only enough fuel to get there; he'll have to fill up somewhere in order to make the return trip.  If you've read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Hig obviously has, which I found sort of bizarre, then you know how gut-wrenching this type of novel can be.  I found this one, however, to be refreshingly triumphant and almost upbeat, except for the aforementioned tragedy, and I would classify it as more of an adventure novel.  Each near-calamity brings our two heroes to a fuller understanding and appreciation for one another's skills and viewpoints.  Even when Hig is off on his mission to find other survivors, he imagines what Bangley would advise him to do in each dicey situation.  Much of the text is devoted to Hig's love of flying, which I know nothing about, but the feeling of soaring above the treetops felt uplifting, if you'll pardon the pun.  One of Hig's favorite things about flying is the ability to see the world below in miniature, with all the neat perpendicular roads and rows of houses.  The absence of human life is less obvious from his Cessna, and he can cling to the hope that there are human connections to be made out there somewhere.  Bottom line:  This is the best book I've read in ages.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

BE COOL by Elmore Leonard

This was a somewhat lackluster effort by Mr. Leonard, if you ask me.  Capitalizing on the success of Get Shorty, he brings us another episode in the life of shylock-turned-moviemaker Chili Palmer.  Chili tends to base his movies on real-life events, and that's not a bad thing, since he seems to attract some pretty unsavory and colorful characters.  He wants to do a movie about the record business and gets into the business himself after music mogul Tommy Athens is murdered during their lunch together.  The first (and only) act that Chili comes to produce is Linda Moon, the lead singer for a rockabilly band, who is under contract to another label.  When Chili tells Raji, her manager, that Linda is through with him, Raji becomes the second guy who wants to waste Chili; the first is the Russian whose face Chili got a look at when he shot Tommy.  Raji has a gay Samoan bodyguard, who may not be gay or Samoan, and wants Chili to be left alive to guarantee him a screen test with Chili's latest squeeze, Elaine.  Chili is definitely a cool customer and a likeable, raffish rake, but all of this nonsense can take a book only so far.  I'll admit that Chili and his band of merry men (and women) are mildly entertaining, especially when Chili makes some questionable judgment calls, just to see how things will play out for his movie. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

GET SHORTY by Elmore Leonard

This book was fun but not nearly as much fun as Killshot.  Still, it has its moments.   Chili Palmer, a collector for a loan shark, goes to Vegas to track down a customer, Leo, a drycleaner, who supposedly died in a plane crash.   Leo's luggage was on the plane, but he stayed too long in an airport bar and missed the flight.  Now he's living large on the airline's insurance payout, which really belongs to his estranged wife.  Chili's next stop is Los Angeles, where he hooks up with a B movie director (Harry), an aging actress (Karen), a self-absorbed movie star (Michael), and a trio of drug smugglers fronted by a limo service whom Harry has signed up to back his next picture.  Harry thinks Chili might help him get Michael into his pet movie project, Mr. Lovejoy, but Chili thinks Leo's story has more Hollywood potential.  Several intricate double-crossings make for a pretty entertaining ride, and Chili becomes more and more appealing as the plot thickens.  He's cool and smart and trying not to burn any bridges as he makes his moves toward getting what he wants.  He also has pretty good timing, cultivates some valuable friendships, and knows a setup when he sees one.  You gotta like the guy, trying to go legit and doing some Hollywood schmoozing with a style all his own.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

What I remember about Biafra can be summed up in one word:  starvation.  The real story, though, is a lot more complicated.  Three lives unfold in this novel about Nigeria during that turbulent time.  The first is that of Ugwu, a teenager who becomes the houseboy for Odenigbo, a university scholar and idealist.  The second is Odenigbo's girlfriend, Olanna, the daughter of a tribal chief and successful businessman.  Third is Richard, an Englishman who is in love with Olanna's practical but headstrong sister, Kainene.  All except Richard are Igbo people and find themselves fearing for their lives when the Nigerians in power begin to threaten the Igbo with genocide.  War breaks out, and the Igbo secede, forming the country of Biafra.  Optimistic until the end, the Igbo profoundly believe that the war will be short, and Biafra will triumph.  Certainly, the novel describes how the people adapt to an abrupt change in quality of life, but the author doesn't dwell on the hardships.  Ugwu, whose background is more impoverished than that of the others, in some ways has the most difficult adjustment, as he has to stay out of sight to avoid conscription.  The main theme, though, is betrayal, making our characters somewhat of a microcosm of Nigeria itself, with an end result of uneasy peace and unimaginable loss.  I have to admire how Adichie made this piece of history live and breathe, with an inside look at its effect on those who lived through it.  Reading this book was certainly a learning experience, and I absorbed some of the pain emanating from these characters.  I had one major objection, and that was that there's a 4-year gap in which something traumatic happened.  The author repeatedly alludes to these life-altering events, and I kept backtracking to see if I had missed something.  Later in the book she reveals what happened, but I found it very annoying that she kept teasing me with this omitted information.