narfna’s #CBR5 Review #72: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)

the cuckoo's callingYou thought you could keep this a secret, didn’t you, Jo? WELL TOO BAD.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, the latest novel by J.K. Rowling, originally written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, features private dick Cormoran Strike and his temporary secretary, Robin, as they become involved in investigating the supposed suicide of supermodel Lula Landry at the behest of her grieving brother, who doesn’t believe it possible Lula could have killed herself.

I am beyond glad that J.K. Rowling is writing genre again. She’s just so good at it. And sorry, Jo, I’m also beyond glad your lawyer’s wife leaked this to the public, because otherwise I never would have read it (or if I ever did, it would have been much farther down the road when you were like six or seven books in or something, as it seems the only time I ever hear about mystery books is if they last long enough to be notable to those who normally don’t read inside the genre). I know this probably makes me a bad friend fan admirer thingy whatever, and for that I apologize . . . but damn. I just love your words so much.

Shit. This has gotten weird real fast, even for one of my reviews.

Also, it’s more than slightly ironic that I have just written a chunk of this review as if I knew Ms. Rowling and was addressing her personally, when a great part of The Cuckoo’s Calling is devoted to an examination of fame from the other side. At one point, our hero Cormoran Strike literally wonders how it is that some people feel as if they know celebrities, even think of them in terms of friendship, when the reality is they don’t know them at all. The fact that it’s Jo who’s writing this — one of the most famous women in the world, a woman who fiercely values her privacy, and who spent a large portion of the latter Harry Potter books reacting via writing to her growing celebrity — leads me to wonder if she really doesn’t understand the impact her books had on an entire generation of kids. I admire Ms. Rowling’s public persona very much, but it’s her books that make me think of her so fondly.

But it’s not just on Lula Landry’s behalf that Strike ponders the strange behavior that can surround celebrity. Strike has cause to be prickly about fame, as well. His father is a famous rockstar who he’s only met a handful of times, but that doesn’t stop everyone who finds out about his parentage from making certain assumptions. He’s also ex-military police, and is still recovering from losing the lower half of one of his legs. He owes a ton of money, he’s just broken up with his girlfriend, and things aren’t looking so great for him in general. His temp secretary, Robin, is delightful. She doesn’t get as much characterization in this one as Strike does, but I’d imagine that will change in future books, as he lets her do more and more work for his cases. This was very much a first book. She had to take time to set up Strike’s initial character, then slowly but surely allow Robin to worm her way in to a permanent job, and I think more importantly, allow her to be someone that he can let see the embarassing bits of his life (for nearly the whole novel Strike tries to pretend to her that he isn’t living out of his office on a camp bed, when it is glaringly obvious to both of them that he is).

The mystery in this was really good, really thorough, and Rowling does a nice job of setting up red herrings, but at the same time laying clues so it’s obvious in retrospect who the murderer is. (This is something we already knew she could do, as she did it so well in all the Potters.) Strike is very good at his job, and Robin finds she has a talent for it as well (much to her delight, as she confesses early on that she’s secretly always wanted to work in a PI office), so it’s fun to watch them work. Even though I really liked the mystery, there wasn’t really anything there that made me go YES. I do, however, love Strike and Robin as characters (Jo is so good at characters, you guys), and I can imagine myself easily re-reading this after future books in the series have been published and retroactively giving it five stars, once I know where the series is headed. It’s not love yet, just really, really like.

Recommend highly for mystery and crime fiction fans, and for all those who were disappointed by The Casual Vacancy. This one has a distinct adult feel to it without making you want to smash your head into hard furniture in utter despair (so, yes, children, there is sex and swearing; it’s not a big deal, and please grow up, why won’t you?) .

[4.5 Stars]

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Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #37: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

I picked up this courtroom drama after my German BFF read it. She had been intrigued after the storming reviews of von Schirach’s two novellas (published in England together as Crime & Guilt), and knowing a bit about the author’s reputation as one of Germany’s leading criminal lawyers. Drawing on his own expertise, the author creates stories around darker quirks in contemporary law and ethical puzzles. He has also directly confronted his own family past – his grandfather was the head of the Hitler Youth. From an essay he wrote about Baldur von Schirach: “Indeed, it might just be that the only advantage of having a name like mine was that nothing could remain hidden.”

A tightly-wound thriller, it’s language is clear and concise, and the characters are well-drawn in a few strokes. Opening with the brutal killing of elderly industrialist Hans Meyer, the novel then introduces a young and ambitious defense lawyer who accepts the defense case of Herr Collini, the killer. Caspar, the lawyer, doesn’t realise at first who the victim was – Meyer was a close family friend of his, and Meyer’s granddaughter Johanna the first love of his life. Worse still, the case is close to impossible for him to defend. Collini admits he killed Meyer, but refuses to say why. Nothing in his history suggests that this previously law-abiding sixty-something Italian immigrant had any connection or motive to commit cold-blooded murder.

A genuinely tense read, the denouement falls like a hammer blow. In the end, it’s finished almost too soon, but there’s a sense that this is a realistic touch – real life does relentlessly carry on, even when individual lives are altered forever.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #39: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

14739231A naked old man holding a gun shoots and kills NYPD Detective John Tallow’s partner of five years, and that murder — aside from being devastating and emotionally traumatic for Tallow — leads to the discovery of an apartment full of nothing but guns. Two hundred plus guns, adorning the walls, the floors, all in some mysterious pattern, and each and every one is linked to an unsolved Manhattan murder within the last twenty years. John Tallow is stuck with this career ending case when he should be home grieving for his partner.

I really, really liked this book, even though it was a little bit more violent and bleak than my usual tastes. Also, I say it was bleak, which is technically true, but Ellis is such a good writer it doesn’t even matter. Plus, it’s funny as hell. Tallow himself is a bit of a killjoy, but Ellis’s narration, and his creation of inspired CSU characters Bat and Scarly (who become Tallow’s de facto partners in solving the case), is just fun. He also does something right by letting us inside the mind of the killer, who we meet really early on. Very early on this transforms the central question of the narrative from Who killed all these people? to Who is this man and why does he do what he does? Tallow figures it out as we do. The nice thing about Tallow is that the story frames this murder investigation as a wake-up call for Tallow’s psyche, which has been deep underwater for what seems like decades. As the case becomes more complicated, Tallow just gets smarter.

This is almost the perfect crime thriller. It’s super smart. Ellis’s prose is witty and unique, with just the right amount of gore and cynicism, balanced nicely with pure action adrenaline, cool surprises, and humorous banter. He also has a nifty way with thematic undertones. You could read this book as a straight thriller, but he’s also got some stuff to say about memory, history, and violence. He’s also friggin’ obsessed with maps. All the characters you would expect to be here are here, but they’re also a little bit twisted, with just the right amount of character flavor. The result hits all the crime thriller pleasure spots, but also makes you think you’re reading something really unique and sort of revolutionary.

I really had only two complaints about the book. First, Warren Ellis is British. He does a nice job with New York for the most part, but take that statement with a grain of salt. I’ve never been to New York and all I know about it I know from movies and television and super catchy hybrid soul/hip-hop songs. Where it really shows is in the dialogue. Mostly the dialogue was pretty normal, but every once in a while Britishisms would just slip in, particularly when he was writing for Bat and Scarly. My other complaint is that I felt the ending was a bit short-shrifted. It built and built and built with all this lovely tension, and then it just sort of . . . ended. I got the feeling there could be sequels from the way everything in the case was downplayed, like Tallow and Bat and Scarly haven’t seen the last of each other. If that’s the case, I certainly won’t complain.

Also, Warren Ellis kind of scared me before I read this, but I’m going to check his other junk out now because I liked this so much. (I don’t think I’ll ever be reading Crooked Little Vein, though; that just sounds like too somethin’ somethin’ for me.)

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #7: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berednt

The cover of the 1994 novel

The cover of the 1994 novel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perusing CannonballRead while in a book rut, I saw faintingviolet’s review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and couldn’t believe I’d never read it. It’s right up my alley – salacious gossip, Southern setting, murder mystery, small town style drama unfolding in the middle of an almost unbelievable set of trials.

Part I of the novel introduces the reader to the city of Savannah. Savannah is a character of its own in the book, and the city surpasses the sum of its very quirky inhabitants. You meet Joe Odom, a broke ex-lawyer running some kind of trashy piano bar salon where ever he’s currently squatting. And Lady Chablis, the gorgeous transvestite who tricks the author into being her chauffeur  And of course Jim Williams, he of the antiques and fabulous, prestigious part fame.

Part II is what happens after the murder. The most fun part of this book is that it’s not a whodunit, it’s a whydunit. We know Jim Williams pulled the trigger.  Self defense or cold blooded murder? This is not the typical crime novel trope with the angelic, innocent victim who was clearly wronged.  This is real life; murder is messy; Williams’s victim Hansford was a male hustler with a violent temper. It depends on what evidence you believe. It depends on who you’re friends with in the town. It depends on who you like the best.

If you’re interested in what I disliked, read more….

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #6: Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets by David Simon

Before David Simon was writing and producing the Wire,* the show frequently described as the great American novel of television, he was writing Edgar Award winning actual novels like Homicide.  In 1987, Simon  took a leave of absence from the Baltimore Sun to shadow and write about the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide division during 1988.  For reference, in 2011, the homicide rate came in at 196, the first time in three decades Baltimore’s homicide rate came in at under 200.

1988 was relatively early in the rise of Baltimore’s homicide rate.  And Simon, without even being aware of it, shows you how the BPD began to sag under the growing weight of the number of murders and how the detectives grew cynical. Because these  increasing murders were basically unsolvable, occurring in neighborhoods with no witnesses at all, where were citizens rightfully skeptical of the police, where no evidence was left.  The detectives solve just enough murders that they still incredibly hold on to a handful of hope, but the

There is not neat wrap up of the outstanding plot lines at the end ofHomicide. The most politically intriguing murder and the most gruesome, devastating murder remain unsolved. And you feel the pain of the detectives at the fact those murders are still on the board, waiting. You feel the remorse seeping from the pages, you think back on the mistakes that were made by detectives, lab techs, filing clerks, and so forth, and you know that crime will probably be left unsolved. You feel the  adrenaline when an anonymous tip comes in months after the crime or a new piece of evidence seems certain to lead to a suspect. It doesn’t. The detectives catch just enough breaks to hold on hope. But they also watch the cases that they eat, sleep and breathe go unsolved enough that hope seems…imaginary.

Aside from how engrossed I was, this novel had two of the best passages on crime I’ve ever read and if I ever in my post-law school career teach a class oncriminal law (unlikely) they will be included.  The first passage contrasts the legal provisions giving police officer’s discretion to shoot and kill a suspect they believe will cause them harm, with the shockingly (to me) minimal gun training police officers received at the time.  The second is ten pages of straight dialogue between hypothetical detectives and hypothetical suspects that show just how meaningful the supposed legal victory of the Miranda rights really was in the 1980s (and probably today).  A third passage on the autopsy process, and how the detective and medical examiner work together, was also particularly fascinating.

If you like the Wire, if you like mysteries, if you like thrillers, if you like true crime novels or if you have ever watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order and mildly enjoyed it – you will enjoy this book.

*Homicide  spawned the similarly named groundbreaking television show.  Simons joined the Homicide writing staff for four seasons. Ultimately, Simons partnered with former BPD detective Ed Burns to write another true crime novelThe Corner, which HBO turned into a miniseries.

And then HBO gave them the chance to create The Wire, and the rest was history.

For more reviews, check out HelloKatieO.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

I’m embarking on what I like to call a “crime spree” and I’m taking another tour through the crime/mystery realm of books. In the next few posts, in addition to this Swedish crime novel, I’ll be reading a fictionalized account of a true crime story, a journalist’s account of crime in Baltimoreover the course of a year, and an Elmore Leonardnovel (he’s his own genre by now,  I think, based on how prolific he is).

So, up first was The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg which had great reviews but I overall found lacking. Erica Falck, a writer, ends up investigating the death of her childhood friend who’s an ice princess in all senses of the word (dies in a frozen bathtub, is cold and emotionally withholding).  There are a decent number of twists and turns, but I felt that the red herrings were a little too obvious so by the end, you knew what was up.

Also, I can’t really say anymore in detail without giving everything away, but there was a plot point that irritated me because it was almost medically infeasible. Aside from that, I think my main problem with the book was that there was minimal character development, they felt like sketches of real people.  For me, what distinguishes the Dragon Tattoo series or Tana French novels is how real, and honest, and unique the characters feel. You get a real sense for what the characters will do next, and why, and it makes it feel meaningful.

While this book was a reasonably compelling mystery, it was missing that…spark that makes me want to read more of an author’s novels.

More reviews at HelloKatieO!