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Cuckoo’s Calling

Cuckoo’s Calling
R. Galbraith/J.K. Rowling

In case you somehow missed the news, it came out recently that this detective novel, published under the name of Robert Galbraith, was in fact the work of J.K. Rowling, the superfamous author of the Harry Potter books. Her previous attempt at post-Potter adult fiction, Casual Vacancy, didn’t go over all that well. So I can see why she might have wanted to try again with a book that would be judged on its own merits. Having never read the Potter books, I feel like I can give Cuckoo’s Calling a fairly unbiased review. I found this thriller less than spell-binding.
J.K. Rowling’s writing style is lush and descriptive, with an absurdly proper level of punctuation (commas, semi-colons and parenthesis), and long sentence constructs with multiple dependent clauses. It’s good writing, if a bit slow going- and terribly at odds with what purports to be a detective thriller.
In Cuckoo’s Calling, Robin finds herself as the temporary secretary to a private eye named Cormoran Strike, who is investigating the apparent suicide of a famous model, Lula. There are lots of players on this stage, all with their own well-developed backstory; the one I found most interesting (and would, in fact, want to read about again) was Strike himself. The mystery itself wasn’t all that riveting.
I also felt like this story had misogynistic elements to it, in the way women were described and how theit characters were developed. For example, in their first encounter, Strike almost knocks Robin down the stairs, but catches her by the breast. So throughout the first chapters, she is described as sneakily rubbing her bruised breast. Maybe this is Rowling’s attempt to sound like a  male author, but I didn’t care for it.
The mystery and characters were about average, with Cormoran Strike being the standout in the story. The writing was above average, but not at all suited to this type of book. I found myself wishing I could enjoy the writing in a different type of book, like one of those slow reflective novels that takes place with a family at their beachhouse all in one weekend…or perhaps…a fantasy.

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Close My Eyes

Close My Eyes
Sophie McKenzie

This book is this summer’s Gone Girl. From the tense, fast-paced writing, to the messed-up but sympathetic characters, to the twist ending that keeps on twisting… and twisting… seriously, I have no idea why this book is not already a blockbuster.
Gen and her husband Art are facing yet another round of fertility treatments, years after the stillbirth of their only child, Beth. One day, a woman shows up on their doorstep with the shattering news that their baby was not born dead. Gen embarks on a quest for the truth that grows increasingly convoluted and frightening. At first, the things she uncovers could be coincidences, but she remains convinced her baby is alive out there somewhere. Her husband and best friend Hen question her sanity, but she persists. Apparently random hit and run accidents, parties with lots of drinking, and a rather sketchy Irish soap actor named Lorcan conspire to keep Gen on her quest.
SPOILER ALERT: husbands make good fall guys but they aren’t always what they seem.
Also, the plot twists keep you guessing until literally the turn of the last page. If you want to spend a few hours or days immersed in a totally screwed up, edge of your seat,  page turner,  run- don’t walk- to your nearest bookstore or ebook purchasing site.

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You might like: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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Sisterland

Sisterland
Curtis Sittenfeld

Kate is, to all appearances, a normal suburban housewife who loves her husband and her two very small children. Her twin sister Vi- lesbian, pot-smoking Vi- is anything but. The sisters share a secret, tho- they are psychic. Not normal twin secret language psychic, but actual predicting the future, locating kidnap victims psychic. When Vi predicts a major earthquake in sleepy St. Louis, cracks begin to appear in the carefully laid foundation of Kate’s life. Old faultlines of family conflict buckle up against the present. When the shaking stops, nothing is quite like it was before.
The plot of this story is pretty good. One of the things that I enjoyed is that, while Kate is skeptical of psychic senses, the author really never deals with them as anything other than very real. The ending feels perhaps slightly cliche but has enough surprises tucked in to keep you turning pages til the last one.
At its heart, tho, this is a story about family relationships: parents and children, husbands and wives, sisters. The insight that the author brings to her portrayal of these relationships is what really sets this book apart.
I also had the delightful pleasure, while reading this book, to stumble across thoughts which had lazed inarticulate in my brain until I saw the author’s description, and then I knew instantly, “yes! exactly that!” Writing like this is rare and something I treasure.
Up until now, Curtis Sittenfeld’s books have been what I consider smart chick lit. This turn into more complicated, insightful writing has been very well done, and I hope she writes more like this soon.
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You might like: Her Fearful Symetry, Audrey Niffinger. Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman

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Big Brother

Big Brother
Lionel Shriver

Pandora has a pretty good middle class life. She and her husband are faithful to one another, even if the spark has gone out of their marriage.  Her children (a son and a daughter) are not too worrisome.  She has a successful business (manufacturing custom dolls.) And she has somehwat made peace with her father,  a Hollywood has-been who played the perfect dad on TV.
When her older brother Edison comes to visit, he creates a splash in her calm life like a whale in a pool. Which is fitting, since Edison has ballooned to roughly whale-sized. A failed career as a jazz musician has pushed him to emotional eating, and he weighs almost 400 lbs.
Pandora faces the most difficult choice: which family is more important, the one you grow up with or the one you make yourself? Should she pour herself into keeping her brother on a diet/exercise regimen? Or focus her attention on her husband and kids, who might need her more than she knows?

Lionel Shriver,  as always, packs a lot of issues into one novel. Weight, health, and our society’s perception of fat people are central to this story. Family, duty and loyalty also play a big part. Her writing is always insightful. Most of all, tho, her characterizations are superb. Shriver truly makes her characters come alive, compelling you to revist them from time to time and occasionally catch yourself wondering where they are and how they are doing now.
Lionel Shriver also excels at parallel lives: portraying who and where we would be we had made different choices. This is what first drew me in when I read The PostBirthday World and has kept me reading her books ever since. I won’t give away then ending of Big Brother, but lets just say Pandora get to take a good hard look at choices and consequences.

(and yes, the teenage son in this book is basically Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin if he wasn’t a murderous sociopath.)

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You might like: The PostBirthday World, by Shriver. A Very Hungry Girl, Jessica Weiner. Skinny, Diana Spechler.

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A Girl Like You /Requiem

A Girl Like You
Maureen Lindley

Requiem
Frances Itani

I’m going to try something new and review two books at once, since they both deal with the same topic: the forced relocation of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians to internment camps during WW2.

A Girl Like You is written from the perspective of Satomi, the young teenage daughter of a white American father and Japanese American mother. Although her father is killed serving in the Navy at Pearl Harbor, Satomi and her mother Tamura are ostracized at home and at school even before they are forced to leave. Once in the camp, however, Satomi is still an outcast because of her mixed racial heritage and because she rebels against traditional Japanese expectations of how girls should behave.  Satomi struggles to navigate the ordinary challenges of growing up, family obligation, and young love against a background of constant privation and hardship. She gains an unexpected ally in the camp’s white doctor,  Dr Harper.
Time and the guidance of older, wiser women help smooth some of Satomi’s rough edges. She also grows less selfish as she cares for her sick mother and a group of orphans, including a little girl named Cora.
After the war ends and Satomi leaves, she continues to struggle to find love and her own place in the world. The ending is as happy as can be allowed given how few of the characters remain alive.
One thing I immediately disliked about this book is that the third person narration would jump suddenly from Satomi’s perspective to another character’s and back with no page break or anything.

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Requiem is written from the perspective of Bin, a grown man in modern day Canada. Grieving the recent death of his beloved wife Lena, and seeking inspiration to complete the work for his latest art installment, he undertakes a cross-country road trip with his dog Basil, back to the camp where he was iterned with his family as a boy. Scenes of camp life are retold in vivid flashback chapters.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, but events happen so that Bin does not leave the camp with his family (altho they remain alive) but as part of another family. What happened in the camp shapes the rest of Bin’s life, his relationship with his son Greg, and his art.

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Now for the “compare and contrast” (as this was called in middle school book reports.) I almost want to apologize to A Girl Like You, because its a decent novel; but compared to Requiem, it comew up short. Girl is notable mostly for its subject matter, while the superb writing in Requiem is what has drawn me to reread it not once but twice.
Girl focuses on the physical hardships of the camp: the cold, sickness, wind, blood, piss, and hunger (its no accident the most helpful character is a doctor.) The conditions were horrible and no human should have ever been subjected to them by another human. But Requiem, while not ignoring these ugly facts, focuses more on the deprivation of the soul- and the strength of the human spirit in spite of it. When I picture Satomi’s camp, I picture the smelly awful latrines with cold dusty wind blowing thru the cracks in the walls. When I picture Bin’s camp, I picture a man playing piano sonatas on a piece of painted wood until his fingers ache, while a boy draws with charcoal on endpapers torn from treasured books.
Finally, Girl lacks a cohesive narrative. It starts at a point in time, wanders on for a few years, and then ends. I don’t feel like Satomi reaches her full potential as a character, and her selfishness grew annoying. She has no epiphany. There is no visual symbol to which the author returns. In the end, its just a story.
The narrative structure of Requiem, however, is excellent. The author’s choice of a roadtrip is an excellent parallel for Bin, not only to journey into his past, but also to find his way home. All the characters are exceptionally well-drawn, even the ones that seem unsympathetic.
Bin’s art exhibition, the one he needs to finish, focuses on rivers. Of course there is more than one river along the way. There is a river in the camp. And in the end when his past and present finally come together, of course he on the banks of a river.

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The Bat

The Bat
Jo Nesbo

In the wake of Steig Larsson’s blockbuster Millenium Trilogy, the book market was flooded with Scandanavian mystery and thriller authors newly published in English. There are several notable examples, but in my opinion, the stand out is former footballer and rock star turned author Jo Nesbo (that’s pronounced Yo.)
Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels excel at 3 things.
1. The crimes.
The mystery at the core of every Nesbo book is always very twisted and complex. The killer is never the first suspect and his motives are never immediately visible.
2. The procedurals.
Most mystery writers rely on one aspect of solving a case: psychological profiling, forensic evidence, legal wrangling, or even good old fashioned police work. Nesbo, however, brings in all these aspects and more.
3. The detective.
I saved the best for last here, since it is truly Harry Hole who makes these books. The brilliant, (sometimes) recovering alcoholic is a compelling figure. He reminds me in turn of fictional giants like Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, TVs House, and the granddaddy of them all, Sherlock Holmes.
This being Scandanavian crime fiction, of course, the noir is super-dark. Harry seems to specialize in failed relationships, dead friends, hospital visits, and of course waking up drunk in ditches. Its amazing that someone so messed up can even rally to solve crimes, but he does- and brilliantly! And you love him all the more.

My ONLY qualm with the series is that it was not translated in the order it was written. I’ve been waiting a while to find out how it all started. Finally The Bat was published in English! As a stand-alone murder mystery, it holds its own. But its even better as the start of a series, with all the best of Nesbo’s writing already glimpsed in its pages.
I was also tickled to see, at last, the pronunciation of Hole addressed (very cleverly) by page 5. (Its Hoo-leh in case you were wondering.)

If you want to start the series, you can pick up The Bat, but if you happen to read the others first, that’s ok too. They remain brilliant page-turning crime novels!

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You might like: (all just authors this time; pick any of their books) Steig Larsson, Jeffery Deaver, Kurt Wallander, Mons Kallentoft, Roslund and Hellstrom

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Salt Sugar Fat

Salt, Sugar, Fat
Michael Moss

According to urban legend, Doritos are made with crack cocaine. The truth is, they don’t have to be, because they are made with a frightening combination of salt, sugar and fat that is specifically designed to trigger pleasure responses in the brain and keep you coming back for more.
This book is an expose of the industrialized American processed food industry, with biology, history and nutrition information thrown in. It is divided into three sections, one each for sugar, salt, and fat. In each section, the author explores the human body’s response to that taste as well as ways that processed food companies capitalize on it to sell more product.
One of the more interesting concepts in this book was the idea of “bliss points:” that (through biology as well as acquired taste) we all reach a point where we max out on our enjoyment of a certain taste – that up to that point, more is better, but after that point, more is not better and maybe even worse. When you start combining the salt, sugar and fat tastes together, the bliss point is much higher than for each taste alone. In fact, when the researchers combined fat and sugar, they literally could not get people to max out on the taste – they never reached a bliss point. Which I guess explains why we all love ice cream so much.
The other thing that was most eye-opening to me was the discussion of cheese. I know milk can be a controversial issue, but I love it. I grew up drinking 2 glasses of milk a day and still crave it if I don’t have it on a regular basis. I love cheese of all kinds. But this book revealed a concerted effort on the part of food manufacturers (aided by the industrial dairy complex and government subsidies) to increase our dairy and cheese consumption. Very little of it is in the form of glasses of lowfat milk or even pieces of cheese on crackers, and more like double cheese frozen pizza (with cheese stuffed crust and cheese dipping sauce) and chocolate cream cheese dipping spread.
The biology in the book is interesting; what’s frightening is how manufacturers of processed food use that to push more sugar, salt and fat into their products – thus creating more of a demand for foods artificially loaded with those tastes. Even seemingly harmless foods like breakfast cereals, bread and soup are loaded with sugar and salt.
Apparent efforts by food manufactures to adapt to health trends don’t necessarily make foods better, either. Most of the time when one thing (sugar, salt or fat) is lowered in a food, the other things are actually increased to make it continue to taste good.
When I got done with this book, I literally took stock of the processed foods in my house. Thanks to Michael Pollan and his writings on “real food” (see previous post) it was thankfully a short list: mostly basics like bread, pasta and cereal; dressings and sauces, and canned soup bases. And I think I might start making my own spaghetti sauce now.

You might like: Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser. Food, Inc (movie.) Food Rules, Michael Pollan