Monday, September 22, 2014

Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver. Rooms. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2014. 303 pages. ISBN 9780062354426.

I love a good ghost story, and Rooms doesn't disappoint. The Walkers, mother Caroline, daughter Minna, son Trenton, and Minna's daughter Amy return to their home for the first time after Caroline's ex-husband Richard died, 10 years after they divorced. They're an unhappy bunch; Caroline is an alcoholic; Minnie will sleep with any man who crosses her path, and 15-year old Trenton is contemplating suicide and still recovering from a car accident in which he almost died. Amy is the only one who seems content, although it's clear that in spite of their unhappiness, they still care about each other.

The house has its own secrets, including the ghosts of two past inhabitants. Trenton can hear bits of their conversations, perhaps because of his own near-death experience. When a third ghost joins them, Trenton is not only able to speak with her, but he can almost see her. As she tempts Trenton with the idea of joining her in death, each member of the family is confronted with their past and forced to view their own actions in a new light. Written in alternating chapters from both the individual ghosts' and family members' viewpoints, the story brings to light the sadness of lost love, unspoken feelings, and hidden secrets.

I like Oliver's writing; there are no wasted words. The plot moves along at a good pace and kept me engaged the whole time. There are a number of mysteries and subplots, but they never overwhelm the narrative. The characters are treated compassionately, and even when they behave badly, it's possible to empathize with them. I recommend Rooms to anyone who likes family, ghost, or mystery stories.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith

Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo's Calling. New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013. 456 pages. ISBN 9780316206853.

The Cuckoo's Calling is J.K. Rowling's first book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Having read all of the Harry Potter books, I was curious to see how I would like her adult books. I have to say that I loved this book. It's very well-written and has fascinating characters.

The book begins with a temp services employee starting her first day at a new job: a detective agency run by Cormoran Strike. The temp, Robin Ellacott, is thrilled to be working at a detective agency because it's always been her secret fantasy. However, Cormoran is not doing well financially; he's deeply in debt, newly single and homeless (having been kicked out of the apartment he shared with his ex-fiancee), and having a generally hard time coping with everything. On Robin's first day, however, they are asked to investigate what is an apparent suicide; the victim's brother believes that it was murder and has compiled a lot of information that he deposits with Cormoran. As they begin to investigate, there are many twists and turns to the plot. Working together, Cormoran and Robin find the murderer and forge a working relationship that will take them forward into new adventures.

I liked everything about this book. The characters are well-developed with great skills but also flaws that make the interesting and vulnerable. The plot is intriguing and kept me interested throughout; it's paced well and never gets slow. The who-dunnit factor kept me wondering until near the end when the author dropped some pretty big hints. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys mysteries or thrillers. I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Silkworm, and I hope Rowling/Galbraith keeps on writing!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two Trains Running, by Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss. Two Trains Running. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. 448 pages. ISBN 1400043816.

I heard Andrew Vachss give a lecture at a luncheon that I attended in 2005. I was very impressed with his talk; it was about his crime fiction and the types of crimes that he investigated in his "real" jobs, working as an advocate for abused children. I bought his book after the luncheon (signed "Rebecca -- for real -- Andrew Vachss"). Unfortunately, it took me nine years to get around to reading it, and in the end, I was disappointed by this book.

Breaking away from his series fiction, Two Trains Running is a stand-alone novel that is set in a fictional mid-west town in 1959. The main character is named Walker Dett; he's a hit man hired by the local crime syndicate's boss, Royal Beaumont. Royal's crime empire is being threatened by other crime organizations: the Italian mafia, and Irish. Also threats to Royal’s interests are a rising black power organization, rival teenage street gangs (the Hawks, the Gladiators, and the Kings), a neo-Nazi organization, the FBI, and the local police force.

There are too many conflicting groups and subplots in this book. It was impossible to keep up with all of the twists, turns, and back stabbing going on. There are so many characters all trying to screw each other that I ended up not caring about any of them. The story got more fragmented toward the end, to the point where I'm not actually sure what happened, and sadly, I don't care enough to try to figure it out. I wouldn't recommend this book. I don't know what his other books are like, but they must be fairly popular since he's published so many. Either way, I'm not likely to try to find out, based on how disappointed I am with this one.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Think of a Number, by John Verdon

John Verdon. Think of a Number. New York: Crown, 2010. 418 pages. ISBN 9780307588920.

Think of a Number is John Verdon's first mystery thriller. I was immediately hooked by the premise, in which someone gets a letter in the mail, is asked to think of a number, and finds that exact number in a second sealed envelope. The letter writer implies that he or she knows something about the recipient's past, something shameful that they've done. One such recipient contacts retired police detective Dave Gurney for help in finding out who sent the letter and what they want. Mark Mellery is an old classmate of Dave's and hopes he can help him. When Mark turns up dead, Dave is hired as a consultant by the local police department and tries to track down the killer.

I really enjoyed this book. The writing is excellent and the characters are well-developed. The plot is intriguing and the mystery at its core kept me guessing all the way to the end. Dave is torn between the retirement lifestyle sought by his wife and his desire to do something useful other than garden and walk around the lake. I recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries and thrillers.

I have also read his second book, Shut Your Eyes Tight, which I liked very much, and I look forward to reading the other two in this series: Let the Devil Sleep, and Peter Pan Must Die.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Last Snow, by Eric Van Lustbader

Eric Van Lustbader. Last Snow. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2010. 414 pages. ISBN 9780765325150.

Last Snow is the second book in a series of thrillers based on Jack McClure, a former ATF agent who now works as a close consultant to the President. In Russia with the President and his family to attend a summit with the Russian President, McClure is tasked with investigating the death of a senator on the island of Capri, off the Italian coast. Prior to his trip to Capri, the senator's last stop was an unscheduled trip to Kiev. McClure has the President's plane at his disposal and plans to fly to Kiev to track down the senator's last steps.

While I enjoy a good thriller, sometimes they just go too far. This book has the most ludicrous plot of any that I've ever read. Basically, the senator was killed by a group of exiled Russian oil oligarchs in Ukraine because they knew the President would assign McClure to investigate. This is all to get McClure in their clutches so that he can help them with their goals: to keep Ukraine out of the hands of the Russian President. Apparently, Ukraine (in this scenario) has a secret supply of uranium that will be used for nuclear development by Russia, which is intending to use the new U.S. accord as a cover and defense of their planned invasion of Ukraine. Because McClure is dyslexic, he has the ability to picture all the pieces of this puzzle together and come up with a solution, which is why he was targeted for this operation. Meanwhile there is a group of U.S. businessmen who are also after the uranium, double-crossing military men, and other folks complicating the plot. It was almost impossible to keep everyone straight.

Even more ridiculous is the subplot involving the President's daughter, who stows away on the President's plane and follows McClure to Kiev. She's right smack in the middle of all the action, and much of the plot and dialog addresses her teenage angst about what happened to her in the first book of this series, First Daughter. It's all too much, and I wouldn't recommend this book. In fact, I realized belatedly that I also had First Daughter at home. Embarrassingly, I had Last Snow shelved under V and First Daughter shelved under L in my home library. And I'm a cataloger! Either way, I can't bring myself to read First Daughter and it's going on my donation pile.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea (2012), directed by Terence Davies, is a slow, atmospheric study of the self-destructive nature of betrayal and selfishness. Rachel Weisz plays Hester, trapped in a loving but passionless marriage to a an older man named William. She meets Freddie, a former RAF pilot who is boisterous and passionate, and she falls in love with him. When William overhears Hester's telephone conversation with Freddie and realizes that she's cheating on him, they separate and he tells her that he'll never give her a divorce. Hester moves in with Freddie and over the course of the next year they live together in a dingy flat in a run-down neighborhood.

The film begins with Hester's suicide attempt, and the rest of the story is told partly through flashbacks which show why she's so unhappy. When Freddie finds out that she attempted suicide he realizes that they'll never make each other happy and is determined to leave. Hester's husband tries to get her to return to the marriage, but she refuses, trying to explain to him what she found lacking in the marriage.

Hester is the toxic center to all the relationships in the film. She's married to an educated, cultured and well-off judge, who's kind and treats her well, but she doesn't find the passion she wants in the marriage. She leaves him for an uneducated, uncultured, and unsuccessful fun-loving guy, and she tries to change him into her husband. One particularly painful scene is when they go to a museum and she's trying to look at abstract paintings and he's making jokes about them. She refuses to laugh at his jokes and he storms off. She's unsufferable and it's hard to empathize with her throughout the film. As the film neared its ending I was caught up in anxiety, worrying that Freddie would succumb to her pleas and stay with her; lucky for him that he does not. The film implies throughout that Hester has to choose between these two men, but in reality, now that she's alone she might have the chance to meet someone that she can be happy with.

The Deep Blue Sea received positive reviews (79%) from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but only 52% positive reviews by audiences. I can see why reviewers would like the film: the acting is good; it's very atmospheric; the soundtrack is also very good. I can also see why audiences were not as happy with the film: it's slow; there's little action; it's frustrating to watch the characters and their bad decisions. Perhaps the audiences were just as impatient with Hester as I was.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the film and would recommend it. It certainly gave my husband and me something to talk about!

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Target, by David Baldacci

David Baldacci. The Target. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014. 420 pages. ISBN 9781455521203.

Author of nearly 30 previous novels, David Baldacci has become a master at writing thrilling page turners. In this latest he brings together characters that have appeared in earlier books: Will Robie and Jessica Reel. Both employed by the CIA, Robie and Reel have been recovering from an earlier operation that left Robie with significant wounds and burn scars. The Director of Central Intelligence wants to punish them for going off-script in the earlier operation, but he also needs them for a highly-sensitive upcoming assignment. Before they can even begin their new operation, however, it becomes clear that the targets have caught on and they have to enter clean-up mode instead.

Baldacci focuses in North Korea in this timely thriller. Parallel stories are set in North Korea and focus on Chung-Cha Yie, whose purpose in life is the same as Robie and Reel's: to assassinate enemies of the state. Chung-Cha's history is told in detail: her family was sentenced to a concentration and work camp when she was a child, and she was raised there until she was granted release to begin her training and "career." Her price to get out of the concentration camp was that she had to kill her own family.

I found the portrayal of North Korea interesting. It reflects what we hear about North Korea in the news: the paranoia, the fear of saying the wrong thing, the lack of freedom, the hunger, and the poverty. One of Chung-Cha's rewards for completing an operation is that she is given an electric rice cooker, something (according to this book) that only elites within North Korea own.

Although the American operation against North Korea wasn't carried out, they are determined to avenge it and set in motion a plot to assassinate the wife and two children of the American president. Chung-Cha is assigned this task and given a team of operatives to help her plan and carry out the attack. I found this part of the book particularly incredible; I don't believe that it would have been anywhere near this easy for a group of assassins to infiltrate Nantucket, even on Halloween, which is when the attack is planned for. Nevertheless, the plot and action are fast-paced and the pages keep turning. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys contemporary thrillers with a geo-political theme.