Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

Writing: 4.5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another great installment of the Cormoran Strike series. These books just fly for me — 600+ pages and I finished it in two days. The plot is just convoluted enough to require focus, but not confusing or (even worse) stupid. Rowling is the master of the archetypal character — each appeals to us in deeply rooted ways, but is fleshed out enough to feel fully human. I am drawn to Strike, and the reason is nicely summarized in this line: “…but the itch to detect, solve and reimpose order upon the moral universe could not be extinguished in him.” I like characters that are aware they dwell in a moral universe and apply themselves to keeping it that way!

In this episode, Strike and his equally well-developed sidekick Robin Ellacott, investigate the blackmailing of the distinctly unlikable Jasper Chiswell, Minister of Culture. Coincidentally, Strike is approached by a malodorous and highly agitated young man who claims to have witnessed a strangling and burial on the grounds of Chiswell’s estate when he was a small child. While he is most likely delusional, there is just enough about the interaction to turn “that niggling doubt into a significant and possibly permanent impediment to the detective’s peace of mind.”

Plenty of color is provided in the interactions between aristocrats (the Chiswell family and friends) and a group of Marxists, including the son of the old Chiswell estate caretaker. While none come off as particularly appealing, the aristocrats come off decidedly worse. While some are less unpleasant than others, they all share a disregard for the lives of those who are not in their social class. Also included, some pretty funny references to the experience of “sudden” fame for Strike, which must have come directly from Rowling’s own experience.

The writing is as great as you’d expect — my only complaint is that too much time is spent on the nature of the relationship between Strike and Robin. Does he like me? Why is she still with her twit husband? Is he falling for another woman? Blah, blah, blah. That part reads like a poorly drafted romance novel that has run out of ideas. Luckily, plenty of action and intriguing characters help distract the reader from that small irritation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on March 5, 2019.
Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters 4.5/5

A fun, fast-paced, whodunit where real life begins to resemble the sinister stories taught in Clare Cassidy’s Gothic literature course. Clare specializes in RM Holland, author of the classic: The Stranger. However, when her best friend and colleague turns up dead, with a line from the story by her body, things start to get chilling. Unsure of whom she can trust, Clare turns to her diary — only to find that someone else is writing in it as well …

The first person narrative alternates between Clare, her 15-year old daughter, Georgia, and Harbinder Kaur — the 35-year old, highly suspicious, Sikh, lesbian detective assigned to the case. Plenty of plot twists, good character development, and lots of fun literary references since much of the action takes place in the English department! Most of the action takes place in a small town on the Sussex Coast, but some beautiful scenes in Ullapool, Scotland as well.

A standalone mystery offering from Elly Griffiths, author of the Ruth Galloway series.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

New word (to me): deliquescence — the process by which a substance absorbs moisture from the atmosphere until it dissolves in the absorbed water and forms a solution.

Shakespeare’s sonnet on grave robbers starts “Before the golden tresses of the dead…” which gives a hint as to the subject matter of this delightful installment of the Flavia De Luce series. For those of you who haven’t met Flavia before, she is the precocious pre-teen with a penchant for poisons and passion for chemistry and now the owner of Buckshaw — the somewhat decaying family estate in Bishop’s Lacy. This episode was internally referred to as the “Curious Case of the Clue in the Cake” (said clue was the finger bone of a recently deceased Spanish guitarist found in Flavia’s sister’s wedding cake!) — but the digit-based investigation uncovers a more deliciously evil plot swirling around homeopathic distillations and murder.

Bradley’s writing is fun — every volume is full of arcane references in the fields of literature, history, anthropology, architecture, and of course Flavia’s favorite: chemistry. My favorite line:

“Like a sponge the human brain can only absorb so much before it begins to leak.”

This one is pretty good too:

“Great music has much the same effect upon humans as cyanide, I managed to think: It paralyzes the respiratory system.”

You can certainly read this one without the others — or really start anywhere you like in the series, though there is a nice progression to going in order.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Writing: 4/5 World Building: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A “wow” book for me — a blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Real noir. I hadn’t heard of Lauren Beukes before but can’t wait to read more — luckily she is prolific.

Zinzi Lelethu December is our first person narrator — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment. Hints of being a post-apocalyptic, or at least a post-civilized world, it frankly sounds pretty close to parts of South Africa today — Zoo City is full of the hustle vibe. “Zoos” refer to the intense people-animal pairings that come unrequested to many of those who have committed a crime — Zinzi’s animal is a sloth; boyfriend Benoit’s a mongoose. Zoo City is the area of Johannesburg that has become a hustler ghetto for the animalled.

Zinzi is a finder of lost things — the “talent” that came with the acquisition of her animal. This helps her see webs of connection between people and the things they have lost. While this brings her some remuneration, she works off the bulk of her large drug debt by writing the form letters and processing the responses for current affairs sympathy scams. She is depressingly good at it. In the midst of her self-loathable existence as a petty criminal, she is offered a great deal of money to find someone. And then things start going very wrong.

Although there isn’t a great deal to like about Zinzi, we can’t help but root for her the whole time. I believe this is because we love flawed characters who have or are developing a strong moral sense. While Zinzi makes her way through an unsavory underground, she starts to gain a real sense of right and wrong and develops an interest in actually making something better.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold

Writing: 3 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A bizarre ride through a coming-of-age story laced with philosophical conundrums on the nature of reality and our place in the world. Noah Oakman is a high school senior equally focused on typical high school matters such as girls and where to go to college and more atypical matters such as the nature of reality and his place in the universe. He is somewhat obsessed with David Bowie and his Pathological Authenticity. Spinning on Bowie’s biography — “Strange Fascination” — Noah has his own four Strange Fascinations. These play an important role when he wakes up after a drunken party to find that the world has changed subtly: his mother has a scar she never had before; his best friend Alan is now a Marvel Comic fan, rather than a DC Comic fan; and his Shar-pei “Fluffenberger the FreakingUseless” is now a highly energetic alternate animal and thus renamed “Mark Wahlberg.”

I found the novel deeply interesting, though a little long winded. To be fair, I read an advanced copy so perhaps it has been tightened up a bit. Thought provoking and appealing characters, plenty of juicy (to me) reflective commentary on the universe, and streaks of sci-fi spread throughout. Great lessons on friendship, family, doing the right thing, honesty, forgiveness, and (my favorite) the understanding that you can love flawed things.

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas, which will publish July 31, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

A gripping YA whodunit replete with surprising plot twists. Monica Rayburn is still trying to find out the truth about the horrific events that took place 5 years before. This is when Sunnybrook stopped having cheerleaders — because they all died within a month of each other.  One of the cheerleaders was Monica’s beloved older sister, Jen. (As an aside, what is it about towns with “Sunny” in the title — Buffy’s Sunnydale was not a happy place to be either!)

It had just the right amount of suspense — not so much that I couldn’t get to sleep at night, but enough that I could not put the book down. Full of realistic confusion, false leads, and the impact that suspicion — whether warranted or not — can have on relationships.

Great for fans of One of Us Is Lying.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A fun, tangled novel about mathematics, the search for truth, and some atypical family dysfunction. The Severys are a clan of advanced academics — Isaac is a top mathematician, working on the ultimate deterministic equation based on chaos theory; son Phillip is a well-known string theorist whose output has been dwindling in both quantity and quality as he ages; utterly anti-social daughter Paige is hard at work on her Book of Probabilities which she estimates will be 565 volumes and which she doesn’t expect to finish in her lifetime. Adopted grandchildren Hazel and Gregory are the “normal” members, a failing book store owner and police officer respectively.

The novel opens with Isaac’s self predicted death and continues with wild scurrying on the part of everyone else to get their hands on what might be the equation that can literally predict everything. While there is plenty of reference to interesting mathematical problems and the motivation of those who pursue them, there is even more familial drama with insertions of mysterious agents who also yearn for the magic equation.

While the existence of such an equation lends a speculative fiction aspect to the book, it’s really more of a mystery mixed with family drama and characters more intellectually oriented than most.  All in all pretty fun to read, well written, and hard to put down.

(OK – I realize this is two reviews within the space of an hour –  I’m fast but not that fast 🙂  Just took me awhile to finish the Morton review while this one just wrote itself…)