Tuesday, April 25, 2017

GOLDEN PREY by John Sandford

John Sandford

Lucas Davenport, U.S. Marshal.

            Interesting development in John Sandford’s Prey series. And, as Golden Prey is Marshal Davenport’s first “adventure” as a member of the U.S. Marshal Service, it, too, is very interesting.

            Garvin Poole is a really bad guy. But, when he steals money from the Honduran drug cartel – killing 5 people, including a 6 year old girl, in the process – he crosses some guys who are, perhaps, even “badder”. And, they want their money back. Marshal Davenport just wants Poole.

            We accompany Lucas as he tracks Poole across the south. Although some of his previous cases involved some inter-state elements, they were nothing like the jurisdictional freedom Lucas has as a federal marshal. And in Golden Prey, Lucas ends up in my home state, the great State of Texas, making it even more fun for me to tag along. But, can he find Poole before the very nasty cartel assassins?

            I am a long time Sandford fan. A few years ago, I became disenchanted, as he seemed to have forgotten, or confused, the backstory of a character. I continued to follow his Davenport and Flowers series, however, and was very pleasantly surprised to find that the last few books released in both series reflect the John Sandford of old – Sandford is back and on top of his game. Golden Prey, however, seems to fall somewhere in the middle. The book feels a little rushed and chaotic. Although it might not demonstrate Davenport’s meticulous logic, as he progresses step by step through the plot, it still includes typical Sandford humor.

            Overall, Golden Prey is an enjoyable experience. I look forward to future adventures with Lucas Davenport, U.S. Marshal.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

THE SHADOW LAND by Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova

            When Alexandra Boyd, a young American, arrives in Sofia, Bulgaria to teach, a taxi drops her at the wrong hotel. After the jet-lagged Alexandra encounters a Bulgarian family outside the hotel, she gets into another taxi, to take her to the proper location, and belatedly realizes that one of the family’s bags is now accidentally in her possession. Looking inside, she discovers that the bag contains an urn with the cremated remains of Stoyan Lazarov. With the help of an unusual taxi driver, Alexandra embarks on a sort of single minded mission to find the family so that she can return the remains. While the taxi driver drives Alexandra seemingly all around Bulgaria in search of the family, we learn about Stoyan Lazarov, a gifted musician, and about the history of labor camps in Bulgaria.

            I loved Kostova’s earlier novels, The Historian and The Swam Thieves (see reviews dated June 27, 2015), and I was so looking forward to reading more of her work. The Shadow Land, however, left me disappointed.

            The story line in The Shadow Land feels contrived, forced. Although Alexandra’s chance meeting with the family sets up the meat of the story, the whole premise seems unrealistic and, well, somewhat silly. Alexandra’s backstory, about her life in North Carolina, is interesting, but feels irrelevant to the real story that Kostova wants to tell. In fact, Alexandra herself does not seem to add much to this real story – she is just a nice young woman who wants to return remains that accidentally ended up in her possession and is just along for the ride.

Kostova wanted to tell Stoyan’s story – and it is a good one; she wanted to tell Bulgaria’s story – and it is interesting. But, the vehicle she employs to tell these stories, Alexandra, does not work, and the plot feels disjointed. Alexandra feels superfluous.

            Kostova has done a good job of capturing the fear that permeated Bulgarian citizens in Stoyan’s heyday. She has done a good job of capturing the horrific nature of the secret labor camps. It is clear that she loves her adopted country. But, I am not sure that she has succeeded in conveying the basis of that love to her readers. After completing the book, I do not see the beauty or feel the pull of the country that Kostova obviously does, and I feel no inclination that Bulgaria is a “must-see”.

            Although I am still a fan – and will again await Kostova’s next novel – The Shadow Land does not measure up to the usual Kostova standards.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman

            In A Man Called Ove, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman, there is this man, and he is called Ove.

            When we first meet Ove, we see a grouchy old geezer. But at 59, Ove is not really old – perhaps he is old in spirit, rather than old in age. Nonetheless, he is a fixture of sorts in his neighborhood. We see that Ove is rather rigid. There is a way things should be – a way things should be done – and, according to Ove, young ‘uns these days aren’t taught this. Ove cannot understand this generation that has not been taught these basics in self-sufficiency – but does that really make Ove rigid? Ove’s neighbors push themselves into his world – a cat insinuates himself into Ove’s life– and then Ove’s orderly world seems shot to hell.

            Backman has created a thoughtful examination of stereotype versus reality. As we learn more about Ove, peel away layers, so to speak, we learn that people are not always what they appear to be. There are underlying complexities which, once understood, demonstrate how misleading stereotypes and first impressions can be. We have all known an Ove – but how many of us have ever gotten to know our Ove?

            A Man Called Ove is well written, engaging, entertaining, sad, yet a poignant study about our contemporary world. The book has been made into an Oscar nominated movie – I recommend that you read the book before seeing the movie.


Friday, March 10, 2017


Paul Kalanithi

            Paul Kalanithi was a bright young doctor with a promising future. He had completed graduate work in English and in the History and Philosophy of Science. He was just finishing his residency in Neurosurgery when he was dealt a serious blow – Kalanithi was diagnosed was cancer.

            The gifted young Neurosurgeon who had helped so many people in his role as their doctor now became a patient. The scholar who was concerned with questions about death now faced death. To say that receiving such a diagnosis is life altering is an understatement.

            To deal with the situation, Kalanithi wrote When Breath Becomes Air. The book gives us insight into the life of a doctor. We get a glimpse of life as a medical student, as a resident, and some of the difficulties and decisions young doctors face. Kalanithi takes us through his learning of his diagnosis, which is staggering to one who understands precisely what is being said – and not said – by that diagnosis. We see how Kalanithi applies his years of practical and theoretical learning. We are privy to the decisions that he and his wife make, such as having a child at such a difficult time.

            When Breath Becomes Air was published posthumously. The book is well written, its author was very brave, and the overall reading experience was very, very sad.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

CAREER OF EVIL by Robert Galbraith

Robert Galbraith

            Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are back in Robert Galbraith’s third Cormoran Strike mystery, Career of Evil. As I thoroughly enjoyed Galbraith’s first two classic who-done-its, The Cuckoo’s Calling (see review, January 27, 2017) and The Silkworm (see review, February 12, 2017), I was very excited to reunite with Cormoran and Robin in Career of Evil.

            I think of Career of Evil as the “Blue Oyster Cult” mystery, as the chapter epigraphs are drawn from the rock group. The book, like the group, runs to the dark. And, I think that Career of Evil is the darkest Galbraith novel yet.

            In Career of Evil, there is a serial killer and severed body parts. After Robin receives a severed leg, it becomes clear that she is in the killer’s crosshairs. Can Cormoran find the killer before the killer can reach Robin?

            The plot is engaging, convoluted, and very scary. As I have stated before, however, it is Galbraith’s masterful character development that wows me every time, and Career of Evil does not disappoint. In addition to further fleshing out the main characters, Cormoran and Robin, Galbraith shows us more of their backstories. In addition, Career of Evil shows the development in Cormoran’s and Robin’s relationship, both professionally and personally.

            At the end of the book, J.K. Rowling included a note along the lines that this was the book she enjoyed writing the most and that Robert Galbraith is her “private playground”. This feeling comes through in Career of Evil. Although the Cormoran Strike series is a high quality classic who-done-it in and of itself, there is a sense in Career of Evil of the fun and freedom that I envision Rowling experiencing.

            Cormoran Strike is growing and developing at an incredible pace – and so is my love of Galbraith’s series. I cannot wait for the next installment!