Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Different Kind of Magic: Rowling Continues Weaving her Spell, Sans Wands

They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. If so--and if you happen to find yourself in a tunnel--you’d better damn well hope there’s a glimmer of light shining down at the end of it.

Cormoran Strike is stuck in one of those abominable cycles--the kind where nothing goes right. After losing part of his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, he returned home to heal and figure out what to do next... which turned out to be putting the skills learned in the military police to practical use by setting up shop as a private investigator. It’s something he happens to be really good at; problem is, business has been scarce, and is now down to a single client... which doesn’t come close to paying the bills (not even for his tiny, very modest London work digs). 

But that’s not the end of his troubles; the icing on Strike’s unhappiness cake is that he’s just broken up with his longtime girlfriend... which leaves him effectively homeless, forced to sleep in his spartan office (at least, until the landlord decides to evict him out for non-payment of rent, which is sure to happen before long). 

Then--as misfortune has a way of attracting more of the same--who should show up on his doorstep, but the temporary secretary he’d forgotten about requesting, some weeks ago. (How he’ll be able to scrape together enough cash to pay Robin-the-temp, he has no idea... but the thought of admitting failure to the pretty, earnest-looking young woman would indubitably be the greater evil, so he sets her up in the reception area and hopes for a miracle.)

Which, as fate would have it, is precisely what (who?) walks through his (erm, their) door later that morning, in Robert Galbraith’s endlessly-entertaining tale, The Cuckoo’s Calling

Mousy, twitchy lawyer John Bristow lays out quite a story for the private eye. He claims to be the brother of a very famous (adopted) sister--the magnetic supermodel, Lula Landry (nicknamed “Cuckoo”), whose mixed heritage had graced her with a bewitchingly-exotic (and highly-sought-after) appearance--who died tragically, falling from her own balcony during a snowstorm just three months earlier. 

Her death was subsequently ruled a suicide, but Bristow maintains that it couldn’t possibly have been; despite her past mental illness, he was sure that the right combination of drugs had finally succeeded in keeping Lula’s condition under control. What he wants? For Strike to look at the case (particularly video showing a couple of men in hoodies running pell-mell through the snowy neighborhood streets following Lula’s fall) and prove him right: that his sister’s death wasn’t a suicide, but murder. 

Strike doesn’t have good feelings about the case--the media storm following Lula’s demise had been crazy--or about his grieving client, for that matter, but when Bristow cuts him a large check and thrusts a wad of cash at him, he can hardly say no. (Business is business, after all, and has been in dismally-short supply of late.) Anyway, he tells himself that most likely it’ll just be a matter of poking around the evidence for awhile, then breaking it to his client that yes, sometimes people do just kill themselves, even when they’d seemed okay. 

Strike soon finds more beneath the surface than appeared on first glance, though. Lula’s adoptive family is--and has always been--a mess. She’d recently undertaken a search for her birth mother (which didn’t sit well with said family). Her on-again/off-again rocker boyfriend--in and out of rehab with a history of drug abuse--is widely known for having a violent streak. Her friends seemingly knew only the Lula who could benefit them--the one who was famous and could boost their status, or who was ridiculously wealthy and footed the bills. Her new neighbors include a nasty movie director with a wandering eye and his unhappy, coked-up wife. Plus, there’s always the possibility of a stalker, some nutcase who’d set his/her sights on the supermodel. And, in the heat of the moment--passion, blinding rage, jealousy, an argument--anyone could’ve pushed the waif-like model over the slippery, snow-covered railing.  

As Bristow and his newly-acquired Girl Friday, Robin, traipse all over London trying to ferret out the truth from the lies--following trails that lead to the hippest nightclubs, chi-chi boutiques, high-fashion shoots, and a homeless shelter, populated by loopy designers and models, jaded rockstars, groupies, and junkies--the case becomes more than just a paycheck or a puzzle; they want to solve it for her, Lula... to put the Cuckoo’s spirit to rest.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is that rare book that had me pinching myself (well, figuratively, at any rate) frequently, because it was Just.That.Good. (Of course, since Galbraith is JK Rowling’s--yes, of Harry Potter fame--pseudonym, that really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also not, seeing as how much I loved her first post-HP work, The Casual Vacancy [see review here].) 

What Galbraith/Rowling does so brilliantly is make every character important, and interesting. With a flair for observing and describing the smallest things that cause each scene to spring to life--whether hilarious, poignant, or thought-provoking--she ensures that every word and every nuance matters... and that, to readers, is a rare delight.

I also don’t think it’s possible to not like Cormoran Strike--as multi-layered (and on occasion, nearly as tear-inducing) as an onion, that one--or his fabulous (and brainy, kind, funny, relatable) sidekick, Robin. Theirs is a working partnership I cannot wait to see again. Soon

The Cuckoo’s Calling is one of the best things I’ve read recently--as a mystery/suspense, and as pure entertainment. Really... this one’s awesome. :)    

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: ALL the mousies, period

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Murder in Michigan... Broken Hearts & Dreams, Buried in Ice

“Growing up” means different things depending on what stage you’re at in life. To kids, it usually symbolizes forbidden fun--namely, whatever it is they’re currently not allowed to do. As an adult, though, it takes on rather an opposite, somewhat-ominous meaning--a mantle of responsibility resting on one’s shoulders, complete with obligations, choices, and repercussions.

A little growth is actually nice to see in a character--be it book, TV, or movie--in the “yeah, this stuff happens to us all” sense; no one goes through life without it changing them, and it’s good to have that reflected in the characters we follow (particularly in an ongoing series). 

Yet, for whatever reasons, a lot of times we don’t really see much of it... which is why it really struck me in P.J. Parrish’s latest mystery, Heart of Ice, featuring private eye Louis Kincaid.

Louis is at an interesting place in his life: after a tumultuous childhood spent in the foster care system, he grew up and became a cop... only to watch his career get flushed down the toilet (after doing the “right” thing around a corrupt superior officer). Following that debacle, he picked up stakes and left Michigan for Florida, where he’s been a beach-bum-cum-sometimes-detective ever since. He has a shack on the beach where he ponders the mysteries of life, gets depressed, drinks too much, and works a case now and then, whenever one stumbles his way (which isn’t often). 

Heart of Ice finds him doing something a little different, though; he’s on a short vacation... with a dual purpose. First, he’s meeting up with the ten-year-old daughter he’s only recently discovered--the result of a brief relationship back in college--to hopefully forge a connection with her (something of which he’s in short supply). He also wants to re-establish his relationship with Joe Frye, the on-again/off-again girlfriend he met in Florida, who’s since returned to upper Michigan where she’s sheriff of a small town.

Nothing goes as planned, of course (but seriously, when does it ever, for anyone?). While he and daughter Lily are exploring quaint Mackinac Island, Lily lands on--literally--a human female skeleton, when she sneaks into a boarded-up mansion and falls through some rotten floorboards. Once the local police have been notified--and it’s clear to Louis that the sheriff has no clue how to handle what looks to be an awfully cold case (since the skeleton is just that, instead of a body), and a more-than-usually-difficult one, at that (given the skeleton happens to be missing its skull and any trace of clothing, implying something other than an accident)--Louis agrees to postpone his visit to Joe for a few days, to remain on the island and offer his assistance. (The fact that Lily isn’t horrified--but instead deeply saddened by the thought of the skeleton all alone--and that she pleads with Louis to help reunite the bones with the woman’s family, plays a not-insignificant role in his decision, as well.)

After arranging for Lily’s mother to pick her up early and seeing her off, Louis gets down to the business of investigating--something with which he’s quite comfortable. What he isn’t nearly so sanguine about is the arrival of a gruff, thoroughly-unlikable state investigator--one who just so happens to have a less-than-happy history with Joe, from several years earlier--who insists on taking the lead in the case (and dissing both Louis and the local sheriff at every turn).

It’s not long before the two men are forced to come to an uneasy truce, however, when clues lead them to suspicions which neither man is comfortable having. Could the bones belong to Julie Chapman--a wealthy girl who summered on the island with her family (then subsequently went missing) some twenty-plus years ago... and whose older brother is now running for Congress? What secrets did she hold... and if the bones are hers, why would someone have wanted such a shy, harmless, teenage girl dead?

When the sheriff is shot during the course of questioning area residents, and the shooter seems to have a very good reason for being a little... trigger-happy, the men assume they’ve found the guilty party. The more they dig, though, and the more tangled truths and dirty little secrets they uncover, the less they realize they understand...

As I said earlier, what stuck most with me while reading Heart of Ice was what a turning point this is for Louis. Rather than shying away from familial ties, here he is, trying to make a go of it with his daughter. The same is true of his relationship with Joe; Louis goes to see her with the express goal of taking things to the next level, because he’s realized that something is missing from his present life.

This also marks a change in Louis‘ professional aspirations; between the last book and this one, he has actively been pursuing the chance to get his badge back (albeit in Florida), no longer satisfied with moping away in the house on the beach (and working only whenever something falls into his lap or he needs some cash). 

Every Louis book that Parrish (actually two sisters, writing jointly) has put out has been a treat, and Heart of Ice is no exception. What’s so cool about this one, though, is that besides a really good mystery, great writing, and interesting characters, we get to witness an evolution... and to wonder about what lies ahead. Hard to top that. :) 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Well-chilled Mousies