Saturday, April 25, 2009

John Grisham: The Associate

Kyle McAvoy is the top law student at Yale at the beginning of John Grisham’s new book, The Associate. As he is ready to graduate, an unpleasant episode from his drunken undergraduate years surfaces. Although Kyle’s involvement was more embarrassing than criminal, he would like to keep it buried.

So Kyle succumbs to blackmail and accepts a job in New York at the world’s largest law firm. His mission? To worm his way onto the biggest lawsuit of the times, and steal privileged client information.

The background story is of Kyle and other young associates grinding through long hours of tedium, generating unconscionable hours of billable time, at outrageously high salaries. Boredom and burnout are at astronomical levels among associate lawyers trying to make partner. But Grisham does not make the job of Partner at a large law firm sound much better. I think we finally see why he writes novels instead of practicing law.

The foreground story is much more exciting. Can Kyle find a way out of his predicament? If he does what the bad guys want, can he avoid getting caught, disbarred, and maybe sent to prison? If he refuses, will he be disgraced, disbarred, and become an embarrassment to his family? Or is there a third way?

The first two choices would lead to short boring books. So naturally there is a third way. Kyle is feeling his way through the minefields. We learn his partial plans as fast as he thinks of them. He doesn’t know where his ideas will lead, and neither do we. But the longer he can avoid a full ethical breach, the longer he can keep his options open.

As I read The Associate I found myself thinking that full and open honesty up front sounds like the path of least resistance in the long run. But by not taking that route, Kyle McAvoy took us for a good ride. Grisham still delivers a great story, and this one is above his average.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Patrick F. McManus: The Blight Way

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 23, 2009

After Nate reviewed Avalanche, another Sheriff Bo Tully mystery, I decided to read a Patrick McManus book. The Blight Way is set in Blight County, Idaho, with the action shifting between Blight City and the small town of Famine. As the story commences, Batim Scragg, a rancher more likely to be on the wrong side of the law, calls the county sheriff, Bo Tully, to inform him there is a dead body draped on one of his pasture fences. Bo picks up his dad, Pap, the former county sheriff, and the two of them drive up to Famine to investigate.

As the story unfolds, we meet each of the quirky members of the sheriff’s department, a couple ranchers, some of the unusual citizens of Famine, and we find a couple more bodies. All the victims appear to be from Los Angeles, which suggests a drug connection. But Famine, Idaho seems an unlikely hot spot for drug dealings or killings. There are just enough incidents and clues to clear up this quandary by the end of the story.

The Blight Way is not a complex mystery. A lot of the interest is in getting to know the characters. Bo Tully, in addition being the sheriff, is a fairly competent artist. He has dated pretty much every unmarried woman in town, and he is always on the lookout for newcomers. (Watch out Susan Parker, the new medical examiner up from Boise!) Pap has a different style, but he isn’t much different.

The other draw to this book and Patrick McManus in general is the wry humor. I did chuckle a few times as I read the book, “’I hear it’s better to stay lost than to have Blight County Search and Rescue find you,’ Pap said.” Well, I guess you had to be there.

In summary, the story line is interesting and comes to a reasonable but not surprising conclusion; the characters are interesting although not captivating; and the book is sort of humorous. It is a good, easy recreational read, but it’s not a book to keep on my shelf to read again in the future.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Janet Evanovich: Plum Lovin'

A few years ago I picked up Three Plums in One, a volume that contained Janet Evanovich’s first three Stephanie Plum novels. I enjoyed them, although I was careful to set it aside between each novel and read something else. I did not want to get burned out. I keep telling myself that someday I’ll start moving forward again from Four to Score.

But in the meantime I ran across Plum Lovin’, a “Between the Numbers” story. It is 164 pages of Valentine’s Day fluff – and thoroughly enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know, Stephanie Plum stumbled into the job of bounty hunter when she couldn’t find other work. She’s not tough enough for the job, but she is determined and foolish enough. And she develops friends who are tough enough to bail her out of trouble.

In Plum Lovin’, a strange guy named Diesel shows up in Stephanie’s apartment. I’m pretty sure Diesel has been around before, but since I never got past Three to Get Deadly, I can’t say when. In any case Diesel seems to be some sort of disciplinarian in a sub-culture of people with paranormal abilities. He’s trying to find Bernie Beamer, who tends to give hives to people near him when he’s upset. At the moment, he’s upset about problems in his marriage and blames Annie Hart.

Annie is a self-proclaimed relationship expert committed to helping five clients (who don’t happen to know that they are clients) find happiness – or true love – by Valentine’s Day. Annie is also on Stephanie’s list, wanted for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.

Diesel has Annie hidden away while he searches for Bernie. But he had to promise to help her with her clients so she would stay hidden. If Stephanie will take care of Annie’s clients, Diesel will give Annie to Stephanie when he’s done dealing with Bernie. But in the mean time, there are also some serious bad guys after Annie. (Remember? She’s connected to an armed robbery and assault situation.) To further complicate the story, one of Annie’s clients is Stephanie’s sister’s live in boy friend.

Now if you don’t see the potential for humor in this set-up, you need to stay away from Janet Evanovich’s novels.

Plum Lovin’ is light, easy, and fun. It has no redeeming social value – my kind of book. It won’t last much longer than a TV movie. So stick a bag of popcorn in the microwave and take an evening off.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Joseph Finder: Killer Instinct

I like Joseph Finder because he writes about the corporate world. Although it’s not quite the same corporate world I remember. I found a copy of Killer Instinct on a discount table and bought it.

We meet Jason Steadman, a district sales manager for Entronics, a company that makes flat screen TVs of all sizes. He likes what he does, and is good at it. He has reached a plateau in his career and seems reasonably content. But his wife was raised in an “old but gone money” family, and would like some of the better things back in her life. So when a VP of Sales position opens up, she pushes him to try for it.

Jason meets Kurt Semco, an ex-Special Forces guy, driving a tow truck. One thing leads to another and Jason gets Kurt a job in corporate security, mainly because they need a good pitcher on the company softball team.

Kurt adopts Jason as his new best buddy, and will do anything for him. The problem is with how far “anything” goes. At first Kurt uses his Special Forces contacts to get Jason some inside information to help him close important deals. And, interestingly, at the same time some important deals for Jason’s main competitors for the VP job fall through at the last minute.

Kent “Gordy” Gordon is the Senior VP over the entire sales division. If, well actually when, Jason gets the VP job, he reports to Gordy. And Gordy is a jerk. A lot of the book deals with Jason trying to be true to his own beliefs while dealing with Gordy’s demands.

Jason enjoys the perks and salary of his new role, but begins to realize that he got where he is with more help than he wants from Kurt. But he is still tempted to use Kurt’s help on key deals. Ultimately he understands that Kurt is way out of bounds and needs to be stopped. But Kurt is much worse as an enemy than as a friend. The plot thickens....

Jason is mostly a likeable character. That’s not always a given with Finder’s books. Kurt is a little over the top in his abilities and resources. He seems a bit too omnipotent. That helps the plot line, but at a cost in believability.

Killer Instinct takes a business cliché and pushes it to a literal definition. The result is not pretty from the perspective of working for Entronics. But for the reader, the result is a fast paced thriller set in corporate America.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 17, 2009

I found The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time in my shelf of books to be read. It had a Borders “Buy Two, Get One Free” sticker on it. I’m not sure if this was one of the two or the one free, but I’m glad I read it.

Christopher is a unique 15 year old who happens to be out late one evening and sees his neighbor’s dog Wellington lying in the yard, stabbed with a garden fork. He sets out to solve this murder—and write a book about it—so it turns out The Curious Incident is a murder mystery written in the first person by Christopher. Christopher really likes prime numbers, and he used them to number the chapters in this book. There are 233 chapters.

It turns out that Christopher is very, very smart (he can solve most any math problem), but he has very limited social skills and doesn’t like being around people he doesn’t know. “I find people confusing…people do a lot of talking without using any words…people often talk using metaphors.”

Christopher is very honest and very logical, and he will keep his promises—but not always as his father expects if there is any wiggle room in the literal logic of the promise. Christopher hates yellow, won’t eat any yellow food, and if he passes four yellow cars in a row on his way to school, it’s going to be a Black Day.

Christopher’s constraints (both emotional and also promises to his father) make it hard to gather information about Wellington’s death, but he proceeds with great determination and courage. Along the way he discovers a big secret, and that leads him into a long trip on public transportation (passing four yellow cars), and Christopher is forced to deal with crowds of strangers. It’s very hard, but he deals with it.

Mark Haddon does a superb job in The Curious Incident of describing the thought processes of an autistic boy. We understand exactly what is going through Christopher’s mind, and we understand why everything Christopher does makes perfect sense to Christopher, while it is driving his father and other adults crazy. It’s a real challenge for the people who love him to live with him, especially if they lie to him, even white lies. Christopher is very observant and very logical and can easily spot inconsistencies.

The Curious Incident starts off gently in describing Christopher’s cleverness and quirks, but it gets pretty intense when Christopher is challenged. But Christopher and the adults in his life muddle through everything, and life goes on.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 12, 2009

Well, it took awhile to get to it, but we finally read J. K. Rowling’s final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I read it aloud to my wife, one chapter an evening. It was quite an experience trying to imitate all the voices and moods, which swung from dull to intensely exciting, and back again.

So, finally after six years we find out – will Harry Potter overcome Lord Voldemort, or, heaven forbid, not? “Neither can live while the other survives.” Harry is strongly challenged numerous times through this story, and things don’t always work out as planned.

There are a lot of questions that weren’t completely resolved in the previous six Harry Potter books, and a few more come up in this book, in particular the question of Severus Snape’s loyalties. As the story unfolds, this and many other questions are answered, and I no longer have to toss and turn at night pondering.

Two central concerns in this final volume are Horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows. A Horcrux is an object in which a person, in this case Lord Voldemort, has concealed a part of his soul. The Deathly Hallows are objects that have something to do with defeating death. Both of these might be used in alternate strategies to overcome Lord Voldemort.

Throughout this book Harry and his close friends Ron and Hermione take on the search for Horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows. Finding them and doing exactly the right things with them requires intuition, quick thinking, and perhaps a lot of luck.

As the story starts, Lord Voldemort’s allies have taken over the Ministry of Magic and control most of the wizarding community. Harry and his two friends are forced to live on the run, and they travel throughout England in their searches. It seems like most of the time they are aimlessly wandering, searching for some clue that will lead them to the next object in their search. These times get a little boring as we listen to the heroes arguing with each other and getting nowhere. But on the next page something drastic happens, like being unexpectedly discovered by Death Eaters, and the story jumps into high-speed action, with a particularly strong climax at the end. Not surprisingly, it reads like a movie script.

Up through the final events, Harry (and we) gradually learn Professor Dumbledore’s complex strategy for prevailing over Lord Voldemort. Harry is frustrated that Dumbledore didn’t just tell him all this directly, but perhaps that couldn’t be. Harry’s parents and most of the friends and enemies in their generation of wizards all play roles in the great unfolding. There are a bunch of heroes and a similar number of villains, and both the good and the bad have plenty of successes.

There are numerous sad parts to this book, and not everyone survives. I was very sad when the Death Eaters killed some of my favorites. By the end of the story things are resolved, and we know whether the wizarding world is going to be run by good or evil witches and wizards. Now I don’t have to lie in bed at night wondering about it.

Sigh, the end.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jeffery Deaver: The Bodies Left Behind

I know I’ve read Jeffery Deaver before, but I’m not a regular. I’m not sure why. I was attracted to The Bodies Left Behind by its Book-of-the-Month Club review.

A call comes in to 911, a man’s voice says, “This”, and the call ends. The phone goes to voice mail when the operator tries to call back. Sheriff Tom Dahl of Kennesha County, Wisconsin learns that the call came from Lake Mondac in Marquette State Park in the remote northern part of his county. The phone is owned by a pair of lawyers from Milwaukee who own a vacation home at the lake. They were to meet a friend of theirs from Chicago at the lake. Dahl doesn’t like unresolved issues, so he sends Deputy Brynn McKenzie to investigate.

Just before Brynn arrives at the lake house, Dahl calls to let her know it was a false alarm, so she should come back. (A man returned the Sheriff’s calls and explained it was an error with his speed dial.) But Brynn is closer to the lake house than to the nearest gas station, so she decides to go on and borrow the bathroom. While there she finds two bodies on the floor, is attacked by a pair of thugs named Hart and Lewis, and finds a scared woman named Michelle hiding from the thugs.

To keep the book interesting, Brynn loses her phone, gun, and car in the lake before letting anyone know what is happening. (She’ll have quite a story to tell about that experience.) She and Michelle escape into the woods of the State Park with Hart and Lewis in pursuit. Meanwhile, everyone back at the office thinks she’s on her way home with plans to stop for dinner, and take the next day off. Oops!

Eventually, Dahl figures out that something is wrong and rallies the troops. He also finds the bodies, but by then he is hours and miles behind. Brynn and Michelle have been surviving on pluck and wits, while Hart and Lewis press on with a determination to leave no loose ends behind.

Deaver gives us plenty of plot complications and major twists that I did not see coming. But they all fit logically. The characters are pretty well developed, and I like Brynn.

The Bodies Left Behind is a good adventure romp with all the excitement and surprises I could ask for. I clearly need to read more Deaver.