Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “San Francisco”

Valyruh’s #CBR Review #47: Damage by John Lescroart

Lescroart gives us our bad guy at the very beginning of Damage, a not-uncommon technique which works well in this, his latest novel. Roland Curtlee, the spoiled sociopathic son of one of San Francisco’s wealthiest and most connected families, has just been released from jail on a technicality, after nearly 9 years behind bars for the rape and murder of one of his family’s Hispanic maids. The Curtlees regularly recruit vulnerable young Central American women for their staff, assuring themselves of their benevolence while (unwittingly?) providing Roland a ready supply of victims for his sexual depredations. “Ro” is now out on the street, and out for revenge. The first to go is one of the maids who testified against him at his trial, and she dies horribly. Another former maid is in hiding, but Curtlee money is certain to sniff her out eventually.

Everyone—except perhaps for Ro’s own self-deluded parents—knows Ro and his “bodyguard” are on a killing spree, including top homicide cop and Lescroart regular Abe Glitsky, newly-appointed DA and another Lescroart regular Wes Farrell,  the former prosecutor on the case, and others. But the mayor is in the Curtlees’ pocket, and so Ro remains at large. Efforts to turn up sufficient evidence to take the killer off the streets are blocked at every turn, and the careers and family lives of his opponents start to crack under a combination of Curtlee political pressure and outright threats. The tension is super-heated and readers will hold their breaths to see who else will die before Ro gets his.

Farrell is a particularly interesting character in this story. A long-standing defense attorney with enough quirks to make him eminently loveable, he suddenly finds himself in the job of the city’s top prosecutor and thus in the political cross-hairs of the corrupt–and corrupting–Curtlee family. As DA, he tries to stick to the letter of the law, which means leaving Ro out on bail, but somewhere along the way is convinced that the law needs tweaking if lives are to be protected. And thus Lescroart introduces one of his favorite themes: is the law open to interpretation, and where do the lines get drawn? A fascinating and provocative issue, to be sure.

Lescroart adds another level of intrigue to his story by killing off the wife of the jury foreman from Ro’s trial 9 years earlier. Although she dies exactly like the maids, there are some questions in Farrell’s mind that he’s having a hard time answering.  Is there another “bad guy” to be unveiled? Once Ro is back in jail, should he charge him with the murder of the foreman’s wife and clear his slate, or should he continue to investigate?

My one complaint about this book is Lescroart’s choice of an all-too-stereotypical spoiled scion of a corrupt family who preys on the family’s maids. How many books have we all read with that as the theme? Perhaps the practice is more prevalent than I could imagine–coming from a working-class family, I’ve had no experience with maids or spoiled wealthy psychopaths. Anyway…

The denouement of Damage is mostly satisfying, ending a “Mexican stand-off” that had this reader biting her nails to the quick. Still, it left the question of whether the law can or should be “tweaked” mostly unanswered. Or did it? May the reader decide.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review # 46: The Hunter by John Lescroart

I have loved all of Lescroart’s thrillers, which delve into the oft-treated world of cops, lawyers, and bad guys, but take them out of cardboard city and bring them to real life. Not only are we given cops vs. lawyers, prosecutors vs. defense attorneys, politicians vs. the law, the law vs. morality, and so on, but we are also given the histories of all of these individuals, their families, their tragedies and their dreams. Lescroart’s novels offers clever and interesting plots, full-fledged characters and snappy pacing that keeps the reader’s interest to the end. His books are far from perfect, but they entertain and on occasion provoke. Good enough for me, most of the time.

All that said, I enjoyed The Hunter, one of Lescroart’s latest books, but found some stuff to bitch about, too. The author chooses as the protagonist one of his less interesting characters, private eye Wyatt Hunt. We learn at the beginning of the story (1) that Hunt and his lawyer/girlfriend Gina are breaking up, (2) that Hunt has the hots for his much younger secretary Tamara, whom he had rescued from a horrendous situation years’ earlier, and (3) that he had spent many of his formative years in the foster system but was eventually adopted and raised by loving parents. Someone suddenly sends Hunt a text message asking if he knows how his (real) mother died, thereby prying open carefully-buried abandonment issues and setting the stage for what turns out to be a very convoluted but still exciting novel.

When he finally uncovers the story of his adoption, Hunt learns that his mother was allegedly killed by his father, who was released after two mistrials and then disappeared, leaving only a letter insisting on his innocence. The more Hunt digs, the more complicated the plot, which intersects with the very real story of the Jim Jones cult’s mass suicide in Guyana in 1978, and with its continued insidious influence to the present time. The story contains lots of fascinating turns and twists, with the texter who put the whole scenario in motion turning out to be a surprising but clever choice but who nonetheless, in my opinion (slight spoiler alert here!), should not have been allowed to get off scott-free in the end. A Lescroart cop-out, I thought.

My biggest complaint is that Hunt’s relationship with Tamara is totally unnecessary to the story–not only poorly-conceived but with dialogue of a caliber far below Lescroart’s usual standard. The author has not suffered this problem in romantic exchanges with his other characters, so I’m not sure why this one went off the rails. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps Lescroart realized subconsciously that turning Hunt from a rescuer of this young, lovely woman with the horrible history of abuse, into her much-older lover was somehow inappropriate, and he kept straining to somehow make it right. Sorry, John, it just didn’t work. That aside, the book is an exciting—and different—addition to Lescroart’s many successes.

Siege’s #CBR4 #20: San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires by Dennis Smith

In which Siege reads about the 1906 disaster in San Francisco, and discovers how–like most disasters of the time–it was aggravated by incompetence and greed.

rusha24’s #CBR4 Review #5: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

Last year I read Jennifer Egan’s latest novel A Visit From the Goon Squad and loved it—a lot. So when I saw her very first novel, The Invisible Circus, sitting in a used bookstore for a few bucks, I grabbed it, eager to see where she started as a writer. It’s an impressive debut, but definitely not without growing pains. While the writing already displays the gorgeous fluidity and feel for ambiance that she hones in her later work, in Invisible Circus she too often gives in to certain florid impulses. The result is a book that is both historically and atmospherically rich, yet sometimes lags with indulgent stretches.

Egan’s protagonist is Phoebe, an 18 year old girl living in San Francisco in the late 70s. She lives alone with her mother; her father died when she was young, her older brother is now a wealthy entrepreneur, and her older and much idolized sister, Faith, died in a freak fall (or suicide, it’s unclear at first) while sightseeing in Italy seven years before.  Feeling lonely, stifled, and generally disconnected from her life, Phoebe impulsively defers her college acceptance and takes off for Europe with the plan to follow Faith’s path (known because of a string of postcards that Faith sent home from abroad).

The rest of the book unspools in many ways like a classic coming-of-age story, but Egan makes it interesting by linking Phoebe up with Wolf, Faith’s boyfriend in high school and at the time of her death. Through Wolf’s reminisces of Faith and the flower-power era they were wrapped up in, Egan digs into a lot of weighty material: a person’s seeming incandescence in their younger sibling’s eyes contrasted with the kind of person they really were, set against the backdrop of the late 60s/early 70s and the shifting promises of the hippie generation.

Much of the narrative arc holds together, despite some contrived situations, on the strength of Egan’s writing. She brings European cities and ruins (and one terrifying acid trip) to life with detail and real feeling. Phoebe’s interspersed memories of her father are perhaps the strongest parts of the book: poignant, vivid, and layered with multiple significances—the young, innocent Phoebe’s image of family is now nestled beneath the more discerning gaze of her adolescence.

What kept me from enjoying the book more was Phoebe herself. I found her passive-aggressive, annoyingly naïve, and consistently self-occupied. To be fair, that’s a decent description of many 18 year-olds girls (I was one not too long ago); it just made her desperation to find a sense of self harder to empathize with. But overall, some really beautiful writing and an interesting look back into the psyche of the flower-children and those who traced their steps.

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