Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Bad MonkeyBad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd call myself a fan of Carl Hiaasen. I enjoy his offbeat characters, his plots revolving around corruption and illegal acts that skate in under the radar, and his insight into how Florida runs. (Hint: it's badly.)

So of course I had to pick up his latest book soon after it came out. I picked it up on audio, because I seem to get around to audio books much more quickly. I think I would've enjoyed a paper version more, but I also wouldn't be reviewing it until sometime next summer.

Bad Monkey starts with a tourist on a fishing trip catching a disembodied human arm. The arm makes it to our hero, Andrew Yancy, a soon-to-be-ex-cop, who shoved a hand vac up a man's rectum for insulting Yancy's girlfriend at the time. The man was his girlfriend's husband, and a well-respected doctor. The matter is settled out of court, but it takes Yancy off the force and puts him in a job inspecting restaurants for health code violations. This makes him suspicious of even food cooked in his own kitchen, and he thinks he sees roaches everywhere.

In hopes of returning to his position as a cop, Yancy looks into the mystery of the severed arm, and becomes convinced the wife did it. When several witnesses are murdered and someone comes after him, he starts to think he's onto something. His investigation takes him to the Bahamas, where the suspect widow is funding a condo by the ocean. That's where the titular monkey comes in. Driggs is a capuchin monkey with a skin condition and a fondness for fried food. His owner, Neville, was told he's the monkey from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and the book does delve into Driggs's back story to confirm that. The monkey's behavior, though, indicates it's a lie. He's anything but tame, and brings Neville only grief. In trying to rid himself of the monkey, though, he unwittingly helps Dr. Rosa Campesino, Yancy's girlfriend and helper in the murder investigation, get free of kidnappers.

The plot is fairly convoluted, though still easy to follow. Perhaps it's the reliance on Hiaasen standbys. Yancy is the jaded but well-loved authority figure, capable of plenty of mischief. Rosa is the slightly unbalanced love interest, there are two evil developers, and dumb mooks abound. As always, in the end, the bad guys are punished, though the comeuppance comes well after the book's climax.

The ending felt rather padded, actually. We know the bad guys are doomed long before we find out their final fate. There are a lot of plot threads to wrap up, and a lot of characters to account for. It makes for an entertaining complexity, but it also made me feel like the book is too scattered, and would've been better told as a novella.

My only other complaint is that most of Rosa Campesino's quirkiness rests on the fact that she has some kinks. I don't find that particularly odd. But then, I'm well aware that what a person gets off to is no reflection on that person's sanity. Having kinks is not a sign of mental damage. The minor character who develops an auto-erotic asphyxiation fetish off-screen supports the notion that Hiaasen thinks something has to be wrong with someone who doesn't want vanilla sex, which is demonstrably false, and a damaging notion to promote.

The narrator for this audio book has a heavy New York accent, which, in a book about people in Florida, seemed a little off. I was distracted from the story anytime he had to pronounce a word with "hu" in it (yooge, yoomungous, yoomorous). He frequently sounded annoyed, like the book was a pain to have to read aloud, and he'd lower his voice in the middle of sentences. His emphasis was also off, making familiar words sound foreign. Needless to say, the narrator detracted from my enjoyment of this book.

Overall, I did like Bad Monkey, though its flaws became more glaring, read aloud by this narrator. If you're thinking of reading it, I recommend something you can read for yourself, instead of having to listen to this guy.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Doppelganster (Esther Diamond #2) by Laura Resnick

Doppelgangster (Esther Diamond, #2)Doppelgangster by Laura Resnick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Esther Diamond series. It's an improvement over the last book, though there are some indications the series might fall into some tropes I dislike.

In the previous book, Esther, a struggling stage actress, found out that magic exists, and stopped a sorcerer who wanted to sacrifice leading ladies to a powerful demon. In this book, her familiarity with magic serves her well, as it's the only explanation for the bizarre deaths taking place at her day job at an Italian restaurant. People with mod connections are seeing perfect doubles of themselves, and then dying within hours. A hit man asks Esther for help finding the killer. Meanwhile, Detective Lopez has been moved to the department that investigates the Mafia, and he'd very much like for Esther to stay out of it before his conflict of interest gets them both in trouble.

The title probably would've been funnier if it hadn't been adopted as the name for what's killing mobsters, and repeated throughout the text. Still, it's apt, and eye-catching enough to make someone want to pick this up, if it's the sort of thing they'd like.

This book never pretends to be anything it isn't. It's silly, fluffy urban fantasy, and Esther well knows how ridiculous it sounds. In case she forgets, other characters are more than willing to laugh or disbelieve. That made me feel this book is more grounded in reality than most urban fantasy, despite its humor trappings.

There were times, though, when it seemed the humor might rely on the absurdity a little too much. I worried future books might start to string together wacky hijinks, for lack of any better ideas. It gave me flashbacks to the Stephanie Plum series, which I've give up on.

For now, though, I do plan to read the next book. We'll see if it lays the above fears to rest, and continues to give me the fun melding of murder mystery and magic that I enjoy in these books. I also hope we see more Detective Lopez. Not because I particularly like him, but I like how Esther plays off him.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had a copy of this book sitting on my shelf practically since the paperback release. It had all the elements of a book I might enjoy, but I was worried the book in my head was more interesting than what was on the pages. That's why this book was on my 2013 TBR Challenge. And, while it wasn't the book I imagined, it wasn't as terrible as I feared.

The Historian may, on the back cover blurb, be about a search for Dracula. Anyone going into it with the expectation that we meet Dracula and he's as sexy and fascinating as the modern zeitgeist would have you believe will be disappointed, though. This Dracula is secretive and hidden, and requires lots and lots of digging to find. The book tells three generations' worth of searching: the narrator's (she is never given a name), her father's, and his mentor's, Professor Rossi. There are three different love stories, too, each with a different ending. Love, according to this book, is best kindled in the midst of chaos, and fanned from afar.

The story opens when the narrator finds a strange book in her father's library, blank except for a woodcut dragon in the very middle. He reluctantly starts to tell her what the meaning of the book is, but cuts his story short when the unsolved mystery pulls him away unexpectedly. While she tracks him down, she reads his letters containing the rest of his tale, and where he relates that of Professor Rossi. Her father, Paul, once went in search of Rossi, helped along by the daughter Rossi refused to acknowledge, who also has ties to the Dracula legend. There are strong hints Rossi may have been kidnapped by Dracula, or by one of his agents.

The narrator receives the least attention, though it isn't until the close of her story that the narrative threads are tied up. She's telling her story from the 1970s, while Paul is traveling a postwar (and semi-Communist) Europe. Rossi, in the 1930s, finds the borders more open, but resources more elusive.

I know little of European history, even from this century, so the information within this book was all new to me, and fascinating. I have no idea how many liberties Kostova may have taken with true events, but I was able to follow her version of history, for the most part. The various political squabbles, the Ottoman influence, and the minutiae of history may have been a bit painstaking, but they were broken up enough that I felt they didn't kill the narrative tension. Rather, they added to it.

There is one aspect with which I know the author took liberties. She has "Gypsy" characters show up in the narrative. They're there to make dire proclamations about matters they could only discern magically. While the stereotypes of Roma as magical fortune tellers is a positive stereotype, it's no less ridiculous than the ones painting them as thieves, liars and child stealers. I was thrown out of the book by the appearance of these characters-as-set-dressing, and I wish Kostova had found a better way to bring mysticism into it, without reinforcing damaging stereotypes.

Overall, I was glad for a reason to stop putting this book off. Now I know, for myself, what kind of story it contains. Though it isn't the one I would've written (just thinking of all of that historical research makes me tired), it's a good story, and an excellent addition to the Dracula mythos.

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