Sunday, April 21, 2013

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending Jacob  What would you do if your child was charged with a crime you believe he did not commit?  How far would you go to protect your family?  Alternatively, if you suspect your child of having intentionally harmed another person what is your duty as a parent to your child and to his potential victims?  Can violent tendencies be passed from one generation to the next through DNA?  These are the questions raised by Defending Jacob.

The Jacob of the title is the 14-year-old son of Andrew "Andy" and Laurie Barber.  They live in Newton, a small Massachusetts town where Andy is an assistant district attorney.  One morning at work Andy gets a call that the body of a 14-year-old boy named Ben has been found in a nearby park, a park where many of the town's kids, including Jacob, pass through on their way to school.  Ben was a classmate of Jacob, making this case a personal one for Andy.  He is convinced that a pedophile who happens to frequent the park is responsible for the crime but there are others who think the suspect pool should be broadened.  It isn't long before the investigation begins to turn away from the pedophile and toward Jacob.

Wow!  That was my immediate reaction after I finished the last sentence.  The story is told from Andy's point of view, with excerpts from the transcript of a grand jury proceeding mixed in.  The question on every one's mind is did he do it?  Did Jacob stab Ben in the chest?  One of the things I liked about this book is that the author doesn't take the easy way out and make the victim a saint.  Neither the victim nor the alleged murderer is entirely sympathetic or unsympathetic.  The victim, Ben, was not the nicest kid.  He was a bully who teased the less popular kids, focusing particularly on Jacob.  For his part, Jacob was also not the nicest kid.  Even his best friend Derek says that sometimes he didn't like being around Jacob because of some of things Jacob said.  Oh, and there's the fact that Jacob likes to read and write stories about people being tortured.

Andy is convinced of his son's innocence.  He has worked too hard to let himself think anything else, having distanced himself from his own violent family.  Andy deliberately chose a different path from the one his father and grandfather took, not only avoiding a life of a crime but becoming a person who puts criminals in prison.  That his own son, who grew up in a loving home, who has never really wanted for anything, could willingly do harm to another person under any circumstances is inconceivable to Andy. 

Laurie, Jacob's mother and Andy's wife, is less certain.  The novel is completely from Andy's point of view so there is only Andy's impression of what Laurie thinks and feels.  This aspect of the book frustrated me, though I understood the reason for this once I got to the last chapter.  Laurie came off as weak in mind and spirit, too sheltered to handle the reality of the situation.  The way Andy tells it Laurie insists on believing that simply talking things out can solve any problem.  Her son's arrest seems like a big misunderstanding to her and she seems to think everything could be set right if they all just sat down and talked about their feelings.  She is surprised when Ben's parents, with whom she was once friendly, feel differently and rebuff her attempts to communicate.  I really wanted to hear what Laurie thought in her words as Andy's version of her seemed patronizing and unfair.  Afterall, giving credence to Laurie's doubt would only serve to undermine Andy's certainty.

Andy, as a trial lawyer, can only seem to focus on the end game - on getting a "not guilty" verdict.  He thinks he is being strong but Andy does not fully appreciate the situation any better than Laurie.  Andy has tunnel vision and is unable to think beyond the trial and its outcome.  Laurie, in contrast, seems to be thinking about bigger questions.  Could her son be guilty, and if he is, what does that mean for her and Andy as parents?  If Jacob is innocent and Laurie doubts him, then she is bound to feel like a terrible mother.  But if he is guilty, then Laurie is left to wonder how she ended up raising a murderer and if she could have done anything to protect his victim.  There is no easy path for her.

Defending Jacob began slowly, but once Jacob becomes the main suspect the story grabbed me and never let go.  The ending is intense.  Just when it seemed I had figured nearly everything out there was one final twist.  In case it isn't clear yet, I really liked this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good thriller.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel

The House of Silk is subtitled "A Sherlock Holmes Novel" and was apparently the first to be authorized by the Conan Doyle Estate.  With that kind of endorsement, one would justifiably have high expectations for this novel.  Luckily for Sherlock Holmes fans Anthony Horowitz more than met those expectations.  As to whether Horowitz managed to capture the essence of the brilliant detective and his faithful biographer Watson, with the caveat that I am by no means an expert on Sherlock Holmes, I would say yes, this mostly felt like other Sherlock Holmes stories I've read.  I thoroughly enjoyed this Holmes and Watson.  Even more than the characterizations, where Horowitz's writing really shined was in the plot.  This was a great mystery novel.  I was able to puzzle out a few clues and figured out a few of the smaller mysteries, but I was still taken by surprise by the ultimate ending.

Getting to that ending does take some time and there is a point where it seemed that the story had gotten a little off track.  Kicking off with a robbery in Boston and a gang of thieves, it then moves to London and a country estate.  There is a mysterious man visiting said estate, a murder, an appearance by the Baker Street Irregulars, and more murders, all with the unexplained House of Silk in the background.  For a long while it isn't clear how everything is related, if at all.  This sense of disorder and confusion must have been intentional, for Horowitz through Watson comments, "Perhaps it was the writer in me coming to the fore, but I might have said that it was as if two of my narratives had somehow got muddled together so that the characters from one were unexpectedly appearing in the other." (page 174)  Eventually it all comes together, with Horowitz doing a nice job of tying up loose ends.

I would definitely recommend this to mystery lovers and Sherlock Holmes fans. I also hope Horowitz writes more Holmes novels.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Literary Exploration Challenge

I have mentioned this in a couple blog posts now and thought it deserved a post of its own.  Earlier this year I decided to take on the Literary Exploration Challenge.  Literary Exploration is a fantastic blog available here and even better group on Goodreads.  The goal of the challenge is to get out of one's comfort zone and explore other genres.  There are three levels: easy, hard and insane, where participants read books from 12, 24, or 36 genres, respectively.   I started with easy challenge but was doing so well I decided to move to the hard challenge.

Here is a list of genres for the hard challenge and my progress so far:

Fantasy - A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
Graphic Novels
Historical Fiction
Humor - Earth the Book, from Jon Stewart and The Daily Show
Literary Fiction - Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Magical Realism
Mystery - Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James
Non-Fiction - Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr
Paranormal - Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
Pulp (Hard-Boiled or Noir) - Toronto Noir edited by Janine Armin and Nathaniel G. Moore
Romance - A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant
Science Fiction - The Secret Circle by L. J. Smith
Steampunk - The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress
Thriller - Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Young Adult - Looking for Alaska by John Green

As of this writing I am half way done.  Admittedly most of the books I have read so far were books I would have read anyway that just happened to coincide with the genres for the challenge, and thus I haven't traveled far outside of my comfort zone.  (On the other hand perhaps this is proof that my comfort zone was pretty wide to begin with.)  Steampunk is the exception.  Though I had heard of it (and was intrigued by it) until this challenge I had not actually read any steampunk.  Now I have and found that I quite like it.  It is definitely a genre I plan to read more of. 

I anticipate the most difficult genres for me will be horror (a genre I have actively avoided in the past), philosophical (largely because I'm not sure what this means yet), and possibly poetry (a genre I have read before but not often and certainly not lately).  I look forward to further adventures in reading.  Who knows, maybe I'll even end up liking horror.

A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant

A Gentleman Undone
The historical romance A Gentleman Undone is what I would call an atypical romance.  Or perhaps it is not atypical and I have simply not read enough romances.  In the romance novels I have read there is usually a woman who needs to be rescued and a bad boy who deep down is really, really good and just needs to find the right woman.  They meet, they fight, there are obstacles, and in the end they fall in love, get married, and more often not end up with lots of money if they didn't have that already.  A Gentleman Undone isn't quite like that.  Yes there are obstacles before the couple eventually marries, but Lydia Slaughter is anything but a damsel distress.  She is quite in charge of her life, has plans for her future and for the most part enjoys herself as she works her way toward her goals.  She is witty and really good at math, something made abundantly clear when she tries to teach her paramour about the concept of probability.  Speaking of her paramount, if there is anyone in distress it is will Will Blackshear, a soldier returned from battle who is now battling his personal demons. 

I don't often read romance novels.  I picked this up because romance is one of the genres to be read for the Literary Exploration Hard Challenge (more on this to be posted soon) and because of the enthusiastic reviews on Goodreads.  The fact that there was a strong heroine at the center made it a particularly worthwhile read.  More Cecilia Grant books may be in my future.