Book review: The Whistler

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The Whistler by John Grisham

I enjoyed this legal thriller.  I figured that lawyers investigating a corrupt judge would be an interesting angle on the legal profession, and it was.

The judicial conduct investigators are Lacy and Hugo.  As they near the truth, their lives are in danger from a shadowy Gulf Coast syndicate.

I complain when books have too many characters.  The Whistler had many characters, but for some reason this was not a problem for me this time.  It may be because Grisham’s writing style is very lucid.  I never felt confused by who he was talking about.  The characters were crisply drawn, and the scenes and their motives were well defined, so the characters didn’t blur together.  One character in particular was very colorful—Lacy’s pugnacious real estate investor brother, Gunther.

That being said, there is probably one character that could have been cut.  Feeding information to Lacy and Hugo are three layers of snitches.  There is a mole, an intermediary, and an ex-con lawyer conveying information from the intermediary.  I was never quite sold on the need for three characters to be involved, when this could have been condensed fairly easily into two characters.

A number of Goodreads reviewers have suggested that the writing is good and the plot is fine, but that there’s a “missing spark” in this book, although they can’t put their finger on what it is.  I’d venture to say that it may have to do with a lack of conflict among the main, “good” characters.  Lacy and Hugo never bump heads.  Lacy and her boss Geismar have different approaches on how the investigation should proceed, but they never have a major difference.  Lacy’s love life is totally vanilla and progresses without fireworks toward the second half.  All the conflict is on the side of the villains/antagonists.  I think that the lack of a conflict or a personal transformation in Lacy’s life is probably how the air leaked out of this book’s balloon.

As usual, Grisham serves up various flavors of the South, with scenes in different cities throughout Florida, but also Mobile, Valdosta, and Mississippi.  Comments about race, real estate development, management of Indian casinos, and how organized crime in the South are all included.

Without spoiling anything, I would say that the ending was satisfying enough and brought closure to most of the plot elements.  However, there is a related case in the book about a wrongfully convicted inmate.  How things end up for him doesn’t really get spelled out.

The Whistler is nothing too deep, and everything comes together a bit too smoothly in the end, but it is still a pleasurable read with justice served.

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Book review: Orca starts with a bang, ends on ice

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Before there was “Blackfish,” there was “Orca.”

And alongside Orca the book (1977) was Orca the movie.  And a dreadful movie it was.  My main memory is of a whale fetus ejected from its mother’s womb, landing on a ship deck, and squealing like a human baby.  It put the “ick” in flick.  As others have pointed out, the novel is superior.

Jack Campbell, the main character, is an alcoholic who is hopelessly uninterested in anything life has to offer, barely keeping his father’s charter boating business in Florida afloat.  His sister Annie’s boyfriend finds a newspaper article about a $125K reward from the Japanese for the capture of a great white shark.  Campbell’s crew, including surly Gus, head north in the Bumpo.

While hunting fish, Campbell finally finds that the activity excites him.  He begins to step away from the bottle.  Ending up in Canadian waters, the Bumpo fails to capture a shark.  Netting an orca, the killer whale, is more feasible.  Campbell and the Bumpo’s crew gain the blessing from the leaders of a South Harbor, a Newfoundland fishing village, to ship out on a whaling mission.

During the expedition, a pregnant orca delivers a stillborn calf.  The orca father, dubbed “Nickfin” by a local Indian chief, blames Campbell.  That sets into motion a series of attacks against vessels, Campbell’s loved ones, and South Harbor.  The Bumpo is damaged, and Campbell is stuck back in town awaiting repairs while the entire town turns on him.

There he falls in love with Rachel, a whale expert who doesn’t want Campbell to kill the orca.  He doesn’t want to tangle with Nickfin either, since he knows how dangerous the whale is.  But the town becomes so antagonistic that Campbell has little choice but to ready for battle with the orca on the high seas.

Campbell is a strong, engaging character.  The succession of events leading to the final battle is compelling.  The orca’s attack scenes are gripping.  The fickleness of the villagers—cheering on Jack at one point and trying to run him out on a rail later on—is frustrating but true to life.  Overall, I liked the book.  People who like sea monster fiction like Jaws and Meg will find this to be a quick and entertaining read.  The audiobook was fun because of the sly narration by Mark Moseley.  I’d give the novel three out of five stars.

Why not a higher rating?  There’s an odd theme in the book involving Campbell’s bonding or soul connection with Nickfin.  Campbell perceives that the orca represents freedom.  That doesn’t make sense since the whale seems as obsessed with revenge as Campbell does.  At other points, the orca represents Campbell’s own demons—perhaps his alcoholism or sense of worthlessness.  At times the connection borders on the paranormal with Campbell practically reading the whale’s thoughts.  That element didn’t work for me, and the final page or two made for a limp ending.

Book Review: Breaking Creed breaks into a gallop

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Breaking Creed, a suspense novel by Alex Kava, opens with a girl swallowing condoms filled with cocaine.  Amanda is a drug mule seduced by an abusive Latin American kingpin.  Ryder Creed, who was a Marine and is now a dog handler, detects Amanda at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta with the help of Grace, a Jack Russell Terrier with a nose for mischief.

Rather than turning Amanda over to the authorities at Hartsfield or taking her the hospital, Creed drives her to his home—in Florida!  This was an extremely peculiar and implausible decision that distracted me for several chapters.  The shock of a grown man taking an underage girl across state lines alone gradually wore off as we learned that Creed operates a halfway house that can help Amanda.

The Creed storyline is intercut with scenes of Special Agent Maggie O’Dell, who is assigned with a homicide case of a “floater” pulled out of the Potomac.  The victim was killed and tortured while strapped to a mound of fire ants.  O’Dell travels to Alabama to investigate where the torture took place.  The investigation and the investigators themselves are targeted by an unknown assassin who uses lethal animals or insects to strike his victims.  It’s a chilling approach.

Creed helps out on the Alabama case, too.  Grace, his Jack Russell Terrier, isn’t just a drug dog or a rescue dog or cadaver dog, she’s an all-purpose crime-stopping dog.  Whenever Grace finds what Creed seeks, he rewards her with her favorite thing—a pink elephant chew toy.  I’m not sure how plausible it is that Grace has so many talents, but she is a fun dog character.  Grace isn’t just a prop or an object of affection in the book—she is a dog that actually affects the plot in several ways throughout the book.

The assassin’s methodology, dog scenes, and galloping pace of the plot make Breaking Creed a fun, quick read.

Less enjoyably, there are many coincidences and convenient turns of events that cause Creed and O’Dell to work together throughout the book.  Their separate investigations merge more than once.  The way Creed and O’Dell get excited to see each other but try to play it cool reminds me of romance novel tropes.  A lot of emotions are attributed to Creed and other male characters in an unconvincing way like romance novelists sometimes do.  There is definitely more action here than in a Nora Roberts book, but overall I would categorize Breaking Creed as a romantic suspense, not as a thriller or mystery as it has been classified by Goodreads and Amazon.

Another word of warning:  although the back cover book blurb makes it sound like the book is set in Atlanta, it isn’t.  Only a couple pages are.

Breaking Creed is the first of the “Creed” series by Alex Kava.