Monthly Archives: July 2014

Book Review: Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

“Bad Monkey” is Carl Hiaasen at his best, which is to say it induces side-splitting laughter on nearly every page.

A Florida native and Miami Herald columnist, Hiaasen plums the rich depths of the Sunshine state’s bizarre real-world events, from corrupt politicians to sleazy developers and environmental plunderers. This story features Andrew Yancy, a disgraced cop fired from the Miami Police Department for a botched whistle-blowing attempt and most recently suspended from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office for doing something unnatural with a vacuum cleaner attachment to his mistress’s husband. And Yancy is one of the good guys in this tale.

Young’s boss, Monroe County Sheriff Sonny Summers, is a compassionate man. The Sheriff manages to find Yancy a new position as a restaurant inspector. Yancy yearns to ditch the “roach patrol” and return to policing and he sees an opportunity when the Sheriff, looking to avoid bad publicity, asks him to take custody of a human arm reeled in by a tourist on a fishing charter.

Yancy decides to do some off-duty detective work and in the process he falls for a sexy Medical Examiner, Dr. Rosa Campesino. They trace the frozen limb to one Nick Stripling, a Medicare fraud artist who specializes in filing bogus claims for motorized wheelchairs. Only in south Florida could this scheme work. Yancy discovers the feds were on Nick’s tail when he disappeared and presumably drowned off the coast of Florida.

His detective work leads him to an island off the coast of the Bahamas, where the luckless native Neville Stafford, has been swindled out of his land by Nick’s widow, Eve,and her shadowy boyfriend. The land isn’t the only thing Neville has lost. His pet monkey, Driggs, who may or may not have had a bit part in The Pirates of the Caribbean, is taken by a voodoo lady called the Dragon Queen as payment for a curse she puts on Eve’s boyfriend.

And then there is Bonnie, his ex-girlfriend, a former school teacher who is on the run from Oklahoma, where she was arrested for having sex with one of her students. As if that’s not enough, Yancy’s neighbor is building a huge monstrosity of a house that will block his breathtaking view of the sunset over the water.

Hiaasen’s droll observations of south Florida are mordantly funny. At one point, he wrote that premeditated crimes on Key West were rare “because they require a level of planning and sober enterprise seldom encountered among the island’s indolent felons.” At another point he describes the newly elected Sheriff as “a local bubba named Sonny Summers who won office because he was the only candidate not in federal custody, the two-frontrunners having been locked up on unconnected racketeering charges eight days before the election.”

Laughs abound in this page-turning story. I was sad to see it come to an end.

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Book Review: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub

With its alluring title and aqua-hued cover, Emma Straub’s third novel, The Vacationers, screams out “beach read.” It is that and more. The story centers on a long-awaited family vacation for the Posts, a Manhattan family. Jim and his wife, Franny, and daughter Sylvia, and son, Bobby, embark for two weeks on the island of Mallorca to celebrate the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary.

But there is more than a little trouble in paradise. Jim has been dumped from his job at a men’s magazine for having an affair with an intern. Franny, a food and travel writer, “wants to plunge an ice pick in between his eyes.” Sylvia, about to go off to college at Brown, wants to lose her virginity and Straub conveniently gives her an Adonis of a Spanish tutor. Bobby, not yet 30, brings along his girlfriend, Carmen, a bodybuilder who is ten years his senior. And Franny has invited her best friend and confidant, Charles, and his much younger husband, Lawrence, who are awaiting word on their dream to adopt a baby.

Infidelity is the elephant in their vacation home. Each of these characters has cheated or has been the victim of cheating. While opportunities abound for tawdry liaisons among this crew, Straub wisely eschews the temptation to go for the cheap, salacious story line. Though the constant point-of-view shifts could giver a reader whiplash, Straub puts the reader in the heads of each character with great sensitivity and empathy. These are not bad people; they are imperfect human beings who hunger and hurt as we all do.

What I found endearing about this novel was the way Straub gently shifted the reader’s attitudes toward the characters. I found Jim and Franny at first completely unsympathetic. Franny was obsessed with food, meticulously shopping for just the right ingredients for her dishes. But preparing food is an expression of love and I came to see that in Franny. Jim, over the course of the book, comes to realize what he has done and what he has lost. Bobby and Sylvia have epiphanies of their own, as do Charles and Lawrence.

While I am not sure I’d want to spend two weeks with these characters in a house on Mallorca, I was happy to sit on a beach and savor Straub’s poignant story.

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling

JK Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, drew mixed reviews upon its publication in 2012. I didn’t read this one right away. In fact, I read her outstanding Robert Galbraith mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, before reading The Casual Vacancy.

While I have the greatest admiration for Rowling and I found much to like in this book, I saw the same flaws other reviews have identified. First, let me share what I liked about this book. Set in the fictional UK west country village of Pagford, the story centers on a nasty battle for a council seat following the death of the popular Barry Fairbrother. Pagford’s neighboring city of Yarvil is beset by many of the same ills of any urban area: poverty, crime, drugs, and prostitution.

The class struggle between the smug elites of Pagford, personified by the rotund right-wing leader Howard Mollison, and the champions of the less privileged, a cause Fairbrother took up, provide a clever microcosm for the political battles fought daily in the U.S. and doubtless many other countries.

Rowling dishes up plenty of black humor throughout. The dinner scenes featuring Howard and Shirley Mollison and his son, Miles and his buxom wife, Samantha, who detests the Mollisons, are filled with hilarity. The leaders of Pagford are obsessed with petty gossip and go to great lengths to hide their dirty little secrets. Leave it to their children to pull back the curtain on their indiscretions, using their expertise with the internet and technology.

The central point of contention between the two forces is Howard Mollison’s plan to close a substance abuse clinic and to redraw the village boundaries to jettison a notorious public housing complex to the city of Yarvil. Fairbrother had understood better than anybody the obligation of society to help those who are less fortunate, but his supporters appear outmaneuvered.

Now let me share what I didn’t like. Most of the characters lack depth and, worse, are thoroughly unlikeable. I’m not asking for perfect characters, but these folks really turned me off. I also found the ending more than a bit contrived and it left me with an empty feeling.

That said, there are some terrific scenes and moments in this book. I just wish the ending paid off the premise.

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