Savages: A Novel by Don Winslow

So recently I raved about The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, both by Don Winslow. As promised, I bought three more novels and read this one first. I was mildly disappointed but not deterred from Winslow.

This book revolves around two young guys and a girl. The boys become reliable suppliers of quality pot. Ben is an idealist who is using the millions he makes as a hydroponic grower to go around the world establishing hospitals, schools, build wells and do good works.

Chon is an ex-Marine who is the muscle in the operation as needed. So far, things have been relatively peaceful and life in Orange County is profitable as Chon minds the store. O is a spoiled OC girl who sleeps with both Ben and Chon, she loves them both for different reasons and everyone knows about each other so the trio works.

The Baja Cartel is ready to cross the border and offers to buy Ben and Chon’s business. When they refuse, a hostile takeover ensues. Ben and Chon, not used to having to deal with the ugly side of the business, are forced into a dirty, bloody turf war.

O is kidnapped and held by the Cartel bosses until Ben and Chon can buy her way out. O handles being a hostage by continuing her easy going slacker ways with her captors. She spends her days surfing the net, watching tv and eating fast food. An all-out rescue mission is as bloody as any Winslow book.

What I did not like was the writing style. It reminded me a little bit of Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” and I found it distracted me from what would otherwise be a pretty good novel. It is not a long book and I have two more Winslow’s so let’s see what I think as I go forward.

Savages is a great read for the younger generation as I think it speaks their language well in their own voice. I just want to read something with a more mature voice I guess. I am giving this one 3 ½ stars.

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham

Like most people, I have read a lot of Grisham. There were a few things I really enjoyed about this book that made it just a bit different than many of his other books. Sebastian Rudd is a street lawyer in an unnamed city in the South. I assumed it was either Memphis or Mississippi like most of the other books but that is never made clear. It works well because it erases preconceived notions of the south and makes the reader think urban rather than rural.

There are many strands within the story that slowly combine to become one story. At first, I thought the book was going to be a series of novellas about different characters but as the book wore on, things began to come together.

This lawyer is not your average guy. His main piece of furniture in his loft is a pool table. He drives around in an armor plated van as an office. He has a financial interest in backing and betting on cage fighters. He represents mobsters, murderers and other villains. His bodyguard/driver is named Partner.

He has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife, her lover and his young son. You aren’t quite sure how the kid got here considering the wife but she too is a lawyer and is constantly dragging Rudd to court on custody issues.

Grisham is great reading for relaxation. When I need a book that will be an easy read but a reliably good plot with interesting characters, Grisham is right there. This is an airport novel/beach novel/vacation novel. And just a little bit different than your average Grisham. I hope to meet Sebastian Rudd again.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

I recently read and reviewed The Cuckoos Calling and really enjoyed the lead character Cormoran Strike. I was looking forward to getting the next book and lo and behold, someone gave it to me after reading the blog. Ahhhhhhh, book lovers.

Just like the first book, it started a little slow but quite suddenly I was involved and had a difficult time putting it down. This time, Cormoran has actually moved into an apartment above his office but is living as austerely as ever. His business has taken an upturn due to his first case and he is considering getting another detective.

Robin, his girl Friday is back. Her boyfriend is less than enthused about her staying on as a permanent and is also very pissy about Cormoran because he has failed to meet Matthew and Robin for dinner on multiple occasions.

Robin grows more in this book. She is given greater investigative responsibilities and is able to earn Strike’s trust and admiration by showing off some of her skill set that Strike does not realize she has. Her story is also fleshed out a bit more.

This time, the crime is gruesome. A writer is murdered by being disemboweled and having acid poured on him. There are plenty of candidates who may have done the deed as the writer in question was both obnoxious and had written a book that skewered almost everyone he knew in a scathing way.

Just like the last book, the twists and turns are not broadcast and just when you think you have it solved, you don’t. Now I am bummed because Rowling aka Galbraith is busy publicizing the new Harry Potter novel and that will take her away from writing the next Strike novel.
I believe Galbraith/Rowling is a more complex Agatha Christie. The characters are well drawn and appeal to both male and female readers. Great book!!

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

I would like to start by saying that I think many average Joe’s saw this coming. I came home from work one day in 2005 or 2006 shaking my head. Many people I worked with were constantly refinancing their homes and using the money to buy bigger homes, travel, buy stuff and generally live life like they were in Beverly Hills.

I knew what these people made and the math made no sense. How could they afford to purchase second and third homes on their incomes? Who was lending them money and how in the world was this sustainable?

I was routinely derided because I took out a standard 30 year home loan, fixed, and refused to purchase anything beyond the formula of using one third of my income as a mortgage. Lenders with silver tongues including at least two losers I knew from high school were trying to get me involved in the sub-prime market.

Well, I never had to sell my house. I didn’t lose money. I stayed in the black except for about 15 months where my housing value dipped but has since rebounded. I didn’t have to do anything because blind Freddy could see that borrowing money you don’t have with a balloon payment due in five years was all a pipe dream.

And that is what this book is about. It addresses the scammers from Wall Street who have been robbing people blind and here we are back in sub-prime land. I am watching families with average middle and working class incomes buy half a million dollar homes where the combined gross income of each adult is just over $100,000. I am no genius but…..

This book gets into a lot of detail. The movie explains it well, the book is dense and I digested it slowly over weeks. But with the current state of the nation and the same crooks that broke our backs in 2008 now in charge of the White House, this is recommended reading.

Waiting for Fidel by Christopher Hunt

A fabulous timely read what with Cuba opening up recently to tourism. My brother-in-law also had taken a trip there with his family last year and after hearing him talk about the experiences he had, I was anxious to read this book. One of my very best friends gave it to me and all things merged. I also thought about Caz constantly while reading this as we have not been making our usual phone connections.

The author goes to Havana, Cuba in the hope of meeting Fidel Castro. The big question for him was “Where is Fidel?” The answer is everywhere and nowhere. At the time of writing the book, Castro was constantly on the move both within and outside the country.

The author first outlines how he and others in Havana spend their time and make money both legally and illegally. The country was a mess of rolling blackouts, lack of food, lack of work (yet fully employed), drinking, music and a rollicking black market in everything one can imagine.

He then travels to the place where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro landed and marched from town to town, extolling the virtues of Communism and decimating enemies of the state. Hunt chose to travel by local method, using the “yellow man” and standing shoulder to shoulder in the back of trucks and overfull cars and buses.

In each village, town and city he meets a wonderful collection of people: cops, farmers, musicians, black marketeers and many others. Each has their own particular take on Cuban history, Communism, life and of course, Fidel.

Did he find Fidel? Read the book! You will not be disappointed. Another timely book given the recent events in Cuba. Viva La Cuba!!

The Haj by Leon Uris

Once again Bookbub steps into my life and makes it just a little bit better. I have read several Leon Uris books over the years: QBVII, Trinity, Exodus. What I most enjoy about his novels is the depth of research he undertook. These are historical fiction but the history is so well researched that it really enhances the story.

The Haj is no exception. It is an examination of end of the British Empire’s days in Palestine, the establishment of an Israeli state and the role of the Muslim world in trying to ensure that many nations secured space or a piece of the pie in the Holy Land.

If you ever wondered about the more modern day roots of the Palestinian conflict, this book is an excellent fictional primer. It delivers the background and explains all the conflicting interests at work.

Each country in the Middle East has strong tribal affiliations that transcend geopolitical interests, Islamism , nationality or ethnicity. Many countries look down upon the Palestinians even as they claim to make war in the Palestinian interest. The real interest is always the same – money.

It also shows in fictional form that personal relationships so often, are more important and deep than national conflicts or ethnic conflicts. In the end, we have far more in common than we don’t but we cannot overcome our base nature.

The story revolves around Ishmael, a Palestinian boy who views the conflict and informs his father’s decision making process as he (the father) is the Haj of a large village in Palestine. As such, he is responsible for all the people there and when trouble strikes, he must take his whole village and resettle them as refugees in Jordan.

It shows the complications of friendships between Palestinians and Israeli’s. It undertakes the discussion of women’s roles in a complex Bedouin society as well as under a fundamental Muslim household. It attempts to explain the treatment of refugees during that period as they attempt to resettle in Beirut, Jordan, The West Bank and Egypt.

It also attempts to explain the role of the freedom fighters and young people who become terrorists and martyrs because there is virtually no other hope for them. Their life choices are limited by birth order, by education, by skill, by village position. It definitely helped me understand where the world is today while having the benefit of reading a well written story.

If a book club is looking for a combination of fiction and history, I suggest they look into any of Leon Uris’ historical fiction books. They are lengthy but engrossing and there is enough discussion for two book club sessions. Five stars.

Groovin’: Horses, Hopes and Slippery Slopes by Rich Israel

I grew up among hippies. So I can relate to this book. I am at the end of the Baby Boomer years and the people represented in this book are basically cameos of many people in my life who embraced similar ideals and lifestyles.

But as a child, I observed that this group is sometimes not able to clearly recall the events of those days spent in a halo of pot smoke, acid trips and general hippy dippy lifestyle choices. I embraced many myself but Rich Israel suffers from minor memory distortion!

The stand out issue for me in this regard is that several times he claims to have made love with someone and then pages later he denied that it ever happened. Love was free Rich. I know you want to be a modern day feminist but dude, hippie men slept around. A lot. Hippie women slept around. A lot. Believe me, you did it.

I really enjoyed this book but I would re-edit it. The first few chapters wander all over with half thought out anecdotes about protests, sex, house sharing, partying and draft card burning. It was generally unfocused.

The rest of the book focused on a journey Rich and his friend took by horseback from New Mexico to Colorado. This should have been the focus of the whole book rather than just an extended anecdote. It is a 20th century cowboy adventure.

The story follows the two as they purchase horses in New Mexico, stock up and then ride through the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. Each day brought a new adventure and perspective on life. There was some pot smoking and acid dropping but that is all part of the big adventure.

The diet was limited. There were saddle sore men. There were people met on the trail. There was wildlife. And the two horses definitely had their own series of adventures and misadventures. There were also two dogs that trotted along with the horses and men and had their own set of adventures.

The author has been encouraged to write his memoir and there is a second book in the process of being written. I suggest he focus on one story or one year or one series of events and cover that more completely. This was an entertaining book.