Sunday, December 30, 2012

Life's What Happens

The strength so this writer lies in her ability to create authentic characters, developing them to the point where we care about them very deeply. Life's What Happens is set at Kent State University in Ohio in 1969/1970 and its characters are a group of fraternity brothers. This is the period of time at Kent State when the US nationally reinstated the military draft to get enough young men into military service to serve in the Viet Nam war. The fraternity brothers followed are predominantly seniors whose lives will be irrevocably changed when the numbers are drawn that will allow them to either finish their lives on a normal course or will send them to serve and quite possibly die in the rice paddies and jungles of Viet Nam. How this affects their lives and the lives of their girlfriends and friends is beautifully and accurately portrayed. The horrific event of the National Guard being called to quell peace protests on campus that led to the deaths of four students at the hands of the National Guard and the subsequent closing of the campus during finals is integrated into the story in a way that neither supports nor condemns the deaths of those students. The book is very well written with wonderful characters, memories of the good times they shared in college and the sorrow at the changes in their lives wrought by events outside of their control. I do suggest that the author check out the erroneous use of Marshall Law in the place of Martial Law, the law invoked that allowed the National Guard to be present on that fateful day in 1970.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Wind from Entouhoron

The Wind from Entouhonoron
This particularly good piece of historical fiction is set on the shores on Lake Ontario at the time of the War of 1812. Although British and American forces coalesce for major naval battles that will likely decide the war, normal life concerns continue to be of utmost importance to the average people living around Lake Ontario. Take Jake Eastland, for example. Jake was raised as the adoptive son of Mrs. King. Now that she has died, apparently intestate, an unscrupulous barrister, Edgerton Smythe has descended on the estate, serving Jake notice that taxes are due, liens are against the property and that Smythe fully intends to purchase the estate at a small fraction of its value. Jake has no money and is desperate for a way to save the property both for himself and for his friends, the Indian natives who live on and around the property. Believe it or not, things get complicated only AFTER that point, when Jake is introduced to British naval commanders, expatriates of the French aristocracy looking for a "treasure" of their own, Jake's drunken father who abandoned him early in life, pirate kings, a child criminal. and colorful characters of every type and description. It is the fascinating, colorful characters that are the strength of this novel. To people a novel with so many colorful characters who avoid being stereotypes and carry the foibles of real people is Art Tirell's forte. When you add in the far reaching scope of the story, the complexity of the plot and subplots, The Wind From Entouhonoron is a formidable novel. Well written, fast paced and lengthy enough to really sink your teeth into (400+ pages), this is rollicking good historical fiction. I understand and appreciate the title but am a little concerned that it may fail to attract that number of readers that a book this good deserves.

Monday, October 15, 2012

White Rabbit

Entree **** of ***** 4.5 of 5
I thought that White Rabbit was a lengthy and intriguing read, somewhat like an Alice in Wonderland for adults.  Simon Cadwallader  has really made a mess of his life. We meet him on his birthday, visiting his ex wife and children. In the years before, he has been celebrated and appreciated by his family but on this year's birthday, Simon finds himself visiting children who could frankly care less about him and an ex wife who is giving him the bum's rush because she has a date. He's angry and arrogant but Cadwallader has brought this misery on himself. Feeling trapped by his family, he decided to pursue and more thrilling and fulfilling life. His plan backfired and he is now facing a life without love and commitment and a failed business. After he leaves the unwelcoming bosom of his family, Cadwallader has a car accident and finds himself cold, isolated and at a crossroads. When he comes to his senses, he has fallen down the rabbit's hole and is in an alternate universe, searching for himself and meaning. The most substantial part of this book is in the alternate universe, a place where nothing is as it seems, teeming with color, challenges, and oozing with sexuality and sensuality. The alternate universe is portrayed vividly with some humor but primarily filled with scathing indictments of business, religion, government and our horrible and unnecessary sexualization of every aspect of human life. The author skillfully uses every literary device, piles on adjectives and metaphors to create a complex journey that Cadwallader must undertake and complete to find his way home. This is a heavy, lengthy tome about one man's search for meaning. It's well written but the length makes it a little cumbersome. If I had written it, I would not have been able to cut out sections of this either because the imagery is incredible, but it does make it somewhat cumbersome for the reader.

First Time Hard

Entree **** of *****
First Time Hard was a really good read with a well developed plot and great character development. Gladys Harper and her husband were very successful in building a lovely life surrounded by beautiful things, except for their twin sons. Kevin and Craig Harper could have been listed in a dictionary under "bad seed". Vicious, ugly and involved in the disappearance of a classmate when they were young, the brothers have grown into vicious career criminals. This time, though, crime has struck their family on a personal level. Gladys Harper has been murdered and her home was robbed of jewelry and a distinctive Remington type bronze statue. A local antiques dealer, Richard Drake, has acquired the bronze third hand and will pay a horrific price for the acquisition. The Harper brothers have arbitrarily decided that Drake is responsible for the robbery and murder because he had an appointment with their mother on the day she died. Although the men could care less about their mother's demise, they do enjoy a good act of revenge - even when they have targeted an innocent man and his family. Will Richard Drake and his family survive the attentions of the Harper brothers or will their tainted past finally catch up with them?

My Sore Hush-A-Bye

Renata Barcelos is an amazingly talented writer. In her work like Mean and My Sore Hush-A-Bye, she peels the layers from topics that most writers are loathe to explore. She explores topics of dysfunctional families, abuse,and psychopathology relentlessly. My Sore Hush-A-Bye is her new novel, one which takes a close look at Camille, a sheltered young woman who has lived with her Uncle Bob for around ten years - since her mother abandoned her into Bob's care. Uncle Bob chose to home school Camille and has taught her well. However, Camille has been caught in a time warp at Uncle Bob's, immersing herself in the movies, TV shows and music of another generation. The music of Mama Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas has helped Camille deal with the loneliness of her life. Oddly enough, after all of the years being sheltered and isolated in Uncle Bob's world, Uncle Bob's feelings about her start to change. She feels abandoned by him, in an echo of the earlier abandonment of her mother. Uncle Bob sends her to the local public high school for her senior year. There she feels more like an outsider - she understands nothing of the language of kids her age. One girl does befriend her - though not publicly at Camille's request. When her new friend disappears, Camille is horrified and worried - worried that her friend's disappearance may have something to do with Uncle Bob and her. The only negative about My Sore Hush-A-Bye is that it's a lot like a mini Snickers bar; it tastes wonderful but leaves me yearning for more.

Scutchamer Knob

Entree *** of *****
The times, they were a’ changin’… Our lives were music driven and England in the 1960s was really the center of the universe for everyone under the age of 25. Scutchamer Knob, where this novel is set, is a knoll in Southern England that was a center of power throughout the ages – a center of worship, judgment, mystical power, and now, a murder. The Beatles have segued from pop to rock, Hendrix is at his prime, and musicians all throughout the world are searching for the sound that best expresses their collective soul. Trevor, Roy and Terry are working class guys in their own band, finished with school and needing to make a living. Through Cynthia, an intellectually brilliant and bohemian girl, the trio meets George Herbert, a young aristocrat who is forming a band. In the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll, they all work to create a new sound despite their class differences. George pays for the group and brings his friend Damon into the group. The power of the book is in the exploration of the 60s, exploring the generation gap, and the class differences. A secondary plot line portrays an unidentified member of the group who is immersed in a disciple/master relationship that dabbles in occult power. The author was able to bring it all together for a cohesive ending but I did find the secondary plot line a little strange and distracting. If I’d been on LSD like some of the characters in the book, it might have been clear and groovy.

Key West Bounce

Entree *** of *****
Key West Bounce is a really good story about the uncomfortable collaboration between Jack Marsh, an adventurous Key West bar owner, his best friend, Tommy Hicks, owner of a very well equipped salvage boat and a former secret agent to find a sunken airplane in international waters between the US and Cuba. The sunken airplane full of gold currency intended for Cuba’s liberation went down the 1960s, during the Bay of Pigs incident between the US and Cuba. The Haitians and anti Castro Cuban expatriates join in the hunt which results in murder, mayhem and betrayal in the Caribbean. Is the gold at the bottom of Crab Cay waiting to be recovered? What will each faction do to try to reach it first? This story is fast paced and compelling with a great deal of both intrigue and humor in it but Clive Cussler can get a good night’s sleep without worrying too much about competition. The book is fun, even compelling in some ways, but unfortunately, Key West Bounce is so poorly edited that the grammar mistakes really distracted me from a smooth, easy ride with these adventurers.

Chopper Music

Appetizer **** of *****
This is a wonderful novella about the life and times of Jackson Reilly, a bouncer for a club living a life of drugs, alcohol and riding his motorcycle. Reilly is without direction, achievement, or a stable relationship,just drifting through a life without meaning. When his mother dies, his life is not significantly changed - until he goes to give her sister some of his mother's personal effects. His aunt welcomes him and draws him into a conversation about the music that runs through the lives of their family. All of his mother's generation were professional jazz musicians who knew and worked with the greats of jazz. At one time, Jackson seemed poised to continue the family business; he was a tremendously talented pianist. For reasons that Jackson can't explain, he feels drawn back to the piano. As he pursues learning to play again, his life starts to change in every way. The question is whether or not Jackson can complete something this time. Will he accept the difficult path of mastery or will he sink back into the inertia of his pathetic existence?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two Weeks in the South of France

Entree **** of *****
Christopher Voss is a young man who has never had a job that he truly loved or a woman who he wanted in his life long term. He's an only child, not close to either parent, whose father's job took him abroad more than he was home. When Christopher's father is murdered in Toulouse, a city in the south of France, Chris takes a trip there to unravel his father's murder, finish his business transactions, and bring his body home. For the first time in his life, Chris has a purpose. Unravelling his father's murder and closing up his business are no easy tasks and once his plane lands, Chris finds himself in a rollicking adventure that involves his father's past in the French Foreign Legion, attempts on his life, his father's intriguing and immensely profitable business, residence in a lovely old hotel, Russian mobsters, the French police, sexy women and several mysterious organizations searching for the document that his father had in his possession before he died. Two weeks in the South of France is an exciting, intriguing tale of suspense that leaves Chris wondering if he will ever make it back home. The supporting cast is great and the book is a fast read, one that you don't want to put down. My only gripe is that the book was not well edited. For me, poor punctuation and grammar detract from the tale.

A Death Displaced

Entree **** of *****
Nicholas Crystan is living a rather dull life, working in a retail store part time and still missing his mother after her unexplained disappearance left he, his father and brothers reeling years before. Since her disappearance, Nicholas has been exploring different paths to spiritual fulfillment but has not found any explanation of things that fits his life view. Despite the fact that he is surrounded at work by Wiccans and others who believe in the occult, he still is not sure what he believes until he is struck by a premonition of the accidental death of a woman that becomes reality a few days later when he saves Juliet Maystone from the death he has foreseen. Juliet, the independently wealthy owner of a coffee shop and a gorgeous woman starts to have her own supernatural encounters and later seeks Nicholas out to give him a message from his deceased mother. From that point, Nicholas and Juliet are bound for an adventure with the supernatural that shakes both of their lives to their very foundations. By seeking out the secrets of a beautiful manor that is rumored to be haunted will Juliet and Nicholas solve the mystery of the disappearance of his mother? Are their new abilities simply flukes that later disappear? Has Juliet’s “displaced death” created new lives for Nicholas and her? The characters in this book are well developed. Through Nick, the author deals with the very real issues of dysfunctional families, depression, loneliness and unfulfilled lives. The occult offers mystery and drama to the book, allowing disparate characters to interact effectively and realistically. I look forward to the other books in the Lansin island series.

Monday, September 24, 2012

3 Freshmen

Entree ****of *****
his was a wonderful collegiate coming of age story. It’s their first year at a midsized college in California when three men meet and decide to become roommates. They guys are really very different: one is the son of a migrant worker, the first in his family to go to college, another is the brilliant, well educated son of a famous trial lawyer who wants to go into comedy, and the third is a basic math geek. Despite their differences, they develop and strong and enduring friendship. The book is set in the exciting and fascinating year of 1969 when the first draft for Vietnam was held, when people were seriously experimenting with drugs and free sex. Seen through the eyes of Stan, the Hispanic kid who is there on scholarship, this is a great coming of age story. Stan faces the normal challenges standard to all of the guys his age while dealing with the confusion of having to learn all about living in a world that he never even knew existed. His friendship with Darius and Lenny is the stabilizing influence on his life while his new girlfriend is a complication that he never anticipated. Will Stan make it in college? Will these early friendships survive? Read 3 Freshmen for the answers and for a lot of fun.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Blackened Cottage

The Blackened Cottage is a beautifully conceived and executed gothic novel by A. E. Richards.
Richards has managed to interweave all of the excruciatingly bleak, painful, and horrific elements of the classic gothic novel into her new book. The heroine, Lisabeth Cutteridge has been moved by her father to a gloomy cottage in the woods, far from civilization. Lisabeth is lonely and terrified by her father's descent into madness. Because her mother has disappeared from their lives, Lisabeth is bound to her father, despite his madness, in order to care for her young brother, Eddie. An odd disfigured girl named Bethan is her only friend, a true friend who comes to her rescue after Charles Cutteridge sends Eddie to London to boarding school and imprisons Lisabeth to force her marriage to a repulsive Frenchman, Jean Bernard. Lisabeth runs away through the woods, escaping not only her father but also a madwoman living in the woods who believes Lisabeth to be her long dead daughter. Lisabeth catches the eye of a psychopath whose intentions for her are deadly dark but manages to escape to London with the help of an itinerant preacher and his servant, Jojo. The atmosphere created in the book is gloomy and horrific. Our emotional and imperiled heroine suffers from nightmares and a past she cannot remember and encounters madness and evil at every turn in her quest for escape and peace. Will Lisabeth ever find the true escape that she craves or will she spend the rest of her life running from both real and imagined horrors until her life ends in tragedy?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Whining Mill

Entree ***** of *****
The title of the book is lousy but that is the only thing about the book that is disappointing. For an animal lover, like me, this book is a must read. From the very first chapter, the author, David I. Schoen, draws you into the charming mystery tale. Veterinarian Mark Canis (what a perfect name) is a vet with a special ability to communicate with animals. Not in a Doctor Dolittle fashion but in a way where he can feel the emotions running through higher level animals (no luck communicating with goldfish...). Mark is a happy fellow living the dream. He has a beautiful girlfriend, Sarah, with whom he is deeply in love and the only complication there is that he dated her best friend years before they met. His practice is successful, he has friends, amongst them Carlo a retired ex-cop, a sister and parents he loves, and he even gets along well with his girlfriend's parents! Life is a dream until suddenly things start going wrong for him. It starts with a conversation between Sarah and Stefania, her best friend about a guy named Craig - THE Craig. Next he meets a gorgeous blonde with a sick Great Dane who has just broken up with a guy named Craig. He generously helps her with her dog, making his girlfriend jealous and suspicious. But Mark's a really nice guy who would help anyone out. Next he gets a threatening letter, his practice is trashed, he feels animal emotions emanating from an old mill, and Sarah finds him naked in bed with her best friend. But he's innocent, honest, he is, even as things keep heading south. The Whining Mill is beautifully written with tons of humor from its protagonist, a truly nice guy. Can Carlo help Mark resolve the problems and find who trashed his practice and his life? Is Craig a real menace to Mark and Sarah's relationship? What part does that old mill play in all of Mark's new troubles? Can he get himself out of hot water with his girlfriend and live happily ever after? Believe me, you will really be pulling for Mark in this phenomenal treat of a tale - or it that a tail? I really encourage you to read this delightful and well written book.

The Chalk Girl

Entree *****of *****
I love Carol O’Connell’s books and wish she were more prolific. But like anything truly wonderful, her books are always worth the wait and I was horrified to find that I had missed one of her treasures for so long after its publication. The New York Times said of this that “there is the shockingly underexploited Carol O’Connell, whose Kathy Mallory, a scarily smart, ice-blond stunner on New York City’s Special Crimes Unit, is as fine a fictional creation as the crime genre offers.” The Chalk Girl is Mallory at her best.
Kathy Mallory (don’t all her Kathy!), NYPD detective is a highly functional sociopath with a horrific childhood, so when a little girl appears in Central Park: red-haired, blue-eyed, full of smiles and sunshine except for the blood on her shoulder, we can anticipate that this will be a really interesting challenge for Mallory.. The blood fell from the sky, says the child, while she was looking for her uncle, who turned into a tree. At first, they thought she was a lost child, but then they found the body in the tree.

For Mallory, newly returned to the Special Crimes Unit after three months' lost time, the child is certainly a fascinating case as well as a kindred spirit.  Charles Butler, the unattractive but brilliant and independently wealthy psychologist who has been hopelessly in love with Mallory for years is torn between what is necessary to solve the crime and protecting the special little girl who has temporarily been put in his care from further damage – even if he has to get in Mallory’s way.

As always, this is a shocking, compelling, dark tale of crime from a brilliant writer. I could not put this book down until it was finished.

The Map of the Sky

Entree *****of *****
If I could be a world class writer, I would want to be a writer like Felix J. Palma or Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Both write beautiful, lyrical, intricate novels that are superbly spun and satisfying tales. Their books are long, so you can stay immersed in the fantastical world they create for a long time. often, i wish that their books would never end and that they could write far more quickly to accommodate my passion for their writing. Now to the story at hand.
Make sure that you read The Map of Time before you read The Map of the Sky. Palma is an absolutely brilliant, lyrical writer who pays homage to the Victorian era in which his novels are places by writing stylistically in the manner of that time. He should really thank his interpreter, too, because the translator captures every nuance of the story that Palma tells.

The Map of the Sky is told in three parts, each distinct, but intertwined. Author H.G. Wells, plays a role in each. The dire events of this novel are kicked off innocuously, as Wells meets an American writer who has published a horribly written novel using The War of the Worlds as its basis, for lunch.  Wells wants to tell the man off, but when his counterpart offers to show him a real Martian, Wells is hooked.  The story rapidly moves from the preserved specimen in the British Museum to back story of the museum specimen- a horrific tale of the failure of an Antarctic adventure from which only two members survived.

The second section of the novel brings Wells to the center of the story, and reintroduces a character from the last book with a new name.  It’s the man who created the time travel experience that angered Wells so much in the Map of Time. This millionaire has the impunity to ask Wells to help him create the beginning of The War of the Worlds to impress the young woman with whom he has fallen deeply in love so that she will marry him. Of course Wells refuses to even answer the letter but when the initial invasion occurs exactly as Wells wrote it, both Wells and his nemesis end up as suspects in the eyes of the Special Cases division of Scotland Yard.  However, this is not the hoax that was planned but the real invasion of London and the rest of the world by aliens.

The third part of the novel takes place two years later, and here the story again revisits a secondary character from The Map of Time. In this section, his tale is the center of the story, but it serves to move the whole narrative towards its outstanding, complex and absolutely brilliant conclusion.

Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, A Lost Scrap of paper and What it Means to Be Haunted

I thought that I would love this book - after all, I can relate to a lot of Eric's life. I love 80s music but not as much as he. I believe in ghosts but not as much as he and my journey to functioning as a productive adult in the world was a bit of a challenge, too. Giving Up the Ghost was an easy read, and it was really heartbreaking through the tough times that he lived. This is an open and honest look at friendship, mental illness, and the pitfalls of self medicating to control your fears. His parents obviously truly loved him but had no idea how to help him until he hit rock bottom. I truly appreciated his journey back to confront places that were supposedly haunted to try to resolve what he knew to be true in his mind and experience with the "hauntings" of others. By the way, he can't keep doors shut for fear of what lies behind them while I can't leave closet doors open for the same reason. Weird, huh?Anyway, I thought I would love the book but didn't. It was okay but was not compelling and didn't live up to its hype.

The Ghost of Squire House

Entree **** of *****
Jennifer Barrett, a lovely but very lonely young woman who has been estranged from her fast living, narcissistic mother. After her mother's death, she finds that she has inherited a gorgeous house on a hill overlooking the ocean. With only one friend and a job that she doesn't really like, it's an obvious choice to move into Squire House, originally built by Paul Squire and artist. However, Paul Squire has remained in the house long after his death and liking his solitary company, has run off everyone who tired to live in Squire House - until Jennifer. This is a sweet story that is a modern update of the Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It's not quite as charming as the original story but it is well written and an easy read.

Easy Innocence

Entree **** of *****
At the murder scene of a young teen, a mentally disabled young man is found holding the weapon and covered in her blood. The lawyer for his defense is sure that he did not do it and hires Georgia Davis, ex-cop and now and PI, to try to find evidence to prove it. Through her search she finds herself trying to put together clues that seem to be buried in the very upscale and political North Shore and believes more and more that her client really is innocent. Full of twists and turns blocking her at every turn, Georgia has a difficult time breaking through the barriers of the elite of North Shore of Chicago.  This excellent murder mystery takes a clear look at the world of high stakes land development, political influence and teen prostitution by upper middle class girls looking for easy cash and thrills – thrills that can end up getting them killed. Libby Fischer Hellman really knows the North Shore of Chicago and her audience.

The Dry Grass of August

Entree **** of *****
The Dry Grass of August is a wonderful, well written story that explores family relationships, love and racism. The main character is Jubie, a 13 year old girl living in Charlotte, North Carolina in the late 1950s. Jubie is taking a trip down South with her, mother, her siblings and their black maid Mary. Her mother has been really upset and fighting with her father recently, so they take a trip, apparently to see their uncle. The book explores the racism of 1950's Florida and Georgia and familial relationships, but its beauty lies in the character of Jubie, a charming, bright girl on the cusp of budding womanhood. Jubie's love is truly "color blind" and her devotion to those she loves proves that she will be a true woman of worth.

The Devil's Game

Entree ****of *****
The Devil’s Game is a little hard to get into at first. The first few chapters are slow but after that the book is fascinating and thoroughly twisted. Crazy Patient X definitely has some serious mental issues. Unfortunately, the psychologist who is supposed to be helping Patient X  isn’t much saner than her patients. Ambitious psychologist Dr. Gloria Pike thinks her new patient is the one she has been waiting for to bring her fame and fortune with her groundbreaking new therapy. Rachel Pendelton is on the verge of living her dream, graduating and a finalist for  her dream job. Unfortunately, Rachel has an admirer. At first, it’s nothing major, but when she starts to find intimate gifts in her locked apartment, things get weird fast. Rachel doesn’t have an admirer, she has a stalker. The author is clever enough to have several secondary characters that fit the profile so figuring out who is the stalker is tough. Psychotic patients, stalkers, a nutso psychotherapist with serious father issues, and Rachel student are the intriguing players in The Devil's Game.

The Death Instinct

**** of *****
Jed Rubenfeld is a brilliant writer who is the master of his niche. This is the second book in his Freud series and although Freud does not have a major role in this book, his role is still interesting and important to the tome. This is an action-packed adventure based on an actual event -- a major terrorist attack in Manhattan on Sept. 16, 1920, that killed 400 people. A battle-scarred surgeon who studied with Freud, a brilliant NYPD investigator, and a mysterious French woman with whom the surgeon is falling in love are the main characters in this taut thriller. The novelist has also included people from the actual historical time frame, including Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie. The three protagonists witness the explosion and then find themselves wrapped up in the investigation as well as in challenges of their own making. This is a wonderful and compelling read!