The Hardest Part

“You take it on faith, you take it from the heart/ The waiting is the hardest part.”  Tom Petty

C.L. Taylor’s The Missing is an intriguing mixed bag.

The Missing: A Novel by C.L. Taylor (William Morrow Paperbacks, $15.99, 496 pages)

missing taylor

Claire, the mother of a missing child, Billy, suffers through the mental anguish of trying to determine if he is actually still alive when she loses hope in the authorities.  This has a tragic impact on all of her relationships, including her mother, best friend, her other son, Jake, his live-in girlfriend Kira, and husband Mark.

All of the tricks of enticing the reader in, choppy scenes that attempt to accentuate the characters’ minds and the turmoil of the story itself, work – sometimes.  And then they become tiresome and tiring.  Just when the reader begins to become attached to the story and plot – interested in trying to figure out what is actually going on, things get to be too much.

In all novels one must suspend reality and in the suspense/intrigue genre, this is even more paramount.  In The Missing I found myself rooting for Taylor to pull it off.  (There’s a story to be told here that should be worth the time and energy.)  There are personal stories and interrelationships that come close to making this a special novel.  But it does not quite get there.

At over 450 pages, the telling is too long.  The story drags on and this diminishes the impact of the conclusion when the truth is revealed to the intrepid reader.

There is some very good writing in The Missing and there are sections where one’s interest is definitely heightened.  At times the story moves along nicely and pulls the reader in.  But it’s not consistent enough to be viewed as a top notch suspense novel.  Let’s hope that Morrow assigns a diligent editor to work with Taylor on her next release.

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Despite these reservations, there will be readers who will enjoy the book.

Recommended, for a less demanding audience.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a professional educator and sometime drummer.  He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

 

 

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A Death in the Sunshine State

Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime by Cutter Wood (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $26.99, 225 pages)

love and death

This book arrived at the right time.  I had just finished reading a true crime book and found it to be sadly disappointing.  The writer put down all the facts about a triple murderer and his trial but seemingly without context.  When one sentence follows another in this manner – without drama, suspense or the seeming presence of actual people, it’s far less than engaging.

Cutter Wood’s book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is like the antidote to the typical true crime story.  Wood, an MFA graduate in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, touched base with all of the principals about a murder that he felt somewhat connected with.  You see, after graduating from Brown he felt directionless – like Benjamin in The Graduate, so he spent months at a secluded hotel in Florida.  The woman who ran the hotel with her husband later disappeared and Wood was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Wood knew some of the principals involved and was also given access to law enforcement officials and the man suspected of killing the missing woman.  But once the crime was solved, Wood felt that little was resolved.  The facts did not seem to add up to a whole, complete story.  Therefore, he elected to pursue a unique option.

Instead of writing a dry nonfiction account of the crime, Wood decided to write a fictional version of a relationship between a former criminal and a successful married businesswoman whose lives intersected.  It’s a story of an unlikely attraction, a loving relationship, and a tragic ending.  Wood never attempts to explain the crime or the murderer’s mind, but paints the events – both real and imaginary – as something that was fated to occur.

As Wood is free to explore events and scenarios that may or may not have played out, he develops a story that feels fully real.  This is not Law and Order – a stereotypical version of crime and justice, nor is it a fly-over account of a crime developed for a one hour cable TV network show.  It is a story of two imperfect people who were drawn to each other for all of the wrong reasons.

By leaving out some of the seemingly critical crime details and facts that would be highlighted in the standard true crime book sold in an airport gift shop, Wood proves again that less is more.  His “story of a crime” focuses on the small yet significant aspects of the lives of two people.  In doing so, he brings the individuals to life and causes us to mourn – in a quiet, dignified way, the loss of one of them.

It’s a sad, tough story but Cutter Wood takes the reader to the heart of the matter.  His is a respectful approach to human imperfection and frailty.

I look forward to reading Wood’s future works.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Love and Death in the Sunshine State will be released on April 17, 2018.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Three for the Read

The Dress in the Window: A Novel by Sofia Grant (William Morrow, $15.99, 368 pages)

dress in the window front

The time is post-World War II and the location is a rundown mill town outside Philadelphia.  Three brave ladies are struggling to make ends meet.  Sisters Jeanne and Peggy are victims of the war – Jeanne has lost her fiance and Peggy is a widow with a small child.  They live with Peggy’s mother-in-law in a bare bones existence eking out a living designing and sewing outfits for the more well-heeled ladies of the town.

Readers are treated to insights about the fabrics being fashioned into unique garments designed by Jeanne and crafted by Peggy.  The novel covers several years following the war’s end as the sisters work to better their lives and resolve their personal issues.  The chapters are laid out from the various character’s perspectives which make for a well rounded tale.

dress in the window back

The book is billed as a debut effort by Sonia Grant.  However, a bit of sleuthing by the reader – could it be a pseudonym? – will put that notion to rest.

Well recommended.

A Season to Lie: A Detective Gemma Monroe Mystery by Emily Littlejohn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 290 pages)

a season to lie

Gemma Monroe is a police officer who also happens to be a new mother.  Gemma narrates her experiences in Cedar Valley, Colorado during the snowy month of February.  The discovery of a frozen corpse at the local private high school begins a very baffling search for the murderer.

Author Littlejohn crafts a fascinating story of small town secrets that may keep her readers from putting down the book until the very last pages.  Her smooth writing is enchanting and some paragraphs could be poetry.  This is a follow-up Gemma Monroe mystery.  The first was Inherit the Bones.  Let’s hope another installment will follow in the not-too-distant future.

Highly recommended.

The Trust: A Novel by Ronald H. Balson (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 356 pages)

the trust

This time the narrator is Liam Taggart, a private investigator in Chicago, Illinois.  Liam left Northern Ireland 16 years ago after some messy business that involved politics and the CIA.  A reader who knows very little about Irish politics, AKA, this reviewer, will be fascinated by the fierce loyalties and grudges that span decades – no, even centuries, in this divided country.

Liam’s uncle Fergus has died and left explicit instructions with his attorney regarding the disposition of his estate.  There is a secret trust and Liam is named the sole trustee.  It’s a daunting task for Liam to unravel the mystery behind Fergus Taggart’s life and death.  Author Balson is a trial attorney based in the Windy City who makes good use of his legal knowledge and experience in spinning an international novel worthy of the elegant dust jacket.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

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The Decommissioned

Presumption of Guilt: A Joe Gunther Novel (Minotaur Books, $16.99, 304 pages)

Presumption of Guilt is Familiar, Solid

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When you have a good thing going, why change?  Archie Mayor’s Presumption of Guilt is the 27th in the Joe Gunther series that began in 1988, and its familiarity is pleasing.  Gunther is an agent with the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI).  His brazen and unorthodox ways get results, and the reader easily and immediately accesses the setting and characters while the plot unfolds.

Mayor’s background as a medical examiner allows for insider commentary when bodies turn up, which some will no doubt find interesting.  His chapters are somewhat longer than most suspense novels, which is due in part to the fact that much of the story is told in dialogue.  In this addition to the Gunther catalog, Gunther’s daughter joins him and considers following in his footsteps with the VBI.

In Presumption, the body of Hank Mitchell is found in a slab of concrete on the property of a recently decommissioned nuclear power plant.  Initially, there is no obvious motive for this 40-year-old cold case.  But during the investigation a police officer is attacked, gagged and left on the side of the road.  A suspect in the old Mitchell case is soon found murdered.

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Several people take it upon themselves to solve the initial murder and the related case, and no one seems to be above suspicion.  Joe, of course, gets to the bottom of things but not before taking a bullet, and not without several unanticipated turns.  These turns keep the reader fully engaged until the very last page.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  Presumption of Guilt is now available in a trade paperback version.

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel of baseball, life and Bob Dylan.  He is a public school superintendent in Illinois.

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Murder in the Library

murder manuscript roomMurder in the Manuscript Room: A 42nd Street Library Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99)

I tend to avoid mysteries for a number of reasons.  Let me go over them here:

  1. Most mysteries tend to feature too many characters.  One needs a flow chart to keep track of them.
  2. Most mysteries have too many quirky characters.  Why are these characters stranger than the ones in most novels?
  3. Most mysteries have too many red herrings.
  4. Most mysteries go on too long before the mystery in question is solved.  And then it happens far too quickly (e.g., 305 pages detailing the story, which is wrapped up at warp speed in the last 10 to 15 pages).
  5. Most mysteries have too much dialogue and not enough narrative exposition (scene setting and action).

Despite all of this, I found Murder in the Manuscript Room to be quite engaging.  Con Lehane offers a unique premise – someone is not only killing in the New York City Public Library, but in the rare manuscripts room.  Why?  Why there?  Why in that room?

I often find myself not caring about the solution to the crime at the center of a mystery novel.  However, this time I wanted to know the outcome.  What made the read more enjoyable than most mysteries for me is that author Lehane has a bit of a clipped style.  He does not overload the reader with facts and details; instead, I found that sometimes he leaves things out.  Every now and then, in fact, I wondered if I had skipped a page or two because of his conciseness.  (He sometimes, to use a legal phrase, assumes facts that are not in evidence.)

Lehane also throws in a bit of a romance and a variation on the hard-boiled New York City cop.  Well done!

Lehane basically has a unique tone as a writer.  I like it.

Now I look forward to reading the earlier book in the series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, and I hope I’m sent a copy of Lehane’s next work.

Me, looking forward to reading a mystery…  Imagine that.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.  This book was released on November 21, 2017.

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Death in Special Collections

Murder in the Manuscript Room: A 42nd Street Library Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99)

murder manuscript room

As she dug through the possessions Leila left behind, she was aware that what she searched through was not so different than what she might find in any of the boxes in the manuscripts and archives collection.

Author Con Lehane follows his first novel in this series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, with an equally engaging tale.  Raymond Amber, newly-discovered grandfather of Johnny, jumps into another quirky situation in his role as the curator of the crime fiction collection at the New York City landmark/institution.

The cast of characters includes several carry-overs, the most prominent among them are: Raymond’s almost-love-interest librarian Adele Morgan, New York police detective Mike Cosgrove, and beloved Library Tavern bartender McNulty.  Despite the obvious enormity of New York City, Lehane deftly conveys a small town vibe by further developing the strong relationships among the characters introduced in the first book.  They interact within a fairly tight radius around the library and their respective neighborhoods.

Of course there is the promised murder and ensuing investigation into the who and why of the event.  New member of the library staff and murder victim, Leila Stone, gave off strange vibes and did not fit in with the normal flow of work.  Mike and Raymond form a tension-filled team to solve the crime.  In the past, Raymond has proved his skill at detective work which puts him in friendly competition with his buddy the detective.

Adele is the one library staff member who was able to forge a relationship with Leila and she takes up the thankless task of delving into Leila’s past in the hope of finding a motive for the otherwise pointless murder.  Adele ventures away from New York City all the way to Texas.  There are murky figures lurking wherever she travels which adds a menacing note to the tale.

Numerous plot threads connect the characters within the murder investigation, while at the same time daily life goes on.  Raymond’s continuing custody tug-of-war with Johnny’s wealthy grandmother allows the reader to experience his evolving emotional development from a neat and tidy librarian’s life to the messiness of a life infused with deep feelings.

The satisfying second novel in the 42nd Street Library series from Con Lehane is a  product of his adept skill at writing dialogue, describing scenery and portraying emotions.  The added bonus blended into the mystery is another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the workings of a priceless institution.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Don’t Look Back

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul by Jeremiah Moss (Dey St., $28.99, 480 pages)

An initially interesting work about missing the places from the past that have disappeared – something we can all relate to – devolves into a screed.

It was hard to see in 1993, but 42nd Street, aka the Deuce, was already in the midst of “renewal.”  I had, again, arrived too late.

vanishing new york

Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss (not the writer’s real name) is an initially engaging but ultimately frustrating look at the effects of hyper-gentrification on New York City.  The first hundred pages or so are fascinating,  like a good magazine article about places that once existed at a tourist destination.  But once the reader has passed the 400-page mark, the charm of the work is completely absent.

I broke into tears, trying to hold back my grief for that place [Cafe Edison] and its people, but also for all of Times Square, and for the whole lost city.  As I wept over blueberry blintzes, I asked myself, as I often did, What is left to love about New York?

“Moss” – who acknowledges in the book’s opening that he may soon disappear “like the New York I love” – is an individual who would have been praised in graduate school for his issue spotting skills.  If he had devoted 50 to 60 percent of the book to identifying the problems with gentrification, and 40 to 50 percent to proposed legislative or social solutions the work might have been uplifting.  Instead, it’s 95+ percent devoted to kvetching about what’s been lost.  This gets boring quickly.  Very quickly.

And, make no mistake, Moss – or whoever he is, goes quite overboard in his language about the Big Apple:  “I stay because I need New York.  I can’t live anywhere else.”  Of course, he could live somewhere else but he elects to stay and complain rather aimlessly about the changing and evolving face of a major city.

Everything changes, Moss.  Get over it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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