Complicated

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The Other Widow: A Novel by Susan Crawford (William Morrow, $26.99, 333 pages)

The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford was an excellent, suspenseful debut novel (“A gripping character-driven mystery.” Booklist) And so I had high hopes and expectations for The Other Widow. I was disappointed.

Widow starts off with a bang. Joe Lindsay, a married business owner who is having an affair with one of his workers, has a fatal car accident while driving in heavy snow. His mistress is his passenger. For some reason the brakes on Joe’s Volvo fail to work and his airbag does not deploy. The mistress escapes from the accident scene and resolves to find out what happened. As does insurance investigator Maggie Brennan, a former police officer and war veteran who notices that the dead man had recently been extremely well insured by his spouse. (The Irish-American character of Maggie Brennan is listed as Maggie Devlin on the book jacket.)

While Pocket Wife was stocked with a few well drawn out characters, one of the key problems with Widow is that there are too many characters, virtually all female. It’s difficult to identify with any of these characters – other than Brennan/Devlin – because so little time is spent with each of them; Crawford has dissipated her creative energy with quantity rather than quality. And while Pocket Wife was genuinely clever in the mode of Scott Turow, Widow is loaded with dead ends and red herrings. And even a ghost of sorts – the dead mother of a character speaks to her whenever she’s in imminent danger. In my mind, I pictured Crawford with flow sheets helping her keep track of the characters and false leads.

Widow concludes in a somewhat logical fashion, but it’s just one of many possible endings tying up far too many loose ends. The reader may spend time afterward, as I did, wondering if Crawford selected the right villain among numerous characters most of whom had bad intentions and evil motives.

On the positive side, Widow is a quick read since the suspension of disbelief never quite kicks in. Not much is invested or lost on the reader’s part. And the promising character of Maggie Brennan makes her entrance. At the end of this crime tale, she’s welcomed back to the police department with open arms after having figured out who – singular or plural, killed Joe Lindsay. Maggie is tough and smart and has great instincts.

Let’s hope that Crawford’s next book is subtitled A Detective Maggie Brennan Mystery. And let’s hope that Crawford listens to the ghostly voice telling her to keep it simple.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on April 26, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-other-widow-by-susan-crawford/

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Love Story

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Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

When a deadly disease strikes, it’s often not clear whether this is harder on the afflicted person or those who surround him/her. This is a point well made in the memoir Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser. Lesser’s sister Maggie battled lymphoma cancer which went into remission, only to return after seven years.

Maggie had one chance for survival, a bone marrow transplant from the perfect donor. That perfect donor happened to be her older sister, Elizabeth. If successful, Maggie would live on with her sister’s blood literally coursing through her veins. In a sense, the sisters would become one, the team known as Maggie-Liz. But the sisters had not gotten along superbly well in their five-plus decades of living, so they realized they would have to overcome the issues that had sadly separated them in the past.

Marrow is a fascinating look at how two people worked extremely hard to find love and forgiveness among the ruins of pain and suffering. Lesser makes clear, however, that what worked for her and Maggie might not work for others. (If there’s a flaw in the telling, it is that Lesser often gets caught up in the forest – the world, the universe, the meaning of Existence, instead of focusing on the trees – the lives of her and her sister.) And yet, this is an inspiring tale of courage. It’s also a reminder that love conquers all, even when death stands poised to strike.


Well recommended
.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on September 20, 2016. Elizabeth Lesser also wrote Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

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Babysitting Grandma

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How to Babysit a Grandma by Jean Reagan; illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99, 32 pages)

Consider a sleepover at grandma’s house from her granddaughter’s perspective. Rather than grandma running the show, it’s the little girl’s turn. This book is one of a series of “How to…” books written by Jean Reagan. The text is directed at the child with gentle guidance for managing the visit. There are shifts in typeface from purple handwritten lettering to standard black 18-point New Century Schoolbook. The purple lettering focuses on fun and silly sounds to make during activities. The black typeface conveys the directions for what to do in each situation that happens during a sleepover.

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Mommy and Daddy make brief appearances in the story at the beginning (drop off) and at the end (pick up). They provide the premise for the story. The rest is pure fun for the lucky grandma and grandddaughter. Having a shift to a child’s list of activities is empowering and a delightful way for grandma to experience the visit. By the way, there is ample coaching for the little girl to let grandma know what to choose. I’m guessing the cute blond pigtailed girl depicted in this book is somewhere around five or six years old.

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Grandma is provided her choice of activities – going to the park, singing together and dressing up, to name a few. Making silly faces with food, playing shoe store and dressing as twins were new to this reviewer who happens to be the grandma of a nearly six-year-old blonde who sometimes wears pigtails. When shown the book’s cover during a Face Time visit recently, she immediately identified herself! The doggie in the story is white with black spots, just like my granddaughter’s. The only thing missing is the fluffy brown Maine Coon cat who adores her mistress.

The illustrations by Lee Wildish are bright and cheerful with spot on proportions for the characters in keeping with the drawings of someone who is six or thereabouts. Surprisingly, they were created digitally. Regardless of the method, their fresh, light-hearted quality is a perfect match for the text.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Twentieth Century Fox

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The Trouble with Lexie: A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 336 pages)

We are launched into Lexie’s suddenly unhinged life at a scandalous moment, as she is discovered in the worst possible condition, in the most unthinkable place at precisely the wrong time. This contemporary, hilarious fourth novel from Jessica Anya Blau is addicting and fast-paced. After the ignominious opening scene, the story jumps back in time, where we learn Lexie’s history through artfully constructed scenes.

Lexie James is an alluring 33-year-old Health and Human Sexuality teacher at a prestigious U.S. private boarding school on the east coast. She has made something of herself, coming from a working class single mom and absentee father in California, to now being employed by the Ruxton Academy and engaged to marry a refined man. We admire her, all the while knowing that a train wreck of poor choices awaits.

Suspense builds. There are massive deceptions, forbidden fruits, and vivid characters, such as the ancient, potty-mouthed Dot. The metaphors are brilliant (“Lexie felt the pain so intensely she could almost see it as a physical thing: a vibrating sheet of silvery magneta that clanged against her cold skin like cold aluminum.”), the philosophy sweetly dispensed (“Yes. Love the people you love, be open to love, be good and do good.”), the similes memorable (“The sadness inside Lexie ran like a wash cycle: circling, swirling, rotating, swishing. It came straight out of her mouth, eyes, and nose, everything wet and running.”) and the wisdom simply put (“Maybe anxiety showed up only when your body needed to tell you something you hadn’t yet faced.”). The outcome proves Dot’s cautionary advice to Lexie: “…remember that the only life worth living is the one where there’s been numerous f*ckups.”

Well done, Ms. Blau!

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Dwight

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on June 28, 2016.

Jennifer Dwight is the author of The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel (She Writes Press).

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Ebony and Ivory

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He’s taught in his school/From the start by the rule/That the laws are with him/To protect his white skin… Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”

Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training by Adam Henig (Wise Ink, $9.95, 146 pages)

Much has been written and passed on about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball and the history of the Negro Leagues. However, that single act was only the beginning of a long struggle for equality in major league baseball and society. Those that followed suffered significant abuse and hardship all to often. Hank Aaron was the target of vile, despicable hatred when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. That, too, has been chronicled in great detail. The travails of African American baseball players during spring training received far less scrutiny, as has their journey through minor league cities in the south during the 50s, 60s, and beyond.

Adam Henig shines a light on the subject in Under One Roof. It is more of a flashlight than a spotlight, as had he chosen he could have expanded his tale to include a more substantial account of the travails of these athletes and the social mores of the time. As it stands, he confined his story to the efforts of civil rights activist, Dr. Ralph Wimbish and his work to integrate the community of St. Petersburg, Florida.

In the early 60s, St. Petersburg was the spring training home of both the Cardinals and the Yankees. Pitcher Bob Gibson of the Cardinals and catcher Elston Howard of the Yankees were among the prominent black players on those teams. At that time they and their other black teammates were not allowed to stay at the same hotel as their white counterparts. Instead, separate housing arrangements were made in segregated parts of town. Special transportation and other provisions were secured to accommodate these players.

Henig seems to be interested in telling a story more than creating an historical record which, in the end, likely serves the same purpose. Although it is a good read, and while there is research, interviews, and other supporting documentation, this is a very important topic and – had he chosen to do so, he could have gone into greater depth. The actual text runs 100 pages and the book is accessible to younger readers, which is a good thing, and would make excellent reading for middle school students and/or other classes.

My former high school coach, Ron Herr, was a phenomenal pitcher who came within a sliver of making the big leagues. He later briefly served as a coach with the Atlanta Braves. He often told us stories of the inhuman treatment that Rico Carty, Aaron, and other were subject to – buses pulling over when players needed to use a restroom and the inevitable conflict to follow, as well as predictable stories involving restaurants, housing, and fan behavior.

Gladly, my children live in (and to their credit espouse) a more tolerant and accepting society than previous generations. We are certainly not there yet, as is evidenced by recent tragedies in Ferguson, MO, Charleston, SC, and daily chaos in the south and west sides of Chicago that will likely break records for shootings and fatalities. I applaud Henig for keeping these stories alive for younger generations, who were not around to know just how tumultuous a time this was in our country’s history. If there is any criticism of the book, it would be that he only scratched the surface.

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Here’s hoping for a better tomorrow.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author. Adam Henig is also the author of Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey.

This book was released on April 25, 2016.

Dave Moyer is an educator, former baseball player and coach, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Not So Harmonious

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Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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A Confusing Work

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The Shattered Tree: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 304 pages)

The time is 1918 and the place is France. Bess Crawford, AKA Sister Crawford, is working as a British nurse at a casualty center patching up British, Australian and French soldiers who have been wounded while bravely holding back the German army. Paris must not fall to the Germans! The war is nearly over but negotiations are taking way too long to suit most everyone.

The Shattered Tree is the eighth in the remarkable mystery series that gives modern readers a glimpse at the horrors of trench warfare. Bess provides the narrative as she moves quickly from patient to patient while staunching the bleeding from bullet wounds and caring for the dying. Always present is the fear of infection as this war was fought a good decade before the discovery of penicillin.

The first hint of mystery comes when a soldier wearing a tattered uniform is brought for treatment. As he writhes in pain, his cries come out in perfect German. Most of those present are too busy to note. Of course Bess, whose curiosity has landed her in many difficult situations in the past realizes the anomaly and files this information away. Soon thereafter Bess is caught in the fire of a sniper’s rifle and becomes a patient herself.

What ensues is a somewhat confusing series of efforts by Bess and several officers to identify an attacker who makes short work of several people using a knife. An 18-year-old unsolved quintuple homicide that took place outside Paris where Bess is convalescing is also interwoven with her sleuthing to find the German-speaking mystery patient’s identity.

This reviewer read an advance review copy of the book. Perhaps some editing was done to smooth out the segues between events for the final version. (It appears that this was not the case. Ed.) The discussions among the characters that are either helping or misleading Bess as she struggles to recuperate from her bullet and knife wounds can be as baffling as the jumbled plot!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on August 30, 2016.

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