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Sacrifice

Mothers & Other Liars: A Novel by Amy Bourret (St. Martin’s Griffin; $13.99; 320 pages)

The street is empty, but she can feel it out there, the past, the truth, hurtling toward them, a boulder crashing down her mountainside, snapping trees, devastating everything in its path.

Ruby Leander is an orphan and a runaway nineteen-year-old traveling to find her life’s purpose when her journey takes a drastic turn…  she comes upon a baby thrown away at a rest stop.   Remembering the feeling of loss and abandonment in her own childhood, Ruby raises this baby girl as her own.   Ruby creates a life for her daughter with a family of close friends and for nine years raises her daughter Lark in the only home she has ever known.

During this time, Ruby falls in love and now pregnant, is prepared to create a family with her boyfriend and police officer, Chaz, who knows nothing about Lark’s story or the true details of her own past.   Then, by chance, Ruby learns the truth behind the story of Lark’s abandonment and is faced with the biggest decision of her life.   She is challenged to determine what the right path is and which sacrifices are worth making to preserve the life of the child she has raised.

With that memory searing in her scalp and baby fingers gripping her hand, only one thought was possible:  save this child, protect her.

Although the story line becomes somewhat predictable, Bourret interwines circumstances of love and loss among her characters that makes the outcome a joy to read.   You may find yourself reevaluating your own code of ethics and redefining the true definition of family as you consider what you would be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of your own children.

Written in detailed poetic prose, Bourret describes the bond that exists between mother and child and the internal struggles one faces when trying to protect her child and provide her with the best possible life.   This novel is a beautiful read and is Well Recommended.

This review was written by Kelly Monson.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “An unpredictable, gripping story of love and sacrifice.”   Jacqueline Sheehan, New York Times bestselling author of Lost and Found and Now & Then.

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On the Road Again

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale; $14.99; 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also brief encounters with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You might be thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of Java.   Hilburn makes very clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was full of excitement and energy – and the telling seems to get tired and pessimistic as we approach present times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a lot of pessimism about the current music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses, he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the artists he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician is afraid that the public will become tired of him.   Bono answers, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted that he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at its best – as when it’s performed by Bruce Springsteen, “rock ‘n roll (can) still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s great figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   Take what you need from this account and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Book of Nathan: A Novel by Curt Weeden and Richard Marek (Oceanview Publishing; $25.95; 264 pages)

“Dan Brown meets Janet Evanovich…”   Roxanne Black

Co-authors Curt Weeden and Richard Marek have teamed up to create a fascinating novel that is part mystery and part life lesson.   Their main character is Rick Bullock, formerly a successful Madison Avenue advertising man who turned agnostic soul saver when his beloved wife, Anne, died from a brain tumor.   Rick has refocused his life and manages a shelter for men in the inner city.   He knows his clients and when one of them named Zeus is accused of a high-profile murder, Rick makes it his task to prove the accusers wrong.

The first person narrative is an excellent vehicle for combining the disparate elements of the tale.   Rick’s thoughts and actions are consistent with a man of high moral principles.   Fortunately, the authors have resisted portraying him as a saintly type.   He is capable of trickery and a little arm twisting to obtain the resources needed to travel to Florida where Zeus is incarcerated.   Lacking funds for the journey, Rick calls in a favor from a buddy in his advertising past, Doug Kool, who is a fundraiser par excellence for a big nonprofit.

The team Rick takes to Florida is a rag-tag group.   Some of them are helpful for the mission (Doc Waters and Maurice) and one is a genuine bundle of precocious trouble (Twyla Tharp – no, not that one).   This reviewer was reminded of The Wizard of Oz and the pilgrimage that Dorothy made with her band of seekers.   Amazingly, the story line manages to stay reasonably tight and manageable regardless of the wide variety of characters.   Oh, did I mention that an extremely wealthy man also plays a part?   Indeed, the reader will discover more than the identity of the killer by the story’s end.  

The values and moral judgements presented are all too real and not off the scale of everyday issues we all face.   Kudos to Weeden and Marek for delivering their message in such an entertaining way.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Someone Saved My Life Tonight

On Reading – A Book That Changed My Life

I read The Language of Trees not long after it was first published this past summer.   The massive review in the local paper promised it would be a good read, and it did seem to be right along the lines of something I would normally pick off the shelf.

I came to learn rather quickly that Ilie Ruby has a wonderful way of carrying you through a story, pulling you deeper and deeper and then when you least expect it, WHAM, she hits you with an emotional truth that is so deep and profound that it sends you sprawling, gasping for something to hang onto.   This happened to me in the process of reading this book.   I would go from a relaxed reading position, to sitting straight up, to leaning on the edge of my seat, to standing, to pacing, to talking to myself and holding my forehead, wondering how she could possibly know such detailed things about ME.   It was unnerving and fascinating in a way that only a magnificently written novel can be.

There was a movie in the 80’s called The Neverending Story, about a little boy who steals a book from an old bookshop and has the sense as he hides away in an old attic reading by candlelight that the people in the book are aware of him.   The old book-keeper had warned him that this book wasn’t safe for him to read, it wasn’t like other books, because the old man knew that those who delved into the pages of that book became part of the story.   There was a point as the boy was reading that the characters talk about him as if he is there with him.   They say they were there with him as he entered the bookstore and took the book with the oren symbol on the cover and they are with him as he reads the book.

“But that’s impossible, it’s not real,” he says to himself, looking up from the book disturbed and confused, “they can’t be talking about me, it’s just a story.”   But it wasn’t just a story.   It was a book that forced the little boy to confront fears, to take a good long hard look at himself, and ultimately gave him courage and power.

I found myself thinking and feeling the same thing as I read The Language of Trees and its characters continued to speak to me.   “How,” I asked myself out loud, looking at the book as if could look back at me, “how does she know these things about me?”   “It’s not real, it’s just a story.”   But as it wasn’t just a story in the movie, it wasn’t just a story for me.   It forced me to confront fears, to look deeply into myself, and when it was over, I had found courage, comfort and healing.

A book filled with forgiveness and the hope of second chances and healing, it’s a compilation of love stories, old ones and new ones, reborn ones and healing ones.   It’s about Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell and whether or not they can heal and find the love they lost all those years ago.   It’s a ghost story about little Luke Ellis who was lost in the waters of Canandaigua Lake many years before, and who now haunts the people on the lake out of love for his sister Melanie who has recently vanished without a trace.   It’s a book full of secrets, secrets kept by Clarisse Mellon who knows the truth needs to come out or Melanie Ellis will never be found and things will never be right.

It’s a book about facing fears and finding yourself and allowing yourself to reach out a lonely hand, trusting someone else in the process.   As Clarisse Mellon says, “A full life, a life where she captures her heart’s desire, requires that chances be taken.”

This book is full of hope, and in a day where people seem to lose their hopes and forget their dreams, this book is a welcome respite, a place where the desires of the heart are encouraged to fly.   Read this book, allow it to take you on its journey, find the truths in its pages and open yourself up to the infinite possibilities it offers.

“You must go alone,” the movie says of the journey, if you’re willing to take it.   “You must leave all your weapons behind.   It will be very dangerous.”   It’s true, looking inside ones self with no walls and no weapons can be very dangerous, for those willing to make the journey.   It took me many years to find that “Neverending Story” experience and it changed my life.   The Language of Trees changed my life.

“Show no fear, for it may fade away, in your hands, the birth of a new day.”   No, it’s definitely not just a story.

 

The Language of Trees: A Novel by Ilie Ruby has been published by Avon ($14.99). 

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Son of Your Father

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House Books, August 2010)

“Every writer is alone…”

This is a memoir about a writer, Tom Grimes, whose idol was famous for writing a memoir.   It began as a eulogy written by Grimes for Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time: A Memoir that was published in 1977.   Grimes decided to expand that eulogy by writing in detail about how he came to be discovered by Conroy, a noted instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   This, however, describes just half of the narrative – the book might just as easily have been titled A Writing Life, as it fully details the obstacles, impediments and vagaries that can overwhelm an ambitious young writer.

Interestingly, Grimes and Conroy first happened to meet when the former was an applicant to the Workshop.   The meeting went so badly that Grimes left and destroyed his copy of Stop-Time.   But Conroy randomly happened to read the manuscript for a novel written by Grimes, and greased his admission into the Iowa Writer’s program.   Conroy and Grimes had such an obvious father-and-son relationship that many of Grimes’ fellow students derided him as Conroy’s “golden boy.”

In the sections where Grimes writes about Conroy, I was reminded of the tone used by John Gunther in Death Be Not Proud, the account of his son’s death at the age of 17.   The tone is quiet, sad, respectful.   (Especially as Grimes comes to regret the periods where he failed to keep in touch with Conroy.)   In contrast, the writing has a sometimes jarring quality when Grimes details his own rollercoaster-like (and manic) career as a young author.   With the strong support of Conroy, Grimes’ first novel resulted in a small bidding war among publishers for the rights.   Grimes went for the highest pay-day only to find that the promised public relations campaign for his novel was never to materialize.   And then no publisher wanted Grimes’ second novel.

Grimes clearly covers his descent into depression and near-madness in a manner that only some will wish to read.   The more fascinating pages are the ones where he provides a view into the world of publishing; it’s a world where a writer can be offered a high six-figure advance one day and find that the offer has dropped to the very lowest of five figures the next.

“You’ve changed my life…  love, love, love.”

This memoir concludes in a way that the reader will find – depending on his/her perspective – either encouraging or unimpressive.   Grimes was 54 at the time he wrote Mentor, the same age that Conroy was when the student-writer Grimes met his most important instructor.   Grimes is now a college-level journalism professor.   He teaches in Texas rather than in Iowa, but serves as a replica of Frank Conroy.   This can be viewed as a heartfelt, living, tribute to his mentor or, alternatively, as the reliving of a life that had already run its course.

This reader found this to be an admirable and frank memoir of two lives that, for all of its stark candor, fell just a bit short of being the type of inspirational story that one would read and subsequently re-read.   The first half of the account was far more engaging than the second half.   Mentor leaves one with a sense of sadness and wariness about life, which was likely the writer’s intent.

Takeaway:   This is a memoir that some (writers, mainly) will love – they will view it as a loving tribute to a teacher from his student.   Others will understandably see it as a bit too unvarnished.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Rocket Man (a book review)

Rocket_Man_2“It’s just my job five days a week…”   Like the disoriented astronaut in Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s song “Rocket Man,” the forty-plus-year-old mortgage broker Dale Hammer finds himself disoriented in his own suddenly harsh suburban life.   Hammer is a former one-hit novelist who has managed to become materialistically comfortable.   But when he moves his family to a big house in the suburbs of Chicago, the pin is pulled on the grenade that may obliterate his comfortable life.

So, yet another novel about suburban angst?   True, this hardly sounds like a promising premise, but author William (Bill) Hazelgrove is a skilled comedic writer making the first half of Rocket Man a quick read.   While things in his life are falling apart, Hammer has a chance for redemption.   He’s tapped to be the organizer of “Rocket Day” for his son’s troop of sixty Boy Scouts.

In order to succeed in his mission as the appointed Rocket Man Hammer will have to concentrate on some serious science and details while he fights with his homeowner’s association, faces criminal charges, houses his penniless father, and tries to decipher whether his wife is divorcing him or simply having an affair.

How does it end up?   You will need to read this novel to find out; however, this reviewer suggests that you listen to The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again when you get to the last half of the last chapter.   Once finished, you may well look forward to ordering the next serio-comic tale from Hazelgrove.

Pantonne Press, $19.95, 378 pages

Note:   Thank you to Pantonne Press for the review copy.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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