Tag Archives: best writers

The North Country

Jack Pine: A Northwoods Mystery (Koehler Books, $15.99, 300 pages)

Jack Pine

Hazelgrove Pulls Off Another High Quality Tale In An Unlikely Setting

Jack Pine is an inferior pine that has been relegated to Indian cultivation. When an Indian moves from suspect to witness in a rape, Jack Pine takes off, and Deputy Sheriff Rueger London follows his intuition, defies authority, falls in love, and eventually supports his status as the moral conscience of an entire region, the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, which border Canada.

The story includes the contemporary themes of man versus environment, second chances, good versus evil, etc., and manages to defy convention or stereotype because author William Hazelgrove has a unique ability to construct characters that the reader cares about.

Rueger must relive his past in order to imagine a future. An unlikely, and, in retrospect, welcome visitor inject life into a man who has been pretending and going through the motions for years. In order to be true to himself and fair to one who has challenged his imagination, Rueger puts his reputation on the line, only to face the indignation of the community and an equally uncertain future.

Jack Pine banner

Hazelgrove is at his best when he takes on the theme of suburban angst, as he does in Rocket Man and Real Santa, but his storytelling translates well to the hinterlands because he is, at heart, a storyteller. Jack Pine is not merely a whodunit or a love story, nor is it subject to the confines of time and/or place. It is about people, and Mr. Hazelgrove is awfully darn good at getting the essence of all of our collective and individual strengths and weaknesses.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is the Superintendent of the Elmhurst (Illinois) Community Unit School District 205, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Nobody But Me

The Nobodies Album (nook book)

Is The Nobodies Album a better read the second time around?

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Anchor, $15.00, 320 pages)

The plane rises. We achieve liftoff, and in that mysterious, hanging moment I say a prayer – as I always do – to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day… I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world’s travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That’s not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort it out. Better to say a prayer for your own well-being and hope that today, at least, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

There are music albums that we listen to repeatedly, sometimes finding that they have a different impact on us – major or minor – depending on when you experience them. The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (author of the unique and bizarre bestseller The Dogs of Babel) is a book that I read before. I did not connect with it at the time; fortunately, I decided to give the book a second chance and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a San Francisco-based musician, Milo Frost, who has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. His estranged mother, Octavia Frost, a one-time bestselling novelist, decides to reconcile with him to give him moral and legal support. Milo’s problem is that he was so drunk the night of his girlfriend’s death that he cannot remember what he did that evening. He does not believe that he killed Bettina but admits that he could have been involved. (On the night in question, Bettina first accepted Milo’s proposal of marriage, and then rejected it.)

Parkhurst adds a twist to the telling, as the writer Octavia is at the point where she’s elected to rewrite the conclusions of her bestselling novels. It’s not something that pleases her publisher; but, Octavia is determined to follow-through with her idea. (This may have been based on an instance in which Joan Didion rewrote one of her short stories decades after it was written. Note that the title of this novel, The Nobodies Album, is connected to The White Album by The Beatles early on. It just so happens that Didion wrote a collection of bestselling essays called The White Album.)

I suppose you could say I’d been thinking about endings.

It does not take long for Octavia, and the readers, to realize that she’s toying with the notion of changing the endings to her book in hopes that it might lead to some changes in her own life. As she states to a musician, “I’ve thought it might be interesting to change the endings. Find out how things might have worked out differently for the characters.” Naturally, one has to wonder how much of bestselling author Parkhurst can be found in the character of Octavia Frost. (Will she rewrite the ending of The Nobodies Album in twenty, thirty or forty years?)

To her credit, Parkhurst brings Octavia Frost’s writing to life by providing the endings of several of Frost’s novels before showing us the rewritten endings. The latter are generally simpler, more concise, and neater; perhaps resulting in neater, better outcomes for the characters involved.

The Nobodies Album multiple

Parkhust writes somewhat in the style of Didion – there’s an icy coolness/coldness present as well as toughness and brutal honesty: “Now that the moment is here, it’s not what I expected at all. That’s the fundamental flaw in in the illusions that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching the truth. No matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself. Here’s how I feel, faced with my child’s confession that he has committed murder: I don’t believe it’s true. Not for a single minute.”

Those with some knowledge of the music and publishing industries will appreciate the realistic stage upon which Parkhurst’s story is set. The less said about the outcome of the murder mystery, the better. No spoilers here. But be prepared to be impressed by The Nobodies Album, whether you read it once or twice – or more often.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 15, 2010.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Pick:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-nobodies-album-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

It also appeared here:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Nobodies-Album-by-Carolyn-5760693.php

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A Quiet Emotional Work

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf, $25.95, 249 pages; Vintage, $15.95, 272 pages)

my-salinger-year

 

salinger-year

In his novel The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield uses the phrase, “quiet emotional” in place of the more typical “quite emotional.” This is a quiet emotional memoir about how Salinger helped a young woman, Joanna Rakoff, find her role, her place, her calling in life – which was to become a writer.

“Have you read Salinger?” Rakoff asks the reader. “Very likely you have. Can you recall the moment you encountered Holden Caulfield for the first time? The sharp intake of breath as you realized this was a novel, a voice, a character, a way of telling a story, a view of the world unlike any you’d previously encountered. I loved Holden, in his grief-fueled rage.”

My Salinger Year is a comfortable, entertaining and engaging story that does not have pretensions of being cinematic. However, Rakoff writes quite well, as in this selection, about the difference between Marc, a friend who is getting married, and Don, Rakoff’s then-boyfriend (and a sad choice of one):

“You ready for the big day?” Don asked Marc, patting him on the back. He was trying for cheer, for bonhomie, which gave him the aspect of an actor in a community theater production…

“I don’t know,” said Marc, with an enormous smile. When he smiled, he seemed to radiate pure waves of goodwill and genuine happiness. This was, I supposed, the difference between Marc and Don: Marc was fully at home in the world, content with life. He needed, he wanted, nothing more than what he had. Don wanted everything, everyone; Don wanted and wanted.

Although this true tale is about Rakoff’s work at a literary agency at the start of her professional career, it’s also a story about what happens when she leaves behind her “right guy” in Berkeley, and takes up with Don in Manhattan. Don is so clearly and absolutely wrong for her. The reader will feel some frustration while reading about her out-of-phase life with Don, a person who refused, without explanation, to take her to his best friend’s wedding.

The writer is now happily married to the “right” person, but she’s quite forthcoming about the fact that she made a key mistake in the game of love as a young woman. Fortunately, she was able to escape into the writings of J. D. Salinger, as she did on the weekend of the wedding that she was blocked from attending.

“All through that weekend, even as I ripped through his entire oeuvre, I kept having to put the books down and breathe. He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.”

Rakoff only met Salinger once but spoke to him often on the telephone. He convinced her to do what she needed to do for herself – for her own happiness. His advice convinced her to leave the safety and security of the agency job after just 12 months. It was a job that would get her no closer to writing than reading manuscripts.

Near the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff learns of Salinger’s death and reacts to it in a touching way. Salinger was, and will remain, her rescuer, her larger-than-life hero.

catcher-in-the-rye

Salinger was an artist who touched many people through his work. He continues to reach and touch them to this day, as when high school students experience The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey for the first time. It was his work and its effect on others that exhausted him and caused him to seek comfort in isolation: “For years, he’d tried to respond to his fans. But the emotional toll grew too great.”

While Salinger may have remained as distant as Joe DiMaggio on his later years, there’s no denying the fact that he left behind his bold, major impact on the world of literature.

“Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. There were no fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing the streets of Old New York.”

“Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing.”

“Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”

You may love this book.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This review initially appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-salinger-year-joanna-rakoff/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-My-Salinger-Year-by-Joanna-Rakoff-5676983.php

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Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me

Dying to Know: A Mystery by TJ O’Connor (Midnight Ink, $14.99, 368 pages)

What does former government agent and security consultant TJ O’Connor do for an encore? Well, how about writing a mystery novel? This debut book by O’Connor has a twist that’s reminiscent of the movie Ghost.

The narrative opens with Tuck (police detective Oliver Tucker) investigating sounds of an intruder downstairs in his home in the middle of the night. In rapid succession, Tuck dies and his cop partner, Bear, and Tuck’s wife Angela behave strangely. There are evil goings on happening behind the scenes. As the body count rises, the reader may become a bit confused. Just who is a good guy and who is a bad guy?

The reader is treated to unique antics and seeming magic as Tuck adjusts to being dead and investigates his own murder. Time travel and scene shifting are the primary devices that O’Connor employs to good effect. Tuck’s faithful dog, Hercule, is able to recognize him but the humans need plenty of hints to sense Tuck’s presence. O’Connor leaves an opening for more mysteries to be solved by the ghostly detective.

Well recommended.

Love Water Memory: A Novel by Jennie Shortridge (Gallery Books, $16.00, 328 pages)

Love Water Memory

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The tale unfolds slowly, beginning with a 39-year-old woman found knee deep in the frigid water of San Francisco Bay. She is an amnesia victim who is dressed in designer clothes and seems a most unlikely person to be in her situation. Lucie Walker, as we come to know her, has been in a five-year relationship with Grady Goodall in Seattle. In fact, it’s just two months before their wedding when Lucie disappears from the house she shares with Grady. She’s been gone a couple of months before the incident in the bay.

The main characters are not immediately likeable. The reader learns about them through shifting scenes. Chapters dedicated to Lucie, Grady and Lucie’s Aunt Helen rotate throughout the book. We find major revelations that bring light to Lucie’s actions. Past issues have been deeply buried and Lucie must deal with them in order to accept who she is and how she feels about Grady.

The takeaway from this moody piece is the question, “What makes a person?”

Well recommended.

After I’m Gone: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

After I'm Gone Lippman

After I'm Gone

Super famous author Laura Lippman uses her hometown Baltimore as the setting of this clever mystery that is part family saga and part Cold Case TV plot. The underlying theme is all about the choices of partners made by Bernadette (Bambi) Brewer, and her daughters Linda, Rachael and Michelle. Lippman explores the notion of loneliness and missing a loved one. She uses the lyrics from “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” to divide the book into sections. Mel Carter’s 1965 version brings back memories for me of slow dancing at parties. Sigh.

Felix Brewer, Bambi’s husband, fled their luxurious home in 1976 rather than waiting for the outcome of his appeal on an illegal gambling/bookmaking conviction. Although Felix appears in flashback chapters, his actions haunt the family he left behind. Each of his daughters has made a choice and must face the consequences that have followed.

Roberto (Sandy) Sanchez, a retired City of Baltimore police officer, takes on a missing person cold case in the capacity of consultant. It is the year 2012 and working cold cases helps him stay busy and spend less time missing his beloved wife Mary who has died. When Sandy diligently pursues every possible angle and information source, the missing person is tied back to Felix Brewer’s disappearance.

Lippman is a master of creating a cinematic feel when she sets the scenes for her carefully constructed plot twists. It seems to this reviewer that a movie could easily follow from the book.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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The Stranger

The Stranger: A Novel by Camilla Lackberg (Pegasus Crime, $25.95, 384 pages)

The Stranger (nook book)

This police procedural featuring Detective Patric Hedstrom picks up right where Ms. Lackberg’s third crime novel, The Stonecutter, abruptly concluded. A newcomer, pretty blonde Officer Hanna Kruse, becomes the second female on the Fjallbacka, Sweden police force. Her presence shifts the dynamics among the officers and provides an opportunity to delve into their feelings. Patric must defend his intuition and work around the nearly-useless Police Chief Bertil Mellberg and the pompous town mayor Enling W. Larson who has recruited a reality show to his town to promote tourism.

A series of vignettes and quick shifts establish the characters and the plot. The eerie switching among character groups — reality TV show and crew, townspeople and the mayor, keeps the reader alert. The main event is the suspicious death of a local shopkeeper. Her death leads to an ever-widening police hunt for a possible murderer.

Ms. Lackberg is a master at building her tale via shocking and troubling events. To her credit, she does not over-use this technique. Rather, the frequent use of coffee, tea and cinnamon bun breaks by all the characters makes for a charming antidote to a very scary book.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Darkness, Darkness

Heartbroken: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Crown, $24.00, 384 pages)

Heartbroken

Lisa Unger coerces her readers into experiences of the soul that can leave an indelible mark. The interactions among three generations make this a tale for a wide audience. Heartbroken provides a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. Again, as in Darkness, My Old Friend, Ms. Unger makes alienation, self-absorption and serious mental illness the undercurrents for her most recent creation. It’s all about contrasts and the need for visibility/balance in life.

On one side of the equation are the old-money Burke family members and on the other is Emily, a coffee shop waitress who has gotten herself in a bit of a tight spot thanks to her conniving boyfriend, Dean. Birdie Burke, the matriarch of the Burke clan, owns an island on a lake in the Adirondacks where her family has enjoyed the comfort and recreation known to precious few people. Daughter Kate is firmly fixed in the sandwich generation as the mother of teenager Chelsea who is feeling awkward and plain.

The annual family gathering brings Kate, Chelsea and Chelsea’s best friend Lulu to the island. Kate has been trying without success to crawl out from under her mother’s thumb. She hates being coerced into the summer ritual. Kate’s father, Joe, escapes from his wife’s tyrannical island rules to tend his business in New York City leaving Kate and the girls to endure until Kate’s husband and their son make the trek to the island.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, Emily is drawn in way beyond help into a scheme that Dean has cooked up. Emily has family issues. She’s the daughter of a less-than-ideal mother who is buried in her own issues. Emily, Dean and his evil friend from Florida go on a rampage reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. Naturally there is a meeting of the disparate tales. The drama builds to a magnificent, exciting, ending.

Ms. Unger is a highly-skilled author whose work deserves more attention than the airplane read. Nevertheless, any time spent reading Heartbroken, in the air, on the beach or on a comfortable sofa will be well spent.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Heartbroken was released in trade paper form on April 9, 2013.

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