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Helter Skelter

“Mental wounds not healing/Who and what’s to blame/I’m goin’ off the rails of the crazy train.” Ozzy Osbourne (“Crazy Train”)

Absence of Mercy (nook book)

The Absence of Mercy: A Novel by John Burley (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 352 pages)

A high school boy is murdered, and a high school girl barely escapes the same fate. A bedroom community is rocked, and the Medical Examiner’s family becomes embroiled in the controversy. This is the essence of John Burley’s debut novel, The Absence of Mercy. Burley himself is an emergency medicine physician, and those in that profession can attest to the accuracy or lack thereof in his details. For the typical reader who wants to enjoy a good suspense thriller, one could do far worse than Absence. In fact, having reviewed many books of this genre, I am hard pressed to recall any contemporary suspense thriller that I have enjoyed more.

Absence of Mercy back cover

In addition to an intuitive sense of pacing that is well refined for a first-time author, the reader does not have to suspend reality or ignore sensationalism to appreciate the book. I suppose the cross border escape attempt pushes the envelope a bit, but I’ll give Burley a pass on this, as the rest of the story is rock solid (or “spot on” as the English say). The events chronicled in this book could have happened today, anywhere. A mother’s love, professional integrity, trust, despair and forgiveness permeate the story effortlessly. Nothing here seems forced.

And, then, there is insanity. Yes, mental illness is real, and many good people effectively manage various afflictions throughout an entire lifetime. But there is also crazy and evil in this world. As humans we seem compelled to attempt to explain, make sense of, or feel the need to control everything around us. Unfortunately, this is not possible, as we tend to learn all too directly. As to true crazy and pure evil, there is no remedy, no cure.

In Absence, there is also no mercy.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Proof-of-angels-cover

A review of Proof of Angels: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett.

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Communication Breakdown

Led Zeppelin on LZ

Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin: Interviews and Encounters (Musicians in Their Own Words), edited by Hank Bordowitz (Chicago Review Press, $28.95, 458 pages)

“The Led Zeppelin show depends heavily on volume, repetition, and drums.” William S. Burroughs

Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is a compilation of interviews conducted with, and articles about, the former mega band. Unfortunately, some of the contributors did not seem to know who or what they were writing about. One comments about the song “Days of Confusion” – actually “Dazed and Confused” – while another writes about the band’s “laid-back subtlety and studied professionalism.” Led Zeppelin, subtle?

The interviews are usually interesting but not enlightening. While Jimmy Page comes across as focused and consistent, Robert Plant is all over the place. Sometimes Plant sounds intelligent and thoughtful, at other times he’s flakey and nearly unintelligible. One who seeks to understand the band’s songwriting and recordings will definitely be frustrated. There’s a lot said about Zeppelin’s influences, but few attempts at analysis.

Most frustrating of all, it’s never made clear why the group that created the heavy blues rock genre abandoned it after just two albums. Although the question is raised numerous times in these pages, it’s never properly answered. (Other than Page’s statement that he did not want people to confuse Zeppelin with Black Sabbath.)

LZ

LZ II

Finally, there’s a 14-page essay by William S. Burroughs that was presumably supposed to be intellectual. In it, Burroughs writes about drinking multiple fingers of whiskey with Mr. Page. The entire chapter reads like it was written while Burroughs was quite drunk; it’s not far from the tiring, insipid Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.

Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin may make a fine gift for those who love and must own all things Zeppelin. It will fall short of satisfying others.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on November 1, 2014.

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Not to Touch the Earth

Massacre Pond (nook book)

Massacre Pond: A Novel (Mike Bowditch Series #4) by Paul Doiron (St. Martin’s Press, $15.99, 336 pages)

Paul Doiron’s fourth novel Massacre Pond continues the Mike Bowditch saga. Bowditch is a game warden in Maine who struggles with his internal demons mostly attributed to his rebel father, a poacher and key figure in the introduction to the series in Doiron’s debut novel, The Poacher’s Son.

This reviewer had not read any of the author’s previous books. Upon researching his preceding works, it became clear that readers’ thoughts on them are decidedly mixed. This book is of fine quality, meaning that either earlier commentaries are off base or Doiron has matured into being a solid storyteller.

In Massacre Pond, Bowditch is called to investigate the slaughter of seven moose on private property, which is intended to become a wildlife sanctuary in the midst of a logging community. The idea of a sanctuary angers many natives, as outsider and conservationist Elizabeth Moore is perceived as an arrogant do-gooder throwing her money around at the expense of jobs for the locals. Owners of the local mill are less than thrilled with Moore’s presence.

A dull but good-hearted caretaker of the Morse property, Billy Cronk, is central to the initial events and eventual climax of the story – entangled in a web of power and money, although his motives are as pure as any of the book’s myriad of characters.

Bowditch is somewhat self-absorbed but is genuine enough to be likable. And this is part of the attraction of the story. The characters are all just complicated enough to provide a touch of reality to the tale; part of a genre in which plot is typically everything and depth and complexity of characters is provided short shrift.

Bowditch appears to be more of a cop than a game warden. If there are lines of division in real life, they are not evident in the telling of this story. The ending is an obvious – bordering on cheesy, lead-in to the next book in the series. However, overall, this novel, in and of itself, is a solid one. Doiron’s writing and storytelling surpass many similar attempts at crime/suspense/mystery/intrigue. So, without respect to what may have led up to this novel or what may come next, Massacre Pond is worth the read.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Mr. Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

You can read a review of Trespasser: A Novel by Paul Doiron here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/shes-gone/

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massacre pond

A review of Massacre Pond: A Novel by Paul Doiron.

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ABC

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee


The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg (Chronicle Books, $16.99, 248 pages
)

Perhaps you’ve heard the comment, “He’s a bit of an odd duck.” Well, Candice Phee, a twelve-year-old who lives in a suburb of Brisbane, Australia is surely an odd duck. The inability to lie, even a kindly white lie, is but one of her many quirky behavioral traits. Overwhelming shyness has led her to use written communication in uncomfortable situations such as prolonged discussions with adults other than her parents and with kids at school. She is a devout reader of the dictionary, which provides her with a remarkably broad and specific vocabulary.

Candice’s world is full of adults who are alienated (not aliens). Her mom is plagued by depression and her dad won’t have anything to do with his brother, Rich Uncle Brian, who is his former partner in a software company. Miss Bamford, Candice’s all-time favorite teacher has a lazy eye that sets her apart and draws reactions from her students.

The other kids in Miss Bamford’s sixth grade class, especially the ultra cool Jen Marshall, mock Candice. The arrival of a new and similarly odd student, Douglas Benson, creates an opportunity for Candice to experience friendship for the first time in her life. Their interactions are hilarious.

Miss Bamford has assigned Candice’s class the task of writing a narrative/autobiography using each letter of the alphabet as the theme of a paragraph. Thus, the primary structure of the book is Candice’s take on the assignment. Interspersed are the poignant and intelligent letters she has sent to her pen pal in New York City who doesn’t reply to Candice.

The Categorical Universe black and white

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee is intended for readers ten years of age and up. Clearly, the audience for the book is a wide one. Fans of The Westing Game, young, old and any age in between, will thoroughly enjoy this heartwarming, sometimes gut-wrenching and ultimately satisfying tale. Author Barry Jonsberg has won numerous Australian writing awards. He is a teacher and resides in Darwin, Australia. This reviewer visited Darwin over 45 years ago, well before Mr. Jonsberg moved there from England. I hope he enjoys the barramundi fish that are plentiful in Darwin! Barramundi is my all-time favorite.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. This book was released on September 9, 2014.

You can read a sample of this book for free on your Kindle device or app:

http://www.amazon.com/Categorical-Universe-Candice-Sneak-Preview-ebook/dp/B00MF2CLKI/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414437440&sr=1-2&keywords=the+categorical+universe+of+candice+phee

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Coming Up Next…

The Mentalist

A look at The Mentalist: The Complete Sixth Season on five DVDs.

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For a Dancer

Five Days Left (nook book)

Five Days Left

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, $26.95, 352 pages)

At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision, keeping her illness from them. She was in denial in the beginning, as loathe to admit to herself that everything was wrong as she was to admit it to them. But then, after her diagnosis, everyone around her became so overly concerned, so insufferably attentive that she started to regret anyone knew… (I)t was infuriating to watch herself deteriorate in the eyes of the people around her. Use the word “disease” and suddenly everyone will instantly treat you like you’re ill, Mara learned, even on days you feel fine.

Five Days Left is a close to perfect debut novel from Julie Lawson Timmer, whose background is in law. This is the story of Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, wife and mother whose life is put on hold by a diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease. Mara fights to hide her symptoms from her co-workers and family members for months and years, but eventually realizes that her body is breaking down and out-of-control; the disease is going to take her life. So Mara decides that she will commit suicide on her next birthday. The narrative begins five days before the birthday on which Mara will end it all. Or will she?

(Her death by suicide) was a dreadful thing to do to a child, a husband, to such caring parents and friends, but really, who were any of them to judge? How could they ever truly know what she had gone through? Who were any of them to say they wouldn’t have at least considered the same thing?

Timmer does an excellent job of portraying how infirmity can make a coward out of the strongest individual. Mara goes from being a life-long workaholic to becoming a virtual invalid. Once proud, she eventually simply wants everything to be over with and no longer cares about how she’ll be judged upon her self-inflicted demise. It’s a timely, unique look at the mindset of a suicidal person.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

There’s a secondary character and story that’s not as strong, and that story is a touch unrealistic. But all in all, this is a stunning work from Timmer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“…this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.” Jodi Picoult

Five Days Left is a heart-wrenching drama about a world in which there are no easy answers… This novel feels as true as life.” Christina Baker Kline

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Come On Down To My Boat

The Gondola Maker

The Gondola Maker: A Novel by Laura Morelli (Laura Morelli, $29.99, 296 pages; also available in trade paper and as an e-book download)

Get ready for a real change of pace. Author Laura Morelli holds a PhD in art history from Yale University and has numerous writing credits to her name. The Gondola Maker is her first work of fiction. Ever the historian, Ms. Morelli spent significant time and effort in crafting an historical novel. She has achieved a fascinating balance between facts and fiction.

The narrator of this sometimes-stark tale is Luca Vianello, a twenty-something son of a prominent gondola builder, who lives in 16th century Venice, Italy. The opening scene is riveting. At the time of the story, Venice is a republic with harsh punishments for lawbreakers whose crimes range from public swearing to murder. The reader is immersed in this militant culture via Luca’s recollections of the punishments he has witnessed in the public square. As in other cultures and eras, crowds gather to witness the offenders pay for their deeds.

All of it was meant to uphold the just and civilized society of Our Great Republic of Venice, so it was explained to me.

Luca makes it clear that there is a double standard in place as graft and corruption thrive in his republic. Life in those times – governed by superstition (sinister left-handedness), seems both similar and alien compared to the 21st century. There are defined social classes, guilds/unions and artists. However, the 16th century guilds and unions are stronger even than the unions of 50 years ago in the USA. On the brighter side, women of today are able to live lives independent of their husbands and family. Luca’s beloved mother is but a possession of his despotic father.

The tale is infused with an ominous tone of foreboding as Luca’s life unravels due to his outburst of temper. The reader is brought along through his efforts to create a new life. Along the way there are fascinating episodes as Luca moves within the workshops of boat makers, fine artists, costumers and the rowdy millieu of the republic’s essential gondola operators.

Ms. Morelli’s writing style is literate and yet she does not overwhelm the reader. Her characters are believable and in Luca’s case, likeable.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

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