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Law and Order

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Random House/Bantam, $16.00, 437 pages)

If you loved Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, read this.

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One of my favorite films is the Al Pacino classic And Justice for All, which might as well have been titled And Justice for No One.  In my time as a reviewer for Joseph’s Reviews, I have reviewed many crime/suspense/mystery/call them what you will novels, because many people enjoy reading these books.  Most, in my opinion, are average at best.  They appeal to a certain readership, and they get published.

The ones that distinguish themselves stand out for reasons that can sometimes be explained – for example, they actually tell a story, the reader cares about the characters, and they defy the formulaic conventions that permeate run-of-the-mill books.  Other times the reasons are more subtle.  A writer can just plain write – simple as that, and the book stands on its own, independent of any pre-conceived convention.  In those cases, things become a bit more subjective.

William Landay’s Defending Jacob succeeds on both accounts and is one heckuva book, period.  For people who enjoy the genre, it is an absolute must read.  Landy tells the story of Ben Rifkin’s murder in the first person, which is a brilliant decision.  This point of view adds to the suspense and human dilemma faced by the main character, Andy Barber, and his family.  A less skillful writer might not have pulled this off, but as it stands, the decision perfectly advances the story.  The reader suspends judgment and is pulled in multiple directions throughout the entire novel.

Barber is the town’s assistant district attorney and the initial investigator on the Rifkin case.  Ben is brutally stabbed in a park on his way to school.  Eventually, Andy’s son, Jacob, a socially awkward teen who was bullied by Ben, is accused of the murder.  This creates further complications, including politics in the D.A.’s office.  On top of that, Andy’s conscience may not be the most reliable barometer, as he has spent his life trying to bury the fact that his father is serving a life sentence for murder.  Is there such a thing as a murder gene, a propensity for violence?

Jacob’s internet proclivities and childhood indiscretions don’t help him.  But do they add up to murder?

In the end, a second incident and the preponderance of the evidence appears to lead to a certain direction, but the plot is so carefully constructed that empathy for the narrator still tempers judgment, and – like in And Justice for All, sometimes justice is not absolute.  Sometimes the criminal justice system is only as good as the flawed humans who are entrusted to administer it.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school system superintendent, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Note: Defending Jacob is used as a textbook in Criminal Justice  introductory classes at California State University, Sacramento as it provides insight into the complexities of the criminal justice system.

 

 

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Sisters of the Moon

Almost Sisters: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

almost sisters

Every family has secrets that persist over generations.  When a family happens to have its roots in a small town in Alabama, long-standing Southern mores bring added depth to its history.  Author Joshilyn Jackson has written a family tale worthy of high praise, The Almost Sisters.  Her main character, cartoonist Leia Birch, is the family outlier.  Her stepsister, Rachel, is the conventional, perfectionist Southern wife who resides in a faux-Tara home with her husband, Jake, and daughter, Lavender.

Leia Birch is not just a cartoonist; she’s the artist behind a DC Comics limited series, Violence in Violet.  The success of the series brought Leia to a comic-book convention in Atlanta where she was the featured artist.  Months later Leia has a secret that she knows will only be met with acceptance by her beloved grandmother, Miss Birchie.

Miss Birchie has her own secrets; although, if she can’t stay quiet in church, at least half of Birchville will find out.  The town, founded by her family, retains many vestiges of the old South.  There is the white neighborhood and the colored one.  People have their places in society and the ridged structure rarely bends to accommodate modern beliefs from outside.

Leia not only has a secret, she has a contract to write and illustrate the prequel for her Violence in Violet series.  The pressure is on as she drives to Birchville to confide in her grandmother.  Little does she suspect that what awaits her may be beyond what she’s able to handle.  There is more than one set of sisters.

Readers will be drawn into the fascinating threads of Author Jackson’s tale.  This book may be fiction but it could also be drawn from real life.  Ms. Jackson is that good at conveying the humanity of each of her unforgettable characters.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  Almost Sisters will be released on July 11, 2017.

 

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Highway to Hell

Road to Paradise: A Novel by Paullina Simons (William Morrow Paperbacks, $16.99, 544 pages)

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“The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense…”  Bob Dylan

In Paullina Simon’s Road to Paradise, Shelby Sloane takes off for the West Coast in a yellow Mustang in search of her mother.  She embarks on this journey following her high school graduation with the expectation that she will return to the East Coast to attend college in the fall.  Fallacy number one: This girl could not possibly be accepted into college.

Her friend, Gina, accompanies her to help defray the costs and meet up with her boyfriend, and they pick up a hitchhiker by the name of…  Candy Cane (AKA, Grace Rio).  The journey begins with a detour to deliver dogs to a relative.  They meet Candy, whose purpose for the trip is revealed about two-thirds of the way through the novel.  So, they are all on a quest of some kind or another.  [Fascinating!  -Ed.]  In the meantime we learn that Candy is famous on I-80 for engaging in the oldest profession in the book.

Simmons’ narrative jumps around in the beginning as she attempts to be overly clever.  This creates challenges for the reader.  Quite frankly, by the time the reader is 100 pages in – where some clarity finally rears its head, it is impossible to care.  The book mercifully and thankfully ends after 530 pages.  Is there an editor in the house?

The main action of the story takes place in 1981, so throughout the book there are references to late 70s songs that are playing on the radio for no apparent reason.

There is mindless and aimless philosophical, historical and religious conversation among the three traveling characters.  In addition to prostitution, we get porn, a visit to a monastery, an individual who develops a sudden and inexplicable gambling addiction, a “somewhat pseudo-lesbian”  incident, and contrived loyalty.  There’s also a patched-on happy ending as Shelby arrives in Mendocino, California and miraculously meets the man she will marry.  Right, just like in real life.

If all this sounds interesting to you, be my guest.  It’s quite doubtful that I will be reading the next release from Ms. Simons.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school administrator and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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New York State of Mind

The Widow of Wall Street: A Novel by Randy Susan Meyers (Atria Books, $26.00, 352 pages)

widow of wall street

As with The Murderer’s Daughters, The Widow of Wall Street transports the reader into situations that few people experience.  Author Randy Susan Meyers  maintains her running theme of human frailty in this, her fourth novel.

A bitter opening chapter sends the tale to nearly the end of its long and treacherous timespan, from August 1960 to 2009.  Author Meyers has taken the horrific scandal that was the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and reworked it into an up close and personal morality piece that provides raw emotion and insight into the lives of her fictional characters.  While the general premise of the telling closely mirrors the real life front page story, the details that are specific to Meyer’s characters are of her own invention.

Phoebe has a better than ordinary life living on a nicer street in Brooklyn.  She’s pretty and doesn’t look like the rest of her Jewish family.  At age fifteen Phoebe has become smitten with Jake Pierce who has just turned eighteen.  Jake’s family is down the economic ladder from Phoebe’s.  Jake is ambitious, agressive and determined to get ahead.

As the chapters unfold, the pace of the tale quickens.  Phoebe and Jake’s life as a married couple in New York has its up and downs.  Jake is clearly obsessed with making money and Phoebe feels she has been relegated to a boring housewife life.  Jake is a risk-taker and he lacks the sort of empathy that would temper his personal drive.  Consistent with the Bernard Madoff scenario, Jake borrows money from his wife’s family, which as we know puts them at jeopardy of being his victims.

Author Meyers does an excellent job of depicting her characters.  Jake is hard edged and deluded, as a Ponzi scheme boss must be to maintain the illusions he creates.  Phoebe, for the most part, lacks the fortitude and willingness to see past the glittering life she leads as the scheme grows and grows.

While the tale is not original, the writing is superb.  Readers will wonder at the lives led by the super rich.  It’s like being behind the scenes of the pages of People magazine.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Widow of Wall Street was released on April 11, 2017.

 

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Grandma’s Hands

I love my grandma by Giles Andreae and Emma Dodd (Disney/Hyperion, $16.99, 32 pages)

i love my grandma

The relationship between a granddaughter and grandmother is cheerfully and joyously explored in I love my grandma by writer Giles Andreae and illustrator Emma Dodd.  The story’s text is easy for a child to understand: “We play all sorts of funny games, and give each other silly names. We really love to cook and bake, and eat the yummy things we make.”  It’s clear that in their interactions, grandma gets to act childlike, while granddaughter has fun pretending to be mature.

Animals and toys are featured on nearly every page, which helps young reader-listeners relax.  And it’s made clear that a grandchild is a source of pride for a grandparent.  What’s also made clear – in a gentle way – is that even the most loving and nurturing of grandmas can welcome the rest that comes at the end of a visit: “When it’s time to say good-bye, my grandma gives a little sigh…  And says, although we’ve had such fun, it’s nice to give me back to  mom.”

The bright and highly colorful illustrations by Dodd are the icing on the kid’s cake.  I love my grandma was given the perfect endorsement by our own granddaughter who said, “I love this book!”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received by the publisher.

This book is recommended for children ages 2 through 6.

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Against All Odds

The Odds of You and Me: A Novel by Cecilia Galante (William Morrow, $14.99, 384 pages)

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Cecilia Galante’s The Odds of You and Me combines multiple themes – the underdog, youth, love and forgiveness – into one very solid novel.  Without providing a spoiler, if the reader is hoping that tough odds will be overcome and a Hollywood-style ending is in store, forget it.  This is not a Hallmark or Disney movie.  Nevertheless, this story may appeal to readers who are open to a unique display of what happiness, life, grit, and perseverance mean in the real world.

In Odds, Bernadette “Bird” Sincavage bears a child at a young age under less than ideal circumstances.  She is close to being released from probation when she happens to cross the path of James – a former co-worker, a bad boy that she found to be fascinating.  James is being hunted by the police and Bird is unintentionally drawn back into the complicated orbit of his life.

As the story’s details begin to come together, there are “gray” decisions to be made.  Mrs. Ross, a probation officer, and Jane and Mr. Herron – two of the individuals whose homes Bird cleans, recognize her basic goodness and become advocates for her.

James, destined to be an ill-fated match for Bird, is the ultimate hero/villain.  It’s up to the reader to make up his or her mind in terms of what’s right and wrong; which is precisely why this is a very good, challenging novel.

Bird’s mother sees things in simple black and white, and Catholic priest Father Delaney (a representative of a church that has seen much controversy and turmoil in modern times) attempts to provide a measure of moral conscience.  But there are no easy answers; matters remain quite complicated.

The Odds of You and Me works at many levels, and should appeal to many readers including a potentially significant number of young adults.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Odds of You and Me is (a novel) in the vein of Meg Donohue and Sarah Jio.”  Amazon

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and he is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

 

 

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Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein (Anchor, $16.95, 384 pages)

where nobody knows your name

AAA: Where baseball and purgatory collide…

John Feinstein, known for his many appearances on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, has authored 24 books.  He is most noted for his debut A Season on the Brink: Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers and his books on golf (most notably, A Good Walk Spoiled).  His latest, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, is simply excellent.

Many have attempted to write about baseball, but as much as the sport lends itself to great writing, truly capturing the essence of the game is a far from easy thing to accomplish.  Roger Angell and Thomas Boswell are probably the best of the lot, and there are others that have done quite well.  Feinstein’s latest is not only a must for baseball fans, it’s well worth the time of any sports fan.

Triple A baseball is the top level of the minor leagues.  The goal for most players is to make it to AA ball because then the organization you play for thinks you have a chance to play in the big leagues.  Most of the players in AA are young up and comers.  Once a player is elevated to that level, they set their sights on the major leagues – or what is commonly referred to as “the show.”  The next level, AAA, becomes a place for additional seasoning of top prospects or a holding ground for more experienced players (who may be called up at any time).  Some players who are shuttled back and forth are labeled “4A” players; too good for AAA but not good enough for major league play.

The players at the AAA level have dreamed the dream from their early childhood on.  They’ve worked extremely hard, have often endured setbacks, and are just an eyelash away from the ultimate prize: playing in big league stadium parks.

In Where Nobody Knows Your Name, Feinstein follows the plight of several AAA characters throughout the 2012 season.  He successfully hits on all the little things — the letter inviting a player to either a big league or minor league camp for spring training; the deadlines when players learn of their fate; the tragedy of players who have been to the “bigs” but get sent back to the minors; and the dreaded or hoped for calls to the manager’s office (almost always signifying bad news, but sometimes good).  The young ballplayers are quite human, but they are often treated like objects.

While many players and managers are profiled, the major characters in this book are Scott Elarton, Ron Johnson, Jon Lindsey, Mark Lollo, Charlie Montoyo, Scott Podesdnik, Chris Schwinden, and Brett Tomko.  Along the way Feinstein tells of the endless travel, the ridiculous promotions, front office personnel, announcers, and the players’ families. He also touches on the umpires and groundskeepers, who have their own dreams of being promoted to the bigs.

As for the primary characters, Elarton went 17-7 with the Astros in 2000, but finished with a record under .500 in his 10-year major league career.  Johnson was a career minor league manager.  Lindsey was drafted by the Rockies in 1995.  Although he was a big hitter in the minors, he managed just one brief stint in the majors.  Lindsey was called up by the Dodgers at the age of 33, going one for 12 in 11 big league games.  Lollo dreamed of umpiring in the major leagues.

McLouth, an outfielder, showed promise early on in his career with the Pirates, was traded to Atlanta where he gradually lost his hitting touch, and had begun to fight his way back.  Montoyo was another career minor league manager.  Though not a power hitter, Podsednik, also an outfielder, hit a big home run in the 2005 World Series for the victorious White Sox.  A player with speed, Podsednik’s career was shortened by a rash of injuries.

Schwinden was a pitcher who fought for eight years to get to the majors.  Tomko, who won exactly 100 major league games – but had not thrown a pitch since the 2009 season, fights to throw another pitch in the bigs at the age of 39.  Elarton, Schwinden, and Tomko never make it back to the majors.  The same is true for Johnson, Lollo, and Montoyo.

Podsednik was called up by the Red Sox in 2012 and hit .302 but was released at the end of the year.  He was 36 and never played in the big leagues again.  McLouth was called up by Baltimore and played in the post-season.  His final big league season was 2014, during which he appeared in 79 games for Washington.

All of these individuals have a story, and Feinstein tells them in a masterful fashion.  What resonates is a love of the game felt by each of these individuals.  Each is grateful for what they have, while finding it hard to let go of the game that defined their existence.

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None of the characters in this account decide to voluntarily walk away from baseball.  They each fight to the end, knowing the odds of success fall between slim and none.  Why?  Feinstein answers that for readers when he concludes the book with a quote from Jim Bouton’s memoir Ball Four:  “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A copy of this book was provided to the reviewer.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of a story about baseball, love, and Bob Dylan: Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

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