Tag Archives: book review

30 Years in the Hole

30 years

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor by Karen Gedney, M.D. (DRG Consulting Company, $14.95, 384 pages)

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is an engaging and seemingly highly factual account of the work of a prison physician. I say this because I worked for doctors in a state’s prison system. As Doctor Karen Gedney makes abundantly clear, one never knows what one will encounter each day behind bars. One day inside a prison may be as quiet and reserved as a Catholic mass. The next day, all hell can, and will, break out.

Dr. Gedney intended to work for just four years under the National Health Corps in order to pay back her medical school scholarship. But the work was so fascinating to her that she stayed for three full decades. And she saw it as her mission to not just treat physical medical issues but also hearts and minds: “It was clear to me that as long as these men viewed themselves as victims, they had little chance of doing well on the outside. I had to help them perceive themselves not as victims, but as people who had what it takes to be responsible for the choices they made in life.”

And so, Dr. Gedney wound up bringing life skills classes to a high-security prison. An intriguing twist in her story is that Gedney, who is white, has a husband who is African-American. He wound up working with her to develop classes for inmates, the type intended to provide them with a “second chance.”

Dr. Gedney’s perspective is best summarized in these words: “I was always a sucker for the underdog.”

Of course,  no good deed goes unpunished, so Gedney often had to deal with wardens who either did not support her rehabilitation efforts or dismantled them. Even physicians are bound by the chains of bureaucracy. Luckily for Gedney, she encountered inmate success stories, such as the inmate she assisted who received a pardon after serving fifty years in prison. “Fifty years in prison. How does one survive that so well? How did he manage to walk out with confidence, into a world that was so different than the one he knew?”

Sometimes Dr. Gedney gets a bit too deep into attempting to cure the world as when she states: “The only thing that made sense to me was trying to gain an understanding of why someone commits a crime, and what could be done to prevent or stop the behavior.” Some would argue that this mission is not the role of a doctor in the correctional system. And this raises the one issue with 30 Years Behind Bars. At times, it becomes a political polemic, and this can distract from the story of Dr. Gedney’s medical career. And I suspect that it may, to some extent, limit the audience for the book.

Dr. Gedney might have avoided the sections of the book that deal with changing the system and the world. But then it would not have been her true account.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book is available as an eBook and as a trade paperback book.

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Murder, She Cooked

death al fresco

Death al Fresco: A Sally Solari Mystery by Leslie Karst (Crooked Lane Books, $26.99, 320 pages)

Death al Fresco is the third Sally Solari novel by Leslie Karst.  When I first received the book to review and saw on the cover a plug that the book includes recipes, I was immediately skeptical.  I was proven wrong.  Death is a very enjoyable read and Karst manages to deliver a book that allows the reader to read it in big chunks because it breezes along nicely and sustains interest.  Or one can elect to put it down for a while and return to it without having missed a beat.

Solari’s is an Italian restaurant owned by Sally’s father on Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz, California.  Much to her chagrin, she finds herself supporting her father’s endeavors more than she would care to.  She dates a member of the District Attorney’s office and – in addition to her restaurant pursuits, takes up painting as a hobby.

Most importantly, Sally is an accomplished amateur sleuth, which comes in handy when Gino, a renowned Santa Cruz fisherman is found dead (by Sally’s dog) after an evening at Solari’s.  Early in the novel, a local accuses her of being the next Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), which, by the way her character is drawn is the exact analogy I had in mind while reading the story.  The unfortunate death compromises a major event planned for the restaurant; an event for which Sally was the unwitting chief organizer.

Sally’s father becomes a suspect in the crime and in order to salvage both the restaurant and her father’s reputation, she becomes the chief busybody and lead investigator in Gino’s death.  Sally is too sweet to be perceived as precocious, but just barely.  She is far too nice to be disliked, even when she is covering up evidence.  She is also, apparently, too cute to upset her boyfriend with all of her meddling.  All of which somehow – and surprisingly – makes for a story that works extremely well.

There are various iterations of possibilities introduced as the circumstances of Gino’s death come to light, from his having imbibed too much before he dined at the restaurant, to an interest in his boat upon his death, and – which is perhaps a bit too much, to lead or copper poisoning.  But in the end, Sally gets it right and the series should continue for at least a fourth novel.

At the conclusion of Death al Fresco, I was a satisfied reader as I put the book down.  I think most readers will arrive at a similar verdict.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

Dave Moyer is the chief administrator of a public school district in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

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Any Major Dude Will Tell You

Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium, edited by Barney Hoskyns (Overlook, $27.95, 352 pages)

“We both liked recording studios. As much as anything else, it was just the coolest place to be on a hot afternoon.” Walter Becker

“We grew up with a certain natural ironic stance that later became the norm in society.” Donald Fagen

major dudes

The enigmatic band Steely Dan has been popular – and mysterious, since the 1970s. Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium demythologizes the group while at the same time adding a new layer of mystery.  Editor Barney Hoskyns has compiled a collection of previously published articles, interviews, and record reviews about the work of Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker – both as Steely Dan and as solo recording artists.

It’s made clear in these pieces that Fagen and Becker viewed themselves as clever hipsters; ones who were far too cool for the college they attended, Bard – “One of your basic beatnik colleges.”  In a sense, Steely Dan’s lyrics and music moved the ball forward in the genre of being cool.  In the process, they were among the progenitors of progressive album rock and smooth jazz.

In Major Dudes, Fagen and Becker come off as quite likeable.  However, they were always in character in the same manner as Bob Dylan is.  One is never going to fully understand what made them tick.  Their goal, perhaps, was to simply produce popular but uniquely intelligent music.

This compendium could have been better edited by Hoskyns.  It’s quite repetitive. But for fans of The Dan, it’s close to essential reading.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on June 5, 2018.

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The Rest of the Story

no one ever asked

No One Ever Asked: A Novel by Katie Ganshert (Waterbrook, $14.99, 368 pages)

Sometimes a promising novel is destroyed by the story telling structure selected by the author.  I found this to be the case with No One Ever Asked.  The fictional tale, about racism and socio-economic differences that affect two public school districts in Missouri, is a worthwhile one.  Ganshert well illustrates how racism impacts everyone – rich and poor, majority race or minority – whether it is overt, covert, deliberately hurtful, or inadvertent.  And this would have been a relevant read for these times if only she had written the tale in standard chronological form.  She did not.

No One starts with a dramatic event.  The event covered in the Prologue – something a novel almost never needs, takes place near the end of the events covered in this book.  Thus, the next 300 or more pages take the reader back in time to see what preceded the climactic event.  The reader’s patience might not have been tried if Ganshert had taken 10, 20 or even 30 pages to “set up” the non-linear story in this unexpected way.  Unfortunately, and regrettably, she used 300 or more pages to do so.  Not only this, she often refers to events that, in legal terms, “are not in evidence.”  For example, an incident that occurred in a boy’s high school locker room is referenced multiple times.  But the reader is never informed, until near the very end of the telling, as to what exactly was involved in this incident.

Hiding the ball from the reader in this fashion builds up fatigue and frustration.  I was ready to put the book down many times, for good.

There’s also the distressing fact that No One has so many characters – white and black, prosperous and poor, that you would need to keep a spread sheet in order to keep track of them.  And the author’s style is not only confusing and sometimes bewildering, but often choppy.

By the end of No One Ever Asked, I realized that Ganshert had written a decent story which might have been enjoyable had she simply kept it straight (chronological) and simple.  She did not.  I am hopeful that an editor will advise her to follow the common path of storytelling in her next effort.  Cleverness for its own sake is rarely a reward for the reader.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

No One Ever Asked was published on April 3, 2018.

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The Hardest Part

“You take it on faith, you take it from the heart/ The waiting is the hardest part.”  Tom Petty

C.L. Taylor’s The Missing is an intriguing mixed bag.

The Missing: A Novel by C.L. Taylor (William Morrow Paperbacks, $15.99, 496 pages)

missing taylor

Claire, the mother of a missing child, Billy, suffers through the mental anguish of trying to determine if he is actually still alive when she loses hope in the authorities.  This has a tragic impact on all of her relationships, including her mother, best friend, her other son, Jake, his live-in girlfriend Kira, and husband Mark.

All of the tricks of enticing the reader in, choppy scenes that attempt to accentuate the characters’ minds and the turmoil of the story itself, work – sometimes.  And then they become tiresome and tiring.  Just when the reader begins to become attached to the story and plot – interested in trying to figure out what is actually going on, things get to be too much.

In all novels one must suspend reality and in the suspense/intrigue genre, this is even more paramount.  In The Missing I found myself rooting for Taylor to pull it off.  (There’s a story to be told here that should be worth the time and energy.)  There are personal stories and interrelationships that come close to making this a special novel.  But it does not quite get there.

At over 450 pages, the telling is too long.  The story drags on and this diminishes the impact of the conclusion when the truth is revealed to the intrepid reader.

There is some very good writing in The Missing and there are sections where one’s interest is definitely heightened.  At times the story moves along nicely and pulls the reader in.  But it’s not consistent enough to be viewed as a top notch suspense novel.  Let’s hope that Morrow assigns a diligent editor to work with Taylor on her next release.

missing taylor 2

Despite these reservations, there will be readers who will enjoy the book.

Recommended, for a less demanding audience.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a professional educator and sometime drummer.  He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

 

 

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A Death in the Sunshine State

Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime by Cutter Wood (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $26.99, 225 pages)

love and death

This book arrived at the right time.  I had just finished reading a true crime book and found it to be sadly disappointing.  The writer put down all the facts about a triple murderer and his trial but seemingly without context.  When one sentence follows another in this manner – without drama, suspense or the seeming presence of actual people, it’s far less than engaging.

Cutter Wood’s book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is like the antidote to the typical true crime story.  Wood, an MFA graduate in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, touched base with all of the principals about a murder that he felt somewhat connected with.  You see, after graduating from Brown he felt directionless – like Benjamin in The Graduate, so he spent months at a secluded hotel in Florida.  The woman who ran the hotel with her husband later disappeared and Wood was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Wood knew some of the principals involved and was also given access to law enforcement officials and the man suspected of killing the missing woman.  But once the crime was solved, Wood felt that little was resolved.  The facts did not seem to add up to a whole, complete story.  Therefore, he elected to pursue a unique option.

Instead of writing a dry nonfiction account of the crime, Wood decided to write a fictional version of a relationship between a former criminal and a successful married businesswoman whose lives intersected.  It’s a story of an unlikely attraction, a loving relationship, and a tragic ending.  Wood never attempts to explain the crime or the murderer’s mind, but paints the events – both real and imaginary – as something that was fated to occur.

As Wood is free to explore events and scenarios that may or may not have played out, he develops a story that feels fully real.  This is not Law and Order – a stereotypical version of crime and justice, nor is it a fly-over account of a crime developed for a one hour cable TV network show.  It is a story of two imperfect people who were drawn to each other for all of the wrong reasons.

By leaving out some of the seemingly critical crime details and facts that would be highlighted in the standard true crime book sold in an airport gift shop, Wood proves again that less is more.  His “story of a crime” focuses on the small yet significant aspects of the lives of two people.  In doing so, he brings the individuals to life and causes us to mourn – in a quiet, dignified way, the loss of one of them.

It’s a sad, tough story but Cutter Wood takes the reader to the heart of the matter.  His is a respectful approach to human imperfection and frailty.

I look forward to reading Wood’s future works.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Love and Death in the Sunshine State will be released on April 17, 2018.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Three for the Read

The Dress in the Window: A Novel by Sofia Grant (William Morrow, $15.99, 368 pages)

dress in the window front

The time is post-World War II and the location is a rundown mill town outside Philadelphia.  Three brave ladies are struggling to make ends meet.  Sisters Jeanne and Peggy are victims of the war – Jeanne has lost her fiance and Peggy is a widow with a small child.  They live with Peggy’s mother-in-law in a bare bones existence eking out a living designing and sewing outfits for the more well-heeled ladies of the town.

Readers are treated to insights about the fabrics being fashioned into unique garments designed by Jeanne and crafted by Peggy.  The novel covers several years following the war’s end as the sisters work to better their lives and resolve their personal issues.  The chapters are laid out from the various character’s perspectives which make for a well rounded tale.

dress in the window back

The book is billed as a debut effort by Sonia Grant.  However, a bit of sleuthing by the reader – could it be a pseudonym? – will put that notion to rest.

Well recommended.

A Season to Lie: A Detective Gemma Monroe Mystery by Emily Littlejohn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 290 pages)

a season to lie

Gemma Monroe is a police officer who also happens to be a new mother.  Gemma narrates her experiences in Cedar Valley, Colorado during the snowy month of February.  The discovery of a frozen corpse at the local private high school begins a very baffling search for the murderer.

Author Littlejohn crafts a fascinating story of small town secrets that may keep her readers from putting down the book until the very last pages.  Her smooth writing is enchanting and some paragraphs could be poetry.  This is a follow-up Gemma Monroe mystery.  The first was Inherit the Bones.  Let’s hope another installment will follow in the not-too-distant future.

Highly recommended.

The Trust: A Novel by Ronald H. Balson (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 356 pages)

the trust

This time the narrator is Liam Taggart, a private investigator in Chicago, Illinois.  Liam left Northern Ireland 16 years ago after some messy business that involved politics and the CIA.  A reader who knows very little about Irish politics, AKA, this reviewer, will be fascinated by the fierce loyalties and grudges that span decades – no, even centuries, in this divided country.

Liam’s uncle Fergus has died and left explicit instructions with his attorney regarding the disposition of his estate.  There is a secret trust and Liam is named the sole trustee.  It’s a daunting task for Liam to unravel the mystery behind Fergus Taggart’s life and death.  Author Balson is a trial attorney based in the Windy City who makes good use of his legal knowledge and experience in spinning an international novel worthy of the elegant dust jacket.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

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