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The Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets: A Novel by Dianne Dixon (Anchor; $14.99; 272 pages)

Tracing our steps from the beginning/ Until they vanished into the air/ Trying to understand how our lives had led us there…   Jackson Browne, “Late for the Sky”

“A sense of desperation rose in Caroline…  She had unwittingly written her life into a language of secrets, into an indecipherable code riddled with questions.”

It was Jackson Browne who said of the past, the things we remember seem so distant and so small.   The past – and its impact on the present – is the theme of The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon.   This is the story of Justin Fisher, a man who grew up outside of Los Angeles, the son of Robert and Caroline Fisher.   But somehow he thinks that this was just a part of his life.   He begins to remember growing up as “T.J.” with a red-haired mother, living in the snow of the east coast, perhaps in Boston.   “…the information was presenting itself to him in erratic bursts.   In bits and pieces.   Out of nowhere.”

In this tale by a Hollywood scriptwriter turned author, Justin’s search for his past is painful.   It is a past filled with family secrets and a great deal of anger.   He is just one of the characters who have both pleasant and painful memories of home and relations.   “Home is the place in which you were rooted by your beginnings…  It marked and branded you.   And if it was a broken, desolate place it would leave you hungry and dangerous, and punished, for the rest of your life.”

The Language of Secrets repeatedly deals with the tension between remembering one’s childhood home as a place of sanctity and safety, and as a place to escape from.   “Mom, I don’t need a house.   I’m head of publicity for a major movie studio.   I’ve got a kick-ass life that I love.   I have no interest in getting married and settling down…  (This house was) a nice place to grow up in.   But that’s the whole point of being a kid and then becoming an adult.   You grow up.   You move on.”

So says one of Justin’s sisters to his mother.   But usually in a family at least one of the siblings must lead the life chosen by his or her parents.   In this story, it is Justin’s father who winds up living a second-hand version of his own father’s insurance salesman’s life.   Disastrous consequences follow for everyone.

Clearly, Dixon has devised a fascinating set-up for a novel.   There’s love here, but also – as previously mentioned – a lot of anger and rage.   Rage that comes from seeking independence, even as a fully grown adult:  “I have a rich father-in-law who treats me and my wife like we’re a wholly owned subsidiary.”

Dixon’s strength is in getting the reader to want to follow along with a not-so-pleasant tale, wanting to turn the page, and the next, with a bit of trepidation as to what’s ahead.   In The Language of Secrets, life is not what it seems to be.   This is demonstrated by jumbled memories of jumbled events.   (Haven’t we all been corrected by family members about when and where something in our past occurred?   And don’t we, nevertheless, continue to believe our own version of what happened?)

The difficulty with reading The Language of Secrets is that events seem to happen in strange order, in non-chronological fashion, even when the author identifies the time and place.   The reader might be tempted to make a chart of the events in the story, and may find that they just don’t chart out in sequence.   Perhaps this is Dixon’s way of reminding us that life remains anchored in confusion, and fog.

The great revelation perhaps never did come.   Virginia Woolf

The Language of Secrets is such a complicated story that in the end there’s no great revelation.   This reader would love to see a follow-up from Dixon that is a bit simpler and told in chronological order.   Still, The Language of Secrets serves as an indication that a very promising new writer has arrived on the scene.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“A lovely and compelling debut.”   Kristin Hannah, author of Distant Shores and Night Road.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  Four novels have been released that have similar titles – The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon, The Language of Flowers by Virginia Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton.

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Monster Mash

The Bone Yard: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass

“Just head, in a patch of ground between two huge branches of the live oak, stood three rows of knee-high crosses – four crosses in two of the rows, three in the other; eleven crosses in all…  Vickery eased the Jeep to a stop alongside the nearest row of crosses.   ‘Welcome to the Bone Yard,’ he announced.”

The most recent mystery/thriller from the writing duo of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, together known as Jefferson Bass, is not for the faint of heart.   The underlying message here is that human cruelty knows no limits.   This book picks up smoothly after the last one in the series, The Bone Thief.

This reviewer began absorbing the book as an Audible download to an iPod that was plugged into the dashboard of her trusty Mini Cooper.   The tale began innocuously, as do all the Body Farm novels.   The subtle, aw shucks anthropological introduction is followed by a second story line.   The first is set in the present day and the second is grounded in the Florida swamps of 40 years ago.

The current day story line revolves around a personal request from Angie St. Claire, a forensic analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to Dr. Bill Brockton – the main character of the Body Farm mysteries.   Angie’s sister has died in a questionable manner and Angie is determined to prove that it was murder.   Since Dr. Brockton’s summer hiatus from teaching at the University of Tennessee in the anthropology department has just begun, he is more than willing to travel to Florida to provide Angie with his forensic knowledge.

In the meantime, local law enforcement officials in Florida come into possession of two skulls that need to be identified.   Naturally, the task falls to Angie and Dr. Brockton and he, in turn, involves his expert staff to determine the ethnicity, age and gender of the skulls.   Along the way clues are revealed that lead to a boy’s reform school.   A separate narrative begins in the voice of a young boy who was interned at the reform school.

As the audio novel progressed, the shared themes of graphic descriptions of unimaginable violence made it clear that there might be some value in switching to a hard copy of the book tucked away safely at home.   Driving while listening to this sort of content is not conducive to safe driving!   The hard copy provided the welcome option of skipping the most horrific scenes of torture, in the guise of attitude adjustment, administered forty years prior to boys who were housed at the reform school sequestered in the woods of Florida.

Both story lines are filled with nagging suspicions and dedicated forensic work that incorporates many jurisdictions.   The reader might well hope that this level of cooperation exists in the real world on a widespread basis.   There are strong plugs for peace and civility from the team of Jefferson Bass.   Moreover, the good guys are very, very good and the villains are rotten to the core.

The tension and intrigue build to a quick paced race against time and evil.   The conclusion leaves plenty of opportunities for a future supply of the further exploits of Dr. Bill Brockton.   This is a real page turner!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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