Tag Archives: male protagonist

Hold the Line

On the Line: A Bill Smith/Lydia Chin Novel by S. J. Rozan (Minotaur Books; $14.99; 320 pages)

If reading a suspense thriller by David Baldacci is like driving in a new Porsche, reading a private investigator thriller by S. J. Rozan is like riding through the streets of New York City in a turbo-charged go-kart.   You never know what you’re going to bump into!

Rozan writes in a style that is part 1950s detective magazine, part retro (think of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move), part Miami Vice/Hill Street blues and more than a bit of Batman and Robin.   In order to follow her story you will need to suspend reality or believe in – as does the main character – miracles.

As the story opens our protagonist P. I. Bill Smith receives a mysterious message on his cell phone telling him that his partner and love interest Lydia Chin has been kidnapped.   Smith doesn’t know who’s behind this but he correctly suspects that it’s someone he helped put in prison.   He’s soon provided with a “clue” that leads him to an abandoned building in Manhattan in which he finds a dead girl.   This, naturally, is a set-up.   The NYPD officers arrive just after Smith does and suspect him of murder.   Smith has to fight with and escape from the cops just as he’s about to begin his frantic search for Lydia.

The person who has kidnapped Lydia has set a clock on this “game” of cat and mouse.   Smith must find Lydia before time runs out, because her kidnapper has promised to kill her once the clock reaches double-zero.   Smith needs to figure out who exactly has taken Lydia, and where she’s been taken while he hides from the police and – oh, yes – as new crimes take place and the police suspect him of being the perpetrator.   Smith would have little chance of dealing with this all by himself, but two young assistants come to his rescue and he’s also got a friend inside the NYPD who performs a few of the miracles he needs.

Rozan’s writing style is rapid and breathless.   As the story begins, the reader will likely feel (as with Nobody Moves) that too much is happening too fast.   But if you accept the fact that dramatic events are going to happen every few pages, the read becomes a highly entertaining  and exhilarating one.   If you’re like this reader, you will begin On the Line wondering if you will be able to finish it.   On doing so, you will be calling a bookstore to order one of the nine previously released Bill Smith/Lydia Chin novels.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   On the Line was released in a trade paperback version on August 30, 2011.  

“A high-velocity entry in a reliable series.”   Booklist

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Astral Weeks

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (Anchor, $15.95, 320 pages)

astral-novel

“We were all crazy, that was a given.”

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”   Van Morrison (“Astral Weeks”)

This is an oddly engaging novel despite a number of very clear flaws in the telling of the story.   For one, it is difficult to stick with a tale stacked with characters that are simply unlikable.   Our male protagonist, Harry Quirk, is a poet married (but not for long) to Luz.   They live in Brooklyn and he writes “strict poems,” meaning formal ones of the type whose time came and went very long ago.

“When I was a wet-eyed boy starting out in the poetry racket, I pledged my lights to metered, rhymed verse.   My models were old-fashioned, and so was I.”

Harry engages in many irritating behavior patterns (What did Luz ever see in him?), the worst of which is the habit of picking at and cutting his own skin until a severe infection results.   Oh, but this is part of the story because it’s the reason that Harry seeks medical treatment and is first seen by Luz the nurse.

Harry’s best friend is a woman that’s he’s known for decades.   This shouldn’t be major but it is to Luz, who is convinced beyond a doubt that her husband is having a mad affair with this woman.   If Harry is not likable, neither is his long-term woman friend and Luz is definitely not.   In Harry’s words, “I was deeply tired of her unpredictable oscillations between abject devotion and irrational psychodrama.”

“She had wrecked everything I loved with her furious, insecure need to control my thoughts, my mind, my body, like a one-woman government.”

Harry doesn’t make any money with his poems – at least he hasn’t in decades.   But when he splits from Luz (“I was a wild animal who’d been trying to live in a cage.”) he’s able to rely on the kindness of his friend James who runs a very improbable business.   The business is called Custom Case, which designs and builds one-of-a-kind guitar cases for ultra-millionaire rock stars.   Yeah, right…

True to form, however, even our good man James is not likable.   “James was pragmatically cold, deep down, for all his seeming generosity and caring towards his wife.”

One of the key and basic issues with this novel is that Harry’s male voice just does not sound authentic coming from a female writer.   This is not to say this can’t work, it just doesn’t work here especially when Harry’s thoughts are often expressed in very dense language.   And some of the writing by author Christensen is close to painful, as in this sample:  “The brown shingled beach houses of the rich and privileged sat humped amid bare woods and dunes like big harmless cartoon bears.”   Cartoon bears?   Really?   (Maybe this is more embarrassing than painful.)

Still, what keeps the reader involved is the desire to see Harry find and develop a new life free of the shackles of Luz, who “twists any idea  until it matches her need to be right.”   Harry’s a man who’s been freed by accident – by a simple twist of fate – and we wonder if he’ll make the best of the opportunity.

At its end, this is a novel about a human who must find a way to let go of what was lost (like so much of the past in our own lives).   He must do this in order to move on with grace.

Extremely patient, tolerant and forgiving readers may like this story.   It’s hard to see that being true for most readers.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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My Special Angel

One Summer: A Novel by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99, 352 pages; Hachette Audio Unabridged version on 7 CDs, $24.99)

Take a break from your own life and get to know the Armstrong family of Ohio.   They are the central figures in David Baldacci’s poignant novel, One Summer.   This reviewer was captivated by the depth of character development, both male and female, that Baldacci brought to his tale of loss and redemption.   The added bonus was listening to the audio version narrated by two highly-skilled readers, Don McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy.   Together they provide a wide range of voices for the characters.   This blend brought the story to life in a way that would be hard to match with a print version of the book.

The story opens as Jack Armstrong, all around good guy and former military man, awaits his slow death from a rare and always-fatal disease while Christmas approaches.   Jack’s lovely wife Lizzie and three children are struggling to cope with the inevitable loss they face.   Each has their own way of doing so and 15-year-old daughter Michelle (Mickie) has alienated herself from everyone by rebelling against the entire matter with anger.   Deep down inside Lizzie knows she will have to go on without Jack very soon; however, she fantasizes about the entire family revisiting her childhood home in South Carolina during the following summer.  

Baldacci takes this premise and injects his own deeply felt take on loss by setting up a twist whereby Lizzie dies in a car crash and Jack miraculously survives.   Rather than playing on the sympathy of the characters he has created, Baldacci brings out the good and the weaknesses of everyone involved.   This is a tale that demands spirited action and dashing drama.   Baldacci delivers all this and more.   It is perfectly fine with this reviewer that the gritty reality of life coexists with a fairytale quality series of plot twists.  

There’s no mystery here, love conquers all.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

An audiobook review copy was provided by the publisher.   “In One Summer, (Baldacci) writes as beautifully and insightfully about the pathways of the human heart as he does about the corridors of power.   …(a) hugely emotional and unforgettable novel.”   Lisa Scottoline, author of Save Me.

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Telstar

Trader of Secrets: A Paul Madriani Novel by Steve Martini (William Morrow, $26.99, 392 pages)

Be prepared for globe-trotting action as Steve Martini launches his most recent Paul Madriani thriller at a full throttle.   This pace is maintained as the action shifts among key players and the locales where they are hiding, cooking up mayhem or stalking human prey.

Martini’s fans will be pleased that the story picks up the thread of danger and fear that Madriani’s nemesis, Liquida Muerte, has brought to previous novels.   The nucleus of characters includes his attorney partner Harry Hinds, lady friend Joselyn Cole and, of course, Madriani’s beloved daughter, Sarah.   Further out from the inner circle are Thorpe at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and his cohort of spies and snitches.   The premise, locating and stopping terrorists bent on producing the means for destroying key targets in the U.S., creates tension and no end of drama.   The subplot is pure Martini – fierce papa Madriani needs to assure the safety of Sarah and will do most anything to secure it.

”I knew it.   I knew it.   This thing smelled the minute I got that call from the White House.”   Thorpe got out of his chair, waiving the cigarette around like a torch.   “So now they dump it on us to find these guys, and if we fail, it’s our ass in the flames.   And if that’s not enough, they want to play hide the ball.   They can’t tell us what it’s about.   Son of a bitch,” said Thorpe.   “Damn it!”

The focus on wicked scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California seems a bit like the reverse play on the TV show NUMB3RS where brilliant scientists solved ugly crime with math and physics.   The doubts about who’s the good guy and who’s the self-centered monster make the plot twists and turns all the more enjoyable.   Martini knows how to play out the suspense and snap to a conclusion, segue to more action and never miss a beat.

While some thriller series may lose their vitality, thankfully, the Madriani franchise is clearly not one of them.   This reviewer is looking forward to the next installment from Steve Martini’s vivid imagination.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Martini is a crafty pro.”   The Washington Post

“Martini has created one of the most charismatic defense attorneys in popular fiction.”   Linda Fairstein

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Darkness on the Edge of Town

Iron House: A Novel by John Hart (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 432 pages)

This mystery/thriller is the fourth book from author John Hart (Down River, The King of Lies, The Last Child).   His tale is dense, personal and darkly portrayed using excellent character development.   Michael, the main character, has led a mysterious life at the margins of society as a mob killer.   His childhood traumas and challenges form the background of the mystery.   There is a Dickensian quality to the somber undercurrent that stems from Michael’s childhood years spent in a horrific orphanage called Iron House.   He has recently felt a yearning for an ordinary life far from the world he knows.   Girlfriend Elena is at the center of these new feelings.

“Where are we going?”

“North Carolina.”

“Why?”

“To find my brother.”

She blinked, still stunned.   “You killed them.”

Michael opened the door, took her by the hand.   “I’m trying to quit.”

As is often the case, the plotline is just inside the bounds of believability.   Yes, we’re familiar with the notion of East Coast crime syndicates and the brutality of gangs in general.   Yes, a story that involves the worst of the bad is bound to contain its fair share of blood and guts.   But, no, the quantity of gore provided by author Hart was not anticipated.

The leisurely pace of the early chapters gives way to an all-out race against evil to save the damsel in distress.   This book is highly reminiscent of another recently published work that features an orphanage/reform school.   The Bone Yard by the writing duo known as Jefferson Bass relies on forensics and anthropology, while Iron House gets its structure from the aberrant quirks of some truly psychotic folks.   The two books are vastly different in that the bulk of the body count in The Bone Yard stems from decades old acts of cruelty, whereas Iron House has a pile of fresh corpses.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A rare accomplishment – a compelling, fast paced thriller written with a masterful, literary touch.”   Jeffrey Deaver

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Mean Mr. Mustard

Devil’s Trill: A Novel by Gerald Elias (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 304 pages)

“…musicians far greater than myself have overcome far greater obstacles in life than losing ridiculous little competitions.”

I’m generally not a huge fan of mysteries but this was one that I could not manage to put down.   Devil’s Trill centers around Daniel Jacobus (who likes to be called Jacobus, never Daniel), who was once a gifted musical child prodigy.   As a thirteen-year-old, Jacobus took second place – the same as coming in last – at the prestigious Grimsely Competition at Carnegie Hall.   He’s always had a grudge about what happened to him at the Grimsely – a unique competition held at 13-year intervals – and he subsequently lost his eyesight due to an infection.   Despite this, Jacobus managed to have a fair to middling career as a classical musician, who could literally play blind, without the need for scores.   In the last few decades, he’s made a living as a musical instructor for young musicians – some of whom, in a sense, he grooms to win the prizes and successful careers that escaped his own grasp.

As we meet Jacobus, he elects to be present – along with his latest student, Yumi Shinagawa of Japan – at the latest edition of the Grimsely, where the winning competitor is granted the honor of performing with a priceless Stradivarius violin.   All is fine except that once the special evening is concluded, its determined that the $8,000,000 Stradivarius has disappeared from the reception held at Carnegie Hall.   There are many suspects, but Jacobus soon comes to realize that the New York City police suspect him most of all.   (Jacobus has often publicly expressed his opinion that the Grimsely uses child prodigies unfairly, and he comes to find that all of its winners ultimately fell short of the brilliant careers they were once promised.)

Since the rare violin was under the protection of two armed guards before it was stolen, it’s clear that whoever took it was a person with a deep knowledge of the classical music business.   Forced to clear his name, Jacobus will join with the intelligent and precocious Yumi and a music-worshipping insurance agent to attempt to solve the crime before the police do.   The effort may require Jacobus to leave the country, cementing the perception that he’s a guilty man.

“Unaccustomed to the idea of happiness…  Jacobus was at a loss how to proceed.”

“Jacobus did not suffer zealots gladly…”

What makes this read especially enjoyable is the character of our protagonist, Jacobus.   He’s brilliant but a self-proclaimed grouchy old man:  “…now we’re all just old farts.”   He may remind some readers of the main character-physician in the current TV series, House.   Jacobus lives by his instincts, but he attempts to rule sighted people by intimidation (only his extremely high I.Q. lets him get away with it the majority of the time.)

Having a basic knowledge of classical music will assist the reader but is not required.   Elias, who is a violinist, concertmaster and professor of music, supplies all of the necessary background on the composers mentioned in the story, such as Jacobus’ idol Ludwig von Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn, and the other great Masters.   Reading Devil’s Trill is like sitting in the audience as a great orchestra plays Beethoven’s classic Fifth Symphony.   Highly recommended.

This reader looks forward to picking up the next novel in the Daniel Jacobus series, Danse Macabre.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Against the Wind

In the Rooms: A Novel by Tom Shone (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 342 pages)

She probably only dated snowboarders with a rap sheet as long as their arm, the cheekbones of Viggo Mortensen, and a penchant for whittling driftwood into small but meaningful tokens of their appreciation for Life’s Bounteous Gifts.   I failed on both fronts.   I had neither misbehaved with sufficient abandon nor reformed myself with enough zeal.   I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else.

This debut novel might have been entitled Dim Lights, Big City as it is a reverse  image of Jay McInerney’s book and film Bright Lights, Big City.   In McInerney’s story, a young man turns to drinking and drugs to evade the memories of  his dead mother and an estranged wife.   In Tom Shone’s novel, protagonist Patrick Miller turns to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as a way of shoring up his sagging career as a Manhattan-based literary agent.

Miller, who grew up in England (like his creator), has been shaken up by relationship problems – his girlfriend is bitterly honest about his flaws – and this has affected his ability to attract successful writers to the firm he works for.   And then, suddenly, he finds that his favorite author in the world – one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Douglas Kelsey – is back in the Big Apple after spending years hiding out in the artists’ community of Woodstock.   Miller impulsively follows Kelsey when he spots him one day out on the streets of the city, and learns that the trail ends at an AA meeting in a church.

How is Miller going to get to speak to the reclusive Kelsey, a modern-day J.D. Salinger?   Well, simple, he will just pretend that he has a drinking problem and begin joining the meetings “in the rooms” of NYC.   But, actually, it’s not so simple because as he carries out his plan, Miller finds that he’s now lying all of the time to the two sets of people in his life – to his co-workers, he insists that he’s not a heavy drinker and does not have a problem (they think he’s in denial); to his new fellow AA members, he insists that he can’t handle his liquor or his women (oh, so he’s co-addicted to sex, just as they suspected).

If things aren’t complicated enough, Miller is soon attracted to Lola, a young woman he meets at one of these meetings – a woman who serves as a trusted liaison between him and the respected author – and they begin to get physical.   But, Catch-22, the rules of AA prohibit them from getting close to each other for a minimum of a year – a year based on mutual sobriety.   Eventually, Miller is not quite sure what he wants and just as he’s becoming addicted to Lola, his ex-flame comes back into his life.

If all of this sounds a bit glum, it’s not as told by Shone.   The novel is quite funny, as my wife can testify since I read no less than 8 or 9 lengthy excerpts of it to her…  Readers will identify with Miller as he’s a want-to-be nice guy who makes mistake after mistake, even after he’s decided mentally that he’s going to get his act together.   It seems that he just can’t win, as life keeps throwing unexpected changes his way.

Shone makes the telling especially interesting with many insights into both the book publishing world and AA.   While his characters are sometimes critical of the 12-step process, they’re also positive that the program works.   Here’s the ever-cynical Kelsey on Bill (Wilson) of the Big Book:   “Well, Bill’s no Steinbeck.   That’s for sure.   There’s nothing original to any of it.   He filched the whole thing.   It’s just religion’s greatest hits.”

The more that Patrick Miller learns about AA, the more he wonders if he may indeed have some problems.   Whether he drinks too much or not, virtually every AA member that he encounters tells him that he spends too much time inside of his head.   Miller is so busy analyzing life, and trying to find the right path and rules to follow, that it seems to be passing him by.

The true charm of In the Rooms, is its conclusion, in which our hero must make the right choices – the exact right choices – to prove to himself and others that he  is, in truth, the nice guy that he’s always wanted to be.   He’s helped along in this by what he’s come to learn “in the rooms” and so he comes to see that – ah, yes – it works!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “Sharp, funny, and ultimately touching…  Recommended for readers of Nick Hornby and Joshua Ferris.”   Library Journal

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Doctor Wu

Red Jade: A Detective Jack Yu Investigation by Henry Chang (Soho Crime; $25.00; 256 pages)

“Killing two bad guys, taking a cold-blooded murderer home.   Not bad for a few days in Seattle, huh?”

Reading Red Jade by Henry Chang is like being on a diet of tasteless fiber before enjoying a fine helping of spicy Mongolian Beef.   The vivid cinematic ending is literally preceded by a couple of hundred pages written in a dull and plodding style.   In fact, make that plodding, plodding, plodding.

The reader will need to take a suspension-of-reality pill before accepting the story that’s told here.   New York Police Detective Jack Wu is an Asian quasi super-hero who can solve multiple crimes while spending a weekend in Seattle, Washington.   It’s so hard to believe that Yu can solve a murder that took place in New York City’s Chinatown while in Seattle that the author himself asks of Jack, “How much destiny could he take?”   Wherever Detective Yu goes, the evil people he needs to find just happen to be in the neighborhood.

It may or may not be worth mentioning that the book starts with the bloody murder of a young man and a young woman in New York’s Chinatown.   This precedes Jack’s traveling to Seattle with his sometime girlfriend (she’s there attending a legal conference), where he not only solves the case in chief, but another big one while he’s at it.   Yes, the world is just a stage for Detective Yu.

One might be tempted to think that there’s going to be some interesting scenery covered in a tale set in Seattle.   Instead, except for a few walks on very mean streets, the majority of the tale involves Jack’s stay at the Marriott Courtyard near Sea-Tac, while his girlfriend beds at the far more impressive Westin downtown.   Jack has an entire extended weekend to work his magic, which sometimes involves beating up two foes at once using his very impressive kung-fu style skills.   Sometimes, though, Jack falls back on simply shooting the bad guys when he’s not getting the best of things.   Yippee Ki-yay!, as Bruce Willis might say.

Still, credit has to be given to Chang for fashioning a surprisingly energetic and involving ending.   It’s a shame it takes one such effort to get to it.   This reader felt worn down by the telling, as if the reading took away more energy from me than it could ever hope to repay.   Chang writes in small bits and bites (some chapters covering only a single page), which makes me think his skills might be better applied to very short crime stories.   Let’s just hope that he comes up with protagonists that are more reality-based than Detective Jack Yu.  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Said Publishers Weekly of Red Jade:  “What started as a promising series has devolved into something quite run-of-the-mill…”

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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Book of Nathan: A Novel by Curt Weeden and Richard Marek (Oceanview Publishing; $25.95; 264 pages)

“Dan Brown meets Janet Evanovich…”   Roxanne Black

Co-authors Curt Weeden and Richard Marek have teamed up to create a fascinating novel that is part mystery and part life lesson.   Their main character is Rick Bullock, formerly a successful Madison Avenue advertising man who turned agnostic soul saver when his beloved wife, Anne, died from a brain tumor.   Rick has refocused his life and manages a shelter for men in the inner city.   He knows his clients and when one of them named Zeus is accused of a high-profile murder, Rick makes it his task to prove the accusers wrong.

The first person narrative is an excellent vehicle for combining the disparate elements of the tale.   Rick’s thoughts and actions are consistent with a man of high moral principles.   Fortunately, the authors have resisted portraying him as a saintly type.   He is capable of trickery and a little arm twisting to obtain the resources needed to travel to Florida where Zeus is incarcerated.   Lacking funds for the journey, Rick calls in a favor from a buddy in his advertising past, Doug Kool, who is a fundraiser par excellence for a big nonprofit.

The team Rick takes to Florida is a rag-tag group.   Some of them are helpful for the mission (Doc Waters and Maurice) and one is a genuine bundle of precocious trouble (Twyla Tharp – no, not that one).   This reviewer was reminded of The Wizard of Oz and the pilgrimage that Dorothy made with her band of seekers.   Amazingly, the story line manages to stay reasonably tight and manageable regardless of the wide variety of characters.   Oh, did I mention that an extremely wealthy man also plays a part?   Indeed, the reader will discover more than the identity of the killer by the story’s end.  

The values and moral judgements presented are all too real and not off the scale of everyday issues we all face.   Kudos to Weeden and Marek for delivering their message in such an entertaining way.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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