Tag Archives: Manhattan

Death in Special Collections

Murder in the Manuscript Room: A 42nd Street Library Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99)

murder manuscript room

As she dug through the possessions Leila left behind, she was aware that what she searched through was not so different than what she might find in any of the boxes in the manuscripts and archives collection.

Author Con Lehane follows his first novel in this series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, with an equally engaging tale.  Raymond Amber, newly-discovered grandfather of Johnny, jumps into another quirky situation in his role as the curator of the crime fiction collection at the New York City landmark/institution.

The cast of characters includes several carry-overs, the most prominent among them are: Raymond’s almost-love-interest librarian Adele Morgan, New York police detective Mike Cosgrove, and beloved Library Tavern bartender McNulty.  Despite the obvious enormity of New York City, Lehane deftly conveys a small town vibe by further developing the strong relationships among the characters introduced in the first book.  They interact within a fairly tight radius around the library and their respective neighborhoods.

Of course there is the promised murder and ensuing investigation into the who and why of the event.  New member of the library staff and murder victim, Leila Stone, gave off strange vibes and did not fit in with the normal flow of work.  Mike and Raymond form a tension-filled team to solve the crime.  In the past, Raymond has proved his skill at detective work which puts him in friendly competition with his buddy the detective.

Adele is the one library staff member who was able to forge a relationship with Leila and she takes up the thankless task of delving into Leila’s past in the hope of finding a motive for the otherwise pointless murder.  Adele ventures away from New York City all the way to Texas.  There are murky figures lurking wherever she travels which adds a menacing note to the tale.

Numerous plot threads connect the characters within the murder investigation, while at the same time daily life goes on.  Raymond’s continuing custody tug-of-war with Johnny’s wealthy grandmother allows the reader to experience his evolving emotional development from a neat and tidy librarian’s life to the messiness of a life infused with deep feelings.

The satisfying second novel in the 42nd Street Library series from Con Lehane is a  product of his adept skill at writing dialogue, describing scenery and portraying emotions.  The added bonus blended into the mystery is another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the workings of a priceless institution.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Working 9 to 5

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $14.95, 240 pages)

The Receptionist

Then there was the shame of the writer who doesn’t write. The me who carried within my breast in equal shares the conviction that I could write and the certainty that I could not.

Longtime fans of The New Yorker magazine are the perfect audience for this memoir. Ms. Groth writes of her 20+ years as a receptionist on the 18th floor of the building where the magazine offices were located. The floor housed 40 writers and six or more cartoonists. The reception desk can be likened to a ringside seat at a much-loved and revered weekly publication.

The opening chapters serve as a low-key introduction to Ms. Groth, a newly-minted graduate of the University of Minnesota with aspirations of becoming a writer. The move to New York City was like going to a foreign land after living in the Mid-West. These slowly-evolving vignettes are strung together to illustrate her rather humble beginnings at the magazine.

The vignettes offer the reader glimpses into a world of art and literature based in Manhattan where the game of six degrees of separation can be traced back to Ms. Groth’s earliest years – beginning in 1957, right up to her “graduation” to the world of college teaching in 1978 after earning a PhD in literature from NYU. Her grammar is impeccable and the evenly-paced narrative becomes remarkably open with many elements of her life that are both risque and expected for life in Manhattan during the sexual revolution. It is as if the reader is delving into all aspects of Ms. Groth’s life after getting to know her.

A young woman whose job is receptionist in a rarefied circumstance sees and hears rather remarkable things. She can become indispensable to the staff and literally become part of their lives outside of work. This is especially true when she is a constant presence in an otherwise changing array of personnel. Clearly, some of the long-time and revered writers and editors form the nucleus of the staff and their interactions with Ms. Groth are fascinating.

Today it would be unusual for an employee to maintain a receptionist position for such a long time in one department or company or area of an organization. To her credit, Ms Groth provides the reader with an even-handed account of her ownership of what transpired over her two decades at The New Yorker. It is a sui generis true story.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Oh! Darling

The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Penguin Books, $16.00, 352 pages)

“I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone…”   Bruce Springsteen

Cristina Alger’s debut novel is to Wall Street and corrupt investments what Robert Daley’s Prince of the City was to corruption inside New York City’s criminal justice system; and it makes just about as powerful a statement about contemporary life in this country.   This is a story about New York’s monetary elite (the One Percent) and about Greed with a capital G.   It’s a frightening tale about a place in which people equate money with love – in which money is, quite simply, the most important thing in the world.

As the novel opens, financier Morty Reis has killed himself.   Reis, a figure apparently based on Bernie Madoff, is an outside manager for Delphic, the investment company hedge fund run by the powerful billionaire Carter Darling.   (“The Frederick Fund, Delphic’s only single-strategy fund, had 98 percent of its assets invested with Reis Capital Management…  Morty was a brilliant investor.”)   The problem, as Darling’s son-in-law Paul Ross soon finds out, is that Reis Capital Management was a Ponzi scheme and Delphic’s clients stand to lose billions of dollars.   Ross, in need of a job after being pushed out of the Manhattan law firm he worked for, learns this sad truth soon after becoming the head of Delphic’s legal team.   He’s barely had a cup of coffee before learning that the SEC is on the phone.

It’s a Grisham-like opening but Alger, who has worked as both a financial analyst (Goldman, Sachs, & Co.) and white glove firm attorney, quickly steers the action to the fiscal side.   And she exposes the reader to the rough underbelly of life in the top stratum of New York high society – a class in which a small apartment in the Big Apple goes for $1 million with grossly high monthly maintenance fees, tuition for one child at a private school runs $34,000 per year, a summer rental in the Hamptons goes for $100,000, and SAT tutors ask for $1,000 an hour.   “Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers?   For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steely nerve…  a ruthless will to succeed.   (Carter’s daughter) Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think:  Those are the offspring of killers.

Merrill is soon to find that her father is the most ruthless of the outlaws on The Street – a man who hides behind opulence – and his actions may have doomed not only his own livelihood and reputation, but also those of Paul and Merrill.   “Carter Darling was hard to miss for anyone who read the financial news.”   The strong-armed, patrician Darling is presented as a man who possesses some of the personality traits of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.   He’s proud of his success (Merrill refuses to give up her maiden name when she marries Ross) but God only knows what he’d be without his hundreds of millions of dollars…  His wife knows that he sees her as little more than a cash drain, “an extra person on the payroll.”

To her credit, Alger permits us to examine a legal system in which cheap, easy quick wins are valued more than prosecutions that can achieve social and economic justice.   For today we live in a world in which billionaires can outspend local, state and federal agencies in the courtroom.   When justice has been turned upside down – and the accused control the process – it’s all about the plea agreement, the deal.   (Financial wheelers and dealers are extremely proficient at fashioning the deals that benefit themselves the most.)

The Darlings (paper)The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally trained spouse Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to its conclusion.   The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling.   Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this powerful novel in a way that’s not foreseen before the final chapters.

Who wins in the end – the white hats or the black hats?   You will need to read The Darlings to find out.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “Alger…  knows her way around twenty-first-century wealth and power…  a suspenseful, twisty story.”   The Wall Street Journal

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The Big Hurt

Hurt Machine: A Moe Prager Mystery by Reed Farrel Coleman (Tyrus Books, $15.95, 320 pages)

If you recognize the song title above, you’re a contemporary of Moe Prager, the hero of this, the seventh book in the mystery series.   Reed Farrel Coleman is a prolific author whose ability to spin an engaging tale is obvious in this well-paced novel.   Although Coleman’s work is new to this reviewer, the comfortable intimacy of Moe Prager’s first-person narrative made the story meaningful.

Faced with a nasty stomach cancer diagnosis just weeks before his daughter Sarah’s wedding, Prager ponders his mortality.   He references past characters who have informed his life, some living and some, like Israel Roth, gone from this world.   Since the story is part retrospective and part reality check, the appearance of former wife Carmella is the perfect segue into the past.

Prager is a former cop whose array of acquaintances comes in handy when he takes on Carmella’s request to clear up her sister Alta’s good name.   Alta and a co-worker walked away from a dying man which was an unforgivable sin, considering the two were emergency medical technicians with the New York Fire Department.   Not long after the episode, Alta was murdered in the street near a famous restaurant.   Well, the restaurant, actually a pizzeria/gelato spot, is famous by Brooklyn standards.

Regardless of the plot twists and interwoven groups that populate the story, it is the effort that Prager makes to reconcile his longing for Carmella, the obvious love offered to him by current girlfriend Pam, and his yearing for future grandkids that compels the reader to move along with him to the last page.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Hurt Machine is also available a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.   “…contemporary who-dunits don’t get much better than Shamus-winner Coleman’s seventh Moe Prager mystery.”   Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Maybe I’m Amazed

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes (Da Capo, $20.00, 624 pages)

In Fab, biographer Howard Sounes achieved his self-stated goal of creating “a better balanced, more detailed and more comprehensive life of Paul McCartney than has previously been achieved.”   It surpasses the earlier-recommended Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin, and provides details that are not found in any of the band bios of The Beatles.   For example, want to know why Paul began wearing a moustache in the 1970s?   (Something the other members of the band quickly copied.)   The answer is found within the pages of Fab.   Want to know why George Martin admitted that he “made the biggest mistake of my professional career” when it came to compiling the songs for the Sgt. Pepper album?

A highly illustrative example of Sounes’s thoroughness is when he explains the many surprising similarities between Linda Eastman McCartney and Yoko Ono.   The “two strong women” both grew up as girls in Scarsdale, New York; and each of them had a very successful, domineering father.   Both attended and withdrew from Sarah Lawrence College.   Both became involved, as young women, in the New York City art scene and both had an initial unsuccessful marriage that produced a daughter.   Linda and Yoko were to each make “a beeline for the The Beatles,” and they each achieved their goal of marrying one of the best known men on the planet.   Sounes even throws in the fact that when John Lennon had a tiff with Yoko in 1973, and left her in Manhattan for a fling in Los Angeles with their assistant May Pang, he was seeing a childhood friend of Linda’s!

Most every other writer who touches the story of the Beatles will tell you that Linda and Yoko were very different women.   Kudos to Sounes for arguing that the exact opposite is true…  Another strength of this account is that Sounes does not give short shrift to McCartney’s time with Wings.   Fab devotes just as many pages covering Paul’s time with Wings, and their tours, as he does to McCartney’s time as a member of the Fab Four.   This is quite fitting as Sounes notes that during the years 1989 through 1991, Paul and Wings played live before 2.8 million people – including this reviewer and Sounes.

Sounes’s weakness is when it comes to Paul’s music.   He makes some huge mistakes, as when he critiques the song Let Me Roll It for sounding too much like John Lennon.   Wrong, it was Paul’s intent to show how “easy” it was for him to write and perform a song that sounded like John and the often-ragged Plastic Ono Band.   And he criticizes Magneto and Titanium Man from Venus and Mars as being “virtually unlistenable” – it’s still a very fresh sounding track – while ignoring the brooding classic Letting Go, where Paul compared Linda to wine and cocaine.

“There is one thing you’ve got to remember about Paul: he’s a very, very private guy.   He doesn’t like to be talking about his family, or anything to do with anything other than music, if he can possibly help it…  He doesn’t like to share things.   He takes them on his own shoulders.”

Speaking of shoulders, Sounes includes several interesting tales about Paul’s songwriting experiences, including one about how when Paul was finishing the song Hey, Jude he was determined to excise the line that reads, “The movement you need is on your shoulders.”   It was John Lennon who convinced him to leave the  line in, and John who realized that the throw-away line was brilliant (many heard it as Paul’s way of encouraging John’s son Julian to use his brain as a means of taking a hard life – a sad song – and making it better).

The Sir Paul McCartney portrayed within the pages of Fab has not led a perfect life, but then no human being does.   He is shown to be a sentimental creature (“Obviously one of my feelings is how proud my mum and dad would have been…  But I won’t go into that because I’ll start crying.”), sometimes harsh, but often generous with those in need.   His career, without a doubt, has been a fine gift to the world of music and the world in general.

This intimate biography is a model for future rock biographers.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Fab delivers all you need to know.”   Rolling Stone magazine   “A McCartney bio that intrigues all the way through.”   The Times of London/U.K.

Howard Sounes also wrote Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan.

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Nothing Was Delivered

Who is that Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton (Random House, $26.99, 383 pages)

“Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part/ Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put/ Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart.”   Bob Dylan, “I and I” from Infidels

What distinguishes David Dalton’s Who is that Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan from the plethora of other Dylan books, many of them recent, is certainly the style of the writing.   There is little new information, though, as is the case with most of these books, there are subtleties based on the relative emphasis placed on certain events, time periods, or works, as well as the perspective from which the writer comes at Dylan’s fascinating life and body of work.

In this case, it appears as if Dalton attempts to match the style of the storytelling with the particular phase of Dylan’s career.   Rather than convey the information in a more traditional manner, Dalton’s book comes across more like a novel – almost as if he is creating a story for a reader and Dylan just happens to be the main character.

At times this is interesting and works, but at others it can be a little overbearing.   The opening, for example, does draw the reader in a bit, when Dylan is cast in the third person as a character ambling through his early experiences and making his mad break for fame in Greenwich Village.   However, when he shifts to the mid-60s, mod, hipster Bob, Dalton writes as if he’s trying to mimic Tarantula or Dylan and Bobby Neuwrith’s verbal sparring with their perceived “enemies,” and it just gets to be too much.

The portions of the book relating to Eat the Document; Dylan’s collaboration with The Band; and Dylan’s loner/withdrawn/lost in a bottle late-80s persona have their moments.   While it is fairly obvious that Dalton admires Dylan, he does not hold back when describing Dylan’s aberrant and even despicable behavior at various stages of his life.

Dalton, for whatever reason, chooses to allocate a good portion of his discussion to Dylan’s fascination with movies and misguided attempts at producing them and other appearances in film (Eat the Document, Renaldo and Clara, the Hard Rain concert film, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the more recent Masked and Anonymous, and the documentary No Direction Home), many of which qualify more as interesting sidebars than as highlights of his career.   He also seems to get stuck in certain phases of Dylan’s career and life, such as the mid-60s explosion, his attempts at domestication and faltering marriages, and tales of excessive drunkenness in the latter parts of the decades of the 70s and 80s.

Receiving minimal treatment, comparatively speaking, is Dylan’s renaissance, beginning with his Woodstock ’94 concert and spanning two decades and counting, with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, 2001’s masterpiece, Love and Theft, and the very fine Modern Times(2006).   This copy might not be as interesting to some as the inside scoop and dirt that permeates much of the rest of the book, but it should have received more serious attention.

Dalton’s interpretation of Time Out of Mind is that of an artist pre-occupied with death.   While this is certainly evident throughout the album, the coincidence of Dylan’s hospitalization just prior to the release of this album has caused many to focus too much on that element of it.   The lyrics and themes are much more sophisticated and complicated than that, which partly explains why the album was so well received.   Not only were music lovers relieved that Dylan pulled through and was still around to tell the world stories, but they were damn good stories, and there was a collective sigh of relief that – one more time, Dylan was back.

What is most disappointing is that Dalton never answers the question he sets up in the title.   Perhaps the point is that, after all this time (all these years), nobody really knows the real Bob Dylan and he remains a marvelous mystery.   Dalton tells a nice story at times, but it would seem that if you are going to title the book Who is that Man? about one of the greatest enigmas and artists of the last 100 years and fill it with information that leads the reader to believe that you have some insights into the answer to that question, then you should at least attempt to present the reader with your opinion on the answer when the very last page is turned.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   Who is that Man? was released on April 24, 2012.

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