Tag Archives: Maryland

The Unexplained

A Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman (Henry Holt and Co., $28.00, 288 pages)

an unexplained death

Author Mikita Brottman lives at the Belvedere Hotel, a Baltimore landmark with a long history of strange occurrences, suicides, and mysterious deaths.  Brottman here professes her fascination with the occult, tarot cards, and suicide so the examination of the apparent 2006 suicide of Rey Rivera – a once-fellow resident of the Belvedere, would seem to be a perfect topic for her writing.

Brottman’s account of events, An Uexplained Death, provides numerous details surrounding Rivera’s death as well as a tremendous amount of conjecture on her part.  What it fails to do is to provide clarity or new information beyond what was already known or presumed. (The authorities found the death to be a suicide.)  Brottman goes on – in what seems like a stretch – to explore cultural attitudes about suicide from around the world, and she provides her personal views on various matters whether related or not.

Rey Rivera was a tall and attractive aspiring film maker who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles with his new wife, Allison.  He joined with Porter Stansberry of Agora, publishing newsletters offering financial advice.  His death happened to come at the time when he had borrowed money to produce his own film, was getting ready to quit Agora – which was engulfed in an SEC investigation – and was about to move back to L.A.

Did Rivera jump from the roof of the Belvedere, falling through a skylight at the top of a space which once housed the hotel’s swimming pool, or was he running from someone intending to do him harm?  Brottman investigates various alternatives to suicide possibilities, but none of them seem either likely or probable.  She wonders aloud whether Rivera was depressed about the Agora investigation or whether he became entangled in a homosexual affair.  It’s all so much smoke and mirrors because each such alternate explanation is discarded shortly after being raised.  And Brottman’s conclusion of this strange, quasi-fictional investigation of a real-life death provides nothing of substance.

The story is slightly compelling during the few periods in which Brottman sticks to the subject matter at hand.  But she spends far too much time writing about herself, her life, and her obsessions.  Oh, but for an editor!

The typical reader is unlikely to find Brottman’s affinity for rats very endearing.  The same is true concerning her fascination with strangely committed murders, and the time she spends imagining herself in another person’s shoes (such as Allison Reyes’s).  All in all, this is a book of rambling distractions, which is as generally uninteresting as it is undisciplined.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

Notes:

The Beaux Arts style Belvedere Hotel was opened as Baltimore’s first luxury hotel in 1903 and was converted to residential condos in 1991.

I read the book and wondered why the writer spent an obsessive amount of time attempting to solve a crime which the local authorities had already solved, resolved and literally closed the book on.  – Joseph Arellano

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Home Field Advantage

home-field

Home Field: A Novel by Hannah Gersen (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 432 pages)

One of the joys of reviewing books is when one comes across a new book or writer that was not previously on the radar screen. That is what happened to me with Hannah Gersen’s novel Home Field. Plain and simple, Gersen delivers the goods.

Gersen tells a touching story of loss and redemption that engages and avoids sentimentality. Her ability to craft meaningful and natural dialogue among characters, which is difficult for many writers, is impressive.

In Home Field, Dean Renner is a revered small town football coach in rural Maryland. However, his personal life is not as orderly or successful as his disciplined routine as that of a head coach (amid the excitement of Friday night lights).

Dean’s wife Nicole, whose first husband died young, suffers from depression and ultimately commits suicide in the most unsettling of ways. His stepdaughter, Stephanie, wrestles with the loss of a father she never knew followed by her mother’s untimely death. Dean battles his own troubles as years of emotional isolation during his marriage took its toll. Was Nicole’s unhappiness due to Dean’s obsession with coaching, or did he absorb himself in coaching to fill the void that her mental illness created in his life? Or, is it just the way of things that the unscripted complexities of life do not lend themselves to executing a plan in the way that X’s and O’s on a chalkboard equal success on the field?

On top of it, Dean must play single father to his two boys, one of whom – Robbie, is a mystery to him. Robbie’s attraction to the theater and his extreme sensitivity are foreign to Dean’s practical, tactical approach to life. It is Robbie who holds the mirror up to the characters’ souls; it’s his actions that bring the events in the story to a head, and bring the hearts of the community together.

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Coach Renner appears to achieve some peace of mind as the story comes to a close. But, one question remains. He could not save his wife from herself. So while he works miracles with other people’s kids, can he save his own?

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

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Triple Tess

Three Tess Monaghan Tales from Laura Lippman

Fans of Laura Lippman need no introduction to private investigator Tess Monaghan. Mystery fans that have yet to read these wonderful books, listen up! Tess is a one-woman force of nature – half Irish, half Jewish, and a Baltimore native through and through. (William Morrow has just re-released the Tess books in new trade paperback editions.)

In a Strange City: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 401 pages)

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The connection between Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore, the city where he died, is the jumping off point for this, the sixth book in the Tess Monaghan series. John P. Kennedy, an eccentric antiques dealer, asks Tess to find out the identity of a mystery man – a cloaked figure that delivers three roses and a half bottle of cognac at Poe’s grave on the anniversary of the poet’s birth. The cloaked man has apparently duped the antiques dealer by selling him a fake.

Naturally, Tess allows her curiosity to get the better of her and places herself in harm’s way by staking out the gravesite waiting for the action to begin. Rather than the customary figure making the gesture, there appears a second cloaked man. The second man shoots the first and escapes! This is too much for Tess and, as is her habit, she works the case even when her client disappears.

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Author Lippman takes some literary license with the name John P. Kennedy. Kennedy was, in real life, a wealthy man from Baltimore who assisted Poe with his writing career. Readers will become steeped in Baltimore’s culture, or lack thereof as she takes every opportunity to ensure an immersion experience.

By a Spider’s Thread: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 354 pages)

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Tess gets off to a bad start with prospective client, Mark Rubin, an orthodox Jew, whose wife has disappeared with their three young children. Rubin, a furrier who inherited the business from his father, fervently believes that he has had an ideal marriage and is clueless as to the reason behind his family’s disappearance.

This time around, in the eighth book of the series, Tess’ work takes her outside Baltimore via a network of kindred spirits, female detectives who have formed an online assistance network. Rather than a Baltimore-centric story, By a Spider’s Thread focuses on what it means to be part of a Jewish family. Author Lippman provides a serious look at what happens in a family when lies and trickery put everyone at risk of loosing everything, including their lives.

No Good Deeds: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 366 pages)

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Laura Lippman’s background as a newspaper journalist serves her well in crafting a tale wherein Tess is hired to teach the unseasoned reporters at the Beacon-Light, the Baltimore daily, on how to conduct an investigation for a story. A federal prosecutor’s unsolved homicide is the focus of her first assignment.

Happily, the story – the tenth in the Tess Monaghan series – opens with a narrative from Edgar “Crow” Ransome who has been Tess’ boyfriend for some time now; although, not without a previous break in their relationship. Crow is younger than Tess, a free spirit who volunteers his time and effort at the East Side Soup Kitchen when he’s not booking music groups for the bar where he works for pay.

This installment of the series expands Crow’s appearances and brings with him a new relationship. Crow befriends a young fellow named Lloyd who lives on the street and primarily survives by his wits. Never mind that one of the tires on Tess’ vehicle is punctured while Crow has it on the wrong side of town while assisting at the soup kitchen. One thing leads to another resulting in the Beacon-Light training assignment crossing over into the world that Lloyd inhabits.

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Ms. Lippman gives her readers an in-depth exposure to life on the streets in Baltimore, which is difficult at best and downright deadly when the wrong groups of denizens converge. Add in the discussion of racial bias prevalent throughout the city, and it’s obvious this series is more than homage to Ms. Lippman’s hometown. She is always a reporter, of the honest variety.

All three books are highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Baltimore Blues

Hush Hush TM

Hush Hush: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 303 pages)

Can an author maintain reader loyalty and enthusiasm for her work encompassing 12 volumes released over 18 years? Moreover, can that author thrill her readers with tales peppered with suspense and more than just a hint of anxiety? After all, mystery readers come to expect the challenge of a tale with danger lurking in each chapter. If not, why bother with mysteries at all?

Laura Lippman scores another success with her latest novel, an episode in the Tess Monaghan series. Lippman has made good use of her intimate knowledge of Baltimore. Each scene brings the reader into the physical locale and sweetens the experience with the unique attitude of its inhabitants. Her characters are certainly down-to-earth. There are no super hero, matinee idol types to coax the story into a bit of unrealistic passion.

The past murder of a child by its mother, money and that mother’s need to reconnect to the children she left behind form the basis of the tale. Lippman jumps right into the scene, literally, with the opening chapter laid out as the script for an on camera interview of Carolyn Sanders, a former summer day camp worker who was the last person to witness the murderer as she tried to pick up her older two children at the school where the camp was conducted.

After the set-up, loyal readers are treated to some catching up with the people in Tess’s life, like Aunt Kitty and retired Baltimore Police Department homicide detective Sandy Sanchez. Each of them has matured in their own way and this maturity provides the tale with continuity and commitment.

There are complex interwoven plot lines, a signature of Lippman’s writing style. Tess, herself the mom of a three-year-old toddle, has to reconcile loyalty to her old friend and mentor, Tyner Gray, with the distaste of providing security for his client, Melisandre Harris Dawes, the baby murderer who has returned to Baltimore. Of course, no Lippman novel would be complete without a basic misunderstanding, or two or three. This book has just the right amount.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Language of Light

The Language of Light: A Novel by Meg Waite Clayton (Ballantine Books; $15.00; 352 pages)

Just do your best and find joy in what you do.

Nelly Grace has accepted a new beginning to her life after moving in to her great-grandfather’s home in Maryland with her two young boys following the death of her husband.   With the support and encouragement of her new friend, Emma Crofton and Emma’s distant, attractive son, Dac, Nelly begins to remember the passion she once had for her photography.   As Nelly struggles to regain her confidence and work towards her dream of being a photojournalist like her father, she also tries to come to terms with their fragile relationship.   But as her photographs begin to develop, so too does a secret past that is as complex as taking the perfect picture.

The prose in this novel is beautiful and refined, including descriptive landscapes and multifaceted, interesting characters whose complex relationships develop as secrets unfold at each turned page.   The plot takes several unexpected turns and the resolution of the story left me wanting more, curious for a “part two” for further closure on the changing relationships and outcome of these unexpected plots.

Clayton also enlightens the reader throughout her story on the creative aspects of photography that brings an entire new perspective to this craft and the skill and dedication it takes to embrace the art of photojournalism.

I appreciated Clayton’s references of several well-known pieces of art to depict particular scenes, feelings and relationships within the story.   In the attached readers guide she notes:

Despite my efforts to learn more about how to use a camera in order to deliver a believable photographer-protagonist…  I remain sadly untalented in the art of film.   But one of the things I love about writing is that it allows me to imagine having talents I lack.

As the reader, I was mesmerized by the details of photography described by her characters and the importance of capturing each moment accurately.   I would have believed that Clayton herself was a member of this profession.   It provided a  new respect and deeper understanding of the gifts delivered by a great photographer.

The combination of interesting characters, an intriguing, ever-changing plot, and the elements of photography so beautifully captured in this novel, allow me to share that this novel is Well Recommended.

Kelly Monson

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 Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton (author of The Wednesday Sisters and The Four Ms. Bradwells).

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Simple Twist of Fate

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway; $16.00; 400 pages)

henreitta lacks

This begins as an excellent biography of a woman who might have remained unknown but for a miracle of medicine.   “At the age of twenty-one, Henrietta stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life.”   Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer but her cells are still alive.   To be exact, only her cancer cells continue to live but they may live for up to 100 years if frozen.   They are the so-called HeLa cells that are used by researchers throughout the world to advance the knowledge of how to fight and halt disease.

Author Rebecca Skloot has taken on the challenge of melding a family’s story with a tale of medicine and law.   The personal story is engaging and quite well done.   The reader will come to feel that he or she not only becomes acquainted with Henrietta Lacks, but also her late daughter Deborah, and her other children and grandchildren.   And, as Skloot gracefully notes, they are quite beautiful grandchildren.

This reader felt the telling was less effective when addressing the medical and legal issues.   That’s because the case is made that Henrietta’s cells were, in effect, stolen from her by Johns Hopkins Hospital.   Yet once you’ve read through two-thirds of the book, you learn that Hopkins explicitly met the medical research standards (and the legal requirements) of the day.   Indeed, it was a different time.   A relation of this reviewer gave consent for a cancer biopsy in 1950 in a northern California hospital.   Only later did the relative learn that her stomach cells were only removed in California; the cell slides were mailed to Johns Hopkins for the medical research and analysis.

There’s also an apparent contradiction in the events.   We’re told repeatedly that Henrietta did not consent to having her cells used for medical research.   Yet, her husband did authorize an autopsy and there’s also a reference to a death-bed conversation during which Henrietta was said to have told a physician that she was pleased that others might benefit from an examination of her cancerous cell tissues.   But even if this conversation never happened, the law at the time was what it was.

The author tells  us that the rights of research subjects were largely unprotected until 1966.   Yes, and this means that a lot of time is spent reviewing and debating the medical morality of an earlier time.   It is a moot point.

Henrietta’s daughter Deborah is the appealing figure in this account.   She is the family member who argued – passionately and perhaps appropriately – that one cannot hold yesterday’s medical professionals to today’s ethical and moral standards.   Deborah, in fact, jumps off the pages of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the person who is brought back to life in the telling.

The descendents of Henrietta Lacks have never benefited from the use of her cells, leaving aside the issue of whether they were properly appropriated.   They have not received any money, and although HeLa cells are sold for medical research, the family does not have health care.   This is truly a shame, an injustice, and it is hoped that Skloot’s account will – in highlighting this issue – change things.

Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered, as does Deborah Lacks.   Rebecca Skloot has provided the tombstone that Henrietta’s family could never afford.   This true account is at its best when paying tribute to a woman whose life, in death, has benefited countless individuals worldwide.

It is encouraging to hope and think (and perhaps pray) that this account will result in a better life for the children, beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.   That would be the greatest tribute of all.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   

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The Other Wes Moore

other wes moore

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (Spiegel & Grau)

“The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.   The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

This uniquely titled nonfiction book was written by Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Army paratrooper and White House Fellow.   He is the successful Wes Moore.   His namesake from the same town on the east coast is serving a life sentence in the Jessup State Correctional Institution.   The crime was murder and there is no possibility of parole.

The author’s recent appearance on the Oprah Show gave this reviewer the opportunity to observe him in the spotlight.   He came off as poised, charming and amazingly confident.   I wondered if this was an act, perhaps a well-polished persona that wins friends and influences people?   There are plenty of hucksters who achieve fame.   The book would provide the answer.

Within the first couple of chapters it was obvious that Wes Moore is beautifully literate, yet without pretentiousness.   What you see is definitely what you get.   His unfaltering curiosity about the other Wes Moore has resulted in a book that explores the outcomes for both these men and how they arrived at adulthood.

The story revolves around two young men with all-too-familiar life circumstances that include being an African American male raised by a single parent living in a poor, or declining, urban neighborhood.   The narrative is set forth in three major phases concerning their coming of age.   The fellows and their life experiences are differentiated as the author uses the first person for himself and the third person for the other Wes Moore.

The story is filled with painful realities – it’s easy to fall into the gang life; defensiveness and alienation are part of each day; and escaping the neighborhood (Baltimore or the Bronx) requires courage, determination and sacrifice.   The author began his life with two parents raising him; however, due to a tragic medical condition his father died of a rare but treatable virus.   The other Wes Moore only met his father once, accidentally in passing.

Each man encountered challenges as well as opportunities.   The opportunities were provided by family and friends.   Always there is balance in the presentation of each man’s life including photographs that illustrate the text.   They both tried and failed more than once when attempting to change the course of their lives.   The difference in the outcome can be characterized by the expectations placed upon the author and his willingness to keep trying regardless of how hard the challenge might be.   He was also immensely fortunate to have family who were willing to make financial sacrifices to obtain some of the opportunities.

Wes Moore, the author, has included a comprehensive resource guide at the back of this book.   The nationwide listing features organizations focused on assisting youth.   Because this list is a point-in-time snapshot of resources, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to see that a continually updated version is available on the internet.

A reader who is interested in learning more about success and how it can be achieved would be well served to read The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk.   Both books explore the impact of environment on personal success and the role hard work plays in achieving it.

The Other Wes Moore:  One Name, Two Fates will alert a reader to the possibilities for a better future for our youth, especially children who face undeniably tough circumstances.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The Other Wes Moore was released by Spiegel & Grau on April 27, 2010.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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