Tag Archives: morality play

Sea of Madness

Baseball Dads

Baseball Dads: Sex. Drugs. Murder. Children’s Baseball. by Matthew S. Hiley (Greenleaf Book Group Press, $15.99, 320 pages)

“Holy Travel Ball, Batman”

What do you do when you live in an affluent suburb, your kid is a talented baseball player but ends up playing on a team with a “daddy ball” coach, and your wife is sleeping with half the males in the state of Texas? Why, the answer is obvious. You spend 90% of your waking hours high as a kite, orchestrating a killing spree, have sex constantly, assume you can get away with it because you are a superhero, win over the cops, and – at the same time – get the reader to root for you because every other character in the novel is even more reprehensible than you.

At least that is Dwayne Devero’s solution in Matthew S. Hiley’s masterpiece Baseball Dads.

Every page gets more absurd than the last until just when you think it can’t get any more ridiculous, it does. If you have to wear glasses to read, as I do, good luck. It is hard to imagine when you are crying your eyes out with laughter. Baseball Dads is Family Guy on steroids.

It is a farce, certainly. But it is extremely well-written. And, it is so far out there that one is forced to reflect on the moral negativity of egocentric lives without realizing that Hiley is holding the mirror up to us all – until it’s not as funny anymore when the realization comes that that is exactly what he is doing.

Baseball Dads back cover

The Real Housewives of Fort Worth, or the reality of your own suburban backyard, your attitude about your kid’s participation in organized sport, and the absolute certainty that he or she is surely on the cusp of a college Division I scholarship – before they’ve even reached puberty? Well, you will have to decide for yourself.

Priceless.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about love, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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Don’t Talk

Things Unsaid B&N

Things Unsaid: A Novel by Diana Y. Paul (She Writes Press, $16.95, 300 pages)

“She had a college-age daughter now who needed her attention. Her daughter’s dream choice was Stanford. Everyone deserved to have dreams. But in order to make her daughter’s dreams a reality, Jules needed to change. Now. And fast. And her parents had to change, too, or they would all be destroyed.”

Leo Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Things Unsaid is a novel about a very unhappy family; it’s a tale which may prove Tolstoy wrong as they appear to be unhappy in a common way. This is a typical American family in which each member cares far too much about what other family members think, do and say; for some reason, each member of the family is afraid of every other member.

Paul’s novel makes for an engaging, yet often disturbing, read. My suspicion is that readers who hail from highly dysfunctional families will get the most from it; they will identify with its characters. Those raised in emotionally healthy families – where people actually speak and listen to each other, and value each other’s hopes and dreams, may find it nearly incomprehensible.

Things is about a woman who sacrifices almost everything in her adult life, including her husband and daughter, to please her extremely demanding, elderly, parents. She must hit bottom before seeing that she’s throwing her own life away. It’s a valuable morality play, but I’d like to see Paul tackle something lighter and brighter the next time around.

Recommended for a select audience.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

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Life in the Fast Lane

Indiscretion: A Novel by Charles Dubow (William Morrow, $24.99, 400 pages)

Indescretion 3D

First-time author Charles Dubow has captured the sophisticated conversation style often heard in wealthy and privileged social circles such as the one in East Hampton, New York during the summer season. Dubow is careful in avoiding parody, smoothing the exchanges to eliminate the stilted manner so often used in books featuring this sort of crowd — think The Great Gatsby.

Although the setting is East Hampton and the time is present day; the story could easily be set in the 1940s. This reviewer experienced feelings reminiscent of the those felt while watching my all-time favorite movie, Laura; however, Indiscretion is not a mystery. Moreover, as the story unfolds it takes a back seat to the interactions of the characters and the locale. Perhaps it is a morality play.

Not everyone will pick up on the specificity that Dubow uses to pinpoint the sort of people his characters are. The main characters are fraternity brothers having joined Delta Kappa Epsilon, Deke for short. This reviewer sought out a picture of the author and it came as no surprise that he bears a strong resemblance to the Dekes I knew at Cal. He may even wear penny loafters without sox as was the Deke-preferred style back in the late 1960s.

The main narrator of this book, Walter Gervais, is an independently-wealthy attorney who owns a summer cottage next door to a National Book Award winner and his wife. The author, Harry Winslow, and his wife, Madeline, are the perfect couple married for many years. They have one son, Johnny, who completes their family. Walter, Harry and Madeline are in their 40s. Walter has always loved Maddy (short for Madeline) and he contents himself with being an honorary member of their family.

As the title suggest, there is an indiscretion that pulls apart the perfect couple. A mysterious, self-possessed and beautiful young 26-year-old woman named Claire insinuates herself into their world. Claire is the current interest of a shallow and overbearing man. As fate would have it, Claire joins Clive for a weekend in the Hamptons where they are guests at a dinner hosted by Harry and Maddy. Claire soaks in the cozy and charming atmosphere in their home. It is a stark contrast to Clive’s hard-edged modern house.

The narrator shifts among Walter, Maddy and Claire are well executed and add depth to the telling. As each addresses the reader, the tale takes on complexity. Dubow is an excellent writer and, hopefully, this first novel will be followed by others.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Indiscretion… marks the debut of a remarkably gifted writer and story teller whose unique voice bears all the hallmarks of an exciting, new literary talent.” Amazon

Indiscretion was released on July 9, 2013.

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1-2-3

Think of a Number: A Novel by John Verdon (Broadway, $14.00, 448 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the process of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at today’s criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he’s a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the tow, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial murder case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope left in their home; this envelope contains a piece of paper with the very number they thought of written down in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to the mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed on a page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s very ably assisted by Madeleine, the spouse who often sees the very things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his tricks with numbers, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict if twisted plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, luckily, will not even come close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style suspense thriller.   It’s easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and addictive story – especially so, as it’s a debut novel.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a large block of hours on your schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin to look forward to Mr. Verdon’s next satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   A trade paperback version of Think of a Number was released on June 5, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download, and as an unabridged audiobook, read by George Newbern.

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Inside Job

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (Norton, $15.95, 291 pages)

“The problem wasn’t that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail.   The problem was that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to succeed.”

If you read The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, and think this is going to be another warm and fuzzy story, think again.   This is a former insider’s telling of the reasons the American economy was virtually destroyed by greed in the early 2000’s and it will get you angry – or at least it should.   Here’s one example pointed out in the book…

It’s late 2006 and U.S. home values have just suffered their greatest decline in 35 years.   And, so, Goldman Sachs selected this time to give a bonus to each and every one of its employees – a little bonus of $542,000 (not salary, but some extra spending cash for the holidays)…   How does this make you feel?

If you’re a normal human being without any ties – familial or otherwise – to Wall Street, you should be infuriated by the knowledge of these practices; and there are dozens of examples provided by Lewis.   Yes, this is a tale of incredible hubris.  Lewis, who had once worked at Solomon Brothers, notes that Wall Street traders saw themselves as geniuses who were above reproach:  “(They had) the ability to see themselves in their successes and their management in their failures.”   In fact, however, Lewis well makes the case that these same self-proclaimed geniuses simply didn’t grasp the details of the game that they were playing.   And we all paid the price for their failures.

In just a few years, “One trillion dollars in (subprime-related) losses had been created by American financiers…”   Lewis is honest enough to say that if he’d remained on the Street, he might have been part of the problem:  “If only I’d struck around, this is the sort of catastrophe I might have created.”

“This woman (Meredith Whitney) wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt.   She was saying that they were stupid.”

This is also the story of one Dr. Michael Burry, a man who figured out that big money could be made off of the Street’s losses and ignorance – he decided to bet, big-time, against subprime mortgage tranches and won big-time.   Burry was a man who figured out early on (in 2007) that Wall Street’s rating firms were engaging in massive cheating – rating as solid risks mortgage packages that were pure losers.   One single pool of “crappy mortgages” (falsely rated) – based on home loans made between April and July of 2005 – was allegedly worth three-quarters of a trillion dollars, but the entire pool was basically worthless.

The problem with Lewis’ account, which he states began as a policy paper on the roots of the modern-day American fiscal crisis, is that it reads like a dry white paper.   There’s no sense of outrage, no moral center.   Even while Lewis complains that the U.S. government (and, specifically, the White House) transformed Wall Street firms into public corporations, which were then deemed to be “too big to fail,” there’s no sense of anger.   Thus, we’re left with a sense of amorality, instead of immorality, in this presentation.

This is an interesting and easily read account, but it’s quite frustrating and not recommended.   If you want to enjoy something written by Michael Lewis, try The Blind Side.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.  

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Out of Control

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 272 pages)

Writer Kevin Desinger found a great setup for his debut novel.   Jim Sandusky, a good citizen and wine steward, is home one evening with his wife in a fine, quiet neighborhood when their peace is disturbed.   Jim looks out the second-story window to observe two men in the process of stealing his Toyota Camry.   Jim initially plans to go outside to write down the vehicle license number of the truck that the thieves have arrived in, but once outside he impulsively changes his mind and steals the truck….  Such is the effect of adrenaline on a once innocent man.

That’s right, our good citizen breaks the law before the two thieves get the opportunity to do so themselves; however, as one might expect, this is not the end of his problems, it’s merely the beginning as he now must deal with two violent criminal brothers (Larry and Wade Hood) and law enforcement.

It’s a great premise and starting point – but the execution doesn’t match up with the inherent possibilities.   Firstly, our good citizen Jim is a bit too calm – no make that far too calm – in the face of danger.   Even Sgt. Rainey, the police officer assigned to this strange case tells him that he’s too controlled in the midst of unforeseen events.   As a result, we never feel any actual fear for Jim’s safety, which takes a lot of the air out of this big balloon.

Secondly, there are some strange inconsistencies in the telling.   For example, Jim’s first encounter with the rotten Hood brothers occurs when he goes out to the street in front of his home in an attempt to write down a license plate number.   Yet, in the second half of the story, when he’s being staked out by someone who parks in front of his home each night in a clunker of a Mazda, Jim never thinks to write down the creep’s plate number.   This is even stranger when we remember that we’ve been told, earlier in the tale, that Jim has a pair of bird watching binoculars downstairs in the kitchen.   (This is the type of script inconsistency that’s destructive if left un-caught in the filming of a movie.)

We also see that Jim, who has never had any prior contact with those who live outside of the boundaries of the law, is pretty shrewd – as even Sgt. Rainey will be forced to admit – as he seeks to protect himself and his wife from the literal Hoods.   Yet Mr. Desinger goes to great pains to paint Jim as a foggy-headed protagonist (“…I would grope along blindingly until I simply disappeared into the fog.   I spent the day wandering through mental corridors in the fog.”), a man who really doesn’t know what he’s doing.   So which Jim Sandusky is the real Jim?

Another flaw has to do with the language.   Early on in the telling, Mr. Desinger’s style is awkward (it subsequently calms dawn) and the character dialogues never seem quite real.   Occasionally sentences feel as if they have words missing:  “…the cellar was where I kept the treasures that were no longer in distribution.   The cellar bottle was to represent what I thought the other wines were aiming for, the essence of the grape of interest.”   I’ve read the latter sentence at least 10 times now, and I still don’t know what meaning is supposed to be conveyed by it.

Truth be told, this is an engaging story but it just didn’t feel quite real enough.   The Descent of Man is like an almost great song played not very well.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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