Tag Archives: morality play

For You Blue

Up From the Blue: A Novel by Susan Henderson (Harper; $13.99; 317 pages)

Warning: You should not take a glance at Up From the Blue, the debut novel from Susan Henderson, while you’re reading another book.   I did and found it was impossible to return to the other book until I’d completely finished this well-told and very different story.   It is the tale of Tillie Harris, an eight-year-old girl, whose mother disappears during a family move in 1975.   Tillie’s mother has been depressed and disturbed, but never suicidal.

Tillie herself is a free spirit, a younger version of her mother who should never have married an uptight Air Force officer-engineer who designs war missiles for the Pentagon.   We first meet Tillie as a pregnant adult woman who, because of some unique circumstances, must rely on her estranged father to help her get through the early delivery of her first child.   Her father’s presence at the George Washington University Hospital in D.C. is the last thing Tillie wants but time and fate deprive her of other options.   We start the story in present times before retreating to the nightmare that began in ’75.

This is not a horror story, but it is a story of a monster – the man who is Tillie’s father.   He is a cold quasi-human being, controlling and calculating, but one who people mysteriously defer to:

Even when he’s not wearing his uniform, my dad is giving orders and people just carry them out.

This is the man who supervised the dropping of almost 90,000 tons of bombs during the Persian Gulf War, but it is his actions at home that destroyed both a family and Tillie’s hope.   The young Tillie grew up wondering, “Where were the police asking if I wanted to keep my father with us or send him to jail?”

Little else of the storyline can be divulged without giving away too much.   Henderson offers the reader a highly original voice.   Once you identify with and latch on to the character of Tillie, you simply want to know what happens next in her troubled but realistic life.   Interestingly and ironically, the one recent novel with a similar voice shares the word Blue in its title – The Truth About Delilah Blue by Tish Cohen.   Cohen’s novel is one that can’t be put down and is one that approaches a seemingly predictable ending before the apple cart is upset.   The same may be said about Up From the Blue.

“Sometimes what you fear, what you spend all your energy avoiding or pushing down, is not as terrifying as you thought.”

As a public service, we repeat the warning given earlier.   Do not pick up this novel unless you have time in your busy life to read it all the way through.   But if you don’t have the time, make the time.   Henderson is an author to watch and you’ll want to brag that you read her back when she was just starting out.

Highly recommended.

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

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A Numbers Game

Think of a Number by John Verdon (Crown, July 2010, 432 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the processes 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 the modern 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 is 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 two, 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 killer 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; this envelope contains the very number they thought of written 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 his mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed onto a  page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s ably assisted by Madeleine who often sees things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his numbers tricks, 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 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, quite fortunately, will not come even close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style thriller.   It is 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 engaging story.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a number of hours on one’s schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin – as this reader has – to count the months until Mr. Verdon delivers his next very satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Oil is the Word

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne (Harper Perennial)

“I’m not a sexy dancer despite my athletic skills.”

“To want what we have / To take what we’re given with grace…”  Larry John McNally

If only all 292 pages of Kapitoil were as entertaining as its first 130 pages, it would be an easy call to make this a highly recommended book.   But there seems to be a new virus going around, one that causes very good (and generally new) authors to write novels that begin like a house on fire, before sputtering out like a miniature flame easily dosed with a garden hose.   I Thought You Were Dead was a recent example of this, now joined in this non-envious genre by Kapitoil.   Still, don’t get me wrong, despite its flaws this novel by first-time Teddy Wayne is a bit of fun.

This is the story of one Karim Issar who comes to New York City from the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, circa 1999.   He’s a computer programming whiz who views himself as a talented racquetball player, despite the fact that the sport is out of favor by this date.   Karim is in the U.S. to work out Y2K solutions for Shrub Equities.   This is pretty boring work so Karim decides to spend his time creating the Kapitoil computer program.   Kapitoil uses news events to predict oil futures.   If it is successful, which it proves to be, Karim’s program will make an immense amount of money for his employer.

This set-up does not sound like the basis for a humorous story, but it is because Karim is an utterly literal person and his limited understanding of English phrases and slang often causes him to be confused.   For example, when a date tells him, “Let’s see if we can’t do it more often…”   He responds, “I would enjoy that.   But let us see if we can do it more often.”   Why Americans use negative terms like “can’t” when their intention is to be positive is completely puzzling to Karim.

Karim begins keeping a daily journal of unclear English terms with his definitions of what the words and phrases actually mean (His supervisor’s requests for a major league favor = a significant favor; buying a round = purchasing alcoholic drinks in bulk for several people).   Yet he’s often tempted to correct his co-workers’ grammatical mistakes.   When one says to him, “You tell me one million times”, he corrects her:  “You have told me one million times.”

Karim is such an alien to NYC culture that in reading this I was sometimes reminded of the role that Jeff Bridges played in the film Starman.   Seeing the confusing world of humans through the totally logical eyes of the Starman was highly entertaining and enlightening.   The same can be said for our protagonist in the first half of this novel.

The reader will soon guess, however, that the fun of following a befuddled if clearly brilliant Karim around the Big Apple is going to be diminished once his computer program proves to be successful.   Then the seriousness kicks in – and the fun quickly departs – because Karim has created something very valuable and there are many schemers who want to take him away from his goose that lays golden eggs.

Can Karim learn, in the space of just three months, who he can trust and who cannot be trusted?   How will he balance his need for acclaim and riches against a new girlfriend of a different culture (she’s Jewish) and less successful than he?   How will he address the needs of his beloved but ill younger sister – and his overly gruff widower father, back in Qatar.   It all winds up in an unexpected fashion, which this reviewer suspects will make many readers less than happy.

Kapitoil is a first fun and then serious tale of self-discovery.   At its conclusion, our protagonist has discovered who he is and what he values.   It is a morality play that is uniquely structured; entertaining and yet less than what it could have been.

Take Away:   Teddy Wayne has written a novel that reads like a teddy bear before it turns into an overly serious grizzly bear.   Let’s hope his next story is fun, fun, fun all the way through.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Spinning Wheel

Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer by Peter Elkind (Portfolio)

“(Elliot was) a muscular populist who wasn’t afraid to confront business institutions by punching them in the nose.   The MO was to keep things under wraps, announce them in a big way, then work with the press.   You lay out all the appalling facts, and they’re dead, because they’re in the market.  …When he really had the facts on somebody, it was like something out of Wild Kingdom.”

This is the story of the brisk rise and brutal fall of the Sheriff of Wall Street; the man who might have been the first Jewish President of the United States.   It is also a true morality play and what Spitzer himself called a Greek Tragedy.   In the end, it is a story about human strengths and weaknesses.

Elkind’s account (he was the co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts off promisingly, but he attempts to set up an odd comparison between Spitzer and John Kennedy.   It seems that Spitzer grew up under a demanding wealthy father who made his sons discuss major issues around the dinner table.   The elder Spitzer is made to sound like the second coming of Joe Kennedy.   But there are no signs that Spitzer was an intellectual like JFK (Spitzer made the law review at Harvard through a writing competition rather than on his grades).   If Elkind had called it correctly – and he never does in this account – he would have seen that Spitzer was the 2.0 version of Robert Kennedy.

RFK was the original liberal populist sheriff out to smash organized crime and tough in a manner that remains unusual for Democrat politicians.   Bobby Kennedy was always convinced of the moral rightness of his causes, something that appeared to be true also for Spitzer:  “We did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money.   We took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors.”

But one cannot write a quasi-biography of a subject’s life without giving the reader a sense of the subject’s flesh and blood.   Except for his sexual proclivities, Elkind fails to deliver here in presenting a portrait of Spitzer the man – for better or worse.   Instead, we have a newspaper reporter’s-style telling of Spitzer’s youth, education, unlikely political rise and early exit from the world of politics.   It is a shame and a major missed opportunity, as Elkind was perhaps the first person to get Spitzer to sit down for an interview after his short period of enforced exile.   But Spitzer made it clear that he is not a contemplative person, and saw little use in attempting to explain his actions to the author.

At the conclusion of Rough Justice, the reader is left with the same question posed by Lloyd Constantine, an aide and friend who had been with Spitzer from the start of his professional life, “I kept on feeling: what is wrong with this guy?   Who is he?”   Asked but not answered.

Take Away:   Elliot Spitzer comes off as a cardboard figure in this flawed account of a flawed man.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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