Tag Archives: morality tale

When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky

Live by Night: A Novel by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins, $16.99, 401 pages)

Well, I’ve walked two hundred miles, look me over / It’s the end of the chase and the moon is high / It won’t matter who loves who / You’ll love me or I’ll love you / When the moon comes falling / When the moon comes falling / When the moon comes falling from the sky…. Bob Dylan

Lehane Live By Night (nook book)

Joe Caughlin, son of a Boston cop, is a bad guy with heart and a conscience. The complex creation of this man’s thoughts, feelings and actions is a true work of art.

The recent death of James Gondolfini might make this assertion seem cliché. The media coverage of his passing makes it appear as if this reviewer is the only person alive who’s never seen an episode of The Sopranos. So, that being said, the following commentary on Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night is based solely on the merits of the book with no bias toward the gangster genre.

One can look to the Book of Genesis for the age-old theme of male judgment being compromised by the affinity for a woman. From the opening paragraph of the book: “And it occurred to him (Joe) that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life — good or bad — had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”

Indeed, Joe is taken by Emma, and she takes him for what she can, eventually leading to a heist gone bad, a lifelong feud with rival Albert White, incarceration, and the subsequent fight for survival that sets into motion a rum-running dynasty in Tampa with its own set of decisions and moral dilemmas that lead to additional near-misses, relationships, and death — lots of it.

During Joe’s stint in prison, Lehane creates a magical telling of the love between a father and son. When Joe decides not to execute the daughter of Tampa police chief Irv Figgens, Lehane masterfully depicts the inner workings of Joe’s conscience. When Joe and Graciela fall in love, create a life, and conceive of a child, the longing for a connection to a world larger than self even in the midst of chaos becomes simplistically self-evident.

And, oh yes, there is Emma. The Emma’s of the world do haunt forever. She will have a say in the outcome of the story, you can be sure of that.

When Joe crosses the imagined boundary from outlaw to gangster, the reader gets a glimpse of the notion that morality exists even where evil is pervasive. There are lines of acceptability drawn in the deep recesses of everyone’s mind. When one chooses to live by the rules of night, the gray area of love, loyalty and human empathy are interpreted individually and on a moment-by-moment basis. Perhaps this is no different that those who accept convention and live by day. But, Joe cannot resist the urge to live in the realm of night, and he is simply too good a bad guy to conquer it.

Any person interested in the difference between a crime novel and literature need only to pick up Live by Night to learn the answer.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Live by Night was released as a trade paper book on May 14, 2013.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Laugh, Laugh

Populazzi by Elise Allen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, 400 pages)

Populazzi, by Elise Allen, is a cautionary tale about climbing the social ladder at the expense of one’s true self.   Specifically, the social ladder in high school, that petri dish of pain in which only the most popular kids can thrive – or so we think.

When Cara is forced to go to a new school at the start of her junior year, BFF Claudia convinces her to use the experience to test her theory that a girl can work her way up the popularity ladder by dating guys on ever-higher rungs.   The goal is to supplant the reigning “Supreme Populazzi,” Trista, who is known for her (parents’) wealth, lavish parties, and the loyalty she engenders in her ladies-in-waiting.

Cara throws herself into the project, batting away the dreaded social rejects who want to be her friends, and reinventing herself with the clothes, makeup, and demeanors necessary to land the right boy at each stage of the game.

Allen, who also writes for children’s programs on the Internet, DVDs, and TV, gives nods to some of the pitfalls of adolescence, such as pot habits and bulimia; to some of the major sources of pain, such as divorced parents; and to the geeks, nerds, and other “types” who roam the halls of high schools everywhere.   Absent, however, are the self-doubt and the humiliation phobia that might hobble more realistic heroines, and the disadvantages and danger that might challenge more dramatic ones.   Even when Cara gets the slap down of her life, she remains perky and positive.

But this book is a romp, not an exploration of teen angst.   The characters’ cartoonish quality serves to underscore the book’s message.   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group will launch Populazzi on August 1, just in time for rising freshmen to read it before school starts in the fall.   And there will be a test.   Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Lonely Days

The Upright Piano Player: A Novel by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95, 264 pages)

“In the old days he would inspire them, lift their spirits, and send them back to their desks with renewed energy and enthusiasm.   Now he simply wanted to say goodbye and slip away.”

Henry Cage is a man who has earned the right to enjoy a quiet life.   At least it appears this way before his life turns into a series of explosions.   Cage, the founder of a highly successful international advertising firm based in London, is suddenly forced into retirement in November of 1999 – outfoxed by a legion of new, young and restless (rudely ambitious) partners who cannot wait for him to ride off into the sunset.

Henry Cage is barely out the door of the advertising firm when he learns that his ex-wife, Nessa, is gravely ill.   Nessa lives in Florida.   She does not have much time left and would like to see Henry.   Henry very much loved Nessa until she had a well-publicized affair with an actor, something that brought shame and ridicule to Henry once it was mentioned in London’s daily papers.   Although decades have passed, Henry’s not sure that he’s forgiven Nessa and he certainly has no desire to revisit past events.

And then there’s an angry young man out there on the streets of the city, a failure in life – a man with a broken arm (broken like his future) – who seeks to take his anger out on a symbol of success.   By chance, this man happens to pick Henry as the person whose life he will make miserable…  So miserable does he make Henry that it appears a confrontation between the two is inevitable; it’s likely to be a confrontation so dramatic that only one of them will survive.

The reader also learns, through a non-chronological device, that Henry will have even more to deal with – the loss of the one thing that he sees as irreplaceable.   This is a morality tale about good versus evil, hope versus surrender, and love versus despair.   You’ll want to root for Henry to survive as he’s a representation of us all as we battle the unexpected (and often undeserved) events in our lives.

If you’ve read and loved the novels of Catherine O’Flynn (What Was Lost, The News Where You Are), you will no doubt also love this work.   Like O’Flynn, Abbott writes in a quiet, reserved English voice.   Although you may rush through it, the impression is given that the writer had all of the time in the world to construct the tale – there is never a sense of modern-day impatience.

Abbot’s ability to capture and make meaningful the small details in life calls to mind John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road, The Commoner), whose novels are always engaging.   Further, there’s a tragedy in Piano Player that mirrors something that happened in Reservation Road.

David Abbott, whose real life just happened to be a lot like the life of Henry Cage, has fashioned a wonderful debut novel.   I certainly look forward to reading his next story.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Upright Piano Player will be released on June 7, 2011.

“David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player is a wise and moving debut, an accomplished novel of quiet depths and resonant shadows.”   John Burnham Schwartz

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Two Steps

The Singer’s Gun: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; $14.95; 304 pages)

“Most things you have to do in life are at least a little bit questionable.”   Emily St. John Mandel

“To live outside the law you must be honest.”   Bob Dylan

The Singer’s Gun is a recklessly entertaining book from the unique novelist Emily St. John Mandel (Last Night in Montreal).   Mandel’s writing style is so unique that it’s sui generis – not classifiable.   If Mandel had been a musician, she might have been Harry Nilsson or, perhaps, Joni Mitchell.   Like those two, Mandel has the guts of a cat burglar; she’s unbridled, not hemmed in by other’s boundaries or rules.   Reading Mandel is quite a fun ride especially because, as one book store owner stated, “She doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of life.”

The Singer’s Gun is the story of Anton, a man born into a New York City-based family that lives in the grey and questionable areas of life.   Anton’s parents sell stolen architectural goods (Walker Architectural Salvage) and his female cousin Aria sells fake passports, green cards and other things of which Anton desires not to know the details.   Anton, of course, has a bit of the thief’s blood in him so he uses false pretenses to secure a copy of a diploma from his supposed alma mater, Harvard.   The only problem is that Anton graduated high school, not college.

After Anton’s long-term engagement to his fiancée results in a very, very short-term marriage (it’s shorter than the honeymoon trip), and he has trouble as work, he’s tempted to take a “last job” offer from Aria.   But then the plot, the story line, of The Singer’s Gun is not of great import – it’s a pretense to let Mandel perform her magic…  Here is an example, a paragraph, from this break through novel:

Anton met a cellist at a party that year, a spectacularly talented girl who didn’t know he’d never been to Harvard, and he proposed to her eight months later.   Sophie and the job together formed the foundation of  his new life; between the straight clean lines of a Manhattan tower he rose up through the ranks (and to the 11th floor), from junior researcher to VP of a research division.   His dedication to the company was mentioned in his performance reviews.   He directed his team and came home every night to a woman he loved in an apartment filled with music in his favorite neighborhood, until it all came apart at once and he found himself (on the 4th floor) lying naked next to his former secretary in the summer heat.

Yes, the whole book is like this which means you, the reader, won’t dare to presume what will happen next.   Let’s just say that in the end Anton is forced to make a decision between his old life and his old family, and a new life and a new family.   His choice will also involve a decision to either live outside of the law or within its confines.

At the conclusion of The Singer’s Gun, the reader finds that Anton has determined exactly who he is, and how he must live.   It’s, yes, a revelation at the conclusion of another modern morality tale.   Still, in Singer’s Gun the story isn’t half as important as the telling, and in the hands of Mandel the rocking and rolling never stops!   Whew!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Singer’s Gun will be released in trade paper form on April 19, 2011.


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Tomorrow Is A Long Time

Tomorrow’s a Long Time for Teen Lovers

Exposure: A Novel by Therese Fowler (Ballantine Books; $25.00; 384 pages)

Therese Fowler’s novel, Exposure, is the latest attempt to bring Romeo and Juliet to modern-day audiences.   In it two seemingly well-adjusted teens, Anthony and Amelia, fall for each other with Amelia shielding the relationship from her controlling father, Harlan, a wealthy automobile dealer.   The two attend a prep school in North Carolina where Anthony’s mother is an art teacher.   The young lovers are theater enthusiasts who meet during a school performance and conceal their intimate relationship.   They are hoping to head for the Big Apple after high school because Anthony aspires to attend NYU.

Anthony is described as an Adonis and Amelia as her father’s princess, on the cusp of womanhood and striving for her independence.   Nothing is easy, of course, and complicating their dream of running off to New York is the fact that her father, a colossal snob, will only accept the “right” man for her daughter.   That person is an equally well-bred snob, whom – in Harlan’s mind – Amelia will meet attending Duke University.

The relationship turns sexual soon enough and further complications ensue.   While on a family vacation, Amelia requests that Anthony send her naked pictures of himself, and he obliges.   Of course, Anthony is 18, and Amelia one year shy of “adulthood.”   Soon thereafter, Harlan discovers the pictures on her computer, setting off a chain of events that nearly destroys everyone in the story – the survivors’ lives are forever altered.

Anthony’s mother has tacitly approved of the relationship, often recalling her youth.   She eventually ends up trapped in the mire herself.   Amelia’s mother, who probably could have prevented the unraveling, is incapable of standing up to her husband as Harlan self-righteously declares all-out war on the boy.

Fowler does well early on to intersperses character development with the plot.   The story boldly tackles a contemporary issue – sexting.   The legal and education systems are dumbfounded as to how to deal with this matter.   Concurrently, teens seem ignorant of the magnitude and implications of their actions, while many parents appear relatively oblivious as to the extent of the problem.

Some might question how big of a deal sexting is in the first place, but this reviewer speculates that those people would quickly change their minds if compromising photographs of their 13-year-old daughter were circulating around school.

A minor critique is that the dialogue seems a bit forced at times.   The rest of the storytelling is strong.   Exposure is a worthwhile and relevant tale about the perils of growing up in a modern digital age where the standards of morality are ever changing.   Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the state of Wisconsin.   A review copy was provided by the publisher. Exposure will be released on May 3, 2011.   “Provocative, timely, and compelling…”   Meg Waite Clayton

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Wild Horses

rescue

Rescue: A Novel by Anita Shreve (Back Bay Books; $14.99; 320 pages)

“He wants to go to her.   He’s used to caring for a person who’s sobbing.   It happens to him at least once a week.   But he can’t go to this particular person.”

When Anita Shreve writes, everything is set forth in perfect human scale – neither too large nor too small.   This is why she can take a tale, that in the words of another writer might seem pedestrian and predictable, and turn it into something cinematic.   While reading the novel Rescue, I often felt as if I were watching a movie on a DVD.

At first it seems like there will be few surprises in this family novel.   A young paramedic, Peter Webster, comes across a car accident in which a drunken young woman has nearly killed herself.   The woman, Sheila, is clearly troubled and promises to darken the life of anyone who comes close to her.   Peter falls in love with her even before she’s removed from the wreckage.   In a matter of weeks, they’re shacking up before getting married and having a child – a little girl named Rowan.

As we expect from the very beginning of this story, Peter has let an accident come in the front door and his life is nearly turned into wreckage by Sheila.   When Sheila has a second DUI accident, and seriously injures a man, Peter knows he needs to protect himself and his daughter.   He banishes Sheila from their lives.

Fast forward 18 years and Rowan suddenly appears to be the second coming of her mother, drinking too much and endangering herself.   And then the completely unexpected happens… the ever-responsible Peter elects to do something that seems almost mad.   He invites Sheila back into their lives.   And this is where Shreve the writer hooks the reader, putting you in a position where you cannot put the novel down.

Peter let Sheila nearly ruin his life once, and now he’s giving her a second chance?   It’s a disorienting twist on what seemed to be a plot that was traveling down a straight road – now it’s gone sideways.   But this is Anita Shreve and in her cinematic style, this is where the cameras begin to zoom-in, to focus on the major players as events escalate.

“Sheila turns her head.   ‘Go slowly and be careful,’ she says.”

No spoiler alert here, but Shreve will surprise you in the way life itself constantly surprises us.   One never knows exactly what’s coming next; the fact that the telling of this tale reflects this is a reason Shreve is one of our best story tellers.   This story is taut, engaging, realistic and fulfilling.   At its conclusion it teaches us that life’s next lesson is not in the here and now, it’s up ahead, just down the road apiece.   You’ll know it when you get there.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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When the Music’s Over

A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers by Lawrence G. McDonald with Patrick Robinson (Crown Business Reprint Edition; $16.00; 368 pages)

A Colossal Failure of Common Sense describes a CEO acting as if his firm was too big to fail…  One might be tempted to think that Lehman’s bankruptcy was too mild a punishment for the firm’s management.”   James Freeman, The Wall Street Journal 

The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers is now 2 years behind us.   It was the largest bankruptcy in history and the first in a series of banking and financial institutional failures linked to the housing bust.   It marked a low point in the chronology of Wall Street.   Former Lehman vice president of trading, Lawrence McDonald, and a veteran professional writer, Patrick Robinson, have painstakingly detailed the intellect, honesty and caring at the heart of the Lehman trading groups that tried valiantly to warn upper management of the impending doom.

This one hundred and fifty-eight-year-old institution was leveled by a small clique of men at its very top who lacked the restraint and manners that were the key to traditional corporate culture at Lehman.   The arrogance, greed, weak egos and excesses (think of TV’s Dynasty) are similar to the unfortunate behaviors exhibited by members of any and all cliques.

We view the action from McDonald’s perspective starting with his early yearning to work at a major player on the Street.   If you think every aspect of the real estate bubble and bust has been examined and reported on, think again.   This hefty book is written from an insider’s perspective.   Credit is given to whomever it is due at both ends of the spectrum of good and evil.  

The reader can feel the suspense building as the story continues to develop.   This book became a true page-turner prior to its end, even though its conclusion had already been written.   Recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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It is Written

Last Writes: A Forensic Handwriting Mystery by Sheila Lowe (Obsidian Mystery)

Forensic handwriting experts and religious cults are not exactly a natural combination.   In this mystery novel, the expert is Claudia Rose and the religious cult is the Temple of the Brighter Light.   Claudia’s childhood friend Kelly seeks her assistance in determining whether the father of her exquisite toddler niece, Kylie, has kidnapped his daughter.   A warning note was left for the toddler’s mom who happens to be Kelly’s estranged half-sister.   These are folks who have had their share of family squabbles and trouble over the years.   Claudia must decide what is fact and what is smokescreen.

Author Sheila Lowe just happens to be an expert in handwriting analysis; therefore, the thriller is loaded with fascinating information one assumes to be accurate.   The reader can’t help sneaking peaks at the writing of friends and family wondering if there are clues to deeper meaning in their scribbles.   The psychological implications that accompany an analysis are used to explain the strange and confusing behavior of the folks who populate this tale.

This novel is filled with enough scary ideas and erratic actions to make it a page-turner.   Lowe’s mastery at describing subtle character aspects brings doubt and confusion to the reader who is tracking Claudia Rose’s progress in solving the mystery of Kylie’s disappearance.   To make matters worse, the threat of a religious sacrifice on the toddler’s third birthday puts a painful edge on the heart-wrenching tale.

Last Writes is more than a thriller, it is a morality tale designed for readers who are not afraid to look into the dark side of religious communal living.   Recommended to those who are up for the challenge.

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

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True Colors

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman (Spiegel & Grau)

“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection/ Send my credentials to the house of detention/ I got some friends inside.”   The Doors (“When the Music’s Over”)

“This was the penitence that sometimes happens in the penitentiary.”   Piper Kerman

Orange is the New Black is the primarily angry, but eventually calming memoir from Piper Kerman, a young woman who was locked up for more than a year in the Danbury federal correctional facility.   Her case is somewhat unique not only because she is white and raised middle-class (a graduate of Smith College) but because she had a decade-long wait between her arrest on drug charges and her incarceration.   Kerman had ten years to wonder whether she was going to be behind the bars in a so-called Club Fed or a type of nightmarish facility where her personal safety would be at risk among hardcore offenders.

When Kernan is sentenced to serve her relatively short 15 months term in Danbury, she has found a boyfriend/prospective husband in New York City, and is leading a stable life.   Being forced to leave this behind results in this true story that begins with a lot of hostility expressed in words that begin with “f” and “s”; they appear on about every other page.   This reviewer was surprised that an editor had not elected to remove the terms which became repetitive and annoying.

Early on, Kerman also expresses anger at the federal prosecutors who tried one of her fellow inmates:  “I wondered what U.S. attorney was enjoying that particular notch in his or her belt.”   This appears to be the opposite of blaming the victim.   Instead of blaming herself or her fellow inmates for their crimes, Kerman attempts to label the criminal justice system’s officials as evil.   It just does not work.   As they say, if you can’t do the time then don’t do the crime.

After some months are spent at Danbury, Kerman comes to find that she has a second family among the group of women she encounters and resides with.   This results in her continuing her memoir in a calmer voice…   We can literally feel the calmness and acceptance that attaches to her story.   This is when she talks of penitence and accepting the harm she has caused to her future husband and family members and friends.   It is also when she sees that she has true friends who stick by her when the going gets tough.

Kerman begins to so highly value her fellow inmates that when any one of them is released, it becomes more a time of sorrow and regret than elation.   This reminds the reviewer of another flaw with the editing of Orange.   Each time that Kerman writes of the departure of another inmate, the reader is told that the departing inmate’s prison affects will be distributed to those left behind.   This point is raised too many times, although we understand that Kerman looks forward to giving away her own prison garbs and possessions when she leaves.

In the end, a painful tale of incarceration winds up as a positive story of self-acceptance.   Kerman cannot change what she did as a reckless youth – one without the best of judgement – seeking excitement.   But in prison she comes to see that she can and will value her life from this point forward.   Upon her release, she runs toward the future, “No one can stop me.”

The journey that Piper Kerman takes the reader on in this memoir is at times a rocky one on a winding road, but the destination makes the journey worthwhile.   Well done.

Recommended.

A pre-release review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Everybody Is A Star

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond

“The thing about Hollywood is, it’s no different from heroin or gambling or crack cocaine, except in Hollywood the high is adrenaline.   …And, at any given moment there are ten thousand stunned and hopeful actors driving around the LA freeways, and every one of them is believing that the big break is coming just as surely as sunrise.”

Anne Lamott’s recently released novel Imperfect Birds is a nearly perfectly written story of a loving family in crisis.   In Birds, the love emotes with tension as three family members try to minimize the mistakes they inevitably make in their relationship.   Birds is both tiring – in the sense that it requires the reader’s full attention – and uplifting.

Now Diane Hammond arrives with another lovingly told family novel, Seeing Stars.   Stars is the tale of several families of acting children and their stage mothers who are seeking the fame and fortune that only Hollywood can provide.   Is the pot of gold they’re seeking real or just an illusion?   In part, it’s both.

This is primarily the story of one Ruth Rabinowitz who is almost completely sure that her daughter Bethany is destined to be one of the stars in the Hollywood night.   But Hollywood pushes back by telling Ruth that her daughter is, at best, a character actor.   Then there’s Ruth’s husband, Hugh, left behind in Seattle with his 20-year-old dental practice.  

Hugh supports his wife and daughter but honestly feels they are chasing a dream that will never come true – and the cost of maintaining an extra household in L.A. (not to mention the cost of acting lessons) is eating up all of his earnings.   Does Hugh make Ruth and Bethany return home or let them experience failure?   Will his wife and daughter prove him to be wrong?

The Rabinowitz’s story is the main one but there are several associated ones in Stars.   There’s Bethany’s sometime friend Allison Addison.   Allison is beautiful and knows it.   She also knows that her time to secure a big-time leading role is quickly running out.   Her aggressiveness hides her loneliness.

Allison is quasi-adopted by the shrewd and tough talent agent Mimi Rogers.   Mimi is tougher (“…like an old cat in the night”) than 90% of those in the business but even she must eventually meet her match.

There’s Quinn Reilly, another find of Mimi’s, who is a young James Dean.   Like Dean, he simmers with obvious talent but isn’t much with the social skills.   Will directors use him or figure it’s not worth the cost and aggravation?

Finally there’s Laurel Buehl who is talented enough to make commercials but may be lacking the personality to take the next step.   Her mother Angie has had to battle and survive cancer to be at her side.

Hammond puts all this together with charm and style.   This is an easy – and thus surprisingly fast – read because she so well cushions tension with humor.   In a sense, Hammond’s writing is like Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen with blinders on.   That’s OK, sometimes we need a bit of a break from the harsh light of reality.

It all ends stunningly and smoothly – and must be experienced by the reader rather than explained here or elsewhere.   At the end of Seeing Stars, all of our protagonists both win and lose.   They all – each and every one of them – learn to take what they need out of life and to leave the rest.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by Harper Paperbacks.

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