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Hangman's Game Syken

Hangman’s Game: A Nick Gallow Mystery by Bill Syken (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

Former Sports Illustrated reporter and editor, Bill Syken, has presumably experienced his share of NFL locker rooms. In Hangman’s Game, his fiction debut, Syken takes us from Philadelphia to the Deep South and back through the lens of Nick Gallow, a punter (of all things). Considering that the murder mystery is subtitled A Nick Gallow Mystery, one can reasonably presume there are more coming. And, if I am correct and Nick enjoys the career of a typical NFL punter, Syken will have the opportunity to take us to all corners of America before Nick is done solving crimes!

The novel opens with Nick out to dinner with the team’s first round draft choice, Samuel Sault, and their shared agent, Cecil Wilson. It ends… Well, no spoiler here. But, on the way out of the restaurant, Samuel is murdered, Cecil shot, and teammate Jai Carson, who is at the scene partying with his entourage, falsely accused. Enter Nick.

It is a reasonable assumption that J.C., as Jai is called, was trying to eliminate the competition, but Nick, who comes across as being almost entirely concerned only about himself, is convinced Jai is innocent, plays the team loyalty card, and attempts to uncover the truth. Nick is swimming against the tide, mostly because Jai is a completely unlikeable jerk, who is even more self-absorbed than Nick, who isn’t really that likeable either.

Syken’s writing is solid. The reader is effectively led through the story. Interest in discovering who did what is maintained throughout. The contemporary theme of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the concussion thing) comes into play, though it is not truly developed to any great degree. Despite Nick’s faults, the reader is drawn to him. The only knock is that the story plays on some of the classic stereotypes of the narcissistic, womanizing, gun-toting athlete. However, with the preponderance of these issues in the NFL, perhaps it is truly closer to the norm than an aberration.

Syken has authored a good first novel. It will be interesting to see if he can, next time around, build on his craft and go into greater depth with some of the issues that appear to be floating around in his mind.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on August 18, 2015.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and is the author of the sports-oriented Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Coming Up Next…

Five Days Left (Timmer)

A review of Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer.

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Black Is Black

Wendell Black, MD (nook book)

Wendell Black, MD: A Novel by Gerald Imber (Bourbon Street Books, $14.99, 412 pages)

Fans of medical-themed stories will be happy to find this one written by famed plastic surgeon Gerald Imber. Dr. Wendell Black, the central character, narrates an often-dark and sinister tale. Black is a New York City police surgeon. His credentials allow him access to crime scenes even though he’s not a sworn officer who carries a weapon.

Circumstances that seem quite ordinary place Black at the center of an international crime syndicate. His first encounter with the mayhem created by the criminals occurs on a flight to New York. A call over the public address system for a doctor on board to provide assistance brings Black to the side of an ailing passenger.

The story centers on the theme of connections, mostly centered around human friendships. The in-flight medical emergency becomes more than a one-time event. Black seeks out the help of a Central Intelligence Agency staffer who’s well placed in the organization when he realizes there’s trouble that far exceeds Black’s problem solving capabilities.

Imber provides the reader with just enough medical information to be plausible but not in an egotistical and heavy-handed way like one finds in the Kay Scarpetta novels. In this post-9/11 era tale, an awareness of terror threats forms a basic thread in the plot’s fabric.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Imber’s debut is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of twists.” Booklist

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Invisible Touch

Charlotte Street: A Novel by Danny Wallace (William Morrow, $14.99, 416 pages)

A heartwarming everyday tale of boy stalks girl.

If you’ve enjoyed reading Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) and David Nicholls (One Day), you’re likely to very much enjoy this soon-t0-be-released debut novel by Danny Wallace.   Like Hornby and Nicholls, Wallace uses a fun, positive, life affirming voice even as he writes of a world in which everything’s going to hell in a tattered hand basket.

Jason Priestly – no, not the 90210 actor – is a former schoolteacher who is now a London restaurant critic and sometime music reviewer.   He writes for London Now, a daily rag that’s handed out free to subway riders.   Jason has almost hit the wall after being unceremoniously dumped by his long-time girlfriend Sarah, and after sleeping with his boss Zoe.   Just when he thinks there’s no reason to go on, he spots The Girl…  She’s a vision in a blue dress and coat outfit struggling to load her shopping bags into a taxi.   Jason rushes to help her, receives a great smile for his efforts, and then realizes – as the cab zooms off – that she’s left something of hers behind.   Ah, so Jason has the justification he needs to spend his time searching all over greater London for her.

Jason has a lot to deal with as he begins his great adventure.   His male friends and his roommate are childish (still stuck on playing outdated video games); Sarah, now engaged and pregnant, keeps returning to him like a bad toenail; and Abbey has suddenly appeared – a young attractive university student who wants to hang around Jason, and who is seemingly willing to help him find The Girl who will be more perfect for him than she is.

Jason, like some, if not many readers, is an Everyman who is constantly looking to the future to bring him happiness as he looks past what he already possesses.   Will he find what he truly needs at the end of this romp?   You’ll need to take a journey down Charlotte Street to find out.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Charlotte Street will be released on October 23, 2012, and will be available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition e-book.   “Looks to be (this year’s) One Day…  a delight.”   http://www.net-a-porter.com/ .

“It will have you laughing out loud and melt your heart, all at once.”   Cosmopolitan (U.K.)

Note:  Not feeling great?  I’m not a doctor – although I did stay once at a Holiday Inn Express – but I can offer you this prescription:  Read this book and you’ll feel better!

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Charlotte Street: A Novel by Danny Wallace.

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Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

How to Eat a Cupcake: A Novel by Meg Donohue  (Harper, $13.99, 320 pages)

cupcake

This debut novel by Meg Donohue is set in San Francisco (the author’s home), and tells the tale of the young Annie Quintana who dreams of opening a bakery specializing in fine cupcakes.   Her dream is set to come true because the wealthy Julia St. Clair is willing to fund the business.   The problem is that Julia was once Annie’s best and worst friend (Annie’s mom having worked as a housekeeper for the St. Clairs).

Donohue paints The City as a place where folks engage in massive quantities of eating and drinking, and she does a great job of making various locations – including the largely Hispanic Mission District – come to life.   It’s likely that a number of male readers will, however, find this tale to be a bit too sweet in the telling for their taste.   But female readers may willingly be caught up in the knotty struggles of X chromosomal relationships.   How to Eat a Cupcake winds up being a type of psychological mystery in which the reader wants to find out what happens at the end.

cupcake-back-cover

Donohue displays a gift for dialogue in the debut and a certain sense of stylistic charm, but it’s hoped that she stretches herself a bit more in her next release.   (Perhaps her next novel will be set in Clovis?)

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Beautifully written and quietly wise…”   Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow.

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Helplessly Hoping

The Best of Me: A Novel by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing; $25.99; 304 pages).

The Violets of March: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; $15.00; 304 pages)

“He shouldn’t have come back home.   He didn’t belong here, he’d never belong here.”

I had never read a story by Sacramento native Nicholas Sparks, so I had high hopes for The Best of Me, his latest novel that I downloaded as a Nook Book on my Nook Color e-reader.   It starts off very promisingly, a tale of forbidden romance between the well-bred Amanda Collier and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Dawson Cole.   Amanda and Dawson grew up in the town of Oriental, North Carolina and societal pressures kept them apart.   Now it’s decades later and both of them are drawn back to Oriental to attend the funeral of Tuck, a man who was a father-figure of sorts for both of them.

Amanda has married a relatively-successful dentist and she’s a mother, but she’s never lost the feelings she had for Dawson.   Dawson, who has pined for Amanda his entire life, has remained single, working on oil rigs and living in a double-wide trailer outside of New Orleans.   The question raised by this story is, “Will Amanda and Dawson finally get together, even if it is late in the day in their lives (Dawson is 42); if so, what will it cost them to change their lives competely?”

Sparks writes in a calm, polite and seemingly timeless fashion, at least through the first four-fifths of the book.   But it’s when the reader gets to that last fifth – in sight of the finish line – that the story falls apart like a child’s sand castle on a beach hit by a high tide.   The ending is nothing less than trite, predictable and tacky; some serious readers are going to find it so bad that they may feel personally insulted.

The Best of Me starts off like a major motion picture but ends like a poor-quality “made for TV” film broadcast at 2:00 in the afternoon on a weekday.   If you love hokey corn packaged as romance literature, you may like this one.   For me, one Nicholas Sparks book is far more than enough.

Fortunately, The Violets of March, the debut novel from Sarah Jio is a fine antidote to having one’s hopes dashed by reading something as predictable as The Best of Me.   Jio has written a story about a young woman who has it all, a fine marriage and a successful writer’s life in Manhattan, when it all falls apart.   Emily Wilson’s husband suddenly leaves her for a younger model, and so she departs for some much needed rest and recuperation at her aunt’s home on Brainbridge Island in Washington State (a ferry ride from Seattle).   Once there, she finds a diary that was written by her lost maternal grandmother Esther, a woman who died under mysterious circumstances at a time when the love of her life had broken her heart.   (Esther, like Amanda Colllier, was married to a man that she did not actually love – a man who served as a substitute for her true love.)

All of her life Emily has been told that she looks exactly like her grandmother Esther, and she comes to find that there are some similarities in their lives.   Thus, Emily becomes determined to find out exactly what happened to this woman who she never met.   This is not an easy task, as no one in her mother’s family is willing to talk about what happened in the early 1940s.   Readers raised in families that pride themselves on keeping their secrets deeply buried will identify with this unique story.

Kudos to Jio for fashioning a satisfying ending in which everything comes together, made all the more satisfying due to its lack of predictability.   Jio does not rush events nor does she paste on a false-feeling ending to “…an unsolved family mystery and an unfinished love affair.”

The motto of Emily Wilson’s grandmother Esther was, “True love lives on.”   So does good writing and with The Violets of March, Sarah Jio shows that she’s a writer to watch.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of The Violets of March was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer paid, unfortunately, for the Nook Book edition of The Best of Me.   (Spark’s novel is sometimes entertaining while one’s reading it, but the elements of the story simply don’t add up or ring true.   In retrospect, there are simply too many improbable and implausible events which precede the groaningly awful ending.)  

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