Tag Archives: novel

Isn’t It a Pity

13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro (Reagan Arthur Books; $23.99; 288 pages)

Initially this appears to be a beautifully presented novel based on the possessions of a woman who once lived in the early 1900s (experiencing both World Wars), in Paris.   The graphic reproductions of items owned by Louise Brunet, which came into the author’s possession as a young girl, are reproduced in a high-class manner.   Unfortunately, this story also contains some troubling characteristics which ruined the experience for this reader.

In the early 1980s, the author’s mother salvaged a small box of mementos formerly owned by Mrs. Brunet:  “This box is the sepulcher of Louise Brunet’s heart.   The story behind the objects is lost; the objects are now the story…  As I have carried this strange box through life and across the world, I have always intended to make a book out of it.   This book now exists; you hold it in your hands.”

It is a charming and promising premise – fleshing out an unknown life via the author’s imagination.   A great deal of the content involves the lives of French people, men and women, during World War I.   The read is initially quite engaging as we encounter an American historical researcher-professor, living in the present day, who comes across Mrs. Brunet’s possessions and begins – as he charts out the happenings of her life – to fall in love with her.   It will be an unrequited love except for the fact that through a miracle of time travel he comes to meet her face to face.   Having met Mrs. Brunet, the researcher is essentially freed to fall in love with a woman of his own time.

All of this has a Somewhere in Time or The Time Traveler’s Wife aspect to it, which seems wonderful on its face.   And yet, the Louise Brunet that the reader comes to identify with in the first half of the novel turns into a madwoman in its concluding portion.   This is a happily married woman – a woman who has never had a child – who engages in an affair with a married neighbor, knowing full well that it is wrong and that she takes the chance of getting pregnant; something that would destroy her marriage and world.

This female protagonist also engages in crimes and enjoys confessing her sins to a Catholic priest, to the point where she laughs hysterically after confessing her adultery.   It all seems strange and disjointed, as if the two halves of the novel do not fit together properly.   But this is not the biggest issue with the telling.

“She does not understand the power of that man’s body over her…  He is like a poison in her, all the more potent because she doesn’t want an antidote.   She welcomes this disease of desire.”

The major problem with 13 rue Therese is that the sex scenes are described in terms more than a bit reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – rude, crude and shocking.   The polite language of an earlier time gives way to terms that appear to be deliberately intended to shock the once comfortable reader.   Perhaps this was done deliberately as an attempt to demonstrate the lack of control that overtakes Louise, a woman ready to destroy her life for a man she’s attracted to even while she does not understand that attraction.

In summary, 13 rue Therese is like one of those schizophrenic films (the movie version of Steve Martin’s Shopgirl comes to mind) that is quite pleasurable for the first hour, but hard to watch for the second.   This is a novel with great potential that simply self-destructs, and concludes in a rather mundane fashion.   It’s a pity.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This novel was released today.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

At the Zoo

Did Not Survive: A Zoo Mystery by Ann Littlewood (Poisoned Pen Press; $14.95; 250 pages)

This second novel from former zookeeper Ann Littlewood, pits human nature against the honesty of zoo animals for a compelling read.   A fictitious zoo in the Pacific Northwest provides the location for a unique spin on an age-old tale of a heroine in peril.   The main character is Iris Oakley who is not only a recently widowed zoo employee, but also pregnant with her deceased husband’s baby.

In this story there are actually two heroines in peril, Iris Oakley and an aged elephant named Damrey.   Damrey has been a favorite of local families who visit her at the zoo.   Author Littlewood makes a case for the depth of knowledge required of zoo personnel.   It’s not just sweeping up after the animals and making sure they have their favorite foods.   Behavior, instincts and training are well documented for a wide range of the zoo’s inhabitants.   There are births and deaths that tear at the hearts of the staff.

Littlewood opens the mystery with the death of the zoo superintendent, a fellow who was good at his job but not well liked.   He’s discovered in Damrey’s enclosure being menaced by the very agitated elephant.   Iris is the first on the scene and it falls to her to assist in determining who is responsible for the super’s death.

Along the way we get to know the elephants.   They have not been part of her job until the discovery of the body in their enclosure.   Her regular charges are the big cats; however, pregnant women must not empty cat pans, big or small.   Iris is a remarkable character who captured this reviewer’s sympathies.

Well recommended. Let’s hope Ms. Littlewood keeps writing about what she knows so well as she provides entertainment bundled with fascinating learning.

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Willow Weep for Me

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon)

The Language of Trees transports us into the deep, magical aspects of nature, while inviting us to reconsider the magnetic power of desires long-buried.   While not a believer in second chances, but rather in what is meant to exist, this story had me wanting to change my mind.   This is a well rendered tale of shattered pieces, and the sorrow of remembering their beginnings.   Ruby’s suspenseful story telling style and painterly prose make for an alluring read.

Ruby brings us to a seemingly inncuous town, whose many secrets are whispered and hidden among the giant willows.   Her characters are artfully drawn, yet oddly familiar.   We are shown Canandaigua, of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where the folklore of the Seneca Indians runs deep.   When three children spontaneously set off in a canoe towards Squaw Island, to escape the angry father they are running from, a weeping rain turns to sudden fury; spilling into a tragedy that becomes a series of dark storms for the Ellis family.

This tightly wound tale manages to both inform and invite the reader to reconsider the gift of healing, or at least the deepest human urge to repair what is broken.   Ruby shows us the mystery of spirit in all living things and how those spirits swoop and dart among us, landing in the most unlikely of places.   This book will have you wondering about ghosts, and if those who remain and haunt us are simply the ones we choose to keep.

 

Carrie Host is the author of Between Me and the River. 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Guilty of the Crime

The False Friend: A Novel by Myla Goldberg (Doubleday; 272 pages; $25.95)

There’s a saying that has been going around for years in the fields of entertainment and sports, “When the legend conflicts with the truth, always choose the legend.”   The distinction between the public story and actual events is what preoccupies Celia, the female protagonist of The False Friend.   Celia, an Illinois State Auditor, lives in Chicago but she’s returned to her small hometown in the formerly forested wilds of New York State to make a confession.   It seems that twenty years earlier Celia and her best friend Djuna and three other girls walked into a dense forest; only four of them walked out.   Djuna was never seen again.

The official story of Djuna’s disappearance is that she was picked up by a man driving a car – a man who stopped on the road by the edge of the forest and convinced her to get into the car.   That man was her killer.   This is the public story that the four girls told to the police and to their parents.   It was never questioned.   But Celia was the girl walking closest to Djuna on that fateful day and she’s now willing to disclose what factually happened…  Or, what she believes in her mind’s eye actually happened.

Celia has a somewhat naive faith in the premise that once she tells her version of the truth everything will be made better.   She also thinks that her former classmates will readily accept her version of the truth.   She’s seeking absolution and is excited that it’s about to be granted to her belatedly.   But the funny thing is that once she meets with the other girls (those willing to communicate with her), they don’t buy into her story.   Each one is absolutely certain that she saw Djuna being lured into the stranger’s automobile.

Author Myla Goldberg does a fascinating job of translating what is essentially a small story into a larger one about our roles and responsibilities in society.   If all of those around us wish to accept one version of events, of facts, what right do we have to say they’re wrong?   Sometimes there’s far more comfort to be had in the public story, the legend, than in simpler frail human events.

When reading this novel, each reader will come to think of certain events in his/her own childhood.   We may be sure that things happened a certain way on a certain date, only to find that our family members are wedded to an entirely different version.   Telling those around you that they’re wrong only makes them feel uncomfortable, if not angry.   (Thus, we all have sometimes accepted the group’s story instead of our own.)

Goldberg has created a fascinating and extremely engaging novel in Friend.   Her calm, deliberate style will call to mind Catherine Flynn (The News Where You Are) or Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass).   The uncertainty over an event that happened decades earlier is also a bit similar in storyline to Lisa Unger’s recent novel Fragile.

Goldberg’s talented prose will cause the reader to read and re-read several lines such as these:

“The school building itself was utterly unchanged…  The opposite edge of the walk displayed a gray boulder the size of a crouching child.   On it were carved the words JENSENVILLE HIGH, Gift of 1993…  The rock reminded Celia of a marker designating the future resting place of herself and her former classmates, all of them to be interred beneath in eternal, obligatory return.”   (Whew)

At the conclusion of The False Friend, Celia must make a critical choice – Will she continue to dispute the perceived history of a local tragedy or will she come to side with the community’s accepted version of events?   You will need to read this intelligently told tale to find out what decision she makes.   You will then wonder if you would have made the same choice.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The False Friend will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Information Wars

A Geography of Secrets: A Novel by Frederick Reuss (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 288 pages)

“Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.”

A lush, other-worldly feel permeates this philosophical novel based in Washington, D.C.   Author Frederick Reuss presents two tales that portray the human toll paid by the families of those who work in the shadows where espionage is practiced.   The first-person narrator of the initial tale is the adult son of a recently deceased former CIA operative.   The reader is not advised of the son’s name although everyone else in the chapters devoted to him are clearly named and fully developed as characters.  

The son is an old-school style cartographer who experiences life through the methodology of his work.   He engages physically with the area he is mapping in order to infuse the end product with authenticity.   The son and his mother are easily recognizable as collateral damage created by his father’s activities in the Foreign Service.   The mother was jettisoned from her marriage and replaced by other women while the son is left with the sense of never really knowing who his father was.

The second tale is told in the third-person.   The primary character is a technical wizard/spy named Noel Leonard who works for a top-secret government agency.   Noel gathers information about the activities of the enemy de jour using satellite technology and super sensitive spy cameras.   This information is used to plot bombing attacks.   His only passion in life is golf and he excels at it, primarily because he is an expert at judging the trajectory of objects.   Noel’s wife and daughter are kept in the dark about just what he does at the office which creates difficulties for all of them.

Each of the characters is seeking to throw light on the secrets that have made a huge impact on their lives.   Their searches take them to Switzerland, the son for his father’s funeral and Noel for an information-sharing conference.   Noel longs to blurt out the truth of his profession in order to clear the air and connect with his family.   The irony was not lost on this reviewer that it is in Switzerland, a neutral country, that they find key elements of their quest.

Both of the men convey a sense of invisibleness, a holding back, rather than surging forward.   Neither of them seeks out people or participates in group activities.   They are observers – watchers – rather than front line participants in life.   Their searches for connectedness to family and place are often derailed by purposeful withdrawal.   The sense of their invisibleness is heightened by the way they recede to the edges of the action in life.   The son and Noel are infused with a strong sense of distrust, or maybe anxiety about sharing their innermost selves with others.   The two men repeatedly approach and dance away from the secondary characters.

Author Reuss allows his tales to meander rather than dragging the reader along on a chase.   He is extremely skillful at describing the essence of Washington D.C. which is full of historic meaning, vast institutions and seats of power.   It is there that people become ants swallowed up by the workings of government.

These are unique and well drawn tales.   Thought provoking.   Highly recommended.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Suspicion

Once Wicked Always Dead: A Novel by T. Marie Benchley (M.M.W.E. Publishing, 296 pages)

“Ev’ry time you kiss me/ I’m still not certain that you love me…”   Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman

The story begins at the intersection of retribution and lonely street.   Well, not exactly, but it’s close enough to justify the reference – sorry Elvis and Terry.

Author T. Marie Benchley proudly proclaims that she hails from a family that included early exposure to classic literature as part of her upbringing.   Perhaps her reliance on excessively flowery language can be attributed to the literature?   The reviewer read an advanced copy/uncorrected proof; therefore, no direct quotes will be used in this review.   Let’s hope that Ms. Benchley has engaged a skilled editor to polish up her novel because there are enough malaprops to be exorcised, or is that excised?

There are several story tracks that intertwine in the manner that is currently in fashion.   The reader is horrified by a very vengeful, angry woman on the one hand, and on the other, is saddened by the plight of a faithful, devoted wife whose husband has neglected to inform her that he’s gay and has a lover.   These tracks have some serious continuity issues.   When they are paired with several non sequitur-like statements, it’s not clear whether this is an intentional device to draw the reader’s attention or a set up for later revelations.

Oh, I neglected to mention that the devoted wife just happens to be the only child of a very rich rancher – the ranch is situated on 45,000 acres in Big Sky country.   Back at the ranch there are men who have been hounding dad to sell out and they really don’t want to take “No” for an answer.

Although the plot lines are tied together in a knot worthy of a sailor, I suggest that prospective readers pass on this one.   My copy went straight to the recycle bin.

(Not recommended.)

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   An Advance Review Copy was provided by the publisher.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Split Second Timing

Capitol Betrayal by William Bernhardt (Ballantine Books, $26.00, 336 pages)

“You can tell us what the hell is going on,” Cartwright barked.   “You’re the president, not a damned flight attendant!”

The security force of the District of Columbia and its most prominent resident, the leader of the free world, are in serious peril.   Hotheaded terrorists and foreign governments are the obvious villains in this tale of gunshots, missiles and threats.   Although the premise may not be a new one, thanks to the masterful split-second timing of author William Bernhardt, it becomes fresh and vibrant.

The entire story takes place in less than a day.   Bernhardt builds the plot using one of his mainstay characters, Ben Kincaid.   Rather than having Kincaid be the featured player, Seamus McKay, a U.S. undercover operative who is nearing retirement age, provides the action and the fireworks.   Kincaid is the perfect intellectual lawyer counterpart to McKay’s clever MacGyver-like tricks and ploys.   The folks rounding out the cast of characters include some slippery and self-serving Washington insiders.

This reviewer has noted that a plot device that uses one scene depicted from the perspective of several different characters is often employed by novelists to build dramatic tension.   Bernhardt takes this device and builds the pace as though he’s smoothly double clutching in a Porsche.   Resist the temptation to peek at the ending and your self-control will be rewarded.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized