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In Dreams

Now You See Me & Dead Scared (Lacey Flint Novels) by S. J. Bolton

Now You See Me (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 400 pages)/Dead Scared (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

Have you ever been afraid to read a second book by an author?   If the first one is as convoluted, terrifying and overwhelming as Now You See Me, you’d understand this reviewer’s hesitation to begin reading author S. J. Bolton’s latest novel, Dead Scared.   Bolton knows how to reach that deeply-hidden vulnerable spot in her reader’s emotions.   She has also perfected the scene switch that moves the story line beyond mere entertainment to fully conscious attention.   The locations for the book make like a travel guide for Britain which balances nicely with the sinister and often gory action.

The two books bode well for an engaging series; however, main character Lacey Flint will have to tone down her activities if she wants to reach middle age.   Flint’s shady past is revealed in Now You See Me and her career as a detective constable in England evolves as do her detecting skills in Dead Scared.   There’s a love interest, albeit experienced more as longing and yearning than romance.   The plot lines are not as important as the lessons Bolton puts forth regarding trust, loyalty and vulnerability.   What you see is not always what you get.

Perhaps the best indicator for the success of a book is the affinity a reader develops for the characters.   This holds true for Lacey Flint’s effect on this reviewer.   At least one or two more tales from Bolton that feature the spunky detective would be most welcome.   Let’s hope Lacey keeps her energy level high and finds more baffling mysteries to solve.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.   “Readers will be caught up in the twists and turns that leave them hanging until the final paragraph.”   Library Journal  

  

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Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00, 279 pages)

Ever wonder if those fabulous songs, novels and paintings that make life so much more enjoyable can only be created by a few brilliant and troubled people?   Maybe you aspire to be more creative, or you wish it for your children.   Jonah Lehrer, the thirty-something scientific writer, has done an in-depth study of the creative process.   He begins his latest work, Imagine, by focusing the first half on the individual and the way the parts of his brain interact.   The second half of the book explores what happens when groups of people work together in the attempt to be creative.

Because Lehrer is an engaging story-teller, the reader gladly accompanies him as he learns about what led to some of the most memorable individual creativity of recent time.   For example, Bob Dylan is the subject of the first chapter.   Later in the second part the reader hears the back story about some of the most amazing corporate breakthroughs that produced winning products like the Swiffer Sweeper.

This is no magazine quick-read or glossy book with simple highlights to quote at the next family gathering.   Rather, Lehrer blends his discussion on neurology with diagrams and clearly written text that is fascinating, rather than academic or – heaven forbid – boring.   He concentrates on what makes us who we are and our unique humanness.   As progress is being made in the exploration of the human brain, new findings and concepts have come to light.   Our brains can be seen in action through the use of equipment such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.   The results of these studies and experiments that were conducted while scientists were peering into active brains are fascinating.   Lehrer uses the “You Are There” technique to draw the reader into appreciating the scientists and researchers he showcases along with their contributions to understanding creativity.

There are some requirements for achieving notable creativity.   It’s not a matter of being zapped by a great idea.   As Lehrer states, “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of working memory.   For one thing, there is a strong correlation between working memory and general intelligence, with variations in the size of working memory accounting for approximately 60 percent of the variation in IQ scores.”   Moreover, the poems, plays and novels we have enjoyed from writers like W. H. Auden or William Shakespeare, were not produced in brilliant flashes of insight.   The authors dedicated time and energy to writing and rewriting their works until the result was perfection.

Lastly, Lehrer makes a great case for nurturing the youth among us by fostering in them what he calls “the outsider view.”   It’s not memorization or rote school work that will foster creativity; rather, it’s taking a step back, detaching from the obvious and fostering an alternative view.

“According to the researchers, the advantage of play is that it’s often deeply serious – kids are most focused when they are having fun.”

Imagine is a well-paced learning experience that keeps the reader’s attention and is never overwhelming.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Jonah Lehrer earlier wrote How We Decide, which is reviewed here along with The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/the-art-of-choosing/ .

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A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty

Joshilyn Jackson’s new book, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty: A Novel, was released on January 25, 2012.   Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, says of Pretty that it’s, “Enthralling!   A heart-thumping mystery, an edge-of-your-seat drama, and a fiercely sweet comedy all at once.”   Jennifer McMahon, the author of Promise Not to Tell labels it, “A clever, hilarious, wild adventure of a mystery that immediately pulls you in.”

Pretty is already a 4.5 star (out of 5) rated book at Barnes & Noble, and a 5 star rated book at Amazon.You can read the first chapter of A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty here:

http://www.joshilynjackson.com/A-Grown-Up-Kind-of-Pretty-Excerpt.pdf

Jackson is the author of the earlier bestselling novels Backseat Saints, Gods in Alabama and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.   You can read our review of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/arc-of-a-diver/

Joseph Arellano

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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If You Could Read My Mind

Cat Telling Tales: A Joe Grey Mystery by Shirley Rousseau Murphy (William Morrow, $19.99, 384 pages)

Just in time for the holidays, this Joe Grey mystery dishes up a warm serving of human kindness.   Of course there’s plenty of evil and mayhem for the team of kitties and their humans to get their teeth into.   There are human victims in the mix, old and young, dead and alive.   (Please see the prior review of Cat Coming Home on this site for background on the story line.   The review, “Dead Man’s Curve”, was posted on November 17, 2010.)

As with prior books in this series, Cat Telling Tales provides an opportunity to champion the victims of crime.   Rather than a specific victim, in this tale the focus is on the pets that have been dumped by folks made homeless by the economic meltdown in recent years.   Author Murphy provides ample evidence of how pets are abandoned and what can be done to put their lives back together.   She champions the townsfolk who take the time and make the effort to gather the resources to give the abandoned pets a fresh start.   Readers who love cats, and dogs for that matter, can use the ideas presented for fundraisers in their own communities or join their local organizations that are the counterparts to ones referenced in the book.   (Please see the links and contact information below for the organizations supported by this site.)

Not all the victims in this tale were guiltless; however, in the hierarchy of crime murder takes the top spot.   The body count adds up to three this time around.   Joe Grey, Dulcie and Kit are joined by Misto who was introduced in the aforementioned book as the older yellow tom cat.   As is her style, Ms. Murphy enriches her cast with yet another newcomer.   Yes, he’s fascinating and he does catch Kit’s attention.   Some things don’t change.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Cat Telling Tales was released on November 22, 2011.

Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary – Sacramento, CA

http://www.happytails.org/   E-mail: purrball@happytails.org   Telephone: (916) 556-1155

Sacramento SPCA – Sacramento County

http://www.sspca.org/   Telephone: (916) 383-7387

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Defensive Wounds: A Novel of Suspense by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 352 pages)

“Trying to find a smear of the dark red on the burgundy-patterned carpet made needles and haystacks seem like a bar bet.”

In this fourth time around in Cleveland, Ohio, author Lisa Black presents a convoluted present day mystery that is solved with one part forensics and one part feelings.   Author Black does an excellent job of setting up the story line and expanding her cast of characters.   While forensic scientist Theresa Mac Clean and her cop cousin Frank are easily recognizable from the prior novel in this series, Trail of Blood, their emotions and personal opinions are considerably more pronounced.   Ms. Black uses a plotline that consists of a series of seemingly unconnected murders to thoroughly explore the meaning of family loyalty.   Throughout the tale, each of the main characters – Theresa, Frank, and Theresa’s daughter Rachel – must choose which side they are on.   For Rachel the choice revolves around her feelings for a young man with whom she works at Cleveland’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.   Theresa has to balance her relationship with Rachel and her daughter’s safety with the demands of her job in the medical examiner’s office.

Aggressive defense attorneys are not usually mourned at their passing by local law enforcement officers and forensics specialists.   These public servants often face seemingly excessive interrogation on the stand as expert witnesses during trial proceedings in criminal matters.   When glamorous defense attorney Marie Corrigan is found trussed up and dead in the Presidential Suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, not a single tear is shed or kind word uttered by the team summoned to the crime scene.   Ms. Corrigan’s reputation for winning acquittal verdicts for her questionable clients nearly matched her beauty and enviable figure.   “Ding dong the witch is dead,” was the vocal intoned by Leo DeCiccio in the trace evidence lab as the autopsy of Corrigan’s body began.

What better way to create a readily available pool of murder victims than to have them attend a seminar at said hotel that features the development of skills for achieving litigation success?   There is none better as far as this reviewer is concerned.   As each subsequent victim is discovered, the possibilities for a single murderer seem difficult to grasp, yet the methodology of killing is strikingly similar.   The past and present relationships of the murder victims and the investigators are not obvious.   Theresa and Frank must devote hours of sleuthing to fit the pieces together for the solution of the crimes.

Ms. Black’s wicked sense of humor provides several amusing sidebars for the reader.   Among the seminar lessons are the following:  “How to Make Not-Guilty Happen” and “Criminal Defense in a Down Economy.”   She gives her characters clever phrases and sets up the opportunities for them, such as,

“Two bodies piled up, and this woman knew both of them.   She may be able to connect the dots for us.   How much should we worry about people’s feelings?   Especially since they’re the same people who are going to say we didn’t solve these murders because we don’t like them?”

The take-away from this mystery novel is that we must all move on in life and it takes a bigger person to do so.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Defensive Wounds was released on September 27, 2010; it is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

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The Conundrum of Context

A question that one reviewer struggles with.

Here’s a question that I struggle with as a book reviewer, “Is it appropriate to make reference to other books when I review a new one?”   For the reasons I’ll explain here, my answer tends to be situational.

Let’s say that I’m reviewing the latest novel from author Joe Blow called A Kick in the Head.   If I think that this work from author Blow is the best thing he’s done – and it quite clearly calls for a highly positive review, I’m unlikely to reference any other works by Blow or other writers.   Why?   Because I’m explaining why I like or admire this release.   Many readers, and most especially Blow’s longtime followers, are happy to accept a positive review on its face.

But if Blow’s latest book blows (sorry, I couldn’t resist…), there’s a good chance that I’ll refer to either his earlier, better works, or to those of other authors writing in the same genre.   The reason for this is that I would expect to be challenged, either by a reader new to this author or by one of his loyal fans.   Generally, negative reviews require more information – more context, if you will – to set the stage for the reviewer’s not-so-pleasing conclusion.

What Blow’s fans are really asking of the negative reviewer is, “What makes you think you’re correct?”   Or, in plain English, “What’s your ammunition?”   So my first option – and often the best one – is to compare this new work to the author’s earlier ones.   Maybe the writer was clearly hungrier earlier, or fresher and this stance provides me with the basis to make the claim that his work is now sounding worn and tired.   Regardless of whether a fan of Blow’s buys my argument, I’m not too subtly making the point that I’ve also read all or most of his writings.   (It makes a difference to me personally if someone criticizing one of my favorite authors indicates that he/she has read all or most of his/her works.   I’ll give more weight to that criticism than to someone’s who notes that this is the first book they’ve read by an author I know and love.)

The next option is to compare Blow to his direct competition.   This can be preferable when time seems to have passed Blow by…  He may have been the best writer of his type back in the day (heck, he may even have created the genre in his youth) but this doesn’t give him a pass today.   There may be a dozen or so new and younger writers who have tailored Blow’s style into something that’s fresh and new on the runway.   But I’ll have to give some specific examples of how and where this is true, which is why I would likely include a comment like, “A Kick in the Head is not only not as engaging as Blow’s classic The Last Bus Home, it also seems dull compared to Judy Bling’s brilliant debut novel of 2010, Fighting Back.”   In instances where another author’s work is cited, I think it should be something current (written within the last year or two).But there is another instance in which a positive review should include a reference to other writings.   This applies to cases in which the reviewer – I or someone else, attempts to make the case that a work by a new writer approaches greatness.   If  I’m going to argue that new author Judy Bling’s first book is stunning, I think I need to provide context by making comparisons to some well-known or accepted best writers.   Does she set scenes as effortlessly as Anne Lamott, or write with a cool and icy focus like Audrey Niffenegger?

If one’s going to argue that a new writer approaches greatness, then I think one had better be willing to specifically compare that writer to other exemplary writers, past or present.   (Not everyone’s going to agree with the validity of the comparative selections, but that’s beside the point.   They don’t have to concur with the review either.)

Now let’s all hope that Joe Blow’s next book is better than A Kick in the Head!

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11, 2011.

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