Tag Archives: Ohio

Perfect World

The Fragile World: A Novel by Paula Treick DeBoard (Mira, $14.99, 415 pages)

the fragile world

Synopsis:

The Kaufmans have always considered themselves to be a normal, happy family. Curtis is a physics teacher at a local high school. His wife, Kathleen, restores furniture for upscale boutiques. Daniel is away at college on a prestigious music scholarship, and twelve-year-old Olivia is a happy-go-lucky kid whose biggest concern is passing her next math test. And then comes the middle-of-the-night phone call that changes everything. Daniel has been killed in what the police are calling a “freak” accident, and the remaining Kaufmans are left to flounder in their grief.

The anguish of Daniel’s death is isolating, and it’s not long before this once-perfect family finds itself falling apart. As time passes and the wound refuses to heal, Curtis becomes obsessed with the idea of revenge, a growing mania that leads him to pack up his life and his anxious teenage daughter and set out on a collision course to right a wrong.

Like the film Ordinary People, The Fragile World is a story about imperfect people, beset by tragedy, doing their best to get by. It’s a story narrated by both Curtis and Olivia. Not many writers would base the events of a novel in Sacramento, California or Oberlin, Ohio but DeBoard uses both locations. It’s a risk, and it works. It enables her to realistically paint the Kaufmans as a humble family – a family whose breadwinner drives an over-used Ford Explorer with a bad transmission. There’s nothing glamorous to see here, people.

The story is about a father and daughter road trip, from Sacramento to Omaha. Olivia thinks that the purpose of the trip is to reunite her with her mother, Kathleen, who could not live with Curtis’s unending mourning of Daniel’s death. But Curtis plans to deposit Olivia with her mother while he travels to Oberlin to confront the person he believes was responsible for his son’s death.

Initially, the reader has the impression that he or she knows how this tale will play out. Don’t bet on it. DeBoard throws in some unexpected events – such as having Curtis show up at his hated father’s death bed in the Chicago area – before the denouement in tiny Oberlin. Curtis finds the man he’s looking for and he’s got a gun in his hand. Knowing this does not provide a spoiler because DeBoard tips the chessboard over. The book is worth reading to discover how DeBoard wraps things up.

The Fragile World is also worth reading because it perfectly examines the imperfections of family life. There’s a father who hates his own father so much that he’s never communicated with him during his adult life. There’s a daughter who blames herself for not being what her brother was. There’s a wife and mother who cannot accept or understand why her husband and daughter are unable to simply move on with their lives after a tragedy. These are ordinary people who are hurting, people who feel pain. They inhabit a fragile world, one with which many readers will identify.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Emotionally powerful… This bold and moving story is absolutely unforgettable.” New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf

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Damage Control

Gone Missing: A Thriller by Linda Castillo (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 297 pages)

Gone Missing 2

“What kind of monster does that to a fifteen-year-old girl?” I whisper.

Shocking, that’s the best way to describe the opening chapters of this, the fourth book in an Amish Country series written by Linda Castillo. The narrator is Kate Burkholder, the chief of police of a town called Painters Mill. She also happens to be a former member of an Amish community. Burkholder is troubled and damaged by past problems, yet she seeks to assist others. Her town is located in the Ohio farmlands and the time of year when the mystery takes place is spring. Rumspringa is in full swing; although, this version is significantly tamer than the TV shows about Breaking Amish.

State Agent John Tomasetti with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation teams up with Chief Kate Burkholder when an Amish girl who is out walking along a country road goes missing while doing an errand for her family. A pool of blood and a satchel for carrying vegetables are all that they find by the side of the road. Although the scene is outside her jurisdiction, Burkholder is called in as a consultant because of her Amish roots.

Author Castillo enriches her tale with in depth descriptions and background information related to the Amish folks who farm in Ohio. The stark contrast between these people living their simple bucolic lifestyle and the festering evil that exists in their midst makes for a gruesome and engaging thriller. Castillo is adept at building tension that may compel some readers to stay up late to finish the book as did this reviewer.

Highly recommended.

Every Broken Trust: A Mystery by Linda Rodriguez (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 304 pages)

every broken trust

The chief of police in the next book is Skeet Bannion, a half-Cherokee woman, whose jurisdiction is the campus of Chouteau University which is located outside Kansas City, Missouri. There’s more to the job than just keeping a safe campus. Chief Bannion must participate in local politics and university affairs.

The story begins in a chatty bouncy manner as the chief expresses her dislike for hosting a welcoming party for the university’s new dean of the law school, as the growing guest list threatens to overwhelm her. It’s obvious that socializing with politicians and smarmy co-workers who have disillusioned her is bringing out the worst of her temper.

Once the stage is set and the character relationships are established, the story settles down. Of course the party includes drinking and at least one guest has one or two drinks too many. What follows is a post-party-murder after the drunk blurts out a scathing revelation that upsets the entire party. The body is found on university property which makes it Bannion’s task to catch the killer.

To complicate matters, Bannion is the guardian of a fifteen-year-old boy named Brian who is developing a friendship with the daughter of one of the smarmy politicos. Bannion is an evolving character and Rodriguez places her in situations that demand maturity and caring beyond the level Bannion has for her job.

Author Rodriguez is a Latina writer who brings a significant depth of understanding of the ways women and especially women of color are treated. The book is the second in her series featuring Skeet Bannion.

Well recommended.

Liars Anonymous: A Novel by Louise Ure (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 275 pages)

Liars Anonymous

He made sure there was no grime from the blast, then leaned back against the cab of my truck. “That’s the funny thing about the justice system. It makes no distinction between not guilty and innocent. I do.”

Shamus Award winner Louise Ure crafts an unusual mystery tale that is more suspense thriller than mystery. Her narrator, Jessica Damage, is a woman with a troubled past. Jessica works at a call center in Phoenix, Arizona for a service called “Hands On” that might as well be GM’s OnStar. An incoming call from a 2007 Cadillac Seville connects to her line. Jessica can’t help calling back after the call terminates abruptly even though the rules of her job make it technically illegal to eavesdrop when the call is reconnected.

Trouble finds Jessica daily as she searches for the answers to the questions sparked by the sounds she heard on the covert call. As Tucson is her hometown and two years earlier she was acquitted of a murder charge, her sleuthing actions take place all over the greater Tucson area.

Ms. Ure proves herself a true native by accurately telling the reader where Jessica is going and what she sees around town. This reviewer is quite familiar with Tucson and the descriptions were good enough to create a cinematic effect during the read. The characters’ deep feelings and crisp dialogue make Liars Annonymous a good read.

Well recommended.

“Louise Ure is an exciting new voice in the mystery field.” Laura Lippman

Review copies were received from the publisher.

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Confusion Has Its Cost

The History of Us: A Novel by Leah Stewart (Touchstone, $24.99, 384 pages)

Sometimes home is the hardest place to go.

history_us

In 1993 Eloise Hempel, a newly-minted Harvard professor, gets the shock of a lifetime when her niece, Theo (short for Theodora), calls with news of a helicopter crash. The crash has killed Eloise’s sister Rachel and her husband who were on vacation. Left behind are three young children, Theo, Josh and Claire, who at the time were staying at their grandmother Francine’s house.

The house that forms the nucleus of the story is located in Cincinnati, Ohio on Clifton Avenue where it has sat since 1890. Actually, it’s really a mansion, a money pit of sorts. Francine inherited it and has lived there for some time; however, as with most responsibilities, she chooses to run from it after Rachel’s death and leaves Eloise to raise the three orphans. They are merely residents although the house has strong ties for them.

Eloise left behind her coveted professorship at Harvard and in its place she found a teaching position at a local college in Cincinnati. Her years have been taken up with raising the children and she has very little in the way of a life of her own. Time passes as Eloise’s two nieces and nephews grow to adulthood. Upon the 120th anniversary of the house, in 2010, Eloise hosts a celebration.

She needed distractions, and she also felt guilty because she’d been the one insisting on the party which no one else wanted to have, and like anyone used to being thought of as the good one, the capable one, the responsible one, she preferred feeling over-whelmed and overworked to feeling guilty.

The party sets the stage for what becomes the revelation of the doubts, compensation for loss and confusion that Eloise and her charges have come to know as they occupy the house. Francine, who refused to be called grandma, fled to Florida right after the helicopter crash and in 2010 is very reluctant to give ownership of the house to Eloise. Each of the characters is trapped in a situation of their own devise.

Theo feels entitled, Claire is a self-absorbed ballerina, Josh is a frustrated musician and Eloise is really confused about what she wants from life. This book is more than a coming of age tale; it provides the reader with an expanded understanding of what makes a family and how relationships change.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake.

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Read This Book for Free

The hardbound version of El Gavilan: A Novel by Craig McDonald will cost you $24.95.   But you can read this new Tyrus Books release for free if you have an e-reader device, such as a Nook or Kindle.   That’s right, until the end of the day on Saturday, April 7, 2012 you can download El Gavilan (The Hawk, in Spanish) as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition release and be billed the special price of -$0-.   And if you’re busy, you can download it now and read it at your leisure at some point in the future.  

This “ripped from the headlines” story is about a community in Ohio where tensions have been building and escalating between the long-time residents and newly-arrived immigrants.   Once one of the immigrants becomes the victim of a brutal crime, “a war of all against all” may have been unleashed.   As stated in the synopsis, “El Gavilan is a novel of shifting alliances…  Families are divided and careers and lives threatened.”

David M. Kinchen wrote in the Huntington News (West Virginia):  “It is difficult to find a good book that explores the tensions in the nation’s heartland fueled by both legal and illegal immigration, but I think Craig McDonald has acted it in El Gavilan, a novel that the author has said was inspired by true events.”

The novel is a 4.5 star-rated book at Amazon, and the starred review by Publishers Weekly noted that, “McDonald deftly…  dissects one of America’s most tormenting social problems.”   The author lives in Ohio with his wife, two daughters and a dog named Duff.

Joseph Arellano

Tyrus Books is a division of F+W Crime.   Reviewer David Kinchen, while noting that El Gavilan is “a nuanced thriller,” did issue a caution that the novel has “very graphic sex scenes and equally graphic violence.”  

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(A) Kiss from a Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 368 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and smartest one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s a beauty but not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story in flawless fashion – I kept looking in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone which is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in The Weird Sisters, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, naturally, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters in a play.

As the story unfolds, the three sisters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external (public) or internal (private) version of achievement.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no one wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was released in trade paperback form on February 7, 2012.   “Hilarious, thought-provoking and poignant.”   J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the novels Maine and Commencement.

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow (Gotham Reprint, $16.00, 352 pages)

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman,” “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never been fully resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls From Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   This review is dedicated to the memory of Jeffrey Lloyd Zaslow, who was killed in an auto accident on February 10, 2012.

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