Tag Archives: Ohio

My Special Angel

One Summer: A Novel by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99, 352 pages; Hachette Audio Unabridged version on 7 CDs, $24.99)

Take a break from your own life and get to know the Armstrong family of Ohio.   They are the central figures in David Baldacci’s poignant novel, One Summer.   This reviewer was captivated by the depth of character development, both male and female, that Baldacci brought to his tale of loss and redemption.   The added bonus was listening to the audio version narrated by two highly-skilled readers, Don McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy.   Together they provide a wide range of voices for the characters.   This blend brought the story to life in a way that would be hard to match with a print version of the book.

The story opens as Jack Armstrong, all around good guy and former military man, awaits his slow death from a rare and always-fatal disease while Christmas approaches.   Jack’s lovely wife Lizzie and three children are struggling to cope with the inevitable loss they face.   Each has their own way of doing so and 15-year-old daughter Michelle (Mickie) has alienated herself from everyone by rebelling against the entire matter with anger.   Deep down inside Lizzie knows she will have to go on without Jack very soon; however, she fantasizes about the entire family revisiting her childhood home in South Carolina during the following summer.  

Baldacci takes this premise and injects his own deeply felt take on loss by setting up a twist whereby Lizzie dies in a car crash and Jack miraculously survives.   Rather than playing on the sympathy of the characters he has created, Baldacci brings out the good and the weaknesses of everyone involved.   This is a tale that demands spirited action and dashing drama.   Baldacci delivers all this and more.   It is perfectly fine with this reviewer that the gritty reality of life coexists with a fairytale quality series of plot twists.  

There’s no mystery here, love conquers all.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

An audiobook review copy was provided by the publisher.   “In One Summer, (Baldacci) writes as beautifully and insightfully about the pathways of the human heart as he does about the corridors of power.   …(a) hugely emotional and unforgettable novel.”   Lisa Scottoline, author of Save Me.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Telstar

Trader of Secrets: A Paul Madriani Novel by Steve Martini (William Morrow, $26.99, 392 pages)

Be prepared for globe-trotting action as Steve Martini launches his most recent Paul Madriani thriller at a full throttle.   This pace is maintained as the action shifts among key players and the locales where they are hiding, cooking up mayhem or stalking human prey.

Martini’s fans will be pleased that the story picks up the thread of danger and fear that Madriani’s nemesis, Liquida Muerte, has brought to previous novels.   The nucleus of characters includes his attorney partner Harry Hinds, lady friend Joselyn Cole and, of course, Madriani’s beloved daughter, Sarah.   Further out from the inner circle are Thorpe at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and his cohort of spies and snitches.   The premise, locating and stopping terrorists bent on producing the means for destroying key targets in the U.S., creates tension and no end of drama.   The subplot is pure Martini – fierce papa Madriani needs to assure the safety of Sarah and will do most anything to secure it.

”I knew it.   I knew it.   This thing smelled the minute I got that call from the White House.”   Thorpe got out of his chair, waiving the cigarette around like a torch.   “So now they dump it on us to find these guys, and if we fail, it’s our ass in the flames.   And if that’s not enough, they want to play hide the ball.   They can’t tell us what it’s about.   Son of a bitch,” said Thorpe.   “Damn it!”

The focus on wicked scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California seems a bit like the reverse play on the TV show NUMB3RS where brilliant scientists solved ugly crime with math and physics.   The doubts about who’s the good guy and who’s the self-centered monster make the plot twists and turns all the more enjoyable.   Martini knows how to play out the suspense and snap to a conclusion, segue to more action and never miss a beat.

While some thriller series may lose their vitality, thankfully, the Madriani franchise is clearly not one of them.   This reviewer is looking forward to the next installment from Steve Martini’s vivid imagination.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Martini is a crafty pro.”   The Washington Post

“Martini has created one of the most charismatic defense attorneys in popular fiction.”   Linda Fairstein

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

America

The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday, $27.95, 352 pages)

Imagine that you are in charge of making decisions for a major publisher.   A writer presents you with a new novel based on the following story:  A very young (49-year-old) President of the United States is elected and quickly stalked by a madman.   The president serves only 6 months before he is shot by this crazy person.   As the shooting takes place, one of the men standing alongside the president has been present at three presidential assassinations (although he is in no way connected to the assassins).   The physician in charge of saving the president cannot locate the bullet in the president’s body, and turns to a world-famous inventor for his assistance in creating a new machine that will find it.   Despite their best efforts, the president does not survive and the vice-president – a political hack who is against everything the former president stood for – assumes office.   This new leader throws aside his former supporters, and proceeds to fully implement the dead president’s political agenda.

No doubt you would reject this fictional tale as being beyond the bounds of believability.   And you might be right, except for the fact that this all, in fact, occurred in 1880.   As documented in The Destiny of the Republic, one truly fascinating account of the events surrounding the assassination of President James A. Garfield, and the assumption of the high office by Chester A. Arthur, these events happened.   The genius inventor who attempted to save the life of the president (in the days before x-rays) was Alexander Graham Bell.   The witness to Garfield’s assassination was Robert Todd Lincoln, “…the only man to be present at three of our nation’s four presidential assassinations.”   And President Arthur, a product of the New York State spoils (political patronage) sytem, was to be the man who enacted civil service reform.   Arthur came to be known as the Father of Civil Service, a title that would likely have been Garfield’s, had he survived being shot.  

“Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning, and it is best  not to worry about either.”   James A. Garfield

This is a detailed and moving version of the events surrounding the life and death of James Garfield of Ohio, a man who was very much in love with his wife; a woman who nearly preceded him in death.   Garfield was to die, not from the bullet that lay harmlessly encased in body fat within his frame, but from medical malpractice and incompetence.   In modern times Garfield, like President Reagan, would have survived his  injuries and returned to the White House.

Garfield turned to the doctors closest to him, and asked what chance he had of surviving.   “One chance in a hundred,” the doctor gravely replied.   “We will take that chance, doctor,” Garfield said, “and make good use of it.”

The reader will come to see that Garfield was a very courageous man who suffered at the hands of a medical team that hastened his death.   Alexander Graham Bell and Chester Arthur also come to life as fascinating characters; Bell as an imperfect but well-meaning genius, and Arthur as a man who reluctantly but boldly grew into the role that destiny selected for him.   (Arthur was not born to greatness, but grew into it when the nation desperately needed a leader to fill Garfield’s very large shoes.)

This true story is very cinematic in nature and might well make for an excellent film filled with multiple larger-than-life characters.   Thanks to Candice Millard, it is a story that will not longer be a blip in the history of the United States.   If you know of a young person who is interested in reading about the history of our country, consider presenting this book to him or her as a very valuable present.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Destiny of the Republic will be released on September 20, 2011.   “What an exceptional man and what an exciting era Millard has brought to elegant life on the page!   After reading The Destiny of the Republic, you’ll never think of James A. Garfield as a ‘minor’ president again.”   Hampton Sides, author of Hellbound on His Trail

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Coming Up Next…

A preview-review of The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Streets of Bakersfield

Hot, Shot, and Bothered: A Lilly Hawkins Mystery by Nora McFarland (Touchstone, $14.99, 304 pages)

Get ready for a new type of spunky girl mystery!   This second appearance of Lilly Hawkins, a TV news shooter for the local Bakersfield, California TV station, proves to be a summer stunner.   Lilly is a very honest person, sort of.   That’s to say she’s honest with herself about who she is now and who she was in the past.   She’s not so honest about her intentions when it comes to her boss at the station or the local police and sheriff.   A drowning death that she’s sent to video tape seems fishy to Lilly.   It is one of the two concurrent mysteries that sustain the reader’s interest.   Layered over the drowning is a breathtaking wildfire that may just consume the evidence at the location of the drowning.   Who set the fire and why was Jessica Egan murdered?

McFarland sets the scene with plenty of realistic action.   She has been behind the camera in Lilly’s shoes as a shooter for the news media.   To McFarland’s credit, the details are helpful and she has resisted the urge to bury the reader in techno speak.   One element that was lacking would have proven helpful for this reviewer.   A simple graphic/map showing the general vicinity where the action takes place could have provided a sense of the movement in the story.   Author Lisa Black’s thriller Trail of Blood that is set in Cleveland, Ohio contains one and it was an integral part of enjoying the book.

The characters in Hot, Shot, and Bothered are brought into the tale in a general locale, not exactly in Bakersfield, California, but nearby.   As they are matched up with each other, for example the grocer and the lady mayor, the stakes are raised.   McFarland is very adept at revealing her characters’ motivations at her own pace.   She makes Lilly work under super pressure to cover the growing fire and satisfy her nagging doubts about the drowning.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Hot, Shot, and Bothered was released on August 2, 2011.   “Funny, smart and honest.   Packed full of adrenaline and attitude.   Don’t miss it!”   Lisa Scottoline

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Midnight Rambler

Trail of Blood by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 400 pages)

Who knew that Cleveland, Ohio could be so interesting?   Lisa Black, a member of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, proves that there’s more to Cleveland than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   Her third Theresa MacLean book is not only set in this Midwestern city, it features some really gory murders that are based in fact.   Black’s main character is a forensic scientist who happens to belong to a family with a history of crime fighting all the way back to her grandfather.

When present day murders bear a striking similarity to Cleveland’s most horrific killing spree during the 1930s and 40s, the city police and coroner’s offices are summoned to cut short the present day nightmare.   Theresa and her cop cousin Frank are at the center of the action.   Yes, Theresa takes more than her share of risks; however, she also uses her instincts to get out of peril.   There are plenty of false leads and hints to keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the book.

There are several other mystery/thriller series written by expert authors that feature main characters with similar talents.   The most notable of these is the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.   Black unfolds Trail of Blood as a more personal story with less ostentatious criminology and more good-old-fashioned shoe leather detecting than does Cornwell.   In addition, the story is actually told in two time frames, current day and 75 years ago.  

Black is excellent at keeping it real.   The mix of accurate historic details, a map up front in the beginning of the book and a detailed timeline of the original murders set this book apart from the rest of the pack.

Well recommended to fans of thriller novels that actually have more than gore to offer.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Out of My Mind

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok (Free Press; $25.00; 305 pages)

When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine:  “I am thinking of going to nursing school…  That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.”   I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.

In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience.   This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity.   Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior.   Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.

When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home.   Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name.   But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.

As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate.   We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental issues.   They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”

Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed.   One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness.   One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere.   And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.

In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to her mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”).   As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems.   This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.

“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother.   Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”

By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance.   It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself.   It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.

This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs.   It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it.   This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.

Highly recommended.

“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Memory Palace was released on January 11, 2011.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Talk Talk

A Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (Algonquin)

1.   What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile?

My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it.   His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact.   As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing.   In my case, the feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.

2.   You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life.   What were they?

A few years ago I discoverd an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandmother’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve.   A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith.   Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing.   But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives.   When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.   That packet was what really got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.

3.   Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time.   How much research did you do into that time period to write this book?

A lot – much of it haphazard.   To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research.   The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother.   But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I.   And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B. H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century.   And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the first World War.

I paged through photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newpapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.

4.   In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades.   What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?

I didn’t give him his life back – he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had.   What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a  person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own loses and chances, her own fierce desires.

5.   How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like?   How did you weave those two pieces together?

I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on.   For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them – though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.  

Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family.   So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book.   I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.

To be continued…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized