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School Days

Where You Go (Nook Book)

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Process Mania by Frank Bruni (Grand Central Publishing, $25.00, 218 pages)

“For too many parents and their children, getting into a highly selective school isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or Dartmouth… or Northwestern is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point, an uncontestable harbinger of the successes or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling. What madness. And what nonsense.”

Frank Bruni has the good sense to argue that adult life may begin with one’s acceptance into a college, but it does not end there. Students are responsible for what they make out of their education, whether at an elite or less well known university. As he states, “Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.” He builds up his case by noting that several prominent and successful leaders in our society attended smaller, less “prestigious” colleges. Condoleeza Rice, for example, attended the University of Denver as an undergraduate. Steve Jobs, of course, dropped out of college, as did Bill Gates. Did Rice and Jobs and Gates turn out to be losers? Failures? Not exactly.

Bob Morse, who heads the college rankings program at U.S. News & World Report, did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati before getting his MBA from Michigan State. As Morse has concluded, “It’s not where you went to school. It’s how hard you work.”

Bruni emphasizes that some students will feel more comfortable at a small college offering a “more intimate academic environment,” even if schools like Kenyon, Denison, St. Lawrence or – a school I’m adding to his list – the University of the Pacific (UOP) are “less venerated than Princeton, Brown and Cornell.” For some, smaller colleges are “ideal environments: especially approachable, uniquely nurturing.” (UOP hangs banners reminding its students that it offers “Professors who know your name.”)

Pacific_Sign

In this calm, forthright book, Bruni tries to reduce the “madness” of the college admission process, noting that there are several inherent flaws and biases that applicants have little or no control over. For example, a particular college may need a couple of trombone players for the band. If you are the first or second trombone-playing applicant, you may get a large packet offering you admission and a scholarship. If you’re the third trombonist applicant, you’ll likely receive a thin envelope containing a rejection notice. If life, as John F. Kennedy stated, is not fair, than neither is the process of determining who gets into our colleges and universities.

Students who suffer the consequences of unfair admissions policies will learn that it will not be their last experience with life’s unfairness. What counts is their positive response to adversity and their perseverance in making the best of whatever circumstance they have to settle for.

Bruni’s book would be an excellent purchase for high school students who feel threatened by the highly competitive process of seeking admission to a so-called “elite” university. Reading his book may help such students to calm down, and feel encouraged to investigate various colleges, not just the “status” schools that their classmates may lust after. (Any school can offer a fine, valuable education to students ready to demand a lot from themselves and their environment.) This book is also a near indispensable guide for the parents of current high school students.

Where You Go… reminds the reader, young or old, high school student or adult parent, that “there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything (in life) hinges.” Some, in fact, will find that a valuable lesson can be learned via being rejected by one’s top choice universities. One young woman, a graduate of the famed and “charmed” Phillips Exeter Academy, was rejected by all five of the colleges she applied to. She states that, “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.” That young woman started up a new federally-supported public elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. A loser? Hardly.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as editor on this piece.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-where-you-go-is-not-wholl-youll-be-an-antidote-to-the-college-admissions-mania-by-frank-bruni/

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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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Up Around the Bend

The Authors: Four Women and One Man

A Woman of Interest by Cindy Zimmerman (WIS Global, $24.95, 230 pages)

Sometimes a memoir can be so personal that the reader senses the author’s self-absorption on every page. A book that is not much more than a monologue begs the question, who is the intended reader?

Ken Rotcop, a Hollywood screenwriter pitchman, opens the book with his advice to Cindy Zimmerman to write her own story rather than use him as a biographer. Cindy’s ex-husband was murdered on the day their contentious divorce was finalized. She was, of course, considered a person of interest in the Phoenix, Arizona police investigation of Paul Zimmerman’s murder. Ken’s advice to Cindy is to write her side of the story in longhand, 20 pages at a time and send them along to him for compilation.

While there is a sensational aspect to Cindy’s story, she is not alone. A messy divorce from a controlling, competitive man who doesn’t like to work for others plays out pretty much the way hers does. Countless others will relate to her, but why re-live pain and suffering? There’s no payoff.

Fear in the Sunlight: A New Mystery Featuring Josephine Tey and Alfred Hitchcock (Bourbon Street Books, $14.99, 412 pages)

Clearly, Nicola Upson has strong ties to the theater and the mystery genre. Ms. Upson is a regular contributor to BBC radio, has reviewed crime novels and has years of theater experience as well. Her writing style combines traditional theater and motion picture cinematic techniques to draw the reader into a period with ties to the present day.

Fear in the Sunlight is one of Ms. Upson’s mystery series featuring real-life 1930s writer Josephine Tey. The story centers on a seemingly-idyllic weekend in Portmeirion, Wales. The location is a real place; however, the resort is the re-creation of a Mediterranean seaside resort created by a famous architect. Ms. Upson uses Alfred Hitchcock’s proclivity for playing tricks on his minions as the catalyst for several gruesome murders that take place during his resort party weekend.

Desire is the undercurrent – Josephine’s for Marta, a woman already in a relationship with a model/actress; a villager’s ex-husband for his ex-wife; Archie’s, a police chief inspector, for Josephine. Each of these characters has made choices based on their inability to step up and declare true feelings. Mr. Hitchcock’s desire for control and the admiration of his wife adds to the messiness. And to further muddy the plot, a seemingly-pivotal character, artist Bridget, connects Archie to his past.

Sadly, the layout of the book is confusing with gestures and observations inserted within paragraphs of dialogue. This has the unsettling effect of forcing the reader to reread to determine just who is doing the talking. There’s too much effort required for this reviewer to relax and enjoy the mystery.

A Medal for Murder: A Kate Shackleton Mystery by Frances Brody (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 424 pages)

The setting of A Medal for Murder is England in the 1920s, an idyllic time for crime solving. The right mix of mobility (motor cars) and technology (telephone and telegraph) keeps the story moving along at a pleasant place. Our detective, Kate Shackleton, is a well-bred lady who is a sleuth, complete with an ex-policeman assistant named Jim Sykes.

Women in the 1920s were beginning to emerge from their past roles as homebodies. To be sure some women had already moved in that direction, actresses in particular. Author Brody makes good use of the contrasts between ladies, gentlemen and other types. Mrs. Shackleton, who narrates this tale, drives her motor car while Sykes holds on for dear life.

A pawnshop burglary leads to a sleuthing job for Mrs. Shackleton. She meets a wide variety of people whose pawned items were stolen as she tracks them down for the pawnshop owner. The story line is enhanced by quips, fashion and social commentary and generally charming banter among the characters. Mystery fans not familiar with Ms. Brody’s mystery series are encouraged to catch up post haste!

Highly recommended.

A Medal for Murder (nook book)

Miss Dimple Suspects, A Mystery by Mignon F. Ballard (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 260 pages)

The World War II era and the sacrifices made by Americans form the backdrop of this tale. Miss Dimple, a small town school teacher of indeterminate age, appears in this, the third book in a series by prolific mystery writer Mignon Ballard. Author Ballard keeps it real by setting her story in rural Georgia where she grew up during the war. The local colloquialisms (like nattering) and culinary oddities (like piccalilli) remind the reader that we’re not in the big city.

Miss Dimple is a liberal character in an otherwise deeply-engrained closed community of southerners. The impact of the war is felt in the limitations of gasoline and sugar rationing when a young student of Miss Dimple’s goes missing. Xenophobia is woven throughout the story as are offensive attitudes held by the townspeople.

The story is quite engaging and holds the reader’s attention. What are confusing are the odd naming conventions used by author Ballard. (Miss Dimple is variously referred to as Dimple K, Miss Dimple and Dimple.)

Fans of small town drama and mystery will enjoy this cautionary tale.

Recommended.

Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach: A Jimm Juree Mystery by Colin Cotterill (Minotaur Books, $15.99, 324 pages)

A failing resort named Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant in Maprao, Thailand might as well be the main character in this highly-unusual mystery. The plot is based on a BBC article regarding the treatment of Burmese immigrants in Thailand. The narrator, Jimm Juree, is an investigative journalist whose loyalty to family and the loss of her newspaper job brings her to the resort owned by her mother.

Family, nationalism, corruption and man’s inhumanity to man propel Jimm into countless situations that a wiser woman in her mid-thirties would avoid at all cost. The story unfolds slowly and once the general theme is established, the reader is tossed to and fro like the flotsam on the beach where the resort perches precariously at the whim of violent storms.

Author Cotterill dances up to ugly visions like beheaded Burmese workers, oceanic erosion and police corruption while holding the reader hostage. For contrast and comic relief, he pulls back with outrageous quips and ridiculously funny double entendres. The scene shifts are well-executed and provide the reader with a sense of drama. Jimm Juree is both smart and reckless as she orchestrates the rescue of helpless Burmese workers.

The behind-the-scenes look at Thailand and its political climate was shocking to this reviewer. My experiences in Bangkok, Thailand were nothing like the ones brought out of the shadow in this mystery.

Recommended.

Grandad, there's a head

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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