Tag Archives: proper character development

Three for the Read

fallout

Fallout: A V.I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky (William Morrow, $27.99, 448 pages)

The latest V.I. Warshawski mystery (the 21st in the series) moves away from V.I.’s usual stomping grounds in and around Chicago to Lawrence, Kansas in the heart of the Midwest.   As the tale begins, V.I. has been hired to find two missing persons, a former movie star and a trainer at the local gym who also happens to be a videographer.   Emerald Ferring and August Veriden disappeared the week prior without leaving an itinerary or contact information.   August’s cousin, Angela Creedy, and V.I.’s young friend, Bernardine Fouchard, are adamant that something awful has happened.

Author Paretsky explores the racial and regional biases within the area surrounding Lawrence.   She takes a 360-degree view that includes the clergy, the military, university cell biologists, and private industry.   There are flashbacks to the mid 1980s when protest by local militants included encampments at a Minuteman missile silo.   Paretsky lets fly with her views on the cruel actions taken to cover up the serious harm inflicted on innocent civilians.   V.I. and Paretsky are on the case!

Well recommended.

Fallout will be released on April 18, 2017.

no-place-to-die

No Place to Die: A Novel by Clare Donoghue (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 372 pages)

Clare Donoghue has developed a relatively new mystery series featuring London police officers Jane Bennett and Mike Lockyer.   No Place to Die is the second installment in this classic British police procedural set in present day London.   Bennett is the featured character in this tale.   The way she is portrayed brings to mind Maeve Kerrigan in Jane Casey’s crime novels.   The diabolical nature of the crimes to be solved by Bennett is reminiscent of Peter James’ Roy Grace series.   There are the typical British words and phrases liberally used throughout the text – bottom of the garden, fringe (hair bangs), etc.

No Place to Die includes victims buried alive that need rescuing in very short order.   Each chapter examines the action from various characters’ viewpoints.   Jane Bennett is dealing with her absentee boss, Mike Lockyer, who was traumatized by their prior case.   Jane’s son, Peter, is autistic.   Jane must rely on the assistance of her somewhat helpful mother who steps in to care for Peter when casework calls Jane away after school hours.   Life is not easy!

Well recommended.

poisonous

Poisonous: A Novel by Allison Brennan (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 354 pages)

Back in the USA on the west coast we meet Maxine Revere, an investigative reporter who is contacted by an 18-year-old developmentally disabled boy named Tommy.   His half-sister died as the result of a fall from a cliff in Corte Madera, California more than a year ago.   Ms. Revere, or Max as she is known, becomes entangled in the issues of a very dysfunctional family.   There are the usual matters of jealousy and bickering that happen among teens.   When you add divorce and remarriage by the dad to a woman who has her own teenager, there’s bound to be trouble.

Allison Brennan has had over 20 novels published since 2005.   Poisonous is her latest.   Clearly, Ms. Brennan is very good at character development as well as weaving plot threads.   The book is engaging if not a bit challenging.   Perhaps the array of relationships that sometimes confused this reviewer could have been simplified with a chart of the characters.   That aside, I’m unable to resist enumerating the parallels between Ms. Brennan and myself.   They are threefold: we both reside in the same community; each of us has worked in government; and we share an astrological sign.

poisonous-back-cover

I look forward to reading more of her books.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone

The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 352 pages)

“I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”   Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Paula McLain presents a convincing rendition of the unique but enduring relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, the conscientious and serene Hadley Richardson, in her first novel The Paris Wife.

After a brief and long distance relationship, the confident young twenty-year-old Ernest proposes to Hadley, a conservative spinster in her late twenties.   On the quest for the ideal inspirational setting in which to write, McLain’s story takes us to the art scene in Paris in the 1920s as the aspiring artists – on the brink of greatness – share their hopes and dreams in local cafes.   McLain’s story is so detailed and believable that you can enjoy teaming up with individuals as they meet their fellow artists and enjoy team with individuals such as Gertrude Stein.   Her character Hadley happens to recall a conversation that she and Ernest had while sharing drinks with F. Scott Fitzgerald as he announced his hopes for the success of his then-recently written novel The Great Gatsby.

The reader will understand why Ernest was so inspired during the couple’s trips to Europe, especially while watching the bullfights in Pamplona.   The reader will also sympathize with Hadley, the ever-loyal wife who strives to maintain the attention of her husband, standing by his side through circumstances that even the strongest of us would run from.   The depth of the conversations and the personalities of the characters come alive in McLain’s dialogues and Hadley’s interpretations of the relationships that develop during this phase of Ernest’s life (including his union with his second wife).

McLain does a remarkable job of defining all her characters and in describing the landscapes and cultures of the couple’s travels.   You will become so entranced with her story you will no doubt forget that you’re not actually reading Hadley’s autobiography.

The story left me with a desire to rediscover Hemmingway by rereading A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.   I know that I look forward to my next trip to Paris where, while sitting at some of the same cafes once visited by the Hemmingways, I will try to imagine what it was like for this young couple in the local art scene during the Roaring Twenties.   I will also contemplate what Ernest Hemmingway’s life may have been like if he had remained with his first love, Hadley.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Paris Wife was released in a trade paperback version on November 27, 2012.

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Our Book Ratings System

As you may notice in visiting this site, we do not rank or score books with letter grades or numbers or stars – either white or gold ones.   We simply recommend books, of whatever genre, or do not recommend them.   The most precious resource we have in life is time, and so we attempt to make a determination here as to whether a particular book is worth your time.

If you don’t see a recommendation at the end of the review, the book in question is not recommended.   When we do recommend a book it will fall into one of three categories, as follows.

Recommended – This is a book, fiction or non-fiction, which may contain up to four or five writing flaws which were not corrected in the editing process.   However, it is clear on the whole (and by a margin that clearly exceeds 51%) that this is a book that will justify the time you devote to it.

Well Recommended – A book in this category may contain two or three flaws or editing omissions, but it’s exemplary and likely to rank in the top quartile (top 25%) of books on the market.

Highly Recommended – Books like these are likely in the top 10% of those released in the current and prior calendar year.   They may contain one or two errors but are nevertheless close to perfection in both content and presentation.

Some books will fall into the Recommended or Well Recommended category because they are well written, but Highly Recommended books tend to require a junction of great writing with a great theme and near-flawless execution.   Finally, we are considering adding a new category, Essential.   Essential books are novels or non-fiction books released in prior years that should be a part of any well-rounded reader’s experience.   Two examples that immediately come to mind are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Independence Day by Richard Ford.   The latter was the winner of both The Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.   (“It is difficult to imagine a better American novel appearing this year.”   Publishers Weekly, 1995)

Independence Day was reviewed on this site on October 30, 2009 (“American Tune”).

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After the Goldrush

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon; $14.99; 339 pages)

“I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie…”   Neil Young

“I could always heal the birds,” he admits…  Echo takes his hand, “Joseph says that birds are the only creatures that have blind faith.   This is why they are able to fly.”

Ilie Ruby has crafted a magically moving novel composed of disparate elements: a tragic childhood death, a kidnapped woman, American Indian (Seneca) ghosts and spirits, wolves that interact with humans, unrequited love, and a parent’s illness.   The book is also replete with dysfunctional families who, sadly, may represent normality in American life.   Dysfunctional families are fueled by shame and secrets, and the secrets are kept until they must be divulged in order to save lives.

Two of the key characters in The Language of Trees are Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell.   Grant is a half-blooded Seneca with the power to cure sick and wounded birds and animals.   He is also a person who cannot cure himself.   Then there’s Echo, who feels that she is lost in her life in spite of the fact that she’s true to herself.   Echo is the one person in the story who is free, except that she’s not aware of it.   And, except for Echo, the book is populated with characters that are haunted by the past – literally and figuratively – as they search for peace and redemption.

“Happiness is just as hard to get used to as anything else.”

The Language of Trees is written in a cinematic style.   It begins slowly and it takes the reader some time to absorb all of the many characters and to understand the personal issues affecting them all.   There’s also more than a touch of mysticism and magic to the story.   There are unique and spiritual events that will seem almost commonplace to those with even a touch of Native American blood.   (The author demonstrates a great deal of respect for Indian folklore and beliefs.)

What is initially calm builds to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion.   Coming to the final pages, I was reminded of the style of Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides, which found this reader both excited and sad that the journey was about to end.   As with Conroy’s novels, Ruby leaves us with a life’s lesson, which is that one must let go of the demons of the past in order to “not (be) afraid of the future anymore.”   Once the nightmares of the past have been left behind, we are free to soar like birds.

At its conclusion, this novel has the power to transport the reader to a better place.

“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.”   (N. Young)

The Language of Trees is nothing less than masterful and transformational.   Let’s hope that we will not have to wait too long for Ms. Ruby’s next novel.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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There I’ve Said It Again

How to Buy a Love of Reading: A Novel by Tanya Egan Gibson (Plume; $15.00; 400 pages)

Two highbrow writers and several low brow nouveau riche folks who reside in a community ruled by excess and one-upmanship are skewered with wicked satire in this irresistible debut novel by Tanya Egan Gibson.   Rest assured, Ms. Gibson takes the time, and she has the talent, to fully develop her characters.   Everyone from the protagonist, Carley Wells, to the object of her affection, Hunter Cay, takes their turn in the spotlight.

This is far from the usual ugly duckling or misfit gone berserk story.   Rather, the reader is permitted to delve into the complexities of what appears to be a very “simple” girl.   Carley is the vulnerable 16-year-old daughter of a brassiere mogul.   She does not fit in size-wise or intellectually with her prep school classmates.   Moreover, Carly has not encountered a book that she likes.   This is problematic as she is expected to earn a passing grade in prep school literature and go on to college.   To make matters worse, her harridan of a mother, Gretchen, lacks even a smidgen of empathy or love for anyone but herself.

Hunter Cay is a brilliant writer and obscenely beautiful fellow who is one year Carley’s senior.   He and Carley formed an unusual friendship when he and his mother became part of the wealthy community following his mother’s divorce from his billionaire father.   Carley loves him unconditionally and proves it by her willingness to accept whatever attention and caring he gives her.   She dotes on him and is also a first-class enabler of his vices.

There are parties galore to celebrate birthdays, literature and Hunter’s mother’s engagement.   The descriptions of the elaborate decorations, clothing and food for these events are spot on for a wealthy enclave, which makes this reviewer think that Ms. Gibson may have attended a few such parties in her own lifetime.   Carley’s birthday party has the craziness reminiscent of the masquerade ball in the classic film “The Pink Panther.”

All of this foolishness aside, there is much more to this book than a satirical plot.   The theme explores the idea of growing up into who you need to be to allow yourself to lead a meaningful life.   There are casualties along the way – the notion of the value of extreme wealth being one of them.   Even with billions, some of the characters are hard pressed to escape their personal fears and demons.   By the end of the tale, the reader will have a deeper understanding of human frailties and an expanded sense of compassion.

Highly recommended.   The trade paper version was recently released.

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

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Bird in Hand

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks, $13.99, 320 pages)

Yeah we were desperate then/ To have each other to hold/ But love is a long, long road.   Tom Petty

bird-in-hand

Full and proper character development appears to be becoming a lost art in fiction, but author Christina Baker Kline does her bit to revive the art in the intriguing novel Bird in Hand.   This is a fine story, extremely well told, of four people, partners in two marriages and very good friends.   We get to know all four characters and hear their stories – from their own perspectives – in this well-constructed tale.

The narrative begins with Alison whose life seems to be virtually perfect until two things happen.   First, she becomes involved in a deadly accident while under the influence and the ramifications of this threaten to tear her world apart.   Second is something that she’s completely unaware of, which is that her husband is having an affair with someone she considered a friend.   Thus, her world changes overnight:  “For Alison, now, the world was a different place, and yet it was strangely the same.   She was present and not present in her own life.”

Kline writes with the same cool, suburban angst filled tone as Richard Ford (Independence Day, The Sportswriter).   There’s a question that is asked in Ford’s writing and in a Talking Heads song:  How did I get here?   “She walked around the silent house and looked at the framed photographs that lined the mantelpiece and cluttered the bookshelves, wondering, Is this really my life?   This collage of frozen moments, frozen in time.”

In Bird in Hand, we also meet Charlie, Alison’s steady if unfaithful husband; Claire, the newly published author and friend of Alison’s; and Ben, Charlie’s successful if somewhat dull and introverted husband.   It’s rare to find a work in which all four characters are so well fleshed out and, yes, real.   Here’s an example in how Alison describes Charlie:  “…as they started talking she realized that there was…  something in his character that she couldn’t  put down.   He wasn’t cocky, and his humor was gentle.   He had a mild confidence, a lack of self-consciousness, an ironic take on the world that wasn’t caustic or bitter.   Despite his social ease, he had a solitary air.”

At one point, Charlie describes Claire in words that could apply to the author’s style in writing this novel.   “She could be formal one moment and irreverent, even crude, the next.”

“Real life, she knew, was just beginning.”

One of the ironies of reading Bird in Hand is that its fictional account of the disintegration of a marriage feels far more true to life than two contemporary nonfiction accounts:  How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed by Theo Pauline Nestor and Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies.   I much preferred Nestor’s account but neither narrator seemed as true to me as the character Alison in Kline’s work.

It may be because Kline gives us not just a story, but the motivations that spur on the individuals.   With Alison, it’s disillusionment.   “Nothing about her life at the moment was what she’d envisioned for herself when she got married.”   Alison’s husband Charlie is moved by the feeling that he’s made the wrong choices for himself.   “He was doing this because he could not keep skimming along the surface of his life without one day crashing into something hard and unpleasant…  he was convinced he would get only one chance to feel this kind of passion, to express it, to live.”

And then Kline reveals that motivation, intent, means little or nothing because all humans act with incomplete – flawed – knowledge (quoting Alice McDermott):  “As if…  what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.”   So, ultimately, this is an impressive work about real, flawed, individuals doing the best they can at a certain point in their existence, making mistakes but ultimately moving forward.   “It was real life, the way things should be, and even as it was happening it felt to Alison like a distant memory, the moment already slipping into the past.”

bird-in-hand-back-cover

A great deal of praise should be bestowed on author Kline for creating characters that adult readers can relate to.   At one point in Bird in Hand, Kline writes of Alison’s experiences as a young woman, “It was a strange and magical feeling.”   Kline has delivered a strange, unique, magical and borderline brilliant story.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review (hardbound) copy was provided by William Morrow.  

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Moonlight Mile

Moonlight Falls by Vincent Zandri (R. J. Buckley Publishing, $19.00)

Our hero-protagonist, Richard Moonlight, has a bullet fragment lodged in his brain.   This is no ordinary bullet fragment either, it found its way there via a gunshot delivered by Moonlight!   As the story unfolds, there is a sense of urgency that builds.   The quirky premise is somewhat similar to the movie from 2000 named “Momento.”   There has been a crime and it must be solved.   The police chief’s wife, Scarlet, has been murdered, or did she commit suicide?   To make matters worse our hero may have been one of her last visitors.

Moonlight is a human time bomb who has had more than one serious failing of common sense.   Clearly, his filter for right and wrong was damaged by the bullet fragment.   Considering he placed the fragment in its present location during a botched suicide attempt serves to validate the notion that he’s not all there.

The relationships in the story are tightly intermingled.   The charm and peril of living in a small town are well portrayed as Moonlight relies on family and friends to solve the mystery.   The names of the characters serve as double entendres; the adulteress is “Scarlet,” the former cop partner who steals Moonlight’s wife is “Cain” and the painfully simple young cop is “Joy.”   Added to this group are two government agents whose interrogation forms the premise for Moonlight’s recounting of his escapades.   Several more deaths pile up along the way.   All of them tie neatly back to our hero.   It’s up to him to use his faulty brain to clear himself of the charges.

What’s not obvious is when the testimony ends and Moonlight’s thoughts about his situation are being shared with the reader.   Author Zandri has spun a super shaggy dog story that begins a bit haltingly and shifts gears into a powerful pace that holds the reader’s interest.   This book is filled with plenty of action and excellent character development.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by Baker Public Relations.

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