Tag Archives: Reagan Arthur

Positively 14th Street

What It Was: A Derek Strange Novel by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, $9.99, 272 pages)

I live a block off 14th Street, the setting for much of George Pelecano’s gritty crime novel, What It Was.   Set in 1972, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes books set in the Washington “beyond the monuments.”   Watergate is briefly touched on, but this book contains no Senators, no wacky Masonic conspiracy theories and hardly any politics at all.

What It Was concerns the lives of real people, mostly cops and criminals, in a city scarred by riots.   The popular conception of 14th Street is that it was a wasteland, from the disturbances of 1968 to the start of gentrification in the 1980s.   But life went on.   Pimps, drug dealers and hustlers of all kinds moved in.   And for a lot of them, and the cops that pursued them, it was a hell of a time, even a good one.

Red Fury wants to make a name for himself and is going on a crime spree across the city.   He wants to be remembered.   Hunting him is Frank Vaughn, a dinosaur in the evolving era, someone not afraid to bend the rules to get the job done.   Also mixed up in the case is his friend Derek Strange, a cop who has left the force to become a private eye.

Pelecanos has a great eye for the details of the time, from the tricked-out cars to the soul music of the 1970s.   He also resurrects a lot of old DC haunts, legendary bars and restaurants that are long gone in this gentrified city.   His knowledge of the city is encylopedic.   For example, Red hides out in Burrville, a neighborhood I didn’t even know existed.

I wrote my own crime novel about the city, Murder in Ocean Hall.   It’s set in many of the 14th Street neighborhoods of What It Was but during a time of rapid change.

What It Was is a fast, involving read.   Pelecano’s style is muscular, alternating perspectives as it advances towards an inevitably violent conclusion.   Interestingly, the novel is available on the Kindle for only 99 cents.   It’s a limited-time offer designed to generate new readers for this crime novelist.   Forward-thinking publishers are experimenting with new strategies and promotions to adapt to the world of e-readers.

What It Was is also the first book I’ve read on my iPad.   Using the Kindle app, set to sepia, it was a comfortable reading experience – though not as easy on the eyes as using an e-ink reader like the Kindle.   But the 99 cent strategy worked for me.   After dipping into the gritty crime world of What It Was, I’m primed to read the rest of Pelecano’s work.   Well recommended.

Joe Flood

 Joe Flood is the author of two novels, Don’t Mess Up My Block and Murder in Ocean Hall.   He is also a photographer and web content manager.   You can see more of  his writing – and his photographs – at: http://joeflood.com/ .

What It Was is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download for $4.99.

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With a Little Help From My Friends

The Island: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Unabridged Hachette audio book on 13 CDs; $34.98)

When the going gets tough for Chess Cousins, she and three other East Coast ladies retreat to Tuckernuck Island off the coast of Nantucket.   These ladies are not just anyone; they are Chess’s mother Birdie Cousins, aunt Ida Bishop and sister Tate Cousins.   Tough doesn’t begin to describe Chess’s situation as her recently dumped fiance has died in a rock climbing incident and she has walked out on her editorial job at a prestigious culinary magazine.   To make matters worse, Chess decides to cut her shining golden hair and shave her head.

Birdie masterminds their trip to the family vacation home on Tuckernuck.   The house lacks hot water, electricity, and television and cell phone reception.   After a 13-year family hiatus from vacationing on the property, the ladies come together for the month of July.   The plan is to allow Chess the solitude and support she needs to get beyond her depression.

Author Hilderbrand present a masterfully simple story that expands as the days on the island are counted off, one by one.   The cadence of the story, narrated by Denice Hicks, is one of calm repetition that includes descriptions of the locale, conversations, meal preparation and the introspective thoughts of the ladies.   The activities they perform daily become part of the story line.   There are bursts of emotion that erupt from the interactions of the characters.   The narrator balances the dulcet tones of Birdie with the harsh outbursts from Tate and Chess.   India’s throaty voice is a sharp contrast to those of her sister and nieces.   This is only right as she is a worldly woman who is herself the widow.

The key male character is Barrett Lee, a golden hunk of a man in his thirties, who is the caretaker of the house.   He brings the food, wine, ice and clean laundry daily from Nantucket.   Although Nantucket is only a half-mile away by boat, it might as well be on another continent.   Both Barrett and his father Chuck before him have captured the hearts and imaginations of the respective generations of sisters.

The sense of isolation felt by Birdie, India and Tate serves to prompt them to deal with their own issues even though they are supposed to be assisting Chess.   There is a sense of dancing around each one’s life situation, avoiding the whole truth, shying away and then revisiting them again and again.   Each revisit brings more of the backstories to the fore.   The complexity of the emotions and fears brought on by the need for someone to love is flavored with loving kindness, frustration, self-awareness and anxiety.

In a sense, the book is a confessional.   The four points of view on love and loss, sibling rivalry and what it means to be loved are beautifully portrayed in this multi-generational saga.

Highly recommended, and, yes, it’s a fine example of chick lit.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the audio book was provided by Hachette Audio.

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The Unnamed

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: A Novel (Back Bay Books, $15.00, 320 pages)

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The heart asks pleasure first, and then excuse from pain.   Emily Dickinson

God, if He was anything, was the answer to the mystery of why you got sick…   Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) has written a second novel.  The Unnamed, is a dark and mystical tale that brings the pain before it delivers the pleasure.   This is about Tim Farnsworth who is blessed with status and a fine career.   Good luck and good fate lead him to take two things for granted: his health and his family.

Tim’s a successful lawyer in a private New York City firm until he’s hit with a mysterious condition that causes him to walk.   When the condition strikes, he’s forced to abandon whatever he’s doing and walk for miles and hours until he drops and falls asleep from exhaustion.   The condition – which the medical establishment does not want to label a disease (Tim being the only person on record affected by it) – goes into remission twice enabling Tim to resume his work.   But Tim’s already lost 17 months to this condition when, as the story opens, “it’s back.”

Initially, Tim places his faith in medicine, doctors and mental health practitioners until he comes to see that “there was never anything anyone could do” for him.   He’s first affected physically, then mentally and becomes “removed from the person who knew how to form ideas.”   He becomes a man without hope, which to him seems worse than death.   Tim comes to envy cancer patients who have the “power of a familiar and fatal disease.”

It’s not difficult to see that this is pretty dark and dangerous territory for a novel but Ferris is skilled enough to turn the ship around.   A tale of illness and disease is transformed into one about marriage and family and the strength – physical and emotional – that these can provide.   Tim loses everything – career, family, wife, daughter – before he becomes stronger (in a strange sense) than the world around him.   His suffering has a pay-off and he sees and experiences hope before the end of his days.

This is a story about redemption.   Tim literally walks away from everything, including spouse Jane, until he has to decide whether to return to her – no matter what the cost.   Eventually, Jane and others come to be amazed that he “could suffer like that.”   In the end Tim, like every one of us, comes to experience joy in life’s small things: seeing children play, observing birds, having a couple of beers with an old friend, feeling the love of a daughter.

Ferris’ work is close to breathtaking here, although the second half of the work feels much longer than the first half.   Maybe that’s because the reader is meant to experience Tim’s disease states – pain, fever, disorientation, hallucinations – before he returns to normalcy.   We wonder if he’s gone insane in his battle with “The Other” – a condition, a disease, a devil, a fear, his mortality – until he accepts that it’s his inalienable right to have a life, a normal life.

She didn’t need a prescription, she needed a life.

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Taut, engaging, emotional…   Tinged in genius and yet troubling.   The Unnamed is a stunner and one of the few novels most readers will come across in which each and every chapter closes brilliantly.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Reagan Arthur Books (Hachette Book Group, U.S.A.).  

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An Audio Book Giveaway!

First, congratulations go out to Cheryl Kelley of Gilberts, Illinois and Margie Takala of Minnetonka, Minnesota as the winners of Life and Life Only, a fine novel by Dave Moyer!   Munchy the cat picked their names out of the official contest bucket.   Life is about life, especially as it relates to baseball, love and Bob Dylan.  

Now we would like to announce another great giveaway.   This time we’re giving away three (3) copies of the audio book version of The Unnamed by Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award-winning author, Joshua Ferris.   This is an unabridged version of the novel, read by the author, on 7 CDs.   This Hachette Audio book has a value of $34.98.

This was an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection on its release.   I’ve started to listen to it and it’s terrific.   Anyone who has ever had a health condition that the medical establishment does not quite seem to “get” will relate to this story.   It is the tale of a man attacked by an unknown condition that makes him walk until he literally drops and sleeps from exhaustion.   He’s lost 17 months of his life due to this condition – skeptically called “The Condition” by his mental health professionals – and he’s now experiencing the third occurrence.   Maybe, he’s told, this condition is just brought on by stress or worrying.   Right.

That’s my take and here is part of the official synopsis from the publisher:

With The Unnamed, Ferris imagines the collision between one man’s free will and the forces of nature that are bigger than any of us.  

Tim Farnsworth walks.   He walks out of meetings and out of bed.   He walks in sweltering heat and numbing cold.   He will walk without stopping until he falls asleep, wherever he is.   This curious affliction has baffled medical experts around the globe – and come perilously close to ruining what should be a happy life.   Tim has a loving family, a successful law career and a beautiful suburban home, all of which he maintains spectacularly well until his feet start moving again.

This is a novel about Tim Farnsworth, a man who believes that he’s going to lose his house and everything in it.   How can you win a copy of the audio book?   It’s simple.   Just send an e-mail with your name included in the message to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   That’s all you need to do to be entered once.   For a second entry, tell me why you would like to win this particular audio novel.   You have until midnight PST on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 to submit your entry(s).  

Anyone in the U.S. or Canada is eligible.   The only restriction is that you must supply a residential address if you’re selected as a winner.   Audio books cannot and will not be mailed to a P.O. Box.   Thanks to Anna at Hachette Audio for making these prizes available to our readers.

Good luck and good listening!  

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