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I’m Sorry

The Confession: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 344 pages)

His voice was hoarse, but still recognizable.   “Damn it, Morrison, there’s nothing to confess.   I just need to talk to someone.”

In The Confession, the mother and son writing team known as Charles Todd delivers the 14th episode in the evolution of Inspector Ian Rutledge, the well-respected Scotland Yard detective.   Rutledge is continuing to transition from a World War I shell-shocked soldier back into his civilian life.   Understandably, such a process is open-ended.   To make matters more complicated, Rutledge has the ghost of a fallen comrade lodged in his subconscious.   From time to time this fellow enters his current thought process with unsolicited advice and observations.

The presenting case involves an unsolicited confession to a murder; however, proving the confessor’s guilt or innocence proves to be a challenge that even Rutledge finds a bit overwhelming.   The plot becomes a bit crowded with confusing names and relationships.   Adding to the confusion are the many trips Rutledge makes between London and a small seaside village in Essex.   The characters are not who you think they are – a reasonable device considering this is a mystery.

Regardless of the red herrings, multitudes of characters and the era when the tale takes place, the basic theme ties to the presence of evil which knows no time limit.   Evil is contrasted sharply with the values Rutledge holds sacred and dear.   Along the way the reader experiences the overwhelming impact of group mentality and shared secrets.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Todd serves up plenty of period detail and plot twists, but the real attraction here is Rutledge, a shrewd, dedicated detective grappling with the demons of his past.”   Booklist

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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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Take It All

The Bird House: A Novel by Kelly Simmons (Washington Square Press; $14.00; 272 pages)

“Every family has its secrets.”

“Don’t you know there’s a stronger thing keeping us together?”   Pete Ham (“Take It All”)

This is a novel about a family secret.   Ann Biddle is a grandmother with a big secret about something that happened in her past.   Her granddaughter Ellie is doing research on the family for a school project.   Despite declining mental resources, Ann seeks to assist her loved one in filling in the blank spaces in the family’s past while simultaneously hiding the dark event in her own past.

There is, fortunately, not much in the way of detail in the book’s synopsis; this is a plus.   The less you, the reader, know about the story before you arrive at the final, 272nd page the better.   The read was partly destroyed for me by an early release review that carelessly divulged the secret in question and other key facts.   But there will not be a repetition of that here.

“This was the heavy burden of secrets: the longer you held them, the larger they grew, the more people they entangled.”

Second time novelist Simmons has a no-nonsense style that calls to mind Anna Quindlen or Laura Lippman.   She neither needlessly embellishes nor writes too sparsely – she provides just enough detail to make you identify with the female protagonist.   And Ann Biddle is a real human being, with true strengths and also defects of character.   And yet, despite her rapidly failing mental skills, she’s one tough and clever cat; those who think they’re going to get the best of her discover otherwise.

“Things never turn out quite the way you expect, do they?   In love or in life.”

At its end, this a tale about honesty and love versus deception and protection.   It is also a story that touches upon human hypocrisy – the tendency of some to hold themselves out as one thing while living a life different from the facade they wear:  “He always said the right thing, but he didn’t always do the right thing.”   It is a novel about powerful secrets, which is why some will be reminded of Fragile by Lisa Unger.

This novel is well worth the read and is well recommended. Just don’t let anyone who has already read it share its secrets with you.   Tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “I was hooked from the very first page.”   Chevy Stevens, author of Still Missing.

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Information Wars

A Geography of Secrets: A Novel by Frederick Reuss (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 288 pages)

“Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.”

A lush, other-worldly feel permeates this philosophical novel based in Washington, D.C.   Author Frederick Reuss presents two tales that portray the human toll paid by the families of those who work in the shadows where espionage is practiced.   The first-person narrator of the initial tale is the adult son of a recently deceased former CIA operative.   The reader is not advised of the son’s name although everyone else in the chapters devoted to him are clearly named and fully developed as characters.  

The son is an old-school style cartographer who experiences life through the methodology of his work.   He engages physically with the area he is mapping in order to infuse the end product with authenticity.   The son and his mother are easily recognizable as collateral damage created by his father’s activities in the Foreign Service.   The mother was jettisoned from her marriage and replaced by other women while the son is left with the sense of never really knowing who his father was.

The second tale is told in the third-person.   The primary character is a technical wizard/spy named Noel Leonard who works for a top-secret government agency.   Noel gathers information about the activities of the enemy de jour using satellite technology and super sensitive spy cameras.   This information is used to plot bombing attacks.   His only passion in life is golf and he excels at it, primarily because he is an expert at judging the trajectory of objects.   Noel’s wife and daughter are kept in the dark about just what he does at the office which creates difficulties for all of them.

Each of the characters is seeking to throw light on the secrets that have made a huge impact on their lives.   Their searches take them to Switzerland, the son for his father’s funeral and Noel for an information-sharing conference.   Noel longs to blurt out the truth of his profession in order to clear the air and connect with his family.   The irony was not lost on this reviewer that it is in Switzerland, a neutral country, that they find key elements of their quest.

Both of the men convey a sense of invisibleness, a holding back, rather than surging forward.   Neither of them seeks out people or participates in group activities.   They are observers – watchers – rather than front line participants in life.   Their searches for connectedness to family and place are often derailed by purposeful withdrawal.   The sense of their invisibleness is heightened by the way they recede to the edges of the action in life.   The son and Noel are infused with a strong sense of distrust, or maybe anxiety about sharing their innermost selves with others.   The two men repeatedly approach and dance away from the secondary characters.

Author Reuss allows his tales to meander rather than dragging the reader along on a chase.   He is extremely skillful at describing the essence of Washington D.C. which is full of historic meaning, vast institutions and seats of power.   It is there that people become ants swallowed up by the workings of government.

These are unique and well drawn tales.   Thought provoking.   Highly recommended.

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

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Perfection

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Revival by Julie Metz (Voice, $14.99)

“There is no real perfection, there’ll be no perfect day.”   Pete Ham

“A good place to spend life.   That’s what I would need to find for myself.”   Julie Metz

I honestly thought that I would likely hate this book, based on a couple of synopses that I looked at before deciding to take a leap of faith and purchase it anyway.   This is the nonfiction tale of graphic designer-wife-mother Julie Metz, who is 43 with a five-year-old daughter when her writer-husband suddenly drops dead.   Metz goes through an extended period of mourning and loss before finding out that her husband, while alive, had several affairs with women both close to her and unknown.   The actions appear to be unforgivable and Metz begins to isolate herself with her anger.   She becomes highly dysfunctional and comes close to shutting down.

I feared this was going to be the second coming of Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies, an unpleasant memoir with a lot of whining and anger.   In Happens Every Day Gillies is unable to come to terms with her husband’s suddenly leaving her for someone else (a female former friend), even though her own mother is quoted as stating that Gillies has an overly controlling personality.   Apparently her husband simply escaped.

But Happens Every Day was basically a tale of depression and loss, while Metz – true to the sub-title – learns to revive her life after her shock and period of denial.   When her lawyer brother helps to locate her husband’s e-mail communications with his mistresses, she’s able to analyze what happened and when things happened, and even speaks with some of his women flings.   Eventually, she puts things in context (“Perhaps we all want our secrets to be found out at last…”) and learns to grant her husband Henry a type of forgiveness.

“I see that, having been through a year of loss and change, I will change still more in this next time of my life.”

The telling flows pretty easily.   Metz tends to have a lot of deep thoughts, but she also has an excellent memory and applies it to good use here.   She tells the story of a marriage – in non-chronological order – even if it was a bit unusual.   As Metz made money, Henry worked for years and years on a book about what constitutes great food; it remained incomplete at his death.   Henry had, however, chosen the title for what was to be his literary masterpiece – Perfection.

Metz can also be funny, as in relating the scene where she and her daughter decide to sprinkle some of Henry’s fine ashes (that still contain a few traces of bone and metal) in the backyard.   They do so but mix Henry’s ashes with those of a deceased male cat.   That kind of put Henry in his place!

Metz’ almost photographic memory is jarring when she writes about her sexual relationships, both before and after her marriage.   She seems to feel the need to describe every encounter she’s ever had with a male, and it becomes numbing and weary.   (Metz is clearly highly attractive but she seems to have had a life-long need to be desired by men.)   There are so many sex scenes that one can only wonder what her young daughter Emily will think of all this one day.   Perhaps she will just decide that her mom had a good time in life.

“It was helpful to remember that life could offer flavors other than sour and bitter.”

At the end of this memoir’s 342 pages, Metz has moved herself and her daughter to Brooklyn, she’s found a nice man to live with (one who is kind to her daughter), and is re-energized and hopeful.   She and her mate become domestic partners and she comes to see that this new life may well be a contented one – a “perfect fit.”

This reader had his doubts – serious doubts – about this work but Metz pulls this one out before the screen goes black.   Recommended.

As noted previously, this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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