Tag Archives: Talking Heads

Burning Down the House

Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery by Brad Parks (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 294 pages)

“I’m not saying it’s simple to find and tell the truth.   It takes a great deal of hard work, intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and a willingness to keep listening to people even when your gut is telling you they’re full of it.”

This second appearance of Carter Ross, an investigative journalist in Newark, New Jersey, is a morality tale with a mystery added for good measure.   The worst case fallout from the great housing debacle of the recent past is the theme of this book.   Carter and his protegé, a blonde intern nick-named “Sweet Thang,” set out to fulfill the big boss’s demand for a space heater story to be run in the Newark Eagle-Examiner.   As the reader can easily imagine, this assignment becomes a much greater story filled with heinous crimes and enough anxiety to satisfy the most demanding mystery/thriller reader.

“Editors are 98% full of stupid ideas.”

Author Park’s news background is put to good use as he sets out a primer on choosing  journalism as a career.   He employs Carter’s first-person narrative to poke fun at the others and produce some excellent character development.   There’s also a third-person narrative set off by the use of italics that weaves in the most sinister element of the story.   This other thread serves to highlight Carter’s honesty and commitment to his profession via a stark contrast.

Although the tale is told from a male’s perspective, it is surprising how chatty Carter can be when he considers his feelings, likes and dislikes.   There is a bit of smugness on his part but given the golden professional reputation Park ascribes to Carter, it appears to be well-earned.

There is a strong similarity to the mysteries, Dog Tags and Flipping Out by the writing team of Lomax and Biggs.   Indeed, these books and Eyes of the Innocent are very much like going on a police ride-along.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “This book held me hostage until the last page.”   Michael Connelly

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This Ain’t No Disco

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper Perennial; $15.99; 560 pages)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 560 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States was dragged into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   In this role, Claire comes to meet and fall in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission as her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a murder mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in close to 600 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it were made into a film, most viewers would be very far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out…  she ends the story with a whimper rather than with a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a tightly scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 550 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Fierce Radiance will be released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.


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Life During Wartime

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper, June 2010)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 527 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States’ involuntary entrance into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which literally provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   Claire eventually meets and falls in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission since her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a crime mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in almost 530 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it happened to be made into a film, most viewers would be far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out, not at all…  Instead she ends the story with a whimper rather than a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 500 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

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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A bird in hand…

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow)

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 driving 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.”bird in hand 5

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, Claire’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 pin 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.”

To be continued… (the first of two parts)

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Oxygen

If you’re looking for something quite different, this is it.   Oxygen by Carol Cassella is an interesting medical-legal tale told from the perspective of a practicing anesthesiologist.   In this story, Dr. Marie Heaton is the anesthesiologist who tells the mother of a young girl going into surgery, “I’m going to keep her very safe for you.”   Then the child dies on the operating table mid-procedure.

The death begins the unraveling of the doctor’s life professionally and emotionally, as she faces a civil suit and perhaps even criminal sanctions.   Cassella (an English literature major at Duke before completing medical school) is excellent at creating tension to the point where lights seem to dim as you move further along in this living nightmare.

The reader relates fully with Dr. Heaton because she’s apparently made no major mistakes (she may have cut one minor corner) yet faces horrendous consequences because a child is dead.   Dr. Heaton also begins to see that the friends and colleagues who’ve pledged to stand beside her begin to drop away.   At the end, she may have only her Texas-based family members to rely upon; and faint hopes of a miraculous exoneration.

I will not say any more about the plot except to note that it is set in Seattle, a place Cassella brings to life whether or not you’ve visited Pike Place Market.   Ironically, Dr. Horton and her fellow doctors have moved to Seattle for its scenery, which they rarely see due to 14-hour workdays.

For a first-time novelist, Cassella’s style is smooth and easy:  “The freeway dumps us into a nest of prewar bungalows huddling below the glass and metal giants of downtown (Houston).   The houses are painted in the vivid Easter egg yellows and blues and lavenders my mother always associated with the Mexican barrios that percolate up through the soul of all Texas cities like boiling springs, their mariachis…  and Spanish seared into our cultural palate.”

I have just two reservations about the telling of this story.   The first is that life becomes such a harsh struggle so quickly for the main character that some may find it too depressing to hold their interest.   Second, the Seattle hospital that Dr. Heaton works at never seemed real…   Those who know hospitals may find that something seems to be missing.

Despite these two points, I’m glad I read this one-of-a-kind novel.   I’m a fan of stories where the ending has not been revealed fifty, seventy-five or one hundred pages before it arrives…   This one also comes with a bit of an epilogue which is a pleasant surprise.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellanooxygen 3

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