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Law and Order

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Random House/Bantam, $16.00, 437 pages)

If you loved Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, read this.

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One of my favorite films is the Al Pacino classic And Justice for All, which might as well have been titled And Justice for No One.  In my time as a reviewer for Joseph’s Reviews, I have reviewed many crime/suspense/mystery/call them what you will novels, because many people enjoy reading these books.  Most, in my opinion, are average at best.  They appeal to a certain readership, and they get published.

The ones that distinguish themselves stand out for reasons that can sometimes be explained – for example, they actually tell a story, the reader cares about the characters, and they defy the formulaic conventions that permeate run-of-the-mill books.  Other times the reasons are more subtle.  A writer can just plain write – simple as that, and the book stands on its own, independent of any pre-conceived convention.  In those cases, things become a bit more subjective.

William Landay’s Defending Jacob succeeds on both accounts and is one heckuva book, period.  For people who enjoy the genre, it is an absolute must read.  Landy tells the story of Ben Rifkin’s murder in the first person, which is a brilliant decision.  This point of view adds to the suspense and human dilemma faced by the main character, Andy Barber, and his family.  A less skillful writer might not have pulled this off, but as it stands, the decision perfectly advances the story.  The reader suspends judgment and is pulled in multiple directions throughout the entire novel.

Barber is the town’s assistant district attorney and the initial investigator on the Rifkin case.  Ben is brutally stabbed in a park on his way to school.  Eventually, Andy’s son, Jacob, a socially awkward teen who was bullied by Ben, is accused of the murder.  This creates further complications, including politics in the D.A.’s office.  On top of that, Andy’s conscience may not be the most reliable barometer, as he has spent his life trying to bury the fact that his father is serving a life sentence for murder.  Is there such a thing as a murder gene, a propensity for violence?

Jacob’s internet proclivities and childhood indiscretions don’t help him.  But do they add up to murder?

In the end, a second incident and the preponderance of the evidence appears to lead to a certain direction, but the plot is so carefully constructed that empathy for the narrator still tempers judgment, and – like in And Justice for All, sometimes justice is not absolute.  Sometimes the criminal justice system is only as good as the flawed humans who are entrusted to administer it.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school system superintendent, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Note: Defending Jacob is used as a textbook in Criminal Justice  introductory classes at California State University, Sacramento as it provides insight into the complexities of the criminal justice system.

 

 

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Highway to Hell

Road to Paradise: A Novel by Paullina Simons (William Morrow Paperbacks, $16.99, 544 pages)

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“The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense…”  Bob Dylan

In Paullina Simon’s Road to Paradise, Shelby Sloane takes off for the West Coast in a yellow Mustang in search of her mother.  She embarks on this journey following her high school graduation with the expectation that she will return to the East Coast to attend college in the fall.  Fallacy number one: This girl could not possibly be accepted into college.

Her friend, Gina, accompanies her to help defray the costs and meet up with her boyfriend, and they pick up a hitchhiker by the name of…  Candy Cane (AKA, Grace Rio).  The journey begins with a detour to deliver dogs to a relative.  They meet Candy, whose purpose for the trip is revealed about two-thirds of the way through the novel.  So, they are all on a quest of some kind or another.  [Fascinating!  -Ed.]  In the meantime we learn that Candy is famous on I-80 for engaging in the oldest profession in the book.

Simmons’ narrative jumps around in the beginning as she attempts to be overly clever.  This creates challenges for the reader.  Quite frankly, by the time the reader is 100 pages in – where some clarity finally rears its head, it is impossible to care.  The book mercifully and thankfully ends after 530 pages.  Is there an editor in the house?

The main action of the story takes place in 1981, so throughout the book there are references to late 70s songs that are playing on the radio for no apparent reason.

There is mindless and aimless philosophical, historical and religious conversation among the three traveling characters.  In addition to prostitution, we get porn, a visit to a monastery, an individual who develops a sudden and inexplicable gambling addiction, a “somewhat pseudo-lesbian”  incident, and contrived loyalty.  There’s also a patched-on happy ending as Shelby arrives in Mendocino, California and miraculously meets the man she will marry.  Right, just like in real life.

If all this sounds interesting to you, be my guest.  It’s quite doubtful that I will be reading the next release from Ms. Simons.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school administrator and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Against All Odds

The Odds of You and Me: A Novel by Cecilia Galante (William Morrow, $14.99, 384 pages)

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Cecilia Galante’s The Odds of You and Me combines multiple themes – the underdog, youth, love and forgiveness – into one very solid novel.  Without providing a spoiler, if the reader is hoping that tough odds will be overcome and a Hollywood-style ending is in store, forget it.  This is not a Hallmark or Disney movie.  Nevertheless, this story may appeal to readers who are open to a unique display of what happiness, life, grit, and perseverance mean in the real world.

In Odds, Bernadette “Bird” Sincavage bears a child at a young age under less than ideal circumstances.  She is close to being released from probation when she happens to cross the path of James – a former co-worker, a bad boy that she found to be fascinating.  James is being hunted by the police and Bird is unintentionally drawn back into the complicated orbit of his life.

As the story’s details begin to come together, there are “gray” decisions to be made.  Mrs. Ross, a probation officer, and Jane and Mr. Herron – two of the individuals whose homes Bird cleans, recognize her basic goodness and become advocates for her.

James, destined to be an ill-fated match for Bird, is the ultimate hero/villain.  It’s up to the reader to make up his or her mind in terms of what’s right and wrong; which is precisely why this is a very good, challenging novel.

Bird’s mother sees things in simple black and white, and Catholic priest Father Delaney (a representative of a church that has seen much controversy and turmoil in modern times) attempts to provide a measure of moral conscience.  But there are no easy answers; matters remain quite complicated.

The Odds of You and Me works at many levels, and should appeal to many readers including a potentially significant number of young adults.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Odds of You and Me is (a novel) in the vein of Meg Donohue and Sarah Jio.”  Amazon

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and he is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

 

 

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Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein (Anchor, $16.95, 384 pages)

where nobody knows your name

AAA: Where baseball and purgatory collide…

John Feinstein, known for his many appearances on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, has authored 24 books.  He is most noted for his debut A Season on the Brink: Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers and his books on golf (most notably, A Good Walk Spoiled).  His latest, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, is simply excellent.

Many have attempted to write about baseball, but as much as the sport lends itself to great writing, truly capturing the essence of the game is a far from easy thing to accomplish.  Roger Angell and Thomas Boswell are probably the best of the lot, and there are others that have done quite well.  Feinstein’s latest is not only a must for baseball fans, it’s well worth the time of any sports fan.

Triple A baseball is the top level of the minor leagues.  The goal for most players is to make it to AA ball because then the organization you play for thinks you have a chance to play in the big leagues.  Most of the players in AA are young up and comers.  Once a player is elevated to that level, they set their sights on the major leagues – or what is commonly referred to as “the show.”  The next level, AAA, becomes a place for additional seasoning of top prospects or a holding ground for more experienced players (who may be called up at any time).  Some players who are shuttled back and forth are labeled “4A” players; too good for AAA but not good enough for major league play.

The players at the AAA level have dreamed the dream from their early childhood on.  They’ve worked extremely hard, have often endured setbacks, and are just an eyelash away from the ultimate prize: playing in big league stadium parks.

In Where Nobody Knows Your Name, Feinstein follows the plight of several AAA characters throughout the 2012 season.  He successfully hits on all the little things — the letter inviting a player to either a big league or minor league camp for spring training; the deadlines when players learn of their fate; the tragedy of players who have been to the “bigs” but get sent back to the minors; and the dreaded or hoped for calls to the manager’s office (almost always signifying bad news, but sometimes good).  The young ballplayers are quite human, but they are often treated like objects.

While many players and managers are profiled, the major characters in this book are Scott Elarton, Ron Johnson, Jon Lindsey, Mark Lollo, Charlie Montoyo, Scott Podesdnik, Chris Schwinden, and Brett Tomko.  Along the way Feinstein tells of the endless travel, the ridiculous promotions, front office personnel, announcers, and the players’ families. He also touches on the umpires and groundskeepers, who have their own dreams of being promoted to the bigs.

As for the primary characters, Elarton went 17-7 with the Astros in 2000, but finished with a record under .500 in his 10-year major league career.  Johnson was a career minor league manager.  Lindsey was drafted by the Rockies in 1995.  Although he was a big hitter in the minors, he managed just one brief stint in the majors.  Lindsey was called up by the Dodgers at the age of 33, going one for 12 in 11 big league games.  Lollo dreamed of umpiring in the major leagues.

McLouth, an outfielder, showed promise early on in his career with the Pirates, was traded to Atlanta where he gradually lost his hitting touch, and had begun to fight his way back.  Montoyo was another career minor league manager.  Though not a power hitter, Podsednik, also an outfielder, hit a big home run in the 2005 World Series for the victorious White Sox.  A player with speed, Podsednik’s career was shortened by a rash of injuries.

Schwinden was a pitcher who fought for eight years to get to the majors.  Tomko, who won exactly 100 major league games – but had not thrown a pitch since the 2009 season, fights to throw another pitch in the bigs at the age of 39.  Elarton, Schwinden, and Tomko never make it back to the majors.  The same is true for Johnson, Lollo, and Montoyo.

Podsednik was called up by the Red Sox in 2012 and hit .302 but was released at the end of the year.  He was 36 and never played in the big leagues again.  McLouth was called up by Baltimore and played in the post-season.  His final big league season was 2014, during which he appeared in 79 games for Washington.

All of these individuals have a story, and Feinstein tells them in a masterful fashion.  What resonates is a love of the game felt by each of these individuals.  Each is grateful for what they have, while finding it hard to let go of the game that defined their existence.

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None of the characters in this account decide to voluntarily walk away from baseball.  They each fight to the end, knowing the odds of success fall between slim and none.  Why?  Feinstein answers that for readers when he concludes the book with a quote from Jim Bouton’s memoir Ball Four:  “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A copy of this book was provided to the reviewer.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of a story about baseball, love, and Bob Dylan: Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

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Hearts and Bones

Casting Bones: A Quentin Archer Mystery by Dan Bruns (Seven House Publishers, $29.99, 256 pages)

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Dark, Darker, Darkest

Don Bruns is the author of 12 previous novels, five in the Mike Sever Caribbean mystery series and seven Lesser and Moore mysteries.  Casting Bones is the first Quentin Archer mystery, and Bruns fans or crime readers should not only read Bones but look forward to the next several offerings.

Archer is a New Orleans cop, exiled from Detroit for pushing the envelope to find the truth.  In Bones, old habits die hard.  Archer finds himself mired in – and inserts himself into, a tangled web of evil that extends to some of the richest power brokers in Louisiana.

Still reeling from his wife’s death, Archer has a partner he doesn’t trust (for good reason), forces that are breathing down on him to get a conviction, truth be damned (a common theme in many crime novels), and – for grins – a Voodoo Queen, Solpange Cordray, both advising and protecting him.  Cordray makes for an interesting good luck charm, and Archer needs one.

The Krewe Charbonerrie is a secret society – essentially a mafia of rich, white people established to preserve and advance the power and affluence and influence of the privileged few.  Cordray tips Archer that the Krewe is likely connected to the death of a judge, and – multiple murders later, with his life on the line, Archer must connect the dots.  He must also be the lone voice of integrity in a sea of dishonesty and criminal collusion.

Bones manages to naturally introduce many characters and plot twists that are all plausible and unforced.  The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce may not exactly be pleased with this novel; there is not much sunlight present in this portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans.

As might be expected, Archer steps up and does his part, but as the novel comes to a close, clues to his dysfunctional family’s past and questions about his wife’s death continue to haunt him.  It is suggested that Cordray’s special powers will be needed to guide him in his quest for justice.  Loose ends thus linger upon the conclusion of Bones.  And thus the stage is set for Bones II.

Mystery lovers should be eager to find out what happens next.  Especially as Bruns is extremely adept at spinning a fascinating yarn.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a school superintendent in Illinois. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

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White or red?

White with Fish, Red with Murder: A Frank Swiver Novel by Harley Mazuk (Driven Press, $15.99, 372 pages)

white with fish

White with Fish, Red with Murder is a debut work by Harley Mazuk.  This is a mystery novel with some clever locations, quirky characters, and pitch perfect 1940s dialogue.  The narrator, Frank Swiver, is a private detective in San Francisco – circa 1948, who is eager for a paying client.  As luck would have it, Frank’s interest in wine is the ticket to a job!  Retired General Lloyd F. Thursby has planned an excursion on his private rail car with wine tasting as the entertainment.

“Hey, sweetheart.  Sorry I was late.  You look like a million bucks, you know?”

The general has an ulterior motive.  His good friend Rusty O’Callaghan was murdered and the general wants Swiver to finger the guilty party as the train wends its way from Oakland, CA to the wine country.  Swiver, under cover as a writer, brings along his trusty secretary/girlfriend, Vera, ostensibly as his date; but actually Vera is working with Swiver.  The party becomes complicated as each of the invitees boards the train.  The most notable guest, as far as Swiver and Vera are concerned, is Rusty’s widow, Cici O’Callaghan.  And, to make matters more complicated, Swiver and Cici have a shared romantic past.

“Look kid, I know you’re sore at me.  But the surest way to get you out of here is to find the real killer…”

Author Harley Mazuk has done his homework.  The cast of characters is straight out of a black and white mystery movie ala George Raft and Edward G. Robinson.  Even their names are indicative of the era.  And the language fits the period:  “A dame who may have been on the make perched at the other end (of the bar).”

Mazuk’s attention to detail is remarkable.  Of course it helps that this reviewer’s all-time favorite movie is the 1944 classic, Laura, making me a suitable critic of these matters.  And, I think mystery readers of all ages will be sure to enjoy the train trip and ensuing action to its conclusion.

The only slight detraction lies with the book’s cover art.  Yes, the story could be considered to be of the noir genre; however, the color and placement of the author’s name is far too dark.  Mazuk deserves better billing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

“A delicious throwback to the  PI stories of Hammett and Chandler when all the dames had shapely gams.”  Alan Orloff, author of Running From the Past.

 

 

 

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Heaven Help Us All

the heavens may fall

The Heavens May Fall: A Novel by Allen Eskins (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, 270 pages)

Relative newcomer Allen Eskins has come into his own with The Heavens Must Fall.  It is the third in a series of books that take place in Minnesota, following his highly acclaimed debut, The Life We Bury, and the follow up, The Guise of Another.  In Heavens, detective Max Rupert takes a more prominent role.

Eskins writes lines for Rupert with complete ease.  The other main characters, partner Niki Vang and defense attorney Broady Sanden, are well defined and the pacing of the story is perfect.  The dialogue between and among the characters is natural and feels real.  Nothing is forced and the reader is eager to find out what will happen next.

Jennavieve Pruitt is murdered, presumably by her husband, Ben, a former law partner of Sanden.  But is he guilty or is the District Attorney rushing for a conviction to further his pursuit of a judgeship?  Rupert and Vang are meticulous in their investigation; however, Sanden is steadfast in his defense of Pruitt, his former partner.

In the meantime, the mystery of Rupert’s wife’s death/murder, which haunts the detective from the outset, teases and unexpectedly comes closer to being solved.  Max’s moral center drives this book, and – with a twist or two, the ending satisfies.  All of this fairly screams for a fourth book.  Based on the positive quality of Heavens, this series is far from being tired or retired.

A future romance is not out of the question as Max avenges his wife’s death.  It would not be a stretch to assume that Sanden and the current D.A./future judge, Frank Dovey, will play a role somehow as Rupert’s adventures continue.  Eskens is worth paying attention to, and Rupert is prominent as a fictional, favorite crime fighting hero.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is the superintendent of a public school district north of Chicago. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

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