Review: ‘Whereabouts’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

If you sharpen a knife for too long, you ultimately have nothing left. This novel treads closely to that eventuality. Lahiri has removed everything readers look for in a work of fiction, presenting us with a plotless, episodic story told in short chapters out of which most of the unnamed, middle-aged female protagonist’s soul has been honed away.

Nonetheless, each rather mundane moment, hanging as it does between engagement and lack of engagement with the world packs a punch that can be likened, perhaps, to a velvet hammer or the piercing shiv that remains of the original knife. The overall effect is reminiscent of a child standing that the ocean’s edge, eager to plunge into and experience the water and yet content to stand in the littoral zone between land and sea–or, in the character’s case–between stubborn loneliness and interaction with others.

Her father is dead and her relationship with her mother is strained. Yet she meets others, casual friends and/or acquaintances on the street, even lovers sometimes, without undue suffering. In fact, she tentatively seeks others out but stands back from total or long-term commitment.

There is hope here even though everything human seems transitory, like leaves that will soon be blown away by the wind. And yet, she waits and ages.

Four of Five Stars

–Malcolm

‘Facing the Mountain’ by Daniel James Brown

“The 442nd Infantry Regiment was an infantry regiment of the United States Army. The regiment is best known as the most decorated in U. S. military history and as a fighting unit composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) who fought in World War II.” – Wikipedia

Daniel James Brown’s highly readable, deeply researched, and illustrated with maps and photograps book Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II tells the heartbreaking and glorious story of second generation Japanese Americans who, though reviled by many Americans and thrown into concentration camps by the President while their homes and personal property were confiscated, rose up and did their duty, as they saw it, to become one of the United States’ most effective and feared regiments fighting the Germans. Their motto was “Go for Broke.”

The book is strongly personal because it follows an ensemble cast of characters throughout the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the ordeal of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that relocated without probable cause 120,000 Japanese Americans, 2/3 of whom were native born American citizens, into POW camps, and the decision by over 12,000 of the men to join the Army and fight for their country in spite of that their country had done to them.

From the Publisher

They came from across the continent and Hawai‘i. Their parents taught them to embrace both their Japanese heritage and the ways of America. They faced bigotry, yet they believed in their bright futures as American citizens. But within days of Pearl Harbor, the FBI was ransacking their houses and locking up their fathers. And within months many would themselves be living behind barbed wire.

Facing the Mountain is an unforgettable chronicle of war-time America and the battlefields of Europe. Based on Daniel James Brown’s extensive interviews with the families of the protagonists as well as deep archival research, it portrays the kaleidoscopic journey of four Japanese-American families and their sons, who volunteered for 442nd Regimental Combat Team and were deployed to France, Germany, and Italy, where they were asked to do the near impossible.

But this is more than a war story. Brown also tells the story of these soldiers’ parents, immigrants who were forced to shutter the businesses, surrender their homes, and submit to life in concentration camps on U.S. soil. Woven throughout is the chronicle of a brave young man, one of a cadre of patriotic resisters who stood up against their government in defense of their own rights. Whether fighting on battlefields or in courtrooms, these were Americans under unprecedented strain, doing what Americans do best–striving, resisting, pushing back, rising up, standing on principle, laying down their lives, and enduring.

This story falls into the rather large category of history that most of us did not learn in our high school American history classes. That adds insult to injury. In one sense, Brown’s book is an apolgy. In another sense, it sets the record straight for all who will listen.

Malcolm

Review: ‘Camino Winds’ by John Grisham

Camino Winds brings back many of the characters from Camino Island, a novel the New York Times aptly decribed as “a delightfully lighthearted caper.” Camino Winds begins with wind, the monster hurricane Leo that takes aim at the Florida Island with deadly intentions and mind-numbing accuracy.  In her blurb, author Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing) calls this second book in the series a “wild but smart caper.”

The novel is easy to read but the most exciting part of the caper is provided by the hurricane, and this is where we find the book’s most effective writing. A man is killed during the story, purportedly by falling tree limbs, but bookstore owner Bruce Cable of Bay Books doesn’t think so. The local police don’t seem interested, so the caper aspect of the novel begins when Bruce and his friends start trying to find out what really happened.

They begin by disturbing the crime scene, borrowing the dead man’s car, and appropriating the food and liquor in his kitchen that will dertainly go bad if left for any forensic techs who might one day show up. The dead man, an author named Nelson Kerr–among those who hung out at Bay Books–won’t miss the food and probably wouldn’t begrudge the amateur sleuths a great meal and all the high-priced drink they can handle, which turns out not to be a lot.

Kerr as apparently writing a novel about something that somebody didn’t like so, probably–the amateur sleuths speculate–the killer was mixed up in the pièce de ré·sis·tance crime Kerr plans to thinly diguise as fiction in his new thriller. If so, they no doubt wanted to stop him before (a) he finished the book, or (b) the book get to a publisher if he did finish it.

Bruce, et. al. have some good ideas, the kind that just might get them killed. If they (the sleuths) were black ops types, they dould take the next step and go after the bad guys with enough gear that woud make Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler exited. But they aren’t, so they can’t, and they don’t. For the reader, this means a lot of time is spent listening to the characters’ pondering which, fortunately, is punctuated with a few laughs, scares, and dicoveries along the way.

They mean well. They’re likeable. And they keep pushing on whoever they can influence until heavy hitters become involved and the crime is solved. Until then, nothing much happens. When the pros show up, a considerable amount of time is spent describing how the bad guys scammed the government out of a lot of money while hurting everyday people. Yes, we suspect this kind of thing is true. But how they (the bad guys) do what they do takes the focus of the story simultaneously closer to its climax and farther away from the main characters.

This is an unsatisfying plot solution. The characters who begin the caper really need to end the caper. If you read every Grisham novel, you’ll nonetheless have fun reading this one. If you don’t, you won’t.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Review: To Wake a Giant

To Wake the Giant: A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Jeff Shaara

 My rating: 5 of 5 stars


When General Billy Mitchell wrote a report in 1924 that not only predicted the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor but how they would do it, it was rejected out of hand.

Those who've seen documentaries and feature films such as "Tora! Tora! Tora!" know before they pick up Jeff Shaara's accurate and well written "To Wake the Giant: A Novel of Pearl Harbor" that military commanders and diplomats in the late 1930s and early 1940s continued to reject a Japanese attack out of hand.

Having read all of Jeff Shaara's historical novels, often about subjects I've studied, I'm accustomed to his impeccable research as well as the fact he makes history so human and readable that by the end of each novel, one feels like s/he was there. Unfortunately, some early Amazon reader reviews said Shaara's research on "To Wake the Giant" was sloppy. Subsequently, those reviews were shown to be inaccurate.

Unlike battles that last for days or weeks or months, the attack itself was short. So this book had to be a little different, focusing for many pages on the events leading up to 8 a.m. (25 minutes later than Mitchell's prediction) on the morning of December 7th, 1941. The events prior to the attack not only demonstrate the viewpoints of the major political and military players but show the attitudes of men serving onboard the Arizona and other ships in Pearl Harbor. Shaara shows the attitudes and emotions of those involved months in advance but while the attack is underway.

The human factor looms large in this novel and that's one of its major strengths. Once again, Shaara has put us into the action in a way we'll never forget. 

 


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BigAl’s Books and Pals: Review

Malcolm R Campbell is an author who has lived in the Florida panhandle (where this novel is set) and is old enough to remember the final days of the KKK. His anger about that organisation continues to burn, and this is an angry book. Coincidentally, it has been released when we must, once again, reiterate that Black Lives Matter and that racism is a foul thing which must be resisted wherever it is encountered.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s set in Torreya, a fictional town in the Florida panhandle, in the mid-nineteen fifties. Domination by the KKK ran deep at that time in those southern places. All the same, although it put their lives in danger, there were those who resisted.

Source: BigAl’s Books and Pals: Review: Fate’s Arrows: 4 (Florida Folk Magic Stories) by Malcolm R Campbell

If you’ve ever seen any old movies about the cast of a play sitting around in a restaurant on opening night waiting for the reviews to come in, then you know how an author feels waiting for a reviewer to find a new book.

Whew, she liked it. And she’s from the UK where customs and language (including Southern dialect) are much different.  Click on the link above to read the complete review. Now I can get some sleep.

–Malcolm

Review: ‘Only Charlotte’ by Rosemary Poole-Carter

Only CharlotteOnly Charlotte by Rosemary Poole-Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rosemary-Poole-Carter, an adept within the Southern Gothic genre, brings us a deliciously tangled post Civil War novel in Only Charlotte in which three intertwined lives–Leonore James, her brother Dr. Gilbert Crew, and Charlotte Eden–rise and fall like storm-tossed lily pads in the brackish waters of the swampy morals of New Orleans.

Thrice-married Lenore (who is now alone again) opens up her house to her younger brother who uses it as a base for establishing a medical practice. In sections narrated by both Lenore and Gilbert, we see that the young doctor has become infatuated with Charlotte while treating her children. At the outset, Lenore sees nothing less than catastrophe coming out of this while Gilbert sees a young wife whose troubles go deeper than is generally known.

Lenore and Gilbert grow in sense and sensibility throughout this novel. Lenore, who sees herself somewhat in the role of Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is especially cautious about the problems Charlotte may or may not face because she is older than her volatile brother and well-schooled in the society’s rules and traditions. In a sense, Gilbert has a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach that might be based on his obvious love for Charlotte more than on the actual dangers she faces.

The novel is perfectly paced in a manner befitting a southern gothic novel, brings us multi-dimensional characters who have the capacity for change in an era in which “stagnant” and “corrupt” are watchwords, and a twisted mystery that is like a spiderweb in the dark. The prose is lyrical and exceptional and historically well-grounded in this highly recommended novel.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Lie to Me’ by J. T. Ellison

Lie to MeLie to Me by J.T. Ellison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suffice it to say, Sutton and Ethan aren’t enjoying a marriage made in Heaven. We learn as we read that they were not 100% truthful with each other wherever they said their vows and that, as time went by, the truth of the matter (any matter) became more blurred and got no better when Sutton disappeared and people started wondering if Ethan killed her. Or worse.

Some authors build tension by using an unreliable narrator. So, we can stipulate that both Ethan and Sutton are unreliable in multiple ways and that Sutton’s friends can, quite possibly, be trusted as far as one can throw them. Ethan learns this in spades: rather than receiving the support he presumes is due a husband whose wife has disappeared, he faces hostility.

In “Lie to Me,” J. T. Ellison has–to use an old fashioned phrase–created a dandy thriller that keeps readers chasing leads along with the police. Since the first part of the novel is told from Ethan’s point of view, we know he didn’t kill her. At least, we think we know that. Everyone is a suspect, it seems, and that’s what makes this–as lame as it is to say it–a page-turner.

The gossip about what might have happened to poor Sutton gets thick and vicious, and quite probably some of those gossiping have an agenda or an axe to grind. The reader doesn’t quite know. The beauty of Ellison’s plot–and our building knowledge about Sutton and Ethan–is that everything is in limbo and, perhaps, always has been.

Then, of course, we have to consider their dead child. Sutton never really wanted a child. So, did it really die of SIDS or was it something else? Both husband and wife are grieving the child’s death, so one must consider that they simply needed time away from each other. Whatever happened, Ethan is the one in the hot seat and Ellison’s great success over time has brought her all the tools she needs to keep her readers guessing and her characters squirming.

This is a very satisfying mystery from a master of the genre.

Malcolm

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Review: ‘Trust Me’ by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Trust MeTrust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Author Hank Ryan brings a resume of honors and awards for her work as a reporter and a novelist, and that alone promises that Trust Me will be a chilling mystery/thriller. And it is. The plot is complex, the characters are interesting (and occasionally flawed), and the story is compelling.

In a storyline reminiscent of the 2011 Casey Marie Anthony case in Florida and the 2017 Rachelle Bond case in Massachusetts, Ashlyn Bryant has been arrested for killing her young daughter, putting the body in a garbage bag, and dumping her in Boston Harbor. Journalist Mercer Hennessey, who is still grieving the recent deaths of her husband and daughter in a car accident, agrees with a colleague’s proposal to write a book about the trial partly as a way of getting herself on her feet again and partly because the public’s interest in the case might turn the book into a bestseller.

Like the majority of people following the case, Mercer believes Ashland is guilty but still thinks that through her research and her live TV feed from the courtroom, she can write an objective story. As she follows the story, Mercer is greatly conflicted about the death of her own daughter and any possibility Ashland could be found innocent.

The first major plot twist comes 180 pages into this 459-page novel when the verdict is announced, one that I won’t reveal here. Readers might wonder, what’s the author going to do with the rest of the book. The answer is somewhat malicious, in a well-written mystery/thriller kind of way. Through a rather unusual arrangement, Mercer is given access to Ashland so she can get more of the defendant’s personal story for the book.

Here is where the heavy psychological machinations begin. Mercer dispises Ashland and Ashland distrusts Mercer. Both have strong reasons for their feelings. By the time readers are nearing the end of the book, Mercer has grown to distrust everybody, including the colleague who got her the book contract, her late husband, another reporter on the case, and (of course) Ashland. She believes she’s being followed, that her life and Ashland’s lives are in danger, and that constructing a reasonable book is now the least of her problems. Trust Me is a very dark book, and the truth is flexible.

The second major plot twist occurs when Mercer decides the only way out of the deception and doubt is by turning the tables on one of those whom she thinks has been lying to her. Readers know she has something mind because she discusses the case with people she hasn’t talked with before and as that scene ends, she says “Here’s what I’m thinking.” But the reader isn’t a party to what that is. Two chapters later, the plot twist occurs. While it’s satisfactory, as is the novel’s conclusion, this plot twist involves an authorial trick.

We have been inside Mercer’s head for an entire book. We know what she worries about and that she plans to do next. Then, suddenly, a veil is thrown over her thoughts and in the pages leading up to the plot twist, she isn’t thinking about how to make it work, how to set it up, and how to keep it secret. In real life, Mercer would be fretting and pondering the details. As the book has been written up to this point, she would also be going over the details in her mind. But, we’re suddenly cut off from her thoughts in order for the surprise to be a surprise.

This is a point-of-view trick and it’s disappointing to see it used here when, quite likely, the plot twist would have been more harrowing if we’d known what it was and what Mercer was concerned about. While I knocked down the number of stars for this authorial trickery and for the repetitiveness of many of the conversations between Mercer and Ashland, I still see the book as an interesting read in spite of its flaws.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Temptation Rag’ by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

Temptation RagTemptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Temptation Rag immerses readers into a historical novel set during the heydey of ragtime (1895-1919) and vaudeville (1880 – 1920) with a cast of real and fictional characters grappling for love, freedom, and artistry in New York City. Ragtime gave way to jazz and vaudeville gave way to the cinema so, like almost every period in music and theater, the times were short, competitive, and bittersweet as talents and fortunes rose and fell depending on the inequalities imposed by the rich and famous, public taste, and racial/gender barriers.

Bernard’s story has a large cast of characters all of whom come across as multi-dimensional in her well-researched tableau. May Convery is a young woman from a rich family, who’s briefly smitten with vaudeville theater musical director Mike Gilbert at the beginning of his rise to fame as a ragtime composer and performer. Their lives criss-cross throughout the novel as they did in history in a soap opera basket of emotions that manages to haunt both of them forever.

As May finally comes into her own as an author and a volunteer in many causes, Mike’s life while seemingly larger and financially richer appears more brittle. Among all the vicissitudes of a musical career in the public eye, Mike is constantly compared with the popular performer Ben Harney who claims to have originated ragtime itself. Scott Joplin (“Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” both brought back to public attention in the 1973 movie “The Sting”) is in the stratosphere of rag, talked about in the novel but not a character.

May’s friendship with African-American singer Abbie Mitchell and African-American composer J. Rosamond Johnson gives strength to a primary theme of the novel: racial/gender inequalities. While the barriers were historically real and are well-shown in the novel, some of May’s feelings appear to have been slightly influenced by contemporary attitudes about race relations.

The characters are strong enough and complex enough to pull readers through this well-written story almost as though we’re watching their lives play out in modern times on the television news. When the novel’s last lines scroll past its readers’ eyes and Temptation Rag is stowed away on the bookshelf, May will remain in mind one way or another.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Juror #3’ by James Patterson and Nancy Allen

Juror #3Juror #3 by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When a reader buys a book that appears to be a novel, s/he has every right to expect a novel. That’s not what we get with “Juror #3.” Many novels include the words “a novel” on the cover and title page. This one doesn’t. Yet, the presentation implies a book-length story instead of a work that is essentially two short stories with many of the same characters. Without providing a spoiler here, suffice it to say that when the first court case suddenly ends midway through the book, many readers will be disappointed.

The premise is interesting. Fresh out of law school, Ruby Bozart returns to Rosedale, Mississippi where she spent part of her childhood living on the other side of the tracks. She hangs up a shingle, expecting to get her start by practising family law. To her surprise, a judge assigns her to handle a high-profile murder case that appears to be a slam dunk for the district attorney. A black football star has been accused of murdering a white lady at a local country club where he was working as a waiter. He was found with the victim, his hands and clothes covered with her blood.

Bozart is a compelling character. She’s smart and determined to fully represent her well-known client rather than walk through the case, and though she’s made her first friend in town–a fry cook at the local diner–she’s going to need substantial legal advice to go up against an experienced district attorney. As usual, there’s more here than meets the eye, including help from unexpected quarters: a savvy and out-of-the-blue law partner.

As a true novel, the book’s first story would have had more depth and the support characters would have been more fully developed. However, all of the characters are real within the book’s theme and setting, so Patterson fans won’t have any trouble staying up past their bedtimes to find out just what the deal is with the man sitting in the third chair in the jury box.

Once all is said and done and the case ends, Bozart’s former fiancé, the rich Lee Green, Jr., who comes from old money, asks Ruby to defend him against charges he murdered a prostitute in Vicksburg. He claims he’s innocent even though he was found passed out in a hotel room in bed with the dead call girl. Once again, Ruby is facing what appears to be a slam dunk for the prosecution. To make matters worse, the case has gotten so much press coverage in Vicksburg, Ruby doesn’t see how it’s possible for Lee to get a fair trial even if she really wanted to defend him, which she doesn’t.

After all, their engagement ended because he was unfaithful to her. On top of that, his family never accepted her as worthy of him. She takes the case anyway. Like the first story, Ruby shows that in spite of her paltry courtroom experience, she can maintain her poise in a battle against an experienced district attorney who’s just as smug as Lee’s family. Yet she needs more help figuring this case out than she did with the first case. That is to say, while she has gut-feeling suspicions about the prostitute’s death, her partner handles most of the “heavy lifting” that gets Ruby out of a life-threatening jam.

The second story contains many compelling twists and turns, but in general–in these kinds of books–one expects the protagonist to be the hero of the story. It’s probable that Ruby wouldn’t have survived to the end of the second case without her partner’s intervention. For many fans, this is going to weaken the story.

Both stories could have worked on their own had they been presented as short stories even though each of them needed a little more depth even within Patterson’s trademark fast-paced style. The book would have been better if it had been presented openly as two stories. What a shame that it wasn’t put together that way.

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Malcolm