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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

Review: ‘Border Pieces’ by Pam Robertson

Border Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld NovellaBorder Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld Novella by Pam Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This exceptionally well-written book is several books in one. It’s a covert ops book and it’s a heroine’s journey book. Some readers will be disappointed when the covert ops plot and page-turning action in the first section of the book don’t continue into the next section. However, readers who appreciate characters with depth and multiple dimensions will keep reading even though (initially) the sudden change of pace is somewhat disconcerting.

I won’t include spoilers here. Suffice it to say, being a spy exposes one to injuries and other losses. Morgan and her partner Jake need time to heal and find themselves. Morgan learns that it’s one thing to heal from physical injuries and a very different matter to get her mind right and connect to skills she does not, as yet, understand or fully use in support of the missions. Understanding this is her journey, a journey made more difficult by the loss of a colleague during an otherwise successful mission.

Here readers will see a very talented, almost natural covert operative who lives and breathes the work she does, yet considers leaving the service because tragedies and other losses cannot be undone. It would be easy for her to retire and write a book about her exploits. Morgan’s grappling with her underdeveloped intuition and how to apply it in a business that’s more and more technology-based is an important part of the book’s theme. If she can figure all that out, she’ll probably become even more successful as a covert operative.

If I were an editor, I would ask for somewhat smoother transitions between the sections, especially one that shifts from an in-progress, real-time operation to a time many months later then we learn how that mission ended. I think it would have been stronger if it had been shown in real-time. However, that is my somewhat subjective feeling.

I liked the major focus of the plot on Morgan Windfeld’s personal and professional development, including her doubts and fears. This is a strong novel that appears to be the first in a series we can all look forward to following.

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a shame that this book had to wait so many years to find a publisher. But we finally have Cudjo Lewis story. In her beautiful foreword, Alice Walker writes that “I’m not sure there was ever a harder story to read than this…” I agree. The story is unique in many ways: Cudjo, whose real name was Kossola, tells a story that includes his life in Africa and his life during the “Middle Passage” voyage to the United States after the slave trade was banned.  Most histories don’t include life in Africa or on the slave ship.

His story is dear because he wanted to tell it and because Hurston was a skilled anthropologist and knew how to collect stories. The story is dear because you can feel its truth in your bones; Hurston did not intrude herself or her perspectives into the narrative. And then, too, Curjo speaks in his own English dialect and that adds great depth and reality to the tale. We hear that Hurston couldn’t publish the book when she wrote it because the publishers wanted her to get rid of the dialect. I didn’t find it to be a problem even though a fair number of Amazon reader reviews say the dialect was hard to read. No, it wasn’t.

Cudjo has some traditional tales of his own to tell. These appear an appendix so that they won’t disrupt his story about being captured by blacks, placed in a barracoon (slave house), sold to whites, and then having to endure many days at sea before ending up at a plantation where he was expected to work. The experience seems incomprehensible to him. So, too, is the fact that once he’s set free, he has no money and no land, so where is he supposed to go?

Deborah G. Plant has done a fine job editing the material and writing an afterword and a glossary that place Cudjo’s story in perspective. Readers have a choice because the editor’s comments were placed in this separate section rather than being distributed throughout the narrative as lengthy and jarring footnotes. As such, you can read the story and then look at the added material–or simply read the story as a lover of Hurston’s works and/or oral history.

Cudjo’s story is filled with great loss, great wisdom, and–strange as it may seem–more humor than anger for a man torn away from the country of his birth and forced to live and work and endure a hard existence in a country where he was never whole again.

Malcolm

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‘American Trinity’ – Devastating perspectives about how the West was won

American Trinity: Jefferson, Custer, and the Spirit of the West, by Larry Len Peterson, Sweetgrass Books (August 1, 2017), 728 pages.

How did we “win” the west?

Our legends, movies, and novels present derring-do accounts of triumphs over a wondrous, yet dangerous environment; perseverance against inhospitable weather; heroic families and individuals undergoing multiple hardships in a search for the promised land; and surviving battles with rustlers, gunslingers and Indians.

Our high school history books presented Manifest Destiny as the the holy grail of America’s consciousness facilitated by soldiers, missionaries, and heroes who–sanctioned by reason, wisdom, and the Almighty–kicked the snakes out of Eden and made it accessible to pioneers, family farms, and continental commerce.

The focus of this well-researched, scholarly and accessible book comes from Peterson’s statement in the preface: “I have been haunted by the question: who were we and who are we as Americans and a nation? I believe a nation is defined by the people who create its history, and they are remembered by the authors who write their biographies. Reflecting on that era and all its symbolic meaning, I’ve wrestled with explanations to make sense of why the Indian’s way of life was destroyed and what authority justified it.”

The short answers to “what authority justified it,” which are presented in his broad-in-scope book that carries readers deep into the past for information, are religion, disease, the principles of the Enlightenment, European colonization, Social Darwinism, and military force.

American Trinity was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2017 by True West magazine.

From the Publisher: “American Trinity is for everyone who loves the American West and wants to learn more about the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is a sprawling story with a scholarly approach in method but accessible in manner. In this innovative examination, Dr. Larry Len Peterson explores the origins, development, and consequences of hatred and racism from the time modern humans left Africa 100,000 years ago to the forced placement of Indian children on off-reservation schools far from home in the late 1800s. Along the way, dozens of notable individuals and cultures are profiled. Many historical events turned on the lives of legendary Americans like the “Father of the West” Thomas Jefferson, and the “Son of the West” George Armstrong Custer – two strange companions who shared an unshakable sense of their own skills – as their interpretation of truths motivated them in the winning of the West.”

From reviewer Stuart Rosebook, “Truewest Magazine”: “Readers will quickly discover that the strength of Peterson’s American Trinity’s is in the depth of his research and personal introspection throughout his 725-page book. As Peterson states in his Preface & Acknowledgments: “The American Trinity is older and bigger than the American West. It is the story of the grand sweep of human experiences and their eventual influence on white racist attitudes toward Native Americans. History is important. When there is no knowledge of the past, there cannot be a vision of the future.”

Peterson, in the words of his editor, writes Jim Cornelius in “Frontier Partisans,” set out to “challenge views without demanding that you change yours.” He is not grinding an ideological ax – but he is facing up to some difficult history. A man of deep faith, Peterson wrestles with the role religion played in justifying conquest and the stripping of culture away from native peoples. A doctor and a man of science, he grapples with the use of ‘scientific racism’ to rationalize oppression.”

We think we know the west from watching “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke” and “How the West Was Won.” The reality of the west and why we were drawn there as a young nation is much deeper and wider than TV serials and movies suggest. That reality not only prompts us to ask our ancestors “what were you thinking?” but prompts us to reassess what we’re thinking now.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Invisible Library’

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very clever fantasy involving a protagonist who works for a library that exists between worlds. Her mission, which is rather like a James Bond in search of books, is to find and obtain meaningful texts in alternate worlds and bring them back to headquarters.

In some ways, the book is mix of fantasy, faerie and steampunk because the alternate realities have their own systems and amount of magic, including fae, werewolfs, and dragons. The main character, Irene, is a junior level librarian with a fair amount of experience. On the current mission, she’s assigned to take a long a student for whom she will be a mentor. This makes her job more difficult while making the plot more interesting.

As it turns out, there are many factions in the “London” to which she is sent, all of whom seem to know about the rare book. She has to figure out who, if anyone, can be trusted.

The book has a lot of talk in it, and by that I meant Irene and her student have to talk a lot, but are also thrust into situations where they–and potential allies and villains alike–are constantly having to explain things to each other. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Bond films wherein when the bad guy gets the upper hand, he always has an egotistical need to explain the wonders of his technology and his plans–giving Bond a chance to get the drop of him and win the day.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of intrigue here along with some action scenes that will knock your sox off. The book kept my interest enough to tempt me into placing the next book “The Masked City,” on my reading list.

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Review: ‘The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto’

The Magic Strings of Frankie PrestoThe Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mitch Albom’s words and the songs they play in “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” comprise a “Pure Perfect Fifth,” a term related to an ancient system of musical tuning that has been linked to alchemy and the transformation of souls. Narrated by Music himself, this tale about an orphan from Villareal, Spain who becomes the best guitar player in existence is the quintessence of a well-told tale accompanied by the music of the spheres and the wisdom of many players.

Frankie’s mentor, known as El Maestro, reveres composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega, teaches the classics, demands constant practice, and tells his young student to respect his left hand by keeping the nails trimmed so that the sensitive fingertips feel the pain of every note. They begin with Tárrega’s “Lágrima” (teardrop), and that song becomes a fitting leitmotiv throughout the novel.

Frankie can play it all, from the free strokes and rest strokes of Spanish guitar, to every standard rock and roll chord progression, to the worried notes of the twelve-bar blues. Though Frankie Presto plays a guitar with magic strings, his life is almost pure blues, pure “Lágrima.”

He is forever haunted by the violent unknowns of his childhood, people who suddenly go missing, the comings and goings of fame and not fame, his lover Aurora’s long absences, injuries and penances, and the on-going conflict between a beautiful voice that makes him rich and a guitar technique that nourishes his soul. Once, when he told El Maestro he wanted to be perfect as both a singer and a guitar player, Le Maestro said that both was the same as neither.

Frankie is forever running and forever searching. Through it all, his music leads him while he feels the pain of every note. Near the beginning of Albom’s novel, we learn that Frankie is dead, that we are standing around before the funeral talking with Music about Frankie’s life through a Chroma-filled remembrance that includes all his sharps and flats and rests. His story is filled with mystery, too, the unexpected riffs that come out of nowhere like the here-and-gone notes of a jam session, moments that fall together that had seemed separate, and a hidden continuity Frankie doesn’t know about until late in life. The unexpected arises again and again in different keys from the walking base line that drives the story measure by exceptional measure. And he wonders, is this gig destined synchronicity or perfectly orchestrated manipulation. He will have to decide that before the plays his last song.

By the end of the novel, with the help of an all-wise narrator and the testimonies of those who knew him in ages past, Frankie knows everything about himself and his magic strings, why things happened as they did, and the blessings of music as his song resolves into a coda of joy with a lasting counterpoint of “Lágrima.”

–Malcolm

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