Saturday, March 28, 2009

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers

In Clock Without Hands, Carson McCullers portrays what she sees as a typical Southern town in the late 1950's. The book starts with the story of the town pharmacist, J.T. Malone, who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. It goes on to explore the personality and relationships between other town residents. There is Fox Clane, a former Congressman and local judge. He is now elderly and stuck in the past, mourning the death of his son, Johnny years before. He has raised his grandson, Jester, by himself. But as Jester has gotten older, he is interested in new ways of relating and living in the South and he and his grandfather start to clash. Then there is Sherman Pew. Sherman was abandoned as a baby and shows his mixed heritage with his blue eyes in his African-American face. He both craves attention and is filled with hate and disgust for the white race he sees ruling everything around him.
The book seems to meander between plotlines to me. One chapter will follow Malone and his struggle to face his pending death while the next will focus on racial relations. The old segregationist mindset is explored and it's fallacies shown, but much of the point is lost in the vagueness of the book. Living in the South, I've met people like these, older people stuck in their ways and conflicting with younger people who are ready to move on and live a better, different way.
Carson McCullers has several noted books. These include The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and The Member Of The Wedding. She is considered one of America's best authors. I'm sorry that my introduction to her work was this book, which I was a bit disappointed in.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Conspiracy Of Silence by Martha Powers

Claire Prentice, a journalist, has come to Grand Rapids. Five months ago, her life was moving along steadily. She had a job she loved and was engaged to be married. Then she discovers that she was adopted, and that the woman she called her mother all her life, had not shared this with her. Thrown by this news, and by her adoptive mother's death, she comes to Grand Rapids where she believes her birth family's story can be found. Her seemingly perfect life is in tatters. So upset that she can't work, she has also ended her engagement after her fiance's reaction to her traumatic news. Her editor, who knows what is going on in Claire's life, gives her an assignment in Grand Rapids that can serve as cover while she searches for her personal story. She is to interview the reclusive novelist Nate Hansen for a magazine article.

On her first day in Grand Rapids, Claire starts an intensive, exhausting journey of discovery. She discovers that her name is not even Claire Prentice, but Abby Claire Newton. Her adoptive mother turns out to have been her aunt. She adopted Abby and changed her name after a family tragedy. Claire's mother, Lily, was murdered, and the murderer was her father, Jimmy Newton. Jimmy had confessed to the murder, left town and been killed himself in a railroad accident. Reeling, Claire is determined to find out more. Along the way, she is helped by the local librarian, various townspeople, and most importantly, by Nate. They have an instant connection which ripens into a romantic interest. His father had been the sheriff who investigated the murder, and as the sheriff, he never believed that Jimmy was the murderer. The book rackets up suspense with every chapter as the truth of that tragic night comes closer and closer to being revealed.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. The characters are well drawn, and the book moves along without straining the reader's incredulity. Reaching the climax of the book has the reader concentrated on the mystery, and satisfied when the truth is finally revealed. This book is recommended for suspense lovers and readers of romances.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Night Battles by M.F. Bloxam

In M.F. Bloxam's debut novel, The Night Battles, she has created an unforgettable character. Joan Severance, a history professor from Brown, has come to the small Italian town, Valparuta. New archieves from medieval times have just been opened to scholars for research. The town fathers hope that this will bring tourism to their town. La Professoressa, as the townspeople call her, is happy to have been chosen as the first scholar to review these archieves and discover what life was like in the area hundreds of years ago.

But all is not as it seems. Severance, far from being the esteemed scholar Valparuta thinks it is getting, is one step ahead of being discharged from Brown. Her academic career has been filled with appointments from one college to another, always leaving when it becomes clear she won't be renewed. Her personal life always emerges in a negative way, jeopardizing her career. She cares little for the opinions of others, having love affairs with colleagues and having little rein on her temper, resulting in actual physical violence against a student.

Yet Valparuta is also not what it seems. The head librarian, Chiesa, turns out to have his own secrets, and it is quickly clear that he is a drug addict. As Joan starts her research, she quickly discovers accounts of church trials of witches and what are known as benandanti. The benandanti were considered good witches, who traveled out of their bodies at night to fight the evil witches and assure bountiful harvests. Also considered a fertility cult and heretics by the Catholic Church, they were jailed and sometimes executed, and historians believed that they were stamped out. This discovery is major and Severance plans to organize her research around the topic. Yet, sinister events soon lead to the revelation that this is not a medieval belief in Valparuta. The entire town still believes in witches and benandanti, and everything revolves around the battles between the two sects.

The Night Battles is well written, and the tension mounts from the first page. The reader is quickly drawn into the beliefs of the town and its people, and many will find they must put down the book occasionally to take a break from the suspense. Both Joan Severance and Chiesa are well-drawn, and the more minor characters are also fleshed out believably. It is a major coup to make such beliefs in modern times appear believable and the mainspring of action, and Bloxam pulls it off. This book is recommended for suspense readers.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Burn Out by Marcia Muller

Sharon McCone has gone to a ranch to rethink her life. A long-time private investigator, she wonders if she has had enough of the death and corruption that she makes her living investigating. She is burned out, fresh from a case which almost took her life and she resolves to do nothing for a while. Fate has other plans. Her foreman's family is in trouble. His sister-in-law Meri, considered the town drunk, is in trouble. Her oldest daughter has been found murdered, and her younger daughter is missing. Sharon starts to poke around in the case to help out her foreman's family. Soon more and more bodies start appearing, and Sharon is drawn fully into the case. The murders seem related to an old crime that was never solved successfully.

Marcia Muller has written twenty-five other Sharon McCone mysteries. Fans of the series have watched Sharon from her start as a private investigator, to her rise and eventual ownership of an agency, and now through her questioning of her life. Readers of this series won't be disappointed in this latest version. I've read probably a dozen of her mysteries over the years, and reading one is like going to a reunion. The plots are tight, the characters are believable and the mysteries are always successfully resolved.

This book is recommended to all mystery readers. It is particularly nice to see a woman detective who is smart, successful and resourceful. Muller's McCone is all three and I always enjoy reading about her.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood

In The Survivors Club, author Ben Sherwood sets out to determine what makes people survivors. Why does one person survive a tragedy while another can't handle it and ends up broken or even dead? He interviews survivors in many categories as well as the prominent scientists in various professional circles. The result is an interesting, fact-filled book that outlines the common characteristics of survivors and what the average person can do to improve their survivability quotient. Sooner or later, everyone faces some life test, and preparation for this kind of test is key.

Each chapter starts with a true story of a person who survived an accident or situation that could result in severe injury or death. There were stories of airplane crash survivors, those who were left to survive in water, victims of car crashes, accidents of accidental shootings or falls and those who have had serious illnesses such as cancer or heart disease. The stories of crime victims and prisoner of war captives are given. After each story, the chapter talks about the scientific research relevant to the situation. It then ends with survival tips for that category.

In addition to these stories, research and tips, there is another interesting feature of the book. Readers can go online to and get a code to take a test that will rate their survival skills. The test results tell you what type of survivor you are and the three main strengths that you can draw on in a survivor situation. I was not surprised to find out that my survivor type was a fighter, as are 15% of the population. Having survived some fairly horrific family events, the thing that always got me through was a determination to get to the other side of the tragedy. Other survivors types include the Connector (28%), the Realist (24%), the Thinker (21%) and the Believer (12%). There are twelve survivor strengths. They are adaptability, resilence, purpose, tenacity, faith, hope, love, empathy, intelligence, ingenuity, flow and instinct. Again, unsurprisedly, my top three were resilience, purpse and tenacity. I've always said that the greatest gift I was given was an optimistic nature and this is indeed a powerful tool in the survivor's toolkit.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. The research was interesting and allayed fears, as facts often do. For example, I'm a horrible flyer, as I have no control in that situation. It helps to know the statistics of what percentage of flights are successful, and more importantly, the high number of survivors when a plane should crash. Sherwood has provided an exhaustive survey of this topic, and provided food for thought on many topics. This book is highly recommended for nonfiction readers and anyone interested in increasing their odds of surviving life's hits.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gazelle by Rikki Ducornet

Lyrically written, Gazelle by Rikki Ducornet, portrays a young girl's sexual awakening while her family is spending a year in Cairo. Elizabeth is thirteen, and is a sensitive girl who is devoted to her father. Her father is an academic and lives the life of the mind. Her mother, on the other hand, is an extremely physical person, and her time in Egypt is spent making romantic conquests of various men. After an especially cruel betrayal, the mother moves out and pursues her life without her husband and daughter.
Elizabeth and her father become close friends with an Egyptian perfumer, Ramses Ragab. Ragab owes a perfume shop, and his obsession is recreating the ancient scents from the past that have been lost. He is a sensitive and brilliant man, and provides a lifeline to the father, who has collapsed after his wife's departure. Elizabeth is entranced with Ragab, and fantasizes about him. She spends the summer lost in a series of dreams and beginning flirtations with Ragab, and longs to give herself to him. Her romantic fantasies are crushed when Ragab is involved in the ultimate betrayal.
The language in this book is langerous, and excites the various senses. It recalls that time we all went through as children, when we are ready to put down the toys of childhood and start to learn the joys and pleasures of adulthood. The story weaves back and forth between the present and the past, as Elizabeth recalls that time in her life. The reader learns of ancient Egyptian history, of magicians and mummies, of perfumes and the clash between the culture of Egypt and that of the visiting Americans. Relationships between men and women and how love can crush as well as exalt are explored. There is some sexual content that could be objectionable to some readers. This book is recommended for those readers willing to walk with Elizabeth on her voyage of self-discovery.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Like A Good Neighbor by Dwayne Murray, Sr.

Not for the faint-hearted, Like A Good Neighbor starts with an in-your-face scene of heartstopping violence. At an apartment building in Chicago, police have been called. Once there, they face a scene of mayhem. In almost every apartment, there has been a murder, a suicide, a maiming. It is one of the most horrific crimes ever seen. But one woman walks away....

Cut to New York. Raven Thorn has moved into another apartment building, and starts doing what she does best. An early blow in life has turned her into an evil manipulator, never happier than when creating havoc and chaos in others' lives, so that they will suffer as she has. Raven is a larger than life figure, gorgeous and sexy. She goes out of her way to insinuate herself into the lives of her new neighbors. She sympathesizes with a young woman trapped into being a caretaker for her insensitive, ungrateful father. She works her way into relationships, breaking up marriages. She encourages drug dealers. She uses her sexuality to bring teenagers, always impressionable, into conflict. There seems to be nothing she won't do.

The only people in the apartment building that seem to see through her try to fight back. Crystal is a young woman in recovery from a crack addiction. She sees the problems with Raven right away, but her insights are ignored by her neighbors. Eddie is a policeman, but wracked by guilt from an incident where a child was killed. He is slow to see the truth about Raven also.

Many readers will be put off by the violence, sex and language. For those who aren't, Dwayne Murray, Sr. has woven an intricate tale of suspense and a memorable character who will not be quickly forgotten.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bones by Jonathan Kellerman

A young woman's body has been found in a marsh. Selena Bass, the victim, is a pianist whose job is giving lessons to a wealthy family's child prodigy son. The case is given to Homicide Detective Milo Sturgis. He calls in his friend Dr. Alex Delaware. Delaware is a psychologist who works for the police as a consultant. The circumstances indicate that his expertise may be needed. Selena's body is left on display in the marsh, and the killer has called and left her location. More chilling, her right hand has been severed. Is this a tie-in to her profession as a pianist?

As the case progresses, complications arise. Three additional bodies are found in the marsh and all of them have severed right hands also. All the victims have been buried facing east. The older bodies are all women who worked the streets as prostitutes. The investigators go to talk with the wealthy family who employed Selena, only to find that they have gone overseas. They are left with only a caretaker who seems strange and reclusive, and the family's grown daughter, who doesn't live with the family and has only tangential information. More bad news occurs when the marsh's caretaker who found the first body is himself killed in the preserve. Soon other bodies are found, and the story gets more complex. The events seem to go back for many years, and each individual's history must be discovered and integrated with that of others.

Readers of the Alex Delaware series will be thrilled with this book. This is Kellerman's 23rd book in the series. I've been a fan for years, and this one is a master effort. But, readers who've never read any of the series will also find it intriguing. It is not necessary to know the background of the other books; Bones is more than capable of being read as a stand-alone thriller. Kellerman uses his background as a clinical psychologist to make all the characters lifelike and believable. Series characters change over time as they would in real life. The evil that man is capable of is outlined and the work of a detective is carefully followed. New characters are introduced in this book. I hope to meet some of them again in later books. It will be a sad day indeed when there are no more books in the Alex Delaware series. This book is highly recommended for mystery readers.