Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Terry Ambrose and License to Lie

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Terry Ambrose sets his second novel, License to Lie, in a beach city. So like his first novel, Photo Finish, we are treated to a beach dweller’s use of the sand and sea: “The fleet of ghostly fog ships was dissipating as the sun took control of the day.” And those descriptions fit the mood of his new character, a criminologist who works with the police, but doesn’t feel too good about himself at many points in the story: “The marine layer blanketed the sky above, the reflection of city lights gave the sky a dull sheen reminiscent of dirty white linoleum in a half-lit room.”

This novel is full of Terry’s subtle sense of humor and I found myself laughing out loud more than once and needing to turn pages fast. His criminologist is also a “forensic hypnotist.” How can you not read on to see what that’s all about?  And his second lead character, a stunning blonde, is “kidnapped by Bush and Nixon.”  No way I could put the book down there.

License to Lie is a detective story full of rapid plot twists, fun characters, and a computer-geek-saves-the-day ending. Ambrose tells the story through two protagonists. She is a con artist, a liar-for-profit with five million dollars of other people’s money in her bank account, and a cynic. He is her opposite, a criminologist, a hard worker, a guy with a soft spot for folks in trouble. She is definitely not attracted to him: “The last thing I needed was to be around a guy I couldn’t manipulate.” He tries hard not to fall in love with her:  “She was captivating, seductive, and something else–yes dangerous.” Together they must track down four kidnappers. It is this relationship full of friction which keeps our interest as the plot zips along.

Ambrose has carefully stacked the deck in this novel so that each chapter, like the flip of a card, reveals and entices. He piles on more and more complications with each chapter, giving us great details so that we can visualize each scene–including some very good fight scenes. And occasionally he throws in some wonderful descriptive sentences, poetic language that is never too much:  “The words came out as no more than a breath. Soft as the silk of my favorite blouse.”

This is well crafted storytelling.  I think it would make a great beach read.  Or, if you prop it up next to your Starbucks coffee, the beach will surround you anyway.  I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Milestone Tapes

Friday, May 18th, 2012

In her novel The Milestone Tapes Ashley Mackler-Paternostro tackles the difficult subject of dying.

The story centers around Jenna, a young wife and mother who is dying of cancer. Jenna tries to anticipate what her husband and daughter will do without her; she remembers the milestones of her life. She wants her own life to have been significant; she wants her daughter to remember her. To accomplish all this she chooses ten milestones from her own life, records the story of each, and leaves the tapes for her daughter to listen to when she passes the same milestones. That is how Jenna copes with “the hopeless realization that life will go on without her.”

The first part of the novel shows us Jenna in the present: the story of her life completed. The second part is her grown daughter’s story and the retelling of her mother’s life via the recorded memories.  This is a good plot device for presenting characters. Much of Jenna’s coming to grips with death is tedious–her hearing her medical details, her changing energy levels and fatigue. Mackler-Paternostro show us that. But mainly she shows us Jenna’s life prior to the diagnosis of cancer, her husband’s love, her own mother’s death. And a nice use of a subplot is Jenna’s sister Sophia’s life deconstructing in divorce as Jenna’s life is approaching death. With Jenna’s daughter’s seventh birthday party, Mackler-Paternostro juxtaposes a young, growing life with one that is ending. So we see the circular nature of reality.

The story is most effective and the scenes most engaging when presented in present tense with dialogue rather than recounted in a distant narrator’s voice. We feel the characters in that intimate presentation, as when Jenna’s husband says, “You’re here, and that’s all I’m focused on. You, right now–that’s it.” When Mackler-Paternostro shows us Jenna from within, the character is powerful:  “The comment was loaded. Jenna could feel its sharp edges.”

Less effective is the remote story telling:  “Jenna would sit up at night. . . .”; “They would often open a bottle of wine. . . .”; “Four years in Port Angeles flowed by.” When we are only told what happened, rather than put in a scene to hear the dialogue and feel the emotions, we lose contact with the characters.

Mackler-Paternostro gives some nice descriptions (we wish for more): “The evening mist rolled in, light, like the shaking of a snow-globe, swirling, disappearing before it reached the ground.” And “Thick waves of grey clouds spit a faint mist against the picture windows. . . .”

One line seems to catch the whole story: “Sophia worried a loose thread on her light, summer weight sweater.”

Like a loose thread, Jenna’s life needs tying up, fixing, sorting out. It is a life which only has one more summer to live.  So The Milestone Tapes touches on that loose thread and deals with it for us.

Book Review, Valerie Stocking’s The Promised Land

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Valerie Stocking has been a writer all her life, keeping journals, writing eighteen plays and a mystery novel. Her latest novel, The Promised Land, is the story she had to tell. In fact, she dedicates this book to one who “helped me get through the dark days of my childhood.”

The Promised Land reveals the very dark days of the 1960’s in a racially segregated American town. Autobiographically based, it is an account of a small town determined to maintain white supremacy, a town which considers “associating with coloreds unnatural.”

But the heroine, Joy, is on a different course.  Joy is a twelve year old girl caught between the racial hatred spewed by the adults in her world and her friendship with a mixed-race classmate, Clay. It is a world of white sheets and burning crosses seen very close up.

From the beginning of the story Joy is an outsider. She is ungainly, unfashionable, chunky. She is bored in school, invisible in social situations. She often feels the “icy clamp of fear. Her mother is paranoid, haunted by voices, and unpredictably violent towards her.

Stocking tells Joy’s story with vivid action-filled incidents, full of dialogue that does not shy away from words we no longer consider politically correct. But those words were absolutely deemed appropriate by white society. Her mother’s reaction when she finds out about Joy’s friendship with Clay reflects the novel’s theme: “He’s a half-breed. . . .The niggers won’t accept him and no decent, law-abiding white person would accept him, either.”

Her descriptions point us exactly where she wants us to go: “As they headed south, the air changed. To Jessica it smelled like poverty: the ripe, fetid stink of decay clinging to thick, unmoving air.”  We see clearly what she wants us to see: “Occasionally, she would cough as the smoke from her mother’s cigarette filtered around her in grey clouds.”

The Promised Land is well plotted on two fronts. First, each episode lays the groundwork for the final climax. We see a crowd become a mob. We see the mob kill. Second, each time Joy defends herself against her mother’s attacks we see the blossoming of courage which she needs for her final defense of her friend Clay. She faces death in the blazing light of the Klan’s burning cross.

Throughout the book we are right there with Joy struggling to decide where her loyalties lie.  Should she stay with her mother or move north to her father? Should she admit her bond with Clay? Only when she finally makes these choices does Joy leave childhood behind.

The Promised Land is excellent storytelling.  Highly recommended.

San Diego Maritime Museum’s Book by Bruce Linder about Cabrillo’s Ship

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Under construction, a replica of the Spanish galleon San Salvador

The San Diego Maritime Museum is constructing a replica of Cabrillo’s galleon.  At least it is what the scholars consider is probably what Cabrillo’s ship maybe looked like.  It is going up frame by frame at Spanish Landing in San Diego.  And it is taking shape in a section of the park which also has a blacksmith’s shop, a sail maker’s shop, and Kumeyaay Indian displays.

Bruce Linder has written an elegant book detailing what is known of Cabrillo and his voyage up the California coast in 1542, San Salvador, Cabrillo’s Galleon of Discovery.  Cabrillo seems to be an important, but elusive, explorer.  No records exist regarding the San Salvador’s construction, only a little is know of Cabrillo’s life, and less of his death on that voyage.  But what I like about the book is that Linder has presented a reasonable picture of the Spanish impetus to discover–mostly looking for gold, of course.  And he acknowledges that the Kumeyaay and Chumash Indians had an established culture already on our coast.  Linder sees the exploration of the western coast of California as a major turning point not only in map making, but also in world history, and   gives us information about the range of maritime knowledge in 1542 and puts us in touch with that world of exploration.   The book’s illustrations are superb, from the maps to the construction details of a Spanish galleon.

This is history that is not dull in a book worth looking at.