Blogs

Richard North Patterson’s “Loss of Innocence”

Nothing reveals character better than conflict, adversity and resolution. What matters even more than what a protagonist wants and the obstacles they encounter is the way they respond to those obstacles. By this process, over the course of a novel, we see that person grow and evolve. Conflict and adversity don’t always depend on body count, as multi-ward-winning writer Richard North Patterson’s Loss of Innocence shows. Fading actress Carla Pacelli travels to Martha’s Vineyard to visit aging author Whitney Dane. Their one common experience is that both once loved the same man, the father of Carla’s unborn child, Benjamin Blaine. A resident of Massachusetts’ picturesque coast, Patterson paints his scenery with the loving care and painstaking detail of an Andrew Wyeth. His prose reads like liquid gold. But it’s his dialog and the meticulous development of his personae that makes his work so powerful. Each word spoken by his characters…

Bull Mountain

McFalls County Sheriff Clayton Burroughs has a problem. He’s spent his entire adult life distancing himself from his violent and dysfunctional family on Bull Mountain. Into Clayton’s office walks Federal Agent Simon Holly with an interesting proposition. If Clayton can convince his older brother and last living family member, Halford, to shut down his meth labs and rat out his gun supplier, Holly agrees not to burn down the mountain with a massive FBI, ATF, DEA and IRS operation. Halford, Holly promises, can simply retire on his hard-earned fortune and live out his life in peace. This presents Clayton with two problems. First, Halford is the kind of crazy that makes Charles Manson look like an Eagle Scout. He thumbs his nose at the law, Clayton especially, because he can. It’s not about the money and never has been. It’s about Halford’s notions of family. To make matters worse, we…

Will Ottinger’s “The Last van Gogh”

Chicago gallery owner Adam Barrow stages a gala event that he hopes will save his venture from financial ruin. He invites wealthy patrons from throughout the city. In stumbles an unwanted guest. Adam’s drunken brother, Wes, has found two letters, decades old, one from their now dead father and the other, dated November 1941 from an American diplomat in Madrid, also deceased. The diplomat claims to have rescued a lost and previously unknown van Gogh from Nazi art thieves. The father, an alcoholic and notorious fraud, claims to have hidden the painting but never discloses its location. The painting, if genuine, would have a value in the hundreds of millions. Skeptical, Adam agrees to search for it, with the financial backing of international financier and former British intelligence officer, Phillip Dansby. What ensues is a high-speed treasure hunt across Europe and the U.S. Adam and his beautiful ex-KGB companion must…

Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires

Every now and then, an historical novel comes along that casts a harsh light into a dark and unfamiliar corner of our past. The Hidden Light of Northern Fires is just such a work. Daren Wang’s story opens in the winter of 1861. Like any compelling story, it introduces us to complicated characters striving against adversaries without and demons within. Joe Bell is a runaway slave pursued by Northern bounty hunters and his obsessed and homicidal former master. His route brings him to the tiny hamlet of Town Line, New York, a bastion of pro-Southern sentiment on the doorstep of Canada and the elusive prize of freedom. Along his journey, Joe carries with him deep pangs of guilt for leaving his sister, Alaura, alone to the mercies of their owner and half-brother, Yates Bell. Bleeding from a festering dog bite, Joe happens upon the farm of Nathan Willis, where he…

Rod Picott’s Out Past the Wires

What makes a well-crafted short story is the writer’s ability to create an identifiable character, distill that character’s experience down to a couple thousand well selected words and convey an underlying theme that teaches us something about life. I met author and singer-songwriter Rod Picott at an independent bookstore a couple of years ago,. I left with an autographed copy of Out Past the Wires. Each of Picott’s eleven offerings is a tightly distilled portrait, written in clean and straightforward prose. His characters are the kind of folks we might encounter on a commuter train, seated in a small-town diner or in a crowded hall outside a courtroom. We cross paths with them but for a moment, and leave feeling we’ve known them all our lives. In “A Cow Named Burger King,” for example, we meet reclusive dairy farmer Jim Miller, who, over the objections of his wife, purchased a…

Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl

How do you review a non-fiction classic that generations of students and scholars have read, reread, studied and critiqued? Perhaps by looking at what it still says to us in times of individual and societal crises. Writing in 1946 following his liberation, Frankl begins with a personal account of his struggle to survive a series of Nazi concentration camps. Throughout his imprisonment he sought to understand why some prisoners survived horrific physical and emotional deprivations while others perished. In doing so, he drew on his earlier experience as a renowned therapist and protégé of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. His conclusion was that our ability to find a purpose in life and envision our future is what keeps us going. For Frankl, that purpose included the publication of a book he’d begun writing prior to his arrest and his dream of reuniting with his family. Sadly, he lost the original…

Barrayar – by Lois McMaster Bujold

Winner of four Hugo awards for best novel, Lois McMaster Bujold never disappoints. Having read Cryoburn, the most recent of her fourteen-book Vorkosigan saga, I decided to go back to the beginning. When I found the second installment, Barrayar, I read it immediately. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan finds herself, to borrow from Robert Heinlein, a stranger in a strange land. Having helped her husband Aral overcome murderous mutineers in the earlier novel, she has now relocated to his home planet of Barrayar. Compared to her native Beta Colony, Barrayar is a wild and untamed planet reminiscent of tsarist Russia, as Bujold’s choices of names, such as Piotr and Gregor, makes quite clear. Following the death of his only son, Barrayar’s dying Emperor Ezar Vorbarra has appointed Aral regent to his infant grandson and heir to the throne. Cordelia finds herself fighting to protect both Aral and their unborn child from a…

Works in Progress

In Last Gleaming – Love and Death in the Time of Pandemic, William Wakefield, whom Parker’s readers will remember from Pronounced Ponce, is now a college freshman. He meets and falls in love with Misty Sax, whom we met in Fly Away. William is pursuing his dreams of becoming a journalist. With help from his grandfather, Tom Williams, William is already penning features about the new life-altering technologies generated by Atlanta area universities. Misty’s plans to transfer to the University of Georgia, however, threaten to toss a wet blanket on their budding relationship. Detective Beth Long, recently returned to the Atlanta Police Department from maternity leave, investigates a grisly murder scene in West Midtown, one that lays bare a child prostitution operation that threatens a U.S. senate candidate’s career. Set against a backdrop of industrial espionage and international intrigue, William and Misty’s progress seems doomed… Then COVID-19 hits.

Talking to Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

Published in 2019, Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers couldn’t be timelier. Gladwell opens with the case of Sandra Bland, a young African American woman pulled over by a white police officer in a small Texas town in July 2015. Supposedly, she fails to signal a lane change. What begins as a routine traffic stop quickly escalates into an argument, with Officer Brian Encinia dragging Bland from her car and arresting her. Three days later Bland commits suicide in her cell. What differentiates Gladwell’s account of this all too familiar event is his exploration of the mindsets of Bland and Encinia as examples of the ways we misunderstand each other based on assumptions about race and policing. In his typically methodical fashion, the author systematically takes apart common beliefs about how we communicate. Gladwell cites results of surveys indicating fundamental differences in what college-aged men and women see as sexual consent….