Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tell Me When It Hurts

Tell Me When It Hurts
by Christine M. Whitehead

(Hadley Press / 0-982-29460-3 / 978-0-982-29460-4 / June 2009 / 298 pages / $15.99)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

Here's the setup: a woman graduates from an Ivy-League college, and, uncertain of her career path, begins working as a low-level paper-pusher deep within the Justice Department, where she's eventually encouraged to volunteer for "special training" leading to advancement. It's a two-year course, but when she realizes she's being trained as a hit person (a skill at which she excels) she quits.

She goes to law school, marries, and has a daughter. The daughter is murdered by a sexual predator who gets off due to legal technicalities. The woman's marriage falls apart and she becomes a hard-drinking recluse, blaming herself for her daughter's death.

Then she's contacted by a shadowy group of "volunteers" who have organized to correct just such injustices, mainly by bushwhacking those miscreants who have managed to avoid the wheels of conventional justice. Let us not forget the woman is already trained as a professional assassin. Is this a great premise or what?

Archer Loh is the woman, and the Berkshires of Massachusetts is where she goes to lose herself. Connor McCall is the sheep-owning rancher from Wyoming who becomes her neighbor, thanks to a vacation from sheep shearing. McCall is a low-key, semi-wealthy, secure male, single, crinkly handsome, and a terrific cook among his other appealing attributes, and he begins to draw Archer Loh out of her isolation. Archer has deep psychological problems, however, so can McCall overcome these, and can Archer even grant herself permission to leave the past behind?

That's all the plot this review will mention, or needs to, surely. Any fan of the romance genre should be salivating by now. It's enough to note that the story is a romance, and that the author, for whom this is apparently a first novel, is devoted to the healing arts. The story winds to a conclusion that should satisfy fans of the genre. We will not split hairs over the ethics of private citizens deciding to eliminate other private citizens without the messy imprecision of the legal process.

It should be added that the editing and proofreading are nearly flawless, though the pacing flagged occasionally, and the style, while adequate, did not quite sparkle. The cover, which makes sense in retrospect, could be "grabbier" as well; especially more colorful. Still, the story was a fun read, and given the great concept with which it began, makes it worthwhile to look forward to other fiction by Ms. Whitehead.

See Also: Christine M. Whitehead's Website

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Saigon Connection

The Saigon Connection
by Darrel L. Rachel

(CreateSpace / 1-448-69334-9 / 978-1-448-69334-4 / August 2009 / 294 pages / $14.99)

Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

The Saigon Connection is a mystery thriller that starts in Saigon, South Vietnam, in August 1969. The first chapter does not tell us who is risking his life spying on a bunch of criminals. Even by the end of the book, I wasn't sure. The mystery man in the first chapter takes a few pictures, then, discovered, is on the run being chased through the streets of Saigon. At the end of the chapter, he barely escapes in a boat.

Chapter Two introduces a new character, Charlie Manwalker, an FBI agent working in the Oklahoma City area in 1981. At first, I wondered if Charlie was the unnamed character in Chapter One but soon discover that it wasn't him. However, Manwalker was in Vietnam, and may have been in the same military police unit with the mystery man.

Soon, Manwalker is investigating the deaths of other members of that military police unit he was part of twelve years earlier. One after another, members of that military unit are being murdered. There is an envelope full of pictures and copies of a ledger that makes no sense. Charlie is on a short leash since his boss wants him working other cases in a week or so. That's when the clock starts ticking, and Manwalker is off to California, following the evidence trail. It doesn't help that his wife may leave him if he stays away from home for an extended time.

Manwalker also has what appear to be flashbacks. He has trouble sleeping and seems riddled with guilt for something that happened in Vietnam. This plot device didn't work for me. It was more of an irritant. To find out what was behind the nightmares and guilt, I had to read most of the book. This device might have worked better if I had known the reason much earlier. Knowing what happened would have helped develop Manwalker's character.

Even with this flaw and a few others, The Saigon Connection held my interest, but I was often distracted by the poor copy editing like this one on page 282: "Where these warning shots, or was the (I'm leaving this word out so I don't reveal the mastermind behind the bad guys) a poor marksman?" That "Where" should have been "Were". Blemishes like this appear often.

I may be wrong, but The Saigon Connection reads like a rough draft that didn't go through much editing and maybe one or two revisions. With competition like the Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke, Darrel Rachel doesn't stand much of a chance to gain a loyal following of readers in this genre. Burke's character, Dave Robicheaux, is a police detective and a Vietnam veteran with a serious case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am a Vietnam veteran with a case of PTSD too, and I've read all of Burke's novels and I identify with Dave. I could not identify with Charley Manwalker. The "head" problems Manwalker brought back from Vietnam did not ring true.

Editor’s Note: Darrel L. Rachel apparently has no web presence at all outside Amazon. He has also released Cherokee Morning (2009) with CS and six earlier books through iUniverse: Letters from Abigail (2000), Nora’s Song (2000), No Man’s Home (2001), The Magnolias Still Bloom (2001), Balinger’s Lake (2002), and The Circling Eagle (2007).

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

When Mermaids Sing

When Mermaids Sing
by Mark Zvonkovic

(iUniverse / 1-440-16717-6 / 978-1-440-16717-1 / September 2009 / 248 pages / $16.95 / B&N $13.56 / hardcover $26.95 / Amazon $19.40)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Larry Brown's musings about life as he observes it are insightful, humorous and often jaded. Outwardly, the protagonist of Mark Zvonkovic's gently written novel When Mermaids Sing is a pleasant, unassuming Medford, PA, high school English teacher who tries to get along with everyone and avoid conflicts.

He often feels manipulated by the requirements of his teaching job and the endless expectations of his parents and his girlfriend Millie. Brown's parents, both college teachers, expect him to play a role in their world, while Millie, an actress who might be cheating on him, expects him to make dutiful appearances in her social and family life. At work, where he may not really be happy, he's hoping to be granted tenure, and his cousin Bradley has joined a cult and might have lost himself in the addictive peace it provides.

Brown can ponder the humor and the irony of such realities because he has a "cure”. He copes with the chaos of his job and his relationships by retreating into memories of the halcyon summer days of his youth at a Cape Cod vacation house with his siblings and cousins. Those were the best years of his life. The present cannot compete with them. He doesn't want it to. Henry David Thoreau once said of Cape Cod's Outer Beach, "A man may stand there and put all America behind him." Likewise, Brown retreats to the house of his youth to put all of life's troubling challenges behind him.

While making an obligatory appearance at his father's annual party for freshmen college students, Brown meets a personable young woman named Jenny with a strong aversion to cults. Her brother Josh has joined the charismatic Path to God, the same group to which Bradley has sworn allegiance, if not his soul. Jenny complains that Josh has repudiated their father as Satan and "become a different person”. A psychiatrist at the party remarks that the sudden personality change exhibited by cult members is due to brainwashing, not hypnosis. This, and the lack of fences and armed guards at an ashram, make it difficult for families to intervene.

Brown vacillates about the difference between the freedom to choose a path others don't agree with and losing one's freedom through brainwashing and choosing the same path. Jenny's family is no longer splitting hairs. They've engaged the services of a well-known deprogrammer to help them extract Josh from the Cape Cod ashram even though everyone involved might end up being charged with kidnapping.

When Jenny points out that Bradley and Josh are together at the same place and enlists Brown's help, he can no longer ignore the issue as a mere philosophical topic for debate. Will Brown help Jenny, Bradley and Josh? He would rather not, because if he does, he will have to admit there's more involved here than the rescue of two impressionable young people from the brainwashing of a cult. He will finally have to take a stand on something and answer a lingering question. Is escaping life by running away to a cult different than running away to the past?

The title of Zvonkovic's carefully written novel is suggested by a line from John Donne's playful “Go and Catch A Falling Star”. Catching falling stars and hearing mermaids singing are, in Donne's thinking, rather unlikely events. Readers of When Mermaids Sing may wonder whether substantive change in Larry Brown is also unlikely. As literary fiction, the story relies heavily on theme, interior monologue and a strong sense of place rather than non-stop action on its introspective journey to a powerful conclusion.

See Also: The March of Books Review
The Good Reads Review

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Holt Uncensored

A few minutes ago I stumbled upon the fact that Patricia Holt is once again writing her outstanding blog about writers entitled Holt Uncensored. Pat Holt is absolutely my favorite of all the many writers who blog about authors and writing from a traditionally published perspective. She used to be the Review Editor at The San Francisco Chronicle. The first version of Holt Uncensored was launched in 1998. Back in the good old days of my naive ignorance of the real truths concerning the POD industry, I used to read her blog religiously. When I discovered her work in 1999, I even went back and read the whole damn thing from the very first post. Pat Holt has a very intelligent, candid, compassionate attitude toward writers of all types. Now after a three-year hiatus, she has brought Holt Uncensored back to life! From this point forward, I recommend that all readers of PODBRAM check out Holt Uncensored for a nice, alternative, unbiased viewpoint. You can start with this excellent post. A link has been added to the left column for future reference. I offer a hearty Welcome back, Pat!