Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE LEGAL LIMIT by Martin Clark

Mason Hunt takes a break from law school to visit his mother and older brother Gates in Stuart, Virginia. Although Gates protected Mason from their violent father in their youth, he no longer has any redeeming qualities. He's a reckless drunk who can't hold down a job. Mason, though, still feels a brotherly obligation, even when he witnesses Gates's cold-blooded murder of Wayne Thompson, who fancies Gates's girlfriend. Mason takes charge by establishing an alibi and disposing of the murder weapon and any other incriminating evidence. This is obviously a very bad decision that will come back to bite him later. Gates fails to clean up his act and lands in prison on a felony drug conviction. Meanwhile, Mason has become the local commonwealth's attorney. When Gates's never-ending demands for Mason to help spring him yield no results, he goes a step further and fingers Mason for Wayne's murder. I love a good moral dilemma, but it's obvious from the start that Mason has made the mistake of a lifetime by covering for Gates. How he extricates himself requires some questionable ethical moves also, and the domino effect just keeps making things murkier and murkier. The story is based on a true story, and I don't usually like knowing that in advance. In this case, though, an innocent man's life is at stake, and I desperately wanted to know how it turned out. Of course, "innocent" here is a relative term, as Mason's obstructions to solving Wayne's murder have certainly left a bereft family without closure or retribution. The biggest surprise is at the end when the author, a circuit court judge, reveals his pivotal role in determining the outcome.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

THE SUMMONS by John Grisham

Ray Atlee, a law professor at the University of Virginia, has just received a summons from this father, a retired judge in Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss the estate. Judge Atlee is dying of cancer and is somewhat estranged from his two sons. Forrest, Ray's brother, is a seemingly incurable drug addict who has spent a lot of his father's money in unsuccessful rehab stints. When Ray arrives at the family home, he finds his father already dead, with an empty morphine pack nearby. Much to his surprise, he also finds boxes of cash totaling about $3 million, which is not mentioned in the will. Judge Atlee gave most of his money away and was not handsomely compensated during his years on the bench. Ray then goes on a quest to hide and protect the cash, even as he tries to find out where it came from and dreams of being able to afford the airplane he lusts after. Someone else knows about the money, though, and is trying to intimidate Ray into giving it up. Ray is a frustrating and flawed character, and I just wanted him to trust someone enough to tell them about the money and not let greed start to dictate his decisions. In a nutshell, that's what the book is ultimately about—trust and greed. Despite the smattering of clues, the ending came as a surprise to me. Stay tuned for The Legal Limit--a better legal thriller, also about a bad brother and a better brother.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I thought that an accidental was a sharp or flat in a piece of music whose key would not normally have that note as a sharp or flat—metaphorically something outside the norm. In this case a stranger, Amber, inserts herself into the lives of the Smart family while they are renting a summer home in Norfolk, England. She knocks on the door with the apology, "Sorry I'm late," and Michael and Eve each think that the other has invited her. Eve's teenage children, Magnus and Astrid, both soon become attached to this mysterious woman, and their lives are transformed. At the beginning of the book we find that Magnus has been a party to a prank that led to a fellow student's suicide. His guilt is so crushing that he can barely function, and yet the rest of the family chalks up his anti-social behavior to normal teen angst. At first I thought that this aspect of the family dynamic would make for an overwhelmingly depressing novel, but I was mistaken. Amber is the focal point, as she blurts out blunt truths that the family interprets as outrageous jokes, thus lightening the tone of an otherwise bleak story. I really enjoyed this book, particularly the sort of cyclical aspect to the ending, but I have 2 complaints. First of all, it is too much like the movie Six Degrees of Separation, although Amber never claims to be acquainted with or related to the Smarts or anyone else for that matter. My second complaint is that after I finished reading it, I felt that I must have missed something as far as the author's intentions. When the Smarts return home from their vacation, they are in for a couple of big surprises that give them all a chance to make a new beginning. Does Amber have anything to do with one of the surprises and therefore exert an influence on their lives beyond what we already know? That isn't clear, so that I have to assume that the author intended for us not to know, but I'm still wondering if I missed a clue.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova

'Tis the season for ghost and goblins—and vampires. Actually, vampires seem to be in vogue year-round these days. The title applies to almost everyone in the book, including Dracula, who doesn't just delve into ancient archives but has witnessed five hundred years of history firsthand, since his decapitation in the 1400s. Three other historians, not of the undead variety, have embarked on a sort of treasure hunt to locate Dracula's tomb and drive a stake through his heart. These three quests take place in sequential time periods. The first is that of Bartholomew Rossi, an academic who has stumbled onto manuscripts that would indicate that Dracula, a medieval Romanian tyrant, is still alive and tormenting anyone who happens upon his trail. Then Rossi suddenly vanishes, and his protégé, Paul, sets out to find him and guesses correctly that Dracula has something to do with Rossi's disappearance. Before Paul sets out for Eastern Europe, he meets a young woman, Helen, who claims to be Rossi's daughter. Then around 18 years later, Paul abandons his teenage daughter at a conference at Oxford University, because something has suddenly come up. A handsome student named Barley suspends his studies at Oxford to go to France with the daughter to find her father. Yes, everyone is dashing off to parts unknown, and it's a little confusing, especially since voluminous letters consume most of the book. As with many lengthy adventure tales, the culmination of the quest(s) is somewhat anti-climactic. Despite painstakingly detailed itineraries and descriptions of translated parchment documents, there's a lot here that defies reality, besides the obvious vampire lore. Paul and Helen miraculously weasel their way into communist bloc countries and somehow avoid spending the rest of their lives in a dark prison for grave-robbing. Then there are numerous convenient coincidences, where various vampire hunters cross paths serendipitously. Plus, the fact that everyone the world over believes vampires exist puts this book solidly in the realm of fantasy. And, coming in at over 600 pages, it needs to be really good fantasy in order to keep me entertained, and it falls short. Anne Rice still reigns in the vampire department.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

THE STONE DIARIES by Carol Shields

Daisy Goodwill's story is that of a conventional life, marked by some rather unusual events. The narration vacillates between first- and third-person, but the voice is mainly Daisy's, beginning with her obese mother's death in bearing Daisy in 1905 in rural Manitoba. Daisy's stonecutter father hands the infant off to a neighbor woman, Clarentine Flett, who leaves her husband to live with her grown son Barker, a botany professor. When Mrs. Flett dies suddenly, Barker is left in somewhat of a pickle. Since it would be unseemly for him to remain the guardian of a 12-year-old girl, Daisy's father Cuyler comes to collect her on his way to a better job in Bloomington, Indiana. His success there enables Daisy to marry a rich ne'er-do-well, but, alas, he jumps/falls from their hotel window during the honeymoon without ever consummating the marriage. (Homosexuality is assumed but never mentioned.) Daisy is now somewhat of a pariah as far as her marital prospects and decides to make a long trip, partly precipitated by her father's remarrying. The most anticipated stop in her journey is a visit to "Uncle" Barker, at least 20 years her senior, with whom she has kept a steady, though uninformative, correspondence. The book covers Daisy's entire life and is sort of a faux biography, complete with family tree and photos, the more recent of which are actually the author's children. I found these touches to be sort of playful on the author's part. As Daisy later goes on sort of a genealogical quest, I was bewildered that she never manifests any curiosity about her mother. As with real lives, some secrets are revealed along the way, and some remain buried when the one who harbors them dies.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Life is moving along swimmingly for an extended farm family in Iowa in 1979, until the patriarch, Larry Cook, decides to sign his 1000 acres over to his three daughters. Rose and Ginny both live on the land with their husbands, but Caroline is an attorney who balks at the plan and thus loses her share. It's unclear, really, why Larry suddenly decides to make this bequest, but afterward he starts behaving very strangely. Is it dementia, regret, revenge, or just orneriness? He's certainly become somewhat unmoored and hasn't gotten any nicer. Ginny and her husband Ty were formerly the slavish favored pair, but Rose's spunk has diminished Ginny's fear and bolstered her self-confidence. As Ginny begins to stop looking the other way when their father insults them and behaves like a spoiled child, Ty becomes uneasy, because Ginny is his link to the land and their livelihood. Ginny's sudden about-face is also partly inspired by Jess, a draft dodger who has recently returned from Canada, thanks to Jimmy Carter's amnesty. There's a lot of inner turmoil bubbling to the surface for all of these characters but especially for Ginny, who has suppressed her hurt and anger for so long that she has repressed key events, to the point that she questions her sister's veracity. This uncertainty, along with some not-so-friendly sisterly competition, causes Ginny to become unhinged and do some pretty radical stuff. Despite the seriousness of all this, there is one very funny scene near the beginning where a neighbor's parrot shouts some commands, such as "sit" and "roll over," sending the dogs into an obedient frenzy. My favorite sentiment, though, is at the end, when Ginny observes that the burden of having to wait and see what's going to happen has been lifted, but this anticipation is what motivates us readers to keep flipping the pages.