Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life

by Pat Conroy
Nan Talese     2016
320 pages     Essays

Pat Conroy, the South's quintessential author, died on March 4 of this year, and today would have been his 71st birthday. A Lowcountry Heart is a last collection of his writings, from blog postings to interviews, and some speeches. It also includes a few eulogies and memorial writings.

He was a consummate story teller. We know him for his most famous books: The Prince of Tides, The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline, all of which were made into movies.  All of his books are filled with the beauty of the South Carolina seacoast, where he lived and where he died. As I was reading A Lowcountry Heart, I watched the movie The Prince of Tides once again—what a great story. Each blog posting and essay in the book tells of a larger-than-life soul who loved people, loved life, and loved the Low Country. One reviewer says, "Conroy’s lighthearted and eminently memorable pieces offer a unique window into the life of a true titan of Southern writing."

Conroy began each of his blog postings, "Hey Out There!" What a lovely greeting. Over and over in the essays and blog postings in A Lowcountry Heart, Conroy speaks of trying to live while knowing deep inside that he is dying. In one posting, he talks about his struggle to get fit following a bad health scare. He says that he and a trainer opened a health studio in Beaufort South Carolina because "there are four or five more books I'd like to write before I meet with Jesus of Nazareth—as my mother promised me—on the day of my untimely death, or reconcile myself to a long stretch of nothingness as my nonbelieving friends insist." 

Well, his efforts were not enough to save him. After his death his friends and family gathered his last writings into this lovely book. They also created the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, which is a charming building dedicated to the literary arts and will feature events, workshops, and writing classes. Here is a link to it. 

I received a copy of the book from my friend Marly Rusoff, who was Conroy's literary agent. She is the founding director of the Literary Center. The Center is establishing a literary festival which will take place this week every year.What a wonderful tribute to a great author.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Candidate

by Lis Wiehl
with Sebastian Stuart
Thomas Nelson     2016
332 pages     Thriller

The Candidate by Lis Wiehl makes the 2016 presidential campaign we are witnessing look tame—if such a thing is possible.

Erica Sparks, who rose to fame as a GNN news star in the thriller, The Newsmakers by Lis Wiehl,  has become a well established, well regarded nightly news anchor on the GNN network. She also has custody of her young daughter, Jenny, for the first time since her divorce, and she is struggling to keep it all together. The new President of GNN news is pushing her hard to reach the top spot on the nightly news ratings, and she feels enormous pressure to stay on top.

The presidential campaign is in full swing. It is filled with newsworthy aspects; the Republican candidate is a woman senator from Minnesota, and the Democrat is Hispanic from California.  Erica's investigative nose for news begins to sniff overtime when she interviews the Democratic candidate Mike Ortiz and his wife Celeste. Something is just not right about that pair. Ortiz seems way too dependent on his wife, and she is just too much in control. And then there is the gorgeous campaign manager, Lily.  As Erica begins to put together lengthy features about the two candidates, people start dying all around her, including the young woman she has hired to be her personal assistant to help with child care for her daughter. (By the way, Erica is not much of a mother.) Now concerned about the safety of her daughter, Jenny returns to her father and  Erica gets approval from her boss to plunge into the mystery. Erica is more concerned with the story than with her own safety as she travels to Iraq where Ortiz had been held hostage during the Iraq War. While there, she makes a startling discovery that pushes the plot forward at a furious pace to a shocking conclusion at the third presidential debate where Erica serves as the moderator. 

Despite a lot of inconsistencies (like how many nightly newscasters are such daring investigators), this is a fun read. For all her failings, primarily as a mother, Erica has a great investigative nose and a daring spirit. The plot is contrived but compelling. I knew I wasn't reading great literature. I didn't identify with any of the characters, except for the poor, abandoned daughter, Jenny. And I thought that Erica might be just a little bit too smart for her own good. But—I kept reading.

The question I have is one that you probably will ask yourself as you read The Candidate during this month of election frenzy. In an age of media attention to every tiny detail of the presidential candidates, why is Erica Sparks the only one to notice candidate Mike Ortiz's vacant stare and inappropriate smiles? Why did no one else notice Celeste's overbearing nature or her attachment to the campaign manager Lily. At least these impenetrable questions are a delightful diversion from the reality of this year's real-life campaign's craziness.

Lis Wiehl is a lawyer but more importantly a news analyst at Fox News. She brings her legal and television experience to her Newsmaker's series of thrillers. The Candidate is the second in the series. I think that this book makes more sense if you read The Newsmakers first.

Lis Wiehl's website.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


by Robert K. Tanenbaum
Gallery Books     2016
368 pages     Thriller

This thriller is part espionage, part political intrigue, part government corruption, and part legal procedural. Infamy sets out to please everyone except those who like character-driven novels. You aren't going to get to know any characters in Infamy by Robert Tanenbaum. But that's not the point. The point is the plot.  
I had never met New York District Attorney Butch Karp—although he has appeared in many other novels by Tanenbaum. His wife, Marlene Ciampi, who usually helps to solve the crime, only appears in the periphery of this episode. In this case, Karp is prosecuting an army veteran who has killed an important army Colonel in cold blood in the middle of Central Park. But that's not all. The perpetrator says that he was set up, and there is a conspiracy afoot. Well, Karp, who seems to have a finger in every convenient pie, knows something about this conspiracy, code named MIRAGE. His daughter, Lucy, just happened to be at a site in Syria where some bloody murders in the name of MIRAGE went down. How are the murder and MIRAGE connected?

But oh, there are more coincidences. It seems that a wealthy businessman, Wellington Constantine, is mixed up in this somehow as well. He keeps a daily journal conveniently kept in his house that talks about MIRAGE. He also has an unfaithful wife, and a murderous assistant. And wonder of wonders, the man Constantine's wife is having an affair with just happens to be Richie Bryers, who played basketball with Butch Karp in high school.  (This, by the way, just seemed too coincidental and contrived to me. Does it to you?) Then, of course, there is the White House that somehow seems to be involved in the whole mess, although Tanenbaum doesn't implicate the President in MIRAGE. He also doesn't explore how high-up the plot goes. The plot is a perfect s--t storm. 

Regarding characters, the only interesting character is a sexy Russian spy named Nadya Malova, and she is the one who held my attention the most. She appears several times, most prominently in the courtroom scenes that end the book. If this were in the movie, I would want to play her.   

Thank goodness, we finally arrive at the courtroom scenes; first the murder trial in the Central Park killing and then in Wellington Constantine's conspiracy to murder trial. It is in the courtroom scenes that Tanenbaum shines, and I guess this is why people read his books. This last third of the book was really quite good. The litigation scenes move quickly and expertly, and Karp's prosecution was foolproof, at least in the opinion of a lawyer/reviewer. Read his review—it's good.

Robert K. Tanenbaum is one of the country's most successful trial lawyers—he has never lost a felony case. He has been Bureau Chief of the New York Criminal Courts, ran the Homicide Bureau for the New York District Attorney's Office, and served as Deputy Chief Counsel to the Congressional Committee investigations into the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He has taught Advanced Criminal Procedure at his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. His previous works include the novels Fatal Conceit, Bad Faith, Tragic, Outrage, Betrayed, Capture, and Escape; and three true-crime books, Echoes of My Soul, The Piano Teacher: The True Story of a Psychotic Killer, and Badge of the Assassin.

I received Infamy from the publicist. She sends me great books.
Robert Tanenbaum's website.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Journey

by Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye     2016
48 pages     Picture Book

Without a doubt, The Journey by Francesca Sanna is the most compelling book that I have read thus far this year—and it is a picture book. When the war in an unnamed country (take your pick) begins, the brave little girl in the story has her life change forever when her father is killed and her family must escape. The trip is scary and extremely dangerous, but "mother is with us and she is never scared." They travel by car, by truck, by bicycle, by foot, by ferry, and finally by train. The girl believes that she is like a migrating bird, and maybe like those birds, her family will find a new home where they will be safe.

The author, who is an Italian illustrator and picture book author, got her inspiration for The Journey when she met some children at an Italian refugee camp. Her illustrations show the scary darkness of the journey from a child's perspective. I was so touched by the girl's trust in her mother and the decisions that the family made to escape from the war. The children (and probably the mother) had no understanding of where they would find a home. Neither the war nor the places that the family is traveling through are named, but the darkness of the illustrations helps the reader know that the danger doesn't go away once they leave the war zone. If I had been the mother, I would have been scared out of my mind, but my purpose would have been singular—to get my children to a better place where they could thrive.

The book is advertised for preschool readers, but I would caution that the pictures are scary. Also, I am not sure that preschoolers would understand the context of the experience—unless you were one of those children taking this journey. Where I see this book being used successfully is in elementary schools for creative writing, or in schools where there are refugees and immigrants. As a matter of fact, one of my friends is using The Journey for a writing seminar for high school students that she is conducting. It is perfect in that setting. I can also see it in settings where refugee and immigrant services are offered and children are served, like the Justice for Our Neighbor clinic at my church. 

The Journey is receiving a lot of press; starred reviews in all the major reviewing outlets. Run, don't walk, to pick one up for your elementary aged (and higher) children. The most timely picture book of the year.