Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

This #1 National Bestselling novel begins as Flight 613 lifts off the tarmac. Serious concerns plague more than half the travelers—concerns they set aside until after the hop from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

Sixteen minutes later the plane crashes, leaving only two passengers alive: JJ, the four-year-old son of a multi-millionaire, and Scott Burroughs, an artist in his forties.

In Before the Fall, Emmy, Golden Globe, PEN, Critic’s Choice, and Peabody Award winning Noah Hawley, writer, and producer of the hit TV series Bones, applies his stagecraft and cinematographic skills to the verbal autopsy of each occupant of the doomed jet.

Like pieces of wreckage fished from the sea, he cleverly introduces fragments of backstory amplifying the scream of conflict and the bellowing suspicion as to who benefits from the disaster. A team of federal investigators from the NTSB, the FAA, the FBI, and other agencies attempts to determine the cause of the crash and assign blame. Since JJ is too young, and the other travelers aboard Flight 613 are dead, only Scott Burroughs remains to soak up censure, deserved or not.

The death of JJ’s father, David Bateman, director of the ALC news-as-entertainment-network, launches ALC-anchorman Bill Cunningham on a mission of retribution, delving into Scott’s disaster-ridden past. Cunningham spends weeks delightedly defacing Scott Burroughs’ heroic image, but Cunningham has secrets of his own.

The primary protagonist, Scott Burroughs, tries to understand how, after pulling together the rubble of his own life and finally standing on the brink of success, he stumbles into his current quandary.  More importantly, how should he deal with his damaged reputation and threats from law enforcement? The reader rides the rapids of Scott’s stream of consciousness to a dramatic climax. Have his past tragedies prepared Scott to cope with his present dilemma or will he return to his alcohol addiction and lose everything?

Written by a multitalented author, Before the Fall offers a survivor’s view of an air disaster with all of the public, legal, and psychological fallout. It generates excitement, outrage, and incredulity as conflicting agendas gather like vultures over the wreckage. It fully deserves the NY Times rating as one of the year’s best suspense novels.

Hawley’s narration often imitates a camera zooming in on an object, but when the narration zooms out, the object rests in a totally different place, time, and context. The unexpected scene change advances the story while raising suspense about the broken storyline.

Hawley weaves his characters in and out of his narrative by suddenly switching viewpoints. He carefully develops each character so thoroughly and sympathetically that every plane crash death renews the reader’s pain of loss.

 

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10 steps to Girlfriend Status, by Cynthia T. Toney

Adolescence is the most difficult time of life. How do we survive it? What with all the physical, emotional, external, and self-inflicted challenges, it is no wonder that many teens lose their way on the path to maturity.

In 8 Notes to a Nobody, Cynthia Toney’s first volume in the Bird Face series, Wendy Robichaud, with help from her friends learns to smile. As 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status follows 8 Notes to a Nobody, Wendy seems more confident. In fact, we see a daring and assertive Wendy. She grows close to her first boyfriends. She encounters the unstoppable forces that will separate her from Mrs. Villaturo, the only “grandmother” that Wendy knows. Wendy weathers the on-again-off-again friendship with her new step-sister Alice Rend. That’s enough stress for anyone.

As the title suggests, Wendy checks off each leap forward in her relationship with her boyfriend, David Griffin. Of course, for every step forward, there may be a step or two in reverse.

In addition to the “David loves Wendy” story, 10 Steps cleverly explores the emotional permutations of Wendy’s first year in high school. She moves in with a blended or step-family. She struggles to balance her parents’ rules while still enjoying dates with David. She suffers the slings and arrows of rivalries— Wendy vs. Alice, the David-Wendy-Sam love-triangle. She mourns as the erosive effects of Alzheimer’s Disease dim her relationship with Mrs. Villaturo.

Wendy resents parental and step-parental advice, even though her mom and “Papa D” share the scars of their own teen ventures into dating. Everything seems to fly out of control with no solution in sight until Wendy hears about the family secret.

Mrs. Villaturo rouses Wendy’s curiosity when she mentions a scandal involving Wendy’s great-uncle Andre. Detective/diplomat Wendy sets out to uncover and solve this mystery. “Inquiring minds want to know.” She deliberately invites Alice to a road trip to bayou-country where answers may dangle amid the Spanish moss. Besides, Alice has her own not-so-mysterious reasons to visit great-uncle Andre’s relatives and their neighborhood crawling with alligators and snakes.

Excitement, conflict, mystery, and infatuation march through the pages of 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status. The reader learns that Wendy’s heart is big enough to love selflessly and tender enough to ache and break as tragedies past and present unfold. The reward for her love-quest comes in the form of a closer and deeper relationship with every other character in the book.

Cynthia Toney caps off her engaging story with discussion questions and resources on the topics of teen dating, teens and Alzheimer’s disease, blended families, and stepfamilies.

She and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. She provided me a review copy of 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status, which proved to be a joy to read.

 

Into the Way of Peace, by Karen Kelly Boyce

Into the Way of Peace blends the mystical with the mysterious.

While a blizzard swirls around an inner city church, a desperate few pass within. Some seek shelter from the storm. Others desire consolation because of life’s overwhelming burdens. One young man hopes to escape a police manhunt.

Fr. D’Angelico welcomes each guest to worship before the Blessed Sacrament. He has served at Holy Rosary Church for fifty years, as curate, pastor and now a retired resident. In his younger days, he had fallen victim to the “heresy of good works.” At that time, he had believed that the success of his ministry depended solely on him. Now, aged, arthritic and terminally ill, he has learned through prayer that Jesus alone brings in the harvest.

The Lord has given this faithful servant the gift of reading souls. This night, Fr. D’Angelico’s special charism tells him that seven souls will kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and receive a life-altering visit from Jesus, himself.

Frankie the Bottle, an alcoholic, seeks a warm place to crash. He drinks to forget that his carelessness killed his wife and daughter. Two professional men enter, full of emotion and conflict—their wealth and position are the consequence of choosing the expedient rather than what they know to be right. Two women mourn for estranged children who will never speak to them again. A Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz, who has lived for others without appreciation, could do much more in life if she only recognized her unique but underutilized charism. Bobby, rich and spoiled—a prodigal son—desperately needs to accept God’s love.

Fr. D’Angelico and the seven souls interact throughout this interlocking collection of short stories. Some souls consider the monstrance and the host an idolatrous perversion of Christianity. Nevertheless, both the Eucharist and the Scriptures make a powerful impression on each as they deal with the hopelessness of their situations.

Karen Kelly Boyce has the knack of stitching together the earthy and the heavenly so that her gripping stories both startle and edify the reader. Many know her for her delightful Sisters of the Last Straw series, her darker novels like In the Midst of Wolves, or her inspirational Down Right Good and A Bend in the Road. Into the Way of Peace finds itself in good company.

Specter, By John Desjarlais

Specter: A Mystery - Desjarlais, John

Specter mixes the flavors of Romero, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator with generous glops of sour cream and salsa. John Desjarlais embroils his favorite DEA agent, Selena De La Cruz in a fictional parallel to the 1993 assassination of a Cardinal at the Guadalajara airport. She unearths the stench of corruption oozing from the Mexican drug cartels, the Vatican Bank, and the highest officials in the Mexican government. Unfortunately, Selena’s investigation suggests the involvement of her late father. She wonders if she can forgive her father not only for his possible corruption but his drunken violence toward her mother and herself.

As the story comes together, Desjarlais introduces the reader to Mexican culture, idioms and superstitions. Selena broke loose from the “old ways” that placed a premium on macho honor, exemplified by her father and brothers. Her father beats her mother and arranges a marriage for Selena with the tenderness of transferring the title of a car to a new owner. Her intended believes in using girls. When Selena punches out her father’s choice during his attempt to rape her friend, her father feels honor bound to compensate not the victim of the attack but the rapist, because of his damaged machismo. In spite of, or maybe because of her family’s indignation, Selena plans to marry an Anglo. However, her fiancé is older and has the same style mustache as Selena’s father. What would Freud say?

Selena and her brothers experience similar nightmares that remind them of their father. Their Madrina (Godmother) believes that their father is sending a message from Purgatory. Selena’s brother Francisco engages ghost-hunters, techies who record electronic disturbances, to record the family’s spectral visitations. Unlike Ghostbusters, this Chicago-based team invokes St. Michael, The Archangel before they track a spook and keep the phone number to the Archdiocesan exorcist on hand in case they need back-up.

In the midst of this fascinating backstory, Desjarlais subtly lays down threads of a dark mystery which soon envelops Selena, her family, and the Cardinal.  The pace of the novel accelerates like a super loud, growling “Beast” of a “Dodge Charger R/T with a 525 fuel-injected Hemi topped by a Stage V intake, a Gear Vendors Overdrive Unit, a pair of modified 600 Holleys, a pneumatic Air Boss chute and Flowmaster Super 40s to handle the exhaust” breaking 200 MPH along a drag strip.

Desjarlais’ spectacular climax features the gadgetry and explosiveness of a James Bond thriller, but with an O. Henry twist.

The name “Dolores” better fits the somber Selena. She is a grown-up tomboy with a major attitude. Everything goes wrong for her. The chip on her shoulder is nearly heavy enough to break her clavicle. In contrast, her Madrina shows the courage and fidelity of a martyr, adding a spiritual interpretation to the sufferings experienced by the De La Cruz family, especially its women.

John Desjarlais satisfies with this excellent buffet of culture, excitement, and spirituality. I look forward to reading the other books in his Selena series.

The Catholic Writers Guild provided me with an electronic copy of Specter, and I once attended a lecture by John Desjarlais.

You Were Here, by Cori McCarthy

In an act of celebration, bravado, or maybe alcohol-induced insanity, Jake Strangelove stands on the top pipe of the playground swing set, still wearing his graduation gown. He backflips as he had done so many times before, but this time, he lands on his neck. Five years later, Jake’s life and death still haunt his family, especially his sister Jaycee and dozens of their friends.

Cori McCarthy explores Jaycee’s mangled life and that of her companions as they mark the fifth anniversary of Jakes leap into mortality. Fortunately, Natalie Cheng, daughter of an Ohio University psychologist, provides a running commentary on the mental state of Jake and his mourners.

Jake was left-handed, ADHD, and more than a little dyslectic. “Kids with learning disabilities often act out because of their frustration.” Professor Cheng told Natalie, “The neural insulation of your frontal lobe won’t be finished developing until you’re in your mid-twenties. You’re not fully aware of the consequences of your actions.” No wonder insurance companies want to charge higher rates for drivers under the age of twenty-five. Jake and all sub-mid-twenties humans remain half-baked when it comes to filtering out destructive impulses.

Jaycee Strangelove describes herself as a damaged girl with no hobbies, no passions, and no future. In fact, she shares a hobby with her late brother and Mik, one of their friends: Urbex or urban exploration.  Specifically, they visit the ruins of The Ridges, a shuttered, gothic, perhaps haunted insane asylum, Randall Park Mall a once illustrious but now abandoned shopping center, Geauga Lake, the shambles of what had been a huge amusement park and two other sites regularly explored by Jake. Their goal is to find traces of Jake’s presence—messages he left behind to commemorate his acts of daring.

The adventures begin on the night of Jaycee’s high school graduation. She drags along her classmates, Natalie, Zach, and Bishop. Mik meets them inside The Ridges’ dusty, relic strewn “lobotomy-central”–the first stop in the summer hunt for Jake-signs across the state of Ohio.

Cori McCarthy enlists the graphic artist Sonia Liao to speak for Mik and Bishop. Mik, a selective mute rarely verbalizes, so the chapters he narrates—appearing as portions of a graphic novel—uniquely link the prose chapters and amplify the noir quality of the novel. Bishop, a graffiti aficionado, summarizes moods of the moment throughout the book.

The characters represent tortured souls with no spiritual framework and no help from their families. Bishop grieves his lost lover after her cruel rejection. Natalie calculates how she will dump Zach although she still craves his bed. More and more, Zach takes refuge in alcohol. Jaycee lives to reunite with Jake while Mik, in many ways acts as a superhero but can’t even whisper his feelings for Jaycee. All of them have secrets involving Jake and his death that they may or may not divulge during the critical summer between high school graduation and the college-induced diaspora.

Can Cori McCarthy write her way out of this corner? What could reconcile and normalize the strains and unspoken yearnings before the last sunset of summer?

Navajo Autumn—A Navajo Nation Mystery by R. Allen Chappell

The Navajo Nation Mystery Series mixes murder with large doses of anthropology, archaeology and the survivalist lifestyle. Fans of Tony and Anne Hillerman, and James D. Doss, will welcome these jaunts to the Four Corners region of the American west.  Set in and around the largest Indian reservation in the world, among the most populous and most rapidly growing Indian tribe, the series explores the boundaries of Navajo relations within its many clans, with other tribes and with the Caucasian majority.  Although short on descriptions of desert vistas, the series vibrates with tones of dark humor similar to those found in the works of Carl Hiaasen.

Navajo Autumn, the first book in the series introduces the protagonist, Charlie Yazzie, who returns to “the Res” with a law degree, but finds few outlets for his skills. The Navajo Nation hires him as a special investigator, where he applies his considerable legal acumen rounding up missing sheep and wayward children. That is, until “The Big One” comes along, his “opportunity to make legal services sit up and take notice.” That opportunity takes shape in the person of Thomas Begay, Charlie’s classmate from their years at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, and the prime suspect in a murder case with far reaching political and economic implications.  True to form, pig-eyed deputy sheriff Dudd Schott wants a quick arrest and conviction, a sentiment shared by many throughout the Navajo Nation and beyond.

After Begay escapes from Dudd’s custody, Charlie, with unexpected stealth, surprises Thomas at his girlfriend Lucy’s hogan. Charlie the special investigator, decides to moonlight as Begay’s defense attorney.  Thomas regards Charlie as a fallen-away Navajo, a “college boy” who has lost his fluency in the tribal language and is too used to apartment-dwelling to resume the Navajo lifestyle. Of course, Charlie confirms his “dude” status when he cleans his bullets and his .38 Smith and Wesson, stainless steel revolver by washing them in a kitchen sink.

In no time, it seems that the world is against Charlie and Thomas. Thomas loses himself in the vastness of the reservation while Charlie takes perilous but comedic risks on behalf of his client, drawing unwelcome attention from the powerful and merciless.

Charlie reaches out to a select group of allies, including another high school classmate, Sue Hanagarni. She becomes his love interest as she jeopardizes her job to share inside information damaging to the Navajo authorities. Paul T’Sosi, a shepherd, the father of Thomas’ girlfriend and the source of many a wry comment, adds a spiritual dimension as a keeper of the old ways. This character offers a glimpse of the Navajo religion and culture, as he assists Charlie and his friends.

Navajo Autumn holds the reader’s interest with humor, engaging characters and quickly moving action. It lays the foundation to a series of unique novels that explain Navajo history, culture, spirituality and their sometimes rugged lifestyle. This is a case where the cowboys are the Indians, and much more.

The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

“Inequality is the root of social evil.”    4:28 AM – 28 Apr 2014

We reel from the impact of violence, persecution, massive migrations and political divisiveness, yet similar tribulations plague humanity over the millennia. History’s lessons unlearned, like demons, repossess the house from which they were driven. If we find ourselves too close to modern conflicts, a visit to another time and place may allow a dispassionate consideration of the root causes of social evils.

The setting: County Mayo, Ireland, 1798, a century and a half after the enactment of Oliver Cromwell’s Penal Laws against Roman Catholics, depriving them of property and citizenship in their own country. “A system more ingeniously contrived, first for the debasement, and then for the continuance of that debasement, of an entire people cannot easily be imagined.”

Flanagan speaks through the voices of characters such as Anglican vicar Arthur Broome who describes his Irish neighbors, “I have myself seen families huddled in the sides of hills where they had hewn out holes, entire families where the small ones cowering and rooting beside the gaunt form of a woman.” He expresses the Malthusian sentiments of the time, “Thus I have heard it proposed by men, no more inhumane than most, that the recurrent famines are Providential, and will in time bring down the population to a proper size.”

Broome identifies the source of the English Protestant attitude toward the Irish and Catholics: “All their lives, from the first stories told them by mothers or nurses or school-fellows, they had been instructed that the Papists were a dark and mutinous race, wedded to violence as though to a witch.” A people steeped in “idolatry and superstition.”

“What business have Papist peasants learning to read and write?” says Captain Cooper, descendent of one of Cromwell’s troopers, a member of a long line of magistrates, who keep the Papists under control, forbid citizenship, ownership of property, the right to participate in government or study law. Over the centuries, Red coated Protestant yeomen are given a free hand to burn, whip and torture until they extract confessions and arrest anyone they suspect of rebellion.

To boost profits from his farm, Cooper turns his acres to livestock grazing, evicting a tenant family with no concern for their survival. The “Whiteboys of Killala”, a militant organization of aggrieved Catholic peasants, nail a letter to his door with the words, “You count your cows in children’s lives.” They promise retaliation against his cattle, escalating a vicious cycle of mutual reprisals.

The long repressed Catholic peasants want the “triumph of the Gael,” the restoration of the Irish nation. It is said, “They didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they hated.”

The United Irishmen, composed of wealthier, better educated Protestants, Catholics and agnostics, share ambitions with the Whiteboys, but work for the creation of a republic in the image of the French Revolution. They plan to rule Ireland in place of the English. The time is ripe for rebellion, especially when the regicidal Directorate of the French Republic promises soldiers and weapons, aiding the Irish and annoying the English.

Flanagan’s narrators represent both the English and Irish points of view. The English are benevolent but firm. Insurrection is a capital offense: high treason. General Cornwallis, of Yorktown fame, expresses interest in Catholic Emancipation. Meanwhile the principal absentee landlord of County Mayo supports abolition of the African slave trade and attempts to better the life of London chimney sweeps. He funds his charities on the backs of his starving Irish tenants.

The Irish narrators reflect the ideals and then the dreadful reality of the conflict. The Catholic Church is largely ignored, although the bishops and most of the priests preach against rebellion and urge loyalty toward King George. The Orangemen’s rhetoric dwells on the exceptions, such as the famous Fr. Murphy, who rouses the Irish peasants, armed with pikes to attack the Redcoats, despite their muskets, bayonets, cavalry and the cannons with their grape and chain shot.

Owen Ruagh MacCarthy, poet, drunkard, wanderer and teacher gleams as the most brilliant thread in Flanagan’s tapestry. From the first sip of the morning jug to the parting glass, Owen steals the show. Well loved, especially by women from Kerry to Mayo, his friends among the poets recite his works in Irish and English. The reader will not forget MacCarthy.

Flanagan weaves some seventy characters, some historical, some fictional, into the texture of this saga of the pre-diaspora Irish. His account of their suffering and survival over hundreds of years sensitizes us to the plight of racial, religious and ethnic groups that share a parallel history of repression and inequality. When we see them today on their trek to freedom, remember that the Irish made a similar journey.