Monday, February 29, 2016

A Gift of Life by Henry Denker, 1989

I was in my late teens when a great-uncle introduced me to the interesting and affecting stories of American author Henry Denker. In those days I read mostly general and bestselling fiction. I remember one of his novels, The Gift of Life, quite well. It involved a cardiologist, whose name I don't recall, who must decide on the most deserving recipient of a critical heart transplant—a rich and powerful man working closely with the US President or an ordinary wage-earner with a family to take care of. One heart, two candidates—which one will it be?

The doctor must overcome external pressure and inner turmoil and make the right decision that will ultimately spell hope for one man's family and doom for the other's.

The Gift of Life is a family drama, as many of Denker's novels are. In fact, it reads like a soap opera with varying shades of emotion, anxiety, suspense, and intrigue, as the doctor's moral dilemma and confusion are compounded by his own problems, of marriage and loneliness.

I don't think Denker has trivialised a serious topic like heart transplant. He has merely woven a human interest story around it. The Gift of Life is not to be compared with the medical thrillers of, say, Robin Cook. It's just a nice, well-written novel.

Henry Denker, who died in 2012 at the age of 99, wrote Broadway plays, radio scripts, television movies, and nearly forty novels. He wrote about ordinary people like boxers, doctors, lawyers, and movie people. The New York Times paid him a fine tribute.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Odd Fellows Society by C.G. Barrett, 2015

Opening line: "There was no point in screaming. Philip Cannon was a dead man."

C.G. Barrett, publisher of a Tampa newsmagazine, World of Westchase, has introduced me to his new mystery novel The Odd Fellows Society released last December.

The book has been named a Top Book Pick and given a 5-star review by IndieReader, which specialises in small and independent publishers.


"Santiago Torres, the Jesuit headmaster of a Washington, D.C. high school, knows two truths. First, historian Jasper Willoughs, his closest friend, didn’t toss himself off a dormitory roof. Second, a Georgetown University secret society — a running joke on campus — has blood on its hands. When Torres’s pursuit of the truth triggers a bizarre and deadly scavenger hunt, its clues, scratched out on parchment by his dead friend, lead Santi to risk everything he holds sacred: his job, his life, even the woman he secretly loves."

The thriller explores America's national preoccupation with race and will have readers looking at the US capital, and its monuments’ secrets, in a whole different shade of black and white.

A native of Northeast Pennsylvania, Barrett’s popular novels have included both young adult and adult fiction in the genres of fantasy and mystery. His humour writing about life as a parent has appeared in over a dozen parenting magazines throughout the United States. He lives with his wife, his three daughters, and his two Shetland Sheepdogs in Tampa, Florida.

Readers can learn more about his books at

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Top Gun 2

Three decades later, a sequel to the universally popular film Top Gun is ready for takeoff. A curtain raiser for Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

© Paramount Pictures
The news is more or less confirmed. There will likely be a Top Gun 2, after all. Last week, Jerry Bruckheimer, who co-produced Top Gun in 1986, told Wired he was teaming up with Tom "Maverick" Cruise and David Ellison for a possible sequel. Ellison's Skydance Productions is developing the film. So far, Val Kilmer, who plays his rival in the original, is on board. There have been no further disclosures.

"There is an amazing role for Maverick in the movie and there is no Top Gun without Maverick. It is going to be Maverick playing Maverick. It is, I don’t think, what people are going to expect, and we are very, very hopeful that we get to make the movie very soon," Ellison told Wired in what I thought was a confusing statement. One Maverick too many, perhaps.

The timing couldn't have been better, as Tony Scott's Top Gun completes three decades this May, though it is not known when the sequel will be released.

Apart from Maverick's flying acrobatics in the sky, I remember Top Gun for the adrenaline-pumping and exaggerated masculinity of its fighter pilots and the award-winning song Take My Breath Away, written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock and performed by Berlin, and Top Gun Anthem, the instrumental rock-song composed by Harold Faltermeyer, of Beverly Hills Cop fame.

Sequels rarely live up to their originals. I hope this one does. Tom Cruise was only 24 when he played the reckless US Naval Aviator the first time. He is 54 now and I hope not too old for the Tomcat cockpit.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Drabble #3: A story in 100 words

The coroner stared at the corpse. Thirty, stunningly beautiful, and murdered. What a waste, he thought, and drew back the white sheet. His eyes travelled from her face to her curvaceous body and down to her long legs. He felt a familiar sensation. Why not? She was dead anyway. He locked the door and quickly undressed. He climbed onto the dissection table and was about to lower himself when he suddenly felt a sharp pain that took his breath away. He looked down and saw blood dripping from his genitals. And then he saw the bloodied scalpel in her hand.

Note: My good friend, Margot Kinberg, who introduced me to the world of drabbles a few years ago, has written some truly imaginative 50-word dribbles on her excellent blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... Click on the blog link to read them.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Case of the Invisible Circle by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1956

Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Any veteran investigator will tell you that it's very easy to overlook the most significant clue in a murder case. 

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote The Case of the Invisible Circle for the July 1956 issue of Mercury Mystery Book-Magazine. It is one of dozens of short stories and novelettes he published over more than four decades. These do not include the series of novels and stories based on his principal character, Perry Mason, and lesser-known protagonists like Cool and Lam, Doug Selby, Terry Clane, and Gramps Wiggins.

The Case of the Invisible Circle differs from his trademark mysteries in that there is a crime that is so perplexing as to baffle the police and pathologists.

The first-person narrator of the story, who I assume is the writer himself, is sent by the city editor of the Denver Post to the capital of Colorado — to investigate and report on the brutal rape and murder of a beautiful college girl, whose body is discovered at the bottom of a snow-covered ravine. He is accompanied by Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, a famous medico-legal specialist and author with a keen eye for homicide cases.

District attorney Hatfield Chilson, who is described as “a shrewd lawyer, a competent investigator and, above all, a fair man,” is in charge of the case. Our storyteller and Dr. Snyder assist him in getting to the bottom of the sex crime that has eluded police officers, forensics experts, and pathologists.

The challenging mystery is eventually solved after the men discover a vital clue in one of the photographs — a circle on the naked right hip of the girl — that everyone had missed the first time.

There is not a single dialogue in the story. The narrative is plain but engaging. I think Gardner deliberately wrote it that way. Instead, he offers the reader a structured investigation and police procedural that helps to nail the murderer in the end.

Interestingly, the author makes a strong case for the high character of district attorneys and lawyers in the country. He wants the public to know what these people are capable of and how they measure up to their responsibilities while investigating homicide cases.

If you are a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, you will enjoy this story.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld, 2006

Opening line: “There is no mystery to happiness.”

My daughter Nyrica has eclectic taste in books. She borrowed The Interpretation of Murder, 2006, by American writer Jed Rubenfeld, from the library. The minute I read the back of the book, I had to write about it even if I’m unlikely to read it soon owing to other book commitments. 

This is what her 529-page Headline Review paperback says:

“On the morning after Sigmund Freud arrives in New York on his first—and only—visit to the United States, a stunning debutante is found bound and strangled in her penthouse apartment, high above Broadway. The following night, another beautiful heiress, Nora Acton, is discovered tied to a chandelier in her parents’ home, viciously wounded and unable to speak or to recall her ordeal. Soon Freud and his American disciple, Stratham Younger, are enlisted to help Miss Acton recover her memory, and to piece together the killer’s identity. It is a riddle that will test their skills to the limit
, and lead them on a thrilling journey—into the darkest places of the city, and of the human mind.”

It’s the most intriguing book synopsis I have read this year. Freud plays detective along with his fictitious disciple, Younger, and his real-life acolyte Carl Jung. In 1909, the two renowned psychoanalysts actually visited the United States to deliver a series of lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. It might have formed the basis for the novel.
Jed Rubenfeld, Professor of Law at Yale Law School, has written one other novel, The Death Instinct, 2010, a mystery-thriller set around the 1920 Wall Street bombing. This should be equally interesting.

He has also written books on constitutional law and co-authored The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, 2014, with his wife Amy Chua.

Author's picture sourced from

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

I Am Sam, 2002

Love is all you need is the tag line of I Am Sam. I offer a review of the film for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Lucy (Dakota Fanning): Why are men bald?

Sam (Sean Penn): Sometimes they're bald because their head is shiny and they don't have hair on it. So their head is just more of their face. 

Whether as a producer, director or writer, Jessie Nelson seems to be pleasantly obsessed with issues of coping and bonding, which form the underlying structure of many of her films. This is evident in her directorial ventures, Corrina, Corrina (1994), I Am Sam (2002), and Love the Coopers (2015), where she explores the complexities of love and relationships. 

Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a mentally-challenged man, raises his daughter Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning) after her mother abandons her at birth. He has named her after The Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. He works at Starbucks and is equally obsessed with brewing coffee. Sam adores his daughter in his own childlike way and Lucy loves him no less. At times she is forced to play the role of parent, but she won't let on that her intellectual capacity is superior to his.

When she turns seven, the authorities take away the precocious child, ostensibly, for her own good. Father and daughter meet under supervision and hate every bit of it. Sam struggles to find a lawyer who will help him get his little girl back. He finds Rita Harrison Williams (Michelle Pfeiffer), a self-centered, high-society lawyer, who takes up his case pro bono, only to prove a point to her snickering colleagues. Does she win the courtroom battle?

Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer): I just don't know what to call you: retarded, mentally retarded, mentally handicapped, mentally disabled, intellectually handicapped, intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled...

Sam (Penn): You can call me Sam.

Jessie Nelson has handled the subject of a retarded parent, who is crazy about his daughter, with a great deal of sensitivity, and dignified humour. The camerawork is respectful of the delicate subject. The various scenes are well-crafted. While exploring the beautiful, and often poignant, relationship between Sam and Lucy, she also offers a glimpse into another—obsessed with her career, Rita, a single parent, learns to bond with her neglected young son and finds new meaning in her life. She owes it to Sam.

Sean Penn’s performance—as a kindly man with a mental capacity of a seven-year old and yet of keen perception—is good. I can imagine how much he researched and trained for the role that requires facial contortions and repetition of speech. He is a method actor, I think. He plays the mentally disabled Sam Dawson to near perfection, though not convincingly enough to convert his nominations for ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role’ at the Oscars and SAGA, into awards. Whether he deserved one is open to debate.

Dakota Fanning is a natural-born actress and her remarkable talent shows in this film as well as it does in Man on Fire, War of the Worlds, and Hide and Seek. Michelle Pfeiffer acts well but is clearly overshadowed by Penn. I’d have preferred Susan Sarandon. She and Penn shared a good chemistry in Dead Man Walking (1995). Dianne Wiest, Richard Schiff, and Laura Dern put in more or less guest appearances.

The underlying message of I Am Sam is that, the mentally challenged are nearly as normal as anyone else, certainly more so where matters of the heart are concerned. It's a nice film and I liked it, partly because of Sean Penn's affecting screen presence.

Rita (Pfeiffer): Sam, I worry. I worry sometimes.

Sam (Penn): Yeah... do you worry that you did something wrong?

Rita: No. I worry that I've gotten more out of this relationship than you.