Strange Faces (review)

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Strange FacesStrange Faces by Linda Hall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last time I enjoyed a book of short stores as much as I did Strange Faces by Linda Hall, it was authored by Alice Munro.

Strange Faces has some similarities. Like the characters in Munro’s books, Hall’s are all ordinary people—housewives, mechanics, teachers. And like Munro’s tantalizing first lines, the beginnings of each story in Hall’s seven-story collection pulled me in so I wanted to read more.

“I’ve suspected for some time that I should go to the authorities about Lewis. Why haven’t I? Fear, I suppose. Even anonymous calls aren’t anonymous” – first lines of “Mad Scientist.”

“I’ve always been very protective of my sister. Even when she started killing people at her work” – first lines of “Weather Ladies.”

Such beginnings give us a taste of Hall’s cat-and-mouse game with the reader as we try to figure out: is this person reliable, wearing a white or black hat, is he/she even sane?

Most of these tales are dark. Through her characters Hall plumbs the depths of the human heart’s capacity for jealousy, fear, desire for revenge, rage at being deserted. Several stories speak about bullying. She asks ‘What if…?’ and then sees the matter through to its deadly conclusion. And so there’s murder and mayhem, but ever so genteelly disclosed.

Hall’s stories are full of homey but significant details and whiplash surprises—a very entertaining combination.

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Vampire Defense by James D. Bell (review)

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VampireDefenseWhen John Brooks is assigned  to defend Hal Boyd on arson and four murder charges it looks like his reputation as a brilliant lawyer is finally destined to hit the big time. That is, until he announces the vampire defense, a plea that his client was insane because he was convinced the man he killed was a vampire.

A band of black-garbed stalkers, together with a kidnapping of one of Brooks’ own team alert us  to the fact that John and his crew have taken on a lot more than the defense of Boyd. Unlikely twists and turns of plot lead us, in the second half of the story, to several courtroom segments and the trial’s surprising aftermath in Vampire Defense, a first novel by James D. Bell that promises to deliver drama and suspense, punctuated by comic relief.

Frankly, I found the first half of the book a slog. The plot—so key in a book of this type—seemed contrived, as if the author was pushing the characters around to have them end up where he wanted them. The characters felt like stereotyped cardboard figures, many of them buffoons, that we hardly get to know at all. Combine that with technical missteps like undisciplined point of view (in most scenes we find ourselves in the heads of numerous characters) and author intrusion (a narrator voice keeps cutting in to explain points of law or describe the setting), and I found I couldn’t give myself over to the story until the courtroom scenes.

The Christian aspect of the tale (character Books is known as a committed praying Christian whose faith is not shared by most of his colleagues) though a good explanation of John’s integrity and niceness, is never explored in any depth either. In fact, when his to-this-point principled relationship with women is tested by the irresistible Sandy Storms, it’s not his standards that come to the rescue, but someone walking in on the clinch, making me wonder how he would have stood up under different circumstances.

Author Bell does know the judicial system, however. A former judge, he may even have written himself into the tale (there is a minor character by the name of Bell, a judge, and the promotional material says that the story was inspired by a true life incident in which Bell was involved). He seems very familiar with the courtroom and its routines, and his depiction comes across as authentic and believable. When I came to that part of the book I finally settled in and got caught up in the story.

I received Vampire Defense as a gift from a publicist for the purpose of writing a review.

Read a sample chapter

Title: Vampire Defense

Author: James D. Bell

Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group,   November 2012, available in paperback and Kindle editions

  • ISBN-10: 0985885211
  • ISBN-13: 978-0985885212