Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Stones Cry Out, by Sibella Giorello (Revell)

(Click cover for more information)
Another first! Although I’ve reviewed multiple works by the same author in the past, this is the first time I’ve reviewed two in a row. Doin’ it now, ‘cuz it’s worth it.

It’s not at all difficult to see why Sibella Giorello’s first novel, The Stones Cry Out, garnered a Christy Award. The subject matter is engaging and borderline controversial, the protagonist’s perspective unique, the ensemble of characters intriguing, and the writing style daring. My goodness, where do you go to follow to that act? (Well, actually, you go here).

Subject matter: Civil rights investigation. During a racially charged demonstration, two people fall to their deaths from the roof of an abandoned factory (incidentally, the focus of the demonstration). One is a white cop, the other a black ex-boxer. The local police are handling the crime scene, but politicos have prompted the FBI to launch a parallel civil-rights investigation. This creates the perfect setting for a conflict triangle. One leg of the triangle is tension between local law enforcement and the Feds, whose respective processes and agendas inevitably collide. The second leg comes from Richmond's Southside community, who have nothing but contempt for both the locals and the Feds. The third is internal conflict within all three of these entities, as individual biases clash and reverberate throughout the story. And they all need each other, if the truth is ever to come to light.

Protagonist’s perspective: Our heroine, Raleigh Harmon, is an FBI agent with a background in forensic geology. She’s been with the Bureau long enough to know her way around, but not long enough to become cynical beyond redemption. Both of those factors become at times assets, at times liabilities. Her boss wants the investigation shelved: “Ask some questions. Pretend we’re interested, then close the case.” Why? Civil-rights cases can’t be solved; they’re lose-lose situations. Hence, pay some lip service and get on with more important things. Well, Raleigh just can’t get her head or her heart around that. (Which is why she’s our heroine).

Ensemble: Ms. Giorello compiles a fascinating and complex character grid, each member of which adding his/her own special weight to Raleigh’s already mind-bending load. The pressing memory of her murdered father compounds the delicate imbalance of her mentally and emotionally needy mother, effectively disquieting what should be the beleaguered agent's quieter moments. These personal pressures vie for position with the bulging tension triangle that demands her quasi-secretive professional attention. She seems to have no relief from any quarter—save her faith.

Oh, and one scene in particular scares you to death. You’ll know when you get there.

Finally, writing style: In my estimation, this was a daring debut for a novelist, in that Ms. Giorello selected a first-person perspective, all present-tense narrative style. The first-person point of view (see specific comments on the style here) is not terribly unusual. The “historical present” tense is rarer—although she’s in really good company with the likes of Charles Dickens (selected passages in David Copperfield) and St. Mark (much of The Gospel According to Mark). She makes it work. Add to this a distinctive and enjoyable writing voice, and you’re in business.

Be prepared to ride the emotional rollercoaster. My wife, Jeannie, on more than one occasion looked at me like I’d lost it when I’d burst out laughing at one of Raleigh’s sardonic one-liners or witty dialog runs. Where do you find room to laugh anywhere in a storyline as heavy as the one I’ve just described? Well, pick up the book and find out for yourself. There's no way you'll ever regret it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I know, it's been awhile. Not even a Quote of the Week. I can only appeal to the tyranny of manuscript editing. I'll try to do better.


It's worth the wait if you read my last review. Good book!

Here's wishing you all a wonderful Holy Week. He is risen!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Rivers Run Dry, by Sibella Giorello (Thomas Nelson)

(Click cover for more information)

If you're looking for a great, edge-of-the-seat crime novel with a unique perspective, you've found it. In The Rivers Run Dry, Ms. Giorello introduces you to the gritty world of FBI field work, but through the eyes of Special Agent Raleigh Harmon, a forensic geologist by training. Forensic geology. I didn't even know that existed--but then, why wouldn't it?

The story is set in and around the Cascade Mountains in Washington state (what better setting for a geological slant?). A young woman, Courtney VanAlstyne, goes missing while hiking the trails of Cougar Mountain. The only child of a wealthy and well connected family, political pressure is intense and immediate that Courtney be found. The family is convinced it's a kidnapping; the law enforcement establishment, not so convinced.

Enter Special Agent Harmon, recently transferred for disciplinary cause from her home state of Virginia to the Pacific Northwest. Her technical and professional skills are beyond reproach. Her political acumen is not. We meet Raleigh perservering under a cloud of distrust from both the professional black mark in her records and a concrete gender barrier in the male-dominated Violent Crimes unit. Prodded and pushed without mercy or support by her supervisor and her training agent, she navigates the back streets of Seattle and the back trails of the Cascades in search of anything that may shed light on the rich girl's disappearance. She tackles the case the hard way: clue by clue, step by misstep.

Ms. Giorello delves into a wide variety of issues through Raleigh's personal and professional life as she touches and is touched by a colorful supporting cast. She does a marvelous job of weaving them seamlessly into the story line instead of basting them awkwardly over the fabric of... Wait. This is supposed to be a geological slant. What am I doing at the sewing machine? Let me try again.

Crystalline flecks of humor, pathos, frustration and dogged determination sparkle across the lustrous grain of a polished, rock-solid story line...

Okay, okay. Now you know why Sibella got the publishing contract and not me. (sigh!)

Enough fun. This was a great read. Ms. Giorello constructs a squeaky-tight, well paced plot involving multi-dimensional characters who are real enough that you love them one moment and want to slap them silly the next. You learn a lot about both geology and crime-investigation techniques without getting lost in technical jargon. You also learn a lot about human nature as it bends, and sometimes breaks, under the pressure of society, religion and its own weight.

Highly recommended. The Rivers Run Dry rocks! (Sorry, I had to do that.)