(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky SEP 5, 2005)
“Daisy recalled her sister’s first psychotic break. Anna was thirteen, Daisy was sixteen, and they’d gone upstairs to the attic to fetch some old board games that their mother had put away the previous spring. Boring games, Anna called them. It was summer, a stifling hot August afternoon, and the stand-alone fan kept blowing the hot air from one corner of the attic to the other. They’d propped the only window open with a stick in order to get some fresh air circulating when all of a sudden a bird flew inside - a sparrow or a starling, one of those mousy-looking birds that were always everywhere, pecking at the grass seeds, darting across the lawn.
The girls screamed and chased it, and after a while, the bird grew tired and clung to the dusty curtains.
‘It’s infected,’ Anna hissed. ‘It’s infected with bugs!’ Before Daisy could stop her, Anna grabbed a tennis racket and beat the bird senseless with it, then threw it into the fan, where it exploded into a squib of blood and feathers.
Still, no matter how shocking her behavior, Daisy felt immeasurable sorrow for her sister - Anna’s illness was punishment enough. It was her life sentence.”
Alice Blanchard's Life Sentences poses the question: How much of our physical and mental health is determined by our genes and how much by our environment? If a person is unlucky enough to inherit one or more faulty genes, is he inevitably doomed? Daisy Hubbard is a researcher based in Boston who works for an arrogant scientist named Marlon Truett. Daisy has no boyfriend, a schizophrenic sister named Anna who has brought her family untold grief, and a widowed mother. Her work is her life--she is trying to cure Stier-Zellar's disease, a rare genetic disorder that killed her half-brother. When Daisy's sister disappears, her mother convinces Daisy to fly to Los Angeles to track Anna down.
Daisy's quest brings her together with an LAPD detective named Jack Makowski, a compulsive do-gooder and a tenacious cop. Jack has been working on three other missing persons cases, and Anna will be his fourth. His investigation leads him to a sociopath named Roy who is hiding some dreadful secrets that will bring Daisy's world crashing down around her.
Life Sentences is a quirky book that branches off in a number of directions. In the beginning, it seems that the author is writing a medical thriller about genetic diseases. Then, Blanchard delves into the deep-seated family problems that plague Daisy, Anna, and their mother Lily. The author also probes the mind of the villain, whose sick behavior stems from an abnormal childhood. There is a romantic subplot involving Daisy and Jack, and the book concludes with a series of violent confrontations between Roy and the good guys.
Does the book work? Yes and no. We get to know Daisy well, and we sympathize with this sad woman whose devotion to her career cannot make up for her loneliness, insecurity, and bitter memories. Detective Jack Makowski does not seem to be an ideal match for a woman like Daisy, but somehow the two fit well together. Unfortunately, the book descends into fantasy when Blanchard paints the villain as a brilliant conniver who effortlessly deceives the hapless cops time and again. The detectives make ridiculously amateurish mistakes that enable Roy to carry out his twisted plans.
Life Sentences is an instructive look at "orphan diseases" and the consequences for those who are carriers. Blanchard's descriptive writing and dialogue are lively, and although the four-hundred page book could have been trimmed a bit, the story moves along at a good pace. However, Life Sentences would have been even better had it featured a more realistic villain and a more tightly focused plot.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Life Sentences at TW Bookmarks(back to top)
(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer NOV 30, 2003)
"April is the Cruelest Month."
It looked like the family was killed by a tornado...the debris, the impossible positioning of the corpses, yet Police Chief Charlie Grover, when he looks at the victims, can't help but wonder differently. Several of the marks look a lot like defensive wounds, and the various bits of wood sticking from their bodies were certainly more weapon like than random kindling. Still, it'll take a gruesome discovery in the lab before he and everyone else is convinced that he's right. You can't blame them...everyone's heard the stories of the weird tragedies and miracles that can happen during a tornado...their town is tight nit group, and no one wants to think one of them might be a killer. The field of possible suspects is pretty narrow, for there is only one group of people who have the innate understanding of when or how a tornado is likely to strike...and only one group who wouldn't be questioned too closely if they happen to be out during one...the storm chasers. Grover's possible suspects include his own father, as well as the rebellious young man his daughter is seeing.
The true excitement of this book lies in the fact that it is set in such a completely different and scary setting. The idea of a tornado coming and taking away everything you own is like a death in itself. It strips us to our most vulnerable, and therefore makes one feel a real connection to the book. Seeing the killer, fearless, slipping like a ghost into a house when you least expect a person to come in is extremely creepy. It also adds a challenge to the forensic aspects of the story...the wind blows "clues" in and blows them back out again...so how can anyone be sure that a hair or a fragment of cloth is evidence, or if it's merely garbage? It also opens up a whole new world to a lot of us...not just the culture and perspectives of people surviving tornadoes and their aftermath, but the world of the adrenalin junkie storm chasers.
Grover, to solve the case, finds himself actually going on a chase with the lovely Willa Bellman, a scientist at the local wind research facility. Riding along with them, you can't help but feel a mixture of wonder...wonder at how beautiful and terrible the weather must look, wonder at how anyone gets started on this path.
in Charlie Grover, Blanchard gives us a detective with a fairly complex life. When he was a child he suffered horrible burns over much of his body, and the scarring does effect him physically as well as emotionally...and the scars inside are the ones having the hardest time healing. He can't quite forgive his father, an ex-alcoholic who used to beat his wife and son, and he misses his wife, who died from cancer...though he's still extremely attracted to Willa. (This is fine...his wife's been gone a long time, and we want hi to be happy.) He's trying to raise a daughter who, a teenager, is becoming more independent by the day, and though she's really sweet and understanding, she stubbornly sees the good side of the local bad boy, and her refusal to stop seeing him triggers some of their worst fights.
All these aspects make for a very strong mystery. We have equal amounts of interesting setting and characterization, and the mystery is quite a challenge to solve, because the very nature of the crimes makes it hard to establish a real pattern or chain of evidence ...especially since, most of the time, the law enforcement people are more concerned with those left alive than those who look like victims of Mother Nature (who some may call the most vicious serial killer of all). In this story, it's hard for the reader to know what they should fear more...the killer, or the fury of nature.
- Amazon readers rating: from 61 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Breathtaker at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Stuntman's Daughter: Stories (1996)
- Darkness Peering (1999)
- The Breathtaker (November 2003)
- Life Sentences (August 2005)
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- Read an excerpt of Darkness Peering
- Tangled Web review of Darkness Peering
- BookReporter.com review of The Breathtaker
- ReviewingTheEvidence review of Life Sentences
- BookLoons review Life Sentences
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About the Author:
Alice Blanchard grew up in Connecticut and went to college in Boston, Massachusetts, where she studied creative writing and filmmaking. In 1995, she won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction for her collection of short stories, The Stuntman's Daughter. Blanchard has received a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, a New Letters Literary Award and a Centrum Artists in Residence fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in such literary quarterlies as Turnstile, William & Mary Review and Alaska Quarterly, and her work has been broadcast on National Public Radio's "The Sound of Writing" series.
Alice and her husband live in Los Angeles, where they write screenplays.