Ann Packer’s “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” has long been a favorite, so I turned to her new novel, “The Children’s Crusade” with anticipation. I finished it contemplative and in awe of Packer’s ability to create rich, redemptive characters.

Like honey poured from a jar, Packer takes her time detailing the Blair family, a California clan — parents, Dr. Bill Blair, wife Penny, and children Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, following the offspring to adulthood.

It’s no coincidence that James, the youngest, follows siblings whose names begin with “R.” Markedly different, James is the “black sheep,” continually making choices that alienate him from Penny, and on occasion his brothers and sister.

Penny is far from mother of the year. She wears a cloak of bitterness, resenting the time it takes to care for her children when all she wants to do is escape to a shed behind their home to lose herself in her artwork.

Bill and Penny are flip sides of a coin. A pediatrician long on compassion, Bill served in the Korean War. Saddened by the horrors he witnessed, Bill returned home to become a pediatrician and direct all of his energy into serving children. Tragically, he chooses a life partner whose self-absorption increases with the years.

Penny’s distaste for James is as obvious as Bill’s understanding. Penny didn’t want a fourth child, and James ends up being a handful. As a youngster, he’s in constant motion, rude and impetuous, becoming a brash rule-breaker in adolescence. Through it all Bill maintains his grace, which creates an even greater chasm in his marriage. As Penny retreats from motherhood, she feels Bill never faults James for his behavior.

Sections of the book are told from the children’s point of view, finishing up with James as an adult, estranged from his mother and facing a difficult decision, which may involve the sale of the family’s long held estate.

The ages-old old dilemma of “nature-nurture” is predominant in “The Children’s Crusade,” the title taken from the siblings’ attempts to discover ways to bring their parents together. By the novel’s conclusion, the evolution of the family’s relationships and the changes brought about by maturity make passing judgment on any of them difficult.

This thought-provoking book is yet another testament to Packer’s brilliant storytelling skills.


The premise for “The Bullet” is reason enough to pick up this thriller, a quick read by Mary Louise Kelly that readers will be inclined to race through.

When pretty Caroline Cashion, a 37-year-old university professor, experiences increasing pain from her wrist to her fingers, she finally decides to see a physician. An MRI reveals a shocking abnormality; a bullet is lodged in her neck, near her spinal cord.

Flummoxed, Caroline goes to visit her adoptive parents, whom she’s always been close to, hoping for an explanation. The story they share involves a long kept secret. When Caroline was just 3, her birth parents were shot and killed in their home, and the bullet that passed through her mother, struck the child.

Doctors at the time advised leaving the bullet in place, as it didn’t seem to be causing any problems for the girl. Now, however, the foreign object is in danger of moving, pressing on Caroline’s spinal cord and causing paralysis.

Shaken to her core, Caroline can’t let go of the past. She goes on a quest, returning to her childhood home in Atlanta to investigate the years-old, unsolved murders and bring the perpetrator to justice. All this, as she faces imminent surgery and becomes emotionally involved with a good-looking doctor she thinks she can trust.

As Caroline’s attempts to uncover facts grow more fevered, the author introduces a bevy of questionable characters. Is the neighbor telling the truth about Caroline’s birth mother, did she really have an affair, and what about the mysterious stranger who covered Caroline’s expensive hotel tab?

“The Bullet” keeps you guessing, but falls short of credibility as it romps to a conclusion, a fate it shares with the bestselling “Girl on a Train,” previously reviewed in “Novel Ideas.” Both books, however, provide pure escapism, which is just the ticket at times.


Much has been written about Wyatt Earp and his brothers, countless titles about the complicated lawman as well as movies and a long-running television program.

Mary Doria Russell adds an absorbing work of historical fiction to the wild bunch. “Epitaph” examines the days of ruthless lawlessness in Tombstone and all the Old West has to offer with its good-guy-bad-guy frays, crooked politics and rumors that fed, and led up to, the 30-second massacre known as the gunfight at OK Corral.

Russell’s story doesn’t stop there though, it continues past Wyatt Earp’s death at age 82, not calling it quits until his wife, known by those who love her as Sadie, dies from dementia and old age.

The novel begins and ends with Sadie, the daughter of a baker, who pines for a life on the stage. Charming and pretty, the headstrong girl leaves her family and lands a spot in a theater company. She ends up in Tombstone, where she meets handsome, but abusive John Harris Behan, who steals her heart. She also befriends Doc Holliday, the subject of Mary Doria Russell’s previous novel, “Doc.”

You don’t need to have read “Doc,” to step into “Epitaph’s” saddle. Russell provides enough background material on the tuberculosis-ridden gambler, with an eye for fine arts and fine ladies, to enjoy a smooth ride.

While Wyatt Earp is front and center in the novel, his brothers Virgil and Morgan get almost equal time, as well as their women and a host of others, cattle rustlers, competing newspaper editors and saloon owners.

The rampant violence of the Old West is shocking, and the OK Corral incident didn’t settle any scores. It just fueled the fire for the outlaws determined to take Wyatt Earp, his brothers and friends down, and lead to a lifelong change in Wyatt, turning him from a lawman, who tried to do good, into a man hell bent on revenge.

“Epitaph” offers a unique take on the Old West, and should appeal to male as well as female readers. It’s another fine work by an author who never disappoints, and backs up her books with extensive research.