Blood and Circumstance - A Review

       I don't plan to make a habit of reviewing a lot of fiction here, but I'm taking a workshop on the Art of Book Reviewing, so I thought I'd post my first homework assignment. The requirement was to choose a book you wanted to rave about, so here's my review of Blood and Circumstance.

On the surface, the Mark Twain quote I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead may seem contradictory, but illustrates the truth that a short, tight book is much harder to write than a long, rambling book. Frank Turner Hollon writes short, tight books that rarely exceed 200 pages. I've been reading and enjoying his books for a while now, but for me, they've always been read-'em-once-and-they're-gone books, so I was in no way prepared for Blood and Circumstance.  

Blood and Circumstance is told primarily through the interviews between Joel Stabler and the psychiatrist Dr. Ellis Andrews who is there to determine if Joel is mentally competent to stand trial for the first degree murder of his brother. In Joel's eyes, it was a mercy killing because his mentally unstable brother was tormented enough to want to end his misery but didn't have the emotional strength to pull the trigger, so Joel did it for him. Through their interviews, Dr. Andrews learns that insanity is heredity in Joel's family. Joel tells of spending his childhood, watching his father's descent into madness and slowly reveals his own fears that he has begun to fall into that dark pit himself. Dr. Andrews is impressed with Joel's intelligence and it becomes obvious that Joel is to some degree manipulating the interviews, but there are intense moments when one can't doubt the sincerity of his responses as he learns things about himself and his family that he didn't know.

This is exactly the sort of psychological character study that enthralls me with its complex characters in the pressure cooker of high stakes and I'd have been happy wherever it took me, and still, at the end, I was unprepared for the final twist in the story that turns everything on its head, eliciting a gasp as it makes you wonder what is real and what isn't. In the same way I was compelled to watch The Sixth Sense a second time, I had to re-read Blood and Circumstance from the beginning, looking for clues to determine the truth. You know that picture where, when you focus one way, you see a young girl, then you look again and it's an old woman? That's what the twist did; it changed everything I thought I understood about the story. Was the truth what I thought before the twist or was that all a lie? The young girl or the old woman?

The reread is where the real test lies, because it's in the second read, knowing what you then know, that you see if all the facts fit the second possible truth or if this is just a slight-of-hand by the author? Having read it twice (and keeping score on a notepad), I can tell you that Hollon didn't cheat anywhere in the story. Both endings are possible but mutually exclusive, and the truth hides behind the choice you make about which character you're going to believe. As much as ambiguous endings normally bother me, I realized it also allows me to choose the ending my heart wants, and so the story satisfies, which is what I wanted from the beginning. It's what I always want. And Frank Turner Hollon does it all in only 170 pages.
If you were choosing a book to rave about, what would it be?

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