Beware of the Poisoned Pen

Books from the Poisoned Pen Press – Variety Abounds

Avoidable Contact

Avoidable Contact: A Kate Reilly Mystery by Tammy Kaehler (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 296 pages)

We’re plunged into the world of Daytona endurance racing from the very first page. Avoidable Contact is the third book in author Kaehler’s Kate Reilly mystery series. Readers are quickly introduced to 38 characters within the first 52 pages! A sense of urgency surrounds Kate whether it’s on the track as an endurance driver in a 24-hour race at the Daytona International Speedway or behind the scenes with the pit crews and groupies.

Kate’s not-so-secret boyfriend Stuart is the victim of a hit-and-run just hours before the big race is scheduled to start. The circumstances are cloudy and not at all typical of Stuart’s usual behavior. Naturally, Kate plunges in to figure out what actually happened. While the sleuthing is somewhat choppy, the real entertainment in the book lies in the actual race descriptions.

Once Kate begins her stint at the wheel of the Sandham Swift Corvette in the 24-hour endurance race, her cinematic description of the action feels authentic. A graphic of the racecourse is a helpful reference for the reader. The missing piece is a chart of the teams and characters.

Recommended for race fans.

Death in the Dolomites

Death in the Dolomites: A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery by David P. Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 229 pages)

The square had begun to fill with the late afternoon crowd, many wearing ski outfits but shuffling about in soft, puffy boots or sturdy street shoes. The tall streetlamps had come to life, their yellow light picking up the flakes as they fell to the ground.

The dust jacket of this charming book depicts the icy blue Italian mountain town where Rick Montoya has gone with his buddy Flavio Caldaro for a winter ski vacation. The banter between these fellows is engaging as they scope out the lovely ladies of the town. The setting and season are perfect for reading in winter.

The two men met in college at the University of New Mexico years earlier. Rick is a translator and the book contains many Italian words and phrases. Flavio is a wine merchant and Rick loves good Italian food. The reader will crave the fine dining experiences artfully depicted in Wagner’s near-poetic writing.

Rick is a likeable fellow whose adventures were introduced in Wagner’s debut mystery, Cold Tuscan Stone. As with the earlier book, this one is a clever missing person/murder puzzle that he’s determined to solve even if he is on vacation. A missing American banker is Rick’s main concern. The local police and Rick’s uncle, a Roman police inspector are the official investigators; however, we know who will crack the case!

Well recommended.

Desert Rage

Desert Rage: A Lena Jones Mystery by Betty Webb (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 402 pages)

For a change of location and a definite change in attitude there’s Desert Rage, the eighth book in author Betty Webb’s series featuring Lena Jones, owner of Desert Investigations in Scottsdale, Arizona. The opening gambit is a rather gross prologue full of gore and indifference. A narrative by private investigator and former cop Jones launches into her political views via criticism of a Hummer vehicle and large houses in Scottsdale.

The slant on Lena’s perspective is easy to understand as she is the product of a troubled past in foster care, having been dumped into the system with a gunshot injury at a very early age. Lena’s techie sidekick is Jimmy Sisiwan, a full-bloodied Pima Indian. Together they take on a rightwing client, Congresswomen Juliana Thorssson, who has a deep past of her own.

The slaughter described in the prologue revolves around the congresswoman, a teenager named Ali and her boyfriend Kyle. The point of view shifts among Lena, Ali and Kyle as each tells their side of the story. The telling is well-paced and enjoyable. There’s plenty of accurate Arizona scenery included, which makes for pleasing reading whether or not you have been to the desert southwest.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher or by a publicist. Avoidable Contact and Death in the Dolomites are also available in trade paper editions.

You can read a review of Cold Tuscan Stone here:

http://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/tuscany-days-and-nights/

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The Critical Eye

Looking_Back_at_2014

Looking Back at 2014

With the calendar year about to quickly come to an end, I’ve been giving some thought to positives and negatives in the book trade, and personal lessons learned. So here are a few musings.

The All-Too-Common Plot

One thing that has highly surprised me this year is how often I’ve seen novels – virtually all written by women writers, which have been built on the same plot structure. It’s a bit odd to have seen at least tens of books using a very similar story line in 2014. Here’s the story: Judy Johnston has been away from her hometown for years. She is estranged from her family and her old friends, but returns due to the death of a parent, a once-close relative, a one-time good friend and/or classmate or an old flame. While back in her old stomping grounds, she discovers that her family has a deep, dark secret. It’s something major which, when she discovers and releases it – and she, no doubt, will do so – will either fix the family or utterly destroy it.

I have no problem with a writer finding a good story line and using it, even if others have done so. But I have been surprised that publishers don’t exercise more effort to prevent the recycling of an over-used, if fictional, tale.

Facebooking It

It’s clear that more writers, especially debut authors, are participating in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I see author pages on Facebook as being quite helpful. In fact, when I receive a new book from a publisher one of the first things I do is to check to see if the writer is on Facebook. Why? This viewing gives me a quick sense of his or her personality.

They say that first impressions count and one’s Facebook page often makes one seem likeable or not. Arrogance on the part of a writer is probably the biggest negative on social media; Facebook makes it easy to come across as humble and excited. (One of the best things about debut authors is their use of exclamation points on Facebook, which demonstrates their genuine excitement as “newbies” to the publishing world!)

I think it’s hard to “fake it” and appear to be something you’re not on Facebook. You either love working with other others or don’t; you love cats and dogs, or don’t. You either can handle criticism or you can’t. Again, one’s personality shines through for better or worse.

What’s my point here? Simply that I’m more likely to read and review a book by a writer whose personality and experiences I like and identify with. And the more I know about new writers, the more I’m likely to bond with them. (Which translates into my being more likely to read their current and future work.)

Everything Changes

Most of us have had the experience of listening to a record album for the first time after decades and wondering why we liked it in the first place. The reverse also occurs… I was never drawn to the music of David Bowie when it was originally released; however, now I find it fascinating. Why this happens is unclear, but this year I learned that what one thinks of a book can change with the times and circumstances.

As an example, I offer The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I first read the book when it was released and my reaction was, Meh. It had no impact on me, and I decided not to write up a review. Recently, I happened to pick up the book and learned to my surprise that I now found it engaging and extremely well-written. I initially missed the clue that Parkhurst was writing somewhat in the style of Joan Didion – the connection between The White Album by the Beatles (and the book by Didion) and The Nobodies Album title is made clear early on. And then there’s the fact that the story is set in San Francisco – a place I’ve come to better know, and Parkhurst’s scene descriptions are true and realistic.

The Nobodies Album (audio)

And so I went from having no opinion on The Nobodies Album to viewing it as a 4.5 star novel.

Falling Off A Cliff

The final trend that I, and my wife, discovered this year is an unfortunate one. This is when the initially successful author writes a second or third novel and it flows quite well, until… It quickly and abruptly ends! Ends so suddenly that the story seems to have fallen off of a cliff. I suspect that this happens because the publisher wants a follow-up to a successful book and sets a strict timeframe for its delivery. I’d like to optimistically believe that in 2015, publishers will display a bit more patience and allow their writers the time it takes to bring a story to its natural conclusion.

Looking Forward

Let’s hope that in 2015 we see more originality, increased social networking on the part of authors, and novels with well constructed endings. And, as readers, let’s remember that one benefit of owning a book is the chance to re-experience it at our leisure.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the San Francisco Book Review site:

http://sanfranciscobookreview.com/2014/12/looking-back-at-2014/

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Monkey Knife Fight

Beer Review: Rubicon Monkey Knife Fight Pale Ale

Monkey Knife Fight

A couple of weeks ago I received a 22-ounce bomber of Monkey Knife Fight Pale Ale. Monkey Knife Fight is an American Pale Ale coming in at 5.4% Alcohol By Volumne (ABV). Rubicon Brewing Company calls it a “quintessential session beer” despite it’s >5% ABV (I’m not complaining) and an “example of the Modern American Pale Ale.” They say it is brewed with 2 Row light crystal malts, Mt. Hood hops for balance, and then dry hopped with Cascade hops, which is common in West Coast pale ales to give it a dry, crisp, floral taste.

I poured this into my favorite snifter and was blown away by its appearance. Monkey Knife Fight poured a beautiful copper in hue with a thick, creamy white one-and-one-half finger head. This beer was very hazy and I noticed plenty of yeast left in the bottom of my glass. I adored the retention of the thick head and lacing throughout my entire tasting. This is, without a doubt, one of the best looking beers I’ve had the pleasure of tasting and earns a 4.5/5 in its appearance rating.

The aroma on this brew was very fresh, yet subdued and citrusy in the initial nose, but turns more floral the further into the beer you get, courtesy of the dry-hopped Cascade hops. Though it was a pleasant scent, I was not blown away by it and would have liked the initial nose to carry throughout more of the tasting. Monkey Knife Fight gets a 3.5/5 for its aroma.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My first sip was a bit confusing. I tasted some sweet biscuit or bready malts and it was nothing like the nose led me to expect. The hops hit you up front, but the malts sooth you on the back end. Overall, Monkey Knife Fight had a very balanced malt/hop profile as neither take a real commanding role in the flavor, which was strange based on my understanding that West Coast pale ales are generally much more hop dominant, oozing with citrus and floral notes. I’m all for refusing to be confined to arbitrary boundaries and categories, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting. Like the aroma, it was pleasant, but I wasn’t blown away, so Monkey Knife Fight receives a 3.5/5 for its taste as well.

Monkey Knife Fight felt crisp and exceptionally carbonated for the first few sips, but eventually started coating my mouth. A little further in, the coating grew stickier and thicker, before thinning out. And then towards the end I noticed that it was getting stickier and thicker than before. I’m usually not for beers coating my mouth, but the fluctuating waves from full and sticky to dry and crisp was a neat experience. In the mouthfeel department, Monkey Knife Fight gets a 3.5/5.

rubicon-brewery

Overall, I was torn in many directions during my tasting of this beer. Since Rubicon Brewing Company is from Sacramento, I expected a much hoppier, citrusy, piney, floral taste, but was given bready malts. With a name like Monkey Knife Fight, I was expecting absolute chaos on my palate, but that was not the case. Instead, this was a very mellow, easy drinking, sessionable brew, like Rubicon advertises! Maybe the inspiration for the name was drawn from the play between hops up front countered by the malts on the back end. Regardless of what I was expecting from the name, Monkey Knife Fight, as Rubicon claims, truly is a “quintessential session beer” and earns a 3.75/5 for its overall rating. I look forward to trying more brews from Rubicon Brewing Company!

Ryan Moyer

Ryan Moyer is a graduate of Indiana University. If you’re interested in more of Ryan’s beer musings, check out his and his friend’s craft beer exclusive Instagram account @maltedhopballs .

Note: Rubicon Monkey Knife Fight Pale Ale is now available in a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles in the greater Sacramento area.

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Helter Skelter

“Mental wounds not healing/Who and what’s to blame/I’m goin’ off the rails of the crazy train.” Ozzy Osbourne (“Crazy Train”)

Absence of Mercy (nook book)

The Absence of Mercy: A Novel by John Burley (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 352 pages)

A high school boy is murdered, and a high school girl barely escapes the same fate. A bedroom community is rocked, and the Medical Examiner’s family becomes embroiled in the controversy. This is the essence of John Burley’s debut novel, The Absence of Mercy. Burley himself is an emergency medicine physician, and those in that profession can attest to the accuracy or lack thereof in his details. For the typical reader who wants to enjoy a good suspense thriller, one could do far worse than Absence. In fact, having reviewed many books of this genre, I am hard pressed to recall any contemporary suspense thriller that I have enjoyed more.

Absence of Mercy back cover

In addition to an intuitive sense of pacing that is well refined for a first-time author, the reader does not have to suspend reality or ignore sensationalism to appreciate the book. I suppose the cross border escape attempt pushes the envelope a bit, but I’ll give Burley a pass on this, as the rest of the story is rock solid (or “spot on” as the English say). The events chronicled in this book could have happened today, anywhere. A mother’s love, professional integrity, trust, despair and forgiveness permeate the story effortlessly. Nothing here seems forced.

And, then, there is insanity. Yes, mental illness is real, and many good people effectively manage various afflictions throughout an entire lifetime. But there is also crazy and evil in this world. As humans we seem compelled to attempt to explain, make sense of, or feel the need to control everything around us. Unfortunately, this is not possible, as we tend to learn all too directly. As to true crazy and pure evil, there is no remedy, no cure.

In Absence, there is also no mercy.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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A Holiday Book List

Holiday hot gifts list

Looking for a book to gift someone? Here’s a list of a few interesting, recommended books. Not all of these are 2014 releases (why restrict ourselves to a calendar year?). Some will be found at Amazon, some at Barnes & Noble, and some can be ordered through your local bookstore. But you can and should find a way to purchase any of them that may be of interest. Joseph Arellano

The Nobodies Album (trade paper)

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst

A major rock star from San Francisco is accused of murdering his girlfriend. It’s a uniquely told story that’s worth reading and re-reading.

Everything I Never Told You (nook book)

Everything I Never Told You: A Novel by Celeste Ng

A Chinese-American girl tries to find out how and why her older sister died. There’s both more and less here than meets the eye.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer

A woman intends to kill herself on her next birthday, which is five days away. “I sat down with this book after dinner, and when I looked up, it was 2 a.m. and I had turned the last page.” Jacquelyn Mitchard

Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel by Junot Diaz

Wao is a strange yet wonderful novel that’s sad, funny, touching and sometimes aggravating. Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for this work. “Diaz establishes himself as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible voices.” Michiko Kakutani

The Poetry Cafe

The Poetry Cafe: Poems by John Newlin

“Poems are like cafes along a street/intimate places where friends ever meet…” Contemporary poems about the life of a poet, and the good and bad things in life.

Alex Haley's Roots

Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey by Adam Henig

This is a valuable introduction to Alex Haley and the 1977 Roots phenomenon, for those too young to have experienced it.

Life and Life Only

Life and Life Only: A Novel by Dave Moyer

Life and Life Only is a story of baseball, love and Bob Dylan. Who could ask for more?

Songs Only You Know

33 Days

Songs Only You Know: A Memoir by Sean Madigan Hoen

33 Days: Touring In A Van. Sleeping On Floors. Chasing A Dream. (A Memoir) by Bill See

Two true tales of bands on the run, living the rock and roll life. Hoen is a surprisingly skilled writer, but See’s story will stick with the reader.

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Coming Up Next…

HolidayBookList

A Holiday Book List!

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Good Day in Hell

Proof of Angels

Proof of Angels: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett (William Morrow, $14.99, 281 pages)

A Novel of Hope, Redemption, and the Gift of Angels Among Us…

“…without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.” Mary Karr

Mary Curran Hackett’s debut novel, Proof of Heaven, was excellent. This, her second novel, is about a fireman, Sean Magee, trapped in a burning building in Los Angeles. Magee is doomed and prepared to meet his end until an angel appears. Magee’s unable to see through the smoke but the female angel leads him to the place where he can make a blind three-story leap from the quickly collapsing building. Remarkably, Magee survives.

“He wanted to start over in a place that welcomed re-creation and self-invention…”

Magee had already lived one existence in New York City and a different type of life in Los Angeles. After being saved from a horrible death by what may be divine intervention, Magee’s finally ready to tackle the demons in his life and pursue happiness: “Everyone, Sean knew, had a demon or was once a demon… Then again, he thought, demons were nothing more than fallen angels like himself.” Will Magee’s third try at life – real life – be successful?

“Everyone’s got something that makes existing complicated.”

Yes, this is a story about redemption and it is – as was Proof of Heaven, a life-affirming one. Magee is an Everyman who wants what everbody wants, “Everybody wants to feel whole.” Without divulging too much, Magee comes to realize that what he actually wanted the most in his life was the company of a special woman; one he spurned and walked away from early on in his life. Will he be able to reunite with her?

This is a highly engaging and finely written morality tale. However, it has one enormous flaw. As the reader senses that the story will wrap up in a few dozen pages, it comes to an abrupt, disappointing ending. It’s as if someone cut the tape on a song, so that there’s no fade-out. It’s jarring, as when one listens to “She’s So Heavy” by the Beatles. So is the unexpected early conclusion of Proof of Angels.

Hackett is a very talented writer, so one has to wonder is she got caught up in writing to a strict deadline or if she simply ran out of ideas. I suspect it was the former.

Recommended, for those willing to accept a close-to-great story that wraps up in a non-satisfyingly abrupt – and not quite realistic, manner.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on November 4, 2014.

Proof of Heaven (nook book)

You can read a review of Proof of Heaven: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett here:

http://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/heaven/

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