Family Affair

family trustFamily Trust: A Novel by Kathy Wang (HarperLuxe, $26.99, 400 pages)

Family Trust is a debut novel from Kathy Wang.  Ms. Wang has an engaging, chatty writing style full of vivid details.  She grew up in northern California and holds an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a graduate degree from Harvard Business School.  The story she tells feels accurate.

While this reviewer is not Chinese, numerous family and friends were emigres from Lithuania.  Believe me when I say that many of the attitudes displayed in the book are cross-cultural!

The San Francisco Bay Area, more specifically the South Bay and Silicon Valley are where the Huang family comes to grips with the eventual mortality of Stanley Huang, father of Fred and Kate, ex husband of Linda Liang, and husband of second wife Mary Zhu.  Each of these characters is featured in the developments that follow Stanley’s diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Ms. Wang goes above and beyond her obligation as a writer to inform her readers of the details surrounding the lives of each of her characters.  The one slow-down I felt was when she went into the aspects of careers in Silicon Valley.  The technology and finance language were sometimes a bit too much, even for the mom of a former Sand Hill Road venture capital employee.

Seventy-two-year-old Stanley and his much younger (28 years younger) wife of ten years, Mary, live in the house where he and his former wife, Linda, lived for many of their 34 years of marriage.  Son Fred is divorced and his sister Kate is supporting her stay-at-home “writer” husband and two children.  Kate is more successful than her brother.  Their mom, Linda, worked hard securing financial security for herself and her family.  She now wants to explore the possibility of love after 70.

Each of these characters interacts with the others through thoroughly believable, easy to visualize situations with amazing dialogue.  The fly in the mix is Fred’s egocentric manner and his hints at the fortune he will leave behind.  The mystery, even though this novel is not tagged a mystery, is how much is Fred worth and who will inherit?

The book starts out relatively slowly.  At first the pace seemed too slow.  As the background and history of each character unfolded, Ms. Wang’s pacing increased until the story became somewhat of a page-turner.  Nope, no spoiler alert is needed in this review.

Family Trust is an excellent novel and well worth the read.  Let’s hope Kathy Wang is busy writing another one for her readers.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on October 30, 2018.

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Afflicted

affliction bookThe Affliction: A Novel by Beth Gutcheon (William Morrow, $16.99, 384 pages)

Maggie was sitting on the floor paging through a book on Bernard Berenson and Hope was deep in one of the desk drawers when a voice from the doorway said, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

Prolific author Beth Gutcheon serves up her second Maggie Detweiler mystery in a decidedly Miss Marple/J.B, Fletcher tone.  Of course, this being a mystery novel, someone is murdered.  There are subplots of unrest among the students at a private girls’ school.  Various members of the Rye-on-Hudson community where the school is located have been plotting their own schemes.  The infusion of developer capital to the otherwise bucolic community energizes the action.

Maggie and her buddy Hope Bobbin insinuate themselves into the community after a call for assistance.  Initially, Maggie arrives at leader of an Independent School Association accreditation evaluation team.  The school, Rye Manor School for Girls, is facing the likely loss of its accreditation.

Ms. Gutcheon seamlessly brings her reader along on Maggie and Hope’s quest for the killer.  Along the way the faculty, students and campus of the school fill in a privileged New England experience around the wonderful dialogue.  There’s no lack of finger pointing and accusations to make solving the murder a challenging effort for the Detweiler and Bobbin team.

The Affliction is consistent with its predecessor, Death at Breakfast.  Hopefully, Ms. Gutcheon will deliver more such engaging adventures for her readers.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  The trade paper version of The Affliction will be released on November 27, 2018.

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When the Men Were Gone

when the men were gone

When the Men Were Gone: A Novel by Marjorie Herrera Lewis (William Morrow, $26.99/$15.99, 240 pages)

When the Men Were Gone, based on a true story, is Marjorie Herrera Lewis’ debut novel about Tylene Wilson, an assistant principal at a Texas high school who takes over the school’s football team during World War II, when all of the men are either at war or returning home dead.

Wilson has grown up an avid fan and shares many childhood memories with her father, but when she steps up to make sure the boys get one last chance to play football before the war comes calling, she is seen in a less than favorable light by many of the locals.  Her heroic gesture is met more with scorn than gratitude, because “everybody knows” that coaching football in Texas is clearly a man’s job.

When Wilson finally clears the imminent hurdles with her principal and the school board, the team takes the field for its first game against a powerhouse program in front of a full house with reporters from hours away descending upon Brownwood, Texas.

It turns out that Wilson does know what she’s doing, and Lewis tells both an inspiring and enjoyable story.  She does well to avoid too much commentary and simply leads the reader through the thoughts and actions of the characters, bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The book, however, is arguably a bit too lean at less than 250 pages.  Its primary drawback is that a little more meat at times could have made for a better, more complete story.  This does not seem to have been the goal for Lewis, but more could have been done to shore up the characters and plot.

Lewis herself covered the Dallas Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and endured some taunting from some insiders before winning them over.  She went on to join the Texas Wesleyan University football staff.  Though not autobiographical, Lewis apparently relied upon her knowledge and personal experiences to lend credibility to the inspiring account.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  When the Men Were Gone will be released in hardbound and trade paper versions on October 2, 2018.

Dave Moyer is the Superintendent of Schools for the Elmhurst Unit District 205 public school district, located just north of Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

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Brownout

The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawell (Bloomsbury, $35.00, 496 pages)

browns of california

The Browns of California is an interesting, sometimes engaging look at a unique California political family that produced two governors (Edmund G. and Jerry) and a state treasurer (Kathleen).  The work appears to be well edited and contains no evident factual errors.  Yet the book lacks something.

We get a hint of what’s lacking when Pawell references, on seven different pages, former California historian, state librarian, and USC professor Kevin Starr. Starr wrote an impressive multi-volume history of the state under the series title, “Americans and the California Dream.”  The most impressive of these works may have been Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s.  Each volume soared in flight because of Starr’s uniquely impressive writing style which reflected his childlike wonderment over the miracle that is California.  By contrast, Pawel’s style is competent, but flat.  This vehicle never leaves the runway.

Another issue is that while Pawel addresses Jerry Brown’s uniqueness, she never stops to reflect on how very strange his ideas appeared at the time he arrived at them.  Yes, he may have been – to his credit, ahead of his time but he was never of his time.

The Browns is a seemingly credible, but just passable, account that never quite comes to life.  For this reason, it is not recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released on September 4, 2018.

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Obsession Most Fatal

A Fatal Obsession: A McCabe & Savage Thriller by James Hayman (Witness Impulse, $11.99, 368 pages)

a fatal obsession

A Fatal Obsession marks James Hayman’s sixth book in his McCabe & Savage series.  Once again, author Hayman provides his readers with a well-crafted thriller.  His mastery of language and plot lines smoothly intertwines the musings and actions of deranged killer Tyler Bradshaw with the advancement of the romantic relationship between Detective Sargent Michael McCabe and Investigator Maggie Savage, both of the Portland, Maine Police Department’s Crimes Against People unit.

Faithful readers of Hayman’s series will be sure to see the sharp contrast between a strong family that looks after its own and an abusive one that created a killing machine.  This time around McCabe employs his skill as a seasoned investigator and team builder to track down his brilliant, budding actress niece, Zoe McCabe, who has disappeared following the final performance of Othello at a New York City Lower East Side community theater.

The riveting prologue captures the reader’s attention and, if you’ll excuse the trite puns, sets the stage for a very bumpy ride.  McCabe and Savage complement each other’s styles in devising the hunt for Zoe.  Bradshaw cleverly demands unwavering attention through his brilliant deceptions as he spins a fantasy that escalates a killing spree of artistic young women.

Having nearly unlimited funds can lead to disaster.  Those who wish for such a life may not want to have paid the high price that cost Bradshaw a “normal” one.  Although he has a few redeeming qualities, they’re not enough by a large measure.

This is a highly recommended for mystery and thriller fans of all ages who enjoy reading stand-alones and series.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

A Fatal Obsession was released on August 21, 2018.

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Blood and Wisdom

Blood and Wisdom: A Mystery by Verlin Darrow (The Wild Rose Press, 381 pages, $17.99; Kindle ed. $5.99)

blood and wisdom

Welcome to Santa Cruz, California, home of gurus, gangsters and gumshoes.  Author Verlin Darrow knows of what he writes.  As a local who just happens to be a psychotherapist, he’s familiar with the many personality quirks portrayed by the characters in this engaging mystery.

Private investigator Karl Gatlin narrates this tale with a funny, irreverent matter-of-fact attitude reminiscent of David Rosenfeld’s Andy Carpenter character.  Author Darrow gives Gatlin a firm, confident voice as he navigates among some fairly strange humans while investigating the unexpected appearance of a dismembered body in a wishing well.

Gatlin’s new client, Aria Piper, is a teacher/guru whose calm and peaceful sanctuary is violated by the above-referenced body.  Her employees and students must be cleared of any involvement in the murder.  Aria is a rather appealing femme fatale who draws Gatlin’s attention.  They knew each other in the past as both studied psychology.  Gatlin abandoned the practice for investigative work.

Author Darrow introduces his characters at a measured pace which allows his readers to follow the complexity of the relationships among them, including many family ties.  The action takes place around the Monterey and Santa Cruz bay areas.  Happily, Darrow satisfies readers familiar with the locale with accuracy as Gatlin travels around seeking answers.

Well recommended for mystery lovers.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

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30 Years in the Hole

30 years

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor by Karen Gedney, M.D. (DRG Consulting Company, $14.95, 384 pages)

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is an engaging and seemingly highly factual account of the work of a prison physician. I say this because I worked for doctors in a state’s prison system. As Doctor Karen Gedney makes abundantly clear, one never knows what one will encounter each day behind bars. One day inside a prison may be as quiet and reserved as a Catholic mass. The next day, all hell can, and will, break out.

Dr. Gedney intended to work for just four years under the National Health Corps in order to pay back her medical school scholarship. But the work was so fascinating to her that she stayed for three full decades. And she saw it as her mission to not just treat physical medical issues but also hearts and minds: “It was clear to me that as long as these men viewed themselves as victims, they had little chance of doing well on the outside. I had to help them perceive themselves not as victims, but as people who had what it takes to be responsible for the choices they made in life.”

And so, Dr. Gedney wound up bringing life skills classes to a high-security prison. An intriguing twist in her story is that Gedney, who is white, has a husband who is African-American. He wound up working with her to develop classes for inmates, the type intended to provide them with a “second chance.”

Dr. Gedney’s perspective is best summarized in these words: “I was always a sucker for the underdog.”

Of course,  no good deed goes unpunished, so Gedney often had to deal with wardens who either did not support her rehabilitation efforts or dismantled them. Even physicians are bound by the chains of bureaucracy. Luckily for Gedney, she encountered inmate success stories, such as the inmate she assisted who received a pardon after serving fifty years in prison. “Fifty years in prison. How does one survive that so well? How did he manage to walk out with confidence, into a world that was so different than the one he knew?”

Sometimes Dr. Gedney gets a bit too deep into attempting to cure the world as when she states: “The only thing that made sense to me was trying to gain an understanding of why someone commits a crime, and what could be done to prevent or stop the behavior.” Some would argue that this mission is not the role of a doctor in the correctional system. And this raises the one issue with 30 Years Behind Bars. At times, it becomes a political polemic, and this can distract from the story of Dr. Gedney’s medical career. And I suspect that it may, to some extent, limit the audience for the book.

Dr. Gedney might have avoided the sections of the book that deal with changing the system and the world. But then it would not have been her true account.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book is available as an eBook and as a trade paperback book.

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