Magic Unleashed

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Unleashed: A Kate Turner, DVM, Mystery by Eileen Brady (Poisoned Pen Press, $15.95, 266 pages)

Animal lovers get set for an adventure-filled mystery from Eileen Brady, the second in her Kate Turner series (Muzzled was the first book). Toto, a wire haired Cairn terrier owned by artist Claire Burnham, is left an orphan in the care of Dr. Kate Turner, the vet in Oak Falls, New York. Claire’s death is an apparent suicide but the prologue of Unleashed sets up the death as a pre-meditated murder.

The cheerful easy-going narrative of Kate’s life as a small town vet is engaging and her relationships are consistent with the first book in the series. Kate and her assistant, Mari, make house calls when emergencies or problems with non-portable pets such as potbellied pigs occur.

Kate’s wide circle of friends and clients provides her with several potential alternatives for Claire’s “suicide.” Readers will be brought along as she works through each of her suspicions about Claire’s demise.

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Brady’s journal quality writing brings the reader along during Kate’s work and off-hours. There are many fascinating veterinary cases presented throughout the text. This book has much to offer.

Well recommended.

Magician's Daughter

The Magician’s Daughter: A Valentine Hill Mystery by Judith Janeway (Poisoned Pen Press, $14.95, 236 pages)

Next up is the first in a series featuring an aspiring magician named Valentine Hill. Valentine is a young woman who is working as a magician’s assistant in a casino in Las Vegas. Her first person narrative is brisk and fast-paced. Her status as an actual person is tenuous because her mother has withheld Valentine’s birthdate and the name of her father. Yes, this is an odd situation for anyone and is especially so due to her mother’s habit of running scams and flitting from one duped mark to another.

There’s a fine line between a quirky story and a silly one. Author Janeway has mastered the art of telling a really good story, albeit one definitely off the beaten path. Valentine moves from Las Vegas to San Francisco in search of her vital statistics as she follows clues to her mother’s whereabouts. The folks she encounters along the way provide the reader with an inside look at a segment of society (hustlers and buskers) that is not part of most mysteries.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Down the Drain

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Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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A Step Back in Time

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The Taxidermist’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Mosse (William Morrow, $26.99, 412 pages)

In a remote village near the English coast, residents gather in a misty churchyard. It is St. Mark’s Eve, when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to walk.

Alone in the crowd is Constancia Gifford, the taxidermist’s daughter. Twenty-two and unmarried, she lives with her father on the fringes of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered on the remains of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered with the remains of his once world-famous museum of taxidermy. No one speaks of why the museum was shuttered or how the Giffords sank so low.

As the last peal of the midnight bell fades to silence, a woman is found dead – a stranger Connie noticed near the church.

A step back in time brings us to the early 1900s in Fishbourne, Chicester, West Sussex England. The author Kate Mosse (New York Times bestselling author of Labyrinth) is an accomplished writer of novels, non-fiction books and plays. Her writing style is consistent with the time she portrays. The specificity with which she slowly and gently unfolds her grisly tale is riveting, especially in light of the super fast action/thriller/mysteries we see today.

The physical book alerts the reader to the crafting and care embodied in The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Deckle pages add a touch of aged elegance, as do the illustrations marking each of the three parts of the tale and the start of each chapter. There is a detailed map of Fishbourne circa 1912 up front, which adds dimension and a sense of relationship between the sites where the action takes place. Readers would be wise to use a Post-It or page marker for ease in referencing the map. The Deckle edged pages are a bit difficult to separate for leafing back to the map.

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Connie, the taxidermist’s daughter, lives with her father, Gifford, on an isolated marshland in an old house. A sequence of events in the marsh, nearby town and church is set forth by an unseen narrator in one type font and a series of first-person missives in a flowing italic font is interspersed between events. The missives are haunting and threatening. Clearly, there is a past deed that warrants retribution.

A murky mystery unravels as though the past is meeting up with the present. Author Mosse provides a wealth of information about the indigenous birds and plants of Fishbourne. The detail with which she lays out Connie’s skillful practice of taxidermy approaches textbook accuracy.

Be very aware that this tale is not for the casual reader of English mysteries. There is much to be learned within these pages both in terms of technical knowledge and human psychology.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on March 29, 2016.

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I’ll Be There

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Some Women: A Novel by Emily Liebert (New American Library, $15.00, 291 pages)

“On the surface, these three women may not have much in common, but just when they each need someone to lean on, their lives are thrust together…”

She scanned the restaurant in search of Henry. Luckily, Nellie’s Tavern was an intimate spot with only a dozen or so tables, all of which were in plain sight. And, fortunately, Henry had no idea who she was or what she looked like. Thanks to the internet and a few pictures Annabel had showed her, Piper now knew that Henry was tall with dirty blond, receding hair; large oval-shaped light blue eyes, and about thirty extra pounds on his sturdy frame.

Three women, each from a different background and current circumstances meet through a shared exercise class. Annabel and Piper have been friends for only a few months, and yet, they have formed a friendship that has naturally evolved into a trusting one. Mackenzie, the perky younger gal who is new to the class, recognizes Piper from their shared workplace, Mead Media. Mackenzie’s mother-in-law is the owner.

Each of these women has issues in her life – issues of dysfunctionality that may topple the comfort and security that their home life has afforded them. Author Liebert gives her readers the inside scoop on each of her main character’s background and status. The dialogue is credible as the three women connect and share their emerging dilemmas. In many ways, this new set of friends has the freedom from emotional baggage that often accompanies long term friendships.

This is, of course, chick lit and while there are some villains, it’s not a guy-bashing story line. There’s shared responsibility among all the characters for the faults that caused the deterioration of their home life relationships. Leave it to three very smart and trusting friends to pool their resources and energy to jump in where others would fear to tread. The effort is clever and heartening. Who knows, your next best friend forever might be someone working at getting in shape right along with you during your weekly Pilates class.

Any further details would border on the necessity for a spoiler alert!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was published on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.

“Chock full of compelling characters, intriguing relationships, and some of the wittiest writing I’ve read this year.” Elin Hilderbrand, The Rumor.

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World In My Eyes

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The Big Rewind: A Novel by Libby Cudmore (William Morrow, $14.99, 256 pages)

Music was an emotion she felt at her absolute core. It wasn’t to dance or get drunk to. Music was represented by love.

The Big Rewind might be subtitled A Rock and Roll Mystery. Jett Bennett, a young woman in New York City who works as an office temp, receives a package intended for her friend and neighbor known as KitKat; the package contains a rock music mix tape. (That’s right, even though this story is set in the present day, KitKat was sent a Maxell C-90 cassette tape filled with music. “I’ve got a smartphone, but I’m not too young to remember the exact weight and feel of a Maxell mix tape. They’re just slightly heavier than a regular cassette, weighed down with love and angst, track lists thick with rubber cement and collage.”) When Jett goes to deliver the tape to KitKat she discovers that she’s been beaten to death. A young black man, a person who runs in the same city social circles as Jett, is arrested for the crime.

Jett feels instinctively that law enforcement has focused on the wrong subject, and she proceeds to do her best to find out who actually killed her friend. This may seem like an explanation of the storyline, but in fact the story is mostly about music. If you love listening to rock music, and you loved watching the film “High Fidelity,” the odds are that you will very much enjoy reading The Big Rewind.

Like the record store clerks in “High Fidelity,” author Cudmore has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern music and she has a great deal of fun showing off within the pages of this novel. The book allows her to express her love of certain rock groups, and also to enjoy tearing down the bands she is not so fond of. For example, in character as Jett, Cudmore writes:

I derided Mumford and Sons as being “like Flogging Molly if all the punk rhythms and talent was removed.” Ouch! This is the kind of comment that gets one unfriended if posted on Facebook. (But it’s fun.)

She also enjoys examining the psychology of those who made mix tapes – and who today may compile and share mix discs or digital playlists:

There isn’t a better feeling in the world… than acknowledgment that your mix tape was not only received and played but enjoyed. It’s a dance of sorts, balancing songs you think the listener will love while trying to say everything that otherwise dries up in your throat before you can get out the words.

If I recall correctly, in “High Fidelity” the main character states, wisely, that mix tapes display more about the person who put them together than they do – or did – about the intended recipient.

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Make no mistake, Cudmore can write and write quite effortlessly.

(The musician) Cassie wore burgundy Doc Martens with black tights and a flannel skirt; her dark-blond hair was crimped and pushed off to the side with a handful of clips. She was a relic of the last time music mattered, where a songwriter wasn’t some Swedish computer geek plotting song like math problems. Her silver nameplate bracelet and the necklace that matched were the only things about her that looked new and shiny. Everything else about her had the worn edges of a hard-won life.

And she writes quite effectively about her life-affirming love of music:

I thought about the music I had hoarded, my fear that if I heard the songs in the wrong place and time it might mean they no longer belonged to the moments I clung to.

The reader can relax in the knowledge that Jett’s going to solve the crime, even if she and we don’t know exactly when that will happen.

I put on Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene for background music and tried to put all the clues I had together, like assorted pieces from three different jigsaw puzzles. A secret boyfriend, a missing bracelet, a mix tape. I had the names, the locations, the pieces in play. I just didn’t know what order they went in to make the tiny paper Clue checklist that would lead me from her dead body on the kitchen floor to her killer standing convicted in the courtroom.

As with most successful mysteries, The Big Rewind proceeds on past the point at which the crime has been solved and the true criminal placed behind bars. Yet it almost does not matter, as the reader is having such fun being drenched in music comments and trivia. Cudmore, in fact, titles the final chapter, “Here’s where the story ends.”

(My boyfriend) put on Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” and I laughed, singing along with the “hoo hoo” parts like the Oates that I was.

Yes, rock lovers, this is your book. Libby Cudmore has passed the audition. As John Lennon might have said, “It’s good!”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-big-rewind-a-novel-by-libby-cudmore/

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Modern Blue

Music Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

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Rosanne Cash’s latest release illustrates how the label of country singer is far too limiting for a person of her talents. Perhaps she can be called a modern musician.

Here’s a look at the songs on The River & The Thread, which was produced and arranged by her husband, John Leventhal.

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“A Feather’s Not a Bird” is a fine opening, as a Bonnie Raitt style attitude meets Creedence Clearwater Revival type instrumentation. It’s clear that there’s nothing tentative about Cash. She’s confident and in charge as she sings, “…a river runs through me.” “Sunken Lands” is unique as a blend of classic and modern country built upon a Johnny Cash pulse.

“Etta’s Tune” is an introspective love song that might have been written by Jackson Browne: “We’re just a mile or two from Memphis/And the rhythm of our lives.” One can easily visualize Tom Petty singing Cash’s rocker, “Modern Blue”: “I went to Barcelona on the midnight train/I walked the streets of Paris in the pouring rain/I flew across an island in the northern sea/I ended up in Memphis, Tennessee….” There’s also a touch of the Eagles in the lyrics: “Everybody around here moves too fast/It feels so good but it’s never going to last/Everything I had is twice what I knew….”

“Tell Heaven” is an unplugged song about faith. The Judds would have loved to have sung this. “The Long Way Home” is an angst-filled song about lost love that calls to mind Don Henley, Mark Knopfler and Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”). It’s beautifully realized: “You thought you left it all behind/You thought you’d up and gone/But all you did was figure out how to take the long way home….”

“World of Strange Design” is a song about differences and discrimination, with a musical presentation that channels Dire Straits. “Night School” is a Tori Amos style balled: “I’d give anything to be lying next to you/In night school.” The uplifting “50,000 Watts” is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising”: “To be who we are/And not just who we were/A sister to him, a brother to her/We live like kings/without any sin/Redemption will come, just tune it on in….”

“When the Master Calls” is a touching song about the Civil War which would have fit well on Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album. “Money Road” is the relaxing closing song about a dream, but the standard eleven-track edition of this album is only 38 minutes long. Consider purchasing the Limited Edition Deluxe version, which adds three additional songs and 10-plus more minutes of music.

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“Two Girls” is the first bonus track on the Limited Edition, and it sounds like a song from Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album. “Biloxi” is one of the great songs written by the late Jesse Winchester: “Beautiful girls are swimming in the sea/Oh, they look like sisters in the ocean/The boy will find his path with salted water/And the storms will blow off toward New Orleans.”

“Southern Heart” is a short, 2 minute long, song with plucked violin strings that would have been a great single in the 1960s; it’s a song very much in the style of the Andy Williams hit, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”

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Cash has laid out her musical skills for the world to see on this release. It’s a highly recommended masterpiece or very close to it. But forget the ratings, just think of this as a near priceless gift delivered by Cash to her fans, current and prospective.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Blue Note Records.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-rosanne-cash-the-river-the-thread/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-Rosanne-Cash-The-River-The-5411097.php

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To Your Health

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Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying) by Bill Gifford (Grand Central Publishing, $16.99, 366 pages)

Spring Chicken is a book with an intended audience. You should read this book only if you are interested in living longer.

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Bill Gifford is a rather average guy, with a receding hairline and a bit of a beer gut, who decides to investigate how to live to and past the age of 100. It’s pretty tricky stuff, especially since “your risk of dying doubles roughly every eight years.” What?

When we’re young, the risk (of dying) is fairly minimal; there isn’t much difference between age twenty-five and, say, thirty-five. But thirty-five to forty-five is a big jump, and by fifty our peers are popping up with breast cancers and colon cancers and high blood pressure and other scary ailments.

Yes, this death business is pretty scary stuff. But Gifford handles it with a great deal of humor and more than a dab of self-deprecation. The surprising thing is that, other than being born with good genes (such as the writer’s grandmother in her late 90s who eats an unhealthy pastry each and every morning) and doing one of two things, he finds that there are no magic bullets to avoid aging. The key – how simple is this? – is not to avoid aging but to avoid aging as quickly as others in your peer group.

Gifford notes a harsh reality, that at a high school or college reunion of individuals the same age, some will appear to be older than their classmates and some will appear to be younger. This is, to some extent, the luck of the genetic draw but is also a reflection of lifestyle. (The individual who appears to be younger – such as the old friend who has retained a full head of hair, bright eyes and sparkling nails, may in fact be healthier; although this is not a hard and fast rule.)

Gifford’s self-assigned job was to find out what factors result in a person living a longer and, more importantly, a healthier life. He discovers that there has not been much substantive progress in this venture. Why haven’t we devoted as much time and energy to improving and extending human life as to, say, putting a man on the moon? To be sure, science and medicine are working to eliminate deadly diseases but whenever one is conquered another one pops up to take its place. (Gifford provides a logical explanation of why we age and die. Some of it has to do with the fact that the resources of our planet are limited. But the key is that human life is tied to the survival of the species, not the individual. Aging, in fact, is a visible signal to the world that we’ve moved beyond our essential, critical breeding years.)

If there’s no magic to aging slowly and extending life, what things can be done? First, as a research scientist-physician tells Gifford, “It’s very simple. Get off the couch.” Exercise is the drug. And it need not be strenous, back-breaking exercise. You can walk, jog, swim, or play tennis or golf. Almost anything done regularly which involves movement helps to extend health and life. (However, sports that involve stress and torque, like tennis and golf, are highly problematic for aging backs.)

Exercise is key because mobility is essential. Without mobility – and this is true in humans as well as for animals in general, disease and death are never far away. In Spring Chicken, Gifford includes practical tests that one can use to self-measure mobility.

So, exercise is one key factor in terms of longevity. Remember that Gifford discovered two important factors. However, no spoiler alert is needed as I’m not going to disclose the second factor here. You will need to purchase the book to learn that rather surprising “secret.”

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Read this book and stay young forever! Or, die trying.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

“Gifford’s survey of those who study aging and those who claim they can slow it down or stop it makes for a great read.” The Washington Post

Vitamania

If you read and enjoy Spring Chicken, you may also want to consider Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection by Catherine Price.

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