Tag Archives: 1940s

White or red?

White with Fish, Red with Murder: A Frank Swiver Novel by Harley Mazuk (Driven Press, $15.99, 372 pages)

white with fish

White with Fish, Red with Murder is a debut work by Harley Mazuk.  This is a mystery novel with some clever locations, quirky characters, and pitch perfect 1940s dialogue.  The narrator, Frank Swiver, is a private detective in San Francisco – circa 1948, who is eager for a paying client.  As luck would have it, Frank’s interest in wine is the ticket to a job!  Retired General Lloyd F. Thursby has planned an excursion on his private rail car with wine tasting as the entertainment.

“Hey, sweetheart.  Sorry I was late.  You look like a million bucks, you know?”

The general has an ulterior motive.  His good friend Rusty O’Callaghan was murdered and the general wants Swiver to finger the guilty party as the train wends its way from Oakland, CA to the wine country.  Swiver, under cover as a writer, brings along his trusty secretary/girlfriend, Vera, ostensibly as his date; but actually Vera is working with Swiver.  The party becomes complicated as each of the invitees boards the train.  The most notable guest, as far as Swiver and Vera are concerned, is Rusty’s widow, Cici O’Callaghan.  And, to make matters more complicated, Swiver and Cici have a shared romantic past.

“Look kid, I know you’re sore at me.  But the surest way to get you out of here is to find the real killer…”

Author Harley Mazuk has done his homework.  The cast of characters is straight out of a black and white mystery movie ala George Raft and Edward G. Robinson.  Even their names are indicative of the era.  And the language fits the period:  “A dame who may have been on the make perched at the other end (of the bar).”

Mazuk’s attention to detail is remarkable.  Of course it helps that this reviewer’s all-time favorite movie is the 1944 classic, Laura, making me a suitable critic of these matters.  And, I think mystery readers of all ages will be sure to enjoy the train trip and ensuing action to its conclusion.

The only slight detraction lies with the book’s cover art.  Yes, the story could be considered to be of the noir genre; however, the color and placement of the author’s name is far too dark.  Mazuk deserves better billing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

“A delicious throwback to the  PI stories of Hammett and Chandler when all the dames had shapely gams.”  Alan Orloff, author of Running From the Past.

 

 

 

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An Interview with Sarah Jio

This is an interview with New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Sarah Jio, whose new book was released on November 26. Joseph Arellano

Sarah Jio

Q: There are actors who are called method actors. They like to put themselves inside the skin of the characters they play. For example, if a method actor is hired to portray a boxer, he or she will take boxing lessons and box with professionals. I tend to think of you as a method writer, one who inhabits a world before she writes about it. With this in mind, could you tell us about how you prepared to write the novel Morning Glory, which is set on a houseboat in Seattle?

A: Renting a houseboat for four months while writing this novel was the single greatest thing I could have done to put me in the right headspace to capture the essence of the floating home community. I got to soak up little details that I would have never known had I not experienced them – like how a houseboat sways ever so gently on a windy day or how a pair of Mallard ducks waddle up to the doorstep on Saturday morning and gaze in to the French doors. I will forever treasure that time on Seattle’s Lake Union writing this book.

Morning Glory 2

Q: Would you briefly summarize the plot of Morning Glory, your latest release?

A: Here is what is written on the book jacket: “New York Times bestselling author Sarah Jio imagines life on Boat Street, a floating community on Seattle’s Lake Union – home to people of artistic spirit who for decades protect the dark secret of one startling night in 1959.

“Fleeting an East Coast life marred by tragedy, Ada Santorini takes up residence on houseboat number seven on Boat Street. She discovers a trunk left behind by Penny Wentworth, a young newlywed who lived on the boat half a century earlier. Ada longs to know her predecessor’s fate, but little suspects that Penny’s mysterious past and her own clouded future are destined to converge.”

Q: In your novels, women who lived at different times (and who never met) are brought together by unique circumstances. Generally the woman who lives in current times is called upon to resolve a mystery involving a woman who lived 50, 70 or 80 years before her time. It has struck me that in this way each character gets to live twice; it’s a form of time travel. Is there an experience in your life or in your family that prompted you to write about this type of situation? Did you personally solve a mystery involving someone who preceded you?

A: I just smiled reading this question, because, yes – I love the concept of time travel, and I find it so heartbreaking that it isn’t really possible (someday?). I suppose the reason I tend to like to write books in this way is it gives me a chance to look back to the past. I feel incredibly romantic about my grandparent’s generation, and I’ve often thought that I should have been born in 1920, so I could have been a young woman in the 1940s.

Q: In Morning Glory a character states, “I know I may always ache for the past… but I want to be a bird now. I want to flap my wings through the rainstorms. I want to start my day with the earnestness of the morning glory….” Do you find yourself being both past and present oriented?

A: Absolutely, and I remember writing that passage. While I write fiction, yes, there is a lot of my heart and my own personal journey in all of my stories. It is impossible to separate the author from her characters. While they are not always me, I get to create them, and I get to choose favorites. And I often turn to my protagonists as I think about the important elements of life, or big things I’m working through.

Q: One thing I found in common among The Violets of March, Blackberry Winter and Morning Glory is that while your story conclusions are logical, they are unpredictable. Is this something that you strive for – to keep the reader guessing until the last page, or is this simply how the stories play out in the writing process?

A: Yes, I love to be sneaky like that – surprising readers with a conclusion that they didn’t see coming, or some surprising reveal at the end. Because isn’t that true of life? Often it is unpredictable and unchartered. Even the best laid plans have hiccups or surprise endings. And I love carrying this through in my books.

Q: Did anyone in our family or background use the phrase, “True love lives on….” (used by Esther Wilson in The Violets of March)?

A: No, I have never had that uttered to me by a loved one, but I believe it, and I cling to it.

Q: There are characters in your novels that are less than nice and honorable; but in general your stories tend to restore our faith in the best of human nature. Does this reflect a view on your part that while life can be mean and nasty, the better angels of our nature win out? In other words, do we see Sarah Jio’s basic optimism play out in your work?

A: Yes, we are flawed creatures – and that comes out in my books, for sure. At the end of the day, I am an optimist. We get one life, and only so many trips around the sun, and I believe in love and happy endings and beautiful sunsets that make you smile.

Q: Will most of your stories be set in the Seattle area?

A: Not all, but most. My heart is here and will always be. I naturally gravitate to setting my stories in the Northwest, but I’m interested in other locations too, so perhaps I’ll be switching things up in the next few books.

Q: I consider it as a positive that when I read Blackberry Winter, I was reminded of Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet since the two novels share a similar stage – Seattle past and present – and a journey of personal discovery. I loved both books. Have you met Ford and would you agree that the two novels are bookend-like in scope and theme?

A: I own Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, although I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (it is on my nightstand!). I have not met Jamie Ford, but enjoy following him on Facebook and Twitter and I think we’d have a lot to talk about over coffee (and anyone who is not following him on Twitter should – he’s hilarious). Readers have mentioned a similar connection in our books, and it’s a huge compliment to me, for sure.

Note: Before becoming a full-time author, Sarah Jio was the Health and Fitness writer-blogger for Glamour magazine.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/an-interview-with-sarah-jio-author-of-morning-glory/

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Hollywood Nights

Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot (Three Rivers Press, $17.00, 375 pages)

“(The Hollywood social scene) was…  made up of Republicans.   The Powells, the Murphys, the Steins, the Bergens, the Taylors, all were conservative-leaning Republicans; Reagan was the only die-hard registered Democrat among them.”

It’s hard to associate the following words with our mental perception of President Ronald Reagan:  hardy Democrat, union leader and uber-supporter, heavy drinker and womanizer…  And yet, this is the picture of a young Reagan – the man before he met and married Nancy, painted by Marc Eliot, who specializes in writing biographies of famous actors.   It’s the shock attached to this portrait of an untamed young man who later became a stabilizing leader that will make the prospective reader of this account choose sides.

Some will refuse to read or even consider Reagan: The Hollywood Years since it does not mesh with the majority view of Ronald Reagan, the man.   This is a person’s right, just as it’s fair for some of us to refuse to read (or believe) the worst stories about the Kennedys.   Some will love that the account casts a disparaging view of an early Reagan; although, Eliot does not deny that Reagan experienced tremendous personal growth after marrying Nancy, settling down in every sense of the word, and entering politics.   And some, as I did, will find it to be a very engaging read, a quick read except for the fact that so many of the actors mentioned will be unknown to anyone not alive in the 1940s.   (You’ll need to have ready access to Wikipedia to continually look up the facts about actors and actresses; very few of whom are now living.)

Is Eliot’s biographical account credible?   Well, there are arguments to be found on both sides of the issue.   On the side of plausibility, Eliot’s not a hack writer.   He earned his MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts, and then studied for a PhD in film history.   It’s not clear if he actually earned the PhD at Columbia, but he knows his films and he’s written some generally praised biographies, including American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant: A Biography and Jimmy Stewart: A Biography.   Eliot’s also packed Reagan: The Hollywood Years with an immense number of source notes, specific references and a detailed index.

In addition, at least one of the then young actresses who was said to have had a sexual fling with Reagan back in the day confirmed Eliot’s account after the book’s publication.   On the flip side, a number of individuals have challenged the “facts” in this unique account, and Eliot more recently published a biography of Steve McQueen that many have found to be a bit implausible, to say the least.   (There are better biographies of Steve McQueen.)

In Eliot’s version of his early life, Reagan was a minimally talented actor who became extremely well-known even though he was not even in the Top 40 actors of his time – one poll listing him as the 82nd favorite actor in 1939-40, when Clark Gable was number 1.   But Reagan was always a lucky young man, always getting the right break at the right time, which brings to mind what Paul Newman was to call “Newman’s luck.”   Mr. Reagan had Reagan’s luck.

“…he chose to spend most evening with young, willing and always beautiful starlets.”

This Reagan had a very contentious marriage to Jane Wyman.   He once said to  her, “We’ll lead an ideal life if you’ll just avoid doing one thing:  Don’t think.”   But his divorce from her almost destroyed him and led him to become a man who went through young starlets like a hot knife through butter.   He also was at one time, allegedly, a man who loved his drink.   In Eliot’s telling, Reagan sometimes met William Holden in the early evening at Ciro’s Nightclub on the Strip in West Hollywood where they would drink until the place closed.

Whether this all sounds plausible or not, it is one of Eliot’s most interesting accounts and it’s highlighted by some details that will not be found anywhere else.   For example, Eliot writes about the run-ins that Reagan had with the Kennedy brothers going back several decades; information that I’ve never come across before.

In the end, this is what Newsweek termed “A fascinating portrait.”   It may or may not be an accurate one; that’s not my decision to make.   One of the fascinating tales told in Eliot’s version of events in the life of the young Ronald Reagan came about when Reagan blasted Motion Picture magazine for violating his privacy – something that had not bothered him previously – once he began dating one Nancy Davis.   The magazine returned fire by printing an open letter to Mr. Reagan which sternly reminded him that, “Yours is a business, Mr. Reagan, which is built on publicity.   In this sense, actors are like politicians…”

Recommended, with the caveat that for some reading this book will require a suspension of disbelief.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Here is a link to our review of Marc Eliot’s bio of Clint Eastwood:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/american-rebel-the-life-of-clint-eastwood/

The best biographies of Steve McQueen are Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill, and Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill and Peter O. Whitmer PhD.

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Gimme Shelter

Trail of Blood: A Novel of Suspense by Lisa Black (Harper Reprint Edition; $7.99; 432 pages)

Who knew that Cleveland, Ohio could be so interesting?   Lisa Black, a member of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, proves that there’s more to Cleveland than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   Her third Theresa MacLean book is not only set in this Midwestern city, it features some really gory murders that are based in fact.   Black’s main character is a forensic scientist who happens to belong to a family with a history of crime fighting all the way back to her grandfather.

When present day murders bear a striking similarity to Cleveland’s most horrific killing spree during the 1930s and 40s, the city police and coroner’s offices are summoned to cut short the present day nightmare.   Theresa and her cop cousin Frank are at the center of the action.   Yes, Theresa takes more than her share of risks; however, she also uses her instincts to get out of peril.   There are plenty of false leads and hints to keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the book.

There are several other mystery/thriller series written by expert authors that feature main characters with similar talents.   The most notable of these is the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.   Black unfolds Trail of Blood as a more personal story with less ostentatious criminology and more good-old-fashioned shoe leather detecting than does Cornwell.   In addition, the story is actually told in multiple time frames, current day and 75 years ago.

Black is excellent at keeping it real.   The mix of accurate historic details, a map up front in the beginning of the book and a detailed timeline of the original murders set this book apart from the rest of the pack.

Well recommended for fans of thriller novels that actually have more than just gore to offer.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Trail of Blood was released in a Mass Market  Paperback version on July 26, 2011.“Quite simply, one of the best storytellers around.”   Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli & Isles novels.   Lisa Black’s new novel, Defensive Wounds, will be released on September 27, 2011.

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This Ain’t No Disco

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper Perennial; $15.99; 560 pages)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 560 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States was dragged into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   In this role, Claire comes to meet and fall in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission as her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a murder mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in close to 600 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it were made into a film, most viewers would be very far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out…  she ends the story with a whimper rather than with a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a tightly scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 550 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Fierce Radiance will be released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.


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Midnight Rambler

Trail of Blood by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 400 pages)

Who knew that Cleveland, Ohio could be so interesting?   Lisa Black, a member of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, proves that there’s more to Cleveland than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   Her third Theresa MacLean book is not only set in this Midwestern city, it features some really gory murders that are based in fact.   Black’s main character is a forensic scientist who happens to belong to a family with a history of crime fighting all the way back to her grandfather.

When present day murders bear a striking similarity to Cleveland’s most horrific killing spree during the 1930s and 40s, the city police and coroner’s offices are summoned to cut short the present day nightmare.   Theresa and her cop cousin Frank are at the center of the action.   Yes, Theresa takes more than her share of risks; however, she also uses her instincts to get out of peril.   There are plenty of false leads and hints to keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the book.

There are several other mystery/thriller series written by expert authors that feature main characters with similar talents.   The most notable of these is the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.   Black unfolds Trail of Blood as a more personal story with less ostentatious criminology and more good-old-fashioned shoe leather detecting than does Cornwell.   In addition, the story is actually told in two time frames, current day and 75 years ago.  

Black is excellent at keeping it real.   The mix of accurate historic details, a map up front in the beginning of the book and a detailed timeline of the original murders set this book apart from the rest of the pack.

Well recommended to fans of thriller novels that actually have more than gore to offer.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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