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Last Enchantments (nook book)

The Last Enchantments: A Novel by Charles Finch (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 336 pages)

Charles Finch has created a fictional memoir centered on a young man’s year in England studying at Oxford University. The narrator’s name is unknown as he prepares to depart New York and his long time live in girlfriend, Alison. We enter his life as he finishes packing while disentangling himself from Alison. We join him on his ride to the airport and flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Is disillusionment with the political scene all that is spurring him back to academia? Perhaps distancing himself from a failed political campaign and Alison is just what he needs.

There are clues to the era including references to working the campaign trail for John Kerry that provide the reader with a timeframe. Our narrator, Will, is a graduate student in the Oxford English department. After Finch establishes Will as his main character, he indulges himself with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the total Oxford experience, about which he possesses firsthand knowledge.

To his credit, Finch has the wonderful ability to create fresh phrases and hold the reader’s attention with well-described conflicting human emotions. Will and his fellow graduate students, both male and female, are influenced deeply by these emotions. There is a delicate balance among dialogue, inner musings and narrative. Alas, no quotes may be provided, as the review copy of the book sent by the publisher is an Advance Reader’s Edition.

This reviewer was surprised at the sheer volume of beer drinking, punting on the river and hooking up that takes place during Will’s year of living unencumbered. The pompous image this American has of students at Oxford was quickly erased! What’s striking is the ambiguity with which the characters view their relationships. Perhaps the delay of making adult commitments woven throughout The Last Enchantments is the norm for a certain group of folks these days.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Goodbye

This Is How You Say Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir by Victoria Loustalot (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 240 pages)

This is How You Say Goodbye (Nook Book)

Everyone I dated felt like a hotel room – clean, organized, empty and everyone the same. Nothing less, nothing more.

Victoria Loustalot lost her father, who’d been living a double life, at the age of 11. Her bedridden and HIV-infected parent died at the age of 44. Three years before his death he offered her a trip around the world, with stops in Cambodia, Stockholm and Paris (places that had been important in his life). In this memoir Loustalot embarks on a trek to visit Angor Wat, Stockholm and Paris as an adult in an attempt to find the man she never quite knew: “Everything I was seeing I imagined my father saw, too.”

The book will appeal to those who have traveled to a new place and found it to be magical – “I was unprepared for how (the towers at Angor Wat) were going to make me feel.” What’s a bit strange is that the writer, who grew up in Sacramento, has little love for the California valley town. She describes Sacramento winters as “wet and dark” and adds that her father “had no love” for the place.

In the end, Loustalot may not have come closer to locating her mysterious father’s true character, but she does complete a fulfilling journey of self-discovery. This memoir may lead some readers to fashion a similar journey.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: Loustalot begins her account by describing how hard it was for her to learn to smile. There’s a reserve about her. It’s this reserve that keeps this entertaining true story from becoming a completely engaging and enthralling account.

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Tuscany Days and Nights

Cold Tuscan Stone: A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery by David P. Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, $14.95, 250 pages)

Cold Tuscan Stone (nook book)

“I was looking up at that moment, back toward the town, and that was when I saw a man falling off the wall. I didn’t hear anything, but it may have been too far away. Do people usually scream when they fall, like in the movies?”

Author David P. Wagner has a gift for dialogue that makes this, his debut mystery novel, a fresh and charming read. His main character, Rick Montoya, flows naturally from his creator’s life experience. Wagner is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose assignments included nine years in Italy. He now lives in New Mexico. The text is flavored with comments in Italian that provided a refreshing exercise for this reviewer. My four years of Italian language classes at Cal were not wasted!

The shadowy first chapter is written in a firm confident style that stays consistent throughout the book. Immediately following, the reader is introduced to Montoya, a translator who has recently relocated to Italy after some years in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Montoya’s roots in Italy include attending high school there. He is contacted by his old school buddy Beppo Rinaldi who has matured into a member of the Italian Art Squad. Beppo seeks to find purloined antiquities in order to keep them in Italy. Montoya proves to be just the undercover amateur for a puzzling case involving Etruscan graves and valuable funerary urns intended for the black market that the squad has uncovered in Volterra, a town in Tuscany.

Montoya has no sooner arrived in Volterra when a craftsman working for the first person on the list of suspects is spotted plunging down a steep hill after what appears to be a fall from a wall. To make matters worse, Montoya is the last person to see him alive. The commissario of police, Carlo Conti, is a seasoned cop who is yearning to retire after decades of public service. Conti takes on the case himself. After the death, Montoya checks in with Conti as part of his assignment from Beppo. Together, they form a secret alliance to suss out the guilty art thief from among a list of likely suspects.

Along the way, Montoya enjoys many tantalizing meals and beverages. Be prepared to develop a desire for Tuscan style Italian food, and of course at least one new pair of Italian shoes!

David Wagner, un altro libro per favore!

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Blood Simple

In the Blood: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Touchstone, $25.99, 352 pages)

in-the-blood

A “normal” or “sane” childhood won’t be found in this, the latest thriller from Lisa Unger. The setting is The Hollows, a small rural town outside New York City. Lana Granger, a trust fund baby, is the central character. Lana attends Sacred Heart, a small local college, and is a fourth year psychology student. She follows the advice of her trust fund manager to begin earning money. With the help of her faculty advisor, Dr. Langdon Hewes, she finds a part time job caring for Luke Kahn, a deeply disturbed boy.

The intersection of Lana’s scarred past and Luke’s twisted mind form the center of the plot that includes the disappearance of Lana’s college roommate. Former cop Jones Cooper and his wife, Maggie, who is Lana’s psychologist, provide stability and logic for the reader amid some bizarre happenings. The two narrators, Lana and an unknown person, are clearly troubled souls in search of relief from their tormented childhoods.

Ms. Unger writes in crisp, restrained dialogue that taunts the reader. She employs a switch in type font technique to heighten the tension and strengthen the undercurrent that runs through this, her eighth thriller.

Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart.

Ruta Arellano

In the Blood audio

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on January 7, 2014.

“An absolute corker of a thriller.” Dennis Lehane

The Audible Audio Edition is read by Gretchen Mol and Candace Thaxon.

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Coming Up Next…

The Golden CalfThe Golden Calf (audible audio)

A review of The Golden Calf: A Detective Inspector Irene Huss Investigation by Helene Tursten.

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I Am A Child

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, $25.99, 181 pages)

Ocean at the End of the Lane (nook book)

At first glance, the lovely cream colored deckle edge pages and the crisply printed type face are a stark contrast to the cover artwork of this rather slim novel. The story that unfolds is a bit arresting, setting up a moody dark and deep tale. As a first-time reader of Neil Gaiman (Gaiman’s horror/fantasy book Coraline was made into a stop-motion film) this reviewer was a bit hesitant to begin what appeared to be a memoir by the narrator, a man who has gone back to his hometown for a funeral.

Gaiman plays on the magic thinking that some kids explore, or rather allow to bubble to the surface in idle moments or during spells of anger at being denied their desires. The narrator, clearly an introvert, lays out his painful childhood for the reader. A murdered man found in his father’s stolen car is traumatic for him. He visits a house at the end of the road where his childhood home used to be. The occupants are women, well, just one woman whose age and identity are a bit confusing. Is she the mother of his playmate, Lettie Hempstock, or her grandmother? What happened to Lettie?

As did other reviewers, I read the book in one sitting. Once a reader suspends his or her hold on adult reality and dives back into the spacey and somewhat murky thoughts of childhood, it’s easy to fall under Gaiman’s spell. He convincingly captures the ethereal and floating insights that we know as children and then lose to the world as we become grown-ups.

Well recommended for readers who enjoy being on edge.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaiman.

Ocean (audio lg.)

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