Tag Archives: best authors

The Stranger You Know

The Stranger You Know Jane Casey

The Stranger You Know: A (Maeve Kerrigan) Novel by Jane Casey (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

It surprised him, but he didn’t mind that she was dead. He could look at her, really look at her, without being interrupted. Without being afraid that she would say something, or do something, that might hurt him.

The slightly off-kilter, macabre opening is a flashback to 1992. There’s no doubt; this is classic Jane Casey writing. Her measured tone keeps the reader riveted to the page while she spins a web of intrigue. The Stranger You Know is the fourth book of the Detective Inspector Maeve Kerrigan mystery series set in present-day London. Detective Inspector Josh Derwent, another ongoing character, is her partner on the police force. Derwent wins no personality contests but he is a good policeman. At least that’s what Maeve has come to believe.

This time around Maeve is called into a special group investigating two recent murders and one from 20 years ago that appears to be the first in a series. Perhaps the group has a serial killer to chase down. To make matters more complicated, Derwent is linked to the first murder.

The book reads like a diary from Maeve’s perspective. The sections are sequenced as days of a week beginning with Thursday and ending more than a week later. One additional flashback to 1992 well into the plot helps the reader put the crimes and characters into better perspective.

Author Casey is a master at weaving real clues with red herrings. Her readers will be satisfied with the quality of this tale. The lives of her characters are usually thrown open for examination, almost as in an autopsy. The Stranger You Know is true to form, a fine form.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. This book will be released in a trade paper version on March 31, 2015.

The Stranger You Know (back cover)

Jane Casey is the author of The Burning, The Lost Girl, and The Reckoning.

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The Amazing Amy Tan

The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement: A Novel by Amy Tan (HarperCollins, $16.99, 608 pages)

“…the night is always brighter than the day.” Bob Dylan (“Seven Days”)

Amy Tan’s seventh adult novel, The Valley of Amazement, is a triumph. In Valley, Tan, most noted for her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, comes back with a vengeance after an eight-year hiatus.

As the story opens in 1905, main character Violet Minturn is a petulant child living with her mother, Lulu Mimi, who runs the courtesan house Hidden Jade Path. The title is rife with meaning and comes from a mysterious painting, the origins of which are revealed at the end of the story. It is Violet’s prized memory of her mother, who is coerced into abandoning Violet for her home country of America by corrupt Chinese gangsters.

As a result, Violet is forced into the courtesan lifestyle, losing her freedom and dignity. She becomes hardened
when her first love does not work out. She goes on to experience love again, only to endure more unthinkable tragedy. Only the most optimistic of sorts could hope for a happy ending after this, through there is closure.

In the bizarre reality of the courtesan culture, at least according to this novel, these women consider themselves noble with a higher status than ordinary prostitutes. Perhaps this is because they sign long-term contracts with one man, who, of course, possesses other courtesans in addition to his wife. Perhaps it is because they live a relatively comfortable lifestyle or can aspire to become a second or third wife. Most of them eventually do end up as prostitutes in their early 20s, at which point they are considered to be “old.” It’s not too difficult to make sense of it when one considers that Chinese women had to train their feet – through binding – to be not too big; something that was thought to be unattractive. Obviously, the culture was highly oppressive to women.

Chapter Four, in which Violet is trained in the nuances of her profession, is entitled “Etiquette for Beauties of Boudoir.” It reads like “Proverb for Courtesans,” which would have been highly interesting if it wasn’t seemingly so demented.

There are many examples of outstanding writing throughout the book. One example: “Those were the reasons we both know how deep love was, the shared pain that would outlast any pain we caused each other.” Tan is a master storyteller who, in this unique, troubling and amazing novel, lives up to her billing.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an educator, a sometime musician, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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ABC

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee


The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg (Chronicle Books, $16.99, 248 pages
)

Perhaps you’ve heard the comment, “He’s a bit of an odd duck.” Well, Candice Phee, a twelve-year-old who lives in a suburb of Brisbane, Australia is surely an odd duck. The inability to lie, even a kindly white lie, is but one of her many quirky behavioral traits. Overwhelming shyness has led her to use written communication in uncomfortable situations such as prolonged discussions with adults other than her parents and with kids at school. She is a devout reader of the dictionary, which provides her with a remarkably broad and specific vocabulary.

Candice’s world is full of adults who are alienated (not aliens). Her mom is plagued by depression and her dad won’t have anything to do with his brother, Rich Uncle Brian, who is his former partner in a software company. Miss Bamford, Candice’s all-time favorite teacher has a lazy eye that sets her apart and draws reactions from her students.

The other kids in Miss Bamford’s sixth grade class, especially the ultra cool Jen Marshall, mock Candice. The arrival of a new and similarly odd student, Douglas Benson, creates an opportunity for Candice to experience friendship for the first time in her life. Their interactions are hilarious.

Miss Bamford has assigned Candice’s class the task of writing a narrative/autobiography using each letter of the alphabet as the theme of a paragraph. Thus, the primary structure of the book is Candice’s take on the assignment. Interspersed are the poignant and intelligent letters she has sent to her pen pal in New York City who doesn’t reply to Candice.

The Categorical Universe black and white

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee is intended for readers ten years of age and up. Clearly, the audience for the book is a wide one. Fans of The Westing Game, young, old and any age in between, will thoroughly enjoy this heartwarming, sometimes gut-wrenching and ultimately satisfying tale. Author Barry Jonsberg has won numerous Australian writing awards. He is a teacher and resides in Darwin, Australia. This reviewer visited Darwin over 45 years ago, well before Mr. Jonsberg moved there from England. I hope he enjoys the barramundi fish that are plentiful in Darwin! Barramundi is my all-time favorite.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. This book was released on September 9, 2014.

You can read a sample of this book for free on your Kindle device or app:

http://www.amazon.com/Categorical-Universe-Candice-Sneak-Preview-ebook/dp/B00MF2CLKI/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414437440&sr=1-2&keywords=the+categorical+universe+of+candice+phee

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From London to France

Maise Dobbs

Maise Dobbs: Tenth Anniversary Edition by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Crime, $14.95, 304 pages)

Maise felt a chill as the stillness of the cemetery seeped through her clothing and touched her skin. Yet the shiver was familiar to Maisie, who had felt the sensation even in warm weather when there was no cooling breeze. She had come to recognize this spark of energy passing across her skin as a warning.

The re-release of Maisie Dobbs proved a delightful introduction to Jacqueline Winspear’s British mystery series. Maisie is a top-notch spunky lady who has enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy benefactor, Lady Rowan Compton. Rather than a lucky happenstance, Maisie’s elevation from a lowly household servant to brilliant psychologist/detective is the result of her hard work and dedication to learning.

The time period is World War I, a favorite of many English mystery writers. What sets this one apart is the easy dialogue and charming characters. Maisie is going out on her own as an investigator after apprenticing with Maurice Blanche, a seasoned investigator. Her first case is a referral from Lady Compton’s attorney. A gentleman suspects his wife of being unfaithful and Maisie’s task is to determine whether the wife’s clandestine activities are a signal of marital trouble.

Maisie Dobbs is likeable without being too sweet or snarky. The book is a satisfying read. The trade paper book includes background on the author’s series and a list of reader study questions for book clubs.

Highly recommended.

Murder on the Ile Sordou (nook book)

Murder on the Ile Sordou: A Verlaque & Bonner Provencal Mystery by M. L. Longworth (Penguin, $15.00, 303 pages)

Verlaque said, “It’s a good idea, Clement. This is a beautiful place, from what I’ve seen so far. You’ll make back your investment.” Verlaque took another sip of wiskey; he knew all to well how risky the hotel and restaurant business was. And this one was on a remote island.

Now, there’s a change of scenery from London to France. The time is present day and the sleuths are two well-educated and highly placed legal professionals. Chief Magistrate Antoine Verlaque and his paramour law professor Marine Bonnet are embarking on their fourth adventure in Ms. Longworth’s series featuring the couple. Fans of Agatha Christie will notice her familiar style immediately. Longworth fashions her mystery using the gracious, unhurried approach and meticulous attention to detail that Christie readers expect.

Verlaque and Bonnet are on a summer vacation at a newly constructed/recreated 1960’s destination hotel situated on an island off the coast of Marseille. Their fellow vacationers include an old school chum of Verlaque and his wife, Ms. Bonnet’s best friend, a retired schoolteacher, a has-been French actor, his wife and stepson, and an American couple. Each of these characters, along with the hotel owners and staff are revealed with in-depth background information that the reader needs to use to solve the mystery.

The crime is committed well into the book, which highlights the nature of the tale – one that requires patience and careful attention to achieve a full enjoyment of the read. Ms. Longworth has a background that includes knowledge of French food and wine. She blends in her favorites in a way that feels charming rather than ostentatious. Although the Ile Sordou is fiction, the rest of the atmosphere is real.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were received from the publishers.

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Nobody But Me

The Nobodies Album (nook book)

Is The Nobodies Album a better read the second time around?

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Anchor, $15.00, 320 pages)

The plane rises. We achieve liftoff, and in that mysterious, hanging moment I say a prayer – as I always do – to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day… I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world’s travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That’s not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort it out. Better to say a prayer for your own well-being and hope that today, at least, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

There are music albums that we listen to repeatedly, sometimes finding that they have a different impact on us – major or minor – depending on when you experience them. The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (author of the unique and bizarre bestseller The Dogs of Babel) is a book that I read before. I did not connect with it at the time; fortunately, I decided to give the book a second chance and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a San Francisco-based musician, Milo Frost, who has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. His estranged mother, Octavia Frost, a one-time bestselling novelist, decides to reconcile with him to give him moral and legal support. Milo’s problem is that he was so drunk the night of his girlfriend’s death that he cannot remember what he did that evening. He does not believe that he killed Bettina but admits that he could have been involved. (On the night in question, Bettina first accepted Milo’s proposal of marriage, and then rejected it.)

Parkhurst adds a twist to the telling, as the writer Octavia is at the point where she’s elected to rewrite the conclusions of her bestselling novels. It’s not something that pleases her publisher; but, Octavia is determined to follow-through with her idea. (This may have been based on an instance in which Joan Didion rewrote one of her short stories decades after it was written. Note that the title of this novel, The Nobodies Album, is connected to The White Album by The Beatles early on. It just so happens that Didion wrote a collection of bestselling essays called The White Album.)

I suppose you could say I’d been thinking about endings.

It does not take long for Octavia, and the readers, to realize that she’s toying with the notion of changing the endings to her book in hopes that it might lead to some changes in her own life. As she states to a musician, “I’ve thought it might be interesting to change the endings. Find out how things might have worked out differently for the characters.” Naturally, one has to wonder how much of bestselling author Parkhurst can be found in the character of Octavia Frost. (Will she rewrite the ending of The Nobodies Album in twenty, thirty or forty years?)

To her credit, Parkhurst brings Octavia Frost’s writing to life by providing the endings of several of Frost’s novels before showing us the rewritten endings. The latter are generally simpler, more concise, and neater; perhaps resulting in neater, better outcomes for the characters involved.

The Nobodies Album multiple

Parkhust writes somewhat in the style of Didion – there’s an icy coolness/coldness present as well as toughness and brutal honesty: “Now that the moment is here, it’s not what I expected at all. That’s the fundamental flaw in in the illusions that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching the truth. No matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself. Here’s how I feel, faced with my child’s confession that he has committed murder: I don’t believe it’s true. Not for a single minute.”

Those with some knowledge of the music and publishing industries will appreciate the realistic stage upon which Parkhurst’s story is set. The less said about the outcome of the murder mystery, the better. No spoilers here. But be prepared to be impressed by The Nobodies Album, whether you read it once or twice – or more often.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 15, 2010.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Pick:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-nobodies-album-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

It also appeared here:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Nobodies-Album-by-Carolyn-5760693.php

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Time in a Bottle

Without Warning (Nook Book)

Without Warning: A Thriller by David Rosenfelt (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 295 pages)

It was hard for me to judge what the impact of the news would be once the public became aware of it. I wasn’t concerned that people would consider me a suspect in the killings; I was too well-known, and respected, for that to be a likely outcome. Besides, the circumstances of the capsule predictions were so bizarre as to make it even more improbable that I could be involved.

Maine Police Chief Jake Robbins is a widower whose wife was murdered by her former lover, the husband of an old high school sweetheart, Katie Sanford. Moreover, the town’s newspaper, The Wilton Journal, has been in Katie’s family for generations. That’s just for starters!

Wilton is a small Maine town where a recent flood caused by a hurricane has put the contents of a 50-year time capsule at risk of water damage. The time capsule is a local tradition sponsored by the Journal. Naturally, the right thing to do is to dig up the capsule and check for damage. It has been buried for four years. Inspection of the capsule’s contents produces a surprise. There’s an additional packet of papers which were not part of the original burial listing. The papers contain ominous predictions, some of which have come to pass.

Author Rosenfelt is so adept at spinning a tale that the reader is lulled into a sense of being on the scene and – contrary to the pace of a thriller, this one moves at a Maine small town speed. A third person narrator in some of the chapters offsets the narrative by Jake Robbins. Rosenfelt also sprinkles in an occasional peek into the mind of a very twisted person!

No need for spoiler alerts here! This reviewer wouldn’t dream of ruining such a well-crafted tale.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Without Warning Audible Audio

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Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me

Dying to Know: A Mystery by TJ O’Connor (Midnight Ink, $14.99, 368 pages)

What does former government agent and security consultant TJ O’Connor do for an encore? Well, how about writing a mystery novel? This debut book by O’Connor has a twist that’s reminiscent of the movie Ghost.

The narrative opens with Tuck (police detective Oliver Tucker) investigating sounds of an intruder downstairs in his home in the middle of the night. In rapid succession, Tuck dies and his cop partner, Bear, and Tuck’s wife Angela behave strangely. There are evil goings on happening behind the scenes. As the body count rises, the reader may become a bit confused. Just who is a good guy and who is a bad guy?

The reader is treated to unique antics and seeming magic as Tuck adjusts to being dead and investigates his own murder. Time travel and scene shifting are the primary devices that O’Connor employs to good effect. Tuck’s faithful dog, Hercule, is able to recognize him but the humans need plenty of hints to sense Tuck’s presence. O’Connor leaves an opening for more mysteries to be solved by the ghostly detective.

Well recommended.

Love Water Memory: A Novel by Jennie Shortridge (Gallery Books, $16.00, 328 pages)

Love Water Memory

love-water-memory-press

The tale unfolds slowly, beginning with a 39-year-old woman found knee deep in the frigid water of San Francisco Bay. She is an amnesia victim who is dressed in designer clothes and seems a most unlikely person to be in her situation. Lucie Walker, as we come to know her, has been in a five-year relationship with Grady Goodall in Seattle. In fact, it’s just two months before their wedding when Lucie disappears from the house she shares with Grady. She’s been gone a couple of months before the incident in the bay.

The main characters are not immediately likeable. The reader learns about them through shifting scenes. Chapters dedicated to Lucie, Grady and Lucie’s Aunt Helen rotate throughout the book. We find major revelations that bring light to Lucie’s actions. Past issues have been deeply buried and Lucie must deal with them in order to accept who she is and how she feels about Grady.

The takeaway from this moody piece is the question, “What makes a person?”

Well recommended.

After I’m Gone: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

After I'm Gone Lippman

After I'm Gone

Super famous author Laura Lippman uses her hometown Baltimore as the setting of this clever mystery that is part family saga and part Cold Case TV plot. The underlying theme is all about the choices of partners made by Bernadette (Bambi) Brewer, and her daughters Linda, Rachael and Michelle. Lippman explores the notion of loneliness and missing a loved one. She uses the lyrics from “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” to divide the book into sections. Mel Carter’s 1965 version brings back memories for me of slow dancing at parties. Sigh.

Felix Brewer, Bambi’s husband, fled their luxurious home in 1976 rather than waiting for the outcome of his appeal on an illegal gambling/bookmaking conviction. Although Felix appears in flashback chapters, his actions haunt the family he left behind. Each of his daughters has made a choice and must face the consequences that have followed.

Roberto (Sandy) Sanchez, a retired City of Baltimore police officer, takes on a missing person cold case in the capacity of consultant. It is the year 2012 and working cold cases helps him stay busy and spend less time missing his beloved wife Mary who has died. When Sandy diligently pursues every possible angle and information source, the missing person is tied back to Felix Brewer’s disappearance.

Lippman is a master of creating a cinematic feel when she sets the scenes for her carefully constructed plot twists. It seems to this reviewer that a movie could easily follow from the book.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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