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Any Major Dude Will Tell You

Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium, edited by Barney Hoskyns (Overlook, $27.95, 352 pages)

“We both liked recording studios. As much as anything else, it was just the coolest place to be on a hot afternoon.” Walter Becker

“We grew up with a certain natural ironic stance that later became the norm in society.” Donald Fagen

major dudes

The enigmatic band Steely Dan has been popular – and mysterious, since the 1970s. Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium demythologizes the group while at the same time adding a new layer of mystery.  Editor Barney Hoskyns has compiled a collection of previously published articles, interviews, and record reviews about the work of Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker – both as Steely Dan and as solo recording artists.

It’s made clear in these pieces that Fagen and Becker viewed themselves as clever hipsters; ones who were far too cool for the college they attended, Bard – “One of your basic beatnik colleges.”  In a sense, Steely Dan’s lyrics and music moved the ball forward in the genre of being cool.  In the process, they were among the progenitors of progressive album rock and smooth jazz.

In Major Dudes, Fagen and Becker come off as quite likeable.  However, they were always in character in the same manner as Bob Dylan is.  One is never going to fully understand what made them tick.  Their goal, perhaps, was to simply produce popular but uniquely intelligent music.

This compendium could have been better edited by Hoskyns.  It’s quite repetitive. But for fans of The Dan, it’s close to essential reading.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on June 5, 2018.

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A Death in the Sunshine State

Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime by Cutter Wood (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $26.99, 225 pages)

love and death

This book arrived at the right time.  I had just finished reading a true crime book and found it to be sadly disappointing.  The writer put down all the facts about a triple murderer and his trial but seemingly without context.  When one sentence follows another in this manner – without drama, suspense or the seeming presence of actual people, it’s far less than engaging.

Cutter Wood’s book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is like the antidote to the typical true crime story.  Wood, an MFA graduate in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, touched base with all of the principals about a murder that he felt somewhat connected with.  You see, after graduating from Brown he felt directionless – like Benjamin in The Graduate, so he spent months at a secluded hotel in Florida.  The woman who ran the hotel with her husband later disappeared and Wood was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Wood knew some of the principals involved and was also given access to law enforcement officials and the man suspected of killing the missing woman.  But once the crime was solved, Wood felt that little was resolved.  The facts did not seem to add up to a whole, complete story.  Therefore, he elected to pursue a unique option.

Instead of writing a dry nonfiction account of the crime, Wood decided to write a fictional version of a relationship between a former criminal and a successful married businesswoman whose lives intersected.  It’s a story of an unlikely attraction, a loving relationship, and a tragic ending.  Wood never attempts to explain the crime or the murderer’s mind, but paints the events – both real and imaginary – as something that was fated to occur.

As Wood is free to explore events and scenarios that may or may not have played out, he develops a story that feels fully real.  This is not Law and Order – a stereotypical version of crime and justice, nor is it a fly-over account of a crime developed for a one hour cable TV network show.  It is a story of two imperfect people who were drawn to each other for all of the wrong reasons.

By leaving out some of the seemingly critical crime details and facts that would be highlighted in the standard true crime book sold in an airport gift shop, Wood proves again that less is more.  His “story of a crime” focuses on the small yet significant aspects of the lives of two people.  In doing so, he brings the individuals to life and causes us to mourn – in a quiet, dignified way, the loss of one of them.

It’s a sad, tough story but Cutter Wood takes the reader to the heart of the matter.  His is a respectful approach to human imperfection and frailty.

I look forward to reading Wood’s future works.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Love and Death in the Sunshine State will be released on April 17, 2018.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Gin and Panic

Gin and Panic

Gin and Panic: A Mystery by Maia Chance (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 278 pages)

Spunky Lady Detectives Redux.

We meet again – Lola Woodby, widow and self-made detective, and Berta Lundgren, former cook for Ms. Woodby, are running low on funds because even odd retrieval jobs such as finding lost laundry carts and missing pooches won’t finance their pared down lifestyle.  Gin and Panic is the third novel in the Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries series featuring Lola and Berta.  Happily, this installment is as charming, humorous, and fast-paced as author Chance’s prior work, Teetotaled.

The time is the 1920s and the action takes place in New York City and Connecticut.  An English country house weekend set in rural Connecticut provides the perfect excuse for witty pitch perfect quips and charming asides to the reader by Lola who is the narrator.  Snappy dialogue among the cast of weekend guests advances the plot while revealing their intentions and proclivities.

The owner of the estate, Rudy Montgomery, has a rhinoceros head trophy that Lord Eustace Sudley believes is rightly his.  Lord Sudley engages Lola and Berta to spirit away the trophy while pretending to be his friends along for the weekend.  As the plot thickens, code for somebody dies under mysterious circumstances, the scene shifts back and forth between New York and Connecticut at a rather breakneck pace.

Ms. Chance is mindful of the reader’s need for more than just plot twists and red herrings.  There are scenes full of cinematic details of the long ago U.S. Prohibition era.  Lastly, she has crafted character development that bodes well for future installments of the adventures of Lola and Berta.  Well done!

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This book will be released on October 24, 2017.

A review copy was received from the publisher.  

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Sisters of the Moon

Almost Sisters: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

almost sisters

Every family has secrets that persist over generations.  When a family happens to have its roots in a small town in Alabama, long-standing Southern mores bring added depth to its history.  Author Joshilyn Jackson has written a family tale worthy of high praise, The Almost Sisters.  Her main character, cartoonist Leia Birch, is the family outlier.  Her stepsister, Rachel, is the conventional, perfectionist Southern wife who resides in a faux-Tara home with her husband, Jake, and daughter, Lavender.

Leia Birch is not just a cartoonist; she’s the artist behind a DC Comics limited series, Violence in Violet.  The success of the series brought Leia to a comic-book convention in Atlanta where she was the featured artist.  Months later Leia has a secret that she knows will only be met with acceptance by her beloved grandmother, Miss Birchie.

Miss Birchie has her own secrets; although, if she can’t stay quiet in church, at least half of Birchville will find out.  The town, founded by her family, retains many vestiges of the old South.  There is the white neighborhood and the colored one.  People have their places in society and the ridged structure rarely bends to accommodate modern beliefs from outside.

Leia not only has a secret, she has a contract to write and illustrate the prequel for her Violence in Violet series.  The pressure is on as she drives to Birchville to confide in her grandmother.  Little does she suspect that what awaits her may be beyond what she’s able to handle.  There is more than one set of sisters.

Readers will be drawn into the fascinating threads of Author Jackson’s tale.  This book may be fiction but it could also be drawn from real life.  Ms. Jackson is that good at conveying the humanity of each of her unforgettable characters.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  Almost Sisters was released on July 11, 2017.

 

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Curiously Consistent

Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone: A Novel by Phaedra Patrick (Park Row Books, $24.99, 368 pages)

rise and shine benedict

Fans of Phaedra Patrick’s debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, will be delighted with her next heartfelt novel, Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone.  Ms. Patrick has created a signature theme that permeates the tales.  The main character is a man adrift in life, not connecting with reality.  The setting is a small village in Yorkshire, England.

Benedict Stone is a jeweler, as was his father before him.  Stone’s wife, Estelle, has decamped from their home, ostensibly to look after the apartment of a friend who is working in New York.  Benedict knows that Estelle has tired of his obsession with having children.  So far that hasn’t happened for them.  He’s proposed adoption and Estelle has rebuffed this alternative.  The emotional distance between them is growing, much to Benedict’s horror.  He relies on food to calm his nerves and we all know where that leads.

Stone’s jewelry store is fading into oblivion, due in no small part to Benedict’s insistence on making simple pieces that aren’t on trend with popular styles.  He is stubborn and resists change, especially when it comes to his trade.  Cecil, his salesman, offers advice on how to win back Estelle and Benedict considers it.

One dark and stormy night, there is a knock at the front door.  Benedict imagines it is Estelle returned home.  But, no, instead there’s a teenage girl on the front porch and she is dripping wet.  She introduces herself – Gemma Stone, his estranged brother Charlie’s daughter.  Gemma has traveled alone from the United State and invites herself in for a stay.  She may or may not have her father’s permission to make the journey!

And that is the beginning of a wonderful tale of redemption and awakening for everyone.  Ms. Patrick infuses her chapters with fascinating information about the gemstones contained in a bag that Gemma has brought on her trip.  Each has historically associated attributes.  Together, Benedict and Gemma make these gemstones part of their strategy for creating a better life for both of them.

Ms. Patrick enlivens her characters with foibles and quirks.  Her scenes are full of color and details that will delight the reader.  It’s not often that an equally engaging novel follows a marvelous debut.  Happily, this author has succeeded with Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone.  Look for Benedict Stone in mid-May.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone will be released on May 16, 2017.

“Phaedra Patrick understands the soul.”  Nina George, New York Times bestselling author of The Little Paris Bookshop.

 

 

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The Book Of My Life

our-short-history

Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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China Boy

leavers

The Leavers: A Novel by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books, $25.95, 352 pages)

“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.”   Charles Schulz

Sometimes a writer can outthink herself.   I found this to be the case with The Leavers: A Novel.   The central character is a boy from China who is adopted by American parents.  Deming Gou’s mother, who is an undocumented immigrant in New York City, one day leaves home to go to work at a nail salon but never returns.   Subsequently Deming – who becomes Daniel Wilkinson, is adopted by white parents, both professors at a small private college in upstate New York.

Daniel suddenly becomes a stranger in a strange land.   Used to the hustle and bustle and diversity of the big city, he must learn to survive in a quiet community where he is The Other; being Chinese, he is known to his Anglo classmates as Special No. 2 (a selection from a Chinese menu).

For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song.   For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.  

Daniel is a screw-up but a fascinating character.   He plays electric guitar in a rock band, but keeps dropping out of the group even though success is on the horizon.  He has a problem with gambling (stereotypically) and loses thousands of dollars borrowed from friends.   He drops out of college and ruins multiple chances to go to school at the university where his adopted parents teach.   His story is interesting and linear, and it builds momentum, until…

One third of the way through the book, author Ko suddenly turns her attention to Polly Gou, Deming/Daniel’s birth mother, and transports us to China.   The telling now comes to a halt and the air seems to go out of the story.   Polly was deported from the U.S. and winds up with virtually nothing in her homeland, but somehow goes from rags to riches.   It seems improbable, and Ko spends too much time painting a melodramatic – over-the-top – account of Polly’s pre-deportation period spent in a detention camp in Texas.   The details are highly unpleasant.   Although it’s an attempt to get the reader to identify with, and side with, Gou, for me it had the reverse effect — making me want to put the book down.

The primary issue is that the straight ahead story of Daniel Wilkinson becomes lost and diluted by the long and winding, twisty, road that’s Polly Gou’s story.   It’s as if Ko attempted to meld two different half-novels together.   It didn’t work. The initial story – the fascinating tale of an adoptee attempting to find himself – was dumped for an adjunct creation.   (Basically, Gou’s story subsumes Wilkinson’s.)

Of course, once the final third of the book arrives, Ko has found a means of bringing Daniel Wilkinson and Polly Gou together again after many years.   It’s too clever, and by then I didn’t care.

The Leavers had great potential which sadly goes unfulfilled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Leavers, a debut novel, will be released on May 2, 2017.

 

 

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