Tag Archives: book review

Scoop the Ice Cream Truck

scoopScoop the Ice Cream Truck by Patricia Keeler (Sky Pony Press, $16.99, 32 pages)

Scoop the Ice Cream Truck is a fine, entertaining message book for children aged 3 to 6.  It tells the story of Scoop, a failure as an aging ice cream truck who attempts to remake himself into something he is not.  Scoop’s reinvention sadly results in a different type of failure.

The takeaway message for very young readers is that it’s perfectly OK to be what and who you are.  You don’t have to change yourself to be like other people in order to be popular or to “fit in.”  Being yourself and wanting the things you want will ultimately lead to happiness and fulfillment.

scoop the ice cream two

The illustrations by Patricia Keller are charming and her artwork has a uniquely individual style that assists in bringing home the small book’s message.  My granddaughter loves this book for a simple reason: Unlike many children’s books, the storyline is not predictable.  In fact, this mature reader found the ending of Scoop to be totally unexpected.

Keeler does not patronize the intelligence of young readers; instead she trusts them to stretch their minds a bit.  It works.  I believe the book would be wholly appropriate for children up to the age of 8.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

 

 

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The Unexplained

A Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman (Henry Holt and Co., $28.00, 288 pages)

an unexplained death

Author Mikita Brottman lives at the Belvedere Hotel, a Baltimore landmark with a long history of strange occurrences, suicides, and mysterious deaths.  Brottman here professes her fascination with the occult, tarot cards, and suicide so the examination of the apparent 2006 suicide of Rey Rivera – a once-fellow resident of the Belvedere, would seem to be a perfect topic for her writing.

Brottman’s account of events, An Uexplained Death, provides numerous details surrounding Rivera’s death as well as a tremendous amount of conjecture on her part.  What it fails to do is to provide clarity or new information beyond what was already known or presumed. (The authorities found the death to be a suicide.)  Brottman goes on – in what seems like a stretch – to explore cultural attitudes about suicide from around the world, and she provides her personal views on various matters whether related or not.

Rey Rivera was a tall and attractive aspiring film maker who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles with his new wife, Allison.  He joined with Porter Stansberry of Agora, publishing newsletters offering financial advice.  His death happened to come at the time when he had borrowed money to produce his own film, was getting ready to quit Agora – which was engulfed in an SEC investigation – and was about to move back to L.A.

Did Rivera jump from the roof of the Belvedere, falling through a skylight at the top of a space which once housed the hotel’s swimming pool, or was he running from someone intending to do him harm?  Brottman investigates various alternatives to suicide possibilities, but none of them seem either likely or probable.  She wonders aloud whether Rivera was depressed about the Agora investigation or whether he became entangled in a homosexual affair.  It’s all so much smoke and mirrors because each such alternate explanation is discarded shortly after being raised.  And Brottman’s conclusion of this strange, quasi-fictional investigation of a real-life death provides nothing of substance.

The story is slightly compelling during the few periods in which Brottman sticks to the subject matter at hand.  But she spends far too much time writing about herself, her life, and her obsessions.  Oh, but for an editor!

The typical reader is unlikely to find Brottman’s affinity for rats very endearing.  The same is true concerning her fascination with strangely committed murders, and the time she spends imagining herself in another person’s shoes (such as Allison Reyes’s).  All in all, this is a book of rambling distractions, which is as generally uninteresting as it is undisciplined.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Notes:

The Beaux Arts style Belvedere Hotel was opened as Baltimore’s first luxury hotel in 1903 and was converted to residential condos in 1991.

I read the book and wondered why the writer spent an obsessive amount of time attempting to solve a crime which the local authorities had already solved, resolved and literally closed the book on.  – Joseph Arellano

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Cats on the Cover

Fool’s Moon: A Tarot Cats Mystery by Diane A.S. Stuckart (Midnight Ink, 323 pages, $15.99)

fool's moon

Attention cat mystery lovers – we’ve been gifted with a new series!  Brother and sister cats are the featured characters in this mystical, tarot card-centered tale.  Brandon Bobtail and Ophelia are one-year-old kitties that have lived a pampered life in Palm Beach, Florida up until they are dropped by the side of the road in a less desirable neighborhood.  Moreover, they are trapped inside of a taped up box.  (Sigh.)

This jarring experience begins their quest to find food, shelter and the means to return home.  The perilous events of the following days provide the young cats with ample opportunities to learn lessons in patience and avoid making snap judgments.

Ruby Sparks, a tarot card reader who has been tasked with minding her half-sister’s New Age shop, is kind hearted as well an animal lover.  She takes in the abandoned kitties and discovers that they possess some very useful powers.  The shop cat, Brandon Bobtail, Ophelia and a street-savvy pit bull join forces to thwart evil and enrich Ruby’s life.

Ms. Stuckart wisely sets up a smooth segue to the next adventures in the Tarot Cats Mysteries.  She is also the author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series, which this reviewer intends to peruse soon.

fool's moon two

The book is well recommended for cat lovers and mystery fans, especially those who love the Joe Gray books written by Shirley Rousseau Murphy.  Wonderful tales such as these can be found on both the Florida and California coasts.

Bloodstains with Bronte: A Crime with the Classics Mystery by Katherine Bolger Hyde (Minotaur Books, 278 pages, $24.99)

bloodstains with bronte

This second in a series of mysteries that draw upon Emily Cavanaugh’s knowledge of classic literature is once again set on the Oregon coast.  In the first book, Arsenic with Austen, Emily has inherited an estate called Windy Corner from her great aunt.  The estate includes a Victorian mansion and the rest of her inheritance is property in the  nearby town of Stony Beach.

This time around Cavanaugh is busy with the conversion of her mansion into a writer’s retreat.  A widowed professor, she has no family of her own.  Katie Parker and her baby girl Lizzie have become Emily’s “little family.”  Katie works as Emily’s housekeeper.  All is not sweetness and bliss for them.  A murder in Stony Beach puts a wrench in most everyone’s relationships.  Sheriff Luke Richards wants his rekindled romance with Emily to become permanent but the murder makes them wary of each other.

Author Katherine Bolger Hyde weaves a fascinating tale of small town intrigue.  Each chapter of Bloodstains with Bronte is prefaced with a quote from either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.   These quotes provide clues for Emily to use in solving the murder.  Fans of Charlotte Bronte will enjoy the parallels.  Readers not familiar with Ms. Bronte’s works may be enticed to step back in time to discover her thrilling tales.

We can look forward to the next installment based on a novel by an author whose name begins with C.

Well recommended to fans of cozy novels set in small towns, basically English-style novels set in the USA.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by a publicist (Fools’ Moon; released on November 8, 2018) and the publisher (Bloodstains with Bronte; first released as a hardcover book in December of 2017 and soon to be released in trade paper form).

 

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Step into Christmas (and Murder)

deck the houndsDeck the Hounds: An Andy Carpenter Mystery by David Rosenfelt (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 336 pages)

In time for the holidays, Andy Carpenter finds himself caught up in a new dilemma.  One would think that after 17 prior novels, author David Rosenfelt might run out of tales – nope, not even close.  Rosenfelt draws in his reader with the signature dry humor his fans demand.

It’s a few weeks until Christmas, which means that wife Laurie and son Ricky are eager to cut and decorate a tree.  Andy isn’t ready for all the accompanying activity knowing it will last well into the New Year.  We know how that goes…

Andy finds himself caught up in the troubles of Don Carrigan, a homeless man whose dog, Zoey, ends up in a quarantine after biting an attacker.  Never fear, there are resources and deep pockets where Andy is concerned.  Faithful fans know that when there’s trouble, Andy is called on to don his lawyer persona and come to the rescue.

deck the hounds back

Author Rosenfelt can be counted on for a charming narrative from Andy as well as plenty of interactions with Marcus, Pete, Sam, Edna, et al.  Quotes from popular songs, TV shows and advertising keep the tale current.  It’s such a relief to escape into the mostly kind-hearted community in New Jersey where they reside.

Highly recommended.

murder at the mill

Murder at the Mill by M.B. Shaw: An Iris Gray Mystery (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 448 pages)

Next we leap across the Atlantic to Hampshire, England.  M.B. Shaw is a new author for this reviewer.  Murder at the Mill is the first in a new series featuring Iris Gray.  Iris is a well-regarded portraitist who is estranged from her failing playwright husband, Ian McBride.  She has fled London to a rental, Mill Cottage, located on the grounds of Mill House, a large manor with surrounding acreage.  Iris is hoping to sort out her current situation and find the courage to divorce Ian.

Dom Weatherby, a famous mystery writer, is the owner of Mill House, Mill Cottage and the land.  Ariadne, Dom’s wife, is the perfect hostess and wife.  The cast of characters gently and organically expands as the events of importance for each of them unfolds.  One event triggers the next and so on.  The key event is the Weatherby’s annual Christmas party.  Everyone is invited – the famous as well as the townspeople of the village of Hazelford, which is up the lane from the mill.

Of course there’s a murder, because the title guarantees it.  In some aspects Murder at Mill House resembles the game of Clue.  Author Shaw is a masterful writer.  She’s able to trick the reader into believing that you have it all figured out.  The whole is a most enjoyable read.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.  Deck the Hounds was published on October 16, 2018.  Murder at the Mill will be released on December 4, 2018.

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Family Affair

family trustFamily Trust: A Novel by Kathy Wang (HarperLuxe, $26.99, 400 pages)

Family Trust is a debut novel from Kathy Wang.  Ms. Wang has an engaging, chatty writing style full of vivid details.  She grew up in northern California and holds an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a graduate degree from Harvard Business School.  The story she tells feels accurate.

While this reviewer is not Chinese, numerous family and friends were emigres from Lithuania.  Believe me when I say that many of the attitudes displayed in the book are cross-cultural!

The San Francisco Bay Area, more specifically the South Bay and Silicon Valley are where the Huang family comes to grips with the eventual mortality of Stanley Huang, father of Fred and Kate, ex husband of Linda Liang, and husband of second wife Mary Zhu.  Each of these characters is featured in the developments that follow Stanley’s diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Ms. Wang goes above and beyond her obligation as a writer to inform her readers of the details surrounding the lives of each of her characters.  The one slow-down I felt was when she went into the aspects of careers in Silicon Valley.  The technology and finance language were sometimes a bit too much, even for the mom of a former Sand Hill Road venture capital employee.

Seventy-two-year-old Stanley and his much younger (28 years younger) wife of ten years, Mary, live in the house where he and his former wife, Linda, lived for many of their 34 years of marriage.  Son Fred is divorced and his sister Kate is supporting her stay-at-home “writer” husband and two children.  Kate is more successful than her brother.  Their mom, Linda, worked hard securing financial security for herself and her family.  She now wants to explore the possibility of love after 70.

Each of these characters interacts with the others through thoroughly believable, easy to visualize situations with amazing dialogue.  The fly in the mix is Fred’s egocentric manner and his hints at the fortune he will leave behind.  The mystery, even though this novel is not tagged a mystery, is how much is Fred worth and who will inherit?

The book starts out relatively slowly.  At first the pace seemed too slow.  As the background and history of each character unfolded, Ms. Wang’s pacing increased until the story became somewhat of a page-turner.  Nope, no spoiler alert is needed in this review.

Family Trust is an excellent novel and well worth the read.  Let’s hope Kathy Wang is busy writing another one for her readers.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on October 30, 2018.

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Afflicted

affliction bookThe Affliction: A Novel by Beth Gutcheon (William Morrow, $16.99, 384 pages)

Maggie was sitting on the floor paging through a book on Bernard Berenson and Hope was deep in one of the desk drawers when a voice from the doorway said, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

Prolific author Beth Gutcheon serves up her second Maggie Detweiler mystery in a decidedly Miss Marple/J.B, Fletcher tone.  Of course, this being a mystery novel, someone is murdered.  There are subplots of unrest among the students at a private girls’ school.  Various members of the Rye-on-Hudson community where the school is located have been plotting their own schemes.  The infusion of developer capital to the otherwise bucolic community energizes the action.

Maggie and her buddy Hope Bobbin insinuate themselves into the community after a call for assistance.  Initially, Maggie arrives at leader of an Independent School Association accreditation evaluation team.  The school, Rye Manor School for Girls, is facing the likely loss of its accreditation.

Ms. Gutcheon seamlessly brings her reader along on Maggie and Hope’s quest for the killer.  Along the way the faculty, students and campus of the school fill in a privileged New England experience around the wonderful dialogue.  There’s no lack of finger pointing and accusations to make solving the murder a challenging effort for the Detweiler and Bobbin team.

The Affliction is consistent with its predecessor, Death at Breakfast.  Hopefully, Ms. Gutcheon will deliver more such engaging adventures for her readers.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  The trade paper version of The Affliction will be released on November 27, 2018.

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When the Men Were Gone

when the men were gone

When the Men Were Gone: A Novel by Marjorie Herrera Lewis (William Morrow, $26.99/$15.99, 240 pages)

When the Men Were Gone, based on a true story, is Marjorie Herrera Lewis’ debut novel about Tylene Wilson, an assistant principal at a Texas high school who takes over the school’s football team during World War II, when all of the men are either at war or returning home dead.

Wilson has grown up an avid fan and shares many childhood memories with her father, but when she steps up to make sure the boys get one last chance to play football before the war comes calling, she is seen in a less than favorable light by many of the locals.  Her heroic gesture is met more with scorn than gratitude, because “everybody knows” that coaching football in Texas is clearly a man’s job.

When Wilson finally clears the imminent hurdles with her principal and the school board, the team takes the field for its first game against a powerhouse program in front of a full house with reporters from hours away descending upon Brownwood, Texas.

It turns out that Wilson does know what she’s doing, and Lewis tells both an inspiring and enjoyable story.  She does well to avoid too much commentary and simply leads the reader through the thoughts and actions of the characters, bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The book, however, is arguably a bit too lean at less than 250 pages.  Its primary drawback is that a little more meat at times could have made for a better, more complete story.  This does not seem to have been the goal for Lewis, but more could have been done to shore up the characters and plot.

Lewis herself covered the Dallas Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and endured some taunting from some insiders before winning them over.  She went on to join the Texas Wesleyan University football staff.  Though not autobiographical, Lewis apparently relied upon her knowledge and personal experiences to lend credibility to the inspiring account.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  When the Men Were Gone will be released in hardbound and trade paper versions on October 2, 2018.

Dave Moyer is the Superintendent of Schools for the Elmhurst Unit District 205 public school district, located just north of Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

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