Tag Archives: California

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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Get Your Danish On!

America the Anxious: How the Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks by Ruth Whippman (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 247 pages)

america the anxious

Happiness is so individualized and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – of circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences, and personality quirks – that anything averaged over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.

Is it possible for a British writer and documentary filmmaker to capture the underlying cause of what seems to be a pervasive sense of anxiety in the United States of America?  Ruth Whippman is transplanted to Berkeley, California when her husband takes a job across the pond.  She brings with her the typical negative/sarcastic attitude acquired in her homeland. (“Cynicism is the British shtick, our knee-jerk starting point.”)

This slender gray volume appears to be a survey of what makes American anxious; however, it segues into a memoir of the author’s search for happiness in the Golden State.  Ms. Whipmann begins her residency with her husband and one toddler and adds another child along the way.  The local experiences she describes vary from playground interactions with other moms and kiddies to encounters with her apartment neighbors.

To her credit, Whippman travels to other regions of this anxious nation to gather a broader view of her topic.  The seemingly content and happy Mormons in Utah are the focus of her fieldwork.  She also delves into academia, parenting and workplace standards of contentment.

The accolades on the book jacket extolling the author’s wit and hilarious humor are relatively accurate, if exaggerated.  Although America the Anxious does have its share of laughs and comic relief, the quote above left this reviewer with a sense of being let down.  We may be portrayed as a nation of Nervous Nellies but not everyone is pursuing happiness with a negative result.

This may  have made for a fascinating inflight article.  As a book, it’s overly padded with one person’s viewpoints, anecdotes, and opinions. Therefore, it is recommended only for those with the preexisting view that the U.S. is a nation of sad, miserable people.

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking (William Morrow, $19.99, 221 pages)

little book of hygge

Right off, readers intent on quality of life improvement might recognize a physical similarity between The Little Book of Hygge and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo.  All three books measure slightly over 5″ x 7″ and their covers are coated in that smooth durable finish meant for ease in handling without wear and tear.  After all, if one is planning to absorb and implement the wisdom within its covers, a book must be portable and sturdy.

little book hygge all year around

The lovely illustrations generously sprinkled among the words of encouragement written by Meik Wiking are immediately recognizable as Scandinavian.  Just as Ms. Kondo’s cute and dainty illustrations are very much in keeping with the modern Japanese style of Hello Kitty.  While Ms. Kondo’s are neat and tidy primers on folding and storing one’s possessions, Mr. Wiking’s contain ample clues to the elements of Hygge that the Danes enjoy year round.  Clothing, candles, yummy recipes, fireplaces and, did I mention candles?

little book hygge definitionAuthor Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute located in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Readers may not be aware of the fact that Denmark is considered one of the happiest nations in the world.  (More than Disneyland?  – Ed.) Ample graphs and charts comparing Denmark to other nations establish this fact along with a more than sufficient amount of text explaining this phenomenon.

What secrets are lurking in this volume?  Well, maybe not exactly secrets so much as a comprehensive examination of the definition of Hygge that is parsed out into human, environmental and psychological elements.  These elements, when combined, can provide the comfort and even a sense of well being that each of us truly needs in the current world.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

 

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Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

i-liked-my-life-amazon

I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

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Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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Three for the Read

fallout

Fallout: A V.I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky (William Morrow, $27.99, 448 pages)

The latest V.I. Warshawski mystery (the 21st in the series) moves away from V.I.’s usual stomping grounds in and around Chicago to Lawrence, Kansas in the heart of the Midwest.   As the tale begins, V.I. has been hired to find two missing persons, a former movie star and a trainer at the local gym who also happens to be a videographer.   Emerald Ferring and August Veriden disappeared the week prior without leaving an itinerary or contact information.   August’s cousin, Angela Creedy, and V.I.’s young friend, Bernardine Fouchard, are adamant that something awful has happened.

Author Paretsky explores the racial and regional biases within the area surrounding Lawrence.   She takes a 360-degree view that includes the clergy, the military, university cell biologists, and private industry.   There are flashbacks to the mid 1980s when protest by local militants included encampments at a Minuteman missile silo.   Paretsky lets fly with her views on the cruel actions taken to cover up the serious harm inflicted on innocent civilians.   V.I. and Paretsky are on the case!

Well recommended.

Fallout will be released on April 18, 2017.

no-place-to-die

No Place to Die: A Novel by Clare Donoghue (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 372 pages)

Clare Donoghue has developed a relatively new mystery series featuring London police officers Jane Bennett and Mike Lockyer.   No Place to Die is the second installment in this classic British police procedural set in present day London.   Bennett is the featured character in this tale.   The way she is portrayed brings to mind Maeve Kerrigan in Jane Casey’s crime novels.   The diabolical nature of the crimes to be solved by Bennett is reminiscent of Peter James’ Roy Grace series.   There are the typical British words and phrases liberally used throughout the text – bottom of the garden, fringe (hair bangs), etc.

No Place to Die includes victims buried alive that need rescuing in very short order.   Each chapter examines the action from various characters’ viewpoints.   Jane Bennett is dealing with her absentee boss, Mike Lockyer, who was traumatized by their prior case.   Jane’s son, Peter, is autistic.   Jane must rely on the assistance of her somewhat helpful mother who steps in to care for Peter when casework calls Jane away after school hours.   Life is not easy!

Well recommended.

poisonous

Poisonous: A Novel by Allison Brennan (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 354 pages)

Back in the USA on the west coast we meet Maxine Revere, an investigative reporter who is contacted by an 18-year-old developmentally disabled boy named Tommy.   His half-sister died as the result of a fall from a cliff in Corte Madera, California more than a year ago.   Ms. Revere, or Max as she is known, becomes entangled in the issues of a very dysfunctional family.   There are the usual matters of jealousy and bickering that happen among teens.   When you add divorce and remarriage by the dad to a woman who has her own teenager, there’s bound to be trouble.

Allison Brennan has had over 20 novels published since 2005.   Poisonous is her latest.   Clearly, Ms. Brennan is very good at character development as well as weaving plot threads.   The book is engaging if not a bit challenging.   Perhaps the array of relationships that sometimes confused this reviewer could have been simplified with a chart of the characters.   That aside, I’m unable to resist enumerating the parallels between Ms. Brennan and myself.   They are threefold: we both reside in the same community; each of us has worked in government; and we share an astrological sign.

poisonous-back-cover

I look forward to reading more of her books.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Shattered

altamont-joel-selvin

Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin (Dey Street, $27.99, 358 pages)

There are books that you read and when you finish you say to yourself, “That was a good book!” And then there’s the book that causes you to think, “That was interesting, but…” Altamont falls into the second category.

One is unlikely to find factual errors in this account of the notorious concert. This is a plus. Another plus is that this nonfiction work appears to have been edited to within an inch of its life. I found not a single grammatical or punctuation error, something that is sadly unique in this day and age. Kudos to the staff at Dey Street!

So where does the “but…” come from? This account is written in tense and turgid language. It’s as if Selvin is writing about THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN HUMAN HISTORY. It reads as if one is listening to Walter Cronkite reciting the facts that led to a third world war. Come on, Joel, it was only rock ‘n roll!

How overblown and overly dramatic is the language? Here’s an excerpt:

The whole event had turned into some oblique rite of passage, an ordeal to be endured by band and audience alike. The promise of love was vanquished, and in its place, the specter of evil loomed. In a single day, Altamont had turned the myth of Woodstock inside out.

Whew. So this music concert was about a battle between good and evil, and it represented a momentous change in our lives and our time. Well, OK, if you buy that. I don’t.

It’s not as if dozens of people died at Altamont. There was one death that occurred while the Rolling Stones played and another person died while leaving the event. These deaths were not insignificant; but the Altamont concert pales in comparison to multiple tragedies in our history, which is why Selvin appears to have lost a proper perspective in 2016.

Fans of the Stones may find themselves surprised and/or dismayed by Selvin’s view that this was the beginning of the end for the band in terms of musical excellence, honesty, and creativity:

Whatever they lost at Altamont, they would not get back. The Stones would play out their days like tigers in the shade, challenging neither themselves nor their audience. Instead of a cultural force, the Stones settled for being caricatures of themselves, a raucous and colorful, but ultimately meaningless sideshow, prancing onstage with props, costumes, and elaborate stage sets in cavernous football stadiums, no more five simple men and the music.

Common, Joel, tell us what you really think.

Stones fans are bound to enjoy the 22 pages of color and black-and-white photos, which are likely to have been previously unseen.

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A few rock historians might find Selvin’s account useful but I doubt that most rock music fans will want to spend their time ingesting over 350 pages of rather depressing facts. And, as in many accounts of the period, there’s far too much made of drug use and abuse; something that one quickly finds boring rather than interesting. For a perhaps more entertaining read that covers the events back in the day, including the Altamont concert, one might elect to read David Talbot’s highly engaging The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love.

Fade to black. Paint it, black.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Altamont was released on August 16, 2016.

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Beer Review: Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock

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Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock

Before I begin sprouting my opinion, I find it necessary to mention that I am very uncultured in the world of bocks; I’ve only had two. The first bock I had was from Shiner. Shiner Bock was one of the first beers I enjoyed drinking, but as I sample it now I do not care for it. The other bock I had was from a brewery I cannot recall, though I do remember not being a fan of it. So I will note that I was a bit apprehensive about trying Gordon Biersch’s Blonde Bock, but I’m always up for experiencing new brews.

The appearance of this beer was quite standard. Most bocks are generally darker in color, but this one was definitely golden blonde in hue. It poured a 1-finger white head that dissipated within a couple of minutes and left next to no lacing on the glass. Again, it was average looking. It just did not seem to have anything going for it. It sits even on the scale at a 2.5/5.

The nose on this beer was incredibly malty right out of the bottle. I popped the cap and my nose was hit with a fresh bready/biscuit aroma. I was also getting small hints of fruit, maybe pears? It was very faint, but was a nice touch. There was almost no hop presence at all on the nose. While the aroma wasn’t a complete knockout, it wasn’t displeasing by any means; just very underwhelming which gives it a 2.75/5.

As with the nose, the taste was definitely bready, which was exemplified as the beer warmed. There wasn’t much of a hop profile to this brew. It was hard to pick out exactly what flavors the hops were trying to produce or enhance. I know bocks are more malt-driven, but you really got only a taste of hops at the back end. I found that my choice to snack on pretzels while drinking this was an excellent decision as the saltiness of the pretzels balanced the sweetness of the malts and provided a nice sweet taste. The taste was fine, but not extraordinary. I’d give it a 3.25/5.

Generally when drinking beers the mouthfeel has a tendency to change throughout the tasting. Blonde Bock, however, maintained a refreshing and crisp feel the entire session. It was so crisp, in fact, that it felt almost brittle. I don’t know if a liquid can be described as brittle, but that was the first word that came to mind when drinking this bock. It does not coat your mouth or throat; it just passes right through and does not sit in a heavy fashion. For me, this was enjoyable. I usually like my beers to feel somewhat thicker, but for its taste I think the feel matched it quite well, earning it a 3.75/5.

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Overall, this was by no means a bad beer, but I probably would not go out of my way to seek it out and would likely pass it by if other options were available. I’m glad to have tried an interesting bock variation, but it was simply not my cup of tea. No doubt this is a fine representation of the style, but it does not fall within my wheelhouse. Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock is alright, but not great. Final score: 3.1/5.

Ryan Moyer

Ryan is a graduate of Indiana University.

Note: Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock has an alcohol by volume (ABV) content of 7%. Gordon Biersch began its brewing activities in Palo Alto, California. The Gordon Biersch brewery and bottling plant is located in San Jose. Gordon Biersch is now headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado.

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Good Night

night night

Night, Night, Sleep Tight: A Novel of Suspense by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, $14.99, 320 pages)

The setting is Los Angeles, California, and the time is May 1985. Deidre Unger, a woman whose life was forever altered by an event that took place 22 years earlier, finds her father, screenwriter Arthur Unger, drowned in the swimming pool at his sadly neglected house. Deirdre has come from her home in San Diego to assist in readying the house for sale. Her father’s untimely death appears to be an accident but that might not be the case. Deirdre can’t rely on her brother Henry who lives at the house to help her make sense of what has happened. Henry is a slacker and he lives a hazy existence.

Much of Deirdre’s life has been spent limping along on the leg and foot that were crushed in the wreck of Arthur’s Austin Healy convertible back in 1963. The circumstances surrounding the middle of the night drive and subsequent crash are a bit cloudy for her due, in no small part, to the trauma she suffered as a result. As she works to uncover the reason her father has died, Deirdre encounters people from her childhood – a neighbor boy, Tyler Corrigan, and Realtor Joelen Nichol, her best friend.

night night sleep tight wide

Author Hallie Ephron uses her childhood in Beverly Hills and a true-life spectacular only-in-Hollywood event that fascinated her as a pre-teen to underpin this memorable suspense novel. That event was the stabbing death of super glamorous actress Lana Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. This was no ordinary lover’s spat; Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane was the killer.

Although characters Joelen Nichol and her mother, Bunny, have a past not unlike Turner and Crane, the similarity ends there. Ephron uses her considerable writing skills to draw the reader into a cleverly woven plot while maintaining a tone that places this book in the category of literature. The treatment of the scenes is cinematic and yet subtle. Readers who are familiar with southern California will easily see the places and scenes in their minds.

Hallie Ephron

The initial attraction to this Ephron’s work was spurred by this reviewer’s enjoyment of her sister Nora’s writing; however, Hallie now has a new fan. I look forward to reading her past and future works.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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