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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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All Summer Long – and longer

Beach Books – Good All Year Around

cocoa beach cover

Cocoa Beach: A Novel by Beatriz Williams (William Morrow, $27.99, 384 pages)

Ms. Williams is the author of six previous novels.  If they are anywhere as well-crafted as Cocoa Beach, readers may have an entire vacation’s worth of adventures from this author alone.  The U.S. Prohibition Era brings the Florida coastal town of Cocoa Beach more than just exciting parties and illicit drinking.

The central character, Virginia Firzwilliam, has endured years of abandonment by her secretive husband only to be called to Florida after his death in a house fire.  Virginia learns the hard way that she and her little daughter are at the center of a deadly deception.

Highly recommended.

all summer long cover

All Summer Long: A Novel by Dorothea Benton Frank (William Morrow, $15.99, 374 pages)

Get ready for a study in contrasts.  A popular and successful interior designer finds herself held to the promise she made 14 years prior when she married a college professor.  Nick, the professor, has has long-awaited retirement dream fulfilled – a move back to Charlestown, South Carolina.  Olivia, who is a fourth-generation New Yorker, has quite a task ahead.  She must adapt to the cultural differences of her new home and keep her design business alive.

all summer long back cover

Ms. Benton Frank has a beguiling way with words, especially when she’s describing her beloved Low Country.  Readers who enjoy this novel will be happy to know that there are 16 published works by this prolific author.

Well recommended.

beach at painter's cove

 

The Beach at Painter’s Cove: A Novel by Shelley Noble (William Morrow, $15.99, 432 pages)

Way up north in Connecticut, family estrangement is the theme of this novel set at the run-down mansion known as Muses by the Sea.  The interplay among four generations of a most dysfunctional family can be confusing as there are proper names, nicknames and strange last names.  The original family name is Whitaker.  Long ago, Wesley and his wife Leonore hosted an artist’s colony on the property of their rambling home situated on Painter’s Cove.

The drama of four generations coming together to decide the fate of the house and property is at best hard to follow.  Author Noble uses breathless dialogue and much scurrying about to tell her tale of jealousy and misunderstanding.  A family tree at the front of the book would have been a useful addition.

beach at painter's cove back cover

Despite the drawbacks, readers will connect with the message of enduring love that unites the family.

Recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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A Poisoned Pile of Mysteries

A Variety Pack from Poisoned Pen Press

Where the Bones are Buried

Where the Bones are Buried: A Dinah Pelerin Mystery by Jeanne Matthews (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 288 pages; $14.95, 288 pages)

Hold on to your hats Wild West fans! The improbable mix of Berlin, Germany and fans of American frontier lore are at the center of this wacky murder mystery. Dinah Pelerin is the heroine of this tale. She has a lover who is a former Norwegian cop and her mother, Swan, is a Native American from the Seminole tribe.

Author Jeanne Matthews presents a deeply puzzling death amid a powwow event held by the Berlin Der Indianer Club. Who knew that Native Americans might fascinate Germans? At least this explains how Dinah has a gig teaching Native American cultures in Berlin. This is Dinah’s fifth appearance in the series so there’s a fascination with her by mystery lovers.

Swan is a rather tricky character who’s out to get revenge. She visits Dinah in Berlin and together they manage to get themselves into some very tricky predicaments after finding a scalped murder victim.

Recommended for mystery lovers who are looking for a fresh perspective on murder.

Caught Dead

Caught Dead: A Rick Van Lam Mysery by Andrew Lanh (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 290 pages; $14.95, 290 pages)

Back in the USA we find Rick Van Lanh, an Amerasian private eye in Connecticut. Rick is hired by members of a small Vietnamese community in Hartford to determine whether the drive-by shooting of Mary Le is just a random incident or murder. Mary is a twin. She and her sister are known as the “beautiful Le sisters.”

The tale is told in a breathless, naive way that is heavily laden with racism both external (Vietnamese vs. others in Hartford) and internal (mixed race children who are a product of the war in Vietnam vs. pure blooded Vietnamese). The clashes also include tensions between Buddhists and Catholics and, of course, the rich and the poor.

There’s a bit of meandering for Rick as he searches for a motive to explain Mary’s shooting. The complexity and conflicts he encounters make this somewhat of a laborious read. This would likely be an unlikely selection for the typical reader.

Murder in Picadilly

Murder in Picadilly by Charles Kingston – British Library Crime Classics (Poisoned Pen Press, $12.95, 316 pages)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled mystery style – British mysteries of the 1930s, in other words, true classics! Poisoned Pen Press has brought back out-of-print mysteries that were popular in their day. This selection features Bobbie Cheldon and his nightclub dancer crush, Nancy Curzon. Bobbie is the lazy and self-centered son of a widowed mother. His uncle, his deceased father’s brother, is a wealthy tightwad. Bobbie longs for the day when he inherits his uncle’s fortune.

The book is written in fascinating syntax and figures of speech that draw the reader back in time. Make no mistake, there’s no casual cruising through this text. The reader cannot afford to be lazy or skim as the charm and humor of Charles Kingston’s writing style will be missed.

Members of the British caste system in its many permutations interact throughout the tale to form a truly tangled web of greed and deceit.

Highly recommended for purists who devour classic British mysteries!

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher and/or a publicist.

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The Stuff That Never Happened

The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

If you’ve ever caught a glimpse of a former lover and let your mind travel down the “what if” path, however briefly, you’ll enjoy “The Stuff That Never Happened.”   It’s the debut novel by Maddie Dawson, who captures the silent desperation of pinning for the excitement of the “bad boy” who got away when all of your friends think the good guy you married is God’s gift to wives.

Annabelle McKay, at 46, is well aware that she is the envy of the faculty spouses at the New Hampshire college where her husband is a big-wheel professor.   Grant is solid and dependable.   He’s not the type of husband who would leave her for a younger woman just as her upper arms are starting to go flabby and she and Grant are losing their biggest common denominator – their two kids.   Besides, there’s still enough of a spark in their marriage that they schedule sex every week on the morning he doesn’t have an early class to teach.   But Annabelle has never squelched the memories of the passionate affair she had 26 years ago that left wounds too deep to speak about.   It’s that vow of silence between Annabelle and Grant that is the fat finger on Annabelle’s contentment scale.   Dawson lets Annabelle tell her own story, and she does so in a voice that draws you in like a new friend who’s just starting to open up and confide.

Therein lies the real treat of this novel.   Annabelle tells her life in two parallel story lines, the one that takes place in 2005, the present; and the one that set her on her present course in 1977.   You watch the mature Annabelle wrestle with her emotions and her choices when she unexpectedly meets her old lover at a juncture when life’s possibilities seem to be opening up again.   You see Annabelle at 20 as she is struggling to emerge from a dysfunctional family and chart her own course — with very little perspective and few emotional navigation aids.

Woven together, the stories are compelling in the way that celebrity divorces are:  The central problem is as old as the human race, and the details are riveting as much for what they divulge about a couple’s private life as for the mirror they hold up to one’s own life.   “The Stuff That Never Happened” will be the book you pass to a friend and say, “Let me know when you’ve read this.   I want to know what you would have done.”

Dawson’s characters are insightfully drawn and convincingly flawed.   Even the characters that only make cameo appearances are fully formed.   Padgett, the grad-student trophy wife of Clark, a colleague of Grant’s, texts through the couple’s getting-to-know-you dinner at a restaurant.   And when Clark announces that he’s taking a sabbatical so he and Padgett can travel the world, Dawson shows us his gum-revealing, fool-in-love grin, and says, “He puts his big bald forehead onto her unlined one, like a mind meld you see on Star Trek.”   With just a few sentences, Dawson sketches a guy who’s very much like a guy you know at work and a woman one-third his age whose lack of apparent charm is a throwback to the very serious, Gloria Steinem wanna-be of the early seventies, only Padgett’s social consciousness is directed at saving the environment, not womankind.

Maybe you can tell:  I thought this was a great read.   It’s an astute people-watcher’s take on a timeless conundrum.   It would make a great beach read.   But if you take it on vacation, load up on sun screen.   You’re not going to want to put it down.

By Kimberly C. Steffen, a writer and editor who lives in Connecticut.   This is a “second look” review.

 

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True Colors

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman (Spiegel & Grau)

“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection/ Send my credentials to the house of detention/ I got some friends inside.”   The Doors (“When the Music’s Over”)

“This was the penitence that sometimes happens in the penitentiary.”   Piper Kerman

Orange is the New Black is the primarily angry, but eventually calming memoir from Piper Kerman, a young woman who was locked up for more than a year in the Danbury federal correctional facility.   Her case is somewhat unique not only because she is white and raised middle-class (a graduate of Smith College) but because she had a decade-long wait between her arrest on drug charges and her incarceration.   Kerman had ten years to wonder whether she was going to be behind the bars in a so-called Club Fed or a type of nightmarish facility where her personal safety would be at risk among hardcore offenders.

When Kernan is sentenced to serve her relatively short 15 months term in Danbury, she has found a boyfriend/prospective husband in New York City, and is leading a stable life.   Being forced to leave this behind results in this true story that begins with a lot of hostility expressed in words that begin with “f” and “s”; they appear on about every other page.   This reviewer was surprised that an editor had not elected to remove the terms which became repetitive and annoying.

Early on, Kerman also expresses anger at the federal prosecutors who tried one of her fellow inmates:  “I wondered what U.S. attorney was enjoying that particular notch in his or her belt.”   This appears to be the opposite of blaming the victim.   Instead of blaming herself or her fellow inmates for their crimes, Kerman attempts to label the criminal justice system’s officials as evil.   It just does not work.   As they say, if you can’t do the time then don’t do the crime.

After some months are spent at Danbury, Kerman comes to find that she has a second family among the group of women she encounters and resides with.   This results in her continuing her memoir in a calmer voice…   We can literally feel the calmness and acceptance that attaches to her story.   This is when she talks of penitence and accepting the harm she has caused to her future husband and family members and friends.   It is also when she sees that she has true friends who stick by her when the going gets tough.

Kerman begins to so highly value her fellow inmates that when any one of them is released, it becomes more a time of sorrow and regret than elation.   This reminds the reviewer of another flaw with the editing of Orange.   Each time that Kerman writes of the departure of another inmate, the reader is told that the departing inmate’s prison affects will be distributed to those left behind.   This point is raised too many times, although we understand that Kerman looks forward to giving away her own prison garbs and possessions when she leaves.

In the end, a painful tale of incarceration winds up as a positive story of self-acceptance.   Kerman cannot change what she did as a reckless youth – one without the best of judgement – seeking excitement.   But in prison she comes to see that she can and will value her life from this point forward.   Upon her release, she runs toward the future, “No one can stop me.”

The journey that Piper Kerman takes the reader on in this memoir is at times a rocky one on a winding road, but the destination makes the journey worthwhile.   Well done.

Recommended.

A pre-release review copy was provided by the publisher.

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About Our Reviewers

Ruta Arellano – Ruta received her B.A. from the University of California, the one in Berkeley.   She served as the Associate Director of the California Self-Esteem Task Force and later worked as a research specialist with multiple state agencies.   She tends to read and review crime mysteries, popular fiction, survey books, books on art and interior design, business books and those books that are hard to classify.   Ruta also writes reviews for the New York Journal of Books, Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.

Joseph Arellano – Joseph received his B.A. in Communication Arts from the University of the Pacific, where he wrote music and entertainment reviews for The Pacifican and the campus radio station, KUOP-FM.   He then received his J.D. (law degree) from the University of Southern California, which is why he’s pretty good at writing legal disclaimers.   He has served as a Public Information Officer for a state agency, which involved a lot of writing and editing work under heavy pressure and deadlines, and he was an adjunct professor at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS).   Joseph has done pre-publication editing and review work for a publisher based in England.   He also writes – or has written – reviews for New York Journal of Books, Sacramento Book Review, San Francisco Book Review, Portland Book Review and Tulsa Book Review.

Munchy – Munchy is a senior Norwegian Forest Cat of the brown tabby variety.   He only writes reviews of children’s books and only when he absolutely feels like it.   (His children’s book reviews have appeared in San Francisco Book Review and Sacramento Book Review.)   He intends to become the furry Publisher and Chief Feline Officer (CFO) of Brown Cat Books.

Dave Moyer – Dave is the author of the novel Life and Life Only and of several published short stories and essays.   He regularly reviews books for this site and for the New York Journal of Books.   Moyer is a former college baseball coach.   A music lover and Bob Dylan junkie, Moyer has played drums in various ensembles over the years (but not with the Rolling Stones).   He majored in English at the University of Wisconsin and earned a doctorate from Northern Illinois University.   Moyer is a school superintendent in Southeastern Wisconsin and is an instructor for Aurora University.   He currently resides in the greater Chicago area.

Kimberly Caldwell – Kimberly is a freelance writer and editor in Connecticut.   She earned a B.A. in Journalism and Business at Lehigh University, and earned her chops as a reporter and copy editor at a daily newspaper, an editor of electronic display industry news, neurology studies and romance novels, and as the general manager of an independent fine-dining restaurant.

Kelly Monson – Kelly is a former school principal and special education teacher who earned her Doctorate, Educational Specialist Degree, Master’s Degree and Bachelor’s Degree from Northern Illinois University and a second Master’s in Educational Leadership from Aurora University.   She is an avid reader and writer and travels extensively (with and without her three children).   She currently resides in the greater Chicago area.

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