Tag Archives: debut novel

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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Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

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One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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The Long and Twisting Road

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I Let You Go: A Novel by Clare Mackintosh (Berkley, $26.00, 384 pages; Penguin Publishing, $16.00, 400 pages)

British author Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel, I Let You Go, works at many levels.  For those who enjoy intrigue there are multiple twists and turns right up to the end.  Solid writing and character development should satisfy most readers who are simply interested in a good story.

In this story, a little boy named Jacob is tragically killed in a hit and run incident, and a persistent law enforcement officer, Kate, will not let the case go.  Jenna Gray seeks refuge in a remote tourist spot named Penfach.  She is ultimately apprehended and charged with the murder, but, from the start, things are never what they seem.  Surprises abound throughout.

Roy, Kate’s partner and superior, sorts through the complex feelings he has for her as he struggles with the realities of his marriage and family.  Jenna attempts to learn to trust again after a lifetime of heartache.  Strangers regularly indulge in random acts of kindness.  And still, evil lurks and must eventually be conquered.

Mackintosh chooses to consistently shift points of view and tells the story in both the third person and first person and through the eyes of multiple characters.  This creates some choppiness in the narrative that would likely not be evident in a second or third novel, or coming from a more experienced novelist. Most readers should, however, be able to work through this without it affecting their enjoyment of what is otherwise a good suspense story.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

I Let You Go is available in both hardbound and trade paperback editions.

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

 

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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.)

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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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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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Mystery Train Wreck

time-of-departure

Time of Departure: A Novel by Douglas Schofield (Minotaur Books, $16.99, 323 pages)

This debut novel began as an excellent criminal investigation story. It’s about a Florida state prosecutor, Clair Talbot, who is promoted to head the Felony Division Unit. But just as soon as she starts her new job a retired police investigator drops a cold case on her lap. Several women were killed decades earlier and he wants her to solve the crime.

On the front cover blurb, author James Renner (True Crime Addict) calls this, “A hard-boiled detective story with a dash of fantasy… a clever read. Daring, even.” Unfortunately, it’s more than a dash of fantasy. A huge load of fantasy and science fiction is unceremoniously dumped on the reader about 75% of the way through the tale. Not to reveal any spoilers, but it involves time travel. Oh, yes.

The story moves from 2011 back to 1978. Why? I have no idea but it turns an “A”-level read into something that might have been written by a middle school student. In fact, the excellent writing style of Schofield turns into nearly unintelligible mush once he detours onto the time travel lane:

“Maybe the whole point of my life is to change the future! But if that’s true, and if we decide today to change history, logic says I will no longer exist. At least I will no longer exist here and now with you. Maybe another version of me will be born next year and live a life entirely different from the one I remember. Maybe I’ll disappear into some parallel existence. I don’t know. But your memories of me will surely disappear. How could they not! You’d have no reason to have them.”

Yes, it’s that painful to read. Schofield’s strange venture into Back to the Future territory – and, naturally, our protagonist meets her mother back in the past, made me wish I could disappear into a parallel existence. I have no concept of why this author threw his story away, except that there’s a train wreck that sets off the time travel; which results in an otherwise promising work devolving into a train wreck.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The trade paperback version of Time of Departure was released on November 1, 2016.

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The First Album, The First Book & more

meetthebeatlesalbumjacket1964full

Let’s suppose you’ve spent a few years in a rock band, The Runners. You haven’t starved, but you’ve just managed to get by in terms of life’s necessities. Finally, the band releases a first album, It’s the Runners! It may not be as big as Meet the Beatles!, but it’s brought you enough income to pay the rent for a year and buy a reliable car. Do you produce Son of It’s the Runners! or something completely different? (Either way the critics are standing by to slam your decision.) Most likely you’ll record something that’s as close as possible to the first album, and wait a while before electing to modify your style, your sound.

This is a roundabout way of explaining why I’m fond of debut novels. The first novel by an author, like a first album, is generally the result of years of preparation and effort. And it’s usually quite obvious in the pages of an initial effort. There’s an earnestness, a feel, a serious energy that’s often lacking in subsequent works. After all, the first book is a “go for broke” product. If it gets published and sells well, the writer has a new career.

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Yet, it seems like what follows for a successful debut novelist is parallel to what happens with the band recording a follow-up record. The author may think, “Why rock the boat if I’ve discovered a winning formula?” Thus, what results is a second novel that’s quite similar to the first, but without the same punch. (“Let’s Twist Again” to “The Twist.”) And it appears that publishers strongly encourage the successful debut novelist to turn out the second book pretty quickly; before the book one buzz wears off. This may be why second novels often start off well in pages 1 to 150 or 200, but conclude with what seems like a rushed and unsatisfying group of pages marked 151 to 350 or 400.

But let’s suppose, for a moment, that the second book is just successful enough. It may not approach the sales of book 1, but it may hit the 80 or 85% level. What happens then? Well, the author may decide to write the same type of book, the same style of story, over and over again for a reading audience willing to accept and purchase what can amount to a type of self-plagiarism. This is not terribly, horribly rare when it comes to authors who achieve mid-range or greater success. In fact, I remember a case not so long ago…

There’s a popular fiction writer whose books sell quite well. And reading one of her books is extremely enjoyable. But if you read any of the other novels she’s manufactured – a term I’m using deliberately – you realize that they are all basically the same story. Only the names have been changed to protect the original characters. So it was not quite shocking to receive an information sheet from her publicist a short while back about an upcoming release: “It’s completely different!” Whew, I thought, it’s about time.

And this is, of course, what happens next with both authors and bands. Eventually, they get tired and worn out with making money by repeating the same old thing. So then they record or write something that’s… “Completely different!” And it’s either viewed as a work of genius (think Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s) or as turning their back on their fans, their original audience.

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This is when the reviewer-critics attack or praise with their pens, but in my view this is secondary. What truly counts is the judgment of book and record fans/purchasers. They may decide that the more unique a work is, the better it is. Or they may hate something that reads or sounds too “different.” Either way, the “new thing” shouts out that the artist is willing to take a risk because this is what art, what life, is about.

I may be wrong, but I think that if the “new thing” came from the heart (rather than the head) of the artist – and was not simply contrived for commercial purposes, the audience will come to accept and/or love it. And in a very roundabout way, this article is an attempt to explain why I may love a writer’s first book, but not her second, third, or fourth. And it’s an attempt to explain why I might find that she’s regained her voice – her true, instinctive and once-again original form, with her fifth book.

But maybe it’s just me.

Joseph Arellano

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