Tag Archives: engaging story

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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The Last Thing on My Mind

The Silent Wife: A Novel by A. S. A. Harrison (Penguin, $16.00, 326 pages)

The Silent Wife (nook book)

Wow. This is likely to be the reaction of most readers after completing the novel, The Silent Wife, by the late author A. S. A. Harrison. The taut, prickly, engaging story centers on counselor Jodi and building contractor Todd, involved in a common law marriage for over twenty years. Jodi is finally content, living in a beautiful apartment overlooking Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Then she learns that Todd is about to leave her to marry his best friend’s daughter.

The ever-calm Jodi finds that her life is quickly unraveling, especially after Todd’s attorney serves her with an eviction notice. Eventually she realizes that she must do something, and elects to pursue a course of action that may leave some blood on her hands.

The fault with the telling is that some readers will — as this one did — figure out the logical conclusion before the final pages. Still, this is a very cleverly written story that would shine on the silver screen. (Hollywood loves this stuff.) Coming soon to a theater near you?

Harrison was a major new talent. Had she lived, she no doubt would have produced a series of highly successful novels.

Wow.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “I gobbled it down in one sitting.” Anne Lamott

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Fool’s Gold

The Golden Calf: A Detective Inspector Irene Huss Investigation by Helene Tursten (Soho Crime, $26.95, 340 pages; AudioGO, 10 CDs, $29.95)

The Golden Calf (audio 500)

“…engaging and cleverly crafted.”

Police procedurals are often an exercise in scene shifts, dogged legwork and a dramatic reveal at the conclusion. The Golden Calf is all that and more. This reviewer listened to the audio version. The book is filled with a preponderance of dialogue which made the listening experience more like a radio drama circa the 1940s than a book.

The Scandinavian tale written by Helene Tursten (of Sweden) was translated into English by Laura A. Wideburg. Ms. Wideburg does an admirable job of ironing out the language difference and provides a smooth tale. The narrator, Suzanne Toren, is a master of voices, accents and gender. The listener soon forgets that only one person is speaking while the large cast of characters performs their duties.

The only hiccups in the audio version are the naming conventions and their Swedish pronunciation. The main character, Detective Inspector (DI) Irene Huss and her partner Tommy Persson, become Idean Hoose and Tow Me Pearsoon. A reader of the hard copy can fashion his or her own sounds for the names. Sometimes a person’s last name is used in the dialogue and at other times it’s the full name. Aside from these somewhat minor impediments, the tale is engaging and cleverly crafted.

DI Huss leads her team to the solution of several crimes that include execution-style murder and embezzlement. Ms. Huss suffers the blunt, minimal acceptance of her male counterparts. Her main ally is Tommy Persson who refrains from digging at her.

The several identical murders tie together an array of people who had been in business together back in the dot com boom and bust in the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2003 and these players and their expensive spending habits may be revealing more than business acumen. Author Tursten immerses the reader in the gluttony of her characters with detailed descriptions of high quality and high price tag items including clothing, furniture, cars and culinary excesses.

Perhaps crooks are just crooks regardless of where they live. Regardless, this Swedish spin on the police procedural makes for very entertaining listening.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The unabridged audio book, which comes in a nifty two-ring binder case, was provided by Soho Crime for review.

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Chook Lit

The Fine Color of Rust: A Novel by P. A. O’Reilly (Washington Square Press, $15.00, 283 pages)

I never bother locking the house in this kind of heat.   It we shut the windows we’ll never sleep.

Gunapan is a made-up name for a town in Australia situated within driving distance of Melbourne.   Author P. A. O’Reilly brings her reader into hot, dusty inland Australia with the sights, sounds and textures of rural life.   A seven-year drought has produced a landscape that begs to be soothed by rain.   Moreover, numerous ladies of the town have been deserted by their husbands, leaving them to care for the children.

Loretta Boskovic, the main character, is struggling at a low paying job to support her daughter Melissa and son Jake in the wake of husband Tony’s departure several years ago.   Norm, who owns the town junk yard, is Loretta’s best friend and confidante.   There are the usual class distinctions as wealthy land owners living nearby flaunt their leisure and luxuries.   They magnify the disparity between themselves and the ordinary folks in Gunapan.

The Fine Color of Rust is an engaging tale of persistence, friendship and commitment.   Loretta is a heroine who draws from her inner strength to fight the closure of Halstead Primary, the local school.   Her poverty in no way diminishes the quality of her efforts as she seeks to persuade local and central government officials to keep Gunapan’s school.   Melissa and Jake are vulnerable kids who long for their dad’s return to the family.

Be prepared to really care about the best characters in this story as each one is portrayed in-depth for the reader.   Although this is a novel, there are a few small mysteries that run like underground streams throughout.   Rather than propel the plot, they add dimension and motivation for Loretta as she follows her passion to keep Halstead Elementary from closing.

Readers of Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day for… series will enjoy this change of scenery.

Highly recommended.Fine Color of Rust (nook book)

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “…a story about love, where we look for it, what we do with it, and how it shows up in the most unexpected places.”   Big Issue, Australia

Note:  Chook Lit (a bit like Chick Lit) is a slang term used in Australia to describe stories set in the Outback and/or those depicting the gritty realities of life in the rural areas of the Land Down Under.

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The Big Hurt

Hurt Machine: A Moe Prager Mystery by Reed Farrel Coleman (Tyrus Books, $15.95, 320 pages)

If you recognize the song title above, you’re a contemporary of Moe Prager, the hero of this, the seventh book in the mystery series.   Reed Farrel Coleman is a prolific author whose ability to spin an engaging tale is obvious in this well-paced novel.   Although Coleman’s work is new to this reviewer, the comfortable intimacy of Moe Prager’s first-person narrative made the story meaningful.

Faced with a nasty stomach cancer diagnosis just weeks before his daughter Sarah’s wedding, Prager ponders his mortality.   He references past characters who have informed his life, some living and some, like Israel Roth, gone from this world.   Since the story is part retrospective and part reality check, the appearance of former wife Carmella is the perfect segue into the past.

Prager is a former cop whose array of acquaintances comes in handy when he takes on Carmella’s request to clear up her sister Alta’s good name.   Alta and a co-worker walked away from a dying man which was an unforgivable sin, considering the two were emergency medical technicians with the New York Fire Department.   Not long after the episode, Alta was murdered in the street near a famous restaurant.   Well, the restaurant, actually a pizzeria/gelato spot, is famous by Brooklyn standards.

Regardless of the plot twists and interwoven groups that populate the story, it is the effort that Prager makes to reconcile his longing for Carmella, the obvious love offered to him by current girlfriend Pam, and his yearing for future grandkids that compels the reader to move along with him to the last page.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Hurt Machine is also available a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.   “…contemporary who-dunits don’t get much better than Shamus-winner Coleman’s seventh Moe Prager mystery.”   Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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A Coming Attraction

A Working Theory of Love: A Novel by Scott Hutchins (Penguin Press, $25.95, 336 pages)

This debut novel by Scott Hutchins – a University of Michigan graduate, a former Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program and a current Instructor at Stanford University – will be released on October 2, 2012.   The protagonist, Neill Bassett, lives in a San Francisco apartment building “on the south hill overlooking Dolores Park.”   He commutes to work in Menlo Park, where he works at a small but innovative Silicon Valley company.   Here is a synopsis of A Working Theory of Love:

Neil Bassett is now just going through the motions, again joining the San Francisco singles scene after the implosion of his very short-lived starter marriage to ex-wife Erin.   He’s begun to live a life of routine, living with his cat in the apartment that he and Erin once shared.   On one otherwise ordinary day he discovers that his upstairs neighbor Fred has broken a hip.   Neil summons an ambulance, and when the paramedics arrive Fred says to Neil, “I’m sorry, Neill.   I’m sorry.   I’m so sorry.”   This sets Neil to wondering about life itself — was Fred apologizing for “his basic existence in this world, the inconvenience of his living and breathing?”

Neil’s physician father committed suicide ten years earlier, leaving behind personal diaries of thousands of pages.   The artificial intelligence company Neil works for, Amiante Systems, is using the diaries to create a human-like computer which uses the words of Neil’s late dad to communicate.   To Neil’s surprise, the experiment seems to be working as the computer not only gains an apparent conscious awareness it even begins asking Neill difficult questions about his childhood.

While in a state of shock over the events at Amiante, Neil meets an intended one-night stand named Rachel.   He falls for her and wonders what his life would be like in her company; and, yet, he remains bogged down with his feelings for Erin.   To make matters worse, Erin continues to intersect with Neil at unlikely and unexpected times.   When Neil discovers a missing year in the diaries – a year that might unleash the secret to his parents’ seemingly troubled marriage and perhaps the reason for his father’s suicide – everything Neil thought he knew about his past comes into question.   Neil now becomes paralyzed with confusion and indecision. 

Scott Hutchins’s story deals with love, grief and reconciliation while teaching us about life’s lessons.   He shows us how we have the chance to be free once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our family histories – our sad or disappointing childhoods, our poor youthful decisions, and our unintended miscommunications with those we love and have loved.   A Working Theory of Love presents the reader with a unique, highly gifted new writing talent in the form of Scott Hutchins.

“A brainy, bright, laughter-through tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel…  This book’s got something for everyone!”   Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan

“Scott Hutchins’s wonderful new novel is right on the border of what is possible…  The book is brilliantly observant about the way we live now, and its comic and haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”   Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love

“It takes a genius, a supercomputer, a disembodied voice, and a man who’s stopped believing to create A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins’s brilliantly inventive deubt novel…  This book is astonishing.”   Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son

Joseph Arellano

The synopsis of A Working Theory of Love was based on information provided by the publisher, and on an Advanced Uncorrected Proof.   The novel will be released in hardbound form in October, and will also be available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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Bad, Bad Leroy Brown

Going to the Bad: A Lilly Hawkins Mystery by Nora McFarland (Touchstone Paperback, $15.00, 304 pages) Here we are back in Bakersfield with the crew of TV station KJAY.   Going to the Bad is the third episode in the excellent mystery series written by former news camera person Nora McFarland.   This time around the book retains the same attention to heart and action present in the first two books (A Bad Day’s Work and Hot, Shot, and Bothered).   The main character, Lilly Hawkins, is living with Rod, the handsome newsman turned behind-the-camera executive, in her Uncle Bud’s house.

The story develops around a shooting at the house.   As with anything related to Bud, there are layers of secrecy and shady dealings.   The timeline for the tale spans about 32 hours – from the morning of Christmas Eve until late afternoon the following day.   The significance of the time of year with its emphasis on family plays well given the interwoven families whose past secrets inform the solution to the identification of the assailant.

Author McFarland advances her characters with challenges to their loyalty, a recurring theme  of the three books.   There is also an undercurrent, a strong one, related to social classes and the disparity among them.   The homes inhabited by the characters are vastly different as are their financial situations.   When faced with challenges by outsiders, each of the families comes to grips with it in its own way.   This book is about both letting go and commitment.   The plot is engaging and makes it a speedy read, even though Lilly spends most of the time running on empty.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Going to the Bad will be released on August 7, 2012.   “An unforgettable heroine…  Funny, smart, and honest.   Packed full of adrenaline and attitude.”   Lisa Scottoline, author of Look Again.

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I’ll Follow the Sun

Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer (Atria Books, $24.99, 347 pages)

Take what you need…  Take what you want.   Figure it out, find it, do it.   That’s what he was doing.   That’s what he did.

Cathi Hanauer is one heck of a writer; she’s a woman who can write about serious things and funny things in equal proportions.   This may be because this is the way life is…  Sometimes it plays out the way we think it will, sometimes it shocks and astounds us, and sometimes things simply seem to happen at random.

In Gone, we meet Eve Adams, a mother of two and a wife, whose husband Eric has suddenly left their comfortable home in Massachusetts.   Eric, a once successful sculptor, said he would drive the ultra short-skirted babysitter home, and then simply failed to return.   Eve, the author of a decently selling reality-based diet book, finds out from the credit card statements that Eric has headed west to Arizona (his mother lives in Tucson) – and he’s apparently used the credit card to spend nights in hotels with the babysitter.

We run from our lives, from the mediocrity and the abandoned plans and dreams and the people we’re sick of, including ourselves.   But wherever we go, there we are.   And so we go back, to the people we love.   But you can’t really go back, of course.

The story is told in alternating chapters, first in Eve’s words and then in Eric’s.   As might be expected, each has a different perspective on the pressures that drove them apart.   Eve has had to become the family breadwinner since Eric seems to have lost his artistic inspirations.   Eric feels like a failure and comes to view Eve as overly harsh and judgmental – especially when compared to the babysitter Dria, who tells Eric that he’s both an artistic genius and a nice man.

…he didn’t lose himself around Eve.   If anything, he found himself through her, and lost himself when she wasn’t there to reflect it back to him: to praise his work, to admire what he did.   To love him.

Separated for many weeks, both Eve and Eric have some major decisions to make.   Eve needs to decide if she’ll ever forgive Eric once he returns, if he returns.   And Eric needs to determine if he can be the type of practical family man who can place earning a paycheck in front of his need to be creative (as he’s forced to admit that he hasn’t been a creative artist in years).

In Gone, Hanauer serves up not only an admirable family novel, but adds a couple of bonus items to the menu.   First, she does a fine job of describing the essence of Tucson, Arizona – a city she resided in while teaching writing at the University of Arizona.   (Bear down.)   Secondly, she offers a book-within-the-book, as Eve’s practical tips to dieting and nutrition will serve the average reader quite well.   The tips are both common sense-based and near-brilliant, and, if followed, may add years to one’s life.

One nice aspect about the conclusion of Gone is that the reader discovers that Eve and Eric both have new facets of themselves to reveal.   Neither is a stereotype, and each is a human being loaded with underlying strengths and weaknesses.   That’s the way life is.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Cathi Hanauer succeeds beautifully in creating a story that will make you care and keep turning the pages…”   Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion.   “It’s a compelling, big-hearted book.”   Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You.

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I Knew You When

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 400 pages)

As with her prior novels, Laura Lippman does not disappoint as she again demonstrates her skill at writing crime fiction in the recent novel I’d Know You Anywhere.

To the outsider, Eliza Benedict appears to be a normal suburban stay-at-home mother of two with a loving, financially secure husband.   However, when she receives a letter from Walter Bowman, she’s instantly forced to relive her past.   Kidnapped by Walter at age fifteen, she was held hostage for almost 6 weeks.   Bowman, now on death row in Virginia, has found Eliza and reaches out to make amends.   As he presses her for increased contact, she begins to wonder what his real motivation is for contacting her.   She also wonders if she, too, may need something in return to secure full and complete closure on her past.

Lippman’s literary gift is in presenting interesting characters that the reader connects with.   By employing detailed descriptions and natural dialogue, she enables us to know each character in the story personally and intimately.

In I’d Know You Anywhere, Lippman’s writing is detailed and believable even when alternating between Eliza’s confident, yet conflicted (challenging yet clinging) teenager, to the delusional thought processes of Bowman.   Lippman provides fascinating insight into what it would be like to be abducted and the impact on the victim and family members as they subsequently attempt to resume their lives.

In this novel, Lippman not only presents an entertaining read, she also encourages the reader to contemplate the political dilemmas of the death penalty and debate whether death row meets its presumed function of bringing justice to the families of crime victims.   She further provides insight into the mind of someone with a mental illness; someone with twisted justifications of right versus wrong, and warped views on how his actions impact others.   My only critique is that I would have liked to see a bit more depth in Eliza – the main character – whose passivity in life becomes daunting at times.   However, the unique storyline and the  detailed personalities of Lippman’s characters provides for an intriguing, engaging and interesting story.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   I’d Know You Anywhere was released in trade paper form on May 3, 2011.

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A Summer Reading List

Our local fish wrapper challenged its avid readers to come up with their own list of books to read this summer.   Here’s my list of ten (10):

Shut Your Eyes Tight: A Novel by John Verdon (July)

The second retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney novel from the author of the mind-blowing Think of a Number.

Very Bad Men: A Novel by Harry Dolan (July)

Not quite as good as Think of a Number, but a close and exciting runner-up.

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (January)

From the author of Off Season, it’s set in the redwood country near Santa Cruz, with stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (June)

The true story of the monumental love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   “Reads like a Shakespearean drama.”   USA Today

Skipping a Beat: A Novel by Sarah Pekkanen (February)

Her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was endorsed by Judith Weiner.   Enough said.

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (April)

I’ve read it, but it was so much fun that I look forward to reading it again!

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin (June)

What happens after a storybook wedding?

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (June)

This story has as many weaknesses as it has strengths, but it is highly engaging in an inexplicable way.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (May)

Biographies of famous but  secluded figures tend to be either brilliant or full and complete disasters.   I’m interested in seeing which category this one falls into.

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (August)

A debut novel about a woman who finds out that her dead husband (going on three years) may very well be alive.

Joseph Arellano

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