Tag Archives: fiction

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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Obsession Most Fatal

A Fatal Obsession: A McCabe & Savage Thriller by James Hayman (Witness Impulse, $11.99, 368 pages)

a fatal obsession

A Fatal Obsession marks James Hayman’s sixth book in his McCabe & Savage series.  Once again, author Hayman provides his readers with a well-crafted thriller.  His mastery of language and plot lines smoothly intertwines the musings and actions of deranged killer Tyler Bradshaw with the advancement of the romantic relationship between Detective Sargent Michael McCabe and Investigator Maggie Savage, both of the Portland, Maine Police Department’s Crimes Against People unit.

Faithful readers of Hayman’s series will be sure to see the sharp contrast between a strong family that looks after its own and an abusive one that created a killing machine.  This time around McCabe employs his skill as a seasoned investigator and team builder to track down his brilliant, budding actress niece, Zoe McCabe, who has disappeared following the final performance of Othello at a New York City Lower East Side community theater.

The riveting prologue captures the reader’s attention and, if you’ll excuse the trite puns, sets the stage for a very bumpy ride.  McCabe and Savage complement each other’s styles in devising the hunt for Zoe.  Bradshaw cleverly demands unwavering attention through his brilliant deceptions as he spins a fantasy that escalates a killing spree of artistic young women.

Having nearly unlimited funds can lead to disaster.  Those who wish for such a life may not want to have paid the high price that cost Bradshaw a “normal” one.  Although he has a few redeeming qualities, they’re not enough by a large measure.

This is a highly recommended for mystery and thriller fans of all ages who enjoy reading stand-alones and series.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

A Fatal Obsession was released on August 21, 2018.

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A Death in the Sunshine State

Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime by Cutter Wood (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $26.99, 225 pages)

love and death

This book arrived at the right time.  I had just finished reading a true crime book and found it to be sadly disappointing.  The writer put down all the facts about a triple murderer and his trial but seemingly without context.  When one sentence follows another in this manner – without drama, suspense or the seeming presence of actual people, it’s far less than engaging.

Cutter Wood’s book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is like the antidote to the typical true crime story.  Wood, an MFA graduate in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, touched base with all of the principals about a murder that he felt somewhat connected with.  You see, after graduating from Brown he felt directionless – like Benjamin in The Graduate, so he spent months at a secluded hotel in Florida.  The woman who ran the hotel with her husband later disappeared and Wood was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Wood knew some of the principals involved and was also given access to law enforcement officials and the man suspected of killing the missing woman.  But once the crime was solved, Wood felt that little was resolved.  The facts did not seem to add up to a whole, complete story.  Therefore, he elected to pursue a unique option.

Instead of writing a dry nonfiction account of the crime, Wood decided to write a fictional version of a relationship between a former criminal and a successful married businesswoman whose lives intersected.  It’s a story of an unlikely attraction, a loving relationship, and a tragic ending.  Wood never attempts to explain the crime or the murderer’s mind, but paints the events – both real and imaginary – as something that was fated to occur.

As Wood is free to explore events and scenarios that may or may not have played out, he develops a story that feels fully real.  This is not Law and Order – a stereotypical version of crime and justice, nor is it a fly-over account of a crime developed for a one hour cable TV network show.  It is a story of two imperfect people who were drawn to each other for all of the wrong reasons.

By leaving out some of the seemingly critical crime details and facts that would be highlighted in the standard true crime book sold in an airport gift shop, Wood proves again that less is more.  His “story of a crime” focuses on the small yet significant aspects of the lives of two people.  In doing so, he brings the individuals to life and causes us to mourn – in a quiet, dignified way, the loss of one of them.

It’s a sad, tough story but Cutter Wood takes the reader to the heart of the matter.  His is a respectful approach to human imperfection and frailty.

I look forward to reading Wood’s future works.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Love and Death in the Sunshine State will be released on April 17, 2018.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Decommissioned

Presumption of Guilt: A Joe Gunther Novel (Minotaur Books, $16.99, 304 pages)

Presumption of Guilt is Familiar, Solid

presumption of guilt front

When you have a good thing going, why change?  Archie Mayor’s Presumption of Guilt is the 27th in the Joe Gunther series that began in 1988, and its familiarity is pleasing.  Gunther is an agent with the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI).  His brazen and unorthodox ways get results, and the reader easily and immediately accesses the setting and characters while the plot unfolds.

Mayor’s background as a medical examiner allows for insider commentary when bodies turn up, which some will no doubt find interesting.  His chapters are somewhat longer than most suspense novels, which is due in part to the fact that much of the story is told in dialogue.  In this addition to the Gunther catalog, Gunther’s daughter joins him and considers following in his footsteps with the VBI.

In Presumption, the body of Hank Mitchell is found in a slab of concrete on the property of a recently decommissioned nuclear power plant.  Initially, there is no obvious motive for this 40-year-old cold case.  But during the investigation a police officer is attacked, gagged and left on the side of the road.  A suspect in the old Mitchell case is soon found murdered.

presumption of guilt back

Several people take it upon themselves to solve the initial murder and the related case, and no one seems to be above suspicion.  Joe, of course, gets to the bottom of things but not before taking a bullet, and not without several unanticipated turns.  These turns keep the reader fully engaged until the very last page.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  Presumption of Guilt is now available in a trade paperback version.

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel of baseball, life and Bob Dylan.  He is a public school superintendent in Illinois.

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Murder in the Library

murder manuscript roomMurder in the Manuscript Room: A 42nd Street Library Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99)

I tend to avoid mysteries for a number of reasons.  Let me go over them here:

  1. Most mysteries tend to feature too many characters.  One needs a flow chart to keep track of them.
  2. Most mysteries have too many quirky characters.  Why are these characters stranger than the ones in most novels?
  3. Most mysteries have too many red herrings.
  4. Most mysteries go on too long before the mystery in question is solved.  And then it happens far too quickly (e.g., 305 pages detailing the story, which is wrapped up at warp speed in the last 10 to 15 pages).
  5. Most mysteries have too much dialogue and not enough narrative exposition (scene setting and action).

Despite all of this, I found Murder in the Manuscript Room to be quite engaging.  Con Lehane offers a unique premise – someone is not only killing in the New York City Public Library, but in the rare manuscripts room.  Why?  Why there?  Why in that room?

I often find myself not caring about the solution to the crime at the center of a mystery novel.  However, this time I wanted to know the outcome.  What made the read more enjoyable than most mysteries for me is that author Lehane has a bit of a clipped style.  He does not overload the reader with facts and details; instead, I found that sometimes he leaves things out.  Every now and then, in fact, I wondered if I had skipped a page or two because of his conciseness.  (He sometimes, to use a legal phrase, assumes facts that are not in evidence.)

Lehane also throws in a bit of a romance and a variation on the hard-boiled New York City cop.  Well done!

Lehane basically has a unique tone as a writer.  I like it.

Now I look forward to reading the earlier book in the series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, and I hope I’m sent a copy of Lehane’s next work.

Me, looking forward to reading a mystery…  Imagine that.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.  This book was released on November 21, 2017.

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