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The Losing End

Forever is the Worst Long Time: A Novel by Camille Pagan (Lake Union, $24.95, 276 pages)

“It’s so hard to make love pay/ When you’re on the losing end/ And I feel that way again…”  Neil Young

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Synopsis:

When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life.  There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his best and oldest friend, Rob.  So James becomes Rob’s Best Man, toasting the union of Rob and Lou and hiding his desire for The Perfect Woman.

Review:

With this setup, one can pretty much guess what’s coming in this third novel from author Pagan (Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, The Art of Forgetting).  And one’s guess would be right about half of the time.  Pagan adds some unexpected twists and turns that help to keep the story somewhat interesting.  The plot line is not the problem.

The tone of the story, the narrator’s voice, is where difficulties arise.  It’s sometimes problematic when a male author adopts a female voice, and vice versa.  It is an issue here.  This book is written in the form of a journal – a document to be read by James’ daughter in order to learn about her past.  (Novels in the form of journals seem to be the latest craze.)  The journal reads in a flat tone; in fact, it begins to drone on like a car on the freeway stuck in second gear.  Yes, early on Pagan shifts from first to second, but the reader mourns the absence of third, fourth, and overdrive in this journey of almost 300 pages.

And then there’s the issue of humor.  It was absent in this work which felt overly dramatic.  One of the strengths of bestselling authors like Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner – writers who similarly deal with love, loss and redemption – is that they enliven their stories with stress-relieving humor.  (This enables the reader to relax and avoid the feeling of reading a one note soap opera.)

“This story ends with loss,” said your mother.  “I’m only on the first chapter, but I can tell.”

Basically, this novel proves the truth of the notion that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.  I hope that in her future works Pagan adds more life to her tales and spirit and volume.  Reading this book, for me, was like trying to listen to music being played in a far-off room.  The experience was muffled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on February 7, 2017.

On the writing of Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner:

Home Safe (by Berg) is written with humor and elegance.”  – Chicago Tribune

Home Safe explores, with insight and humor, what it’s like to lose everything and to emerge from the other side.”  – St. Petersburg Times

“Hilarious, heartbreaking, and insightful, Weiner shows she can write with exquisite tenderness as well as humor.”  – The Miami Herald

 

 

 

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A Six Pack of Mystery Novels

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A Death at the Yoga Cafe: A Mystery by Michelle Kelly (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 261 pages)

What could be more wholesome than a yoga studio/vegetarian cafe in a small English village?  Everyone knows everyone else; Keeley Carpenter, the proprietor of said studio/cafe, is dating Ben Taylor, the local detective.  The bucolic atmosphere in town abruptly shifts when a prominent citizen is found murdered.  Of course Keeley, who is a curious and bold young woman, jumps right in and does some detecting of her own.  It’s a recipe for danger!  This book has a bonus feature.  Scattered among the chapters are instructions on yoga poses.  The most appropriate entry is corpse pose, which is located at the end of the chapter in which the murder is discovered.  Death at the Yoga Cafe is the second book in a series featuring Keeley Carpenter.

Well recommended.

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Teetotaled: A Mystery by Maia Chance (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 291 pages) 

The era is the 1920s and the action takes place in and around New York City.  Widowed socialite Lola Woodby and her former cook Berta Lundgren have teamed up to form a business, the Discrete Retrieval Agency.  Lola’s husband died leaving her penniless after years of enjoying the high life.  Their cases have mostly focused on finding lost pets for well-to-do clients.  A high stakes case finds its way to their office/apartment.  A diary belonging to the daughter of Lola’s mother’s best friend must be purloined.  The revelation of corruption, war crimes, envy, greed and determination uncovered by the lady detectives are timeless, yet author Chance makes them fun to read about when mixed with her wry, droll humor.

Highly recommended.

The Champagne Conspiracy: A Wine Country Mystery by Ellen Crosby (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 360 pages)

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This book, the seventh in the Wine Country Mystery series, is heavy on detail regarding grape growing, wine production and family dynasties in present day Virginia and California as well as both locales during American Prohibition.  The lives of many of the characters are interwoven both in the past and the present.  Lucie Montgomery inherited the family estate vineyard in Virginia and she is determined to produce a high quality product.  Her comrade in wine making is Quinn Santori, a fellow with a closely guarded past.  Together they face some rather harrowing scrapes with death while planning the bottling of a sparkling wine, a new addition to their carefully crafted line.  Readers new to Crosby would doubtless appreciate a bit more character introduction.

Recommended.

Buried in the Country: A Cornish Mystery by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 324 pages)

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The charming fourth installment of the Cornish Mystery series set in the 1970s is an escape to a bucolic area of the United Kingdom where the pursuit of criminals requires the navigational skills of local fixture, Eleanor Trewynn.  Ms. Trewynn is a retired executive of an international nonprofit agency who now gathers donations for a local thrift shop.  Her skills at cross-border negotiation are what lead to involvement in a secret conference regarding apartheid held by a friend in the Commonwealth Relations Department.  Ms. Trewynn’s niece, Detective Sargent Megan Pencarrow, is to provide security at a hotel on the coast.  There are evil spies who want to derail the event.  One crime leads to another and the reader is brought along for a wild ride through the Cornish countryside while the bad guys bumble along back lanes and impassible roads just ahead of the police.

Highly recommended.

The Reek of Red Herrings: A Dandy Gilver Mystery by Catriona McPherson (Minotaur Books, $26.99, 295 pages)

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This 1930s British murder mystery from Catriona McPherson featuing Dandy Gilver and her partner in detecting Alec Osborne will delight readers.  Dandy and Alec have been working together for eight years; however, the outlandish predicaments these two willingly take on here are by far the best of the series.  Christmas time or not, the two accept a job from Mr. H. Birchfield, an importer and distributor of fish, herring to be precise.  The partial remains of a human have sullied a barrel of his product.  Birchfield wants Dandy and Alec to travel to Banffshire coast and solve the “who” and “why” of this creepy occurrence.  Never mind that Christmas is but a few days away and Dandy will miss celebrating with her husband and sons.  The treacherous cliffs along the seacoast, rain, wind and seriously inbred inhabitants make for ideal subjects of this the fifth in author McPherson’s series.  Be prepared for laughs and groans as she fills the pages with puns and outlandish characters!

Highly recommended.

Murder at the 42nd Street Library: A Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 320 pages)

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Con Lehane presents the first mystery of his new series featuring Raymond Ambler, a mild mannered librarian at the world famous 42nd Street research library located at 476 Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Ray, as his coworkers refer to him, is the curator of the crime fiction collection.  While the collection is a figment of Author Lehane’s imagination as is Ray’s boss’s office, the rest of the library is accurately depicted in stunning detail.  Who knew that a cold blooded murder could take place within the hallowed halls of the glorious Beau Arts building that is guarded by two fierce lion statues?  The lives of several famous and infamous mystery writers are tangled into a confounding web of murders and past evil deeds.  This is no breezy read because the details matter and not all the clues lead to a convenient solution.

Well recommended.  

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

 

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Songs in the Key of Life

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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.

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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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The Book Of My Life

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Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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Do Unto Others

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Finding Jake: A Novel by Bryan Reardon (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 288 pages)

Bryan Reardon’s Finding Jake offers an unusual twist on a story that should never have to be told in the first place. Quick – school shooting. You didn’t even flinch, did you?

In Finding Jake, Simon is Jake’s father. At a young age he encourages Jake, an introvert, to befriend another boy, Doug, who is a loner, ostracized by his peers, angry, and – we unfortunately find out later, a sociopath.

Simon is a stay-at-home dad who grows distant from his attorney wife, Rachel, and mostly plays the role of “good dad,” as he is at once tolerant of and troubled by Jake’s relationship with Doug.

And then, it happens. Jake is implicated as an accomplice and, as the truth unfolds, Simon becomes obsessed with “finding” him. Is he dead or alive? Was he involved?

The story is mostly about perceptions and judgment. Simon is somewhat of an outcast in his home parent role, Jake is different from most kids, and Doug is bullied by his classmates. It turns out that people are eager to jump to conclusions about things in order to make themselves feel better. Simon himself is not immune to this as he draws conclusions based on his experiences; conclusions he must examine and re-examine throughout the novel.

And there is a hero in the story; a likely or unlikely one who speaks loudly via his silence.

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Finding Jake examines a tragedy from the point of view of innocent bystanders, the ones that must live on – not the perpetrator of evil; therein lies its uniqueness. The book is quite well-written in parts, but is somewhat inconsistent overall. Nevertheless, the reader is eager to get to the end, and author Reardon admirably and capably holds one’s attention from the first page to the final one.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“I devoured Finding Jake.” Alice LaPlante, author of Circle of Wives and Turn of Mind.

Finding Jake tells the harrowing tale of a deadly school shooting from a father’s perspective… The suspense is killing, but it’s nothing compared with this father’s anguish as he tries to find his son – the real boy, not the one he thought he knew.” New York Times Book Review

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Four on the Floor

Four British Mysteries featuring Inspector Banks by Peter Robinson.

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Peter Robinson is an author who has been busy creating an engaging series of mystery novels since 1987. He’s wildly popular and yet, somehow this reviewer has missed out on the entertaining Inspector Alan Banks series. Enter a selection sent by the publisher containing the most recent work, When the Music’s Over (#23), and two trade paper versions of previously released books, In a Dry Season (#10) and In the Dark Places (#22).

What followed was a marathon session of immersion into this series. The bonus was finding a dated advance reader’s copy of Bad Boy (#19) that had been shelved in our library since 2010! Author Robinson is a master at bringing the reader into the atmosphere of his tale. City or country, each is thoroughly believable. Music also performs a role in setting the pace of the action as well as giving the reader a sense of his characters’ tastes and temperaments.

Robinson often develops two strong plot lines that converge in the solution to the mystery/murder case being investigated. These plot lines can be set in the past and the present, or simultaneously occurring the present. Of the four books I’ve read, all have been primarily located in London and rural areas of England with some travel to other countries.

The characters one comes to know and appreciate are: Inspector Alan Banks – later in the series he’s Detective Superintendent Banks; Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot – Banks’ sidekick and onetime love interest; Banks’ daughter, Annie, who ages as the series progresses; and various members of the police squads wherever Banks is assigned.

The main crime topic is always murder, usually with a side dish of criminal enterprises including kidnapping, drug sales, and general mayhem. As one would expect, there are ample red herrings to keep the reader working along with Banks, Cabbot, et al.

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In a Dry Season: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $14.99, 442 pages)

In a Dry Season opens with a prologue dated 1967. A woman who has been recently widowed has a secret past. She travels to the town where she grew up, Hobbs End, which is now at the bottom of a reservoir. Next, the story shifts to present day (1999) where a young boy is exploring the ruins of Hobbs End that have been recently exposed due to a drought. The boy, much to his horror, unearths a skeleton.

What follows is a British police procedural complete with the attitudes toward female detectives prevalent in that era. Three well-developed plot lines provide the reader with a most engaging read.

Highly recommended.

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Bad Boy: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $25.99, 352 pages)

Bad Boy features Tracy Banks, at this time a young adult, who is distancing herself from her father. Tracy is working at a dead end job after doing poorly on her college exams. Roommate Erin Doyle is not much better off in her waitressing job; although she does have an attractive boyfriend who gives her gifts and shows Erin a good time. Jaff, the boyfriend, has no visible means of support – hence he’s most likely the bad boy of the book’s title.

The young women and their respective families have been friends for many years. All the normal life that went before is horribly derailed by misguided acts that result in consequences that neither girl could have possibly anticipated. The tale brings the reader with Annie Cabbot and Alan Banks as they traverse the English countryside hunting for Tracy and Jaff.

Highly recommended.

In the Dark Places: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $14.99, 336 pages)

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In the Dark Places has the most convoluted and intricate plot lines of the four books I read. Inspector Banks and his team are challenged by several peculiar disappearances and subsequent murder discoveries. Their best detecting skills are needed when a young man goes missing and a truck driven by a seasoned driver tumbles off a slick and twisting road during a hailstorm killing the driver and tossing his cargo onto the steep hillside below the road.

DNA, cell phone records and GPS tracking are heavily relied upon in order to crack the multiple crimes committed by a devious and thoroughly ruthless mastermind whose obsession with money powers his actions. Author Robinson’s smooth writing allows the reader to be engaged while navigating the plot developments that are clever and even subtly misleading.

Well recommended.

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When the Music’s Over: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $25.99, 421 pages)

When the Music’s Over is a slowly developing police procedural that follows two cases. The first is a cold case involving the rape of vulnerable underage teens perpetuated by a highly successful man in show business who is now in his mid-eighties. The second is the discovery of a brutally murdered white teen whose life was ended on a country road after being brutally attacked by men in a van.

The two cases are simultaneously investigated; the cold case is assigned to DS Alan Banks and the teen murder is assigned to DI Anne Cabbot. Although the exploitation of teen girls is the common theme of the cases, that’s where the similarity ends. A rich white man and a group of scheming Pakistani men could not be more dissimilar in their social standing. Regardless, the end justifies the means for both.

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This, the most recent of the series, tends to develop at a painstaking pace for nearly half the book. Once the groundwork has been completed, the action picks up and the reader is rewarded with some serious detective work involving bravery and solid instincts. Caution, this tale is not for the faint of heart.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

When the Music’s Over was released on August 9, 2016.

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Mystery Train Wreck

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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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