Tag Archives: fiction

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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Death in Special Collections

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

murder manuscript room

As she dug through the possessions Leila left behind, she was aware that what she searched through was not so different than what she might find in any of the boxes in the manuscripts and archives collection.

Author Con Lehane follows his first novel in this series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, with an equally engaging tale.  Raymond Amber, newly-discovered grandfather of Johnny, jumps into another quirky situation in his role as the curator of the crime fiction collection at the New York City landmark/institution.

The cast of characters includes several carry-overs, the most prominent among them are: Raymond’s almost-love-interest librarian Adele Morgan, New York police detective Mike Cosgrove, and beloved Library Tavern bartender McNulty.  Despite the obvious enormity of New York City, Lehane deftly conveys a small town vibe by further developing the strong relationships among the characters introduced in the first book.  They interact within a fairly tight radius around the library and their respective neighborhoods.

Of course there is the promised murder and ensuing investigation into the who and why of the event.  New member of the library staff and murder victim, Leila Stone, gave off strange vibes and did not fit in with the normal flow of work.  Mike and Raymond form a tension-filled team to solve the crime.  In the past, Raymond has proved his skill at detective work which puts him in friendly competition with his buddy the detective.

Adele is the one library staff member who was able to forge a relationship with Leila and she takes up the thankless task of delving into Leila’s past in the hope of finding a motive for the otherwise pointless murder.  Adele ventures away from New York City all the way to Texas.  There are murky figures lurking wherever she travels which adds a menacing note to the tale.

Numerous plot threads connect the characters within the murder investigation, while at the same time daily life goes on.  Raymond’s continuing custody tug-of-war with Johnny’s wealthy grandmother allows the reader to experience his evolving emotional development from a neat and tidy librarian’s life to the messiness of a life infused with deep feelings.

The satisfying second novel in the 42nd Street Library series from Con Lehane is a  product of his adept skill at writing dialogue, describing scenery and portraying emotions.  The added bonus blended into the mystery is another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the workings of a priceless institution.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Fine Dining, Fine Dying

a deadly eclairA Deadly Eclair: A French Bistro Mystery by Daryl Wood Gerber (Crooked Lane, $26.99, 337 pages)

Though restaurants were typically dark on Mondays, because Napa was a tourist destination and tourists often stayed in the area through Monday, we decided that Tuesday would be a good day to close.

The California Napa Valley is known for its rolling hills of grape vineyards and wide variety of large and small wine producers.  What better place for the daughter of small winery owners to establish a small restaurant?  Mimi Rousseau’s Bistro Rousseau features the culinary magic of her French heritage.  Mimi has surrounded herself with a loyal crew in the kitchen and out front in the dining room.  This team is committed to the success of the restaurant!

A disastrous marriage was the impetus for Mimi to return to her roots in Napa.  She finds herself faced with an equally disastrous occurrence when her benefactor, Bryan Baker, is murdered on the eve of a celebrity wedding, the first to be hosted at the bistro.  While the underlying search for the killer makes this novel a mystery, the gastronomic delights described therein will no doubt whet the appetites of author Daryl Wood Gerber’s readers.

Ms. Gerber challenges readers with a cast of characters whose names pop up at an alarming rate with the first part of the book.  Some of them have first names that can easily be last names which adds to the confusion.  That aside, her detailed descriptions of the towns within the Napa Valley prove her knowledge of the area.  The generous array of recipes for the mouthwatering food served at Bistro Rousseau included at the back make the book a trifecta of mystery, travel and dining.

He was standing at the dessert station, handing two plates of chocolate souffle – decorated with white chocolate shavings and sprigs of mint, all set within a chain of white and dark chocolate hearts – to Oakley.

A Deadly Eclair is the first of Ms. Gerber’s French Bistro Mystery series.  Her prior series, also featuring food, are the Cookbook Nook Mysteries (five books) and the Cheese Shop Mysteries (seven books).  The Cookbook Nook series was written by Ms. Gerber as Avery Aames.

Well recommended for a wide range of readers from young adult and up.  Be aware, however, that you may gain five or more pounds simply by reading this food-dominated story!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.  This book was published on November 7, 2017.

 

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Desert Kill

desert kill switch

Desert Kill Switch: Nostalgia City Mystery – Book #2 by Mark S. Bacon (Black Opal Books, $14.99, 286 pages)

In Desert Kill Switch, Lyle Deming, an ex-cop from Phoenix, serves as a security guard of sorts for Nostalgia City, a retro theme park that recreates small town life from the early 70s just outside of Reno.  Kate Sorenson is a marketing specialist who is in town on business related to Nostalgia City.

Lyle arrives on the scene of a brutal car accident in the desert, but by the time the police get to the scene the body is gone.  As the story unfolds, Kate is framed for the murder of Al Busick, a car dealer who puts hidden “kill switches” in cars as a means to collect money from customers who do not make their loan payments

Together, the ex-cop  and former female college basketball player go on a mission to solve the mystery, catch the true killer, and exonerate Kate.  It appears as if the motive has to do with a conspiracy to move a major music festival from Nostalgia City to Las Vegas.

The story hits the ground running and moves quickly, and the action and plot are solid from start to finish.  However, the character development is not as strong. For example, scenes with Kate’s current and soon-to-be ex-lover seem like they are included without much of a purpose.  (Desert Kill Switch is the second in the series of Nostalgia City novels, following Death in Nostalgia City.)  Perhaps some of those who read the initial book in the series will have a different opinion.

As Lyle and Kate take the law into their own hands, Lyle calls in favors from his former law enforcement partners, and Kate – who only masquerades as a journalist, morphs from a former athlete to Wonder Woman.

desert kill switch back

Desert Kill Switch is enjoyable but is, at 286 pages, a bit longer than necessary.  Not all of the many twists and turns work, and a brisker version of this thriller might have been just a touch more thrilling.  As it stands, this book is a solid, engaging read for those who enjoy this type of murder mystery.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois who has never been to Reno, Nevada.

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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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Livin’ La Vida Loca

The Reason You’re Alive: A Novel by Matthew Quick (Harper, $25.99, 226 pages)

reason you're alive

Living the Crazy Life

The Reason You’re Alive is, supposedly, a novel about a Holden Caulfield-like character who has reached the age (68) at which he has a seven-year-old granddaughter.  He’s angry (of course) at the government that sent him to Vietnam in his youth, ultra-conservative (OK), and perhaps more than slightly deranged.  However, author Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook) begins the story with his version of charming writing.  There is, for example, a scene in which the main character, David Granger, sits down to an imaginary tea party with granddaughter Ella.  It’s sweet and cute.  And the reader is informed that it just so happens to be the case that Ella is the “spitting image” of Granger’s dead wife – by suicide (naturally).

Jessica Granger was a painter who apparently did little else with her life – David screamed at her on what proved to be her last night on earth, “You have to contribute SOMETHING!” – except for providing Granger with a son; a son which he did not father.  Quick, as Granger, writes beautifully about Jessica:

I feel like shedding a tear or two when I think about a nineteen-year-old Jessica looking up from a canvas as big as her, smiling at me with paint smudges all over her face, like camouflage.  Her long, brown hair is always braided with pigtails, and she is perpetually in overalls, as if she were a farmer riding on a tractor.  All she needed was a piece of hay hanging out of her mouth.  You could see the light in her eyes back then.  It was as bright as goddamn June moonbeams shimmering off ocean waves still warm from day’s sun.   

At this point in the novella, not a novel, the story is quirky with some parallels to the style of The Catcher in the Rye.  But this style on the part of the writer does not last, does not hold.  It’s not long after one’s approached the halfway point of the story that Quirk goes haywire on us.  The suspension of disbelief disappears as he relates events that ring as fully implausible.  The story goes from Catcher in the Rye to Catch-22; from simply quirky to fantastical, that is, odd and bizarre.

The outright crazy part of the book focuses on a bonkers Native American soldier, Clayton Fire Bear, who Granger served with in ‘Nam.  Fire Bear – who took scalps from dead Viet Cong soldiers, sounds like a character that one would have found in Catch-22.  Granger is determined to find Fire Bear in the U.S. and achieve some type of closure with him.  There are other inane things that the story focuses on – things which I won’t waste time relating.  Suffice it to say that, in the words of a Beatles song, it’s all too much.

There are two possible explanations for the author’s diversions.  Perhaps Quick decided to transform Granger from a more than slightly unstable individual to a fully insane unreliable narrator because he believed it was clever from an intellectual – “brilliant author,” standpoint.  If so, it’s too clever by half.  The other explanation is that Quick was simply enjoying himself at the reader’s expense, setting the reader up for what seemed like a serious journey only to drop him/her into the twilight zone.  If the latter is the case, then Quick has fashioned a work that is intentionally and illogically unrestrained.

At the least, this work is inconsistent and unsatisfying.  It starts off as an engaging look at a troubled human being – one the reader can partially relate to, and concludes as a work whose faults will be overlooked by those who prefer convoluted, strange literary forests to sensical, sensible trees.

Bottom line: This book is not The Catcher in the Rye and it’s quite far – incredibly far, from being enjoyable.  Do yourself a favor and pass on it.  You have better things to do with your time.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Little Girl Gone

Little Girl Gone: A Novel by Margaret Fenton (Create Space, $10.10, 266 pages)

Little Girl Gone

Margaret Fenton’s second novel – following Little Lamb Lost, takes the reader once more into the world of Birmingham, Alabama social worker Claire Conover.  As is typical for social workers, Claire is carrying a full caseload.  Her caring attitude is tempered with a realistic approach to dealing with runaway and discarded children.  A stony-faced young teen girl who was found sleeping in a cardboard box proves to be quite the challenge for Claire.

“Sandy,” at least that’s the name she reluctantly gives Claire, won’t provide any assistance with her details.  She’s very slim, not starving, but definitely willing to go out for breakfast when Claire offers to take her.  Thus begins the saga of reuniting “Sandy” with her family.  The story unfolds naturally as Claire does her job using the skills she has developed over years in the job.  Ms. Fenton infuses her characters with down-to-earth feelings to which the reader can easily relate.

The men in Claire’s life are Grant, her techie boyfriend and Kirk, a clever newspaper reporter.  There’s mutual attraction between Kirk and Claire; however, she knows better than to be caught up in a fling with a flirt when she has calm and reliable Grant in her life.  Kirk has provided helpful insights in past cases and is once again a source of information and strategic planning that brings him into a team-like relationship with Claire.

Little Girl Gone back cover

Ms. Fenton is a confident and strong writer who has lived the work she portrays.  Much like a police procedural, Little Girl Gone takes the reader behind the scenes into real life situations that are both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Crisp dialogue coupled with excellent scene-setting descriptions make this a most satisfying read.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

 

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You’ll Never Know

hallie ephron dear

You’ll Never Know, Dear: A Novel of Suspense by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, $26.99, 304 pages)

This is the year that two of my favorite authors have published books about sisters whose roots are in the South.  Joshilyn Jackson’s The Almost Sisters is an excellent novel that explores the deep-seated social rules that have persisted through generations.  You’ll Never Know, Dear by Hallie Ephron (Night Night, Sleep Tight) explores the haunting, mysterious disappearance of a little girl and the impact of that tragedy on her mother, older sister and law enforcement.

Seven-year-old Lissie was entrusted to look out for her four-year-old sister Janey.  Granted, the disappearance took place forty years ago in the front yard of a home in a sleepy, small town in South Carolina.  Perhaps even today a mom in a similar setting might do the same, maybe.  That same house is still occupied by the aging mom, Miss Sorrel.  Lissie (now Lis) is the divorced mother of Vanessa, a post-graduate student.  Lis cares for her mother and broods over the terrible time she was distracted by her imagination and wandered off into the woods near the house.  Her failed marriage and subsequent lack of support prompted Lis to return to South Carolina years ago.

Each year since Janey’s disappearance, a classified ad placed in the newspaper by Miss Sorrel marks the date.  A reward is offered for the return of Janey’s porcelain doll that vanished along with the little girl.  The suspense builds after a woman with a Harley-Davidson tattoo answers the ad.  Clearly, she is not the sort of person who possesses a hand-painted china doll.

Miss Sorrel and her next-door neighbor, Evelyn Dumont have a decades-long friendship centered around restoring antique dolls, including the personalized china dolls Miss Sorrel created in years past.  Each doll’s hair and features were fashioned to resemble the lucky girl whose parents commissioned Miss Sorrel to create the one-of-a-kind treasure.

Hallie Ephron provides readers with an in-depth look at the art of doll making.  The marvelous details include references to Madame Alexander dolls.  This reviewer has a modest collection of these lovely dolls that began with a much-loved eighth birthday present.  The book’s targeted audience is first and foremost ladies of middle age and older who have a fondness for the dolls of their youth.

Suspense and mystery novel lovers will appreciate the twisting story line that includes more than a few family secrets.  Ms. Ephron has written another spellbinding tale that does more than rest on the laurels of her past fine works.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released on June 6, 2017.

Click here to read a review of The Almost Sisters: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/sisters-of-the-moon/

 

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