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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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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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Brownout

The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawell (Bloomsbury, $35.00, 496 pages)

browns of california

The Browns of California is an interesting, sometimes engaging look at a unique California political family that produced two governors (Edmund G. and Jerry) and a state treasurer (Kathleen).  The work appears to be well edited and contains no evident factual errors.  Yet the book lacks something.

We get a hint of what’s lacking when Pawell references, on seven different pages, former California historian, state librarian, and USC professor Kevin Starr. Starr wrote an impressive multi-volume history of the state under the series title, “Americans and the California Dream.”  The most impressive of these works may have been Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s.  Each volume soared in flight because of Starr’s uniquely impressive writing style which reflected his childlike wonderment over the miracle that is California.  By contrast, Pawel’s style is competent, but flat.  This vehicle never leaves the runway.

Another issue is that while Pawel addresses Jerry Brown’s uniqueness, she never stops to reflect on how very strange his ideas appeared at the time he arrived at them.  Yes, he may have been – to his credit, ahead of his time but he was never of his time.

The Browns is a seemingly credible, but just passable, account that never quite comes to life.  For this reason, it is not recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released on September 4, 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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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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Don’t Look Back

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul by Jeremiah Moss (Dey St., $28.99, 480 pages)

An initially interesting work about missing the places from the past that have disappeared – something we can all relate to – devolves into a screed.

It was hard to see in 1993, but 42nd Street, aka the Deuce, was already in the midst of “renewal.”  I had, again, arrived too late.

vanishing new york

Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss (not the writer’s real name) is an initially engaging but ultimately frustrating look at the effects of hyper-gentrification on New York City.  The first hundred pages or so are fascinating,  like a good magazine article about places that once existed at a tourist destination.  But once the reader has passed the 400-page mark, the charm of the work is completely absent.

I broke into tears, trying to hold back my grief for that place [Cafe Edison] and its people, but also for all of Times Square, and for the whole lost city.  As I wept over blueberry blintzes, I asked myself, as I often did, What is left to love about New York?

“Moss” – who acknowledges in the book’s opening that he may soon disappear “like the New York I love” – is an individual who would have been praised in graduate school for his issue spotting skills.  If he had devoted 50 to 60 percent of the book to identifying the problems with gentrification, and 40 to 50 percent to proposed legislative or social solutions the work might have been uplifting.  Instead, it’s 95+ percent devoted to kvetching about what’s been lost.  This gets boring quickly.  Very quickly.

And, make no mistake, Moss – or whoever he is, goes quite overboard in his language about the Big Apple:  “I stay because I need New York.  I can’t live anywhere else.”  Of course, he could live somewhere else but he elects to stay and complain rather aimlessly about the changing and evolving face of a major city.

Everything changes, Moss.  Get over it.

Joseph 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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