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Murder, She Cooked

death al fresco

Death al Fresco: A Sally Solari Mystery by Leslie Karst (Crooked Lane Books, $26.99, 320 pages)

Death al Fresco is the third Sally Solari novel by Leslie Karst.  When I first received the book to review and saw on the cover a plug that the book includes recipes, I was immediately skeptical.  I was proven wrong.  Death is a very enjoyable read and Karst manages to deliver a book that allows the reader to read it in big chunks because it breezes along nicely and sustains interest.  Or one can elect to put it down for a while and return to it without having missed a beat.

Solari’s is an Italian restaurant owned by Sally’s father on Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz, California.  Much to her chagrin, she finds herself supporting her father’s endeavors more than she would care to.  She dates a member of the District Attorney’s office and – in addition to her restaurant pursuits, takes up painting as a hobby.

Most importantly, Sally is an accomplished amateur sleuth, which comes in handy when Gino, a renowned Santa Cruz fisherman is found dead (by Sally’s dog) after an evening at Solari’s.  Early in the novel, a local accuses her of being the next Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), which, by the way her character is drawn is the exact analogy I had in mind while reading the story.  The unfortunate death compromises a major event planned for the restaurant; an event for which Sally was the unwitting chief organizer.

Sally’s father becomes a suspect in the crime and in order to salvage both the restaurant and her father’s reputation, she becomes the chief busybody and lead investigator in Gino’s death.  Sally is too sweet to be perceived as precocious, but just barely.  She is far too nice to be disliked, even when she is covering up evidence.  She is also, apparently, too cute to upset her boyfriend with all of her meddling.  All of which somehow – and surprisingly – makes for a story that works extremely well.

There are various iterations of possibilities introduced as the circumstances of Gino’s death come to light, from his having imbibed too much before he dined at the restaurant, to an interest in his boat upon his death, and – which is perhaps a bit too much, to lead or copper poisoning.  But in the end, Sally gets it right and the series should continue for at least a fourth novel.

At the conclusion of Death al Fresco, I was a satisfied reader as I put the book down.  I think most readers will arrive at a similar verdict.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

Dave Moyer is the chief administrator of a public school district in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

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Down the Drain

Beer-Money-Cover

Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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Coming Up Next…

Five Days Left (Timmer)

A review of Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer.

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Nobody But Me

The Nobodies Album (nook book)

Is The Nobodies Album a better read the second time around?

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Anchor, $15.00, 320 pages)

The plane rises. We achieve liftoff, and in that mysterious, hanging moment I say a prayer – as I always do – to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day… I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world’s travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That’s not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort it out. Better to say a prayer for your own well-being and hope that today, at least, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

There are music albums that we listen to repeatedly, sometimes finding that they have a different impact on us – major or minor – depending on when you experience them. The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (author of the unique and bizarre bestseller The Dogs of Babel) is a book that I read before. I did not connect with it at the time; fortunately, I decided to give the book a second chance and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a San Francisco-based musician, Milo Frost, who has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. His estranged mother, Octavia Frost, a one-time bestselling novelist, decides to reconcile with him to give him moral and legal support. Milo’s problem is that he was so drunk the night of his girlfriend’s death that he cannot remember what he did that evening. He does not believe that he killed Bettina but admits that he could have been involved. (On the night in question, Bettina first accepted Milo’s proposal of marriage, and then rejected it.)

Parkhurst adds a twist to the telling, as the writer Octavia is at the point where she’s elected to rewrite the conclusions of her bestselling novels. It’s not something that pleases her publisher; but, Octavia is determined to follow-through with her idea. (This may have been based on an instance in which Joan Didion rewrote one of her short stories decades after it was written. Note that the title of this novel, The Nobodies Album, is connected to The White Album by The Beatles early on. It just so happens that Didion wrote a collection of bestselling essays called The White Album.)

I suppose you could say I’d been thinking about endings.

It does not take long for Octavia, and the readers, to realize that she’s toying with the notion of changing the endings to her book in hopes that it might lead to some changes in her own life. As she states to a musician, “I’ve thought it might be interesting to change the endings. Find out how things might have worked out differently for the characters.” Naturally, one has to wonder how much of bestselling author Parkhurst can be found in the character of Octavia Frost. (Will she rewrite the ending of The Nobodies Album in twenty, thirty or forty years?)

To her credit, Parkhurst brings Octavia Frost’s writing to life by providing the endings of several of Frost’s novels before showing us the rewritten endings. The latter are generally simpler, more concise, and neater; perhaps resulting in neater, better outcomes for the characters involved.

The Nobodies Album multiple

Parkhust writes somewhat in the style of Didion – there’s an icy coolness/coldness present as well as toughness and brutal honesty: “Now that the moment is here, it’s not what I expected at all. That’s the fundamental flaw in in the illusions that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching the truth. No matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself. Here’s how I feel, faced with my child’s confession that he has committed murder: I don’t believe it’s true. Not for a single minute.”

Those with some knowledge of the music and publishing industries will appreciate the realistic stage upon which Parkhurst’s story is set. The less said about the outcome of the murder mystery, the better. No spoilers here. But be prepared to be impressed by The Nobodies Album, whether you read it once or twice – or more often.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 15, 2010.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Pick:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-nobodies-album-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

It also appeared here:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Nobodies-Album-by-Carolyn-5760693.php

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Peaceful Easy Feeling

Orloff-Ecstasy-of-Surrender-cover

The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life by Judith Orloff, MD (Harmony Books, $26.00, 432 pages)

“Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.”

Judith Orloff is a well-known New York Times best-selling author (Emotional Freedom, Positive Energy) who has earned significant credentials in the field of psychiatry. Orloff is also an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s medical school. And yet, her nearly breathless and exuberant rush of ideas crammed into the first chapters of The Ecstasy of Surrender read like a girlish first attempt at writing.

Once into her topic and warmed up, Dr. Orloff settles down to a calm, deliberate pace while explaining the ways to self-diagnose one’s own limited behavior. The layout of the chapters is a standard explanatory set up with a questionnaire and practical advice that follows. There are lists, bullet points and quotes throughout.

The reader is encouraged to pick and choose topics from among the 12 surrenders (The First Surrender: Redefining True Success, Power, and Happiness) featured in the book. Each chapter feels like a workshop. Readers would be wise to explore the chapters they may initially deem not applicable to them, as there’s solid information and advice to be gained.

Ecstasy of Surrender (audible audio)

Unless you’re a hermit, you will be in contact with other people and some of them may benefit from reading or listening to this book. It’s clearly meant to be shared.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Heart of A Lion

On These Courts: A Miracle Season That Changed A City, A Once-Future Star, and A Team Forever by Wayne B. Drash (Touchstone, $26.00, 267 pages)

“A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on Elvis Presley as the icon of Memphis, but I put mine on Anfernee Hardaway… He’s a great person and he cares… Anything that he can do for anybody, he will do it.”

On These Courts (nook book)

On These Courts demonstrates that the Bad News Bears exist in real life. This is the story of the Lester Middle School Lions, based in the crime ridden Binghampton neighborhood of Memphis. The goal of this team was to win the state championship for their age group. To qualify they would have to beat the one school they lost to earlier (they did). And they would find themselves down by 14 points with 5 minutes to go in the big game.

Did the Lions come back to win? Well, life is not a Disney movie. You will need to read this book to find out.

The team’s coach was struck by cancer, and a former professional basketball player worth $200 million — Anfernee (“Penny”) Hardaway — stepped in to help. This sometimes-moving account of a special season shows how important courage, determination and grit are in the face of social and economic adversity. A group of kids with nothing to lose gave it all they had in order to bring a small measure of glory and acceptance to their downtrodden community.

This book reminds us that one person can change the world; all it takes is a dream.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Hero: The Paintings of Robert Bissell.Hero

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