Tag Archives: historical novel

Life in the Slow Lane

All Men Fear Me

All Men Fear Me: An Alafair Tucker Mystery by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, $26.95, 302 pages)

Well, now, Charlie, just because I disapprove of this war doesn’t mean I’m a traitor. I think of myself as a patriot, and a patriot of the real kind. This is my big, messy country. I love it. I want for it to be the best country there is. If it suffer ills, I want to cure them. I want for every citizen to enjoy all its rights and privileges, and I believe it is my duty to try and help that happen.

One part history lesson, one part family drama and two parts man’s inhumanity to man is the recipe for Donis Casey’s eighth installment of life in rural Oklahoma in 1917. Alafair Tucker is the center of her large family – 10 children ranging in age from 25 to four years of age, husband Shaw, and her brother Robin. Robin, a labor organizer, is visiting after being away for ten years. The rabid fans of war and nationalism in the small town of Boynton view Robin’s organizing efforts as Socialist-leaning and contrary to the ways of true Americans.

The country has recently entered World War I and a draft has been set in place to raise an army. Alafair is trying mightily to balance her love of her brother with the fervent longings of her 16-year-old son, Charlie, who desperately wants to enlist in the military. The townspeople of Boynton are divided between being suspicious of anyone perceived as “foreign” and their loyalty to long-time friends and neighbors. Kurt Lukenbach, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Germany is married to one of Alafair’s daughters. The more rabid patriots in town regard Kurt with suspicion and hostility.

There is trouble all around in Oklahoma. It’s as though the wood for a fire has been laid and along comes a man with a can of gasoline and a match to hasten the process. The stranger in the bowler hat who arrives in town at the start of the story is literally the catalyst that brings latent hate and fear to a flash point.

Author Casey takes her sweet time setting up the action in this book. Although it is considered a mystery novel, it is more of a history lesson with a covert mystery imbedded within the text. Readers who enjoy a slowly paced and thoroughly detailed story will enjoy this installment of the Tucker family goings on.

As with many books that feature the daily diet of the characters, All Men Fear Me has at the back several recipes featured in the story. Additionally, a calendar of the war rules pertaining to food is listed for readers who curiously enjoy details with their murders.

Recommended to readers fond of life in the slow lane.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on November 3, 2015.

You can read a review of Hell With The Lid Blown Off: An Alafair Tucker Mystery here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/were-off-to-see-the-wizard/

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Secret

Anna Blanc

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc: A Mystery by Jennifer Kincheloe (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, 367 pages)

Sweat beaded on Wolf’s brow as he led Anna among the desks to meet the man in charge. His lips stretched in a tense smile, his skin a little paler than before he had hired Anna. “Captain Wells, may I present Mrs. Anna Holmes, our lovely new assistant matron. She types, speaks Spanish, but most importantly, she’s nervy. I say that’s a vital quality for a matron who will be venturing into unsavory territory.”

Fans of the history of southern California will find this remarkably charming mystery an accurate period piece. The opening chapters of The Secret Life of Anna Blanc offer a well-described glimpse into the life of Miss Blanc. Anna is the only daughter of Christopher Blanc, a wealthy banker and business leader in Los Angeles. Mr. Blanc treats Anna as though she were an asset/possession. Who she marries means more to him than does her happiness.

The time is 1907 and the locales for the tale include Riverside and both the wealthy and shabby areas of Los Angeles. The action begins when Anna has eloped from her father’s Bunker Hill mansion with Louis Taylor. They hop onto a train bound for the historic Mission Inn located in downtown Riverside where they plan to marry in the chapel. Due to the strictness of her Catholic upbringing, Anna has never actually touched a man without wearing gloves. The exception is her father. As she and Louis sit in a third class rail car rolling toward their destination, the action speeds up and one thing leads to another.

Jennifer Kincheloe

Author Jennifer Kincheloe infuses Anna with equal measures of spunk and cleverness. Our heroine longs to be a lady detective just like the ones she reads about in the contraband books she hides by using the covers of books that meet her father’s approval. Fate throws Anna into a controversial encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department. This encounter leads to the opportunity she has been dreaming about. Trickery and abundant guts are all Anna needs to launch her career!

Anna-Blanc-317x202

The novel is way too well written to give away any more than the barest of plot details. It’s rare that a thrilling mystery is also a laugh out loud read.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Fast, funny, and fabulous. You’re going to love this book!” Lori Rader-Day, author of Pretty Little Things. “A madcap frolic through turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, Jennifer Kincheloe’s debut mystery is an addictive read.” James W. Ziskin, author of Stone Cold Dead.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Come On Down To My Boat

The Gondola Maker

The Gondola Maker: A Novel by Laura Morelli (Laura Morelli, $29.99, 296 pages; also available in trade paper and as an e-book download)

Get ready for a real change of pace. Author Laura Morelli holds a PhD in art history from Yale University and has numerous writing credits to her name. The Gondola Maker is her first work of fiction. Ever the historian, Ms. Morelli spent significant time and effort in crafting an historical novel. She has achieved a fascinating balance between facts and fiction.

The narrator of this sometimes-stark tale is Luca Vianello, a twenty-something son of a prominent gondola builder, who lives in 16th century Venice, Italy. The opening scene is riveting. At the time of the story, Venice is a republic with harsh punishments for lawbreakers whose crimes range from public swearing to murder. The reader is immersed in this militant culture via Luca’s recollections of the punishments he has witnessed in the public square. As in other cultures and eras, crowds gather to witness the offenders pay for their deeds.

All of it was meant to uphold the just and civilized society of Our Great Republic of Venice, so it was explained to me.

Luca makes it clear that there is a double standard in place as graft and corruption thrive in his republic. Life in those times – governed by superstition (sinister left-handedness), seems both similar and alien compared to the 21st century. There are defined social classes, guilds/unions and artists. However, the 16th century guilds and unions are stronger even than the unions of 50 years ago in the USA. On the brighter side, women of today are able to live lives independent of their husbands and family. Luca’s beloved mother is but a possession of his despotic father.

The tale is infused with an ominous tone of foreboding as Luca’s life unravels due to his outburst of temper. The reader is brought along through his efforts to create a new life. Along the way there are fascinating episodes as Luca moves within the workshops of boat makers, fine artists, costumers and the rowdy millieu of the republic’s essential gondola operators.

Ms. Morelli’s writing style is literate and yet she does not overwhelm the reader. Her characters are believable and in Luca’s case, likeable.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Vintage Clothes

Astor Place Vintage: A Novel by Stephanie Lehmann (Touchstone, $16.00, 396 pages)

The theme of Astor Place Vintage is familiar — vintage clothes, an old apartment and mysterious experiences provide a marvelous link to the past. It’s as if The Secret Lives of Dresses melded with Her Fearful Symmetry and The Secret Keeper. Alternating chapters, from 2007 and 1907, make for engaging reading. The issues faced by women who choose to be on their own, but a century apart, are similar and yet not.

Astor Place Vintage

This is a multi-generational tale about women; however, it is clearly not chic lit. Author Stephanie Lehmann has invested serious time and effort researching very early 1900s New York City. The restaurants, stores, street names and events portrayed (such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire) are real. Numerous excellently-reproduced photographs allow the reader to have a glimpse into the working world of women of that era. Department stores and garment factories were their primary employers.

In 2007, Astor Place Vintage shop owner, Amanda Rosenbloom, who is nearing 40, wishes she could convince her lover of many years, Jeff, to leave his wife. Jeff has been subsidizing the shop and the apartment upstairs; in other words, Amanda is a kept woman. Her livelihood is in peril when she receives a notice to vacate the store. Relocating is unrealistic as shop rents have become astronomical.

In 1907 upper middle class 20-year-old Olive Westcott moves to NYC with her widower father who manages a Woolworth’s store. She yearns to be on her own. Be careful what you wish for! Olive’s life takes a sharp turn and the tale begins in earnest.

A very elderly woman, Jane Kelly, who is 98, is the living link between the clothes worn by Olive and Amanda’s shop. Although the book is a novel, the lives of the characters naturally lead to intrigue and prompt the reader to speculate how the story lines will converge.

This is Stephanie Lehmann’s fifth novel, and while it is the first of hers that this reviewer has read, it won’t be the only one. Ms. Lehmann’s smooth writing style, excellent dialogue and meticulous research efforts prove to be an unbeatable combination.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Insightful, charming and wholly entertaining.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

Astor Place Vintage will be released on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Can’t Buy A Thrill

turn-the-page-2

Can’t Buy A Thrill: The Book Reviewer’s Slump – An article for Turn The Page, an occasional column about book reviewing.

1.  Happy and Hungover

Book reviewers are often faced with an embarrassment of riches.   They may receive hundreds of books in a short period of time, either directly from publishers or indirectly via book review publications.   This may translate into becoming less excited over the less publicized new releases.   I’m reminded of when I managed a college radio station’s music library…  The record companies sent us records every day, usually multiple copies of each release.   The longer this went on, the more we felt the temptation for the DJs to spend their time listening to the big, mega-releases like the latest from the Rolling Stones or Steve Winwood.   It was hard to pull away to listen to a new album recorded by a promising, virtually unknown and self-proclaimed bar band from San Jose.   (They went on to become wildly successful as The Doobie Brothers.)

It can be like that for the book reviewer.   At first, he or she will jump at reading and reviewing anything that’s sent.   Then the reviewer will find that he becomes pickier as time goes by.   It may be especially hard to read a debut novel by an unknown author when so many releases by major authors – from the major publishers – are whispering, “Read me!” in his ear.   This is but one of the issues that will arise.

you came back

Another issue occurs after reading an almost perfect book.   I had this experience recently after finishing the novel You Came Back by Christopher Coake.   I went to my stack of “to be read” books and, no matter how hard I tried to read each of them, they simply felt flat by comparison.   Moreover, I felt as if I could see the stitches in the tales when comparing them in my mind to Coake’s virtually seamless story telling.   I finally came to realize that Coake’s book – labeled a ghost story – is about what sudden loss does to human beings.   I then searched for a book with a somewhat similar theme and found it in the novel Gone by Cathi Hanauer, a story about a writer-mother-housewife whose husband leaves with the young, sexy babysitter and doesn’t return.   Gone and You Came Back are nearly mirror images of each other.   In music, it was like when the Beatles released Let It Be and the Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed.

Gone cover

After reading these two somewhat similar tales, I felt free to experiment with something completely different, which turned out to be an historical novel; fiction based upon a little bit of fact.   But sometimes shaking the grip a great book has on you – a type of literary hangover – takes days to be loosened.   For the book reviewer, this may mean not following through on a commitment that was made earlier; or delaying meeting the commitment.   But that’s the way life is.   As John Lennon was to so wisely state, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

2.  Comparing A to B

Above, I’ve compared two novels to each other, and this leads me to wondering whether a publishing house or publicist should do the same.   It seems like a potentially risky business.   If the book jacket promises that, “Anyone who loved Milo’s Story will adore spending time with Fluffy’s Tail!” there’s the risk of making the reader who truly loved the former, but doesn’t like the latter – such as a dog lover who can’t abide cats – extremely angry.   I think these types of comparisons have more of a downside than an upside.

A better strategy, in my view, and one that draws me in, is to post a blurb by a respected author who writes in the same genre as the new, relatively unknown author.   I may be quite unsure that I want to spend time reading a book by Bill Unknown, but if there’s a front jacket blurb by David Major (you know, the one whose book was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway) stating, “Bill’s a truly great find!   Trust me, you must read this!” I’m likely to take the chance.   That’s because David Major has little to gain and a lot to lose by letting his name be used in a less than forthright way.   Let’s just hope that I haven’t received the galley of Unknown’s forthcoming book right after I’ve finished reading You Came Back.

Joseph Arellano

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Coming Attractions (2012)

Here’s a sampling of new and upcoming books that might well wind up on the to-be-read stack.

The Bungalow: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; December 27, 2011)

We loved The Violets of March by Sarah Jio and thought it was one of the best debut novels of 2011.   Now Jio returns with a quite different type of story set in Bora Bora during World War II.   Wrote reader Laura Bolin on Amazon: “The Bungalow was an old black and white movie straight out of my grandparent’s generation.   I was swept away by Jio’s vivid descriptions and I loved every minute of it.”

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell; January 3, 2012)

An entertaining story about an almost-retired counselor who tries to help a group of four women – all of whom have serious pending matters with the legal system – manage their anger issues in court-ordered group counseling sessions.   The women will have to graduate from the group in order to return  to their normal lives.   Oh, and they don’t like each other at all – which means that the counselor is going to have to take some drastic (and perhaps even professionally unethical) actions in order to get them to a kinder and gentler place.

Gun Games: A Novel by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow; January 3, 2012)

Faye Kellerman once again showcases Peter Decker of the Los Angeles Police Department and Rina Lazarus, likely the most popular husband and wife team in modern crime fiction.   A series of shocking adolescent suicides at an elite L. A. private school is at the heart of this thriller.   As if this isn’t enough, there’s  also the fact that Decker and Lazarus have brought a very troubled teenager into their home: Gabriel Whitman, the son of a psychopath.

The Confession: A Novel by Charles Todd (Wm. Morrow; January 12, 2012)

An historical crime novel, continuing Charles Todd’s World War I veteran, and yet still highly effective Scotland Yard Inspector, Ian Rutledge.   Rutledge struggles with a startling and dangerous case that reaches far back into the past when a false confession by a man who was not who he claimed to be resulted in a brutal murder.

Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir by Doron Weber (Simon & Schuster; February 7, 2012)

Not to be confused with Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds, this is a moving memoir about a boy born with a defective heart – located on the right side of his chest – who weathers major heart surgeries before being hit with a highly unique, perhaps untreatable disease.   Those who years ago read Death Be Not Proud may be drawn to this account.

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (Wm. Morrow; February 7, 2012)

Kate’s an ambitious – if self-damaging – reporter who goes undercover.   She enters a drug and alcohol rehab clinic to find out what’s happening with the popular and troubled young actress Amber Shepard.   “Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way…”

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; May 15, 2012)

We gave a highly recommended rating to Mandel’s 2010 novel The Singer’s Gun, which was as gutsy as it was unique and engaging.   Her third novel examines “questions of identity, the deep pull of family, the difficulties of being the person one wants to be, the un-reliability of memory, and the unforeseen ways a small and innocent action can have disastrous consequences.”   It’s bound to be worth the price of admission.

Joseph Arellano

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Get Together

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 544 pages)

Wasn’t that the point of the book?   For women to realize, We are just two people.   Not that much separates us.   Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, is a wonderful story truly worthy of its attention and praise.   Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s at the crux of integration, Stockett portrays the help’s perspective of life and hardships in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a young, educated woman whose only dream is to become a writer.   Encouraged to write about something that “disturbs her” Skeeter risks everything she has to listen to the stories of the black women who care for the homes and children of her wealthy friends and family.   She elicits Abilleen and her best friend Minny, both of whom have dedicated their lives to caring for the white families in their town, to put their lives in jeopardy in order to share their stories. 

They say it’s like true love, good help.   You only get one in a lifetime.

Skeeter, a budding activist fighting for equity in a town vehemently supporting segregation while Martin Luther King, Jr. leads the nation in the Civil Rights Movement, finds grace and purpose in her own life as she shares the stories of the help in her small town.

All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl.   But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.

The Help invites you to listen to their stories and determine how far you would be willing to go in order to gain the truth and to ultimately do the right thing.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   The Help will be released in trade paperback form on April 5, 2011.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized