Tag Archives: Italy

Beware of the Poisoned Pen

Books from the Poisoned Pen Press – Variety Abounds

Avoidable Contact

Avoidable Contact: A Kate Reilly Mystery by Tammy Kaehler (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 296 pages)

We’re plunged into the world of Daytona endurance racing from the very first page. Avoidable Contact is the third book in author Kaehler’s Kate Reilly mystery series. Readers are quickly introduced to 38 characters within the first 52 pages! A sense of urgency surrounds Kate whether it’s on the track as an endurance driver in a 24-hour race at the Daytona International Speedway or behind the scenes with the pit crews and groupies.

Kate’s not-so-secret boyfriend Stuart is the victim of a hit-and-run just hours before the big race is scheduled to start. The circumstances are cloudy and not at all typical of Stuart’s usual behavior. Naturally, Kate plunges in to figure out what actually happened. While the sleuthing is somewhat choppy, the real entertainment in the book lies in the actual race descriptions.

Once Kate begins her stint at the wheel of the Sandham Swift Corvette in the 24-hour endurance race, her cinematic description of the action feels authentic. A graphic of the racecourse is a helpful reference for the reader. The missing piece is a chart of the teams and characters.

Recommended for race fans.

Death in the Dolomites

Death in the Dolomites: A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery by David P. Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 229 pages)

The square had begun to fill with the late afternoon crowd, many wearing ski outfits but shuffling about in soft, puffy boots or sturdy street shoes. The tall streetlamps had come to life, their yellow light picking up the flakes as they fell to the ground.

The dust jacket of this charming book depicts the icy blue Italian mountain town where Rick Montoya has gone with his buddy Flavio Caldaro for a winter ski vacation. The banter between these fellows is engaging as they scope out the lovely ladies of the town. The setting and season are perfect for reading in winter.

The two men met in college at the University of New Mexico years earlier. Rick is a translator and the book contains many Italian words and phrases. Flavio is a wine merchant and Rick loves good Italian food. The reader will crave the fine dining experiences artfully depicted in Wagner’s near-poetic writing.

Rick is a likeable fellow whose adventures were introduced in Wagner’s debut mystery, Cold Tuscan Stone. As with the earlier book, this one is a clever missing person/murder puzzle that he’s determined to solve even if he is on vacation. A missing American banker is Rick’s main concern. The local police and Rick’s uncle, a Roman police inspector are the official investigators; however, we know who will crack the case!

Well recommended.

Desert Rage

Desert Rage: A Lena Jones Mystery by Betty Webb (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 402 pages)

For a change of location and a definite change in attitude there’s Desert Rage, the eighth book in author Betty Webb’s series featuring Lena Jones, owner of Desert Investigations in Scottsdale, Arizona. The opening gambit is a rather gross prologue full of gore and indifference. A narrative by private investigator and former cop Jones launches into her political views via criticism of a Hummer vehicle and large houses in Scottsdale.

The slant on Lena’s perspective is easy to understand as she is the product of a troubled past in foster care, having been dumped into the system with a gunshot injury at a very early age. Lena’s techie sidekick is Jimmy Sisiwan, a full-bloodied Pima Indian. Together they take on a rightwing client, Congresswomen Juliana Thorssson, who has a deep past of her own.

The slaughter described in the prologue revolves around the congresswoman, a teenager named Ali and her boyfriend Kyle. The point of view shifts among Lena, Ali and Kyle as each tells their side of the story. The telling is well-paced and enjoyable. There’s plenty of accurate Arizona scenery included, which makes for pleasing reading whether or not you have been to the desert southwest.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher or by a publicist. Avoidable Contact and Death in the Dolomites are also available in trade paper editions.

You can read a review of Cold Tuscan Stone here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/tuscany-days-and-nights/

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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.

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Don’t Dream It’s Over

The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman (The Dial Press; $15.00; 281 pages)

Perhaps the sub-title of The Imperfectionists should have been Related Tales of Dark Humor and Irony.   This is the fictional story of a second-rate international newspaper based in Rome, a poor cousin to the International Herald-Tribune.   It has never had any more than 25,000 subscribers and readers, and it has no website.   It is, therefore, doomed.

The Imperfectionists is not actually a novel but rather a grouping of eleven short stories concerning the wild and wooly characters who work at the rag before it enters its death spiral.   One copy editor is smart enough to depart early…  She finds an apparent life raft in the International Finance Department at the Milan Office of Lehman Brothers.   Welcome to the Titanic!

This may give you a bit of insight into author Rachman’s wicked sense of humor.   Rachman could likely write about anything – even a crew of sanitation workers – and make it sound interesting and engaging.

“You can’t dread what you can’t experience.”

The reporters and allied staff members at the nearly defunct paper truly dread – like they fear their own deaths – its inevitable closing, but they take some comfort in the fact that their pink slips mean they won’t actually experience the lights being turned off for the final time.

One of the opaque characters is a copy editor who simply pretends to hate her job because she loves it too much.   “I get to stay…” she thinks as she avoids a round of lay-offs, while grousing that she wishes they had let her go.   Then there’s the veteran war reporter who is completely nuts but quite successful (like the one my wife and I had drinks with once).   These gruff and nicked guys are far more interested in telling their literal war stories than in observing anyone’s reaction to them…  They’re a bit like wild animals whose press badge serves as their “If lost, return to —” tag.

The paper in question is owned by Oliver Ott, a man who inherited the paper and who is – quite naturally – completely clueless as to its operations.

“The paper – that daily report on the idocy and the brilliance of the species – had never before missed an appointment.   Now it was gone.”

Arthur Gopal, the often-pitied obituary writer, survives to find a plum job as a top reporter in Manhattan, while the publication he so carefully wrote for expires (“Overnight, the paper disappeared from newsstands…”) without the benefit of a beautifully written send-off.   Such is life.

The Imperfectionists would be virtually perfect but for an abrupt, flawed and somewhat frustrating ending.   Be forewarned.   Still, this is well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Lyon Books in Chico, California.

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It’s All in the Game

Fortuna by Michael R. Stevens (Oceanview Publishing)

Jason weighed the situation for a moment, and then decided to risk jumping out of character.   “Pisa isn’t in the game,” he typed.   Very quickly, the voice responded.   “This isn’t a game.”

Fortuna is a rollicking E-ticket ride from first-time author-musician-technology expert Michael Stevens.   This is the story of Jason Lind, a computer science major at Stanford.   Jason is brilliant but bored and then he discovers the web-based game of Fortuna.   As in Second Life, Fortuna offers the chance for Jason to re-create himself.   The digital version of Jason is a living, breathing, avatar in medieval Florence, Italy.   However, playing the game has its costs – financially, time-wise and to Jason’s relationships…

The game of Fortuna eventually so absorbs Jason that he faces losing his teaching assistant position at The Farm and – quite possibly – the prospect of dropping out of school.   One aspect of Fortuna is gambling; real people gamble for riches and status for their digital persona.   But when the gamble is lost, debts must be paid off in true American dollars.   The penalty to fail to pay one’s debts is death.

Jason’s huge debts cause him to take a job at the high-tech Silicon Valley company GPC, where his late father worked.   Jason’s uncle heads the company that is rumored to have ties to organized crime.   GPC provides some immediate funds and protection for Jason but he may not be safe anywhere.

Eventually, Jason must run for his life as he faces threats from both inside the game of Fortuna (“You are in danger.”), and in real life.   Jason’s father – one Nicholas Fabonacci – gave 50 million dollars to Stanford before dying under mysterious and questionable circumstances.   Was Fabonacci – whose name graces a newer building on the campus in Palo Alto – killed and, if so, will Jason share his fate?

Perhaps the best aspect of this computer technology-mystery-thriller is that the reader will not anticipate the ending in advance.   Fortuna is about a massive struggle between good and evil – Machiavellian in nature.   Which one wins in the end?   You will have to read the 290 pages of Fortuna to find out the answer.

Highly recommended.   Fortuna is a game worth playing and a unique tale that is well worth reading. “Wild and addicting!”   Shane Gericke (Cut to the Bone)

Fortuna will be released on Monday, May 3, 2010.   A review copy was provided by Oceanview Publishing.

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Twin Charms

last will“A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.”   – Caroline Gordon

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Broadway Books, 304 pages)

The Last Will of Moira Leahy is a book that takes its readers to a different world.   It is a novel of charm, mystery, of things that cannot easily be explained and of faith.   Faith in fate (often hard to come by, often rationed) and in the journey one is supposed to take in this life…   Faith that the right lesson will be learned at the end.

This is a story of twins, something much in vogue at the current time.   Therese Walsh’s story shares some of the mysticism of Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.   It also paints twins as exotic creatures with shared language, thoughts and animal-like instincts.   Of course, the twins are not exactly alike.

The narrator Maeve Leahy, is the more cautious of the two – more cautious in love and in life.   She is a musician, a saxophone player, but she’s not the musical prodigy that her piano-playing twin Moira is.   It seems that Moira will lead the bigger life until a tragedy strikes.   Then Moira is frozen in place while Maeve is left to fend for – and find – herself.

After a period of depression, Maeve attends an auction where she spots a keris – an ancient and believed to be magical type of sword – similar to one she owned as a child.   Maeve finds that she has a need to discover more about the centuries old keris and this takes her on a journey to Rome, Italy.   It is on this journey that she learns more about herself, her twin, and life.   Life without fixed boundaries.   “Not everything in life can be measured or accounted for by the five known senses.”

First-time author Walsh has a smooth style with enough uniqueness that the reader desires to keep reading.   She stays ahead of the reader, too, as nothing predictable occurs.   I had just one small issue and that was the disconcerting movements  between present time and prior events.   It is not actually harmful in this case, but the baseline story is strong enough that it could well have been told chronologically.

This is one of those books where you delay getting to the last page, knowing the next book from this gifted author may not arrive for another year or two.   Nevertheless, this is a trip that is – without a doubt – well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Handbags and Gladrags: The House of Gucci

This is one of those books that makes you wish you could read faster.   It is also a fascinating tale that works well on many levels.   It is primarily a business and family biography – the rise and fall and rise of the Gucci luxury fashion house and merchandise company.   This story begins in 1904 in Florence, Italy and carries us forward to the cruel 1995 killing of the founder’s grandson.

It is also a true-crime story as we find out who wanted Maurizio Gucci murdered and why.   Author Sara Guy Forden seems to have access to every family event, fact, rumor and relationship.   This is not a drive-by biography, instead it is one in which the reader feels like he/she is reliving the events at close distance…   Waiting in the weeds.

Forden also does a fine job of including just the right amount of information on Italian culture and traditions.   This may be a key reason this company tale seems so much more interesting than those detailing the rise and fall of American family-run corporations.

Finally, Forden reminds us of the foibles and terrors of human nature, which include intra-family rivalries, jealousies, and deadly grudges.   In the end, this is very much – as promised – a sensational story of murder, madness, glamour, and greed.

Eccezionale!

Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer.

House of Gucci

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Coming Up Next…

house-gucci-sara-gay-forden-paperback-cover-artA review of The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed by Sara Gay Forden.   “This is a business book you will zip through like a novel.”   The Economist

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