Tag Archives: Joseph’s Reviews

Film Review: ‘Roma’ is a Great Movie

roma 2Realism.  This is the word that summarizes why the film Roma is so great.  It perfectly reflects the realism of Mexico’s class system.  The indigenous people are at the bottom of the society, while light-skinned people who associate themselves with Europeans rule the land.

I well remember the servants I saw in Mexico.  They were from the lower rungs of the ladder.  One of my relatives was extremely poor and barely had the funds to survive.  But somehow she always found some change in her purse.  It was enough to hire neighboring ladies to do some house work; washing dishes or laundering or ironing clothes.  The ladies would be extremely grateful as the change they earned might provide their family with food for a day.

Roma shows prosperous Americans what the life of an indigenous maid in Mexico is like.  It also displays the role of politics in every Mexican’s life and how they react to and handle the current political situation.  And, sometimes disturbingly, it shows the violence in the country that is never displayed on U.S. news programs.

In one situation, Roma shows how everyone helps in an emergency.  The point is well made that we are all dependent upon each other as human beings, regardless of social status.

roma 3

Roma is surprisingly good.  I believe it has a solid chance to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  If it does it will break the glass ceiling in unique fashion and serve as a meaningful tribute to the lives of proud, striving and hardworking people.

Highly recommended.

Alejandro Reyes

Alejandro Reyes is a former production line supervisor for Procter and Gamble.  Educated in Stockton, California, he is enjoying retirement in sunny southern California.

 

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The Unexplained

A Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman (Henry Holt and Co., $28.00, 288 pages)

an unexplained death

Author Mikita Brottman lives at the Belvedere Hotel, a Baltimore landmark with a long history of strange occurrences, suicides, and mysterious deaths.  Brottman here professes her fascination with the occult, tarot cards, and suicide so the examination of the apparent 2006 suicide of Rey Rivera – a once-fellow resident of the Belvedere, would seem to be a perfect topic for her writing.

Brottman’s account of events, An Uexplained Death, provides numerous details surrounding Rivera’s death as well as a tremendous amount of conjecture on her part.  What it fails to do is to provide clarity or new information beyond what was already known or presumed. (The authorities found the death to be a suicide.)  Brottman goes on – in what seems like a stretch – to explore cultural attitudes about suicide from around the world, and she provides her personal views on various matters whether related or not.

Rey Rivera was a tall and attractive aspiring film maker who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles with his new wife, Allison.  He joined with Porter Stansberry of Agora, publishing newsletters offering financial advice.  His death happened to come at the time when he had borrowed money to produce his own film, was getting ready to quit Agora – which was engulfed in an SEC investigation – and was about to move back to L.A.

Did Rivera jump from the roof of the Belvedere, falling through a skylight at the top of a space which once housed the hotel’s swimming pool, or was he running from someone intending to do him harm?  Brottman investigates various alternatives to suicide possibilities, but none of them seem either likely or probable.  She wonders aloud whether Rivera was depressed about the Agora investigation or whether he became entangled in a homosexual affair.  It’s all so much smoke and mirrors because each such alternate explanation is discarded shortly after being raised.  And Brottman’s conclusion of this strange, quasi-fictional investigation of a real-life death provides nothing of substance.

The story is slightly compelling during the few periods in which Brottman sticks to the subject matter at hand.  But she spends far too much time writing about herself, her life, and her obsessions.  Oh, but for an editor!

The typical reader is unlikely to find Brottman’s affinity for rats very endearing.  The same is true concerning her fascination with strangely committed murders, and the time she spends imagining herself in another person’s shoes (such as Allison Reyes’s).  All in all, this is a book of rambling distractions, which is as generally uninteresting as it is undisciplined.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Notes:

The Beaux Arts style Belvedere Hotel was opened as Baltimore’s first luxury hotel in 1903 and was converted to residential condos in 1991.

I read the book and wondered why the writer spent an obsessive amount of time attempting to solve a crime which the local authorities had already solved, resolved and literally closed the book on.  – Joseph Arellano

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Cats on the Cover

Fool’s Moon: A Tarot Cats Mystery by Diane A.S. Stuckart (Midnight Ink, 323 pages, $15.99)

fool's moon

Attention cat mystery lovers – we’ve been gifted with a new series!  Brother and sister cats are the featured characters in this mystical, tarot card-centered tale.  Brandon Bobtail and Ophelia are one-year-old kitties that have lived a pampered life in Palm Beach, Florida up until they are dropped by the side of the road in a less desirable neighborhood.  Moreover, they are trapped inside of a taped up box.  (Sigh.)

This jarring experience begins their quest to find food, shelter and the means to return home.  The perilous events of the following days provide the young cats with ample opportunities to learn lessons in patience and avoid making snap judgments.

Ruby Sparks, a tarot card reader who has been tasked with minding her half-sister’s New Age shop, is kind hearted as well an animal lover.  She takes in the abandoned kitties and discovers that they possess some very useful powers.  The shop cat, Brandon Bobtail, Ophelia and a street-savvy pit bull join forces to thwart evil and enrich Ruby’s life.

Ms. Stuckart wisely sets up a smooth segue to the next adventures in the Tarot Cats Mysteries.  She is also the author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series, which this reviewer intends to peruse soon.

fool's moon two

The book is well recommended for cat lovers and mystery fans, especially those who love the Joe Gray books written by Shirley Rousseau Murphy.  Wonderful tales such as these can be found on both the Florida and California coasts.

Bloodstains with Bronte: A Crime with the Classics Mystery by Katherine Bolger Hyde (Minotaur Books, 278 pages, $24.99)

bloodstains with bronte

This second in a series of mysteries that draw upon Emily Cavanaugh’s knowledge of classic literature is once again set on the Oregon coast.  In the first book, Arsenic with Austen, Emily has inherited an estate called Windy Corner from her great aunt.  The estate includes a Victorian mansion and the rest of her inheritance is property in the  nearby town of Stony Beach.

This time around Cavanaugh is busy with the conversion of her mansion into a writer’s retreat.  A widowed professor, she has no family of her own.  Katie Parker and her baby girl Lizzie have become Emily’s “little family.”  Katie works as Emily’s housekeeper.  All is not sweetness and bliss for them.  A murder in Stony Beach puts a wrench in most everyone’s relationships.  Sheriff Luke Richards wants his rekindled romance with Emily to become permanent but the murder makes them wary of each other.

Author Katherine Bolger Hyde weaves a fascinating tale of small town intrigue.  Each chapter of Bloodstains with Bronte is prefaced with a quote from either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.   These quotes provide clues for Emily to use in solving the murder.  Fans of Charlotte Bronte will enjoy the parallels.  Readers not familiar with Ms. Bronte’s works may be enticed to step back in time to discover her thrilling tales.

We can look forward to the next installment based on a novel by an author whose name begins with C.

Well recommended to fans of cozy novels set in small towns, basically English-style novels set in the USA.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by a publicist (Fools’ Moon; released on November 8, 2018) and the publisher (Bloodstains with Bronte; first released as a hardcover book in December of 2017 and soon to be released in trade paper form).

 

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Step into Christmas (and Murder)

deck the houndsDeck the Hounds: An Andy Carpenter Mystery by David Rosenfelt (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 336 pages)

In time for the holidays, Andy Carpenter finds himself caught up in a new dilemma.  One would think that after 17 prior novels, author David Rosenfelt might run out of tales – nope, not even close.  Rosenfelt draws in his reader with the signature dry humor his fans demand.

It’s a few weeks until Christmas, which means that wife Laurie and son Ricky are eager to cut and decorate a tree.  Andy isn’t ready for all the accompanying activity knowing it will last well into the New Year.  We know how that goes…

Andy finds himself caught up in the troubles of Don Carrigan, a homeless man whose dog, Zoey, ends up in a quarantine after biting an attacker.  Never fear, there are resources and deep pockets where Andy is concerned.  Faithful fans know that when there’s trouble, Andy is called on to don his lawyer persona and come to the rescue.

deck the hounds back

Author Rosenfelt can be counted on for a charming narrative from Andy as well as plenty of interactions with Marcus, Pete, Sam, Edna, et al.  Quotes from popular songs, TV shows and advertising keep the tale current.  It’s such a relief to escape into the mostly kind-hearted community in New Jersey where they reside.

Highly recommended.

murder at the mill

Murder at the Mill by M.B. Shaw: An Iris Gray Mystery (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 448 pages)

Next we leap across the Atlantic to Hampshire, England.  M.B. Shaw is a new author for this reviewer.  Murder at the Mill is the first in a new series featuring Iris Gray.  Iris is a well-regarded portraitist who is estranged from her failing playwright husband, Ian McBride.  She has fled London to a rental, Mill Cottage, located on the grounds of Mill House, a large manor with surrounding acreage.  Iris is hoping to sort out her current situation and find the courage to divorce Ian.

Dom Weatherby, a famous mystery writer, is the owner of Mill House, Mill Cottage and the land.  Ariadne, Dom’s wife, is the perfect hostess and wife.  The cast of characters gently and organically expands as the events of importance for each of them unfolds.  One event triggers the next and so on.  The key event is the Weatherby’s annual Christmas party.  Everyone is invited – the famous as well as the townspeople of the village of Hazelford, which is up the lane from the mill.

Of course there’s a murder, because the title guarantees it.  In some aspects Murder at Mill House resembles the game of Clue.  Author Shaw is a masterful writer.  She’s able to trick the reader into believing that you have it all figured out.  The whole is a most enjoyable read.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.  Deck the Hounds was published on October 16, 2018.  Murder at the Mill will be released on December 4, 2018.

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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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Afflicted

affliction bookThe Affliction: A Novel by Beth Gutcheon (William Morrow, $16.99, 384 pages)

Maggie was sitting on the floor paging through a book on Bernard Berenson and Hope was deep in one of the desk drawers when a voice from the doorway said, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

Prolific author Beth Gutcheon serves up her second Maggie Detweiler mystery in a decidedly Miss Marple/J.B, Fletcher tone.  Of course, this being a mystery novel, someone is murdered.  There are subplots of unrest among the students at a private girls’ school.  Various members of the Rye-on-Hudson community where the school is located have been plotting their own schemes.  The infusion of developer capital to the otherwise bucolic community energizes the action.

Maggie and her buddy Hope Bobbin insinuate themselves into the community after a call for assistance.  Initially, Maggie arrives at leader of an Independent School Association accreditation evaluation team.  The school, Rye Manor School for Girls, is facing the likely loss of its accreditation.

Ms. Gutcheon seamlessly brings her reader along on Maggie and Hope’s quest for the killer.  Along the way the faculty, students and campus of the school fill in a privileged New England experience around the wonderful dialogue.  There’s no lack of finger pointing and accusations to make solving the murder a challenging effort for the Detweiler and Bobbin team.

The Affliction is consistent with its predecessor, Death at Breakfast.  Hopefully, Ms. Gutcheon will deliver more such engaging adventures for her readers.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  The trade paper version of The Affliction will be released on November 27, 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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Blood and Wisdom

Blood and Wisdom: A Mystery by Verlin Darrow (The Wild Rose Press, 381 pages, $17.99; Kindle ed. $5.99)

blood and wisdom

Welcome to Santa Cruz, California, home of gurus, gangsters and gumshoes.  Author Verlin Darrow knows of what he writes.  As a local who just happens to be a psychotherapist, he’s familiar with the many personality quirks portrayed by the characters in this engaging mystery.

Private investigator Karl Gatlin narrates this tale with a funny, irreverent matter-of-fact attitude reminiscent of David Rosenfeld’s Andy Carpenter character.  Author Darrow gives Gatlin a firm, confident voice as he navigates among some fairly strange humans while investigating the unexpected appearance of a dismembered body in a wishing well.

Gatlin’s new client, Aria Piper, is a teacher/guru whose calm and peaceful sanctuary is violated by the above-referenced body.  Her employees and students must be cleared of any involvement in the murder.  Aria is a rather appealing femme fatale who draws Gatlin’s attention.  They knew each other in the past as both studied psychology.  Gatlin abandoned the practice for investigative work.

Author Darrow introduces his characters at a measured pace which allows his readers to follow the complexity of the relationships among them, including many family ties.  The action takes place around the Monterey and Santa Cruz bay areas.  Happily, Darrow satisfies readers familiar with the locale with accuracy as Gatlin travels around seeking answers.

Well recommended for mystery lovers.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

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30 Years in the Hole

30 years

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor by Karen Gedney, M.D. (DRG Consulting Company, $14.95, 384 pages)

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is an engaging and seemingly highly factual account of the work of a prison physician. I say this because I worked for doctors in a state’s prison system. As Doctor Karen Gedney makes abundantly clear, one never knows what one will encounter each day behind bars. One day inside a prison may be as quiet and reserved as a Catholic mass. The next day, all hell can, and will, break out.

Dr. Gedney intended to work for just four years under the National Health Corps in order to pay back her medical school scholarship. But the work was so fascinating to her that she stayed for three full decades. And she saw it as her mission to not just treat physical medical issues but also hearts and minds: “It was clear to me that as long as these men viewed themselves as victims, they had little chance of doing well on the outside. I had to help them perceive themselves not as victims, but as people who had what it takes to be responsible for the choices they made in life.”

And so, Dr. Gedney wound up bringing life skills classes to a high-security prison. An intriguing twist in her story is that Gedney, who is white, has a husband who is African-American. He wound up working with her to develop classes for inmates, the type intended to provide them with a “second chance.”

Dr. Gedney’s perspective is best summarized in these words: “I was always a sucker for the underdog.”

Of course,  no good deed goes unpunished, so Gedney often had to deal with wardens who either did not support her rehabilitation efforts or dismantled them. Even physicians are bound by the chains of bureaucracy. Luckily for Gedney, she encountered inmate success stories, such as the inmate she assisted who received a pardon after serving fifty years in prison. “Fifty years in prison. How does one survive that so well? How did he manage to walk out with confidence, into a world that was so different than the one he knew?”

Sometimes Dr. Gedney gets a bit too deep into attempting to cure the world as when she states: “The only thing that made sense to me was trying to gain an understanding of why someone commits a crime, and what could be done to prevent or stop the behavior.” Some would argue that this mission is not the role of a doctor in the correctional system. And this raises the one issue with 30 Years Behind Bars. At times, it becomes a political polemic, and this can distract from the story of Dr. Gedney’s medical career. And I suspect that it may, to some extent, limit the audience for the book.

Dr. Gedney might have avoided the sections of the book that deal with changing the system and the world. But then it would not have been her true account.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book is available as an eBook and as a trade paperback book.

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