Tag Archives: Kindle Edition

Twentieth Century Fox

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The Trouble with Lexie: A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 336 pages)

We are launched into Lexie’s suddenly unhinged life at a scandalous moment, as she is discovered in the worst possible condition, in the most unthinkable place at precisely the wrong time. This contemporary, hilarious fourth novel from Jessica Anya Blau is addicting and fast-paced. After the ignominious opening scene, the story jumps back in time, where we learn Lexie’s history through artfully constructed scenes.

Lexie James is an alluring 33-year-old Health and Human Sexuality teacher at a prestigious U.S. private boarding school on the east coast. She has made something of herself, coming from a working class single mom and absentee father in California, to now being employed by the Ruxton Academy and engaged to marry a refined man. We admire her, all the while knowing that a train wreck of poor choices awaits.

Suspense builds. There are massive deceptions, forbidden fruits, and vivid characters, such as the ancient, potty-mouthed Dot. The metaphors are brilliant (“Lexie felt the pain so intensely she could almost see it as a physical thing: a vibrating sheet of silvery magneta that clanged against her cold skin like cold aluminum.”), the philosophy sweetly dispensed (“Yes. Love the people you love, be open to love, be good and do good.”), the similes memorable (“The sadness inside Lexie ran like a wash cycle: circling, swirling, rotating, swishing. It came straight out of her mouth, eyes, and nose, everything wet and running.”) and the wisdom simply put (“Maybe anxiety showed up only when your body needed to tell you something you hadn’t yet faced.”). The outcome proves Dot’s cautionary advice to Lexie: “…remember that the only life worth living is the one where there’s been numerous f*ckups.”

Well done, Ms. Blau!

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Dwight

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on June 28, 2016.

Jennifer Dwight is the author of The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel (She Writes Press).

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Not So Harmonious

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Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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A Confusing Work

shattered-tree

The Shattered Tree: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 304 pages)

The time is 1918 and the place is France. Bess Crawford, AKA Sister Crawford, is working as a British nurse at a casualty center patching up British, Australian and French soldiers who have been wounded while bravely holding back the German army. Paris must not fall to the Germans! The war is nearly over but negotiations are taking way too long to suit most everyone.

The Shattered Tree is the eighth in the remarkable mystery series that gives modern readers a glimpse at the horrors of trench warfare. Bess provides the narrative as she moves quickly from patient to patient while staunching the bleeding from bullet wounds and caring for the dying. Always present is the fear of infection as this war was fought a good decade before the discovery of penicillin.

The first hint of mystery comes when a soldier wearing a tattered uniform is brought for treatment. As he writhes in pain, his cries come out in perfect German. Most of those present are too busy to note. Of course Bess, whose curiosity has landed her in many difficult situations in the past realizes the anomaly and files this information away. Soon thereafter Bess is caught in the fire of a sniper’s rifle and becomes a patient herself.

What ensues is a somewhat confusing series of efforts by Bess and several officers to identify an attacker who makes short work of several people using a knife. An 18-year-old unsolved quintuple homicide that took place outside Paris where Bess is convalescing is also interwoven with her sleuthing to find the German-speaking mystery patient’s identity.

This reviewer read an advance review copy of the book. Perhaps some editing was done to smooth out the segues between events for the final version. (It appears that this was not the case. Ed.) The discussions among the characters that are either helping or misleading Bess as she struggles to recuperate from her bullet and knife wounds can be as baffling as the jumbled plot!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on August 30, 2016.

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San Franciscan Nights

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The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel by Jennifer Dwight (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds/Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing… Bob Dylan, “Chimes of Freedom”

In Jennifer Dwight’s The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, Mercedes Bell, a recently widowed mother of a teenage daughter, is down to her last out when fortune steps in and she obtains a job as a paralegal at the law firm of Crenshaw, Slayne and McDonough.

The bright, engaging newcomer enjoys some early success and things appear to be turning around for her when attorney Jack Soutane begins renting space at the firm. The two become an item and the future begins to look ever brighter. But, as is often the case, if things seem too good to be true, they often are.

Due to Jack’s somewhat shady reputation others are skeptical, but the trusting Mercedes opens up her heart and lets him in. He is a charmer but, soon, little things become big things; as the story shifts into another gear, not even the great Jack Soutane can maintain the level of deceit necessary to cover up his past and escape the present.

The reader eagerly sticks with Dwight, knowing something is going to go wrong and trying to find out just what that something will be. Even as that something becomes more obvious, Dwight, a former paralegal herself, creates enough intrigue to lead to a satisfying conclusion. In fact, some of the better writing begins at the point in which Jack’s fate is finally revealed, while Mercedes yet has plenty to unravel.

The ending is a happy – if somewhat improbable, one, and seems to fit the overall message of hope that is pervasive throughout the book (and inherent in Bell’s character).

tolling of mercedes bell

Bell is set in the San Francisco Bay Area where Dwight spent a great deal of her life. It is her fourth book but first novel. Here’s hoping she can keep it up.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Brooklyn Secrets

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Brooklyn Secrets: An Erica Donato Mystery by Triss Stein (Poisoned Pen Press, $15.95, 242 pages)

“I’m from Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, if you say, ‘I’m dangerous,’ you’d better be dangerous.” – Larry King

In Brooklyn Secrets, Erica Donato is an urban history graduate student. And she is a single mom with an teenage daughter. While conducting research for her dissertation on organized crime in Brownsville in the 1930s, a young girl with a promising future, Savanna, is beaten to death and, shortly thereafter, Savanna’s girlfriend is also found dead.

Secrets is Stein’s third “Brooklyn” book, following 2013’s Brooklyn Bones and 2014’s Brooklyn Graves. Brooklyn Ware is coming next. All are part of the Donato mystery series.

Poisoned Pen Press is dedicated to the crime/mystery genre and Stein’s third novel is commendable. It will likely have regional appeal and, early on, the reader is invited in with promise. Stein writes primarily in dialogue and for those crime/mystery fans who enjoy that approach they, too, will likely enjoy the book. At 223 pages, the book registers as readable and accessible.

Yet, for this reviewer, the book is not in the upper echelon of books in the genre. After a positive start it falls short of truly engaging the reader, drawing him or her in, or moving them willingly on to the next page. The characters could have been developed to a greater degree (something difficult to do when a writer relies heavily on dialogue), especially after the initial assumption that the mom-daughter, Erica relationship theme would have greater prominence or importance as the story develops. It’s not clear why so many contemporary novels are structured around a single mother lead character, but when this is the case the mother-child relationship should presumably be well developed.

Brooklyn Secrets back cover

Brooklyn Secrets is a respectable novel, but it is a difficult read to connect with.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator in the great state of Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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The Maine Line

Recent Books in a Sleuth Series Worth Reading

Bone Orchard

The Bone Orchard: A Novel by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books, $15.99, 319 pages)

I needed a shower and a hot meal but without a vehicle, I was effectively stranded. At the very least, I knew the Bronco required a new windshield. I hadn’t checked to see what other damage the shotgun pellets had inflicted on my prized possession.

Mike Bowditch, a twenty-seven-year-old former Maine game warden, is now a fishing guide. Mike can’t let go of his warden training, instincts and love of the outdoors. This narrative presents the next phase in his character development by author Paul Doiron. The fifth book of a series, this installment smoothly takes the reader along on a fast-paced adventure in the Maine woods.

Bone Orchard back cover

Kathy Frost, Mike’s mentor in the warden service, becomes embroiled in troubles brought on by her actions in the line of duty. Mike knows his loyalty lies with Kathy despite some doubts cast by a government inquiry and the threats posed by a band of renegades who were friends of a man Kathy killed. Ultimately, Mike has to make a choice for his life path that reflects his maturation under pressure.

Well recommended.

The Precipice

The Precipice: A Novel by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books, $15.99, 329 pages)

I found Caleb Maxwell in the sitting room, warming his hands over the wood stove. His mind seemed elsewhere. He flinched when I spoke his name, as if he hadn’t heard me walk up behind him.

This time around Mike Bowditch has rejoined the Maine Warden Service. His life is back on track, complete with girlfriend Stacy Stevens. Readers are treated to a well-crafted tale full of back-woods characters and facts about trekking across Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. Author Doiron aptly displays his knowledge of the region.

Two lost hikers are the focus of an all-out search by the ranger service and volunteers. A combination of high tech equipment and down-to-earth basic outdoors skills are needed to solve the mystery of their disappearance. This episode in Mike’s journey through life and the Maine woods involves Stacy and her father. Readers will be quickly turning the pages as they realize the need for Mike’s quick wits and physical strength to bring the tale to a good ending.

Well recommended.

Note: Paul Doiron infuses the characters and locales in his series with an authenticity that allows the reader to enjoy an up close and personal armchair adventure. The Maine woods are not your average camping destination. Doiron avoids romanticizing his stories by grounding them with the harsh reality that comes with the picture postcard images we often attribute to unspoiled natural preserves. His characters behave in ways that touch on the choices we all must make in life, even if we are in a suburban development home or a secure highrise apartment. These books teach and entertain, and are well worth reading.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

The Precipice was released in paperback and trade paperback forms on May 31, 2016.

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The Black Snow

darkness the color of snow

Darkness the Color of Snow: A Novel by Thomas Cobb (William Morrow Paperbacks, $15.99, 304 pages)

Darkness the Color of Snow is Thomas Cobb’s fourth novel. Most known for his 1987 debut, Crazy Heart, for which Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the 2009 film adaptation, Cobb has paced his output. He’s released a collection of short stories along with two other novels.

Darkness is quite good. Ronny Forbert, a young policeman and a reclamation project of the police chief, Gordy Hawkins, becomes mired in a traffic stop gone bad. In a rural northeastern town, Ronny pulls over a car on a rural road in the middle of winter. The car is full of drunk and uncooperative townies, who ironically happen to be his old running buddies. (If the story took place in the south, one would characterize the local malcontents as “rednecks.” As it takes place in the north, I suppose “ignorant losers” will do.)

When ringleader Matt Laferiere becomes uncooperative, Forbert decides to arrest him and, failing to call for backup, the story takes off. During the resulting fracas, Matt becomes the victim of a hit and run, and many of the characters are swallowed up in the sad reality of American small town politics. Complicating things further is the fact that Forbert is dating Laferiere’s former girlfriend.

The writing is strong throughout. The telling inspires confidence from the outset, though the blunder that sets the story in motion (the failure to call for backup) was obvious initially even to someone – like me, who has no law enforcement background or an inherent passion for crime novels. It is a bit of a distraction when Cobb alternates between the present and the past to provide context and texture to the events and characters. While this does not ultimately interfere with the reader’s overall pleasure, it comes to mind that perhaps the middle third of the novel could have been handled in a more effective manner.

darkness back cover

Even the impeccable credentials of Police Chief Hawkins and the integrity of some local officials cannot stop the vicious spiral of events that have been set in motion. As one who deals with local politics on a daily basis and has experienced the bizarre on a first hand basis, I found this story to be many things. It is, plain and simply, a good book. To me, it also serves as a cautionary tale of how democracy is not always everything it is cracked up to be, despite the fact that there is no better substitute.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The trade paperback version of Darkness the Color of Snow was released on August 16, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Mercedes Bends

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The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel by Jennifer Dwight (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

This tale that spans 10 years is crafted to fit the locale, the San Francisco Bay Area/East Bay, the era, the 1980s to the 90s, and the human foibles of a rich array of characters carefully structured and revealed by debut author Jennifer Dwight. More a novel than a mystery, The Tolling of Mercedes Bell lulls readers by the rhythmic pace that is the unfolding of a new life for recently-widowed Mercedes and her seven-year-old daughter, Germaine.

Mercedes is an emotionally fragile, yet stubborn quasi paralegal. Her drunkard husband’s single car crash has left her penniless and in desperate need of a job. She and Germaine leave a rental house in Piedmont to settle into a rental cottage in an undesirable part of Oakland. Author Dwight has obviously frequented the areas she describes in minute detail. Coincidentally, my wife lived just blocks from the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland where Mercedes buys her newspapers and she vouched for the authenticity of the writing.

tolling of mercedes bell

The biggest shift from the minor key of the musical score, yes this is movie material, comes when Mercedes has realized her goal of steady employment at a law firm. Given the era, the notion of a tall, handsome single lawyer becoming infatuated with her is no surprise; however, what follows is eye opening to say the least!

Long-time residents of northern California may have an advantage in figuring out the conclusion.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on May 3, 2016.

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The Rain Falls In Ireland

rain dogs adrian mckinty

Rain Dogs: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, 315 pages)

“The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang/And asked for no applause.” Bob Dylan

Balanced Storytelling Makes Rain Dogs a Joy to Read.

The word that comes to mind when pondering Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs is balance. A cop story, for sure, McKinty’s 17th book is that and more.

The story opens with Detective Sean Duffy’s girlfriend, Beth, leaving him amidst his investigation into the apparent suicide of a young journalist named Lily Bigelow at Carrickfergus Castle. McKinty was born and raised in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, and details of the setting flow naturally, as would be expected.

As the story unfolds, Duffy uncovers some unseemly details at Kinkaid, a home for boys, and as the story comes to a close, McKinty deftly ties the various threads of the story together, including the return of Beth.

However, even as Duffy and his crew’s suspicions and clues lead them from suicide to murder, from one suspect to another, the cops can’t quite close the deal – which leads to another death… or murder, perhaps. With the circumstances of Duffy’s life and relationship changed, the next steps are less certain than they otherwise might have been, which, of course, perfectly sets up the 18th book.

Whether it be in the interplay between dialogue and description or plot construction and character development, McKinty always seems to deliver a pleasing balance that satisfies. Well done.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

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Sonata Days and Nights

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Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis & Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan by Frank Ahrens (Harper Business, $27.99, 336 pages)

“I could live here for forty years, learn the language inside out, and still not understand Korea.”

Seoul Man is basically two books in one. The first is a “fish out of water” story of a middle-aged, married later in life, American who finds himself living and working in South Korea. It’s a completely different world than the one he knew as a reporter in Washington, D.C.

Seoul Man city

Much of Korean culture – one focused on society first and individuals second, makes little sense to Western eyes. Plus, the basic conservatism of the culture appears to now be overrun by a tsunami wave of dangerous binge drinking (Koreans now consume the most alcohol, by far, of any people on the planet). Still, this part of the true account is fun, engaging and entertaining.

Not so entertaining is the part of the book where Ahrens writes about the corporate culture at Hyundai Motor; about his Christian beliefs (which apparently did not negate his participation in drinking fests); and time spent away from his wife and baby daughter. In fact, a long chapter about time spent in Indonesia adds nothing, while detracting from the natural narrative style. It should have been dumped.

Seoul Man back cover

There’s not enough within the pages of Seoul Man to classify it as a true business book. (Automobile lovers will find it lacking in the inside details they may expect to find.) It’s definitely a memoir, one that starts with an exciting bang before it ends on a dull whimper. Wait for the paperback version, or not.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book will be released on August 16, 2016.

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