Tag Archives: L.A.

Hill Street Blues

The Drop: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company; $27.99; 416 pages)

“It was a city where not enough people cared about making it a better and safe place to live.”

Michael Connelly, author of the tremendously successful Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Reversal, The Fifth Witness) and Harry Bosch novels, returns with what is likely his strongest tale yet.   The Drop stands for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Deferred Retirement Options Plan, which allows police officers and detectives to stay on as retired annuitants working past their normal scheduled retirement dates.   As we join the story, Bosch is bored, underworked, underappreciated and counting the months until the day of his departure from the Hall of Justice.

“Two days ago he didn’t think he could leg out the last thirty-one months of his career.   Now he wanted the full five years.”

Then, suddenly, Bosch is given not one, but two major cases to solve.   One assignment comes to him directly from the police chief.   Without explanation, a powerful city councilman who is a foe of the LAPD in general – and a long-time enemy of Detective Bosch – requests Harry’s services in resolving the death of his son.   The son’s death appears, at first blush, to be a suicide but is it something more?   And will the powers that be in the city permit Bosch to pull the strings even if it unravels a major political power broking scandal?

The second matter is a cold case investigation into a murderer, seemingly lost somewhere in southern California, who may be a rival to Ted Bundy as a dangerous serial killer.   While spending virtually every minute of the first 48 hours cracking the first case, Bosch and his partner also find and create the time to solve the mystery of the second.

Boomers will identify with Bosch, who is conflicted over whether he should remain on the job, retire immediately or stay on longer.   It will be familiar territory for some mature readers.   As Harry says to his 15-year-old wise, prospective-detective daughter, “I’ve been chasing my tail all week…  and you know what?   I think you were right.   You called it at the start and I didn’t.   I must be getting old.”

In this 22nd novel from Connelly, we find a protagonist who has never seemed more likable, more flawed and more human.   This is about as good as it gets when it comes to fiction set in the City of Angels.   And don’t just take my word for it:

Thank God for Michael Connelly…  (He) retains his journalistic gifts; his eye for detail is spot on…  his 22 novels form an indispensable, compelling chronicle of L.A.”   Los Angeles Times

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Drop will be released on November 28, 2011, and will also be available in e-reader form (Kindle Edition and Nook Book), and as an unabridged audiobook on CDs.   “Connelly is a master of building suspense.”   The Wall Street Journal

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Magic Carpet Ride

The Valley of Shadows: A Novel by Mark Terry (Oceanview, $25.95, 291 pages)

Mark Terry, author of the novels The Fallen and The Devil’s Pitchfork, has produced a “ripped from the headlines” novel about terrorists acting in the  U. S.   In The Valley of Shadows, members of Al-Qaeda plan to simultaneously attack five American cities:  Washington, D. C., New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.   So it’s up to five-person teams assigned to each of the targets to find the terrorists hiding in plain sight, and interfere with their plans to use dirty bombs and maybe nuclear weapons.

Our protagonist, Derek Stillwater, a wild, wooly and instinct-based troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security, is assigned to the L. A. team.   Derek and his four team members (who will be under the leadership of Cassandra O’ Reilly, Ph.D., of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; a one-time flame of Stillwater’s who has little love or use for him now) have just 48 hours to complete their impossible mission.   Oh, and if this isn’t enough to heap on their plates, it seems that the terrorists plan to destabilize the U. S. national election by assassinating one of the two major party candidates for president.   The candidate plans to arrive at LAX for a previously scheduled southern California campaign stop.

Start reading this unique thriller and you’re likely to put almost everything else aside for the next 48 hours, or less, in real-time.   It’s an e-ticket, fast pass, wild ride from start to finish – from Islamabad, Pakistan to Santa Monica – that never takes a wrong turn.   Author Terry has done his homework, having been briefed by members of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration (an air traffic controller has a key role in the story), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.   It’s clear that he – like his alter ego Derek Stillwater – has friends in high places, and he makes full use of inside information in the crafting of this all-too-realistic tale.

If you’re a fan of authors like Michael Connelly, Joseph Finder and David Baldacci, you may be ready to join the Mark Terry fan club…  And unless you plan to purchase a new Porsche Cayman S, you’re not likely going to experience a better ride.   Trust me on this.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Valley of Shadows was released on June 7, 2011.   “Terry mashes the action pedal to the floor in this solid Derek Stillwater novel.”   Publishers Weekly

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On the Border

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, $14.00, 240 pages)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl who was Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is in fact primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half of the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the hotel maids, and the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent (Hospital) and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexicano, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiosity pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers will be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can rachet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “There was a time when the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park was known for silent films — not for drive-by shootings.”   NPR

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The Barricades of Heaven

The Opposite Field: A Memoir by Jesse Katz (Three Rivers Press)

“Better bring your own redemption when you come/ To the barricades of Heaven where I’m from…”   Jackson Browne

“Some nights I think, just maybe, I have found the place I belong.”   Jesse Katz

There are probably just three groups of people who will be attracted to this memoir by Jesse Katz – parents, baseball fans and those who love the greater city of Los Angeles.   No, make it four groups, as nomads must be included.   Nomads in this case being defined to include those who were born and grew up in one part of the United States but found their true, instinctual home in another part of the country.

Jesse Katz is one of those nomads but in his case it was genetic.   His parents met and were married in Brooklyn, but felt the need to move a million miles west to Portland, Oregon.   This was the pre-hip Portland, a city of mostly white persons before it became the ultra-cool city that attracted Californians – a city with a bookstore so big that it requires a map to get around inside of it.

Author Katz grew up in a humble apartment complex near downtown Portland’s Chinatown, his father a suffering artist and later a professor at Portland State.   Katz’ mother was a late bloomer, a Robert F. Kennedy inspired feminist-activist who eventually was elected to the State Legislature, then became the first woman elected as Speaker of the Assembly before becoming a two-term Mayor of the Rose City.

But this is Katz’ story which describes his escape from Portland as a teen, moving to the wilds of Los Angeles, a city that he so accurately describes as the anti-Portland.   In L.A. Katz – “a white boy” – found that, “I had become a minority, the exception…  I was a curiosity even.   God how I loved it!   Los Angeles…  Where had you been all  my life?”

Katz first lives north of downtown before he moves to the multicultural community of Monterey Park.   Monterey Park, a city of taco stands, noodle shops and Mexican restaurants, bereft of national retailers, where the local 7-Eleven sells the Chinese Daily News.   There he burrows into the Hispanic-Asian suburb (yet an independent city) just 7 miles east of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers.   And he finds a new life that centers around the seemingly minor sport of Little League baseball.

Katz, a reporter by profession, becomes the Little League coach of a team that plays at the La Loma fields in Monterey Park; coaching a team that includes his son Max.   Max, unlike his father, is himself multicultural, the product of his Jewish father and Nicaraguan mother.   The game of baseball as played by children may not seem to offer great lessons, but Katz comes to find the truth as expressed by writer John Tunis:  “Courage is all baseball.   And baseball is life; that’s why it gets under your skin.”

The game gets under Katz’ skin to the point where he agrees to serve as the Commissioner of Baseball for the multi-age league centered at La Loma.   This means that every waking moment for several years, not devoted to reporting on gangs for the Los Angeles Times or writing about the city for Los Angeles magazine, is reserved to keeping the league afloat.   It is, in many respects, serious business but also fun…  “I could not escape the feeling that Little League was like summer camp for adults, a reprieve from whatever drudgery or disorder was besetting our regular lives, a license to care about things, about events and people, that otherwise would have passed us by.”

Katz wisely chooses to omit little of the successes and failures that he encountered, both as “The Commish” and as the single father of a teenage son.   This is a look back at a life lived both large and small, and a look at a city, Los Angeles, that embraces the people who make up its communities.   Yes, the city and its suburbs embrace its citizens in a fashion that is far more real than the media’s myths of L.A.’s violence and tawdriness.

This reader, who lived in L.A. and learned to love it (and was embraced by it), would love to raise a toast to Jesse Katz (AKA Chuy Gato).   Perhaps one day he will let me buy him a beer at the Venice Room in Monterey Park (“the seamy cocktail lounge that sooner or later everyone ended up at…”).   A toast to greater L.A., the barricades of Heaven; a place to which we were not born, a place we discovered before it was too late.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from The Crown Publishing Company.   The Opposite Field was released in trade paperback form by Three Rivers Press on July 13, 2010.

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Cut and Paste

Cut, Paste and Kill by Marshall Karp (Minotaur Books, 296 pages, $24.99)

Is nothing sacred?   Take scrapbooking – it is so important to some ladies that they tout their pastime on license plate frames, bumper stickers and even personalized plates.   To Marshall Karp scrapbooking is an easy target for a serial killer’s modus operandi.   This is the fourth Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs book from Karp.   Lomax and Biggs, two of Los Angeles’ finest, ramble around the greater L. A. area forsaking a sumptuous bar-b-que and a quiet weekend with family and friends.   Their mission is to scope out the scene in the first of several quirky murders.

Along the trail of the scrapbooking murderer, the cops cross paths with an assortment of characters guaranteed to be found in L.A. but not necessarily anywhere else!   The chapters in this book are short and chock full of snappy dialogue.   It’s easy for a reader to imagine the scenes using the clues Marshall Karp provides.

Be prepared for false stops and restarts as this story ebbs and flows just like the ocean along L.A.’s Pacific Coast.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Over the Borderline

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, June 2010)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl because she was a Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexican, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiousity  pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers may be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can ratchet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Free Fallin’

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