Tag Archives: new books

A Table for Two

Restaurant Critic's Wife

The Restaurant Critic’s Wife: A Novel by Elizabeth LeBan (Lake Union, $24.95, 306 pages)

What we have here are the confessions of a restaurant critic’s wife done up as a rambling narrative. Lila falls in love with Sam Soto whose dream it is to be a newspaper food critic. I kid you not.

It all began back in New Orleans where Sam was a political reporter for the local newspaper. Lila is a high-powered hotel special events troubleshooter who loves her job. Sam captures her heart through her stomach. He cooks for Lila making yummy breakfasts and, well, you get the idea. Pretty soon they are a couple.

Sam catches his big break, but at the Philadelphia Herald. They move for Sam’s work. Lila enjoys socializing and being part of the community; however, Sam’s worldview is vastly different then hers. Alas, the life of a restaurant critic is filled with incognito dinners, no close friendships and keeping a low profile, which makes for quite a difficult lifestyle for Lila.

The frustrations and travails that follow are the heart of the story. Both Lila and Sam must face their issues and decide whether life is to be lived in secret or in the community. Only the real wife of a food critic could have written this novel. Clearly, Ms. LeBan has drawn from her own experiences to create such a believable tale. It’s impossible to determine where her life leaves off and her imagination begins to work.

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Well recommended for foodies and folks on vacation.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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We’re All Alone

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Delta Lady: A Memoir by Rita Coolidge with Michael Walker (Harper, $25.99, 225 pages)

In the Acknowledgments, Rita Coolidge states that from the age of four she “dreamed of writing a book.” Sadly, this memoir does not read as if it was written. It reads as if it was dictated onto audio cassettes and transcribed by the writer whose name is found beneath hers in small letters. There’s simply no voice, no style present that gives it personality; thus, one never feels like time has been spent with the singer-musician.

Coolidge concedes that people usually think of her as the woman who was once married to Kris Kristofferson. Those wishing to find out something about that marriage may be satisfied with what they read in these 219 pages. But those wishing to learn more about her life in or out of the music trade may be left wanting.

One frustrating thing is that Coolidge makes bold statements before walking them back. For example, she’ll state that musician Joe Blow used too much cocaine, and then retract that by saying it’s not for her to say what too much is. Tentativeness in a “tell all” is so unsatisfying.

It seems like Coolidge waited decades to tell her story and then hedged in the telling.

Delta Lady back cover

Note:

Delta Lady could have used assistance from a strong editor. There are awkward statements and content throughout. For example, at one point we read this about Janis Joplin: “She drank too much than was good for her…” And Coolidge tells us that after her mother died, “I had a gig on the eighteenth and knew she wouldn’t want me to not do that gig.” Ouch!

There’s also noticeable repetition in the account. For example, one particular background singer did some work with the Rolling Stones. So every time her name is mentioned, we’re told – with but one exception – that this woman once sang with the Rolling Stones. These may seem like small points, but they’re not so small when you’ve shelled out $26.00 for a finished work.

Finally, there may be some issues with factual accuracy. Coolidge states that the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour left Joe Cocker physically and financially impoverished. Other accounts note that Cocker’s poor physical state was due to alcoholism. And the Mad Dogs and Englishmen double-album made Cocker rich. It was the second-best selling album in the U.S. when it was released, and was very likely the best selling recording on college campuses. A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss stated, “‘The Letter’ (from the Mad Dogs album) was the first hit for Joe… The record went (Top 10) platinum and sold well… That whole group was incredible, and it was an amazing experience – what they did live and on record was magnificent. After that success, we were able to get Joe back in the studio to make more great records.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Down the Drain

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Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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A Step Back in Time

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The Taxidermist’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Mosse (William Morrow, $26.99, 412 pages)

In a remote village near the English coast, residents gather in a misty churchyard. It is St. Mark’s Eve, when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to walk.

Alone in the crowd is Constancia Gifford, the taxidermist’s daughter. Twenty-two and unmarried, she lives with her father on the fringes of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered on the remains of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered with the remains of his once world-famous museum of taxidermy. No one speaks of why the museum was shuttered or how the Giffords sank so low.

As the last peal of the midnight bell fades to silence, a woman is found dead – a stranger Connie noticed near the church.

A step back in time brings us to the early 1900s in Fishbourne, Chicester, West Sussex England. The author Kate Mosse (New York Times bestselling author of Labyrinth) is an accomplished writer of novels, non-fiction books and plays. Her writing style is consistent with the time she portrays. The specificity with which she slowly and gently unfolds her grisly tale is riveting, especially in light of the super fast action/thriller/mysteries we see today.

The physical book alerts the reader to the crafting and care embodied in The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Deckle pages add a touch of aged elegance, as do the illustrations marking each of the three parts of the tale and the start of each chapter. There is a detailed map of Fishbourne circa 1912 up front, which adds dimension and a sense of relationship between the sites where the action takes place. Readers would be wise to use a Post-It or page marker for ease in referencing the map. The Deckle edged pages are a bit difficult to separate for leafing back to the map.

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Connie, the taxidermist’s daughter, lives with her father, Gifford, on an isolated marshland in an old house. A sequence of events in the marsh, nearby town and church is set forth by an unseen narrator in one type font and a series of first-person missives in a flowing italic font is interspersed between events. The missives are haunting and threatening. Clearly, there is a past deed that warrants retribution.

A murky mystery unravels as though the past is meeting up with the present. Author Mosse provides a wealth of information about the indigenous birds and plants of Fishbourne. The detail with which she lays out Connie’s skillful practice of taxidermy approaches textbook accuracy.

Be very aware that this tale is not for the casual reader of English mysteries. There is much to be learned within these pages both in terms of technical knowledge and human psychology.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on March 29, 2016.

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I’ll Be There

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Some Women: A Novel by Emily Liebert (New American Library, $15.00, 291 pages)

“On the surface, these three women may not have much in common, but just when they each need someone to lean on, their lives are thrust together…”

She scanned the restaurant in search of Henry. Luckily, Nellie’s Tavern was an intimate spot with only a dozen or so tables, all of which were in plain sight. And, fortunately, Henry had no idea who she was or what she looked like. Thanks to the internet and a few pictures Annabel had showed her, Piper now knew that Henry was tall with dirty blond, receding hair; large oval-shaped light blue eyes, and about thirty extra pounds on his sturdy frame.

Three women, each from a different background and current circumstances meet through a shared exercise class. Annabel and Piper have been friends for only a few months, and yet, they have formed a friendship that has naturally evolved into a trusting one. Mackenzie, the perky younger gal who is new to the class, recognizes Piper from their shared workplace, Mead Media. Mackenzie’s mother-in-law is the owner.

Each of these women has issues in her life – issues of dysfunctionality that may topple the comfort and security that their home life has afforded them. Author Liebert gives her readers the inside scoop on each of her main character’s background and status. The dialogue is credible as the three women connect and share their emerging dilemmas. In many ways, this new set of friends has the freedom from emotional baggage that often accompanies long term friendships.

This is, of course, chick lit and while there are some villains, it’s not a guy-bashing story line. There’s shared responsibility among all the characters for the faults that caused the deterioration of their home life relationships. Leave it to three very smart and trusting friends to pool their resources and energy to jump in where others would fear to tread. The effort is clever and heartening. Who knows, your next best friend forever might be someone working at getting in shape right along with you during your weekly Pilates class.

Any further details would border on the necessity for a spoiler alert!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was published on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.

“Chock full of compelling characters, intriguing relationships, and some of the wittiest writing I’ve read this year.” Elin Hilderbrand, The Rumor.

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Coming Up Next…

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A review of The Secret Life of Anna Blanc: A Novel by Jennifer Kincheloe.

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Gallows Pole

Hangman's Game Syken

Hangman’s Game: A Nick Gallow Mystery by Bill Syken (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

Former Sports Illustrated reporter and editor, Bill Syken, has presumably experienced his share of NFL locker rooms. In Hangman’s Game, his fiction debut, Syken takes us from Philadelphia to the Deep South and back through the lens of Nick Gallow, a punter (of all things). Considering that the murder mystery is subtitled A Nick Gallow Mystery, one can reasonably presume there are more coming. And, if I am correct and Nick enjoys the career of a typical NFL punter, Syken will have the opportunity to take us to all corners of America before Nick is done solving crimes!

The novel opens with Nick out to dinner with the team’s first round draft choice, Samuel Sault, and their shared agent, Cecil Wilson. It ends… Well, no spoiler here. But, on the way out of the restaurant, Samuel is murdered, Cecil shot, and teammate Jai Carson, who is at the scene partying with his entourage, falsely accused. Enter Nick.

It is a reasonable assumption that J.C., as Jai is called, was trying to eliminate the competition, but Nick, who comes across as being almost entirely concerned only about himself, is convinced Jai is innocent, plays the team loyalty card, and attempts to uncover the truth. Nick is swimming against the tide, mostly because Jai is a completely unlikeable jerk, who is even more self-absorbed than Nick, who isn’t really that likeable either.

Syken’s writing is solid. The reader is effectively led through the story. Interest in discovering who did what is maintained throughout. The contemporary theme of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the concussion thing) comes into play, though it is not truly developed to any great degree. Despite Nick’s faults, the reader is drawn to him. The only knock is that the story plays on some of the classic stereotypes of the narcissistic, womanizing, gun-toting athlete. However, with the preponderance of these issues in the NFL, perhaps it is truly closer to the norm than an aberration.

Syken has authored a good first novel. It will be interesting to see if he can, next time around, build on his craft and go into greater depth with some of the issues that appear to be floating around in his mind.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on August 18, 2015.

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

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