Tag Archives: northern California

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Mercedes Bends

tollling of MB amazon

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Coming Attraction

A Working Theory of Love: A Novel by Scott Hutchins (Penguin Press, $25.95, 336 pages)

This debut novel by Scott Hutchins – a University of Michigan graduate, a former Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program and a current Instructor at Stanford University – will be released on October 2, 2012.   The protagonist, Neill Bassett, lives in a San Francisco apartment building “on the south hill overlooking Dolores Park.”   He commutes to work in Menlo Park, where he works at a small but innovative Silicon Valley company.   Here is a synopsis of A Working Theory of Love:

Neil Bassett is now just going through the motions, again joining the San Francisco singles scene after the implosion of his very short-lived starter marriage to ex-wife Erin.   He’s begun to live a life of routine, living with his cat in the apartment that he and Erin once shared.   On one otherwise ordinary day he discovers that his upstairs neighbor Fred has broken a hip.   Neil summons an ambulance, and when the paramedics arrive Fred says to Neil, “I’m sorry, Neill.   I’m sorry.   I’m so sorry.”   This sets Neil to wondering about life itself — was Fred apologizing for “his basic existence in this world, the inconvenience of his living and breathing?”

Neil’s physician father committed suicide ten years earlier, leaving behind personal diaries of thousands of pages.   The artificial intelligence company Neil works for, Amiante Systems, is using the diaries to create a human-like computer which uses the words of Neil’s late dad to communicate.   To Neil’s surprise, the experiment seems to be working as the computer not only gains an apparent conscious awareness it even begins asking Neill difficult questions about his childhood.

While in a state of shock over the events at Amiante, Neil meets an intended one-night stand named Rachel.   He falls for her and wonders what his life would be like in her company; and, yet, he remains bogged down with his feelings for Erin.   To make matters worse, Erin continues to intersect with Neil at unlikely and unexpected times.   When Neil discovers a missing year in the diaries – a year that might unleash the secret to his parents’ seemingly troubled marriage and perhaps the reason for his father’s suicide – everything Neil thought he knew about his past comes into question.   Neil now becomes paralyzed with confusion and indecision. 

Scott Hutchins’s story deals with love, grief and reconciliation while teaching us about life’s lessons.   He shows us how we have the chance to be free once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our family histories – our sad or disappointing childhoods, our poor youthful decisions, and our unintended miscommunications with those we love and have loved.   A Working Theory of Love presents the reader with a unique, highly gifted new writing talent in the form of Scott Hutchins.

“A brainy, bright, laughter-through tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel…  This book’s got something for everyone!”   Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan

“Scott Hutchins’s wonderful new novel is right on the border of what is possible…  The book is brilliantly observant about the way we live now, and its comic and haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”   Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love

“It takes a genius, a supercomputer, a disembodied voice, and a man who’s stopped believing to create A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins’s brilliantly inventive deubt novel…  This book is astonishing.”   Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son

Joseph Arellano

The synopsis of A Working Theory of Love was based on information provided by the publisher, and on an Advanced Uncorrected Proof.   The novel will be released in hardbound form in October, and will also be available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I Feel the Earth Move

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (William Morrow, $12.99, 352 pages)

In all the world I had never seen anything so strangely inhumanly beautiful.   In this place, man would soon seem simply extraneous.   I shivered.   I did not think I would feel welcome for long in this world where the very earth spasmed and the great trees would not acknowledge my presence.

Between finishing college and starting graduate school, I was lucky enough to have a summer job that involved taking young people camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California.   This is a unique area – a special place – filled with ancient redwoods and wild animals, including bears, and being there is an other-worldly experience.   If you can’t take a trip there, you may wish to read Fault Lines, which permits the reader to experience the place via the eyes of a Southerner making her first trip to California; and, for good measure, Siddons throws in visits to Los Angeles and San Francisco in this novel about a woman whose life is shaken up – a woman who experiences “an earthquake in the soul.”

Merritt Fowler is a proper Atlanta housewife, married to a succesful physician named Pom, and mother to Glynn, her sensitive sixteen-year-old daughter.   For years she also served as a pseudo-mother to her younger sister Laura, an actress who fled to southern California after finding it impossible to live in the household of the stern doctor Fowler.   Pom turns out to be one of those good men (he provides free health care to the poor of Atlanta) who practices good deeds everywhere except in his own home.   He’s also unable to face reality when his mother – whom he insists be referred to as Mommee – is afflicted by Alzheimer’s and her actions become literally life-threatening.   When Glynn insists that Mommee be placed in a residential care facility, Pom becomes so hostile toward his daughter that Glynn runs away to join her aunt Laura in Palm Springs.

Merritt has been the responsible and forgiving one her entire life, but this single incident permits her to see that her husband has become (in the words of Jackson Browne) a “perfect fool”   She stands up to Pom for the first time, and elects to go and find her daughter and bring her back home.   Once she gets to California, she sees that both Glynn and Laura are different people there than they were in Georgia…  and the environment begins to also take hold of her actions, and of her very being.

In California, Merritt – who is said to resemble the late actress Kay Kendall – realizes that she and her sister and daughter are all viewed as great beauties, even in a city (Los Angeles) filled with actresses.   And she begins to become fascinated with the notion of earthquakes, especially after experiencing her first one.   She’s unaware that the big earthquake, in her personal life, is soon to hit.

Oh, it was such a day, it really was.   A pinnacle day, a ball bearing on which a life turns.

While this novel starts slowly, filled with dialogue that initially seems to be both clumsy and awkward (I had an image of actors practicing their lines off-screen – never able to get them right), the reader’s patience is rewarded with an engaging story that warms up to the point where you don’t want to put the book down.   If Merritt begins as a cardboard figure, she soon turns into a person alive as you or me…  Merritt’s a person – a mature person – who is still trying to find her place in the world.   She’s lost herself in the air somewhere between Atlanta and LAX, and now she has to decide if she’s the Merritt of Old Atlanta or the Merritt of the New West.   The way in which she finds herself will surprise you.

Highly recommended.   Siddons is a writer who wisely pulls her punches before delivering a knockout blow.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A literary meteor shower…  One great read.”   Detroit News/Free Press

Note: There is one glaring error in the novel.   The college in Santa Cruz is called USC Santa Cruz on page 274, when it is actually the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC, Santa Cruz or UCSC).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Miles From Nowhere

Sliding on the Edge: A Novel by C. Lee McKenzie (WestSide Books, $16.95, 268 pages)

The rent is overdue and Jackie, a compulsive gambler, has skipped town with the latest in a long line of bad boyfriends.   She leaves a hundred dollars, a bus ticket to Sacramento, California, and a note telling her daughter to look up the grandmother she’s never met.   So when sixteen-year-old Shawna wakes up to find herself alone in their seedy rental, we expect a coming-of-age story set against the bright lights and gritty underbelly of Las Vegas.

But Sliding on the Edge by first-time novelist C. Lee McKenzie delivers something quite different.   It’s an interesting look at the lives of two women – grandmother Kay’s and Shawna’s – linked by blood and stained by tragedy.   They are each others’ last chance for happiness, as impossible as that seems to both when they first set eyes on each other.

McKenzie tells the story of their uneasy first months together, alternating chapters in Shawna’s words and in Kay’s and sometimes recounting the same scene from each character’s perspective.   It’s a technique that deftly lets the reader in on Kay’s past and on Shawna’s self-destructive present.   But it falls short of making Shawna a likeable character.   When Kay’s teenaged stable hand develops a crush on Shawna; and Marta, a classmate, pursues her friendship, this reader wondered why?

Kay is a far more sympathetic character, which is brilliant:  It lets the reader, likely a teen, see that authority figures are people, too.   At times, however, it seemed to have been edited too tightly at the expense of details that might have developed the characters further.   Who is the redhead with the ice cream about whom Shawna thinks?

Sliding on the Edge tackles the difficult issues of depression, cutting, and attempted suicide in an unflinching manner and ends on a hopeful note.   Recommended.

By Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the author.   “Sliding on the Edge is the compelling, courageous chronicle of one girl – destined to be a no-one – who fights back against her secret grief and pain and finds her life.”   Judy Gregerson, author of Bad Girls Club.

C. Lee McKenzie has released her second novel, The Princess of Las Pulgas.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Out of Time

Coming Back: A Sharon McCone Mystery by Marcia Muller (Grand Central Publishing; $24.99; 304 pages)

In this, the 28th mystery novel featuring San Francisco private investigator Sharon McCone, author Marcia Muller explores the collateral damage wrought by McCone’s experience in a conscious vegetative state that resulted from a bullet to her brain.   McCone’s chapters are in the first person and the reader is pulled along as she tries to resolve her need to get back in the action and maintain her relationship with her husband.

This reviewer’s lack of familiarity with the series made it difficult to appreciate just what sort of life McCone is struggling to maintain.   The references to flying her husband’s private airplane, a vintage sports car, multiple homes on acreage and a staff at her beck and call made McCone less than the pitiable victim Muller tries to characterize.

The theme of the book seems to be that interfering in other people’s lives is a rewarding activity.   Since there is no paying client, the reward must be purely emotional.   Although the loosely developed story is set in San Francisco, there are action scenes that take place in Muir Woods, Walnut Creek and along the east side of the Bay.   In each instance, the setting was well known to this reviewer and did not seem the least bit scary.   Maybe that was Muller’s point – scary things can happen in ordinary places.

Perhaps it’s time to retire Sharon McCone to one of her getaway homes?

Quirkly and a bit interesting, but not much more.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized