Tag Archives: November book releases

The Miraculous Cat

a catA Cat by Leonard Michaels (Tin House Books, $18.95, 128 pages); illustrated by Francis Lerner, introduction by Sigrid Nunez

“A cat is content to be a cat.”

A Cat is a nicely illustrated re-release of a book originally published in 1999.  The book was written by the late Leonard Michaels, who taught as a Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.  The line drawings for the original and this edition were by Francis Lerner, and they well represent the relaxed yet athletic nature of cats.

A Cat is both an examination of and a tribute to felines.  Each page contains a parable-like statement about the nature of cats, although Michaels noted that we can never truly capture the essence of these creatures: “A cat reminds us that much in this world remains unknown.”

Michaels certainly loved cats: “Looking at a cat, like looking at clouds or stars or the ocean, makes it difficult to believe there is nothing miraculous in the world.”  Cats remain in the present moment, making the most of life.  In Michaels’s words, “For a cat just to live is splendid.”  And cats show us that sometimes it is best to get out of one’s mind: “To be quick as a cat you must not think.”

Cats live on their well developed instincts, “However a cat looks or behaves, it is what it is, a small and intensely serious being, a cat.”

Well recommended for anyone who is willingly owned by a cat.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  This new edition of A Cat was released on November 13, 2018.  (Sasha the cat decided this was a great book to sit on top of.)

 

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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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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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Murder in the Library

murder manuscript roomMurder in the Manuscript Room: A 42nd Street Library Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99)

I tend to avoid mysteries for a number of reasons.  Let me go over them here:

  1. Most mysteries tend to feature too many characters.  One needs a flow chart to keep track of them.
  2. Most mysteries have too many quirky characters.  Why are these characters stranger than the ones in most novels?
  3. Most mysteries have too many red herrings.
  4. Most mysteries go on too long before the mystery in question is solved.  And then it happens far too quickly (e.g., 305 pages detailing the story, which is wrapped up at warp speed in the last 10 to 15 pages).
  5. Most mysteries have too much dialogue and not enough narrative exposition (scene setting and action).

Despite all of this, I found Murder in the Manuscript Room to be quite engaging.  Con Lehane offers a unique premise – someone is not only killing in the New York City Public Library, but in the rare manuscripts room.  Why?  Why there?  Why in that room?

I often find myself not caring about the solution to the crime at the center of a mystery novel.  However, this time I wanted to know the outcome.  What made the read more enjoyable than most mysteries for me is that author Lehane has a bit of a clipped style.  He does not overload the reader with facts and details; instead, I found that sometimes he leaves things out.  Every now and then, in fact, I wondered if I had skipped a page or two because of his conciseness.  (He sometimes, to use a legal phrase, assumes facts that are not in evidence.)

Lehane also throws in a bit of a romance and a variation on the hard-boiled New York City cop.  Well done!

Lehane basically has a unique tone as a writer.  I like it.

Now I look forward to reading the earlier book in the series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, and I hope I’m sent a copy of Lehane’s next work.

Me, looking forward to reading a mystery…  Imagine that.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.  This book was released on November 21, 2017.

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Death in Special Collections

Murder in the Manuscript Room: A 42nd Street Library Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99)

murder manuscript room

As she dug through the possessions Leila left behind, she was aware that what she searched through was not so different than what she might find in any of the boxes in the manuscripts and archives collection.

Author Con Lehane follows his first novel in this series, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, with an equally engaging tale.  Raymond Amber, newly-discovered grandfather of Johnny, jumps into another quirky situation in his role as the curator of the crime fiction collection at the New York City landmark/institution.

The cast of characters includes several carry-overs, the most prominent among them are: Raymond’s almost-love-interest librarian Adele Morgan, New York police detective Mike Cosgrove, and beloved Library Tavern bartender McNulty.  Despite the obvious enormity of New York City, Lehane deftly conveys a small town vibe by further developing the strong relationships among the characters introduced in the first book.  They interact within a fairly tight radius around the library and their respective neighborhoods.

Of course there is the promised murder and ensuing investigation into the who and why of the event.  New member of the library staff and murder victim, Leila Stone, gave off strange vibes and did not fit in with the normal flow of work.  Mike and Raymond form a tension-filled team to solve the crime.  In the past, Raymond has proved his skill at detective work which puts him in friendly competition with his buddy the detective.

Adele is the one library staff member who was able to forge a relationship with Leila and she takes up the thankless task of delving into Leila’s past in the hope of finding a motive for the otherwise pointless murder.  Adele ventures away from New York City all the way to Texas.  There are murky figures lurking wherever she travels which adds a menacing note to the tale.

Numerous plot threads connect the characters within the murder investigation, while at the same time daily life goes on.  Raymond’s continuing custody tug-of-war with Johnny’s wealthy grandmother allows the reader to experience his evolving emotional development from a neat and tidy librarian’s life to the messiness of a life infused with deep feelings.

The satisfying second novel in the 42nd Street Library series from Con Lehane is a  product of his adept skill at writing dialogue, describing scenery and portraying emotions.  The added bonus blended into the mystery is another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the workings of a priceless institution.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Fine Dining, Fine Dying

a deadly eclairA Deadly Eclair: A French Bistro Mystery by Daryl Wood Gerber (Crooked Lane, $26.99, 337 pages)

Though restaurants were typically dark on Mondays, because Napa was a tourist destination and tourists often stayed in the area through Monday, we decided that Tuesday would be a good day to close.

The California Napa Valley is known for its rolling hills of grape vineyards and wide variety of large and small wine producers.  What better place for the daughter of small winery owners to establish a small restaurant?  Mimi Rousseau’s Bistro Rousseau features the culinary magic of her French heritage.  Mimi has surrounded herself with a loyal crew in the kitchen and out front in the dining room.  This team is committed to the success of the restaurant!

A disastrous marriage was the impetus for Mimi to return to her roots in Napa.  She finds herself faced with an equally disastrous occurrence when her benefactor, Bryan Baker, is murdered on the eve of a celebrity wedding, the first to be hosted at the bistro.  While the underlying search for the killer makes this novel a mystery, the gastronomic delights described therein will no doubt whet the appetites of author Daryl Wood Gerber’s readers.

Ms. Gerber challenges readers with a cast of characters whose names pop up at an alarming rate with the first part of the book.  Some of them have first names that can easily be last names which adds to the confusion.  That aside, her detailed descriptions of the towns within the Napa Valley prove her knowledge of the area.  The generous array of recipes for the mouthwatering food served at Bistro Rousseau included at the back make the book a trifecta of mystery, travel and dining.

He was standing at the dessert station, handing two plates of chocolate souffle – decorated with white chocolate shavings and sprigs of mint, all set within a chain of white and dark chocolate hearts – to Oakley.

A Deadly Eclair is the first of Ms. Gerber’s French Bistro Mystery series.  Her prior series, also featuring food, are the Cookbook Nook Mysteries (five books) and the Cheese Shop Mysteries (seven books).  The Cookbook Nook series was written by Ms. Gerber as Avery Aames.

Well recommended for a wide range of readers from young adult and up.  Be aware, however, that you may gain five or more pounds simply by reading this food-dominated story!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.  This book was published on November 7, 2017.

 

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Crawling Back to You

Breakup/Breakdown – Poems by Charles Jensen (Five Oaks Press, $12.99, 42 pages)

Can one find hope in poems of heartbreak and loss?

breakup-breakdown

This is a fascinating chapbook of poems by Charles Jensen.  These are poems about heartbreak and loss.  After all, we lose things in life, like people and laptops and places:

I understand that/purpled anger in her/face, the way she’s/aware she was/just a pitstop in/someone else’s/marriage. To know/you are not/the one, but just another one.

These are also poems about disruption, the kind that comes with rapid change, with the shedding of the present for the future:

Disruption/is the pulling apart of two independent lives. A rupture/but I didn’t know it until it was too late.  Everything we’d placed/inside those years spilled out/like blood escaping from a vein./Love, my friends, should never/be entrusted to the heart, whose job/is to push away the only thing/the world will ever offer it.

(Disruption, previously published in HIV Here + Now.)

Jensen understands that life is about accepting the changes that are beyond our control:

We shake our lives loose like a braid/untwirling at the end of a long day/I want everything and nothing that belongs to you…

And finally, there’s the notion of place.  A place is ours, if only for a transitory period.  We occupy a space for a moment, like time travelers:

I move into a one bedroom overlooking Glassell Park and/the Los Angeles Rivers and the 5 and the hills of Echo Park/between Division and Future streets.  Division runs drunk/through the neighborhood, splitting Mount Washington/into two separate lives.  Future Street rises straight up the face,/turns sharply and then goes down to just one lane, a 90 degree/curve and, from time to time, gets lost in the spaghetti of streets/only to reappear suddenly on the far side of the hill, shunning/drivers with its abrupt end in a one-way alley.  The apartment/gets a lot of light, and at night the yellow glow of porch lamps/and street lamps dot the dark landscape like a pattern for the/Lite Brite I played with as a child, plugging in plastic pegs to make/something beautiful appear…

(Between Division and Future Streets, previously published in Diode.)

I very much enjoyed reading and rereading these poems by Charles Jensen, whom I feel I now know as a friend.  If the world is something we cannot fathom, we can understand a fellow traveler who is headed down the same highway in search of peace, comfort and understanding.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

charles-jensen

Charles Jensen is a graduate of Arizona State University, and is the Director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

 

 

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Lucretia MacEvil

moral-defenseMoral Defense: A Samantha Brinkman Book by Marcia Clark (Thomas & Mercer, $24.95, 416 pages)

I quite enjoyed Marcia Clark’s first two criminal justice system novels, Guilt By Association and Guilt By Degrees.  At that time Clark’s writing was biting but concise; somewhat in the vein of Michael Connelly.  David Baldacci wrote, “Clark’s pace, plot and dialogue are as sharp as they come.”  Well, those days seem to be over.

Moral Defense is not a terrible work, but it’s far too long at 416 pages, and Clark should have relied on the main story – about a young woman whose family members were brutally attacked – instead of loading the novel up with multiple crime stories.  Defense attorney Sam Brinkman ties up so  many loose ends in this tale that she might as well be a seamstress.  Unlike prosecutor Rachel Knight, who seems to represent Clark’s alter ego, Brinkman is a Super Woman in a decidedly unlikeable package.  She’s as mean – and perhaps as evil, as the dastardly criminals she represents.

moral-defense-back-cover

The key problem is that Clark has devolved to a writing style that’s choppy and no longer crisp.  This was especially true of the first 200 pages.  By the time the second half speeds up, the reader has long passed the point of caring about the denouements.  Not good.  Not good at all.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on November 8, 2016.

 

 

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Don’t You (Forget About Me)

searching-for-john-hughes

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned From Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond (William Morrow, $15.99, 285 pages)

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

“It was time to start paying attention, because I didn’t want to miss anything else. I didn’t find John Hughes, but instead I found the things I really needed.” – Jason Diamond

It’s rare to read a book about someone’s unsuccessful attempt to write a book. But that’s what this memoir is about. Jason Diamond spent years researching and writing a book about 80s film director and producer John Hughes. He eventually gave up his quest – which took most of his twenties – literally a couple of days before he believed he would meet Hughes in person. Then, to make things ever more tragic and dramatic, he learned that Hughes had died of a heart attack.

Hughes died not in Chicago, where Diamond was headed at the time, but in New York City. Diamond lived in Brooklyn. So the gods had clearly determined that Diamond’s hip biography of Hughes would never be published.

This would seem to mean that there’s not much of a story for Diamond to tell here. Oh, but there is. It’s the story of a person – all too common these days – overflowing with self-effacing feelings. All Diamond ever wanted to do was write, but his efforts never seemed to pan out. So he placed all his hopes and fears into producing “the book” that was to turn his life around. Of course, there were a few problems and obstacles along the way – chiefly that neither Hughes nor any of the actors in his films ever agreed to meet or be interviewed by Diamond. (As might occur in a bad film, Diamond did come into awkward contact with some of these actors in New York City.)

There was also the fact that the man who said he would be Diamond’s book agent never signed a contract to fulfill that commitment, never did any actual work on Diamond’s behalf, and left the business before Diamond’s bio draft was completed.

Diamond had to learn the hard way that one cannot spend one’s entire life waiting for something that may never arrive. It was only when he erased all of his work on the ever-unfinished Hughes bio that his life actually began. And, yes, this was a good thing.

While Searching for John Hughes does not in fact live up to its ambitious subtitle – it may have been more properly subtitled as My Search for the Ghost of John Hughes – kudos go to Diamond for summarizing the philosophy of Hughes’s work in brief fashion:

Life is full of constant sadness and the world can be a cruel place. Yet what Hughes offers in his films is the idea that one single day can be great, and that’s all you need if you live in the moment. That one day can turn into a second, and third, and many more consecutive great days. There will be pitfalls here and there, chemicals in your brain, tragedy that you can’t prepare yourself for, or tyrannical vice principals trying to hold you down, but the trick is to open yourself up to the idea that great things can just happen, that the good is just as much a part of life as the bad.

And Diamond summarized his own early adult life in this succinct way:

One day you think you have a great idea, then five minutes, hours, days – or in my case – years later you finally realize that it’s time to put it away. Sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t slow down, if you let your obsessions and anger and fear stop you from looking around, you could miss some really important things.

This is a quite enjoyable work by writer Jason Diamond. I very much look forward to reading his next release.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Searching for John Hughes was released on November 29, 2016.

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