Tag Archives: Philadelphia

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.

Restaurant Critic's Wife back

Well recommended for foodies and folks on vacation.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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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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Watching the Detectives

The Bedlam Detective: A Novel by Stephen Gallagher (Crown, $25.00, 305 pages)

“When a man who demands his own way in all things is faced with the disastrous consequences of his actions, he has to know what brought them on.   But can a man’s mind bear up under such knowledge?”

Prolific author Stephen Gallagher has carefully crafted a period piece set in 1912-era London.   The refined language and specificity of details draw the reader into the tale.   At first it seems a bit forced; however, as the drama/mystery unfolds, the reader becomes familiar with the main character, Mr. Simon Becker, a Brit who is a former Pinkerton Detective in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   Becker is now in England with his wife Elizabeth, son Robert and sister-in-law Frances living under reduced circumstances.   Their relocation was precipitated by a need of proper guidance and schooling for son Robert, who has been variously described as mentally deficient and/or brilliant.

Although poor, the family is comfortably settled in a set of rooms in the Southwest borough of London.   Nearby are dreadful slums, yet Becker and the rest of the family count themselves fortunate to have created a home that suits their needs.   Elizabeth works as a nurse’s aide at a local hospital, Becker is employed by the Master of Lunacy in a poorly paying position, Robert attends classes at a special school, and Frances manages the household.

In his capacity as the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy, Becker travels to interview wealthy persons who may have become too addled or just plain insane to manage their own finances.   Becker is on such a visit to wealthy and titled industrialist, Sir Owain Lancaster, when all hell breaks loose in the small town near the industrialist’s large estate.   Two little girls are found dead with evidence of mauling and “interference.”   In the terminology of the era, this means they were sexually assaulted.   This is but one of a series of gory happenings in the town going back many years.   Becker gives in to his urge to investigate, a holdover from his Pinkerton days.

Sir Owain is a brilliant inventor whose life took a horrible turn for the worse during an expedition into the Amazon region of South America.   Gallagher does a brilliant job of unfolding his character’s quirks and motivations.   Becker and Sir Owain enter into a battle of wits as Becker tries to determine whether Sir Owain is a candidate for placement in protective custody by the Master of Lunacy – Becker’s employer.

What sets the book apart from other similar English period pieces is the wildly creative imagination of author Stephen Gallagher.   After setting the stage for the mystery, Gallagher forges ahead with his tale and as Bette Davis famously stated in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”   Yes, it was a page-turner that kept my attention to the very end.

It makes perfect sense that Gallagher is able to bring a story to life so vividly as he is a screenwriter, director and novelist!

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Bedlam Detective was released on February 7, 2012.

“If thriller reading were a sin, Stephen Gallagher would by responsible for my eternal damnation.”   Dean R. Koontz

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Hungry Like the Wolf

The Wolves of Fairmount Park: A Crime Novel by Dennis Tafoya (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

“Somebody out there has turned a gun on two kids.   Whoever did it might be locked up now, and they might not.   If they weren’t locked up, then they were on the street and not far away.   It wasn’t six degrees out here, separating the guilty from the innocent, the living from the dead.   It was two degrees.”

This would have made for a great two-hour made for TV movie – a decade or two or more ago – when people felt they still had the time to watch such things.   Two outstanding males of high school age are shot (and one is killed) in front of  a drug house in Philadelphia, a killing which has shocked the community and the entire city.   The old guard police chief wants the crime solved by yesterday, so he turns to his most on-the-make young detective; a kid with a proven track record (the department’s “boy wonder”), and the best of instincts.

But there are two other individuals who have their own reasons for beating the detective at his own game.   One is the police officer father of the surviving high school students, who feels guilty over his shaming of a son who he viewed as less than masculine.   Then there’s the officer’s troubled and drug-abusing half-brother who sees this as his chance for redemption within the family.

As these protagonists engage in a race to solve the crime in a dangerous environment, things quickly become far more dangerous.   Control of the drug trade in this community already changed hands once in the recent past, and now there’s a full-fledged war to see which adult gang will control the multi-million dollar trade in the future.   This is a war fought with automatic weapons and snipers; a war in which friends betray friends.   The winners will be able to buy anything they want in life, the losers will be dead.

“The city was a box between the two rivers, a couple of miles up and down.   Chances were he really did already know the shooters.   And that they knew him.”

Our fourth major character is the city of Philadelphia, Philly, which is anything but inspiring or glamorous.   This is the tough and downtrodden city seen in the film Invincible, in which most folks are out of work and one’s leisure time is spent in dive bars and strip clubs.   The only job training program available is run by the drug dealers who own “the corners”, and it’s a program that is far from being sanctioned by the federal government.

“He thought about how everyone thought they had the right to do whatever they did.   Everything, no matter what.”   

Author Dennis Tafoya does not easily or readily give up information to the reader, which in this context is a good thing.   The reader will be almost two-thirds of the way through the story before learning the simple reason the two young men were standing in front of a drug house on a dangerous night.   Tafoya makes you work for it, to become invested in his tough and gritty story.   It is an investment that pays off extremely well in the end.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Waiting for McLean Stevenson

Cakewalk: A Memoir by Kate Moses

“The byproduct of suffering, if you’re lucky, is appreciation…  My windfall has always been a sweet tooth, the gold watch that deflected the bullet aimed straight at my heart.”

I was more than 50 pages into reading a galley of Cakewalk before I realized that this is a non-fiction memoir.   At the start it reads like a novel that might have been written by Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen, although I should have taken a clue from its overly upbeat nature.   “Mom, did you know the words ‘treat’ and ‘threat’ are separated by just one letter?”   But the tone shifted before many more pages had been turned.

Kate Moses was in first grade in 1969 and this re-telling of her life story reads like a memorial to an earlier time, the 1950’s.   It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that Moses grew up living in several places including Palo Alto, Petaluma, Sonoma, outside of Philadelphia (where the Main Line ended), Virginia and Fairbanks, Alaska.   She also had relatives in San Francisco and Dayton, Ohio (“…along every road in Ohio the corn stood high as an elephant’s eye.”)

This initially appears to be an ode to food, the many treats and meals that an overweight young girl took in growing up.   She sees a cross-country trip as “an opportunity for reunion with Howard Johnson’s coconut cake.”   And she “spent every cent I was given on candy and pink Hostess Sno Balls.”   The impression that this is all about food is given further credence by a recipe that concludes each chapter.   Yet the food talk is a cover.

“My family was totally screwed up…”

This memoir is, to a great extent, about the pain of growing up.   Moses’ parents had a very unhappy marriage.   Her father was an overly serious man and her mother was fun-loving.   It did not make for a good mix.   One fault with the telling is that Moses makes a few too many negative references to her father.   He was “a rigid bullying husband…” and a violent father who caught his wife in “the stranglehold of… marriage” due to his “brutalizing domination.”   The reader gets the point after the first couple of references.

This brings up the issue of editing.   All in all, this is an entertaining read but not so much that the typical reader will want to stick with it for 368 pages.   It could easily have been shortened by a third of its length, and there is a bit too much repetition.   Ah, and a minor point, some of Peter Frampton’s lyrics are quoted incorrectly.

“It was the year we started waiting for McLean Stevenson…”

Still, there are some very entertaining stories included in Cakewalk, some of which prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.   Kate’s mother fantasized about being rescued by the actor McLean Stevenson, and she eventually was arrested – or rather, detained – while visiting the White House after being caught taking something from Pat Nixon’s bathroom!

Further, if you absolutely love food more than life itself, there are plenty of intriguing descriptions here of meals and snacks.   In fact, this autobiography is gorged with tales of food consumption.   Then there are the recipes to try out.   Be sure to try the one for chocolate chip cookies!

Cakewalk will be released on May 11, 2010.   An advance review copy was provided by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House.

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Tell the Truth

Alibi: A Novel

This book is of special interest because it is the new novel from Teri Woods.   Woods went from being a self-published author, literally sleeping in her car while selling her book on the hard streets of the Big Apple, to New York Times bestselling author.   That book was True to the Game.

Here, the main character Daisy Fothergill is a victim of circumstance, much as her mother was before her.   Woods spares no detail in describing the sordid life of a young African-American woman with few options in life in 1989.   As we meet Daisy, she survives by working as a stripper and bar maid in Philadelphia.   She elects to make some quick money by providing an alibi for a multiple murderer without realizing or considering what consequences will ensue.

Clearly, Ms. Woods favors her female characters, as their feelings, longings and betrayals are triggered by the actions of the males in this tale.   Although this has touches of a morality play, it is a fast-paced read.   While the first chapter seemed less-than-promising, the pace soon picked up.   As Daisy runs from both the FBI and a cold-blooded killer, the action takes the reader from Philly all the way to Nashville and back.

Teri Woods is quite a good writer.   Be aware, though, that the language and some scenes are R-rated.

Grand Central Publishing, $21.99, 257 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.Alibi 2

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