Tag Archives: San Francisco

Beyond the Sea

you me and the seaYou, Me, and The Sea: A Novel by Meg Donohue (William Morrow, $15.99, 368 pages)

Author Meg Donohue opens You, Me, and The Sea with a rainy morning in Sea Cliff, an exclusive residential neighborhood in San Francisco.  Will Langford and Merrow Shawe have carefully planned their engagement party in their home and surrounding garden.  They hope for better weather later in the day.  What transpires is the beginning of the real story.

Merrow is the narrator for the entire two-part novel.  Ms. Donohue gives her a singsong voice when Merrow describes her early childhood on a dirt poor farm.  There are warning signs mixed in with a few pleasant events.  To make matters worse, older brother, Bear, constantly torments Merrow.  There is a bit too much anxiety, anticipation and pain for this reviewer.  Unlike How to Eat a Cupcake, a prior work by Ms. Donohue, You, Me, and The Sea lacks balance with its overwhelming tension.

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Readers can be sure of Ms. Donohue’s knowledge of the Bay Area.  She sets up striking contrasts between wealth and poverty using detailed descriptions of the locales where the action takes place.  Although the Pacific Coast is the overall setting, this is not a beach novel.

It’s a shame that the read is far from being as engaging and fun as Donohue’s delightful debut, How to Eat a Cupcake.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released in trade paperback and hardbound and other versions on May 7, 2019.

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White or red?

White with Fish, Red with Murder: A Frank Swiver Novel by Harley Mazuk (Driven Press, $15.99, 372 pages)

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White with Fish, Red with Murder is a debut work by Harley Mazuk.  This is a mystery novel with some clever locations, quirky characters, and pitch perfect 1940s dialogue.  The narrator, Frank Swiver, is a private detective in San Francisco – circa 1948, who is eager for a paying client.  As luck would have it, Frank’s interest in wine is the ticket to a job!  Retired General Lloyd F. Thursby has planned an excursion on his private rail car with wine tasting as the entertainment.

“Hey, sweetheart.  Sorry I was late.  You look like a million bucks, you know?”

The general has an ulterior motive.  His good friend Rusty O’Callaghan was murdered and the general wants Swiver to finger the guilty party as the train wends its way from Oakland, CA to the wine country.  Swiver, under cover as a writer, brings along his trusty secretary/girlfriend, Vera, ostensibly as his date; but actually Vera is working with Swiver.  The party becomes complicated as each of the invitees boards the train.  The most notable guest, as far as Swiver and Vera are concerned, is Rusty’s widow, Cici O’Callaghan.  And, to make matters more complicated, Swiver and Cici have a shared romantic past.

“Look kid, I know you’re sore at me.  But the surest way to get you out of here is to find the real killer…”

Author Harley Mazuk has done his homework.  The cast of characters is straight out of a black and white mystery movie ala George Raft and Edward G. Robinson.  Even their names are indicative of the era.  And the language fits the period:  “A dame who may have been on the make perched at the other end (of the bar).”

Mazuk’s attention to detail is remarkable.  Of course it helps that this reviewer’s all-time favorite movie is the 1944 classic, Laura, making me a suitable critic of these matters.  And, I think mystery readers of all ages will be sure to enjoy the train trip and ensuing action to its conclusion.

The only slight detraction lies with the book’s cover art.  Yes, the story could be considered to be of the noir genre; however, the color and placement of the author’s name is far too dark.  Mazuk deserves better billing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

“A delicious throwback to the  PI stories of Hammett and Chandler when all the dames had shapely gams.”  Alan Orloff, author of Running From the Past.

 

 

 

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Shattered

altamont-joel-selvin

Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin (Dey Street, $27.99, 358 pages)

There are books that you read and when you finish you say to yourself, “That was a good book!” And then there’s the book that causes you to think, “That was interesting, but…” Altamont falls into the second category.

One is unlikely to find factual errors in this account of the notorious concert. This is a plus. Another plus is that this nonfiction work appears to have been edited to within an inch of its life. I found not a single grammatical or punctuation error, something that is sadly unique in this day and age. Kudos to the staff at Dey Street!

So where does the “but…” come from? This account is written in tense and turgid language. It’s as if Selvin is writing about THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN HUMAN HISTORY. It reads as if one is listening to Walter Cronkite reciting the facts that led to a third world war. Come on, Joel, it was only rock ‘n roll!

How overblown and overly dramatic is the language? Here’s an excerpt:

The whole event had turned into some oblique rite of passage, an ordeal to be endured by band and audience alike. The promise of love was vanquished, and in its place, the specter of evil loomed. In a single day, Altamont had turned the myth of Woodstock inside out.

Whew. So this music concert was about a battle between good and evil, and it represented a momentous change in our lives and our time. Well, OK, if you buy that. I don’t.

It’s not as if dozens of people died at Altamont. There was one death that occurred while the Rolling Stones played and another person died while leaving the event. These deaths were not insignificant; but the Altamont concert pales in comparison to multiple tragedies in our history, which is why Selvin appears to have lost a proper perspective in 2016.

Fans of the Stones may find themselves surprised and/or dismayed by Selvin’s view that this was the beginning of the end for the band in terms of musical excellence, honesty, and creativity:

Whatever they lost at Altamont, they would not get back. The Stones would play out their days like tigers in the shade, challenging neither themselves nor their audience. Instead of a cultural force, the Stones settled for being caricatures of themselves, a raucous and colorful, but ultimately meaningless sideshow, prancing onstage with props, costumes, and elaborate stage sets in cavernous football stadiums, no more five simple men and the music.

Common, Joel, tell us what you really think.

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Stones fans are bound to enjoy the 22 pages of color and black-and-white photos, which are likely to have been previously unseen.

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A few rock historians might find Selvin’s account useful but I doubt that most rock music fans will want to spend their time ingesting over 350 pages of rather depressing facts. And, as in many accounts of the period, there’s far too much made of drug use and abuse; something that one quickly finds boring rather than interesting. For a perhaps more entertaining read that covers the events back in the day, including the Altamont concert, one might elect to read David Talbot’s highly engaging The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love.

Fade to black. Paint it, black.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Altamont was released on August 16, 2016.

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Colour My World

liberty-cb

The Liberty Coloring Book (Abrams Noterie, $12.95, 112 pages)

Edward Gorey Coloring Book (Pomegranate Kids, $7.95, 48 pages)

Fantastic Cities: A Coloring Book of Amazing Places Real and Imagined by Steve McDonald (Chronicle Books, $14.95, 60 pages)

The array of coloring books for grown-ups is staggering and inspiring. Here are reviews of three such books that stand out due to their subject matter, intricate details and quirkiness.

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First up is an exquisite offering titled, The Liberty Coloring Book (The Liberty Colouring Book in the U.K. edition). Within its covers are 55 pages of designs from the Liberty of London design archives that span nearly a century of printed fabrics. Anyone who has ever purchased clothing made from Liberty textiles or sewn with the yardage knows the joy of touching and gazing at prints of the very highest caliber – cotton fabric print prices run around $26.00 U.S. per yard and up.

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Each page of the Liberty Coloring Book contains a print design on heavy paper suitable for colored pencils, markers or watercolor paints. The pages can be easily removed for framing in standard 6″ X 8″ frames. This reviewer went beyond the suggested implements and colored with Sakura Stardust Gelly Roll pens as well as Doodle Art Pro pens. The results are nearly magical as the ink in both sets is infused with subtle glitter.

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Second up is the Edward Gorey Coloring Book: The Wuggly Ump and Other Delights. As with the Liberty prints, these pages are printed on one side only. The paper stock has a lovely hard finish and is sturdy. The book contains 22 drawings, the originals of which are printed on the inside covers. The nature of Mr. Gorey’s work being somewhat ethereal, if not otherworldly, calls for colored pencils. I colored with Pedigree Empire pencils with excellent results.

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This reviewer has many of the author’s small, published works in her personal library. The larger format (8.5″ X 11″) of the coloring book showcases the intricate details of his work. Readers not familiar with Gorey’s published work may recognize his style from the opening and closing credits of the PBS series, Mystery!

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The third offering in this group is Fantastic Cities: A Coloring Book of Amazing Places Real and Imagined by Steve McDonald. The largest of this group, the book measures 11.75″ X 11.25″. There are pictures on both sides of the 26 pages printed on stiff paper. The artist/author has traveled the world and presents his take on the wonders he has seen. There are amazingly intricate overhead views of streets and buildings, close-ups of architectural details and some individual buildings as well.

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Mr. McDonald is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design. He infuses each drawing with a point of view, a perspective on the city or the details that best identify the locale. He works on a large scale and his drawings are reduced in size giving them a remarkable feeling of intensity. This reviewer has only used colored pencils in this book; however, some of the drawings would lend themselves to the gel pens – San Francisco Painted Ladies, I’m looking at your page!

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The publisher provided the Liberty Coloring Book. The Edward Gorey Coloring Book was purchased in the gift shop of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Fantastic Cities was purchased at the Whole Foods Market at 450 Rhode Island Street, San Francisco.

All three coloring books are highly recommended for adults and older children. They would make excellent holiday gifts. Just remember to include colored pencils and/or gel pens.

Ruta Arellano

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Movie Review: “East L.A. Interchange” – A Documentary

east la interchange

Does a documentary film about the Hispanic community of Boyle Heights shy away from tackling the major issue of the day?

Boyle Heights, a community just east of downtown Los Angeles, is a very interesting place. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would often head there on the weekend to make use of the parks, eat at the fine hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or soak up the multicultural feel of the community. “The Heights” was once known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because of its multiracial nature (it was once the largest Jewish community on the West Coast until the end of World War II), but tensions have hit the barrio. As the Los Angeles Times (“Gentrification pushes up against Boyle Heights – and vice versa”; March 6, 2016) recently noted: “Once the landing spot not only for Mexicans, but also for Japanese, Russians, Italians, and Jews, Boyle Heights has long been perceived as a neighborhood sitting on the brink of the next metamorphosis.”

Yes, the dreaded Spanish word gentefication, or gentrification in English, has now struck. Like Brooklyn, Sacramento (Oak Park), and San Francisco (The Mission District), Boyle Heights is trying to decide whether it wants to be old, interracial, and comfortable; or hip, progressive, and an expensive place to live. Community activists vociferously argue that there are too many art galleries in the city and they rail against the replacement of neighborhood bars by overly cool brew pubs.

brooklyn theater boyle heights

Against this background, I had high hopes for the documentary East L.A. Interchange, a one-hour documentary film narrated by actor Danny Trejo. It’s a film that’s currently being screened at selected colleges. To my eyes, it’s a missed opportunity.

One problem is the title. East L.A. Interchange leads people to think this is either a program about East Los Angeles – which is just east of Boyle Heights, or about the Los Angeles freeways. A better title might have been La Colonia: Boyle Heights.

I will return to the problematic issue of gentrification. What Interchange does well is to deal with the history of Boyle Heights, as heard mostly from U.S.C. professors. And one of the intriguing points made in the documentary is that social discrimination issues began to ease as the predominantly Mexican-American students at Roosevelt High School began to learn about the history of their city: “One of the cradles of Mexican-American culture in the U.S.” Knowledge precedes pride.

To its credit, Interchange is not only well researched but beautifully filmed. And yet its Achilles heel is that the documentary refuses to take a stance on the key issue of gentrification. We learn that Jews first left the community, then Russians were forced out by freeway construction, and now the low to middle-income Hispanics who live in Boyle Heights are threatened by newly prosperous Hispanics and rich hipsters.

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In order to afford a typical new housing unit in the area, one needs an income of $90,000 and above. Yet the median household income in the Heights is $41,821. It’s a big problem and results in stress, grief and anger. As one current resident states, in Spanish: “I would like it to stay just as it is.” Gentrification, of course, will make this impossible.

The creators of Interchange, after illustrating how the poor have been displaced from the area in the past, inform the viewer that 1,187 affordable housing units are scheduled to be destroyed and replaced by 4,400 new and pricey units. And yet, even after imparting this information, they remain neutral.

The documentary asks the question, “What constitutes beneficial (versus harmful) development?” but fails to answer it. Instead, at its conclusion we hear an elderly Jewish gentleman assure us that, despite recent changes in the neighborhood, everything will be alright. It’s hardly convincing.

Boyle Heights

One key statement heard in Interchange is, “We’re not trying to get out of the barrio. We’re trying to bring the barrio up.” Fine, but in life one must ultimately choose between stasis and change. In electing to support neither the status quo nor change – neither the past nor progressivism, East L.A. Interchange loses its raison d’etre.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was provided access to a press screener. The film was directed by Betsy Kalin.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

Movie Review: ‘East L.A. Interchange’ – A Documentary

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Magic Unleashed

Unleashed amazon

Unleashed: A Kate Turner, DVM, Mystery by Eileen Brady (Poisoned Pen Press, $15.95, 266 pages)

Animal lovers get set for an adventure-filled mystery from Eileen Brady, the second in her Kate Turner series (Muzzled was the first book). Toto, a wire haired Cairn terrier owned by artist Claire Burnham, is left an orphan in the care of Dr. Kate Turner, the vet in Oak Falls, New York. Claire’s death is an apparent suicide but the prologue of Unleashed sets up the death as a pre-meditated murder.

The cheerful easy-going narrative of Kate’s life as a small town vet is engaging and her relationships are consistent with the first book in the series. Kate and her assistant, Mari, make house calls when emergencies or problems with non-portable pets such as potbellied pigs occur.

Kate’s wide circle of friends and clients provides her with several potential alternatives for Claire’s “suicide.” Readers will be brought along as she works through each of her suspicions about Claire’s demise.

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Brady’s journal quality writing brings the reader along during Kate’s work and off-hours. There are many fascinating veterinary cases presented throughout the text. This book has much to offer.

Well recommended.

Magician's Daughter

The Magician’s Daughter: A Valentine Hill Mystery by Judith Janeway (Poisoned Pen Press, $14.95, 236 pages)

Next up is the first in a series featuring an aspiring magician named Valentine Hill. Valentine is a young woman who is working as a magician’s assistant in a casino in Las Vegas. Her first person narrative is brisk and fast-paced. Her status as an actual person is tenuous because her mother has withheld Valentine’s birthdate and the name of her father. Yes, this is an odd situation for anyone and is especially so due to her mother’s habit of running scams and flitting from one duped mark to another.

There’s a fine line between a quirky story and a silly one. Author Janeway has mastered the art of telling a really good story, albeit one definitely off the beaten path. Valentine moves from Las Vegas to San Francisco in search of her vital statistics as she follows clues to her mother’s whereabouts. The folks she encounters along the way provide the reader with an inside look at a segment of society (hustlers and buskers) that is not part of most mysteries.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Down the Drain

Beer-Money-Cover

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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Get It While You Can

Live at the Fillmore (nook book)

Live at the Fillmore East & West by John Glatt (Lyons Press, $26.95, 413 pages)

Live at the Fillmore East & West by John Glatt is an entertaining overview of the rock scene in the late 60s and early 70s, but it did not provide quite as much information as I expected. The book is not an accounting of all or most of the bands that played at the Fillmore East in New York City or at the Fillmore West in San Francisco (which was once my veritable second home). Instead, it is a snapshot of the times, with particular focus given to – as noted on the cover – Bill Graham, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and Carlos Santana. One’s enjoyment in reading the book will depend on how interested you are in these four figures. So much has been written about Joplin that there’s little new here, and there’s likely too much about promoter Bill Graham as Glatt earlier wrote Rage & Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock.

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Another issue is that in attempting to humanize these figures, there’s too much attention paid to their flaws and conflicts and personal relationships; too little attention is paid to the music they created. As with most rock and roll stories, sex and drugs are over-emphasized. Graham is quoted as stating that, “…cocaine came in and cocaine ruined the music.” Even if this is true, focusing on musicians’ drug use grows boring quickly – very, very quickly.

The most fascinating part of Live is the detailed explanation as to how the Fillmore East came to be born. Fillmore West likely gets less attention than it deserved. It’s worth restating that the music fails to get the attention it deserves. Glatt’s account ends somewhat suddenly and anti-climatically with Graham’s accidental death, after the closing of the rock palaces.

Although Live lacks the depth and detail that its subtitle promised (“Getting Backstage and Personal with Rock’s Greatest Legends”), it nevertheless makes me want to read Glatt’s earlier rock and roll book.

Recommended
, for those seeking a less than fully comprehensive look at the subject matter.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: The hardbound release contains several errors/typos. For example, Spencer Dryden is referred to as Spender Dryden. The Monterey Folk Festival is called the Monterrey Folk Festival. And the drug Halcion is called Halcyon. These mistakes will hopefully be corrected in the trade paperback edition.

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The Critical Eye

Looking_Back_at_2014

Looking Back at 2014

With the calendar year about to quickly come to an end, I’ve been giving some thought to positives and negatives in the book trade, and personal lessons learned. So here are a few musings.

The All-Too-Common Plot

One thing that has highly surprised me this year is how often I’ve seen novels – virtually all written by women writers, which have been built on the same plot structure. It’s a bit odd to have seen at least tens of books using a very similar story line in 2014. Here’s the story: Judy Johnston has been away from her hometown for years. She is estranged from her family and her old friends, but returns due to the death of a parent, a once-close relative, a one-time good friend and/or classmate or an old flame. While back in her old stomping grounds, she discovers that her family has a deep, dark secret. It’s something major which, when she discovers and releases it – and she, no doubt, will do so – will either fix the family or utterly destroy it.

I have no problem with a writer finding a good story line and using it, even if others have done so. But I have been surprised that publishers don’t exercise more effort to prevent the recycling of an over-used, if fictional, tale.

Facebooking It

It’s clear that more writers, especially debut authors, are participating in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I see author pages on Facebook as being quite helpful. In fact, when I receive a new book from a publisher one of the first things I do is to check to see if the writer is on Facebook. Why? This viewing gives me a quick sense of his or her personality.

They say that first impressions count and one’s Facebook page often makes one seem likeable or not. Arrogance on the part of a writer is probably the biggest negative on social media; Facebook makes it easy to come across as humble and excited. (One of the best things about debut authors is their use of exclamation points on Facebook, which demonstrates their genuine excitement as “newbies” to the publishing world!)

I think it’s hard to “fake it” and appear to be something you’re not on Facebook. You either love working with other others or don’t; you love cats and dogs, or don’t. You either can handle criticism or you can’t. Again, one’s personality shines through for better or worse.

What’s my point here? Simply that I’m more likely to read and review a book by a writer whose personality and experiences I like and identify with. And the more I know about new writers, the more I’m likely to bond with them. (Which translates into my being more likely to read their current and future work.)

Everything Changes

Most of us have had the experience of listening to a record album for the first time after decades and wondering why we liked it in the first place. The reverse also occurs… I was never drawn to the music of David Bowie when it was originally released; however, now I find it fascinating. Why this happens is unclear, but this year I learned that what one thinks of a book can change with the times and circumstances.

As an example, I offer The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I first read the book when it was released and my reaction was, Meh. It had no impact on me, and I decided not to write up a review. Recently, I happened to pick up the book and learned to my surprise that I now found it engaging and extremely well-written. I initially missed the clue that Parkhurst was writing somewhat in the style of Joan Didion – the connection between The White Album by the Beatles (and the book by Didion) and The Nobodies Album title is made clear early on. And then there’s the fact that the story is set in San Francisco – a place I’ve come to better know, and Parkhurst’s scene descriptions are true and realistic.

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And so I went from having no opinion on The Nobodies Album to viewing it as a 4.5 star novel.

Falling Off A Cliff

The final trend that I, and my wife, discovered this year is an unfortunate one. This is when the initially successful author writes a second or third novel and it flows quite well, until… It quickly and abruptly ends! Ends so suddenly that the story seems to have fallen off of a cliff. I suspect that this happens because the publisher wants a follow-up to a successful book and sets a strict timeframe for its delivery. I’d like to optimistically believe that in 2015, publishers will display a bit more patience and allow their writers the time it takes to bring a story to its natural conclusion.

Looking Forward

Let’s hope that in 2015 we see more originality, increased social networking on the part of authors, and novels with well constructed endings. And, as readers, let’s remember that one benefit of owning a book is the chance to re-experience it at our leisure.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the San Francisco Book Review site:

http://sanfranciscobookreview.com/2014/12/looking-back-at-2014/

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A Holiday Book List

Holiday hot gifts list

Looking for a book to gift someone? Here’s a list of a few interesting, recommended books. Not all of these are 2014 releases (why restrict ourselves to a calendar year?). Some will be found at Amazon, some at Barnes & Noble, and some can be ordered through your local bookstore. But you can and should find a way to purchase any of them that may be of interest. Joseph Arellano

The Nobodies Album (trade paper)

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst

A major rock star from San Francisco is accused of murdering his girlfriend. It’s a uniquely told story that’s worth reading and re-reading.

Everything I Never Told You (nook book)

Everything I Never Told You: A Novel by Celeste Ng

A Chinese-American girl tries to find out how and why her older sister died. There’s both more and less here than meets the eye.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer

A woman intends to kill herself on her next birthday, which is five days away. “I sat down with this book after dinner, and when I looked up, it was 2 a.m. and I had turned the last page.” Jacquelyn Mitchard

Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel by Junot Diaz

Wao is a strange yet wonderful novel that’s sad, funny, touching and sometimes aggravating. Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for this work. “Diaz establishes himself as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible voices.” Michiko Kakutani

The Poetry Cafe

The Poetry Cafe: Poems by John Newlin

“Poems are like cafes along a street/intimate places where friends ever meet…” Contemporary poems about the life of a poet, and the good and bad things in life.

Alex Haley's Roots

Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey by Adam Henig

This is a valuable introduction to Alex Haley and the 1977 Roots phenomenon, for those too young to have experienced it.

Life and Life Only

Life and Life Only: A Novel by Dave Moyer

Life and Life Only is a story of baseball, love and Bob Dylan. Who could ask for more?

Songs Only You Know

33 Days

Songs Only You Know: A Memoir by Sean Madigan Hoen

33 Days: Touring In A Van. Sleeping On Floors. Chasing A Dream. (A Memoir) by Bill See

Two true tales of bands on the run, living the rock and roll life. Hoen is a surprisingly skilled writer, but See’s story will stick with the reader.

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