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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.

The Nobodies Album (audio)

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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Nobody But Me

The Nobodies Album (nook book)

Is The Nobodies Album a better read the second time around?

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Anchor, $15.00, 320 pages)

The plane rises. We achieve liftoff, and in that mysterious, hanging moment I say a prayer – as I always do – to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day… I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world’s travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That’s not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort it out. Better to say a prayer for your own well-being and hope that today, at least, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

There are music albums that we listen to repeatedly, sometimes finding that they have a different impact on us – major or minor – depending on when you experience them. The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (author of the unique and bizarre bestseller The Dogs of Babel) is a book that I read before. I did not connect with it at the time; fortunately, I decided to give the book a second chance and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a San Francisco-based musician, Milo Frost, who has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. His estranged mother, Octavia Frost, a one-time bestselling novelist, decides to reconcile with him to give him moral and legal support. Milo’s problem is that he was so drunk the night of his girlfriend’s death that he cannot remember what he did that evening. He does not believe that he killed Bettina but admits that he could have been involved. (On the night in question, Bettina first accepted Milo’s proposal of marriage, and then rejected it.)

Parkhurst adds a twist to the telling, as the writer Octavia is at the point where she’s elected to rewrite the conclusions of her bestselling novels. It’s not something that pleases her publisher; but, Octavia is determined to follow-through with her idea. (This may have been based on an instance in which Joan Didion rewrote one of her short stories decades after it was written. Note that the title of this novel, The Nobodies Album, is connected to The White Album by The Beatles early on. It just so happens that Didion wrote a collection of bestselling essays called The White Album.)

I suppose you could say I’d been thinking about endings.

It does not take long for Octavia, and the readers, to realize that she’s toying with the notion of changing the endings to her book in hopes that it might lead to some changes in her own life. As she states to a musician, “I’ve thought it might be interesting to change the endings. Find out how things might have worked out differently for the characters.” Naturally, one has to wonder how much of bestselling author Parkhurst can be found in the character of Octavia Frost. (Will she rewrite the ending of The Nobodies Album in twenty, thirty or forty years?)

To her credit, Parkhurst brings Octavia Frost’s writing to life by providing the endings of several of Frost’s novels before showing us the rewritten endings. The latter are generally simpler, more concise, and neater; perhaps resulting in neater, better outcomes for the characters involved.

The Nobodies Album multiple

Parkhust writes somewhat in the style of Didion – there’s an icy coolness/coldness present as well as toughness and brutal honesty: “Now that the moment is here, it’s not what I expected at all. That’s the fundamental flaw in in the illusions that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching the truth. No matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself. Here’s how I feel, faced with my child’s confession that he has committed murder: I don’t believe it’s true. Not for a single minute.”

Those with some knowledge of the music and publishing industries will appreciate the realistic stage upon which Parkhurst’s story is set. The less said about the outcome of the murder mystery, the better. No spoilers here. But be prepared to be impressed by The Nobodies Album, whether you read it once or twice – or more often.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 15, 2010.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Pick:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-nobodies-album-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

It also appeared here:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Nobodies-Album-by-Carolyn-5760693.php

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Better Days

Haunted Empire (close up)

Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs by Yukari Iwatani Kane (Harper Business, $27.99, 371 pages)

“Tim Cook was a master of spreadsheets not innovation. Since Cook had taken charge, legions of young MBAs had been hired to help feed the new CEO’s love of data crunching… Managers like Cook tended to overly focus on profits, the one thing that (Steve) Jobs downplayed.”

Since the death of its iconic leader, Steve Jobs, Apple Computer has been floundering; suffering from a dearth of innovations and dogged by competition from Samsung. This is the premise behind Haunted Empire by Yukari Iwatani Kane, a former technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Kane, who lives in San Francisco, presents Jobs as a legendary visionary (“…brilliant and unforgettable”) and Apple’s current leader, Tim Cook, as a bland manager who specialized in inventory control.

Steve Jobs

It will be up to each reader to determine the accuracy of Kane’s story. I found it to be highly credible. Mr. Cook is well aware of the book and has angrily labeled it as “nonsense.” However, Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson raves that, “Kane brings us inside Apple at this critical moment with great insight and unparalleled reporting.”

Cook-on-Haunted-Empire-nr1

What Kane does extremely well is present a highly disturbing picture of the Asian workforce that builds Apple’s products. The young workers in China who assemble an average of 180,000 iPhones each day cannot buy them with the slave wages they earn. It’s tragic and the company’s insensitive practices may have unleashed a type of negative karma that has come home to roost.

haunter_empire_hero

This is a fascinating, troubling account of an American business.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me

Dying to Know: A Mystery by TJ O’Connor (Midnight Ink, $14.99, 368 pages)

What does former government agent and security consultant TJ O’Connor do for an encore? Well, how about writing a mystery novel? This debut book by O’Connor has a twist that’s reminiscent of the movie Ghost.

The narrative opens with Tuck (police detective Oliver Tucker) investigating sounds of an intruder downstairs in his home in the middle of the night. In rapid succession, Tuck dies and his cop partner, Bear, and Tuck’s wife Angela behave strangely. There are evil goings on happening behind the scenes. As the body count rises, the reader may become a bit confused. Just who is a good guy and who is a bad guy?

The reader is treated to unique antics and seeming magic as Tuck adjusts to being dead and investigates his own murder. Time travel and scene shifting are the primary devices that O’Connor employs to good effect. Tuck’s faithful dog, Hercule, is able to recognize him but the humans need plenty of hints to sense Tuck’s presence. O’Connor leaves an opening for more mysteries to be solved by the ghostly detective.

Well recommended.

Love Water Memory: A Novel by Jennie Shortridge (Gallery Books, $16.00, 328 pages)

Love Water Memory

love-water-memory-press

The tale unfolds slowly, beginning with a 39-year-old woman found knee deep in the frigid water of San Francisco Bay. She is an amnesia victim who is dressed in designer clothes and seems a most unlikely person to be in her situation. Lucie Walker, as we come to know her, has been in a five-year relationship with Grady Goodall in Seattle. In fact, it’s just two months before their wedding when Lucie disappears from the house she shares with Grady. She’s been gone a couple of months before the incident in the bay.

The main characters are not immediately likeable. The reader learns about them through shifting scenes. Chapters dedicated to Lucie, Grady and Lucie’s Aunt Helen rotate throughout the book. We find major revelations that bring light to Lucie’s actions. Past issues have been deeply buried and Lucie must deal with them in order to accept who she is and how she feels about Grady.

The takeaway from this moody piece is the question, “What makes a person?”

Well recommended.

After I’m Gone: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

After I'm Gone Lippman

After I'm Gone

Super famous author Laura Lippman uses her hometown Baltimore as the setting of this clever mystery that is part family saga and part Cold Case TV plot. The underlying theme is all about the choices of partners made by Bernadette (Bambi) Brewer, and her daughters Linda, Rachael and Michelle. Lippman explores the notion of loneliness and missing a loved one. She uses the lyrics from “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” to divide the book into sections. Mel Carter’s 1965 version brings back memories for me of slow dancing at parties. Sigh.

Felix Brewer, Bambi’s husband, fled their luxurious home in 1976 rather than waiting for the outcome of his appeal on an illegal gambling/bookmaking conviction. Although Felix appears in flashback chapters, his actions haunt the family he left behind. Each of his daughters has made a choice and must face the consequences that have followed.

Roberto (Sandy) Sanchez, a retired City of Baltimore police officer, takes on a missing person cold case in the capacity of consultant. It is the year 2012 and working cold cases helps him stay busy and spend less time missing his beloved wife Mary who has died. When Sandy diligently pursues every possible angle and information source, the missing person is tied back to Felix Brewer’s disappearance.

Lippman is a master of creating a cinematic feel when she sets the scenes for her carefully constructed plot twists. It seems to this reviewer that a movie could easily follow from the book.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Suspicious Minds

The Adversary by Reece Hirsch (Thomas & Mercer, $14.95, 382 pages)

adversary-225

Attorney Chris Bruen is the central character in this, author Reece Hirsch’s second thriller. The timing of the premise couldn’t be better; cybercrimes are rampant as of this reviewer’s read. Between the Target credit card debacle over Christmas 2013 and the outing of the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden, the believability of this story is high.

Chris Bruen is an intellectual property attorney whose career path has moved him from being a federal Department of Justice prosecutor for computer crimes to private practice in San Francisco, California where he has traded public service for greater pay. His work is basically the same; although his clients are in the private sector.

The client paying for Bruen’s time and expertise this time around is BlueCloud, a giant in the operating systems universe. While in the short term a dead hacker in Amsterdam halts his search for the company’s problems, the trail that opens up provides Bruen with nearly unlimited challenges. The cast of characters expands as the plot thickens. There are constant reminders of shifting values and allegiances among the people he must move to arrive at a solution to BlueCloud’s dilemma.

Along the way, Gruen visits many locales in addition to Amsterdam, including Barcelona and Paris. Everywhere he goes doubt and suspicion are his companions. The tech talk used by the characters seems reasonable and its accuracy appears to be spot on. The shifting scale of universality of technology is a stark contrast to the scale of warfare raged among a small number of human troops that dominate the world in which Bruen labors.

Author Hirsch keeps the pace moving smartly with mounting tension and lurking evil. Although Bruen’s cancer diagnosis reveal in the early pages of the book plants a seed of doubt for the reader, it is hopefully not the last we see of him as he is an entirely agreeable character. Please keep us supplied with new stories Reece Hirsch, Esq.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

reece-hirsch-sitting-300

“Reece Hirsch is writing and running with the big boys.” John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author.

A review copy was provided by the author. Reece Hirsch is also the author of The Insider: A Novel.

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The Worms Crawl In

A Case of Doubtful Death: A Frances Doughty Mystery by Linda Stratmann (The Mystery Press, $14.95, 283 pages)

A Case of Doubtful Death

Author Linda Stratmann is not shy about telling her tale in graphic detail. Get ready for an amazing visit to England in the late 1800s and an education in the means by which folks dealt with death and burial. Ms. Stratmann explores in depth the notion of death houses where the recently deceased are treated as patients and monitored by medical staff to assure that a loved one is not buried alive. The particulars of the monitoring of the dead, the care of the corpses and the maintenance of security are laid out in minute detail. The service is costly and not really an option for folks of the lower classes.

The notion of class and appropriate vocations for females during the Victorian Era are prominent themes in the Frances Doughty Mystery series. This book is the third in the series. Frances is a plucky young woman who has taken up the profession of detective after her father died leaving her in need of an income. She is aided by her sidekick Sarah, the former Doughty family housekeeper. Sarah is a burly, intelligent and no-nonsense woman who happens to be the oldest of eight children. Clearly, she is experienced in dealing with people.

An American counterpart for this series would be the Sarah Woolson Mysteries by Shirley Tallman that are set in San Francisco during the same era. Both series make ample use of dress codes and etiquette to give the reader a strong sense of the limitations placed on these capable and very smart young women who are struggling to make an honest living while furthering the cause of equality for their sex.

In Doubtful Death, the significant (read that dead or missing) characters work at Life House (a death house), the location for much of the tale. These men include several physicians and two orderlies. The tale begins with the death of one of the physicians and the disappearance of one of the orderlies, both occurring on the same night. Henry Palmer, the orderly who has disappeared, is the stalwart older brother in a family of five orphans. His sister and her fiance approach Frances Doughty in the hope of finding Henry, preferably alive.

Absent cell phones, the internet and medical technology common today, the pace of the search for Henry Palmer could have been laboriously slow; however, Francis makes good use of her shoe leather, contacts among the eccentrics of her city and foot messengers to solve the mystery. To Ms. Stratmann’s credit, the pace moves along well and her dry wit that is expressed through conversation among the characters is most entertaining.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “In the field of historical crime writing, (Stratmann) is bound to make her mark.” SJ Bolton

A Case of Doubtful Death will be released on September 1, 2013.

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