Tag Archives: Santa Cruz

Blood and Wisdom

Blood and Wisdom: A Mystery by Verlin Darrow (The Wild Rose Press, 381 pages, $17.99; Kindle ed. $5.99)

blood and wisdom

Welcome to Santa Cruz, California, home of gurus, gangsters and gumshoes.  Author Verlin Darrow knows of what he writes.  As a local who just happens to be a psychotherapist, he’s familiar with the many personality quirks portrayed by the characters in this engaging mystery.

Private investigator Karl Gatlin narrates this tale with a funny, irreverent matter-of-fact attitude reminiscent of David Rosenfeld’s Andy Carpenter character.  Author Darrow gives Gatlin a firm, confident voice as he navigates among some fairly strange humans while investigating the unexpected appearance of a dismembered body in a wishing well.

Gatlin’s new client, Aria Piper, is a teacher/guru whose calm and peaceful sanctuary is violated by the above-referenced body.  Her employees and students must be cleared of any involvement in the murder.  Aria is a rather appealing femme fatale who draws Gatlin’s attention.  They knew each other in the past as both studied psychology.  Gatlin abandoned the practice for investigative work.

Author Darrow introduces his characters at a measured pace which allows his readers to follow the complexity of the relationships among them, including many family ties.  The action takes place around the Monterey and Santa Cruz bay areas.  Happily, Darrow satisfies readers familiar with the locale with accuracy as Gatlin travels around seeking answers.

Well recommended for mystery lovers.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

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Murder, She Cooked

death al fresco

Death al Fresco: A Sally Solari Mystery by Leslie Karst (Crooked Lane Books, $26.99, 320 pages)

Death al Fresco is the third Sally Solari novel by Leslie Karst.  When I first received the book to review and saw on the cover a plug that the book includes recipes, I was immediately skeptical.  I was proven wrong.  Death is a very enjoyable read and Karst manages to deliver a book that allows the reader to read it in big chunks because it breezes along nicely and sustains interest.  Or one can elect to put it down for a while and return to it without having missed a beat.

Solari’s is an Italian restaurant owned by Sally’s father on Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz, California.  Much to her chagrin, she finds herself supporting her father’s endeavors more than she would care to.  She dates a member of the District Attorney’s office and – in addition to her restaurant pursuits, takes up painting as a hobby.

Most importantly, Sally is an accomplished amateur sleuth, which comes in handy when Gino, a renowned Santa Cruz fisherman is found dead (by Sally’s dog) after an evening at Solari’s.  Early in the novel, a local accuses her of being the next Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), which, by the way her character is drawn is the exact analogy I had in mind while reading the story.  The unfortunate death compromises a major event planned for the restaurant; an event for which Sally was the unwitting chief organizer.

Sally’s father becomes a suspect in the crime and in order to salvage both the restaurant and her father’s reputation, she becomes the chief busybody and lead investigator in Gino’s death.  Sally is too sweet to be perceived as precocious, but just barely.  She is far too nice to be disliked, even when she is covering up evidence.  She is also, apparently, too cute to upset her boyfriend with all of her meddling.  All of which somehow – and surprisingly – makes for a story that works extremely well.

There are various iterations of possibilities introduced as the circumstances of Gino’s death come to light, from his having imbibed too much before he dined at the restaurant, to an interest in his boat upon his death, and – which is perhaps a bit too much, to lead or copper poisoning.  But in the end, Sally gets it right and the series should continue for at least a fourth novel.

At the conclusion of Death al Fresco, I was a satisfied reader as I put the book down.  I think most readers will arrive at a similar verdict.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

Dave Moyer is the chief administrator of a public school district in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

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I Feel the Earth Move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Arellano

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

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

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons.

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A Summer Reading List

Our local fish wrapper challenged its avid readers to come up with their own list of books to read this summer.   Here’s my list of ten (10):

Shut Your Eyes Tight: A Novel by John Verdon (July)

The second retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney novel from the author of the mind-blowing Think of a Number.

Very Bad Men: A Novel by Harry Dolan (July)

Not quite as good as Think of a Number, but a close and exciting runner-up.

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (January)

From the author of Off Season, it’s set in the redwood country near Santa Cruz, with stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (June)

The true story of the monumental love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   “Reads like a Shakespearean drama.”   USA Today

Skipping a Beat: A Novel by Sarah Pekkanen (February)

Her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was endorsed by Judith Weiner.   Enough said.

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (April)

I’ve read it, but it was so much fun that I look forward to reading it again!

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin (June)

What happens after a storybook wedding?

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (June)

This story has as many weaknesses as it has strengths, but it is highly engaging in an inexplicable way.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (May)

Biographies of famous but  secluded figures tend to be either brilliant or full and complete disasters.   I’m interested in seeing which category this one falls into.

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (August)

A debut novel about a woman who finds out that her dead husband (going on three years) may very well be alive.

Joseph Arellano

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We have a winner!

Munchy the cat just finished administering another book giveway and the lucky winner of two books is…  My name is Will (drumroll, crowd tension) Tracey Dent!   Tracey has won a brand spanking new trade paperback copy of My Name is Will, a fun and unique comedy novel from Jess Winfield, and also an advance review copy of Hardball, the newest V.I. Warshawski novel – the 13th in fact – from Sarah Paretsky.   Tracey, we know you’re a book lover so we’ll be contacting you by e-mail to get your mailing address. 

Now Munchy says, “I want to do another contest!”   OK, so we’ll post some information on another book giveaway before this weekend is up.   Who knows, we may even have two book giveaways since we’ve stored up 6 books in ye olde contest bin.

Stay tuned!

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When we get to Surf City…

Surf city 3Bob Greene has written several fine books that look back at the 1960s.   When We Get to Surf City is an account of the four summers he spent singing and playing guitar with Jan and Dean.   For music fans, this is a tale of a dream come true as Greene both travels and performs with a pair of childhood idols.   The author did well enough to sing lead on “Little Honda” for both Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys.

Yes, this is one joyful tale, and Greene’s writing radiates his happiness.   He is one lucky man.   Yet the tale is appropriately balanced with some sadness.   As we join Greene, he gets to know not only Dean Torrance but also Jan Berry, a near-genius who came close to being killed in a real life “Dead Man’s Curve” automobile accident.   In this account, Berry hobbles and has memory problems, each day having to re-learn the songs he wrote.   But it’s clear that Berry was a strong man, the foundation of Jan and Dean.   He died in 2004, of a seizure, at age 62.   His fans will always miss him and in this book they have one marvelous tribute to his memory.

St. Martin’s Griffin, $15.95, 368 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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