Tag Archives: September book releases

Brownout

The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawell (Bloomsbury, $35.00, 496 pages)

browns of california

The Browns of California is an interesting, sometimes engaging look at a unique California political family that produced two governors (Edmund G. and Jerry) and a state treasurer (Kathleen).  The work appears to be well edited and contains no evident factual errors.  Yet the book lacks something.

We get a hint of what’s lacking when Pawell references, on seven different pages, former California historian, state librarian, and USC professor Kevin Starr. Starr wrote an impressive multi-volume history of the state under the series title, “Americans and the California Dream.”  The most impressive of these works may have been Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s.  Each volume soared in flight because of Starr’s uniquely impressive writing style which reflected his childlike wonderment over the miracle that is California.  By contrast, Pawel’s style is competent, but flat.  This vehicle never leaves the runway.

Another issue is that while Pawel addresses Jerry Brown’s uniqueness, she never stops to reflect on how very strange his ideas appeared at the time he arrived at them.  Yes, he may have been – to his credit, ahead of his time but he was never of his time.

The Browns is a seemingly credible, but just passable, account that never quite comes to life.  For this reason, it is not recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released on September 4, 2018.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Desert Kill

desert kill switch

Desert Kill Switch: Nostalgia City Mystery – Book #2 by Mark S. Bacon (Black Opal Books, $14.99, 286 pages)

In Desert Kill Switch, Lyle Deming, an ex-cop from Phoenix, serves as a security guard of sorts for Nostalgia City, a retro theme park that recreates small town life from the early 70s just outside of Reno.  Kate Sorenson is a marketing specialist who is in town on business related to Nostalgia City.

Lyle arrives on the scene of a brutal car accident in the desert, but by the time the police get to the scene the body is gone.  As the story unfolds, Kate is framed for the murder of Al Busick, a car dealer who puts hidden “kill switches” in cars as a means to collect money from customers who do not make their loan payments

Together, the ex-cop  and former female college basketball player go on a mission to solve the mystery, catch the true killer, and exonerate Kate.  It appears as if the motive has to do with a conspiracy to move a major music festival from Nostalgia City to Las Vegas.

The story hits the ground running and moves quickly, and the action and plot are solid from start to finish.  However, the character development is not as strong. For example, scenes with Kate’s current and soon-to-be ex-lover seem like they are included without much of a purpose.  (Desert Kill Switch is the second in the series of Nostalgia City novels, following Death in Nostalgia City.)  Perhaps some of those who read the initial book in the series will have a different opinion.

As Lyle and Kate take the law into their own hands, Lyle calls in favors from his former law enforcement partners, and Kate – who only masquerades as a journalist, morphs from a former athlete to Wonder Woman.

desert kill switch back

Desert Kill Switch is enjoyable but is, at 286 pages, a bit longer than necessary.  Not all of the many twists and turns work, and a brisker version of this thriller might have been just a touch more thrilling.  As it stands, this book is a solid, engaging read for those who enjoy this type of murder mystery.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois who has never been to Reno, Nevada.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lean On Me

marrow-a-love-story

Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

In this extraordinary – at times harrowing – memoir we see the Lesser family deal with the impending death of Maggie, the high-spirited hummingbird in the family. Maggie needs a bone marrow transplant and her older sister Liz is the perfect match. The other two sisters remain outliers (not by choice), intensifying the family conflict.

Intense, raw, and brutally honest, Liz and Maggie are forced to communicate in a way that had eluded them growing up. Things unsaid were embedded in the family’s core and, through acts of bravery, the “wounded healing” begins.

While “marrow” refers to the painful transplant Liz undergoes in an attempt to save Maggie’s life, “marrow” is more frequently and powerfully used as a metaphor for the core of the sisters’ relationship — where the “stem cells of life” originate and the sisters’ assumptions about each other are often distortions and lies. Each sister tells a different story of her childhood, viewing the family dynamics though a different lens.

“We will dig for our goodness and harvest the marrow of ourselves for each other…” the two sisters promise each other as they consent to therapy and spiritual approaches to death and dying. The author mingles Buddhist meditation, philosophy and literary allusions sometimes successfully (and sometimes not) in seeking meaning not only for Maggie’s premature and terminal illness but also for human connection. At the end there is only the feeling of being “helpless with love” and a lesson for us all in facing the death of loved ones – and our own death.

marrow-rear-cover

Marrow is a deeply affecting trigger to the heart about love, family and learning to let go. This memoir is for those who can face a narrative about trauma in life without getting depressed or angry. I highly recommend it!

Diana Y. Paul

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was published on September 20, 2016.

Diana Y. Paul, a retired Stanford professor, is the author of three books on Buddhism and Things Unsaid: A Novel (She Writes Press). You can read her reviews of films and art at: http://www.unhealedwound.com/.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Love Story

marrow-a-love-story

Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

When a deadly disease strikes, it’s often not clear whether this is harder on the afflicted person or those who surround him/her. This is a point well made in the memoir Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser. Lesser’s sister Maggie battled lymphoma cancer which went into remission, only to return after seven years.

Maggie had one chance for survival, a bone marrow transplant from the perfect donor. That perfect donor happened to be her older sister, Elizabeth. If successful, Maggie would live on with her sister’s blood literally coursing through her veins. In a sense, the sisters would become one, the team known as Maggie-Liz. But the sisters had not gotten along superbly well in their five-plus decades of living, so they realized they would have to overcome the issues that had sadly separated them in the past.

Marrow is a fascinating look at how two people worked extremely hard to find love and forgiveness among the ruins of pain and suffering. Lesser makes clear, however, that what worked for her and Maggie might not work for others. (If there’s a flaw in the telling, it is that Lesser often gets caught up in the forest – the world, the universe, the meaning of Existence, instead of focusing on the trees – the lives of her and her sister.) And yet, this is an inspiring tale of courage. It’s also a reminder that love conquers all, even when death stands poised to strike.


Well recommended
.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on September 20, 2016. Elizabeth Lesser also wrote Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Such a Hollow Feeling

Hollow Man image

Hollow Man: A Novel by Mark Pryor (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, 271 pages)

Oh, and it’s a hollow feeling when it comes down to dealing friends. It never ends. “Tequila Sunrise,” by the Eagles

The Perfect Crime?

The title of Mark Pryor’s sixth novel and seventh book Hollow Man comes from a T.S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men.” This, in and of itself, gives one hope that the book will move beyond a typical crime novel. It does not disappoint. It is part carnage and good guys versus bad guys, but it is also a solid attempt to get inside the mind of the demented and tortured souls who commit these crimes.

Pryor is a native of England and an Assistant District Attorney in Austin, Texas. The book takes place in Austin, and the lead character, Dominic, works in the D.A.’s office and hails from England. Suit yourself if you wish to assume that this is at least in part an autobiographical work, but the author certainly uses his expertise well in chronicling the events of this crime story.

Dominic is unquestionably a psychopath. He is demoted at work and challenged as a plagiarist in the hot Austin music scene. These events affect his ability to control his illness, and – at the first opportunity, he snaps and uses those around him as much to satisfy his perversion as to actually gain anything of consequence for himself. All the while, he demonstrates no concern whatsoever for the well-being of anyone not named Dominic. He presumably rationalizes this as somehow related to the abuse he suffered and endured as a child. Those more informed than I will have to decide if that is in any way relevant or if Dominic was born troubled.

The story is told in the first person, which makes for interesting reading, for as the story unfolds, it is often difficult to truly know the extent to which a specific occurrence is as it appears to be or is a contrived manipulation of a sick mind. In fiction some mysteries are best left unsolved.

Hollow Man offers a solid balance of narrative and dialogue, which is rare for books of this genre. There is an occasional gaffe in the dialogue, but perfection in this arena is hard to pull off for even the most accomplished writers, and – while fair to point out, it does not interfere with the enjoyment of the story or detract from the overall quality of the book. In fact, most readers will be quite interested in learning what comes next and be held in firm suspense until the final pages. It’s extremely hard for an author to accomplish this feat.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school administrator and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

100 Miracles

100 buildings cover

A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings by Dan Cruikshank (Firefly Books, $39.95, 352 pages)

Architecture is an all-embracing adventure without end. It is a story that can never be completed as long as mankind continues to build, to invent, to discover; it is the story told by this book.

The modest dimensions of 100 Buildings place this book somewhere between two genres – popular survey and coffee table. What sets it apart from both is the serious, understated way author Dan Cruickshank sets forth his take on the place of architecture in the world. Specifically, he goes into just the right amount of narrative to bring the icons, pioneers of constructions and breathtakingly beautiful creations here on earth alive for the reader.

100 buildings chartres

100 buildings seagram

The illustrations and descriptions are superb but not overly fatuous. After all, we’re using the perspective taken by a writer in 2015. Students of architecture have no doubt studied many of the 100 buildings. There are a few contemporary additions to the mix, which serve to keep Cruickshank’s history fresh and relatable.

100 buildings vision

100 buildings middle east

Sadly, there have been a few casualties of late in the Middle East. The power of architecture may well be lost on those who are lashing out. And, on a positive note, some nearly destroyed exemplary structures have been reconstructed. Most of the featured examples herein will be steadfastly holding their places in history long after we are merely dust.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on September 24, 2015.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Turn! Turn! Turn!

last season hardcover

The Last Season: A Father, A Son, and a Lifetime of College Football by Stuart Stevens (Knopf, $24.95, 224 pages)

“All along, the football season had been just an excuse to spend time together, and now that we were toward the end of the season, it seemed less important to pretend the games were really the best moments.”

A reader wrote on Amazon that, “Every Ole Miss fan, every SEC fan… will love this book.” Well, no. A key flaw with this book is that it is horribly and sadly biased. Political consultant Stevens writes that, “The SEC draws the best (athletes) in the country.” And he attempts to pile on by calling the SEC “college football’s brightest stage.” Well, this may be true in some years, but certainly not all.

This is intended to be a moving memoir about a son who celebrates what is likely his 95-year-old father’s final year on earth by attending every University of Mississippi football game. But it’s a missed opportunity. Stevens never wastes a chance to go sideways by inserting his ineffable personal opinion on, oh, almost everything. For example, “I didn’t really like New Orleans. It wasn’t interesting, it was boring and predictable.” Really?

Stevens also makes broad characterizations which are clearly not credible: “This love of college football and it’s importance in life’s schemes are natural for a southerner but difficult for (others) to grasp.” Really?

Last-Season-Stuart-Stevens

Steven’s father never comes to life in this work. And the conclusion leaves the reader wondering if this was, in fact, the final season.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

The Last Season was released on September 18, 2015.

My Losing Season 2

Note: A great book that the sports-minded reader might want to consider reading is My Losing Season: A Memoir by Pat Conroy. “Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass.” Pat Conroy

“…maybe the finest book Pat Conroy has written.” The Washington Post

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

My Man

James Dean 2

Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean’s Final Hours by Keith Elliot Greenberg (Applause Theater & Cinema Books, $24.99, 286 pages)

“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” James Dean

Some will be tempted to buy this book based on the subtitle, James Dean’s Final Hours. It’s not so much a minute-by-minute account of Dean’s last day as it is a short biography. The subtitle is a hook to draw the reader in.

If you’re interested in Dean, but not so much that you would want to read a 400, 500 or 600 page bio, this may serve your purposes. Yes, it does cover the circumstances and details of the actor’s death in September of 1955, but it’s told in a style that bounces all over, around and about Dean’s life. The reader who appreciates a chronological telling of a true story may find this somewhat frustrating.

Also frustrating is a high amount of repetition. For example, more times than I could count the writer makes a statement to the effect that, “Much of Jimmy’s inner torment came from the early demise of his mother.” Stating this once would have been sufficient. Greenberg is fixated with the notion that those close to Dean all died under untimely and strange circumstances. And like many Hollywood biographers, he’s a bit too caught up in his subject’s sex life.

A fascinating story told in a less than captivating manner.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on September 15, 2015.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

ABC

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee


The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg (Chronicle Books, $16.99, 248 pages
)

Perhaps you’ve heard the comment, “He’s a bit of an odd duck.” Well, Candice Phee, a twelve-year-old who lives in a suburb of Brisbane, Australia is surely an odd duck. The inability to lie, even a kindly white lie, is but one of her many quirky behavioral traits. Overwhelming shyness has led her to use written communication in uncomfortable situations such as prolonged discussions with adults other than her parents and with kids at school. She is a devout reader of the dictionary, which provides her with a remarkably broad and specific vocabulary.

Candice’s world is full of adults who are alienated (not aliens). Her mom is plagued by depression and her dad won’t have anything to do with his brother, Rich Uncle Brian, who is his former partner in a software company. Miss Bamford, Candice’s all-time favorite teacher has a lazy eye that sets her apart and draws reactions from her students.

The other kids in Miss Bamford’s sixth grade class, especially the ultra cool Jen Marshall, mock Candice. The arrival of a new and similarly odd student, Douglas Benson, creates an opportunity for Candice to experience friendship for the first time in her life. Their interactions are hilarious.

Miss Bamford has assigned Candice’s class the task of writing a narrative/autobiography using each letter of the alphabet as the theme of a paragraph. Thus, the primary structure of the book is Candice’s take on the assignment. Interspersed are the poignant and intelligent letters she has sent to her pen pal in New York City who doesn’t reply to Candice.

The Categorical Universe black and white

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee is intended for readers ten years of age and up. Clearly, the audience for the book is a wide one. Fans of The Westing Game, young, old and any age in between, will thoroughly enjoy this heartwarming, sometimes gut-wrenching and ultimately satisfying tale. Author Barry Jonsberg has won numerous Australian writing awards. He is a teacher and resides in Darwin, Australia. This reviewer visited Darwin over 45 years ago, well before Mr. Jonsberg moved there from England. I hope he enjoys the barramundi fish that are plentiful in Darwin! Barramundi is my all-time favorite.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. This book was released on September 9, 2014.

You can read a sample of this book for free on your Kindle device or app:

http://www.amazon.com/Categorical-Universe-Candice-Sneak-Preview-ebook/dp/B00MF2CLKI/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414437440&sr=1-2&keywords=the+categorical+universe+of+candice+phee

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

For a Dancer

Five Days Left (nook book)

Five Days Left

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, $26.95, 352 pages)

At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision, keeping her illness from them. She was in denial in the beginning, as loathe to admit to herself that everything was wrong as she was to admit it to them. But then, after her diagnosis, everyone around her became so overly concerned, so insufferably attentive that she started to regret anyone knew… (I)t was infuriating to watch herself deteriorate in the eyes of the people around her. Use the word “disease” and suddenly everyone will instantly treat you like you’re ill, Mara learned, even on days you feel fine.

Five Days Left is a close to perfect debut novel from Julie Lawson Timmer, whose background is in law. This is the story of Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, wife and mother whose life is put on hold by a diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease. Mara fights to hide her symptoms from her co-workers and family members for months and years, but eventually realizes that her body is breaking down and out-of-control; the disease is going to take her life. So Mara decides that she will commit suicide on her next birthday. The narrative begins five days before the birthday on which Mara will end it all. Or will she?

(Her death by suicide) was a dreadful thing to do to a child, a husband, to such caring parents and friends, but really, who were any of them to judge? How could they ever truly know what she had gone through? Who were any of them to say they wouldn’t have at least considered the same thing?

Timmer does an excellent job of portraying how infirmity can make a coward out of the strongest individual. Mara goes from being a life-long workaholic to becoming a virtual invalid. Once proud, she eventually simply wants everything to be over with and no longer cares about how she’ll be judged upon her self-inflicted demise. It’s a timely, unique look at the mindset of a suicidal person.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

There’s a secondary character and story that’s not as strong, and that story is a touch unrealistic. But all in all, this is a stunning work from Timmer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“…this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.” Jodi Picoult

Five Days Left is a heart-wrenching drama about a world in which there are no easy answers… This novel feels as true as life.” Christina Baker Kline

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized