Tag Archives: Texas

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.

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Tequila Sunrise

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, $25.00, 320 pages)

“Americans: unite under Mexican food, just like your ancestors, just like your descendants!   It doesn’t matter your dish choice: it’ll sometimes be derided, sometimes mysterious, oftentimes scorching, and not always good, but always, always eaten.   A lot.”

I can guarantee you one thing about this Mexican food survey book by the finely-named Gustavo Arellano.   Read it and you will feel…  hungry!   Of course, it’s probably politically and factually correct to say that this account is about Mexican-American food, although Arellano does often clarify which foods had their creation in Mexico – before being adopted north of the border – versus those foods that are known as Mexican but are purely American/Mexican-American creations.

A trip through the table of contents shows the order in which the food topics are discussed.   They are: the burrito, tacos, enchiladas, Mexican cookbooks written by Anglos, the late Southwestern cuisine, the virtually doomed and much-attacked world of Tex-Mex food, Mexicans cooking food for other Mexicans (really?), the arrival of Mexican food in our supermarkets, the tortilla, salsa and tequila.   There’s also a bonus chapter on the five greatest Mexican meals served in the U.S.; at least it’s one man’s humble listing of the meals that are “just bueno.

“Mexican food had arrived to wow customers, to save them from a bland life, as it did for their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.   Again.   Like last time – and the time before that.”

The author has great fun in praising the heroes of the Mexican-American food movement (or revolution, if you prefer), such as Larry Cano who developed the El Torito chain of restaurants.   He even praises Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill (the second-largest Mexican food chain in the U.S.), and Glenn Bell, the founder of the ubiquitous Taco Bell food stops.   If you’ve ever wondered where Bell got the recipes for his tacos, the answer is found in Taco USA – and it happens to be a hole-in-the-wall taco shop in San Bernardino, California.

On the flip side, Gustavo names names when it comes to finding villains.   Two of them are Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy who have repeatedly called out for “authentic” Mexican food while allegedly – by Gustavo’s account and others – being somewhat less than authentic themselves.   And then there’s Tex-Mex:

“Tex-Mex.   Tex-Mex.   A hyphen separates two cultures that faced off in blood but are forever linked around the world.   Each exists on its own, each is fine separate from the other, but together the phrase now conjures up something almost universal:  culinary disgust.”

On this, we shall leave the details up to the reader – and an opinion on this much-appreciated or highly-despised cuisine.

What Arellano does quite well is to present us with the scope of the popularity of Mexican food in this country.   For example, you may have heard that more salsa is sold than ketchup, but were you aware that the sale of tortillas is now an $8 billion a year industry?   It’s mind-boggling, and thanks to Taco USA the facts are now literally on the dining table.

“Is the (Sonora) hot dog truly Mexican?   Who cares?   In Tucson, the birthplace of Linda Ronstadt, Americans became Mexicans long ago; it’s now the rest of the country that’s finally catching up.”

Yes, Gustavo’s listing of the five best Mexican meals in the U.S. includes the bean-wrapped Sonora hot dog that’s served only at El Guerro Canelo in Tucson, Arizona.   And while it’s not a bad list (which includes stops in Oklahoma, Arizona, Southern California, Texas, and Colorado), I think he missed one place that I’ll gladly take him to the next time he’s in the Capitol City of California – which is Emma’s Taco House in West Sacramento.   It’s been in business at the same location since 1953, and there’s a reason why this is true.   It is one of the most muy bueno taco houses in all of Taco USA!   And as the fans of Emma’s like to say, if you don’t like “real” Mexican food, there’s a Taco Bell right down the street!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Taco USA is available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.   Gustavo Arellano is also the author of Ask a Mexican! and Orange County: A Personal History.

Note:   Gustavo would and does argue in Taco USA that ALL Mexican/Mexican-American food is “real” and “authentic”; probably as real as “Chicken Nuggets” from McDonald’s. (Which part of the chicken does the nugget come from?)

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Row, Row, Row Your Boat

No Mark Upon Her: A Novel by Deborah Crombie (William Morrow, $25.99, 384 pages)

I know you remember.   But I will make you forget…

Anglophiles, mystery lovers and rowing fans – this is a book for you!   Author Deborah Crombie has added a fourteenth book to her impressive list of mysteries with the February 2012 release of No Mark Upon Her.   The tale focuses on the intersection of two activities, work at Scotland Yard and rowing on the River Thames.   The first victim is Rebecca Meredith who was a high-ranking member of the force and an Olympic class rower on the comeback trail.   The discovery of her body along the banks of the river jump-starts the search for her killer.

Although Crombie is a native of Texas, she flaunts knowledge of Great Britain that she acquired while living in England and Scotland.   The narrative is filled with British phrases that were not familiar to this reviewer.   A Kindle or Nook e-book version would provide easy access to definitions.   Regardless, the language is not so far-fetched that a reader would lose the meaning of what’s being said.   The locations for the action are nearly cinema graphic which gives the reader the sense of having visited the locale without the burden of jet lag.

The good guy characters are warm and knowable and the bad guys are thoroughly despicable.   Figuring out which group each of the characters falls into is a bit of a challenge.   While married members of the Scotland Yard force, Gemma and Duncan Kincaid, are clearly in the good guys group, their fellow officers are not so strongly portrayed.   Interestingly, Crombie has set up pairs of characters, both couples and work partners which make for an engaging read.   Some folks are just working, others are falling in love and a few are plotting the removal of obstacles in their evil path of greed.

There are crimes galore, rape, murder, arson and theft.   One of these crimes seems to lead to another, almost logically!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   In Great Britian/Europe, this book has been released with the title No Mark Upon Her: A Kincaid and James Mystery.

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Come and Get It

Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy by James A. Roberts (HarperOne, $25.99, 368 pages)

“The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.”   – H. L. Mencken

Author James A. Roberts is a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.   There’s no doubt that he knows of what he writes.   In some ways Shiny Objects is similar to The Man Who Sold America by Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz, and Shoptimism – Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What by Lee Eisenberg.   Among them, the three  books capture a wide view of the marketing tricks, human weaknesses and buying trends that are behind the urge to attain the American dream.

Shiny Objects is clearly written for readers in the USA.   Author Roberts tailors what could easily be just another self-help book into a person-centered experience complete with memorable quotes at the start of each chapter (such as the one posted above).   He includes graphs, charts, sidebars and illustrations that enliven the very serious subject – compulsive acquisition that most folks cloak in the guise of the pursuit of the Great American Dream.

There is a strong interactive presence in many chapters that gently allows the reader to respond to the questionnaires that are designed to reveal personal tendencies, proclivities or urges related to material possessions and their appearance – which is, sadly, a false one – of granting happiness.

There is some original research associated with the writing of the book as well as numerous well-annotated references, data and quotes.   Roberts also references his survey of other researchers’ research on consumption/consumerism.

The marketing classes at Baylor presented by Dr. Roberts must be very popular given his smooth conversational style and ability to weave useful strategies through his narrative.   Perhaps this book, which is highly skeptical of the marketing practices in this country, is his way of offsetting the marketing skills he teaches in his college classes.   This quote makes the point: “The primary goal of this book is to make the argument that lasting happiness lies outside the consumer realm, beyond the shiny-object ethos.”

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Shiny Objects was released on November 8, 2011, and is available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   “Shiny Objects is ultimately a hopeful statement about the power we each hold to redefine the pursuit of happiness.”   Amazon

Readers who find this book interesting may also want to consider Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage, $15.95, 336 pages) and Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt (William Morrow Paperbacks, $15.99, 315 pages).

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Chain Gang

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson (Picador; $20.00; 496 pages)

“Hardly light reading…  a slog through a muddy field.”

It’s doubtful that anyone would wish to take the position that modern American prisons serve as the perfect example of rehabilitative environments.   Yet Professor Robert Perkinson takes approximately 500 pages to argue the case that they are not the best representation of a “forgiving society.”   That’s fine but this reviewer wishes that at least half of this large tome had dealt with solutions rather than simple issue spotting.   Finding problems is the easy part, finding solutions – applying innovative social engineering – is the tough part and is missing from this quasi-legal brief.

Texas Tough is highly documented with source materials and yet academic knowledge is not the same as practical experience.   At one point in his Conclusion, for example, Parkinson disparages “high-tech uberprisons like Pelican Bay in California,” as not being very friendly (prisons like this are “regimented lockups” in his view).   I saw no indication in the Notes that Mr. Perkinson has ever visited Pelican Bay (as I have); this is an end-of-the-line facility for the most violent of hard-core offenders.   It is not meant to serve as either a Club Fed or a cozy community college.

What would Mr. Perkinson do as the administrator of such a facility?   (Asked but not answered.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book (and the first half is much harder reading than the second half due to some highly obtuse language) is the application of The Law of Unintended Consequences, popularized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.   This principle is often referenced in law schools as litigation and legislation-based reforms may produce results that surprise their sponsors.   Due to court-ordered reforms in the state of Texas, for example, the author notes that inmates are now “as plagued by tedium as toil.”   Their death rates are also much lower.   These two points don’t seem to support his case very well.

The professor also spends a great portion of this work arguing that northern prisons have become more punitive (and “southern”), while southern prisons have become more “northern” and less harsh.   Perkinson ties this to race but it seems more than a bit tenuous.   Let’s just say that it may remain an interesting issue for further research for sociologists.  (Just a thought: Why didn’t Perkinson compare west coast prisons to east coast ones?)

If one has never read a book about the U. S. correctional system, then this might make for an interesting, if sometimes blatantly overdone, introduction to the subject.   It is hardly light reading.   In fact, it is sometimes a slog through a muddy field.

This reviewer is hopeful that someone follows up on this survey work with a constructive and solution-based approach to what Professor Perkinson somewhat dramatically labels as “America’s Prison Empire.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Henry Holt and Company.   Take Away:  Perkinson spends a lot of time (and reams of paper) making an argument that not a lot of people are going to disagree with.   The fault is that after pinpointing problems he fails to even suggest possible solutions.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson.

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Magic Carpet Ride

The Valley of Shadows: A Novel by Mark Terry (Oceanview, $25.95, 291 pages)

Mark Terry, author of the novels The Fallen and The Devil’s Pitchfork, has produced a “ripped from the headlines” novel about terrorists acting in the  U. S.   In The Valley of Shadows, members of Al-Qaeda plan to simultaneously attack five American cities:  Washington, D. C., New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.   So it’s up to five-person teams assigned to each of the targets to find the terrorists hiding in plain sight, and interfere with their plans to use dirty bombs and maybe nuclear weapons.

Our protagonist, Derek Stillwater, a wild, wooly and instinct-based troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security, is assigned to the L. A. team.   Derek and his four team members (who will be under the leadership of Cassandra O’ Reilly, Ph.D., of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; a one-time flame of Stillwater’s who has little love or use for him now) have just 48 hours to complete their impossible mission.   Oh, and if this isn’t enough to heap on their plates, it seems that the terrorists plan to destabilize the U. S. national election by assassinating one of the two major party candidates for president.   The candidate plans to arrive at LAX for a previously scheduled southern California campaign stop.

Start reading this unique thriller and you’re likely to put almost everything else aside for the next 48 hours, or less, in real-time.   It’s an e-ticket, fast pass, wild ride from start to finish – from Islamabad, Pakistan to Santa Monica – that never takes a wrong turn.   Author Terry has done his homework, having been briefed by members of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration (an air traffic controller has a key role in the story), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.   It’s clear that he – like his alter ego Derek Stillwater – has friends in high places, and he makes full use of inside information in the crafting of this all-too-realistic tale.

If you’re a fan of authors like Michael Connelly, Joseph Finder and David Baldacci, you may be ready to join the Mark Terry fan club…  And unless you plan to purchase a new Porsche Cayman S, you’re not likely going to experience a better ride.   Trust me on this.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Valley of Shadows was released on June 7, 2011.   “Terry mashes the action pedal to the floor in this solid Derek Stillwater novel.”   Publishers Weekly

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