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Hearts and Bones

Casting Bones: A Quentin Archer Mystery by Dan Bruns (Seven House Publishers, $29.99, 256 pages)

casting bones amazon

Dark, Darker, Darkest

Don Bruns is the author of 12 previous novels, five in the Mike Sever Caribbean mystery series and seven Lesser and Moore mysteries.  Casting Bones is the first Quentin Archer mystery, and Bruns fans or crime readers should not only read Bones but look forward to the next several offerings.

Archer is a New Orleans cop, exiled from Detroit for pushing the envelope to find the truth.  In Bones, old habits die hard.  Archer finds himself mired in – and inserts himself into, a tangled web of evil that extends to some of the richest power brokers in Louisiana.

Still reeling from his wife’s death, Archer has a partner he doesn’t trust (for good reason), forces that are breathing down on him to get a conviction, truth be damned (a common theme in many crime novels), and – for grins – a Voodoo Queen, Solpange Cordray, both advising and protecting him.  Cordray makes for an interesting good luck charm, and Archer needs one.

The Krewe Charbonerrie is a secret society – essentially a mafia of rich, white people established to preserve and advance the power and affluence and influence of the privileged few.  Cordray tips Archer that the Krewe is likely connected to the death of a judge, and – multiple murders later, with his life on the line, Archer must connect the dots.  He must also be the lone voice of integrity in a sea of dishonesty and criminal collusion.

Bones manages to naturally introduce many characters and plot twists that are all plausible and unforced.  The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce may not exactly be pleased with this novel; there is not much sunlight present in this portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans.

As might be expected, Archer steps up and does his part, but as the novel comes to a close, clues to his dysfunctional family’s past and questions about his wife’s death continue to haunt him.  It is suggested that Cordray’s special powers will be needed to guide him in his quest for justice.  Loose ends thus linger upon the conclusion of Bones.  And thus the stage is set for Bones II.

Mystery lovers should be eager to find out what happens next.  Especially as Bruns is extremely adept at spinning a fascinating yarn.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a school superintendent in Illinois. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

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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)

white with fish

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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Heaven Help Us All

the heavens may fall

The Heavens May Fall: A Novel by Allen Eskins (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, 270 pages)

Relative newcomer Allen Eskins has come into his own with The Heavens Must Fall.  It is the third in a series of books that take place in Minnesota, following his highly acclaimed debut, The Life We Bury, and the follow up, The Guise of Another.  In Heavens, detective Max Rupert takes a more prominent role.

Eskins writes lines for Rupert with complete ease.  The other main characters, partner Niki Vang and defense attorney Broady Sanden, are well defined and the pacing of the story is perfect.  The dialogue between and among the characters is natural and feels real.  Nothing is forced and the reader is eager to find out what will happen next.

Jennavieve Pruitt is murdered, presumably by her husband, Ben, a former law partner of Sanden.  But is he guilty or is the District Attorney rushing for a conviction to further his pursuit of a judgeship?  Rupert and Vang are meticulous in their investigation; however, Sanden is steadfast in his defense of Pruitt, his former partner.

In the meantime, the mystery of Rupert’s wife’s death/murder, which haunts the detective from the outset, teases and unexpectedly comes closer to being solved.  Max’s moral center drives this book, and – with a twist or two, the ending satisfies.  All of this fairly screams for a fourth book.  Based on the positive quality of Heavens, this series is far from being tired or retired.

A future romance is not out of the question as Max avenges his wife’s death.  It would not be a stretch to assume that Sanden and the current D.A./future judge, Frank Dovey, will play a role somehow as Rupert’s adventures continue.  Eskens is worth paying attention to, and Rupert is prominent as a fictional, favorite crime fighting hero.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is the superintendent of a public school district north of Chicago. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

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Crawling Back to You

Breakup/Breakdown – Poems by Charles Jensen (Five Oaks Press, $12.99, 42 pages)

Can one find hope in poems of heartbreak and loss?

breakup-breakdown

This is a fascinating chapbook of poems by Charles Jensen.  These are poems about heartbreak and loss.  After all, we lose things in life, like people and laptops and places:

I understand that/purpled anger in her/face, the way she’s/aware she was/just a pitstop in/someone else’s/marriage. To know/you are not/the one, but just another one.

These are also poems about disruption, the kind that comes with rapid change, with the shedding of the present for the future:

Disruption/is the pulling apart of two independent lives. A rupture/but I didn’t know it until it was too late.  Everything we’d placed/inside those years spilled out/like blood escaping from a vein./Love, my friends, should never/be entrusted to the heart, whose job/is to push away the only thing/the world will ever offer it.

(Disruption, previously published in HIV Here + Now.)

Jensen understands that life is about accepting the changes that are beyond our control:

We shake our lives loose like a braid/untwirling at the end of a long day/I want everything and nothing that belongs to you…

And finally, there’s the notion of place.  A place is ours, if only for a transitory period.  We occupy a space for a moment, like time travelers:

I move into a one bedroom overlooking Glassell Park and/the Los Angeles Rivers and the 5 and the hills of Echo Park/between Division and Future streets.  Division runs drunk/through the neighborhood, splitting Mount Washington/into two separate lives.  Future Street rises straight up the face,/turns sharply and then goes down to just one lane, a 90 degree/curve and, from time to time, gets lost in the spaghetti of streets/only to reappear suddenly on the far side of the hill, shunning/drivers with its abrupt end in a one-way alley.  The apartment/gets a lot of light, and at night the yellow glow of porch lamps/and street lamps dot the dark landscape like a pattern for the/Lite Brite I played with as a child, plugging in plastic pegs to make/something beautiful appear…

(Between Division and Future Streets, previously published in Diode.)

I very much enjoyed reading and rereading these poems by Charles Jensen, whom I feel I now know as a friend.  If the world is something we cannot fathom, we can understand a fellow traveler who is headed down the same highway in search of peace, comfort and understanding.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

charles-jensen

Charles Jensen is a graduate of Arizona State University, and is the Director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

 

 

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On the Precipice

the-precipiceThe Precipice: A Novel (Mike Bowditch Series) by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books, $26.99, 336 pages; Minotaur, $9.99, 416 pages)

The Paul Doiron/Mike Bowditch thriller series continues with The Precipice, Doiron’s sixth novel, and it is as fresh as ever.  In this installment, Bowditch, a game warden in Maine, is called to search for two missing female college students on the Appalachian Trail.  The story moves quickly, but Doiron’s pacing is excellent.

Initially, it appears as if Bowditch has made a mistake in judgment and let the killer go.   Then, a local ne’er do well distracts lawmen from their quest for the truth.  Next, Bowditch’s girlfriend, Stacey, who works for the Department of Natural Resources, joins him in the search. Then she goes missing.

In a frenzy of fear, locals blame the fate of these young women on a rash of recent coyote sightings.  As the two come closer to the truth, the story moves beyond the thriller manhunt and takes a deeper look into the human psyche.  The Precipice delves into the psychology of fear, the propensity for people to make assumptions and rush to judgment, human sexuality, and religion.

There are few stories that don’t tackle good versus evil in some manner, if not unintentionally.  When a whodonit takes on broader themes and pulls it off, it is worth the read.  Writer Doiron has found his voice.  And for his fans, there’s more good news.  The next installment, Widowmaker, is already in the works.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

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The Losing End

Forever is the Worst Long Time: A Novel by Camille Pagan (Lake Union, $24.95, 276 pages)

“It’s so hard to make love pay/ When you’re on the losing end/ And I feel that way again…”  Neil Young

forever-is-the-worst-long-time

Synopsis:

When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life.  There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his best and oldest friend, Rob.  So James becomes Rob’s Best Man, toasting the union of Rob and Lou and hiding his desire for The Perfect Woman.

Review:

With this setup, one can pretty much guess what’s coming in this third novel from author Pagan (Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, The Art of Forgetting).  And one’s guess would be right about half of the time.  Pagan adds some unexpected twists and turns that help to keep the story somewhat interesting.  The plot line is not the problem.

The tone of the story, the narrator’s voice, is where difficulties arise.  It’s sometimes problematic when a male author adopts a female voice, and vice versa.  It is an issue here.  This book is written in the form of a journal – a document to be read by James’ daughter in order to learn about her past.  (Novels in the form of journals seem to be the latest craze.)  The journal reads in a flat tone; in fact, it begins to drone on like a car on the freeway stuck in second gear.  Yes, early on Pagan shifts from first to second, but the reader mourns the absence of third, fourth, and overdrive in this journey of almost 300 pages.

And then there’s the issue of humor.  It was absent in this work which felt overly dramatic.  One of the strengths of bestselling authors like Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner – writers who similarly deal with love, loss and redemption – is that they enliven their stories with stress-relieving humor.  (This enables the reader to relax and avoid the feeling of reading a one note soap opera.)

“This story ends with loss,” said your mother.  “I’m only on the first chapter, but I can tell.”

Basically, this novel proves the truth of the notion that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.  I hope that in her future works Pagan adds more life to her tales and spirit and volume.  Reading this book, for me, was like trying to listen to music being played in a far-off room.  The experience was muffled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on February 7, 2017.

On the writing of Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner:

Home Safe (by Berg) is written with humor and elegance.”  – Chicago Tribune

Home Safe explores, with insight and humor, what it’s like to lose everything and to emerge from the other side.”  – St. Petersburg Times

“Hilarious, heartbreaking, and insightful, Weiner shows she can write with exquisite tenderness as well as humor.”  – The Miami Herald

 

 

 

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Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

the-futures

One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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