DRIFTWOOD: A California Road Trip Novel by Elizabeth Dutton

I’ve been a serial obsessive for most of my life, and many of the things I’ve obsessed over–eating shrimp two meals a day, wearing green sweat pants, and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, to name but three–I’ve managed to, more or less, move past.  But music and California are two obsessions that will always dominate my imagination. And in Driftwood, the debut novel by Elizabeth Dutton, I can indulge in both of those long-standing obsessions.

Here’s the basic set-up: Clem Jasper (great f-ing name!) is an L.A. trust fund kid with a well-known rock musician for a father who dies suddenly while playing ping-pong.  Still reeling from the loss and trying to figure out her place in the world, Clem receives a rather strange inheritance: a bundle of letters from her father instructing her to visit several meaningful yet mysterious destinations around California.

Clem’s a quirky and relentlessly self-commenting narrator, but an oddly likeable one.  She is one part misanthrope and one part romantic.   As a reader, I sympathized with her, gobbled up her irreverent remarks and witticisms and spot-on commentary about, well, everything. In short, Clem is that often-talked-about-but-rarely-realized round character.

The other brilliant aspect of this book is the setting: California. In Dutton’s hands, California comes alive, becomes something more real, more interesting, more quirky than the glittering yet static version of California that’s lived in my imagination for so long. I particularly enjoyed the oddball characters Clem meets in the towns she visits; I relished the descriptions of the landscape, the weather, the vibe of each new place she goes in search of gaining a deeper connection with her father. And, of course, there is the music. Yes, many songs and bands (both real and fictional) are mentioned, discussed, and evaluated, but what struck me the most was the (forgive me) music of the road.  Throughout Clem’s journey, she is attempting to find a rhythm for her life, to write her own song, one that redefines who she is and what family means.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this book. It will be widely released on November 4, but is available for pre-order now. Click on the link below.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Driftwood-California-Road-Trip-Novel/dp/1629144991/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1396222049&sr=8-2&keywords=driftwood+novel

 

 

 

 

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Book Review of And She Was by Alison Gaylin

I’ve been looking for a new series to obsess over, and well, the search is over. And She Was by Alison Gaylin stars Brenna Spector, a forty-something private detective who specializes in missing person cases. And here’s the intriguing bit about the protagonist: she is stricken (if that’s the right word) with Hyperthemesia.  (It means she has an incredibly detailed autobiographical memory…yeah, I had to look it up, too.) Spector recalls, with breathtakingly stunning clarity, practically every single moment of her life.

And She Was starts with the disappearance of Iris Neff, a little girl who suddenly walks off from a neighborhood barbecue, never to be heard from again. Cut to a decade later when one of those present at the barbecue–Carol Wentz, a mild-mannered wife with a seemingly boring husband–becomes obsessed with the case.  After years of secret investigations, Carol manages to get a beat on Iris, but before she can reach out to her Carol ends up in the trunk of a car, murdered. That’s when Nelson Wentz, the prime suspect in the murder, hires Brenna Spector, not to track down Iris Neff, but to figure out who killed his wife.  The tension mounts at every turn as Spector finds haunting parallels between the Iris Neff case and her own life.  And, naturally, Spector comes to the conclusion that the Iris Neff case and Carol Wentz’s murder are related.

Once again, I always return to the characters in a story, and Brenna Spector is downright fascinating.  Because of her Hyperthemesia, she is constantly being dragged into the past, revisiting every single detail of her life.  Now, on the surface, this might sound cool, but man, could it get annoying.  The strain of this affliction coupled with the stress of working what amounts to two cases simultaneously really make Spector a dynamic character.  The tension between Spector and Nelson Wentz, who is creepy in a vanilla kind of way, helps create an atmosphere of suspicion, and the love-hate dynamic between Spector and her metrosexual assistant Trent provides comic relief.

Bottom line, I want to read more books featuring Spector, a tough yet vulnerable detective.  I anxiously await the next installment in this series. In the meantime, read And She Was; you won’t be disappointed.

And She Was

Book Review of LA Late @ Night by Paul D. Marks

If you like tautly-constructed hard-boiled stories featuring gritty characters, snappy dialogue, and plenty of action, then LA Late @ Night is right up your alley.  The title story features a hotshot defense attorney–Cassie Rodriguez–who successfully defends a rich Hollywood director on murder charges.  Several elements of this story interested me, beginning with the format. Written as a modified movie script, this story feels as if you’re a cinematographer, simultaneously shooting and observing the action up close and personal from behind a camera. Another compelling element was the theme. I mean, how often does a wildly successful attorney even attempt to right a wrong the justice system couldn’t, let alone actually succeed? But in this story, it happens. And it’s believable, primarily because of the way Cassie’s character is portrayed and developed.

The title story is by far the most original of the five tales, but my favorite is definitely “Angels Flight.” This one is about Tom Holland, a jaded homicide detective who gets saddled with Lucy Railsback, a member of the mayor’s Community Police Action Committee.  Lucy assists Holland in the death investigation of a body the police find in Echo Park Lake. Without spoiling the ending, Lucy uses both good old fashioned street smarts and voodoo to help solve the case.  Similar to the title story and the other tales in the book, “Angels Flight” is satisfying for its memorable characters, quick dialogue, and clipped prose. But what I enjoyed most about this story was what I enjoyed most about the collection in total: the setting of Los Angeles, which simply comes alive in the hands of a skilled writer like Marks. The L.A. Marks depicts is dangerous and raw, and it is, for my money, the most compelling character present.  Just like in his excellent PI novel White Heat, Marks manages to capture the dirty underbelly of one of the most written about cities in modern history, and, miraculously, he does so in a uniquely singular way.  . .a true literary feat indeed.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this collection to any true fan of the hard-boiled/noir genre.  Oh, and make sure to read the excerpt from White Heat; the opening chapter hooked me from word one.

http://www.amazon.com/L-A-Late-Night-Mystery-Streets-ebook/dp/B00I9289HM/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

 

 

 

 

Book Review of The Barkeep by William Lashner

Justin Chase is an ex-law student turned traveling bartender who follows the teachings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to numb the pain of his mother’s murder, the murder that Justin’s father is now rotting away in prison for. One night while tending bar, Chase makes the acquaintance of Birdie Grackle, an alcoholic hit man who claims to have killed Chase’s mother. For a price, Birdie is willing to tell Chase who hired Birdie to kill Chase’s mother. Instead of paying the hit man for the information, Chase begins investigating his mother’s murder, and aside from crossing paths with some well-drawn characters–a beautiful but self-loathing mistress, an aging detective obsessed with doing jumbles, and a borderline-retarded yet effective killer–Chase makes some shocking discoveries about the case, and his father.

This is a page-turner, but what I really enjoyed was the characterization and the shifting narration. Every character has a clear voice and is uniquely flawed, which made them all compelling. Too, the dialogue, particularly the scenes at the bar with Justin and his regulars is fantastic. There is something very cinematic about Lashner’s writing, but it is also literary as well. I really enjoyed this one, and I will definitely pick up another of his novels.

the barkeep

“Important” Novels Can Be Entertaining: Book Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circleMae Holland is one lucky girl, for she’s just landed a job at the most prestigious and powerful internet company in the world. The Circle (ominous name, no?) has a sprawling campus in northern California that has everything from bowling alleys to libraries, dormitories and restaurants, day care centers and gymnasiums, and, quite often, employees never leave after the work day is finished. On campus, there are parties and athletic endeavors; there are famous musicians and artists and chefs and other celebrities brought in to perform or cook or just hang out.

Soon after taking the job, Mae becomes one of those Circlers who prefer life on campus, who prefer living in the ultra-modern dorm rooms to her own apartment. Mae’s rise up the corporate ranks is meteoric, and after she agrees to go “transparent,” which is when one wears a tiny camera on one’s person and broadcasts every minute of one’s life out to millions of strangers on the internet, she really gets caught up in the terrifying vision of The Circle’s three founders, this idea of Completion.

The Three Wise Men, as the Circle’s founders are called, invented an algorithm that links a person’s email, banking accounts, social media, and purchasing into one account known as a Circle account. No longer do users have to remember dozens of passwords; long gone is the hassle of identity theft, for a Circle account has eliminated these problems. The only issue is the Circle also has nearly unlimited access to personal information.  As it gobbles up start-up companies left and right and gains more and more control of the government in Washington, D.C., the Circle will achieve Completion when it makes having a Circle account mandatory for all Americans, when it makes voting mandatory through the system it invented called Demoxie. For Mae, the stakes really escalate when she becomes romantically involved with Kalden, who may or may not be a spy looking to bring down the Circle.

What is truly stunning about this book is how Eggers captures the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, how he builds an entire technology-obsessed, dogmatically-idealistic world peopled with realistic characters, ones we would all recognize as friends, or neighbors, or colleagues, or students.  Too, he manages to be funny and serious at the same, for this novel is both important and entertaining. The Circle is on the same plane as Orwell’s 1984 and Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, but it also has the humor (and heart) of. . .pick any novel by Vonnegut.  Eggers’s commentary on privacy, corporate monopolies, free market, government, human nature, and the Millenial generation are all spot-on, and, remarkably, not didactic or preachy in any way.

Bottom line, The Circle is a brilliantly written novel that is both timely and timeless.  Eggers has always been an ambitious writer, and thematically speaking, in this book he throws up half a dozen targets and hits them all, dead center.

Book Review of The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

After twenty years together, Jodi and Todd have come to a bad place in their relationship. Todd, a successful real estate investor and serial cheater, has impregnated his oldest friend’s daughter, Natasha, who is twenty-five years his junior. But unlike his other dalliances, Todd is in love with and wants to marry Natasha; he wants (or thinks he wants) to start a family. Meanwhile Jodi, a part-time therapist, is kicking herself for never agreeing to marry Todd, something he proposed many times over their more than two decades together. In the eyes of the law, Jodi has no legal rights to anything, like, for instance, the couple’s expensive condo in downtown Chicago, or Todd’s sizable real estate holdings. After much reflection, Jodi realizes that everything she did for Todd–the cooking and cleaning, the emotional support, the looking the other way on his trysts–mean nothing to him, and she must do something about it. The whole sordid affair comes to a head when Todd serves Jodi with eviction papers, and from there, his violent demise is imminent, and, at least in this reader’s mind, somewhat justified.

Regarding the question of “Will Todd be murdered?,” there is no suspense. You learn practically in the first ten pages that he will meet a violent end. And yet, this an incredibly suspenseful novel, well-paced and gorgeously-written. The chapters alternate between Jodi’s voice and Todd’s and are each labeled HIM and HER. How the author completely inhabited the minds and bodies and souls of both Todd and Jodi is a marvel and was a true pleasure to read, but even more impressive is how she managed to make Todd hate-able and likeable at the same time, how she portrayed Jodi as both victim and perpetrator.  The author’s prose, the way she develops character deliberately, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter reminds me of the writing of Henry James and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen.  There were passages in this novel that were so lovely, so true, and so unflinchingly honest they demanded to be read aloud.

Bottom line, while this isn’t a mystery in the Whodunnit sense of the word, it is by far the best novel I’ve read in the last six months. The character development, the pacing, the prose, and yes, even the plot manages to, in the end, surprise the reader. I’ve read reviews of this book that compare it to Gillian Flynn’s work, particularly Gone Girl, and I can certainly see the similarities.  However, I do think The Silent Wife has one major difference: Gillian Flynn’s books are really, really good, and Harrison’s novel is great. Tragically, Harrison died recently of cancer, and I can’t help but feel a sting of selfish anger, for there will be no more books from this fantastic author.

silentwife

Book Review of Until Death by James Thane

Imagine you’re a top-shelf “escort,” and some whack-job gets a hold of your day planner and starts offing your clientele, one by one. What do you do?

In Until Death, Sean Richardson, a Phoenix homicide detective, is tasked with investigating a series of murders that seem, at first, to be unrelated. But then Gina Gallagher, an off-the-charts-beautiful call girl, comes into the police station and drops a bombshell: the recent homicide victims were all her clients. And her day planner, which contains the names of all her clients, has gone missing. From there, Richardson works the clues, and they lead him on a goose chase involving the men in Gallagher’s life: a lawyer who turns out to have installed a secret camera in her apartment, an ex-boyfriend who takes pictures of her a la a peeping tom, and a host of other johns/well-heeled businessmen with money and motives to spare.  Like in any good mystery, practically everyone has a motive, whether it be jealousy, revenge, or just general creepiness, and it takes a while–perhaps too long, in my opinion–for Richardson to sort through the motives and alibis and solve the case. However, in the end, he does, and the penultimate scene is dripping with tension and drama and well worth the wait.

For me, the women in this novel are what elevate Until Death above the many, many police procedurals lining the bookshelves.  Gina Gallagher, a high-end escort/personal trainer, is anything but a stereotypical call girl. She is pragmatic and a calculating business woman, but at the same time she has a heart and a brain. Nancy Ballard, the grieving wife of the first homicide victim, is also interesting. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but Thane does an excellent job of shifting the narration between Sean Richardson, the lead homicide detective on the case, and Ballard, who plays a significant role in the case’s conclusion. From a reader’s standpoint, I think that Thane captured the voice of an angry, grieving, and vengeful widow very well, and he does so without slowing down the pace of the narrative, which is paramount in a police procedural. While Gallagher and Ballard were certainly well-drawn, I most say I found Maggie McClinton, Richardson’s partner, to be the most compelling character in the entire book. She is foul-mouthed, tough, and capable, and I am hoping to see much more of her in future novels.

Bottom line, this is a solid, highly-readable book, and I look forward to the next in the series. In the meantime, I will go back and read No Place to Die, the first in the series.

until death

 

http://www.amazon.com/Until-Death-James-L-Thane/dp/1477849467