Category Archives: book reviews

Hardpan by Marilyn Skinner Lanier

The 1940-1950 generation was a slower time, a simpler time—a time when the country was recovering from WWII. Hardpan is an authentic portrayal of a family, like many families during this period, which made choices that worked against them. Yet this family’s determination and principles held them together in the face of daunting obstacles. This novel captures the culture of the time, the stoicism, the secrecy within the family unit, and the personal bonding in spite of the lack of communication, so typical of this period.

This is not a page-turner, but it is a good story, a story that draws you in so that you feel you know the Glover family intimately. It’s well written with a quiet tension that takes you along with them from Oregon to Wyoming and to California. It’s an epic tale that deserves to be read.

Loving the Wind by Crissi Langwell

This fable is a delightful extension of the Peter Pan fantasy. I was able to easily identify with the main character, Princess Tiger Lily, mainly because of Langwell’s writing ability. Tiger Lily was in-scene throughout the novel and the author’s facility with her dialogue, both internal and external, was excellent. The plotline attempted to patch together three large themes: a modern thinking feminist princess warrior, an aboriginal native culture and Peter Pan’s world. All together in a single novel it felt a bit divisive. Regardless, It’s a flight of fancy, a creative tale that will entertain readers from middle-grade to adult.

Touch of Redemption by Waights Taylor Jr.

Waights Taylor Jr. takes us to Alabama, the deep South, where Joe McGrath and Sam Rucker jointly and separately do detective work. It’s circa 1948, sixteen years before the landmark Civil Rights Act, and racism is the norm. This is not the environment where you’d expect Joe to team up with Sam, an African American, on equal terms, but he does and, it becomes a successful case of the future meeting the past.

Joe’s father, a local attorney, was murdered. It’s a cold case, 24 years old, but not to Joe. He smells a rat and is hot on the trail when he’s warned away by a brick through his mother’s window and later the gruesome murder of an associate in his new detective agency. The storyline begins slowly, but gains momentum by the middle of the book. The hook is in and we eagerly read on.

Along the way, Taylor treats us to an authentic look at Southern culture, using personal detailed knowledge of the environs and effective use of dialect. Even the sentence structure and choice of words takes us back to the 1940s. It’s a period piece that immerses us in a time of segregation long past and hopefully behind us.

A Crushing Death by F. M. Meredith

Every good detective story has to begin with a dead body and this book follows that rule when a popular middle school teacher is found under a pile of rocks under a pier. This is the latest book in a series about the Rock Bluff P.D., its Chief of Police, Chandra Taylor, a police family, Doug and Stacey Milligan and their two children, Beth and Davey. They all reside in a small fictional town, North of San Luis Obispo with an understaffed police force.

Meredith is a good storyteller. The plot goes through a reasonable setup and increases in intensity, engaging the reader in the buildup at the end. It was complicated enough to keep my interest and exciting at the end. The characters are drawn clearly, although one-dimensional. It reminded me of the ancient TV police drama, Dragnet—Nothin’ but the facts, Mam. This novel also presents a sequence of events in dry progression that feels like an authentic police detection process.

I can recommend this novel as a quick read and entertaining. No negative criticism intended, the author does seem obsessed with every character’s clothing.

Something in Stone by Linda Reid

I’m pleased to introduce you to six women: Chris, a bookkeeper, Abby, a local mayor, Nina, a psychiatrist, Rennie, the organizer, Morgan an actress and Annette, who is shrouded in mystery. All in their mid fifties, they’re drawn together after many years by a will that leaves them a beach house. No ordinary venue, this is the beach house of their youth, filled with memories from 35 years of pathos and ethos, which all comes tumbling out in the interaction of crisp, intense dialogue crafted by Reid. In addition to secrets, there are mysteries that maintain a background of tension to the last page of this novel.

The characters come alive in the first chapters and stay with you throughout the story, like a Thanksgiving family gathering. Reid manages to capture both the closeness and the separations of life-long friendship. Her fascinating plot line follows in the tradition of two notable films: The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) and The Big Chill (1983). Like the films, Reid is able in this novel to define relationships in terms of the transition from one age to another. She weaves the story of these six lives like a complex tapestry that includes anger, love and depression, but ultimately caring. I can recommend this book both as an enjoyable read and as a study in character development.

What Have We Here? by Susan Bono

Susan Bono’s book of personal essays is an answer to its title, What Have We Here? It contains essays from her life; essays elegant in their simplicity and profound in their insight; essays that tell the life story of a thoughtful woman who has the ability to capture her feelings on a literary canvas for us to experience; essays that have the quality of poetry.

I read each essay out loud to my wife. We are immersed with the author in the scene: on the dance floor, in the kitchen, hiking, or on a car trip as the author muses about her life, our life, all of our lives. Yes, she makes a connection to all of us using nostalgia, humor and sometimes sadness with essays as accessible as a Billy Collins poem and as homey as a Christmas tree in the front room.

I insert a bookmark and close her book. It’s quiet. There’s a residual intensity that demands our attention. Then we share with each other what has happened. Sometimes it evokes one of our own personal stories. Regardless, we feel engaged, warm and very human. So I recommend this book for your humanity.

Vacation by JC Miller

This is not a romance novel. It’s an intriguing love story. It begins with the senseless death of William’s beautiful wife, Kathy, during a convenience store holdup. Three years later the protagonist, William, is still a basket case. William’s friend, Liz, another doctor, a pediatrician, challenges him to take the vacation trip that was planned by Kathy, three years earlier. This trip is the setup for meeting Annie.

I downloaded the book to my iPad, intending to scan the first chapter and delete the book, but the story hooked me. The characters were well drawn and the plot line kept teasing me onto the next chapter. Even the dippy disappearing tour guide, Aaron Black, was interesting as a character. In addition to the well-crafted writing and the lyrical sentence structure, Miller produced a nice balance between narration and dialogue with a constant subtle sprinkle of figurative language.

The plot line languishes occasionally, but always returns to increasing tension. In the last half of the book, the plot takes a completely unexpected twist. It was an exceptional turn and past that point, I couldn’t put the book down.

My only difficulty with the book was the character William. I could not visualize him as a doctor. He was missing that edge that all doctors have whether or not they’re mourning. Liz had that edge and she leapt off the page as a doctor. William seemed to be more like a liberal arts professor. Regardless, it doesn’t spoil a very good book.

The Dark Horse of Shanghai– by Ken Sorensen

Danger, intrigue and excitement roil through this compelling story as Kip and Sal team up to save Shanghai Shores, a failing apartment complex in Shanghai. A powerful evil character, Rico, intent on sabotaging their effort, presents them with more than one challenge.

Kip is something of a business superman, albeit with a flaw, and Sal is his lifelong friend from the tough side of the tracks. These two main characters are interesting and well cast by their dialogue. The aspect of Western vs. Chinese culture and how it plays into every conflict and every negotiation adds a level of complexity and makes the plot even more interesting. Kip as well as the reader gain from the author’s personal experience. An added subplot involving two beautiful women, Angie and Heather, creates the possibility for romance.

The book is professional and cleanly edited. The author presents us with a nice balance between dialogue and description. The plot is intense and I found myself eager to read the next chapter. I recommend this book to anyone who likes a well-written fast moving story, with suspense, action and cultural depth.


Tesla’s Attic by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman

From chapter one to the end, this middle grade book is a laugh fest. It’s not the story that’s a joke; it’s the characters who are all like stand-up comedians. Their goofy adventures, glib language and mangled clichés roll through every chapter. There are lots of funny similes and off-the-wall references, some of them aimed at the parents of MG readers.

Nick, his younger bro Danny and their dad inherit a Victorian house. The new residence, new school and new friends kick off the story. Nick moves into the attic where he finds a bunch of old appliances that are not really what they seem to be, and life for Nick begins to get a little weird . . . and dangerous.

Nick gains new friends Mitch, Theo, Vince, Caitlin and Petula. Written in third person, omniscient, we get access to all their thoughts. The switches are for the most part seamless, although I missed a switch and ended up thinking I was in the wrong head a couple of times. The book is mostly dialogue, which is good, because it keeps the story moving and the action in your face. However it tends to be a bit weak in setting scene.

This is book one of the Accelerati trilogy. It’s a fun read. I recommend it.

Book Review: San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach: The Early Years by James Smith

As a teen living in San Francisco, there was no better way for me to escape the humdrum of life than to escape into the fantasy of Playland at the Beach. I could hardly contain my mounting excitement during the long streetcar ride out to the beach terminus. Once there, I immersed myself in the thrill rides, the games, the noise and energy of the place.

All of this came back to me as I thumbed through this fascinating photo-documentary of our local landmark amusement park. Jim Smith has captured the history of the place by piecing together this photo-history of its genesis as a construction project, its ever-changing arcade and its ultimate demise. I could close my eyes for a second and recall the wonderful fear of the Big Dipper as well as the shower I anticipated flying down the Chutes. It was part of our culture, growing up in The City.

As an adult, possibly even now an elder, I can now appreciate the collection of this detail for its value in understanding what creates fun. Those entrepreneurs new what was exciting, what could launch me from San Francisco news boy into make believe astronaut, even though the word was not yet in everyday language. I also reveled in the photos of people now long gone, but then dressed up for the occasion in their finest—a much different time.

I appreciated the photos of phases of construction that revealed the skeletons beneath the rides, each an engineering feat and each the substance beneath the fantasy. Whether this book would go on your coffee table or into the history section of your library, I enthusiastically recommend it.