Tag Archives: California

* Bullies by Alex Abramovich

It must be fashionable for grown men to write about their childhood bullies. Unlike Whipping Boy, however, Bullies: A Friendship focuses on the present. The author’s one-time bully is now the president of a motorcycle club in Oakland, CA, and the author, somewhat strangely, sets out to explore in great detail the activities of the club, depicting Oakland as a drug-infested den of violence and hopelessness which leaves locals, and even semi-locals like me shaking our heads. Yes, there are very dangerous places in Oakland but even the author acknowledges that he managed to live there for months in complete safety, apart from his repeated trips to the infamous triangle where his ex-bully, now supposedly “friend”, operates. It turns out that motorcycle “clubs” (I would say gangs) are very violent and 200 pages of that simultaneously turned my stomach and bore me immensely. Stay away from psychopaths.

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Filed under True story

** An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley

Warning: although it is August, this is far from beach-reading fare. And if you think you know how California natives were exterminated (by the bad Franciscan missions, right), you are wrong. Yes, the missions enslaved them in what has been described as “Nazi concentration camps”, but between roughly the Gold Rush and the Civil War they were just about decimated. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 takes us through the horrific political decisions (including by the US Congress, which funded a lot of the anti-Indian activities by militias), savage attacks, routinely on women and children, and forced removals to reserves that occurred during those years. It’s impeccably documented, chilling, and I have to say a little too detailed to be of interest to the casual reader. But it seems to me that some version of the story should be included in all California history textbooks.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** X by Sue Grafton

Whether you have been a fan of Kinsey Millhone since “A” or you are just starting at X, this is a good one! Of course a solid psychopath makes for a good mystery, but there are at least three villains in this story, who intersect but never meet — even as the avid reader tirelessly anticipates how they will! And it’s the little details that make the story, whether it is having to re-read the manual of the answering machine before changing the message (pre-internet, pre-cell phone, pre-everything), or finding ways to meet the drought-mandated conservation measures (the internet did not change that!). I could do without Kinsey acting as a marriage counselor, but I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

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Filed under Mystery

** Dragonfish by Vu Tran


Dragonfish investigates the disappearance of a Vietnamese woman married to a violent gangster who asks her first husband, a police officer, to find her. In a CSI-like Las Vegas, the officer uncovers his ex-wife’s secret life, dating back to the Malaysian refugee camp she fled to from Vietnam.

The story is very dark and the recurring motifs from the past life did not really work for me. Still, the plot is interestingly coiled.

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Filed under Mystery

** The Cinderella Murder by Mary Higgins Clark


Need a near-brainless, exciting read for the summer. Try The Cinderella Murder, which tells the story of a TV shows that specializes in revisiting dead cases, and selects the murder of a young UCLA student, decades ago. The body pile will increase as various threatened parties seek to eliminate embarrassing witnesses. If you can get over the California cliches, it’s fun and twisted.

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Filed under Mystery

* 1/2 The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer


There are many interesting themes in The Children’s Crusade, starting with the frustrated artist who is expected to be the perfect 50s wife and mother but really longs to find time for her art. And there are wonderful sub stories, the one I liked best being that of the youngest child, who is a handful and also an unexpected fourth sibling, born when his parents were least able to provide the extra care he would need to contain his exuberance.

Still, I felt that the story read like a disjointed  attempt at a disguised family autobiography. The characters seem forced, having been assigned stereotypical roles.  Studious historical motifs are thrown in here and there that don’t bring much to the story. Exquisite details are provided on items that seem fairly irrelevant, such as the way the father organizes his will. The story never engulfed me as it should.

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Filed under New fiction

** 1/2 Blackboard by Lewis Buzbee

Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom features the author, an English professor, visiting his old elementary, junior high, and high schools in Northern California, and reliving his experiences there. Priceless! It seems that the buildings have not changed much at all since their erection, and his reminiscing about learning cursive, using readers designed for East Coast seasons (and casts), being privileged to clean the blackboard erasers, or building a model of a California mission is spot on and very sweet. Unfortunately he takes the opportunity of the book to violently berate the state of K-12 schools in California and their funding (I sympathize) and ends with entirely unrealistic proposals of tripling teachers’ salaries and halving class sizes. Why besmirch a great memoir with silly recommendations?

 

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Filed under Non fiction

* Off Course by Michelle Huneven


The heroine of Off Course decamps to her parents’ cabin in the California Sierras to write her dissertation and instead samples the many men of the mountain, finally settling with a married one who will not, then will, then will not leave his wife and family.

It’s all quite dull and this reader at least feels like her mother, who wants to shake her out of her ill-chosen romance and back into some kind of real life. It takes almost 300 pages and the excellent descriptions of life in a small mountain resort after the tourists have gone cannot compensate for the effort.

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Filed under New fiction

** And the Mountain Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed opens with a breathtaking bedtime story that introduces the brother and sister whose families’ sagas constitute the rest of the book, starting with an artfully twisted separation in Kabul. Many years later, they will reunite, in California. The first third of the book, which takes place in Afghanistan, I found enchanting, capturing sibling rivalry, brotherly love, and the awfulness of a bad marriage.

I had trouble with the middle of the book, which takes place in Paris and contained just enough inaccurate details to break the spell of the story: 8th graders would not attend a lycée in the 1980s; the Sorbonne is not the only university in Paris. The scenes in Northern California read as much more authentic down to the layout of houses (but the 101? I think not! We do not use articles with the freeways here.) So with that I heartily recommend relishing that perfect beginning!

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Filed under New fiction

The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau

The Wonder Bread Summer never reaches the lows of the worst book I ever reviewed on this blog, Twilight, and in particular it’s competently written — but the story simply does not make sense, nor does it achieve the levity that one would expect from a madcap comedy, which could be enjoyed without making perfect sense. So our college student heroine travels from Berkeley, CA, to Southern California and back with a large bag of cocaine, unscathed (problem #1), returning with her avenger father in tow when he previously would not even bother to keep her updated on his address (problem #2) to find her best friend having bonded with the cocaine kingpin’s enforcer (problem #3) and her father talking down said kingpin (problem #4). If you enjoy improbably stories with so-so period details (early 1980’s in Berkeley, California, to be contrasted with the perfect taste and feel in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue), this might be the book for you…

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Filed under New fiction