REVIEW: WONDER VALLEY, BY IVY POCHODA

 

When a teen runs away from his father’s mysterious commune, he sets in motion a domino effect that will connect six characters desperate for hope and love, set across the sun-bleached canvas of Los Angeles.

From the acclaimed author of Visitation Street, a visionary portrait of contemporary Los Angeles in all its facets, from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific, from the 110 to Skid Row.

During a typically crowded morning commute, a naked runner is dodging between the stalled cars. The strange sight makes the local news and captures the imaginations of a stunning cast of misfits and lost souls.

There’s Ren, just out of juvie, who travels to LA in search of his mother. There’s Owen and James, teenage twins who live in a desert commune, where their father, a self-proclaimed healer, holds a powerful sway over his disciples. There’s Britt, who shows up at the commune harboring a dark secret. There’s Tony, a bored and unhappy lawyer who is inspired by the runner. And there’s Blake, a drifter hiding in the desert, doing his best to fight off his most violent instincts. Their lives will all intertwine and come crashing together in a shocking way, one that could only happen in this enchanting, dangerous city.

My Thoughts: In the present day, Wonder Valley begins with a typical LA commute that suddenly is no longer typical. A naked man is running against traffic and capturing the notice, the videos, and the imagination of a cast of characters whose lives will intersect over the next few days.

Back and forth in time we go, from 2006 to 2010, and we see into the lives of the characters who will all come together at moments in time.

A commune in the desert, in 2006, will be where Britt, the Flynn twins, several other lost souls, a man named Blake, and his ailing friend Sam will all connect. Before Blake and Sam arrive, however, we will join the group around the fire for their “sharing” moments, led by a man named Patrick. We will be reminded of the communes of the past, and even a little bit of a family named Manson. However, these members are not killing people…just each other with their angry and hostile confrontations in the name of therapy.

Fast forward to the commute, and we meet Tony, driving along the freeway, mourning his past mistakes and captivated by the naked runner. Something about the freedom of these moments leads to several detours he might otherwise not have made.

Ren has just been released from juvie…and he is looking for his mother, Laila. What he discovers is a camp of street dwellers and his mother…nothing like she once was.

We see the hard-edged grit of street life; the criminal element that includes people just struggling to make it; and the clash between the haves and the have-nots.

Can each of these characters find something valuable in these moments of connection? How will their journeys end? An enticing tale of connections, this story, with the back and forth pattern, was sometimes confusing. In the end, it all came together in the form of a mural captured by Ren, who memorialized the discoveries. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: HEARTBREAK HOTEL, BY JONATHAN KELLERMAN

 

At nearly one hundred years old, Thalia Mars is a far cry from the patients that child psychologist Alex Delaware normally treats. But the charming, witty woman convinces Alex to meet with her in a suite at the Aventura, a luxury hotel with a checkered history.

What Thalia wants from Alex are answers to unsettling questions—about guilt, patterns of criminal behavior, victim selection. When Alex asks the reason for her morbid fascination, Thalia promises to tell all during their next session. But when he shows up the following morning, he is met with silence: Thalia is dead in her room.

When questions arise about how Thalia perished, Alex and homicide detective Milo Sturgis must peel back the layers of a fascinating but elusive woman’s life and embark on one of the most baffling investigations either of them has ever experienced. For Thalia Mars is a victim like no other, an enigma who harbored nearly a century of secrets and whose life and death draw those around her into a vortex of violence.

My Thoughts: Heartbreak Hotel begins with an apparently straightforward meeting between Alex Delaware and an almost one-hundred-year-old woman, and then veers off into a series of murders, all seemingly connected to her in some way.

How did Thalia become so wealthy, when her career as a CPA seemed to suggest a more modest financial portfolio? Who are the seemingly nefarious people surrounding her through the years, and what, if anything, does a certain mobster have to do with her wealth? And with her death? Could an unsolved jewel heist in Beverly Hills bring in more possible suspects?

I always enjoy watching Alex and Milo work their cases, seemingly finding connections when others cannot. The author also shows us a peek into their personal lives, like Alex’s longstanding relationship with Robin, and their gorgeous house in Beverly Glen, and Milo Sturgis’s long term relationship with Rick, a doctor.

Sometimes I believe that Alex and Milo have nothing else to do but work on whatever case has taken over a particular book…but then we see them juggling other cases, too, forming a somewhat realistic picture of their days.

I started to get a little dizzy from all the possibilities in this book, but then as we began checking off the red herrings, I was almost ready to guess what person or persons in the past had come back to haunt poor Thalia. Almost. But there were some final surprises in this enjoyable book that earned 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: FAMILY TREE, BY SUSAN WIGGS

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Growing up in Switchback, Vermont, Annie Rush had learned the love of cooking from her grandmother, and early on, she had a dream. Her childhood hobby, besides cooking, was taping herself cooking and talking about the process, as if on a TV show.

The family company, Sugar Rush, involved processing and distributing maple syrup.

Family Tree begins in LA, where Annie and her husband, Martin Harlow, produce a TV cooking show called The Key Ingredient. They have a beautiful home, and on the morning when we first meet Annie, she has just been interviewed by someone from People magazine.

And shortly afterwards, she discovers that she is pregnant.

Eager to share the news with Martin, she heads off to the lot, and approaches Martin’s trailer. In that moment, and in the subsequent ones, everything changes for Annie.

A year later, she is slowly coming out of a coma, with TBI, in a facility in Vermont. She has no memory, and it will take some time for her to piece together her life; it will take a while longer for her to realize how her fairytale story ended.

From there, our story sweeps back and forth, back to “then” and moving forward to “now,” pulling together the bits of the story of Annie’s life before college, and before she met Martin. Her love for her high school sweetheart Fletcher Wyndham seems destined to fail over and over again, as they constantly come up against bad timing.

The story captured my interest from the beginning, although I must admit that sometimes I wanted more time spent in the “now.” In the end, and somewhat predictably, we get a heartwarming resolution to the issues that interfered with Annie’s happiness, and we get to watch as she puts her new life together, “starting from scratch.” 4 stars.

ratings worms 4-cropped***

 

REVIEW: BREAKDOWN, BY JONATHAN KELLERMAN

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Mental illness, homelessness, family rivalries, & murder fill the pages of Breakdown with a host of issues to sort through. Add to the mix our two familiar characters, Dr. Alex Delaware and his police lieutenant cohort Milo Sturgis, and you’re in for a real treat.

Set in LA, our story begins with a woman unraveling in a Bel Air backyard, a mental health intervention, and Alex’s input in order to figure out what to do next.

Alex’s involvement actually started years before when a colleague, Dr. Lou Sherman, asked him to evaluate a young boy named Ovid, whose mother suffered episodes of mental illness, possibly bipolar with schizophrenic aspects. An actress, Zelda Chase, who was on a popular TV show.

Now, as our story opens, we discover that Zelda had deteriorated further, there was no sign of Ovid anywhere, and shortly after Alex found a placement for the woman, she disappeared. Her death a short time later was riddled with uncertainties. Why had Zelda ended up in an upscale neighborhood where she was digging in the dirt and muttering “mother”? What, if anything, connected the property owner Enid DePauw, to the troubled young woman? When more and more women go missing, the connections become harder to put together.

Naturally, Alex and Milo start digging, and the fun in a story that pairs the two of them is watching them take whatever steps are necessary to find the answers. Before the story ended, we would have more than enough answers, but they would be surprising ones. Or possibly not so surprising, when one considers what motivates people who feel threatened in some way.

I always find myself glued to the pages of a book with Alex and Milo, and in addition to watching the two of them work their cases, I enjoy the peeks into their home lives…and their friendship with each other. A delightful read earning 5 stars.