Patricia Benke is no stranger to the criminal mind. As an appellate judge in San Diego, she knows of what she writes—and she writes about it often. Her third novel, Above the Law (Avon Books), is set in San Diego and fol-lows the moves of fictional deputy district attorney Judith Thornton, who is caught up in the murder investigation
of a Mexican farm laborer. The story is about more than just a murder, involving real-estate politics, environmental degradation and the struggles of the powerless against the powerful.
Benke says she likes incorporating “big issues” into her books, and in Above the Law she does just that. There is no doubting the author’s sensitivity to San Diego’s migrant labor community or her knowledge of the harsh conditions under which they live. With a capable hand she paints a detailed picture of life in fictional McGonigle Canyon, and—through the character of junior attorney Peter Delgado—even wrestles briefly with the often-conflicted identity of Mexican-Americans.
A complex story it is, perhaps a bit too complex. Trying to cover so much ground in 300 pages isn’t an easy task for any writer, and Benke’s novel suffers as a result. The pace is quick and images are often crowded together, with too much description and too little real detail. Just when you want something to really sink your teeth into—like a thoughtful examination of the issues in the case—the chapter ends and Benke is on to other subjects, like Thornton’s bedridden mother, her daughter and her love interests.
More than anything else, though, Above the Law is a good story, a suspenseful journey into a world we San Diegans rarely see, even though it exists just outside our windows.
Sailing for Dummies
J.J. and Peter Isler have been sailing most of their lives. J.J. grew up in San Diego, and considering the popularity of sailing here, it’s no surprise the couple now calls the area home. J.J. was the tactician and starting helmsman for the America3 women’s America’s Cup team in 1995. Husband Peter has twice helped win the America’s Cup, serving as navigator aboard Stars & Stripes with Dennis Conner in 1987 and 1988. So the two are eminently qualified to write Sailing for Dummies, part of IDG Books’ “...for Dummies” series that aims to help readers conquer the how-tos of everything from computers to recreational activities. Using the series’ trademark irreverent-yet-informative style, the Islers have given us an instructional guide for sailing that’s also an enjoyable read.
The book is replete with personal anecdotes and tips from the authors, and nearly every topic is covered—from the basics of sailing and knot-tying to weather forecasting and negotiating rough waters. Clearly defined chapter headings and subheads make it easy for any level of sailor to quickly find the information—or detailed explanation—sought. The Islers have worked hard at not bogging down the text with an abundance of technical terminology, instead using clear diagrams, term explanations and humor to convey information. And even though the title says it’s for dummies, the book doesn’t condescend. The Islers were too smart for that.
Also Out from Local Authors
Graduation to Hell by William Onesta (Dorrance Publishing Company): Escondido resident William Onesta mined his own experiences as a pilot during World War II in writing his first novel, which tells the story of fighter pilot Emidio Beretta. The novel is rife with wartime details, but the author’s unimaginative, wooden prose reads like a history textbook.
The Flower Net by Lisa See (HarperCollins): Set in Beijing, China, the suspenseful and complex story starts with a murder and ends with a conspiracy involving Chinese gangs, the Mafia and both the U.S. and Chinese governments. See exposes China’s economic and criminal subcultures with skill and sensitivity.
Catalyst by Jennifer Ball (Faber & Faber): Ball’s humorous second novel combines science, romance and a mild hatred of New York City. Her story centers on a research cover-up at a grad-student chemistry laboratory. But the Solana Beach author wasn’t content to stop there; she spices up the plot with singing telegrams, extramarital affairs and rock music.
Pet Pages by Lauren Scott and Robert Uherka (RJLA, Inc.): A practical and informative guide to activities, lodgings, restaurants and hospitals in San Diego that welcome pets. The book includes a listing of pet-friendly parks, beaches and trails, as well as outdoor adventure tips, pet games and pet clubs.
The Demented Divorcée Cookbook by Cookie Dashow and Muffin Templeton (Powerline Publishing): Don’t let their names fool you—Cookie and Muffin haven’t put a single recipe in this book, which features entrées such as “Screw ’Em and Stew ’Em” and “Veal Scalp-His-Pini.” San Diego resident Diane Goodman (a.k.a. Cookie) and her coauthor, daughter Wendy Greenhut (Muffin), wind up seeming bitter instead of clever in this rather tasteless excuse for a cookbook.