Monday, August 02, 2021

Go West, Young Man - B.J. Hollars

Go West, Young Man
, B.J. Hollars’s account of the Oregon Trail road trip he shared with his six-year-old son, Henry, will be a fun read for anyone who enjoys similar road trips of their own. Smartly, Hollars spends a substantial amount of time in this travel memoir exploring his evolving relationship with Henry (who, if he is even half as precocious as his dad portrays him to be here, is quite the character) as the long hours in the car began to wear a bit on both of them. It didn’t hurt, too, that I read Go West, Young Man during my own 5,000 mile road trip with my nineteen-year-old grandson. As we came upon some of the landmarks highlighted in the Hollars book, I knew what to expect, which landmarks to explore more deeply, and was happier and happier that my grandson was enjoying the trip — and (supposedly) my company — as much as I had hoped he would.

B.J. and Henry were on a mission to rediscover America, both as the country was in the past and the way it is today. And they did it the hard way. They usually camped out along the way, very rarely breaking up the camping routine by a hotel stay or a night spent in the home of friends. And I suspect that the occasional thunderstorm or heavy winds they endured and conquered will likely turn out to be some of their strongest memories of the entire trip. 

Father and son met their goals: they completed the Oregon Trail together and they met enough people along the way, including cross country truck drivers, to get a good feel about both the things that still bind Americans together and the things, mostly political, that so destructively divide those same Americans today. Mr. Hollars used the trip as a means of educating his young son to the realities of the exploitive nature of America’s move west, and what he has to say on the subject is a disturbing reminder of how destructive the westward migration of settlers was to the native peoples already there. 

Bottom Line: Go West, Young Man is fun. I think it’s a little heavy-handed at times on the guilt trip associated with the author’s reaction to how terribly our native peoples were treated by white settlers of the day, but there are plenty of reasons — and takeaways — to read this fun travel memoir. I have to admit that I particularly enjoyed reading about the author’s interface with Henry during such an extended road and camping trip, but I also learned much about the key spots along the Oregon Trail and how important it was to this country’s westward expansion. I recommend this one to all the road-trippers out there. You’ll enjoy it.

B.J. Hollars

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Saturday, July 17, 2021

On the Road Again: Road Trip 2021

My Hero: Willie Nelson
King of the Road Trip

I'm leaving in the morning with my 19-year-old grandson beside me on a much anticipated road trip...the first in just over two years. You never know how many opportunities are left to spend this kind of time with a grandchild, so I'm putting aside my uneasiness and going ahead with the trip. We are going to be extra cautious, though, as you would know if you saw the number of cleaning and sanitizing items, masks, etc. we are packing along with us. 

So, we'll be taking it one day at a time, and as long as we both feel comfortable being out on the road, we will continue on - hopefully, for at least two weeks. The plan is literally to wander around New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska to see what we stumble upon. I'm a stickler for not over-planning a road trip (well, not planning it at all is closer to the truth) so we may not make all of these states, depending on what we find to take up our days - or what the COVID conditions are in some of the states on the list. 

This means that my blogging will be sporadic, at best, through the end of July and maybe into early August - as will my reading. I do plan to check in with a post or two when decent WiFi is available, though, and who knows what I'll have to say? Certainly, not me.

Snowblind - Ragnar Jónasson

(2010) marks the beginning of Ragnar Jónasson’s earliest crime fiction series, a series that has come to be called the author’s “Dark Iceland” books. There are now five other books in the Dark Iceland series, including 2020’s Winterkill. From what I understand, the order of the books as they were internationally published differs from the order in which they were originally published in Iceland, so it’s not clear to me how closely one plot from the series chronologically follows its Icelandic predecessor. 

Snowblind appears to be Jónasson’s debut novel, as I don’t find anything of his having been published in Iceland prior to this one’s 2009 publication in that country. The novel, while certainly not my favorite of the Jónasson novels I’ve read to this point, shares many of the characteristics that readers love most about the author’s work: a strong sense of place, well-developed characters, attention to police procedural details, and crimes (usually murders) perpetrated by truly warped criminal minds. 

Ari Thór Arason is a rookie policeman who eagerly moves to Siglufjöròur, a little town in far north Iceland, to begin his first job. He accepts the job offer over the telephone, however, and his enthusiasm about working in such an isolated town is hard to maintain after he realizes exactly what he has gotten himself into. He is the outsider; everyone knows who he is, but he knows no one. Even worse for him as a policeman, he knows nothing about anyone’s past relationships or the social history of his community. That is a huge disadvantage when investigating a crime in a community as small as the one he’s now committed himself to working and living in for the next two years. 

But as his new boss tells him, nothing much ever happens in Siglufjöròur anyway. And that’s true…right up until the moment that two dead bodies are discovered, one of them more obviously the body of a murder victim than the other. 

The most prominent of the two victims is an elderly man who appears to have fallen to his death down a flight of theater stairs while there alone. The man is internationally famous because of a book he wrote decades earlier, and his death, especially a suspicious one, still has the potential to draw the world’s interest. The other body belonged to a near-naked young woman who is discovered lying in the snow in almost a “snow angel” position by a young neighbor of hers. 

At first, Thór is the only one who suspects foul play. Others in town, including Thór’s own boss are more than willing to believe that the old man’s death had been an accident and the young woman’s a suicide. Despite his ignorance of local politics and relationships, Thór begins to take “crime scene” pictures and ask uncomfortable questions. And when someone breaks into his home in the middle of the night, he realizes that he might just be on to something. Now he only needs to get someone else to take him seriously.

Bottom Line: While the mystery in Snowblind is rather run-of-the-mill and holds few real surprises, this is a novel that has such intriguing characters and such an interesting setting that I enjoyed reading it. I look forward to reading the rest of the series. 

Ragnar Jónasson

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Palm Springs Noir - Various Authors

Palm Springs Noir is one of the latest crime fiction collections in the Akashic Books series that now numbers close to 120 such books. The stories, with a couple of exceptions, in each book are all set in one city or region of the world, and this time around all the action takes place in Palm Springs itself or in places like Joshua Tree National Park, the Coachella Valley Preserve, or Desert Hot Springs which are all nearby. And, as usual, the stories will not disappoint fans of the genre. 

The term “noir” can sometimes be difficult to explain to readers who are unfamiliar with the genre, but editor Barbara DeMarco-Barrett offers one of the better definitions of noir in her introduction to the collection that I’ve seen - and she does it in layman’s terms. According to DeMarco-Barrett, “In noir, the main characters might want their lives to improve and may have high aspirations and goals, but they keep making bad choices, and things go from bad to worse…characters follow the highway to doom and destruction. They are haunted by the past, and the line between black and white, right and wrong, dissolves like sugar in water. The hero rationalizes why it’s okay to do whatever dark thing they are about to do.” The genre was particularly prominent in the books and movies of the 1940s and 1950s, but it survived its lean years of popularity and seems to have made a nice comeback in recent years. 

Palm Springs, in its heyday, was the favorite hangout of movie stars and celebrities, especially of Frank Sinatra and his “rat pack” friends. That’s why, as I was beginning the stories in the book’s third section, I had to smile a little when it finally hit me that the titles of the four parts all sounded familiar for a good reason: they are all also titles of songs recorded by Sinatra. The section titles always foretell or hint at the contents of the stories in the section, and these clever song title choices work particularly well. Beginning with the first section, they are “Strangers in the Night,” “Little White Lies,” “Everything Happens to Me,” and “Ill Wind.”

For me, three of the book’s fourteen stories especially stand-out, but with the exception of perhaps two others, they are all fun to read. One of my favorites is Barbara Fitch’s “Sunrise,” a revenge-story that doesn’t work out quite as one woman hoped it would despite her determination to rid the world of the evil man who ruined her life years earlier. A similar story, and another favorite, is editor DeMarco-Barrett’s “The Water Holds You Still” in which a woman learns that her brother has been looting the home and bank accounts of their mother who suffers from dementia in order to pay for all the drugs and booze he consumes. As in “Sunrise,” she ends up enlisting a less-than-reliable partner to help her solve the problem.

And then, there’s “Octagon Girl” by Chris J. Bahnsen. It is no accident that this is one of the most disturbing stories in the collection because it deals so frankly with the domestic abuse of a woman and her eleven-year-old son by the woman’s latest boyfriend - a man who has probably never in his life seen a steroid he didn’t like. I realize this will be a difficult read for some, but it does turn out to be one of the most satisfying stories in Palm Springs Noir for good reason.

Bottom Line: Palm Springs Noir is, I’m pretty sure, the sixteenth Akashic Books noir series collection that I’ve read, and I swear they just keep getting better and better. I hope this series goes on forever. 

Editor and Contributor Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Child's Child - Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

The Child’s Child
, published in 2012, was the last novel Ruth Rendell wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. After that, she would write only one Inspector Wexford novel and two standalones before her death at age 85 in 2015. One of the most interesting things about The Child’s Child is that it is presented as a “novel-within-a-novel,” a construction that readers only rarely encounter. The book opens in the present (2011) and transitions to a separate novel that begins in 1929 before finally returning to its original characters and plot. The 1929 novel, in fact, accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total length of The Child’s Child.

The novel begins just after brother and sister Andrew and Grace Easton have inherited their grandmother’s large London home. Andrew and Grace surprise everyone when they decide to live together in the home rather than selling the valuable property and splitting the proceeds between them. They divide the house right down the middle, with one of them taking possession of the left side, the other the right side, while sharing the kitchen between them. And for a while everything goes well. Then, Andrew decides to move his boyfriend James, a handsome novelist, into his side of the house. The animosity between James and Grace is immediately obvious, but after the two men witness the brutal beating death of a friend of theirs outside a London nightclub and James becomes needy and fragile, the relationship between Grace and her brother’s boyfriend becomes closer…and closer. 

Now, not wanting to face her brother with the truth, Grace escapes into an unpublished manuscript from 1951 called The Child’s Child that she has promised to read as a favor to a friend. The novel, even though it was written by a respected author, has never been published because its sexual depictions were considered to be too frank for respectable 1950s readers. The book, a story about John and Maud, two siblings who find themselves in a situation somewhat similar to the one that Andrew and Grace are now in, is an easy one for Grace to lose herself in. She can only hope that her story doesn’t end like the one in The Child’s Child.

Bottom Line: The unusual structure of The Child’s Child caught me my surprise, and at first, I was irritated at so drastically having to shift gears a third of the way into the book. But just a dozen or so pages into the “new” novel, I was intrigued by the plot and its similarity to what I had already read. In fact, I was even a little disappointed when that section of The Child’s Child ended and it was time to pick back up with the original characters and plot. Rendell does a remarkable job here, I think, of capturing the tone of an older novel trying to push the limits of what was acceptable at the time it was written, so the two plots, despite their similarities, are presented very differently. 

Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Short Stories from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse (Part 5)


(Stories 13-18, Pages 194-272)

This group of six short stories from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, includes two back-to-back stories that turned out to be two of my favorites from the entire collection so far. I would rate each of them five-star stories, in fact, but the other four stories are more average than not, so three stars to each of those.

One of the two I really enjoyed is Susan Jane Bigelow's "The Eyes of the Flood." In this one, a lone woman has somehow survived the radiation and plague that killed off everyone else around her, and she has not seen another human being in a long, long time. But when she finally begins to sense that she is no longer alone, she is terrified. All she knows is that she has gone through such drastic physical changes since everyone disappeared that she has no idea what first contact with another "human" will be like. There's also a nice little technical twist at the very end of this one that I didn't see coming. 

The second story I particularly liked is Jack Skillingstead's "The Last Garden," a story about a plague pandemic of which no one can explain the origin. Sound familiar? Governments are so suspicious and distrustful of each other that the resulting fighting wipes humanity from the face of the Earth. "The Last Garden" is told from the point of view of a lone astronaut who returns to earth only to find herself being "managed" by her over-protective AI bodyguard. Despite its sad ending, this story is intriguing and fun all the way through. 

There is not really a bad story among the other four, so don't be scared off by them. "Echo," by Veronica Roth is similar to "The Last Garden" in the sense that it is about another post-apocalyptic world now dominated by AI, but this time it's a world in which the machines run things on Earth for their own benefit. The story's main character is faced with a moral dilemma in which she has to choose between the surviving humans and the AI bots that now run everything. She knows what the moral choice is; the question is only whether she can convince herself to make that choice. 

The other stories are "Four Kittens" (Jeremiah Tolbert), "Through the Sparks in Morning's Dawn (Tobias S. Buckell), and "Cannibal Acts" (Maureen F. McHugyh). In "Four Kittens," three people are willing to risk everything in order to rescue four Siamese kittens from a local crime boss who does not exactly wish the kittens well. It's a good story, but it's heavier on the thrill than on the apocalypse that has made the kittens such a rarity. "Through the Sparks in Morning's Dawn" is my least favorite in this group of six because it is more a takeoff on the "Mad Max" movies than anything else. Finally, "Cannibal Acts" is much what you would expect from its title. While it is not particularly original, this is a good character study, and I enjoyed that aspect of it. 

So now I'm at the point of having read 18 of the book's 34 stories, and despite the odds of it happening, I'm still looking forward to the last 16 of them. Wastelands has reminded me that the best way to enjoy a collection like this one, where all the stories share such similar themes and settings, is to take the stories in relatively small doses. For me at least, that seems to keep them fresher, and (if I admit it) makes it easier to distinguish one from the other when I think about them later.

Jack Skillingstead