Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Murder of Mary Russell - Laurie R. King

It seems that I’ve done it again, finally blundered my way into another new-to-me author’s back catalog. This time it’s Laurie R. King and her Russell and Holmes series that caught my eye — and it only happened because someone left a copy of The Murder of Mary Russell on the floor of my local library branch. After almost tripping over the book, I decided to re-shelve it before someone else had the same, or worse, experience, but a funny thing happened…the book ended up coming home with me. And now I’m hooked on both the author and the series. If The Murder of Mary Russell is any indication, this is going to be fun, so my thanks go to whomever it was that was too lazy to pick the book up from the floor that day. 

Even better, it appears that The Murder of Mary Russell could be the perfect spot for late arrivals to the Russell and Holmes series to jump in. The novel is set in 1925, but in long flashbacks it explores the backstories (as envisioned by King) of Holmes, Mary Russell, and especially Mrs. Hudson. King makes all three of these main characters, along with several side characters, vividly come to life as the younger versions of Holmes, Hudson, and Russell meet for the first time and become the more familiar older versions of themselves we have come to know so well. 

When a strange young man from Australia shows up on the Holmes doorstep one day claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s son, Mary Russell reluctantly invites him inside to see what she can make of the shocking revelation. She justifies her decision, one that will place her and everyone she loves in great danger, this way:

“Would most young women accept such a claim without question? Perhaps. And perhaps most young women would be justified in their naïve acceptance. However, I was married to Sherlock Holmes, had known him only a few hours longer than I’d known Mrs. Hudson, and the basic fact of life with Holmes was: the world is filled with enemies.”

And this particular enemy, Samuel Hudson, is here for one reason only: payback. 

As Mary listens to what Samuel Hudson has to say about Mrs. Hudson, she starts to believe him despite how badly she wants not to. The man is looking for something, and Mary can tell that the more frustrated he becomes in his failed efforts to find it among Mrs. Hudson’s things, the more likely it is that he will pull the trigger of the gun in his hand. But if one of them has to die, Mary is determined that it will not be her…or will it be? All Mrs. Hudson can later tell Holmes is that she found substantial pools of blood on the floor when she returned to the unexpectedly empty house. And, as Holmes quickly learns, the blood on the floor is of the same type as his wife’s. Holmes hopes that his wife is being held for ransom, but the amount of blood on the floor tells him how unlikely that is. Is Mary Russell already dead?

Bottom Line: It is easy to see why fans of Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories have so readily taken to Laurie R. King’s Holmes pastiches. King has been doing them so long now (this is the fourteenth of seventeen books in the series) that she knows the characters as well as anyone ever has, and if this book is at all typical of others in the series, she writes a first-rate historical thriller, to boot. This will definitely not be my last Russell and Holmes novel. 

Laurie R. King

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Thought I Was Dreaming - Boy, Was I Wrong

We woke up this morning about 4:30 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass and all kinds of crashing noises. At first I thought it was all a dream because the noise ended as suddenly as it began. But in the meantime, my wife jumped out of bed and proceeded to break one of her big toes before she could get the lights turned on. After that shock, we started looking around the house and could find nothing wrong maybe it really was a dream?

And then my wife opened up to bedroom closet and found complete chaos inside. Broken glass, piles of open jigsaw puzzles all over the place, books with bent covers and pages everywhere, just a complete mess that made it impossible even to step into the closet to take a closer look. That started a two-hour process during which I began to feel that I was trying to dig someone out of a collapsed mine shaft from the outside. Honestly, it was so awful that I can't even describe it, and I wish I had thought to stop and take a photo before I started in on the mess so you could have seen it. 

As it turns out, the builder made a rookie mistake 22 years ago when the shelves were installed on that side of the closet, and the shelves have probably been trying to escape from the wall ever since. The carpenter measured wrong and apparently missed the studs with all of the top screws. The only thing holding the shelves in place all these years have been the bottom screws because they were drilled into secure wooden mounts at the base of the shelving. Apparently it was easier just to fake it rather than fix it, and that's what the builder chose to do. And neither we, nor the inspector caught it. 

Anyhow, Goodwill has benefited from some of the cleanup efforts, and more will be delivered to them tomorrow. 

I'm finally settling down to do a little reading and wondering how in the world I could have missed out on reading Ann Cleaves and Laurie R. King all these years. I'm reading one each of their books right now, and absolutely loving both of them. I'm about halfway through each, and I'm finding it difficult to choose between them. They are both absolutely excellent.

Tomorrow has to be a better day; it's almost impossible that it wouldn't be. Thank goodness for Ann Cleaves and Laurie R. King because I especially need a good book right now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Winter Counts - David Heska Wanbli Weiden

David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts is largely set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Virgil Wounded Horse offers a measure of justice and revenge to crime victims who are ignored by both their own tribal council and local law enforcement officers. In simple terms, Virgil is the local enforcer — and he is good at his job. 

It is, of course, impossible not to compare a novel like Winter Counts to those of writers like Craig Johnson, Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman, C.J. Box,  and others who cover much of the same territory. The good news is that David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel proves that he can hold his on with the best of them. Several members of the club have, in fact, endorsed Winter Counts because of its authenticity, cultural insight, and riveting storytelling. Of all of them, I think that C.J. Box put it best:

“I’ve been waiting most of my life for this book without realizing it. Winter Counts is a knowing, authentic, closely observed novel about modern-day Lakotas that rings absolutely true, warts and all. The sense of place is breathtaking and raw. It’s a hell of a debut.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t give much credence to author blurbs, figuring that they are more often than not just another case of two writers scratching each other’s back. But now that I’ve read Winter Counts for myself, I could not agree more with the blurbs splashed all over the novel’s back cover. 

Virgil Wounded Horse, who as a kid was badly bullied by some of the same people he sees every day on the reservation, knows what it’s like to feel helpless and afraid. That is probably one of the reasons he is always ready (and why he enjoys doing it) to give an unforgettable beating as final warning to those who would otherwise not suffer a thing for their crimes on the reservation. But then Virgil’s nephew Nathan overdoses on the suddenly available heroin he was given for free at the reservation school and nearly dies. Game changer…now it’s all very personal and it’s going to take more than an “unforgettable” beating to satisfy the intense anger that Virgil Wounded Horse is filled with.

With the help of Marie Short Bear, his ex-girlfriend, Virgil tracks the dealer to Denver, but that’s where things get complicated enough to limit his options. Virgil learns that the man he is looking for is only the link into the reservation for some other very powerful people looking for a new market for their product — and that much more powerful men than him are already looking for a way to put the heroin dealers out of business. Unfortunately, Nathan is about to become a pawn in a scheme that could easily get them all killed.

Bottom Line: Winter Counts (winter counts were the Lakota calendar system) is a genuine thriller, one of those coming-of-age stories in which the kid nearing adulthood will be lucky to survive the process. Weiden is one heck of a storyteller, and it’s hard not to tear right through this one. But the novel is so much more than that. Weiden is himself an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and he has filled Winter Counts with cultural insights and history that combine to make it all seem terribly real. His explanation of how and why both the American and Tribal legal systems all too often fail Native Americans is a heartbreaking one. Fiction, though, often spreads the truth more readily than nonfiction accounts of the same situation. Perhaps that is the best thing about books like Winter Counts and Craig Johnson’s more recent Daughter of the Morning Star. Read novels like these and tell your friends about them. Maybe someone will finally listen.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

(My thanks go to Cathy at Kittling Books for tipping me off to this one back in April with her review of Winter Counts.)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Daughter of the Morning Star - Craig Johnson

Daughter of the Morning Star
is the seventeenth novel in Craig Johnson’s popular Walt Longmire series. This time around, Walt and his often-deputized best friend Henry Standing Bear work a case that shines the spotlight on the real world reality that Native American women are being murdered at a rate ten times greater than the national average — and that Native women are not strangers to violence of any kind. As Johnson puts it in his introductory “Acknowledgments” section: “…four out of five Native women have experienced societal violence, with half having experienced sexual violence as well. Half of the Native women have been stalked in their lifetime, and they are two times as likely to experience violence and rape than their Anglo counterparts. Heartbreakingly, the majority of these Native women’s murders are by non-Natives on Native-owned land.”

“It is said that no tribe is truly defeated until the hearts of their women are on the ground — but what if there are no women at all?” - Lonnie Little Bird, friend of Sheriff Walt Longmire

The story begins when Tribal Police Chief Lolo Long asks Walt and Henry for help after her niece Jaya starts receiving written death threats. Jaya is the star player on her high school basketball team, and on the reservation that makes the teen a high profile superstar. Jaya Long is so good at basketball that she’s earned the nickname “Longbow” in honor of her ability to hit shots from all over the floor. Defiant by nature, Jaya knows that the death threats are no joke because her older sister, also a talented basketball player, disappeared a year earlier and has not been seen since. But Jaya is determined to live life her own way, and that is going to make it difficult for Walt and Henry to protect her while simultaneously trying to figure out what happened to the girl’s sister.

Chief Long knows Walt and Henry well; she knows that they get things done and that they don’t always play by the rules in the book. She is hoping that the two can stir things up so much, and so loudly, that the general public won’t be able to ignore what is happening to Native women any longer. Turns out, she is right about that, but it also turns out that Walt catches the attention of a mystical spirit, a soul-catcher of sorts, called the Éveohtsé-heómėse that holds on to the spirits of the dead who are not yet ready to move on to the next plane of existence, whatever that may be. So not only will Walt and Henry face-off against the usual suspects…a small group of racist white supremacists, jealous Natives, rival basketball fans…they will have to deal with a spirit that wants to walk away with their souls.

Bottom Line: Daughter of the Morning Star is another fun visit into Sheriff Walt Longmire’s world despite the fact that Walt is once again on the road. When that happens, some of the series side characters either fail to make an appearance at all or only pop into the picture for a moment or two. That’s what happens this time with Walt’s snarky undersheriff, and love interest, Vic Moretti and his daughter, Cady. Vic does manage to make a brief appearance or two on scene, but Cady’s appearances are even more limited. 

This story is not over because now Walt is as interested in Éveohtsé-heómėse as the spirit is in him, and he’s decided that it’s “impolite” to keep the spirit waiting any longer. I don’t know about you, but my money is on Walt.  

Craig Johnson

Friday, October 15, 2021

A Thousand Steps - T. Jefferson Parker

T. Jefferson Parker’s A Thousand Steps is the coming-of-age story of a Laguna Beach, California, boy who is largely having to do it all on his own. Matt’s father deserted the family six years earlier; his brother is a Vietnam tunnel rat; his mother seems determined to drown her own problems in booze and drugs; and his only sister has just been kidnapped. Matt may be the youngest member of his family, but he is smart enough to know that he is the only hope is sister has now.

It’s 1968 and Laguna Beach is attracting naive dropouts and cynical drug pushers from all over the country. Idiots like Timothy Leary are taking advantage of the new drug culture’s chaos to make themselves famous and rich at the expense of anyone and everyone they can exploit - and it seems that way too many people in Laguna Beach are happy enough to be exploited. Those protesting the justifiably unpopular war in Vietnam make it even easier for the unscrupulous to make a quick buck from all the turmoil. Right in the middle of all of this, Jasmine, Matt’s sister, disappears and no one seems overly concerned about that other than sixteen-year-old Matt, who decides to find his sister on his own if he has to.

Tied down by a daily paper route that is his only source of income, and never sure where his next meal is coming from, Matt still manages to spend his every spare moment in search of his sister, a search that eventually attracts the attention of the Laguna Beach police. The police realize that Matt gets around, and one of them wants to turn him into an informer while another, more sympathetic, cop encourages Matt to keep doing what he’s doing because it is Jasmine’s best chance at being found alive. The boy is in so far over his head, though, that he will be lucky to survive the next few days himself.

Bottom Line: A Thousand Steps makes for a good coming-of-age story, but its setting is really the novel’s strongest point. Parker vividly captures a place, and a time, in American history that was every bit as ugly as it is memorable, a period that changed the country forever. For readers who don’t remember living through those days themselves, A Thousand Steps is a little like jumping on a time machine and traveling back to the counterculture of the late sixties.

T. Jefferson Parker

Review Copy provided by Publisher. A Thousand Steps will be released on January 11, 2022.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Salt Path - Raynor Winn

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a big fan of books written by people who test themselves by long, cross-country trips. It doesn’t matter whether they are walking, riding bicycles or motorbikes, boating, or even driving, I’ve always envied the authors. But now something a little different has come along: Raynor Winn has written a long-walk kind of memoir with a twist. The Salt Path is about the 630-mile walk along part of England’s southern coast that Raynor and her husband Moth took on only because they suddenly found themselves homeless and jobless. Needless to say, this time around I don’t envy the author one little bit.

It could perhaps be argued that Raynor and Moth brought their problems upon themselves, but the only thing they were really guilty of was being a little too naive and trusting when it came to doing business with a man Moth had known since childhood. When that man’s business failed, he wasted little time coming after the couple’s home and business to compensate himself for their supposed share of the failed company’s debts and obligations. Raynor and Moth tried to defend themselves in court, but not being able to afford a competent attorney turned out to be their downfall- and at the end, they were left with only a few days to vacate the property. Everything they owned, and life as they knew it, was gone.

Well, it could just not get much worse than that, could it? The short answer is “yes, it could,” and it does exactly that when within a matter of days of losing their home and everything they own, Moth is diagnosed with an illness likely to claim his life within five years. So, with no place to go, and no money other than the minimal benefits they are eligible for each month, Raynor and Moth begin walking westward along England’s southern coast even though they have no idea what they will do once they come to the end of the trail months later.

The Salt Path is Winn’s account of what it was like for two people in their fifties to strap rather heavy packs onto their backs and trudge along during daylight hours without having any idea where they will be pitching their tent at the end of the day. Along the way, the pair endures the heat of the day, cold and wet nights that make it near impossible to sleep, the constant problem of finding enough water to keep themselves safely hydrated, and living on whatever meager diet they can afford. And if that is not already bad enough, they have to live with the societal stigma of being homeless when people they encounter along the way more times than not treat them as if they are carrying the plague simply because they are homeless. It is almost as if homelessness is a contagious disease. 

Bottom Line: Sad as The Salt Path is, for this reader the saddest part of all is the way that their fellow citizens treat Ray and Moth as soon as they learn that the couple are not voluntary hikers/campers out on some lark. This is particularly disappointing when the penny drops in the middle of a conversation and Ray and Moth’s new “friends” abruptly excuse themselves and leave the area as quickly as their feet can carry them away. The Salt Path has a sequel titled The Wild Silence, but I’m not sure that I’m up to reading that one just yet.

Author Raynor Winn & Her Husband Moth