Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Dig - John Preston

I only recently discovered John Preston’s 2007 novel The Dig via the movie version of the same title being so prominently featured on Netflix right now. I knew almost nothing about England’s famous 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation, but as I’ve always had an interest in archaeology, the movie immediately caught my attention. I ended up so thoroughly enjoying the film that I decided to track down a copy of the book it is based upon to learn more about the dig and the people involved. Surprisingly, because in my experience it so seldom happens this way, the movie version of The Dig left me with a better feel for what the dig must have been like for those who experienced it than the book managed to do. 

The Sutton Hoo site is home to thirteen ancient burial mounds, but the book and film focus on the initial excavation of only the first of them. England was, of course, on the brink of war with Germany in 1939, so the discovery of a burial chamber dating back to the late sixth century, came at a precarious time. If the finds were going to excavated and safeguarded from the perils of open warfare with a neighboring country, time was of the essence and someone was going to have to step on toes to get it all done in time. There were also rather petty jealousies between the regional museum and the British Museum in London that had to be negotiated, although the national museum was always likely to be the winner in any dispute over which museum should permanently house the finds. 

Preston’s novel focuses on some of the key people in the story: Edith Pretty, on whose property the burial mounds were located; Basil Brown, the proficient “amateur” archaeologist originally hired by Pretty to begin the excavation; Peggy Piggott, a freshly-minted professional archeologist who accompanied her husband to the dig; and Robert Pretty, the little boy who saw the whole thing as the greatest adventure of his young life. With the exception of the little boy - who only serves as narrator for the novel’s short epilogue - the main characters are given long sections of the book to narrate what they personally experience as the dig proceeds over much of 1939. 

Those looking for much detail about the finds and the burials are likely to be disappointed as The Dig is more a character study than an accounting of the archeological finds and conclusions. What the novel does well - and what the film does even better - is give a feel for the period and exploration methods of the day. Preston uses the characters to humanize the efforts required and to portray how it all comes together in the end despite the factional rivalries. Edith Pretty, owner of the property, deservedly comes across as the real heroine of the piece because of her insistence, in the first place, that the mounds be explored. Basil Brown is the story’s underdog because of the way that his initial work on the mound is denigrated by those who come later to the project, and Peggy Piggott, being a female archeologist, is treated much the same as Brown. 

Bottom Line: Novels based on true events often leave the reader wanting to know more, and The Dig is certainly one of those. Just as the film led me to the novel, the combination of the two makes me want to read much more about the Sutton Hoo excavations and what was ultimately discovered there. I do suggest that both the film and the book be experienced if that is possible because they supplement each other well. My only reservation about the film is that, even though I understand it was done for dramatic effect, I do think the film focuses too much on the supposed sex life of Peggy Piggott. I suppose that is the kind of thing that is unavoidable when a movie is based on a novel that is based upon a true story.

Please do click on these artifact pictures because they are spectacular at full size. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Blackout - Candace Owens

I almost never read political opinion books written by elected officials anymore because I think the majority of them are actually written by the kind of hired-gun ghost writer paid handsomely to make the politician look a whole lot smarter than they actually are. I do, on the other hand, still occasionally read a political book written by a relative outsider, someone still far enough away from scene of the crime that they are not completely nauseated by the smell in the room. I generally prefer the ones written by respected historians (although my respect for even some of those people has slipped more than a notch or two in recent years) or by someone with a particularly interesting point-of-view. 

Candace Owens is one of those people, and Blackout is one of those books. 

Owens is what used to be much more rare than it is today: a young, black conservative with the courage to publicly share her beliefs about today’s political environment. As such, she has often been viciously targeted by media people and/or via social media in an attempt to discredit her to the point that she shuts up or changes her message to suit her critics. To her credit, this articulate young woman has done neither. Instead, she has responded to those who want so badly to destroy her with Blackout, a compelling argument that African American culture is going to continue to deteriorate as long as her fellow blacks are willing to sell their votes to the Democratic Party so cheaply. 

Owens contends that it is time for African Americans (she, I think, prefers the term “American Blacks”) to lose the herd mentality that has allowed one political party to claim roughly 95% of their votes for the last several decades. In that spirit, she has founded the “Blexit” movement by which she urges blacks to leave the Democratic Party until Democrat politicians actually earn their votes. She says that it is time to quit working for the Democrats for free. 

But perhaps the most damning charge Owens makes against Democrat politicians is that they will never allow black Americans to quit thinking of themselves as victims of systemic racism. Her argument goes that as long as blacks have someone other than themselves to blame for their cultural failures, they do not have to do the hard work of solving their own problems. It is just too much easier to have someone else promise to do that for them, as both political parties do, even though both parties almost never deliver in a meaningful way on those promises. The concept of black victimhood, Owens says, is a card that the Democrats have relied on for too long, a card they can never afford to give up now because black bloc-voting is what keeps them in power.

Bottom Line: In Blackout Candace Owens makes a strong case for what she herself has only relatively recently come to believe about American culture. Along the way, the reader learns about Owens’s upbringing and why she changed her own mind about the relationship between the Democratic Party and American Blacks. Sadly, I doubt that a significant number of  American Blacks are going to cut through all the noise and personal attacks on Owens long enough to read the book. That is part of the problem. And that is the saddest thing of all. Right, wrong, or somewhere in the middle of the real truth, Candace Owens deserves to be heard.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Page 99: What It Says About Lonesome Dove

The Times
(London) includes a feature called "Page 99" in its book section every week that I've come to find works very effectively to give a real sense of what a particular book is all about, especially as to its style and overall readability. The editor in charge always introduces the  piece puts it this way:

    "Ford Madox Ford, friend of Joseph Conrad, novelist and literary critic, said: 'Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.' Arbitrary, perhaps, but surprisingly accurate."

In that spirit, I've shamelessly stolen the idea (whether from Ford Madox Ford or from The Times, I'm not sure) to see how it works on a couple of the books I'm reading at the moment. First up, a portion of the ninety-ninth page of Larry McMurtry's absolutely brilliant western novel, Lonesome Dove:

    "Wilbarger of course was a surprise. He trotted his big black horse right up to the porch, which surprised the blue pigs as much as it did Augustus. They woke up and grunted at the horse.

    Wilbarger looked enviously at Augustus's jug. 'By God, I bet that ain't persimmon juice you're drinking,' he said. 'I wish I could afford an easy life.'

    'If you was to dismount and stop scaring my pigs you'd be welcome to a drink,' Augustus said. 'We can introduce ourselves later.'

    The shoat got up and walked right under the black horse, which was well broke enough that it didn't move. Wilbarger was more shocked than the horse. In fact, Augustus was shocked himself. The shoat had never done such a thing before, though he had always been an unpredictable shoat.

    'I guess that's one of the pigs you don't rent,' Wilbarger said. 'If I'd been riding my mare she'd have kicked it so far you'd have had to hunt to find your bacon.'

    'Well, that pig had been asleep,' Augustus said. 'I guess it didn't expect a horse to be standing there when it woke up.'

    'Which are you, Call or McCrae?' Walberger asked, tired of discussing pigs.

    'I'm McCrae,' Augustus said. 'Call wouldn't put up with this much jabbering.'

    'Can't blame him,' Walberger said. 'I'm Walberger.'

That's a taste of my favorite novel of all-time. I'm reading Lonesome Dove for the third time right now - all 843 pages of it - and it still makes me laugh and seems as fresh as it did the first time I read it back in 1985. It's only one of half-a-dozen books I'm reading at the moment, so I'm limiting myself to one or two chapters a day, and I'm finding that may be the best way of all to experience the Augustus McCrae/Woodrow Call saga. After all, I really don't want it to end...and have just reached page 99. 

Larry McMurtry

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey

Emma Healey’s 2014 novel Elizabeth Is Missing is narrated by a woman determined to find out where has best friend, Elizabeth, has gotten to. But Maud, the narrator, cannot get anyone to take her concerns seriously because she suffers from a rapidly advancing case of dementia and her daughter, the police, the caretakers who visit her every day, and Elizabeth’s son are getting very tired of hearing the same old questions from her over and over again. 

Talk about an unreliable narrator; Maud is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The elderly woman suffers from an advanced case of dementia, and she is losing more ground to that horrible condition every day. However, though Maud lives in a world inside her own head that is such a blending of the present with the past that she is in a constant state of confusion, she knows two things for certain: she can find neither her friend Elizabeth nor her own sister, Sukey. The problem is that Elizabeth is missing right now, but Sukey disappeared just a few months after World War II and hasn’t been seen since. Now, Maud cannot always be certain for which of the two women she is looking. Even so, she keeps looking for them even as what’s left of her dwindling cognitive abilities continues to slip away from her, and what she uncovers by forcing others to try to keep up with her turns out to be more than anyone bargained for, including Maud. 

Elizabeth Is Missing would have been a good mystery even without its unusual narrator. The circumstances under which Sukey disappeared not long after her recent marriage to a man who seemed to be living just on the edge of the law has all the makings of a very good historical fiction mystery. But what really makes this novel stand out from the crowd is the way that Emma Healey allows the reader to live for a few hours inside the head of a dementia sufferer like Maud. We stumble along with Maud in the present as very little makes sense to her, as she begins to forget the names of common everyday items that she’s used all her life, and as every little thing she encounters reminds her of a vivid memory from her long ago past. In effect, Sukey’s part of the story is told in flashback fashion as Maud literally flashes back to her detailed memories of those days. 

Bottom Line: Too many books are forgettable; after a few weeks or months, readers can barely distinguish them in their minds from all the other books they’ve read before or since. Elizabeth Is Missing is not one of those books. These days, as more and more people live to an advanced age, most every family has been, or soon will be, touched by the experience of having to provide care for a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s. If you want to know what that family member is really experiencing, novels like this one are a good way to supplement your more clinical reading of the disease. Readers will not be forgetting this one.

Emma Healey

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Black Book - Ian Rankin

The Black Book, originally published in 1993, is the fifth novel in Ian Rankin’s more-popular-than-ever Inspector John Rebus series. I didn’t begin reading the Rebus books until 2003’s A Question of Blood, but it’s been a favorite detective series of mine ever since picking up that one. In more recent months, I’ve started reading the novels from the beginning, fascinated all the while to watch Rebus and his supporting cast gradually morph into the characters I know so well from the later books. It is, I think, in this fifth novel that Ian Rankin really hits his stride, and The Black Book is now one of my favorite ones in the entire series. 

On display is an early look at the cranky, funny, insightful, dedicated cop that Rebus really is. Already his doctor has told him to quit smoking and to eat better - an ominous hint of what Rebus’s health will be like just a couple of decades into the future. Because the man spends so many hours of his day working cases, he finds it difficult to share his life with anyone, something he regrets only until he gets so busy again that his social isolation slips from his mind. He is reckless when it comes to placing himself in physical danger, and his equally reckless policing methods always see him in danger of finally losing his badge for good. But with one exception - finally putting away “Big Ger” Cafferty - John Rebus always gets the job done. 

“On Monday morning word went around St. Leonard’s police station that Inspector John Rebus was in an impressively worse mood than usual. Some found this hard to believe, and were almost willing to get close enough to Rebus to find out for themselves…almost.”

Rebus has now reached the stage of his policing career where he effectively serves as mentor to the younger cops who report to him. That is the kind of work relationship he has with DS Brian Holmes and, especially, with DC Siobhan Clarke. At the moment, though, Rebus is also dealing with his ex-con brother Michael who has recently returned to Edinburgh and with being kicked out of the house by the woman with whom he’s been living. Thus, the grumpiness on display in the above quote. 

And just when it seems that his personal life could not be in more of a shambles than it already is, Rebus gets sucked into a situation at work that rivals every other bad thing already happening to him: DS Holmes gets the back of his head bashed in and is left in a coma, maybe never to wake up again. Rebus wants to know if the attack was work-related, but with Holmes in a coma for days, the only thing the inspector has to work with is Holmes’s “black book,” a notebook filled with investigatory notes that mean little to anyone other than the critically injured detective himself. Rebus, though, is prepared to follow the clues wherever they take him - and after his brother is attacked, it all gets very personal.

Bottom Line: The Black Book is notable because of its development of the Siobhan Clarke character and her budding friendship with Rebus. It also, I think, marks the first time that Rebus and Big Ger Cafferty butt heads in a face-to-face confrontation. Interestingly, almost three decades later, Rebus will still be trying to put away Cafferty, and his bond with Siobhan will be as strong as ever. Too, Rankin is now hitting exactly the right note with his humorous asides and displays of Rebus’s own sense of humor. On offer is the dry, smart kind of wit that never fails to make me laugh - even in the middle of another look at John Rebus’s brutal world. 

Ian Rankin

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Speculative Los Angeles - Edited by Denise Hamilton

The good news here is that Akashic Books has begun a new series of short story collections similar to its successful series of noir short story compilations readers have enjoyed for several years now. The bad news is that the first offering in this new series of “speculative” short stories, Speculative Los Angeles, is not home to many really exceptional stories. According to the book’s editor, Denise Hamilton, the fourteen writers whose work is included in the collection were asked to “reimagine Los Angeles in any way” they chose to do so. The problem is that most of them could not get past the basic premise of the effects global warming might ultimately have on the city or what life would be like in Los Angeles after “the big one” knocks everything down around the city’s population. Some of the stories, in fact, have so little real plot that they become hardly more than a hallucinatory tour of the destroyed city streets and the people forced to live among the rubble. 

That’s not to say that there are not some good stories in the collection, because there are. Among those is “Peak TV,” a story by Ben H. Winters about a television producer whose new hit series seems to be causing teens to kill themselves in copycat fashion to what happens on the show. This one has a particularly nice twist at the end that makes it even better. Then there’s Aimee Bender’s “Maintenance,” the story of a little girl and her father who take comfort from a mastodon tableau on display at the city’s famous tar pits. The tableau speaks to them emotionally in a way that fits their own family circumstances, and they visit the tar pits every week to revisit the mastodon family - right up until the massive pieces disappear and no one knows where they went or who took them. 

One of the stories that does a good job with the destroyed-city concept is A.G. Lombardo’s “Garbo on the Skids” in which a bad cop thinks he his taking advantage of a beautiful young woman living in a condemned building but finds out that she may be a lot smarter than him. Another effective tale is “Walk of Fame,” a story by Duane Swierczynski in which someone has murdered so many celebrities that they are down to the “D-list” now. Needless to say, no one wants to be famous anymore.

But as it turns out, my favorite story in the entire collection is its very last one: “Sailing That Beautiful Sea” by Kathleen Kaufman. This is the story of a dying woman being tended by specially-adapted caretaker bots who are doing everything possible to make her last days as comfortable as possible. The kicker is that she is now the last human being alive on the entire planet, and that after her death the bots will carry on alone in their own brave new world. 

Bottom Line: Perhaps Los Angeles was not the best choice as the city to launch the new series with because its dystopian future is so easy to visualize that it all seems to be too predictable after a while. I am looking forward to seeing what the next collection brings, however, because I do like the premise of a city-by-city alternate history survey of the world.

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Wanderers - Chuck Wendig

I’ve found myself these last few months being more and more drawn to dystopian pandemic books than I have in a long time, and I’ve read several of them. One of the best of them - and at almost 800 pages, by far the longest - is Chuck Wendig’s 2019 novel Wanderers. Too, despite its science fiction elements, it is also probably the scariest of the ones I’ve read since the beginning of our own real-world pandemic because of how by the time anyone figures out that something very wrong is happening to people, it is already too late to stop the spread. Way too late.

It all starts one morning when Shana wakes up to find that her little sister is nowhere in the house, and spots her walking toward the highway leading away from their isolated Indiana farm. At first, the little girl appears to be sleepwalking, but as Shana soon learns this is no ordinary sleep-walk. There is no way to wake her up, turn her around, or even minutely change the direction in which she’s walking. And soon enough, she is not alone. Other “sleepwalkers” will join her, so many of them, in fact, that the media come to call them “the flock,” just as they begin to call those who follow the flock to care for them, as Shana does, “the shepherds.” 

But where is the flock heading, and how is it possible that they can continue walking west (all the while gathering new members) from Indiana for weeks without stopping to rest, eat or drink anything, or communicate with anyone around them? Maybe they really are a flock, but no one can figure out what they have in common other than their ability to endlessly sleepwalk toward some unknown destination for an equally unknown purpose. And then people begin to die…and with a push from a radicalized radio preacher, the flock starts to get blamed for their deaths.

Bottom Line: Wanderers is a long book, but Chuck Wendig does not waste many pages in this accounting of how quickly the civilized world is capable of losing its civility and its soul. What Wendig has to say about humanity and the ties that bind us is sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspirational. This is a book that perhaps owes a tip-of-the-cap to Stephen King’s The Stand, but in my estimation, it is the better book of the two.

Chuck Wendig

(This review is a bit shorter than I like them, but I'm rushing this morning. I finished the book two days ago, but this is my first opportunity to write and post a review. The rolling blackout that is affecting the entire state of Texas this week has not spared us here. We regained power only 90 minutes ago, after having had power shut down for exactly, to the very minute, 17 hours. That means that it got down to 49 degrees in our bedroom last night, and that we are now having to boil water before using it - and that's hard to do without power. So we have all of our charging stations plugged in right now so that we will be ready for the next round, the heaters are working hard to get us back to a temperature in the neighborhood of seventy degrees, and we are boiling pots of water for later use. My daughters live about six miles from us, and both were down for five hours last night before the lights came back on for them around two a.m. They are down again, so it's obvious that we are nowhere near the end of the "rolling" yet.)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Music of Bees - Eileen Garvin

Although Eileen Garvin published her memoir How to Be a Sister (intriguing title, that) in 2010, the soon-to-be-published The Music of Bees marks her debut as a novelist. Part of what makes this new novel so much fun to read is the rather painless education about bees and beekeepers that the reader acquires along the way. Garvin, who is herself an Oregon beekeeper in addition to being a writer, skillfully makes it all seem simple right up until the point the  reader comes to realize just how complicated beekeeping actually is, and how terribly important bees and their keepers are to the environment and the food chain. 

The Music of Bees is a story about three loners, two of whom have become loners pretty much by choice, and another who had the lifestyle forced upon him after an accident put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Alice Holtzman is a 44-year-old county employee who enjoys keeping bees so much that over the next year she wants to double the number of hives she has. She is in the process of doing just that, transporting some 120,000 bees home in the back of her truck, when she almost literally runs into Jake, the 18-year old in the wheelchair. Jake is rather foolishly tooling down the side of the highway in his chair at dusk when Alice runs him off the road. When the smoke clears, Jake is so intrigued by Alice and how she is able to entice almost all the bees back into their proper containers, that a new friendship is born. Harry is a 24-year-old running from his past who moves west to live in a dilapidated trailer with his reclusive uncle. After spotting Alice’s help-wanted ad, he responds, and the unlikely trio soon find themselves not only working together, but living together.

All three have things in their recent past they regret, and all three of them have withdrawn into themselves in the mistaken belief that they will heal their wounds that way. What they end up learning is that they are much stronger together than they are separately. More importantly, though, the bond they form is such a strong one that each of them begins to come back to life - and when the well-being of their bees and new way of life are threatened, they are willing to fight back as one, no matter what it takes or what the personal repercussions may be for any one of them.

Bottom Line: The Music of Bees is a beautiful story about empathy, friendship, and personal restoration. At its heart it is a basic story of good versus evil, and how sometimes the least powerful among us can beat the odds just long enough to win the battle - oh, and all of that beekeeping knowledge that seeps in along the way is a special bonus readers are sure to enjoy. 

Eileen Garvin

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Friday, February 12, 2021

Winter Storm Coming My Way - But I think I'm Ready

I'm about to hunker down for some serious reading  because it's really getting cold out there - and very windy - for this part of Texas. I just came inside from checking to see that all the outside water lines and faucet heads are still wrapped and well-insulated, in fact, and now I'm warming up next to a small space-heater. From what I understand, this part of the state has gone into single digits temperature-wise only three times since records of that sort of thing have been kept. Well, right now they are predicting that Spring, TX, is going to go down to 7 degrees on Monday. For Austin, they predict a temperature of 1, and for College Station, where my granddaughter is a Texas A&M student, they predict 3 degrees. On top of that, the weather service is telling us that we all have about a 70% chance of snow on three separate days next week. 

Sound like fun, right? The only problem with all of this is that pipes in this part of the state often freeze and burst here at temperatures considerably higher than those because the houses here are not insulated like they are in the northern states. When a similar winter storm came through here in December of 1989, so many pipes burst and flooded homes that it was weeks before enough new pipe could be found to make the tens of thousands of repairs needed. And that was if you were lucky enough to have a plumber even answer the phone for a couple of weeks. So, this could be a huge mess before it's all over - and that's before all the amateur-winter-condition drivers hit the roads as if all is normal. Already, there's been a 20-car pileup in Austin and one of over 100 vehicles in Fort Worth.  Yep, fun times are just ahead. 

But I'm ready. I picked up, via curbside service, a week's worth of groceries this morning before heading out to the library for a pick-up there of a week's worth of new books. So as long as the pipes don't burst, we are good.

The library surprised me this morning with Burrows, the second book in Reavis Wortham's Red River Mystery series. It's the "Large Print Edition," but these days that is more a help than I ever dreamed it would get to be, so that's a good thing. Also in the bag was a copy of one called The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez, an Argentinian writer I've never read. I can't remember who or what tipped me off to that one, but it sounds really good so I'm looking forward to reading it even if it will be a while before it hits the top of the stack. 

Now back to the four books I'm already reading. Stay warm.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Midnight Library - Matt Haig

I waited a long time to get my hands on a library copy of Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. By the time I got on the waiting list in late September 2020 the novel had received so much national publicity that a little over 200 people were ahead of me. I didn’t, in fact, make it to the top of the list until the second week of February 2021. So, of course, I expected big things from the novel, not wanting to believe, as so often happens, that it might turn out to be more hype than substance. But now, after having just turned the last page, I’m going to say that, for me at least, The Midnight Library turned out to be about 75% hype and 25% substance. It’s another one of those good-idea-poorly-delivered kind of books.

You’re probably already familiar with the novel’s basic premise because it’s been hard to avoid the novel ever since the Good Morning America Book Club turned it into an instant bestseller and national book club favorite. The plot goes like this: the suicidal Nora Seed (what a prophetic surname that turns out to be) is hovering somewhere between life and death when she wakes up in a huge library filled with books exclusively about her and her life -well, let’s make that lives. Each of the green-covered books on the shelves is an accounting of a life Nora would have lived if she had made a different choice at some pivotal point in her “root life.” Now, best of all, the kindly librarian is giving her the chance to test-drive any of the shelved lives she thinks she may be better suited to than the one she’s lived up to this point. So, the hard-to-please Nora is off to the races.

As soon as one of her chosen lives displeases her, she’s back in the library being offered another “book.” But there’s a catch: the number of books may be infinite in number, but she has to choose a life before time runs out for her. She has to decide which of the countless lives she wants to live for however long the rest of her life turns out to be.

The premise, even as often as similar ideas have been presented in the past, sounds like fun. And it should have been fun. The problem Haig has is that he is running Nora into and out of so many lives - lives in which she and all of her friends and family are very different people each time a shift is made - that he cannot take the time to develop any of the characters much past the “cardboard” stage. I found none of them much believable, and looked forward to meeting only one of them over and over for the length of the book, Mrs. Elm, the kindly librarian in charge of the Midnight Library. 

In the novel’s defense, I suppose that The Midnight Library could be characterized as a fable or even a fairy tale. Those genres don’t require a lot of character development in order to get their message across because, really, it’s all about the message with that kind of writing. And The Midnight Library does have a message. That’s not to say, however, that the message is very deep or that it rises above the pop-psychology level. 

All that said, I somehow finished the book - hoping for some kind of spectacular ending or change of course all the while - despite having considered its abandonment several times. 

Bottom Line: Not worth the wait. Not even close.

Matt Haig 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The Rock Hole - Reavis Z. Wortham

When I first picked up Reavis Wortham’s The Rock Hole, I expected it to be a cozy-type mystery with a nostalgic Texas setting. After all, the book’s central character is a small-town Texas constable who is really starting to feel his age, and the book’s sometime-narrator is the man’s ten-year-old grandson, Top. Turns out, I could not have been more wrong; this is a crime novel so gritty that some of what it describes is gruesome enough that some readers will likely find it difficult to read the crime scene descriptions. The escalation of the novel’s intensity sneaks up on the reader as effectively as the villain of the piece sneaks up on his victims, and that makes it even the more shocking.

“As he stared glumly at his coffee, sadness and the futility of a lawman in a changing society swamped over the man who only wanted to do the right thing.” - Description of Constable Ned Parker, The Rock Hole, page 213

It all happens in 1964 in a small Texas community just south of the Red River. Crossing the river, puts you in Oklahoma, but part-time constable Ned Parker doesn’t worry too much about such technicalities. He knows pretty much everybody both sides of the river and understands that anything that happens in Center Springs, Texas, is not going to stay in Texas - and vice versa. Center Springs may as well be one town with a river running through the middle of it. 

Ned really considers himself to be first a farmer, and he’s not wrong about that. His official jurisdiction, when it comes to the law, is a small one and nothing much ever really happens there. He’s mostly called upon to handle town drunks and the like, but now something strange is happening, and Ned is worried. Someone is torturing and killing animals, and there are signs that this is just the start of a crime spree that could escalate into something much, much worse than animal abuse. The tortured animals being discovered in the fields and countryside are getting larger and larger, and the person responsible for the atrocities has taken to leaving pictures of children alongside the dead animals. 

Then, it gets very personal for Ned Parker and his family because someone out there seems to be after his two grandchildren, and he wonders if he will be able to protect them from the killer who wants so badly to snatch them from under his nose. Suddenly, Ned finds himself looking at everyone as a potential killer, and he is so frustrated that he feels like giving up. But that’s not who Ned Parker is - not even close.

Bottom Line: The Rock Hole is the first book in Reavis Wortham’s Red River Mystery series, and this 2011 novel has been followed by seven other Red River Mysteries, including 2021’s Laying Bones. The 1960s small-town atmosphere created by Wortham adds to the fun, but despite the references to Vietnam veterans, etc, the setting strikes me as being more akin to what one would expect in a similar location in the 1940s or 50s than in the mid-1960s. The Rock Hole is very good, and that’s the real “bottom line” here. Perhaps Reavis Wortham was shooting for “country noir” with this one; if so, he nailed it. 

Reavis Z. Wortham

Sunday, February 07, 2021

The Less Dead - Denise Mina

Denise Mina is one of several Scottish crime novelists I keep coming back to after having first discovered her via her three Paddy Meehan novels (2005-2007). Mina is also author of the Garnet Hill trilogy (1998-2001), the five-book Alex Morrow series (2009-2014), four standalone novels, and three plays. She even had a run as writer of the Hellblazer comic books in which she brought the action to Scotland. The Less Dead is one of Mina’s standalones. 

“Fifteen years of our lives, important years but people just want the sad bits or the dirty bits or the Christ-saved-me-bits but not the whole of it, the whole messy truth of it. Just the bits that fit their agenda.”

As The Less Dead opens, Dr. Margo Dunlop is grieving the recent loss of her adoptive mother. Now, part of the grieving process in which Margo is so deeply immersed makes her want to learn more about her birth mother and the family she never knew. What she turns up instead of her mother, though, is Aunt Nikki, a woman whose manner and appearance initially scare Margo half to death about the can of worms she may have inadvertently just opened up. And as it turns out, for good reason.

Margo learns that her nineteen-year-old mother was murdered when she was just four months old, probably by a serial killer believed over a number of years to have claimed multiple victims from the city streets. Particularly vulnerable were women like her mother who sold themselves on the streets in order to support their out-of-control drug habits. Nikki even thinks she knows who the killer is - and she wants Margo to use her medical connections to help her finally prove it. Margo’s first inclination is to make it as difficult as possible for Nikki to ever find her again. But then, something strange starts to happen: the more she talks with Nikki and her friend, the more she admires the women and the strength it took for them to survive those years on the street. She likes them and starts to enjoy their company.

Someone else is watching, though, and they are not happy to see that Margo and Nikki are spending so much time together. When Margo starts to get the same threatening letters that Nikki has been getting for years, she fails to take the threats as seriously as she should, preferring to believe that whoever is writing them just wants to scare her away. Bad move, that.

Bottom Line: The Less Dead is exactly the kind of dark, mean-streets novel that I’ve come to expect from Denise Mina over the years. In this one, Mina builds the suspense level so slowly that when it finally reaches its boiling point, it’s a huge relief to finally get some answers. The reader knows things - important things - throughout the novel that Margo Dunlop doesn’t know, things she refuses to recognize even as the evidence continues to mount. That’s my one criticism of the Margo-character. For a doctor, a woman supposedly sophisticated in the ways of the world, Margo does not have a lot of common sense when it comes to repeatedly putting her life in jeopardy. If The Less Dead were a horror movie, Margo would be the girl everyone keeps yelling at not to open the door or go into the dark room to see what the noise she heard was. In the end it all works, of course, because Margo’s recklessness causes the villain of the piece to expose his identity by doing things he wouldn’t have otherwise done. Three stars for this one.

Denise Mina 

Friday, February 05, 2021

"The Crime Fiction Series That Defined The Last Decade"

Michael Connelly

Someone, probably his daughter, posted 
on James Lee Burke's Facebook page yesterday a link to a list from November 2019 listing what the writers of the piece consider to be the crime fiction series that define the decade of the 2010s .  Limiting the list to only ten guarantees that some really successful series are going to be left out, but I was just as surprised to learn that I haven't read a single word of some of the ones that did make the cut even though I probably already read way too much crime fiction. 

The ten crime series chosen are presented alphabetical order rather than being ranked:

  • Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch Series 
  • Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad Series
  • Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt Serie
  • Greg Iles's Natchez Burning Trilogy
  • Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther Series
  • Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire Series
  • Attica Locke's Highway 59 Series
  • Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy Series
  • Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache Series
  • Don Winslow's Border Trilogy
The most interesting thing to me is that despite three of my favorite crime series of all time being included on the list, there are also four that I've barely ever heard mentioned anywhere despite all the book blogs and review magazines that I regularly read. And then come the three I consider to be either mediocre or which have been forever spoiled for me by learning more than I needed to know about the authors via their Twitter rants. (I confess to finding it difficult to completely separate an author's personality from their work, and I wish I were not that way.)

I'll start with the three series on the list that I look forward to reading  something new from every year - and have for a long time in each case: Michael Connelly's Bosch, Craig Johnson's Longmire, and Louise Penny's Gamache.  If I'm still around to see it happen, I will take the termination of any of these three as a personal loss and will grieve accordingly. Seriously.

Next up, are the four I'm unfamiliar with: the series by French, Gran, Kerr, and McKinty. I'm sure that each of these deserve inclusion on a list like this one, and I'll be looking closer at them very soon, so there goes my reading plan for February and March.

Finally, there are the series by Winslow, Isles, and Locke. Locke's is still one that I read, albeit much less enthusiastically as time goes by. I really love her main characters, but the later books have become so saturated with concerns about racism that I've almost lost interest in them. Locke is a fellow Houstonian and the Highway 59 corridor she uses as a setting for the series is one with which I am well-familiar, but because of their strong focus on racism, they have become a little bit predictable now. I hope she fixes that soon, and I'll keep seeking out the new books, but I feel myself coming closer and closer to my first abandonment of one of her books.

As for Winslow and Isles, I can't go there anymore. Both, especially Winslow, have revealed aspects of their souls that would have better  remained hidden from the reading public. Winslow's Border series is very good...if a little long and overwritten at times...but I really don't care now if he adds to it. I confess even to having given away the entire series a while back just because seeing the man's name on my shelves irritated me. (You don't have to say it, I know that's a little extreme...but it worked for me.) Isles is a little more moderate on Twitter than Winslow (and so is 99.999% of the rest of the world), but I was not fond enough of the first volume of his trilogy to seek out the others even beforehand. They are very long - and too socially heavy-handed - to suit my reading tastes. I prefer at least a little subtlety with my sermon, thank you, Mr. Isles. 

The best part about the Crime Reads posting is that it includes a much longer list of "honorable mention" series. That's where I found some of the ones like James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series that I would have sworn would have been in the top ten, along with lots of other popular series and a whole bunch more I'm not familiar with at all. 

Now, I can't wait to do some exploring amongst that group of also-rans because I suspect there are some real gems to be found there. 

James Lee Burke

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Shadow of a Star - Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton was really something. Born on one ranch in 1926, and growing up on a different  one, Kelton had plenty of time to observe the cowboy life through his own eyes. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas, and served as editor for various agricultural and ranching publications for most of his life. But what makes Kelton so special is his success with writing western novels. Eight of his novels won the Spur Award given annually by the Western Writers of America in recognition for best western novel of the year. So, the group finally just decided to proclaim Kelton “the greatest Western writer of all time.” Heck, back in 1997 the Texas state legislature even proclaimed a special “Elmer Kelton Day” in his honor. In other words, Elmer Kelton may just be the Babe Ruth of westerns - underrated as I feel he still is even today. 

Shadow of a Star is Kelton’s 1959 western novel about Jim-Bob McClain, a young man still on the cusp of manhood who finally realizes the dream of his life: the sheriff he has admired for most of his young life hires him as his only deputy. In the truest sense of the term, Shadow of a Star is a coming-of-age novel, one in which this young man needs to get things figured out quickly so that he doesn’t die in the process. 

Sheriff Mont Taylor is showing his age now, and he’s recently had to fire his deputy because the man enjoyed the power that comes with wearing a badge a little too much. The ex-deputy doesn’t have that power anymore, but he has a new enemy: Jim-Bob McClain, the kid who replaced him. And he thoroughly enjoys watching Jim-Bob botch the first couple of incidents he’s called upon to handle - especially the one during which the young deputy’s gun is snatched from him as he attempts to handcuff a would-be prisoner. 

The climax of Shadow of a Star finds Jim-Bob McClain fighting to get a bank-robbing murderer to authorities before the locals catch up with him and lynch the man. Also on his trail, is a gang-of-three - including the prisoner’s elder brother - that intends to relieve Jim-Bob of his prisoner. Finally, within two miles of the town he’s so desperate to reach, both groups are closing in on him. And now, he realizes that he doesn’t have much of a chance of making those last two miles in one piece. His head tells him to give up; his heart tells him hell, no. 

Bottom Line: I don’t think that Elmer Kelton necessarily thought of Shadow of a Star as a YA novel, but that’s what I consider it to be today. Because it was written in 1959, it seems tame by today’s standards, especially when it comes to language, violence, and sexual relationships. Things happen, of course, but the details are largely left up to the reader’s imagination, making the novel, perhaps, more appropriate for today’s YA readers than for adults looking for a more gritty representation of the Old West. That aside, Elmer Kelton tells a good western story, and he gives a good feel for what that isolated lifestyle must have been like. Watching Jim-Bob McClain figure out who he is and what his badge represents to him and to the townspeople he protects makes for a satisfying experience for readers of any age.

Elmer Kelton: Texas Book Festival 2007