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

Friday, July 09, 2021

The Girl Who Died - Ragnar Jónasson

I am a big fan of Ragnar Jónasson’s three-book “Hulda Series,” but The Girl Who Died is the first standalone novel of his that I’ve read. This one was actually first published in 2018, but it was not translated into English until 2021, so it’s the latest of his work currently available in the US. Jónasson is a terrific storyteller, and I have come to expect his short flashbacks (usually written in italics) that are always a little incomprehensible when first encountered because it’s not clear even to whom the flashback if occurring. Jónasson uses that technique again in The Girl Who Died, and trying to figure out how it would all be tied together at the end of the book became part of the fun. 

It is 1985, and Una is not at all happy about the rather shabby lifestyle she is living on her own in an old-fashioned Reykjavík apartment. That’s why it is relatively easy for her to accept a job offer to teach a class of two students who live in the isolated Langanes Peninsula village called Skálar. It is only when she finally arrives in Skálar that Una realizes why she was the only one who bothered to apply for the job. She has only two students for a very good reason: there are only ten people living in the entire village. Early on, she knows that she did not want to live in Skálar even for five minutes, but she can’t figure out another place to be. So she stays…bad mistake.

The longer she stays in Skálar, the more Una wonders what she is doing there. One of her students — and the student’s mother — make clear how much they dislike her; the townspeople are cold and standoffish even when they go through the motions of acknowledging her existence; and the attic bedroom she now calls home may just be haunted by the ghost of a little girl who died in the room some sixty years earlier. For a while Una wonders if she may be losing her mind, and the consequent uptick in her wine consumption gives the locals something else to gossip about. 

It is only after one of the locals does not live long enough to make it to Christmas, and a mysterious stranger knocks on the front door of the home she lives in only to disappear again quickly, that Una realizes she’s probably not going crazy. Something really is going on in Skálar that the locals don’t want her to know about. And she may not live long enough to figure it all out on her own.

Bottom Line: The Girl Who Died is a spooky mystery akin to those of Stephen King, say, at his best, one of King’s few horror novels that doesn’t end up being laugh-out-loud funny because it’s so over the top. There is a nice twist at the end that sufficiently ties up the mystery without ruining the ghost story aspect that may more appeal to some readers. My only quarrel with the plot is being asked to believe that Una could be so sedentary that she did not run for her life — or her sanity — when she was offered several opportunities early on to do so. She hated everything about the town, its people, and her students before she even began to sense the danger she might be in. But then, if she had gone home, there would have been no story, would there?

Ragnar Jónasson

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

She's Leaving Home - William Shaw

I learned from reading William Shaw’s Alexandria Cupidi series that his fictional detectives are usually, to one degree or another, pretty flawed human beings. Shaw is, in fact, quite the master at creating policemen who vividly come to life on the page precisely because those flaws make the cops so easy for the reader to identify with. Now having just read Shaw’s debut novel, She’s Leaving Home (2013), it is apparent that using flawed heroes around which to build a series of books has been a William Shaw trademark from the beginning. 

It is 1968, and DS Cathal Breen has been called to the St. John’s Wood section of London to investigate the discovery of an unidentified young woman’s body. Because the body has been found so near Abbey Road Studios, Breen believes the victim to be one of the dozens of Beatle fans who regularly hang around the area hoping to get a glimpse of the Beatles as they come and go from the studio. Now he has to figure out who she was and why someone left her naked body where it could so easily be found.

As for Breen, being a policeman has never been an easy thing for him. Already an outcast of sorts among his fellow policemen and women, Breen has recently made things much, much worse for himself by running away and hiding from a crime in progress during which his partner was being physically held at knifepoint. This is not the kind of behavior that any policeman should expect ever to recover from, but Breen has been given one more chance to prove himself — if he is only up to it. 

Breen spent several years caring for his aging father, even moving the older man into his own small flat toward the end of the man’s life. And now although his father is gone, Breen continues to act much older than his years and seems to have turned into a younger version of his own father. 1968, however, is a year during which everything seems to be changing and loosening up around him except for the ultra-conservative Cathal Breen himself. Then to Breen’s chagrin, rookie investigator Helen Tozer is assigned to Breen’s mentorship at a time when female investigators are still rare in the UK, and Breen finds himself changing in more ways than he ever imagined were possible. Helen Tozer is a rather free spirit who has eagerly adopted the societal changes that Breen continues to ignore, and she has a lot to teach her supposed mentor about the world around him. 

Bottom Line: She’s Leaving Home is a first-rate debut novel in which William Shaw quickly proves that he will stand out from the crowd of today’s crime writers because of his memorable characters. The two investigations that Breen investigates in this one are both interesting and satisfying, but Beatles fans are going to find the St. John’s Wood murder investigation to be particular fun. George Harrison, who lives nearby, even makes a cameo appearance of sorts at one point during the investigation. Part of the fun, too, comes with the recognition that the novel’s title is also the title of a great Beatles song from the band’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. (Hint: check out the song lyrics if you get the chance.) But, the best news of all for readers who enjoy this one is that there are three other Breen and Tozer novels just begging to be read. 

William Shaw

Monday, July 05, 2021

Tracks - Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson did something as a twenty-seven-year-old back in 1977 that would be almost impossible today: she and her four camels made a (mostly) solo 1700-mile trek from Alice Springs, Australia all the way across the Australian desert to the Indian Ocean. As Davidson puts it in her postscript to the 2012 edition of Tracks:

“Could such a journey be made in the same way now? No, absolutely not. There would be many more people out there with many more ways of keeping tabs on you, more red tape to hold you back,  more no-go areas, more fences, more vehicles, more control. New communication technology would make it impossible to get lost no matter how hard you tried.”

Things have changed so much, in fact, that Davidson admits to finding it “painful and difficult” to revisit that part of Australia at all. But back in the day, things were much simpler, if not more primitive, in nature. Davidson had grown bored with the life she was living, especially with the several jobs she had by then experienced and with her various studies. She was more of a loner than any of her friends and family, and very much enjoyed her own company. So, what could be more natural for a young woman like her than six months or so spent all alone in literally the middle of nowhere?

There was one slight problem, however. Davidson knew that the best way to make it across such a wide expanse of desert was with the help of camels. And she knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about camels other than that she wanted to capture three or four of the wild desert camels, break them, and train them as pack animals. Easier said than done, of course, so Davidson ended up working eight months for a man who promised to teach her everything she needed to know and to pay her by giving her two fully-trained camels of her own. What Robyn Davidson experienced in Alice Springs makes up over one-third of Tracks, and very little of it is pretty. The Alice Springs that Davidson endured for those months was so racist and misogynistic that she suffered from severe depression much of the time she was there preparing for her great adventure.

But what an adventure it turns out to be.

In order to make the trip possible at all, Davidson did something that must have felt to her as if she had just sold her soul to the devil. For four thousand dollars, she agreed to allow a National Geographic photographer to join her along the way three or four times so that the magazine could do an expansive article on her and her trip through the desert. It was only with that money, however, that she was able to outfit herself with the equipment she needed to survive in the desert on her own. And despite what started out as a rocky relationship between her and the photographer, her trip may have ended disastrously without his help. At the very least, her experience was changed for the better. 

Bottom Line: Tracks is quite an amazing true adventure story, and Robyn Davidson was very frank about everything she saw and experienced during her journey. It is a book I strongly recommend to readers who enjoy reading about what I generally classify as “long walks” taken by one or two brave people who want to experience the planet in a way so few of us will ever manage to experience it for ourselves. There is also a movie version of Tracks by the same title out there, and it is sometimes pretty good despite failing to give much of a real sense of what Davidson went through in order to prepare for the trip or just how tortuous her days sometimes were. Even though the movie ticks off most of the milestone boxes of Davidson’s great adventure, it really comes nowhere near to meaningfully telling what her experiences were like. Do yourself a favor; read the book first.  

May 1978 National Geographic cover featuring Robyn Davidson's adventure

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Short Stories from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse (Part 4)


(Stories 8-12, Pages 130-193)

I've continued to work my way through the short stories in Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, and I've been pleased to find that many of the stories are putting really clever twists on their apocalyptic settings. The apocalyptic hook is still prominent in each of the stories, but for the most part, the plots are more about the uniqueness and adaptability of the survivors than about the apocalypse itself.

One story, for instance, "Bones of Gossamer," has its narrator a man who lives on one of the remotest islands of Fiji. The man, and the rest of his village, have no idea what is going on in the rest of the world. All these people know is that the tourists - along with their monthly supply boat - have not been coming for the last year. When one German family and one French family do show up, the mystery only deepens.

Another story I particularly enjoyed is Charlie Jane Anders's "As Good as New," a story about how one of the tools designed to fight global warming catastrophically backfires on the world. This one combines realism and fantasy in a way that gives some hope to what appears to be perhaps the last person on Earth when she ventures out of her bunker one day and finds a peculiar bottle. Even though I'm not a fantasy genre fan, this one doesn't quite cross the line into silliness for me. 

Two of the stories, "One Day Only," by Tananarive Due, and "The Plague," by Ken Liu, take a more traditional (and similar) approach to apocalyptic stories by focusing on the cultural shock endured by survivors of cataclysmic events. In both stories, the survivors have broken into new classifications that have little or nothing to do with how humans viewed themselves pre-apocalypse. In Due's story, there are only four groups left: the vaccinated, those searching for the vaccine, those with a natural immunity, and the dead. Unfortunately, the naturally immune are the most dangerous of all. 

In Liu's tale, the separation is even more obvious. Those with enough money to make it happen are living in protected domes where life goes on much as it always has. The poor, on the other hand, are not allowed inside the domes, and have by now evolved into an unrecognizable subspecies of human beings. The irony is that each group pities the other. 

Of these five stories, only "Black, Their Regalia," by Darcie Little Badger, fails to work for me. And it's not the author's fault, because the story never really stood much of a chance because of how heavily it relies on fantasy. I simply could not buy into the premise that three American Indians and "The Plague Eater" might be able to come to the rescue of the world just in the nick of time to save humanity. My bad. 

Probably because I'm reading these stories in relatively small doses, I'm enjoying them so much that I still look forward to picking the collection back up whenever I can. The stories have not at all gone stale because of their shared similarities, but I don't believe that I would want to read all thirty-four of them straight through without the palate cleanser of other reading other genres at the same time. 

Darcie Little Badger

Thursday, July 01, 2021

The Right Side of Wrong - Reavis Z. Wortham

The Right Side of Wrong
(2013) is the third book in Reavis Z. Wortham’s eight-book “Red River Series” featuring Constables Cody and Ned Parker. The Parkers, along with black deputy John Washington, take care of law and order on both sides of the tracks in little Center Springs, Texas. In fact, the trio even sometimes has a lot to do with maintaining law and order in Oklahoma because it is only the Red River, just north of town, that places part of their overall community in Texas and the other part in Oklahoma. Things may be a little wilder on the Oklahoma side of the river, but as the Parkers and their deputy learned a long time ago, crime and criminals don’t tend to respect state borders.

Cody Parker, the younger of the two Parker constables by a generation, can’t seem to catch a break these days. Barely having survived the second book in the series, Burrows, Cody, this time around is ambushed and left for dead just a few months later as The Right Side of Wrong opens. But because the ambush happens in the middle of the night during a heavy snow storm, there are no witnesses and no apparent motive for what looks to be a pre-planned ambush. Even while Cody is still in the hospital struggling to recover from the resulting car crash and exposure to such severe weather, Ned and John begin rattling cages on both sides of the river to see who might come running out of them.

Even then, it is only when Cody follows the suspects across another river, this time The Rio Grande, into Mexico without telling Ned, his wife, or anyone else that he is tailing them across the state of Texas, that Ned figures out just how much danger his family is really in. The strings are being pulled all the way from Mexico, and now that Cody is locked tightly inside a Mexican prison notorious for its violence and corruption, his life expectancy is down to days, if not hours. Now, with the help of their new neighbor, Ned and John are determined to rescue Cody before his mouth is closed forever. 

Bottom Line: The Right Side of Wrong, especially, I think, for those who have read the earlier books in the series, is both fun and thrilling. The fun comes from watching the antics of Top and Pepper, the youngest members of the Parker clan, as they refuse to be kept out of the action. Children always feel that they are invincible, and even after what happened to the kids in the first book of the series, Pepper and her cousin still feel that way. If their grandfather and uncle are in trouble, they are always ready to join the fight. The thrills peak with the dramatic escape from Mexico engineered by Parkers as they fight their way back across the Rio Grande into Texas. This is a nice addition to the “Red River Series,” and now I look forward to reading the next one soon.

Reavis Z. Wortham