Tag Archives: Mystery

HALF MOON BAY: a novel

Publisher’s Synopsis

A smart, haunting tale of psychological suspense from the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of Turn of Mind.

Jane loses everything when her teenage daughter is killed in a senseless accident. Jane is devastated, but sometime later, she makes one tiny stab at a new life: she moves from San Francisco to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay.

She is inconsolable. and yet, as the months go by, she is able to cobble together some version of a job, of friends, of the possibility of peace.

And then, children begin to disappear. And soon, Jane sees her own pain reflected in all the parents in the town. She wonders if she will be able to live through the aching loss, the fear all around her. But as the disappearances continue, she begins to see that what her neighbors are wondering is if it is Jane herself who has unleashed the horror of loss.

Blogger’s Review

I lived in Monterey, California before moving to Sand City, a tiny community nearby and not that far from Half Moon Bay. The memories of my tiny rental house sitting on a dune with the eternal sounds of pounding surf and the sense of isolation sprang to mind when I was given the chance to read Alice LaPlante’s newest book, Half Moon Bay.

Sadly, the memories, the salty smells, and the sounds of surf were not enough to keep my attention on Jane and the remaining pop-up characters that populated the story. Recognizing that some books start out slowly and build suspense and mystery before ending with a ” I didn’t see that coming” ending, I plotted along and finished the book only to find that the conclusion fizzled out predictably.

I would have given the book a one star rating but for the intriguing descriptions of the floral plants featured in the nursery where Jane worked. I found myself turning to my collection of botanical books parked on the side table of more interest than Jane’s psychological and emotional issues. The plant intrigue earned a second star for the book.

The protagonist, Jane, is a grieving mixed-up character with a history of histrionic behavior. Her teenage daughter dies in an auto accident caused by a distracted driver. In the following months, she loses her husband to infidelity and both parents die unexpectedly. When the woman responsible for her daughter’s death is found guilty but only receives a slap on the wrist, Jane repeatedly reacts violently against her and is lucky she doesn’t end up in jail.

Hoping for a new start, she escapes to a small seaside town. It turns out that her issues come with her; the only change is geography. The loss of her daughter consumes her thoughts. She gets along well with everyone in town on a surface level but internally she is a lonely mess.

A creepy couple move to Half Moon Bay and soon become the talk of the town. The charismatic Edward  ostensibly has moved to town to stop the development of a high-end resort on a fragile piece of coast land.  Edward begins to stalk Jane and soon begins to appear nightly at her house for a romp in the sack. Jane becomes obsessed with the attention and doesn’t question his motives. Weird.

When Jane meets Alma, Edward’s significant other, she worries that Alma would find out about her relationship with Edward. Surprisingly, Alma already knows and doesn’t give a flip. The couple smothers Jane with over-the-top affection and frequent invitations to their home. Their seduction routine leads to daredevil deeds that require Jane to endanger her life and to commit large scale vandalism.

In the meantime, local young girls, one-by-one, are kidnapped and murdered. Jane’s violent past and the death of her daughter are exposed to the townsfolk making her a murder suspect in everyone’s eyes- except to Edward and Alma. As Jane unravels with all the negative attention, she goes to Edward and Alma’s home uninvited and discovers she has been duped.

My honest opinion?  The book is disjointed and ricochets around in Jane’s mind. The various plot lines don’t seem to build suspense and feels like life in a wind tunnel. I think it could have been a good book with more judicious editing and deeper character development. As it is now, the characters are flat, the plot and conclusion obvious, and the story feels like a blindfolded foot race through a corn maze.

Alice LaPlante has proven her skill as an author with her first book, Turn of Mind. Here’s hoping she is more successful next time.

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DEATH OF A RAINMAKER

DEATH OF A RAINMAKER : A DUST BOWL MYSTERY

August 2, 1935
Jackson County, Oklahoma

As soon as [Chester] pulled open the outside door [of the theater] he heard a faint thrumming of wind that resembled the plucking of thick guitar strings… ‘A duster!, Maxine shouted… ‘Tall as a mountain! Oh my God! I’ve never seen one this big!’

Vermillion, Oklahoma in 1935. The Great Depression has strangled the economy of the area and now an unending dry season is destroying the greatest source – the land. The helpless residents face the perfect storm of poverty and an angry earth.

The population of the area is a mishmash of down-on-their-luck souls. Alongside the farms and ranches is a squatters camp down near the train tracks. A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work camp is nearby; a collection of young men from all over the country gathered near Vermillion for a chance at a job by the government. As in any community, there are the more fortunate families who live a different anxiety – fearful of the unfortunate. It is a jittery and suspicious time for all.

Everyone, rich or poor, has an individual life story that began somewhere else. Vermillion provided abundance and a good living for four generations. By 1935, no one finds Vermillon a haven. The Great Depression had knocked many to their knees. The eight months of drought that year, finished off those who depended on the earth for their livelihood.

Rain, at this point, is their only solution. Rain would keep the farmers and ranchers on their homesteads and bring commerce to town. Believing that desperate times do call for desperate measures, a small group of merchants cobble together the last of their savings and hire a charlatan who convinces them he knows how to make it rain.

Roland Coombs, their hired Rainmaker, struts into town like a conquering hero; a larger than life superhero to some and a distasteful miscreant to others who believe he is taking advantage of a desperate situation to line his pockets. Claiming he learned his technique in the military, he uses massive rounds of TNT blasted into the sky to make the atmosphere unstable. Only time will tell.

The skeptical and the hopeful join the boisterous and arrogant Rainmaker at the blasting site setting up camp on the ground with their picnic baskets and blankets. The crowd watch in awe as the night sky explodes over and over, louder and more illuminating than the Fourth of July.

Everyone leaves in the dark of night hopeful and wakes to find the next day like every other; dry and gritty. Disappointed farmers stared at their barren fields and discouraged merchants stare at their front doors hoping for business.

In the dire circumstances, folks looked for whatever small pleasures could ease their pain. One popular source of relief came at the local movie theater run by the blind owner, Chester. The other is drinking away the misery at the local bar.

The day after the Rainmaker blasted the sky, Chester readies things for that day’s movie, hoping to sell enough tickets to pay the rent. Maxine, Chester’s teenage ticket taker refills the candy shelves and opens the ticket booth for the matinee.

Sheriff Temple Jennings’ day begins alongside his new deputy, a former CCC worker with a healthy dose of work ethic. Today, Mr. Hodges, visibly upset, complains nothing is being done about the continuing visits of a peeping Tom at his house. The Sheriff learns of a fight the previous night between the Rainmaker Coombs and one of the CCC boys at the local bar. These things will have to wait. He has to perform his least favorite job – keeping the peace at the auction of a foreclosed farm.

Out of sight, an enormous dust storm has formed on the town’s outskirts and is barreling their way. The catastrophic storm catches everyone unprepared and people are forced to take shelter best they can. In the hours after the storm blows through, the clean-up begins. Chester, feeling his way through the storm’s aftermath, begins to remove the sand blocking the emergency exit of his theater. He discovers the body of a man and presumes he died of suffocation. Sheriff Jennings determines it is the Rainmaker, Roland Coombs, and he was bludgeoned to death during the storm. The town jumps to the immediate conclusion that the young CCC worker was the murderer.

As the sheriff and his deputy conduct their investigation, personal secrets are exposed and a political campaign takes a malignant turn threatening the Sheriff’s job. The characters remind us that we often judge a person through the lens of preconceived notion. Some people overcome their worst instincts and find themselves better for it. Others dig in and reject the truth staring them in the face.

As the investigation proceeds, Sheriff Jennings believes in the young man’s guilt and the CCC worker is arrested. His wife is not so sure that the murderer has been found. As she begins her own investigation, their marriage is tested. She befriends the prisoner and listens to his story with an open mind. Another part of her recognizes that she is transferring her feelings as she has mourned the death of her own son.

Someone in town during the storm murdered the Rainmaker. The mystery, when solved, will surprise you. Along the way you will fall in love with some of the people and reject the false friendships of others. In the end, you will find a piece of happily ever after.

An excellent story revealing that ordinary life continues amid a larger national tragedy.

Enjoyed the read and look forward to more by this author.

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THE LAST WOMEN IN THE FOREST: a novel

It’s a terrible thing to have loved someone and not know the extent to which you have been deceived… – Marian Engström

Marian Engström scanned the seasonal conservation job listings for her next position. Her latest job had taken her to South Padre Island, Texas to rescue sea turtles but the contract ended and time to move along.

As a dog lover, she was pleased to find a position with Conservation Canines through the University of Washington. The study would be in the bitter sub-zero cold of the snowy mountains near Alberta where oil exploration in oil sands was taking place. The team of dog handlers and trip orienteers would be based out of Whitefish, Montana in a place the group called “The Den”.  Marian, and the other orienteers, would assist the dog handlers setting up trip navigation in designated zones locating wolf, caribou and moose scat, bagging each detected specimen, and charting the waypoints. The purpose of the study is to examine the effects of the oil drilling on the wildlife in the area. This aspect of the novel is well researched and reads a little bit clinical but very interesting.

The book opens with the vividly described murder of a trusting young woman charmed by someone she perceived to be a good Samaritan. Labeling the murdered girl, (Stillwater) Victim #1, alerts the reader to watch for clues. One of the primary or secondary characters is a serial killer!

We meet Marian six months after she has moved to the Whitefish base camp. She is wading into Bull Creek sprinkling the ashes of her boyfriend and dog handler, Tate, and watching them flow downstream. The accident that caused his death unknown to the reader.

It was a beautiful spot…Tate had chosen this location…had pressed the river rock against her palm and asked her to remember.

Marian stands in the cold stream reflecting on their brief relationship with its sweet and sour tones. Heading back to camp, she’s left with an edgy feeling that something was off.  Did he really loved her as much as she loved him? Where to begin to unravel her contradictory feelings?

Tate would share life stories with her making her cry in sympathy for him. One tear-jerker described a stray dog he adopted as a child that died after falling into a swift stream.  Another time, out of the blue, he tells her he found the body of one of the four Stillwater murders. She decides to confirm the accuracy of this story to ease her mind.

She contacts Nick Shepard, a retired forensic profiler, known to be intimately involved in the Stillwater murder investigations. Although he is dying of cancer, a fact he tries to keep from her, he agrees to help confirm or dispel the facts of Tate’s story.

With Marian and Nick narrating, the story gymnastically flips back and forth in time beginning when Tate picked her up at the airport and ultimately reaches present day where we learn about Tate’s fate. Juxtaposed between Marian and Nick’s chapters are vivid tales of the other three unsolved Stillwater murders that may be a bit disturbing to some people. The final chapters pull together loose threads leading to a dramatic conclusion.

The isolation and loneliness of the job were palpable. As one person said, “It a way of life – not a job”; someone comfortable with themselves alone or someone running from life and reaching the end of the line. It’s do or die time. Survival is not so much the result of luck as it is of skill and training. The overarching themes of observation and situational awareness crisscrossed Marian’s job as well as her personal life.

The job was never a problem for Marian. She was well-suited for the conditions and the work. The issue was emotional and her insecurity with humans. Was she as gullible as it seemed or was she out maneuvered by a mastermind of evil? Surrounded by macho mountain men with personalities like Jeremiah Johnson, was it easy for a young woman to be drawn to a man seemingly devoted to her? Did Nick find peace for the families of the murdered girls?

A good solid book worthy of a read. There’s something for everyone -love, friendship, trust and distrust, murder, dogs, freezing cold and stark wilderness settings.

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MY ABANDONMENT: a novel

 

The Spokesman-Review

Fri., May 21, 2004
Father, girl reside in Portland park
Portland, Oregon


“Author, Peter Rock, a professor of creative writing at Portland’s Reed College had earned a literary reputation for his skill in bringing to the forefront marginal characters who might easily go unnoticed. As Rock, and most of Portland, followed with fascination the story of the mysterious father and daughter, the writer’s mind filled with questions, characters, and ideas. Eventually he put them all together to create his 2009 award-winning novel, My Abandonment. [In 2018, My Abandonment, was adapted for film and released as Leave No Trace.]

Peter Rock’s work, My Abandonment, is pure fiction loosely based on known facts about Frank and Ruth up to their disappearance. The time after their disappearance, a product of the author’s wild imagination. Frank and Ruth have become Father and Caroline.

We have to be so careful these days.
Why? No one knows where we are, says Caroline
If you think that way, that’s when you get caught. Overconfident.
No one’s ever caught us. No one could.That doesn’t mean anything. You know better than to look to the past, Caroline.

Father is strict. He has to be strict. That doesn’t mean he knows everything I do or think. 

It’s been four years since Father arrived at her foster home in Idaho to reunite with Caroline. We learn about their life together with Caroline narrating through a teenager’s lens as it appears in her daily journal. From this vantage, we never see into Father’s past or into his mind and are left to speculate about his actions and decisions.

As we meet Father, a 52-year-old Marine and Vietnam veteran, and Caroline, they are scouring a salvage yard in the dead of night to steal rebar to strengthen their primitive shelter. If we took a bird’s eye view of their home, we would find  signs of a normal life adjusted for the hardship of living in the wild; his insistence on a ship-shape life probably reflective of his military training. In an effort to remain anonymous and undetected, both have become masters of stealth and skilled at camouflage, denizens of Forest Park.

Father, college educated, insists on daily homeschooling for Caroline; guided by a set of thrift store encyclopedias and a Bible. Father has a deep knowledge of classical authors and uses relative quotes from them as punctuation points in his conversations with her.

The pair do expose themselves to the world, traveling to town when necessary to resupply, dressed to blend in with the town folks. Father, a victim of post-war PTSD, receives a monthly disability check delivered to a post office box in town. The small amount of money provides enough income for food and sparse necessities.

But it is not long before things feel weird. Caroline tells us that Father’s paranoid insistence on caution overshadows their lives 24/7.  Even in sleep, danger seems to haunt him with nightmares about hovering helicopters. Caroline would know, they sleep together in one sleeping bag. Randy, Caroline’s comfort toy, a plastic horse given to her by Father, goes everywhere with her; never leaves her side. Plastic Randy, whose stomach holds a slip of paper with her secret secret – something she must guard and never lose, something Father must never find.

There are other homeless folks in the forest, all with baggage from the past. Father barters with one group of slimy characters; until one of them begins to take too much interest in Caroline.

One day, by dumb luck, a stranger stumbles upon their front door while Father is away from camp and surprising Caroline who’s resting in her hideout in a treetop. Her little yip and her sweaty shirt drying on a branch gives them away. She keeps the intrusion secret from Father. But the stranger leads the police to them and the gig is up.

Helpful authorities find them a home with an elderly farmer. Caroline loves the farm, their little “real” home, and the promise of attending a real school. Maybe it was the open sky and constant contact with the outside world or perhaps loss of control over his own life but Father begins to dissemble, marking the beginning of what will become many faulty decisions. Without warning, he tells Caroline to pack a bag; they are leaving. This move, absent all their supplies confiscated by the police, threatens their survival.

Father never recovers from the removal from Forest Park leading the pair through one dangerous situation after another. Throughout their trek to find a new home, Father remains devoted to Caroline, exercising his control over her life by keeping his thoughts and plans to himself. She has no other option but to follow. As Father stumbles, Caroline becomes stronger and more independent thinking. One final flawed decision by Father ends their lives together leaving Caroline to restart her life in whatever fashion she desires. And we learn Caroline’s secret secret.

Book Themes and Thoughts

Anonymity and Use of Nicknames: The importance of discretion and use of false names a central theme. Do names identity us or dictate who we are?

Violence: Several scenes are gruesome and could be regarded as Triggers for adolescent readers.

Social Norms: This slender novel gives ample reason to question what is “normal”. Do “normals” have the right to interfere with alternative living options? At what point should someone interfere?

Relationships: There is a creepy edge to Father’s relationship with Caroline. His constant use of endearments, overprotective need to control her day, and questionable privacy issues lends itself to child abuse and criminal behavior.

The ending was somewhat disappointing but I found the book overall very interesting. Using a teenager narrator keeps things simple and points out that we never really know anyone’s whole story. I have found myself reflecting about their story days after I finished the book.

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SOLD ON A MONDAY

2 children for sale sign

SOLD ON A MONDAY

by KRISTINA MCMORRIS

depression era childrengreen quote markSometimes we have to make sacrifices for the ones we love…

sold on a monday cover[The detective pulled a chair over to me in the hospital.] I heard, “Can you tell me how it all started?” The reporter in my head blended with the detective before me. I wasn’t entirely sure which of them had asked…
1930s cameraI nodded at him slowly, remembering as I replied.
“It started with a picture.”

Sold on a Monday, like many popular works of historical fiction set in the 1930’s Great Depression is based on an iconic photograph. My favorite being, Mary Coin by Marissa Silver based on Dorothy Lange’s photograph entitled, Migrant Mother. four children for saleSold on a Monday was inspired by a photograph (later questioned as authentic) of a mother and four children on a porch. A sign near them reads – 4 children for sale, inquire within.

sold on a monday graphic.pngAuthor, Kristina McMorris, nudged by the writer’s innate question…what if… has created a world where a dramatic photograph, taken for personal use by a newspaper reporter on his own time, is found drying in the darkroom by the editor’s secretary, Lily Palmer. The moving picture shows two children near a sign reading – “2 children for sale. Recognizing the work of Ellis Reed, Lily shows the photo to the editor.

1930s reporter.jpgThe editor, recognizing the dramatic impact the picture will have on newspaper readers, instructs Ellis to write a story about it. Sniffing a chance to advance himself, perhaps leading to his own column, Ellis obliges. Puffed up proud, Ellis is brought down quickly when he is told that the negative and photo have been damaged and he must replace it immediately. Returning to the house, he finds the sign leaning against the porch and the family gone. (We never learn what happened to the original family; something that nagged at me long after I finished the book.)

ARC NetGalleyIn that instant he panics. He spots 2 children playing nearby at another house. Grabbing the “children for sale” sign, and with their mother’s reluctant permission along with a handful of money, Ellis stages a new photo. Thus begins a spiral of disquiet that follows Ellis into his new career at a larger newspaper; a success launched by this story. As he rises in notoriety, he is constantly aware it is based on a lie. Lily, also observes, he has lost that special something that reaches the common man.

Lily Palmer, harboring a deep secret of her own, is reminded time and again of the deception when letters and gifts continually arrive at her newspaper for the exposed children. The gifts and letters are placed on the porch in the dead of night, the deliverers unable to face the family. The innocent children were never for sale.

After a time, and independently, Ellis and Lily seek to find out what consequences their individual actions have had on that misused family. They are both rocked to learn that the mother has been confined to a sanitarium and has died. The children were placed in an orphanage. The now infamous photograph led to the sale of the two children to a wealthy family.

Using his newspaper network, Ellis finds the family and scouts the new home. Peering through a window, he spots the young girl, Ruby, neatly dressed, and sitting near a smiling woman. He believes he hears a young a boy giggling in another room.

He tells Lily that all seems wonderful at first glance. But further efforts reveal that appearances don’t necessarily define reality. Ellis and Lily set out to right their consciences and dredge up darkness they never dreamed possible. Their lives and the lives of the children are in danger.

Sold on a Monday is a fabulous 1930’s era “Agatha Christie” mystery with some really sharp edges. The suspense moves slowly at first, careers sputter, personal relationships simmer, and all along we are aware that this is the Great Depression. Desperate times where desperation can lead a person to the “Dark Side.”  The novel does come to a spectacular moment that then settles down to a “happily-ever-after” finish.

Good read for a rainy day!

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OUR HOUSE : a novel

She must be mistaken, but it looks exactly as if someone is moving into her house.

The van is parked halfway down Trinity Avenue, its square mouth agape, a large piece of furniture sliding down the ribbed metal tongue.

Fi watches … as the object is carried through the gate and down the path.

My gate. My path.
Whose things are these?

No one expects to return home from a weekend trip to find themselves homeless, their spouse missing and all of their belongings gone. Fi knew that Bram had issues, but she never saw this one coming!

This clever and dark suspense will have you up all night reading!

Fiona (Fi) and Bram Lawson were separated after she found her husband shagging a neighbor in the kid’s new backyard playhouse. (His second transgression in their twelve-year marriage.) But the martial breakup was based on much more. It always is. Booze, lying, fits of anger, and speeding tickets in Bram’s case.

Anna and Bram reveal the story in alternating viewpoints. Anna, seeking to make sense of what happened, tells her story in a lengthy podcast on a site dedicated to victims; aptly named The Victim. Bram’s detailed story, written while in self-exile out-of-country, is a confessional Word document that begins with a simple bout of road rage that is compounded by one bad decision after another, speeding toward an ending you never saw coming.

The drama is revealed like a cat’s cradle, weaving in misdirection and building intrigue. British writer, John Ruskin, aptly wrote: the essence of lying is in deception, not in words.

Anna, at times, comes across a little too goody two-shoes naive. But there is no doubt that she is caught in a vortex of evil not of her doing. Bram, unable to curb his base instincts, finds himself trapped between a rock and a hard place, spiraling out-of-control.

Other characters latch on to Anna and Bram like leeches pushing them to the edge; some with souls dark as the devil. How do you define a friend? How do you know friend from foe? How far would friendship go if betrayed?

Somewhere in all this miasma, love lives, despite divorce, albeit now reduced to a level of caring and compassion one would have for an old pet. Humming just beneath the surface are age-old moral codes serving as a balance beam between right and wrong. Who will find a way to stay on the beam; and who will fall victim to the “dark side”?

How would you handle a world turned upside down? Internalize it like Bram; suffocating under the weight of deception? Or project it outward like Anna; broadcasting her pain in attempt to find her way out of the black hole where her life disappeared?

Look for the book in August, 2018.  A good read.

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The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

I don’t understand, whispered Tilly.
How does God know which people are goats and which people are sheep?

I think that ‘s the trouble, Grace said,
it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.

 

THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP

by JOANNA CANNON

SCRIBNER | 2016
Hardcover: 353 pages
Genre: FICTION / COMING-OF-AGE / MYSTERY
Review Source: PERSONAL COPY

1st Published in UK in 2015

★★★☆☆

In the midst of an extraordinary heat wave enveloping England, ten-year-old Grace leans out her bedroom window hoping for a breath of cool early morning air and overhears a neighbor tell his wife, “Margaret Creasy never came home last night. Perhaps she finally buggered off.”

She stumbles downstairs for breakfast sharing the news and sets off a tremor that shakes the neighborhood’s complacency. Thus begins a tale about community secrets buried in the past that now begin to bubble up to the surface, one by one, in the blistering heat of that 1976 summer. The story’s lens never leaves a small middle class England neighborhood where it focuses on the ten or so homes tucked into the curl of a cul-de-sac.

What really happened in 1967? Who knows the truth? Has that nosy Mrs. Creasy figured things out? What has happened to her?

Our narrator is young Grace, a budding ten-year-old, teetering between adolescence and childhood. With her feet still glued in the world of friendships and games, she has begun to view life outside her home as something to explore and challenge.

After attending a local church service, where the Vicar lights a fire in her mind, Grace enlists the help of her best friend, Tilly to investigate Mrs. Creasy’s whereabouts and the reasons for her abrupt departure.  She knows what she must do to help. Assured by the vicar that the lost can be found when they find God, they set out to find God.

How do you stop people from disappearing?
You help them to find God.

How do you find God?
You just have to look.
And if we find God, everyone will be safe?
Of course.
You know that the Lord is our shepherd, Grace. We are just sheep. If we wander off the path, we need God to find us and bring us home.

Oblivious to the buzz in the adult stratosphere, Grace and Tilly set off on their myopic quest of finding God inside the various homes on the Avenue disguised as Brownie Scouts seeking a way “lend a hand”. Through their journey through the neighborhood we see things about each resident that the girls do not.  The rattled adults toss clues to the girls left and right that just fly over their heads, at first, but gradually, the more astute Grace begins to see discrepancies in the neighbors’ stories about Mrs. Creasy and others. They take their little investigation up a notch often to the consternation of everyone, at times jeopardizing their safety.

Those expecting this to end with some explosion of horror will be disappointed. This cozy mystery amuses at the same time offers insight into the dangers of discrimination, innuendo, malicious gossip and the potential for mob violence.  Layered at the girls’ level are lessons on friendship and the frailness of life. The lesson I learned, sometimes it is better to be a goat than a sheep.

I rated the book three stars but do note that it is a good read.  I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest this book to my friends. As a matter of fact, I had received an e-reader advance copy from Edelweiss a while back and forgot; then purchased my own copy that will now be available in my local library. I’ll leave you with my two favorite quotes:

People tend to believe things just because everyone else does. . .They don’t search for proof, they just search for approval from everyone else. [Walter]

I still hadn’t learned the power of words. How, once they left your mouth, they have a breath and life of their own. . . I hadn’t learned that, once you have let them go, the words can then, become the owner of you.” [Grace]

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Girl In Snow

GIRL IN SNOW

by DANYA KUKAFKA

Simon & Schuster | 2017
Hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN: 978-1501144370
Genre: Suspense
Review Source: ARC from S & S through Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

Tragedy struck in northern Colorado this morning, where the body of a fifteen-year-old girl was discovered on a [snowy] elementary school playground. The victim has been identified as Lucinda Hayes, a ninth-grade student at Jefferson High School.

Lucinda’s death and the subsequent three-day murder investigation sets forth a firestorm of memories, self-reflection and introspection through three primary protagonists and a host of secondary characters. The three main characters alternate chapters offering different perspectives on the murder and Lucinda’s brief life where Cameron and Russ are told in the third person and we hear directly from Jade.

Fifteen-year-old Cameron Whitley’s first thoughts after learning of Lucinda’s death were that “her shoulder blades framed her naked spine like a pair of static lungs”.  He spends his nights standing still in the dark outside homes watching his neighbors’ candid movements and activities. Lucinda Hayes is his primary interest and over time has become his compulsion. He began his nightly stalking after taking an art class and became curious to people’s lives in candid moments. The community is aware of Cameron’s habits and peculiar behavior; he was considered annoying and presumed as an innocent…until the murder. When stressed, Cameron devolves into a state he refers to as “tangled” and becomes erratic and performs dangerous actions like stealing his mother’s gun for a shooting spree in the woods.

Cameron had started playing Statue Nights when he was twelve years old. The summer after sixth grade, he realized he could pop out the screen in his bedroom window…

Seventeen-year-old Jade Dixon-Burns learned about Lucinda’s death over breakfast and “felt only a foreign lightness: like someone sucked the weight from her legs, taken the terrible thoughts out of her head, softened some sharpness jabbing at her ribs”.  Jade, seen as an outcast and oddball, hated the beautiful, popular and alluring Lucinda. Her hate centers on the fact that Lucinda, just by being attractive, is loved, valued, and appreciated.

We learn the most about Lucinda through Jade’s story. Jade displays a sarcastic and aloof side to the world but we see that she has great strength of character just below the surface. She lives with an abusive mother and sees herself as unlovable.  Her relief valve is her need to write scripts that help clarify her thoughts and feelings.

And she shares Cameron’s need to observe others…she is always aware and watching. She knows things about the murder. She is my favorite character.

Jade Dixon-Burns hates Lucinda. Lucinda took everything from Jade: her babysitting job, and her best friend. The worst part was Lucinda’s blissful ignorance to the damage she’d wrought.

Police Officer Russ Fletcher is stunned. Serving nearly 20 years on the force, this is his first body – his first murder victim. When Russ learns that Cameron is a suspect, he is flung back to an earlier time in his career when he patrolled with Lee Whitley, Cameron’s father, and a promise he made to his old partner to watch over his delicate son. Russ has his own secrets and when revealed, will leave you feeling sad for him.

Officer Russ Fletcher doesn’t know Lucinda, but he knows the kid everyone is talking about, the boy who may have killed her…Cameron Whitley.

Cameron, Jade and Russ lead us to others that play pivotal roles in their lives and we witness the reactions and suspicions of a small town rocked by violence; judgments are made about people and events based on our preconceived ideas and observations that can lead away from the truth.

As a final note, since we are dealing with budding adults with raging hormones, there’s strong references to sexual inquisitiveness and experiences.

In total, it is a complex and twisted story but well crafted. As a debut work, it has pulled together many elements of a true mystery with a flair to the dramatic. There are weak spots in the conclusion and the resolution of the crime but overall a worthy read.

I would definitely read another book by this author.

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AND THEN SHE WAS GONE: a detective jack stratton novel

and then she was gone cover.jpg

AND THEN SHE WAS GONE

by Christopher Greyson

Greyson Media | 2016blood-splatter4-md
Paperback: 328 pages
ISBN: 9781683990024
Genre: Murder Mystery
Prequel to Jack Stratton Series

#1 Girl Jacked
#2 Jack Knifed
#3 Jacks Are Wild
#4 Jack and The Giant Killer
#5 Data Jack

Review Source: ARC ebook from Netgalley and Greyson Media Associates in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★☆☆

Excerpt  From Publisher’s  Blurb….

A hometown hero with a heart of gold, Jack Stratton was raised in a whorehouse by his prostitute mother. Jack seemed destined to become another statistic, but now his life has taken a turn for the better. Determined to escape his past, he’s headed for a career in law enforcement. When his foster mother asks him to look into the girl’s disappearance, Jack quickly gets drawn into a baffling mystery. As Jack digs deeper, everyone becomes a suspect—including himself. Caught between the criminals and the cops, can Jack discover the truth in time to save the girl? Or will he become the next victim?

I am at a disadvantage beginning my exposure to the Jack Stratton mystery series with this prequel. Having said that, I did do a little scouting about the books and learned that Jack, as an adult, obviously achieved his dream of becoming an ace detective.  His path to detective, however, appears strewn with tragedy and emotional baggage that began in childhood and followed him into his future. And Then She Was Gone scours the character list of the other books and gives a back story to those playing integral roles in Jack’s life and career.

We meet Jack Statton shortly before his eighteen birthday. Jack and his best friend, Cameron, have decided to enlist in the military after graduation in order to become eligible for the GI bill. For Jack, the military will be used as a stepping stone toward becoming a police detective. Unfortunately, Jack can’t seem to remember to stay out of trouble. He is fixated on trying to solve the world’s problems and not heeding the advice of the adults in his life.

Like a bloodhound on a scent, Jack plunges recklessly after clues to a recent murder. Tasked by his foster mother in clearing one of her children as a suspect,  Jack gets in over his head and nearly derails the police investigation. He tramples crime scenes. confronts gang members in dark alleys, defies  authorities, ignores his parents advice…in other words…acts like any normal teenager. Immortal and invincible and always right.

My overall feeling started as confusion. Was the series aimed at a young adult audience? There was something in the dialogue that sounded forced. An author trying to make an adult character become a teenager but not quite getting there. The adults, including the police, the murderer and the victim felt like characters in a Charley Brown cartoon going waa waa waa in the background.  Additionally, the author tossed in the kitchen sink covering everything from prostitution to drugs; racial relations to adolescent hormonal overload; homelessness to bullying… a few less hot topics and deeper character and story development would have improved things.

It just seemed to lack that special magic that makes you flip the pages so fast you lose yourself in the story.  Just rated …okay.

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Dodgers: a novel

dodgers-cover

DODGblood-splatter4-mdERS

by Bill Beverly

gang-kids-sketched

Crown Publishing | Apr 2016
Hardcover: 304 pages
ISBN: 9781101903735
Fiction/Crime/Coming-of-Age

Review Source: ARC trade paperback from First To Read and Crown Publishers in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★ easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR

Morning dawns over a Los Angeles suburb known as the “Boxes”. As the early sunlight focuses on the front door of a local drug house, the night U[sers] begin to straggle out of the building. They pass the young street urchins hired as “watchers”. Their only job is to stay alert, awake, and ready to call in an alarm if they observe anything happening in the vicinity of the drug house that seems out of the ordinary. These small gangsters know their jobs and know the rules. Watch everything and everyone! Report anything suspicious or out of place immediately! To mess up was dangerous to their health if not their lives.12930883391149431275blood-scarlet-red-splash-md

As 15 year-old, East, lead watcher, stands guard in front of the building, he hears the sound of rapidly approaching vehicles just as his street scout’s radio squawks wordlessly. Something is wrong and there’s little time to warn anyone inside. Those able, scatter.  The police arrive and mercilessly destroy the house in a hail of bullets; killing an innocent neighborhood child in the melee.

Gang members in charge of the drug house gather for a face-to-face accounting with the drug lord and East’s uncle, Fin.

Fin sat waiting…When he spoke, it was with an ominous softness. What happened? After listening to a report from those inside the house he makes a decision to temporarily close all of his drug houses. Fin dismisses everyone to set that order in motion -except East.

Get up and lock that door. I don’t want nobody walking in on us, what happens next…You wonder what comes next?
There is something you might do for me. You can say yes or no. But its quiet. We won’t talk about it…You keep it till you die.

I want you to go on a drive. At the end of that drive, I want you to do something…murder a man.

East drew in his shoulder and carefully dried his mouth on it… I’m in.
I know you are, said Fin…then shook his head twice, a long shudder…

ramirez-99East’s companions on this delicate mission are his 14 year-old gun-crazed estranged half-brother, Ty, the 20 year-old happy go-lucky devil-may-care, rule flaunting, up-and-comer, Michael Wilson, and the mysterious “pumpkin-shaped” 17 year-old computer geek, Walter. This motley crew of land pirates was hand selected by Fin and as they stand around awaiting their travel orders, it is obvious from the get-go that there is no love lost among the group.

As Ty, Michael, and Walter grouse about giving up their weapons, cell phones and bank cards and receiving new identities, East stands alone processing why he was made part of this group. The group has been told to “blend in”.  Do nothing that would draw attention to themselves and the mission. Stay below the radar at all times. They are “family” headed to a family reunion in Wisconsin dressed in clearance rack Dodger baseball t-shirts.

In [East’s] mind he was boiling it down: Drive the roads. Meet up for guns. But there was nothing to see. Only these boys. Kill a man? More like keep them from killing each other, these three boys, for two thousand miles in this ugly van. That was what they’d brought him in for…

When all you know is the city, “The Boxes” – When you haven’t seen, let alone spoken to more than a handful of whites in your life and suddenly you stand out like black beans in white rice – When you are suspicious of every strange glance or conversation – When you have lived a life where you face danger 24/7…What could possibly go wrong? Answer- Everything.

Reviewer’s Thoughts

Some books are just hard to know where to put your finger on what’s holding you back from expressing your thoughts and Dodgers fits that bill this time around.  The book opens in a housing project where scared little boys find themselves “boxed” into a life determined for them in advance. We meet East and learn straight off that in a world with little hope for the future, East is an oddball out.

East blended in, didn’t talk much…but he watched and listened to people. What he heard he remembered. Unlike the [other boys], East slept alone, somewhere no one knew. He was no fun, and they respected him, for though he was young, he had none in him of what they most hated in themselves: their childishness. He had never been a child. Not that they had seen.

Throughout the cross-country trip to Wisconsin, East stands out as different. Although known for his observation skills, East doesn’t seem to grasp the reason that the other passengers in the car resent him and the mission. Not going to toss a spoiler with more information.

Testosterone and tensions build in the van. In the end, the group fractures. East finds himself alone, freezing, in the middle of a country as foreign to him as the moon.  With little life experience, East doesn’t expect the world to give him a chance, so when he finds a job at a paintball store, he is satisfied to have a cardboard box mat in a warm building at night. He, again, fails to understand that he is entitled to so much more in life. Although East clearly has a criminal history, there is a part of his soul that is good. I ached for him and hoped that he would learn that he was free to grow and step outside the confines of his past life.

The good stuff? Watching East as he sees the beauty of America first hand.  The author, in this debut work, has the American landscape so vividly described, you feel the depressed small villages, the heat in the desert, and the night sky giving way to dawn.

All East’s life the mountains had been a jagged base for the northern sky…He’d never seen them broken into what they were, single peaks dotted with plant scrub and rock litter, and the open distances between.  He couldn’t stop looking…

The suspense and tension rises and falls in the story pulling the reader along. At times it bogs down, but it kept my attention. The violent scenes are tough and real.

One final observation. Boxes. Time and time again, East finds that no matter where you are in this world, people find themselves boxed by life. And he learns that no matter how far you try to outrun your past, it can find you.

Good reading and a good first book. I certainly look forward to future works by this author.

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Himself


himself-cover

HIMSELF : a novel

by Jess Kidd4-leaf-clover

Atria Books |US edition 2017
Hardcover: 384 pages
ISBN:978-1501145179
Genre: Fiction/Irish Mystery

ARC ebook from Netgalley in exchange
for an unbiased review.

★★★easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR

 “So what brought you here?”abandoned-irish-cottage
I wanted a bit of peace and quiet.
Do you know on the map there’s nothing at all around you?
“It’s the arse end of beyond you’re after then?”
Mahony looks thoughtful.
Do you know? I think it is.

“Well, you found it.”

Hang on to the book tightly. Orla Sweeney’s murder in the prologue will tear your heart out. In May of 1950, an Irish teenage mother from the tiny village of Mulderrig, anxiously waits in the woods for the father of her newborn son to arrive. She hopes to obtain emotional and financial support but when he arrives, she receives a death sentence.

His first blow: the girl made no noise, her dark eyes widened. She reeled a little as she bent and put the baby down. The man stood waiting…when she was still…he wrapped her in sackcloth…He laid her in a well-made grave…He remembered that he must also claim their child or his work would not be done. [While he had dispatched the mother] the forest had hidden the infant. Great ferns had unfurled all around the child, tree roots had surrounded him, and ivy had sprung up to cloak him..[s]o that…he could not find the child, however hard he searched.

The child was discovered in the woods and someone from the village mysteriously drove to Dublin, placing him at the front door of the St. Anthony Orphanage cocooned in a basket like baby Moses. His life at St. Anthony’s was smeared by the stigma of his illegitimate birth. Sister Veronica, the bane of his existence, made sure he realized that he was a stain on humanity. He was given the name of Mahony.

There was one ray of sunshine in his life – Sister Mary Margaret. This kindly nun confided to him the true nature of his arrival including the fact that there was a letter with him in the basket; a fact that Sister Veronica rebuked. Sadly, Sister Mary Margaret died when he was 7.  When she appeared before him holding her deadly cancerous tumor in her hands, he would forever have one foot in the world of the living and the dead. This ability to see the dead as they go about their non-corporeal lives plays an important part in Mahony’s life.

Mahony, now 26 years old, is seated at a Dublin pub knocking back a pint when he is approached by a local priest. Sister Veronica has died and a letter in her possession is addressed to Mahoney. “For when the child is grown.” 

Inside the envelope was a picture of a girl with a half-smile holding a blurred bundle, high and awkwardly, like found treasure

Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself with her. For your information she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.

Pocketing the letter, Mahony heads to Mulderrig to learn what happened to his mother. What made her the curse of the town? Where did they take her?  Who brought him to the Dublin orphanage? Who is this ally that warns him about the town?

When the local bus pulls up to a stop in the sleepy-eyed stillness of Mulderrig, its lone passenger, a rakishly handsome Mahony, steps down from the past to turn Mulderrig upside down. His search will shake out long buried secrets, bring threats on his life and endanger those helping him to uncover the truth. Mahony’s complicated search is alternated with a third-person narrator giving the reader Orla Sweeney’s short life story. We learn things that Mahony/Francis will never know.

Prominent characters include – the town constable, Sergeant Jack Brophy, a “strong square wall of a man…[who has a soothing affect] on the mad, the bad and the imaginative…whether off duty or on” – Tadhg Kerrigan, owner of Kerrigan’s pub, the first to greet Mahony and the first to suspect that his visit has something to do with Orla Sweeney – Mrs. Cauley, “an aging actress and brash anarchist” who arrived at the local inn, the Rathmore House, over 20 years ago and never left.  She spends her final days harassing the local denizens, and Father Quinn, the local corrupt priest, in particular. She bonds with Mahony and they begin a systematic investigation to determine who was his father! And who was responsible for Orla’s fate.

My favorite character is Mrs. Cauley. She holds her head high despite rapidly declining health and failing looks. There’s a fiery spirit inside the broken body that refuses to give up. She seems to have some paranormal powers. Although she can’t see the spirits, she can sense their presence. She lives to twist the knickers on all the hypocritical and devious residents responsible for making Orla’s life so miserable and turned their backs on her in her time of need.

And as we have seen earlier, the spirits long dead float around Mahony, day and night, like long strands of gossamer. Some engage him directly and others just take up space in the story. There’s Miss Mulhearne, “a picture of respectable Irish womanhood” haunting her old school room and is surprised when she realizes that Mahony can see her.  When he learns that she misses what she remembers as poetry, he finds time to join her in the closet and read some to her.  Father Jim, the town’s priest and  a sympathetic friend of Orla Sweeney, died mysteriously, and now haunts Mrs. Cauley’s commode.  And perhaps the most important spirit, the little girl named Ida who witnessed Orla’s burial and was killed as she fled. Her appearances to Mahony provide clues to his mother’s demise.

Lest I have given the impression that the story is leprechauns and scatter brained ghosts, the author has created a malevolent atmosphere throughout the book and there are several scenes of violence and brutality. Woman’s rights advocates will gnash their teeth. Life was pretty rough for women in the 1970s. I know.  I was there. But women in this little village suffered a religion and moral backlash that was horrible.

Jess Kidd, as a debut author, has undoubtedly a highly developed creative mind.  The story is stuffed with unique characters both living and dead. I can’t shake the image of Mrs. Cauley’s ghostly suitor “drop[ping] his underwear and hopscotch[ing] down the garden path, his bare arse winking in the early morning light.

Without question Kidd knows County Mayo intimately and her writing style lifts the Irish brogue off the page. When Mahony first walks into Kerrigan’s pub, Tadhg greets him with “All right so?” And Mahony answers, “I’m grand.”  She’s a “right eejit altogether.” A word of warning to the delicate, words that are most certainly profane in our culture are natural part of local discourse. Their favorite adjective is f***. Here’s a tamer use of that word with a twist. When Mahony asks the ghostly seven year-old Ida her name, she responds with “how the feck should I know?”

There’s something wobbly about the way the story is crafted. The story feels forced or directed by the author, not dictated by the characters. At times, strangely placed vignettes intrude into an important story line. In one instance, Mahony learns important facts about his mother and while fleshing out the details, the author has Johnnie, Mrs. Cauley’s ghostly womanizer, sitting naked next to him. That was strange enough but the author then has Johnnie stands and “saunters to the nearby flower bed scratching his flute“. The juxtaposition of Johnnies’ itchy flute and Orla’s murdered body was downright weird.

All said, I enjoyed the book. It was grand!  Hopefully future works will reduce the number of side stories and useless characters concentrating on deeper coverage of the prime themes. Looking forward to the next book.

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My Girl

my-girl-cover

My Girl

Author | Jack Jordan
JJP | 2016
Paperback: 226 pages
ISBN: 1532815387
Fiction / Suspense

Source: ARC e-book via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

★★☆☆☆scared-woman

I’m not going mad. Someone is taunting me.
I’m not doing this. I would remember.
I’m not losing my mind.

Paige Dawson’s life has spiraled out-of-control. Preferring to drown her grief and hide from reality, Paige has relinquished her self-respect and dignity to remain in a drug laden and alcohol stupor.

For the first few seconds after she woke, Paige Dawson lived in a world where her husband Ryan was snoring lightly beside her, and her daughter Chloe was sleeping peacefully in the next room. When reality slowly trickled in…[she] reached in the dark [for] the tray of tablets…and picked up the half-empty wine bottle and took a swig.

Ten years ago, her only daughter, Chloe, 14 at the time of her abduction, was murdered savagely. After an exhaustive search, Chloe’s dismembered arm was found frozen in a nearby river, fingertips reaching to the sky for recognition. Her husband, Ryan, had tried to rescue Paige from her despair but at some point lost his own will to live. Two months ago, he slashed his wrists in the bathtub forever scarring what was left of Paige’s sanity with the image of his lifeless body.

Ryan’s mother, Paige’s father and her cleric brother, Maxim offer support and counsel but nothing seems to stop her from her self-destructive path. Her repeated social misconduct during her blackouts only further alienates her from help when she begins to question strange encounters and disturbances in her home.  No one believes her when she reports someone has been in her house and removed items, cut her husband’s face out of every photo album, and cleared her daughter’s room of memorabilia.

As the story gains steam, I was ready for intrigue and some intense suspense. But it wasn’t long before I felt like I was in a train wreck that just wouldn’t end. Wild and crazy things happened that showed great imagination but they seemed to come out of no-where. One twist caught me by surprise but after the shock of discovery, I was disappointed that we weren’t given background on the reason for the character’s behavior.

The author has great potential and unquestioningly has writing talent. Hopefully, as his literary career matures, he will better develop his characters lives and avoid repetitive actions intended to create suspense but serve only to dull the story. Keep writing, Jack Jordan. I will look for your next book to see where you have strengthened your focus. You’ve got what it takes, kiddo. Keep trying.

Jack Jordan is the bestselling British author of two novels: Anything for Her (2015) and My Girl (2016). He describes himself as introvert disguised as an extrovert, an intelligent person who can say very unintelligent things, and a jack-jordan-authorself-confessed bibliomaniac with more books than sense.

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Night Watch

night-watch-cover

NIGHT WATCH

 by Iris and Roy Johansenblood-splatter4-md

St. Martin’s Press 2016
Hardcover: 352 pgs
978-1250075970
Kendra Michaels #4


★★★☆☆

 

ARC e-book from publisher via edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

genre-mystery

format_quoteAbduction?…I have to let them find me…If I can’t talk you out of this, I’m going to go over possibilities you might fact in captivity…I learned a lot while I was being held by the Taliban…Kendra sat down opposite her at the table. I’m listening…

Iris Johansen started her literary career with straight up romance fiction evolving into the historical romance vein; I am allergic to the romance genre so I avoid them preferring something more rough and tumble. When I read the synopsis of Night Watch, I learned Johansen had turned her talents to crime fiction. I was happy to receive an advanced reader e-book from the publisher via Edelweiss so I could preview this genre change for myself.

Night Watch is the fourth book in the Kendra Michaels series and I was concerned it would leave me at a disadvantage in Kendra’s back history. It turns out this newest book has flashbacks, including details about Kendra’s blindness and the miracle experimental surgery that restored her sight, that makes this book a stand alone work. During her sightless years, Kendra developed extraordinary abilities of smell and hearing. Born with an insatiable curiosity, she uses the miracle of sight along with her overly developed senses to see the world more intimately and acutely than Sherlock Holmes. Her observational and cognitive skills are often used by law enforcement in crime scene investigations.

This newest mystery centers on the disappearance of the doctor that restored the teenage Kendra’s vision. Kendra, ever grateful and loyal to a fault, makes the search for the missing doctor her life’s mission.  As the story picks up steam some very quirky characters including a young former military female private investigator and a sexy and wealthy former FBI agent help her in the search. The obligatory bad guys are really bad and you just know they are going to get their comeuppance in the end.

The first half of the story was kind of ho-hum to me but when things did start to develop I couldn’t put the book down.  Yet in the end, I am not sure I liked Kendra. I couldn’t see what the playboy FBI agent saw in her to make him fly around the world to help her. Just because something is fictional and suspends belief doesn’t mean they have to come across like Flat Stanley; they could have a little more character development.

It was a comfortable read on a night where I needed a quick read that didn’t strain the brain. I will admit that I read well past my bedtime to finish it.  So I guess in the end I would recommend it as a place filler between a heavy non-fiction and your next epic novel.

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The Sunlight Pilgrims

Sunlight PilgrimsThe Sunlight Pilgrims

by Jenni Fagan

Hogarth/Crown | 2016
Hardcover: 288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-553-41887-3
Genre: Fiction/Survivalism/Dystopias

ARC Hardcover from Blogging for Books and E-copy from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★☆

format_quoteThere are three suns in the sky and it is the last day of autumn-perhaps forever…Parhelia...Some say it is the end of times…Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself… Penitents. B-blizzardmaninsnow.jpglin’-drift. Owerblaw…Snowflakes cartwheel out of the sky……..

Sunlight Pilgrims-
Prologue

The melting of the polar ice has reached its most extreme. Worldwide temperatures are plummeting rapidly. Winter has arrived early and getting worse every day without any uptick. Experts say it might never leave. Temperatures dropping as winter advances -15°F… -30°F … -70°F. Sea water contaminated with fresh water and frozen as far from shore as can be seen with the naked eye. Snowfall depths are unprecedented worldwide. Many believe a new Ice Age has begun.

A setting this catastrophic would seem to be the focal point of the story when in reality it is only the set dressing; choosing to focus instead on the minutia of humanity and three individuals specifically amid the uncertain future of the planet.

quoteDylan McRae, 38, mourns the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother. If his heavy grief wasn’t burden enough, he learns their home and source of family income, an old London movie theater named Babylon, has gone into bankruptcy. His mother’s will contained surprising news of a caravan he now owns in a small Scottish caravan park in the middle of God knows where.  She asked that he spread both women’s ashes in a remote Scottish village, his grandmother’s birth place. Gathering up what belongings he could fit into his mother’s old suitcase including Grandmother Gunn in an ice cream container and Mum in a sandwich box he heads north facing the rapidly approaching deep winter. His plans are to sell the caravan after fulfilling his mother’s last request and head back south to some where warm like Vietnam or Cambodia.

Upon arriving at caravan #7 on Ash Lane he briefly spots a young girl in the window next door. Later in the night he is awakened to a strange noise and discovers a sleepwalking woman hoovering up the street before entering the caravan next door. Reentering the street with a dust-cloth she reaches up and polishes the moon.

The young girl next door is 12 year old Stella Fairbairn. Precocious, bold, foul mouthed and outspoken, Stella arrives on his doorstep to quiz Dylan about his arrival and relationship to the last visitor to that caravan; Vivienne- his mother. Stella has been a girl for the past thirteen months.  Previously she was a boy named Cael. Stella has always felt she was a girl. No doubts. She is bullied at school and obsessed about the changes puberty will bring locking her inside a male body forever.

Constance Fairbairn, Stella’s mother and the moon polisher, is a free spirit and a survivalist answering to no one.  Stella believes she knows just about everything and should go back to teaching. Was she a teacher? We don’t learn if she was but she does have a great deal of trivial knowledge. Constance earns her living removing furniture from the homes of the dead and scouring the town dump for items to be re-purposed.  Her life style and romantic choices have made her the central focus of town gossip primarily for maintaining two on-going and simultaneous 20 year affairs… the result of which yielded young Stella…or as her father prefers Cael.

Constance’s story is more obscure as she has pretty much found her own voice and is happy with her life. We learn what we know about her past from the conversations between Dylan, Stella and other minor (but very interesting) characters. Dylan finds a sketch book left by his mother and discovers family secrets that shake his world and the reason his mother bought that particular caravan. Stella begins to shed false friends unable to support her transgender status at the same time yearns for love and acceptance often daydreaming of a normal life as a wife and mother.

As Dylan, Constance and Stella’s lives are revealed in the light of day, winter shrinks their days and threatens their very survival. When they venture outside, we learn that amidst the approaching apocalypse there is sublime beauty only nature can provide.

Thoughts

  • Transgender coverage was very real and will perhaps give many readers a different perspective and hopefully more compassion and empathy. For me personally, I guess I never realized how brave and courageous someone would have to be to present themselves openly and honestly to the world.
  • Grief has no time limits. Dylan’s story dragged on and on just as it does in real life often stressing friendships and relationships.
  • Love.  Many unique perspectives of love.
  • Survival. Are any of us ready to face a new Ice Age. How would you behave trying to feed your family or keep them warm temperatures at -70°F and with over 10 feet of snow trapped.  The world is trapped. Would you survive?

In the end I was glad that I had done some research on the book before I read it.  It helped to know that the pace of the book would be very slow. As I expected in a true tragic situation, simple life goes on amid life altering outside influences.

Recommended.

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The Never-Open Desert Diner

Never-Open-Desert Diner3

The Never-Open Desert Diner

by James Anderson

(originally published by Caravel Books in 2015)

Crown | March 2016
Paperback: 304 pages (978–1-101-90652-1)
Genre: Fiction/Utah/

ARC: Blogging for Books in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★☆

desert road polaroidThe highway ahead lolled in sunlight.

rte 117It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it.

Ben Jones
Ben’s Desert Moon Delivery Service

This gem has been sitting on my to-read shelf and from the minute I opened the cover and read the first few pages I couldn’t stop reading.

Ben Jones, a 38-year old independent truck driver, is our narrator and he begins his story on the road from the cab of his sixteen wheeler. Ben’s delivery route is on Hwy 117, a remote 100 mile stretch of high desert that dead-ends against a mesa just outside of an old coal mining town. Like the road itself, the inhabitants of Hwy 117 have dead-ended there by choice burrowing into a solitary existence with no desire for interference or contact with the outside world. Like a high-stakes poker game they keep the reasons they are there to themselves and repel interference from the barrel end of a gun.

I knew everyone of them, though the sum total of every word ever exchanged between us might not equal what could be squeezed on the back of a drugstore postcard…Conversation in the high desert was parceled out like water and often with less enthusiasm, each drop cherished for the life it represented.

There’s the side characters that make you smile at there comments and cringe at their lives.  Meet John the Preach and owner of the True Value and the First Church of the Desert Cross. Spring through fall, John walks up and down Hwy 117 carrying a heavy 10 foot tall wooden cross. There’s the Lacey brothers, Fergus and Duncan, living in two sand-scoured red railroad boxcars mysteriously set in the desert sand. There’s the pregnant homeless teenage waitress, Ginny, determined to dig herself out of an undeserved tragic life.

Ben’s life is no less isolated than the misfits, lonely cattle ranchers and hermits on Hwy 117; the only difference is his life is on wheels and the others hide in the sagebrush and gullies. Abandoned on an Indian Reservation wrapped in an old red Indian blanket, shuffled through foster homes until finally adopted by an elderly couple. The search for his birth parents ended on the porch of the health clinic when a former nurses aide remembered seeing a young Jewish social worker from a local mental health facility there the morning he was found.  Being a Jewish Indian lent to a lonely and bullied life growing up. A brief rough patch with alcohol and violence led him to the desert to escape further digression into a wasted life.

Finding his calling on Hwy 117 as friend and trucker made him happier than any other time in his life. Sadly, his life on the road is threatened as so many of his customers owe him money that he now faces the loss of his truck through bankruptcy. As he stresses over his money woes, Ben’s personal life changes overnight with a discovery and an unexpected chance at true love.

We ride shotgun with Ben and our first stop is a delivery behind the Oasis Diner, long closed and now known to locals as the Never-Open Desert Diner. Young Walt and Bernice Butterfield ran a very successful diner right up until the day Walt was away and Bernice was assaulted by four men. Bernice never recovered from the assault and spent her days sitting at the same table in the corner staring into the distance at her lost future.  After Bernice died Walt closed the diner to the public but keeps it alive inside and out- spit polished and shiny. Walt, now 79 years-old is still strong and sturdy. Known for his take-no-prisoners attitude, violent temper and his sledge hammer fists solution to perceived slights now spends his days in a Quonset hut with his vast motorcycle collection. Walt figures prominently in Ben’s story.

Stopping to relieve himself along the highway, Ben discovers an old road he has never spotted before. Seeking privacy he wanders down the road to discover one abandoned house in a maze of lots and roads from an undeveloped housing project. He wanders over and relieves himself on the house as he peers curiously into a window. A woman’s face is peering out at him startling him.  He makes a hasty retreat.

Unable to forget her face, Ben chances a second visit to the abandoned house to find the woman and apologize for watering her wall. Peering in a window to see if she is still there, Ben spots a naked Claire Tichnor playing a stringless and bowless cello with intense concentration. This time he is greeted on the porch by a gun barrel and snarl. Over time these two form a complicated love relationship. Clair is hiding from her husband and harbors a dark secret.

Mysterious encounters with strangers befall Ben that ultimately involve Clair and Walt Butterfield and lead Ben into potential legal trouble with the local police. And along the way, Ben takes his sixteen wheeler into areas of rough desert that no truck has gone before.

My thoughts
I was surprised to learn the book was highly praised in major review sources such as the Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Review when it first appeared in 2015 but received tepid marketing by the original publisher.  Crown Publishing has given it a second chance at success in 2016 .

Some book reviews from sources such as Goodreads.com have disliked the stark style of writing reminiscent of Robert Parker’s character Spenser. Personally I loved it. It felt true to the desert setting. In a land of dry sand and blistering heat you wouldn’t want to waste your breath trying to explain yourself.

The prose was so well done that I felt I could taste the blowing sand and feel the scorching sun blinding me.  The heavy rains and flooding arroyos reminded me vividly of my flooded home in west Texas years ago.

In conclusion, I would recommend the book highly.  I’ll leave you with part of the author’s dedication.  If you like the following authors grab a copy of this book for your next vacation or business trip.

Dedicated in memoriam to the following authors for creating characters who became some of the best friends I’ve ever had, real or imaginary:

John D. MacDonald for Travis McGee
Robert B. Parker for Spenser
Stephen J. Cannell for James Rockford.

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