Tough going in the Big Easy

It’s always a happy occasion when Bob Moyer returns from one of his journeys ready to tell us about the books he’s been reading.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DOING THE DEVIL’S WORK. By Bill Loehfelm. Farrar Straus Giroux. 308 pages. $26.

In his excellent police procedural series set in New Orleans, Bill Loehfelm pours into his narrative all he has soaked up while living there. He has a sharp eye, and sharper pen, for all the detail that makes New Orleans — well, New Orleans. From dicey uptown neighborhoods, hear “…the whine of an ambulance headed down Napoleon Avenue, the imitative howl of a dog in a nearby yard, the long, deep note from a ship on the river.”  Down on Frenchmen Street, “the dusky crown of an oddball neighborhood called the Marign. … Fedora-topped hipster poets smoking hand-rolled cigarettes perched typewriters on folding cocktail tables, scratching their beards and tapping out poetry on demand, hoping for enough in cash donations to cover their next round.”  With a splash of sound here, a splatter of color there, he does New Orleans as well as anyone writing today.

He doesn’t just know New Orleans, however; he knows how to use it. In his hands, the Crescent City becomes more than a setting. It becomes a major character that carries on a vibrant relationship with his cast of players, bringing out their best and worst, their hopes and dreams, and of course, their darkest secrets.

Sometimes, the dialogue helps the reader size up someone, like his hero, Maureen Coughlin. When she stops for a moment on a call, she calculates her chances in relation to “…the fifty people, most of them men, drunk, high, some them armed, between her and the corner. She was a cop … but she was also five-four and 120 pounds. Outnumbered and outgunned.”  When she stops at a local diner, the St. Charles Tavern that “…smelled of old kitchen grease, moldy air-conditioning, and cheap ketchup,” we get more than just atmosphere, we get an insight into Maureen herself:  The Tavern “…served their coffee the way she liked it, old and burned. Or as she liked to tell her coworkers, hot, black and bitter like her heart.”

A displaced Yankee, Maureen has a tough time adapting to the corrupt cop culture of the sleazy Big Easy post-Katrina. Quick to anger, slow to catch on, she finds herself constantly in situations she can’t talk about, and conversations she can’t tell anyone about. Loehfelm’s dialogue has the tension of real cops talking, not characters served up to act out a story. For Maureen, there’s no black and white, just hundreds of shades of gray.

In this third installment, she’s still tracking the murderer from the second book when she stumbles into a complicated plot that carries her from street people to uptown posh parties to a Mississippi militia. She gets so caught up that both a criminal and a possible informant accuse her of Doing The Devil’s Work. Although she has a strong moral compass, some of her other parts need repair. By the time she ends up waist deep in the Mississippi, she has sunk even deeper into the corruption of the local culture. Perhaps Loehfelm will let her take the detective’s test so she can pull herself out of the muck in the next installment.

 

 

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Who will be the next prey?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson.

GATHERING PREY. By John Sandford. Read by Richard Ferrone. Penguin Audio. 9 CDs, 11 hours. $40. Also available in hardcover from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

When a novelist has a long-running successful series, as John Sandford certainly does with his ‘Prey” thrillers starring Lucas Davenport, fans know what to expect. Some books will please various fans more than others. I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the right word for my experience with this one, but I certainly was caught up in the audio version of it, to the point of taking the long way home when I was at one of the many suspenseful passages.

“Gathering Prey,” the 25th book in the series, offers much of what readers have come to expect from Sandford. We’re back in Minnesota, at least for a while, where Lucas works for the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension out of the St. Paul office.

Lucas is an intelligent, thoughtful person who works because he mostly enjoys the challenges and thinks he’s doing something worthwhile at least some of the time, not because he needs the money, which he definitely does not. He’s also a family man, with a wife who’s a surgeon, a couple of young children and an adopted daughter, Letty, who’s had a mind of her own and a stubborn streak even before she got old enough to head off to college at Stanford.

It’s in California, where Letty is about to wind up her freshman year, that the action starts. She befriends a couple of “Travelers” –young people who roam the country with their belongings in backpacks, hitching rides here and there, working long enough to earn money to buy food and get to the next place, maybe smoking a little marijuana but not doing anything really bad. Letty gives the girl, Skye, her contact information, but she’s surprised when she does hear from her after she’s back home in Minnesota. Skye is in South Dakota, alone and frightened; the gentle young man she traveled with has disappeared, and she’s been told he was murdered in a particularly gruesome way by a group led by a man called Pilate, a man she already had thought of as the devil.

Letty helps Skye get to the Twin Cities, and Lucas volunteers to go along when she meets with her, partly because he suspects Skye is taking advantage of his daughter’s generosity. He’s heard these sorts of stories before.

The more they hear, however, the more Lucas begins to believe that there’s truth in Skye’s story. When he, and at first, Letty, try to find out what happened to her companion, they gain insight into the terrible world of Pilate and his followers. These people roam the country, often crossing paths with Travelers and often showing up at gatherings of Juggalos, fans of the band Insane Clown Posse, who gather for festivals at various locations.

Pilate’s group, however, is into more serious drugs, crime and abuse of women than are the gentler souls they mingle with – including murder for the thrill of it. Think Manson family, only several times worse. Lucas’s quest takes him from Minnesota into Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

That quest also gives rise to some elements of this book that might not please some long-time fans. Sandford never minces words about the crimes Lucas is investigating, and Lucas has certainly dealt with some horrific events before, but there’s a lot of violence in this story, and some of it is difficult to read about or listen to.  And the need to track the group as it moves from state to state means that Lucas doesn’t have as much time as he sometimes does to get to know the local people and authorities he’s dealing with.

I thought the book was good, gripping, worth reading to the end. Besides as much action and suspense as anyone could want, it offers insights into a part of American life most of us are only vaguely aware of, if at all. This 25th novel also marks the emergence of Letty as a more important character, which promises interesting stories to come. And it moves Lucas to a watershed moment in his career. Stay tuned.

Richard Ferrone does a fine, Lucas-worthy, matter-of-fact job of reading the story, which needs no embellishment.

 

 

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Great achievement, great story

Paul O’Connor takes a look at a new book from a master storyteller about the brothers whose genius transformed the world in 1903.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS. By David McCullough. Audible.com. Read by the author. 10 hours, 2 minutes. $17. Also available in hardback from Simon & Schuster. 336 pages. $30.

Speaking in Raleigh in May, author David McCullough said he doesn’t consider himself a historian, an odd statement from someone who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards for historical books. No, the author said, he’s a storyteller, more a journalist than an expert.

Over the past 40 years or so, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who could lay better claim than McCullough to being America’s storyteller. He’s written 11 highly acclaimed and entertaining books that ranged in topic from the Johnstown flood (his first, in 1968), the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, to the lives of three presidents.

It was McCullough who narrated Ken Burns’ fabulous Civil War and, for many years, The American Experience on PBS.

His latest book, The Wright Brothers, perfectly fits his self-appraisal. He tells us a great story.

Not being a Wright Brothers expert, I can’t say whether McCullough brings any new information to aviation scholarship. But, he presents the story of their lives, challenges and achievements so compellingly that it will have even those with a fear of flying turning the pages or staying tuned to the audiobook.

Wilbur and Orville Wright shine in history for two major reasons: their genius and their integrity.

The genius is often dismissed or diminished in the frequent references to their being bicycle mechanics. That’s like describing Abe Lincoln as a country lawyer. The two were self-taught engineers of the highest caliber, men with a deep understanding of math and physics. Wilbur was a true Renaissance man and Orville made essential avionic discoveries. Both were excellent writers.

These were not two men who tinkered with already discovered knowledge, correctly applying what others had calculated first. To the contrary, the key differences between the successful Wright flyers and the failed air machines of contemporary engineers were the direct result of knowledge that the Wrights discovered in their study of birds and physics.

The second overriding theme of McCullough’s book is the integrity and modesty of these two sons of a preacher. They sought no attention for themselves, did not allow world fame to seduce them and were the straightest of arrows. Add to that a resolve to succeed that lifted them out of the Kitty Hawk sands time and time again after failure, and we see two men who epitomize much of America’s self-perception as exceptional.

This is not necessarily a book for an engineer. McCullough does not allow the technical aspects of the Wright accomplishments to clog the story’s flow. The author, in very understandable terms, provides us just enough to grasp the challenge and the solution to each of these hurdles.

The author reads the book, and no one has ever been more blessed to narrate American stories than McCullough. But in this audiobook, I am so sad to say, the effects of his age – 81 – show. It’s not that it diminishes the storytelling. It’s that it does not rise to the great beauty we had enjoyed in so many other of his narrations.

At just over 10 hours, this was a perfect listen for my latest long summer ride. It’s prompted me to download a few of his older books, ones I had not read, for future listening.

  •  Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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The real Reagan

Paul O’Connor has tackled an exhaustive (and exhausting?)  but worthwhile new biography of Ronald Reagan.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

 REAGAN: THE LIFE. By H.W. Brands. Penguin Random House Audio. Read by Stephen Hoye. 32 hours. $60. Also available in hardcover from Doubleday. 737 pages. $60.

My mother really liked Ronald Reagan. She considered him handsome, charming, witty and clever, and she even liked a few of his movies and TV shows.

But, to the best of my knowledge, she never voted for him.

She recognized the difference between Ronald Reagan the persona and Ronald Reagan the politician, and she understood that the politician didn’t have her interests at heart.

With Reagan seen as the patron saint of an increasingly radical Republican Party and his name being raised in political arguments even by Democrats, H.W. Brands’ new, comprehensive and straightforward biography could help the American public understand the several sides of the late president.

If only they’d read or listen to it.

The biography, like most, is a monster, 737 pages or 32 hours, and even Stephen Hoye’s excellent audio book narration doesn’t relieve one from the sense that “I’ve been at this forever.” And today’s readers, who often choose the news medium that reflects their own ideologies, might be disappointed that Brands does not interject himself, providing a factual narration until the very end. And even then, he finds both success and failure, good and bad, in Reagan.

To my view, this is an important book today because it substantiates what the non-compromising Tea Party politicians overlook about their saint: Reagan was a practical politician. He compromised often, regularly saying he’d take an 80 percent victory and later try to get the 20 percent he bargained away.

He may be considered the father or uncle of modern American conservatism, but his record, if shown without his name attached, would appall many on the right today.

Reagan supported legislation as California governor to liberalize state abortion law. As an ex-president, he endorsed the Brady handgun bill. During his presidency, he agreed to several tax increases, approved of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, negotiated with terrorists and headed a government during which the national debt grew out of control and spending increased significantly.

From the left these days, we occasionally hear references to that Reagan practicality, almost as if they miss the Gipper. For those, the book offers a number of reminders of the reason the left so despised Reagan. The extent of his vitriol towards 1960s demonstrators against the Vietnam War, or for civil rights or women’s rights is shocking. His predictions of social doom and of dominoes falling internationally all proved baseless.

A decade after his death, the public holds several other incorrect perceptions of Reagan. No, he didn’t have a warm relationship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill. He found him insufferable. No, he wasn’t a lightweight and figurehead. Reagan read a great deal, studied his topics and was generally knowledgeable. But he wasn’t a detail person. He saw the big picture and left the details for others to work out. Turns out there was some truth to the great Saturday Night Live skit, Mastermind.

In the most compelling segment of the book, that dealing with strategic arms limitation negotiations, Reagan comes off very well. He studied the Soviet system, the lives and politics of his negotiating partners and, then, in the negotiation room, he led the discussions.

Brands’ accounting of Iran/Contra certainly lends credence to those who felt Reagan willfully avoided knowing what Oliver North and John Poindexter were doing.

Reagan embodied a number of contradictions: A deeply religious man who didn’t go to church, a hard-right politician determined to dismantle the social welfare state who admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an advocate of family values who had serious shortcomings as a father.

Finally, Brands tells us, Reagan “was not a warm person but he seemed to be.” All of that gosh-darn friendliness was just a cover for a man who had trouble expressing a full range of emotions and fear of letting others get too close.

Many Reagan acolytes will read this book as preparation for his canonization. Others will hope it damns him. It does neither. It’s a fair and engrossing accounting, good and bad.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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Just in time for the movie

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I’m hearing good things about the new movie version of Far From the Madding Crowd, and I hope to see it sometime.

But before seeing a movie adaptation of a classic novel, I wanted to read the novel. Despite having been an English major, I’d never read this book.

Fortunately, Random House Audio has produced a new, unabridged audio version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel. Whether you see the movie or not, I recommend the experience of listening to an expert dramatic reading of the story the way the author wrote it.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. By Thomas Hardy. Read by Nicholas Guy Smith. Random House Audio. 12 CDs; 15 ½ hours. $35. Also available in print from Vintage.

Bathsheba Everdene is beautiful, passionate, headstrong, vain, independent – and young and naive. Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy’s first literary success, is, in part, the story of the events triggered by that volatile combination of traits in a young, 19th-century English woman who is unusually free of family and to shield and restrain her. It is the story of Bathsheba, the three men who love her, and the tragic events set in motion by thoughtless actions.

The setting is rural England, in Wessex, a land of sheep farms and country villages.

Gabriel Oak, a serious young man, has, after years of hard work, gone into debt to have his own sheep farm. Not long after he meets Bathsheba, he proposes marriage to her. She has no fortune at the time, but she declines his proposal, saying she doesn’t love him. With his pride and heart wounded, Gabriel resolves to keep his feelings to himself in the future.

After a terrible accident causes Gabriel to lose his sheep, he must abandon his dreams of having his own farm and set off in search of employment. As fortune would have it, the sturdy, brave Gabriel comes upon a fire at a farm and heroically averts disaster. The farm, as it turns out, is the property of Bathsheba, who recently inherited it from an uncle. She hires Gabriel as a shepherd, although from time to time she fires him because his blunt honesty sometimes offends her. Always, though, she must rehire him, because he’s indispensable.

A thoughtless prank on Valentine’s Day awakens the long dormant romantic interests of Mr. Boldwood, a sober, well-to-do middle-age bachelor who has a neighboring farm. Bathsheba didn’t mean to make Boldwood fall in love with her, but having done so, she must try to deal with his wooing. She tries declining on grounds that she doesn’t love him, either, but he’s so persistent that she finds herself giving him reason to hope.

Enter the third suitor, Sergeant Troy, who’s a dashing figure in his uniform, a slick talker and burdened by far fewer principles than either Gabriel or Boldwood. Almost without meaning to, Bathsheba finds herself married to Troy, setting in motion the unfortunate developments that build to the story’s climactic events.

Throughout, Gabriel is as sturdy as the tree whose name he bears, a friend to Bathsheba even when she does not deserve his devotion.

Hardy is describing a rural world largely untouched by the Industrial Revolution. The characters in this novel are far from any crowds, far from the urban woes Charles Dickens writes about years earlier. And yet they must confront human nature, with all its imperfections. Gabriel, Bathsheba and the others live in a provincial world with old-fashioned values that can mean harsh consequences for human failings.

This is a love story, and also very much a period piece. Hardy does not just tell his story; he comments on what’s happening and on the eccentricities of the society and characters he describes, often with dry humor. His observations enrich the sometimes-understated story.

Read by Nicholas Guy Smith, the story comes alive in an entertaining and satisfying way.  And now, having listened to the book, I’m ready to see this story translated into film.

 

 

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A gold-medal book

I don’t know how this book got under the stack on my table, languishing for months while I read and listened to lots of others. I do know that I’m glad I retrieved it recently, after having seen it listed as one of the best books of the 21st century so far. It deserves that accolade and more. Other than my personal embarrassment, the tardiness doesn’t really matter. This is a book for the ages, not any particular moment. And, as might be expected, a movie is in the works. But don’t wait for that; read the book now.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS. By Daniel James Brown. Read by Edward Herrmann. Penguin Audio.  12 CDs. $49.95.

This is one of the best books I’ve read (listened to, actually, but the effect is the same) in a long, long time. It’s a sports story, and a good one, but it’s also a history, an inspiration, a compelling biography of one young man and a book about the American spirit that draws on reality, not slogans or prejudice.

The book’s title suggests that these nine Americans won the gold in Berlin, right? So you might think there would be little suspense. But as I listened to the climactic passages, I began to worry that the boys didn’t win, that it was their “quest” that was epic, not the outcome. I would have stopped and looked up the Olympic results, but I was too much in the grip of the against-all-odds competition.

Daniel James Brown takes a good sports story and elevates it into a great book.  Drawing on extensive research – personal interviews, journals, letters home, news accounts, archives – he brings to life the individuals who made up the eight-oar crew from the University of Washington in this sport in which the individual must give way to the team effort. He focuses particularly on one of the boys, Joe Rantz, who rose out of a heartbreaking family situation that would have crushed most people and joined the crew as his only hope to stay in college and find a place for himself in the world. Rantz’s story itself would have made a great biography, or provided the seeds of a compelling novel. But Brown also helps us to know the other boys and their coaches and mentors.

Without belaboring it, Brown makes it clear what a demanding sport crew is, giving us enough insight into the roles of the oarsmen and the coxswain and the fine points of racing to understand what’s going on when it counts.

And Brown goes beyond the competitions and the athletes to place this story in the context of what was happening in the United States and the world, especially Germany. The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. The boys who made up the crew were, for the most part, desperately poor, and almost all of them had never rowed before they turned out as freshmen to try out for a coveted place on the team.

In Germany, meanwhile, Hitler was consolidating his power, organizing the 1936 Olympics as a chance to show the world just how great the country was becoming under his leadership. Brown carefully weaves in accounts of what was happening there, so that by the time we see the boys from Washington state rowing in sight of Hitler’s gaze and Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras, we fully comprehend the atmosphere and the gathering storms. There was talk of the U.S. boycotting the Olympics, as news spread about what was happening in Germany, but people in high places chose to believe what they wanted to believe.

Those who think of crew as a minor sport will be surprised to learn that in the 1930s, it was a huge spectator sport, right up there with college football and major-league baseball. Reporters followed the teams closely, writing about their training and prospects. Major races were attended by huge crowds and broadcast on live radio nationwide. The crews from the University of Washington and its West Coast rival, the University of California, were upstarts, rough boys from farms and forests who entered a heady foreign world when they headed east once a year to compete with the Ivy league schools, the Naval Academy and other elite Eastern colleges.

But being a star college athlete in a highly popular sport did not mean in the 1930s what it does now. The boys from Washington had demanding training schedules throughout the academic year, and were expected to keep their grades up, but they were not given scholarships, only the chance to get some campus job that would help them afford school.  Most had night jobs, and summers saw them doing hard manual labor to save up cash for the next academic year. When they traveled east each summer, it was on a tight budget. And after they won the right to represent the United States in Berlin, they were told they would have to come up with the money to get there.

Despite many setbacks, they did make it to Berlin, and Brown presents their competition there as nerve-racking and nail-biting as it must have been for the spectators there and all those huddled around their radios back home.

An extensive epilogue follows the boys as they became men, always carrying with them the memory of that time in Berlin when they transcended self for the rest of the team – and for the honor of their country. Brown also tells what happened in Germany once the glorious games were over, horrors that had American boys over there again in just a few years on a deadly serious mission.

By the time Edward Herrmann read Brown’s concluding words, I had tears in my eyes – tears of pride in all that’s good in the American spirit, as it was exemplified nobly by the boys in the boat.

 

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The real dangers on campus

Paul O’Connor is a father. He’s a veteran journalist. And he teaches college students. He has considerable insight into this book, and he says that every parent should read it.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

MISSOULA: RAPE AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN A COLLEGE TOWN. By Jon Krakauer. Read by Mozhan Marno and Scott Brick. Random House Audio. 10 CDs, 12 hours. $45. Also available in hardback from Doubleday. 358 pages.  $28.95.

 In November 2014, Rolling Stone magazine sought to chronicle the crisis of sexual abuse and assault on American campuses with what turned out to be a highly flawed article, “A Rape on Campus.”

What Rolling Stone failed to accomplish in that now disavowed piece, Jon Krakauer has forcefully presented in Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

This is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read. It is a story of rape, binge drinking, incompetent policing and neglectful prosecution, of a community more concerned about football than the safety of its own daughters, and of privileged young men unaware that their brute strength does not entitle them to have sex on their whims.

Krakauer primarily follows two cases, both involving football players, while setting these two stories in the larger context of a small Montana city embroiled in multiple rape and gang-rape allegations, many involving players on the much-loved University of Montana Grizzlies team.

In both of the featured cases, the woman knew the man before the incident occurred; in one, they had been friends since childhood.

Krakauer guides us through the relationships prior to the incidents and then through the criminal justice system as rape allegations are tried.

This book is an outright indictment of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, the prosecuting entity in the city. The foremost villain is the surprisingly callous assistant prosecutor, Kirsten Pabst, who oversaw sexual abuse cases for the county. The city’s police force is presented as less than competent but not villainous. And the university gets a mixed grade: good marks to the administration, bad to the athletics program, its boosters and fans.

While this is a compelling read or listen, it is one that will make the typical parent ill. And that’s why every parent of a child – boy or girl – over the age of 10 should read it. Soon. Take your poison, and then get to work on your kids. Make them understand the dangers on campus for both genders.

There is a modus operandi on campus, be it at fraternity or house parties. Target young, innocent females, invite them to parties, get them drunk as quickly as possible, and then retreat to a room where they can be raped.

Other iterations of this tactic involve any college woman attending any kind of a party and who drinks to the point of being incapacitated. Hold her down, peel off her clothes, have sex. Go drink some more.

Probably the most startling aspect of the story is the naiveté of the students involved – the females who get muscle-melting drunk and the males who consider it acceptable to have sex with women who cannot provide consent, or who say no but are not strong enough to resist.

Krakauer provides considerable detail about the prevalence of rape in Missoula and nationwide, and conscientiously notes that Missoula’s rape frequency is slightly below the national average.

Rolling Stone hoped to start a national dialogue on the sexual abuse problem on campus, but only managed to stain its own reputation with poor reporting. Krakauer, working largely from court records, university documents, government reports and interviews with those involved, has presented us with material for every reading club and, I would hope, more than a few university summer reading lists.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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Trouble in the Navajo nation

Anne Hillerman is back with her second novel as she builds on her father’s beloved Leaphorn and Chee mystery series.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ROCK WITH WINGS. By Anne Hillerman. Harper. 322 pages. $27.99.

When both husband and wife work for the Navajo Tribal Police, quality time together can be at a premium. So Sgt. Jim Chee and his wife, Officer Bernie Manuelito, are excited about the prospect of a brief vacation together, even if it’s a working vacation of sorts.

Chee’s cousin and clan brother, Paul, is starting a new business, a guest hogan in Mystery Valley, just outside the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. He plans to drive guests to good locations for getting photos of the spectacular sandstone formations in the park, which stretches from Arizona into Utah.

Paul has invited the couple to try out his guest hogan, but Chee and Bernie rightly figure he’s also going to need their help getting things ready.

But life and duty interfere, as they so often do. They have to hurry home because Bernie’s younger sister, who was supposed to be taking care of their elderly mother, has disappeared. Once back home, Bernie gets embroiled in some tricky cases, including a suspicious fire. She’s also interested in some people who are working to develop solar energy on Navajo land.

Chee, meanwhile, goes back to help his cousin, but soon gets called in to help the local police in the area. A woman has gone missing from a movie set, and in the process of looking for her, Chee finds what looks like a grave where none should be.

As Chee and Bernie work on their separate investigations, both uncover more than they had bargained for. Danger lurks in unexpected places. Retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn, still recovering a nearly fatal shooting, manages to give them some help.

This is the second mystery novel in which Anne Hillerman has taken up the stories of the popular Navajo tribal police characters created by her late father, Tony Hillerman. In addition to keeping the beloved Leaphorn and Chee going admirably, she adds a feminine touch by telling a good portion of the story from Bernie’s perspective.

Tony Hillerman fans could debate endlessly whether the daughter’s new books are as good as the father’s. I’d have to go back and re-read some of Tony Hillerman’s earlier books to make a thorough comparison. I haven’t been tempted to do that, however, because Anne Hillerman’s books are good enough. Perhaps most important, like her father, she writes with understanding and respect about the Navajo people, their traditions and the beautiful, dry, wild land they call home. She also writes well, and, also like her father, she incorporates contemporary problems and realities into her stories, showing how the Navajo people reconcile their ancient ways with today’s world. The mystery she weaves is lively, the denouement believable.

I’m glad she had the courage to follow in her father’s footprints through the sands and rocks of the Four Corners area. I look forward to her next Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito novel.

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A different view of Bunker Hill

About  a year ago, Paul O’Connor acquired an audio version of a history of Bunker Hill and the origins of the American Revolution, and then promptly forgot it. Recently he found the book, began to listen – and found there was a lot to learn about that history.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

BUNKER HILL: A CITY, A SIEGE, A REVOLUTION. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Read by Chris Sorenson. Penguin Audio. 11 CDs,13 hours. $39.95. Also available in soft cover from Penguin. 416 pages. $18.

On June 17, 1775, American militiamen occupied Breed’s Hill on the northern side of Boston, thus posing a serious threat to the British forces who, two months earlier, had been penned inside the harbor town after the battles at Lexington and Concord.

British Gen. Thomas Gage decided he had no choice but to contest the occupation of both Breed’s Hill and its neighbor, Bunker Hill.

The patriots had the high ground and were excellent fighters, many of them more experienced than the attacking Redcoats below. But they were low on gunpowder and outnumbered.

The Americans devastated British forces, slaughtering them as they attacked uphill. Total British casualties were 1,054, including many officers. Had the Americans not been short on gunpowder, they might have held the hills, destroyed the Crown’s America-based army and set North America on a very different course through history.

How had things come so far? How had American-British relations soured to the point of such bloodshed?

American school children learn of Parliament’s taxation without representation and of the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party and Paul Revere’s ride. But that’s the Twitter account. Nathaniel Philbrick has provided us a much more detailed answer in this exciting read – or in my case, exciting listen – about not only that one-day battle but also the origins of New England dissatisfaction with Great Britain in the 1760s and 1770s, the escalation of the colonists’ defiance and, eventually, the decisive acts to openly rebel.

Philbrick’s main character is neither John nor Samuel Adams, the two patriots most frequently mentioned regarding the New England revolt. Instead, Philbrick focuses on Dr. Joseph Warren, the popular leader of the Massachusetts Committee on Safety, who led the colony while the Adams cousins were in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress.

What we get, then, is a very different perspective from most written about the early days of the War of Independence. Philbrick goes into great detail to chronicle the evolution of legal, social and political attitudes that brought New England into open rebellion and then separation from Great Britain. It wasn’t as simple as Boston Massacre, tea party, and then “one if by land, two if by sea.”

Warren was at the head of that evolution, steering the committee on safety and gradually bringing the colony’s outlying settlements, neighboring colonies and, eventually, the Continental Congress to support his positions.

Philbrick is a popular writer of history, not an academic. He brings considerable storytelling skills to an episode in American history that is complex, that is often mired in lore and sentimentality, and that gets encrusted with Puritan sensibilities. He takes a great story and tells it well.

He also offers entertaining alternative historical possibilities.

What if Warren had not permitted then-Col. Benedict Arnold to undertake what turned out to be an unnecessary campaign to seize Fort Ticonderoga, carrying with him 200 barrels of gunpowder? Would that powder have been sufficient for the Americans to hold these two hills on June 17?

And what if Warren hadn’t been killed on Breed’s Hill? Might he, with his considerable political skills, have risen as an alternative to George Washington as America’s leader, or at least provided General Washington with better advice on running the siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776?

This audio book sat on my desk for nearly a year after its release in 2014. Once I started listening, I consumed it in less than four days of listening.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

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How peculiar: missing ravens and walking dead

What fun it is when the author of a beloved series gives us a new book.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BRYANT & MAY AND THE BLEEDING HEART. By Christopher Fowler. Bantam. 383 pages. $26.

Yes, they are back, despite repeated attempts by various powers-that-be in London to get rid of them or at least render them ineffective. Arthur Bryant and John May, the eccentric, cranky but ever-so-wily elderly detectives who are the heart and soul of the small but successful Peculiar Crimes Unit are once again solving some of London’s weirdest crimes, to the delight of any readers who make their acquaintance.

You needn’t have read any of the previous 10 books in the series to enjoy this one, but if you have, you will know that the Peculiar Crimes Unit dates to World War II, when London’s Metropolitan Police Force needed a discreet unit to handle sensitive cases that might harm the public’s morale. The war is long over, but the unit, led by its intrepid and unorthodox senior detectives, Bryant and May, presses on. In latter days, it increasingly deals with cases that are strange, baffling, maybe with a hint of the supernatural or black magic. Bryant, especially, knows people who operate in the shadows.

Over the years, Bryant and May have become set in their ways, and the ways in which they are set have little to do with contemporary police procedures, rules and regulations. They tend to do what they think best, no matter where the unit is moved, no matter who tries to shut it down or rein it in, no matter what threats are made.

These books are mysteries, and they deal with murders and other serious crimes, but they are also very funny. It’s hard to think of an adequate word to describe the PCU and its people and methods. Quirky comes to mind, but doesn’t suffice. The books are also poignant, as the geriatric detectives, especially Bryant, deal with failing health, loneliness and changing times.

This time, the PCU has been placed under the jurisdiction of the City of London. Raymond Land, who is nominally the unit chief, tries in vain to convince his crew to behave lest the new bosses crack down on them: “This means no weird stuff. Try to behave for once. Avoid provocative behaviour. Don’t be imaginative. …” Of course, his counsel is roundly ignored.

The detectives don’t have time for playing by the rules. A strange case falls into their laps when a teenager sees a dead man rise from a grave in an old cemetery – and before long, the teenager is killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. Meanwhile, Bryant begins investigating the disappearance of seven ravens that live at the Tower of London. Legend has it that if the ravens are gone, England will fall. Bryant’s old friend who works as the Raven Master is more worried about the state of his job if the loss of one of the tower’s main tourist attractions is discovered.

Before long, the unit is dealing with body snatchers, bleeding hearts, a mounting death toll, more coffins and a growing feeling that these two seemingly disparate mysteries have some strange connection.

As always, Christopher Fowler gives us a witty, weird, thoroughly entertaining mystery, steeped in London history and atmosphere, and peopled with eccentric yet believable characters. These books are great entertainment.

 

 

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