Appearances and disappearances

Take an ambitious, needy girl, throw in a few naive young men, add a plot for an improbable heist plus adventures on two continents, and you’ve got an impressive first novel.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

UNBECOMING. By Rebecca Scherm. Read by Catherine Taber. Penguin Audio. 13 ½ hours; 11 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from Viking.

I sometimes wonder about the people who don’t play by the rules – the scammers, the thieves, those who take advantage of others in one way or another. How do they justify themselves to themselves?

In her intriguing first novel, Unbecoming, Rebecca Scherm does a convincing job of taking us inside the mind of one of those people, and it’s not a happy place to be.

Grace, in her early 20s, lives in Paris. But it’s not the glamorous life she dreamed of a few years ago. Having cut nearly all ties with her past in a small Tennessee town, she calls herself Julie and says tells the few people she deals with that she’s from California. She works at a questionable antiques shop, mending and restoring odds and ends – pieces of china, family heirlooms, sometimes jewelry. She rents an inexpensive room from a disapproving woman. She has no friends, until she opens up a little to another woman who works at the shop. Whenever she can, she checks the website of the newspaper in her hometown of Garland.

Deftly, Scherm takes us back and forth from this present to earlier times in Grace’s life, times that helped to shape the person she is now. We learn about her troubled childhood, her early romance with a boy from a “good” Garland family, her time at college and in an utterly unfamiliar art and social scene in New York City, her early days in Europe…

Grace is on edge because two young men who once were very close to her are about to be paroled from prison back home. The “boys” have spent three years behind bars, and Grace has spent three years trying to disappear. She knows a lot more than she should about their crime that went wrong, but no one has said anything about her involvement.

Grace loves the objects she works with, and the ones she can find at markets around Paris. She loves them for themselves, not for what they might ever have meant to the people who once owned them. People are much more problematic.

This is a fascinating story, and Catherine Taber’s reading in the audio version brings the complexities of Grace’s nature to life with believable poignancy.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to read a book when the main character is not someone with whom you’d want to spend time. But through Scherm’s skilled writing and Taber’s haunting voice, Grace gets into your heart before she disappoints and even infuriates you – much as she does with other characters in the story. Our feelings for Grace change as often as does her sense of her own identity.

I found myself half rooting for her to get away with it (to say what “it” is would be to tell too much), and half hoping she’d get what she deserves.

 

 

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Love, marriage and so much more

Bob Moyer takes a look at a novel that’s small in size but big in scope.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DEPT. OF SPECULATION. By Jenny Offill. Alfred A. Knopf. 177 pages. $22.95.

This concise, evocative novel (readable in one sitting) takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through that treacherous theme park known as Love and Marriage. All the major attractions appear in these pages: First Blush, when the lovers write notes labeled Dept. of Speculation; Wonderment, when the narrator, “the wife,” lies awake listening to him breathe; Parenthood, as they cope with a colicky baby; Stalled Career, “the wife” unable to finish that second novel while maintaining a household; and then that deep, breathtaking descent into Infidelity. All the connubial elements familiar in life and art come into sharp relief here.

For this is no pedestrian tour of the banalities of matrimony. Like the narrator, the author is a successful first novelist, a teacher of writing at a Manhattan college. Jenny Offill, however, is not stalled; she creates a protagonist with a rich intellectual life that informs almost without exception every observation, incident, dilemma she faces.

No recent book, certainly not one of this size, ranges so widely with so many references to so many subjects. Chapter 22, for instance, starts off with the phrase “soscared” repeated 90 times. After two pages, we infer “the wife” is in bed with her husband, and has asked him a question about his affair. Before he answers “Easier” at the end of the chapter (we never hear the question), we are privy to only her laments, her appeal to Rilke, a quote from Ovid about lying, the rigor of Hipparchus, and the misjudgments of Thales, Anaxagoras and the royal Chinese astronomers Hi and Ho.

From the pen of a lesser talent, all this could be intellectual grandstanding, or simply too abstruse. Not here. Offill focuses each reference on the subject at hand, and places the subject in the most advantageous position to catch the light that makes the moment pop out of the narrative. Not once do her forays into poetry, philosophy et al. impede the impact of “the wife” and her family’s poignant journey, a path that ends in Pennsylvania, miles and lifetimes away from Manhattan where it all started.

One of The New York Times top five novels of 2014, Dept. of Speculation engages and improves us at once – or so it seems.

  • Robert P. Moyer is a poet, actor, petanque champ, teacher and world traveler who occasionally settles down in Winston-Salem.

 

 

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When they were young

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury bohemians are a well-known part of our literary heritage. Even those of us who haven’t really studied them have heard a lot about them. But Virginia, her sister Vanessa and their friends and family come alive in a new way in this highly entertaining and intelligent novel. The audio version is a delight, especially for Anglophiles, and I have no doubt that reading the printed volume would also be a worthwhile pleasure.

VANESSA AND HER SISTER. By Priya Parmar. Read by Emilia Fox, Clare Corbett, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Daniel Pirrie and Anthony Calf. Random House Audio. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

There is no shortage of reading material about the members of the Bloomsbury group, those intellectual and artistic men and women who gathered frequently in the early decades of the 20th century to discuss arts and ideas and live what they viewed as a modern life. Many of them wrote books. They kept journals. They wrote letters. Books have been written about them.

So, one might ask, what’s the point of Priya Parmar’s new novel about the women at the heart of the group, the Stephen sisters – the artist Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf?

The answer is that this book is a brilliant and beautifully written work that deftly blends imagination with known fact. Drawing on a few years in the fascinating and well-documented story of these remarkable people, Parmar creates a novel about love, family, art, artists and the risks inherent in freedom.

In an interesting and fairly extensive afterword, Parmar points out the historical truth of some of the more outrageous events and behaviors she describes in the novel.  She also gives some insight into what became of various members of the group in later years.

She tells us that unlike many of her friends, Vanessa did not keep a journal.  And that is where Parmar’s informed imagination soars. The novel includes letters written by various Bloomsburyites, including Virginia. But its heart consists of the journal entries that Parmar creates for Vanessa.

This book, starting in 1905, focuses on the early years when the group was Adrian – are young adults whose parents are dead. They decide to leave the family home in a more staid section of London and rent a house together in the Bloomsbury district. Young people, especially young men who are friends of the brothers’ from Cambridge, gravitate to the house.

It’s the Edwardian era, before World War I wrought so much change in English society. The Stephens and their friends are wealthy enough to indulge their interests in the arts without earning a living, to take extensive jaunts abroad and to spend a month or so at the shore. One of their elder half-brothers stops by every now and then to disapprove, but otherwise they are free to shed confining social restrictions.

With their parents and older half-sister dead, Vanessa has become the rock that holds the family together. Virginia, always moody and demanding, already has suffered mental and emotional breakdowns. Vanessa, knowing the signs of her younger sister’s incipient madness, caters to her constant hunger for attention and affirmation.

Despite the shadow of Virginia’s fragility, the early months in Bloomsbury seem charmed. Fascinating people come to the house almost nightly to socialize and discuss the latest topics. Despite the late nights, Virginia, Vanessa and their friends manage to find time to pursue their artistic and intellectual endeavors. These years before World War I are heady times for these young and gifted people who have a great deal of freedom. Vanessa’s journals about her painting and her artistic vision are especially fascinating.

But life – illness, tragedy – intervenes. And then Vanessa, heading into her late 20s, agrees to marry Clive Bell, an art critic who is part of the circle of friends.

Vanessa finds unexpected happiness in marriage and especially in motherhood. But Virginia cannot accept what she views as her sister’s desertion, and jealousy and temptation take their toll. Some things, we see, once done cannot be undone.

Readers see what happens mostly through Vanessa’s frank accounts in her journals, but also through occasional letters from perceptive friends.

Eventually Vanessa wonders if too much freedom is as desirable as it seems, and poignantly asks what she and her young contemporaries really were asking for when they defied societal conventions about marriage and other relationships.

The audio version of this book is a gem, read beautifully by a cast of characters. Emilia Fox as Vanessa has the starring role, and the voices of Virginia, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf and Roger Fry enrich the experience.

 

 

 

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Where the fire always burns

Happy New Year, at last! Bob Moyer is back from wherever he’s been when he wasn’t writing book reviews. That’s always cause for rejoicing.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BURNING ROOM. By Michael Connelly. Little Brown and Company. 388 pages. $28.

Harry Bosch has been an L.A. cop so long it’s easy to forget he was the pioneer who brought Raymond Chandler’s “mean streets” into the modern era. He’s had an office in the PAB just down from the OCP for ages, and been delivering criminals and papers to the CCB for so many novels that many of his fans can tell you what all those initials mean.

In this latest book, Harry is about to come to the end of an acronym  – DROP, or Deferred Retirement Option Plan. As he is on his way out, he gets a slick-sleeved, no-striped, no-experience partner on her way in. He’s not sure why, or whether he can handle it, but the minute she’s assigned to him they are assigned to an unusual case in the Open Unsolved Unit.

The only piece of evidence in a sniper shooting 10 years back was an inaccessible bullet fragment lodged against the spine of the victim. Only now, upon his death, is the bullet available. Taking that piece of lead, yellowing newspaper clippings, fading files and failing memories, Bosch and his new partner, Soto, set off. It’s not too long until the evidence leads them to the top of the political landscape in L.A., involving some big-time players. Harry quickly figures out that’s why he got the case and his new partner – to close out the case and open her eyes to the tenets of good investigation. One of the sage pieces of advice he passes on comes as they consider the volatile situation they have uncovered. He tells her to keep something off the record “Because it’s a hot door and we have to be careful. You never open a door on a burning room. You approach cautiously…”

Soto follows his lead, to Harry’s great satisfaction. She’s also following unsolved leads to another case, an arson that only she survived as a child. It’s the reason she joined the force, to ferret out the perpetrators of the fire. Harry decides to help her because she’s his kind of cop, a good one who ”…had that hollow space inside. The empty place where the fire always burns. For something. Call it justice. Call it the need to know.”

On their way to solving both cases, this odd couple move through a narrative that at times is as slow as the traffic on the 405 freeway they keep getting caught in. Even then, however, the author makes it interesting by bringing us into Harry’s thoughts. When sitting on a bench overlooking the Hollywood Hills, for instance, he isn’t thinking about the scenery; he’s thinking about “…murder and the kind of people who pay others to kill their competitors and enemies… He wondered how many were out there among the billion lights that glowed up at him through the haze.”

As happens many times in a Michael Connelly book, the case is solved, but not resolved. When everything is said and done, Harry makes a big exit, but the author does not close the door on his protagonist’s possible return to once again head down those mean L.A. streets, looking for justice and a good lunch.

  • The well-read Robert P. Moyer lives in Winston-Salem when he’s not traveling the globe in search of playacting, poetry and petanque.

 

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A step back in time

For 16 novels, Charles Todd has brought us the detective adventures of Ian Rutledge, who returned to police work at Scotland Yard while battling the lingering effects of his time as a British officer in World War I.

Now, the mother-son writing team that is Todd brings us a prequel: The newest novel steps back to the summer of 1914, when the storm clouds of war gathering over Europe were casting their shadows in England.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A FINE SUMMER’S DAY. By Charles Todd. William Morrow. 358 pages. $26.99.

June 1914: Ian Rutledge, a young inspector at Scotland Yard is about to ask the woman he loves for her hand in marriage. He neither knows nor cares that an archduke has been assassinated in Sarajevo.

Events triggered by that shooting, however, will eventually have a profound effect on the world – and on Rutledge.

In one of the best Ian Rutledge novels yet, Todd has Rutledge doggedly trying to solve several murders or suicides in various locations around the British countryside. The more he digs into what appear at first to be separate incidents, the more he believes that something links the killings – something that might result in even more murders if he doesn’t act quickly enough.

Todd does a masterly job of balancing the immediate and the more distant problems that mar this fine English summer. Despite opposition from his boss at the Yard, Rutledge pursues the similarities he begins to detect in the unexplained deaths. His new motorcar enables him to travel from village to village, and some good detective work eventually leads him to the apparent link.

Meanwhile, there are undercurrents about his fiancé, Jean. The other women in Rutledge’s life are not as sure as he is that Jean will settle happily into the role of policeman’s wife. Her reactions when Rutledge must be away from London in his efforts to solve the murders suggest that the doubters might have a point. Despite having grown up the daughter of an officer, she also has an unrealistically romantic view of the military and war.

The situation in Europe becomes increasingly dire. When England is forced into the fray, Rutledge resists the excitement that propels many other young men to sign up for what they are sure will be a short but glorious war. He’s a policeman with important cases to solve, he insists. He’s already seen more bodies than he wants to. Let those who are trained to be military leaders do their job.

Knowing that Rutledge will not be able to stay out of the war, readers of the series will find his emotional struggles all the more poignant. Todd handles the stresses and conflicts deftly.

This is a strong book, taking us to England in the early days of the Great War that will wreak such profound changes on Rutledge and those around him.

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Flavia crosses the pond

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AS CHIMNEY SWEEPERS COME TO DUST. By Alan Bradley. Read by Jayne Entwistle. Random House Audio. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $41.

Also available in print from Delacorte Press. 392 pages. $25.

What a relief! Or, as Flavia would shout, “Yaroo!”

When I reached the end last year of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the sixth book in Alan Bradley’s wonderful series about Flavia de Luce, I was worried.

Through five books, Bradley had delighted me with the adventures of Flavia, a precocious, lonely 11-year-old girl living in a crumbling mansion near an English village in 1950. Flavia’s mother had been missing in mysterious circumstances for 10 years, during which time Flavia’s father had been so overwhelmed by grief and financial problems that he paid little attention to Flavia and her two older sisters. And the sisters regularly tormented Flavia, making her feel that she was a changeling or somehow responsible for their mother’s disappearance.

Flavia, an endearing blend of brilliance and innocence, amused herself with experiments in the extensive chemistry laboratory left in a remote part of the mansion by a deceased uncle. She also solved murders, which seemed to happen with alarming frequency in the quiet English countryside.

Then in the sixth volume, change comes with a vengeance. The body of Harriet, Flavia’s missing mother, is found and shipped home for proper burial. As visitors – some distinguished, some mysterious – arrive for Harriet’s funeral, Flavia begins to learn secrets about her late mother’s activities, secrets that seem to involve Flavia herself. And then she turns 12 and is told that she’s being shipped off to Canada to attend the boarding school where her mother once studied.

I feared that Bradley was going to change Flavia and the series, that Flavia would grow up too fast. She apparently is the heir to her mother’s role in some secret society, and while spy novels or whatever Bradley was going to write now might be entertaining, they couldn’t be the delightfully eccentric mysteries Flavia’s fans had come to love. And how could a girls’ school in Toronto be half as interesting as Buckshaw, the deteriorating de Luce mansion, and Bishop’s Lacey, the nearby murder-prone but charming village?

Without giving too much away, I am pleased to report that in book No. 7, even though she’s reached the mature age of 12 and been “banished” (her word) to Canada, Flavia is still very much Flavia.

And, even though she’s been sent to a boarding school in Toronto, Flavia still finds mysteries and murders. In fact, hardly has she arrived at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy when a charred, mummified body wrapped in a Union Jack tumbles out of the chimney into her bedroom.  Flavia, of course, is determined to solve that case, as well as other troubling rumors and events that haunt Miss Bodycote’s.

Flavia is, after all, only 12, and she still knows a lot more about chemistry than she does about life. Always irrepressible, she’s no more inclined to follow the rules of Miss Bodycote’s, or of the secret society about which she knows very little, than she was to obey the rules of the Girl Guides back in England.

The result of all this is a delightful story that has Flavia wandering the streets of Toronto as well as the halls of Miss Bodycote’s. Her knowledge of chemistry still comes in quite handy.

She solves some of the mysteries, but the one that affects her most – the truth about the legacy and responsibility she has inherited from Harriet – is still largely mystifying, presumably to be revealed bit by bit in subsequent adventures.

As I have before, I indulged in a double dose of this Flavia story. When the printed book arrived, I couldn’t wait to read it and discover what Flavia was up to. Then when the audio book arrived, I could not wait to listen to Jayne Entwistle make Flavia come alive, with her endearing, humorous voice that perfectly blends childish innocence and uncommon intelligence. The contrast of Flavia’s Englishness with the accents of the Canadians who surround her makes As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, if it’s possible, even more entertaining read aloud than its predecessors.

Yaroo, indeed!

 

 

 

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Flesh, blood and bones enough to go around

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DUST. By Patricia Cornwell. Read by Kate Reading. Penguin Audio. 14 hours. $39.95.

FLESH AND BLOOD. By Patricia Cornwell. William Morrow. 369 pages. $28.99.

BONES NEVER LIE. By Kathy Reichs. Read by Katherine Borowitz. Random House Audio. 9 CDs, 11 hours. $40.

Patricia Cornwell deserves lots of credit for creating a whole new genre of crime fiction, one that inspired other books and even TV shows. When she drew on her years working in the office of the chief medical examiner for Virginia to write her first Kay Scarpetta novel, published in 1990, nobody was writing forensic thrillers. Now they’re a staple.

Because Cornwell grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Davidson College, I reviewed that first novel, Postmortem, for the Winston-Salem Journal and interviewed the author, who at the time was eager for the publicity. Like many readers, I loved the book and found its glimpses into the world of autopsies and crime labs fascinating.

Now having written 22 novels starring Kay Scarpetta, the (now) former chief medical examiner in Richmond, Cornwell has gotten the credit she deserves, over and over. She’s also earned instant best-seller status, millions upon millions of dollars, and fame and success as a popular woman writer that’s second perhaps only to that of J.K. Rowling.

None of that means, of course, that Cornwell can rest on her laurels. Fans can be demanding, and one way or another, an author must keep delivering. Fans will automatically buy the latest book out from a favorite author – but with limits. If they find one disappointing, they’ll usually give her the benefit of the doubt and try the next one. But at some point, many readers get fed up look elsewhere for their thrillers.

That’s what happened to me and quite a few other Cornwell fans several years into her Scarpetta saga. I can’t remember which book was the final straw for me, but I do recall that Cornwell went through a spell when she seemed to put her political rants and causes ahead of her stories. The novels just weren’t very entertaining anymore, and I stopped reading them.

That’s one of the reasons audio books can be so worthwhile. I wasn’t inclined to pick up a print copy of a recent Scarpetta novel, but when an audio version came my way a couple of years ago, I was willing to give it a try.

DUST

Since then, I’ve listened to a couple more, most recently Dust, the 21st Scarpetta novel. They’ve been, if not as good as her earliest efforts, better than much of what’s out there.

Dust provided some good listening. Scarpetta, for those who might not have followed all the twists and turns of her personal and professional life, is now the chief medical examiner for Massachusetts, living in Boston. Having just returned from helping with the autopsies at a terrible school shooting in nearby Connecticut, she’s feeling down. But she must rise to the occasion when Detective Pete Marino, her longtime friend and until recently her employee, calls to tell her about a mysterious murder.

The body of a woman has been discovered in what should be a safe area on the MIT campus. She’s oddly draped in a strange cloth and her body appears to have been posed. The woman is a computer engineer whose highly publicized $100 million lawsuit against her former financial advisers was about to go to trial.

The more Scarpetta learns about the apparent murder, the more troubled she is. There may be some connection between the victim and Scarpetta’s niece Lucy, the computer whiz, who also has moved to Boston and consults with Scarpetta’s office. And there may be a connection with the Capital Murderer cases that Scarpetta’s husband, FBI agent Benton Wesley, has been working on in Washington. Ominously, Benton suspects that some highly placed people don’t want the murderer caught.

Before the case is closed, there are high-tech forensics, a good bit of danger and surprising twists and turns, all the stuff of a satisfying thriller.

Cornwell seems to have worked through much of what prompted her to turn some of her novels into political diatribes. She’s gotten back to telling a good story, and she seems to be on top of the latest developments, whether drones, designer drugs or computer technology.

Unfortunately, though, some of the aspects that have made her novels less enjoyable over the years linger. It strains credulity that there’s always a grand, sinister conspiracy that involves not just Scarpetta but also her husband, usually her niece and often Marino. Beyond that, these characters have not become more lovable through 22 novels. Often, there seems to be no one to care about. The apparently amoral Lucy is especially offensive; Marino is downright obnoxious. It can be pretty hard to sympathize with Scarpetta.

And Cornwell’s writing seems to be sloppier than it once was. For one thing, she has an annoying penchant for writing long, compound sentences strung together with “and,” to the point that a high-school English teacher would tell her to vary sentence structure and break up some of those long sentences for better emphasis. Kate Reading does an overall fine job with the recording, but the prose gets a little singsong at times.

FLESH AND BLOOD

Which brings me to the most recent Scarpetta novel, which I read in print. Flesh and Blood has most of the same strengths and weaknesses as Dust. The mystery is interesting, and there’s plenty of danger. It all starts when Scarpetta is on the back patio of her Boston home when she notices a glint of copper – seven pennies lined up on the wall, all looking brand new, and all dated 1981.  Worry begins to could the good mood she’s been in, anticipating her birthday vacation in Miami with Benton.

Then Detective Marino calls with news of a murder just minutes from her house, a chillingly efficient sniper killing. Before long, Scarpetta is dealing with serial sniper attacks in what seem to be randomly unconnected locations. The case takes her to New Jersey and eventually underwater, scuba diving a shipwreck.

It’s a good enough page-turner, but the problems remain: There never seems to be a case that doesn’t involve Scarpetta’s family and “friends.” The friends don’t much like one another, and I find myself not much liking them, either. In print, the careless writing can be soporific, not what you want in a thriller.

BONES NEVER LIE

Fortunately, if you like forensic thrillers with strong women protagonists, there are alternatives. Patricia Cornwell did pioneer the genre, but it would be wrong to dismiss those who have followed as mere imitators.

Kathy Reichs, the best-selling author of 16 Temperance Brennan novels, is giving Cornwell a run for her money. Her books and her life have inspired the popular TV show Bones.

Cornwell blazed the way, but Reichs has impeccable credentials for a forensic novelist. Like her character, she is a forensic anthropologist, and advises the police in Canada in addition to her work in the U.S. Interestingly, she shares a connection with the Charlotte area of North Carolina with Cornwell.  Reichs teaches anthropology at UNC Charlotte.

She’s also a good writer, and she has a winning character in Tempe Brennan.

In Bones Never Lie, Brennan is called into the Charlotte Police Department’s Cold Case Unit. A homicide detective from Vermont has reason to believe the murder of a child in that state has links to North Carolina and to Brennan.

This development brings back unwelcome memories of a case in Canada in which a murderer who preyed on girls managed to slip away from Brennan and her sometime partner, Detective Andrew Ryan,

Like Cornwell – like most crime authors who follow their characters through many years and many novels – Reichs has Brennan deal with changes and challenges in her personal and professional life, among them her relationship with Ryan. Unlike Cornwell, she manages to make us care about those characters, even when they make mistakes.

The mystery is a good one, with enough danger to warrant the thriller classification. The forensics are interesting, And there are second chances – both to stop the killer, and in personal relationships. Redemption can be sweet.

I’ve not read all the Temperance Brennan series, but I’ve enjoyed all those I’ve come across. Each stands alone, and they are outstanding as audio books, gripping and easy to follow.

THE VERDICT

Readers owe Cornwell a big thank-you for blazing the trail for forensic thrillers. For now, at least, I find Kathy Reichs’ books more satisfying. But I’m quite willing to keep trying both series. Whose next book will be better? Happy the reader or listener who has the chance to decide

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Big coal, big problems

A few years ago, I flew as a passenger in a small private plane over a mountaintop-removal coal mine in West Virginia. The image of that huge, ugly wound on what had been a beautiful wilderness still haunts me. Most people will never see the ravages of modern strip-mining up close, but John Grisham’s new novel does a good job of bringing the harsh reality to life.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

GRAY MOUNTAIN. By John Grisham. Read by Catherine Taber. Random House Audio. 14 hours, 49 minutes. Also available in hardback from Doubleday, 368 pages, $28.95.

At 29, Samantha Kofer is right on track with her life plans. Having grown up the privileged only child of two Washington lawyers, she graduated from an Ivy League law school and is an associate in a huge Wall Street law firm. If all goes well, she’ll be a partner and wealthy before many more years go by.

But it’s 2008, and fate – in the form of the Wall Street meltdown and the subsequent recession – intervenes. She’s laid off, escorted unceremoniously out of the building. The only sop the firm throws her is the opportunity to keep her benefits and maybe get her job back eventually if she puts in a year as an unpaid intern at some worthy nonprofit.

Still in shock, Samantha finds herself starting work at a legal-aid clinic in Brady, Va., a remote coal-mining town in the state’s impoverished far southwest corner. Her boss is Matty Wyatt, who’s lived in the area all her life and knows its people and problems intimately.

In her more introspective moments, Samantha realizes that while her work in New York was prestigious and financially rewarding, it was also largely boring and unfulfilling, little more than proofreading intricate real-estate transactions. Matty promises her that whatever its problems, work at the legal-aid clinic will not be boring. Samantha, she assures her, will learn a great deal about real people with real problems.

That she does – all day, every day, the poor and oppressed find their way to the clinic: battered wives, homeless families, lonely widows. She learns about the problems associated with the scourge of meth manufacture and addiction.

And more than anything, she learns about the devastation caused by the big coal-mining companies that more or less own that part of Appalachia. She learns, for example, about the stalling tactics the coal companies use when it comes to compensating miners stricken by black-lung disease – tactics that often lead to the miner’s dying before he gets help. She sees that regulations are only as good as their enforcement, and that smart corporate lawyers make sure the rules can be skirted or even broken with impunity. She sees the strong-arm tactics that coal companies use to get the tracts they want, and marvels at the way many area residents support the coal companies against their own best interests, all because of the promise of a few jobs.

Don’t worry; this book is not a polemic or political tract. There’s plenty of story here. One major thread is Samantha’s coming-of-age as a lawyer; reluctantly, she learns about litigation, files her first lawsuit, argues in court for the first time. Gradually, she realizes the power of the law and the possibilities for its uses.

There’s romance, too, and Grisham does a commendable job of portraying the thoughts and emotions of a bright young woman.

There’s also plenty of mystery and danger, starting with a dramatic death that might not be the accident it at first seems.

I listened, fascinated, to Catherine Taber’s reading of this strong story. I’m happy to say she does not exaggerate the accents of Appalachia, which are far different from those of say, Mississippi. To my ear, she got the speech just right.

This is a strong and important book by a highly talented lawyer/author. His depiction of the growth of a young lawyer is powerful. Even more powerful is his scathing portrayal of the big coal industry whose abuses in a forgotten pocket of our country too often go unnoticed by most of us. Gray Mountain may not be as exciting and fast-paced as some of his Grisham’s earlier tales, but it’s compelling, true and haunting.

 

 

 

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Say it ain’t so, Bo

While I’m still more or less in holiday mode, Tom Dillon is back to business with a review of what threatens to be the last in one of his favorite mystery series. He’s right: It’s time to get things going for 2015. My New Year’s resolution is to be as industrious as Tom!

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

CIRCLES IN THE SNOW. By Patrick F. McManus. Skyhorse Publishing. 231 pages, $24.95, hardback

Well, darn it, I’ve apparently done it again. I’ve enjoyed Pat McManus’ Bo Tully mysteries ever since the first one appeared some 10 years ago, and now Bo Tully is planning to retire as sheriff of Blight County, Idaho.

The same thing happened to the last lawman I got interested in, a Scottish cop by the name of John Rebus. Get drawn in by a particular character, and then he retires. I seem to have a penchant for this.

It’s all better than what happened to Sherlock Holmes, of course – he fell off a waterfall fighting with his archenemy, Prof. Moriarty, you remember – but still I wonder. Am I a jinx? Should I even be reading mysteries at all?

It’s clear that Tully is getting a little long in the tooth, though he can still clobber a couple of bikers trying to have a knife fight in a Blight County drinking establishment. Tully is nearly 50, he’s a bit stout, and he’s long wanted to quit sheriffing and devote himself to his love for painting. But the demands of the job haven’t allowed it.

In this new mystery, Tully is confronted with the murder of an unpleasant character, a rancher known for shooting bald eagles. In this case, the rancher himself is done in by an archer using arrows fletched with eagle feathers. Bo and his father, former Sheriff Pap Tully, find the corpse beneath a new-fallen snow.

There are lots of suspects, starting with the rancher’s wife (an archer herself), his foreman (who’s in love with the wife), a budding ornithologist who chefs at a house of ill repute, and others. It will be Bo’s job to figure out who the culprit is.

Along the way, we get a trip to Mexico by Pap and Bo’s one-man CSI unit, Byron (Lurch) Proctor, some insight into how arrows are made and an introduction to August (Augie) Finn, editor and sole reporter for the Silver Tip Miner newspaper. Personally speaking, I wish we’d met Augie before.

We’re missing Dave of Dave’s House of Fry in this new mystery; he’s an expert tracker who claims Indian ancestry. But we’re introduced to Ed Stokes, who raises free-range chickens. And then there’s always Bo’s secretary and occasional romantic interest, Daisy Quinn.

There’s also the local FBI agent, a blonde knockout named Angie Phelps. She gets along OK with Bo, but she has some questions about Blight County, one of those places where the lawmen may shoot first and ask questions later, and where the sheriff can bend laws that need bending. The first in this series of books was called “The Blight Way,” and that phrase stands.

And then there’s the mystery of the circles in the snow, perfectly formed circles that show no footprints in and no footprints out. It’s as if someone formed them using a giant protractor – “kind of spooky,” in Pap’s opinion.

I tend to think that McManus could profit by reading more of Agatha Christie; some of these mysteries are all too fast-paced. But I’ve enjoyed all of them; I think it’s now six, dealing with everything from avalanches to trout fishing to 19th century mining. I hate to think the series is ending.

Toward the end, Bo starts talking about setting up his own private-detective business, a way, I guess, to keep his hand in law enforcement and maybe support his artistic efforts. But will he really need that? Early on here, he sells a painting for $12,000 and has his work featured in a big urban art gallery. He seems to have it made.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Sherlock Holmes came back from the dead after readers protested, and John Rebus is still working, retired or not. Is Bo Tully really gone from the scene? Thus far, Pat McManus isn’t saying.

  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.

 

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Looking through Easy’s eyes

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I’ve come late to the Easy Rawlins mysteries, mostly because my longtime reviewer friend Robert P. Moyer always snatched them up. Bob’s thoughtful praise for Walter Mosley’s books always made me want to read them, but the downside of running a book review page or site is that you feel pressure to read something that isn’t already being reviewed by someone else.

Now, with Bob off on his world travels or possibly petanquing or haikuing somewhere, I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with the latest in the series myself. I listened to the audio version, and I have no doubt that the book would be equally pleasurable and rewarding in print form. By rewarding, I mean this is a book that ought to be read in late 2014 America, especially by white people who want more insight into the controversy over police dealings with black Americans.

ROSE GOLD. By Walter Mosley. Read by J.D. Jackson. Random House Audio. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Doubleday.

Walter Mosley started his acclaimed Easy Rawlins mystery series in 1990 with “Devil in a Blue Dress,” a story about a hard-boiled detective in Los Angeles who’s different from most others in popular fiction. The book was made into a popular movie starring Denzel Washington in 1995. Easy is a black World War II veteran, and in the early novels, he’s working without a PI license. He’s savvy about negotiating his way among the various communities in L.A. – white, black and Latino. He can go places where white people can’t go, and he deals with some, shall we say, highly interesting people.

The books are good, solid detective stories with well-developed plots and subplots, plus enough danger and suspense to keep the reader on edge. They stand out for several reasons, one of them being the character of Easy, a perceptive and thoughtful man who follows his own well-developed ideas of right and wrong. What’s right or just might not always coincide with what’s legal. Easy’s outlook on life gives the books another of their strengths: Through his wary eyes, we see how things look and feel, how society operates.

In 13 books now, Mosley has taken Easy through the late 1940s, the 1950s and almost through the sex- , drug- and protest-heavy 1960s. He even killed Easy off – or so everyone thought – a couple of books ago, but brought him back to life (he’d been in a coma, we learn) with a slightly more philosophical outlook six years later. This is the second book since Easy’s near-death experience.

Easy’s grown weary of the PI life, but his adopted daughter has been accepted to a pricey private school, and his rental houses need repairs.

When an armed delegation from the LAPD shows up at the house he’s moving into to ask for his help with a difficult case, he’s both reluctant and skeptical. In his experience, little good comes from dealings with white cops.  The offer of a hefty check plus help with his building-inspection problems helps persuade him to take a look. Apparently, Rosemary Goldsmith, the college-student daughter of a wealthy weapons manufacturer, has been kidnapped. The police believe a young black man, sometimes called Robert Mantle and sometimes Uhuru Nolica, is involved. They think Easy will have better luck than they will at tracking Mantle down.

As Easy begins to investigate, things become very complicated. His car is shot up, he’s ordered off the case by various federal agents, and he begins to wonder if Rose Gold, as he calls the girl in his mind, is really a victim. He wants to help save the girl , of course, but he’s also well aware that Robert Mantle’s life is in danger – in more ways than one. He suspects that Rose is not as innocent as she seems, and something smells decidedly wrong within the LAPD.

Various subplots make the story even more interesting and yield more glimpses of life in Southern California in the tumultuous ’60s.

This would be a good book at any time, and J.D. Jackson’s expert reading makes it a great listen.

What makes it an important book for this moment in the United States is one of the aspects that’s made Easy Rawlins books into cultural treasures. Without being strident, without pontificating, Easy makes it starkly clear what it’s like to be a black male in a society where power is in white hands, and most white people assume you’re trouble. Mostly, he fumes inwardly, forcing himself to do what he needs to do for self-preservation without sacrificing his dignity. Occasionally, he can’t completely contain his rage. What could be a good detective story becomes something more powerful as we see a good man trying to do what he believes is right in a world that often seems stacked against him.

Listen to Easy’s story, or read the print version. It won’t be the first time that good fiction teaches us more than the sound and fury in the “real” world can.

 

 

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