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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Where angels watch

Here’s the latest in a long-running crime-novel series. Don’t worry if you missed out on the earlier books. You can always go back and enjoy them, too.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DEATH ANGEL. By Linda Fairstein. Read by Barbara Rosenblat. Penguin Audio. 11 CDs, 12½ hours. Also available in hardcover from Dutton.

Alex Cooper, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, is called in to help solve the mystery when the naked body of a teenage girl is found in Central Park, a heavily patrolled and beloved area that’s not often the scene of major crimes. As Alex and her police friends work to solve the case, they find possible connections to cold cases and long-buried secrets.

This is the 15th in Linda Fairstein’s popular series of mysteries starring Alex Cooper. There’s a continuing storyline involving Alex’s romances and personal life, plus that of her close friends, one of whom – Detective Mike Chapman – is often on the brink of becoming significantly more than just a friend. Each book does stand on its own as a complete mystery, however, and Fairstein works in enough references to the past so the first-time or occasional reader isn’t lost.

In real life, Fairstein was the chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the DA’s office Manhattan for more than 20 years, so she knows her material when writing about domestic violence and sexual assault.

While each mystery is fresh and complicated, and the circumstances of Alex’s life change, the books do, understandably, have some constants. Some are small details, such as the way the friends vie to answer the Final Jeopardy! from the nightly show.

Others involve style. Fairstein has a penchant for using her characters for exposition, resulting in some dialogue that is wooden and unrealistic. Her characters at times come across as tiresome know-it-alls, though to be fair, Fairstein has established their competitive natures. Somehow, listening to Barbara Rosenblat’s skilled reading in the audio version makes the dialogue flow more smoothly than it does on the printed page.

A related Fairstein trademark, one that necessitates much of the expository dialogue, is her working extensive information about a place or landmark into the story. This time, it’s Central Park, which has a fascinating history and a lot going on behind the scenes. As a bonus, we have the Dakota, the venerable apartment home of many of New York’s rich and famous. Both are fascinating places, and in Fairstein’s skilled hands they came alive and were as interesting as the book’s human characters.

Just to complicate things, a scandal threatens the careers of Mike and Alex, and a lurking criminal has a grudge against Alex.

All in all, this is Fairstein at her best, a book well worth the listen.

 

 

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What do bison, prairie dogs, nuclear weapons and cable TV have in common?

As I’ve said before, it’s a pleasure to receive a review from Tom Dillon, because he writes well, thinks clearly and reads interesting books. He’s also willing to try something different.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

LAST STAND: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet. By Todd Wilkinson. Lyons Press. 378 pages. $18.95, paperback.

Authorized biographies aren’t normally my cup of tea, and I went into this one with a bit of trepidation, which I’m happy to say turned out of be unfounded. I guess I should have known.

I read the book for several reasons. One is that Todd Wilkinson belongs to a writers’ group of which I am also a member, and while I don’t know him, I generally respect work that comes from the group’s members. A second reason is his earlier critically acclaimed book Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth. It sounds like something up my alley.

In this case, Wilkinson says he was attempting neither a “hagiography” – the study of a saint – nor a tabloid tell-all. The book is instead about “a complicated man’s investigation of big ideas, the motivations behind them, and what action or inaction could mean” for the future.

He’s succeeded pretty well, producing a readable book that will teach you a fair amount about everything from bison and prairie dogs to nuclear disarmament and cable television – all, of course, wrapped around the outsize persona of Ted Turner.

We probably don’t need to talk much here about Turner’s history with the Atlanta Braves baseball team, Cable News Network, Turner Broadcasting, AOL Time Warner and so on; it’s pretty well known.

Less well known is his dysfunctional family upbringing, his friendship with people like Mikhail Gorbachev and Jacques Cousteau, and the reasons he became the largest bison (buffalo) rancher in the nation’s history, with something like 55,000 head on his 15 ranches. One of the few pictures provided of his grazing bison could as easily have come from the days of Lewis and Clark.

The stories are both fascinating and heartbreaking, like Turner’s strict father pulling the young student out of Brown University when Turner changed his major from business to classics; Turner responded by joining the Coast Guard.

Turner has also fought a family tendency toward depression that led to his father’s suicide and even lured Turner himself after the AOL Time Warner debacle in 2001. His detachment probably broke up several marriages, including the one with Jane Fonda.

He had an early fascination with the writing of Ayn Rand, but eventually rejected Rand’s “greed is good” motto. His feeling now: “Capitalism isn’t the problem. It’s how we practice capitalism that has created many of the challenges now facing humanity.” A good part of this book seems aimed at influencing other super-rich people into philanthropy like that of Turner’s.

Wilkinson first met Turner about 1992, conducting an interview for a magazine story, and the two men eventually hit it off to the point that, Turner says, “I started to trust him in ways that I seldom do with writers or even other people.” Turner agreed there would be no preconditions on the book.

Ironically, Wilkinson says, Turner carries no business cards. But he does have in his wallet a printed list of “eleven voluntary initiatives.” Together, the initiatives are a pretty good formula for living an environmentally sensitive life. They are:

*I promise to care about Planet Earth and all living things thereon, especially my fellow human beings.

*I promise to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect and friendliness.

*I promise to have no more than one or two children. (Turner broke this one, Wilkinson notes. He has five kids, who are being groomed to take over his foundation.)

*I promise to use my best efforts to help save what is left of our natural world in its undisturbed state, and to restore degraded areas.

*I promise to use as little of our nonrenewable resources as possible.

*I promise to minimize my use of toxic chemicals, pesticides and other poisons, and to encourage others to do the same.

*I promise to contribute to those less fortunate to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of decent life, including clean air and water, adequate food, health care, housing, education and individual rights.

*I reject the use of force, in particular military force, and I support the United Nations’ arbitration of international disputes.

*I support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and ultimately the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.

*I support the United Nations and its efforts to improve the conditions of the planet.

*I support clean renewable energy and a rapid move to eliminate carbon emissions.

  • Tom Dillon is a journalist who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.

 

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For sheer entertainment, listen to a Clive Cussler tale

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

When it comes to audiobooks, I’m a more eclectic reader than I am with the printed volumes. Sure, I love listening to books I’d probably read or have read anyway – I’ve listened to all the novels of Jane Austen, for example, and whenever I get a new installment in Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia de Luce series, I enjoy reading it and then listening to it (I can’t do British accents in my head, so I like to hear the real thing). I’ve enjoyed listening to many a recent literary or mystery novel. But I’m also more likely to tackle a serious, weighty nonfiction book when I’ll be listening rather than turning pages, and when they are being read to me, I try novels that are out of my usual range of interests.

Then sometimes, I need a break. Sometimes, I just want pure entertainment in my audiobook. When that mood strikes, I reach for one of Clive Cussler’s many offerings, and I’m grateful that he and his associates are so prolific. Cussler has several adventure series going, and they’re all great listening. They’re fast paced but easy to follow, and they always incorporate fascinating information about archeology, history, national defense, exotic lands and/or the sea. Sure they follow a formula of sorts, and there’s little in the way of complex character development. But the ever-changing settings, plots and challenges keep the stories fresh, and listening to them is just plain fun. They are perfect books to pop into the CD player when traveling with family. Think of listening to Clive Cussler audiobooks as something like going to an Indiana Jones movie.

Here are quick looks at three I’ve enjoyed recently. All – as indeed every Clive Cussler book I’ve ever heard – are read by Scott Brick, who is perfect for the job.

THE EYE OF HEAVEN. By Clive Cussler and Russell Blake. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 9CDs. $46.

This is the latest in the Fargo series, starring Sam and Remi Fargo, the fabulously wealthy husband and wife team who travel the globe hunting for treasure, which they turn over to local authorities for preservation, of course. They are fearless, skilled divers. They have the enviable ability to wine and dine lavishly and still stay in perfect shape, able to scale mountains, descend into snake-infested tombs, subdue gangsters and outwit nefarious enemies of all stripes. But I digress. These books are just plain entertainment, and it’s all part of the fun.

This time out, the Fargos’ quest for treasure and knowledge takes them from the Arctic to remote areas of Mexico – with a daring side trip to Castro’s Cuba. They are trying to learn more about an apparent connection between the Vikings and the ancient Toltec feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Not to mention trying to find the fabled gem known as the Eye of Heaven. The action is fast-paced (the Fargos have a private plane ready when needed), taking them and their colleagues to ancient temples, secret tombs and into the wilds of the jungle.

And, as always, there’s also a lot of fascinating information woven into the tale.

And, as always, there are multiple enemies out to thwart the Fargos, steal the treasure, wreak vengeance for perceived wrongs and otherwise do them harm. It’s not clear who can be trusted. Could this be the day when Sam and Remi meet their match? Nah. Probably not. Clive Cussler has too many more books to write. Thank goodness.

THE BOOTLEGGER.  By Clive Cussler and Justin Scott. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 9 CDs; 11 ½ hours. $39.95.

I’m a fan of recent history, so I love Clive Cussler’s series starring Isaac Bell, a detective for the Van Dorn Agency in the early 20th century. Bell gets into all sorts of adventures, dangerous of course, but also yielding much fascinating information about those tumultuous times. Earlier books in the series have provided, for example, interesting tidbits about the cutthroat competition in the early motion picture industry, including Thomas Edison’s role, and intriguing stories about espionage surrounding World War I.

This one deals with Prohibition, specifically bootlegging and all the associated crime that misguided policy engendered. Joseph Van Dorn, Bell’s boss and longtime friend, is seriously wounded in a shooting when he’s helping to chase after a rum-running boat. Bell sets out to track down the shooter and, of course, finds himself involved in something much more complex than he ever imagined. Bootlegging means big money, and that money has drawn the interest of those who are hoping to bring down the United States of America. Communists, Russians operatives and homegrown mobsters all get into the action as Bell moves from New York to Detroit and on to Florida on the heels of his villains.

Bell also, of course, has a beautiful wife, who happens to be involved in the fledgling movie industry.

MIRAGE. By Clive Cussler and Jack Du Brul. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 10 CDs; 12 hours. $39.95.

This Oregon Files series stars Juan Cabrillo, the captain of the Oregon and head of the Corporation, a group sponsored by the U.S. government that travels the world taking care of secret missions. The Oregon is a marvel of the latest technology, but to the casual onlooker it’s just a rusty old ship that’s seen better days.

This one involves Nikola Tesla, a U.S. destroyer that vanished in 1943, a rogue Russian admiral and all sorts of amazing secret weapons.

Needless to say, there’s a great deal of danger, including the possibility of what could be the third world war as well as physical threats to Cabrillo and crew. The action is fast, the technology is amazing, and the story – including the historical flashbacks – is gripping. Happy listening!

 

 

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When the smoke clears

A new novel from Deobrah Crombie is always a welcome arrival. She’s one of those much-to-be-envied American writers who have made a career of writing detective stories set in contemporary London. Too bad about all the time she has to spend traveling from her home in Texas to do research across the pond…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TO DWELL IN DARKNESS. By Deborah Crombie. William Morrow. 324 pages. $25.99.

As readers of this series know, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James are both police detectives in London, who married a couple of novels ago and, despite their busy and sometimes conflicting schedules, are raising three children, plus the odd pet or two.

As this story opens, Kincaid is trying to get used to his new assignment, having recently been transferred, for reasons that elude him, from Scotland Yard headquarters to the London borough of Camden. He’s having to work with new people, some of whom don’t much like him. Sometimes, he still needs to call on those he’s come to trust over the years for help and support.

The life he knows collides with his new duties when there’s a deadly bombing at historic St. Pancras International train station. Melody Talbot, Gemma’s friend and fellow officer, witnesses the explosion, having come to St. Pancras because her boyfriend was playing in a concert there. One of the musicians in the band is hurt in the blast, which killed the young man who was setting off the bomb.

As Kincaid and his colleagues begin to investigate, a muddled story emerges. The apparent victim is part of a group of protesters who were planning to set off a smoke bomb at the scene of the concert in hopes that doing so would bring more media attention to their cause. But someone substituted something far deadlier for the smoke bomb.

The deeper the investigation goes, the more Kincaid finds that things are not what they seem. Much seems to depend upon a mysterious stranger who was at the scene of the blast.

Kincaid eventually unravels some of what has happened. But in so doing, he uncovers more troubling mysteries, things that make him question what he’s doing in his career and fear for the safety of his family.

Meanwhile, Gemma has a troubling case of her own to deal with, and the children rescue a mother cat with kittens.

Deborah Crombie does a fine job with this series. The mysteries are surprising yet satisfying. The stories are lively but never superficial, as we learn more about the lives and motivations of the victims and criminals they encounter. Themes of family and loyalty always run through the stories. And Crombie’s rich descriptions of contemporary London – plus the history of places such as St. Pancras International Station – are always a bonus.

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Small packages – when less is more

So many of the audio books I “read” go on and on. That can be good if you want to get hooked into a book that will be with you for a while, say on a long road trip. But it’s refreshing to encounter a couple of novels that are more understated. Each of these tells the tale in just six CDs, which fit into a compact package. Each offers 7 ½ hours of listening time.  One is more successful than the other, but both were entertaining. Both are ably read and work well as audio books. And both would also be entertaining and quick reads in print.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LUCKY US. By Amy Bloom. Read by Alicyn Packard. $41. Also available in print from the Random House Publishing Group.

It’s 1939. Eva Logan is a 12-year-old girl who lives with her mother, a waitress, in the Midwest. Her charming father usually visits on Thursdays and Sundays, bearing gifts and exuding good cheer. In the way that children do, Eva accepts this arrangement as normal.

Then, as the book’s opening line tells us: “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”

What’s in it for Eva is a new life. Her mother leaves the little girl and her suitcase at her father’s house in Ohio and never comes back. Eva’s father, it turns out, had another life, with a job as a college professor, a wife with inherited money, a nice house – and another daughter, Eva’s half-sister, Iris, who is 16 and beautiful. Edgar Acton takes Eva in, but makes up a story rather than acknowledging her as his daughter.

Iris, clever, scheming and ambitious, intends to get away from her freeloading father and head for Hollywood to make her fame and fortune. Their dad, it seems, having run into some difficulties, is in the habit of stealing money from the stash Iris earns by entering various competitions.

Iris takes Eva with her when she makes her break from Ohio to Hollywood, where Iris soon finds some of the success she seeks. But the decadence gets the better of her, and an indiscretion with a rising starlet gets her on the blacklist.

By then, the girls’ father has resurfaced, and the three, along with Francisco, a gay Mexican makeup artist who has befriended them, head east for new jobs on Long Island.  Edgar is going to be a butler in the home of a wealthy Italian family, and Iris will be the governess. Francisco, who has relatives in Brooklyn, opens a barbershop. Eva helps out in a beauty parlor, where she eventually begins reading Tarot cards for well-to-do ladies.

Things go pretty well, until Iris falls in love with the household’s cook, Reenie. By then, the United States has been drawn into World War II, and events set in motion by Iris’ passion have far-reaching effects, including the arrest as a spy of Reenie’s husband, Gus, who is of German descent.

To go on with the story is to tell too much, a sin of which Bloom is not guilty as a novelist. She manages to advance her story beautifully through the effective use of plot twists that come as surprises but are completely credible in context. She does not belabor the day-to-day life when things run smoothly, nor does she overdo introspection and soul-searching. By telling less, she reveals more.

Some of the later story is told through letters, many from Iris, who by then is living in London, to Eva, and also to her from Gus, Reenie’s husband, who has long been young Eva’s friend.

The story unfolds against the rich backdrop of the 1940s, a time of great changes and social upheaval as Americans moved from the Depression era to World War II and beyond. Eva’s family – however you define that – is not the only one to include misfits and a mixture of previously segregated or ostracized people.

Eva – used by others, a smart girl who never even finishes high school – may not seem “lucky” for much of the novel, but by the time this lively, surprising, sometimes sad, often funny story reaches its end, the adjective seems perfectly fitting.

***************

2 A.M. at THE CAT’S PAJAMAS. By Marie-Helene Bertino. Read by Angela Goethals. Random House Audio. Also available in print from Crown.

This short novel covers only about 24 hours, but they are a momentous 24 hours in the life of Madeleine Altimari, a 9-year-old motherless waif in Philadelphia. Since Madeleine’s mother died, her father has mostly been unable to get out of bed. She spends time conversing with the cockroaches in their apartment, and dreaming of becoming a jazz singer.

It’s two days before Christmas, and Madeleine runs into trouble at school, a turn of events that is not uncommon, as she has no friends and is inclined to say whatever she’s thinking, often in indelicate terms. She winds up being expelled, free to wander the city the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, Madeleine’s fifth-grade teacher at the Catholic school is preparing to go to a dinner party she doesn’t really want to attend. She’s recently returned to Philly after an unpleasant divorce, and the man she had a crush on in high school is expected to be there.

Also meanwhile, Lorca, the owner of the storied jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, is about to have his establishment shut down by the cops, for a host of violations.

Inexorably, these separate stories and those of others – the school principal who has it in for Madeleine, the grandmotherly woman who runs the neighborhood café and helps look after Madeleine, the woman’s dog Pedro, Lorca’s teenage son – converge, with a high point coming, of course, at 2 a.m. at The Cat’s Pajamas.

This story is entertaining and has much to offer, especially as an audio book. Marie-Helens Bertino is a gifted writer with beautiful turns of phrase. The book is very funny much of the time, the tone light and playful – even when that doesn’t quite suit the subject matter.

At times, though, it seems to be more of – what? A poem? A series of clever, interrelated skits? – than a novel. There is some magical realism and a good deal of contrivance. Readers wanting credibility will have to overlook a great deal, including the idea of a school still in session on Dec. 23, and a child being expelled with no due process or parental involvement. This book is, after all, set in contemporary times.

The book is fun, worth the quick listen or read, but at the end, you feel that it’s not quite a novel that you’ve experienced. Bertino’s art and artifice at times take over her story.

 

 

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Wacky and oh, so true

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

Understandably, when newspaper reporters try writing fiction, they’re likely to have a newspaper reporter as a major character. Stephen Roth, who spent 12 years in the trenches as a reporter for newspapers in Missouri and Florida, gives us a good one in Pete Schaefer, an aspiring novelist who’s stuck in a reporting job at the Pridemore Evening Headlight in Missouri.

A PLOT FOR PRIDEMORE. By Stephen Roth. Mercer University Press. 297 pages. $20, paperback.

Roe Tolliver has been the mayor of Pridemore, Missouri, for more than 40 years. He’s getting old and tired, but he can’t stop fighting for his beloved town. Ever since the main highway was rerouted to bypass Pridemore by eight miles rather than run right through town, things have gone downhill.

The town and its businesses are slowly dying. Efforts to recruit new industries go nowhere. And then the mayor has a brilliant idea. What if Pridemore were the scene of a major news event, the kind that’s all over network news for days, not to mention the cable channels? What if all eyes were focused on Pridemore? Wouldn’t that put the little town back on the map? Wouldn’t that make it known around the nation, maybe even the world? Wouldn’t that liven things up?

In this small town, there are a few people who get things done, usually with a lot of behind-the-scenes plotting and deal-making that certainly skirt any open-meetings laws, not to mention other legalities. Mayor Tolliver sets about persuading those key people to help him with his intricate scheme.

The plan is to trap a likable, mentally challenged young man deep in a local cave, necessitating a massive effort that would last for several high-profile days before the eventual triumphant rescue. It would be better than the baby-down-the-well drama that had captured the national attention years earlier.

Meanwhile, at Pridemore’s local newspaper, the Evening Headlight, young Pete Schaefer longs for the big story that will rescue him from endless days of writing obits and covering boring meetings and inane features. This is not what he envisioned when he’d gone to journalism school. He needs a break. It doesn’t help that, in his boredom, he’s fallen into a risky relationship with the publisher’s teenage daughter. He could more usefully spend his empty hours working on the novel he started while still an undergrad. But that would require more energy than he seems to have these days.

Such are the ingredients for “A Plot for Pridemore,” a first novel by Stephen Roth, who’s done his time as a reporter covering small-town life and politics. And as you might expect, Roth deftly combines these ingredients into a story that’s as rich in humor as it is in insight.

Of course, nothing goes quite as planned. Digby Willers does get trapped in the cave, a media circus does ensue, and Pete Schaefer gets a big story, plus a lot more than he bargained for. But a lot goes wrong, some of it very wrong.

Roth’s tale is spiced with exaggeration and wacky characters, both in Pridemore and among the media horde that descends as the drama builds. But the novel is more dry humor than slapstick, in the fine tradition of Southern (yes, we’ll count rural Missouri as Southern) comic novels that includes such writers as Clyde Edgerton and James Wilcox.

Blessed with a good reporter’s skepticism, verging on cynicism, Roth obviously knows how old-boy networks and backroom deals work. Reporters who cover places like Pridemore are given to saying things like: “I oughta write a novel, but nobody would believe this kind of thing. You can’t make this sort of stuff up.”

Roth did write a novel, using his hard-won insights to make up some pretty outrageous “stuff.” The result is a story that’s delightfully funny and surprisingly true.

 

 

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Grand and terrible

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I’d seen the large monument in the cemetery at Hospital Point on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It’s a structure of rocks, topped by an ice-glazed cross and an anchor. I suppose I’d even read the inscription. But there are a lot of monuments on the Naval Academy grounds. Not until I learned of the terrible ordeal of the crew of the USS Jeannette through Hampton Sides’ gripping new book did I fully appreciate the rare example of courage, perseverance and the human spirit that this monument commemorates.

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. By Hampton Sides. Read by Arthur Morey. Random House Audio. 17 ½ hours, 14 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Doubleday.

The United States was finally recovering from its devastating Civil War. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 had introduced such wonders as electric lights, the telephone and the typewriter, fueling Americans’ belief that they could accomplish great things. With the American West largely having been settled, attention turned to conquering a new, unexplored frontier: the North Pole. The U.S. Navy was still small and somewhat outdated, clearly inferior to the British fleet.

And James Gordon Bennett Jr., the flamboyant and extraordinarily wealthy owner of The New York Herald, wanted a story that would boost circulation even more than had his stroke of genius in 1871, when he sent a reporter named Henry Morton Stanley to the wilds of Africa to find the famous British explorer Dr. David Livingstone. This was the heyday of newspapers, and Bennett had no qualms about creating the news.

All these factors, plus the ambitions of a young U.S. Navy officer, George Washington De Long, were at play on that day in early July 1879 when the USS Jeanette, with De Long and a crew of 32, including a Herald reporter, set sail from San Francisco amid great fanfare. They were going to find the North Pole.

The Jeannette was a Navy ship and De Long a Navy officer, but Bennett of the Herald was picking up the tab. That meant Bennett also got to call at least some of the shots.

De Long had been in the Arctic before, and the ship had been reinforced to withstand the tremendous pressure of the ice they would encounter. Egged on by Bennett, the nation was watching and waiting with high expectations.

But, as Sides’ well-documented narrative makes clear, the expedition faced tremendous challenges, some of them unnecessary. First, the fundamental premise on which De Long operated was wrong. There were various theories about what the North Pole was like, and De Long and Bennett had chosen to trust the prominent German geographer August Petermann, who believed that once they were through a rim of ice where rivers emptying into the ocean had frozen, the explorers would find an open, warm polar sea. If global warming predictions are correct, that open polar sea may became a reality later in this century, but it was a myth in 1879.

And, as De Long discovered much later, many of Petermann’s charts and maps of the Siberian coast were woefully inaccurate. Petermann had committed suicide the autumn before the Jeannette set sail, so he never knew the repercussions of his mistaken ideas. Maybe his death was an omen.

Bennett insisted that the Jeannette spend some time pursuing what he thought might be a side story before the ship actually headed through the Bering Strait and northward. Given the brevity of the arctic summer, that delay was costly.

In any event, the Jeannette became trapped in pack ice north of the Bering Sea but way short of the pole. And there she stayed for two years, immobilized but moving along with the giant, shifiting pack of ice. Those who survived would look back on those two years stuck in the ice as the good times of the expedition. They had brought a huge store of food and other supplies – even cases of Budweiser beer. And they could walk out onto the ice to hunt for game.

There were some failures. The arc lights De Long had bought from Thomas Edison to help dispel the interminable darkness of polar winters did not work. Nor did the telephones supplied by Bell that were to have linked those who ventured from the ship with those still on board.

Eventually, in the summer of 1881, the Jeannette finally broke free and floated in the water.  But any celebration did not last long, because before long the ship was destroyed by the pressure of the ice floes surrounding it. Those on board had to abandon the sinking ship in favor of three small, open boats.

And there begins the horrifying part of the story. With winter bearing down, the men set out to find Siberia, where they hoped they could get help. Battling fog, cold and dwindling supplies, they sometimes dragged their boats, sometimes rode them across relatively open stretches. And then in a fierce storm, the three boats became separated. One boat vanished forever. One, under the command of George Melville, the Jeannette’s engineer, made it to Siberia. Melville and his men suffered considerably but did find helpful natives. De Long and those on the third boat found that rather than anything like Petermann’s charts, the delta of the Lena River was a bewildering maze that would soon freeze. And the natives who spent summers in the area had already retreated to safer areas.  So had most of the wildlife that might have become food.

De Long’s party left the boat and wandered across the harsh, barren land as winter began to set in. Because De Long, the ship’s doctor and others kept good records and journals, Sides is able to tell us about their increasingly desperate ordeal in gruesome detail. When a team led by Melville eventually found their bodies months later, it appeared that De Long’s last conscious act had been to fling his journal away from the fire so that the information he had painstakingly written would be preserved. His raised arm was frozen in the act of throwing.

I listened to the audio recording of this book, ably read by Arthur Morey. Sometimes, when listening to a complex historical account, I think that I might have enjoyed it more had I read it in print. That is not the case with this book, because I am confident that I would not have kept reading the print version as it described more and more about frostbite, amputations and starvation. But the story is fascinating and worthwhile, and I’m glad that Morey’s presentation kept me going through the grimmest parts.

This is a well-researched, well-written historical account, and a true-adventure tale of valiant explorers. Sides also thoroughly grounds the expedition in its context, the Gilded Age, telling readers much about the outrageous exploits of James Gordon Bennett and about American society in general. He also ably describes the beauties as well as the terrors of the arctic, including much information about the natives in Alaska and Siberia and how the coming of “civilization” affected them.

It’s also a very human story. We get to know and care for De Long and his wife, Emma, who wrote him many letters he would never see, and who later worked to make sure that his detailed accounts of the expedition were made public. One of the most remarkable things about De Long is the way that this young Naval Academy graduate and Navy officer maintained dignity, discipline and purpose right up until his terrible death. The Jeannette Monument deserves its place of honor.

 

 

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A chilling Barcelona tale

Antonio Hill’s day job, according to the blurb on the cover of this audio book, is translating English-language fiction into Spanish. He must have analyzed what makes fiction successful as he pursued his translations. Like his debut thriller, The Summer of Dead Toys, published a year ago, his new book is expertly plotted, intelligently written, and rich in characters and setting.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GOOD SUICIDES. By Antonio Hill. Read by Mark Bramhall. Books on Tape. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. Also available in hardcover from Crown.

Inspector Hector Salgado is back, in fine style. Oh, the Argentine-born, short-tempered detective is still having trouble sleeping, and still struggling with unhealthy habits. He’s still trying to deal with the disappearance of his former wife (who had left him for a woman), not to mention the challenge of raising their teenage son without her. But his personal problems are not going to keep him from figuring out what is happening to the high-level employees of a cosmetics company in Barcelona.

Alemany Cosmetics is a successful, family-owned business. When Salgado is called to investigate the apparent suicide of Sara Mahler, a high-level secretary at the company, he is startled to find that a gruesome photo of dead dogs hanging from a tree had been sent to her phone just before she jumped in front of a subway train.

As he begins to investigate, Salgado realizes that a man who had apparently killed his wife and young child before turning a gun on himself a few months earlier also was an Alemany employee. With his instincts telling him there is likely to be some connection between these two deaths, he begins looking into the company as well as into the lives of the two dead employees.

As in Hill’s first detective/thriller story, the more Salgado investigates, the deeper and more complicated the mystery becomes. It seems that the two dead employees were part of a small group of key personnel who participated in a team-building weekend retreat at a remote country house.

And all the people who attended the retreat seem to have, at one time or another, received an anonymous email saying, “Never forget” and including the photo of the hanged dogs.

Not even sure what crime or crimes he might be investigating, Salgado must use all his wits to break through the secrecy surrounding the company and its employees. At any moment, another suicide may be imminent.

While Salgado is trying to sort through this ominous puzzle, his partner, Leire Castro, is out on maternity leave, waiting for her baby to arrive. Bored, she turns her attentions to the unsolved case of what happened to Salgado’s wife, Ruth.  Her investigation is unauthorized, and she doesn’t want Salgado to know about it. But she may be stirring up a lot more than the bargains for as she pries into the darker corners of Ruth’s past.

Hill weaves these two plot lines deftly. In addition to a first-rate, tightly plotted detective thriller, this becomes a story about the dangers posed by keeping secrets, especially when complex cover-ups are required. And, like the first book, it’s also a story about family, love and loyalty – and how those forces can work for good or ill.

The Summer of Dead Toys was set in the steamy summer of Barcelona. This book shows us Barcelona in an unusually cold winter, an apt setting for this chilling tale. In both books, Hill brings the city alive, just as he does his characters.

Beware: This story ends with a twist that makes it difficult to wait for Salgado’s next big case.

Mark Bramhall does a fine job of reading the audio version. The listener has no trouble following the complex plot, even with the alternating and occasionally intersecting lines of Salgado’s and Leire’s investigations.

 

 

Posted in Audio Books, Detective fiction, Mysteries, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The dreariness of conformity

Charles Davenport Jr. of Greensboro, a new contributor, takes a look at a 1993 book that’s much in the news because of a movie adaptation.

Reviewed by Charles Davenport Jr.

THE GIVER. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin. 225 pages. $9.99.

In the movie theater about a month ago, I saw an interesting preview for a film called The Giver. Intrigued, I made a mental note. Later the same night, while reading a magazine, I ran across a glowing review of a book by the same name, upon which, I discovered, the movie is based. The next day, as I waited in line for a modem at Time-Warner, I noticed that the young man beside me was thoroughly engrossed in a paperback. Naturally, I stole a glance at the title: The Giver. Minutes later, I received an email alert from one of my news providers: The featured story of the day was an interview with the director of – you guessed it – The Giver.

Perhaps this was merely a freakish string of coincidences. Then again, maybe it wasn’t, and I’m not one to defy Providence. I drove straight to the bookstore, purchased a paperback edition of The Giver (originally published in 1993), and raced into “the community” of Lois Lowry’s making.

It is a society free of homelessness, poverty, hunger and pain. Citizens of the community – we never learn its name – lead stress-free lives, because all of their choices are made for them. It’s not even necessary to check the weather forecast: Climate control has eradicated inclement weather.

But, as our protagonist – a young man named Jonas – quickly discovers, the community is no utopia. Despite the apparent order and tranquility, all is not well.

In an ideal society, ordered liberty reigns. In Jonas’ community, the Committee of Elders – the governing body – has established an authoritarian regime under which order prevails, but individual liberty is virtually non-existent. Citizens are told what to wear, what means of transportation to utilize (bicycles), what careers to undertake and even whom to marry. Children must be applied for, and they are assigned to “family units” by the Elders. Each family unit is limited to two children.

In the community, there is neither color nor music. The sun never shines, and there are no animals. Yet, Jonas and his fellow citizens are none the wiser: They have been deprived of memory. They are only vaguely cognizant of “Elsewhere,” a mysterious place into which lawbreakers, the elderly, and the unwanted are routinely “released.”

Only one citizen – the Receiver of Memory – is aware that another type of society exists; that another, perhaps superior, mode of living is possible. But he is elderly and frail. The plot thickens when the Committee of Elders chooses 12-year-old Jonas as the new Receiver of Memory.

When the elderly, former receiver (aka The Giver) begins filling Jonas with memories, the latter endures pain and anguish, as expected. But he also revels in a world of color, bonds with animals, exults in the warmth of sunshine, gleefully sleds down a snow-covered hill, and most important, learns the difference between a “family unit” and a family. Jonas begins to question the nature of life in the community.

For instance, citizens are taught that a Ceremony of Release – particularly when performed for an occupant of the House of the Old – is a festive occasion. They celebrate without knowing the exact nature of a release, or precisely what happens to the happy honoree. But the Elders know. And so does The Giver.

Eventually, Jonas does, too. The pivotal moment in the book is a gut-wrenching scene in which Jonas witnesses a Ceremony of Release for an infant. The gruesome procedure is performed by one of the community’s most respected Nurturers, or caretakers of newchildren: Jonas’ father. When Jonas discovers that Gabriel, an “Inadequate” infant to which he has become attached, is also scheduled for release, he takes decisive action in defiance of the community. Fortunately, the edge-of-your-seat action that follows is only the beginning: there are three more books in the series.

The Giver won the Newbery Medal in 1994, and it’s easy to see why. Lois Lowry is a gifted and imaginative writer. This book should be mandatory reading in every American middle/high school.

  • Charles Davenport Jr. (cdavenportjr@hotmail.com) is a freelance writer in Greensboro.

 

 

 

Posted in Contemporary literary fiction, Young Adult | Tagged , , | Leave a comment