Pieces of a life

Bob Moyer takes a look at a biography that gives new life to a 15-year-old Jewish girl in Norway who was killed in the Holocaust.

Reviewed By Robert P. Moyer

KATHE — Always Been in Norway. By Espen Sobye. Krakiel Publishing.
208 pages. $24.95.

Early in his career, writer Espen Sobye was a statistician. He was asked to contribute a paper at a conference on the use of statistics in Norway during the Nazi occupation. While researching the paper, he discovered among the registration cards that all Norwegian Jews filled out in 1942, one filled out by 15-year-old Kathe Lasnik. To the question asking what country she was from — the implication that if you were Jewish you must have come from another country — she answered, “I’ve always been in Norway.” Being born and raised in Norway did not save her. Fourteen days after she filled out the form, she, her father, mother, and sister were put on a boat with 534 other Jews, sent to Germany, put in box cars and shipped to Auschwitz. She, along with all the old, sick and children, was gassed on Dec. 1, 1942.

Sobye kept that card with him, both literally and figuratively, always thinking about a girl with no record of her life, only a record of her death. In 2000, he went looking for the archived box of her belongings supposedly kept in the National Archives, hoping to find some part of her life.

The box was empty, and he had an impulse: “Find out everything you can about Kathe Lasnik.”

This 2003 book is the painstaking product of that impulse. No letters, no diary, no home movies, the author set forth with the methods he was trained in, searching out neighbors, friends, family of tinsmith Elias Lasnik, an immigrant from Vilna. He tracks down the homes they lived in, the new apartment with “…a door leading to the kitchen, which had a window overlooking the back yard.” He discovers the name and model of the stove they bought in another apartment, which room they rented out to help pay the rent, the names of the people who rented the room. He finds the school records for Kathe, the fourth daughter, much younger than her sisters. He locates pictures – her with friends on bicycles, in the country with friends, with family, and a headshot taken in 1942. In class 2a in Mollergata School, teacher Jenny Wiborg “…went up to Kathe Lasnik, laid a hand on her dark hair, and turned to the class: ‘And here you see a little Israelite.’ ” “This is the one single statement from a teacher to or about Kathe Lasnik that has survived in memory to this day.” Usually she was the only Jewish girl in her class, and a number of her classmates recall her asking “Will you play with me?”, reflecting the pervasive anti-Semitism she encountered, which existed in Oslo, long before the Nazi invasion.

The author details that anti-Semitism with the same dispassion with which he records Kathe’s life: newspaper editorials, council communications, all leading inexorably up to the German oppression of Jews, which was met with sympathy in Norway. That response led to an immediate concession to Nazi forces, and the beginning of the end of the 42 percent of Norway’s Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Sobye outlines the meager supervision by the Nazis, and the eager participation of the state and local police, in what was a meticulous collection of the Jews for transport. He also explores how the man who organized that collection, and handed the Jews over to the Germans, escaped any punishment in the post-war trials. His defense? He was ordered to do it. He also returned to his old job in the police.

Kathe left a note for her classmates, its contents debated, but Sobye has left us something more: pieces of a life. He explains it poignantly late in the book: “Memory can be compared to a hollow sphere. Inside it, experiences, like particles of varying sizes, stir. When they hit the sphere’s walls, they vanish leaving behind traces. Memory is formed by the traces left by the particles on the sphere’s walls…The memory of Kathe Lasnik’s deportation and murder are drawn to the smaller traces that Kathe Lasnik left behind earlier, creating with their collision a crater large enough to destroy almost everything that went before it.”

The author has recovered enough of those moments that were Kathe to “…reconstruct her life and in doing so to tear her loose from the embrace of those monuments that could only tie her to the extermination.”

Kathe lives, in this book, which is “…an essential act of resistance that is both valiant and vital,” to quote the foreword.

 

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Madness in paradise

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

 

THE MADNESS OF CROWDS. By Louise Penny. Minotaur Books. 436 pages. $28.99.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is back in Three Pines, the Quebec village faithful readers know and love, for the 17th novel in Louise Penny’s wonderful series. But that does not mean that all is well.

The previous novel, last year’s All the Devils Are Here, had Gamache and his family in Paris, with plenty of evil and intrigue. Now faithful readers who missed the quirky characters back home in Canada see that Penny was laying the groundwork in that book for one of her richest stories yet.

It’s winter, just after Christmas, and COVID has been conquered by vaccines, at least in this fictional world. But the effects linger, in feelings of loss, horror, sadness and fear.

Gamache’s family is all here now, enjoying the snow and the good company. Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his son-in-law, has brought his wife and children back from France and rejoined the Surete du Quebec as Gamache’s second in command to Gamache, the head of homicide.

It seems odd to Gamache that he is asked to head up security at a nearby university when a professor of statistics gives a lecture. Surely there will be hardly anyone there on a late December day.

But as he does his homework, researching the woman who is to speak, he is both horrified and worried. Professor Abigail Robinson has been using statistics to “prove” that the strains on the system during the COVID pandemic make it clear that the best way to secure a prosperous future is to get rid of the weak and vulnerable, the people who are a drag on society.

She looks respectable and sounds reasonable. And across Canada, people are beginning to parrot her message. “All will be well,” she tells them, if they just listen to her. When her followers gather, so do opponents. Tempers flare, and crowds can all too easily become mobs.

Sure enough, there is an attempt on Robinson’s life at the gathering, foiled by Gamache’s quick action. But he is not able to avert a murder that happens soon after that.

The mysteries – whether the two events are related, who committed the murder and why – are the framework on which the novel is built. But as always with Penny, the novel is a great deal more than the mystery. There are questions of morality and ethics, and about how people who seem normal and decent can be caught up in something so wrong and abhorrent. There are questions about how “madness” can take hold of crowds.

And there are also heartening moments, as Penny’s strong message of the importance of family and friends, and of doing the right thing, shines through – and laughter, as the characters who inhabit Three Pines are just as eccentric as ever.

This is a thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying novel, one of the best in a very good series.

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Mastodon, big snakes and lots of laughs in Florida

*This is a review of the hardback novel, published last year. The photo is of the cover of the paperback edition, which has a new epilogue written after last year’s election and some of the events that followed.

 

Every now and then, Tom Dillon, a friend from long-ago newspaper days, is moved to send a book review. I’m always delighted.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

SQUEEZE ME.  By Carl Hiaasen. Knopf. 352 pages. $28.95, hardback

I don’t know if Carl Hiaasen voted for Donald Trump last year or not, but if he did, it’s reasonable to say he could be forgiven. Trump has been a real gift to Hiaasen’s satirical fiction over the past few years, and there’s no greater evidence of that than this hilarious Florida spoof-novel.

I read it in no more than a few hours and laughed all the way through it. And so have others, notably novelist James Patterson, who said of it that Hiaasen “remains the undefeated, unscored-upon conscience of Florida, maybe the conscience of the whole country.”

Indeed, some people are saying that Hiaasen has become the new-age version of the late Edward Abbey, with plots just as outlandish and characters just as memorable. One of those is Clinton “Skink” Tyree, a dropped-out former governor of this ungovernable state – a character who has been compared to Abbey’s famous arch-trickster George Hayduke. That’s high praise.

I’m not going to tell you a lot about the plot of this book, but I should post one warning: Don’t read it if you are squeamish in the presence of giant snakes like the Burmese pythons that have taken over some habitats in the Florida Everglades; there are a number of these snakes here, apparently the results of well-meaning people releasing pets into the wild after they grew too big.

I also need to make it clear that our U.S. ex-president is not mentioned in the book. Suffice it to say that the president in this book – code name “Mastodon” – and his wife – code name, “Mockingbird” – have taken up residence in the Sunshine State amid concern about the disappearance of a wealthy socialite, a big fan of Mastodon.

There’s no obvious connection, of course, but in due time one appears, thanks to the work of one Angie Armstrong, a wildlife wrangler whose job includes removing errant skunks, raccoons, possums and even snakes from homes and businesses and releasing them into the wild. She’s really the main character, along with a clued-in lawman and one unfortunate immigrant.

There’s one sobering aside which should be mentioned in this review. That is that Hiaasen dedicated the novel to his younger brother, Rob, who was killed during the Capital Gazette shooting on June 28, 2018, in Annapolis, Md. That’s a reminder of the serious journalism this country is so in need of.

But along with that reminder, we can remember to laugh when it’s called for and to skewer the powerful when they need skewering. That’s what Hiaasen has been so good at in the past. This novel shows he’s still got it.

 

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Hollywood noir gets a new star

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A MAN NAMED DOLL. By Jonathan Ames. Mulholland Books. 208 pages. $26.

For some time, the niche of mystery novel called Hollywood noir has been depleted. Not L.A., but Hollywood. The territory was once inhabited by the likes of Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters, who helped Hollywood stars out of trouble, and Moses Wine, the pot-smoking long-haired gumshoe created by Roger L. Simon. Greet the latest, and most welcome, private investigator who lives just below the HOLLYWOOD sign —Happy Doll.

Yes, that’s his real name, though his father called him “Hapless,” and he prefers to be called Hank. He’s “…six two, 190, all lean muscle from eating canned fish the way I do, and in the Navy I was a cop and in the cops I was a cop, so I know how to subdue people.”  He has a dog named George, whom he lives with “…like two old-fashioned closeted bachelors who cohabitate and don’t think the rest of the world knows we’re lovers.”  George has “…mascara-rimmed eyes that break your heart and make you fall in love simultaneously.”

He also has a friend who needs a kidney. Before he can tell him he’ll donate one of his, the guy shows up with a bullet in his stomach and a diamond in his pocket. Just more bad news for Hap, since he’s just been cut up by a bad guy he killed. What does he do? Beat up, cut up, drugged up, he follows the clues cleverly set out by the author, down many a canyon road, straight into the most claustrophobic captivity in recent mysteries.

Part III of the book takes us from the Hollywood landscape into the configurations of Hap’s mind as he is literally pinned down as a captive. Fortunately, the author, creator of the TV series Bored to Death, knows his way around a good interior dialogue. With a little help from a friend, Hap makes it out of captivity, with only part of himself gone. It’s all well-plotted, well-spoken, and will continue next year in The Wheel of Doll, with the opening nine pages addended here.

 

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A rip-roaring read


When it’s August and too hot to do much outside, Bob Moyer puts his time to good use reading and reviewing books for Briar Patch Books. Let’s all be like Bob.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

AGAINST THE LAW: A Joe the Bouncer Novel. By David Gordon. Mysterious Press. 323 pages. $25.95.

This is a rip-roaring novel. That’s a phrase usually reserved for lively, raucous events like movies or rodeos. Well, David Gordon writes lively, raucous scenes. He turns loose a motorbike in Kabul that can be heard climbing warehouse stairs and sailing across roofs, while a helicopter zeroes in on it. He sets cars, trucks and horseshit flying down a New Jersey highway, the screech of car tires doing a 360 resounding through the narrative. The author has a visceral style that has his characters swirling around in intricate chases. The only thing with more twist and turns is his plot.

That twisty thing centers around White Angel, a high potency heroin imported into New York neighborhoods, along with an organized attack on the existing lords of the streets. At first, the miasma of characters makes a scorecard sound like a good idea, until things settle in. An international corporation in cahoots with the CIA, the Russian government, a Russian hit girl and a turncoat New York mobster, backed by military-trained mercenaries led by an apocalyptic leader, mean to take over the drug business. Arrayed against them are a female FBI agent, the CIA, two New York cops, a Jewish mob leader, a Black mob leader, and Gio, the Italian mafioso who launders money through a chain of ice cream vending trucks. He’s the one who ropes his best friend from childhood into cleaning things up—the only “honest thief” in the group, Joe the Bouncer.

Joe is an Iraq vet with a lot of unsealed mental wounds who works as a bouncer in Gio’s club. He’s trying to lead a simple life, living in Queens with his grandmother, a former grifter. She fixes him meals: they watch JEOPARDY! every night he’s home. Which isn’t often, because over the first two books of this series, he’s earned the name of The Sheriff, since he cleans things up and establishes order when he’s hired. With the help of his homies, including Yelena, a former Russian agent trained by the Russians sent to take out… well, the plot keeps turning, complete with a lot of blood and banter, until the finale. That flying meat circus takes place in a Russian bath, a lengthy scene that plays out like the Marx Brothers directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Since it’s a series, most of the people with the good guys make it through. Joe still has a job with Gio, and before long, The Sheriff’s adventures will rip roar through the streets of New York again.

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A powerful look at how “we” got here

Bob Moyer reviews a book about black performers in America – and a great deal more.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A LITTLE DEVIL IN AMERICA: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. By Hanif Abdurraqib. Random House. 300 pages. $27.

This book is much greater than the sum of its pages. Hanif Abdurraqib has created an amalgam—a showcase of Black performing artists both known and unknown,  a cultural commentary and a personal memoir. He weaves performers and performances in and out of black and white society with the eye of an astute observer and the voice of a poet, all to show “…how we got here in the first place,” the “we” being America and  a guy who grew up Black in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an amazing book.

The portraits of performers alone make the book worthwhile reading. They range from the well-known Josephine Baker to the unknown blackface dancer Master Juba. Here’s the suave host of Soul Train, Don Cornelius, originally a journalist who suffered congenital brain problems at the end of his life. There’s Dr. Don Shirley of Green Book fame, a successful academic in the field of psychology before his musical career. Patty Labelle, Trayvon Martin, Michael Anderson, Octavia Butler and Sun Ra all show up in a chapter titled “Nine Considerations of Black People in Space.”

That title is emblematic of how performers become springboards for the author’s contextual exegeses on American life. Master Juba is featured in “Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface,” a free Black man who danced in saloons and halls for money. He bested the leading white dancer of the time on numerous occasions, both of them performing in black face. He beat him by mimicking the white dancer’s steps, amazing the audience. “How,” says the author, “when the world outside determines worth, it might be vital for the marginalized to find an arena in which they can unmistakably dominate.” Juba doesn’t ultimately win, of course. When he took off his blackface, he was still a black man. He died destitute in London. The author goes on to reference Al Jolson, and the politician who dressed like Michael Jackson in the ’80’s, all leading up to “…the bare bones of it … how blackface … is such a horrifying look.”  Worst of all, in the way people slather the blackface on themselves, he is repulsed:  “That’s the way they think we look like.”  Horrifying, indeed.

In essay after essay, and sometimes in between, the author references the performers and their acts to throw light on systemic racism. Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl half-time featured “…two dozen Black women, each of them dressed all in black, perfectly coiffed afros radiating from beneath their black berets.”  The image of Black Panthers was clear and immediately brought a backlash, explained by the author as when “…Black people who decided to use their platform to not so subtly reclaim that which had been commodified and sanitized in the name of American Comfort, the pushback was often irrational, coming loudest from those who were the most afraid.”

The most effective essays are the ones in which the object of his attention leads to the true subject—himself. Nowhere is that journey clearer than in “I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses.”  Merry Clayton was a backup singer famous for the t27 seconds in the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter when she wails “rape, murder.” Although she had a career, she lost the child she was carrying at the time, and never got the recognition she deserved. The author then segues to the death of Meredith Hunter, the black man beaten to death at the Stones’ Altamont concert, ironically while they were singing Gimme Shelter. A song about violence, a beating, the author says:  “There is no reprieve from the machinery of violence and everyone is a tripwire away from setting off the wrong type of explosion.” Hunter is buried in an unmarked grave. The essay ends with the author’s plea, “I want shelter and I don’t even know what that means anymore.”

Bursting with joy, love, pain, bitterness and poignancy,  A Little Devil in America is the prose version of the Soul Train dance line, celebrating “Black people pushing other Black people forward to some boundless and joyful exit.” The book resonates long after its finish.

 

 

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Honoring the traditions

Bob Moyer reviews the latest in a venerable series that’s long been one of my favorites.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

STARGAZER. By Anne Hillerman. Harper. 312 pages. $27.99

Any writer tackling the takeover of a series started by another writer usually has two challenges—keep the qualities that made it popular, and keep the series developing. Anne Hillerman faces another couple of challenges. She’s the daughter of Tony Hillerman, creator of the much-loved Leaphorn/Chee series, and she’s not a member of the Navajo Nation, where all the stories are set. In Stargazer, her sixth novel, the series’ 24th, she demonstrates how far along she has come in meeting those challenges.

Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the mainstays of the series, still show up. Joe is retired, and a stroke has left him struggling with English, but not his native tongue. Jim has moved up in the Navajo Nation police, sitting in for the force’s captain. They are in supporting roles in this story, however. The heavy load is carried here by Hillerman fille’s addition to the series, Bernie Manuelito. A minor character created by Tony Hillerman, Bernie now is a major player in the series, a police officer married to Jim Chee. After an unusual day, in which she discovers a dead baby and a woman bound to a chair, she is called to help in the investigation of what might be a murder. It turns out to be the estranged husband of her best friend in college, Maya. Before the investigation has even started, Maya confesses. Something doesn’t seem right about her admission, and the rest of the book revolves around Bernie’s search for the truth about what really happened.

The victim was an astronomer at the VLA (Very Large Array) radio telescope near the Navajo Nation, the Stargazer of the title. Bernie’s search includes a lot of travel across the Nation, and her journeys give Hillerman a chance to compare modern astronomy to that of the ancient stargazers. Her vivid description of the stars and the countryside under them fulfill the expectations of series fans, land where “First Man covered it with a turquoise blanket, decorated the slopes with dark mists and fable rain, and anchored it to the earth with a stone knife thrust through the sacred mountain from top to bottom.” In passages like this and others, the author pays homage to her father and the People.

The plot doesn’t quite meet up to past exploits, however. Hillerman’s scenario builds to a “Don’t go there!” moment that telegraphs the real killer. It’s a minor blemish, but one that tells us the daughter has not quite caught up to her father yet. Nevertheless, the book will satisfy fans and first-timers, and includes a poignant afterword about the origins of the story.

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When murder and fiction collide

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS. By David Bell. Berkley. 416 pages. $27 hardcover.

David Bell’s latest thriller has all the ingredients for a great summer read. The fast-moving plot is gripping, with plenty of twists and turns, and more than a few surprises. It’s set in academia, at a fictitious Kentucky Commonwealth University. And the story’s mystery and mayhem are firmly grounded in the real and timely issue of sexual harassment on campus.

Plus, because it’s a book about an English professor who teaches creative writing, it’s also a book about the writing process and how fiction can be an effective way of voicing real-life stories. It helps that Bell is a professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, so his insights into the academic scene make the book come very much alive. We see the sometimes-cutthroat competition among faculty and the ways unscrupulous professors can take advantage of vulnerable women students.

Our protagonist, Connor Nye, is an English professor at Kentucky Commonwealth U. who’s been struggling in many ways since his wife and son died in an accident five years earlier. Now, though, his life and career are looking brighter because his newly published novel, a crime thriller, is doing well – relieving him of the intense pressure to publish something noteworthy so that he can get tenure.

Things are looking brighter, that is, until the sudden appearance at Connor’s home of Madeline O’Brien, a former student who disappeared mysteriously two years earlier and had been presumed dead. With her, Madeline has a manuscript she wrote – a manuscript of what is now the novel Connor has passed off as his own. Madeline threatens to expose him if he doesn’t give her all the proceeds from the book.

Things quickly get worse. As people begin to read the book, it’s clear that the story bears a strong resemblance to a real crime that shocked the community two and half years earlier, the murder of a young married woman. That murder has gone unsolved, and the local police take a keen interest in Connor. Because Connor was so wrapped up in his personal problems at the time, he had not paid attention to coverage of that murder and is unprepared for what is happening.

Connor finds himself in a nearly impossible predicament. If he comes clean about having plagiarized the novel, his career at the university will be ruined. But if he doesn’t, he might find himself on trial for murder.

Trying to protect his academic reputation and job, Connor hopes to find the real murderer.

Unfortunately, the real murderer doesn’t intend to let that happen.

Bell skillfully moves back and forth between past and present, gradually revealing more of the truth, until his story reaches a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. Unlike some thrillers, Kill All Your Darlings offers a main character who wins our sympathy as well as our attention; we care about Connor despite – or maybe because of – his lapses and mistakes.

Once started, you’ll finish this story quickly. It’s ideal for the beach, a long plane ride or just a slow summer day at home.

 

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Flag waving, patriotism and spies

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE HOLLYWOOD SPY: A Maggie Hope Mystery. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Bantam. 352 pages. $27.

If you believe the inspiring old stories about how patriotism united America during World War II, Susan Elia MacNeal’s latest Maggie Hope suspense novel will be an eye-opener.

When we last spent time with Maggie, a daring young woman who’s been a code breaker, an assistant to Winston Churchill and a British spy, among other adventures and misadventures, she was struggling with the effects of several years of war, danger, espionage and more terrible experiences than most people endure in a lifetime.

As The King’s Justice (2020) came to an end, after Maggie was reluctantly drawn into solving more horrific crimes in London, she decided, with considerable misgivings, to go to Hollywood to look into the suspicious death of a woman found floating in the pool of a posh hotel. The woman was the fiancé of John Sterling, the RAF pilot who had once been Maggie’s own fiancé, and John wants to know the truth of what happened to her.

Maggie realizes the awkwardness of reuniting with the man who broke her heart, not to mention trying to solve what he believes is the murder of the woman who took her place. But John needs help, and Maggie, with all her experience, is well prepared to give it. Then too, she desperately needs a change of pace and scenery, and even though the U.S. joined the war after Pearl Harbor, the fighting is far away from American shores … or so she’s been led to believe.

She’s British by birth, works for MI5 and owns a house she inherited in London, but heading to the United States is a homecoming for Maggie.  She was raised by her aunt, a professor at Wellesley, after her parents were killed in a car crash in England (or so she believed; as this series has unfolded, Maggie has learned a great deal about her British father and her German mother).

Her time in Hollywood in 1943, however, is not as much a break from the stresses of wartime Britain and Europe as she had imagined. People are not as united behind the war effort as the newsreels and patriotic films suggest.

The Zoot Suit Riots disrupt Los Angeles, and the Ku Klux Klan is hard at work sowing hatred and division. Sinister plots and intrigue abound.

Maggie’s investigations give readers an entertaining tour of the people, places and lifestyle of Hollywood’s Golden Age. They also reveal the darker realities – and dangers – behind all the glamor and glitz.

And they help Maggie learn some more truths about her own life and relationships as she looks forward to her next adventures.

This is another fine, entertaining and historically enlightening entry into an outstanding mystery series.

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Tarheel troubadour

Bob Moyer has returned from his latest adventures to give us another fine book review.

 

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

IN THE VALLEY. By Ron Rash. Doubleday. 220 pages. $26.95

 

There’s gold in them thar mountains. North Carolina mountains, that is, and Ron Rash knows how to mine it. Critics frequently call him an Appalachian writer, but he is flat out a Tarheel troubadour. He roams through the countryside and years, gleaning nuggets of stories out of lives and the land. A Union widow in a Confederate area burns her own barn when the Union forces pass through leaving her home unharmed. A Vietnam vet who flies helicopter tours marvels as children run toward his helicopter instead of away when a father barred from his children drops presents to them. A kidnap victim held for ransom descends into drugs but then surfaces to regularly visit the man who held her hostage  in prison. A sea change in mountain ways occurs when a son changes his father’s mountain handshake on business deals for a written contract. Nine new stories in all carry us through daily life, deaths, acts of decency, and a few of bravery.

 

The heart of the book, however, is the novella sequel to Rash’s hit novel, Serena. In it, the lethal widow who ostensibly killed her husband returns to the mountains as owner of the logging company. She continues her murderous ways, destroying the land and many lives to meet a contract. Animals, birds, critters of all sorts flee before her advancing greed, as she and her henchmen push the workers not just to the edge but over it. Rash here brings his knack for speech rhythms that flow like rivers down the mountainsides, phrases and patterns of speech from another time. He also brings in the mountain trope of the visionary crone on the path of the woman who cost her son his hand. This taut tale complements its predecessor with a satisfying resolution.

 

Forgive the double negative, but there’s nothing not to like about this book. Rash is not just a North Carolina writer, he’s the best.

 

 

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