Old mysteries and thrillers gathering dust and adding to your clutter? Donate them to the Burrito Boyz and they'll distribute to the homeless of San Diego.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

Two years ago, 4 Durant, Wyoming football players assaulted and raped Melissa Little Bear, a teenage Cheyenne who had been dealt a bad hand at birth thanks to a drunk mother. The assault was the crime of the decade in Absaroka County and that the boys got off with a bit less than 2 years in juvenile detention has not set well with Sheriff Walt Longmire. The crime and its outcome still haunt him.

A couple sheepherders stumble across the body of the worst of the four. Shot from some distance with a large bore rifle. The first thought is a tragic accident while hunting. But the presence of an owl feather, symbolic of death, tucked inside the kid's coat steers Longmire toward something premeditated. Forensics on the slug indicates the gun might well be something not hanging on too many walls - a Sharps .45-70 buffalo rifle, a favorite of the 19th century cavalry and snipers alike. Accurate and lethal. Hell, it was designed to bring down a buffalo. What chance does a 20yo have?

Tracking down a rare weapon isn’t all that hard, but about a dozen are registered in the county. And in most cases, the owner is more than capable of hitting a target up to a half-mile distant. Lonnie Little Bear owns one of the rifles, Melissa’s father. He’s not a likely shooter as he lost both legs to diabetes. And his is an antique that belonged to his great great grandfather who used it with some success at a little standoff along the banks of the Little Big Horn. Since then, the gun has been rumored to be haunted.

A second of the four boys is found dead. Shot from distance and a feather tucked in his shirt. Walt puts the third in lockup for safekeeping and the 4th manages to elude Longmire’s grasp, much to Walt's exasperation. While investigating the site of the 2nd murder, Longmire and his Cheyenne best friend, Henry Standing Bear, follow tracks into the Big Horns just as the fall’s first snowstorm hits leading to one of the more heroic rescues I’ve ever come across and a conclusion that I am sure will weigh heavily on Walt for some time to come.

So after reading two Longmire mysteries, I decided I should start at the beginning. And in this case, that’s a good idea. Johnson goes into some excellent detail about Longmire’s history as sheriff as well as needed background about his foul mouth, belligerent deputy (Victoria, aka Vic), the part time deputy Ferguson (The Ferg), his secretary Ruby, The Busy Bee Diner owner Dorothy, former sheriff Lucian Connally, and most importantly, Henry Standing Bear – Walt’s best friend since a dustup in middle school and now owner of the Red Pony bar and grille. Hell, Johnson tells us about most everyone who lives down near the Powder River. Well over half the book is about the local denizens of Durant. After a single book, you feel comfortable around the Durant locals, except maybe for Vic’s trash talk. I also find it interesting that Johnson lives in a burg called Ucross, Wyoming . . . population 25, way the hell up in NE Wyoming.



I’ve said on this forum multiple times that I’m still looking for an author to replace the late great Tony Hillerman’s command of the Indian culture – his specialty was Navajo. Johnson doesn’t take us inside the Cheyenne culture the same way as did Hillerman (at least as far as I've read), rather he shows us how Longmire and Henry straddle the border between the US and the sovereign nation of Cheyenne. In particular, the spirits that hang around and tug at whomever is in possession of the Retriever of the Dead rifle.

I’ve read #1 now, #2 (Death Without Company) and #4 (Another Man’sMoccasins). Next up is Kindness Goes Unpunished. Twelve Longmire mysteries . . . three down and nine to go.

Do I see power rotation in the future? As Longmire would reply,


“Yep.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Samantha Kofer was a third year associate at Scully & Pershing, a massive law firm in New York when Lehman Brothers failed, an event that sent shock waves through Big Law. Suddenly equity partners were taking forced early retirements, other partners were forced to change to less desirable departments, associates were laid off, promises of new jobs to recent law school graduates were withdrawn, and support staff were being axed. Everyone was afraid for their careers. Samantha, Sam, also fell victim to the hard times, and she was given a furlough. If she would just volunteer (meaning no pay) for a whole year for an approved non-profit, the firm would keep paying for her insurance and maybe give her job back. Suddenly, there was a glut of skilled attorneys fighting for no-pay jobs, and the first 10 places that Sam applied turned her down. The first one to call her back was the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, run by seasoned attorney Mattie Wyatt.

For Scully & Pershing, Sam had specialized in the financing of skyscrapers which meant she got paid a lot of money to review boring financial documents. She hadn’t seen the inside of a courtroom since moot court in her Ivy League law school. Mattie ran a nuts and bolts free legal aid program to people in rural Virginia and that was all about being in the courtroom. Short on options and liking Mattie, Sam decided to give it a try. She faced culture shock in her move from Manhattan to Brady, and as she moved from her skyscraper office in New York to a down home setting in the hill country of Virginia.


This is a story about the coal mining industry and its relentless mistreatment of the miners, as well as the insurance companies and their lawyers who were adept at denying honest health claims by these same people. Meanwhile, in the view of the environmentalists, the mining companies were raping the landscape through strip mining throughout the Appalachian area. Ecoterrorists were trying to make the mining efforts more difficult by sabotaging the mining machinery and other lawyers were attempting to prove the mining companies were the bad guys. Grisham is a master of legal drama and he has written another winner. I had a lazy day of lying around a hotel pool, and I read this in one sitting. If you’ve liked any of Grisham’s earlier works, you won’t be disappointed by this one. As always, his character development is superior and his descriptions of life in Appalachia will make you feel like you know what it’s like to live there. I had a great day being entertained by this story.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

6th Extinction: A Sigma Force Novel by James Rollins


I know I read at least one book by Rollins before we started this blog, and five years ago, East Coast Don reviewed Rollins’ book, Map of Bones, but then he never got back to reading Rollins again. I got 35% into this one before I quit. 6th Extinction: A Sigma Force Novel is a thriller about a deadly pathogen that has been released, either accidentally or by sabotage, from a clandestine lab near Mono Lake in California. The action quickly jumps around the world, from California to Antarctica to D.C. It is action-packed, but I found it mostly unbelievable and found the characters to be flat, stereotypic, uninteresting. This one does not even qualify for my minimum standard of being an airplane book. If I bought this to take with me on a flight from LAX to JFK, I'd be bored and roaming the aisles before we reached Colorado. Rollins is a prolific writer and obviously has a huge number of fans, but given the many authors who I do enjoy, I’m disinclined to revisit his writing in the near future.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Personal by Lee Child


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#19 in the continuing saga that is Jack Reacher from an author firmly in the MRB power rotation.

As usual, Jack is on a bus, toothbrush in his pocket and just the clothes on his back. In the greater Seattle area, Reacher picks up an Army Times newspaper. The best info is in the personals. Right there, in bold, in a box, in the middle of the page, “Jack Reacher call Rick Shoemaker.”

Fate may have called him to pick up the paper that day, but loyalty to a friend pushes him to make the call. Within 30 minutes, Reacher is picked up, taken to a local airport, put on a Lear Jet and whisked off to the east. Fort Bragg, NC to be exact. There, he is met by Shoemaker. And by General O’Day, a black ops legend. Plus one Casey Nice, a newbie CIA type assigned to the State Department who keeps an even keel with the help of Zoloft, and Joan Scarangello, another fed who is substantially up the food chain of command. They’ve been waiting for Reacher.

A few days ago, someone took a shot at the President of France. The shooter used a .50 caliber bullet and fired it from about three-quarters of a mile away. Put a dent in the most modern rendition of bulletproof glass, but couldn’t get a second shot off because the French version of the Secret Service had the President smothered under a mound of protective bodies.

Who is on the short list and could’ve made that shot? [no, it wasn’t Bob Lee Swagger] After culling down a list of a few dozen, four names remain; a Russian, an Israeli, a Brit, and an American named John Kott. Of Serbian lineage, raised in Arkansas, Kott was an insanely gifted sniper. But he had a bit of a temper, put a guy down and got 15 years for his efforts. Released some months ago. Reacher was the arresting officer. Caught him once . . . catch him again.

Reacher and Ms. Nice are hustled off to Paris for a look at the shooter’s nest, talk with the French cops and work out a cautious relationship with his counterpart in MI5. The concern is that the shot on the French President was an audition of sorts for a much bigger target, like maybe one or more of the world’s leaders at the upcoming G8 conference in London.

Reacher’s focus in on finding Kott who is most likely been taken in by one of the two major organized crime families in London, both of which don’t look too kindly on this guy nosing into their business (you'll love Little Joey). All the while, Reacher is having flashbacks to another female partner who was killed during the takedown of the perp they were chasing. All he can see is the same thing happening to Casey Nice.

19 Reacher books. All 19 read. No way an author can keep top drawer form over so long a series, but Child certainly manages to keep them all within shouting distance of each other. Despite the consistency of plotting, dialogue, and characters Child is still able to keep the reader riveted to each and every page. There is some comfort is returning to what may not be an old friend, but someone you’d sure like to see take the lead when you are cornered.

And no, I can’t rank these books, so don’t ask. Is this his best? I don’t think so, but I don’t know which I would rank first. I can say with confidence that Reacher fans won’t be disappointed, that is a guarantee. Newcomers? Hold on tight cuz it can be one bumpy ride.


East Coast Don

Indonesia, Etc., Exploring the Improbable Nation

In preparation for a trip to Bali, I was frustrated by the few books that I could find which were applicable. I could find almost no novels that were written about Bali, and there seems to be no Balinese literature. There was one novel written in 1937 and another 1937 travel book, but beyond basic travel books, and there was no was no current literature. How could there be no literature about Bali? Finally, after meeting Maria, the owner of Villa Wastra in the bamboo forest area of Bali, an educated, worldly and articulate woman, I got the recommendation for Indonesia, Etc., which was only published a few days before my travels began. Maria explained the dearth of literature by saying the educational system in much of Indonesia is poor and people simply don't read. How sad. 


Elizabeth Pisani, a former journalist and epidemiologist specializing in HIV/AIDS, spent many years in Indonesia, and in preparation for this book, took 13 months to travel extensively through the country’s back roads. This nation was cobbled together at the end of World War II, with the defeat of the occupying Japanese army, when the charismatic Sukarno announced its independence. The nation is comprised of over 13,000 islands and its peoples speak more than 700 different languages. Given the contrast between modern and crowded/crazy Jakarta with the largely very primitive outer islands, Pisani realized that her task of trying to write a single book about Indonesia was impossible. She does give a quick and interesting history of the islands before they were settled by the Dutch, and then she discusses the impact of the Dutch rule. Overall, this is an interesting travel book by a capable travel writer, so if you’re headed in the direction of Indonesia, I’d recommend this book.


In the Woods by Tana French

After having already read and very favorably reviewed two of Tana French’s later books, I decided to read her first novel which won her awards (including the Edgar) and launched her career. In The Woods is an excellent story with three main plot lines. The first plot has to do with the current day murder of 12-year-old Katy Devlin, a gifted ballet student who was about to leave home in Knocknaree, Ireland, a few miles outside of Dublin, to join the Royal Ballet School. The second had to do with an old murder, one that happened 22 years earlier. Detective Rob Ryan was the victim of a crime when he was 12 years old which happened at precisely the same location as Katy’s murder. He was playing with his two best friends in the woods near their home when his two friends ended up missing. No trace of them was ever found and he was found frozen against a tree, in a catatonic state, with no memory of what had happened. It was a famous case in Ireland which went unsolved. Rob was sent away to boarding school, his parents moved away from Knocknaree, and he began using his middle name instead of his first name by which he had previously been known. He eventually sought a career in the police force and was a detective when he and his partner drew the case of Katy Devlin. The third plot had to do with Ryan’s relationship with his partner, Cassie Maddox, a platonic relationship. They were great friends, spent all their time together, were very successful as a detective team, and no one could understand how a sexual intimacy had never developed between them.

From the outset of the book, it was clear that the second and third plots had to reach some kind of resolution because of the tension they created. Rob had no memories before the age of 12, but suddenly he was spending a lot of time right back where his trauma and loss had occurred. Some memory of the tragedy had to come back to him, didn’t it? The old and new cases were possibly connected, so that seemed to mean he had to remember something. As an interested party, he should not have been involved as a detective in the new case, but his real identity was only known to Cassie. And, as his own emotional turmoil evolved as he investigated this new murder, so did his relationship with Cassie. The only question was how French was going to play out those plot lines and how she would keep the tension in them alive.


Meanwhile, the first them, the murder of Katy was carefully developed, and multiple subplots supported all three themes. French’s character development was skillful and she has a good understanding of psychopaths, which became an important theme, as well. This book took off from the opening lines of the prologue which provided the most beautiful descriptive prose that you’ll read anywhere. It is a cliché, but this story was spellbinding. I’m going to have to make room for French in my power rotation of authors. If murder mysteries are your genre, then this well-conceived and well-written book is for you. It certainly deserved all of the awards it received.


Click here if you want to buy this book on Amazon.