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deadmansfancyAnn Marie of the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:

Apparently the hand-tied bits of thread, feathers, and hooks that fly-fishermen use can have really colorful names, such Platte River Special, Vegas Showgirl, and Dead Man’s Fancy. You don’t have to be a fisherman, though, to enjoy the mystery Dead Man’s Fancy by Keith McCafferty. I found it to be an engaging, suspenseful story with colorful characters and a spectacular setting.

Set in the great outdoors of Madison Valley, Montana, the location is an integral part of this mystery series featuring Sean Stranahan. A former private detective from the East Coast, Sean now lives in Montana working as a fly-fishing guide and artist. Local Sheriff Martha Ettinger finds Sean’s skills very useful and occasionally employs him to assist the small sheriff’s department.

The book begins with a search for a missing woman who was called “the Fly-Fishing Venus.” Red-haired Nanika Martinelli worked as fly-fishing guide who seemed to attract fish and customers wherever she worked. Nanika fails to return from a trail ride, sending Sheriff Ettinger and her team on a search in the mountains for her. Ettinger doesn’t find Nanika but she does find a fellow ranch worker who had been searching for Nanika impaled on a dead bull elk’s antler. The dead elk had been claimed by a wolf pack so was the worker’s death caused by a human or by an animal? Where is Nanika and was she attacked by a wolf?

The politics of the wolf’s role in the West and the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park is the central theme of this mystery as Ettinger and Sean find themselves in the middle of the wolf-lovers and the wolf-haters. In her youth, Nanika had been part of an animal-rights group called the Clan of the Three-clawed Wolf and had been involved with the group’s charismatic leader, Fen Amorak. With the continued disappearance of Nanika, Sean is hired by Asena, Nanika’s Canadian sister to find her and to find out if Amorak was involved in Nanika’s disappearance.

As with many investigations, Sean and Ettinger have to start in the past to find out what happened in the present. Details of Nanika’s life with her trapper father start to come out as well as her eco-terrorist activities with the Clan of the Three-clawed Wolf. Sean also starts to question Asena’s motivation—is she really interested in finding her sister or is she more interested in seeking revenge against Amorak?

Sean gradually sifts through the clues figuring out which ones are pertinent and which are not. He uncovers the facts of Nanika’s life, finds Amorak, and of course, gets to do some fishing along the way. The case comes to a dramatic conclusion on the shore of a lake located high in the mountains of Yellowstone.

Dead Man’s Fancy is actually the third in this series. If you likes to start at the beginning of a series, try The Royal Wulff MurdersSecond in the series is The Grey Ghost Murders. (And yes, Royal Wulffs and Grey Ghosts are fishing flies, too.)

Check the WRL catalog for Dead Man’s Fancy

 

permanentBabette from the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:

Russell Banks’ new collection of short stories, A Permanent Member of the Family, is one of the best books I have read recently. The characters and the moral dilemmas in which they find themselves entangled continue to simmer in my mind.

Intentional or not, as a reader, I noticed the theme of death emerge as I read this collection of short stories. That being said, I must report that reading this collection of stories is not depressing, but rather a thought-provoking experience. Whether we like to acknowledge this or not, death is a permanent member of every family. Death reveals itself in an array of forms: death of a person or animal, death of a relationship, an image, a dream, a fabricated life, and so on.

Banks’ writing engages the reader swiftly into the lives of the characters presented in each of the stories who find themselves in a variety of perplexing situations.

Here is a sample of some of the situations… In Former Marine, adult siblings realize their father has committed an outrageous crime and ask themselves, “Can this be my dad?” The story Blue presents a woman alone and inadvertently locked overnight in automobile sales lot with a ferocious pit bull dog… is she a criminal or victim, how will this situation end? Top Dog explores the effects of success bestowed on one member of a group and the repercussions to the dynamics of their longstanding friendship.

The twelve stories in this collection encompass a diverse selection of characters from a cross-section of society. A Permanent Member of the Family is a satisfying read. Be sure to add it to your reading list.

Check the WRL catalog for A Permanent Member of the Family

shortguideThis week’s reviews come to you from the library’s Outreach Services Division, starting with a recommendation from Connie:

If you are interested in trying to live a healthy life, but are confused about the abundance of medical information out there, this is the book for you!

Dr. David Agus, a cancer specialist, is often seen on TV commenting and interpreting medical studies for the masses. He is also the best selling author of The End of Illness.

Agus attempts to distill the medical research from that book down to a prescriptive list of his 65 health rules, hence the title – A Short Guide to a Long Life.

Some of the rules seemed obvious like #11 Practice Good Hygiene or #16 Get Off Your Butt More.  Some rules are not always practical like #7 Grow a Garden, #47 Have Children, or #49 Pick Up a Pooch. Some rules are expensive (#20 Consider DNA Testing).

The book is compact and concise. The author’s goal is to give the average person a set of health guidelines based on the science available today. He feels everyone should really think about their lifestyle and the choices we make every day. Each of us, according to the author, has the ability to take more control over the future of our health. Dr. Agus suggests examining his guidelines and implementing the choices that match our own individual values, ethics, and situations.

In addition to his “rules,” he offers a decade-by-decade list of preventative steps to consider and discuss with your doctor. The key to a healthy life is prevention. Of course, the younger you are, the more impact these guidelines will have. However, it’s never too late to take more control of your life.  I can’t think of a more useful general health book.

Check the WRL catalog for A Short Guide to a Long Life

Deed of PaksenarrionElizabeth Moon’s first trilogy of novels about Paksenarrion, a farmer’s daughter turned mercenary, then paladin, is one of the great works of epic fantasy fiction. These books, now issued as a single volume, The Deed of Paksenarrion, describe a satisfying character arc as Paks, as she’s known to friends, grows from good-natured naif to seasoned campaigner to a powerful heroine who has earned her scars.

The story begins as Paks escapes an arranged marriage by joining Duke Phelan’s mercenary company. She learns that war isn’t all adventure, and encounters the frightening powers of magic for the first time. She experiences friendship and sacrifice, and learns self discipline, and has a run-in with some scoundrels in her own company.

The second book is more exotic. Paks has left the company, as there are parts of its philosophy that she can’t make fit with her moral code. She trains to become a paladin, mixes with dwarfs and elves, and takes part in a great quest to an ancient stronghold. Ultimately Paks becomes the victim of some evil magic wielded by dark elves, and as the book ends she has lost her skill at combat and her courage, endangering her future as a paladin and even her life.

Moon brings everything together gracefully in the third book, which I won’t say much about to avoid spoilers. At its core, it involves Paks’s attempt to restore her courage and a quest to restore a missing king to power.

What makes this special? Paks is one of my favorite lead characters in fantasy, right up there with Frodo Baggins and Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe, and in many ways Moon’s development of her character more thoroughly builds a complete person than even those other favorites. The pacing is excellent throughout, with a great balance of action, suspense, and moral philosophy. Moon incorporates descriptions of the physical world and the details of horsemanship and fighting smoothly into her writing. Finally, I like that there’s a clear hero to get behind here, but still some gritty details. Paks earns her status.

Since publication of these books, Moon has written both prequels and sequels to this original trilogy. So while the original books are completely satisfying in and of themselves, unlike Tolkien there are more novels to continue your experience in a world you’ll probably grow to love.

Check the WRL catalog for The Deed of Paksenarrion

East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

Liars ClubMary Karr’s family was the family in your neighborhood that your parents warned you away from when you were a child. They’re volatile people, emotionally toughened one and all. Still, to get to know them through youngest daughter Mary’s 1995 memoir is a bittersweet pleasure for readers who can handle a walk on the dark and gritty side.

The Liar’s Club takes place in the 1960s in the Texas oil town of Leechfield and a few months in Colorado. Mary is nine and she and her twelve-year-old sister Lecia are wise beyond their years. They’ve been through some rough stuff: watching a sanctimonious grandmother die from cancer, sexual abuse from playmates and babysitters, and endless fights with other kids in their tough town.

Dad, doesn’t help. He’s an oil man who can be a wonderful father, but when life gets the most challenging he often turns into a distant, hard-drinking man known as the most dangerous man in town. He hangs out with the titular Liar’s Club (although by implication, this title also applies to the whole Karr family), men who tell tall stories with hard truths hidden inside them.

But Mom is the most problematic of all the Karrs. She’s a creative, independent, city woman trapped as a housewife in the 1960s in a small town. She’s carrying secrets from a painful past, details that aren’t revealed until later in the book. She tries to mask her pain with alcohol abuse, but that isn’t enough to dull her dark streaks. Her relationship with her husband alternates between passionate romance, sullen distance, and outright ugliness. For her daughters she is sometimes like a streetwise older sister, sometimes just plain dangerous.

As you can tell, this isn’t an easy book, but the lives feel authentic, and Karr leavens the pain with some hard-bitten humor. I’m often skeptical of childhood memoirs: Can authors really remember their youth in that much detail? I was at times dubious of a somewhat similar book, Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which I enjoyed but took with a grain of salt. There’s a subtle difference in Karr’s approach that makes me trust this book more. She admits at times that her memories differ from those of her sister’s, or sometimes she just tells us when recall fails and she’s working from after-the-fact speculation. And don’t forget, this is The Liar’s Club; even when the absolute truth is stretched, there is painful but sparkling and hard-won honesty at the core of the story. Read the scenes where Mary’s mother starts to burn the contents of the house or where she fails to cope under the combined pressure of a hurricane and the last days of her mother, and you’ll understand what I mean. If you like this, go on to her other memoirs, Lit and Cherry, both of which have also received high critical praise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Liar’s Club

Junkyard DogsJunkyard Dogs is the sixth book in the Walt Longmire series of mysteries by Craig Johnson. I started here, listening to the mystery on audiobook on compact disc (The library has earlier entries in the series in print or as downloadable audiobooks). Ideally one would start at the beginning with The Cold Dish but there’s enough continuity between characters that I had no trouble following the action or enjoying the characters jumping into the series in the middle.

Sheriff Walt Longmire of little Durant, Wyoming is a great character, perhaps the kind of man that it’s more fun to read about than to try to get along with in real life. He’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide, a sarcastic sense of humor, and he likes doing things his way. Fortunately, his way works most of the time, at least when it comes to solving crimes. He’s surrounded by a great supporting cast too: his lifelong friend Henry Standing-Bear; his dog (named Dog); and most important in this book, a squeamish deputy named Santiago Saizarbitoria; and his on-again, off-again love interest Victoria (also a deputy).

Junkyard Dogs begins with a run-in with the Stuart family, an odd collection of country bumpkins who run the local junkyard. Grandfather Geo is the seemingly indestructible family patriarch. His grandson Duane and granddaughter-in-law Gina are screw-ups always on the verge of trouble with the law. And then there are the two huge wolf-like dogs they own–the more obvious referents of the book’s title. The Stuarts have an ongoing feud with developer Ozzie Dobbs, who’s in money trouble over the failure of a huge development. Ozzie would love to get rid of the eyesore junkyard next door (and develop the land while he’s at it). The feud would get even worse if Ozzie discovered that Geo and his mother have a bit of a romantic liaison going on.

I won’t give away too much of the plot. A thumb, no longer connected to its owner, becomes an important plot point, as do Walt’s status with Victoria and Santiago’s continuing ability to function in his job. Over the course of the book, Sheriff Longmire takes about as much physical damage as a body can but Johnson has a unique ability to transform pain, ornery behavior, and the terse speech patterns of westerners into high comedy. The mystery puzzle is solid, if not brilliant, but that’s not really the point here. The reason to read this series is for the characters, the atmosphere, and the humor, and on all of those accounts, Johnson is masterful.

If you listen to audiobooks, by all means experience this book that way. I’m not usually a fan of George Guidall, but his voice and characterizations are perfect for this series. I haven’t seen it, but I hear that the television series based on Johnson’s books, Longmire, is also a pleasure.

Check the WRL catalog for Junkyard Dogs

Or try Junkyard Dogs as an audiobook on compact disc.

 

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