Monday, February 1, 2016


Larry D. Sweazy's A Thousand Falling Crows is brutally violent western noir.

Don't get me wrong. A Thousand Falling Crows is an excellent book, well worth reading. But I wanted you to know from the beginning to expect the pain this book shares.

A dog kept me reading. Along the way, I found myself thinking, "If Sweazy kills the dog, I'm done with this book." But I made it to the end.

Texas Ranger Sonny Burton lost his right arm because of the wound he got in a shootout with Bonnie and Clyde.

At first, Burton wants to feel sorry for himself, to hang around the shack and not come out. But several things change that.

A poor Hispanic hospital janitor asks Burton to help him find his sixteen-year-old run-away daughter. At the same time, a serial murderer leaves one young woman after another beaten, dead, and brutalized along the side of the road.

Because he lost his arm, Burton is "retired" from the Texas Rangers. It galls him that the Rangers have assigned his alienated son to take his place.

Mix in the dust bowl depression era, a long-term county sheriff, a helpful nurse with terrible problems, and several other people (suspects Burton has known much of his life), and you have a powerful story.

I bought this book because of its unusual title. The crows do play an important part.

I can't remember how I came across A Thousand Falling Crows. I don't accept free Advanced Reading Copies. But I get a lot of requests about ARCs. Sometimes if the book looks interesting, I buy it and read it. I suspect that's how I learned of this book.

For me, the book got better about halfway in. And by the end, I was glad Sweazy hadn't killed the dog.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

not a mystery--THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

Over the years I have read and liked several Newbery Award-winning young adult novels.

Lois Lowry sets The Giver (1993) in an apparently Utopian society. Everything is painless and perfect.

In her Newbery medal acceptance speech, Lowry described it this way: "In beginning to write The Giver I created--as I always do, in every book--a world that existed only in my imagination, the world of 'only us, only now.' I tried to make Jonas's world seem familiar, comfortable, and safe, and I tried to seduce the reader. I seduced myself along the way. It did feel good, that world. I got rid of all the things I fear and dislike; all the violence, prejudice, poverty, injustice, and I even threw in good manners as a way of life because I liked the idea of it."

For Jonas, everything was bland. Every age had a role--an age to learn to use snaps, an age to learn to use buttons, and age when you got your bicycle, and an age (12) when the Elders assigned you your life's work.

Jonas had no love, happiness, pain, grief, knowledge of colors, or fears of any kind.

Then at twelve the Elders assigned Jonas the role of Receiver of Memories, the most honored role in the community. The past Receiver of Memories became The Giver, the one who transferred his memories to Jonas who would hold them and protect them.

Even this society could not destroy memories. It could only keep them away from the people, store them in The Receiver.

A Receiver had stored memories for as long as anyone knew, as the books says, "back and back and back."

But Jonas and The Giver plot to change things.

To me, this was The Giver's story. I'm sure most people focus on Jonas, but The Giver's life includes a special tragedy. That tragedy motivates him to want to share his memories with the people. 

As the book explains, to share his memories with the people in a way that doesn't destroy them, The Giver needs Jonas's wholehearted cooperation.

The Giver works with Jonas to try to destroy the utopia and replace it with a society filled with love, mistakes, choice, freedom, happiness, pain, and grief.

Jonas's society is filled with lies. Disguised lies. Even death is hidden.

Now Jonas works with The Giver to create something different.

The book ends in an open-ended way.

I found this book in a list of Kindle specials. I plan to order and read Lowry's other Newbery Award book, Number the Stars.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

SPECIMEN SONG by Peter Bowen

In Peter Bowen's Specimen Song (1995), Gabriel Du Pré sets himself up as a decoy.

A serial murderer kills several Cree women including two children.

Du Pré takes on the murderer, not by working through clues or events, but through his more native instincts.

At one point, Du Pré says, "I know that I know the killer. I know him if I see him. I will know him when he moves. I won't till then. It is many things. When you go to track something, you are not just looking for footprints or the marks of hooves. You look at the country and see what isn't right about it, something; sometimes you stare for an hour without moving. You try to see everything."

In other words, this is a different kind of book. The shaman Benetsee guides Du Pré. Friends like his rich friend Bart (and Bart's lover Michelle) support him. Du Pré's own instincts lead him to the murderer. And Du Pré's actions makes his life into the sort of song he sings about his ancestors.

Along the way, friends and family help. Du Pré's lover Madeline gives him strength. Du Pré's daughter Maria plays a startling part in the inevitable conclusion.

Specimen Song begins with Du Pré fiddling at a contest in Washington D.C. as the killer watches him.

Du Pré goes on two canoe trips, historical re-creations of his ancestors' journeys to and from Canada and protests at how development is changing the land.

The book is strongly rooted in history and in the land.

For me, there are no books like the Gabriel Du Pré books. The Métis history, the detailed descriptions of Montana and other places, the wonderful characters, and the terse writing all work together to make good reading.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

a non-fiction book--AREA 51 by Annie Jacobsen

Annie Jacobsen's Area 51 is an eye-popping book.

Area 51 is a secret military installation in the Nevada desert. It started as an atomic test site. Some of the most ill-advised and horrific nuclear tests occurred in Area 51. Then Area 51 came to involve secret testing of projects including the U-2 spy plane and the much later moon landing.

Along the way, Jacobsen describes the people involved. She delineates the egos, the fights for power among people like air force General Curtis LeMay and the CIA's  Richard Bissell. Their conflicts might have affected the outcome of military actions like the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Area 51 begins and ends with conspiracy theories. Many of the UFO rumors involve Area 51. Jacobsen says the covert projects gave ample opportunity for there to be UFO sightings. She cites claims that Russia launched an actual UFO-like object with mangled alien-looking children onboard.

At one point she writes: "As creative as conspiracy theorists can be when it comes to Area 51, it is surprising how they have missed the one underlying element that connects the three primary conspiracy theories about the secret facility to the truth. For conspiracy theorists, in the captured-aliens-and-UFOs narrative, the federal agency orchestrating the plot is the CIA. In the lunar-landing conspiracy the agency committing the fraud is NASA. In the underground tunnels and bunker plot, the evil operating force is the Department of Defense. And yet the one agency that plays an actual role in the underlying facts regarding all three of these conspiracy theories is the Atomic Energy Commission."

In other words, the AEC encouraged the rumors to cover up its own complicity in what was happening at Area 51.

So what did I think of this book? Is the book accurate? I doubt it is in every detail. Much of what Jacobsen writes about is still hidden in classified documents.

 But I found the book well-written and frightening. Jacobsen interviewed many who had worked at Area 51. 

My monthly book group chose to read Area 51 this month. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD by E. J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen

In The Question of the Missing Head, E. J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen's narrator has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Samuel Hoenig runs a business called Questions Answered. Dr. Marshall Ackerman, chief administrator of Garden State Cryonics Institute, hires Hoenig to answer the question, "Who stole one of our heads, Mr. Hoenig?"

Apparently, someone stole a head the Institute was preserving in hopes of restoring it to life. If Hoenig does not recover the head within a few hours, the person's brain will die.

Hoenig works with a recently met sidekick, Ms. Washburn. She is adept at interpreting emotions and explaining the euphemisms and other figures of speech that confuse the literal Hoenig.

Along the way, someone murders a doctor at the Institute. Samuel Hoenig meets the mother and brother of the lady whose head was stolen. He gets to know the strange head of security at the Institute. And finally, he solves the very complicated murder.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, I picked up this book because of its unusual title. I found the book worth reading. The premise requires a willing suspension of disbelief. And I have no way of evaluating whether the portrayal of Asperger's is true to life. But I liked the people and the story.

The book closes with an complicated scenario appropriate for a literal, detailed person like Samuel. It also closes with a brief hint that there might come to be more between Hoenig and the unhappily married Ms. Washburn.

As I understand it, this is the first book in a continuing series.

Friday, January 1, 2016


Roberta Isleib's Preaching to the Corpse could have been named Murder in the Search Committee.

During the Christmas season, someone kills the chairwoman of the Madison, Connecticut, First Congregational Church assistant pastor search committee.

Church member Dr. Rebecca Butterman, a psychologist and part-time advice columnist, investigates the murder. She also inherits the chairmanship of the committee.

The ins and outs of church life abound. Half the committee wants one person. The other half wants the other. The present minister weighs in on his choice.

Meanwhile Dr. Butterman has personal problems. She is partially estranged from her sister. She admits her infatuation for the investigating officer (whose wife is dying of ALS).  And she struggles with personal doubts as she delves into the secrets of the minister and the congregation.

For me, Preaching to the Corpse was a mixed bag. I enjoyed the glimpse into small church politics, something I know well. But I disliked the narrator's "mind chatter," her torturous projections about her life and the crime.

Along the way, Dr. Butterman made terrible blunders. She broke the law, she put herself in danger, and she shared the confidential workings of the committee with her policeman friend.

Preaching to the Corpse is an event-driven story. Circumstances reveal the killer. The investigation pushes things along.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Donna Andrews' The Nightingale Before Christmas is a humor-filled, feel-good Christmas cozy.

Meg Langslow supervises a house-decorating project. Each designer has one room to redo and decorate for Christmas. The sponsors didn't get their act together, so the previously long-vacant house will open right after Christmas. People will buy tickets to see the rooms. The proceeds will go to fund the Caerphilly Historical Society and to provide the grand prize.

The designer whose room wins the grand prize gets to donate the prize to his/her favorite charity.

The competition is intense. Things disappear. Someone steals packages with materials necessary to complete their competitors' projects.

The local student newspaper covers the contest.

Family Christmas intrudes adding to Meg's stress. And to top it off, Meg's mother is one of the designers.

Then someone murders the most hated contestant. And the story goes from there.

Loyal readers will know the main characters in this book. They are part of a continuing series.

As expected, the story ends with a feeling like the feeling in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

This was a fun book to read as I was waiting for the family to come on Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Dell Shannon's Crime for Christmas (1983) is a traditional police procedural.

Violent crime continues no matter the season. The Glendale, California, police department investigates a strange disappearance, a series of thefts, several murders, and several other crimes.

Glendale's squad rooms become home for a pregnant cat, a lonely dog, and a parrot.

The members of the squad face the usual family ups and downs. Delia Riordan's father recently died. She uses work to assuage her grief. And ironically, Delia is the one who "breaks the bad news" to several victims' relatives.

The squad is fully staffed, but the story is mostly Delia's. They all work together to investigate strange crimes such as the quiet murder of a well-liked teenager in the local library.

And as happens so often in police procedurals, coincidence plays a part in solving some of the crimes.

When it comes to things like race, homosexuality and women's rights, most of these cops reflect 1983 attitudes.

Years ago, I read all of Dell Shannon's Luis Mendoza police procedurals. I always looked forward to them.

Dell Shannon is one of the pen names of Barbara 'Elizabeth' Linington (1921-1988). Linington wrote 82 crime novels under several names. She was a groundbreaking writer, reportedly the first woman to write modern police procedurals.

Crimes for Christmas is part of The Murder Room series dedicated to making hard-to-find out-of-publication pulp novels again available to mystery lovers. I read this book on my Kindle.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

not a mystery--THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck's 1932 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Good Earth describes world-changing events from the point of view of a Chinese farmer.

Wang Lung goes to the great house to find a wife. He grovels before the opium-soused Ancient Mistress of the house, asking to marry one of their slaves.

O-lan, who becomes his wife, is the strongest character in the book. She helps manage their farm, shares in the work, and doesn't even take a full day off to deliver Wang Lung's first first son. (They have many children including three sons and a well-loved mentally handicapped daughter Wang Lung calls "the fool.")

Wang Lung's and O-lan's fortunes rise and fall. Wang Lung becomes rich. In the good seasons, he saves, buys more land, and puts silver by for hard times.

Then Wang Lung's uncle demands silver. Wang Lung gives it to him. Tradition says he is obligated to his elders.

From there, Wang Lung's fortunes change. He fathers his first daughter (considered a sign of bad luck). He faces devastating floods. He and his family live in abject poverty. They move off his land. But through it all, he refuses to sell his land. He hangs on to what he believes is the source of all wealth--the good earth.

And again his fortunes change. In the midst of one of the many peasant revolts, Wang Lung and O-lan steal gold, silver, and jewels from a wealthy man. They use their newfound wealth to return to the good earth and to buy more land.

But Wang Lung's values change. He takes a mistress. He gives his mistress two special pearls he has taken from O-lan, and he finally moves his family into town into the great house where he once groveled to find a wife. He becomes more like the people he detested.

Wang Lung prospers but loses his close ties to the good earth. And all the while, the growing gap between the rich and the poor plants the seeds of the revolution.

The book ends with Wang Lung facing the prospect of a tragedy beyond his imagining. And he doesn't even know it will happen.

The Good Earth is much more complex than I've described it. It shows the role of women in China at the time. (Sons belonged to the family, but daughters were worthless. They were being raised for someone else's family.)

 The Good Earth describes traditions like foot-binding. Wealthy mothers bound the feet of their daughters. Men found women with small feet sexually attractive. But women with small feet could do little except move unsteadily about the house. O-lan's large feet (for which Wang Lung finally rejected her) made her strong. She could work from dawn to dusk in the fields and in the house.

My local book club chose this book to read. I had not read the book before. Sometimes it seemed too long, but to me, it was a bottom-up epic. It was the story of world-changing events told, not from the point of view of someone like Ulysses, but from the point of view of a Chinese farmer.

In 1938, Pearl Buck won the Nobel prize for literature.

Friday, December 11, 2015

HIS RIGHT HAND by Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison’s His Right Hand seemed to me to be a courageous book.

When you write a widely published book, you put your thoughts out for all to see. If you write about a controversial subject or a sensitive group of people, you take an extra risk.

In His Right Hand, someone murders a member of Mormon Bishop Kurt Wallheim’s Draper, Utah, bishopric council.

The investigation reveals a devastating secret about the victim.

Bishop Wallheim’s wife Linda sets out to help solve the murder. In so doing, she gives a detailed description of the working of the Mormon church.

She also describes the role of women in the church. Linda Wallheim goes way beyond the expected role.

I am being intentionally vague about the plot of this book. The reader should find out for him/herself what the victim’s secret issue is. And the reader should make a way through the ups and downs of the plot.

For me, the religious part of the story was paramount. I saw holes in the overall plotting. I thought Linda Wallheim took liberties I wonder if a Bishop’s wife could (or should) take. But I kept on reading. (In several places, I could hardly stop reading.)

Matte Ivie Harrison seems to be much like her protagonist. She seems to be a faithful Mormon who would expand the role of women in the church. She would also widen the church’s vision. And her plot shows how she feels.

As a person who has written a commercially published book himself, I understand how far and wide an author’s book can go. (Even a book that didn’t sell well, as mine didn’t.)

You receive letters and emails from people who have shared the experience you described and are complimentary. But you certainly hear from others on the other side.

So, I saw His Right Hand as a courageously written book. I applaud Mette Ivie Harrison for writing it. 

Monday, December 7, 2015


Rhys Bowen’s Away in a Manger is a pleasant Christmas story with an action-filled ending.

It is 1905 in New York City. Molly Murphy Sullivan runs across two out-of-the-ordinary street urchins. The four-year-old little girl has a beautiful voice. Her eight-year-old brother speaks in a way that makes it clear they came from a middle- or upper-class family. Why are they begging on the streets?
In the midst of a busy Christmas season, Molly sets out to trace their mother who seems to have abandoned them. At the same time, she is preparing for her family Christmas celebration. Her family includes her husband Daniel, their infant son Liam, and Birdie (another child she has taken on).

Someone shoots Molly’s police official husband. The shooting has nothing to do with the orphans, but it adds to Molly's stress and makes it so her husband can’t be as much help in her investigation.
Molly’s mother-in-law and two neighbors pitch in to help.
Molly traces the children's mother. She finds the abusive woman who has been keeping the two children. And she uncovers the children’s awful backstory.
Along the way, Molly makes a crucial mistake. She gives up an important piece of evidence and puts the children in danger.
Away in a Manger is the first Molly Murphy story I have read. Two things attracted me: (1) I was looking for a good Christmas mystery; and (2) My father’s Italian parents immigrated in the same 1890-1902 time period as the Irish Molly Murphy. I wanted to see how Rhys Bowen would portray that time.

Rhys Bowen fills Away in a Manger with references to earlier stories in the series. I expect to go back and read some of the earlier books. They begin with a book about Molly’s immigration to the USA.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Thanksgiving week was a week away from the computer. I read five books in that time. Here are brief summaries, not as complete and my comments often are, because some of these books are more than a week old in my mind.


Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale is the first James Bond book.

I am almost embarrassed to summarize such a well-known plot.

Briefly, M assigns Bond to try to bankrupt a Soviet agent Le Chiffre at Casino Royale’s baccarat table. M knows Le Chiffre is trying to replace money he has embezzled from a labor union he manages. If he cannot do that, his own handlers will kill him.

So the book breaks down into one of the longest gambling scenes I’ve ever read, a torturous scene in which Le Chiffre brutalizes Bond, and a final section where Bond works out his relationship with his female sidekick Vesper and decides to spend his life attacking the Soviet Secret Service.

I read all the Bond books almost 50 years ago when I was in graduate school studying English and American literature. I needed something to get me away from Ben Jonson’s plays and other such esoteric reading.

I don’t remember the details of the Bond books, but I suspect Casino Royale is among the best. Bond is a naïve beginner. He makes two potentially fatal mistakes. And he is not the invincible hero I remember from later books and movies.

Right now, Amazon has the Bond books on Kindle specials. I’m glad I picked this one up.


If you are looking for a Christmas mystery that emphasizes the mystery more than the Christmas, you might try Jill McGown’s Redemption. (St. Martin’s Press first published Redemption in 1988. Some editions use the name Murder at the Old Vicarage.)

On Christmas Eve, someone bludgeons to death the abusive husband of the vicar’s daughter.

At first, Acting Chief Inspector Lloyd and his assistant Detective Sergeant Judy Hill have three suspects--the vicar, his wife, and their daughter. Later another suspect comes along.

Every suspect is lying. The vicar lies to protect his wife and daughter. He tries to cover up a slightly philandering relationship. The mother lies to protect her family, and the daughter withholds portions of her story. Even the outside suspect withholds information until she is pressed.

How do you sort through a web of lies? One minor character tells the truth, and early on she describes what is happening.

In a way, Redemption is a closed room story. Someone locked the family out of the vicarage. The murder occurred in one room, but no one agrees about who could have gone into that room and when. And even when the suspects leave the vicarage, Lloyd and Hill have to try to decipher where those people went and why.

Add to all this the love affair between Lloyd and Hill, and you have a complex and emotional mystery. Lloyd wants Hill to divorce her husband whom she does not love.

I came across this book through PatriciaAbbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books. Someone on that blog reviewed a Lloyd and Hill mystery. I could not find that book, but I found McGown’s three-book compilation, A Trio of Murders. That led me to Redemption.


Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity’s Christmas is about PTSD.

Lori Shepard finds a homeless man passed out beneath her lilac bushes. (It is not this man who has PTSD.) 

Lori, her husband Bill, Bill’s father William Sr., and Lori and Bill’s two small twins live in Aunt Dimity’s cottage near Finch in England. Lori talks with the spirit of Aunt Dimity through Dimity’s journal. Dimity uses her clearly identifiable handwriting to converse with Lori.

The dying tramp destroys Lori’s plans for an idyllic Christmas.

As the man lies comatose in the hospital, Lori works with the Catholic priest who operates the local homeless shelter. Father Julian and Lori identify the man and trace his family. They find a painful legacy of love and bitterness.

One of the most terrible episodes of WWII haunts the dying man. His story helps Lori relearn what Christmas means.

Aunt Dimity’s Christmas is a traditional story. There is a small town manger scene reenactment of the sort you’d find in Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Lori still depends on her stuffed animal Reginald. The comatose man has his own stuffed animal. And we finally learn why the homeless man was trying to make his way to Dimity’s cottage.

So, what did I think of the book? The core story moved me. I would have ended the book right there. I found the long concluding chapters too happy-Christmassy. I recommend the book because of  its powerful backstory. 

I read the last two books more than a week ago, so they get short shrift.

Andrea Camilleri’s A Beam of Light follows a familiar pattern. Sicily’s  Inspector Montalbano falls in love with a beautiful gallery owner. Meanwhile, his long term relationship with Livia continues to be fraught with misunderstandings. The issue is:  Will Montalbano throw Liva over for a new love?

At the same time, Montalbano and his team investigate a kissing bandit. The man stole money from the wife of a prominent market owner. He kissed her and then made his getaway.

This investigation leads to gun runners and other more serious crimes.

And Montalbano’s connection with the gallery owner leads him to discover how she is being used in art theft and fraud.

The story ends with the inspector having to make a decision about Liva. He decides because of an experience they share, a relationship from an earlier book. His choice is the most real thing about A Beam of Light.

As always, the inspector eats scrumptious meals and lives life large.

Almost until the end, I found A Beam of Light repetitive. In regard to his women problems, sometimes I wish  Montalbano would finally learn. He keeps making the same mistakes again and again.

A tip of the hat to Stephen Sartarelli whose translations make it possible for me to read and enjoy Andrea Camilleri’s  books about Inspector Montalbano.


R. Allen Chappell’s Ancient Blood: A Navajo Nation Mystery deals with an archeological dig to determine what caused the sudden end of the Anasazi culture in the Four Corners area.

The Four Corners Monument sits where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona join.

Locals Charlie Yazzie and Thomas Begay help Professor George Armstrong Custer as he leads the dig. Yazzie and Begay end up dealing with three murders and assorted other violence.

For me, the strength of this book was in what it told me about the terrain, history, and traditions of this place and these people. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


I have been away from the computer. If I can get them done, I expect to upload postings on five books today.

Friday, November 20, 2015

ALL MEN FEAR ME by Donis Casey

“There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags...who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” --Woodrow Wilson, Address to Congress, 1915.
“Watch your neighbor. If he is not doing everything in his power to help the nation in this crisis, see that he is reported to the authorities.” --Tulsa Daily World.
Donis Casey’s All Men Fear Me made me think of what is happening today.
Alafair Tucker’s story is set during World War I. President Wilson tells the American people to fear Germans and other foreigners in America. Some people in Boynton, Oklahoma, apply Wilson’s advice to Boynton citizens of German descent.
After being cool toward the war, many Oklahomans are stirred up. The Germans have invited the Mexicans to invade us. The nation has broken into those who support the war and those who don’t (with some in between).
Americans have formed patriotic fronts and started to try to sort out unpatriotic people. Prime suspects for treason include people like Alafair Tucker’s visiting brother who works as an organizer for a draft-avoiding labor union.
Alafair’s son-in-law is of German descent. Even though he furnishes hogs for the army, he finds one of his gilts pinned to his front door with his slaughtering knife. A blood-penned note on the door tells him to leave town and go back to Germany.
On the other side, someone sabotages the local brick plant which supplies bricks for army installations.

A strange man in a bowler hat roams the community. Some think he is the devil.
Many are practicing voluntary rationing, even farmers who raise their own food and have an excess. The government has set out a schedule for meatless and wheatless meals and days.
A small group of Oklahoma radical union draft resisters foments what they hope will be a national revolt. And in amongst all this, someone kills two members of the local patriotic front (the Knights of Liberty).
Alafair Tucker’s whole family becomes involved. Alafair ends up trying to defend one of her sons in a murderous situation.
As with all the Alafair Tucker books, this one is strongly grounded in Oklahoma history. Casey tells the history in detail as the book works up to its unexpected conclusion.
The Alafair Trucker books are among my favorites. All Men Fear Me is an excellent addition to the series.