Friday, October 9, 2015

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

This account of the Dust Bowl epoch in the southern great plains by Timothy Egan certainly does make clear what a horrendous loss of lives and property occurred in the "dirty thirties." Tim Egan recently gave an "Author! Author!" talk here in Bend (through our public library) to discuss his book about Edward Curtis. Because his talk was focused on that book, he did not answer questions about his other works. I recently read and posted on Breaking Blue, another historical narrative.
I grew up in Oklahoma until I was 15 so had certainly heard about the Dust Bowl and the migration of "Okies" to California. Egan attempted to personalize these events by interviewing survivors, drawing from diaries, newspaper accounts, and government documentation. The scale of the disaster, caused largely by human behavior really was staggering--millions of tons of dust was blown away. In the process, people died of "dust pneumonia," lost their crops, livestock, land, and way of life. Egan does a good job of painting the plains as the home of bison and Indians, with grasslands that held down the dirt for thousands of years of human habitation. But then came the wholesale slaughter of the bison to deprive the natives of their food source, followed by ranchers who fenced the land, and finally--fatally--by farmers who tore up the grass to plant wheat. So that when the drought came, as they historically always do, and the crops died, there was nothing holding the earth in place. Even when people could get small crops to grow, the hordes of grasshoppers ate everything down to the ground.
The facts and figures are consistently astounding. And a few characters emerge as memorable. But largely I found this book tried to do too much, talk to too many people, and portray too many stories to make it a compelling read. It felt choppy and slow, with frequent shifts in the locale and time frame of the narrative. Egan may well have had his journalistic reasons for such choices, but I have not enjoyed reading his books, unlike those of Erik Larson, who does basically the same genre. Nevertheless, Egan won a National Book Award (2006) for this tome, so it's just my opinion. More detail and positive reviews at Kirkus and the New York Times.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Fifth Witness

I really like this series by Michael Connelly featuring itinerant lawyer, Mickey Haller (aka The Lincoln Lawyer). Fifth Witness is the 4th major book for this character series--there are posts for 4 other books in the series (Lincoln Lawyer, The Brass VerdictThe Reversal, The Gods of Guilt). Crime has been slow during the Great Recession (as it came to be known) and Mickey has put himself in the business of helping those whose homes are being foreclosed. There are plenty of clients, some more legitimately victims than others, and then there is Lisa. She is always inserting herself in Mickey's efforts to keep the bank from foreclosing on the house where she is living with her son. When the head of the mortgage department at the bank is murdered, Lisa is arrested. Mickey is convinced that she is being railroaded by the police department, and also that the whole thing may have been a set up by the CEO of the company that contracts with the bank to do foreclosures. It appears he has ties to organized crime and does not want that disclosed in an upcoming merger with a public company that will bring him millions of dollars. There is the usual push to get his client off with whatever strategies work--discrediting witnesses, creating a "straw man" to put reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors, and always trying to stay at least one step ahead of the prosecution. Mickey and ex-wife Maggie continue to dance an approach-avoidance two-step that is complicated by their mutual love for teenage daughter., Hayley. Maggie, as a prosecutor for the county, still considers Mickey's tactics reprehensible. Even his new associate, fresh out of a department store law program, has her doubts. But Mickey wears his blinders so he can live with himself and defend his clients to the best of his ability. In this case, the enemies may be much closer than he thinks.

The Screaming Staircase

Now there's a title that makes you want to run right out and read the book, right?! This is another fun YA book from Jonathan Stroud. I read the Bartimaeus Trilogy a long time back so when I saw this new series--Lockwood & Co-- in e-book format, I grabbed it.
The Problems have come to England--an excess of ghosts of varying levels of malevolence generally causing the shape of life to change. No one goes out after dark--except the children who are still able to sense the ghosts by sound or sight. They are on the defensive front line and Lucy Carlyle, having left her small village agency which just lost 3 agents, has come to London and joined Lockwood & Co. This is London's smallest ghost fighting group--only Lockwood, George, and now Lucy--and the only one without an adult supervisor. They are getting on OK until they accidentally burn down a house while fighting a surprisingly strong ghost. They are being sued and stand to lose the entire business until a new client makes them an offer they can't refuse.
But the murder they uncovered in the fire-related haunting has sinister ties to this new client, whose motives may not be simply to rid his country estate of terrifying spirits. These books are just a kick to read if you enjoy YA and the supernatural. Dive in, and don't forget your rapier, salt bombs and chains to keep the ghosts from getting too close! The e-book also provided a glossary of ghost types and the weapons used to fight them :-)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ming Tea Murder

I really love this "Tea Shop Mystery" series by Laura Childs. They are like English cozies set in modern day Charleston, S. Carolina. Childs does such a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of the city, which operates in many ways like a village with gossip and deceit and...of course, murder most foul. This time  the murder occurs at the museum where Theodosia's boyfriend Max is the Publicity Director. It is an invitation only gala to celebrate the museum's purchase of a genuine Chinese tea house from Shanghai, which was purchased in large part through the donations of one particular board member, Roger Webster. He is also the murder victim. In between trying to solve the murder and run her tea shop, Theo is also running in a 5K with her mixed breed dog, Earl Grey, taking over the chairwoman's duties a big Halloween party in the historic district to help out the victim's widow, Charlotte, and setting up a booth at the charity craft market to help out the local service dog organization. Oh, yes and tea shop is hosting several themed "tea's" to celebrate the Halloween holidays and a funeral luncheon.
To complicate matters even more, Max gets fired from his job--the sleazy museum director needs a scapegoat, apparently. On the other hand, perhaps those who seem to be in Max's camp aren't exactly to be trusted either.
Lots of tasty meals are served up at Indigo Tea Shop, all accompanied by tasty tea's, with recipes offered at the end of the book. These books are such a treat on so many levels, and there are a hefty number of them to choose from...this is the 16th in the series! See also my posts on Blood Orange Brewing and Oolong Dead.

Two for Sorrow

This is actually the 3rd in the Josephine Tey series by Nicola Upson, but our library let me down by not having the 2nd in the series, Angel with Two Faces. I am having a bit of a time trying to figure out how to use my iPad mini to write and post this blog, but here goes. BTW there is already a post for the first book by Upson, An Expert in Murder.
Josephine is back in London staying quietly at her professional women's club, The Cowdray, while she does research for a new book based on the true life criminals Amelia Sach and Annie Walters. Nicola Upson has done her research on the crimes and has her writer protagonist do the same.  There are a few "draft" chapters of the book interspersed with chapters in which the characters are developed and the plot moved forward. In the book,  Josephine is able to actually interview some people who were involved in various ways with the two women before they were executed in 1903 and, it turns out, she actually went to school with the daughter of Amelia Sach without having known it at the time. In fact, the book relies perhaps a bit too much on several of the characters having connections to the crime Josephine is writing about and so bringing the old crimes and the new ones together. People have changed their identities to protect themselves from the harassment that followed publicity about the murders of babies and the eventual double hanging of the two women. And there are some other surprises about who people really are.
Friend Archie gets involved initially because there have been some minor thefts and some poison pen letters sent to members of the Cowdray Club. But then, one of the seamstresses working for the Motley sisters is murdered in a most gruesome fashion and the message sent by the method suggests she was talking too much. She had also been a former petty thief jailed at the same place the baby farmers had been imprisoned, Holloway Gaol. The Motley sisters have agreed to outfit the Board of the Cowdray Club for a benefit gala so they move into the club to complete the final work, having been barred from the site of the murder, their work rooms.
There are developments along a romantic line as well. Marta resurfaces with a surprising revelation and Archie is pushed into saying things that also rock the boat for Josephine. The characters in these books are complex and there are not necessarily happy endings or tidy solutions to the problems presented by messy human relationships. But they are very well wrought, capturing the essence of post WWI London, and I will undoubtedly finish out the series.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Breaking Blue

Author Timothy Egan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and has also written several prize-winning non-fiction books, as well as several works of fiction. He will be the first author to visit Bend as part of the library's "Author! Author!" series. Here he provides a narrative account of an investigation into the oldest open murder case in the state of Washington, that of Newport town marshall George Conniff, which took place in 1935. The current Sheriff of Pend Oreille county, Tony Bamonte, while writing a history of the county's law enforcement for his master's thesis, uncovers evidence about Conniff's murder by black-market butter thieves that suggests Spokane policemen were involved, and covered up for the killers.
When Bamonte sought their help with his investigation into the cold case, Spokane PD were non-responsive and uncooperative; they wanted nothing to do with a "do-gooder" cop who is willing to go against the brotherhood (even though he was investigating the death of a law enforcement officer) and bring bad publicity to the Spokane police department in the process. But Tony is dogged and tracks down the few remaining witnesses, the murderer himself, and--amazingly--the lethal weapon, which had been thrown into the Spokane River over 50 years ago. His obsession brings closure to the children of George Conniff, even though he fails to get an indictment against the murderer, former Spokane detective Clyde Ralstin. However, it costs him his marriage of 25 years, and his job.
Evocative descriptions of Depression-era Spokane and eastern Washington, and of the dying towns of more current day eastern Washington as the mining, timber, and cement industries fade away.  This is true crime clothed in a readable story that fleshes out characters, motives and settings. If you enjoy the work of Erik Larson, are a true crime aficionado and/ or are a local history buff, you will enjoy this book. Additional reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, New York Times.

The Interior

This is the 2nd of the "Red Princess" mystery series by author Lisa See, who will be coming to Bend as part of the Deschutes Public Library "Author! Author!" program. See also my blog on the first book in the series, Flower Net. Hulan is pregnant with David's child but keeping it secret from everyone in China, or so she thinks, and she is finding continual excuses not to join David in LA. She is continuing her work at the Ministry of Public Security but the cases have become routine and boring. She receives a letter from a woman who worked with her on the Red Soil Farm in the interior when Hulan was a teen and full of revolutionary fervor. Ling Suchee's daughter, Miaoshan, has died, apparently having hung herself. Suchee is sure this is murder and asks Hulan to investigate; after taking a leave from work and going to the poor farm of Suchee, Hulan is inclined to agree. She cannot get the authorities to investigate further, so she decides to go undercover at the nearby factory of American toy manufacturer, Knight International, where Miaoshan had worked.
She calls David as she is leaving Beijing and asks if he can find out anything about Knight International and David taps a former colleague at Phillips, MacKenzie & Stout. Keith seems nervous about David's questions; apparently he has been handling the purchase of Knight International for one of the law firm's major corporate clients, Tartan Industries. As they are walking out of the restaurant after dinner, shots are fired at David and Keith is run down by a car and killed. David assumes he was the target of another Triad attempt to kill him, and that Keith was an innocent victim, but the reverse turns out to be the case. David's old law firm asks him to come back and handle their Chinese clients, including finishing the purchase process for Knight/ Tartan. This would allow David to be with Hulan and he jumps at the chance.
Hulan uncovers horrendous working conditions in the factory, well hidden from the owner and any visitors. Children are working assembly jobs, dangerous machinery regularly causes injuries (Hulan herself is injured her first day on the line), and--if gossip is to be believed--those who are seriously injured disappear permanently. Still the women (all the factory assembly and packing jobs are held by females) put up with it because it is the only way to earn money and, therefore, any independence in this poor rural area of the country.
As David and Hulan eventually join forces, a 2nd murder near Suchee's farm occurs and now Hulan believes the two young people's deaths are not connected to the factory after all. But David is sure murder, bribery and other crimes have happened there, and he is determined to bring the perpetrators to justice. It very nearly costs them both their lives, as a fire, set by the killers, consumes the factory. This book raises disturbing questions about our own country's hypocrisy around labor abuses in China, politically at home, and on the ground in China. As before, a fascinating picture of modern China struggling to free itself from years of bloody and repressive history and take its place in the modern world.