Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

William Morrow, 348 pages, $15.99 (c2017)

I kept misreading the title as “The Lost Souls,” but “The Lost Ones” does a better job of describing the book. Nora Watts, the indomitable main character, has not lost her soul, even if she loses her way sometimes.

“The Lost Ones” is a rough book to read. The bad things come in waves and are unrelenting for long stretches. Nora is a tough character. She doesn’t exist for you to love her. She doesn’t even wonder if you are cheering on her survival. She exists to find her way back into a semblance of a life, less a warrior than a survivor. She says,

“I am an ex-alcoholic survivor, sober off and on for thirteen years, celibate for just as long, who owns no property, has no friends, and spends her nights wandering the city with no one to love except a dog that is perpetually in heat.”

In Vancouver, B.C., Nora is a research assistant/errand person to a prize-winning journalist and his private investigator husband. She secretly lives in the basement of their office. She has a quiet dog named Whisper. Her life is small, contained, but not without brief moments of satisfaction. Her talent, used by both her bosses, is she can tell when someone is lying. Barely not a sixth sense in a woo-woo way, but an extraordinary psychological/physiological/who-knows ability.

One day a man and a woman walk into Nora’s carefully balanced life. They say they are the adoptive parents of Nora’s child, a child she had given birth to and given up fifteen years ago. Bonnie has run away from home. Her parents need Nora’s help to find her, because Bonnie may have run away to find her, her birth mother.

The circumstances of Bonnie’s conception and birth are traumatic for Nora, and she turns the couple down. But there is the remainder of a conscience, a sense of responsibility — nothing maternal, she thinks, but something compassionate, perhaps. On her own, Nora begins the search for a young girl who deserves better.

Nora starts off small. Spying on Bonnie’s home, Nora notices a car definitely providing surveillance, but not in a good way. Nora calls in an ask from her former AA sponsor, a cop named Brazuca. Who owns the vehicle attached to the license plate Nora has written down?

Things get bigger and messier from there. It shouldn’t have been that hard to track down an errant teen, but if someone has taken that errant teen against her will, that is a different story. Soon Nora has to call in a lot of favors. She also takes without asking, stoops to new lows, grabs if it will help her in some way. She is ruthless, obsessed, and worried. Bonnie is just a name; Nora hadn’t even held her as a baby. But perhaps the process of being a mother isn’t always under one’s control.

There are so many characters Nora runs into, each with at least a tiny story themselves: Carl the resort caretaker; Lorelei the sister; Harrison Baichwal the fugitive; Simone the drag queen; Mike Starling who saved her. And on and on. It’s the wonderful stuff of which stories are made.

And running through the book is the whole story of what brought Nora to her knees and what raised her up again.

There’s more determination than happiness in “The Lost Ones.” More drama than humor (or “humour” — it is Canada). But there’s enough grit and resolve to power through to the end. It’s a strong book and I am glad I read it.

“No Going Back,” the third Nora Watts book, is set to be released soon.

A belated MBTB star!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price

Tin House Books, 290 pages, $15.95 (c2019)

“The Hotel Neversink” has been nominated for an Edgar Award for “Best Paperback Original.”

As may be obvious from the unusual title, “The Hotel Neversink,” this is an unusual story. Built around the core story of the doomed Hotel Neversink are the individual stories of the members of several generations of the Sikorsky family. Beginning with a starving, near death Jewish family from Europe and ending with the contemporary dissolute great-grandchildren of that family, Adam O’Fallon Price has written a touching modern novel.

Asher Sikorsky brought his family to America, but not content with making a comfortable living, he plunges his family into poverty again by buying a rocky, inhospitable farm in the Catskills. Luckily, his failing farm accidentally is turned into a hotel. Unluckily, years later, his daughter is host to the disappearance of the young son of one of the hotel’s guests. Luckily, years later, another young child disappears but is found alive, along with the bones of the first child.

The luck continues to bounce back and forth in terms of finding the killer, but that story takes to the background as the individual descendants of the Sikorsky family have their moment in the spotlight. Jeannie Sikorsky is the first one. She was the starving daughter of the starving Polish farmer, but it is her privilege to see the modest hotel grow to grand proportions. It hosts dignitaries, celebrities, and families who come back year after year.

Jeannie’s son, Len, is next up. He was the young, brief playmate of the boy who disappeared from the hotel. Len believes he is haunted by the boy in his family’s rambling, looming hotel. But he grows up to become the next manager of the property, to even greater success. He marries the woman of his dreams and has two children. But Len’s happiness and stubbornness combine to provide the next turn of fortune for the Neversink.

The irony of the name plays upon the remaining pages. More family members have their say, and even the mysterious deaths — oh, yes, more children from the nearby town of Liberty have died — come forward once more. The story strands wrap tighter around the Hotel Neversink until author Price reveals all.

It is not just the interesting individual stories of the family Sikorsky that propel the reading of this book, but also the writing. For instance, this is a description of a minor character:

“…Seth had gotten slightly fattish — not paunchy but a kind of white puffiness, like a piece of rice floating in dishwater overnight.”

Price has a quirky style that makes way for intermittent macabre humor. You know who should read “The Hotel Neversink”? If you like Wes Anderson’s movies — and I don’t say that just because he had a movie called “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — there is the same floaty feeling of characters moving toward their destinies.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Vanished by Joseph Finder

St. Martin’s Press, 395 pages, $9.99 (c2009)

Joseph Finder is very reliable if you are looking for a thriller with a military/techno vibe to it, but not overly so. If you are looking for a book about enemies the protagonist can see and avoid or defeat, rather than the virus we are all scurrying from these days, “Vanished” will appease you.

Nick Heller is a “high-powered international investigator with a reputation for being able to see around corners.” His latest assignment has him locating the missing air cargo for one of his firm’s high-powered customers. He solves it rather cleverly and just in time to receive a desperate phone call from his nephew, Gabe.

Teenage Gabe has a special bond with his “cool” uncle, although they are not related by blood. Nick’s older brother, Roger, married Lauren, mother of Gabe. They seem to have a perfect life, if a somewhat boring one, in Nick’s view. Roger works in the finance department of a big firm that does what big firms do. Lauren works as the assistant to the firm’s big boss. The firm, Gifford Industries, receives a double whammy when Roger disappears one night after he and Lauren had dinner at a restaurant. Lauren receives a concussion in the attack by their car and is hospitalized. As the only member of the family who can communicate with anyone, Gabe calls his uncle for help.

Why has Roger been kidnapped, killed, what? He is a low-level executive, the family has no big money, there have been no kidnapping calls or bodies found. It’s a mystery.

Nick has contacts all over the place, not the least of which are at his workplace. There are national and international resources for him to access to find his brother. He first locates a simple video from the gas station across the street from the ATM his brother used to get money right after the attack. There is a shadowy figure at the teller machine with him. But why haven’t the kidnappers called or why hasn’t Roger’s body been found?

The more information Nick manages to dig up, the more he thinks there is something nefarious on a bigger and deeper level involving paramilitary groups, missing money from the Middle East, and psychopathic killers.

Nick and Roger are no strangers to complicated plots. After all, their father is in prison for having engineered an embezzlement years ago. Speaking of which, why did Roger visit their father in prison recently? Is Lauren hiding something? Why is Gabe so sullen, more sullen even than a normal teenager?

Nick searches for personal issues as well as global ones to explain Roger’s disappearance/death. Author Finder moves the action along quite well and has several break-into-offices-for-information scenes, which I love. Nick’s helpers are great, their mission worthy, their skills formidable. Dum, dum, dum, dum…dum, dum, dum, dum … do I hear “Mission Impossible” music?

This is the first in the Nick Heller series. The most recent title, “House on Fire,” was recently released.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Bird Boys by Lisa Sandlin

Cinco Puntos Press, 306 pages, $16.95 (c2019)

“The Bird Boys” has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

I read a couple of good reviews of “The Bird Boys,” so I was excited to read it, but I don’t think I ever got the rhythm of the words right in my head. Was it too colloquially Southern? I don’t think it was quite that; I’ve read lots of southern mysteries — not that “southern” has one sound (don’t send me emails). Maybe it felt too1950s to me: the manners, the set-up, the characters. Maybe it was the odd combination of all those factors. Whatever. “The Bird Boys” actually is set in1973 Beaumont, Texas, and it is set quite thoroughly and completely in that year. Amid broadcasts of the Watergate hearings, music prompts, and movies playing at the local theater, the author, Lisa Sandlin, makes sure to direct your attention to the time period.

This is the second outing for the detective duo of private investigator Tom Phelan and his assistant, Delpha Wade. I have not read the first book, “The Do-Right,” so it was a big first step to enter where that book left off. Delpha had been stabbed by a murderer at the end of “The Do-Right,” so she is recovering — apologies if this should be a spoiler alert — at the start of “The Bird Boys.” I also started off on the wrong foot with the assumption that this would be Tom Phelan’s book, but it was most definitely Delpha Wade’s.

After polishing off the leftover questions left by the first book, Sandlin plunges into Tom and Delpha’s next case. And I do mean to say the case was also Delpha’s, although she is putatively Tom’s secretary and receptionist. They are still feeling out the tenor of their professional relationship. Tom is a newly minted P.I. and Delpha was newly freed into the world from prison, where she sat for fourteen years, from the age of eighteen to just recently. She was lucky to have found a job with someone who sympathized with her conviction for murdering her rapist.

Mr. Bell, a man in his seventies, walks into their office and asks them to find his younger brother, estranged from him for many years. Rumor has it he is in Beaumont and living under an alias. Tom and Delpha rummage through phone books, birth records, and real estate records to find the brother, but instead they find there is a mystery to unravel about Mr. Bell first.

Delpha’s life is rich with friendships and new experiences. It is as though she has been reborn. But she is a baby with a wealth of prison experience to bolster her up. She is tenacious, loyal, responsible, and smart. The people who provide dimension to her life include a reference librarian, the cook at the retirement boarding house across the street from the office, and a teenager who sees apparitions.

Tom has people too, including his uncle, the sheriff, someone who is not always willing to help his nephew’s fledgling business. Tom seems besotted by the women in the book: Delpha and another client they take on further in the story. That’s all I have to say about Tom. (Perhaps I need to read the first book, huh.)

There are edges of humor and a definite unusual cadence in the telling. The mystery of the brothers is convoluted, reminding me at times of the convoluted plot in the movie “Chinatown.” (The derivation of the title is one of those convolutions!) There is weight to the little scenes. For instance, at one point, Tom pierces Delpha’s ears for new earrings. It is a tender and quietly majestic scene. There are lots of such meaningful little scenes strung together. And that, I think, is why people loved it.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The River by Peter Heller

Vintage Contemporaries, 272 pages, $16 (c2019)

“The River” has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Did you like the 1994 movie “The River Wild,” with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon? Did you like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series as a kid? How about the river and fly fishing scenes in “A River Runs Through It,” by Norman Maclean, or “The River Why,” by David James Duncan? Hoo boy, have I got a book for you if you said yes!

This book is not very long for a novel by modern standards, but it packs in a walloping amount of adventure. Even if you have never set foot further than the suburbs, you, too, can learn survival skills or, at the very least, what to pack for a forest/river trip with no easy access to stores, phones — yes, even in this day and age, and besides, Amazon would have to use one of their infamous drones to drop-ship your order — or medical facilities.

Let us also say there is a monster forest fire coming your way. Add in two suspicious good ol’ boys of a “Deliverance” bent. What about the voices drifting on the wind of a man and woman arguing? There’s a lot going on for a wilderness area in Canada famous for its isolation. The weather is turning colder — of course, it is — so the likelihood of a troop of scouts or happy campers is small. As far as we know, there are six people in the path of the fire: our heroes — college students Jack and Wynn — the good ol’ boys, and the arguing couple, heard but not seen.

Both Jack and Wynn come with good credentials; they know how to paddle through white water, fly fish, survive cold, forage, and have basic emergency medical skills. They are strong, smart, and crafty. They want to think deep thoughts, admire nature, and ruminate on their individual futures. They are best friends, but what comes next will test that friendship.

Once into the trip along a chain of lakes, there is no way out except by going forward. They have purposely left their cellphones behind (and where would there be coverage anyway?) and they cannot afford satellite phones. (See, “college students.”)

A great deal of the pages talk about gear, fishing, river eddies, food preparation, portage, and other trip details. I find that sort of thing fascinating, even if the author doesn’t show how relevant it all is until later. And as an ignoramus about that kind of stuff, how would I even know if the author got it wrong?

The first thing the friends discover is the faint smell of smoke in the air, and it’s not of the campfire variety. One of them climbs a tree and spots the telltale glow in the distance. They figure they have enough time to make it to the next point of civilization, a small village on Hudson Bay. They are not hurried in their preparations, but they are no longer moseying along.

Soon they bump into the good ol’ boys who are trope-worthy blowhards. Later in a fog that springs up, they hear the voices of a man and woman arguing. Since they are good lads, Jack and Wynn have decided to warn everyone they meet of the oncoming fire. The good ol’ boys laugh and slug back some more bourbon. But the couple cannot be found. So the lads reluctantly continue their odyssey.

That takes us until about a quarter of the way through the book. Then a man appears with a gun — did I mention everyone has a gun or shotgun? He says his name is Pierre and he has lost his wife, Maia. What happened to the man? Where is Maia? Where are “The Texans,” as the good ol’ boys are now known?

In the best way of wilderness adventure, human must not only battle nature but other humans. I thought this was 272 pages of page-turning adventure. If you don’t like lists and meticulous descriptions of gear or landscape, perhaps you won’t be enchanted enough to hold out until the human versus fill-in-the-blank thrills begin.

Rating: Hoo boy!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Mariner Books, 368 pages, $15.99 (2019)

“The Stranger Diaries” is a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

I really enjoyed Elly Griffith’s series featuring modern forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway. Then she started a series featuring WWII magicians, of which I read a couple. I don’t know if one or more of the characters in “The Stranger Diaries” will star in a series, but I would be pleased if that happened.

“Stranger Diaries” is the sort of book I would have really loved reading as a teenager or young adult. There are mysterious lights in the night, maybe a ghost or two, maybe a witch or two, a séance, an estate once owned by the author of a famous horror story, strange scribblings found in a private diary, and a plucky young girl. The sound you heard was me rubbing my hands together in anticipation.

Indeed, Elly Griffiths delivers on the cozy part. And she gets bonus points for interesting characters.

DS Harbinder Kaur is the sort of detective I’d want on a murder case. She’s thoughtful and intelligent. She’s also Sikh and short, not that I mean to imply either is a liability, but I guess that is what I am saying. Both do make it difficult to make one’s way through a police bureaucracy and a still mostly white population near London, England, but neither point is belabored. In fact, Kaur’s parents, with whom she still lives, are sources of great joy and amusement to her, as they should be to Griffiths’ readers.

Kaur meets Clare Cassidy, an English teacher at the local high school, on a case. Clare is currently teaching some students about R. M. Holland’s short story, “The Stranger,” a famous horror story. Holland, in fact, once owned the building in which Clare teaches. His study has been kept intact on the upper floor. And there are a couple of mysteries which surround his occupancy of the erstwhile mansion. People have seen the ghost of his wife flitting about. She supposedly died from a fall down the stairs. Her blood-curdling screams still can be heard by the unlucky. The ghost sighting is said to presage someone’s death.

Spooky, yeah?

Clare’s best friend, Ella, another teacher at the high school, has been murdered. Who would want to murder a teacher beloved by students and respected by her fellow teachers? Kaur interviews Clare as one of the last people to have seen or talked with her. Clare’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Georgia, is a student at the high school. She also knew and liked Ella. She, too, is perplexed by who would have wanted her dead, and she will not be left out of the investigation.

The book is seen through those three viewpoints: Kaur, Clare, and Georgia. As Kaur proceeds to investigate, we glimpse another view through Clare’s and Georgia’s eyes. After a second death, Kaur begins to again wonder if Clare might have undisclosed knowledge or if she might be the next victim. As far as we readers are concerned, there is the bonanza of entries from Clare’s obligingly kept diaries. Those entries can take us back in time, instead of through tediously engineered flashbacks.

All in all, this book was entertaining, well-paced, and a great combination of ghost story, thriller, and romance. DS Kaur was a delightful surprise throughout. (And I would like an invitation to her mother’s house for dinner, please.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Rabbit Hunter by Lars Kepler

Knopf, 528 pages, $27.95
Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

“The Rabbit Hunter” is the sixth entry in the Joona Linna series by Swedish authors Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, aka Lars Kepler. 

My true confession will begin this review. The only other Joona Linna books I’ve read were “The Hypnotist,” the very first, and “The Nightmare,” the second. I apparently was so disappointed with “The Nightmare” that I never picked up another Joona Linna book. So although I cannot say what precipitated the events that begin “The Rabbit Hunter,” not having read the book immediately preceding, I can say that all three books are of an ilk; they are thrillers, with graphic descriptions of violence and muy macho shenanigans.

“The Rabbit Hunter” begins with Joona Linna in prison, legitimately in prison, not just undercover. He did a sort of bad thing, a shade of gray bending of the rules. But this I do remember from the other books: Rules don’t exist for Joona. I guess he got caught by one of the rules he ignored.

While Joona is in prison, Sweden’s foreign minister is murdered, violently, graphically, and with a soupçon of torture. Eventually, it is decided that this is the work of a spree killer. (Yes, Kepler defines “spree” versus “serial.”) The various investigative bodies are flummoxed. Saga Bauer, Joona’s colleague, and other supporters decide that Joona’s analytical and intuitive mind is needed to prevent the murder of more people. Only Joona can determine the link between the victims. Only Joona can find the killer. So he is promised release from prison by a politician who fears he will be the next victim.

The only clue Joona has is the killer left a witness to the foreign minister’s murder. The witness says he uttered the word “Ratjen” during his methodical torture. Ratjen is the name of another prisoner who might be a terrorist. Perhaps the whole thing is the work of terrorists, ones who neglect to take credit for the murder. If Joona will buddy-up to Ratjen in prison, Joona will be released to help with the investigation.

And so it goes. Ratjen gives a hint. Joona is released. He finds out the meaning of the secret message Joona is to carry to Ratjen’s wife. After things go flying off into the crazy-sphere, Joona manages to salvage some of the objective. Then the cowardly, rat-brained politician who promised Joona a release reneges and Joona goes back to prison.

Until he is needed again, because no one yet has solved the foreign minister’s murder. Back out he comes, freedom dangled again. Joona is either a hero or a patsy.

Kepler methodically alternates between Joona’s investigation, the life of an alcoholic chef, and the killer’s viewpoint. (I won’t reveal why the killer is called “The Rabbit Hunter.” Just know it is worse than you can imagine.) The action moves along apace; there are enough killings to keep any reader awake and turning the pages.

There are a lot of elements of Joona’s back story that I did not know because I didn’t read all the books. (Kepler seems to build on prior books in many more ways than other authors.) I just had to accept that he had a lot of sorrow in his life. Happiness was snatched from his grasp several times. Kepler dangles beginnings and endings in other books, sometimes a right old cliff-hanger  at the very end. A very tricky deal by an author who has polished up his craft.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Play the Red Queen by Juris Jurjevics

Soho Crime, 360 pages, $27.95

First, I have to acknowledge and pay tribute to Juris Jurjevics as the co-founder of Soho Press, a publishing company that includes Soho Crime, one of the best mystery publishing imprints. Jurjevics died in 2018. “Play the Red Queen,” his last novel, has just been published posthumously by Soho. 

The crime genre owes a lot to Mr. Jurjevics, co-founders Laura and Alan Hruska (now also including their daughter Bronwen), and editor Juliet Grames. Together, they allowed the light of many authors to shine. Soho Crime specializes in stories set in other countries. One U.S.-size does not fit all, and we are the richer for Soho’s work.

“Play the Red Queen” was a personal project for Jurjevics. Although he was not born in the U.S., he served in the Army and was sent to Vietnam. His book is set in Vietnam in 1963, after the U.S. sent its “advisors” in to help depose the king and install the “democratically elected” Ngo Dinh Diem, but before the full incursion by U.S. forces happened. (Jurjevics plays with the innocence the characters have about Vietnam’s eventual fate.) There’s a terrible ring of authenticity to his book.

Picture a Raymond Chandler-esque Saigon-based hero, Staff Sergeant Ellsworth Miser. He is a world-weary, smart-assed veteran of the Korean conflict and now, in 1963, he has been assigned a stint in Saigon as an Army CID investigator. In a change of pace to his usual misbehaving GI cases, Miser has been sent to investigate the assassination of Major James Furth. He was shot from a distance, in plain view of many witnesses, by a woman riding on the back of a motorcycle, carrying a distinctive gun. Her shot was dead on. And poor Major Furth was dead on the street.

What distinguished this death was the placement at the scene of the crime of a specially printed red playing card showing a skull. It is the token left by “The Red Queen” or “Lady Death,” as Saigon has named her. Major Furth was not her first kill.

Why was the major killed? His record seems unremarkable. He hadn’t  tortured any small animals or children. He is an emissary of the United States government, a pencil-pusher. What does he have in common with the other two victims, also nondescript military men? Does the Lady simply cruise the streets looking for a victim and woe betide the unfortunate bystander? What is known is the Lady is a crack shot, making seemingly impossible hits from the back of a moving motorcycle.

Miser has been partnered with Sergeant Clovis Auguste Robeson. The two of them have been partnered for a while and they get along very well. Robeson is smart and speaks English, French, and a smattering of Vietnamese. Still Miser has rank on him. Robeson is black, and the implication is it would be difficult for him to rise any higher. The United States back home is under the turmoil of  the civil rights movement, and that prejudice has followed Robeson to Vietnam.

As Miser and Robeson search deeper into Furth’s background, they realize there is a large stinking pile of governmental rot floating around. That’s when the murder doesn’t simply become a problem to solve by catching the elusive killer. There is a method to the madness, and they must guess who the next target is. The only hint is that it is someone big.

President Ngo Dinh Diem, his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, or U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge (Jr.)? Big stuff for two lowly CID men to handle. But it becomes obvious that very few can be trusted to work this case because loyalty can be a flickering commodity and life is sometimes cheap.

Jurjevics has placed a stellar crime/spy story in the midst of the collision of superpowers taking place in Vietnam. Also, Buddhists are being persecuted by Diem and monks are immolating themselves in protest. Massive amounts of money and goods are being sent by the U.S. to the South Vietnamese government, so somebody better fix this quickly. The situation is complex, but Jurjevics gives us a well-thought out version of it. His main characters are really just guys trying to get along. The Vietnamese culture is elusive sometimes, less so to Robeson than Miser. Jurjevics dramatizes Lodge and his wife Emily. Lodge especially looms larger than life. Jurjevics fictionalizes them but also accords them their real roles in what happened in Saigon while the Lodges were there. The author does it seamlessly. 

This is a helluva book! MBTB star! 

And RIP, Juris Jurjevics.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Watching from the Dark by Gytha Lodge

Random House, 352 pages, $27

On the surface “Watching from the Dark” is a British police procedural, but underneath it is a dark tale of skewed romance and unreliable narrators. It’s much more “Girl on a Train” than Inspector Morse.

DCI Jonah Sheens (known alternately as “Jonah” and “Sheens” — get used to it), Juliette Hanson (ditto, “Juliette” and “Hanson”), and Ben Lightman (yada, yada) are the police team members assigned to the death of Zoe Swardedeen, found dead in her bath with knife cuts on her arms. It would have been classified a suicide, except an astute investigator smells the faint trace of an anesthetic around her mouth. And who was the unnamed man who reported her death to the emergency line?

It’s like teasing apart a snarled ball of yarn. The team pulls this thread and that thread to find out who the man was, who Zoe’s friends were, and who was the mysterious unseen presence on the Skype video that seemed to record Zoe’s death offscreen.

“Watching from the Dark” is fairly methodical and meticulous — sometimes almost plodding — in describing the characters, the scenes, the relationships. At one time or another I disliked every suspect. But I really liked DC Juliette Hanson. As the author intended, I’m sure.

This was a book I looked forward to reading each time I picked it up, if for no other reason than to see whom I should dislike next.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis

Little Brown, 304 pages, $28

I crossed my fingers and hoped this was a thriller. The premise seemed right: a 71-year-old woman survives a plane crash in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana; a loner forest ranger, who has lost her (metaphorical) way, is obsessed with finding the survivor, despite all assumptions that the woman is dead; a one-eyed ghost is rumored to ride a glyptodont in the deep, dark forest.

Nope, not a thriller, not a mystery.

But, yep, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

The forest ranger has just gotten a divorce from her polygamous husband, has taken to drinking copious amounts of merlot, and swears a lot. Her fellow ranger has a blue nose. His pigeon-chested friend comes to stay for a while to get over his failed marriage and takes up embroidery. The search-and-rescue man hauled in to find the airplane and occupants seems less concerned with finding anything but his own weirdness.

The 71-year-old woman had a normal life in a normal (for her part of the world) small town in Texas. She was church-going, gardened, took pride in her home, loved her husband. Her husband died in the crash, and she begins to re-evaluate her life as she tries to survive in the dense and antediluvian forest. Her small town was hot and flat and predictable. The Bitterroot overwhelms her, fights and challenges her. It is green and lush, but also stark and dangerous.

And so she changes to accommodate it. She drinks water from her husband’s boot, washes naked in the river, eats a nameless skinned animal, tries to catch food from a river by tossing a hatchet into it.

Should you venture into the wilds of Kingdomtide, you will find humor, strangeness, compassion, acceptance of how weird the world and people can be, and how we should not judge lest we be judged.

Almost nothing was sacred or predictable. The writer took pains — no, not “pains,” rather “joy” — in his writing. And I hope you take joy in your reading.