Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

27746288I finished Goodbye, Vitamin on a screened-in porch on Folly Beach, South Carolina. I didn’t read very much on my vacation. Something about taking a vacation with a family group makes my attention feel very scattered, and I only picked up my books sporadically. But this is a short novel, and I was already a third of the way into it when we left for the beach. I was determined to finish at least one book while I was there. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’m tempted to pick it up again.

Naomi, Deepika, and other bloggers I follow have read and reviewed this one favorably, so I knew I would probably enjoy it, despite the heavy subject matter. Fresh from a really tough break-up with her fiance, Joel, and at an impasse with her career, Ruth comes home (for a year) to help her mom care for her dad, who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her dad, a former college professor and recovering alcoholic, is still under the impression he’s teaching classes because some of his students get together and take a fake “class” at various locations so that he’s not miserable. Ruth has a complicated relationship with all of her family members, including her younger brother Linus. In years past, her dad cheated on her mom and then there’s the whole alcoholism thing. But Ruth kind of idolized her father despite all of this, and seeing him decline is heartbreaking.

This sounds like a tremendous bummer. But somehow the mood of the book is never too sentimental or depressing. It’s quirky, because Ruth has a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone, and she is always including these odd little observations of her new strange life that have nothing to do with her family. For instance,

I see, walking on the other side of the street today, a man with enormous pecs. They look as inflated as popcorn bags right after microwaving.

The phrase “born humans” is what I think of whenever I see someone wildly different than me.

Fetal circulation is different from that of born humans. Fetuses have fine hair all over them that born humans don’t have. Fetuses do a thing like breathing that isn’t actually breathing – the motions develop their lungs. They take their first breath  when they’re born and that’s when the whole system changes incredibly: unborn to born.

We’re born humans, I think, about the huge-pec’ed man. With our functioning circulatory systems. Breathing, walking, having real hair. Just look at us.

Ruth is also slowly working her way back into life after the devastating breakup. She is on the verge of being detached, but this is probably a coping mechanism of her situation, I think. Her father gives her a book that he kept when she was little, where he wrote down the cute little things she said and did. That in and of itself is enough to trigger my tear ducts! But then, near the end of the book, Ruth starts keeping a book for her dad of the comical/strange things he says and does. When I realized this, I absolutely BURST into tears. I wailed and said to my husband, who was sitting on the porch next to me, “I don’t know if I can take this!” But I was so close to finishing I pressed on.  It’s a terribly crappy and unfair situation, one that everyone knows won’t have a happy ending. But in concentrating on the little things and living in the present moment every day, Ruth and her family come together in very moving and realistic ways.

In the end I am glad I read this. It was something I wouldn’t have picked up without the recommendation of bloggers I trust. I’m a sensitive reader, I cry easily, and sometimes I tend to shield myself from sad books. This one was really moving and tender without being maudlin or manipulative. I appreciate that so much. Writing this review made me start to cry again, just thinking about Ruth and her dad. Rachel Khong is a talented author who has created a family I didn’t necessarily want to join but one that I definitely believed and cared for. Four stars, sad but worth it.

 

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These Books Need To Go: a Mini-Review Round-Up

Having (regrettably) set my Goodreads Challenge number higher than I ever had in the past, I felt the pressure to read faster.  I have indeed turned on the jets and finished quite a few books in the past six weeks.  But I haven’t been reviewing them at the same pace.  So I’ve got this stack of books staring me in the face and, honestly, getting on my nerves.  Plus, they just need to get back to the library (where I procured them all.)  Because I’m sick of looking at them, here are some super quick mini-reviews to clear the decks.

Now You See Me (Lacey Flint #1) by Sharon Bolton.  Fiction Fan turned me onto this author.  I really enjoyed this one.  It’s got a strong female detective constable (Lacey,) a Jack the Ripper copycat killer with a mysterious connection to Lacey, and a nice slow-burning sexual tension between her and DI Mark Joesbury.  Very suspenseful, and I really didn’t know how it was all going to work out until the end.  High quality writing as well.  Definitely will be reading more of this series and this author in 2018!  Four stars.

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics.)  My pick for Christmas reading this year.  An uneven collection, but five of the Golden Age crime stories really stood out and made this a worthwhile pick.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock story, “The Blue Carbuncle” was entertaining as one might expect.  “Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace was short and sweet.  H.C. Bailey’s “The Unknown Murderer” featured an unlikely criminal and an unexpected twist.  “The Chinese Apple” by Joseph Shearing (a pen name of Marjorie Bowen) is a masterpiece of misdirection.  And my favorite, Ethel Lina White’s “Waxworks,” is a creepy delight.  A young female journalist investigates a hall of wax where two people have mysteriously died.  Determined to find out of the hall is indeed haunted, she sneaks in and gets herself locked in overnight on Christmas Eve.  Suspense builds as the night goes on and she finds herself imagining things – or could there be a murderer locked in with her?  I absolutely loved this one.  Overall, though, for the collection, Three stars.

White Rage: The Unspoke Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson.  This book grew out of an op-ed in the Washington Post in response to the 2014 Ferguson, MO riots after the killing of Michael Brown.  I could call this book Important Stuff We Should Have Studied in High School.  In a short but well-researched 164 pages (and 60 pages of end notes) Anderson lays out a map of white oppression tactics to every gain in status that African Americans have won since the end of the Civil War.  From the unjust laws of the former CSA states during Reconstruction to the assault on voting rights after the election of our first black president, Anderson makes a persuasive argument that every time African Americans win a victory, there is always a well-coordinated and legalistic backlash by a segment of white people in power.  The chapter on the aftermath of the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education was especially good.  An eye-opening, enraging, important book.  Four stars.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.  A debut novel about grief and identity.  Unusual structure – some photographs, some graphs, a few pages include only three or four sentences.  The main character is Thandi, born and raised in America to a mixed-race South African mother and a light-skinned Black American father.  Thandi’s mother has died of cancer (not a spoiler) and we get to see how the event shapes Thandi’s life as she tries to find her place in the world as an adult.  There were some beautifully written passages about grief, but it just didn’t come together for me as powerful, cohesive  narrative.  The most interesting sections of the book for me were explorations of contemporary motherhood and marriage.  Three stars.

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud.  I’ve loved Messud’s two previous novels, The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs.  This one wasn’t on par with those, unfortunately.  A portrait of two twelve-year old best friends on the cusp of big changes and growing apart.  It moved along quickly and I was engaged, but I couldn’t quite believe that the narrator was supposed to be a seventeen year-old looking back and not a middle-aged author.  The voice was felt too mature.  There are some intelligent observations about the physical freedoms that girls give up as they grow into women, and there are scenes as the girls explore an old abandoned asylum that are lovely and creepy.  Messud is a good writer, I just wanted more vitality from this book.  Three stars.

Hear me now – I’m setting my Goodreads Challenge number nice and low next year!  This (self-imposed) pressure is for the birds.  Three more books by the end of the year to meet my goal.  I can do it!  Hope you all are enjoying some good reading this weekend.  Will you meet your Goodreads Challenge goal?

Mini Reviews: The Late Show by Michael Connelly and Revolutionary by Alex Myers

She believed her was her man, and there was nothing quite like that moment of knowing.  It was the Holy Grail of detective work.  It had nothing to do with evidence or legal procedure or probable cause.  It was just knowing it in your gut.  Nothing in her life beat it.  It had been a long time coming to her on the late show but now she felt it and she knew deep down it was the reason she would never quit, no matter where they put her or what they said about her.

TheLateShowUSAI had to turn in my copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show before I could begin this review because it had holds on it and was OVERDUE – yes, sometimes when you’re waiting on a book from the library it’s your friendly librarian who is stopping up the works!  (I only let it go a few days past due, in my defense.  🙂 )  Anyway, it was terrific, as most of Connelly’s books are.  There’s something about his books that just soothe my itch for crime thrillers, and every time he comes out with a new one I am SO THERE.

This one is the start of a new series, apparently, introducing a new detective, Renée Ballard.  She’s an LAPD detective on “the late show,” which is what they call the overnight shift, just there to take reports and interview witnesses. Because of that, she has to turn over investigations to the day shift, and never gets to follow a case through to completion.  It’s a demotion in her eyes – she was a regular day time detective before she brought allegations of sexual harassment against her supervisor.  (This part did feel a little under explained to me – it was a “he said/she said” case with no corroboration from anyone else, but I wondered why she wasn’t just moved to another division elsewhere.  But I digress.)  You can feel her frustration from the first scenes.  There are two cases that happen the same night that are unrelated but Renée can’t seem to let go of.  One involves a brutal, near-deadly beating of a transgendered prostitute names Ramona; the other, a shooting at a night-club that killed five people, two of whom seem to be innocent bystanders.  As Ballard gets deeper into her (mostly unsanctioned) investigations, she gets closer and closer to what she calls “Big Evil” in the first case, and indications in the second that seem to point to one of LAPD’s own as the murderer.

I liked Ballard a lot.  Her back story was interesting (Hawaiian heritage, absentee mother, father who died in a surfing accident while she watched helplessly.)  She has a dog named Lola which she rescued from a homeless person and who is fiercely protective of her.  She paddle boards when she needs to relax or think over the direction of her case, and she will camp out on the beach when she needs sleep.  One thing I kept pondering again and again was, “When does this woman sleep?”  Another was, “Does she have a house?”  It wasn’t until later in the book that we’re told that her permanent address with the Force is her grandmother’s house, but she only stays there every couple of weeks to do laundry, eat a home cooked meal, and visit.   So she’s a strong, independent character, but there are definitely cracks beneath the surface.  I’ll be interested to see how she develops in future installments!  4 stars.

 

Deborah wrapped herself in her blanket.  Her breeches had dried, and her waistcoat too.  Only her shirt and the binding beneath remained damp.  She lay down and closed her eyes, feeking the constriction around her chest like a snake coiled about her.  I am Robert Shurtliff, she told herself.  She wanted to measure up to these men, to find her place among them.  Lord God, she prayed silently.  Deliver me through this trial.  Grant me faith and strength.  

81yA-ssxkULRevolutionary was a book I probably wouldn’t have read on my own.  I like historical fiction when I read it but it’s not an automatic go-to genre for me. It was our book group pick last month, and I’m glad that it was chosen.  Based on Deborah Sampson, a real life woman who dressed as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War, it’s a moving and detailed work of historical fiction with a.

In the final years of the Revolutionary War, Samson (as Myers, a female-to-male transgendered author chooses to call her – turns out he is a distant relative of the real-life heroine) is an unmarried young woman who has fairly recently become free of her indentured servitude.  (Her family life was troubled and they couldn’t afford to take care of her, so she was given away to work as an indentured servant.)  Her community sees her single status as a threat; her only friend is a fellow servant named Jennie.  Having been once discovered trying to pass as a man when she went to go register to serve in the war, a violent attack by a local man has her fleeing the life that she knows in search of freedom and a new identity.  Jennie cuts her hair for her and steals some clothing from her master, and Deborah binds her breasts and leaves in the night, without a real plan but convinced that she’ll be put in jail for what she’s done to her attacker in retaliation.

What follows is an interesting, immersive account of regimental life as Deborah fits in with the rest of the young men (and by this point in the war, some of them are very young, which benefits the whisker-less Deborah.)  How she manages to keep her identity secret is interesting and occasionally requires a lucky break.  But she is stronger mentally and physically then she ever knew, and relishes her newfound freedom to move and live as she pleases even within the restrictions of military life.

I enjoyed this so much more than I anticipated, and was deeply moved by an unexpected turn of the plot 2/3 of the way through.  About 100 pages in Deborah begins to be called Robert in the narrative, the name she has adopted for her new life.  And then again towards the end, it shifts back to Deborah, but this feels entirely seamless and organic with the story.  She continues to correspond as Robert with Jennie back home, a nice narrative strategy.  The reader is made aware of how stifling and hopeless the conditions of an unmarried woman back in the late 18th century were, relegated to a life of drudgery, constantly open to innuendo and the possibility physical and sexual abuse.  I also learned a lot about the late stages of the war and daily life of a soldier.  I thought there were a few instances where the emotional impact of events wasn’t fully explored – for instance, the rape at the beginning didn’t seem to be fully dealt with and I wondered if there was another way Myers could have sent the story in motion.  But overall, this was a good read that explored gender identity in a time period in which people perhaps lacked the vocabulary to acknowledge such things.  4 stars.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose.  I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged picture on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there.  I’ve always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.

Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

I loved The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  This is one of those books that’s gotten a lot of “buzz,”and sometimes that makes a reader not want to pick something up. Sometimes the buzz is just too much to live up to.  I can only speak for myself when I say that, for me, it lived up to the hype.

IMG_0248I don’t typically read a lot of YA/Teen books, and I don’t think this book was really written with someone like me in mind, a 40 year-old white woman in Tennessee.  I really do think this was intended for young people, and I think that it would be particularly mind-blowing for young white people.  I know that if I’d read something like this when I was 14 or 15, it would have exploded my brain in the best of ways. That said, I think it still has much to offer us “old folks.”

A brief set-up for those who haven’t come across it:  it centers on Starr Carter, a 16 year-old African American girl living in contemporary times in a poor black neighborhood called Garden Heights.  She’s attending a predominantly white private high school called Williamson that’s 45 minutes away. Navigating relationships and friendships between the two worlds isn’t easy.  Her sense of self and how she feels she can talk and act shifts depending on where she is.  Her dad owns a store in the neighborhood, and his sense of duty to provide services and positive energy to the people in Garden Heights keeps him from moving their family away somewhere safer, despite Starr’s mother’s desire to move.  When Starr was ten years old, one of her best friends, Natasha, was killed before her eyes in a gang-related drive-by shooting.  Six years later, driving home from a party with another good childhood friend, Khalil, they get stopped by the police.

When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.

One was the usual birds and bees…

The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. 

Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that.  He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.

“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said.  “Keep your hands visible.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  Only speak when they speak to you.”

I knew it must’ve been serious.  Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.

I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil.

This book is sad, no doubt, and made even more so for all the real young black men and women over the past few years that have been killed by police in the US in high-profile cases.  Starr’s beloved uncle is a police officer, so Thomas isn’t painting all the police with the same brush.  But this is definitely written from the perspective of a scared, hurting young black woman, filled with sadness and rage at the horror that’s happened right in front of her eyes.  It’s about a young women finding her voice, finding out who her friends really are, realizing just how much her family loves and supports her.  We go on an emotional journey with Starr, navigating her two worlds and trying to find a way to bring them together, while also trying to stay true to the memory of her childhood friend and the fight for justice.

What I appreciated most about the book was Starr’s family.  Her mom, dad, and brothers felt so real to me; the dialogue rang true, the references to hip-hop, both current and “old” (Tupac) placed this story in a recognizable cultural area for me, a hip-hop fan, even if I am the age of her parents!  Her mom and dad in particular are well-drawn, showing fierce love and protectiveness for their kids and a nuanced, realistic relationship with one another.  In reading about the warring gang members of Garden Heights I also felt like I got an education of sorts in the kinds of situations that might lead a young person to join a gang and maybe sell drugs, something that I think a lot of us white people who haven’t been in that situation would question.  Thomas really made me empathize with the lack of family support and lack of opportunities to get out of a hopeless situation by other methods.  I know it’s not her job, nor the job of any other black author to educate white people like me, but I do feel like my mind and my heart was opened more to something that I previously thought I already knew something about.

I do highly recommend this novel even if you don’t normally read YA, because I think that it’s among the best YA I’ve read.  It’s moving, compelling, thought-provoking.  There’s a vibrant momentum carrying the narrative forward, and even though it’s got some terribly sad scenes, there are moments of humor sprinkled throughout.  (One of my favorite scenes was when Starr’s dad explains his theory about Harry Potter being about gangs!  It’s classic.)  I’m excited to read anything Angie Thomas comes up with next.  Her refreshing, powerful voice is just the kind of voice we need more of in fiction, for readers of all ages.

 

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

I LOVED The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.  I finished it in two days and am pretty sure that if I hadn’t had to put it down I could have read it in one sitting.  It was totally absorbing and compelling, and Michael Finkel has written a fascinating, true account with a high level of compassion and empathy.  I often bemoan how nonfiction takes me longer to read than fiction, but this is one book that I absolutely inhaled.

30687200._UY400_SS400_You might be familiar with the book’s subject, Christopher Knight, the North Pond Hermit, who lived in the woods, stole items from cabins and eluded capture for over 25 years in Maine.  I hadn’t heard of this story before. Finkel begins the book from Knight’s perspective, as he makes a run in the dead of night to steal food from a summer camp for disabled people.  It details the ways he avoids leaving footprints or breaking underbrush, hopscotching through the woods with catlike agility, his route honed over many years. The second chapter is from the perspective of the Maine game warden who has been pursuing Knight, and who has booby-trapped the camp’s kitchen.  The third is from the perspective of a state trooper who arrests and questions him.  It’s a great entry into the story, putting us right in the action and letting us know about all the people who have been trying to catch Knight all these years.  Knight himself has been unaware of all the attention directed at him.  When captured he wasn’t quite sure what year it was. When asked how long he’d been living in the woods, he told them since the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (1986.)

Finkel reads about Knight’s story in the newspaper and feels instantly drawn to him.  He writes Knight a letter including a story he’d written in National Geographic about a remote hunter-gather tribe in East Africa and mentioing that they share a love of literature.  To his surprise, Knight writes back.  They began a quasi-correspondence, but Knight always held back somewhat. After being alone in nature all those years, the time in jail was wearing away at his nerves.  His mental state deteriorating, he abruptly quit writing, so Finkel decided to go visit him in jail in Maine.

Through a series of visits with Knight, Finkel discovers how he survived brutal Maine winters with no heat source (fires would attract attention, obviously.)  Knight talks about how and why he stole the items from cabins all those years ( food, batteries, clothing, camping gear, nothing too valuable or personal.)  The details of survival were endlessly fascinating to me.  For instance, Knight recycled the magazine he stole and used them as subflooring for his living area, “creating a platform that was perfectly level and also permitted decent drainage of rainwater.”  He lived so close to others that he couldn’t even sneeze aloud!  (Turns out that dense foliage and huge outcroppings of boulders helped protect his tent from discovery.)

Besides being interested in the mechanics of how someone survives alone in the woods all that time, I was drawn to what it must have felt like, the silence and stillness that Knight experienced.  Finkel does a good job portraying this, sharing his experience of camping overnight at the spot that Knight called home.  He talks about the reading material Knight stole, how he stole portable radios and even had a small black and white television for a time, rigged up with car batteries and an antenna hidden in the trees.  But what he did most of the time wasn’t listening to the radio or reading.

Mostly what he did was nothing.  He sat on his bucket or on a lawn chair in quiet contemplation.  There was no chanting, no mantra, no lotus position. “Daydreaming,” he termed it.  Meditation.  Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.”  

He was never once bored.  He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom.  It applied only to people who felt they had to be doing something all the time, which from what he’d observed was most people.

Finkel weaves some historical accounts of hermits throughout the book, but Knight is the real draw here.  What makes a 20 year old with no criminal record or known mental problems just drop out of society entirely?  Why did his family not report him missing? How does he reconcile all the things he stole from people over the years, which includes their sense of personal safety?  How does someone who’s been in the woods all that time reenter society?  Could we learn something from Knight, and how do we do so without romanticizing his criminal behavior?

Finkel-SDN-032417-1-1
A picture of Knight’s camp after his arrest.

If you couldn’t tell, I just enjoyed the heck out of this book.  As someone who reads disproportionately more fiction, I can say that this felt like reading a really good novel – it was that immersive and compelling.  I envied Knight somewhat.  I don’t want to do what he did – I love my family and hot, running water too much for that – but I envy the experience of nature and quiet that he experienced.

The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve.  His isolation felt more like a communion.  “My desires dropped away.  I didn’t long for anything.  I didn’t even have a name.  To put it romantically, I was completely free.”

If you’re wanting a quick nonfiction book for a change of pace, pick this up! Five enthusiastic stars.

 

 

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (#20BooksofSummer book 12)

I feel some trepidation as I begin writing this review.  I so want to do this book justice. Hunger by Roxane Gay is so powerful and honest and brave, and it’s one of my favorite books so far this year.  Roxane Gay pretty much puts her soul out there for everyone to see, the good and the bad, in an attempt to convey to the world what it’s like to live as a very fat woman in a society that abhors, pities, and stigmatizes fat people.22813605

I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation.  I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals.  I believe that we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types… I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.  I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are too very different things.

This is not an easy read but neither is it unrelentingly brutal.  Gay chronicles the changes in her life, mental state, and body after being gang-raped by a boy she trusted and his friends when she was twelve.  She was a “good Catholic girl” and didn’t understand that what happened was not her fault, that she didn’t invite it in some way.  She didn’t tell her parents until she was well into adulthood (indeed, until her essay collection Bad Feminist came out.)  Instead, she decided that the best way to protect her body and soul from anything like that ever happening again was to eat.

I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode.  I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied – the hunger to stop hurting.  

Throughout high school and college and beyond, she kept getting bigger and her mental state kept deteriorating.  She even experienced a “lost year” where she moved to Phoenix on a whim, not telling her roommate or her parents where she was going.  Her parents, loving and supportive but always trying to “fix her weight problem,” finally hired a PI to find her.  She completed college, got her Masters, and slowly built her professional life.  But progress in her personal life was painstakingly slow, as she admits to letting people use her and treat her poorly because she felt she didn’t deserve better.

Gay also writes about weight loss “reality” shows like “The Biggest Loser,” how doctors (mis)treat her, and the wonders of the famous cook Ina Garten (“She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.”)  She talks about getting tattoos (“I am taking back some part of my skin”) and the stress and indignities of dressing up for, traveling to, and getting around at readings and bookish events.  She is charming and insightful and very, very human.  I can’t imagine the courage it took to lay her life out there like this, so open and vulnerable.

Any woman, any person, who has ever felt ashamed of their body in some way will feel a kinship to Gay.  We may not know her exact struggle but we know the ways in which our bodies let us down, fail to measure up to the ideals in our minds.  Gay is, like any of us, a work in progress, and I was left feeling hopeful when I finished reading Hunger. Writing and talking about her pain and her body has helped her.  She writes, “I am not the same scared girl that I was.  I have let the right ones in.  I have found my voice.”  I am profoundly grateful that Roxane Gay decided to be so vulnerable in such a public way. I feel like she is helping others find their own voices.   This was a moving, compelling, beautiful memoir.  Five Stars.

 

The Dry by Jane Harper (#20BooksofSummer Book 9)

I heard about this Australian mystery novel by way of Fiction Fan’s terrific review back in March of this year.  When she says she can’t find anything to criticize about a book, I take notice!  I have to say that I agree with her assessment:  The Dry is a well-crafted, absorbing, thoughtfully written mystery, and I’m glad to see that there’s another book coming out featuring Federal Agent Aaron Falk!

27824826Set in the drought-stricken small farming town of Kiewarra, the book opens with gruesome descriptions of blowflies not discriminating between a carcass and a corpse. Something truly horrific has happened.  Aaron Falk is reluctantly back in his hometown, a town he and his father were driven away from twenty years earlier.  He is there to attend the funeral of his high school friend Luke.  Everyone thinks that the drought and money problems made Luke snap and kill himself, his wife, and their young son.  Baby Charlotte was the only survivor, because as Falk grimly observes, “thirteen-month-old don’t make good witnesses.”  Luke’s parents, a second family to Aaron when he was younger, want him to quietly look into the investigation, despite Aaron’s protests that he works on the financial side of police work now.  Falk agrees to stay in Kiewarra for a few days and look over their accounts, partly out of a sense of guilt about something that happened when he and Luke were teenagers.

In flashbacks the reader discovers that Aaron’s and Luke’s friend Ellie Deacon supposedly drowned herself in the town’s river (a river that is now bone dry thanks tot he drought.)  Luke and Aaron gave one another alibis, but we learn that many in the town didn’t believe that the boys didn’t have something to do with her death.  Tension is thick all these years later, and Falk is the target of many unpleasant and threatening interactions upon his return to town.  So not only is the reader tracking what really happened to Luke and his family, but we are also trying to solve the mystery of what really happened to Ellie all those years ago.  Harper fills the story with lots of red herrings and good characterization.  I especially liked the new sheriff in town, Raco, who, as a relative newcomer to Kiewarra, develops a nice rapport with Falk and helps him in the unofficial investigation.

When the mystery was solved I wanted to smack myself in the head for not figuring it out sooner.  It all made such perfect sense.  But Harper’s deft sleight of hand obscured the solution for me.  She skillfully portrayed a community on edge and a devastated natural landscape that would test the most emotionally stable person.  Best of all, I’ve found an interesting, even-keeled detective with a lot of potential.  There’s much room for the reader to discover more about Falk and his past.  We know a lot about what happened to Aaron right before he was forced out of town but we know almost nothing of what transpired all the years in between.  I look forward to revisiting him next year when Harper’s new book comes out.