Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean


The year is 1992 and the place is a suburb in Australia.  It's summer and the hottest one in memory.  Five girls live on a cul-de-sac in the suburb and are inseparable.  Tikka Malloy is 11 that year; her sister Laura 14.  Their best friends are the Van Apfel girls.  Hannah is Laura's age, Cordelia is a year in school above Tikka and Ruth is the youngest.  The five girls are inseparable.  They go to school together and afterward, spend hours in the Van Apfel pool, eat ice creams, talk and tell secrets.

But there is one secret no one is talking about.  The Van Apfel family are religious and religion defines their lives.  Mr. Van Apfel controls everything in the house and the thing he most likes to control are his girls.  As time goes by, the Malloy girls start to guess the secret.  The secret of why Cordelia fell out of a tree breaking her arm.  The secret of why she sometimes had bruises or hair missing.  The secret behind the fact that the girls are going to run away.

And they did.  At the annual school Showstopper event, the girls vanished.  Did they run away?  Were they taken by someone?  Why aren't they being found, after days and weeks of searches and police investigations?  Their disappearance changed everything in the development and defined the Malloy girls' childhood which ended that night.

Now Tikka is back home for a visit.  She now lives in the United States and works as a lab technician.  While she is back, she and Laura work through that summer and their memories, trying to make sense of all the clues that they were too young to understand back then.

This is a debut novel and it's success makes Felicity McLean an Australian author to watch for in the future.  It was a highly buzzed book with such publications as Cosmopolitian and Entertainment Weekly calling it the book of the summer the year of publication.  I enjoyed the coming of age aspect of the novel and the slow unfolding of how Tikka came to realize that something was very wrong next door.  This book is recommended for thriller readers.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Broken Prey by John Sandford



The first body is that of a woman.  She has been left displayed, her naked body scourged by something like a wire flail.  Lucas Davenport gets a bad feeling about the crime as soon as he sees it, a feeling shared by his counterpart Sloan.  Sloan is about to retire and he doesn't want a major crime in his last days to investigate.  The second body is that of a young father and his son.  Again the man's body has been displayed and whipped.

Davenport gets his team together and they start to investigate whether other crimes have occurred and somehow flown under the radar.  As the body count starts to mount, the seasoned investigators realize that the crimes mimic those of some of the worst killers they have encountered in the past.  Those men are all still in prison.  Is their a copycat killer and if so, how does this new killer have all the details of the past?

The investigation moves to the prison and interviews are held with the men Davenport and Sloan have put away.  They leave convinced that the killers have coached someone to kill as they did, but who?  Is it a former prisoner?  A prison guard or other staff member?  A visitor?  As the investigation becomes more focused, the bodies continue to come and the plot moves through twists and turns.

This is the sixteenth Lucas Davenport novel.  Lucas' wife, Weather, is in London during this book with the couple's children on a surgical exchange.  Lucas is left to his own devices, pushing himself longer and harder than he usually does as there is no brake on his actions.  The plot is full of twists and the reader will be hard pressed to guess the ending.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen


This work is the definitive telling of the rise and fall of the Comanche tribe and how it became the preeminent tribe of the Southwest.  At the start of its rise, the Comanche were just another tribe of many others.  Hamalainen shows evidence that the tribe's rise to prominence came from its ability to entirely remake it's culture and daily living routines.  It went from a hunting gathering society to one based on horses, raising and trading them, using them to become master hunters of buffalo and changing from a stationary to a mobile society.

The area of land the Comanche claimed was claimed by other cultures as well.  Both the Spanish and the French had claims on the territory as well as the Americans after the Louisiana Purchase.  The Comanche were able to play these competing claims and governments against one another to aid them in creating their trade empire.  They also used the settlers in these areas as a resource for more stock; raiding and taking off hundreds and sometimes thousands of cattle and horses annually.  Some of these were kept while the vast majority formed the basis of their trade and a means to gain produce to make up for the end of their farming activity as well as the guns and other metal tools needed for their daily activities.

At its peak, there were approximately forty thousand members of the tribe.  The fall of the empire came from various catastrophes.  There were periodic epidemics of diseases such as smallpox that the natives had no immunity to.  There was the incessant migration of settlers, determined to claim and farm land the Comanche had used as free range.  Finally, there was the extermination of the vast buffalo herds, due to natural causes such as long droughts which impacted grazing ability and the indiscriminate hunting of both the Indians and those who would kill massive numbers of buffalo just for the skins or some small part of the animal.

This book is part of the Lamar Series of Western History and the author is an associate professor of history at the University of California.  It explores the intricate causes that allowed the Comanche to succeed and those details that eventually insured their defeat as a nation.  Along the way, the reader is exposed to a myriad of knowledge about topics such as daily life, the use of slaves in the society, the role of men, women and children in this society and how the negotiation style allowed the elders to interact with the interlopers threatening their way of life.  This book is recommended for history readers.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Body Leaping Backward


It was a typical family in the suburbs in the 1970's.  Maureen Stanton was born into a middle class family in Walpole, Massachusetts.  Her dad was a computer programmer and her mother stayed at home with the seven children.  There was a hot meal every evening and sing alongs with her dad playing the piano.  There were family trips and bedtime stories.

Then everything changed.  Maureen's parents separated and nothing was the same.  The just enough money became not enough money.  Her saintly mother now routinely shoplifted clothes and food with the children watching.  Her dad was relegated to infrequent, strained time with the children.  There was little supervision of the children and no more sing alongs.

The children spiraled downward.  One of the main features of their town was the infamous Walpole Penitentiary, where such criminals as The Boston Strangler were incarcerated.  Over the years, the children had various friends who ended up there as well.  They were left basically without supervision as their mother went back to work and then started dating; often leaving for entire weekends with her new boyfriend.  As is often the case, unsupervised children find bad things to do.

In Maureen's case, it was angel dust and alcohol.  For about two years in high school, she was high daily, smoking dust right before school which was not much more than a haze that occasionally interrupted her highs.  She and her friends lived to party.  They did dangerous things for money for drugs and sold them.  They hitchhiked and took rides from men all the time, usually so impaired that it was only by the grace of God that they weren't harmed.  Her mother and teachers didn't seem to notice or at least never seemed to intervene.  Maureen was left to work her own way out of her addictions and hopelessness. 

This memoir was meant by the author, I think, to highlight the issues surrounding drugs and how they can impact young people's lives.  What came through to me, instead, was the incredible lack of supervision and help she encountered from the adults in her life.  Today the helicopter parent gets lots of bad press and every generation has it's own way to get parenting wrong.  But the way that Maureen was left to flounder around steeped in alcohol and drugs without adult intervention was far worse in my mind.  This book is a warning to parents and recommended for readers of memoirs and those interested in social issues.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Night Boat To Tangier by Kevin Barry



They sit on the benches in the ferry depot, waiting.  They appear to be typical middle-aged men in their fifties, still full of life but with some issues.  One has a significant limp and the other man has a ruined eye.  They sit and chat, waiting for it emerges, the daughter of one of the men.  But Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are not typical Irish men out for a pleasant outing.  They are longtime friends/enemies and the daughter they are waiting for won't be pleased to see them.

As they sit, they talk and over the course of hours, their life stories emerge.  It's a tale of modern day smugglers; their cargo the drugs that ruined a generation in Ireland.  It's a tale of love and betrayal, friendships forged in love yet betrayed in an instant.  It's a tale of women loved and cheated on, families left behind or put in danger, violence when necessary and months of hiding out from those who would do them harm.  It turns out the daughter has fled to escape the chaos of daily life around these two and will not be glad to see them if she appears.  They are sitting there on the basis of a rumor that she might be passing through, hoping to find her if she appears and that she will be willing to speak with them.

This novel is a Booker nominee this year and one of the best books I've read.  The slow unfolding of the men's stories, of their long friendship and casual betrayals, of an entire generation of crime and hopelessness in Ireland is unforgettable.  These are not cuddly men but they are men the reader will not soon forget.  This book is recommended highly for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Dogs Of Christmas by J. Bruce Cameron


Josh Michaels is a loner.  An IT guy who works from home, his social life had been his girlfriend Amanda.  When she leaves him for another man, Josh pulls even further into himself, living in the house he grew up in, friendly enough but not putting himself out to make much human contact.  Then his neighbor shows up at the door.  Josh has never much cared for the man as he is a party guy and kind of sketchy.  The guy begs Josh to take care of his dog for a day or so until he can find someone to take it on a more permanent basis.  He says he has to go overseas at a moment's notice and that this dog was his girlfriend's dog and she deserted it when she left him.

Josh knows nothing about taking care of dogs but reluctantly agrees.  The dog, Lucy, he notices, is about to have puppies so that is an even higher level of commitment.  When Lucy goes into labor, he takes her to the vet to have her puppies but the vet comes out and tells him all the puppies were stillborn due to the bad food the mother has been eating.  Heartbroken, Josh and Lucy drive to his cabin in the start of a snow storm.  As he builds a fire, Josh notices Lucy is sad.  When he goes out for more firewood, he notices a box has been left in the back of his truck.  When he opens it, there are five little almost frozen puppies; someone had brought them to the vet.

Josh and Lucy's lives are changed.  Lucy now has five puppies to raise and Josh starts to meet new people through the puppies.  Kerri works at the local rescue and helps him raise and socialize the puppies while encouraging him to adopt them out.  He meets people who fall in love with the puppies.  Is this the changing point of his life?

I've had this book for years but avoided it.  I don't particularly like books centered on a holiday and while I've always had a dog, I'm not a fanatic about it.  But this book was more about Josh and his struggle to overcome his introversion and make a new life than about Christmas or being devoted to a dog to the exclusion of other things.  It was predictable but that is the point of feel good books; you know whatever happens things will work out in the end.  This book is recommended for reading dog lovers.