Land of Wolves
I have enjoyed Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series since the beginning, with few exceptions. There has been a book here and there that was a little too weird for me, but mostly I have invested in both the unsentimental policing of the wide open spaces of Wyoming and the slight mysticism brought into the books by Walt’s association with Henry Standing-Bear and the Native Americans living adjacent to Absaroka County. I have never been a big fan of westerns, but this series nicely marries a traditional western feel with interesting mysteries and native lore, which has, for the most part, suited my taste.
All of that changed with book #14 in the series, called Depth of Winter. I don’t know what Mr. Johnson was thinking but, judging from the responses of his fans on Goodreads, it surely wasn’t about them. He took Walt out of context, sending him out of his jurisdiction down to Mexico to fight what amounted to a war with a drug cartel. All the quirky and charming bits for which this series is known were notably absent, as were most of the personnel; and the narrative of the story fulfills the Hobbesian quote “nasty, brutish, and short” to a T. I was both disgusted by and dismayed at the amount of distance covered by Walt as he gave up all logic, pitting himself singlehandedly against this massive foe and then essentially abandoning all who offered to help him to pay the price in order to gain his own objectives. It was ugly.
I breathed a slightly attenuated sigh of relief, then, when I returned to the series with #15, his 2019 offering, to discover that Walt has been returned to Absaroka County and is dealing with a typical mystery for that area, the death of a Basque sheepherder. But this book was definitely a mixed bag. The mystery was weird, to begin with: We didn’t know for most of the book whether the shepherd had committed suicide or had been murdered, and we didn’t find out because the story kept haring off in multiple directions, from a kidnapped boy and a missing man to a lone wolf who has been sighted and blamed for sheep killing, working up the local populace. Usually the author takes all these disparate elements he introduces and weaves them into a coherent whole by the end, but in this case the explanations felt slight and unsatisfactory, and some went unresolved. And even the ones that ended with an explanation seemed tenuous where they should have been forthcoming.
Furthermore, Walt was less than present, due to both physical and mental recovery issues from his time in Mexico, making the narrative—primarily seen from his viewpoint—seem scattered. And although the regular people—Victoria, Saizorbitoria, Ruby, Henry—were once again present and accounted for, they didn’t seem fully realized, and Walt was so out of it that he didn’t pay them much mind, which meant the reader didn’t either. This book wasn’t the horrifying debacle of its predecessor, but it certainly wasn’t Craig Johnson’s best.
I hadn’t realized when I picked this up that I was so far behind with this series: Johnson has already written #s 16 and 17 (with 18 due out later next year), and the stars on Goodreads have been restored to a reassuringly consistent high number from most readers, making me think maybe it is safe to go on. There are also, since I last looked, half a dozen novellas that fall at various places between the full-length books that I could catch up on, for further experiences with Walt and the gang.
Something said towards the end of this book made me wonder if perhaps we will see the end of the series sooner rather than later, so I plan to keep reading, hoping that Johnson manages to avoid almost jumping the shark again, the way Lee Child emphatically did with Jack Reacher. I would hate to have to consign two of my favorite protagonists to the “do not read” pile….
Gunnie Rose returns!
Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose is back, in The Russian Cage, the third book in this quirky dystopian urban fantasy series by Charlaine Harris. I reviewed the first two books here. This one was published in late February, but I’m just getting to it now, mostly because I have been well and thoroughly distracted by about 6,000 pages of the Farseer saga by Robin Hobb! But I’m happy to check back in with this interesting world that could be our own with just a few divots gouged out of our history. Well, maybe minus the magic.
Lizbeth’s half-sister, Felicia, is now living in the Holy Russian Empire (HRE), which extends down the west coast of the former United States of America where Oregon and California used to be. The capitol city is San Diego, where she is going to school (and training as a grigori, a magician) while making herself available as a blood donor to the Tsar, Alexei, who suffers from Russian royalty’s fatal flaw of hemophilia and can only maintain his health by periodically receiving transfusions from the descendants of Rasputin, of whom Felicia is one.
Lizbeth, back home in Texoma (the former Texas and Oklahoma plus a few other territories) receives an exceedingly cryptic letter from her sister, and it takes her a little while to figure out that it’s a secret message telling her that her former lover and partner in magical shenanigans, Eli Savarov, is in prison; Felicia is hoping that Lizbeth can come up with an idea to break him out. Lizbeth immediately packs her bags and her weapons, borrows money from her stepfather, and hops on a train to California, er, Russia-in-exile.
The HRE is completely foreign territory to Gunnie Rose, and at first she is helpless to imagine how to help Eli. But with support and collusion from her sister, Eli’s family, and Felix, a grigori wizard she knows only slightly but has to trust as an ally, a plan comes together. She’s up against a lot—a seemingly impenetrable foreign system of bureaucracy with which she is unfamiliar; enemies masquerading as friends; the impulsive actions of Eli’s younger brother, Peter, who keeps making everything worse; and her own inability to carry weapons openly as she can at home in Texoma. But Gunnie Rose isn’t to be deterred, so she has to work all these things out, and it’s big fun to watch.
You definitely need to have read the first two books to understand at all what’s happening here and to whom, especially as regards the historical setting and background of this western urban fantasy. It’s a crazy hybrid, but once you get all the details down, it just works, somehow. And I love that at the center of it all is this 20-year-old gunslinger, tough and nearly humorless but with a tiny gooey center she shows to nearly no one. I have included a tag for (among a bunch of other things!) young adult fiction because, although it’s not written as such, high school-age teens would love this series.
The conclusion of this book could signal the end of the trilogy…but I’m hoping Harris has more adventures up her sleeve for Lizbeth and her Russian prince.
For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!
For ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.
First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.
Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.
In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….
The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.
Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.
One of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.
Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:
The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.
There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.
James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.
Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.
In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.
Anne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).
Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.
And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.
In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.
One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.
In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.
And then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:
Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.
Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:
In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.
In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.
If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year! —The Book Adept
Someone recommended Jane Harper to me as an author I might enjoy, so on my last virtual library visit, I downloaded The Lost Man to my Kindle. I forgot it was there and read other things, then realized I only had seven days left before it disappeared back into the library catalogue, so I put aside the Christmas-themed stuff for a minute and started it at 3 a.m. on Monday.
To quote another reviewer on Goodreads, this is less a novel and more an experience in which you lose yourself. And when you read it unencumbered by expectations, the power of its prose jumps out at you and grabs every bit of your attention.
The landscape, the Queensland (Australia) outback, is the most powerful character in the story. The landscape pares people down into either the essence or the caricature of themselves. Setting a mystery there is like creating a locked room puzzle (once you get in, there appears to be no way out), except that the room is an endless, airless, boiling plain of sand. The setting has dictated the style and pacing—spare, dry, concentrated.
The characters, three brothers, run livestock on land that, while adjacent to each other’s holdings, is hours apart in travel time, from each other and from “town.” Nathan Bright, the eldest and the protagonist, works alone and lives alone on his land (a backhanded gift from his former father-in-law), a scandal in his past making him a pariah with everyone but his family, and uncomfortable even with them. Divorced and bitterly intent on prying some form of joint custody of his son, Xander, from his ex-wife, Nathan is inturned and enigmatic. Cameron, the middle son, a “hail fellow well met” type, and “Bub,” the youngest brother, a bit lost in the shuffle and wishing for other options, live and work together on their father’s former holdings, with Cameron’s wife and two children, the boys’ widowed mother, and various stockmen and itinerant workers.
At the beginning of the story, there is a small gathering at the stockman’s grave, a landmark headstone out in the middle of nowhere, so old that no one remembers who is buried there. Various legends remain about this eerie place, and it’s about to acquire one more: Cameron’s body has just been discovered in the slight shade cast by the stone.
Questions abound: How did he get there? Something had been troubling him—did he choose to meet his death by this unpleasant method? This is the premise of local law enforcement, and also of most of those who knew him…because if he didn’t, then the incredible isolation in which these people live leaves room for only a few suspects. The questions begin to prey on Nathan’s mind….
The mood and the tone of this book fascinated me. The characters remain enigmas for much of the story, their demeanors an exercise in taciturnity. Even the children are opaque. Likewise, the stark factors of living in the outback—reminding yourself to drink 10 times a day, attending the School of the Air via radio because the closest “local” school is 20 hours away in Brisbane, never leaving the property without noting down your destination and the expected time of return so a search party can be sent out if you miss your mark…all speak to a daily tension already so high that adding any sort of drama to it could spark a wildfire.
If you enjoy inhabiting an environment nothing like your own and learning what kinds of people are challenged by it to make a life there, this book will pull you in. If you are fascinated by the interplay of emotions between characters who have known each other forever and yet now doubt they know anything at all, this book will keep you guessing. Slow pacing and immaculate plotting give you questions and doubts just as the characters arrive at those same thoughts. It’s an emotionally charged but quietly told story that is probably my favorite read of 2019.
READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: I’m trying to dredge up from my subconscious some other books that might share the appeals of this one. Perhaps The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, although it is such a stylized kind of work compared to this…. The River, by Peter Heller, has certain similarities. Maybe The Round House, by Louise Erdrich? or Bluebird Bluebird, by Attica Locke? The Lost Man gives me sort of the same feeling as reading “King Lear,” with the twisted family dynamics, the ugly lies and truths, the suspicions and doubts and manipulations.