At the Edge of the Haight, by Katherine Seligman****

At the Edge of the Haight tells the story of a homeless youth, Maddy Donaldo, who lives with her dog, Root, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. But one day she runs across a young man lying dead, and the man that is almost certainly his killer locks eyes with her. He tells her, “Keep a handle on the fucking dog…I know where to find your ass.”

I was invited to read and review this award-winning novel by Algonquin Books. My thanks go to them and Net Galley for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

At first, I am not sure I’ll like this book. It seems a bit self-conscious, a bit like a public service announcement or an infomercial. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. But about a quarter of the way in, it wakes up and begins to flow. It becomes my dedicated bathroom book, since I’ve been given a physical review copy, and I find myself brightening when I enter the loo. There are any number of places when the author has the opportunity to use an obvious plot device, but she chooses something better. By the end of the story I believe Maddy as a character, and I appreciate the way it ends.

My home town, Seattle, has an enormous problem with homelessness, estimated in the tens of thousands, and most of them are native Seattle-ites that have been priced out of the housing market. I know one of the people out there; others have squatted in my yard until my dog made them feel unwelcome. Not one part of this city is entirely free of tents, cardboard shacks, and other makeshift shelters. So this subject is never far from my thoughts.

The fact is that there aren’t nearly enough shelter beds, whether in open rooms with mats on the floor, hotels with doors that close and provide privacy, or other options, but in reading this book, it is also clear that there are times when it’s better to walk away from free shelter. Take our friend Maddy. The shelter she sometimes frequents is one where the probable killer has seen her. She can’t go there safely. There are shelters where she can’t take her dog. There are others that sound pretty good, but a night filled with the screams of a neighbor experiencing a mental health crisis make the private niche way deep in the park more appealing. The cops range from businesslike 3 AM bush beaters (“You can’t camp here!”) to the overtly cruel, and most of the homeless know better than to try to confide in them. And so it goes.

The main part of this story involves a couple—Dave and Marva—that are the parents of Shane, the murder victim. They live on the other side of the country, and they never understood why Shane wouldn’t come home. No one besides Maddy recalls having seen Shane, and so although she has only seen him once—dead—they latch onto her, vowing to help her since they couldn’t help him. Between their grief and ignorance, however, they bumble around and breach boundaries in ways that are outrageously presumptuous, and when they drag her to their home for Thanksgiving, they introduce her as someone that “knew Shane,” which of course she didn’t. Maddy feels bad for these folks, but she doesn’t want to be their project. It’s a bizarre situation for her to be in.

Though it is marketed as commercial fiction, I think a lot of teens would embrace this story. I suggest that Language Arts teachers in middle and high schools add it to their shelves, as should librarians. The vocabulary is accessible, and despite the quote I lead with, there’s very little profanity.

Recommended especially for teenage readers.

Wake Up and Die, by Jack Lynch****

wakeupanddieThis book is the fourth in the series featuring Peter Bragg; the series was nominated for the Edgar Award and twice for the Shamus Award. I’ve read three others in the series already, so imagine my delight when I located this book, formerly published as Sausalito, among the DRC’s offered by Brash Priority Readers Circle.

And apologies to my readers: I originally published this review under a different title. I use my Goodreads account to organize my shelves, a lazy, easy way to keep track of what I am reading (usually 6-8 books at a time); what is waiting to be read next; what I have, own, and intend to read later; and even what books I don’t have and hope to get. The weak link, as was proven here, is that when a book’s title changes, Goodreads’s new owner, Amazon, is very restrictive about accepting new titles. In years past, since I am a Goodreads volunteer librarian, all I had to do to personally add a title and book jacket was either scan it physically, or send a relevant link to the superlibrarians (the ones that get paid), and they would drop it into the website.

Not anymore.

Before I knew it I was confused, and since I knew I had two Bragg titles to read and had just finished one, I assumed it was that of the single book jacket on my Goodreads page. There is a cost to letting someone else’s system organize one’s reading, and this is it. So this review was originally published on this blog as The Dead Never Forget, which is the first Bragg title and which I have not yet read. My apologies again to my readers and to Brash Books.

Like most Peter Bragg mysteries, this one is set in the Bay Area. A huge development is about to built on the waterfront, complete with a convention center and any number of hotels and restaurants. The problem arises when the residents of area houseboats protest the likelihood that they will be shut out. Bragg is working a different case, one involving pornographic photos that have been sent to the subject’s father, when he finds himself on the waterfront near his home helping to get people and pets to safety after a suspicious fire breaks out. A murder is discovered and before you know it, all hell has broken loose.

The setting is the 1990’s, shortly before the internet changed all of our lives. It is actually a contemporary setting because this is when the mystery was written, but now as it is re-released, it feels like a noir setting, because all of the telephones are land lines and all files are on paper buried in metal cabinets. In this sense, I think the series actually benefits from the time lag.

The novel is ambitious, bouncing us from one setting to another and introducing a large number of characters. I had trouble keeping track of them all. I might have wondered whether my mind was getting old and rusty but for the fact that I was reading a different galley at the same time with even more characters, and the latter left me with no doubt whatsoever who each one was.

On the plus side is not only our opportunity to meet the detective in his first criminal investigation, but I also like the way issues of race and gender are treated; appropriate and at times quite zesty without ever appearing to be self-consciously PC or awkward. There is a moment toward the end that made me want to stand up and cheer! This moment took what was about to be a three star review and bounced it back up to four stars.

On the downside, in addition to the confusion engendered by too frequently hopping between undeveloped characters and situations, there’s an over-the-top moment that some readers will enjoy, but that I found was too much for me: too much vigilantism, too violent, and over the top on my personal ick-meter.

Those that are fans of Jack Lynch will want to read this newly-republished mystery in order to introduce themselves to a kick-ass series. Those that love good mysteries and/or fiction set in the San Francisco area should also get this book and read it.

Why not spend a weekend curled up with Peter Bragg?