Pride of Eden, by Taylor Brown*****

Taylor Brown is quickly becoming one of my favorite novelists. His 2018 book, Gods of Howl Mountain is one of my ten best loved books among the 1,300 I have reviewed since 2012, so I have been waiting for this book, and it does not disappoint. My undying thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale today.

Pride of Eden is a wildlife sanctuary in Georgia, owned and run by a Vietnam vet named Anse. Anse has PTSD related to his service, and his most searing memory is of the loss of a service dog that sacrificed its life to prevent a soldier from being killed by an explosive device. Anse is a complicated character with a possible death wish, but this aspect of his character is never overplayed, and after a haunting, visceral passage at the beginning, it becomes a subtle quality that runs beneath the surface, as it likely would in real life.

Anse accepts animals of all sorts; some come from illegal private zoos, or from private owners that are surprised that their adorable lion cub has grown up to be a wild animal. But secretly, he is also a vigilante. When he sees an animal in need of rescue whose owner plans to keep it—or sell its dead body for parts—he creeps in at night and liberates it.

Tyler is the preserve’s veterinarian, a buff no-nonsense woman who is also Anse’s girlfriend. My favorite passage involving Tyler is when a man comes to see Anse, and Anse is in a mood and wants Tyler to get rid of the guy. Tyler pushes back; it might be important, and the man has traveled a long way to see him. Anse grudgingly tells her to “Send him in,” and Tyler fires back that she is “not your fucking secretary, Anse.” At the outset of the story, Tyler does not know that Anse does not acquire all of his animals legally.

The third main character is Malaya, who comes to the sanctuary looking for work:

  “What do you want to do?” he asked.

   “Anything.”

    “What are your qualifications?”

“Third infantry, two tours in Iraq. Honorable discharge. Then I contracted in South Africa, tracking ivory and rhino poachers.”

“You catch any of them?”

She uncrossed her arms, buried her hands in the pockets of her shorts. Anse could see her knuckles ridged hard against the denim. “Yes,” she said.

Malaya is complex as well. But I love Malaya not only for her meaty internal monologue, but for the things she isn’t. Most male authors (and some female ones too) wouldn’t be able to resist these tired elements, and once again I admire Brown’s respect for women, which shows vibrantly in the way he frames his characters. Malaya is not romantically interested in Anse, nor does she try to mother him. Malaya and Tyler are not jealous of one another, and they do not compete. Both characters are buff and intelligent, and at no time do they have to be rescued by men. As a result, I could appreciate this story as it unfolded without the distraction of stereotypes or overused, sexist plot devices. Neither female character is motivated by sexual assaults in her past.  

The other two characters are Horn, another damaged vigilante that collects wild animals, and Lope, Anse’s driver, who helps him move large animals.

This is not an easy read. It will attract Brown’s fans, of course, and also animal lovers; yet those same animal lovers have to wade through an awful lot of sorrow, as the story is rife with tales of animal abuse. Brown’s purpose, apart from writing outstanding fiction, is likely to raise awareness of poachers that kill endangered animals for profit, and of private game reserves that send semi-tame animals to an enclosure so that wealthy ass hats can bag some big game, take that animal’s head home to hang in the den.

 Yet there’s nothing at all here that is included to be prurient or sensationalistic; every word has a purpose, either to develop a character or drive the plot forward, or both.

My emotions run the full gamut as I am reading, and this is a sign of excellent literature. I laugh out loud a couple of times; at others, the prose is so painful that I have to walk away for awhile and then come back. But I am never sorry to be reading it. The ending is so deeply satisfying that I want to high-five someone, but alas, I am reading it alone.

Once again, Brown’s novel is destined to be one of the year’s best reads. I highly recommend it.

Nothing Short of Dying, by Erik Storey***

nothingshortofdying Nothing Short of Dying is Storey’s first novel, and it’s full of no-holds-barred action. Despite some inconsistencies, it’s a good read, featuring a protagonist alienated, as so many Americans are, by time spent in prison. In some ways it is very much a tale of 2016 America. I received my DRC free and in advance in exchange for my honest review; thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner.

Our protagonist is Clyde Barr, and since the novel is labeled “Clyde Barr #1”, we’ll be seeing him again. Barr is back on the outside. He’s spent so much time away, between prison and time spent in Third World nations, that the rampant consumerism he finds upon returning to US society and the vast number of choices over trivial things overwhelms him. He wants to head to the Yukon and enjoy some time in the woods, but before he can do that, he gets word that his younger sister Jen, who’s very close to him because of shared childhood trauma, is in trouble and needs to be rescued.

I’d seen evil on three continents, some of it unspeakable, but it seemed worse in this place I called home. On a different continent, everything—good and bad—can seem strange, alien. But you don’t expect to come back to places that seem too familiar and discover the greatest evil of all.

Despite the occasional moment in which a female does something proactive, Storey’s plot is full of damsels in distress, and Barr’s whole mission is to save his sister, and then later to also run to the rescue of another woman that appears along the way, but to whom he grows inexplicably attached in a really short time. Character development is shallow, but I can see that an effort is made. Storey also uses the unsavory technique of identifying a bad guy by having him use nasty, racist language. But this is not one of those books I only finish due to a deal with the publisher; I genuinely want to see where this one is going and how it will come out.

Barr is a rough and tumble type, the kind of guy that makes his truck start by kicking the side panels and door and slamming his fist on the hood. It makes me like him.

Not so appealing is his reaction to the irritated woman working in the bar: “On her the expression looked cute.”

However, the thing that resonates most for this reviewer is that when trouble comes calling and another character asks him whether they ought not to call police, Barr says no:

“’They probably have guns.’

“’So do I,” I said.’”

The fact is that Barr flies under a black flag. He doesn’t care about preserving evidence; in fact, it improves things if his fingerprints are nowhere close to any of the messes he either starts or finds himself part of. And fifteen years ago, I don’t think a book like this would’ve found a reputable publisher like Scribner. Barr is our hero, but he has no respect for officers of the law, and his inclination is to solve problems and even make a living in a way that goes around US law rather than in accord with it.

But today so many ordinary, decent people have either done time for something most countries wouldn’t consider to be a lock-up kind of offense, or have a loved one that is or was imprisoned, that alienation from cops and the sometimes the law has become the new normal. I write this from a middle class neighborhood in mellow Seattle, a place where the neighborhood association sat down with a representative from SPD to ask that they let us solve our own problems and quit sending officers here to stalk every Black kid that drives, walks, or gets off a city bus. And I know this scenario is playing out across the nation, but it’s worse in down-and-out areas where people prefer to hide from cops, or film them, because nobody from the cop shop is going to come out to have coffee and chat with the locals.

When you have no power, nobody from downtown cares what you want. And so I think a story like this one will find a receptive audience. There is really no Officer Friendly; if you can’t avoid problems, you have to deal with them yourself nine times out of ten.

This novel, the reader should know, is brutal, violent, and grim. There are torture scenes. The pacing is almost always lightning fast, with lots of fast driving and shooting; the pace only slows in one area, and that is whenever Barr has to build a campfire out in the middle of nowhere, we get a detailed lesson in how this is done.  Once I was on my second detailed campfire lesson, I made a note in my tablet. Why are we suddenly stopping for another campfire lecture? But in general, the action travels at warp speed. You have to have the stomach for it, though. But I am a retired English teacher, and there are stories I don’t want to read because they are too graphic; this one stayed inside my ick-boundary by a tiny margin. So if you’re still reading my review and considering reading this book, likely you’ll be okay.

I made a more positive note at the end of chapter 23, because it flowed really well.

A favorite passage is when Barr is hobbling up the mountainside on an injured leg, “sucking air like a sun-stroked impala.” Storey’s figurative language is strong in a number of places, and it helps keep the pages turning.

The story’s denouement left a bare thread dangling in a somewhat obvious way, but this is the writer’s first installment in the series. With strong imagery, a clear plot line, and action, action, action, I know this is a writer to watch. I look forward to seeing the next Clyde Barr novel; this one was released recently, and you can get a copy of your own right now.

With the caveats above, I recommend you read this adrenaline-coursing thriller.