Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

prairiethe_Are the classic “Little House” books memoir or historical fiction, and were they written by Laura or by her daughter? If you’re confused, you’re not alone. In this epic, absorbing biography of her great-grandmother, Fraser tells us. Between her congenial narrative and careful, detailed documentation, this author has created a masterpiece. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers. This book is now for sale.

Laura’s early life was considerably harder than the sepia-toned, heartwarming stories with which she recounts it. Little children could not stand to hear the grueling poverty and crushing losses her family sustained.

 

“Her autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation. As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be told, in its historical context, as she lived it. That tale is different from the one she wrote. It is an adult story of poverty, struggle, and reinvention—a great American drama in three acts…Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich.”

Wilder was a legend unto herself, a fierce, strong woman that could survive anything, anything, and everything. Her story recounts not only personal hardships, but the wide sweeping history that she lived through, from the Westward movement and Manifest Destiny to the suffrage movement, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression, as well as the elephant in the room: Indian removal and genocide.

The book, some 600-plus pages, recounts not only Wilder’s story, but that of her daughter, Rose Ingalls Wilder, who was, frankly, a real piece of work. Their lives were so intensely intertwined that to do this any other way would render Wilder’s story incomplete.  And I appreciate the scholarly objectivity with which Fraser treats her subject; it’s not without warmth, but she is clearly not manipulating facts, as some authors do when writing about famous relatives. PrairieFires

And although I previously named a different title as the go-to biography of 2017, I have to recognize that Fraser’s book is a contender.  Highly recommended.

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

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.

A Death in the House and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak****

adeathinthehouse.jpgClifford D. Simak wrote fiction, mostly science fiction in the form of short stories, for more than fifty years.  Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media, I’ve been binge-reading for the better part of a year. I received this DRC, as I did the others, in exchange for an honest review.  This is my fourth Simak collection; most of its stories are brilliant and have stood the test of time, though a couple of them haven’t aged as well as the rest.

The collection begins with one of his best, “Operation Stinky”, which is about a skunk with supernatural ability. A hallmark of a truly brilliant science fiction writer is his capacity to take a truly preposterous premise and make us not only believe in it, for a short time, but respond to it emotionally. I laughed out loud at least once at a wry moment here, and in other places I was really moved. Simak does that to me a lot.

Another favorite was “Green Thumb”, about a plant that comes from outer space and is horrified to learn that its new host is actually—dear heaven—eating plants! Again, Simak plays this string like the sweetest violin, and at the end I had to put my reader down and assimilate what I’d read before I could read anything else. “The Sitters” made me think of Stephen King, though of course Simak’s story was written before King had published a novel at all. I also enjoyed the title story as well as “Tools” and “Nine Lives”, but the one I liked best was “Target Generation”, a longer story about a huge spaceship that had hosted so many generations of people, many of them born right there on the ship, that an entire origin myth had become the basis for the ship’s culture and the beliefs of its residents…all but one. When the character—if we can call it that—called ‘The Mutterer’ came, I could not move until that story was done.

That said, there were some weak places. In some respects this may be unfair of me, because I don’t think Simak wrote with the knowledge that anyone would ever sit down and binge-read his stories end to end; he submitted one story at a time to magazines and earned his living that way. Nevertheless, I really wish he’d write more stories in which nobody gets named “Doc”.  And the story titled “War is Personal”, while I am sure it was well received by many readers when he wrote it during World War II, really upset me. I found the “J” word a couple of times and together with the overall flavor of the story, was disturbed enough to straight-up skip to the next entry. I began the lengthy novella, “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell”, and was absorbed, but part way through it was shot through with some unbelievably bad dialogue and trite expressions. And although “The Birch Clump Cluster”, the final entry, wasn’t bad, it didn’t measure up to most of his work.

Two stories give unfortunate titles to disabled people and refer to them in a disrespectful way. Again, it was common at the time the stories were published, but as a society we are more enlightened now, and so this aspect of his work hasn’t aged well.

Unless you are a diehard Simak fan, skip the introduction. It was written by a close friend of his and has to do with a break from writing on the part of the author. I didn’t care at all and decided not to finish it, because trying to slog through it was going to prevent me from getting to the stories themselves.

The good news is that most of the stories here are fantastic, and this collection was published this summer, so you can have it now. Recommended for those that love good science fiction.

House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke***-****

houseoftherisingsunI confess that I am a big fan of Burke’s. He’s written a prodigious number of novels over the past fifty years, and I have read almost all of them. This is why, although I get nearly all of my books free prior to publication, I put this title on my Christmas wish list when I wasn’t given access to a galley. Perhaps because my spouse paid full jacket price for it, I am holding it to a higher standard than I usually do. This book is either a three star or four star read, depending on whether we factor in the dollars. Let’s call it 3.5 and round it up. It seems like a shame to 3-star a writer who is so talented and has contributed so much to American literature.

Most of Burke’s novels are detective fiction, crime fiction, mystery, or all three; now and then he writes historical fiction instead. And his choice to send Dave and Clete, the protagonist and side kick of the Robicheaux series, is a good one. No matter how much I enjoyed it, in that fictional world where cops do the right thing and bad guys are really bad every time, there is no way the reading public would be able to continue to enjoy their vigilante behaviors between the covers of a book at the same time that the Black Lives Matter movement has made us aware of that problem—along with the throw-down weapons used to justify gratuitous brutality after the fact–that exist in real life. So, that series is over, and I’m okay with it.

Technically, House of the Rising Sun is a four to five star novel. Burke’s use of imagery is rivaled by few and exceeded by none. Here, his use of allegory, creating a personal Odyssey based on one of the author’s own ancestors, is unquestionably strong. If you love literary fiction for its own sake, this is your book.

By far the strongest writing lies in the portions are set on the battlefields of Europe. Burke’s prose is eloquent and stirring in narrative passages that speak to the class nature of imperialist warfare.

For me, the issue has to do with plot and pacing. The entire book is essentially built around Hackberry Holland’s effort to find his son. They are separated when his wife leaves him and Ishmael is still a child, and through World War I and the period that follows, the journey to find Ishmael winds its way in a way that serves the allegory, but that feels tedious to me as a reader. A fight here; a fall off the wagon and drunk in the streets; looking here, there, everywhere; writing letters; making phone calls; it seems for a long time as if he has barely missed his son. Throw into it the villains—Maggie, Beatrice, and above all, Arnold Beckman—and that’s pretty much it. I don’t want to give anything away, but there isn’t that much suspense to begin with.

A lot of the dialogue seems as if it has been recycled from Burke’s previous books; not whole paragraphs, just speech patterns with a fragment here, a fragment there that left me thinking I had read it before this.

Anytime I find a jarring racist term in a novel, I point it out so that prospective readers will know it’s coming. The “N” word gets used several times; it is within the context of establishing or emphasizing someone’s malign nature. There are also other areas in which Holland takes Caucasian characters to task for racist behavior. Still, I like to think a writer of Burke’s stature can and should develop a credible villain without resorting to this hurtful, and to my thinking, cheap and easy method.

Whether this novel is for you probably depends most on what you look for in a novel. Lush descriptions and horrifically real violence abound, but there isn’t the kind of suspense you’d expect a missing-kid story to employ.

When push comes to shove, I recommend you read this, if you are still interested after reading the reviews, but get it once it goes to paperback, or wait for it to be available used; don’t pay full cover price for it unless your pockets are deep and your interest strong.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry*****

lonesomedoveSince when do I read westerns? Since never…until a Goodreads friend recommended this title. He knew I liked history and historical fiction, and I couldn’t dismiss the recommendation, not only because this person has never steered me wrong, but because this book won the Pulitzer. That doesn’t guarantee I will like it either, of course, but it certainly enhances the likelihood. So on one of my increasingly-rare ventures to my favorite local used bookstore, I searched out the title. There it was, 857 pages bound in a beautiful hard cover, foliated-paged tome, for less than ten bucks. Sold!

It took me a long time to read, not because of its length—psssh, my readers know me better than that—but because of its physical size. A very lengthy book in an electronic reader is light weight no matter how many pages it has, but this gorgeous, old school novel was hell on a frozen shoulder. So for a long time I read it in little chunks, propping it on top of pillows on top of my lap. It took awhile, but it was worth it.

McMurtry earned his laurels, that much is certain. I was mesmerized by the way he took us to a place that no longer exists, immense swaths of nothing across the Midwestern USA and Northern Rockies. The idea that a person could travel long and hard for days and still not even be out of Texas just blew me away, and then there was still most of the journey yet to come. There are no roads; the protagonists have a kind-of, sort-of map; a list of rivers to sustain themselves, replenish their drinking water; water their mounts, with water being the equivalent of gassing up; and also water their herd.

I realized that one reason I never chose to read westerns is because I grew up during a time when cowboys were considered the enemy of the American Indian. I didn’t want to be allied with the white guys on the horses. And of course, that was one stereotype I later realized I should not have bought into, because not all cowboys were white guys; most were, for sure, but some were of Mexican heritage, some were Black, and once in a rare while there would be an American Indian riding with the cowboys. And cowboys did not always fight Indians; sometimes they were just moving cattle.

Apart from the almost tangible settings the author creates, we also have some complex relationships. I confess that some of the more peripheral characters among the cowboy crew were hard for me to keep straight. Which one is Dish, and which is Pea Eye? But it didn’t matter that much in terms of ability to enjoy the novel, because the main characters were so well developed, and there wasn’t a stereotype in the pack. Gus is the chief protagonist, and in my mind he was somewhere between Ralph Waite and Tom Hanks. Call, his very quiet, solitary partner, was a tow-headed version of Robert Redford. Lorena, the complicated woman that fell in love with Gus, eventually formed herself in my own mind to resemble country singer Miranda Lambert. Sometimes you just need a face to go with your main characters. Jake turned up as Dan Ackroyd without the sense of humor. Blue Duck is one of the most terrifying villains in literature!

Why go north? There was never any really good reason apart from Call’s wanderlust, and Gus’s unwillingness to be separated from his partner, with whom he had worked since their days as Texas Rangers. Gus also wanted to look up a woman from his past who had settled in Nebraska, and I loved how that played out.

And when all was said and done, I realized that this is one of those haunting stories that will forever remain in my mind. That’s saying a lot; I usually read 8-10 books per month, and often by the time I am invited to host a book giveaway or blog tour by the publisher, I have forgotten the name of the main character and all but the broadest contours of the story being promoted. They approach me 3 months after I wrote the review, and there are 30 books in between that story and the present. But that won’t happen here. In fact, because this wasn’t a galley, I waited to review it until I had the time and felt the urge. I still remember so much, and there have been several books gone by in the interim.

If you have the stamina to read a book of this length—and I have to tell you, though it’s a western it is not all actionactionaction, but rather deeply insightful in many places—and if you enjoy historical fiction, you ought to give this book consideration. It isn’t hard to find it used, and given its exalted status in literature, your local library probably also has a copy. But even if you have to pony up the cover price—pun intended—you could do much worse for your reading dollar.

An outstanding novel.

Storme Front: A Wyatt Storme Thriller, by WL Ripley*****

storme frontStorme Front, the second mystery in the series featuring former NFL player Wyatt Storme and his buddy, Chick Easton, is smart and sassy. Ripley proves that an action-packed thriller with a he-man protagonist is stronger, not weaker when it treats women respectfully, as equals to men. Thank you twice, first to Net Galley, and second to Brash Books. I received this DRC from them in exchange for an honest review. This title was released August 4, so you can get it right away.

When someone offers one a thousand dollars to make a single, simple delivery, it’s natural to be suspicious. But when it appears to also involve pulling a good friend’s cojones out of the fire, an experienced badass will sometimes agree, however cautiously, to tag along. So it is here. Drugs, guns, and bodies pile up, and all through it runs some kick-ass banter that made me laugh out loud a number of times. The exchanges are typically between Wyatt and Chick, but there’s some pretty strong humor, at times, in the interactions between Wyatt and his fiancée, Sandra Collingsworth, as well. As well as respect. I like the respect even better.

“No one likes smart, self-assured women, you know.”
“Except you,” she said. “And I’m glad.”

Complicating the picture without making it into a soap opera is the involvement, however peripherally, of an old flame of Wyatt’s. They split up a long time ago, and she married the man whose afore-mentioned cojones Wyatt is trying to salvage.

“His wife?” said Billy, smiling. “Ain’t she a sweet piece of—“
“Her name’s Kelly,” I said, interrupting. “But you can call her Mrs. Jenkins.”

The action is linear in format, so the fairly sizeable number of characters doesn’t create confusion. Then too, Ripley’s memorable character sketches certainly help:

“Snakeskins came around the truck. He had a big face, crooked nose. About thirty. A little overweight. Too many Coors in cowboy bars. Blond mustache, untrimmed, and a diamond stud in one ear. His hands were immense.”

Oh, there are so many more memorable passages, and I highlighted 78 of them, just for giggles. But the fact is, I would just hate to ruin it all for you. All told, the flavor is a bit like Sue Grafton’s, but with male protagonists in Colorado.

The examples I’ve provided show up early on, but the pace never slows till the last page is turned. In the end, I just wanted to read the next book in the series. And so will you.

Highly recommended for mystery and thriller lovers, or for anyone that needs a snappy, amusing beach read.