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Update April - May, 2019

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Book Review

Jon Land's fans are in for another wild ride


Bruce Desilva

Jon Land's insubordinate, trigger-happy Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong is back again in another action-packed thriller in "Strong as Steel."

This is the sort of thing you might get if Dr. Frankenstein sewed John Wayne's head onto Wonder Woman's body, gave the fearsome creature an unlimited supply of bullets and dropped it into "The Da Vinci Code." In the first 40 pages, the following events unfold in rapid succession:

A freighter with a crew of dead men smashes into a dock at the Turkish Port of Ordu. A bride and groom are gunned down at a drug cartel wedding in Mexico. A team of assassins wipes out the crew of a railroad train in Texas and swipes three crates from a freight car. Caitlin's lover, reformed criminal Cort Wesley Masters, single-handedly rescues a Homeland Security operative on the brink of execution in Venezuela. And Caitlin, with only her sidearm, outguns a team of professional mercenaries armed with automatic weapons and RPGs.

All of this, it turns out later, has something to do with the bubonic plague, a secret religious order that employs violence to protect the one true faith and a stone ossuary that may or may not contain the bones of Jesus Christ.

By the novel's conclusion, Land manages to pull these disparate elements together.

For the uninitiated, Caitlin is a fifth-generation Texas Ranger. As always in this series, the plot has links to an old case investigated by one of her ancestors, and the cartoonish portrayals of violence resemble what might happen if Quentin Tarantino and Marvel's creator of Venom got wasted on cocaine and put their heads together.

In addition to Caitlin and Masters, returning characters include Masters' son Dylan, Caitlin's often exasperated commander D.W. Tepper, a mysterious Homeland Security agent known only as Jones, and a former South American death squad thug who has become Caitlin's guardian angel.

Land's fans are in for another wild ride.(AP)

An undiagnosed illness haunts D.J. Palmer novel


 Jeff Ayers

A teenage girl seems to have an illness that doctors cannot diagnose in D.J. Palmer’s psychological thriller, “Saving Meghan”.

Fourteen-year-old Meghan continues to show symptoms of some mysterious disease that has her consistently dizzy, dehydrated, and losing weight. Her mother, Becky, demonstrates signs of devotion to her daughter, but others wonder if she’s smothering Meghan.

Her father, Carl, has taken an opposite approach in caring for his little girl by being hands off to the point where some question if he even cares about Meghan’s health. Meghan begins to question her sanity and her mortality while she watches her family start to implode.

Is Meghan sick, or is something else going on? One doctor with potential ethics violations believes Meghan is suffering from a rare disease involving her mitochondria. Another doctor feels it’s all in her mind, and the constant health issues stem from an overbearing mother.

Legal and law enforcement debate whether this is a classic Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a form of abuse where the person supposed to care for the individual makes up or causes the condition. Becky says no, but Carl starts to believe otherwise and begins to work to remove his wife from his daughter’s care. Becky has to prove her innocence to keep her family together and her daughter alive even though the evidence against her is overwhelming.

Palmer knows how to ratchet up the suspense and paranoia in “Saving Meghan” while keeping the reader continually guessing to what is happening to Meghan. He also has the talent to create an emotional investment in the characters while also keeping the repulsion factor of what’s being discussed low. The finale might not be a happy ending in the traditional sense, but it’s unpredictable and unforgettable. (AP)

‘Island of Sea Women’ pits friendship versus tragedy

 John Rogers

Ten years ago, Lisa See was sitting in a doctor’s office leafing through magazines when she came across a brief article about a place she’d never known existed — the Island of Jeju — where the breadwinners were once a hearty band of women who eked out modest livings free-diving into the Pacific Ocean for seafood while husbands stayed home and raised children.

It was a discovery that has led to one of the most compelling — and heartstring-tugging — tales to spring from the mind of the best-selling author of “The Tea Girl From Hummingbird Lane” and nearly a dozen other novels.

Like many of the Chinese American author’s earlier books, it is set in Asia with ties to the United States, although the location this time is Korea, not China.

And like See’s “Shanghai Girls” and “Dreams of Joy,” the story takes readers on a journey spanning generations — in this case 1938 to 2008 — as moments of cherished friendship, unspeakable tragedy and, in the end, a plot twist worthy of Raymond Chandler unfold.

Early on, readers are introduced to Mi-ja and Young-sook, precocious, 7-year-old best friends despite island elders’ misgivings that Mi-ja’s father was a collaborator with the hated Japanese, who controlled the island from 1910 until the end of World War II.

The pair grow up to become “haenyeo” — Jeju’s real-life elite women divers who hone their skills over years to match an innate ability to hold their breaths longer than just about anybody as they deep dive repeatedly into frigid water to grab fish.

Out of the water, the pair grow up to happily compete for everything from husbands to bearing children.

That is until Jeju’s historic 4.3 Uprising, a real-life event (taking its name from the 1948 starting date of April 3) that is arguably one of modern history’s least-known massacres. It resulted in the deaths of some 30,000 people in 1948-49 as South Korea violently put down a rebellion over what government would control the island’s future.

Mi Ja and Young-sook become innocents caught up in the slaughter. Their friendship, strained by war, death and competing family ties, breaks apart as they struggle on against the island’s real-life historical backdrop.

By 2008, Young-sook is an old woman but still a diver. Indeed, she’s become part of a dwindling group of haenyeo in their 70s and 80s now revered as national treasures on an island that has become both a tourist attraction and a World Heritage Site.

As such she is a bit of a celebrity, much to her annoyance and her general dislike of tourists.

That’s until a day a tourist family from the United States — one that somehow seems strangely familiar — arrives to reveal things she never knew about herself, her family or her best friend. (AP)

‘Spearhead’ is a well-researched WWII tale

Kim Curtis

With his two previous books, journalist Adam Makos established himself as a meticulous researcher who’s equally adept at spinning a good, old-fashioned yarn.

In “Spearhead,” he doesn’t venture far from what he does best. Again, he returns to World War II, but he follows men on the ground rather than in the skies. And, again, he finds a hidden hero worthy of highlighting. This time, it’s Clarence Smoyer, a gunner from a working-class family in industrial Pennsylvania.

We follow Smoyer and the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division’s Easy Company across the battlefields of Germany in 1944. In his third book, though, rather than speeding through the narrative’s twists and turns with nary a bump in the road, Makos regales readers with every detail of every firefight. For a World War II aficionado, it will read like a dream, but to the average reader, it gets to be a bit tedious.

That said, Makos’ writing remains strong and dramatic with passages like “The bark of German tank guns knifed the woods” and “As if the Germans had been listening, they suddenly cut their power. The hot engine hissed, then went silent.”

And some of the strongest storytelling comes near the end when Smoyer, now well into his 80s, meets his German counterpart. The seminal battle of Smoyer’s service took place on the streets of Cologne where he faced off with an enemy tank, and two civilians trying to flee were killed. Smoyer had been haunted by their deaths all his life. Turns out, Gustav, the only surviving German tanker from that day, had been haunted, too. Their meeting in 2013 at a Cologne hotel bar is cinematic. (AP)

Barry Lopez looks for hope beyond the ‘Horizon’

Rob Merrill

Part travel journal, part history, part science lecture, part autobiography, and completely unique, “Horizon” feels like the crowning achievement of Barry Lopez’s illustrious career.

Fans of his award-winning “Arctic Dreams” (1986) and subsequent books about little understood landscapes, cultures and wildlife will find much to love here. Readers who have never read Lopez might be better served reading one of his single-topic tomes first.

At 512 pages, this book is dense. It’s divided into six main parts based on the geography of Lopez’s lifelong travels — western Oregon, the High Arctic, the Galapagos, Kenya, Australia and Antarctica. There are maps that help readers visualize where our peripatetic narrator is at any given time, but not much else in the way of context. Lopez admits in the prologue that he consciously chose to simply tell stories, not explain any “juxtapositions in time,” but it would have provided readers with helpful perspective to know more about his life circumstances during any given trip.

The resulting feel of the book is fragmented — perhaps intentionally mirroring the way memory works? — with passages about the power of music to “pry something ineluctable out of a particular landscape” (listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on Skraeling Island, 660 nautical miles from the North Pole) just 20 pages removed from a technical explanation of how the Antarctic Moon and Neutrino Detector Array at the South Pole works.

Each of the chapters is jammed with stories and personal reflections. Lopez, perhaps more than any other nature writer alive, is introspective to his core. Every experience, every sight, every person he meets, has made an impression on him and unlike most of us he kept notes. This book is his attempt to look back on it all and say something about the world we share.

Whether you personally lean toward the cynical or hopeful, one thing is certain — we need adventurous, curious souls like Lopez to keep traveling and bringing back stories from beyond our particular horizon — in order to find our way forward as a species, together. (AP)


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Jon Land's fans are in for another wild ride

An undiagnosed illness haunts D.J. Palmer novel

‘Island of Sea Women’ pits friendship versus tragedy

‘Spearhead’ is a well-researched WWII tale

Barry Lopez looks for hope beyond the ‘Horizon’