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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Review: 'A Killing in the Hills'

A KILLING IN THE HILLS
By Julia Keller
Crime fiction
August 2012
Minotaur Books
ISBN: 9781250003485
                                                                                                                                                                 
A woman returns to the place where a family tragedy took place years ago. Everyone else is gone. She decides there is nothing here for her, either.

That woman is the prosecuting attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia. Bell Elkins has brought her teenage daughter, Carla, back to her hometown when her husband wanted a high-flying career that didn't seem to include them. But home hasn't been a sanctuary. Carla is in full teenage-rebel mode. She also could have been hurt the day a gunman walked into a local restaurant and killed three old men in the middle of their morning coffee meeting.

Bell and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, who was a young deputy when the tragedy in Bell's family took place and who took her under his wing, seek to find the killer. They also deal with other cases, the people they work with and the rest of the town where everybody seemingly knows everybody else. As is normal in a small town, not everyone is as they seem.

One of the cases appears to be an easy prosecution but shows Bell's determination for precision and doing right. A developmentally disabled young man plays with a much younger boy. One day, the younger boy dies. On its own, this case could have taken center stage in showing Bell's character, the ins and outs of small-town prosecutions and a decent plot.

The main story is told from the investigation side as well as the first-person account of the shooter, who is fairly standard-issue small-town nobody who wants to be known for something. The interesting part of the case has to do with Carla as she struggles with growing up and wanting to make her mother proud of her even if she wants Mom to just leave her alone.

Keller's first novel is an interesting attempt to showcase the struggles of people who live in beautiful country and high poverty, where drugs can offer an easy way out and a way to make some money. It isn't the strongest novel, as a few Too Stupid to Live moments are employed to raise the stakes in finding the killer. A contractor wanting to stop by a house after 10 p.m. also can easily take a reader out of the story. But the novel is an honest attempt and shows the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's considerable admiration for West Virginia and her people.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Friday, February 15, 2013

In progress: 'Yellow Birds', ties to 'Fobbit'

Having just finished the midway part of Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, the big chapter with the big sentence where the young narrator who has survived a tour of duty in Iraq drifts through life and partway down the river, one of those "aha!" connection moments between books occurred.

The Yellow Birds is one of the three Iraq novels published last year. The first I've read, David Abrams' Fobbit, succeeded for my brain and my heart, as well as my sense of humor. It was a smooth, stunningly clever novel in which the total nonsense of war came together.

Powers's novel is completely different. In style, it veers between the extremes of Hemingway admiration and Jamesian twists and turns. One sentence, in the above-mentioned Chapter 7, takes up about two pages. It reveals a great deal of the narrator's character, his motivation, his heart and why his mournful inertia is so hard for him to get past.

And that's when I realized the difference between the two novels. Fobbit is told from an omnipresent perspective that shows the interior and exterior portions of several characters. It's grown-up. It knows war is supremely ridiculous and tragic at the same time.

The Yellow Birds reads from the perspective of a sensitive young man who is just seeing how bad life can be, and has learned this lesson in the worst way possible -- by seeing and causing the taking of life in service of powers that take but never give.

This difference in the two novels is one of the reasons to celebrate the breadth of contemporary fiction. It takes more than one voice, one story, to try to convey the scope of something like war, especially Iraq. I'm looking forward to adding my reading of Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk to my cumulative knowledge in hopes of understanding more.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: 'Brooklyn Bones'

BROOKLYN BONES (An Erica Donato mystery)
By Triss Stein
Crime fiction (traditional mystery)
February 2013
Poisoned Pen Press
ISBN: 9781464201202
                                                                                                                                              
Erica Donato is making a life for herself and her daughter, going to grad school, working part-time in a museum and renovating their Park Slope home. She misses her husband, who died too young, but she treasures her friends and family. What was a quiet life is shattered when the renovaters, including her daughter, discover the bones of a teenage girl, cradling a teddy bear, hidden in a wall of the house.

Soon, Erica and her teenage daughter, Chris, are encountering strangers threatening them in the street and on the phone. Retired cop Rick Malone, friend of Erica's father, has been a surrogate parent to both of them, but now he's not answering phone messages.

Meanwhile, Erica's friend introduces her to dashing and rich Steven Richmond, who offers her consulting work. He represents developers who want to be highly regarded when they change the neighborhood. Erica is not certain how her historian credentials work into this, but as a grad student and single mother welcomes the extra money to look up material about where she lives. The search is also to try to find out about the early 1970s, when that girl's remains were walled up inside Erica's home.

To help with the historical record, Erica befriends a crochety retired newspaper reporter who broke stories about the gentrification of part of Brooklyn. Leary's old clippings and notes of the days when runaways crashed in Park Slope homes and landlords wanted them out are interesting not just to Erica the historian and homeowner where a skeleton was found, they also attract the attention of those who may not want the past brought to light.

Stein does well in setting up both the main characters -- Erica and her daughter, their friend Joe, the contractor who is renovating the house, and other characters -- and the whodunit. There are times when the story threatens to veer into romance rather than mystery, but it's intentional for both the plot and for the character development of Erica the young widow. The groundwork laid in this novel should provide a sturdy foundation to further books in the series.

One area in which Stein particular excels is in bringing Erica's Brooklyn neighborhood to life. Readers see what it was like back in the day, as well as the vibrant district it is now. Families have roots of several generations or as newcomers make a block their own. The interactions play a key role in solving the mystery of the skeletal remains, but also show what makes Brooklyn a special place to the author and her main character.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission