The Maine Line

Recent Books in a Sleuth Series Worth Reading

Bone Orchard

The Bone Orchard: A Novel by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books, $15.99, 319 pages)

I needed a shower and a hot meal but without a vehicle, I was effectively stranded. At the very least, I knew the Bronco required a new windshield. I hadn’t checked to see what other damage the shotgun pellets had inflicted on my prized possession.

Mike Bowditch, a twenty-seven-year-old former Maine game warden, is now a fishing guide. Mike can’t let go of his warden training, instincts and love of the outdoors. This narrative presents the next phase in his character development by author Paul Doiron. The fifth book of a series, this installment smoothly takes the reader along on a fast-paced adventure in the Maine woods.

Bone Orchard back cover

Kathy Frost, Mike’s mentor in the warden service, becomes embroiled in troubles brought on by her actions in the line of duty. Mike knows his loyalty lies with Kathy despite some doubts cast by a government inquiry and the threats posed by a band of renegades who were friends of a man Kathy killed. Ultimately, Mike has to make a choice for his life path that reflects his maturation under pressure.

Well recommended.

The Precipice

The Precipice: A Novel by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books, $15.99, 329 pages)

I found Caleb Maxwell in the sitting room, warming his hands over the wood stove. His mind seemed elsewhere. He flinched when I spoke his name, as if he hadn’t heard me walk up behind him.

This time around Mike Bowditch has rejoined the Maine Warden Service. His life is back on track, complete with girlfriend Stacy Stevens. Readers are treated to a well-crafted tale full of back-woods characters and facts about trekking across Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. Author Doiron aptly displays his knowledge of the region.

Two lost hikers are the focus of an all-out search by the ranger service and volunteers. A combination of high tech equipment and down-to-earth basic outdoors skills are needed to solve the mystery of their disappearance. This episode in Mike’s journey through life and the Maine woods involves Stacy and her father. Readers will be quickly turning the pages as they realize the need for Mike’s quick wits and physical strength to bring the tale to a good ending.

Well recommended.

Note: Paul Doiron infuses the characters and locales in his series with an authenticity that allows the reader to enjoy an up close and personal armchair adventure. The Maine woods are not your average camping destination. Doiron avoids romanticizing his stories by grounding them with the harsh reality that comes with the picture postcard images we often attribute to unspoiled natural preserves. His characters behave in ways that touch on the choices we all must make in life, even if we are in a suburban development home or a secure highrise apartment. These books teach and entertain, and are well worth reading.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

The Precipice was released in paperback and trade paperback forms on May 31, 2016.

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The Black Snow

darkness the color of snow

Darkness the Color of Snow: A Novel by Thomas Cobb (William Morrow Paperbacks, $15.99, 304 pages)

Darkness the Color of Snow is Thomas Cobb’s fourth novel. Most known for his 1987 debut, Crazy Heart, for which Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the 2009 film adaptation, Cobb has paced his output. He’s released a collection of short stories along with two other novels.

Darkness is quite good. Ronny Forbert, a young policeman and a reclamation project of the police chief, Gordy Hawkins, becomes mired in a traffic stop gone bad. In a rural northeastern town, Ronny pulls over a car on a rural road in the middle of winter. The car is full of drunk and uncooperative townies, who ironically happen to be his old running buddies. (If the story took place in the south, one would characterize the local malcontents as “rednecks.” As it takes place in the north, I suppose “ignorant losers” will do.)

When ringleader Matt Laferiere becomes uncooperative, Forbert decides to arrest him and, failing to call for backup, the story takes off. During the resulting fracas, Matt becomes the victim of a hit and run, and many of the characters are swallowed up in the sad reality of American small town politics. Complicating things further is the fact that Forbert is dating Laferiere’s former girlfriend.

The writing is strong throughout. The telling inspires confidence from the outset, though the blunder that sets the story in motion (the failure to call for backup) was obvious initially even to someone – like me, who has no law enforcement background or an inherent passion for crime novels. It is a bit of a distraction when Cobb alternates between the present and the past to provide context and texture to the events and characters. While this does not ultimately interfere with the reader’s overall pleasure, it comes to mind that perhaps the middle third of the novel could have been handled in a more effective manner.

darkness back cover

Even the impeccable credentials of Police Chief Hawkins and the integrity of some local officials cannot stop the vicious spiral of events that have been set in motion. As one who deals with local politics on a daily basis and has experienced the bizarre on a first hand basis, I found this story to be many things. It is, plain and simply, a good book. To me, it also serves as a cautionary tale of how democracy is not always everything it is cracked up to be, despite the fact that there is no better substitute.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The trade paperback version of Darkness the Color of Snow was released on August 16, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Movie Review: “East L.A. Interchange” – A Documentary

east la interchange

Does a documentary film about the Hispanic community of Boyle Heights shy away from tackling the major issue of the day?

Boyle Heights, a community just east of downtown Los Angeles, is a very interesting place. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would often head there on the weekend to make use of the parks, eat at the fine hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or soak up the multicultural feel of the community. “The Heights” was once known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because of its multiracial nature (it was once the largest Jewish community on the West Coast until the end of World War II), but tensions have hit the barrio. As the Los Angeles Times (“Gentrification pushes up against Boyle Heights – and vice versa”; March 6, 2016) recently noted: “Once the landing spot not only for Mexicans, but also for Japanese, Russians, Italians, and Jews, Boyle Heights has long been perceived as a neighborhood sitting on the brink of the next metamorphosis.”

Yes, the dreaded Spanish word gentefication, or gentrification in English, has now struck. Like Brooklyn, Sacramento (Oak Park), and San Francisco (The Mission District), Boyle Heights is trying to decide whether it wants to be old, interracial, and comfortable; or hip, progressive, and an expensive place to live. Community activists vociferously argue that there are too many art galleries in the city and they rail against the replacement of neighborhood bars by overly cool brew pubs.

brooklyn theater boyle heights

Against this background, I had high hopes for the documentary East L.A. Interchange, a one-hour documentary film narrated by actor Danny Trejo. It’s a film that’s currently being screened at selected colleges. To my eyes, it’s a missed opportunity.

One problem is the title. East L.A. Interchange leads people to think this is either a program about East Los Angeles – which is just east of Boyle Heights, or about the Los Angeles freeways. A better title might have been La Colonia: Boyle Heights.

I will return to the problematic issue of gentrification. What Interchange does well is to deal with the history of Boyle Heights, as heard mostly from U.S.C. professors. And one of the intriguing points made in the documentary is that social discrimination issues began to ease as the predominantly Mexican-American students at Roosevelt High School began to learn about the history of their city: “One of the cradles of Mexican-American culture in the U.S.” Knowledge precedes pride.

To its credit, Interchange is not only well researched but beautifully filmed. And yet its Achilles heel is that the documentary refuses to take a stance on the key issue of gentrification. We learn that Jews first left the community, then Russians were forced out by freeway construction, and now the low to middle-income Hispanics who live in Boyle Heights are threatened by newly prosperous Hispanics and rich hipsters.

BH protest

In order to afford a typical new housing unit in the area, one needs an income of $90,000 and above. Yet the median household income in the Heights is $41,821. It’s a big problem and results in stress, grief and anger. As one current resident states, in Spanish: “I would like it to stay just as it is.” Gentrification, of course, will make this impossible.

The creators of Interchange, after illustrating how the poor have been displaced from the area in the past, inform the viewer that 1,187 affordable housing units are scheduled to be destroyed and replaced by 4,400 new and pricey units. And yet, even after imparting this information, they remain neutral.

The documentary asks the question, “What constitutes beneficial (versus harmful) development?” but fails to answer it. Instead, at its conclusion we hear an elderly Jewish gentleman assure us that, despite recent changes in the neighborhood, everything will be alright. It’s hardly convincing.

Boyle Heights

One key statement heard in Interchange is, “We’re not trying to get out of the barrio. We’re trying to bring the barrio up.” Fine, but in life one must ultimately choose between stasis and change. In electing to support neither the status quo nor change – neither the past nor progressivism, East L.A. Interchange loses its raison d’etre.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was provided access to a press screener. The film was directed by Betsy Kalin.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

Movie Review: ‘East L.A. Interchange’ – A Documentary

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Mercedes Bends

tollling of MB amazon

The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel by Jennifer Dwight (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

This tale that spans 10 years is crafted to fit the locale, the San Francisco Bay Area/East Bay, the era, the 1980s to the 90s, and the human foibles of a rich array of characters carefully structured and revealed by debut author Jennifer Dwight. More a novel than a mystery, The Tolling of Mercedes Bell lulls readers by the rhythmic pace that is the unfolding of a new life for recently-widowed Mercedes and her seven-year-old daughter, Germaine.

Mercedes is an emotionally fragile, yet stubborn quasi paralegal. Her drunkard husband’s single car crash has left her penniless and in desperate need of a job. She and Germaine leave a rental house in Piedmont to settle into a rental cottage in an undesirable part of Oakland. Author Dwight has obviously frequented the areas she describes in minute detail. Coincidentally, my wife lived just blocks from the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland where Mercedes buys her newspapers and she vouched for the authenticity of the writing.

tolling of mercedes bell

The biggest shift from the minor key of the musical score, yes this is movie material, comes when Mercedes has realized her goal of steady employment at a law firm. Given the era, the notion of a tall, handsome single lawyer becoming infatuated with her is no surprise; however, what follows is eye opening to say the least!

Long-time residents of northern California may have an advantage in figuring out the conclusion.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on May 3, 2016.

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The Rain Falls In Ireland

rain dogs adrian mckinty

Rain Dogs: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, 315 pages)

“The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang/And asked for no applause.” Bob Dylan

Balanced Storytelling Makes Rain Dogs a Joy to Read.

The word that comes to mind when pondering Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs is balance. A cop story, for sure, McKinty’s 17th book is that and more.

The story opens with Detective Sean Duffy’s girlfriend, Beth, leaving him amidst his investigation into the apparent suicide of a young journalist named Lily Bigelow at Carrickfergus Castle. McKinty was born and raised in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, and details of the setting flow naturally, as would be expected.

As the story unfolds, Duffy uncovers some unseemly details at Kinkaid, a home for boys, and as the story comes to a close, McKinty deftly ties the various threads of the story together, including the return of Beth.

However, even as Duffy and his crew’s suspicions and clues lead them from suicide to murder, from one suspect to another, the cops can’t quite close the deal – which leads to another death… or murder, perhaps. With the circumstances of Duffy’s life and relationship changed, the next steps are less certain than they otherwise might have been, which, of course, perfectly sets up the 18th book.

Whether it be in the interplay between dialogue and description or plot construction and character development, McKinty always seems to deliver a pleasing balance that satisfies. Well done.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a school superintendent in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Sonata Days and Nights

Seoul Man amazon

Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis & Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan by Frank Ahrens (Harper Business, $27.99, 336 pages)

“I could live here for forty years, learn the language inside out, and still not understand Korea.”

Seoul Man is basically two books in one. The first is a “fish out of water” story of a middle-aged, married later in life, American who finds himself living and working in South Korea. It’s a completely different world than the one he knew as a reporter in Washington, D.C.

Seoul Man city

Much of Korean culture – one focused on society first and individuals second, makes little sense to Western eyes. Plus, the basic conservatism of the culture appears to now be overrun by a tsunami wave of dangerous binge drinking (Koreans now consume the most alcohol, by far, of any people on the planet). Still, this part of the true account is fun, engaging and entertaining.

Not so entertaining is the part of the book where Ahrens writes about the corporate culture at Hyundai Motor; about his Christian beliefs (which apparently did not negate his participation in drinking fests); and time spent away from his wife and baby daughter. In fact, a long chapter about time spent in Indonesia adds nothing, while detracting from the natural narrative style. It should have been dumped.

Seoul Man back cover

There’s not enough within the pages of Seoul Man to classify it as a true business book. (Automobile lovers will find it lacking in the inside details they may expect to find.) It’s definitely a memoir, one that starts with an exciting bang before it ends on a dull whimper. Wait for the paperback version, or not.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book will be released on August 16, 2016.

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All In the Family

a game sh paper

A Game for All the Family: A Novel by Sophie Hannah (William Morrow, $26.99, 447 pages)

By now, if all were well and this were a normal weekday morning, Ellen would be in her forest-green school uniform and on the bus, almost at Beaconwood. Alex, in torn jeans and a sweatshirt, would be asleep on a train from Berlin to Hamburg, en route to his next German concert.

What genre designation is appropriate for this book? Firstly, there never is a “normal” or even an ordinary day portrayed within its covers. We jump right into the rambling narrative of Justine, a woman who has recently left her demanding career in London to move to the country with her husband, Alexander, and teen daughter Ellen.

Alexander is a well-respected opera singer who travels frequently to venues around Europe; therefore, his home base can be almost anywhere. Ellen has been enrolled in Beaconwood, a private school that bears no resemblance to the one she attended in London. Justine hopes to fulfill her fantasy of Doing Nothing, as she like to announce to anyone who will listen.

Some of the chapters are set in an alternate typeface that designates them as the work of a writer who is composing a novel about a family with some bizarre issues. Perhaps it is a work of fiction, or even a thinly disguised expose of an actual family in serious need of an intervention.

a game sh paper back

The plot skips around and has a jerky home-movie made in the 1950s quality. There are myriad odd occurrences and very strange characters that pop in and out of the tale. Justine is the subject of menacing anonymous phone calls that include death threats. One might wonder what has happened to set previously stable author Sophie Hannah on this wild, unpleasant and twisted ride.

woman with a secret sh

Woman with a Secret: A Novel by Sophie Hannah (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 416 pages)

Ms. Hannah’s prior work, Woman with a Secret, also suffers from a choppy beginning and a bit of confusing plot shifts. Here too are the trademark typeface shifts that she has employed in past novels. Woman with a Secret needs a list of characters to assist the reader in deciphering the multiple perspectives depicted throughout the tale. The husband and wife team of police detectives featured in the plot do not share a last name and their co-workers are numerous to say the least.

This time around the main character, Nicki Clements, is a woman who yearns for excitement in her “normal” life in the suburbs of London. She’s a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter whose past haunts her. Damon Blundy, a caustic columnist for the Daily Herald, is found murdered with his mouth taped shut with tape. Nicki receives countless sinister emails from a person she cannot identify. Somehow she is linked to the murder. Her first-person narrative and the third-person narrative from the other characters’ perspective give the reader the feeling of being spun around with a blindfold in place. Once the blindfold is removed, it’s anybody’s guess what lurks in Nicki’s past and why she’s linked to Damon Blundy’s death.

If by now you are wondering what’s actually happening in Woman, I’m not going to tell you as it would take more space in this review than I’m willing to give.

Woman is recommended, for ardent Sophie Hannah readers; everyone else, no.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

A Game for All the Family was released on May 24, 2016.

Woman with a Secret was released in trade paperback form on April 12, 2016.

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