The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain by Don Waters

saints of rattlesnake mountainFaith and Catholicism are major themes in this group of stories largely set in the American Southwest, although I don’t think you have to be a Catholic to appreciate the writing.  The characters in this collection are not what I would call mainstream – Waters tells of prisoners, middle-aged surfers, terminally ill expats, and others, some on a search for meaning, and on occasion, on the run from reality.

In the title story, Emmett is a “trustee” – a prisoner who is allowed out of the cell block to do hazardous herding work, in this case corralling a group of wild Mustang horses.  The wide open-ness of his surroundings and his limited freedom bother Emmett almost as much as confinement and eventual taming bother the horses.  In “Day of the Dead,” our terminally ill protagonist heads to Ciudad Juarez for a suicide pact with a priest, and finds that he’s not quite ready to watch someone else die.  In “Full of Days,” an anti-abortionist in Las Vegas wants to save the word according to an inspired sign he’s created, but finds that successes aren’t ever guaranteed.  And in “Last Rites,” a poor kid finds salvation of a sort from skateboarding and altar boy duties with his well-off best friend.

And there’s much more.

None of the stories here are “easy”.  Death, risk, and occasionally disfigurement all play parts in Waters’ world of fiction.  I found it hard to find any of these a feel-good story.  What you will find in The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain is lyrical writing about the underbelly of life in the Southwest – the author provides gritty but accessible voices to other worlds beyond the tourist havens and the casinos.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

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Ash Falls by Warren Read

Ash Falls chronicles the news of a prison escapee in the 1980s and its effects on a ash fallscommunity, as told through several viewpoints.

Ash Falls is a small town in the mountains of Washington State with a dicey economy.  Everyone knows everybody else and their business.  There’s a sense of security in this, but also confinement.

When Ernie Luntz, en route from a maximum to a medium security prison in Washington State, leaves the prison system through a tragic twist of luck, his potential reappearance looms over Ash Falls where his ex-wife and teenage son live, with much speculation as to what will happen if he returns there.

Bobbie Luntz, nurse at the local high school, gave up on their marriage long before Ernie went to jail for bludgeoning a mouthy teenager during a town festival.  She lives a sort of half-life as a mom and maintains a faltering affair with Hank Kelleher, a pot-dealing retired school teacher who lives in the woods away from town.

Hank has his own issues with aging, and a love/hate relationship with his sister Lyla Henry and her family.  Lyla and husband Jonas have held forth with a certain middle class snobbishness while raising a son who is everything they are not – a troublemaker from day one who is now in his early twenties and married to seventeen-year-old Marcelle.

Marcelle sees an early marriage as an easy getaway from the doldrums of high school.  Unfortunately, it is no escape for her, as her husband Eugene is an emotional man-child, their marriage loveless, her mother-in-law overly critical, and overeating her only solace.

Bobbie’s son Patrick and Marcelle were close friends in high school before she got married.  Within the confines of Ash Falls, Patrick barely fits in, and at times, he runs away to foster home of sorts in Seattle, where the situation seems more real to him.  Patrick bides his time finishing school while working part-time at a mink farm.  The job is dirty and tedious and his boss is an old crank, but Patrick finds a sort of structure there.

In capturing the claustrophobic feel of a small town, the novel excels.  There’s a real sense of hopelessness here, the only glimmers of hope being in the aftermath of tragedies.  The small town America the author evokes here could be anywhere in the country, and even if the story happens thirty years ago, the setting still resonates.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Fatal by John Lescroart

fatalThe main character in this fast-paced thriller is a likeable cop named Beth.  Beth’s close friend Kate tells her that she’s become obsessed with a man whom she and her husband met at a dinner.  Although she doesn’t even remember his name, she is determined to have sex with him.  Beth, who’s investigated plenty of crimes involving adultery, urges Kate not to act on her fantasy, since this is the sort of thing that ruins lives.

However, Kate wastes little time in getting the man’s name and contact information and luring him into a sexual escapade with long-lasting negative consequences.

Later, during a murder investigation, the victim’s friends tell Beth that everyone loved the victim – surely, no one had any motive to kill him.  However, Beth discovers that his behavior changed radically near the end of his life.  Now the list of people with possible motives to kill him is almost endless, and the police face a very difficult task.

Another plot involves a terrorist attack that injures two of the book’s characters.

Reviewers praise Lescroart, who wrote eighteen bestsellers previous to this one, for his character-driven fiction.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica

Quinn wakes up to find that her roommate, Esther, is not in their apartment.  In spite ofdon't you cry the cold weather, the door leading from Esther’s room to the fire escape is open, and Esther’s phone is still in the apartment.

As hours go by without Esther’s return, Quinn becomes more and more concerned.  Surely, she thinks, Esther would have left a note explaining her unusual behavior.  Quinn eventually calls the bookstore where Esther works; she did not show up for her shift.  Again, this is totally out of character for Esther.  Quinn contacts the police, who assure her that adults who go missing will eventually return on their own.  Esther does not.  Quinn searches the apartment, desperately seeking clues to Esther’s disappearance.  Her findings eventually lead Quinn to rethink everything she’d thought she knew about Esther.

Meanwhile, in a small town some miles from the apartment, Alex, a young man working as a dishwasher in a coffee shop, is intrigued by a beautiful young woman who enters the shop.  It isn’t tourist season, and few strangers enter the shop at this time of year.  Why is she in town?  Who is she?  He fantasizes that she might become his girlfriend, but the better he gets to know her, the stranger she seems.

This novel, after a rather slow start, gradually becomes more and more suspenseful.  Stick with it; you’ll be glad you did!

Mary Kubica wrote the bestselling novels The Good Girl and Pretty Baby.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Coffin Road by Peter May

coffin roadImagine nearly drowning, and then not knowing who you are.

That is the fate of our main character, a man who is seen staggering onto the shore of the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  Luckily, his landlady recognizes him, as does his dog, and the married couple living close by.  The wife apparently knows him much more closely than the others.

The only link to his past that he recognizes is a map of the island showing a trek through the mountains that the locals call Coffin Road.  When he hikes up there, there is something there that triggers memories.

Meanwhile, there’s an investigation into a murder on one of the Flannan Isles north-west of Harris.  As things progress, it seems that our amnesiac, identified as Neal Maclean, has been writing a book about the disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers from the Flannans over a hundred years ago, and he is known for making regular boat trips to the islands.

The third story thread concerns Karen Fleming, a rebellious teenager in Edinburgh who is still not herself two years after her father’s suicide.  As she finds out more from her godfather and confronts her mother, Karen becomes convinced that her father is still alive, although at what cost will there be to see and speak to him again?

Although the book starts out slow (as it might for anybody stumbling and disoriented out of the rough ocean), the pace soon picks up as the other storylines begin, and a strong sinister undertone will goad you into reading past bedtime.  There is also an underpinning environmental issue that will give the reader something to consider.

Peter May has been a prolific writer of television and crime fiction.  I read his Lewis Trilogy over the past few years and liked them very much.  Coffin Road, a standalone book, albeit one with a few repeat characters from the Lewis Trilogy, continues his fine evocation of the sea and terrain that make up the wild islands of western Scotland.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Procedures for Underground By Margaret Atwood

Procedures for Underground was Margaret Atwood’s fourth book of poetry; it remainsprocedures one of the relatively few early works of hers that has yet to be re-issued in its complete form.  Most readers—myself included—encountered poems from this collection in Atwood’s Selected Poems 1, which featured nineteen or so of Underground’s forty-four poems.

The title poem details a journey to the “underland”, where “the earth has a green sun/and the rivers flow backwards.”  Atwood avoids using the expected Greek underworld figures and themes here, inventing instead her own original mythology where the voyager encounters former friends “changed and dangerous” with messages that must be conveyed to those above ground.  This gift of border-crossing is ambivalent, as the poem indicates at its close: “Few will seek your help with love, none without fear.”  The majority of the poems in this collection relate similar crossings.  Atwood’s poetry has a strong narrative and visual component, drawing (sometimes projecting) the reader immediately into the fictional worlds she creates.  Several poems stage the idea of transcendent voyeurism, lending a cinematic quality to the writing that would translate well into short, stop-motion animated films.  Figures familiar from Atwood’s previous books are all here: drowned women, phantom siblings, shared dream scapes, estranged couples and distant family members, and the book as a whole boasts a haunting, somber beauty throughout.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the Countless Minor Ones By Henri Michaux

major ordealsIn the 1950s, French writer/poet/artist Henri Michaux began experimenting with mescaline, LSD and hashish in an effort to understand the workings of the human mind.  An earlier book of his, Miserable Miracle, is an immediate journal of these experiments, while Major Ordeals is Michaux’s attempt to make sense of and draw conclusions from these experiences.  “Just as the stomach does not digest itself, just as it is essential that the stomach do no such thing, the mind is constructed in such a way that it cannot grasp itself, cannot directly, continuously grasp its own mechanism and action, having other matter to grasp,” he writes in the introductory chapter “The Marvelous Normal”.  The use of hallucinogenic drugs reveals this otherwise ungraspable “mechanism and action” to Michaux, and the majority of Major Ordeals is spent documenting the many vertiginous states that leave the author helpless.  Rather than the “expanded consciousness” motif that is the takeaway from Aldous Huxley’s similar The Doors of Perception, Michaux conveys instead a modest amazement at the amount of unconscious, fugitive labor the mind must perform for human beings to be able to engage in even the simplest tasks.  Because Michaux is a poet, the descriptions of the drugged states are so vivid that the reader experiences something like a contact derangement by simply engaging with the text. Huxley’s book may have launched a thousand visionary acid trips, but Michaux’s comes to grips with the inevitable philosophical hangover that awaits the traveler upon their return.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)