The Crossing by Michael Connelly (audio)

The first, good news is that this one went over better than my last Connelly effort, Two Kinds of Truth. I found the plot absorbing throughout. I repeat my criticism of Titus Welliver’s narration, though – I’d forgotten until I reread that earlier review, but I again find him uninflected or occasionally putting the emphasis in what feels like the wrong place in a phrase or sentence. I like him onscreen but not here.

Harry Bosch has been retired from the LAPD for a few months, having been pushed out against his will; his half-brother and lawyer Mickey Haller is suing the Department on his behalf, so the blood is generally bad. (To place us in time, Bosch’s daughter Maddie is finishing her senior year of high school and getting ready to go off to Chapman for college.) Haller then asks Bosch to do some investigation work for a client who Haller is sure is innocent of the murder he’s accused of. Bosch has a strong reaction to the idea: working for the defense would be crossing a line. Defense = bad. (I easily believe that many officers feel this way, so I don’t doubt the realism, but it rankles. The whole point of the adversarial court system is to push back against all charges, forcing their proof, and protecting against false convictions. No one is served by law enforcement’s insistence that it never ever gets anything wrong [even leaving aside purposeful wrongdoing].) Bosch does come around to the idea: if this accused client is innocent, that means there’s a murderer out there roaming free. This activates his sense of justice; plus he’s gotten pretty bored with his motorcycle rebuild project. We all know Bosch needs to be crime-solving. So he agrees to just take a look at the case for Haller. And we’re off and running.

For a little added plot interest and complication, the novel mostly follows Bosch, but also switches over to the bad guys here and there, so the reader has more information than he does (although far from all), which is a fun narrative device.

I like that the title has several meanings within the story. The narrator makes reference to a crossing between murder victim and murderer, where events get set in motion; a crossing over from public heterosexual lifestyle to same-sex relations; and the crossing over that most troubles Bosch throughout this story, as he moves into investigative work for the defense. There are a number of other crossing-the-line references, which might even be considered heavy-handed – I again feel that Connelly flirts with over-explaining – but in the case of the title’s role I ended up appreciating the multiple connections.

There’s something just a little stilted about the dialog and characters here, like Bosch’s (and I think Haller’s) avoidance of contractions, but I’m not even certain how much is Connelly and how much is Welliver. There was again a bit much explaining, especially between Haller and Bosch. I understand that it’s a trick, as the writer, to let your reader in on need-to-know information without having your (expert) characters explain in dialog. I just didn’t remember Connelly being as clumsy about it as I find him here.

That’s nit-picking, though. The plot and intrigue was sufficient to keep me engaged and generally distracted from minor quibbles. Neither Connelly’s best nor his worst work; a perfectly serviceable listen.


Rating: 7 references to Walmart.

L.A. Weather by María Amparo Escandón

In a novel alternating between fun and heartbreak, a prosperous, big-hearted, messy family struggles to weather literal and metaphoric disaster in 2016 Los Angeles.

L.A. Weather is a lovely, compelling and occasionally brutal novel by María Amparo Escandón (Esperanza’s Box of Saints) about a family on the brink of disaster, in a city similarly on edge. Captivating, sympathetic, funny characters and never-ending surprises (that even those involved compare to a telenovela) form a world for readers to get lost in.

Patriarch Oscar Alvarado has become a shell of his formerly assertive self; his wife, Keila, a sculptor, is losing patience. Their daughters are Claudia, an author and television chef; Olivia, an architect and mother of twin girls; and social-media maven Patricia. The Alvarados are a close-knit family of successful, high-powered professionals, bridging Oscar’s Catholicism, Keila’s Judaism and their shared Mexican-American heritage in Los Angeles, a vibrant city beautifully evoked by Escandón’s loving descriptions of food, traffic and culture.

In L.A. Weather‘s opening pages, a horrifying accident befalls Olivia’s daughters (parents beware), prompting various responses to trauma and launching the story directly into the Alvarados’ family dynamic and cascading failures. Oscar’s obsession with drought and wildfire may at first seem random, if not nonsensical, but it reflects a secret he’s been keeping from his family, and serves as symbol for their shared concerns. When Keila announces she wants to divorce him, their daughters protest vehemently, although it is soon their own respective marriages that threaten to catch fire. The city crackles with heat as one crisis or shenanigan after another ensues.

“[The] family’s stories were never neatly wrapped up at the end of the year. They just went on, and it felt good, this continuum.” The novel is defined by time, however: Escandón chronicles events from January through December of 2016. Her story is a feat of both plot and character. Each member of the extended Alvarado clan is intriguing and flawed but deserving of empathy; even when they make questionable decisions, they are both convincing and entertaining. Climate change serves as a clever way to monitor the metaphoric fire risk to a family that loves fiercely but stumbles in the execution of that love. L.A. is richly portrayed: “the wildland-urban interface, that zone where nature and city cohabited (or collided?), where your surveillance camera could spot a mountain lion roaming in your backyard while you slept…. [Oscar] could not stop thinking that it was this unashamed human encroachment into nature that was causing so much destruction.” This is a story of people, place and connection. Absorbing, moving, comic and tragic, L.A. Weather will capture readers and never let them go.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 squash-flower mini tamales.

The Searcher by Tana French (audio)

Tana French never disappoints. This 2020 novel (her latest to date) reminded me quite a bit of her second book, The Likeness (2008), which is still my favorite, I think. In line with all her work, The Searcher boasts intriguing characters with shadowy pasts; a very strong sense of place; and some of the most atmospheric writing I know. What most reminded me of The Likeness was a general, foreboding suspicion about the people around our protagonist, a low-level nagging sense that we’re not sure who everyone is really and what their motivations might be.

It’s still set in Ireland, now in a rural area of tiny villages, but in a departure from her past work, French’s protagonist is American. Cal Hooper is a recently retired detective from the Chicago Police Department, trying to renovate the dilapidated little farmhouse he bought from afar, not too hopeful of making new friends but amenable to the gifted-in-gab locals like his new neighbor Mart. He talks to his adult daughter about once a week. He misses his ex-wife. The reader has to wait to find out what these dim shapes, back in the States, exactly mean to Cal. Meanwhile, he’s getting cautiously adjusted to no longer looking over his shoulder for crime all the time, but somebody’s definitely been watching him – aside from the rooks in the tree out back, whom he rather appreciates – and it’s creeping him out. His peeping tom turns out to be a 13-year-old kid named Trey. What does Trey want, exactly? It will take Cal a certain amount of interview skills to find out. And what he discovers threatens to launch him back into the kind of crime investigation he’d hoped to leave behind.

There are many layers to absorb here. In its handling of gender, The Searcher subtly offers commentary or at least food for thought; the tensions of changing times in a rural setting (technology, employment options, young people moving away, the urban/rural divide, options by gender) are a minor but important focus. Moral ambiguities and the importance of having a “code” feature throughout – other reviewers have placed this novel at least partly within the Western genre. Another slight but important thread deals with police brutality and race in the United States, too, for currency. I appreciated the natural world as… more than backdrop. Events play out against a natural world that can be cruel but only in the ways of nature, with parallels that inform the human dramas. Those rooks, which (tellingly) open the book, provide a keystone for Cal’s experiences. Finally, this rural Ireland made me think repeatedly of small-town Appalachia where I’ve settled. And of course many Scots and Irish settled in Appalachia, so it’s not too strange to think of cultural threads crossing over. But it felt a bit uncanny, and comforting.

Roger Clark’s performance on this audio edition wound up feeling perfectly pitched, although it took me a while to get used to the American accent when I was expecting an Irish one, based on past experience with French. I think Clark performed the accents well all around. There was a brief howdy-partner backwoods bit that felt put upon to me, but I’m ascribing that momentary awkwardness to French and not Clark. I still love her work in this format.

This novel has lots to sink into for the discerning reader. And there’s a compelling plot regarding young Trey and the mystery Cal finds himself roped into, and all the fine work of suspense and mood that French does best. If this isn’t her finest novel yet, it’s right up there, and more multifaceted than most mysteries. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 8 rabbits.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s that time again: due to life in general and reading-related issues, I’m taking us back to two posts a week for the foreseeable. They will appear on Mondays and Fridays. Sorry & thanks for your continued interest!


Not sure what prompted me to take in this classic – it might have been The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

randomly chosen atmospheric cover (I read a free ebook from Project Gutenberg)

I didn’t have a terribly successful read, but now I know. I’m going to say that this one didn’t age as well as some writers of James’s era. Two central concerns are sentences and what we fear. First, James’s habit of complex syntax and copious strung-together clauses drove me nuts. I found it quite distracting and frequently had to reread to follow the logic of comma-packed sentences. Check out this completely typical (not extreme) example:

At the hour I now speak of she had joined me, under pressure, on the terrace, where, with the lapse of the season, the afternoon sun was now agreeable; and we sat there together while, before us, at a distance, but within call if we wished, the children strolled to and fro in one of their most manageable moods.

There’s a style there that just doesn’t work for me, and I’ll wager works for few modern readers.

Perhaps more importantly, though, even after I’d puzzled through the sentences: The Turn of the Screw is a horror story, but it no longer horrifies. Reading this book was like waiting for the jump scare that never comes. [Spoilers follow, although I’ll not share the ending.] A governess takes charge of two charming children at an impressive country estate: the little girl who is supposed to be her pupil, and the slightly older boy sort of by accident, when he is expelled from boarding school. Our protagonist can’t understand why, because he (like his sister) is perfect, angelic, cherubic, just the sweetest and smartest etc., etc. But then she has a few sinister sightings of two individuals, man and woman, who turn out to be the ghosts, respectively, of a former servant and the last governess. These two committed the incredible sin of having a romantic and sexual relationship even though they were not only unmarried but (gasp) of different social backgrounds. The idea of who is a “gentleman” (and how we can tell by looking at him) is of great importance. Perhaps you can imagine that this just doesn’t impress me; I couldn’t muster any outrage.

The ghosts have some sort of influence over our dear angelic children, who thereby become sinister by association, although they don’t actually do anything bad beyond wandering around unsupervised. This is no Orphan. In general, ho hum.

(There is also an interesting bit of story-within-the-story here: we open with a bunch of Victorians at a country home for a long weekend, where the governess’s story itself is introduced and then read aloud. I’m always intrigued by this narrative device. We never return to the country weekend, so it doesn’t perhaps do the work it might have done for this book.)

My friend Vince teaches a class on horror films and literature, and he could speak to all of this more effectively than I can, but I recall him saying something about how different eras in horror reflect what we feared at a societal level at each point in time. Here, James is clearly concerned with the innocence of children (and the terrifying lack thereof), and class distinctions. That’s my fairly surface-level read, and frankly, it’s as deep as I feel motivated to go. My friend Liz points out that Stephen King has “ruined” (depending on your position) all the horror that came before, by figuring how how to really terrify us. She’s probably right, too. She cites Frankenstein: the modern reader approaches that classic novel looking for a fright that just never surfaces. I’d say that’s a finer novel than this one, though.

Somewhat in James’s defense, I did finish this novella, after faltering in the middle, because I wanted to see what happened. That’s good for something. The ending held a note of some profundity. Still can’t recommend it, except as an act of completionism, if you want to get a good historical grasp of this genre. Next challenge: what horror story of a similar era is still scary?


Rating: 6 commas, which (on theme) might be one too many, but credit for James’s long influence.

“Pursuit as Happiness” by Ernest Hemingway

In June of 2020, The New Yorker published a previously unpublished Hemingway short story, “Pursuit as Happiness,” here. “That year we had planned to fish for marlin off the Cuban coast for a month,” it begins. The narrator is a writer named Ernest Hemingway, but the author’s grandson (who unearthed the manuscript) reads it as a work of closely autobiographical fiction, and certainly for Hem the line was well blurred; I am comfortable with this classification.

The New Yorker‘s illustration

Similarities in subject matter with The Old Man and the Sea are obvious, but it’s a very different story in its events. The Hemingway voice is clearly recognizable. This narrator/protagonist/version-of-Hemingway is in search of really big marlin, and he and his friend/charter boat captain, Mr. Josie (whose boat is the Anita, but I think we recognize the Pilar) are doing some fine fishing, but they haven’t found the big ones. They keep extending their trip, even though they’re on credit; Mr. Josie encourages Hemingway to write for a little income. He drinks. They get a truly big fish on the line, but it doesn’t go as it should. Again, you see the parallels, but this is a story of its own.

There is less finality here than in The Old Man and the Sea, more optimism. The other is the more masterful story (and longer), but this one has a lot to offer. Even the title nods at something my fisherman friends say: we call it fishing, not catching; pursuit as happiness. This sanguinity is uncharacteristic for Hemingway, and I’m not surprised he followed Old Man rather than this one. But this one is awfully rewarding, too. And it was (of course) an absolute pleasure to find a new Hemingway story to fall into. Familiar but new.


Rating: 8 fathoms of line.

“Home Habitat Range Niche Territory” by Martha Wells

What I loved most about this short Murderbot story is that it’s the first I’ve read that’s not from Murderbot’s point of view. For the first time, we view our hero through someone else’s eyes: those of Mensah, its friend and sort-of boss (protector? patron? owner?) for most of the series, so hers is a sympathetic, wryly humorous perspective, and loving. It’s the briefest glimpse of events, again: basically an excuse for SecUnit (aka Murderbot) and Mensah to interact, so that the latter can show us the former from a different angle. (It also provides just a hair of perspective on Mensah’s trauma.) Like last Friday’s story, it would serve as a pretty good intro to the series, although it’s more of an outlier. Again, it’s another treat of a small reentry into this world that I so appreciate.

I hope Martha Wells is off writing right now.


Rating: 8 free sessions.

Thanks for bearing with these short stories & reviews, folks – we’ll be back to whole books again soon.

“Drive” by James S. A. Corey

Another short from one of my favorites series, “Drive” briefly profiles an inventor and his invention, which we’ve been aware of as a sort of fact-of-life technology in the rest of The Expanse: here is Solomon Epstein, and his Epstein drive. We meet Solomon en media res, mid-experiment, as his improved drive turns out to work but also threaten his life. In this timeline, he struggles to save himself, while interspliced scenes show how he got here: glimpses of who he was, in particular with the woman who became his wife. It’s awfully moving, actually, a very fine, clipped view of a human with no villain to him (rare in this fictional world). I am again impressed with Corey’s skills, and I can’t wait to find more of this world, the expanse that appears in the final line of this lovely, sad, stand-alone story. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 8 bits of colored glass.

“The Future of Work: Compulsory” by Martha Wells

A very short story, but a satisfying little fix for my need for Murderbot. And actually, this one would make an excellent introduction (and clearly is designed for those unfamiliar with the character, as it economically sums up the needed background in a way that is not at all awkward – no small feat). It’s just a very quick episode, and I think early in SecUnit’s governor-module-free life. It’s still working out how it feels and thinks, because “apparently getting free will after having 93 percent of your behavior controlled for your entire existence will do weird things to your impulse control.” Also, “What’s the hurry? I can always kill the humans after the next series ends.” Which is kind of perfect as an encapsulation: the humor, the darkness, and the entertainment addiction. I love it.

Real quick and easy; think about checking it out here.

movie: Summer of Soul (2021)

I got to see this back at the Pickford in Bellingham with my parents, and it was a real treat.

All the voices I’ve been hearing about this movie, from friends and from reviews, have been unanimous, and I’m in agreement: this is a very special film, from a few angles. Summer of Soul is a documentary mining archival footage, never before seen, from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. The footage sat in storage for some 50 years; the same summer, Woodstock stole the spotlight, and this historic event (or events – the festival took place over six weekends) faded away like so much Black American history has. It’s thanks to Questlove, of the Roots, director of this film, that we’re learning about it now. The festival showcased jazz, funk, gospel, blues and soul, via names like Stevie Wonder, BB King, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Fifth Dimension, and many more. These performers played to tens of thousands in Harlem each weekend (an estimated 300,000 total). Here we see original footage spliced with recent interviews with performers and audience members, and other historical footage for context, so that the music is set against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the assassinations of the 1960s, and more.

The festival footage is entrancing, and the music is transcendent, and if the film had stuck to that content, it would have been worth seeing. But including the historical context lifts it up several levels, making it not only a joy to see but Important. The context is a little harder to watch – it’s serious, especially because it highlights how far we haven’t come. But the music remains an absolute joy, too. If there are moments that might make you cry (Jesse Jackson recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final moments to the crowd), the footage of the sublime musical performances rarely failed to make me smile wide, as the crowd did – I loved those shots of so many joyful people of all ages and appearances. Many of those interviewed, both musicians and audience, commented on how significant it was to look out at a crowd of that many Black people gathered together. (There were non-Black attendees, but very few.) I guess I was a little surprised that Harlemites would feel that way; but the gathering itself was unprecedented, wasn’t it. This felt like an important point, especially because so many mentioned it.

Depending on age and background, some viewers will find this film very educational; even those familiar with the time, place and milieu will find something enlightening, and the music is sure to blow every mind. It sent me out of that theatre feeling more full and nourished than I went in. It also comments on ever-relevant parts of our ongoing history as a nation. Very strongly recommended, for music fans and for us all.


Rating: 9 smiling faces.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (audio)

This audiobook, also part of my cross-country travels, was a birthday gift from my mom. Thanks, Mom!

Valentine is a powerful novel. It’s set in Odessa, Texas in 1976: a central West Texas oil town in a harsh environment filled with hard-edged, struggling people. The setting is definitely part of the appeal, as I know Odessa a little and its region a little better, and Elizabeth Wetmore’s striking writing about place I found very affecting and authentic. Mostly, this place comes across as rough, stark, unbeautiful; but a close read will reveal appreciation for the natural world and the people who find something to love in it. These characters are really well done, too. Chapters shift between the points of view of a number of them, with a firmer focus on three or four. All are women: men are only viewed through their eyes. As a woman, in a world of books historically over-focused on men, I appreciated this, too.

Let me get in a content warning before we go too much further: the event the book opens with, which is also the event that the entire narrative centers around, is a brutal and violent rape. It’s described in what I’d call moderate detail, which is plenty disturbing. Readers for whom this may present a problem should avoid the whole thing.

This rape and its aftermath affects all our characters in various ways. Even those who are initially unsympathetic become three-dimensional and complicated when they get their own chapters, in that way that I love: all people are complex, no one all good or bad, no perfect heroes or villains. I love a complication like nothing else. There is even a brief – failed – attempt to understand the perpetrator of the rape; that impulse and its failure both feel real and right to me.

Gloria, or Glory, Ramirez rightfully opens and closes the book. Fourteen years old, the US-born child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant mother, Glory’s life brings race and racism into the story. Valentine is centrally concerned with women’s lives and violence against women, but this layer is important and (of course) related. Then there is Mary Rose Whitehead, young mother of a young daughter, drawn into Glory’s life by circumstance. She rebels against many of the structures of the world around her, in ways that we applaud, but this is no fairy tale, so she will not necessarily triumph. Next comes Corrine Shepard, an older woman, recently widowed and handling her grief with booze, cigarettes and not giving two sh*ts what you think about any of it, which serves her well, to a point. I think of these three women as the core, although there are probably other interpretations – I haven’t counted chapters. Again, there are others who get less spotlight but make important contributions: I’m thinking of the bartender/babysitter/waitress we get to hear from near the very end.

This book covers so much. Race and racism and immigration, women’s lives and violence against women, economics patterns and the dire straits it puts all kinds of people in; the cultural and ecological milieu of a particular place, in a particular time, including what it looks like for an oil boom to hit a town like Odessa, which my friends who live in the region today tell me about: it sounds like it looks awfully the same after more than 40 years. Valentine‘s contents contain a lot of ugliness, brutality, violence, hate, tragedy: beware. But it’s also a beautifully rendered novel. And I appreciate its glimpses of beauty even in Odessa in 1976. It’s masterful, in other words. I’m very impressed, and I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Thanks again, Mom. Good pick.


Rating: 8 pistols in purses.
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