Wednesday, March 27, 2013

WHOSE NAMES ARE UNKNOWN--astounding novel

Whose Names are Unknown
by Sanora Babb
A 2004 trade paper release from
University of Oklahoma Press.
222 pages

It’s 1938 and a young talented, adventurous woman from the Oklahoma panhandle lands a job with the Farm Security Administration in California, working with the refugee farmers from her home state. These were the people of the high plains who saw their farms and their lives blown away in the horrendous dust storms of the nineteen thirties. The camps in California were one legacy of the Dust Bowl.
Out of that experience, those associations, Sanora Babb fashioned this novel, a first-hand up-close story with intense empathy and understanding for the people. The novel has an interesting and unfortunate history. In 1939 the author submitted her manuscript to a New York publisher, Random House. The publisher’s editor, Bennett Cerf called the novel an exceptionally fine piece of work and planned to publish it. A few months later, publication was halted in the face of the huge success of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
Sanora Babb went on to a strong literary career, authoring five books and numerous shorter pieces published in the top literary magazines of the Twentieth Century. Now finally, sixty-five years late, this moving, intimate novel is seeing daylight. Is it as good or better than Steinbeck’s? Read it for yourself and judge. This is no grand pronouncement to illuminate the scope of what we know as the Dust Bowl Years, “Whose Names are Unknown” looks poverty and deprivation in the face and deals with the lives and deaths of those most materially affected.
Babb’s writing is clean, she wastes no words and the narrative voice brings her fascinating characters to the pages in a way that will remain with the reader for some time. This is truly a novel to savor.

Monday, March 25, 2013


by William Kent Krueger
ISBN: 1-978-4516-4582-8
A March 2013 Atria release in
HC and as an e-book.

To maintain complete transparency, Mr. Krueger and I are long-time friends, we frequently travel together as the Minnesota Crime Wave, and I received a pre-release copy of this book at no cost to me.

“Ordinary Grace” is a standalone novel, a project the author has long desired to write. The book is significantly different from his multiple-award-winning Cork O’Connor series. Yet there are links to the thoughtful, carefully structured, series of crime novels. In one sense, for those so inclined, a case can be made that here, Krueger addresses the ultimate mystery. “Ordinary Grace” benefits from everything the author has learned over the years writing the O’Connor novels. It is directly and powerfully written, wasting no words, yet always moving the story ahead at appropriate pace, depending on the actions of the characters and the plot. “Ordinary Grace” is a novel that will affect readers in unusual, interesting and, quite possibly, surprising ways.

Set in a small community in southern Minnesota in 1961, this is how the story begins: “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota.” The narrator is an adult white male, son of the Methodist minister in town. Frank is recalling the momentous events of that bygone summer when he was but thirteen years old, a teen-ager on the cusp of young maturity. The death of that child sets in motion events and revelations of suppressed attitudes that alter the lives and futures of many people in the town. Some of the people affected are important and wealthy, others, as plain and ordinary as one could imagine. Yet everyone in the novel is required to come to terms to greater or lesser degree, with who they are and how they must relate to family, friends, members of their faith, and how they function in the wider yet limited community. What Frank learns that summer, and equally importantly, how he sees and interprets the evil and the grace of that time, will affect him for his entire life. It’s an important lesson.

Krueger’s writing, as always, is smooth and strong and the logic of the plot is easy to follow. While the story has many layers, there are no convoluted or tricky passages readers will have to struggle to interpret. That’s part of the book’s charm and its strength.

The novel explores faith, mysticism, and rationality in thoughtful, even-handed and open ways that lend itself to recollection and continuing reflection, regardless of readers’ experiences in those areas of life. The characters, and there are many, are carefully and consistently well-drawn. This is a novel of discovery and exploration, for the author and for readers. A well-done reading experience for anyone.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


The Dutiful Daughter
By Shawn Graves and Don Canaan
A 2012 release from Amazon

A word of caution: there are apparently two version of this novella available. I received and read what is apparently the revision and cannot comment on the original. The story is a deftly constructed, very well handled story. It combines the persistence of an interesting Fresno cop, her supportive husband and a convoluted twisting trail that begins with a smiling confused old man abandoned at the Fresno fair.

Why does this happen? His daughter, Laura, appears to be a normal dutiful daughter. His history as a successful automotive dealer is positive and no one seems to have a bad word for him. So why is Laura now at the beach, alone?

Step by step more family history is revealed. I predict most readers will find it difficult if not impossible to stop reading until they reach the stunning conclusion. The story has considerable relevance to today’s aging American population and the rise of Alzheimers.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Excellent Mystery

Where’s Billie?           
By Judith Yates Borger
ISBN: 978-1932472905
A 2009 trade paper release
From Nodin Press

Skeeter Hughes is a reporter for a newspaper in a medium-sized Midwestern city. She’s also married and the mother of two teenaged daughters. She’s the surprisingly naïve general assignment reporter and protagonist for this scary and realistic crime novel. The plot concerns prostitution trafficking out of the Mall of America. Men are hitting on vulnerable young girls and gradually tempting them into situations that lead to drugs and sex for money.

It’s every thoughtful parent’s nightmare and it’s real. The author is in fact the model for Skeeter Hughes and her experiences as a reporter run parallel to the plot. But, as Borger notes in her preface, this is fiction, although she certainly doesn’t write in a vacuum. Chasing a story about a missing teen—the Billie of the title—Hughes stumbles on a much darker and wider tale that involves some heavy players.
Generally the story is well-written , tight, moving at an appropriate pace. The characters, and there are many, are almost all well-drawn and realistic. The dialogue is snappy and sensible and the physical environment accurate.

I wish my version had been more carefully edited. There are too many instances of missing words and phrases. On the other hand, the author writes a pretty tight style that is literate and not wasteful. If a few of the characters seem too cliché-like, well, clichés develop out of reality. I wanted Skeeter to be a little wiser and more protective of her own safety. I wanted her to at least consider the several potential issues around using her own daughter as a source of information and given the dangers involved, I thought Skeeter likely to be seriously maimed if not killed, given her penchant for jumping into dangerous situations. Even so, I liked the character and I like this novel.

In the spirit of disclosure, I note that I have a professional relationship with the author.