Review: Dirty Gold (Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Jim Wyss, Kyra Gurney)

Dirty Gold explores illegal (wildcat) mining (mainly) in Peru, and the dubious ways gold brokers – such as those detailed in this book – manage to sell or obtain that gold to be recycled and sold to other entities or made into consumer goods.

I’ll say this right off the bat: writers of narrative nonfiction could use this as a textbook. It is intelligently laid out, the cast of characters not only denoted before the book begins, but named and described in the text in a way that does not require constant flipping to the beginning to see who is who, the history of illegal mining given (but not in an overwhelming way) along with the sociological, economic, corruption, and political ties to it, and how the various schemes worked to get the gold out of South America. It’s masterful.

At its base, this book is about three men in Miami – Juan Pablo Granda, Samer Barrage, and Renato Rodriguez, dubbed the three amigos – working on behalf of a larger company, manage to bring an astonishing $3,6 billion worth of mainly Peruvian gold to their company. In doing so, both they, and their primary local buyer in Peru, go to a great number of steps to obscure the actual origin of the gold. Those steps include the creation of fake/shell companies, smuggling Peruvian gold to other countries in order to export it to the US, and failed or too-loose vetting of the supposed exporting companies in Peru that declared the gold obtained in a legal manner.

If you’re interested in anything related to gold, money laundering, smuggling, political and law enforcement corruption, sociological, ecological, and health impacts of illegal mining, and the utter chasm between those riding high on the backs of those in abject poverty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Absolutely a five out of five star read. I’d also recommend “A Most Wicked Conspiracy”, about the Alaskan gold rush, another five star read.

Thanks to Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

REVIEW: The Ravine (Wendy Lower)

In 2009, Wendy Lower (author of Hitler’s Furies , another worthy book to add to your TBR list) comes across a photo from Miropol, Ukraine: a woman, toddler in her arms, baby at her feet, being shot by a Ukrainian collaborator during operations in that country during WWII. The title refers to the ravine into which people fell after being executed for no reason other than they were not part of the so-called “master race”.

What follows is an excellent, although horrifying read, of Lower’s investigation into this photo. This entails records retrieved in various countries – the US, Ukraine, Germany, and Israel – talking with people and/or potential witnesses, and eventually spans ten years to finally identify the doomed family as well as the Slovakian photographer who was not supposed to be taking pictures of these operations.

If you’re at all interested in the Holocaust or the European Theater of Operations during WWII, you’ll likely be as engrossed in this book as I was, even given – or especially because of the book’s subject, something no one should ever forget.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

REVIEW: The Darkest Evening, DCI Vera Stanhope #9 (Ann Cleeves)

I love Vera Stanhope, cranky old broad and DCI.

In her latest outing, Vera drives home while a blizzard rages. After taking the wrong turn – that happens to be the road to her ancestral home – she comes across a car blocking the road, mired in the snow. The driver’s door is open, and there’s a baby in a carseat in the back, but the driver is missing. As the snow continues to fall, Vera takes the child into her car, leaves a note on the car, and carries on to said ancestral home, knocking on the door to seek harbor from the storm, and in the process seeing relatives she hasn’t seen in quite a long time.

When a young woman’s body is found on the property, it’s clear the woman is likely the mother of the child, and that the people in the house (both er relatives and the dinner guests they are hosting) probably know more about the woman than they let on.

The investigation is then off, with no shortage of suspects and Vera and her team wringing information out of people and chasing down leads and connections, no matter how slim they may appear.

We get more background on Harold, Vera’s father and black sheep of the Stanhope family, and more insight into how Vera views the familial tree (spoiler: she’s not into having to put on the facade of genteel landowner, benificent landlord). I believe these short interludes were both worthy of inclusion to the story and not disruptive to the narrative. Well done on that.

As Vera and her team put together the puzzle of circumstances, the perpetrator becomes more violent and aggressive, and the final showdown is a lulu.

Highly recommended. Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for the review copy (which was approved after I’d already bought it ).

 

Review: The Nine (Gwen Strauss)

Full title:

The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany

How do people withstand the most horrific abuses performed by a nation led by a madman?

There are many books about soldiers surviving what were basically death camps when they were taken prisoner, about well planned and executed escapes, about spies hanging on, in hiding, while an entire militarized police force look for them.

The Nine has all of that, and more. It’s the story of nine women, resistance fighters in WWII, captured and interrogated by French police before being sent off to Germany for interrogation by the Gestapo and ultimately imprisoned at a work camp.

The primary focus is on the author’s great aunt Hélène Podliasky, who ultimately became the de facto leader of the group as they met one another in their journey from freedom to prison and back to freedom again.

Where this book shines comes after all of that – after the beatings, the torture, the forced work, and all manner of atrocities. As Germany was facing defeat, some of the camps, including the one housing The Nine, were sent on forced marches, to move prisoners from outlying areas about to be overrun, to prisons closer to what was left in German hands. During their march, they took a chance and fled the march, running into the forest, heading for France.

This journey, free of guards and the wire of prisons, wasn’t any easier than that. Along the way, they found both people willing to help them, and people who had no interest in doing so, preferring to turn them in. They also found those who wanted to use them for their own ends – soldiers, for instance, who thought the Allies would look more favorably on them if they were found assisting a group of former prisoners.

The author is a poet, and it shows. It’s a fantastic piece of narrative nonfiction, although I would say that if you’re just dipping your toes into the water of the cruelest parts of WWII, or if you’re just learning about it, you might want to start with a broader history first, to understand the whole of the war, then narrow to the final days of the European theater before reading this. Doing so will better inform the reader about that particular point in the war, and how the engineered system developed by the German leadership was breaking down.

Much like Night (Elie Wiesel, another must-read), The Nine captures the sense of how it was to live with daily atrocities, and how people came through them.

Highly recommended – a five star read.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy

Pub date: May 4, 2021

Review: Heroes of the RNLI (Martyn R Beardsley)

Almost 200 years ago, Sir William Hillary was key in forming the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – an organized rescue service made up of people fearless (or scared but willing to do it anyway) enough to head out into gales and storms and anything else the sea could throw at boats and ships to rescue anyone who could be rescued. In his time, of course, those rescue attempts were often just people oaring their way out into the sea. These days, the rescues are more high tech, but no less hair-raising at times.

This book is not so much just a history of the service, but a book of many of the more exciting/dramatic/history-making rescues, with the history of the service woven in here and there as the summaries of those rescues move forward in time. Some of them (Grace Darling) are more well known outside the UK than others – most others, I would say. They all, however, encapsulate quite well the deeds of people willing to risk their own lives to save others.

If you like real life rescue stories, and derring-do on the sea, you’ll likely enjoy this collection of stories and the history sailing underneath them.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization (Roland Ennos)

I’m a sucker for a single-item “history of” books. The best books of this nature, I’ve found, are those that are telling a *story* of the history versus those that are simply a history. Books like Salt (Mark Kulansky) or Longitude (Dava Sobel) are terrific examples of the narrative nonfiction that will pull the reader in to the world of the subject, riding along like a time traveler following a single strand of history.

There were instances where I felt that same tug from The Age of Wood, but unfortunately, I found them to be rare. The book is still quite interesting, chasing down the use of wood over the centuries and to the current day, assuming you’re interested in a rather dry overall tone.

Those with an acute interest in wood, or people just looking to learn something on the subject will likely be more willing to get through an almost textbook-like reading than the casual reader, and it’s worth it, in my opinion. It’s relatively short, which brought to my mind the question of whether the storytelling was not enough to push it to a longer page count and more relaxed narrative, or whether the publisher or author decided about 300 pages was all they were willing to venture into the subject. Either way, the book suffers for it.

There are numerous discussions of things built with wood versus metal, and a somewhat questionable (to me) passage about Amazonian deforestation, and into the modern time period, quite a bit of page count given over to metal – not what I was here for.

Overall, it isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, for a book about a resource indispensable to humans ancient and modern, which I’d think is a fascinating topic.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Heartbreak Bay – Stillhouse Lake #5 (Rachel Caine)

This is the fifth (and now final, with the author’s death) book in the Stillhouse Lake series. The first book in the series – also called Stillhouse Lake – had me scratching my head, wondering if I’d read it or any other in this series, as it sounded familiar. As is fairly usual in my case, the answer is no.

Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to have read the genesis of the series in order to understand this one. Even if Ms Caine had not given some quick backstory disguised as the main character’s musings while looking at the photos on the walls in her office, it would have worked just as well as a standalone thriller/mystery. I do think, however, if this books sounds interesting that reading the books in order would be beneficial, for all the little things readers might notice in each book along the way that the author may (judiciously) not mention in the later books, and to witness the growth of the characters as they move through the events of each book.

Warning, content-wise: if you’re easily put off by violence, or descriptions of violence in general, and specifically violence toward children, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re fine with violence and you like strong female characters, you might want to give it a go.

Heartbreak Bay is a multi-point of view, present tense book., and Gwen, the primary character, is now a private investigator. When Detective Kezia Claremont calls her to come to the scene of a submerged car, she can’t help but go. When the car is extracted, there are two kids, strapped in and drowned, but no sign of the mother, who was driving. This investigation by itself would be enough for a book (or more), and although I picked out the villain when they showed up in the book, this did not detract from an engaging case that tried everyone involved – as it generally is when it involves kids.

There’s a subplot involving an internet rando troll, trying to make Gwen pay for what the troll thinks she did – namely, helping her ex-husband in his serial killing ways. This subplot is ok as a device, but there’s enough stress and pressure in the primary case without it. I didn’t find this as engaging as the primary case, and that may just have to do with things external to the book (like living through the past five years, as I type this, and the sheer tsunami of nonsense online) than it does with he book itself. It does fit pretty well into the larger scope of the book, so I won’t ding it in rating it.

Overall, I found Heartbreak Bay lived up to both the thriller and mystery genres, with fairly tight plotting, good writing, and characters worth writing about.

A solid 4.5 stars out of 5, rounded to a 5 for its good qualities and no major issues.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Point Roberts (Alexander Rigby)

Point Roberts, in the Pacific Northwest, has a history – a history of murder that happened every February decades ago. Since then, the town has gone on lockdown each February: no one in, no one out. A total of fifteen people were killed, but after the lockdowns started, the murders stopped. Even when it seemed further lockdowns were not necessary, the town continued the tradition, for some bizarre (quirky!) reason.

Liza has moved to the island with her foster family. She feels a bit of a misfit, of course, and now there’s this weirdo lockdown month where no one can go anywhere and outsiders can’t get in.

She teams up with four other misfits, and the group tries to determine who the Point Roberts serial killer was – or is.

!!!!Spoilers here!!!!

The atmosphere is gloomy, as one might expect in that region in the grip of winter. Note: you must be willing to push your suspension of disbelief a little harder in this story than some others, not just during the investigation phase, but during the denouement – the killer (who you can probably guess) killing for reasons attributed to a secret and to mental illness, the presentation of which was a bit of a curiosity.

I didn’t really care for this, although I understand it can happen in real life. But the reasoning behind the murders and the secret they conceal just struck me wrong.

It’s well enough written, although I think there was a but too much effort to try to make everyone quirky, and there were a couple of tropes that bugged me (one in particular: HIV these days is not an automatic death sentence, and someone who gets a positive test will get a second one to confirm). Also, what’s the deal with this girl running around the island with four adults? that’s just…odd. There are some clunky portions, and it could have used a bit of trimming. Authors, please don’t have your climax explained in excruciating detail. If you have to explain that much at the end, you haven’t done enough before that point to lay the groundwork of the story.

I’ll give it three stars out of five.

Thanks to Alden and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Watch Her – Hester Thursby #3 (Edwin Hill)

Watch Her is the third book in the Hester Thursby series, and I will say up front that this is an exceptional mystery. While it is not necessary to read the preceding books, it would likely add even more depth to a cast of characters so already fleshed out they could, in another, magical world, simply walk off the paper and into the real world without missing a beat or seeming out of place.

Hester is an information-digging, crime-solving dynamo. Paired with Detective Angela White in a nonofficial way, Hester blazes through the book, listening to what people tell her and what they do not. Her musings on what she has been told, and what she tells other people – including Morgan, with whom she lives – are some of the finest indirect action I’ve seen in a mystery. Nothing gets bogged down, the internal dialogue doesn’t veer into infodump territory, and those dialogues are organic, exactly how I would imagine would think them through.

Hester has been hired by a wealthy family to perform what is, to her, a simple task: sorting through information to complete a project and present her conclusions. The only speedbump winds up being a police report about a breakin at that wealthy family’s house that sounds off to both Hester and Angela, and which launches us into a decades-old mystery, with a current mystery as a chaser.

There is a rather large cast – this is just a note, not a particular warning, since paying attention will keep you squared away on who is who, how they’re related, and what animals they own.

It seems that everyone in this book has a secret: the circumstances surrounding a drowned child, a secret (or not so secret) affair, a cop who did something no cop should do, a woman who has not been out of her house in years.. I’m curious as to whether the author was playing a bit on the title – Watch Her to Watcher is not a big step to make when secrets start spilling out toward the end.

The ending wraps up nicely, the only loose end being the now strained relationship between our two leads due to the events of the book. I’ve no doubt they will patch things up in their next outing, something I am looking forward to, whenever it comes out.

The only ding I’d give it would be the “Chicken Day” painting, full of blood. It’s a reference to processing meat chickens, which I myself do each year. Certainly there is some blood, but it doesn’t look like your average slasher flick.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Kensington Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Postscript Murders (Elly Griffiths)

The Postscript Murders starts off in a promising way to me, generally not a regular reader of cozy mysteries. I’ve read Elly Griffiths before, and seem to recall it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, so I decided to have a shot at another.

Natalka, a carer for 90-year old Peggy, is cleaning out Peggy’s room after Peggy appears to have died of natural causes. But, Natalka is suspicious after finding dedications in books from authors to Peggy, who styled herself as a “murder consultant”. She presents her suspicions to the police, and away we go.

The problem, for me, is that I was far more interested in Peggy’s living story, not the story of the investigation of her death by Harbinder Kaur. Don’t get me wrong: the story is perfectly fine. When writers start getting killed, Kaur gets the idea that perhaps Peggy’s death was not by natural causes after all and that there’s something larger going on. There are twists and turns, an arrest, and a final twist/informational item that I was a bit meh on, but if you like cozies and you like intricately plotted novels that are meta and feature other mystery novels and writers, you’ll find this to be agreeable. It’s just a periodic reminder that while I am willing to read cozies, they are often not my favorite things.

I’ll give it a solid four out of five stars. If Ms. Griffiths would like to write about Peggy, I’ll snap that up in an instant.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

Reflections on gardening, cooking, and life