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Friday, January 19, 2018

Blame by Jeff Abbott

Blame by Jeff Abbott

Ready for another book? Need a good mystery that reads like jagged pieces of glass dumped in a wastebasket?  That’s not a dis, that’s the reality of the main character, Jane Norton.  The jagged pieces are her life, or the way her life has shattered since she lost her memory and her close friend in a car accident two years ago. Everyone’s sure it was her fault.  Police reports and newspaper articles, and internet savages seem to confirm that.

Everybody blames her and with a severe loss of memory, she doesn’t know how to defend herself or which way to turn.  Some people are nice to her, but most treat her as damaged and deranged goods.

But, there’s more to it than that.  A lot more.  The dead boy’s mother, who lives next door, hates her viciously.  Jane’s schoolmates avoid her and often take their suspicions well past smirks and derogatory remarks in the hallway.  David, the boy who was killed was a popular guy, with friends galore.  His friends don’t forget.  Then there’s the suicide note found in the car, a note that Jane wrote.

“I was your friend,” is heard often, as an accusation.  Others put a positive spin on it.  “I am your friend.”  And at times the positive ones can turn out to be the most vicious.

A parade of characters romp through this engaging book and they all care and don’t care, believe her and don’t believe her.  They think she couldn’t have done it on purpose, then turn on her like whirling dervishes.  Without a memory, how do you defend yourself, and how do you even know if you should?

As Jane says, “Today I went to my friend’s grave.  I went to the crash site.  There were people there who don’t like me at all. The still blame me. They think it wasn’t an accident. One of them tried to hurt me. The other is smearing me online.”  The accusations swirl around her and not even she knows what she did or if she did anything.

In my own life, I’ve had friends who were wrongly accused. Tough to defend yourself if you didn’t do it and know you didn’t do it, even if you have a full memory.  What if you have no memory, or only thin shards of memory here and there, none of which fit together?

Maybe Jane is guilty of deliberately causing the accident.  Her own mother seems to think so.  Many of her classmates think so.  Even some of her former friends, who want to believe her, think so. And often she thinks so.

The main thing that makes this book so engaging is not the originality of the plot.  Memory loss, including complete memory loss is not uncommon in fiction. The main thing is the characters ring-true, even though the book is populated with college students, the wealthy, the middle class, the average, the intelligent, the conniving and the honest.  And all of them are vital to the plot.

You hear the term page-turner bandied about so often it loses its impact. In the case of Blame, it’s warranted. I stayed up late, I got up early, I read through supper and with my morning coffee. Jane’s plight became my plight.  I wanted to know, had to know.  The questions pound at the reader: What would I do?  Where would I turn?

And then comes the ending and in a swirling maelstrom of anger, action, blood, and revelation, against all odds, and through a series of devilish twists and turns, everything becomes clear. Somehow the jagged pieces of glass became a mirror that reflected the good, the evil, the darkness and the light.

Need a good mystery?  You’ve just found one.  Blame by Jeff Abbott.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How a Gunman Says Goodbye by Malcolm McKay

How a Gunman Says Goodbye by Malcolm McKay

This is the middle book of a trilogy, but I haven’t yet read the other two.  This one stands alone and I suspect that’s true of the others, although there are connecting characters, along with all three being set in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter
How a Gunman Says Goodbye
The Sudden Arrival of Violence

Peter Jamieson is a mob boss and like all mob bosses, he runs a large organization, complete with enforcers and gunmen, and held together by loyalty, fear, and violence.  Frank MacLeod is one of the gunmen.  In fact, he is the oldest and best.  Been working for Jamieson for decades. Never failed and hard to see how he ever could.

But nothing lasts forever.

In How a Gunman Says Goodbye do not expect the usual shoot-em-up.  Hardnosed, yes, but this book crawls deep into the organizational and individual psychology of organized crime.  Even in a superb look at the life of criminals, such as The Sopranos, you only get a glimpse of individual minds, the worries and frustrations.  In Gunman, you get a detailed picture of worries, ambitions, loyalties, and apprehensions.  The author must surely have some friends ‘in the business.’

Sociopathic and psychopathic minds are inherently interesting. We have an almost morbid fixation on those who are willing to accept the vicious as normal. Serial killers are at the top of the list and a gunman fits the mold, even if he’s not the one who picks out the targets or gives the order.

Well worth pondering: How does a gunman think he fits into an organization?  How are orders directed and carried out?  What are the jealousies that separate members of the same gang?  Why do some gang members become disillusioned and others grow only more steadfast?  How do girlfriends and lovers fit in?  Is there inherent pleasure in taking a human life, or is the act given no more thought than stepping on an ant, or shooting a squirrel?

In short, How a Gunman Says Goodbye takes you into the inner workings of organized crime and those who choose to live the life. The author narrates, not only day-to-day operations, decisions, doubts, and balances, but also the minds of killers.

Frank MacLeod is a gunman, a killer. He’s has been around a long time.  Longer than most and has more friends at the highest levels than most.  But, when are friendships really friendships and when are they only conveniences?

Questions pile on top of questions and if you’re picking up this book and expecting murders and mayhem on every page, you’ll be disappointed.  If, on the other hand, you want to know what the daily life of a gang member is like and can be satisfied with only punctuations of violence, you’ve come to the right place.  This book is intriguing and fascinating, and built on complexities and the angst of the characters over what comes next and the big and complicated question of how does a gunman say goodbye?

How a Gunman Says Goodbye is deeply absorbing and if it’s not the fast pace you’re used to, it’s still a page-turner that plays on the reader’s mind and rivets you on your journey to the astonishing ending.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Saturday in Da Burg: Homburg!

Saturday in Da Burg

Haven’t been to Germany?  Having a tough time wondering what it’s like to live here?  I know you’re curious.  You’ve heard rumors from your beastly, so-called friends. The winter weather is awful, right? Germans aren’t friendly.  If it’s not snowing, it’s raining, right? So if you have to live here, what in the world is there to do as you ponder your Saturday?

Oh, nothing really.  Go to a very cool town for the big flea market, or perhaps a wine fest, or a Christmas market, or find a delicious German restaurant with atmosphere to spare.  Of course, you must begin with coffee and a fresh roll at the German bakery that’s down the street.  Imperative and essential for a bright outlook, even if it’s raining, which it was.  No matter. Drizzle fizzle.  Pull up the hood and march on.   We know every bakery clerk and they waved to us and called us by name as we walked through the automatic, sliding glass doors and got hit with a burst of the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread.  We answered them by name and sat down because we’re creatures of habit and the clerks know what we want.  The bakery was warm and comfortable, but after a coffee and roll warm up, we were ready to make the short drive to Homburg.

Amazing how many vendors showed up at the flea market, from Germany and France.  Homburg is a lively town and sports the biggest and best flea market (Floh Markt) in southwest Germany.  Happens the first Saturday of every month, from 0800 to 1600.  Yeah, yeah, subtract 12 hours from the latter.  Get used to it if you take trains in Europe.

But, we weren’t taking a train.  Just driving a couple of towns away and singing in the rain.  Very light drizzle that stopped periodically. Wasn’t that bad.  Vendors know better than weathermen when it’s going to be bad.

Unlike so many flea markets in the U.S., the Homburg flea market is stuffed with antiques and semi-antiques, most of which are at used furniture prices.  Interesting stuff. No dross. Can you bargain?  Foolish man, of course you can.  But, these vendors know the going price of everything and their wares are already cheap.  Check out the photos.  One thing the guys will want to know: Yes there is German World War II paraphernalia, but the crooked cross is always covered up.  It’s the law.  There were no coffee stands and no luscious aromas of grilling meats and sausages Saturday.  The antique vendors know the weather better than the food vendors.

Afterwards, we shopped for flowers and you can see what we got for less than ten bucks.  Brightens up the house, refreshes the spirit and all those other touchy-feely things.  Freshly cut flowers are my fav substitute sunshine, especially in Germany in the wintertime.  We did see the sun once…think it was last week.

Next stop, a wonderfully traditional German beer house and restaurant.  Big steins of beer if you want one, but I opt for a glass of Grauer Burgunder from the Nahe River area.  In Italy it’s called Pinot Grigio and in France Pinot Gris.  English?  Gray Pinot. Light. Dry, Fruity nose.  

But, I ordered a meat plate, a Grill Teller.  What’s with that? White wine with meat? Yes, well two of the meats were pork and turkey.  The Germans eat a lot of turkey, called Puten.  Don't’ eat pork or beef?  No problem in Germany. Don’t drink wine or beer? How ‘bout water or fruit juice?

Germans are known for huge portions and the Grill Teller was no exception.  Should have shared and fought over the scraps.

We lingered over the wine and looked out the window at folks bundled up for the rainy day.  Rain and even snow doesn’t stop these hearty folk.  I’ve seen people in their eighties with their walkers, trudging through six inches of snow.

So, what’s there to do on just another rainy day in Germany?  Gosh, let me think…and while I’m thinking, let’s have another glass of wine.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Willie Nelson: It’s a Long Story, by Willie Nelson and David Ritz

Willie Nelson: It’s a Long Story, by Willie Nelson and David Ritz

Who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of Willie Nelson?  Just another guitar strumming, twangy-voiced country singer, right?  I shared you skepticism.  Never would have thought to pick up the book except that a close friend, who is known for his excellent taste in literature and country music, told me, “Ya gotta read this book!”  He followed up with, “I wish it had been longer and he would have shared even more stories.”

Started out as a courtesy read.  Then I couldn’t put it down. Found myself falling asleep at night with the book propped on my chest.

Yeah, but Willie Nelson?  You bet. The man has lived several lifetimes, been in and out of debt, is married to his fourth wife, with a whole string of children following in his footsteps, and who went from ‘can’t get a job’ to being an American institution.

We often think of performers simply waltzing into the spotlight of TV or suddenly and without warning strumming a few songs on the radio.  Overnight sensations.  With Willie Nelson, that’s not how the story goes.

He comes from a traditional or semi-traditional Texas childhood in the no-where town of Abbott, raised by his grandparents and taught to praise the Lord.  And how he got where he is today is a jagged, broken-glass trail of being true to himself and never giving up.

What does never giving up mean to you?  Retaking a driver’s test?  Maybe going out for the team again after being cut last year?  Willie puts a whole new spotlight on the phrase ‘don’t ever give up.’ For decades he struggled.  Often his wife and kids were a meal away from starvation, while he tried to sell his musical talents in honky-tonk bars and strip clubs across Texas and around the country.  Sometimes, when hope was but a fading memory, he found a pal who could hook him up as a disk jockey, or find him work doing odd jobs, or selling this and that door-to-door.  His then wife worked hard as a waitress while raising two kids nearly by herself. But, Willie’s music always stuck with him.  He wrote, he sang, he never gave up, even when the doors kept being slammed in his face, or smashing his foot.

He connected with people and as he did, he became enamored of different types of music, many of which he would go on to sing with such giants as Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles.  Country. Jazz. Blues. Pop.  The notes resounded within him.  Music was his Polaris and is to this day.

But, fame and success comes at a heavy price, so heavy that most of us are not willing to pay it.  Not willing to move around the country looking for work, or going through four marriages or becoming successful only to be hammered by the IRS.

Willie Nelson’s autobiography is a straight-forward adventure in living life your way, without compromise or loss of direction or spirit. Every page is a lesson in living, in sticking to your guns in true Texas style, and keeping hope and good humor alive in the midst of triumph and tragedy. The lessons are simple, but true.

Be confident, but not arrogant.
Appreciate those around you.
Take success and failure with the same gentle attitude.
Love your family.
Love your friends.
And most of all, be true to yourself.

A good book?  Hell, no, it’s far better than that. It’s a lesson in being strong and resilient, loving, kind, and faithful to what means the most to you.  I promise you, if you pick this book up, you won’t want to put it down.