Mississippi Noir

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Mississippi Noir is the latest collection of dark crime stories in the long running series of similar titles from Akashic Books, and it’s another good one. The first hint of what to expect from the book’s sixteen stories comes in the blunt opening paragraph of Tom Franklin’s two-page introduction:

“Welcome to Mississippi, where a recent poll shows we have the most corrupt government in the United States. Where we are first in infant mortality, childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, teenage pregnancy, adult obesity, adult diabetes. We also have the highest poverty rate in the country.

And, curiously, the highest concentration of kick-ass writers in the country, too,”

And judging strictly from the number of writers who make their homes in Oxford, the claim about “kick-ass writers” might very well be true. (But sadly, so are the other ones.) This Mississippi-based story collection features the work of a few familiar names, such as Ace Atkins, writers newly-come to the genre, and even a couple of writers being published for the first time. As is always the case with the Akashic books in the series, the sixteen stories are divided into four thematic sections with tiles that give a clue to the type of story housed there: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” Bloodlines,” and “Skipping Town.”

As it turns out, my three favorite stories come from three different sections of the book: “Lord of Madison County,” by the first-time-published Jimmy Cajoleas, “Oxford Girl” by the already well-known Megan Abbott, and “Pit Stop”, by veteran writer John M. Floyd.

“Lord of Madison County” tells of a seasoned teenaged drug dealer who has stumbled upon the best way imaginable to hide the truth about himself – he pretends to be a Jesus freak interested only in spreading the word of God among his peers. When, predictably, the young man learns that, not only is he nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but that bigger, badder criminals are all around him, things do not go particularly well for him and his preacher’s-daughter girlfriend.

“Oxford Girl” takes the rather unusual approach of adopting its plot from an English ballad dating back to the 1820s. The old ballad tells the story of a young woman who is brutally murdered by the man she believes she is going to marry. The short story cleverly cites verses from one version of the old song as the story about two University of Mississippi students unfolds along eerily similar lines. There is one key difference, however, that makes the story especially effective – unlike the song, which is narrated by the killer, the story’s narrator is the murdered girl.

And then there’s “Pit Stop,” a story that likely would have warmed the heart of Alfred Hitchcock. In this one, a young woman is telling her little girl a story from her past, the one in which she encountered the infamous “Night Stalker” who killed several women along Mississippi’s Highway 25. An abundance of false leads and misdirection – along with plenty of clues that point to the Stalker’s true identity – make this one a fun and satisfying read.

Bottom Line: Mississippi Noir meets the high standard set by it predecessors in this Akashic Books series.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

News of the World

25817493What could possibly be more intriguing a main character in a book about Reconstruction Era Texas than a seventy-year-old retired Army captain who makes his living as a traveling “professional reader”? Perhaps a ten-year-old little girl who has spent the last four years of her life as a captive of the band of Kiowa who butchered her parents and little sister in front of her might just do it. And then if you have these two characters cross paths, as Paulette Jiles does in News of the World, you have the makings of what is certain to be one of the most memorable novels of 2016.

People in north Texas are hungry for news, and they will pay to hear it. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is only too happy to bring it to them as he travels from town to town reading articles aloud from the latest East Coast newspapers he can get hold of – all for the price of one thin dime per listener. It is, in fact, the kind of solitary existence that Captain Kidd much prefers at this stage of his life. But that all changes one trip through Wichita Falls when Kidd reluctantly agrees to transport a little girl back to the aunt and uncle she has not seen since being captured by the Kiowa. The 400-mile trip from Wichita Falls to near San Antonio will prove to be a dangerous one, one that will forever bind the old man and the little girl together.

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Paulette Jiles

There is plenty of old fashioned western action in News of the World: threatening Indians, shootouts with bad guys who want to steal the little girl for their own purposes, rising waters and dangerous river crossings, big-hearted women of the evening, etc., and all of it is well handled by Jiles. But what makes the novel special is the relationship that develops between Captain Kidd and young Johanna as they steadily make their way southward. Johanna has forgotten everything about her life before the Kiowa took her. No longer does she speak English or German; she has forgotten how to use a knife and a fork; and she considers the idea of wearing a cloth dress to be a ludicrous one. She is now, and in her mind forever will be, a Kiowa Indian. White men – and women – terrify her, and she wants nothing to do with them.

But Johanna senses something in Captain Kidd that calms her, a level of trust that moves her to call him “grandfather” in her own language. Soon, though, their relationship has gone way beyond merely honoring the Captain with a title, and Johanna begins thinking of Kidd as her grandfather in the truest sense of the word. And perhaps surprising even himself, Kidd grows so fond of the little girl that he would willingly give his own life to save hers.

News of the World is a beautiful novel, and it deserves to find a huge audience.

 

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Thousands of Hits from Russia in Last Few Days…Help!

I just arrived home after being gone for two weeks and decided to take a look at the activity on Book Chase during that period.  And it is scarring me to death.  Seems that I’ve had thousands of “hits” from Russia this month, and I’m not about to believe that Book Chase is suddenly the most popular book blog in that country. 

What are these people doing?  Are they trying to hack into my computer through the blog by inserting some sort of Trojan Horse virus?  Should I consider shutting down the blog here and moving it to a new internet address…something other than Blogger?

Does anyone have any experience with this kind of thing?  How easy is it to move over to a different software?  Does traffic have to be rebuilt from zero all over again or is there some way to redirect the traffic to the new location?

Please help if you can answer any of my questions and concerns.  

Thanks.

Paul Williams Proves He Still Has It

Just time to take quick advantage of hotel wifi access (while it lasts) to post one of my favorite performances from last night’s MACC 2016 sets from up here in Columbus, Ohio.

This is Paul Williams, a man who has been in the bluegrass music business for a long time and who had the good fortune to be a key member of some of the most influential bluegrass bands in bluegrass history.  He is, of course, a tremendous mandolin picker, but for me it’s always been about that great high tenor voice of his. This is Paul proving that at 81 years of age his voice is as strong as it has ever been. 

This is his version of the post-World-War-II country classic, “Fraulein.”  


Musicians Against Childhood Cancer: Bluegrass Heaven

I’ve spent the past two days outdoors at a bluegrass festival near Columbus, Ohio, that, in fact, runs for an additional two days. Throw in the four days it took me to drive up to Columbus from Houston, and you can see why I’ve been forced to neglect Book Chase for the last week.  And to top things off, wifi access is spotty, \ – at best – at this hotel. (It is so unreliable, that as I type this, I have no idea whether or not I will be able to actually post it.)

Anyway, I wanted to give you guys a taste of what I’ve been up to this week.  This festival is called MACC, Musicians Against Childhood Cancer, and all the proceeds go to St. Jude’s hospital.  All the artists donate their time – and hope to peddle enough CDs and tee-shirts to maybe, just maybe, cover the cost of the gasoline it took to get them to Columbus.

This video is from last night’s show-closing band, Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers.  Larry is a recent inductee to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, and even though his career now spans more than 50 years, he still looks and sounds great.  Take a look:


Cleveland Librarian Wants to "Make America Read Again"

As for as I’m concerned, (other than that terrific speech by Rudy Giuliani last night) the best story to come out of Cleveland so far since the Republican National Convention began is this one about a Cleveland librarian who wants to make “America Read Again” and is helping to make that happen by handing out free books outside the convention center.  Bustle has the story and pictures: 

John Harris, a librarian working in Tremont, a neighborhood in Cleveland, came downtown with a crate on the back of his bike filled with books and a very literal reading of the city’s guidelines. “Cleveland said you’re allowed to hand out literature, so why not come down and hand out some books,” Harris tells Bustle.
“It’s not like I’m here in support of anybody, but hey, a little reading can’t hurt anybody,” Harris says, regarding his role as a “book propagator.” And he’s not playing favorites when it comes to who gets the literature. “I’m here to hand out books to the people that are here [at the protests] … I’m here to hand out books to the people that are in support of him over there.”

As I have said many times before (and will likely say many more times), readers are special people, some of the best in the world, and they prove it every day.  Do please read the rest of the story on the Bustle site…link is in red, up above.

The Ancient Minstrel

Novellas are that relatively uncommon literary form that always seem a little bit awkward to me because they are obviously too short to be called novels and are too long to be called short stories. When reading a novella, I can never keep myself from wondering if the author started out intending to write a novel and ran out of story, or if he started out to write a short story and things got out of hand. With Jim Harrison, though, you don’t have to wonder. The Ancient Minstrel is his eighth novella collection and he is perhaps still best known for his first such collection, 1979’s Legends of the Fall. Harrison obviously loved the novella form almost as much as he loved writing poetry.

The Ancient Minstrel includes three Harrison novellas, “The Ancient Minstrel,” “Eggs,” and the shorter “The Case of the Howling Buddhas.” There is an author’s preface to “The Ancient Minstrel” that calls the novella a fictional addition to Harrison’s 2002 memoir Off to the Side. Just how much tongue-in-cheek the preface might be is up to the reader to decide for himself because Harrison takes its main character to rather dark places and strange obsessions. The poet/novelist of the story has just turned 70 and his lusty womanizing past seems to be behind him for good. He is married but he and his wife have separated, and although they are still living on the same property, they are living very separate lives. Our writer knows that he should be working on the novel that his publisher is anxious to get its hands on, but he has fallen in love with the idea of raising pigs on his farm – an obsession that has now pushed the novel he was writing right out of his head. Harrison offers here one version of a writer approaching the end of a long, productive career – how closely it might resemble his story is hard to tell.
Jim Harrison
Catherine, the main character of “Eggs,” is the daughter of an unhappy British woman who was conned into marrying the World War II soldier who promised her a new life on his family farm even though he never had any intention of adopting that lifestyle after the war. As a child, Catherine did spend time on her grandparent’s farm, along with her mother, during which she developed a lifelong fascination of chickens. She is a strong, self-reliant woman who has no desire or intention of every marrying but she badly wants to have a child, and she knows exactly how she will get that done.
“The Case of the Howling Buddha’s” is the shortest of the three novellas in the collection but there is a lot packed into it, including an undercover assignment to kidnap a wealthy man’s daughter from a cult and the ugly sexual seduction of a teenage girl by a decades-older man. The main character of this one is a 66-year-old divorced detective who, even at his age, cannot control himself around teenage girls. And when the fifteen-year-old neighbor girl who weeds his garden not only responds to his attention but demands that their sexual affair continue, the man finds that he is too weak to end it despite the fact that it will almost certainly end badly for both him and the girl.

The Ancient Minstrel proves two things for Jim Harrison: the novella works beautifully when it is in the hands of a good writer like him, and he was still very much at the top of his game when he died in March 2016.

Jonesboro, Illinois, Library Might Be Small but It’s Ready for Readers to Come In

Passing through Jonesboro, Illinois, this morning on my way to the music festival in Columbus, Ohio, I came across this tiny library and just had to take a look at it.  Jonesboro, a town of about 2,000 people, has converted what looks to be an old railroad depot into the city library.

Take a look at these photos and you’ll see why I stopped:


Front of library and entrance on side

Side of building with old doors in place (excuse my finger at top of photo)

This is the entire children’s library.

There is also an adult library that is housed in the same amount of space as the children’s library, but there are no accessible windows so I couldn’t grab a picture. I assume it contains a similar number of books. The collections appear small but, based on population, they may very well be the equivalent of big city libraries.  Does anyone have a library book per capita measurement we can use for comparison?


In the Darkroom

In the preface to her memoir/dual-biography, Susan Faludi says that her father was an expert at reinventing himself, a man who changed identities so often during his life that she barely knew him. Stephen Faludi, although he never admitted that he was the instigator or cause of the separation, abandoned his wife and daughter when Susan was still in her teens, and she had had little contact with him since. Neither of them had been willing to make the effort required to repair their fractured relationship, and they had, in fact, barely spoken for the past twenty-five years.


Then came the day in 2004 when Susan received an email from her father telling her that he had successfully undergone gender transformation surgery in Thailand and was now living legally in his Budapest home as Stefanie Faludi, a woman. But when Stefanie asked her daughter to “write my story,” Susan realized that she would have to complete an extensive research project on her father before she could do that. And despite her father’s desire to have Susan reveal her story to the world, Susan seldom found her willing to discuss her early life in any detail. Stefanie much preferred instead to focus on her physical transformation and various aspects of her new lifestyle, such as her new transgender friends, the transgender computer sites she favored, wardrobe changes, and her enjoyment of all the many advantages that women seem to her to have over men.

Susan discovered that changing one’s personality is not as easy as changing one’s gender. Her father had been an overly-aggressive, macho male, and she was now an overly aggressive female demandingto be treated the way she believed women deserve to be treated: with a combination of respect and equality. Stefanie’s early history, however, including her exploits as a young Jewish man struggling to stay alive during World War II were largely conversationally out of bounds unless Susan caught her father in one of her infrequent nostalgic moments. And even when discussing family history and difficult past relationships with relatives, Stefanie was more likely to lie about the past than to reveal her own bad behavior.

Susan Faludi and Her Father, Stephen Faludi

Susan Faludi, though, refused to give up, and the result is a remarkable look at a man who spent his life searching for the person he really wanted to be. He was a man who decided to become a woman; a Jew who showed tremendous bravery during World War II but often expressed great contempt for the Jewish lifestyle; a man who physically and verbally abused his wife and daughter but blamed themfor abandoning him; a man who does not seem to have enjoyed much of life but continued searching for something better until the day he died.


In the Darkroom is a daughter’s study of the father she hardly knew, but it is more than that. It is as much Susan Faludi’s biography as it is the story of her father. Too, it is a rather detailed and informative look at the social history of Hungary and its relationship with, and treatment of, it’s Jewish population, a history that is seldom pretty – and almost always disturbing.
Faludi has written a memoir that fans of the genre should not miss.  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

On the Road Again Again

This has been a day of physical therapy on my still-healing hip followed by a whole lot of packing for my annual summer road trip. This year I’m heading back up to Columbus, Ohio – and from Houston, that’s quite a drive – so it will be a real test for my hip and my overall endurance.  And because I’m leaving one day earlier than I had planned to leave, everything has been in kind of a rush.  Now I’m just hoping that I don’t forget to pack something.

I’ve taken a break to look at some of the video I shot in 2014, the last time I attended MACC (Musicians Against Childhood Cancer) and it’s really getting me in the mood for MACC 2016.  I’m going to share one of those videos here because I forgot I had it, and the featured artist, James King, is one we lost very recently.  James was always one of my favorite voices of bluegrass and his soulful delivery was always memorable.

I’ll be driving at a rather leisurely pace for the next three or four days, and because I stay off interstate highways whenever possible, it’s likely to take me every bit of that time to make it to Columbus.

Anyway, more to come. I’m still going to be reading and hopefully doing a review or two in the next two weeks.  But time will tell.  I’m more likely to post about the trip than anything else.  So please hang in there with me until I get home.

Dodgers

When I began reading Bill Beverly’s Dodgers I was expecting a story somewhere along the lines of the popular HBO series The Wire, a television series that captured my imagination for several years running.  And early on, the Dodgers plotline involving inner city (Los Angeles this time, instead of Baltimore) kids working for an older, ruthless drug lord did very much resemble The Wire.  But all of that changed when fifteen-year-old East, his younger brother, and two other young blacks set out on a road trip to Wisconsin, of all places, to kill a key witness who is prepared to testify against their boss in an upcoming trial.  Suddenly, I was reading one of the strangest coming-of-age novels I have ever run across.
East is one of the most street-savvy kids in his world.  At fifteen, he is already running a crew and is in charge of his own “house,” one of several drug dens his boss runs in their South Central Los Angeles neighborhood.  Even though he no longer lives at home, much preferring the privacy of sleeping in an abandoned building to sleeping in his old bedroom, East feels responsible for his drug-addled mother and provides her with enough money to survive – even though he knows where most of his cash goes. 
But Wisconsin may as well be located in a foreign country for all East knows about it, so when he learns that the two older boys in the minivan with him and his brother have seen more of the world than just Los Angeles he is willing to sit back in the middle row of seats and enjoy the view he sees out the side windows.  And for a few hundred miles, and a few hours, all goes well.  Then personalities begin to clash, the expense money in their pockets begins to tempt one or two of the boys to behave rashly, and it starts to look like they will be arrested long before they reach Wisconsin where their target awaits them.
Bill Beverly
Each of the boys in the minivan has been chosen because of a particular skill they have that will contribute to the success of their mission.  But, as East soon recognizes, the strength of the overall team turns out to be far less than the sum of its individual parts – and that places all of them, and their mission, in grave jeopardy unless someone steps in to make drastic changes.  Is East the man to make those changes?  Does he even want the job anymore, or has he been so changed by what he’s experienced in his travels that now he wants more from life than the likelihood of an early death or decades spent behind prison bars?  Even East can’t answer that one – yet.
Bill Beverly’s novel is a beautifully written one filled with memorable characters caught up in a situation well beyond what any of them have ever experienced in their short lives.  Dodgers is, in fact, a remarkable debut that clearly marks Beverly as someone to watch for in 2017.  It is that good.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher) 

Manhattan’s New 53rd Street Library Is a Mess

Manhattan’s Donnell Library was demolished way back in 2008 and that part of the city has done without a public library on that spot until now that the 53rd Street branch of the New York Public Library has opened.  But don’t get too excited by the news…because it’s both the good news and the bad news.  It seems that the new branch is less a library and more a monstrosity of a community center than anything else.  Looking for actual books? You might want to look elsewhere (because there really aren’t all that many books there) according to New York Magazine

The new branch does indeed provide the perfect haven for checking stock prices and Twitter. Patrons can tap and scroll in tranquility, unmolested by the odor of caffeine, the need for a password, the feel of greasy tables, or a barista’s stare. As a place to research a school project or browse for esoteric bedtime reading, on the other hand, it offers dismaying advice: Try elsewhere. Order a book from the website. Download an e-book. Walk ten blocks to the perpetually derelict, perpetually to-be-renovated Mid-Manhattan branch for the Russian-language edition of Anna Kareninathat used to be in the Donnell’s World Languages collection. 

[…]

Glance in from the sidewalk, and the eye falls on a set of blond-wood terraces that go cascading into a cave, between walls of metal slats and raw concrete. The vibe mixes the slovenly with the dictatorial. On the steps, felt discs — four per row, not really plush enough to qualify as cushions — demonstrate where to place one’s behind, but in the end most people sprawl or hunch. Neither is especially comfortable. This narrow buried amphitheater gives library patrons a split-level vista: above, a rat’s-eye view of the street and passers-by; below, a wide screen playing a promotional slideshow for New York and its libraries. 

And that’s not all, so take a look at the article I linked to up above for more details.  I tell you, folks, if this is the future of public libraries in America, someone is making a big, big mistake.  Why call them libraries if books are an afterthought to them? Call them what they are: Free WiFi with a few books.

The city of New York likes to think of itself as a trendsetter…well, this time around, all I can say is thanks for nothing, NYC, thanks for nothing.

The Far Empty

J. Todd Scott has worked as a DEA agent for over twenty years and has put that experience to good use in The Far Empty, his debut novel set in far West Texas.  Murfee, Texas, may be fictional but it is obvious to anyone familiar with that part of the state that it would fit right in near the actual cities found there (Scott, in fact, notes in his Acknowledgements that the town is “stitched together” from places found in the West Texas counties of Presidio and Brewster).
 Murfee is one of those towns so typical to Texas, where high school football is king and high school football players who do well are remembered as town heroes for a long, long time.  It’s a town in which, at the least, everyone pretty much knows everyone else by sight – and that’s not always a good thing.  What makes Murfee different is that the evil people there are so darkly and cleverly evil that they are able to exploit everyone else in town easily through guile or through outright intimidation.  And it’s been that way for way too long.
J. Todd Scott
Deputy Sheriff Chris Cherry is one of those high school heroes.  Chris, in fact, was able to turn his great success on the high school football field into the chance to play college football.  That opportunity, however, did not work out so well, and Chris is back in Murfee with a blown-out knee and a sheriff department job handed to him largely because of his high school glory.  And, even worse, the man who hired Chris, Sheriff Stanford “Judge” Ross, is evil personified. 
Caleb Ross, the sheriff’s teen-aged son is convinced that his father has murdered at least three men.  Perhaps even worse, Caleb thinks the sheriff may very well have killed each of the women he’s been married to – including his third wife, Caleb’s mother.  Since his mother’s disappearance, the house Caleb and the sheriff live in has become kind of a war zone, a place in which both of them tolerate the other’s presence and speak only the minimum amount required to make it through a day.  For good reason, Caleb both hates and fears his father.
Things come to a head very suddenly when Chris Cherry finds the remains of a murder victim whose hands are bound behind his back with the very type of plastic handcuff favored by the Murfee sheriff department.  Caleb needs an ally if he is to ever find out what happened to his mother, and he sees Chris as just the man he needs.  Throw in the Feds who come snooping, and you have a whole lot of people putting pressure on Sheriff Ross, a man capable of doing anything to keep the truth about how he runs Murfee hidden – perhaps even to killing his own son if that’s what it takes.

The Far Empty is genuine West Texas Noir: dark, gloomy, and not a lot of fun for any of the characters caught up in this story.  All the fun is reserved for those of us who read it.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

July: Books, Baseball, Bluegrass Music, and a Whole Lot of Driving


Just in case anyone is wondering, I haven’t disappeared for good.  It’s unusual for me to go three days without posting something “bookish” here, but I’ve been attending a youth baseball tournament with my grandson’s team for three days of two games per day this weekend, and that’s kept me from posting.  I have, in fact, been lucky to get some reading in but that’s been about it.  So now I’m behind on writing at least two book reviews and have another two coming up this week, looks like.  But it’s been great fun and worth the lost time.

If any of you are curious, his team finished fourth after being eliminated late this afternoon by the number one seed in the tourney in a last-inning 4-3 defeat.  (The teams are made up of 14-to-15-year-old boys and my grandson is a catcher/outfielder on his team).  

The second half of July is going to be even more hectic for me because I’m leaving for Columbus, Ohio, on the 16th for a four-day bluegrass music festival that begins on the 20th.  I allow three or four days on both ends of the festival for the driving, so I may go “dark” for a day or so a few more times in July.  This year is especially iffy because I’m still recovering from my broken hip (surgery was May 7) and will be moving even slower than usual.

But stay tuned…I do hope to post here quite a few times while I’m on the road, be it music news, book news, or whatever catches my eye as I drive northeast from Houston.  Hope to see you here.

West Texas Middleweight





WEST TEXAS MIDDLEWEIGHT
The Story of LaVern Roach(Sport in the American West Series)

by

Frank Sikes
Genre: Biography
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Date of Publication: June 30, 2016
Number of Pages: 288
Scroll down for Giveaway!

LaVern Roach, a skinny kid from the small town of Plainview, Texas, rose from obscurity to become one of boxing’s most popular figures during the 1940s. Roach’s rise to prominence occurred during an era when boxing shared the spotlight with baseball as the nation’s top two professional sports. As a result of Roach’s death—which marked the first nationally televised fight during which a boxer died from injuries received in the ring—the sport of boxing came under closer scrutiny by the general public than ever before.
West Texas Middleweight is the story of Roach’s all too brief journey from a West Texas amateur, to enlistment in the US Marines, where he captained the nation’s most successful military boxing team, to becoming a Madison Square Garden main eventer. He received the distinction of being named The Ring Magazine’s “Rookie of the Year” for 1947 and was considered a top ten contender for the middleweight championship of the world. This book chronicles Roach’s road to his final fight—and it explains why, as noted by legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, “boxing changed because of LaVern Roach.”

PURCHASE FROM TEXAS TECH PRESS:
email: ttup@ttu.edu
phone: 800.742.2982


Middleweight boxer LaVern Roach was a very successful professional boxer from the end of World War II to early 1950 but today his name is a relatively unknown one even among boxing fans.  But despite being unfamiliar with the name LaVern Roach, I was very familiar with several of the boxers who were his biggest rivals at the time for the middleweight world championship, names like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jake LaMotta.  And now, thanks to West Texas Middleweight: The Story of LaVern Roach, the new LaVern Roach biography from Frank Sikes, I can add Roach to my limited understanding of that boxing era. 
LaVern Roach was born in 1925 in a small farming community just north of Plainview, Texas, in a part of the state known as the Texas Panhandle.  He discovered the sport of boxing as a ten-year-old when their father gave LaVern and his younger brother boxing gloves as Christmas presents.  LaVern immediately took the sport seriously, and when he wasn’t fighting his brother, he was trying to organize matches with neighborhood kids.  By the time he reached high school, LaVern had devised a training routine of his own that rivaled those of professional boxers of his day, and he seemed destined to join those fighters in the profession after high school.
But something called World War II intervened, and five days before his eighteenth birthday (and his high school graduation ceremony), LaVern joined the United States Marines.  The Marines recognized his exceptional boxing skills and LaVern was made part of the Marine boxing team that fought other teams as part of the effort to sell war bonds and boost overall morale.  During this period, LaVern also met the man who would be instrumental in guiding his professional boxing career at the end of the war: Sergeant John Abood, manager of the Marine boxing team.
LaVern Roach began his professional career after World War II ended, but before his discharge from the Marines, and he was immediately successful, winning four of his first five fights by knockout before losing for the first time to an immensely more experienced boxer who disguised his true identity in order to get the match.  As an amateur, he had a record of 100 wins and 5 losses (with four of the losses coming before he turned eighteen), so his fast start as a professional was not a surprise to those in the sport.  His unusual good looks and his success made him one of the more popular boxers of his day, and LaVern Roach seemed destined for great things.
Author Frank Sikes does not limit “the story of LaVern Roach” to his exploits in the boxing ring, however.  The reader learns of aspects of LaVern’s personal life (his childhood, his parents, his school days, and the love of his life, Evelyn Roach and their children) that give a clear picture of how fine a man LaVern Roach was.  To this day Plainview High School chooses one of its senior boys for the LaVern Roach Award, the highest honor that a Plainview High School senior boy can attain because it is given to the boy who best embodies the LaVern Roach lifestyle of “clean living, good citizenship, and sportsmanship.” 
West Texas Middleweight does LaVern Roach proud.


Frank Sikes, a third-generation West Texan, grew up in Plainview, where LaVern Roach, along with Jimmy Dean, were hometown heroes.  Sikes graduated from Texas Tech in 1967, then was a US Navy Officer proudly serving aboard the USS Little Rock stationed in Gaeta, Italy from 1968-1970.  He attended the University of Houston School of Business, from 1973 to 1975, and got his master’s degree in religion from Wayland Baptist University in 2011. Frank and his wife Nancy have been married for 50 years and have two grown children out of the house, and two Boston Terriers, Molly and Maggie (or as some suggest Boston terrorists) who rule the house. Lubbock has been home for the past 30 years with stops in Newport, RI; San Francisco, CA; Gaeta, Italy; Houston, TX; and Albuquerque, NM.  West Texas Middleweight is his first book. Connect with the author on FACEBOOK.

————————————— 
GIVEAWAYS! GIVEAWAYS! GIVEAWAYS!
3 WINNERS:
 Each Wins a Signed Copy of the Book 
plus
2 GRAND PRIZE WINNERS: 
Each Wins a Signed Copy of the Book PLUS a $25 Barnes & Noble Gift Card

(US ONLY)
   June 1 – June 10, 2016
CHECK OUT THE OTHER GREAT BLOGS ON THE TOUR:
7/1       Country Girl Bookaholic  – Review

7/2       My Book Fix Blog – Author Interview #1

7/3       Forgotten Winds – Guest Post #1

7/4       Margie’s Must Reads Review

7/6       StoreyBook Reviews  – Author Interview #2

7/7       Book Chase Review

7/8       The Page Unbound Author Interview #3

7/9       Missus Gonzo  – Guest Post #2

7/10    It’s a Jenn World Review

 

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St. Louis Noir

St. Louis Noir is just the latest of about a dozen of the short story collections in this Akashic series that I’ve read now, and the streak continues – not a single one of them has disappointed me.  Each of the collections begins with an introduction from the book’s editor (in this instance, Scott Phillips) that helps set the overall tone for what is to follow.  As Phillips says, the St. Louis region has not had an easy time in recent years, and that makes the city the perfect setting for this kind of hardcore crime fiction.  Consider that one of Phillips’s definitions of noir is fiction that “traffics in fatality and doom and bad luck and characters who persistently, knowingly, act against their own best interests” and you have an idea of what is to come.
Among my favorite stories in St. Louis Noir is one called “Deserted Cities of the Heart” (by Paul D. Marks) in which a loner of an IT nerd with a security clearance is convinced to hack into a witness protection data base with disastrous results by the attractive young out-of-towner who suddenly comes into his life.   Another is “A Paler Shade of Death” (by Laura Benedict) about a young woman that many suspect is guilty of killing her four-year-old son.  Now that her marriage has fallen apart, she is trying to convince herself that it is time for a fresh start – but is it?  Two other stories are particular standouts: “The Brick Wall” (by John Lutz) and “One Little Goddam Thing” by the collection’s editor Scott Phillips.  The first is a rather Hitchcockian story involving revenge of the most ingeniously delicate variety, and the second involves revenge of the cruder, but equally effective, type. 
St. Louis Noir also includes what is titled “A Poetic Interlude,” four short poems from Michael Castro.  In very few words, the first two pieces (“In St. Louis Heat” and “Gaslight Square”) paint vividly memorable pictures of St. Louis street scenes, but the third poem, “St. Louis Blues Revisited” strikes a note I wish it had not stricken by referencing “the cold cop who killed Michael Brown.”  Perhaps I am misreading the poet’s intention in making that reference, but I do not see that it adds much of anything to mood of the poem, even coming in the poem’s very first stanza as it does.  Much worse is a similar reference in author Umar Lee’s short author biography (whether written by Lee or by the editor did, I do not know) to the “murder of Michael Brown.”  That reference serves no purpose whatsoever other than to explain the politics of Umar Lee who is “presently a candidate for mayor of St. Louis.”

The bottom line: St. Louis Noir is another worthy addition to what is perhaps already the best series of short story collections to be published in decades.


(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Am I Being Oversensitive Here?

Maybe it’s just me.  I’ve been working this afternoon on a review of St. Louis Noir, another collection of crime-related short stories from Akashic Books.  While looking at the notes that I made while reading the book, two of them jumped out at me  – and I feel compelled to mention them in the review.  Both concern references made to Michael Brown, the Ferguson teen who was shot dead after attacking and beating one of that Missouri city’s cops.  

The first is in the opening stanza of one of the four poems included in St. Louis Noir and mentions “the cold cop who killed Michael Brown.”  That one is probably not all that terrible, I suppose, even if it does nothing to place that “killing” into context.  At least it didn’t call the shooting a “murder.”

The second comes from one of those brief little author bios that usually come at the end of books with multiple authors. In Umar Lee’s bio (which I’m willing to bet is self-written) he casually mentions discussing on television “the murder of Michael Brown.”  And I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that he is currently “a candidate for mayor of St. Louis.”  I’m sorry, but the policeman in question was not indicted for any crime at all, much less the crime of murder, making me believe that this may be the most wrongheaded author blip I have ever read.

Is it just me?  Or should this have been killed by an editor?  

Browser the Library Cat Keeps His Job After All

Good news for Browser, the library cat that was on the verge of becoming homeless back on June 14 because a petty library employee (upset because she could not bring her puppy to work) decided he had to go.  The White Settlement, Texas, city council has come to its senses in time to save Browser’s home.

According to The Two-Way (breaking news from NPR), Browser’s job was saved by “an avalanche of complaints.”  

Browser’s supporters began a petition drive, and of course the Internet got involved, and more than 1,000 messages from around the world later, the council voted again unanimously to keep Browser.
He’ll probably issue a statement of thanks to his supporters at some point but at the moment, his Facebook page isn’t available.

Rare as it is, it is especially nice when politicians come to their senses before it’s too late to rectify an obviously stupid collective decision like this one. 

Congrats, Browser, now you can go back to sleep.

Here’s the original post announcing Browser’s plight.

A Hologram for the King

America’s recent Great Recession, from which the economy’s “recovery” is still largely a matter of debate as seen through the eye of the individual beholder, hit the ranks of middle management particularly hard.  Suddenly men and women of a certain age (generally those over 50) found themselves jobless and with little prospect of ever replacing their lost jobs with anything that paid anywhere near the wages they were accustomed to earning.  Homes were lost, marriages ended, and dreams were forever shattered.  Alan Clay, the main character of Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King, is one of those people.
The story begins this way: “Alan Clay woke up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  It was May 30, 2010.  He had spent two days on planes to get there.”
Alan is in Jeddah to sell King Abdullah a holographic teleconference system that could prove to be instrumental in winning for his company the entire IT contract for the King’s new economic city (which at the moment exists primarily on the drawing board and in the minds of the king and his advisers).  But the 54-year-old Clay, formerly a key management player in the Schwinn bicycle company when bicycles were still manufactured in the U.S., really knows and understands very little about the software he is there to peddle to the king.  He is in the kingdom to introduce the presentation largely because of his previous connections to a distant cousin of the king’s.  The king, however, is not a man to be rushed, and for now Alan and his team of four software experts spend their days in a large tent waiting on the man to show up for the software demonstration they hope will win them his business.  And they play solitaire, and they sleep, and they wonder if the meeting will ever happen.
Dave Eggers
Alan, though, is not content to play the waiting game.  He has befriended his personal driver, a young man partially educated in Alabama, and the two of them explore aspects of Saudi Arabian society that most Westerners are never allowed to glimpse, much less immerse themselves in to the degree that Alan manages to do it.  But Alan wonders what happened to him – how did he end up in Saudi Arabia with his future hopes so closely linked to a product he knows so little about?  What happens to him if the king is unimpressed?  What happens if the king never shows up?  How did it come to this?

Entertaining as it is, A Hologram for the King manages to take a long hard look at the Great Recession through the eyes of one of its typical victims, a man who is unlikely ever to recover all that the recession snatched from him.  Perhaps the best that men like Alan can hope for is to recover their personal dignity and self-worth – but that is not an easy thing for an American to do in a place like Saudi Arabia.