Friday, October 21, 2011

Murder in the Keweenaw by Harley L. Sachs

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Format: Kindle Edition
• File Size: 265 KB
• Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
• Price: $4.99
• ASIN: B003Z4K530

This Kindle reading is still pretty new to me, but when I browsed for e-books recently, I was intrigued to find one that took place in my favorite northern haunt and one-time residence—the Keweenaw Peninsula, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For a few bucks, it was mine.

The story of Murder in Keweenaw opens with a view into the life of a semi-retired CIA agent, written as a first person narrative, having a midlife crisis and retreating to a camp in the Keweenaw to regain his bearings. Eino, or E. J. Carlson, fits the Keweenaw demographic well. He comes of a Finnish heritage, although was born locally, in the small town of Lake Linden, on the Keweenaw Bay.

E. J. is recently divorced; his ex-wife Sonja has returned to her native Finland and taken their son, Jan Erik, with her. E. J. is brooding over the loss of his family and now lives in this small camp (what U.P. residents, or Yoopers, call cabins and cottages) in Jacobsville, spending quiet days coping with nightmares, the aftermath of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of his work as an agent, and fishing. His boat is a 22-foot sloop named SISU, Finnish for courage and an expression of Finnish pride.

While on one of his fishing trips, E. J. snags not a big fish—but a corpse. He fishes out of Lake Superior what turns out to be the dead body of a girl with a bullet hole in her back. He calls in the Coast Guard for help, reports to the local police, but can’t resist the pull of his own curiosity and tries to find out the girl’s identity and the reason for her death.

What follows is some fun background description of the area. At least for me, as a former resident and now frequent traveler in the area, I recognized most all the places and establishments named, including Lindell’s ice cream parlor in Lake Linden, where I once was hired for my first waitressing job and, happily, was fired two days later because I couldn’t stomach the boss’s directive to just dunk the dishes in a greasy sinkful of water rather than actually wash them. I just couldn’t seem to do it. But I transgress …

One thing leads to another, one clue to the next, and E. J. notes what he calls a “McMansion” that has been built near the Keweenaw Bay as an oddity. Yoopers don’t build mansions. One of the draws of the area is its return to a simpler life, a respect for wilderness. The McMansion exudes wealth, and in the U.P., wealth sticks out like a sore thumb. On closer inspection, and in line with a meeting on the water with the sexy inhabitant of a yacht, Roxy, E. J. discovers a porn business flourishing inside. Pretending to be a local offering his help, which in fact he is, E. J. ends up with an invitation to a party, where he observes porn videos being shot, and two Moldavian girls looking lost and afraid—they turn out to be a part of the sex slave trade now so epidemic in the United States.

“If these two women were illegal imports for the sex trade, no wonder they were nervous … I know now that the international sex trade traffics in thousands of women, twenty thousand to the United States alone, and even more to countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Girls looking for work respond to newspaper ads for waitresses and housekeepers, jobs in foreign countries that turn out to be brothels. The destitute are exploited in this gruesome slavery and in countries like Indonesia desperate families even sell their children to brothels that cater to pedophiles.”

E. J. pretends interest in the goings-on of the mansion on the bay in order to solve the mystery of the dead girl. When the rich men who run the operation offer him a free taste of more than just what’s on the barbeque grill, asking him if he is familiar with Hugh Hefner parties, he responds:

“'I saw it once on television,’ I said. I didn’t add that it was a lot of old men in their sixties and seventies surrounded by pneumatic groupies young enough to be their daughters or even granddaughters. The television broadcast was ostensibly a biography of Hugh Hefner, but the absence of women his own age made the scene ludicrous. It was the fantasy of adolescents who never grow up and think they are god’s gift to women. Did the men think they were attractive to those girls? The girls were all playmates or wannabes who would do anything to be the next magazine centerfold. Did they have any talent, I wondered? Or were they simply exposing themselves for profit? … the girls with their t*ts on page three had eyes reminding me of sheep. Dumb.”

And then, E. J., while solving the mystery, accepts the favors of Roxy with her implants. Perhaps more than one sheep in this pasture.

So the author and his character delve into the dark recesses of a dark industry—of girls and women coerced into work that can kill their spirit, their self-esteem, and perhaps even take their lives. The topic is timely and deserving of coverage. The book is reasonably well written and reads quickly, if with the occasional annoyance of the name “Erik” being inserted into “AmErika” and wherever else it might fit. I don’t know what the author’s idea is by doing that—a secret nod to someone named Erik?—but for my editor’s eye, it was each and every time a jarring distraction from the storyline.

The author, Harley Sachs, is a former resident of Houghton, at the base of the Keweenaw. He is the author of many books, most of which are mysteries, and most if not all of which appear to be self-published. He is also the creator of a board game named Police State.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Force of Blood: A Woods Cop Mystery by Joseph Heywood

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 384 pages
• Publisher: Lyons Press (September 1, 2011)
• Price: $24.95
• ISBN-10: 0762772840
• ISBN-13: 978-0762772841

Couple days prior to writing this review, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing on air the author, Joe Heywood, at Kalamazoo, Michigan’s WMUK radio station, the local NPR affiliate. Am I now too star-struck to write an unbiased review? Nah. I’m convinced the author is fully as tough (and as entertaining, and with the same spicy sense of humor) as his main character, DNR detective Grady Service, the woods cop of Heywood’s now eight-book mystery series. He can take it.

Z and author Joseph Heywood at WMUK studios
My bias is of a different kind. I was born with a compass embedded inside me, I’m sure of it by now. It always points north and that’s increasingly the only direction I seem to comfortably travel. Heywood’s series is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the woods cops in the books solve their mysteries in the thick woods and breathtakingly beautiful wilderness of the U.P. That’s why I picked up the first in the series, Ice Hunter (2001), in the first place. I don’t read mysteries. I do read all things U.P.

That bias could have worked against Heywood, actually. I expect the author of stories set in my beloved U.P. to do them right. Describe those surroundings accurately, capture the life sense of the “Yooper” truthfully, bring vividly alive that unique northern territory I have known since childhood. He did.

And in the newest of the series, Force of Blood, he has—again. The story opens in the Mackinac area, that point between Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas, in 2007. It’s a time when the economy is running thin, and funding for state jobs such as those of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is no exception. As jobs are cut, those dedicated to their work sometimes find themselves working without pay—and so Grady Service takes on a favor for a friend, checking out the unethical handling of Native American artifacts on the shores of Lake Superior.

From there, the story takes off at top speed. As he does throughout the series, Heywood keeps the reader turning pages (or clicking forward furiously on their Kindles) as fast as possible, no turning back. It’s the kind of book you read standing in line, waiting in the waiting room (irritated when it’s finally your turn), on your lunch break, propped against your plate.

Grady Service is a sharp, by now slightly aging, cop who loves walking his woodsy beat, no matter how high he rises in the ranks. He’s tough but fair, a man of integrity. His ongoing relationship with his arch enemy, Limpy Allerdyce, Yooper savvy criminal and delightfully colorful character, is a treat. Once again, Limpy helps him solve the mystery, along with a long list of other memorable characters. As usual, their names are hilarious (Heywood told me he gets many of these gems out of U.P. telephone books): Jane Rain, Belphoebe Cheke, Tuesday Friday, Lacey Lucey, Delmure Arcton Toliver, Flin Yardley, Odetta Trevillyan, Karylanne Pengelly, Ladania Wingel, Luticious Treebone, Persia Hunger, Crispin Franti, Marldeane Youvonne Brannigan, Godfroi Delongshamp, Summer Rose Genova, Honeypat, Zhenya Leukonovich, Ozzien Shotwiff, a cat called Cat, and on it goes.

Yet for all the laughs—oddball names, witty Grady Service lines, hilarious scenarios (a woods cop partner who paints her own WHAT?)—the topics can also get serious. The title, Force of Blood, alludes to the call in our blood to be who we really are. Call it genetics, call it cultural upbringing, call it being in touch with our innermost selves, but no matter what you do to a person to bury their personal reality, it will still win out in the end. In this case, the force of blood refers to Native Americans, who have historically been repressed and mistreated by the white man, sometimes forced to abandon their own language and traditions, yet will always bounce back in accordance to their truth. This particular story is about how to protect and handle the artifacts of an ancient culture.

Also of note in the storyline is how the DNR handles a 20,000-acre-wide sudden forest fire. It’s fascinating to read how such an emergency is handled, how quickly fire spreads, how people respond each in their own way.

My only gripe about the entire series is the usual love interest Service entertains. There’s always one—or several. This is where the well-researched reality of the woods cop adventures takes a detour, as these women tend to be, well, what one unfortunately expects from too many mystery/detective series—the stereotypical hot female with only one thing on her mind. Indeed, it almost seems that Grady Service has only one conversation with any of his women, even though they are said to be educated and smart and could surely enjoy relationships of broader scope. Each one seems identical to the others. At least Service’s relationship with his granddaughter has greater range.

Watch for other fun moments in this book, such as a surprise appearance of the author himself crossing paths with Grady Service. Drool-worthy pages appear again when Service enters the kitchen. He’s quite the cook. But it’s Service’s honing in on his target that will keep us coming back for more, and more, and more. If there are hints in this book that the woods cop is thinking about retirement, we hope it’s not too soon. Not for at least several more books …

Joseph Heywood is a resident of Portage, Michigan, but regularly spends many months of the year in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, riding along with woods cops as research for his books. He also writes poetry and nonfiction, and paints.

A short story by Joseph Heywood will appear in the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 Issue of The Smoking Poet.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Until I Smile at You: A Family Story of Love, Tragedy and the Depths of Human Forbearance by Roseann Lombardi

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
·         Paperback: 348 pages
·         Publisher: Two Harbors Press, 2010
·         Price: $16.95
·         ISBN-10: 1935097164
·         ISBN-13: 978-1935097167
With a title taken from Frank Sinatra’s song, “Until I Smile at You,” the daughter of Anna Lauro and Tony Lombardi, Roseann Lombardi, has written the story of her parents, set in Long Island, New York, in the 1940s. It unfolds as the young couple, Anna and Tony, are on their way to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to gain answers to Anna’s ever-increasing health problems.
 Anna and Tony meet just prior to World War II. Both are Italian-Americans, although Anna’s family is presented as distant at best, cruel and uncaring at worst. Tony’s family is presented as quite the opposite—warm, gregarious, loving. This is the family that raised the author.
It begins as a passionate love story. When Tony spots Anna on the beach, he is struck by one of those fairy tale moments of “love at first sight.” Anna works as a model at Lord & Taylor, a dark beauty, and it doesn’t take long for Tony to win her over with his flirtatious, funny, charming manner. He can hardly think of anything else but his beautiful Anna, and as he is drafted into the war, Anna is heartbroken to lose her new love to the military. When he comes back home on leave a short while later, the two decide to elope.
Granted, these are the 1940s. Women were treated much different back then, or at least, the chauvinism was much more blatant than it is in today’s more subtle objectification. Not knowing any different, most women acquiesced to being treated as secondary citizens, if that, and more commonly as their husbands’ property, under his rule. As Anna Lauro’s health begins to show ominous symptoms that eventually lead to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), her health, her body, her future, her life is increasingly taken up by others and out of her own hands.
It is infuriating to read the exchange between the doctor at Mayo Clinic and Tony. It is the husband who is called in and told the diagnosis, not the patient herself. No one bothers to discuss her condition with her. It is the husband who makes the determination that she not be told for as long as he can pull off this cruel ruse. From this moment onward, it seems that Anna increasingly loses control over herself, her own health and her own future. What control she does have is stolen away by MS.
Bringing her back to the family, eagerly awaiting the diagnosis, Tony whitewashes everything.
“All the tests were inconclusive and it’ll be just a matter of time before she’s feeling like her old self again. Isn’t that right, Hon?” Tony smiled at her. (Page 196)
And Anna smiled back, even as her body was falling apart, her mind gradually unraveling. There’s an uncomfortable edge of abuse here, with the codependent woman (as most all women were in that time period) being submissive, never losing her smile or her positive attitude, never allowing her man to look bad, painfully faithful to the end.
“In a whisper, Rose [Tony’s mother] asked, ‘Does Anna know?’
“’No!’ he angrily answered. ‘And that’s the way it stays!’
“’But … but, Tony,’ she hesitated. ‘Is that fair to her?’
“’Probably not, maybe not, but that’s the way it’s going to be for now.’” (Page 199)
At last, unable to avoid the knowledge of her worsening condition, Anna does demand answers, declaring that it is better to know so that she can understand what is happening to her. While rationalizing that he is protecting her, Tony is, in reality, only protecting himself and avoiding his own discomfort.
The author presents this story of the young couple, her parents, with glowing fairy tale perfection. Right down to the blissful, simultaneously satisfying consummation of the wedding night, these two can do no wrong.
For perhaps the first two-thirds of the story, the sweetness of the story can be overly saccharin. The good guys are so very good; the bad guys are so very bad, and love is pure and true. The story between the lines, however, is that the romantic charmer can have a shadowy underside. Doing everything for the lady can later translate into an overly controlling husband. The man, who so dearly loves his wife for her physical beauty, may not love her enough when she falls ill. And the danger in writing a memoir so black and white, so pretty, is that the author fails to earn the reader’s trust.
What keeps the reader going through all that sugar is the storyline of the medical diagnosis, wanting to know what happens to Anna as she physically deteriorates and how she will (or won’t) come through.
At long last, in its final pages, the story takes on more range, more color, more moments of truth. As her body fails her and Anna ends up in a wheelchair, Tony begins to step out on his wife. He spends more and more hours at a bar, where he meets another woman and again falls irresistibly in love. He makes excuses for keeping long hours, rarely comes home when he promises, and increasingly forgets not only his wife, but also their daughter, Roseann.
Being the caregiver of an invalid partner is no doubt grueling and takes an immense toll on a person. Anna appears to forgive, even play dumb, as Tony divorces her to marry his mistress. Her care is initially taken over by other family members, but they, too, find it too much for them, and she is institutionalized. The betrayal isn’t Tony’s alone. Almost no one from the family visits Anna at the institution, where abuse escalates (the epilogue of the book explains that this institution is cited for its conditions and eventually closed).
The book draws to a climactic close as Tony visits Anna again, and the two families come head to head. If there’s a message in this story, it is to consider carefully our commitments—illness can happen to any of us, and no one deserves what happens to Anna Lauro. As cruel as some of the human behavior is in this story, the cruelest of all is the disease.
This has the potential to be a powerful and important story with several important life lessons, but the author, no doubt through her understandable desire to create in it a lasting and loving tribute to her mother, has not been able to gain the distance from the story needed to give it full rein of the complexities in human character.  One wishes a more objective editor might have helped her achieve more distance.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories by Melinda Moustakis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·         Hardcover: 144 pages
·         Publisher: University of Georgia Press (September 15, 2011)
·         Price: $24.95
·         ISBN-10: 0820338931
·         ISBN-13: 978-0820338934

It’s been many years, too many, since I set foot in Alaska, but opening the pages of Melinda Moustakis’ debut collection of character-linked Alaskan stories brought me back instantly into that stunningly wild and beautiful landscape. Bear Down, Bear North is a series of vignettes about life in Alaska, some as short as a few sentences, written in resonant and poetic language. Poetic, yet not flowery. This is the poetry of northern wilderness, sparse, even cruel in its precision, yet breathtaking.
Consider the opening lines of the vignette titled “Trigger”:
“You were conceived on a hunting stand, they say.
“Which means: We had no other place.
“The homestead is full of my mother’s siblings. On the stove, a pot of potato chow big enough to feed twenty. See my mother, back roughed against the wooden platform in the trees. See my father, finger on the trigger—in case.
“You have to gut a moose right away, they say, or the meat rots in its skin.
“Which means: We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.”
And so, before you’ve even properly stepped over the threshold to enter this world Moustakis has word-painted, you are already catching your breath, spanning the horizon, perhaps looking for an exit in case of sudden danger, but more likely, a shadowy corner so you can stay as long as possible, surveying the scene of these hardened and colorful characters. Your eye lands on one wonder after another, and from these, you draw your story.
Moustakis writes in second person. She addresses you, wrapping you inside her main character so that lines blur, so that the effect of the surroundings is that much more immediate. Not many can pull that off. Second person is a literary least favorite stance, left for the highly skilled, and Moustakis is that.
With each vignette, both place and person is brought to harsh life. You begin as a little girl, but already schooled in survival. We’re not talking pigtails. This is a family, three generations, of Alaskan homesteaders, of fishermen and fisherwomen, trappers and hunters. Your mother smokes a Big-Z cigar to keep the mosquitoes away while fishing. Your brother stabs himself in the chest after too many swigs on the vodka bottle. Your daughter has perfect aim. Even the fish in these vignettes speak to you, so alive, so red, so struggling against the elements.
“The days are long and thin. The salmon keep to the shallows near rotting trees. With reaching fingers, the Kenai tugs at their tails, drawing them to the channel. The salmon wrestle the water, tap their last beats of blood and when the river wins, they drift and fodder downstream. Their bodies are carried, broken, and fed to the currents.”
Which, above, is an entire vignette, titled “Run.” The beauty of these short pieces is beyond argument; the danger, which may indeed add to the beauty, is that Moustakis has dared to write by using words and lines and language in almost equal leverage to the space between. The space between leaves room for the reader to consider the story, and there are times that this technique can leave one feeling a bit stranded, disconnected, carried away by the current. At times, I lost my thread, wondering even if I was reading about animal or human—who was this? In what role? Yet that same current would pull me irresistibly forward, and I very nearly didn’t care if I knew or not. Just wanted more.
It is such literary artistry that will put Moustakis quickly on the literary map, outline her name in stars, bullet it as a name to be watched closely. It may also keep her from bestselling tables for the mainstream reader who seeks a more traditional storyline. I would hope that particular seduction will fall flat for the author. She is a trailblazer, a unique voice, a literary leader. I suspect she writes as she writes because all else, anything less daring, would be impossible to her.
For those who hold fine literature in high esteem, Melinda Moustakis is indeed a name to watch. She’s not just going places. She is already there.
Bear Down, Bear North won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Moustakis was also recently named in the “5 Under 35” authors of 2011 by the National Book Foundation. She is a visiting assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

~for The Smoking Poet

Visit Melinda Moustakis blog to learn more.