Escape Clause by John Sandford


"In the haylofts of life, there are always a few wasps."

After taking a break from the character to pen sci-fi thriller Saturn Run, John Sandford returns to his Virgil Flowers series with Escape Clause. Virgil Flowers is the eccentric lead investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Over the years his investigative prowess has garnered him as much recognition has his unconventional methods and personality.

The ninth novel in the series opens with Flowers, unsurprisingly, skinny dipping with the likes of his girlfriend, her sister, and a priest. The group's reprieve from the summer heat is soon interrupted by the ring of Flower's cell phone. Two endangered tigers have disappeared from the Minnesota Zoo and the BCA wants Flowers to intervene. While he is hesitant, especially given the fact that he recently searched for a pack of missing dogs, Virgil is assured by his boss that successful retrieval of the missing felines will ensure he never takes on an animal related case again.

As Virgil delves into the underworld of trading illegally procured animals, trouble on the home front begins to brew. His now serious girlfriend Frankie and her sister Sparkle have found themselves caught up with a rough crowd. Sparkle has been investigating a local factory's mistreatment of migrant workers. The people who run it are less than enthused. Because of the familial relationship, Virgil is prohibited from taking part in any formal investigations. That does little to keep the action from finding him.

Virgil Flowers is easily one of my favorite characters in modern mystery fiction. John Sandford's bare prose and quick pacing are the perfect fit for Flower's matter-of-fact personality. I always marvel at the way Sandford manages to keep the suspense wound and the pages turning even when we know exactly who is involved with a crime. The thread about the missing tigers had many twists and turns. So much so, that the subplot about Sparkle ended up feeling like an underdeveloped distraction. This did little to take away from my enjoyment of the novel, but I don't feel like it added much to the story. While you don't have to read the previous novels to understand this one, I highly encourage it. For one, they are great books! More so, it is fun to see the way Virgil Flowers has evolved over the series. I devoured this installment in a couple of sittings, and can't wait to read what happens next.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 2)

4 Historical Novels and the Research that Informed Them


My name is Andrew Joyce and I write books for a living. I would like to thank Ethan for allowing me to be here today to promote my latest, Yellow Hair, which documents the injustices done to the Sioux Nation from their first treaty with the United States in 1805 through the Wounded Knee in 1890. Every death, murder, battle, and outrage I write about actually took place. The historical figures that play a role in my fact-based tale of fiction were real people and I use their real names. Yellow Hair is an epic tale of adventure, family, love, and hate that spans most of the 19th century.

Through no fault of his own, a young man is thrust into a new culture just at the time that culture is undergoing massive changes. It is losing its identity, its lands, and its dignity. He not only adapts, he perseveres and, over time, becomes a leader---and on occasion, the hand of vengeance against those who would destroy his adopted people. 

Now that the commercial is out of the way, we can get down to what I really came here to talk about: the research that goes into writing a historical novel or an action/adventure novel that uses a historical event as a backdrop.

I want to say that I learned the hard way how important proper research is. But it wasn't really that hard of a lesson. In my first book, which takes place in the last half of the 19th century, I made two mistakes. I had the date of an event off by one year and I had my hero loading the wrong caliber cartridge into his Winchester rifle. I would have gone blissfully throughout life no knowing how I had erred if not for my astute fans. Both mistakes were quickly pointed out to me in reviews of the book. One guy said he would have given me five stars if not for the wrong caliber bullet mistake. I had to settle for only four stars. Lesson learned!

Before I get into telling your about the year-long research I did for Yellow Hair, I'd like to tell you how I researched my second and third books and describe what that research entailed.

My second book was a western and the protagonist was a woman. The research took about three months. I had to know everything from women's undergarments of the late 19th century to prison conditions for women in those days. (I sent my heroine to jail.) That kind of research was easy. Thank God for the internet! But then I had to do some real research. Molly (my protagonist) built up her cattle ranch to one of the largest in Montana, but she and her neighbors had nowhere to sell their beef. So Molly decided to drive her and her neighbors' cattle to Abilene where she could get a good price. She put together the second largest herd on record (12,000 head) and took off for Abilene.

That's when I had to really go to work. I wanted my readers to taste the dust on the trail. I wanted them to feel the cold water at river crossing. I wanted them to know about the dangers of the trail, from rustlers to Indians to cattle stampedes.

This is how I learned about all those things and more. First of all, I found old movies that were authentic in nature. I watched them to get a feel for the trail. Then I read books by great authors who had written about cattle drives to soak up even more of the atmosphere of a cattle drive. That was all well and good, but it still did not put me in the long days of breathing dust and being always fearful of a stampede.

That's when I went looking for diaries written by real cowboys while they were on the trail. After that, I found obscure self-published books written by those cowboys. Then it was onto newspaper articles written at the time about large cattle drive. That's how I had Molly herd the second largest cattle drive. For the record, I discovered the larges was 15,000 head, driven from Texas to California in 1882.

My next book took place in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. Here new elements were added such as wolves and the extreme weather as adversaries. Dogsledding was also involved. I have seen snow only three times in my life and I have never dogsledded. I knew even less about wolves. I had to learn about those things. I had no idea what it was like to travel across a wilderness on a dogsled at seventy degrees below zero. I also had to acquire knowledge about the dogs themselves, especially the lead dog. I learned about all that by doing the same things I did for my second book. The old diaries were the most helpful. As to the gold rush, there was plenty of material in the form of self-published books by some of the participants. Some were never even published, but I found copies of the manuscripts in the archives of universities and historical societies. Again, newspaper stories printed at the time were very useful. Concerning wolves . . . I read everything I could get my hands on about wolves---their habits, the pack hierarchy, the alpha male, and the different jobs of tastes the males and females have while hunting.

Now we come to Yellow Hair. As I mentioned above, the book is about the Sioux Nation from 1805-1890. I had to know both sides to the story, the white man's and the Sioux's. Getting to know the whites' take on things was easy. There are many, many books (non-fiction) that were written at the time. I even found a book written by Custer detailing his strategy for wiping out the Sioux entirely. That was a hard reading! And again, there were universities and historical societies whose archives were a great help.

As to the Sioux's point of vies, there are a few books that were dictated to newspapermen years later by the Indians that took part in various battles that I weave into my story. I found a lot of material from Native American participants of the Little Big Horn, written twenty to thirty years after the fact.

But I wanted to immerse myself in the Sioux culture and I wanted to give them dignity by using their language wherever possible. I also wanted to introduce them by their Sioux names. So, I had to learn the Lakota language. And that wasn't easy! There is a consortium that will teach you, but wanted only serious students. You have to know a smattering of the language before they will even deign to let you in. I had to take a test to prove that I knew some Lakota. I failed the first time and had to go back to my Lakota dictionary and do some more studying. I got in on my second try.

I'm running out of space, so I reckon I'll wrap it up. I hope I've given you a little insight into the research process. It's time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. But it is also a blast! Every new discovery is like finding the motherlode.

I'd like to sign off with another commercial. The three books I alluded to above are:

I would like to thank Ethan once again for having me over and you good folks for tuning in. 

The Girls by Emma Cline


"Break down the self, offer yourself up like dust to the universe."

Evie Boyd's life is in a kind of crisis. A teenager towards the end of the 1960's, she has few friends and her parents have gotten a divorce. While her dad chases younger women, her mother falls for loser after loser. Evie finds herself a stranger in her own home.

All of that changes when she sees a mysterious group of girls at the park. She is drawn to the carefree and unconventional way the girls dress and carry themselves. To Evie, the girls represent everything that is missing from her life. She quickly becomes enthralled by the older girl of the group, Suzzane, who accepts her as part of their gang.

Evie's obsession is only amplified by her parent's disapproval of her new friends. When she finally goes to the group's ranch and meets their enigmatic leader Russell, Evie makes up her mind. These are the only people who understand her. She belongs at the ranch. Intoxicated by her life at the ranch, Evie may be too blind to see the dark undercurrent to Russell and his followers. Blinded by the youthful bliss of acceptance, Evie finds herself under the influence of a cult about to exact unimaginable violence.

The Girls is a brilliant debut novel by author Emma Cline. Since Cline sold her manuscript for a reported 2 million dollars, the book has been the subject of persistent hype. Such buzz nearly takes away from the achievement of this work. I went into the novel expecting a salacious retelling of the Manson Family crimes, but The Girls is more of a quiet coming of age story that just happens to be framed around this point in history. Cline uses the notoriety of these cult driven crimes to create an ever present tension to the novel. The novel alternates between the story of young Evie succumbing to the influence of the group with that of an older Evie recollecting on her nearly tragic youth. While I feel that the practice of alternating narratives has become too overused in modern literature, Cline masterfully manages these changes. The Girls may have been overshadowed by the hype that surrounded it, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is a remarkable read and extremely promising debut.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 1)

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


"None are so blind as those who will not see."

Following her duties as one of Florence Nightingale's proteges during the Crimean War, Lib Wright finds herself stuck in the monotonous duties of being a civilian nurse. With the excitement and urgency of the war behind her, Lib longs to find some kind of purpose in her work. When an opportunity in Ireland presents itself, Lib jumps at the chance to do something different. Little does she know that the job will bring about the most personally and professionally challenging situations in her life.

Lib finds herself in the home of the O'Donnell family, a simple dwelling that hosts the mother, father, and daughter whose devotion to each other is only surpassed by their faithful adherence to their religion. Even after the untimely death of their only son, the family remains resolute in their adoration. This devotion reached a miraculous peak when their eleven-year-old daughter Anna started to abstain from all food. For months, young Anna has captured the imagination and curiosity of the faithful and scientific communities by surviving solely on "manna from heaven".

A committee of local medical professionals, businessmen, and clergymen have hired Lib and a subdued nun to keep watch of the girl. They will monitor Anna and her family to either verify to disprove her stunning claims. A strong believer in science and reason, Lib is determined to expose the O'Donnells and frauds. But how can Anna, a child who seems unwavering in her convictions, be the mastermind of such a complex deceit?

Fans of Emma Donoghue's Room may be a bit surprised by the restraint that permeates The Wonder. When I discussed this novel with my book club, most members found the pacing to be unbearably slow. The Wonder is not a fast read. Most of the novel centers around Lib keeping watch over Anna in the confines of the child's bedroom. Unlike Room, the novel is driven not by action, but by the developments and revelations of the characters. For her part, Donoghue allows the mystery of the situation to bubble beneath the surface of the entire book. Each character interaction inches closer to an ending that is both satisfying and astonishing in it's revelation. In The Wonder Donoghue weaves a quietly provocative tale of morality and spirituality that is clever as it is revealing.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 37)

Cujo by Stephen King


"The world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and unwary."

For several decades now, Stephen King has captured the imaginations of readers by feeding upon their fears. His 1981 novel, Cujo, begins with a scare that everyone can relate to. Tad Trenton is terrified by the monster that lives in his closet. The monster's nightly taunts have Tad in such a hysteria that only his father's recitation of special "monster words" can soothe him to sleep. His parent's, Vic and Donna are facing hardships of their own. The revelation of Donna's recent infidelity hits Vic at the same moment his ad agency is threatened with the loss of their biggest client. As if things couldn't be any worse, Donna's car is acting up and needs the mechanical expertise that the family does not have adequate time or money to address.

Enter the Chambers family. Joe works as a mechanic from his home garage while his wife Charity raises their son Brett. The family has troubles of their own. Although Joe has a garnered a strong reputation as a skilled mechanic who can fix problems without breaking the bank, his meager income causes constant arguments about money. Charity, who has just won the lottery, struggles with balancing her own desires for the money with the needs of her family.

Most crucial to this story is the Chambers' St. Bernard Cujo. Despite his size, Cujo is a lovable pup who loyally obeys his family and is friendly to all those who visit their home. When the Trenton family brings their malfunctioning car to Joe's garage, they see no trouble in letting Tad play with Cujo. Joe assures him that he will do no harm. Unlike the Chambers and Trenton family, we know the truth about Cujo. We helplessly read on as he chases a rabbit into a dark hole. We witness the rabid bat bite his nose. With the virus taking hold of both his mind and body, Cujo tries to hold on to every bit of the goodness that resides within him. As both families go about facing their troubles, we know the true terror that Cujo is about to release.

I've read quite a few Stephen King novels and have never been disappointed with them. As with the others, Cujo is a deep character study that uses horror to maintain momentum. Each of the characters is believably flawed and is allowed to develop at a natural pace through the course of the novel. By writing a remarkable inner dialogue, King somehow manages to make Cujo into the most engaging and conflicted character in the novel. The human characters are less likable than their animal costar, and this sometimes caused me to lose interest in parts of their narrative. A part of me couldn't help but feel like most of their misfortunes were self inflicted. While I don't think Cujo will be counted as one of my favorite King novels, it is hard not to marvel at the novel. It is a tightly paced and character driven novel that preys upon some of our most basic fears to maximum effect.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, or Goodreads.

(2016, 36)

Friday Flicks: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


From the moment I heard about J.K. Rowling writing a screenplay inspired by her anthology Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was both excited and nervous. Like many others, my childhood and love of reading were fostered by Rowling's incredible Harry Potter series. After the huge commercial and critical success of the 8 Harry Potter films, a spin off of some kind seemed inevitable. Thankfully, Warner Bros. brought most of the filmmakers responsible for those films back to bring Rowling's new story to life. Still, without the success of preexisting source material, Fantastic Beasts was anything but a safe bet.

The film opens with British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving into 1920's New York City. Armed with a suitcase full of illicit magical creatures, all cleverly hidden from the eyes of Muggles (No-Maj's non magical people are called in America), Newt plans to make his way to Arizona to release one of his beasts. As he walks the streets of New York, he is drawn to a large gathering in front of a bank where a woman from the New Salem Philanthropic Society speaks of the evils of wizards and the need for a re institution of witch hunts.

A bump in with No-Maj man leads to an unintentional switch in suitcases and the eventual escape of many of Newt's animals. With magical creatures running freely through the heavily populated New York, Newt must turn to the assistance of a group of American Wizards and a No-Maj to capture the beasts. Failure to return the creatures to the safety of his suitcase would place Scamander in serious trouble and threaten to expose the entire magical community to a world that is growing less and less tolerant of their existence.

I'll admit to having mixed emotions going into this film. On the one hand, I had faith that Rowling would provide a story that would be a worthy successor to her acclaimed Potter series. At the same time, the announcement of Fantastic Beasts being the start of a five film series had me worried that this franchise would be nothing more than a cash grab. As the movie opened, I feared that my predictions would come true. The mistaken suitcase switch seemed like a rather cliche device that was not worthy of the Potter universe.

Those fears were quickly assuaged as Scamander stepped into the vast expanses of his creature carrying case. The film ends up feeling very different from the Potter story, but equally as magical and engaging. Newt Scamander is a misunderstood outcast who sees good in creatures that most would ignore or run from. Each cast member brilliantly brings their characters to life with skill and great care. For her part, Rowling presents a story that is much more complex and layered than I initially perceived. Fantastic Beasts spins an extraordinary fable of acceptance of differences and the role of politics in the fight for those who may be seen as "other". The end of the film provides a satisfying closure to Scamander's story while opening the possibilities to expand the story into what is sure to be a unique franchise. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is easily the most original and exciting blockbuster of the year, and I can't wait to see where Rowling and company will take this story next!

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