There are about 200,000 books published each year in the United States alone. To pare that down a bit, Mountain Times is spotlighting eight titles — fiction, middle grade readers and nonfiction — that are worthy of attention and are now available in March.
‘Rawlins: Last Ride to Montana’ by Rick DeStefanis, The Word Hunter Books, $23.95
The Memphis, Tenn.-native Rick DeStefanis, a former paratrooper with the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, is a master of military fiction who has lived most of his life in northern Mississippi — all information that gives no indication of just how well his Western historical fictional ‘Rawlins’ trilogy is written and received.
DeStefanis introduces the young Tennessean Virgil Rawlins against the backdrop of the Civil War and the American West in “Rawlins, No Longer Young.” Through that introduction, we learn of Rawlins’ own code of honor, of meeting Sarah McCaskey and most importantly, of his unique ability to question his own touchstones. It is in this novel that Rawlins learns that defining his future begins with the decision between being an outlaw or a lawman, with shades of gray and blue both tinting the choice.
In “Rawlins, Into Montana: Even Paradise has its price,” the former Confederate soldier and Sarah agree to lead a wagon train of 20 families along the Oregon Trail and into the Montana Territory. While many of the adventurers are on a quest for gold, Rawlins and his wife are setting out for Paradise Valley, aptly named for its natural beauty but antithesis to the dangers that threaten their peace, family and land.
The segue from that novel fits perfectly into “Rawlins, Last Ride to Montana.” Hoping for a reconciliation with Sarah’s family in the East, the Rawlins set out from Paradise Valley with their children. By this time, Virgil’s fighting skills, gained on the battlefield and during his time as a Pacific Railroad policeman, have become legendary. But during the few times when legend is not enough to deter attackers, we learn of Sarah’s strength: “Rawlins felt Sarah’s presence when she stepped up close behind him in the doorway and pressed a revolver into the hand behind his back. That was his Sarah. She was that kind of woman. She saw things through the same prism as he did — one of frontier survival.”
Developing dual storylines in this final novel of the three — Virgil and Sarah separate for much of the story, he driving cattle and she attempting familial fence-mending — DeStefanis presents enough realistic adventures and scene building to ensure this novel has room on your bookshelf next to Louis L’Amour. And although “Last Ride to Montana” is a continuation novel with enough exposition to leave you satisfied, if you’ve got the space, add the first two books as well.
‘All the Cowboys Ain’t Gone’ by John J. Jacobson, Blackstone Publishing, $27.99
Continuing along the Old West trail for a moment, new this month is John J. Jacobson’s “All the Cowboys Ain’t Gone,” a late-1880s story with a 2021 motif.
Jacobson’s novel is the most quixotic cowboy story you’re likely to ever read. And just like that storied tale, this one is funny, adventurous and most of all, timely.
“All the Cowboys Ain’t Gone” is a man-out-of-time story. Texan Lincoln Smith is living at the turn of the 20th century, a time when the Old West is rapidly fading, much to the chagrin of the young man who fashions himself as the last true cowboy — even channeling a Johnny Cash who won’t be born for nearly 40 years as the story opens: “His mother wouldn’t let him take his .22 caliber rifle out by himself until he turned twelve, three long months from now.”
Old beyond his years, Lincoln longs to live a chivalric code from a time when men such as his Texas Ranger father righted wrongs with nobility. And true to those roots, when as a young man his heart is broken and he is expelled from Dartmouth for nearly blowing up the school — and after serving for a time in the only stint a “true” cowboy at that time could achieve: traveling in a second-tier Wild West show (“Bronco Buck Burke’s Wild West and Tranquility Show wasn’t a first-line outfit like Buffalo Bill’s,” the narrator explains) — he decides there is no recourse but to do what all romantically challenged men must do: join the foreign legion.
Weaned on dime novels, Lincoln’s grasp of what the foreign legion will be like rivals Cervantes’ creation, and from there the story becomes pure fun. Meeting up with a couple of American treasure seekers also planning to enlist, he travels toward exotic lands, meeting, fighting and mentoring with his anachronistic tendencies in tow. Armed with his father’s keepsake Winchester, he encounters Crocodile cults, desert hermits and enough adventure and derring-do for a lifetime — both his and ours.
Even given the story’s early 20th century setting, Jacobson has written a novel for now. Lincoln Smith is the hero today for all of those who, if not long for, certainly wax nostalgic about a time before the iPhone, the Internet and social media were ubiquitous.
‘The Committed,’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove Press, $27
There’s plenty of existential action — two words that aren’t often juxtaposed in books of any type — in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new novel, “The Committed.” But here we have it.
From page 1, as the man of two faces begins to describe a horrific journey fleeing to France, and page 2 with a perennial conundrum and Vonnegut-esque reply — “And it stuck us all then, the answer to humanity’s eternal question of Why? ... It was, and is, simply, why not?” — we get the early sense we’re in for cerebral ride.
And we’re right.
“The Committed” is a sequel to Nguyen’s 2016 action-filled existential Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer.” Set in the 1980s, the novels share a narrator — a half-Vietnamese, half-French Communist spy who calls himself “a man of two faces and two minds” — and a continuing story.
After the man with two minds went undercover in “The Sympathizer” as a refugee in America, he was captured and committed for re-education. Now, he arrives in Paris with his blood brother, Bon. Hooking up with the French Vietnamese woman who is declared as his “aunt,” the men set up a business dealing drugs to French intellectuals — allowing Nguyen room to bring in the ideas of revolutionaries such as Fanon, Marx and Sartre.
From there, the novel takes off, sometimes funny, sometimes brilliant and, admittedly, sometimes overwritten in scenes that work hard, as when the man with two minds becomes involved in gangster activity, uttering lines that can fall a bit flat: “You can’t torture me. … I’ve lived through a re-education camp.” Well, actually, anyone could be tortured, and the man of two faces lives on to produce a complicated story in which the reading pleasure is in unwinding the twists.
Still, this is Nguyen and themes of addiction, authoritarianism, colonialism and the like are woven masterfully into a story brimming with suspense, challenging the Sympathizer with tasks as divergent as reconciling his own inner turmoils, combatting a state-sanctioned colonial mindset and reuniting his two best friends whose world views are at polar opposites.
To date, four authors have twice won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction — Colson Whitehead joined Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike in that exclusive club in 2020 — but after reading “The Committed,” it’s clear that Nguyen could be a contender for a fifth addition. It would also be the first to win a Pulitzer for a novel and its sequel and, of course, the symmetry of Nguyen winning in 2016 and Whitehead in 2017, and Whitehead in 2020 and Nguyen in 2021 would be just about as existential as it gets.
‘Win’ by Harlan Coben, Grand Central Publishing, $29
A Coben standalone novel about Win — super rich, super handsome Windsor Horne Lockwood III, fixer friend to sports agent Myron Bolitar — has long been a fan fancy, and here it is, with the author’s 33rd novel starring the sidekick in a title story all his own.
His own it is. Win’s narrative penchant is speaking directly to the reader — a style you’ll either love or hate. Devotees of first-person stories will devour the book, and others … well, they’ll no doubt ride alone for one of Coben’s most tautly plotted thrillers to date.
Win is the uber-competent friend everyone wishes they had. He’s able to make problems disappear with the wave of his wallet or a flash of his phone, and if a date to a beach house via helicopter is on your bucket list, he’s the guy that’ll loan you all three.
But here, Coben’s “Win” is more complicated in several ways than in the author’s typical fare. For one, Win has his own moral compass, and is fit enough to force the needle to point toward his own True North. What makes him either a smartass or a badass, depending on your own view, is that he doesn’t really care what you think, and tells you just that. So, it’s not that those who’ll find him intolerable aren’t in on the gag, they just don’t like the brand of humor.
But in this novel, Win’s voice is perfect for a story that involves a rediscovered Vermeer that had been stolen from the Lockwood estate, an ancient suitcase of the narrator’s that’s discovered in the apartment of a dead subversive from the 1960s and a cousin who was one of 10 young women abducted and taken to the “hut of horrors” for just about every unimaginable horror a woman could be forced to endure.
Through money, no small amount of intelligence and a lot of muscle, Win sets out to unravel these riddles, driven by the ever-present need to keep the family name unsullied and his own sense of social justice just as clear.
Clear also is Win’s voice to the last page, when the facade breaks just a crack as we witness the one — the only — thing he cares for beyond himself: his “biological daughter.” Yet true to form, he closes the crack just as quickly, sending the reader off with vintage Win narrating the black and white of his worldview: “When my daughter turns and looks at me, all those grays suddenly vanish in the bright of her smile. For perhaps the first time in my life, I only see the white. Am I being hackneyed? Perhaps. But since when have I cared what you thought?” Badass, indeed.
Middle grade reader fiction
‘Houdini and Me’ by Dan Gutman, Holiday House, $16.99
Dan Gutman has authored more than 150 books, with about a dozen of those either nonfiction or written for adults. The rest he writes for children, tweens and teens, and based on the success of his “My Weird School” series, he gets the way kids think. And better, he get the ways kids learn.
There’s a lot to learn in his odd and inviting middle grade reader “Houdini and Me,” and the author pays considerable attention to details in his honest storytelling. As Gutman writes in an afterword, “everything in this book is true, except for the stuff I made up.”
Kids, and adults enlightened enough to pick up a middle grade title, will learn in this book a lot about the famed magician Harry Houdini (including his real name and how he performed some of his most iconic tricks), a lot about New York City during both the early 20th century and today (including incredibly accurate physical details — Gutman lives eight blocks from the house on 113th Street where Houdini lived; an inspiration for the story) and a lot about loyalty, friendship, bullying and facing your fears (the foundation of YA and really well-written adult novels).
You’ll also learn about some things that aren’t exactly or fully in the undeniably true camp, spirituality chief among them.
Gutman’s story is tied to a vintage cell phone and Houdini’s ability to communicate from the dead on it with 11-year-old Harry Mancini. The author does make clear in “Facts & Fictions” at the end of the book that his story has limits — “you cannot communicate with dead people by text message. Don’t bother trying” — but the prospect is intriguing. If Houdini could communicate from the afterworld, what would he want?
The answer to that is nothing less than to perform his best escape act ever — coming back from the dead by exchanging places with a young boy from the future. Harry Mancini is that boy, and although the storyline reads implausibly on the surface, the deal is that both would get something from a temporary exchange — young Harry a chance to experience the life of a worldwide celebrity and Houdini the chance to make good on his famous boast that could he cheat death, he would somehow find a way. The moral dilemmas presented make for engaging and thought-provoking reading.
‘Deadman’s Castle’ by Iain Lawrence, Margaret Ferguson Books, $17.99
Combine the name Igor and a title with the word castle and you’re likely to come up with something a la “Frankenstein.” But Iain Lawrence’s “Deadman’s Castle” is much creepier than that.
Six years before the story opens, Igor Watson’s father “saw someone do a terrible thing.” Since then, the family has been on the run, changing towns and homes through a witness protection program run by the Protectors whenever the Lizard Man — the boogeyman, so named because of a tattoo, who did the terrible thing — catches up with them. It could be days or years until the family has to move and the uncertainty is now wearing on 12-year-old “Igor,” his latest alias and one of so many that he can’t remember them all.
Approaching his teen years, Igor finally talks his father and mother into letting him attend school, something he hasn’t done since kindergarten. With his cover story intact, Igor begins to experience all that a public education has to offer — making friends, bullying, classes and homework included — but soon realizes that his parents’ web of rules (curtains closed, be home before dark, don’t travel further than a certain street and continually lie about his background) aren’t going to work if he wants to make friends on any real level. Worse, their new town is the only one of the dozens that he’s lived in that somehow feels like home, with an unaccustomed unfamiliarity about it, and he doesn’t want to have to move again.
The closer Igor gets to making serious friendships, the more his story starts to slip. And, the longer they stay in the town, the more he begins to doubt his father’s sanity. After all, only his father has ever seen the Lizard Man.
Lawrence develops this story with real suspense, real problems and the very real concerns of any pre-teen — especially one whose life is built on a series of lies that if unleashed could threaten his family’s safety. The “creepy” factor — Is there really a Lizard Man, and, if not, why would his father, a former college professor, make up not only that, but the story about the Protectors and force his family to move and start anew time and again with his mother complicit in the scam? — is well developed, and it is only through the power of friendship and honesty that the action is resolved.
“Deadman’s Castle” is not your typical YA fare — probably because Iain Lawrence is not a typical YA author, having himself lived in 11 different homes and attended nine different schools before high school — and middle readers will love it. Every young teen at some time questions parental authority and rules, and in “Deadman’s Castle,” Lawrence has tapped into an instinct for rebellion that will universally appeal.
‘Firekeeper’s Daughter’ by Angeline Boulley, Henry Holt and Co., $18.99
Angeline Boulley’s debut novel “Firekeeper’s Daughter” is one the most beautiful books, in substance and production, that you’ll find among YA readers — and it’s also one of the most important.
The Anishinaabe author began writing the novel a decade ago with the idea of creating an “indigenous Nancy Drew” character — crafting a story with people and settings that reflected her cultural upbringing. And, because storytelling is central to the Anishinaabe way, a novel springing from “an Ojibwa girl with a Native dad and non-Native mom” makes sense.
In “Firekeeper’s Daughter,” Boulley accomplishes this and more.
The story centers on 18-year-old Daunis Fountaine, a teenager who loves her life but wants more — she longs to be an official part of the Sault tribe. Originally planning on leaving home for college, Daunis changes her mind after her uncle dies from an overdose and her grandmother has a stroke.
She then decides to enroll at a school near her Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., home. Battling complex familial challenges — her Anishinaable father is deceased — she soon becomes involved in challenges outside of the family. When her best friend is murdered by a boyfriend who is addicted to meth, she begins to explore the pervasive drug overdoses infiltrating the Ojibwa reservation and uses her education in chemistry and native plants to go undercover for the FBI to help source the seller. As the story develops, Daunis becomes increasingly concerned that her investigation will expose more than a drug dealer — opening truths to old scars that could threaten to sunder the community she loves.
Tightly plotted with taut suspense and meaningful characters, there is little wonder that “Firekeeper’s Daughter” has been adapted by Netflix for TV and plucked for many YA book clubs. Exploring what it means to be an Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman), making stands on issues of citizenship, language and drug use within Native communities are important topics that are addressed with skill and sensitivity.
Some advice: Read the book before you see the story on television. Boulley’s storyline will be well-adapted to the small screen, but the crisp characters and the nuances and subtleness of her language and writing could only be fully appreciated in novel form.
‘Ms. Adventure: My wild explorations in science, lava, and life’ by Jess Phoenix, Timber Press, $24.95
The best nonfiction reads like fiction, and that’s certainly true of Jess Phoenix’s “Ms. Adventure: My wild explorations in science, lava, and life.” And when you lead a life as exciting as that of an extreme explorer, scientist, volcanologist and cofounder of the environmental scientific research organization Blueprint Earth, it’s certain that any book of those adventures would read like a thriller.
Yet here it’s all true, and Phoenix’s message that “exploration and science are our birthrights as humans” is soundly and thrillingly shared.
Like authors of the best fiction, Phoenix is a skilled writer and gifted storyteller with a startlingly ability to weave telling details into her narrative. It’s no wonder that she is so often tapped to speak at national forums — her life is her story, and the passion she feels for her profession and the climes she studies are captured with infectious enthusiasm on each page.
Geologists and explorers alike will thrill in some of the career highlights Phoenix shares — teasing ancient secrets from rock specimens, harrowing high-altitude treks into the Andes’ Nevada Salkantay, enduring a bout of appendicitis on Hawaii’s Mt. Kilauea and railing against a media establishment that sometimes works to sensationalize her sex above her profession (as when she is asked by a TV crew to fake a fall so that she could be “rescued” by a male team member) among those.
Other stories detail more inner journeys, such as her acceptance into the Explorers Club — the international professional society that works to advance field research and “reserve the instinct to explore” — but are no less stimulating. “Ms. Adventure” transcends stereotypes in important ways, and is sure to excite a new generation of adventurers.