The New Trail of Tears by Naomi Schaefer Riley

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The New Trail of Tears is an important and yet depressing book. It details the myriad problems besetting American Indians today. These include: a lack of economic opportunity, massive dysfunction and family breakdown and tribal and Washington leaders unwilling to face the reality or do anything about it except propose more money and more government (neither of which has worked).

Naomi Schaefer Riley details the plight of the American Indian by highlighting the structural, legal, economic, and political barriers to their success.  Through history, interviews and anecdotes, and analysis, Riley charts the bleak picture.  They lack the opportunity to achieve success in important ways because they do not have the property rights we take for granted.  They can’t really build up equity in property, use land or ownership as an investment or as collateral for a loan, etc. This basic element of financial and economic growth is denied.

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Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam by Gregg Jones

The Vietnam War – one of the subjects that lured me into exploring and loving history. I can never read enough about this war – everything from the failed strategy to the individual acts of valor on the battlefield. Gregg Jones takes his turn at documenting the events surrounding the siege of Khe Sanh in Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam.

The book generally covers the fighting between the Marines and the North Vietnamese Army from January until April 1968, when the siege was lifted. This coverage includes the many hill fights surrounding the main base. Jones draws upon the personal accounts of the thousands of Americans who fought in the battle. NVA accounts are sketchy due to the lack of material – although Jones does draw on some captured NVA documents.

There are plenty of books written on Khe Sanh (Valley of Decision is one that is excellent), but this is one of the most recent books to chronicle the battles. Jones provides great insight into the men who fought and shed blood in the hallowed grounds surrounding Khe Sanh. This insight is from countless interviews and letters from the combatants.

Jones includes many stories of bravery, including the actions of artillery forward observer Dennis Mannion as he directed artillery fire upon the North Vietnamese as they tried to capture Hill 861. Conversely, Jones also writes about some of the stupid decisions made during the fighting. This includes the higher command’s approval to send a small patrol out of Khe Sanh and the field officer’s decisions in the ambush of a Marine platoon that left more than 20 killed.

The personal stories of loss are the hardest parts of war books. It is easier to read about five or six men killed in the abstract rather than knowing the names and stories of those five or six individuals. Jones includes tales of grizzled veterans cut down and men in-country for a few days who lost their lives.

Simply put, an excellent book on the Battle of Khe Sanh.

The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson

The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson is a unique and confounding work of fiction. It is fascinating and frustrating.

Here is a bit about the book:

Cambridge linguist Edvard Tøssentern, presumed dead, reappears after a balloon crash. When he staggers in from a remote swamp, gravely ill and swollen beyond recognition, his colleagues at the research station are overjoyed. But Edvard’s discovery about a rare giant bird throws them all into the path of an international crime ring.

The Weaver Fish is a gripping adventure story. Set on the island nation of Ferendes in the South China Sea, this book’s sound science and mathematical games will make you question all that you know, or think you know, about weaver fish, giant condors, the infamous tornado-proof Reckles® Texan hat, and much much more.

The book is a bit confounding because I did not understand it until a few chapters into it. At first, the first few chapters seem pointless, but then they fit more into the story as you read along. It is a very interesting book once you get past some of the initial side trails.

Based on the writing, Edeson’s mind is amazing. He makes stuff up, but it sounds so real. I caught myself several times googling some of the things to find out that the things do not exist.

Once the story gets going, it is hard to put down. The plot is engaging and the characters are interesting. The best part is the climax where everything comes together.

Adam’s Rib by Antonio Manzini

The second book of the Rocco Schiavone Mystery series by Antonio Manzini, Adam’s Rib, is just as good as the first – Black Run.

Here are the basics to the plot:

Six months after being exiled from his beloved Rome, Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone has settled into a routine in the cold, quiet, chronically backward alpine town of Aosta: an espresso at home, breakfast in the piazza, and a morning joint in his office.

A little self-medication helps Rocco deal with the morons that almost exclusively comprise the local force. Especially on a day like today. It’s his girlfriend’s birthday (if you could call her that; in his mind, Rocco’s only faithful to his late wife), he has no gift—and he’s about to stumble upon a corpse.

It begins when a maid reports a burglary in Aosta. But there’s no sign of forced entry, and after Rocco picks the lock, he notices something off about the carefully ransacked rooms. That’s when he finds the body: a woman, the maid’s employer, left hanging after a grisly suicide. Or is it? Rocco’s intuition tells him the scene has been staged. In other words, it’s murder—a pain in the ass of the highest order.

Manzini continues his excellent work from Black Run with his latest translation. Schiavone is back as the acerbic deputy police chief of Aosta. He is ably assisted by police officer Italo Pierron and Inspector Caterina Rispoli, but hindered by less-able officers such as Michele Deruta.

I think what draws me so much to Schiavone is his sharp wit and cynicism. Both of these are on display in the book.

The plot is good because Manzini brings in several threads into the story. Although two events seem unrelated, they turn out to be related in one of the characters. Although some may not like the rabbit trail that Manzini takes Schiavone on to Rome, I think it helps develop Schiavone’s character and to more fully understand his thinking.

Manzini does another great job of bringing Deputy Police Chief Schiavone to life.

Black Run by Antonio Manzini

The newly translated novel by Antonio Manzini, Black Run, is a great mystery that takes place in northern Italy. Manzini is an Italian actor, screenwriter, director, and author. Black Run is the first of two novels that have been translated into English.

Here is a bit about the plot from the publisher:

Getting into serious trouble with the wrong people, deputy prefect of police Rocco Schiavone is exiled to Aosta, a small, touristy alpine town far from his beloved Rome. The sophisticated and crotchety Roman despises mountains, snow, and the provincial locals as much as he disdains his superiors and their petty rules. But he loves solving crimes.

When a mangled body has been discovered on a ski run above Champoluc, Rocco immediately faces his first challenge—identifying the victim, a complex procedure complicated by his ignorance of the customs, dialect, and history of his new home. Proud and undaunted, Rocco makes his way among the ski runs, mountain huts, and aerial tramways, meeting ski instructors, Alpine guides, the hardworking, enigmatic folk of Aosta, and a few beautiful locals eager to give him a warm welcome.

It won’t be easy, this mountain life, especially with a corpse or two in the mix. But then there’s nothing that makes Rocco feel more at home than an investigation.

As with many novelists, especially mystery writers, Manzini has good insight into human behavior. He expresses this insight through Schiavone and his sarcastic wit. Schiavone is a fascinating and conflicting character. He is not easy to like – he is vulgar, smokes pot, and treats most people with contempt. But, he is superb at observing the smallest of details and solving the hardest crimes.

Although Schiavone’s attitude and behavior was a bit off-putting at first, he warms to the reader. Maybe it is his unapologetic acidic temperament or his ability to seek justice in whatever manner fits.

The plot is very engaging and does not give anything away as to who is the real killer. You have some false trails thrown in – Schiavone believing in one of these trails. The reader is kept guessing until the very end.

Excellent first book from Manzini.

The Raven King (The Raven Cycle #4) by Maggie Stiefvater

The_Raven_King_Cover_OfficialNothing living is safe. Nothing dead is to be trusted.

For years, Gansey has been on a quest to find a lost king. One by one, he’s drawn others into this quest: Ronan, who steals from dreams; Adam, whose life is no longer his own; Noah, whose life is no longer a lie; and Blue, who loves Gansey… and is certain she is destined to kill him.

Now the endgame has begun. Dreams and nightmares are converging. Love and loss are inseparable. And the quest refuses to be pinned to a path.

I think I had a bit of an emotional let down with The Raven King. After all, it is the fourth and final book of a hugely popular series and one that I have enjoyed and favorably reviewed.  I think I was looking for more of an impact; more “wow” or something.

I listened to this last book in the Raven Cycle series in the car. And frankly am not sure what to make of it. I enjoyed the prose and imagination of Stiefvater as always. In fact, as I was listening I would catch myself marveling at the wordplay and creativity.

And there were some interesting twists and turns. But perhaps because I was listening to it in 20-30 minutes spurts (the length of my commute usually) it didn’t seem to all come together for me in a satisfying way. It was like I enjoyed the parts but felt like the whole was somehow less than it should have been.

It would probably would work better if I read the whole series again so that I could put the book into context of the other books.  But I am not sure I am ready for that level of dedication.

Plus, lets be honest, this is a book for teens and much of the emotion and connections (romance, angst, etc.) don’t resonate with me in the same way they might readers of that age and perspective. So take that into account.

Add in the listening versus reading part and it just came off unfulfilled.  Not bad just not great or amazing or along those lines.

Still, I recommend the series as a whole for those who have not yet experienced it.

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams

I do not typically read novels about rich and glamorous people, but Beatriz Williams’ latest novel A Certain Age caught my eye. It caught my eye because it is a mystery hidden inside accounts of New York City life in the 1920s from the perspective of two women.

From the publisher:

As the freedom of the Jazz Age transforms New York City, the iridescent Mrs. Theresa Marshall of Fifth Avenue and Southampton, Long Island, has done the unthinkable: she’s fallen in love with her young paramour, Captain Octavian Rofrano, a handsome aviator and hero of the Great War. An intense and deeply honorable man, Octavian is devoted to the beautiful socialite of a certain age and wants to marry her. While times are changing and she does adore the Boy, divorce for a woman of Theresa’s wealth and social standing is out of the question, and there is no need; she has an understanding with Sylvo, her generous and well-respected philanderer husband.

But their relationship subtly shifts when her bachelor brother, Ox, decides to tie the knot with the sweet younger daughter of a newly wealthy inventor. Engaging a longstanding family tradition, Theresa enlists the Boy to act as her brother’s cavalier, presenting the family’s diamond rose ring to Ox’s intended, Miss Sophie Fortescue—and to check into the background of the little-known Fortescue family. When Octavian meets Sophie, he falls under the spell of the pretty ingénue, even as he uncovers a shocking family secret. As the love triangle of Theresa, Octavian, and Sophie progresses, it transforms into a saga of divided loyalties, dangerous revelations, and surprising twists that will lead to a shocking transgression . . . and eventually force Theresa to make a bittersweet choice.

Williams is a master of description – not only of characters, but of scenes as well. She paints a vivid picture of New York City life with all of the glitz and rebelliousness of the Jazz Age. Williams captures the initial stages of the liberation of women – freedom to vote for the first time, beginning to work outside the home, and more progressive thoughts on some social issues.

Although it is hard to relate to the massive amounts of wealth of the two female main characters, it is not hard to follow along and sympathize or be revolted by their behavior.

Williams adroitly tells the tale from both the perspective of young and naive Sophie and older and experienced Theresa. This approach is a great way to tell a story, especially when both characters are interacting with each other. For example, Williams does this perfectly at the wedding announcement party for Sophie and Ox. Williams describes Sophie’s actions in one chapter and Theresa’s reaction to those actions in another chapter.

Apparently Williams is known for her plot twists and lives up to it by including plenty of these all the way to the end.