Friday, February 15, 2019

Post # 38

Quote for the day: "Our roads are built of corduroy,
                                And if you travel far
                                You sweat and swear and curse and
                                That's how you travel in Michigan."

 From the song "Don't Come to Michigan," which was popular during the latter half of the 19th century. Seems little has changed over the last 100 years or so.


Bleak Harbor
by Bryan Gruley

When Danny Peters, an autistic teenager and the youngest member of Bleak Harbor's founding family, is kidnaped and held for ransom it rips the scabs off painful family secrets, a marriage plagued by self-inflicted wounds, and the dark history of a Michigan tourist town on southern Lake Michigan.

Danny's mother and his step-father Peter both have committed acts that might have been the catalyst for their son's kidnapping, or it could be that Danny's birth father has just been released from prison. Then there is the FBI and other government agents nibbling at the edges of the kidnapping but seem to have their own separate agendas. Finally, there is a nameless, faceless mastermind that keeps everybody running in circles by way of misleading emails, and texting. Although he keeps increasing the ransom demands for freeing Danny the reader begins to think even the kidnapper may have some goal beyond just collecting a huge ransom. 

The kidnapping and the pursuit of the kidnapper all occur during Bleak Harbor's Dragonfly Festival that brings much-needed tourist dollars to town but the crowds, traffic jams, and chaos makes the life for many of the village's inhabitants nearly intolerable. The author does a great job of vividly capturing the mood, ambiance, and annoyances of living in a town dependent on tourism.  He has also packed the novel with a bevy of fascinatingly, duplicitous characters who all seem to slowly become unglued as their various plans go awry.

Bryan Gruley has proven to be a master of crafting absorbing mystery and suspense novels. His Starvation Lake trilogy earned him a wide audience and a Mystery Writers of America nomination for Best First Mystery. Bleak Harbor is a departure in narrative style and mood from the Starvation Lake series although there are a few similarities. Both the new book and the old trilogy relentlessly demand readers' full attention, the characters and the Michigan setting come fully alive, and Gruley seems to have a penchant for picking unattractive names for small Michigan towns. Following Starvation Lake and Bleak Harbor, Purgatory Bay is slated for publication in 2020. And then what: Point Decapitation, Remorse Valley, Scab Lake? Frankly, I find some pleasure in his off-putting Michigan place names. They serve as a kind of antidote to the warm and almost hugable Michigan place names found in cozy mysteries set in Michigan. I look forward to reading any mystery Gruley writes and will happily let him be my Baedeker to any and all regretfully named places on Michigan's fictional map. 
Bleak Harbor by Bryan Gruley. Thomas & Mercer, 2018, $24.95.

The Page Fence Giants: A History of Black Baseball's Pioneering Champions
by Mitch Lutzke

Even avid baseball fans who are the students of the game and its history will find this an improbable story and an eye-opening book. No student of the game myself, I was amazed to learn how widely popular baseball was in the 1890s and that literally every little town had a baseball team that was a member of an amateur or a semi-pro league. The teams regularly traveled with a retinue of fans to other small towns in Michigan on weekends for games on which large amounts of money were often wagered. Teams brought in paid ringers to enhance their chances of winning and the home team often paid the ump to throw the game. Arguments got so heated and ugly one Michigan umpire packed a gun while calling games. It was baseball at it wildest and wooliest.  

In Michigan, the City of Adrian was a hotbed of baseball fanatics. Their amateur team traveled widely to play games, and teams from all over Michigan and Ohio arrived in Adrian on weekends to slug it out on the town's home field. Surprisingly, many of the teams, like Adrian's, were integrated in spite of a so-called "Gentleman's Agreement" that teams would not include Black ballplayers. 

Bud Fowler was a vagabond Black player who had managed and played baseball all over the country in the 1880s and early 90s. When he arrived in Adrian in the summer of 1894 with the Finlay, Ohio team for a weekend series he was impressed with the fanaticism and support for baseball in Adrian. Especially when 800 paying customers came to watch the game. Sometime after the game, Fowler announced he would come to Adrian the next season and build a professional all Black baseball team if the town would agree to three conditions.  Fowler wanted the town to guarantee him $500, improve the ballfield, and provide the team with a private railroad car in which they could sleep and eat when traveling or arriving in a town that would not allow African Americans in hotels or restaurants. Adrian's baseball promoters raised the $500, purchased a rail car, and most importantly brought in John Wallace Page to support the team. 

Page had invented a woven iron fence with no barbs. His Adrian company employed hundreds and the town became known as the fence capital of the world. Page agreed to support the team if it was named the Page Fence Giants, and the company was allowed to exhibit the Page Fence at every away game with local salesmen on hand to make sales. When these stipulations were agreed to Mr. Page permitted the team to keep all away game gate receipts. Beginning in 1895 the team traveled all over the Midwest playing both amateur and professional teams. When they arrived at the depot the team would parade through town in uniform on Monarch bicycles to the ballfield. In 1896 the Page Fence Giants played the Cuban X Giants, generally considered the best professional African American ballclub in America, in a 19 game series played in a dozen or more different midwest towns.

The author has done an impressive amount of research and written a fascinating story of a little-known chapter in the history of baseball.  The book tells the story of a team that was equal to and a forerunner of the Harlem Globe Trotters and brings baseball as it was played, organized, and reflected American society in the 1890s colorfully alive.  

The author will be at the Flint Public Library from 12:30 - 1:30 pm on February 27th to talk about the research and writing of the book.  
The Page Fence Giants: A History of Balck Baseball's Pioneering Champions by Mitch Lutzke. McFarland & Company, 2018, $39.95.

Any of the books reviewed in this blog may be purchased by clicking your mouse on the book's cover which will take you to Amazon where you can usually purchase the book at a discount. By using this blog as a portal to Amazon and purchasing any product helps support Michigan in Books.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Post # 37

Quote for the Day: "... [The UP] is an edgy place. I mean in the sense that it still hangs on out there like a rawhide flap of the old frontier, outposted from the swirl of mainstream America. John G. Mitchell. Audubon Magazine. November 1961.


Both books in this post are set in Michigan's unique Upper Peninsula, a place I never get tired of visiting, exploring, meeting its people, or reading about. Well, one book is and the other may take place there. It could be set in any of the three states that touch Lake Superior's shoreline and it really doesn't matter which, because Lake Superior is central to the novel and a near-constant presence in the book.

Daughters of the Lake
by Wendy Webb

This is literally a haunting Gothic novel set on the southern shore of Lake Superior in which the great lake is one of the dominant characters in the book. And it will not matter that the plot is not altogether believable because the author is one of those gifted writers who grabs the reader by the collar, drags them into the story, and doesn't lessen her grip until the final page is turned.

Kate Granger has returned to her parents' home on Lake Superior to lick her wounds and mend her broken heart after her marriage is shattered by her husband's infidelity. Within a few days of returning home, the body of a young woman washes up on the beach in front of her parent's house. It is obvious the woman was murdered before she was dumped in Lake Superior and Kate instinctively pulls aside the antique nightgown worn by the deceased and discovers the body of a newborn infant. 

The only one who can identify the woman is Kate who is very reluctant to admit she knows the victim only because they met in Kate's dreams. In the days following the discovery of the bodies, Kate is haunted by more dreams. It almost feels as if the victim is reaching out to her for help. Kate is really spooked when looking in a mirror she sees the face of the victim and begins to relive moments in the dead young woman's life. Hoping a change of location will stop the dreams Kate visits her cousin in Great Bay who operates a bed and breakfast in their grandmother's Victorian home. Sorting through a batch of old photographs at her grandma's house Kate happens upon a photograph of the dead woman. She is stunned to find out the photograph was taken a hundred years ago.

The book divides into two narratives as Kate, with the sheriff's blessing, delves into the family's and Great Bay's history in an attempt to unravel the mystery of a hundred-year-old murder, while a second narrative follows the life of the victim from grade school through marriage to her final moments. The two narratives build an unstoppable momentum that reveals long-buried family and Great Bay secrets and in the last few pages, the narratives come together with the impact of two freight trains colliding head-on.

The author is a born storyteller, makes the unbelievable believable, and has a firm grasp on the reader's attention from the first page to last. Making the book even more enjoyable is the authenticity with which the author captures up north small-town life both in the present and the past, and how Lake Superior, in all its glory, beauty, and danger, literally becomes a major character in the mystery.

Daughters of the Lake by Wendy Webb. Lake Union Publishing, 2018, $24.95 

Cabin Fever
James M. Jackson

Yet another mystery series set in the UP, or at the least, frequently set there and which I have been totally oblivious of until I cracked the author's third in the Seamus McCree mystery series a few days ago. I was hooked immediately by the author's well developed and fascinating plot, his vivid description of the rugged people and the wild and daunting natural setting of Iron County, Michigan. Then there's the fascinating main character Seamus McCree, an overly self-reliant, stubborn Irishman who hates to ask for help, is no stranger to violence, has a quick and inquisitive mind, gnaws at a problem like a dog with a bone, and calls himself a forensic accountant.

In this third book in the series, Seamus McCree finds himself spending the winter at his self-built cottage far off the beaten track in Iron County because his house in Ohio was firebombed in the previous book in the series. He enjoys his solitude and the UP setting. As the book opens he is returning from a long winter snowshoe tramp through the wilds of Iron County when he finds a nude, near frozen woman curled in a chair on his porch. He puts her to bed, discovers marks on her writs and ankles indicating she had been tied up and held captive by someone. She is soon running a dangerously high fever and may have pneumonia. When she does regain consciousness the high fever has short-circuited her memory and the woman doesn't remember who she is, what happened to her, or how she arrived at McCree's cottage. 

What neither Seamus or the woman know is that a dangerous, right-wing militia group is looking for the woman and want her dead as well as any witnesses or people who might have come to her aid. The paramilitary revolutionaries are slowly closing in as McCree tries to nurse the stranger, break her fever, and figure out a way to get the woman to the nearest hospital in Crystal Falls. Seamus doesn't have a car or a snowmobile at his cottage and pays an acquaintance to deliver groceries and supplies once a week.  

There is no spoiler alert in this review because I'm not revealing another word about this tightly plotted, engrossing, and thoroughly entertaining mystery. It is full of surprises, unexpected plot twists, and plenty of action. And Seamus McCree is a great character on which to base a mystery series. Cabin Fever was published in 2014 and the fifth Seamus McCree mystery "Empty Promises" appeared in print last year and also takes place in Iron County. Hopefully, in the coming months, a review of that book will also appear here.

Cabin Fever by James M. Jackson. Barking Rain Press, 2014, $13.62

All books reviewed in this blog can be purchased by clicking your mouse on the book's cover which will take you to Amazon where you can usually purchase the book at a discount. By using this blog as a portal to Amazon and purchasing any product helps support Michigan in Books.

April 1, 2020 Post # 53

Quote for the day: "...[Lake Superior is] beautiful, empty, glittering, cold and brooding, gull-swept and impersonal; always there, alw...