Friday, March 15, 2019

Post # 40

Quote for the Day: "Anybody who lives in Detroit lives blues sometimes, if not all the time."
                                  Pat Halley, reporter for the Fifth Estate. 1973


We Hope for Better Things
by Erin Bartels

There is a sentence in the Author's Note at the back of this debut novel that goes to the heart of what Bartels wanted to accomplish in this richly portrayed, deeply felt generational novel. As she wrote: "It was an attempt to reckon with something that could not be reconciled." And still can't. But that does not make the book a failure. Instead, it is a brave, noble, heart-lifting, soul-grabbing portrait of the deep and enduring pain racism has inflicted on individuals, marriages, families, and society.

Newspaper reporter Elizabeth Balsam's world is never the same after she agrees to meet a man at the Lafayette Coney Island. The gentleman turns out to to be Black and he presents Elizabeth with a 1960s vintage professional photographer's camera and a stack of photographs he would like Elizabeth to return to a Nora Balsam who lives on a remote farm in Lapeer County. Elizabeth is not interested until she discovers the photos were taken during the '67 Detroit riots and Nora Balsam is a distant great aunt Elizabeth never met or knew about. Furthermore, the photographer was an African American and Nora's husband, which means there was an interracial marriage in the family no one ever spoke about.

Returning to the newsroom after the meeting Elizabeth is shocked to discover she has been fired. With no immediate job options and a need to get away and reassess her life, she reaches out to her great aunt who invites her up to the farm.  A getaway that was meant to be for a week or two turns into months. Nora is reticent to talk about her life, marriage, long absent husband, or even look at the photographs.  As Nora and Elizabeth slowly grow closer together the story of Nora's marriage emerges as does the story of Mary Balsam who managed the Lapeer farm during her husband's long absence during the Civil War. Mary's husband sent his wife a runaway slave named George to help work the farm. George turns out to be everything Nora's husband isn't -- faithful, hard-working, considerate, resourceful, and a man of character.

The novel progresses in three alternating time periods: the Civil War, the 1960s, and the present day. Each stream of the narrative makes for compelling reading and the author captures and illuminates the corrosive and painful racism of each period that bends the storyline like a malevolent force. The book is filled with unexpected plot twists and surprises. At the core of the novel are three women who had the courage to follow their hearts regardless of the racial biases of the times. Nora and Mary will stay with the reader long after the last page of the book is turned.  

One of the singularly impressive and important Michigan novels to be published this year.
We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels. Revell, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019, $10.99pb, $29.99hb.

A Place for Murder
by Dave Vizard

Nick Steele, a reporter at the Bay City Blade, is facing the prospect of writing an article on a Pinconning farmer who claims to have grown a potato that looks just like former President George W. Bush when a phone call from a friend on Mackinac Island sends him a lot further north than Pinconning. Suzie Alverez, a worker at the Grand Hotel who Steele got to know while working another story has been found brutally murdered. Her body was discovered in the bed of a pickup abandoned on the highway halfway between Mackinaw City and Traverse City. The police are stumped and only identified the body by tracing her breast implant serial numbers to a downstate plastic surgeon. Steele wonders where an illegal alien got the money for breast implants and why. He smells a good story and follows his nose north.

What becomes clear to the Steele and the state police early on is that Ms. Alverez, like many illegal immigrants, was virtually owned by a network of human traffickers in Michigan. Steele traces the dead woman's trail back to the Michigan Thumb where hundreds of aliens are smuggled from farm to farm where they are kept in near enslavement working off the debt owed to the smugglers who brought them to this country. It looks like Ms. Alverez was unwillingly assigned to work at a Traverse City bordello when she was killed.

Dave Vizard has written a tight and involving mystery that realistically portrays the terrible cost in human suffering illegal aliens will endure to improve their lives and the human predators who make their living off the suffering of those migrants who live outside the law. The author is a former newspaper reporter and he clearly hasn't lost his reporting skills as he clearly and professionally weaves the plight of illegal aliens within the narrative, yet leaves the impression with at least this reader that many farmers in the Thumb would have trouble operating their large farms without migrant help.

This is a very satisfying mystery featuring interesting and likable characters.  The mystery touches on very topical and locally tender societal and legal issues, and although the death of Ms. Alverez is solved the greater issue of what to do about illegal aliens and their treatment both in and outside the law is obviously left unanswered.  And like all good fiction, the reader is left confronting an issue that defies simple, morally correct solutions, and refuses to go away.

A Place for Murder by Dave Vizard. Independently published, 2018, $14.95.

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, March 1, 2019

Post # 39

Quote of the day: "... [Lake Superior].. beautiful, empty, glittering, cold and brooding, gull-swept and impersonal: always there, always the same -- there for the grateful and ungrateful, there for the bastards and angels."  John Voelker, author and Michigan Supreme Court Justice, in his classic novel Anatomy of a Murder. 1958.


The Sail
by Landon Beach

It wouldn't be a surprise if Landon Beach ran across the above quote from Voelker's classic Michigan novel and adapted it as his recipe for writing compelling and atmospheric thrillers set on and under the Great Lakes. "Sail" is the second book in the author's Great Lakes Series in which the author whips up ravenously readable books by combining Great Lakes maritime history and lore, vivid descriptions of both the beauty and inherent dangers of sailing and diving the lakes, and lastly folds in a handful of what Voelker calls, "bastards and angels." Beach then kneads and works the ingredients into a compelling, fast-paced plot.  

The core of this addictively readable book is a convincing and emotionally honest father/son relationship that has drifted into troubled waters. Robin Norris is a male nurse in a northern Michigan community on Lake Huron. He is in his mid-thirties, has worked hard at repairing his marriage, fears that he and his 16-year-old son are growing apart, and Robin is dying from pancreatic cancer and hasn't told his son Tristian.

In hopes that it will bring them closer together and help him find a way to tell Tristian of his death sentence, Robin and Tristian buy a junked wooden sailboat. Robin is betting that in rebuilding the boat and then the father/son crew of two sailing it on Lake Superior and diving to some of the lake's famous wrecks will bring them closer.  Lake Superior and its ever-changing moods come alive on the page and Robin and Tristian's relationship strengthens as they live their great adventure.

If "beautiful" and "glittering," Lake Superior is also remote, dangerous, and in some places so far removed from society one must rely on their own grit and skill to avoid or overcome natural and man-made dangers. Robin and his son unwittingly find themselves caught in the web of remorseless killers on the remote north shore of the lake. The last sixty relentless, action-packed pages will nail readers to their chairs. 

This is the author's second novel and it shows remarkable growth as a writer. There is more depth to the characters, the plot unspools effortlessly, the metaphors and similes are much more clever and arresting, and the action is sharp, gritty, detailed, violent, and powerful. The first book in the series, "The Wreck," was good. This deeply satisfying family drama and breathless thriller is an impressive achievement. 
The Sail by Landon Beach. Landon Beach Books, 2019, $12.99

Gus Dorais: Gridiron Innovator, All-American and Hall of Fame Coach
by Joe Niece with Bob Dorais

Gus Dorais is credited, wrongly, with being the first quarterback to throw a forward pass. The forward pass was approved by the then ruling body of college football in 1906, several years before Dorais played for Notre Dame. But if he didn't invent the pass he and his college roommate Knute Rockne perfected it.  The full story of how Gus Dorais became football's first great passer, Notre Dame's first consensus All-American, a pre-NFL professional football star, a Hall of Fame coach who spent more than two decades living and coaching in Detroit, and one of the great innovators in football is recalled in this well written and authoritative biography.

Gus was a freshman at Notre Dame in 1910 and the coach didn't like the way in which the 150-pound kid threw the football. At the time there were acceptable ways to throw a pass including gripping the ball with one hand over an end of the ball and tossing it underhanded so it traveled downfield end over end. Some quarterbacks laid the ball in one hand and again threw it underhanded which resulted in the ball spiraling toward the receiver. Gus told the Notre Dame coach he gripped the football like a baseball and threw it overhanded from behind his ear. The coach ridiculed Gus' style until he threw the football an astonishing distance and into the hands of Knute Rockne. The coach hesitated to throw the freshman with the unorthodox throwing arm into the game but when Gus finally started at quarterback, a few games into the 1910 season, he started every game for the rest of his college career. He lost one game in his freshman year and went undefeated for the rest of his college career. 

Dorais believes he was the first quarterback to pass overhanded. His way of passing proved to be such a devastating offensive weapon it became the norm. After college, he played two dozen games of pro ball and went into coaching, first high school and then college. In 1925 he was hired as head football coach and athletic director of the University of Detroit. He spent years 18 years at U of D and turned it into a minor football power with a career record of 153 wins, 70 losses, and a dozen ties. He then coached the Detroit Lions for five unproductive years. It seems even in the 1940s the Lions mauled their coaches instead of other teams.

The book leaves no doubt that Dorais was an innovative coach in designing plays and offensive formations. Dorais himself called his offensive game plans "unorthodox" and said of his offensive system, "It's built on the surprise attack, the method of calling plays the opposition isn't expecting." His offensive sets and plays were widely copied by many high school coaches in Michigan and college coaches all over the country. He was a quiet-spoken coach who made no inspirational speeches. Instead, he believed in teaching the techniques and fundamentals of the game, mentally preparing players for the game, and out thinking the opposition coach. 

The authors have done a splendid job of describing an era in football when it was undergoing significant change and following the life of a player and later a coach who was responsible for many of those changes.

Gus Dorais: Gridiron Innovator, All-American and Hall of Fame Coach by Joe Niece with Bob Dorais. McFarland & Company, 2018, $25.

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.



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...