Making Bones

bonesI have a review in the latest Missoula Independent. The book is called Making Bones, by Bill Vaughn. It’s a crime novel set in the Missouri Breaks region of Central Montana and features a fantastic female lead character. You can check the review out HERE, and I urge you to do so because it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I can’t recommend it enough.

Normally I’d run a clip from the review here, but instead I’m going to share the book excerpt that Vaughn published online; I doubt he’ll mind if I copy and paste it here:

IZZY sprawled in her lawn chair, holding hands with Mark and trading gossip about the latest acquisition of the local polygamist, while they waited for the sheriff. Rolex, Izzy’s bay-and-white paint, and Sally, Mark’s long, tall buckskin mare, were saddled up and tied to Mark’s trailer.

At ten a streamer of dust on the horizon announced the arrival of the local constabulary. Smudge Iverson was already red-faced and out of breath as he lowered his considerable heft from the county’s old stock truck to the ground. He’d brought along one of his three deputies, a scarred and wiry Cree named Fenton Welch. Their horses stomped in the rack, eager to get out and get on with it.

“Porta,” the sheriff rasped, apparently unwilling to waste any additional effort to shake hands. Mark had told Izzy that Iverson informed him in their most recent professional conversation that he was no different than his constituents in the matter of their position on Washington D.C. and its most visible presence in the Breaks, the Bureau of Land Management.

“What did he really say?”

Mark shrugged “We don’t need your kind here.”

“Does he mean Rangers? Or Italians?”

Mark shrugged.

Izzy watched Smudge examine her in a guy way, chest first, then crotch. Then he looked again, in reverse order. “Hey, Smudge . . . .” She resisted the temptation to ask him if he’d like her to turn around so he could check out her ass.

“Izzy,” Iverson rasped, ignoring her to deal with Mark. “What’s this, Porta? You bringin a date to a body search?”

Despite herself, Izzy laughed. Everyone in Hilger County knew that she and Mark were doing more than sniffing around each other. After all, they were high-profile individuals—Izzy resented because she inherited a big spread in a part of the world where there wasn’t enough ranch to go around for even the male heirs of these old families, Mark reviled because he worked for the land-grabbing socialist government that was trying to confiscate their property so rich liberals on the Coasts could have even more playground in the Big Empty.

“She’s here in an official capacity,” Mark told the sheriff.

“Welch will take all the pictures we need,” Iverson rasped. “You know we cain’t take no civilians along.”

She went to her saddle bag and came back with her badge. The BLM office in Lewistown had issued the shield to her after Mark convinced his bosses that her knowledge of the Upper Breaks qualified her to be sworn in on the Castel case as a special deputy ranger.

“Ain’t no civilians round here,” she said. Iverson took the badge and poked it with what seemed to her an unwholesome gesture.

“Well, fuck me and the horse I rode in on.”

Izzy tapped her index finger on her lips. “Um, how about just the horse?”

What is unique about this particular outing is that it’s the first time I’ve reviewed a book for the Indy that is available only via Kindle eBook. It’s possible this is the first time they’ve ever published one at all, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing: if more Kindle-only releases were as good as this one, I think I’d be reading more than the dwindling number I do every year. Most, with a few exceptions from reliable writers I’ve come to trust (like Gramlich, and Badelaire), are shit. Maybe I’ve just been on a bad run the last couple years, but the quality in self-published fiction has been on the decline. Either that or I’m just getting pickier. Or grouchier. Probably all of the above, but heaviest on that last possibility.

Anyway, give Making Bones a chance. Here is the link on Amazon. You won’t regret it.

Oh, and if Bill Vaughn’s name sounds familiar, it’s because last year I reviewed his nonfiction work Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages, also for the Indy. That book was recently selected for Honor Book recognition for the 2015 Montana Book Award. So kudos to Vaughn for unleashing two excellent, totally different books in about a year.

Art of Floating

41kZEc9AX4L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a late-comer to reading Jim Harrison. I encountered a rave review in 2007 of his novel, Returning to Earth, when it was first released. Reading the book I was captivated. In a subsequent interview, I learned he identifies himself as a poet. With some few exceptions I had not really “gotten” poetry at that point in my evolution as a reader, and I couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would choose to be a poet when clearly they were adept at the novel form. After all, isn’t that the pinnacle of storytelling?*

Then I started reading Harrison’s poetry. The man really knocked down some doors for me, and now I make a point to read poetry every day, even as I must admit I could probably read and re-read his over and over for the rest of my life and be satisfied.

His newest collection, recently released by Copper Canyon Press, is called Dead Man’s Float. I have a review in the current issue of the Indy. You can check it out HERE. An excerpt:

When I read the last few poems of this book and closed the cover I sat back in my chair and looked around. The sun was shining brighter than it had for days. I could see through my window several house finches at the feeder hanging from the branches of the tree out front. My dog slept on her cushion, back-to-back with a bitter old cat. They used to be mortal enemies, but both now find themselves too old to expend the energy for animosity. Reflections like these seem the soul of what Jim Harrison writes about, at least to me. Few enough are the books I decide to keep beyond a culling or two. Barring fire or flood, Dead Man’s Float will be in my library for the rest of my life. If it’s the last poetry collection we get from Harrison—and I hope it isn’t—it is as fine an example of his efforts as any.


Here is one of my favorite poems from the book, this one called “Apple Tree.”

Sitting under the apple tree on a hot

June day harassed by blackbirds

and a house wren who have nests there.

I’m thinking of the future and the past,

and how the past at my age has become

obviously so much longer than the future.

The feeling always precedes my sense

that severe weather is coming. I don’t believe

in doom or destiny — I believe in turmoil,

thunderstorms in the head, rolling lightning

coming down my brain’s road. As an artist

you follow the girl in the white tennis dress

for 25,000 miles and never close the deal.


You’ll be hearing a lot about Jim Harrison on this blog in the coming months, I believe. I’ve dedicated myself to reading as much of his work as I can find, and I’ve found much of it.


* That’s a rhetorical question, of course


House of the Rising Sun

Tomorrow, December 1st, is the release day for the latest novel from James Lee Burke, House of the Rising Sun, his, by my count, 35th. I reviewed it for the Independent this past week, which you can read HERE. That is the short version, and it’s a version I’m not very happy with. Indy reviews are 800 words maximum. Sometimes that seems like an insurmountable goal to attain, and others, like this time, it’s hard to say everything that needs to be said and still bring it home under the wire. I realized the day after I submitted it — on a shortened holiday week, of course, where the paper came out on Wednesday instead of Thursday — that I should have taken a different approach. So I’m offering another version, not so different, here. This is what I started with before I started cutting words to get to 800, moving things around, etc. I wish I could have let this book sink in a little, written the review, then thought about it for a day or two before submitting it. But that’s how things go down sometimes, I guess.


books_burkeI have a special affinity for James Lee Burke, because the storied writer is practically my neighbor. From where I write he lives just a few miles away as a raven might fly, though we are separated by a river and a ridge or two and the trip from driveway to driveway would certainly exceed an hour. On a couple occasions I’ve sat next to him at the movie theater, separated only by the space of the chair on which he placed his ubiquitous cowboy hat. Hell, I even shared a waiting room at Les Schwab for an hour or so once. I’ve been to several of his entertaining events, and I’ve spoken with him a couple times, though certainly not enough for him to remember who I am. He is always a gentleman.

Even so I’ll admit I’m not one of those people who has read a pile of his writing, because there’s plenty of it. I’ve read my share, certainly, but throw out a title and I couldn’t necessarily tell you if it is a Robicheaux yarn, a story of one or other of the Holland characters, or something standalone (but hey, I can hardly remember the titles of my own stuff, so that’s no surprise). I love his work, and I always look forward to new releases with anticipation. As much of a fan as I am, though, I find his latest effort, House of the Rising Sun, to be something of a mixed bag.

The book kicks off in 1916, in Mexico, in the heat of revolution. Hackberry Holland — the grandfather of modern era Burke series characters Hackberry (the younger) and his cousin Billy Bob Holland — is the lone survivor of a group of Texas Rangers who ambushed a train that led to many civilian casualties, including women and children. Holland, who participated in the attack, was along only because he was trying to track down his estranged son, Ishmael. Ishmael is a captain in the United States Army, leading a group of black soldiers on a mission to the south of the period’s rather permeable border. Holland staggers into an encampment where a group of Mexicans have set an ambush for the American soldiers at the site of a brothel. There he meets the madame of the place, Beatrice DeMolay, one of the three primary female characters to bedevil him throughout the book. Mayhem ensues, and Holland escapes after destroying a wagon full of stolen weapons that were slated to become the possession of Austrian arms dealer (and primary villain) Arnold Beckman. He also comes into possession of a religious artifact that may or may not be the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus drank from, which Beckman will go to any length to retrieve.

From there we bounce back in time to 1891. We meet Ruby Dansen, the feisty woman much younger than Holland whom he convinces to come with him to his ranch, who ultimately becomes the mother of Ishmael. When the two talk of marriage, Hackberry reveals he is still technically married to a woman named Maggie Bassett, though they have been estranged for years. When he takes to the court to sue for divorce, he is denied. Bassett, who (we presume) wants to stay married only to secure Holland’s wealth when he dies, is brought into play. She is a wiley former prostitute with many secret machinations of her own, and her renewed involvement with Holland sets the stage for the “betrayal” hinted at in the first section that costs Holland his relationship with his son.

At this point we are one third of the way through the book, time jumps to 1918, and Ishmael is leading his men now in World War I. The plot moves forward from there, with Holland juggling his relationships with the three women, his attempt to find and reconcile with his son, and the conflicts he faces with the diabolical Beckman.

While not a mystery in any sense — it’s a Western, really — the story manages several twists as it unfolds. Burke’s gifts, particularly in describing scenery and the world his characters live in, are in fine form. There are sentences and paragraphs as beautiful as anything he’s ever written. One need go no farther than the opening sentence for proof:

The sun had just crested on the horizon like a misplaced planet, swollen and molten and red, lighting a landscape that seemed sculpted out of clay and soft stone and marked by the fossilized tracks of animals with no names, when a tall barefoot man wearing little more than rags dropped his horse’s reins and eased himself off the horse’s back and worked his way down an embankment into a riverbed chained with pools of water that glimmered as brightly as blood in the sunrise.

House is an adventure story and a love story, and is clearly an additional piece in Burke’s effort at, when combined with last year’s Wayfaring Stranger, a sweeping family epic featuring the Hollands. Hackberry Holland’s chapter features heartbreak and pathos and cruelty to go around, while aiming for, hopefully, some kind of redemption. It also has its share of problems.

My main issue is with Hackberry Holland himself. He is too much the archetypal Western tough guy who often speaks like a poet but is also the baddest hombre around. He is wealthy and has an insurmountable code of right and wrong, yet is haunted by deeds of his past and, therefore, prone to binges of violence and alcohol. He’s a giant of a man and a hit with the ladies (as an indication of his manly epicness, Maggie Bassett says at one point to Holland’s son Ishmael, in talking about her similarities with the young man’s mother, “We both got involved with a man who has ten inches of penis and three of brain.”). A former law man himself, he is a source of constant frustration to law enforcement for going off like a loose cannon and taking the law into his own hands. Yet for all his intelligence and willingness to go off the rails when it comes to violence, he is constantly being manipulated and won’t allow his heart anywhere near the lattitude his trigger finger has. Frankly, I found him to be an asshole, and deserving of the heartbreak he’d brought onto himself.

I hesitate to call House a misfire. It’s enjoyable — Burke always is — but could probably stand to lose about a quarter of its heft. It gets slow in the middle third; shave off a few of Holland’s efforts to track down and beat on people, and we’d have a tighter story with a character more worth pulling for.

Treehugging Dirt Worshipper

books_ponderosaThere’s a bumper sticker I have pinned to the wall above the little desk here in my writing/photography/nap-on-the-futon studio that says, “Treehugging Dirt Worshipper,” which, when asked, is how I spiritually define myself to hay-heads with the gall to ask. To prove this, here is my second review for the Indy (here is the first) in the last few weeks of a book about trees. This one is Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree by Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno.

An excerpt:

These sections deal in fascinating politics. The authors pinpoint how current arguments about fire and logging, beginning in the early 1900s, continue to cycle through the years. They spend most of the space detailing the history of the “fire-industrial complex”a cool term modern critics use to talk about the whole fire management puzzle, including who benefits from the strict suppression of forest fires. Reading these sections, I’m struck by all the drama and what a deep, engaging story it makes. The history really has it all: strong characters, corruption and betrayal, all played out against the backdrop of the wild, American West.

There’s a reading next Tuesday night at Shakespeare and Co. I’m going to do my best to attend. It should be interesting.


Deep Roots

books_hawthornI have a new book review in the current issue of the Missoula Independent that hit newsstands last Thursday. It’s a cool bit of nonfiction called Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages by Bill Vaughn. You may read the review HERE. I enjoyed the book very much; dig this excerpt for some insight as to why:

Still, for all the delight I gleaned from the copious historical details and minutia scattered throughout the rest of Hawthorn, it is in its ninth chapter, “A Tree for All Seasons,” that the book really claimed me. And it has little to do with wit or literary talent. In chapter one, Vaughn describes his home on the Clark Fork near Missoula as “the same sort of redneck backwater where I spent my motherless, feral boyhood.” I naturally assumed it was somewhere upstream, maybe around Turah or possibly even Clinton. I mean, who around here wouldn’t? It didn’t take long, though, for me to deduce that the area he was describing was actually very near where I live, about halfway between Missoula and Frenchtown along Mullan Road. A little exploration up and down some of the side roads in the area and I soon discovered that Vaughn’s Dark Acres is actually, as the crow flies, at most a mile from my own manufactured home in an ugly subdivision, the likes of which he also references in the book.

This is one of those books that probably doesn’t get a lot of attention because it’s kind of quirky. I think it’s fantastic, full of odd bits of history and information, delivered with both intelligence and humor. It’s well worth your time.