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Reading Diary for 2017

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"Watership Down"
by Richard Adams
Watership DownRe-reading for the first time as an adult, having fondly recalled this as one of my favorite novels as an adolescent. It is one of the few beloved books from my youth that holds up to an adult reading. Adams' faux society of rabbits is as real in those pages as any human society ever crafted by a novelist – the characters of Fiver, Bigwig, Kehaar coming alive in Adams' skilled telling. And Hazel, of course – the reluctant hero-leader. Perfectly paced, the story starts off with an incipient crisis. The tension builds as the breakaway rabbits form a new warren, then realize they have no females with which to continue the warren. A failed attempt to liberate some does leads to the final climactic scene, which is one of the greatest in literature. A wonderous tale in its own right, its atmospheric telling of human fables through the eyes of woodland animals is a clear inspiration for Brian Jacques' nearly as wonderful Redwall series.

"The Last Fighter Pilot"
by Don Brown with Captain Jerry Yellin
The Last Fighter PilotA short but moving memoir from the Air Corps officer who led the last American air mission of World War II – missing the radio signal that the Japanese had surrendered, and losing a man in the process. Well-constructed story reviews Jerry Yellin's upbringing, his desire to serve, his initial training, and then forward deployment leading up to his missions in support of the bombing raids against Japan at the close of the war. Written just last year, shortly before Yellin passed. Surely one of the last first-person histories of World War II we'll get.

"The Sovereigns"
by Steven Hildreth Jr.
The SovereignsEerily prescient of the Las Vegas shootings, an extremist gunman takes over a resort hotel in Tucson – with enough hostages to keep authorities at bay. Former operative Ben Williams, now driving long haul to restart his life, has just made a delivery to the hotel. As with "The First Bayonet" (below), it's a well-told story – but if Hildreth never uses the phrase "gray matter" to describe the aftermath of a shot to the head again, he'll still have overused it just from all the repetition here.

"The First Bayonet"
by Steven Hildreth Jr.
The First BayonetWhen a friend calls in a favor, former CIA agent Ben Williams has no choice but to head to Egypt – and intentionally get arrested. Once he locates his rescue target, all that's left is to break her out of the prison, and get her back to the U.S. The plot is well-constructed and holds you in, and the characters are interesting and well-drawn. The dialogue, however, is sometimes wooden and clunky. Still, a nice debut, and Ben Williams is on a par with Jack Reacher.

"Ghosts of Karnak"
by George Mann
Ghosts of KarnakWhile waiting for the next Newbury & Hobbes steampunk mystery to come out, I dipped into one of author George Mann's other series (he really is prolific). I had thought I was getting the first title in the Ghost series, but inadvertently jumped into the middle. Which is fine – it's a grand tale set in pre-war Manhattan, in an alternate, steampunk universe. Fighting crime is The Ghost – not really a superhero, but instead someone with access to crazy technology that allows him to fly around town keeping a lid on the bad guys. When corpses begin showing up with Egyptian hieroglypics carved into their skin, and The Ghost's girlfriend isn't on the freighter from Egypt she was supposed to book passage on, he and NYPD detective Donovan must try to figure out what is going on before the body count gets any higher. Fun continuation of the Newbury & Hobbes universe.

"Song of the Lion"
by Anne Hillerman
Song of the LionIn her third continuation of her father's Navajo mystery series, Anne Hillerman strengthens her mastery of the characters. A car bomb goes off at a high school basketball game in Shiprock. Officer Bernie Manuelito, who was at the game, is first on scene – as she begins to investigate, alongside her husband, Officer Jim Chee, and her mentor, retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn, all three begin to realize that the pieces don't fit together.

"Color: A Natural History of the Palette"
by Victoria Finlay
Color: A Natural History of the PaletteA fun exploration of the histories of paints, dyes and inks – particularly looking at the traditional colors made from natural ingredients, in many cases chasing down knowledge that barely exists or has been lost. It's written in the style of Daniel Boorstin's "The Discoverers" - in which each chapter is self-contained, and the subject matters wanders in seemingly random directions based on each preceding section. It's a fun read, informative, and will stay with you after you're done.

"Let Me Off At the Top"
by Ron Burgundy
Let Me Off At the TopAn obviously brilliant inside look at perhaps the greatest TV newsman of his or any generation, and we're obviously talking hundreds of years, if not longer. If there's a complaint, it's that Burgundy glosses over the many celebrities who've stiffed him over the years, refusing to sit down for an interview with a veritable legend. Inquiring minds would likely wonder just why Hall of Fame race car driver Ricky Bobby, Olympic ice dancer Chazz Michael Michaels, R&B sensation turned basketball mogul Jackie Moon (who insisted his interview be with Bill Walton instead), or international fashion guru Jacobim Mugatu all said no to the biggest name in TV journalism since Walter Severaid. Sure, Burgundy had a sit-down one-on-one with Jesus – that's a big deal, I get it. But by only focusing on his triumphs, and not the bitter tears that made him the giant he is, readers only get half the story. WE DESERVE BETTER, RON BURGUNDY!

"Masked Dancers"
by Jean Hager
Masked DancersThe final entry in the Mitch Bushyhead series finds the half-Cherokee police chief trying to solve the murder of a game warden and the disappearance of the local school principal. His teenage daughter continues to grow into the young woman he and his late wife dreamed she would become, and a blossoming romance with a local doctor shows promise. His small police department – Virgil and Duck and Shelly and Helen – are all dealing with their issues, too. These are all wonderfully drawn characters, and if the dialogue is often clunky, the end of the series still feels a bit unfinished – as if in some alternate universe Bushyhead keeps patrolling the streets of mythical Buckskin, Oklahoma, waiting for us to drop by and catch up on everything that's been happening.

"None Braver"
by Michael Hirsh
None BraverIn the months and years after 9/11, Air Force Pararescue Jumpers – "PJs" – were sent to retrieve all kinds of U.S. and allied military service members wounded in combat. The call for assistance generally came while the combat was still raging. A former Vietnam War correspondent redeployed to Pakistan and Afghanistan to live among the PJs, and to record the stories of their missions when they returned to base. It is a moving, sad and yet inspirational set of vignettes about a branch of the service whose motto is "So that others may live."

"Fire Carrier"
by Jean Hager
Fire CarrierA local business leader who has just been reported for domestic violence by his wife's physician is found murdered after threatening to kill the doctor's assistant. Knowing about the abuse, the woman's brother has escaped from jail to protect his sister. There is no shortage of suspects for killing a man all agree deserved to die – but Police Chief Mitch Bushyhead still needs to find the person responsible.

by Jean Hager
GhostlandWell-written but disturbing entry in the Mitch Bushyhead series of Cherokee Nation mysteries – a young girl is found murdered in the woods near the boarding school she attended, with evidence she may have been molested. The subject matter makes for some tough reading, but the story is well told and the development of the recurring characters is well done.