In this week’s reviews, we delve into three takes on the everlasting American obsession with crime and criminals. We start with Rob Deborde’s Portlandtown, which injects its paranormal underpinnings (and just “what is it with all this paranormal activity occurring in the Pacific Northwest?” asks reviewer Carla Riemer) with classic tropes from Western and Crime fiction and films, including a gun that never misses (just barely more paranormal than the seemingly endless array of “best guns in the West”), outlaws, marshals and more.
From Portland, we move east to 1930s Texas for a more realistic take on the Western. In fact, C. Joseph Greaves’s Hard Twisted is based on a true story of a murderer named Clint Palmer and his unwilling accomplice, 13-year-old Lucile Garrett. Greaves explains the process that led him from learning about the murders to writing the novel in a fascinating article, here.
Finally, we come to the present with Bill Roorbach’s Life Among Giants, in which the murder of the narrator’s parents is only the beginning of an intricate web of conspiracy and intrigue. At the same time, reviewer Sarah Flowers points at the the novel works as a character driven coming of age tale as well.
Since these novels hooks their crime stories to a variety of different genres (western, paranormal, historical, true crime, and bildungsroman) they should be excellent opportunities for crossover for teen fans of any of these genres.
DEBORDE, Rob. Portlandtown: A Tale of Oregon Wyldes. 384p. Griffin: St. Martin’s. 2012. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9781250006646.
Adult/High School–This paranormal Western features an undead man searching for his gun, a book of spells whose author is trying to retrieve it, the possessor of the book who is gradually succumbing to its power, a marshal who is digging up graves but can’t remember why, and the psychically skilled Wylde family. These characters come together in a story that is as creepy as it is enjoyable. The Hanged Man is an outlaw who was hung for his crimes and buried, but he didn’t die thanks to a curse from the wayward spell book. With the assistance of a man also bound by the curse, he makes his way out of the grave. They head to Portland, determined to retrieve the Hanged Man’s legendary gun that never misses and never needs reloading. This sets in motion a series of paranormal events coinciding with the Portland rain festival, which is relying on some otherworldly elements of its own. The rain festival turns into something bigger, wetter and more terrifying than anyone could have imagined; the dead are rising as quickly as the waters. This skillful blend of Old West, mystical activity, and other disparate elements works well. Though the ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, this is still a satisfying novel. Fans of paranormal fiction will appreciate Portlandtown’s innovative storytelling, a refreshing change in a genre that often lacks originality.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
GREAVES, C. Joseph. Hard Twisted. 304p. Bloomsbury. 2012. Tr $25. ISBN 9781608198559.
Adult/High School–Lottie Garrett, 13, is not ignorant of the ways of the world as she has been hoboing around dustbowl era Texas with her alcoholic father, but certainly by today’s standards she is naïve and an innocent when she meets Clint Palmer, who is in his late 30s. Lottie is forced via coercion or rape into Clint’s web, his bed, and ultimately his murderous crime spree. The remarkably accurate historical voice, including trial excerpts that start each chapter, will draw teens into this beautifully written fictionalized account of real western murders. Readers will hunger to know more of Lottie’s motives and thoughts as she seems relegated to the background of her own story, which seems appropriate to the ways in which girls and women were seen at the time. So, too, will the use of racial slurs jolt at first, but ultimately the language enriches the feeling of being there, in the West of the 1930s. The story crosses from Texas and Oklahoma to New Mexico and Utah. Lottie becomes pregnant and loses a baby, and Clint goes from somewhat charming to ever more scary and dangerous, and readers will hang on to the bitter end, trying to figure out exactly what happened and what will become of Lottie.–Jake Pettit, American School Foundation, Mexico City
ROORBACH, Bill. Life Among Giants. 333p. Algonquin. 2012. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-1-61620-076-3. LC 2012016965.
Adult/High School–When 17-year-old David “Lizard” Hochmeyer’s parents are gunned down in front of him, it is only one link in a chain that connects his family with that of the neighbors across the way in the palatial “High Side”: a famous (now-dead) rock star named Dabney and his ballerina wife, Sylphide. Moving back and forth between his teenage years in 1970s suburban Connecticut, his stint as a professional quarterback, and his post-football career as a restaurateur, Lizard narrates this tale of con artists, greed, love affairs, insanity, revenge, and exquisite cooking. Both Lizard’s and his sister Kate’s lives are dominated by the fact of their parents’ deaths, and by their respective obsessions with the residents of High Side. Lizard finds it difficult to have a permanent relationship because he is still fixated on Sylphide. Kate is certain that she knows the truth of a conspiracy behind their parents’ and Dabney’s deaths; Lizard is less certain, until the day his father’s former boss and the man Lizard recognizes as the shooter walk into Lizard’s restaurant together. When he discovers that the shooter is connected with Dabney and Sylphide, he becomes involved in a scheme to get revenge and find out the full truth about his father’s life and death. Full of memorable characters, this is an intriguing mystery as well as a moving coming-of-age story, comically absurd at times and touchingly tragic at others. Recommend it to older teens who like John Irving or Richard Russo or are just looking for a well-written, character-driven novel.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Library, CA