Book Review: The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Blurb:

Seven years after a financial crisis nearly toppled America, traders chafe at government regulations, racial tensions are rising, and corrupt financiers make back-door deals with politicians… 1799 was a hell of a year.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, America recovered from the financial panic of 1792, but the young country is still finding its way. When a young lawyer returns to prove his father’s innocence, he exposes a massive financial fraud that the perpetrators are determined to keep secret at any cost. And reaching the highest levels, the looming crisis could topple the nation.

This is an incredibly well researched book. Hirsch has delved deeply into 18th century New York, and he brings all the details–the sights, smells, and people, to vivid life in this richly textured mystery story.

Unfortunately, while he has a vivid eye for detail, the pacing of the story seems unequal to Hirsch’s vision. Events string along one after the other, slowly moving the plot along, some even seeming to serve little purpose. For me, the slow-moving and meandering plot overshadowed the carefully crafted setting.

Hirsch is a journalist, and has a journalist’s eye for detail and truth. Fiction is a whole different animal, and talent with non-fiction subjects does not automatically translate to prowess with fictional ones. That being said, Hirsch is clearly a talented writer, and this story marks his first foray into writing fiction. Future endeavors may even out the pacing of his plots, and tighten up wandering storylines. If so, he will likely be a talent to watch.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Love Give Us One Death by Jeff P. Jones

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Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days by Jeff P. Jones

Jones is careful to emphasize the fiction portion of this Bonnie and Clyde tale. While many points of this lyrically-written historical fiction are taken from first-hand accounts, Jones brings the two young lovers to life in a way that is entirely his own. Considering how Bonnie and Clyde have entered into the realm of American legend, perhaps this approach is is the one to take.

The story weaves from the beginning of their fiery relationship to their deaths on a country back road in Louisiana. The format is more poetry than novel. Screenplays, transcripts, poems, songs, comic strips, police transcripts, journal entries, and letters are scattered throughout the story, most are Jones’ creations. The prose itself waxes poetic, turning the book into something of a ballad.

Jones sets Bonnie and Clyde’s tale against the real-life post apocalyptic wasteland of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl. Poverty, massive storm fronts, and the sense that the world is coming to an end (which is what it certainly must have felt like in the Midwest during the 1930s) roll into one chaotic fervor that mirrors the anarchy of Bonnie and Clyde.

I would recommend this book for historical fiction fans who don’t mind a bit of a dense read. The rhythm of the prose takes some getting used to, and it is slow to get started. Once you get into it though, you begin to appreciate the unique voice Jones has provided for his two antiheroes.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. Love Give Us One Death is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton

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Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton

Cajun Waltz is a Greek tragedy with roots deep in black delta soil. The story begins with Richard (Richie) Bainard, a white musician from Texas who finds himself in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1928. Richie is a bit of a shiftless layabout, thinking about getting out of the music business and into something a bit more profitable. A chance encounter with the spinster daughter of the local dry goods store seems to offer him a way out, and a violent encounter with some good old boys after a performance with a black musician cements his choice. Richie marries the spinster and finds himself heir to a burgeoning retail empire.

Unfortunately, with a small taste of power and control, we find that Richie Bainard is not exactly a very good person. He is a violent and unfaithful drunk, terrorizing his family, friends, and mistress.

Like any good Greek tragedy, the sins of the father carry forward to the next generation. Here we have the twins: Bonnie, cold and pathologically calculating, and R.J., shiftless and casually violent. And then there is Seth, Bonnie and R.J.’s half brother, partially blinded and crippled in an accident as a child, trying to feel his way free of his poisonous family. Also exiting and entering the plot are the Bainards’ hangers-on, enemies, and victims, everyone’s stories weaving in and out of one another to form a tapestry of a dysfunctional family.

This book is the fictional debut of history writer Robert H. Patton. His style reflects his past; Cajun Waltz is written in the style of novelized nonfiction, and Patton draws on actual historical events and people to give the story bite. In the style of southern gothic tragedy, all the characters in Cajun Waltz (even the protagonists, such as they are) are deeply flawed, and occasionally difficult to sympathize with.The book being set in the 1920s through the 1950s, the issue of race indeed comes up, but is largely discarded later in the book. The book also features two women prominently: Bonnie Bainard (daughter of Richie) and Adele (one of the family’s victims) who choose very different (and not necessarily successful) routes to deal with the casual misogyny (and violence) of both their era, and the Bainard family.

In all, this book is a quick read and difficult to put down once started. I think it speaks well of the author’s characters when I want to reach through the page and slap/strangle a few of them. History buffs, or those into historical fiction will enjoy this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the author via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.Cajun Waltz is currently available for purchase.

 

 

Book Review: Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free by John Ferling

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Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free by John Ferling

This sweeping history focuses not on America’s War for Independence, but on the decade or so before independence was declared. With the French and Indian War over by 1763, Great Britain found itself with a massive war debt, accumulated for the protection of its colonies in America. In order to raise revenue, the British ministry decided to levy a series of taxes on its colonies, perhaps the most infamous of these being The Stamp Act of 1765.

The taxes were wildly unpopular with the American colonists, not least because they had no representation in the British ministry. Protests to the Stamp Act and other taxes enacted by Parliment were met with fierce resistance. Mobs gathered in city streets, leading colonists took to pen and paper, writing tracts decrying the British government for denying their right as British citizens to determine their own destiny.

From these first days in 1765, when for many the main goal of their protest was reconciliation with the motherland, until the hot days of early July, 1776, when independence seemed like an inevitability, Ferling leads us along the path the Founding Fathers took towards declaring the United States its own country. He takes us through the debates in the British Parliment and the arguments between the members of the Continental Congress. The bloody battles and confrontations between the Redcoats and the Continental Army and the political wrangling of the nascent government in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This is a well-written, thoroughly researched book. My only caveat is this: this is a history book. This is not a novel. You will learn a great deal from this book, and Ferling does try to leaven his writing with humor on occasion, but this is first and foremost a history book. Ferling’s goal is to tell us as much as he can, as accurately as he can, and a fair amount of dryness is the inevitable result. I recommend this book to any history buff (Revolutionary or otherwise), or anyone who wants to learn about the path the United States took towards becoming independent.