Beach Reads for Shark Week!

shark, graffiti

photo: Alexis LêQuôc, creative commons license

We’re in the middle of Shark Week, and it’s prime season for heading to the shore. Beach vacations deserve beach reads. If you read the true story Close to Shore, you may decide to get your excitement sitting under an umbrella with your book and a piña colada, leaving the swimming to others. Even if it’s a staycation this year, these authors will leave you feeling sand in your shoes.

  • Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo – from before New Jersey’s sharks congregated at the state house—reportedly an inspiration for Jaws
  • Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard – a West Palm Beach/Miami stewardess tries to secure her fortune ahead of the Feds and the mob—made into the film Jackie Brown
  • Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen – down in the Florida Keys, Hiaasen’s typically hilarious collection of oddballs comes together after a faked auto accident
  • The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn – northern California surfing legends and an unsolved murder
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon – sheer craziness with SoCal beach-dweller and P.I. Doc Sportello, who works in a marijuana haze with a 60s soundtrack—the movie is impenetrable
  • The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers – 1920s Hawai`i, Charlie Chan, and the murder of a proper Bostonian—an old-fashioned classic
  • The Place of Refuge by Al Tucher – the dangerous assignments for two Hawaiian police detectives converge
  • The Beach by Alex Garland – a tourist searches for Thailand’s “perfect” beach in this suspenseful tale; his mistake may be finding it

Or, if you’re into real sharks, you can name a shark, track a tagged shark’s meanderings, and see where tagged sharks have been hanging out recently (orange dots). GPS tags ping when the dorsal fin breaks the ocean’s surface.


(photo: Nico Cavallotto, Creative Commons)



combustion, fire, wildfire

The King Fire; photo: US Forest Service Region 5, creative commons license

By Martin J. Smith – I guess it’s some kind of progress to see the growth in the number of crime novels and television series that give hardworking male police detectives a woman boss. And, perhaps it reflects even more progress that these female supervisors are allowed to have flaws, unlike the ever-understanding “Ma’am” in the Inspector Lewis shows.

In Martin J. Smith’s new police procedural, Detective Ron Starke works for the police department in the city of Los Colmas, in giant San Bernardino County, California’s Inland Empire. His new chief—grabbing a job he expected would be his—is Donna Kerrigan, recently divorced from a rich husband and an inveterate micromanager, who Starke thinks has “the people skills of a rattlesnake.”

Starke is a likeable detective, diligently trying to unravel what befell wealthy property developer Paul Dwyer. Dwyer’s body was found at the bottom of a rapidly evaporating pond adjacent to his most recent upscale housing development. He had a bullet in his brain and evidence suggested he’d been tortured. Starke has a history with the widowed Mrs. Dwyer, the magnate’s second wife, that goes back to high school and a brief romance.

When he interviews Shelby Dwyer and her daughter Chloe in their magnificent home, it’s quite a contrast to his down-market residence above the Suds-Your-Duds laundromat. Any number of people turn up as serviceable murder suspects. In fact, there may be too large a stack of possibilities, because the motives of them all can’t be developed to the extent that would make them truly credible.

There’s even a whiff of DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) concern about money-laundering for the Sinaloa drug cartel. This possibility prompted a couple of authorial essays about how the cartels work—interesting stuff that you might want to know about, but not necessary to the plot of this book, especially since that line of inquiry soon evaporates like the water in Dwyer’s containment pond.

Because this is a multiple point-of-view novel, you know things Starke does not. You know Shelby has sought relief from her unhappy marriage online, establishing a chatroom relationship with someone who calls himself LoveSick—ever supportive, ever kind, ever romantic. But who is he, really? Shelby has every urgent 21st century reason for wanting to know. I especially enjoyed Smith’s descriptions of the computer geeks Starke eventually deals with, as he tracks down Shelby’s missing hard drive. Those guys were entertainingly totally on their own wavelength—broadband, of course.

The blind forces of nature help bring matters to a head. A massive wildfire, driven by the Santa Ana winds, is bearing down on Los Colmas and the Dwyer development. In the middle of that fiery maelstrom, Smith’s protagonists face their ultimate challenges.

The fire proves unequivocally that, no matter how “in control” you think you are, some things are beyond you. I wish the author hadn’t overstuffed the narrative with tantalizing suspects and a couple of brief, early scenes with Starke’s ailing father, in care because of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was an interesting character and that was a relationship worth developing. Sequels?

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix, Thomas PynchonWhen this film (trailer) of a Thomas Pynchon novel was released in 2014, critics said it was undoubtedly the ONLY Pynchon book that could be corralled into a film. I’m a big Pychon fan—loved V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Mason & Dixon—but I started Gravity’s Rainbow three times and never got past page 100. So I can sympathize with the difficulties director Paul Thomas Anderson must have faced.

Joaquin Phoenix plays “Doc” Sportell, a private investigator subject to regular harassment from a police detective called Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta has taken up with a wealthy married property developer, and the developer’s wife wants her to cooperate in a plot to institutionalize him so she and her new boyfriend can raid his bank account. Then the magnate disappears. Doc uses is slight investigative skills to search for both the developer and Shasta in a stoner’s 1970s Southern California.

This set-up takes you down colorful and unexpected byways, which I couldn’t possibly reconstruct, and a multitude of stars provide performance gems: Owen Wilson as a mixed up dude-dad, afraid to leave the drug cult that’s captured him; Hong Chau as the hilariously matter-of-fact operator of a kinky sex club; Martin Short as a cradle-robbing dentist, with his clinic in a building shaped like a golden fang; Golden Fang itself, a mysterious criminal operation that . . . None of this probably matters. Neo-Nazi biker gangs, yogic meditation, stoners. You just have to go with it. Joaquin Phoenix, understandably, displays about a zillion different ways of looking confused.

If you have a taste for the absurd and what Movie Talk’s Jason Best calls “freewheeling spirit,” this is definitely the movie for you! I try to guess whether audiences or critics will like a movie better. Right on the money this time: Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 73%; audiences, 53%.

****The Water Knife

Lake Mead, drought, California

Echo Bay Marina, Lake Mead National Recreation Area (photo: James Marvin Phelps, Creative Commons license)

By Paolo Bacigalupi, narrated by Almarie Guerra – In the American Southwest, Nevada (specifically Las Vegas), Arizona, and California are battling over a dwindling water supply caused by climate change, population pressure, and brazen political brokering. So far, this story could be a repeat of the nightly news, right?

In this novel, however, the situation has escalated (as it well might IRL). States have declared their sovereignty, closed their borders, and enforce interstate transit with armed militias that shoot to kill. Zoners (Arizonans) have few ways to make a living, and those with weapons prey on the desperate poor. To have water is to be rich or, as the saying goes, “water flows toward money.” The wealthy have bought their way into “arcologies”—high-rise buildings with complex plant and aquatic ecosystems for recycling and recirculating virtually every drop of water.

In Las Vegas, the Cypress arcologies were built by Catherine Case, nicknamed the Queen of the Colorado River, and head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas is to some extent thriving, because of her cunning and cutthroat tactics. But Phoenix is dying.

Angel Velasquez, one of the book’s three protagonists, is an ex-prison inmate—smart, ruthless, a “water knife” who works for Catherine Case, cutting other people’s water supplies. Lucy Monroe is a Phoenix-based Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and social media star (#PhoenixDowntheTubes) who just might have a lead on some serious water rights, and Maria Villarosa is a highly disposable Texas refugee barely surviving in Phoenix and at the constant mercy of a brutal gang headed by “the Vet.” People who get on the Vet’s really bad side are thrown to his pack of hyenas.

The book’s opening sequence gives a taste of the winner-take-all mentality. Clever legal maneuvering has stalled the filing of a water rights appeal by Carver City, Arizona, giving the Nevada National Guard a window of a few hours to attack and destroy the citiy’s water supply infrastructure. With Angel in the unofficial lead, it does.

Before too much time passes, Angel, who has a boatload of false identities, must visit Phoenix to investigate the mutilation death of one of Catherine Case’s undercover operatives, and the plot really starts to flow. He finds Phoenix swimming with Calis—Californians also working undercover to assure that state’s gluttonous water requirements are met, regardless of the fate of everyone upriver. Before long, all the players are after the same thing—original water rights documents that would supersede everything on the books—and no one is sure who has them. This apocalyptic thriller is set in the not-too-distant future, and Bacigalupi takes real-life issues and situations several steps farther, adds in toxic intergovernmental rivalries and a healthy dose of greed, weaving them into an exciting, plausible, and thought-provoking tale.

While the story is a critique of a governmental environment in which local interests are allowed to trump regional and federal ones, it never reads like a political tract. And, while quite a bit is imparted about the issue of water rights and reclamation strategies, it isn’t a legal or scientific tome, either. It’s a thriller about a compelling trio of people with different motivations, different places in the water aristocracy, and different strategies for coping. The drought, dust, and poverty that envelop Angel, Lucy, and Maria and their cities affect everyone who lives there. The universal catastrophe turns Maria’s musing about how this desperate situation came about into a powerful warning: “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them.”

A lot of powerful straight journalism has been written recently about water rights, droughts, agricultural demand, and intergovernmental bickering about rights. In looking a few years forward, this important novel makes the stakes eminently—and memorably—clear.

Almarie Guerra does a solid narration, putting just the right Latino topspin on the Mexican voices. A slightly longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

Ripped from the Headlines Reading list:

“Rich Californians balk at limits: ‘We’re not all equal when it comes to water’” – The Washington Post, June 13, 2015
“In epic drought, California’s water cops get tough at last,” WIRED, June 16, 2015
“The Dying Sea: What will California sacrifice to survive the drought?” The New Yorker, May 4, 2015
“Where the river runs dry: The Colorado and America’s water crisis,” The New Yorker, May 25, 2015