Books in Brief

Summer might be over—at least according to the calendar—but when there remain so many grand books to devour, the end of the season is no reason to stop your so-called summer reading. Here are some top choice books, ranging from the tender literary fiction of “Dear DeeDee” to the edge-of-your-seat thriller, “The Letter Keeper,” and topped off with a fine collection of noir short stories in “Miami Noir: The Classics.” Read on!

 Dear DeeDee” by Kat Meads

 Dear DeeDee (Regal House Publishing, 2020) by Kat Meads revives the epistolary novel to grand effect. The structure is that Aunt K, a Southerner by attitude and upbringing but now a West Coast resident, writes to her imaginary niece to explain about family, life, and perhaps most of all, to explain herself. In her own words, Aunt K is “an ardent sentimentalist, overly attached to childhood panoramas and visions,” but she is of course much more than that.

Often poignant, frequently witty, deliciously irreverent, always eloquent, this novel reads gently and tenderly. While it is without the wild ride of a thriller, it is a moving story, and the plotline is there in the many letters of Aunt K to niece DeeDee. Filled with family lore, the book in so many ways is about a woman finding herself in a world less than welcoming at times: “Happy childhoods loom large in your grandmother’s consciousness because hers wasn’t.” As Aunt K writes, “Until the age of twenty-seven, your aunt (fruitlessly) worked to appear less eccentric than she incorrigibly is. At twenty-eight, she belatedly recalibrated. A fancy way of saying I came round to: f*** that s***.”

Scattered throughout in seemingly the best places, the author quotes literary figures to illustrate her points and this device works quite well. For example, in discussing a Southern locale, she writes, “‘The whole concept of place is dead and it’s nostalgia to cling to it,’ William Burroughs once squawked (and not in the throes of a heroin high).”

The humor is there, however subtle in spots, and has a decidedly Southern ping to it. For example, Aunt K writes, “In future, should you run short of dog names, consider browsing the branches of your dad’s family tree: Moody, Benoni, Butler, Carrie, Attie, Althea.”

The book is divided into twelve sections with headings like “Attics. Paper(s). Everyone I Loved.” and “Fatalism. Faith. A Cow.”  All in all, charming, delightful, witty, insightful, and just plain old-fashioned fun to read, this book deserves a far wider audience than it appears to have.

An award-winning author, Kat Meads has written twenty books and chapbooks of poetry and prose. She has received writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, and the California Arts Council. Her short plays have been staged in New York and Los Angeles.

The Letter Keeper” by Charles Martin

New York Times bestselling author Charles Martin continues his well-received Murphy Shepherd series with The Letter Keeper (Thomas Nelson, 2021), the second in a trilogy. The Murphy Shepherd books borrow from the best thriller traditions, with more than a hint of international intrigue, edge-of-your-seat drama, fast moving plotlines, adventure—and all with long odds stacked against the hero.

The protagonist, Murphy Shepherd, though credentialed as a priest, is not a practicing clergy. Rather than preach sermons, he rescues children and teens caught in the human trafficking horrors. There are moments when he borders on a super-human, super-hero in the action, but his true humanity shines through in a realistic fashion. More of his back story is revealed in The Letter Keeper, completing to a deeper degree what readers learned of him in the prior book.

In the Letter Keeper, human trafficking strikes too close to home when Murphy’s new wife Summer (introduced in the first book in the series, The Water Keeper) is taken along with her daughter Angel, plus Ellie and Casey, two teen girls with deep, emotional ties to Murphy. While Murphy had hoped to protect Summer and the girls in a secured hide-away in the Colorado mountains aptly named Freetown, things go violently awry. Murphy has a team of helpmates, including the wealthy, mysterious Bones, an aging ex-con; wily, loyal Clay; and the ever-faithful dog Gunner. The women and teen girls are themselves quite brave and resourceful. But even this strong team faces more dead ends, seemingly impossible odds, and expanding danger than they face hopeful avenues of rescue.

The main villain is as sinister as any in current literature and is described early on as “the owner of the second largest pornography company in the world. He employs several thousand people who canvas the planet for young, fresh ‘talent’ and he has single-handedly bought and sold more flesh than possibly anyone in modern human history.” While the protagonist and the antagonist tend to be clear cut examples of good and evil, the author is talented and creates enough nuances to keep them convincing and riveting.

All in all, this is a well-written, dramatically plotted novel of suspense with a strong moral center, evincing faith without being preachy. It is, after all, a publication of Thomas Nelson, a spiritual-based imprint of HarperCollins.

One caveat—it is best to view the Murphy Shepherd books as serials not stand-alone books in a series. Martin seemingly starts this story in the middle, with casual references to people and events that happened in the prior book, The Water Keeper, which can be confusing. However, that’s really not a problem because these are books readers will want to devour from the first to the last.

Martin is perhaps best known for The Mountain Between Us, which was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and is the author of sixteen other novels.

Miami Noir: The Classics” edited by Les Standiford

Miami Noir: The Classics (Akashic Noir, 2020) is a compelling and imminently readable collection of short stories set in and around Miami, all with that dark tinge and tingle of noir and crime stories. Miami, with its cultural clashes and cocaine-wars and glitzy glamour, is a perfect setting for such a collection. Edited by Les Standiford, Miami Noir: The Classics contains nineteen short stories divided into these four parts: Original Gangsters; Perilous Streets, Lethal Causeways, Miami’s Vices, and Gators & Ghouls.  The book contains classic noir fiction from notable authors: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Elmore Leonard, Lester Dent, Zora Neale Hurston, Brett Halliday, Damon Runyon, Edna Buchanan, James Carlos Blake, Douglas Fairbairn, Charles Willeford, T.J. MacGregor, Lynne Barrett, Les Standiford, Preston L. Allen, John Dufresne, Vicki Hendricks, Christine Kling, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, and David Beaty.

A stand-out in the well-received, award-winning, and popular Akashic Noir Series, which now includes over seventy-two books and counting, Miami Noir aptly illustrates why Florida—and Miami in particular—is the perfect setting for crime novels, thrillers, and noir tales. As Les Standiford wrote in his introduction, “When terrible things threaten in some ominous neighborhoods, in some tough cities, a reader of a story set in those locales might be forgiven for expecting the worst; but when calamity takes place against the backdrop of paradise, as we have here in Miami, the impact is all the greater.”

Most of the selections were originally written as short stories, but Hurston’s contribution is a excepts from Their Eyes Were Watching God. All in all, an excellent collection of Florida crime and noir fiction from some of the best authors writing in these genres. A “can’t miss” book for readers of mysteries, thrillers, crime, and Florida fiction—and anyone who enjoys a great, exciting read.

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