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Over nearly four decades, I have written somewhere in the vicinity of 700 starred reviews for Booklist. One of the greatest virtues of the whole starred-review system is that it serves as a great memory booster for the longtime reviewer. I frankly admit that, of the well more than 3,000 books I’ve reviewed for this magazine, there are many that I don’t remember at all. But that’s not true with the stars. Scanning a list of my stars on Booklist Online (it’s not quite complete since some of the 700 were written before we automated), I can honestly say that I remember all of them. Even better, I remember them fondly, proving, at least, that I knew what I liked when I liked it, and I haven’t changed my mind.
As I scan that list, I do see quite a few titles that I haven’t thought about lately, which is why I’ve decided to devote this column to a handful of books that I’d very much like to think about again. Yes, this is largely a self-serving exercise but not, I hope, completely so. I’m certain that readers of Booklist are uniformly interested in discovering books and authors they’ve missed or being reminded of ones they’ve never managed to read. Maybe this ramble through a few stars I have known will give you the chance to do just that.
Let’s start with a couple of writers I haven’t heard from in a few years and am definitely missing: Mark Spragg and Erin Hart. I didn’t review Spragg’s first book, Where Rivers Change Direction (1999), a memoir about growing up on a dude ranch in Wyoming, but I did get my hands on his first novel, The Fruit of Stone (2002), and have been reading (and starring) him ever since. Spragg’s second novel, An Unfinished Life (2004), was made into a fine movie with Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Lopez, but his debut remains my favorite. It’s a charmingly peculiar road novel about two ranchers chasing a woman—the wife of one, the lover of the other—across the west. As in much of western fiction, Spragg finds poetry (and humor) in silence, revealing his characters’ depth of feeling in what they don’t say and how they don’t say it.
When I think of memorable first novels I’ve reviewed over the years, I always think of Erin Hart’s Haunted Ground (2003). The first in a series of mysteries starring an American pathologist and an Irish archaeologist, it launches with a stunning set piece in which two brothers “cutting turf” from a peat bog in the Irish countryside discover the decapitated head of a beautiful red-haired woman, perfectly preserved in the decay-resistant bog. Simultaneously, Hart breathes life into local history the way Graham Swift did in Waterland (1983); reinvents the du Maurier formula for gothic suspense; and brings new texture and psychological acuity to the usual suspects from the generic village mystery.
Here’s another way that starred reviews aid the discovery of books that have slipped through those pesky bibliographic wormholes in the vast literary universe. Often, after I’ve discovered a new author and starred one of his or her books, I’m compelled to backtrack and catch up on what I’ve missed, sometimes winding up writing one of Booklist’s Another Look At reviews on the gems I have found. Such was the case with Kent Harrington, a writer I believe to be criminally underappreciated. The first Harrington novel I read was the superb Red Jungle (2005), published by another sadly underappreciated figure in crime fiction, the irrepressible maverick Dennis McMillan. Red Jungle sent me back to Día de los Muertos (1997), which is, simply, one of the purest and most powerful examples of noir fiction ever written.
Set in Tijuana during Mexico’s Día de los Muertos celebration, Harrington’s novel takes us on a literal and metaphorical death march, as rogue DEA agent Vincent Calhoun and a motley crew of lost souls trapped in his orbit watch their lives spiral out of control. Harrington hits every note perfectly, from the blood-spurting eruptions of violence, to the dim chance of escape that keeps us hoping, and, above all, to the soul-deadening rot that hangs over the Tijuana landscape like tequila-soaked acid rain.
Leaving crime fiction behind, I’ll finish with a series of novels I think of as one of my greatest discoveries in a career of reviewing books: A. N. Wilson’s Lampitt Chronicles. Wilson, known for his wide-ranging biographies on everyone from Hitler to the apostle Paul, is also a fiction writer, and his five-novel series about English writer and actor Julian Ramsay is a marvel. My favorite of the bunch is probably A Bottle in the Smoke (1990), set in the 1950s, which finds Julian in London trying to write while hanging out with a crew of tipsy bohemians, but really the series needs to be taken as a whole to understand how Julian and his father’s obsession with the aristocratic Lampitt family, seemingly pure silliness, becomes a kind of metaphor for British life between the wars. The Lampitt novels possess the depth and resonance of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, and if you’ve been a reader of the Back Page over the years, you will know that, from me, there is no higher praise than that.
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