The Bookshelf: Part 3 of 3 . . .

Bookshelf

What follows is the third and final part of my annual Bookshelf piece, a Larsonthumbnail look at some of the books I have read in the past year. Hopefully, you will find something you want to read or to purchase as a gift. . . .

As for the 10 books that I most enjoyed this year, here they are, in alphabetical order . . .

The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport — by Rafi Kohan

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, by Rachel Maddow

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Gloves Off: 40 Years of Unfiltered Sports Writing, by Lowell Cohn

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

The Jordan Rules, by Sam Smith

The Rhythm Section, by Mark Burnell

The Splendid and the Vile: A Sage of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Bliz, by Erik Larson

The Wax-Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife — Brad Balukjian

And now here is Part 3 of 3, and thanks for reading . . .

The Neon Rain — This is No. 6 in author James Lee Burke’s terrific books that follow the exploits of Dave Robichaux, a Vietnam veteran who now is a police detective in New Orleans. In this one, Robichaux discovers the body of a young prostitute on a river bank and from there, well, he runs into all kinds of uglies. Burke’s writing carries these books to great heights; in fact, when he writes about bayou country and the heat and humidity, the sweat almost forms on your forehead and runs off the tip of your nose.

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Nightwork — Douglas Grimes, a pilot grounded by an eye problem, now is a night clerk in a fleabag hotel, who doesn’t hold out much hope for the future. Until he stumbles on a body and $100,000. In time, he makes his way to Europe and the adventures begin. This book, by Irwin Shaw, isn’t loud and obnoxious, like you might think it would be. It just flows along, quietly and enjoyably.

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Nine Innings — The Baltimore Orioles played the host Milwaukee Brewers in just another American League game on June 10, 1982. Author Daniel Okrent took that one game and dissected it, then used it to tell all kinds of baseball stories. Nine Innings was published in 1985, but it still is a marvellous read.

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Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit — Matt McCarthy, an Ivy Leaguer out of Yale, was selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 21st round of MLB’s 2002 draft. A southpaw pitcher, he played one year as a pro — he went to training camp with the Angels and was assigned to the Pioneer League’s Provo Angels. This book, published in 2009, is the story of that season. McCarthy tells it like it was, too, as testosterone- and adrenaline-fuelled young men spend a summer in Mormon country. There’s a cultural divide in the locker room, too, as the American players don’t mix with those from the Dominican Republic. McCarthy’s telling of the night Larry King — yes, that Larry King — and family were in the ballpark is worth the price of admission.

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100 Things Roughriders Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die — If you are a follower of the Saskatchewan Roughriders or just an average CFL fan, this book is for you. Author Rob Vanstone, the sports columnist at the Regina Leader-Post, has been following the Roughriders for more than 50 years, first as a young fan, most recently as a sports journalist. He is a walking, talking Roughriders encyclopedia — I know because I used to work with him — and he has gotten it all down between the covers of this book.

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One Minute Out — In the ninth book in author Mark Greaney’s series that follows the Gray Man, an assassin who actually is a good guy, he is in hot pursuit of the Consortium, a world-wide organization that profits from sex trafficking. Good escapism.

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Prince of Fire: This is No. 5 in author Daniel Silva’s series that follows the adventures of Gabriel Allon, who longs to be able to focus on being perhaps the world’s greatest restorer of classic art but, in truth, is an Israeli assassin. In order for something like this to work, you need a likeable leading man, and that’s the case in these books. Prince of Fire isn’t an exception. . . . I also read The English Assassin (2), The Confessor (3), A Death in Venice (No. 4), The Secret Servant (7), The Defector (9), The Heist (14), The Black Widow (16) and The New Girl (19). . . . The Confessor, which involves the Catholic Church, the Second World War and the Holocaust, was especially good.

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Red Metal — Written by Mark Greaney and H. Ripley (Rip) Rawlings IV, this is strictly a war novel with a mine in Kenya at its core. It’s full of all kinds of action and all kinds of battles as the U.S. ends up in conflict with Russia while wondering if China is next on the list. This book isn’t boring. Not at all. Greaney is the author of The Grey Man books; Rawlings is a former United States Marine Corps infantry and reconnaissance officer.

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Red Robinson: The Last Deejay — Red Robinson was a pioneer among North American disc jockeys, spinning the hits on Vancouver radio stations while still in high school. During the course of his career, he met a lot of celebrities — Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and a whole lot more — as he emceed and promoted all kinds of shows. Unfortunately, author Robin Brunet spends too much time on Robinson’s career as an advertising executive and not enough on stories about Robinson and his starry friends.

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The Rhythm Section — Stephanie Patrick lost her parents and a sister in the crash of a passenger jet that, as it turns out, wasn’t an accident. Author Mark Burnell takes Patrick on quite a journey and a few name changes and personalities, from the brink of a drug-induced death to a world of international intrigue, and it’s all oh, so readable. This book, Burnell’s first novel, was published in 1999, something that, considering where the story goes and where history took us after that year, no doubt will surprise the reader.

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The Splendid and the Vile: A Sage of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz — What a slam-bang of a book this is! A work of non-fiction that relies a lot on diaries — did everyone in England keep a diary in the 1940s? — it follows Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the Germans, having taken France, launch a horrendous air attack on London and other British cities. By using the entries from a variety of diaries, author Erik Larson allows the reader to feel the intensity and the emotions of a country under siege. Brilliant! . . . This was the best book I read in 2020.

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Tear It Down — It’s easy to read one of author Nick Petrie’s books that features ex-Marine Peter Ash and make comparisons to writer Lee Child and his creation, Jack Reacher. So let’s just say that if you like the Reacher books, you will enjoy Ash’s exploits. Tear It Down is the fourth in the Ash series and each one of them is good escapism.

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Walking Shadow — This is No. 21 in author Robert B. Parker’s series featuring Spenser, a private detective with a crackling wit. Come for a mystery and stay for the repartee between Spenser, Hawk, the friend, bodyguard and confidante, and Susan Silverman, Spenser’s psychologist gal pal. If you are looking for a few hours of escapism, you can almost always count on Spenser and that’s the case here. It all starts with an actor being shot while onstage . . .

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The Wax-Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife — Brad Balukjian opened a pack of Topps 1986 baseball cards, then spent the summer of 2015 trying to visit each of the 14 players whose cards he discovered. (Fourteen? The 15th card was a checklist.) This is the story of that summer. It was a terrific idea and Balukjian executes it to perfection — like a neatly turned 6-4-3 double play.

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The Wild One — The fifth book in author Nick Petrie’s series that follows the adventures of longer Peter Ash takes the reader to Iceland and into horrific weather as he searches for a young boy who might have some key numbers embedded in his photographic memory. It’s been said before, like three titles earlier on this list, but if you’re a Jack Reacher fan, you’ll like this series, too.

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Here’s what they call a buzzer-beater for you. I found time on Saturday to finish Al Strachan’s Hockey Hot Stove: The Untold Stories of the Original Insiders. If you remember when the Hot Stove was appointment viewing during Saturday night’s second intermission on Hockey Night in Canada, you will enjoy this book. I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but there are a lot of anecdotes about the ‘Original Insiders,’ along with a pile of behind-the-scenes stuff involving the show. Yes, Strachan, who was the star of the show whether you want to admit it or not, deals with his disappearance, too.

That’s it for another year. . . . Enjoy reading!

The Bookshelf: Part 2 of 3 . . .

Bookshelf

What follows is Part 2 of a three-part look at some of the books I have read over the past 12 months. Before we get to those, here are a handful of suggestions from the thumbnails that appeared here a year ago. If you haven’t read these, you can’t go wrong with any of them:

Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, by Mark Leibovich

Bower: A Legendary Life, by Dan Robson

Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, by Jeff Pearlman

Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Face-off Over the NHL, by David Shoults

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner

The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West, by John Branch

Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other, by Ken Dryden

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman (but only if you already have read Backman’s Beartown)

Now here is Part 2 of this year’s bookshelf . . .

Gloves Off: 40 Years of Unfiltered Sports Writing: Lowell Cohn, now retired, had a lengthy career as a sports columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press Democrat. This is his look back at some of the people he dealt with and things that he witnessed. He doesn’t pull any punches as he writes about his career; no, it’s not a compilation of columns. I’m a sucker for books of this type, but this one really is an entertaining read.

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The Good Earth: My mother was a reader and I can remember seeing Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth in a bookcase at home. But I can’t explain why I hadn’t read it before the summer of 2020. Published in 1931, it follows the life of a Chinese farmer and his family through more than 50 years of change, and it always returns to the importance of owning land. It won a Pulitzer Prize so I don’t need to tell you how good it is — but it’s great. It also is the first book in Buck’s House of Earth trilogy, the other two being Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935).

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The Gray Man — This is the book that started the legend of The Gray Man, aka Courtland Gentry. He’s an assassin who at one time worked for the CIA but most times freelances. In his debut, there is a bounty on his head, and he faces down a dozen kill squads, but not without paying a price. Author Mark Greaney has created a likeable leading man, and the excitement is palpable between the front and back covers.

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The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior — With help from writer Kevin Allen, then of USA TODAY, former hockey enforcer Stu Grimson told his story in a book that came out in the autumn of 2019. The book’s title is a touch misleading because Grimson, who had about 400 fights combined in major junior and the NHL, doesn’t seem to regret any of it. That may seem a bit strange seeing as he was forced into retirement by post-concussion syndrome. Anyway, he provides some valuable insight into the thought-process of NHL heavyweights — their anxieties and fears, both for the present and the future. Grimson, who was adopted, also opens up about his personal life, including a surprising introduction to his birth father.

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The Guardians — Cullen Post is a lawyer/minister who spends more time lawyering than preaching. His lawyering is aimed at correcting wrongful convictions and the group he works with, Guardian Ministeries, has had some successes. This book, by the prolific John Grisham, is about one of those cases, and a whole lot more. It’s good Grisham and the genesis, unfortunately, was a true story, as the author informs us at book’s end.

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The Huntress — I absolutely loved The Alice Network, and The Huntress is every bit as good, if not better. Both books were written by Kate Quinn. The Huntress is the story of two young men who pursue war criminals and are brought together with a Night Witch, a woman who was part of a female crew that flew night bombing missions for the Russians during the Second World War. The hunters’ latest target is a woman in Boston, who isn’t what she is trying hard to be. There are great characters and much intrigue here. You won’t be disappointed.

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The Jordan Rules — I don’t have any idea why I hadn’t read Sam Smith’s book prior to May. I finally read it while taking breaks from watching The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan, co-starring the Chicago Bulls, on Netflix. Smith, a writer with the Chicago Tribune, details the Bulls’ 1990-91 season. As the Bulls run to their first NBA title, the reader is left to decide whether The Jordan Rules was the name for the way the Detroit Pistons played defence on Jordan or how his teammates came to feel about what dictated life with the Bulls. If you haven’t read this, it’s great. Interestingly, Smith now writes for the Bulls’ website.

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Major Misconduct: The Human Cost of Fighting in Hockey — Author Jeremy Allingham, a reporter with CBC in Vancouver, takes an in-depth look at the post-hockey lives of three former enforcers — James McEwan, Stephen Peat and Dale Purinton — and what he uncovers isn’t at all pretty. Interestingly, all three got their starts as enforcers in the WHL, a major junior league that has yet to ban fighting. This is a horrifying look at life after hockey fights and should be read by anyone involved in junior hockey — from fans to parents to executives.

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The Mighty Oak — Tim O’Connor is the fighter — goon — for the West Texas Hockey League’s El Paso Storm. But his best days are behind him and he’s feeling it all over. O’Connor, whose nickname is Oak, hasn’t yet come to grips with the fact that a hip and a shoulder and a whole let else have him headed for hockey’s junk heap. He’s hoping the Oxy and Toradol and Adderall and whatever else is available will get him through it. Then he punches a cop. Author Jeff W. Bens has written an engrossing character study of a hockey enforcer trying to find a way back into a previous life.

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Mission Critical — I had heard of author Mark Greaney and his Gray Man books, but I hadn’t ready any of them until this one, which is No. 8 in the series. Court Gentry is The Gray Man; he also is an assassin, code name Violator. In Mission Critical, Violator is working for the CIA and there is a lot of nastiness happening in a paperback that runs 706 pages. But it is readable and it is fun.

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Mohawk — I don’t know if there is an author who captures small-town life in all of its idiosyncrasies like Richard Russo. Such is the case, again, in Mohawk as he follows a handful of citizens through the routine of their daily lives and stays with them as they deal with life’s ups and downs. Mohawk was published in 1986 and it is as great today as it was then.

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Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World! — A member of the U.S. freestyle ski team suffers a career-ending injury and ends up running high stakes poker games in Los Angeles and, later, in New York City. This is the story of how Molly Bloom did all of that and more. She spills some of the beans in anecdotes that involve players like actors Tobey Maguire, who comes out rather poorly, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, and some Russian gangsters. The obscene amounts of money thrown around in these games prove only that some people have no idea how the rest of us live. In the end, though, it all comes crashing down. Unfortunately, the book ends before the end, which is the part where Bloom pleads guilty to federal charges. You’ll have to turn to Google to find out what happened in court.

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Next: Part 3 of 3.

The Bookshelf: Part 1 of 3

Bookshelf

There are at least three people who stop off here on a regular basis and have asked in the past few days about the annual book list. Well, it’s here. . . . I have done this for a while now, writing thumbnails on books I have read over the previous 12 months. Perhaps this will help with your Christmas shopping or your own Christmas list. . . . And whatever you do, don’t forget to treat yourself!

As for the books on my Christmas list, you can start with Barack Obama’s A Promised Land; Finding Murph, by Rick Westhead; Broken, a collection of short stories by Don Winslow; and James McBride’s best-selling and award-winning Deacon King Kong. . . . Yes, you also can include The Sentinel, the latest in Jack Reacher’s adventures; Michael Connelly’s The Law of Innocence; and A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham. . . . I also had Al Strachan’s Hockey Hot Stove: The Untold Stories of the Original Insiders on the list, but I cheated and purchased it earlier this week. . . . And I eagerly await Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player. The story of Fred Sasakamoose, who died last week, it is to be published on April 6. . . . But enough of that . . . here’s the first of three parts of this year’s Bookshelf . . .

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Agent in Place — This is another Gray Man novel by Mark Greaney. I will tell you that the first chapter grabs you and before you know you’re 30 chapters in, and I will leave it at that. . . . Agent in Place is No. 7 in Greaney’s ultra-successful series.

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The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport — Rafi Kohan, a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York City, has given us a really intriguing look at the arena/stadium/sports facility game. He visited numerous facilities and saw the nooks and crannies, and he wrote about all of it. From the huge food service crew for a New York Mets game at Citi Field, to the end of the days for the Pontiac Silverdome, the Olympic facilities in Utah and a whole lot more . . . it’s all here in an engrossing and ultra-informative read.

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The Black Russian — Frederick Bruce Thomas was born in 1872 in Mississippi. He would go on to become an entertainment mogul in Moscow and later in Constantinople. Author Vladimir Alexandrov tells Thomas’s story between the covers of this book, and it’s an amazing tale. In places like Moscow and Constantinople, Thomas, a Black American, rarely had to deal with a colour line, but it was a different story when it came to politics and upheavals.

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Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth — This book, written by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, opens with the opening of a gas station in Manhattan and before you know it you’re drawn into what is a stunningly good read. It’s about the oil and gas industry and I guarantee that you will never fill up your car again without thinking about what you read here. You also will have your socks blown off by the amount of money that is in play; you may have heard or seen figures before, but not like what you will read about here. However, if there is a thread here, it is Vladimir Putin and his rise to power. Scary and amazing, all at the same time.

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Blue Moon — Jack Reacher finds himself between Albanian and Ukrainian gangs in Lee Child’s latest book — it’s No. 24 — on the vagabond former military cop who roams the United States righting wrongs as he travels. If you are a Reacher fan, or even if you aren’t familiar with him, you’ll enjoy this one as he eliminates two camps.

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The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood — It was one of the milestone films in big screen history, and author Sam Wasson’s book is just as good. Wasson shapes the book around screenwriter Robert Towne, director Roman Polanski, and actors Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson as he writes about the before, during and aftermath of Chinatown. Good stuff!

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Burke’s Law: A Life in Hockey — Hockey lifer Brian Burke tells his story, with the help of Stephen Brunt, a former newspaper columnist who, like Burke, now is at Rogers Sportsnet. This book is about what you might expect from Burke — loud, obscene and opinionated. It is interesting how he claims on more than one occasion that “white noise” from the media never bothered him, but he then spends a lot time ripping into those same media types. I would have liked a bit more inside dope on the NHL-NHLPA battles, but it wasn’t to be.

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California Fire and Life — If you haven’t yet discovered author Don Winslow through his drug wars trilogy — The Power of the Dog, The Cartel and The Border — get thee to a book store. After that, go back and start reading Winslow’s earlier stuff. California Fire and Life is an insurance company; Jack Wade is an insurance claims investigator. There is a fire and, of course, not all is as it seems. There are good guys and bad guys, and Winslow’s writing.

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Circe — Oh my, what an interesting book! It’s a novel based on Greek mythology. Admittedly, the only time I have an interest in that subject is in the odd crossword puzzle. But author Madeline Miller can write — oh, can she! — and she really brings the subject to life. Circe, a daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god, and Perse, a sea nymph, is banished to an island where she learns all about witchcraft. Give this one a look; you won’t be disappointed.

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The Colorado Kid — Written and marketed in the style of pulp fiction that once was hugely popular — hello there, Mickey Spillane — it is easy to tell that author Stephen King, he of horror fame, had fun with this one. It’s a quick read and it’s different, as you will discover if you give it a try. The story involves two veteran small-town newspapermen relating a local murder mystery to an intern, with some terrific dialogue. King also had fun burying some pearls of wisdom along the way.

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Fair Warning — Chances are that If you are a reader of any kind you have a favourite writer or two or even six. That being the case, you trust your favourites to deliver for you. That’s exactly what Michael Connelly does time after time. In Fair Warning, he brings back journalist Jack McEvoy for a third time, and this time he’s tracking a serial killer.

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Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles — I always was of the belief that Walter O’Malley picked up his Brooklyn Dodgers and moved them to Los Angeles in 1957 because he was a greedy old you know what. It turns out I was wrong. As author Michael D’Antonio details in Forever Blue, O’Malley badly wanted to stay in Brooklyn, but with the dawning of the automobile era he needed a ball park with parking. O’Malley was prepared to build the facility with his own money, but he needed land. In Brooklyn, he was up against Robert Moses, who was unelected but immensely powerful. Ultimately, O’Malley came to realize he wasn’t going to get the help he needed. Through it all, city officials from Los Angeles were courting him, all of which finally paid off. . . . I’m a sucker for baseball books from this era, and this one didn’t disappoint.

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The Girl in Saskatoon: A Meditation on Friendship, Memory and Murder — Alexandra Wiwcharuk was 23 years of age in May of 1962 when she was murdered alongside the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon. The murder hasn’t been solved. Author Sharon Butala, who attended school with Wiwcharuk but was hardly what one would call a close friend, decided to write a book about it and, she hoped, come up with some answers. When she was done she had a book that was more about growing up in Saskatoon, at the time a little city that also was growing up, and all that came with it. Butala can write, and this is good, really good. . . . BTW, The Girl in Saskatoon is a seldom-heard Johnny Cash tune. You’ll have to read the book to find out the back story.

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The Girl Who Lived Twice — This is another in the series of books about the adventures of Lisbeth Salander. Author David Lagercrantz had done an admirable job of picking up where the late Stieg Larsson left off. This one is a bit — OK, quite a bit — different than the earlier ones, in that it involves a Sherpa and an Everest expedition as key plot elements. I would have liked to have had more Salander, but, then, that’s all part of the mystery, isn’t it?

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NEXT: Part 2 of 3.

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