Cowboys on Surfboards

Cowboys on surfboards. That’s my thumbnail for Don Winslow’s The Gentlemen’s Hour, the second of two novels featuring San Diego surfer slash private investigator Boone Daniels (the first is The Dawn Patrol).

I put “surfer” first for a reason. Boone’s the California version of an Alaskan bush pilot. No matter what his day job is, brain surgeon, governor, master mechanic, when you ask him what he is, his first response is always “Pilot.”

For Boone, the PI business just keeps him in board wax. This time around there’s a lot going on in his day job, starting with working for the defense of the worthless little skinhead who killed the god of the beach, Kelly Kuhio, which does not endear Boone to his early morning board buddies, aka the Dawn Patrol. There is the stricken husband hiring Boone to tail his adulterous wife, and the inopportune appearance of Cruz Inglesias, head of one of the biggest and most vicious drug cartels operating on the border. There are distressingly flat seas and disastrous sinkholes and blond bombshell receptionists and crooked records clerks and even crookeder real estate developers and coitus interruptus and coitus finally efficere. Winslow is just one of the best plotting authors around (see The Death and Life of Bobby Z if you don’t believe me) and however improbably, all of these plot strands are gathered together and knotted securely in an epic fistfight, on a beach, naturally.

But what I really love about this novel is the voice. Here’s Boone setting the scene in the first chapter and, not coincidentally, snapshotting the plot as well:

…Like water, earth is always moving. You can’t necessarily see it, you might not feel it, but it’s happening anyway. Beneath our feet, tectonic plates are shifting, faults are widening, quakes are tuning up to rock and roll…Face it — whether we know it or not, we’re all always surfing.

Here’s Boone talking about surfers going all Robert Ardrey over their beach:

It’s not that they’re just taking his water, it’s that they’re taking his life. Without that Rockpile break, what he is is a drywaller, a roofer, a karate instructor in a strip mall. With that break, he’s a surfer, a Rockpile surfer, and it means something.

Here’s Boone channeling Skink on real estate developers:

Generally speaking, Boone would have every real estate developer in Southern California put on a bus and driven over the cliff, if it wouldn’t kill the bus driver. If he can find a bus-driving real estate developer, though, it’s on.

Here’s Boone shopping for electronic snoopers for a case:

He already has the camera — it came with the basic Private Investigator Starter Kit along with the cynicism, a manual of one-liners, and a saxophone soundtrack.

Yeah, okay, you’ve met this detective before, starting with Sam Spade right up through Spenser, smart, tough, outwardly cynical, inwardly romantic, always irresistible to the ladies. Boone is your average, everyday, ordinary knight of the woeful countenance. But nothing says if it’s done right you don’t want to watch him tilt at another windmill.

The day after I finished The Gentlemen’s Hour, I picked it up again and reread the ending, just for that epic joust on the beach. It was, indeed, macking.

Whatever the hell that means.


The biography of a woman, not the history of a reign.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a WomanCatherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

The biography of a woman, not the history of a reign. Massie defines Catherine by her lovers and I got tired of the revolving door to her bedroom. As for the queen, she’s in favor of the Enlightenment only so far as it doesn’t threaten her throne, and then it’s censorship and slamming the door to the West. As a mother, she never perceived her son and heir as anything but a rival. If you want to rule a hereditary monarchy, you have to accept the inevitability of your own mortality and plan for the health and longevity of the institution you head. But monarchs almost never do, and Catherine was no exception.

In short, a complicated woman, intellectually superior to everyone around her yet bereft without a warm body in her bed, ambitious enough to accept if not connive at the assassination of her deposed husband to secure her place on the throne, and then forgiving enough enough to stand as godmother to his mistress’s daughter. It’s an interesting read, a good story told well, but it feels a little lightweight.

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I dare you all, test your strength: Open a book.

bwo Letters of Note

A terrific letter from illustrator Chuck Jones to a class of students. “I found my first experience with Wile E. Coyote in a whole hilarious chapter about coyotes in a book called Roughing It by Mark Twain. I found the entire romantic personality of Pepe Le Pew in a book written by Kenneth Roberts, Captain Hook. I found bits and pieces of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and all the others in wonderful, exciting books,” he writes.

There’s your Storytelling 101, right there.


The Civil War never looked so necessary.

The Wedding GiftThe Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

One of those books you read in one sitting with the hair slowly rising on the back of your neck. Slavery in the American South seldom has seemed so real or so horrific. Every awful story you’ve ever heard or read is right here, seen through the eyes of Sarah, the master’s daughter by Emmeline, his slave mistress. I couldn’t help but think of Sally Hemings, in durance vile to Thomas Jefferson for her whole life and forced to bear not one but eight of his children, all of them property and subject to sale whenever the master needed ready cash to buy a few more books.

The most painful thing to endure among many is Emmeline’s persistent terror, the fear she feels every moment of every day that Sarah will say something that will get them all killed or worse, sold. “Don’t say that, baby,” is her constant refrain, and it doesn’t take long for you to feel her fear, too. It’s exhausting, and it is debilitating to intellect and human emotion, too, and that’s just from reading about it. What was it like to live through it? I’m grateful I can only imagine.

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It all makes so much more sense now…

[From the stabenow.com vaults, first posted on a Book Review Monday.]

Some of you might wonder why I would post this on a book review day.

by Tom Gauld

And some of you might not…

(Love Tom Gauld.)


“Goodnight, Maud-Dib…”

[from the stabenow.com vaults, August 15, 2011 ]

Hilarious. How I wish this were a print book.

Of course, to get the joke you have to have read Frank Herbert’s Dune seven or eight times. Who am I kidding, try seventy or eighty times, but it’s worth it.

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