Book Review: Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

Burn Baby Burn
Meg Medina
Candlewick Press, March 2016
ISBN 978-0-7636-7467-0
Hardcover

The air is hot and even heavier than it should be in the summer of 1977. Heat seems to emanate from the streets of New York City. The collective tension of the people is palpable. The threat of the serial killer known as ‘Son of Sam’ hangs over everyone’s head.

Nora Lopez tries to ignore the utter madness of the outside world. She wants only to stick to the routine that’s yielded the best results for the latter part of her seventeen years. Working at Salerno’s deli, hanging with her best bud, Kathleen, and keeping her head down. Occasionally, hoping that things at home haven’t gotten worse.

Hope may spring eternal, but it’s not nearly enough to change her younger brother, Hector. Mami fully expects for Nora to keep her demon-spawn-sibling out of trouble. Without being tough on him. His senseless vandalism and pyromania tendencies are just symptoms of growing pains, after all.

Nora knew that Hector was into more than mischief, but even she was stunned to discover how devious and diabolical he really is. Misplaced responsibility moves everything in Nora’s life to the back-burner at first, but soon balloons out of control and becomes wholly consuming.

In a situation where there are options, but none of them are good and others are downright dangerous, Nora refuses to choose. Instead, she goes her own way, with an entirely unexpected, brilliantly brave action. Maybe that is one small fire, extinguished. Or perhaps she’s only fanned the flames and is about to be engulfed in an inferno.

I read Ms. Medina’s Burn Baby Burn a few years ago and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t review it then because I was too affected to articulate all of the reasons I wanted everyone else to read it, too. In spite of how much time has passed and how many other books I’ve read, parts of Nora’s story continue to pop into my head. I recently re-read it and realized that I would be remiss if I did not (finally) take the time to properly recommend this historical fiction phenomenon.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2018.

Book Review: An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock by Terry Shames

an-unsettling-crime-for-samuel-cradddockAn Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock
A Samuel Craddock Mystery Prequel
Terry Shames
Seventh Street Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-63388-209-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When the Jarrett Creek Fire Department is called to douse a blaze on the outskirts of town, they discover a grisly scene: five black young people have been murdered. Newly elected Chief of Police Samuel Craddock, just back from a stint in the Air Force, finds himself an outsider in the investigation headed by the Texas Highway Patrol. He takes an immediate dislike to John Sutherland, a racist trooper.

Craddock’s fears are realized when Sutherland arrests Truly Bennett, a young black man whom Craddock knows and respects. Sutherland cites dubious evidence that points to Bennett, and Craddock uncovers facts leading in another direction. When Sutherland refuses to relent, Craddock is faced with a choice that will define him as a lawman—either let the highway patrol have its way, or take on a separate investigation himself.

Although his choice to investigate puts both Craddock and his family in danger, he perseveres. In the process, he learns something about himself and the limits of law enforcement in Jarrett Creek.

It’s the early 1980’s, a time we like to look back on as more enlightened than the Vietnam War era but, in a rural Texas town, racism is still very much in the open, whether blatant or subtle.

I’ve had a remarkably hard time getting started with this review and it’s because Terry Shames has really plucked my emotions and, in some ways, memories. Samuel Craddock is one of my very favorite lawmen and his series is, I think, very tough to beat; An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock may just be the best installment yet (and will be on my list of favorite books for this year).

In the early 1980’s in a small town in Texas, nothing much happens but there’s a pretty severe drug problem, particularly among the younger set. In fact, Samuel was appointed chief of police, with no experience or training, because the city administrator thought his youth and brains were better suited to coping with the issue than the current chief. So far, he hasn’t really made inroads but then a terrible thing happens, a fire with five fatalities.

The house was located in Darktown, the community where all the local black people live. This is segregation, of course, but it’s not talked about or even acknowledged and racism is alive and well. Unfortunately, Samuel is officially kept out of the investigation since, according to state law, the highway patrol has jurisdiction over suspicious deaths in small towns, and then the Texas Rangers also become involved. Samuel keeps a hand in peripherally while also looking into what he believes may be a connection between the drug situation and whatever led to the killings.

Besides the arson, murder and drug investigations, we also meet Jeanne, Samuel’s beloved wife who wishes he hadn’t taken this job and his brother and sister-in-law who are never going to be named Parents of the Year. Local reporter Bonnie Bedichek will become an important, if annoying, aide in Samuel’s plans and Truly Bennett, an enterprising young man, is helping Samuel learn how to work with his brand new 20 head of cattle, Samuel’s personal dream. These people, along with many other characters, are so well-drawn that they come to life on the page and you can’t help having an emotional attachment to them, thanks to Ms. Shames‘ fine hand.

Because this is a prequel, it’s not a bad place to start the series but I think readers will do just as well to read the five books published earlier from the beginning. One way, you meet Samuel in the early days before he really knew what he was doing but was honorbound to try, and you get a taste of what influenced his later years. The other way, you learn to truly appreciate this man’s abilities, his experience, his grace, if you will, before finding out what he was like as a young, untried lawman. Take your pick—you can’t go wrong 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2017.