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In 2004, four low-income Mexican-American high school students from Phoenix built an ingenious robot for a science competition that pitted them against teams from top colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The story sounds almost too “Hollywood” to be true, and in fact, it has already inspired a documentary and a feature film. But seasoned journalist Joshua Davis sticks to the facts in his original book, Spare Parts, carefully reconstructing how these ESL students, “caught in the tractor-beam pull of poverty and low expectations,” became one of the top underwater-robot teams in the country.

Davis opens with officials from the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition, sponsored by NASA and the Navy, grilling the team members. “These kids had shown up with a garishly painted plastic robot that was partially assembled from scrap parts,” Davis writes. “They called their creation Stinky because it smelled so bad when they glued it together.” Yet “Stinky” manages to outperform the sophisticated work of MIT’s best underwater robotics team.

Davis then draws back to tell us about the robot’s creators, illustrating just how improbable it was that these teenagers ever managed to enter this competition. All four were brought to America from Mexico by their parents as children, and only one of them held a green card. Oscar Vasquez excelled in ROTC until he realized that his undocumented status would get in the way of a military career, while Cristian Arcega is a tinkerer with a sharp engineering mind. Lorenzo Santillian joins the robotics team as a way to escape a gang, and Luis Arranda is a taciturn hulk. They are fortunate in their teachers: Iranian immigrant Fredi Lajvardi and former Navy electronics technician Allan Cameron, who encourage their quest.

Davis’ prose is straightforward, but he’s skillful at creating atmosphere and building suspense. You’ll find yourself whipping through the pages to learn what happened—especially how the kids’ lives turned out after the contest.

Davis describes how Lisa Spence, one of the contest judges, felt when she first met the four boys: “As a NASA employee, she had become accustomed to working with engineers who conformed to a sort of industry standard: white, well educated, conservative clothes. These four teenagers standing in front of her signaled that the future looked different.”

One can only hope that this book leads people to question the wisdom of deporting American-raised children of immigrants—especially high-achieving engineering whizzes like these.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream

By Joshua Davis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

240 pages, $14

Published in Literature

John Vaillant, the Canadian author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce—two nonfiction books that delved into the darker aspects of our relationship with nature—now delivers an unflinching novel, his first.

The Jaguar’s Children opens in the back of an empty water truck, where Hector, an undocumented immigrant, languishes with his injured friend César and 13 other crossers just north of the border in Arizona. They’ve been smuggled into the U.S., only to be abandoned between Sonoita and Nogales, sealed inside a tanker by shifty “coyotes,” young machos who “were talking fast all the time, but not as fast as their eyes.”

Using Hector’s cell phone, César repeatedly, but in vain, tries to contact a gringo friend. The situation only gets worse as everyone runs out of water. Within days, the migrants’ strange prison resembles “the intestine of some animal,” digesting its inmates. The reader suffers along with the tanker’s human cargo, surrounded by “walls alive with something that likes to grow in the wet and dark, something that needs much less air than a man.”

A descendant of Zapotecs who revered the jaguar spirit, Hector grew up in Oaxaca, and flashbacks reveal his childhood there, and the reasons why he and his compatriots left. Some fled from the narcos, from violence and corruption; others sought better economic opportunities. Now all they want is to be found, even by La Migra, before they perish of thirst. Hector recalls the church in Altar, the staging ground for their crossing, with its map of red dots that marked where migrants have died. “But when you look north, past the sand and rock and mesquite, toward that wall of mountains with only cactus growing, you still believe you can do it, because who wants to turn back now when you came so far?”

Hector’s monologue inside the tanker consists of his text messages to his friend. His language is leavened with slang and rustic similes, but the cell phone-as-story device feels somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, The Jaguar’s Children shows with compassion how a proud people have become prey for coyotes, victims of capitalism run amok. Mexico’s pyramid builders sacrificed lives to their stone gods; modern Mexico trades them for dollar infusions.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Jaguar’s Children

By John Vaillant

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

288 pages, $26

Published in Literature

The classic Western frontier story is an archetype of the hero’s journey: A young man, off to seek his fortune in the West, enters the wilderness to prove himself—and emerges both stronger and wiser.

Into the Savage Country follows this pattern, but charismatic characters, good humor, lively language and nail-biting scenes make Shannon Burke’s novel feel as fresh and thrilling as the first time this kind of story was told.

In 1826, 22-year-old William Wyeth is a hunter selling furs in St. Louis. He and the eventual love of his life, Alene Chevalier, meet cute, frontier fashion, when he hires her to brain-tan some hides. Wyeth isn’t the only one sweet on Alene—so is Henry Layton, a hot-headed braggart who “could buy you a drink and do a good deed, but he could not do it without others knowing he’d done it.”

William embarks on a fur-trapping expedition, because, he says, “I was fated to test my mettle in the West. If I’d not make a fortune … I’d live my life up to the hilt and satisfy that inner craving and have something to talk about in my dotage.”

He learns from seasoned trappers, including historical figures like legendary mountain men Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger. William observes of Bridger, “Though he was as ignorant of book learning as the day he was born, he possessed all the accomplishments needed west of the Mississippi.”

When William re-encounters Alene and Henry at a U.S. Army fort, Henry invites him to join a Smith-led expedition to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where wild animals still abound, offering “the last, best chance of a big take.”

Burke vividly conveys the complex interactions between French and American trappers, the Crow, the Blackfoot and British soldiers. Burke’s characters constantly evolve and surprise. Blackfoot warrior Red Elk, for example, at first appears despicable, but emerges as a dignified man of canny intelligence. Even Henry reveals endearing qualities.

Into the Savage Country rings with the conviction that a Western story is supposed to be fun above all—and that it need not sacrifice historical accuracy and complexity in order to entertain the reader.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Into the Savage Country: A Novel

By Shannon Burke


272 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

“Unless you’re into meth or having sex with people you’re related to, you’ll find shit’s pretty boring here” in Idaho Springs, says 16-year-old Margaritte, matter-of-factly, as she introduces a boy to the downtrodden Rocky Mountain town just west of Denver.

Margaritte is the protagonist of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, the debut novel by Colorado native Erika Wurth, a poet who teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University.

Funny, tough, realistic and heartbreakingly foolish, Margaritte is a high school drug dealer on the fast track to teenage motherhood and welfare; her dad, a white man, is drunk and abusive, while her Indian mother ceaselessly forgives and enables him.

Like the author, Margaritte is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee; her best friend is her adopted cousin, Jake. “He’s Nez Perce, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and black. And big.” Margaritte talks tough and acts superior to the other impoverished residents of her town: “I knew where that kind of thinking led. To a doublewide trailer and miles and miles of cheap macaroni and cheese, 10 for a dollar.” However, her knowledge fails to inform her behavior; again and again, she makes the wrong choices.

For nearly 300 pages, Margaritte speeds toward impending doom, pausing along the way for multiple pit stops at the emergency room, a detour to an abortion clinic, various alcohol- and drug-fueled forays, and a flight with her mother and younger twin sisters to a hotel—followed by their drunk, gun-toting father.

Yet Margaritte’s kindness and compassion prevail. Even after her alcoholic father literally drives the family into a ditch during a thunderstorm, she thinks, “Sometimes my sadness for him overwhelmed my resentment, and that was even worse.” She and the new boy fall in love. His family, wealthy and white, buys him expensive outdoor gear, but he’s never slept outside. Margaritte takes him camping on Mount Evans. Sitting beside the campfire, she finds bliss. “I felt so content, so beautiful, parts of me felt like they were dying off, exploding.”

As Margaritte careens into and out of disaster, her strong fingers grip the reader’s heart from the very first sentence, never letting go. She skids close to the edge of unredeemable stereotype, then screeches decisively to a halt, exploding into brilliant humanity.

Exhilarated and terrified, readers of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend will be grateful for the ride.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend

By Erika T. Wurth

Curbside Splendor

288 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

Paolo Bacigalupi grew up in Paonia, Colo., where he was on staff at High Country News. He has won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for his writing, and was HCN’s first online editor.

His new book, The Water Knife, grew from a short story he wrote for HCN, “The Tamarisk Hunter.” In his latest novel, Bacigalupi has written a near-future thriller, set in a world where water is scarce, and law is scarcer. Much of humanity is holed up in efficient towers called arcologies; a man named Angel Valasquez, the henchman for a Las Vegas water czar, brutally cuts people away from their water rights. We spoke as we walked along an irrigation ditch above Paonia, its water high from recent rains.

In your future world, what does Paonia look like?

The way I look at Paonia is that it’s built on engineered water. There are a couple of different reservoirs at work, and those engineered pieces of equipment are the way that we maintain our water throughout the dry summers. So what I see is sort of a patchwork of survival, and it’s defined entirely by this other invisible overlay on the valley—which are your legal water rights. All of this depends on the idea that there is legal enforcement and that there is rule of law.

In The Water Knife, that’s breaking down. So in that future, you could very easily see people sitting up on the Paonia dam, saying, “No, we decided that even though there’s a call on the river further down, even though you supposedly have higher rights, we actually sit higher on the river, so we control the water and how much goes down to you.”

Do you feel like you saw the California drought coming when you were starting to write this book?

Statistically, I saw it coming. The climate models say that the South and Southwest should be dead-dry. They’re saying extreme weather is more likely. The statistics are all there. I crafted (this book) to feel near-future. The only future tech that you really see are things that relate to water and water scarcity. That’s deliberate, because you want to feel like this future has relevance to the present—(it’s) not some hypothetical future where you have something like Blade Runner or any other really high-tech science fiction. I’m going to give this to an audience that doesn’t traditionally read science fiction. But I want to do some extrapolation about what water scarcity is, and so we’re going to stay tightly focused on the way we are.

I actually hadn’t felt like I would do any drought stuff or more water or climate change stuff, because I felt like those ideas were out there enough in the zeitgeist, that other people could handle, and I had already done things like “The Tamarisk Hunter,” where I basically explored the core concepts.

It wasn’t until the 2011 drought in Texas, when I was down there seeing these terrible impacts and also seeing this astonishing denial coming from the leadership, that I had this moment where I was like, ‘Wow, I guess this drum needs more beating.’ Rick Perry was praying for rain, and the drought that Texas was experiencing matched climate models. And you’re like: “God didn’t just turn his back on you; this is just us dumping carbon into the atmosphere and making situations like this really statistically likely.” I felt a certain rage, that we were still living in this reality freefall.

Tell me how you settled on a “water knife,” the job of someone who cuts people from their rights, and the relationship between Angel Valasquez and Catherine Case, who’s a sort of Patricia Mulroy type, the queen of the Colorado River.

When you’re writing about things like drought or climate change, or water or water rights, you’re stuck in this abstract, nonvisceral space. Even scarcity gets written about in some weird, cliché ways: Everybody turns upon themselves, and they’ll tear each other down. And you’re like, well, no, there still are government bodies, organizational values, identity politics. And without those specifics, you’ve really written another cliché apocalypse novel.

I wanted to make the legal structure of water rights more apparent. I wanted to make the idea of water scarcity, and how there are cascades of winners and losers, more apparent. Having somebody like Angel Valasquez gives you a way to do that that’s more like a thriller and more fun than if you just have a bunch of lawyers sitting around a table talking about, “We’re going to give these people an extra 50,000 acre-feet of water, and we’re going to engineer this water trade where so-and-so will install a water saline treatment plant in return for giving back X amount of their river allocation”—which doesn’t make for good fiction. Angel’s the action-hero version of water rights.

In this world, Vegas is weak in comparison to California, but it’s smart in comparison to places like Phoenix. Vegas is the city that looked around in this very clear-eyed way and said, “Wait, we have terrible water rights. We only think it’s going to get worse. What do we need to do to buffer ourselves against disaster?” Eventually, Catherine Case, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in the story, says, “You know what? Those subdivisions, they’re wasting money, they’re gone. We’re pulling all the water into our arcologies instead; we’re going to hunker down here.”

How does that play into the idea that we’re better off living in urban areas, where everything’s packed together, and where we can consolidate our resources, like water, rather than live in sprawling communities?

The arcologies are really, really efficient. They’re built to take in things and keep them as long as possible, to recycle all of their waste, to recycle all their water to grow food for themselves, to take advantage of every synergy that they can, of being tightly packed together and very well designed. But they’re also a symptom of a problem, which is the moment that humanity accepts that the world outside is no longer an inviting and supportive and sustaining place for people. So arcologies are also the wrong techno solution to a much bigger problem.

When we say we need big cities because it’s more efficient, it’s like, maybe we need less people. This is a tradition of ours—that we never solve our source problems. We’re never going to say, “Now that there’s climate change, let’s actually tax carbon; let’s really cut back on our coal consumption; let’s tax all of our plane travel hard; let’s actually not add any more heat to the atmosphere.” What we do instead is build arcologies, and we get ready for our devastated future, but we don’t actually avoid our devastated future.

Where’s the optimism in The Water Knife?

A friend of mine told me that I must be an optimist; otherwise, I wouldn’t be so disappointed every time things go wrong. But I think when you look at (climate) data or that Lake Mead just had its lowest levels ever, those are indicators that say we aren’t solving problems. So (injecting optimism) is like setting markers out there that define waypoints toward what might be smart.

The thing that I’m most interested in doing is comparing the outcomes between people who’ve decided to live inside of nostalgia and live inside of denial about their present moment and where the future is taking them—and those people who are going, “I don’t like the look of this stuff. It looks pretty dangerous. I need to make some moves, and I need to be planning.” So the marker that you’re trying to set out there is: People who are reality-based and data-driven survive. Reality-based people, they do a lot better than the people who are living in denial.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi


384 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

As The High Divide opens in 1886, Gretta Pope’s husband, Ulysses, a U.S. Army veteran, has been missing for six weeks. She’s left with two sons to raise, past-due rent, and no idea about where he might have gone—or when he’ll be back.

An odious landlord begins to circle Gretta, demanding payment in more than money. Then Gretta’s son, 16-year-old Eli, intercepts a letter to his father from a woman in Bismarck, suggesting that Ulysses recently visited her. Eli sneaks out of the family home in Sloan’s Crossing, Minn., and hops a freight train heading west to find his father—but his sickly 9-year-old brother guesses his plan and follows. Meanwhile, Gretta embarks on her own travels and investigations.

Minnesota novelist Lin Enger switches to the perspective of a different family member in each chapter, updating us on their individual odysseys and making it clear that the members of this family love each other deeply and want to be together, even though their lack of communication has split them apart and left them racked by doubts about everything.

The boys and Gretta are astonished to learn that Ulysses re-enlisted after the Civil War and served in Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was notorious for killing women and children in Indian villages. Ulysses’ recent erratic behavior appears to spring from his secret past; he is clearly haunted by something that happened when he was in the military.

As she seeks her husband, Gretta rebukes herself for not delving into Ulysses’ past sooner: “If only she had been able to summon the strength to draw the poison out of Ulysses. … But she had been raised to believe that a man’s burdens were meant for him alone to carry.”

In The High Divide, the West at the time is swiftly transforming from a savage, bloodthirsty land into a settled place where the only remnants of the bygone, unfettered West are the buffalo bones that litter the prairie, which men scavenge for quick money. Yet this changing land will serve as a proving ground for Ulysses’ growing sons.

In clear, vivid prose, Enger describes the family’s journeys, expanding the story of the search for one man into an investigation of the West’s conscience at a time when men had recently decimated its native peoples and fauna, and were just beginning to reap the consequences. In the process, he tells a tender story of love, sorrow and the quest for redemption.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The High Divide

By Lin Enger


352 pages, $24.95 (hardcover), $15.95 (paperback)

Published in Literature

First published in 1886, The Story of My Heart, by Richard Jefferies, is a slim, mystical volume—a nature-writer’s exploration of his own soul.

Three years ago, well-known naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams and her writer husband, Brooke, stumbled upon an old copy of the book in an independent bookstore in Maine. They were immediately caught by its stunning prose.

“My heart was dusty,” Jefferies writes in the opening paragraph, “parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry, for there is dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge.” Who was this eloquent writer from another century, they wondered?

Their search for the answer would lead the pair to England and then France and the Louvre, as well as on a journey into their own hearts. Jefferies, it turns out, was an English nature writer, essayist and journalist. He did not lack 20th-century admirers; Rachel Carson supposedly kept two books by her bedside: Thoreau’s Walden, and Jefferies’ book.

The Williamses’ quest culminated in this sincerely felt tribute, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies: As Rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams.

Jefferies’ writings, the Williamses note, are relevant today: He was a great proponent of exercise, for example, in particular daily walking, as well as of the benefits of being idle. But his real message was a spiritual one, urging the reader to “go higher than a god; deeper than a prayer.”

After each chapter by Jefferies, Brooke Williams balances the Victorian prose with a chapter of his own commentary. He sees in Jefferies a kindred spirit, someone he could imagine being friends with today. “This story,” he writes, “is about living in this modern world, vastly different from the natural world we evolved into.”

As Terry Tempest Williams (a Corona native who now lives in Utah and Wyoming) writes in the introduction, readers who have never heard of Jefferies before may “rediscover what it feels like to fall back in love with the world.”

Torrey House Press and the Williamses have done a great service for the 21st century with this reissue. The Story of My Heart speaks across the ages, and belongs on the same shelf as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Muir, Beston and Leopold.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Story of My Heart, by Richard Jefferies: As Rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

By Richard Jefferies, Terry Tempest Williams and Brooke Williams

Torrey House

233 pages, $21.95

Published in Literature

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is a wide-ranging, obsessively detailed and oddly inspiring book—an intriguing tapestry of scientific exploration and natural history that also takes turns as a eulogy, a love letter, a poem and ultimately a plea.

In Relicts, Christopher Norment—a professor of environmental science and biology—sets out to consider the nonmonetary value of six “relatively obscure” Great Basin and Mojave desert species that we can’t eat, hunt or sell: black toads, Inyo slender salamanders and four species of pupfishes.

Why these six species? In part because of their obscurity: Due to their small sizes and relative inaccessibility, Norment writes, they “carry little of the innate appeal” of charismatic megafauna such as grey wolves or whooping cranes, nor do they play much of an economic role. That obscurity allows us to ponder their worth without immediately reaching for our wallets.

They are also, however, aquatic species restricted to tiny patches of habitat in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts—vulnerable to water prospectors, the bright tentacles of Las Vegas and the thirsty whirlpool roar of Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.

Norment points out that similar species have also survived withdrawing—Pleistocene seas, earthquakes, uplift and hot water—only to succumb to thirst or thoughtlessness: Tecopa pupfish, for example, which could endure temperatures up to 108 degrees, but went extinct after hot springs outflows were developed and combined for bathhouses; Las Vegas dace and the Vegas valley leopard frog, lost in the 1950s and 1940s, respectively, to groundwater pumping and the expansion of Las Vegas itself; and the Ash Meadows montane vole, likely extirpated some time in the 1960s as alkali meadows devolved into peat mines, alfalfa farms and ranches.

After a pause to remember the fallen, Norment moves on to the precarious living, one species and one chapter at a time. As he weighs the animals’ worth, Norment visits the animals themselves, the people trying to save them, and those who might someday have a hand in their destruction. He travels from the deep past—describing a volcanic eruption 760,000 years ago that could have buried or burned Inyo slender salamanders out of existence, but somehow didn’t—to the present and near future, examining the threats the pupfishes face from Las Vegas’ and Los Angeles’ ongoing searches for water, among other things.

He explores abstract concepts such as loneliness and hope while circling back to concrete and enchanting tidbits of information, such as the world’s remaining weight of Devils Hole pupfish—measured in raisins—and what their vocalizations sound like underwater (squirrels gnawing on walnuts).

Norment loves his diminutive subjects enough to actually risk using the word “love.” Not everyone feels the same way; as one woman in the book says about extinct Tecopa pupfish, “I think they were pretty tiny, not good for much of anything. You couldn’t eat them. Not like trout.” Norment’s arguments in favor of these species turn out to be surprisingly good ones. He doesn’t try to make a direct appeal to the people who prize false fountains and alfalfa farms far more than desert springs and species (and who—let’s face it—are unlikely to read this book). Instead, he writes a thoughtful and thought-provoking letter to the rest of us: those who didn’t know desert aquatic species existed, those who take them for granted or rationalize that they’ll survive our tender inattention, and even those who have almost given up, who are already privately lamenting the loss of the tiny beleaguered species and places they love. Especially those.

“Think about how resilient the pupfish are, and what they have endured,” Norment writes, “and then contemplate, gently, your own struggles and what you have endured. For all of us, at some time or another, this can be a dogshit world, unbelievably cruel and sorrowful and painful. ... But I will say this: that in my own life I have been consoled and heartened by the strength of pupfish and salamanders. ... Their presence in the world, their insistent example, helps me to endure and go on, too.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World

By Christopher Norment

University of North Carolina Press

288 pages, $28

Published in Literature

Best-selling author Andrew Neiderman holds two prolific jobs.

The Palm Springs resident writes novels under his own name—46 so far, in fact. Seven of his novels have been made into films—most notably The Devil’s Advocate, starring Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron.

He’s also the ghostwriter for the famed V.C. Andrews series, for which he’s penned 73 novels. The franchise by the late Virginia Andrews was at 30 million books sold after Andrews’ death in 1986—and is now at 106 million books sold. It’s one of the world’s biggest and longest-lasting literary franchises.

Every time I’ve visited Neiderman at his south Palm Springs home over the last 15 years, he’s been working on yet another project—a book, a script, a play or a production venture. His newest novel, The Terrorist’s Holiday, was published March 10.

The Terrorist’s Holiday was a novel always in my mind to write,” Neiderman said. “I grew up in the setting, the Catskill resort area of New York State. It was basically a resort created by Jewish hotel owners. Movies like Dirty Dancing depict the ‘season.’ My familiarity with the area and the resort world helped me bring it to life on the page.”

In this novel, Neiderman touches on a subject that’s all over the news nowadays—terrorism—and connects sentiments from the past with today’s political realities.

“I remember all the major hotels were always opened during the Jewish holidays,” he recalls. “Many times, there were visiting dignitaries from Israel, so I imagined that period of time, those events and a major opportunity for terrorists to strike at Israel. I wanted to create a pair of terrorists who were ambiguous about their motivations and challenges. The New York City detective who stumbles on the plot is Jewish as well.”

The novel’s publishing date couldn’t have been more timely, given that it fell just one week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress. Neiderman said he actually met Netanyahu, in the United Kingdom, on the day of the 2005 London bombings.

“I was at The Langham hotel across from the BBC,” Neiderman remembers. “We met in the hallway the day of the bombing, July 7, 2005. Since the Brits were somewhat critical of Israel and its stance at the time, I talked about the irony of him being there that day, when England was suffering at the hands of the same terrorists.”

Neiderman gave me an advance, uncorrected copy of The Terrorist’s Holiday before the book's release. Such copies are printed for marketing purposes—and for movie producers. There’s always a chance that another one of his novels will reach movie audiences in a big way, like The Devil’s Advocate did in 1997.

“Unless (the book) gets picked up by a major studio, it can’t be as big as The Devil’s Advocate, because a feature from a studio opens up world markets,” Neiderman said. “However, we are getting great reviews and reception, and hope to see it do very well.”

A few years back, Neiderman told me it took him only a one-line pitch to sell The Devil’s Advocate’s movie rights to Warner Bros. The line was: “It’s about a New York law firm that represents only guilty people—and never loses a case!”

The Devil’s Advocate continues to pay dividends for Neiderman. Warner Horizon has been developing The Devil’s Advocate as a TV series for NBC, while Neiderman is working on developing The Devil’s Advocate into a musical for British and German theaters. The Devil’s Advocate is set to be a stage play in Holland later this year. Neiderman has already written Judgment Day, a prequel to The Devil’s Advocate, and Pocket Books/Gallery has a contract to publish it.

Judgment Day is going to be published in June this year,” Neiderman confirmed. “The novel depicts Satan, who took over a New York law firm. It introduces a prime new character in the guise of a detective with spiritual insight.”

Since moving to the desert in 1989, Neiderman has written quite a few novels that take place in Palm Springs. Among these notable titles are Dead Time, Unholy Birth, Angel of Mercy and The Magic Bullet.

Now 74, Neiderman is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, his contract to write V.C. Andrews novels continues through at least 2017.

Published in Literature

Brazilian-born novelist Adriana Lisboa’s latest novel, Crow Blue, depicts a precocious young woman’s quest for a place inside a splintered family.

Vanja is only 13 when her mother dies. That loss sparks her journey from Rio de Janeiro to Colorado, where she reconnects with her estranged stepfather, Fernando, an ex-guerrilla in his 50s who works as a security guard at a public library.

“It wasn’t an adventure,” Vanja says of her move to Fernando’s home in Denver’s sprawling suburbs. “It wasn’t a holiday or fun or a pastime or a change of scenery; I was going to the United States to stay with Fernando with a very specific objective in mind: to look for my father.” Fernando agrees to help Vanja search for her biological father—an American Vanja has never met, and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Fernando and Vanja create a patchwork family life as the teenager starts school, befriends a neighbor and is enchanted by the sight of her first snow. They track down old friends in search of clues about Vanja’s father. As Vanja begins to learn about her past, the story gains momentum; it’s no longer simply Vanja’s story, but her mother’s and Fernando’s, too. Even her absent father has a part.

This multi-layered narrative, deftly translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin, holds some surprising plot developments but comes to a beautiful conclusion. The novel is rich in poetic references, with a title that refers to a passage from in Marianne Moore’s “The Fish”:


through black jade.

Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps

adjusting the ash-heaps. …

Vanja reads and rereads this poem, and comes to see how Moore’s “crow-blue mussel-shells” represent the unlikely connections across time and space between far-flung places and people: “the molluscs in the sea at Copacabana drowned out the world in their crow-blue shells. And crows flew over the city of Lakewood, Colorado. Shell-blue crows.”

In Crow Blue, Lisboa succeeds in writing an imaginative story that keeps its interconnected plotlines moving simultaneously. With lyrical prose and keen insight, Crow Blue shows how the search for a long-lost father can reveal the meaning of family itself.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Crow Blue

By Adriana Lisboa; translated by Alison Entrekin


240 pages, $16

Published in Literature