A Custer mystery, a Yellowstone tribute and a calf’s tale

new-cusThe Custer Conspiracy, by Dennis Koller, Pen Books, 2016. 340 pages, $14.99.

I really wanted to like this book. The author, who lives in the Bay Area, wrote to us at Last Best News and said he had spent a lot of time at the Little Bighorn Battlefield planning this novel and he thought we might enjoy it.

It sounded promising. I’m no expert on the battle, but I’ve written a few stories about it, read some books on the subject and spent a fair amount of time on the battlefield.

I also like a good thriller now and then, something I can breeze through just for fun, not edification. So a thriller involving the battle sounded like just the thing for a little cold-weather reading.

Somehow, though, the elements of this book didn’t add up to a satisfying read. The thrills, such as they were, were mostly cheap thrills involving high-powered weapons and highly sophisticated intelligence-gathering techniques.

The hero of the book, San Francisco homicide inspector Tom McGuire, doesn’t so much solve a mystery as have it revealed to him by others, and even they don’t indulge much in deduction. They are simply fed installments of a long-lost trove of documents known as the Custer Papers.

The mystery, such as it was, centers on Lt. Col. George A. Custer, the flamboyant solider about whom so many people hold strong views, and who was sent to the great parade ground in the sky on June 25, 1876. Or was he?

Yes, that is part of the mystery, but with very little tweaking the historical figure could as easily have been Abraham Lincoln. In other words, nothing about the Custer battle itself enters into the plot, which was what I was looking forward to.

The only mystery, as it turns out, is the identity of the people who wanted Custer dead, and why. I think I can say, without spoiling the plot, that the bad guys make up a multi-generational cabal of filthy rich financiers and arms dealers whose nefarious influence on the American political system would put George Soros and the Koch brothers to shame.

One character is a congressman—described as one of 20 or 30 employed by the cabal—with a troubled childhood who was groomed for Congress and for servitude to his rich masters from an early age. The cabal has virtually unlimited resources and hands on the levers of power in politics, the media and the military.

Fortunately for the forces of truth and justice, Inspector McGuire and his friends also have access to some rather formidable resources, including, in a pinch, a submarine, a high-altitude spy drone, some very nicely appointed private jets and the ability to access the Dark Web, also referred to as the “under-underground” internet.

Hell, with that kind of help I could probably take down ISIS myself. And I haven’t even mentioned the double-crossing dame or the expert snipers employed by both sides. Substantial sections of the book are given over to loving descriptions of the guns and techniques used by the snipers.

I’m not a dogmatic opponent of guns, but I’m not gun fetishist, either, so reading about a .338 Lapus magnum or an HK 9mm Viper fitted with a Gemtech Tundra suppressor leaves me cold.

Still and all, the writing is good, the cliff-hanger chapter endings are numerous and the bloodshed and mayhem regular enough to satisfy a craving for that sort of thing. I just don’t happen to be the reviewer Mr. Koller was hoping to find.

cauble-bookYellowstone: A Land of Wild and Wonder, by Christopher Cauble, Riverbend Publishing, 2016. 120 pages, $29.95.

Cauble, a photographer and cinematographer in his early 30s, lets his camera do almost all the talking in this loving tribute to Yellowstone National Park.

Except for a five-paragraph introduction, a one-paragraph bio of Cauble and two paragraphs of acknowledgments, the book consists entirely of photographs, each accompanied by a minimalist caption, on the order of “Bison,” “Sylvan Lake,” “Old Faithful” and “Red fox.”

He gets slightly wordier in captions like “Thermal pattern in Norris Geyser Basin” and “Winter near the northeast entrance.” My favorite was “Pronghorn shaking off loose hair.” Thanks to backlit red and white hairs still hovering over the pronghorn’s back, it becomes an unusual, uncommonly intimate portrait of a common creature.

Cauble was born and raised in Helena and now lives in Livingston. He credits his parents with introducing him to Yellowstone on numerous family outings, and every time he went there, he says in the introduction, “Yellowstone always filled me with a sense of wonder.”

It shows in his photographs. Many of the photos are quite beautiful, but he is always on the lookout for more than mere beauty. He captures the moods not just of animals but of landscapes, and the details of multicolored patterns on the margins of thermal features fascinate him as much as the features themselves.

There are several pictures that show the night sky over Yellowstone, none more stunningly than “Old Faithful geyser and inn under the Milky Way.” The plume of water and steam from Old Faithful, seen from a distance, looks like a ghost rising up to mimic the column of stars in the Milky Way.

“Winter in Lamar Valley” centers on a single tree on the side of hill. Everything else is snow or blowing snow, and it chills the viewer to the bone. Another striking landscape is “Barronette Peak,” whose cloud-shrouded granite terraces look like something in a classical Chinese painting.

In a closeup of a bighorn sheep ram, your eye is drawn to sprigs of grass lodged in the ram’s cracked horn, and a closeup of a common raven captures the essence of that wily bird’s intelligence.

It is a fine book, worthy of its subject.

new-saraMy Name is Sara: I am a Racehorse!, by Jay Hahnkamp, illustrated by Bonnie Sheilds, Sweetgrass Books, 2016. 30 pages, $11.95.

Here is a children’s book aimed squarely at young cowboys and cowgirls, the story of Sara, a plucky young calf and her adventures at junior rodeos.

We meet Sara on her ranch, where she tells us that her friend, Jerry the goat, took to calling her a racehorse because she was so fast.

“Dairy calves like me are raised in little calf houses,” she says. “We are fed grain and powdered milk so that our mother’s milk goes to feed all the children of the world!”

The little boy and girl who tend to her, Albert and Rosa, and their dog, Bandit, come to feed Sara every morning. She keeps waiting for the day when she can join the other big calves in the big pen, but she is just too small.

She finally graduates to the big pen and then is selected by a visitor named Wild Bill to appear in junior rodeos. Sara, so proud of her speed, is mortified to discover that in breakaway roping she gets caught by the young cowboys every single time—while the other calves manage to get away at least sometimes.

She gets a big chance to redeem herself at the last junior rodeo of the season and she does, but in an unexpected, inspiring way.

A short description on the back of the book says, “Caution! This book may make grown people cry!” I guess I was too hard-hearted for that, but it is a sweet little tale, accompanied by detailed pencil drawings.

The author, Jay Hahnkamp, was born in Butte and “raised on the banks of the Big Hole River where he still lives with his wife and two boys.”

As a special treat, there are five pages of photos at the end of the book, featuring members of the Hahnkamp family and the real-life Sara and Jerry.

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