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by James A. McLaughlin
Ecco, June 2018
352 pages
ISBN: 0062742795

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

BEARSKIN is full of tension of all kinds, starting with the reading experience itself. On the one hand, the beauty of the language begs to be savored and, on the other, the propulsive pace of the action almost turns the pages without the reader's help. McLaughlin's debut is as much a naturalist's paean to the beauty of the Appalachian wilderness as it is a violent thriller.

Set in rural Virginia, on a mountain preserve where Rice Moore is caretaker, the book places the interests of the conservation-minded owners of the property against those of the hardscrabble locals. Rice has taken the job as a means of disappearing from the sights of the Mexican drug cartel and a past history of violence. When poachers, eager to feed the appetites of Chinese healers, start killing bears on the preserve for their paws and gall bladders, Rice feels compelled to investigate. His investigation leads him into confrontation with thuggish motorcycle gang wannabees and their even more savage gang heroes. At the same time, a Mexican cartel's assassin is zeroing in on his location. Connecting lines are drawn, and a complex plot comes to a brutal resolution.

Although most of the action is violent, the tone of the book extends well beyond that violence to encompass almost pastoral scenes, some hallucinatory passages, and budding friendship and tenderness. Rice's connection with dogs plays into his investigation, but it also helps balance the brutality of the book. There are moments of rapport between Rice and some of the locals that also soften the overall tone. In Rice, McLaughlin has created a fully fleshed-out character, and the author has written complex supporting characters as well. The Turk Mountain Forest Preserve is so well described and has such a presence that it almost becomes a character, itself.

The tale is told with flashbacks to Rice's days in a Mexican prison as well as the events that landed him there. These help the reader understand the dark side of Rice's personality and provide substance to Rice's reaction to the situation in Virginia. The outstanding writing belies McLaughlin's status as a debut author. While there is no hint that this is anything other than a standalone novel, there is room left at the end for a follow-up, and I am hopeful that McLaughlin picks up his pen to take us there.

Sharon Mensing, retired educational leader, lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors in rural Wyoming.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, May 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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