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2031495,068 (3.75)17
Rice Moore is just beginning to think his troubles are behind him. He's found a job protecting a remote forest preserve in Virginian Appalachia where his main responsibilities include tracking wildlife and refurbishing cabins. It's hard work, and totally solitary--perfect to hide away from the Mexican drug cartels he betrayed back in Arizona. But when Rice finds the carcass of a bear killed on the grounds, the quiet solitude he's so desperately sought is suddenly at risk. More bears are killed on the preserve and Rice's obsession with catching the poachers escalates, leading to hostile altercations with the locals and attention from both the law and Rice's employers. Partnering with his predecessor, a scientist who hopes to continue her research on the preserve, Rice puts into motion a plan that could expose the poachers but risks revealing his own whereabouts to the dangerous people he was running from in the first place.… (more)

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"Bearskin" is a rare find: a literary thriller that is as lyrical as it is muscular.

Instead of choosing between writing a literary book about how a man can surrender himself to the dark sentience of an ancient forest and walk out more himself than he was before or a thriller about a man deeply maimed by violence who, although living an almost invisible life in the wilds, knows his past will catch up with him, James McLaughlinhas written a book that is both a literary achievement and a page-turning, viscerally realistic thriller.

Two things caught and kept my attention in throughout this book: the development of Rice Moore, the man at the heart of the story and the sometimes total immersion into the ancient Appalachian forest. Either one would have been reason enough to read this book. Together they became compelling.

Rice Moore is a great creation. Recent acts of extreme violence against him and by him have left him emotionally scarred and subject to fugues states and hallucinations. A solitary man who no longer entirely trusts himself to play well with others, he seeks isolation, partly to hide from his enemies and partly to avoid people. Alone in the forest, feeling its pulse next to his own, his inability to let go of his territoriality or his instinct for violence, repeatedly draws him into conflict with the people around him.

Yet this isn't a one-man-triumphs-against-the-world sort of story. Moore is losing his mind. His fugue states, his obsession with protecting the black bears on the estate he is warden of and his personal ghosts, lead him down a path where he literally puts on another skin and enters a different kind of consciousness. James McLaughlin's ability to help me experience this altering of states as something real and raw was deeply impressive.

Even though "Bearskin" is as fast-paced and propulsive as a thriller needs to be, McLaughlin is able to incorporate the forest and its fauna and fauna as a deeply experienced part of the story. Ecology is more than a plot device or a scientific concept here, it is about understanding our place in the world and its rhythms.

In addition to these two strong themes, McLaughlin gives us an insight into the poaching of black bears, the vengeance of the Mexican drug cartels and the rules and rituals of outlaw motorcycle clubs and an up-close experience of violence that is hard to look away from.

I recommend the audiobook version of "Bearskin" as MacLeod Andrews' narration enhanced my experience of the book.

Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/441607044" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]
( )
  MikeFinnFiction | May 16, 2020 |
Brutal, beautiful prose, a primal and almost phantasmagoric view of nature. ( )
  ChristopherSwann | May 15, 2020 |
Drug lords meet the forest ranger?
It was tedious at times, LOTS of violence, but an interesting premise. ( )
  nwieme | Mar 19, 2020 |
I must have seriously gotten the wrong impression of this book going in, expecting a nature-themed adventure with bucolic scenes of scientific inquiry, reflection, and personal growth. Instead, the book is much darker, extremely violent, and frenetic, with the main character seemingly in a fever dream for much of the story. The book opened with a prison shanking scene, and I nearly dumped it right then, and perhaps I should have, but I continued to the end. I recognize that the book is well-written and tightly-constructed, but not at all what I'd hoped for. ( )
  RandyRasa | Feb 24, 2020 |
[Bearskin] is the first novel by James McLaughlin. It's a thriller and a mystery, a story of nature and of sinister surveillance and mayhem. Rice Moore, the main character, is under considerable duress, much of it the result of his own actions, but he's steadfast and loyal to the end.

Much of the action takes place at the Turk Mountain Preserve in western Virginia, described as "a thousand acres of primary forest passed over by eighteenth and nineteenth century loggers and protected by the Traver family ever since." A continuing problem is that some locals resent that the property is closed to them, hunting prohibited. It's full of prime timber—first-growth timber—that in the minds of local loggers and sawyers should be harvested. Rice has only recently assumed the mantle of the Preserve's caretaker, the solitary observer of the habitat and its flora and fauna, the lone guardian, the face of the Preserve and the family that owns it in the surrounding communities.

One morning, Rice spots a figure moving through the woods; it's a one-armed man shouldering a backpack and hoping for a drink of water. He explains his presence as a mushroom hunter, telling Rice he'd picked mushrooms on the neighboring national forest, not the Preserve.

  "They's somethin' to show ye." The man turned at the waist and jerked his head back the way he'd come, back up the mountain. "Sup thar."
  "What is it?"
  "Y'orta see't y'sef."

The mushroom picker leads Rice up the mountain to a headless body, swarming with bluebottle and greenbottle flies.

  "Done skint this'n" the mushroom picker said. "Ah seen more'n a dozen. Some's skint. Most times he don't take nothin' but they hands and they galls." He began to pace back and forth under the tree, muttering to himself… Rice stared, struck by the human resemblance. After a few moments he felt able to speak.
  "It's a bear?"
  The man started, as if he'd forgotten about Rice.
  "S'bar." He spoke through it teeth, his voice strange, lower and harsher than before. He seemed angry. "She-bar."

Then he vanishes into the forest.

What is the caretaker to do? Call the game warden? The sheriff? We know, from a brief prologue, that Rice has a checkered past, back in a Mexican prison. And we know he fears retribution "with prejudice" should his whereabouts, even in the backwoods of Virginia, become known. He's got to go it alone.

There's more. Oh, there's a lot more.

Both of my thumbs are pointing up.
  weird_O | Jan 26, 2020 |
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