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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
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The author has expanded her "Rolling Stone" article about a cop killed in the Mojave Desert into a book.

To accomplish this, there is some florid writing. For me, the book succeeds more as a portrait of a small town in Los Angeles County a decade ago than as a murder mystery.

The book bounces around tremendously on the time frame--can jump back or forwards 10 years. This is not uncommon and, as always, I advocate a chronological approach as easier on the reader.

Still, all in all, a pretty good read.

The major exception I have is her documentation as to where the alleged killer was during the week he evaded capture. She cites rumors that he hid out in a massive network of tunnels under the desert. But although the author sat in the killer's home, she apparently never wandered out back and attempted to verify the reality of those tunnels. Some evidence on that issue--whether for or against the rumors--would have vastly strengthened the book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The author of this book has done some research, but there are some very flagrant flaws in facts she presents to the readers. On page 15-16 she mentions that "The army had helped....fierce battles of Sante Fe..." Historians know that Sante Fe fell without any serious firefight, at all, during the Mexican-American War! She seriously confuses the details of that war.

On page 64, "the perimeter of Edwards Air Force Base, launching pad for the space shuttle"... When? Never!!! The space shuttle LANDED there on many occasions, but never was launched from there!

Page 88, "Over time, his gerrymandered way of living...." NO! She should have used the term jury-rigged.

Page 117--1/3 of the way down the page, "...two centuries later..." She should have written "decades".

Page 151-152--Her "desert survival-water needs/skills" discussion is ludicrous. These are all over the top comments; very unrealistic!

Page 178--"That Ken Kesey wrote about in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test....." You should probably let Tom Wolfe know about that. HE was the author of that particular book that, yes, spoke about Ken to some extent, but Tom wrote the book.

Ms. Stillman tries to write a riveting tale about the essence of the wacky and wonderful Wild West in the near and now, but reader be forewarned that you might be misled by some of the fraudulent storyline. If you're looking for a dramatic non-fiction masterpiece that also addresses the dynamics of the New West check out Last Rampage by James Clarke. An older story from the late 1970s, but is a gripping, horrific, and intimately researched masterpiece.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
The Joshua tree, a type of yucca, lives only around the Mohave Desert. The blasted sands and triple-digit temperatures enable this peculiar plant to thrive where almost nothing else will. Deserts are a place for oddities like the Joshua tree, and a refuge for peculiar people who cannot flourish elsewhere, and the Mohave is a haven for "a strange brew of loners, outlaws, ultralight pilots, people hunkered in compounds behind KKK signs, meth cookers and asthmatics, those who crave quiet, and serious desert freaks who work hard at blue-collar jobs and out here where land is cheap live like kings." That's from _Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History_ (Nation Books) by Deanne Stillman. The author originally wrote a story on this theme for _Rolling Stone_, and has expanded it here, making the Mojave something more than just a setting, as she did in her previous true-crime book _Twentynine Palms_. Stillman lives in Los Angeles, and it is strange to think that there is a desert so close to Tinseltown, but a big part of the story here is the town's outward march, and ostensible civilizing influence, into regions where civilization may simply not belong.

Except for law enforcement and the military, Stillman writes that the Mojave is the most heavily armed region in the country. The inhabitants there in their desert bunkers are fond of their rights, "quoting the Second Amendment and search-and-seizure law like scripture, but in the end always destroyed by that American urge to go out like Custer." Donald Kueck was born in Alabama in 1950 to a family steeped in law enforcement and military service. Kueck, however, went out to Southern California in the hippie wave, married, had a son, and then disappeared into the desert. For years he had no contact with his family, and little with any of the other desert denizens. He was prodigiously intelligent, a reader who stowed away countless bits of possible useful information. Kueck's counterpart in this story is a fellow desert resident, Deputy Sheriff Stephen Sorensen, a former surfer. Sorensen he liked the solitude of the desert, and he became a model for anyone in law enforcement. He helped the elderly when they could not take care of their properties, he bought groceries for the poor, he brokered deals between angry residents so that jail could be avoided, and he advocated for the rights and employment opportunities for Hispanics. He was on a day off in 2003 when he was called to Kueck's area to investigate an unrelated squatter complaint. No one knows why he then entered Kueck's property, and no one knows of the interaction that occurred, but Kueck let fly repeated volleys of bullets into the sheriff. No one knows why Kueck reacted in such a way. Part of the reason may be the death of his son Jello, with whom he had formed a partially successful reunion. Jello lived with Kueck in the desert, where they jointly fired rockets and did drugs, until Kueck kicked him out, whereupon Jello descended into heroin and death.

Large parts of this story will have to remain unknown. Stillman has a novelist's flair for colorful explanation. One narrative section of an explanation of what Kueck was doing in his last hours, an explanation that contains many times "perhaps," "may have," and so on, ends with "Or maybe it did not happen like that at all." The resultant manhunt, however, is amply documented. There was a seven-day pursuit pitting SWAT teams, helicopters, FBI and DEA agents, hundreds of troopers, Air Force signal interception planes (for tracing his cell phone), an enormous tank and more, deployed against a hermit whose only real resource was an extensive knowledge of the desert and the tunnels beneath it. The result was inevitable, but that Kueck was able to hold off the inevitable for seven days is astonishing. This is a story of terribly warped souls, terrible violence, all within a terrible landscape. The killing in this story, at least, is over, and the Joshua trees and scorpions, and even the rattlesnakes with whom Kueck had a special relationship endure, and the Mohave remains a home for outcasts.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The murder story is compelling on its own, but Desert Reckoning is so much more than a true-crime thriller. Stillman creates a fascinating portrait of the hinterlands surrounding L.A. and their diverse inhabitants. Although the in-depth reporting on seemingly peripheral characters can begin to feel excessive, it's worth it and adds up to an unbelievably moving and powerful climax. I get chills just thinking about it. Whatever you do, don't stop before the afterward (notes on writing this book), it's perhaps more chilling than any other part.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Reading this now. Hard to get through due to the sweetening up of so much writing. I'm deeply curious about the subject, but the writer's chirpy, overly confident tone makes me wish for a Capote type reportage style. It is nowhere near as thick to get through as the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but a surprise disappointment, just as that was. You're on own with this one, but for me, this book calls so much attention to it's writing being 'crafted' that I am dutifully plowing through it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I've read several of Stillman's books. This might be my favorite! I've been curious about the Mojave since desert road trips with my parents. I didn't stare out the window thinking that the Mojave was boring. I was fascinated by its mystery. Desert Reckoning fills in some of the blanks. I wouldn't have a clue about the happenings that Stillman describes, without her bothering to do the research. I'm grateful for her take on the differing violent aspects of life in the Mojave.

I love her psychological grasp of the characters. This requires a certain amount of living, much insight, and a mature, non-judgemental evaluation of human nature. Especially I enjoy her lyrical writing. Only a passionate observer of the physical as well as human landscape could promote a passion in the reader to know more. A certain discernment in the reader will reward with a deeper journey. There are layers of the mystical here.

Finally, I would compare Stillman's story to my favorite TV show, Criminal Minds. The two share a richness of script and variety of thought that is out of the ordinary. Plenty of the psychological thriller, of course! In fact, I hope Ms. Stillman's agent has worked on getting the show's attention. I would like to SEE Desert Reckoning, also.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover
When I started reading "Desert Reckoning," I was mostly intent on finding out how the "bad-guy" cop-killer got caught. Unfamiliar with this event, the ending to the tale was already teased out in endorsements on the dust jacket. What drew me to the book would be the telling of the tale.

The extensive background narrative in the early chapters put me off a bit. It was lengthy. I was intent on finding out how the "bad guy" met his end. However, as the book progressed, more and more I began to appreciate Stillman's insightful observations on this remote pocket of Los Angeles County, the community of people who live there and the desert itself.

"Desert Reckoning" is as much about the cop as the cop-killer. It's how a community responds when a beloved and trusted person, an anchor (who just happens to be a cop) is taken down in cold blood.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Not quite sociological current-events nonfiction, not quite about a police manhunt, not quite about the odd Mojave "fringe" culture of dropouts and freaks, this book comes across in the end as thoroughly disjointed. The chronology was difficult to follow, and various threads of the story sometimes just faded off or were dropped without explanation. The author constantly indulges in rampant speculation about unknown events/facts, in rambling passages that may seem poetic to some but I found to just be annoying. I love police procedural fiction, enjoy some true crime nonfiction, and am deeply intrigued by desert culture, so by all rights I should have loved this book. I didn't. By mixing all three and adding in some prose, the end result is none of the above
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I was looking forward to reading this story, but could only get through a few pages on my Kindle before calling it quits. The author is in great need of an editor who can rein in her verbose style. The sentences are terribly hard to follow because they try to pack in too many words in between the punctuation marks. To me, it is not worth having to fight all the way through reading a book when it is a struggle to even get out of the gate.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Sometimes magazine articles are transformed into outstanding full-length books. "Desert Reckoning," which Deanne Stillman initially wrote as an article for Rolling Stone, isn't one of them.

In all fairness, "Desert Reckoning" isn't a terrible read. The book chronicles the 2003 slaying of Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy Steve Sorensen and the six-day manhunt to find his killer, Donald Kueck. Not only does "Desert Reckoning" benefit from an interesting premise and an eclectic cast of real-life characters, it's also thoroughly researched. With regard to the latter point, Stillman provides accurate details about Sorensen's murder and does an excellent job of describing the Mojave setting where the killing occurred. In addition, she supplies readers with ample information about the key players involved with the story. To this end, one of the most interesting characters in the book is Kueck's son Jello, whose story is told very effectively by Stillman.

While "Desert Reckoning" has many virtues, it's far from an electrifying read. It's obvious that the author couldn't figure out how to stretch the details of Sorensen's murder and the manhunt that followed into a full-length manuscript. Consequently, she decided to incorporate a lot of extraneous filler into the story. This filler includes pointless background information on nonessential characters, superfluous details about desert legends, and endless minutiae about trivial topics. In one of the book's most ludicrous asides, Stillman provides a comprehensive backstory on the cultural cachet of Bob's Big Boy.

What's really amazing is that, despite all of the unnecessary nuance crammed into the book, I never felt like I really came to know either Sorensen or Kueck. Part of this has to do with the way "Desert Reckoning" is sequenced. Stillman decided to break the book up into six chapters, which mirror the six days of the manhunt to find Kueck. However, each chapter is chock full of biographical data, flashbacks, flash forwards, and the aforementioned details that add little or nothing to the story. The result is that the manhunt to find Kueck, which should have been riveting, never gains any momentum and fizzles out into a pitiful anticlimax. After all, how excited can a reader get about SWAT teams combing the desert for an elusive, heavily armed cop killer when, in the middle of describing the search, the author launches into a prolix description of a cell phone ringtone she heard at a mini-mart.

The bottom line: Because the storytelling in "Desert Reckoning" is poorly executed, neither the book's action nor the book's emotions ever crystallize in a meaningful way. If you want to learn about the history of the Antelope Valley or gain a general understanding of the types of people who live in rural expanses of the Mojave, then "Desert Reckoning" might be worth your time. However, if you're looking for a razor-sharp narrative about one of the most infamous cop killings in recent L.A. County history, then this book is a skipper, not a flipper.
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