Review: Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Read Gabino Iglesias's review of James A. McLaughlin's Bearskin, then make sure you're signed up and comment below for a chance to win a copy of this sensational debut!


James A. McLaughlin

June 12, 2018

Bearskin by James McLaughlin expertly brings the beauty and danger of Appalachia to life, resulting in an elemental, slow burn of a novel—one that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin is a literary novel dipped in violence and filtered through the best elements pulp has to offer. Beautifully written, brutal, and sometimes dipping into surrealism, this is the kind of hybrid novel that is at once a crime story, an explosive eco-thriller, an exploration of cartel violence, and a meditation on nature and humanity’s (op)position therein.

Rice Moore is working as caretaker and researcher at a remote forest preserve in Virginian Appalachia. Besides keeping him busy and in solitude, the job is helping him leave behind a shady, violent past that had him in the crosshairs of Mexican cartels. Between refurbishing a cabin that will be used by a researcher in the near future and taking/inputting copious amounts of data from the preserve, Rice spends his days mostly in isolation.

Unfortunately, his relative peace begins to crumble when he finds the mutilated carcass of a bear inside the preserve. As the bear body count increases, so does Rice’s obsession with catching the poachers responsible for the mutilations. His obsession leads to hostile altercations with locals—some of whom are also responsible for the horrible act that drove the previous caretaker away—as well as increased attention from the law and Rice’s employers. When his predecessor comes back to check on the cabin—which, to Rice’s surprise, she is going to be moving into when it’s ready—she joins him in his investigation. What follows is a thrilling narrative in which doing what’s right against incredible odds also means getting closer to a past that promises nothing but pain and death.

The first thing that needs to be said about this novel is that McLaughlin achieves a perfect balance between the violence of prison fights, angry locals, and Mexican cartels and the breathtaking beauty of Appalachia, the sights and sounds of pristine natural spaces, and the almost magical existence of a plethora of animals when observed in their natural habitat. In this novel, the many passages dealing with nature are worth the price of admission, and they are all delivered between memories of the events that lead Rice to his current situation and the profit-driven brutality and ignorance he is forced to battle:

The giant trees were like dormant gods, vibrating was something he couldn’t name, not quite sentience, each one different from the others, each telling its own centuries-long story. On the forest floor, chestnut logs dead since the blight had rotted into chest-high berms soft with thick mosses, whispering quietly. Something called out and he turned to face a looming tulip tree, gnarled and bent like an old man, hollowed out by rot, lightning, ancient fires. His skin tingled.

Not enough can be said about these passages. Without them, the novel would still be great—a solid thriller with a likable main character, plenty of action, and a deep look into a bizarre international market that thrives on the gallbladders and paws of bears. However, with these passages serving as both the foundation and connective tissue of the narrative, everything becomes special, unique, and deserving of attention.

Besides the great writing, the way McLaughlin build tension is remarkable. The novel jumps right into the story with a mutilated bear carcass and then starts revealing pieces of Rice’s past. But the relationships with the locals—already strained by the way they perceive Rice’s job and the rights they think they have to the land he protects—and the reappearance of Rice’s predecessor complicate things in a wonderful way. With those complications thrown into the equation, the author carefully constructs a novel that slowly crescendos in terms of tension, slowly building to an explosive finale but never becoming dull in the process.

Bearskin walks a fine line between a thriller and literary fiction, and it successfully keeps clear of the usual pitfalls presented by both genres. In doing so, it quickly becomes the type of novel that is talked about for a while, and one that announces the arrival of a voice with something special to offer:

Two barred owls moved through the forest, calling to each other in otherworldly voices. A large bear ignored the old bait and snuffled at what was left of the two bear carcasses for so long, Rice decided it was either mourning or feeding on the carrion. Later, two does passed by, and a raccoon climbed around on the bait structure at dawn. The sky in the opening overhead turned to hot gold. He shaded his eyes and could make out a pair of ravens circling hundreds of feet up, quorking to each other, glinting like chips of obsidian in the sunlight.

There is rugged beauty in Appalachia. There is danger in the inhabited places that push against the last pockets of untamed, unspoiled American wilderness. There are also evil organizations working at the border, feeding on the desperation of many and the addictions of those north of the border. This novel brings all of those together and does so in spectacular fashion. Anyone who reads this will soon add McLaughlin to the list of authors whose next novel they eagerly await.

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Bearskin Bundle Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) June 14, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 1:59 p.m. ET June 26, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  1. Margie Hunter

    This sounds like a great read! Thanks!

  2. John Smith

    Sounds like a fascinating book!

  3. Melissa Black

    looks fantastic right up my alley

  4. Jody Darden

    This does sound exciting. May be closest I’ll get to visiting Appalachia.

  5. joel timmons

    Awesomeness. Read. Want. This. One

  6. Stacey Bene

    This sounds like an excellent book!

  7. Michael Carter

    Yes, I’d love to win this.
    Please enter me in this sweepstakes.

  8. Teresa Young

    It’s always wonderful when the locale of a novel becomes a character in itself.

  9. katevocke

    I keep hearing about this book! Lots of buzz!!

  10. Kelly Martin

    This is one of my most anticipated reads of the summer!

  11. Tad Ottman

    This looks like it could be really interesting!

  12. Andrew Beck

    Wow! What an interesting sounding book!

  13. Greg Daniel

    Bearskin just keeps popping up when I go on-line and each time I take a peek it looks more and more interesting.

  14. Chuck Aeschbacher Jr

    sounds good, makes me thing of Deliverance

  15. ann

    This looks so good!

  16. Kristine Williams

    I love to learn about Appalachia and this sounds like something I need to read!

  17. Daniel M

    looks like a fun one

  18. Lori P

    Can’t bear the abuses (admittedly bad but irresistible pun) and look forward to the bad guys getting their due!

  19. Rick McMahan

    an intriguing book

  20. Tammy

    Version sounds very interesting and would love to get that book in the mail.

  21. Norm Levy

    My kind of book.

  22. Jason Carlson

    Looks like a great book, love the outdoors and mysteries!

  23. Trisha McCullough

    Sounds very intriguing!

  24. Heather Scroggins

    Sounds like a great read! Adding to my to-be-read list!

  25. Toni A Laliberte

    Looks like a cool book. Thanks for the chance!

  26. Cindi Hoppes

    What a fascinating description of this book! The cover of it, really got my attention…
    Thanks, Cindi

  27. Karl Stenger

    I would love to read the book. It has garnered such great reviews.

  28. Danielle Hammelef

    Thanks for the chance to win an exciting book.

  29. teresa sopher

    Shew! Sounds great…

  30. Andrew Jensen

    Well written review. You get a sense of what to expect without giving to much detail. Appalachia is a beautiful area. The juxtoposition of that beauty with horrific violence, even by those who enjoy the beauty, is an interesting plot device.

  31. Rudy Wright

    While I’m not a tree-hugger, I like the eco-premise of the story.

  32. Diane Seitz

    This sounds like a great read. The review is excellent. Thanks for the opportunity to enter the giveaway.

  33. leilani hagberg

    Sacred bears in Appa -latch-ia are scarce and this calls out to me Please give me a chance

  34. Elena L.

    It would be a sad subject to read, but I am excited to read this book! It seems amazing =) Thanks for the chance – fingers crossed!!

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  39. Rena

    This looks really good. Can’t wait to read it.

  40. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Bears! Yes!

  41. Adrien Toro

    Looks great.

  42. Dan Carr

    Sounds beary scary!

  43. Sara M Lontcoski

    Sounds awesome.

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    I would love to read this book – thanks.

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  46. Jean Barber

    Sounds like a goodone!

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    I can’t wait to read this!

  48. Carole Knoles

    A thriller with an educational element sounds like a worthy read.

  49. Tiffany

    This sounds so good

  50. Christine Goulet

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  51. Marisa Young

    beary good – would love to read book

  52. Erica

    This sounds super interesting! I would love to obtain this and do a review on my blog!

  53. Suzanne Parent

    This novel seems to combine two of my loves: Literary Fiction & the beautiful Appalachian wilderness. Would love to read this novel!

  54. Mary Woods

    Sounds exciting. Love the cover!

  55. carloshmarlo

    I’d love read a combination thriller and literary fiction book. Please enter my name in the draw. Thanks.

  56. Christal Mormann

    I want to read this one.

  57. Anastasia

    I’d love to check this out 🙂

  58. Darrell Z. Grizzle

    Sounds fascinating! Hope I win!

  59. Troy

    This title is going on my TBR pile!

    Thanks for the great find, Gambino!

  60. Laura Webster

    Really excited!!

  61. Louis Burklow

    This sounds like a novel I’d like to read more than once.

  62. Mary Mcmahan

    looks like an intriguing book

  63. Mary Mcmahan

    great looking book

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