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Book Review: Insider knowledge leads to gripping story; Feingold's "While America Sleeps"

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White Bear Lake novelist Julie Kramer makes good use of her past experience as a news producer for NBC, CBS and WCCO-TV, which is only one reason she has become a national bestselling and award winning author of thrillers like her latest in her popular Riley Spartz series, "Shunning Sarah" (Atria Books, $23.99).

A few weeks back I wrote about how thrillers have been increasingly interested in occupations, so that now we have mysteries with chefs who solve them, carpenters who stumble over them.

There's even a subcategory called "Amish Romances," which deals with young Amish people being turned loose in big bad America to see if they want to remain Amish.

This all sounds very contrived, but it needn't be, in the right hands.

Julie Kramer uses her long experience as an in-the-know TV producer to create a girl from southeastern Minnesota named Riley Spartz, who works as a reporter for the fictitious Channel 3 in Minneapolis.

Riley's a widow who has an off-again, on-again relationship with a Twin Cities cop who shares her love of movies and helps her when her reportage runs into murder and mayhem.

In "Shunning Sarah," it involves the discovery of dead girl hidden in a sinkhole near Harmony, Minn., Riley's hometown. With help from her family and friends, she beats the other news organizations to the punch and they discover that the murdered girl was a "fallen-away" Amish girl from the neighborhood. (See "Amish Romance").

As Riley battles with the local sheriff and the other news organizations and her new boss at the station, an idiot named Bryce Griffin, who doesn't own a journalism degree. He's a businessman pure and simple and wouldn't recognize a news story if he saw one.

I worked for such a man at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and I can affirm that Kramer does not exaggerate. She's also very good with the Amish question.

If any readers wonder why the Amish are upset down in Lanesboro over the mining of frac sand, if they read "Shunning Sarah," they'd find out.

Her efforts to keep Channel 3 afloat reflect today's situation in big city journalism. Thus we get a peek at what's wrong with the news world as it struggles with survival.

Kramer also provides an amusing glimpse into the culture of small-town Minnesota, where no one believes that a local would stoop so low as to murder someone. (Kramer calls on her knowledge of Minnesota history to prove the opposite.)

Riley's mother is sweet and probably cooks a mean hotdish, but is not the brightest bulb in Fillmore County. She figures it must have been one of those over-the-road truck drivers who roar past the family farm.

Along the way, Kramer tips us off to tricks of the reporter's trade. She never calls Ed Eide the difficult lawman, "Ed," but always "Sheriff" in order to ingratiate herself by showing him she knows her place in the world.

In another aside, she talks about a corn maze operated near her family farm, where a family from Edina gets lost fifteen feet from its edge. She tells her know-nothing boss to jump on the story because "subscribers like to read about dumb people who live in rich suburbs."

This true-to-life fictionalizing, in my estimation is more than a cut above the average thriller, placing Julie Kramer much closer to the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Judith Guest, Jon Hassler and our other most prestigious chroniclers of the upper Midwestern experience.


As the Republicans and Democrats duke it out before the next election, gleefully reporting gaffes on both sides of the aisle, stooping low at times, it's very refreshing to run across a book whose author gets high marks from elephants and donkeys alike.

That author would be former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, whose new book, "While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post 9/11 Era" (Crown Publishers, $26).

Both sides of aisle (Senators Bob Kerry and John McCain) agree that Feingold has reported our blunders with honesty and integrity and pundits compare Feingold to earlier Democrats and Republicans (Robert LaFollette, Sr., Wayne Morse, Gaylord Nelson) who put policy before politics for the good of the nation.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.