Readers and Writers: New reads include a monster mystery, a memoir and a stolen dragon head

Feb. 19—Today we've got Brian Freeman's monster mystery, a stolen dragon head from Michael Mallory, and a heartwarming memoir from a woman who cares for 600 animals and uses her winged and four-footed friends to teach kids love and compassion.

"The Ursulina" by Brian Freeman (Black Stone Publishing, $28.99)

I saw it for only a second, but I had never seen anything like it. It was most definitely not a bear. It walked on two legs the way people do, more than seven feet tall, with a thick, matted coat of shaggy orange-brown fur. It looked right at me when it saw the light, and I saw the reflection of its eyes like two bloodred suns.

If there's a contest for the best book of 2022 so far, Brian Freeman's "The Ursulina" is near the top.

Freeman, an award-winning author of psychological thrillers, including the popular Jonathan Stride series, won a 2021 Minnesota Book Award for his stand-alone "The Deep, Deep Snow." That book featured deputy sheriff Shelby Lake.

"The Ursulina" is both a prequel and follow-up to "The Deep, Deep Snow."

Set in 1984, the story is told by Rebecca Colder, a deputy sheriff in northwoods Black Wolf County, in the form of letters to her daughter, Shelby, asking forgiveness for why she gave up her only child. (Baby Shelby was found abandoned in the cold winter in "The Deep, Deep Snow" and rescued by a stranger.)

Rebecca lives in the town of Random, where the myth of the Ursulina, a sort of Bigfoot, is alive and well. Murders, several years apart, bear the mark of the beast — long claw marks that eviscerated the victims with "I am the Ursulina" written in their blood on the walls.

What Rebecca has never told anyone is that she saw the creature briefly when she was 10 years old on a camping trip.

Two of the beast's victims — hoodlums holed up in a trailer — had died years earlier. Now, the Ursulina has returned to kill a lawyer representing the local mine in a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by women working there.

That would be enough for most writers to juggle, but Freeman adds human touches that enrich the story, including two scared, closeted gay boys and Rebecca's relationship with her awful husband, Ricky, a dominating, cruel man who spends most of his time drinking at the local dirty dive bar.

Lonely and contemplating divorce, Rebecca meets Tom, a sweet man to whom she's instantly drawn.

When Rebecca learns she's pregnant, it doesn't matter to her whether Ricky or Tom is the father. Her baby, Shelby, is hers alone. The passages in which she writes to her daughter about the happiness of their two weeks together are so loving, so moving, one reader thought these scenes could only have been written by a woman.

Women readers will also sympathize with Rebecca as she sits in on an interview while she is in labor. You don't get much tougher than that.

As usual in Freeman's books, there are twists and turns as residents of the small town are interviewed by Rebecca and her older partner, Darrell, trying to make sense of the return of the beast.

And the end. Nope, you won't find any spoilers here. Just — be ready to be shocked by the Ursulina.

"The Lost Dragon Murder" by Michael Allan Mallory (BookLocker, $16.95 paperback)

Witnessing two high-level practitioners applying their skills fascinated her. Wing Chun kung fu was famous for its aggressive, close-range fighting style. Janet had never seen a fighting art with such dazzling and efficient arm and hand work. Henry moved with the fluidity of a dancer as he flowed from one position to the next.

Michael Mallory's new police procedural was published in December and didn't get the attention is should have. Mallory brings us an interesting Minneapolis detective in Henry Lau, who is partnered with his niece, Janet.

The murder of an art appraiser leads the team on a hunt for a rare missing antiquity — the head of a bronze dragon, constructed in the 18th century, one of 12 such figures from the great fountain at Haiyantang.

The partners' problem is that everyone who buys high-end art in the Twin Cities, including several businessmen, can't be trusted. Nor can the gorgeous, confident woman who claims she represents the Chinese government and wants the country's treasure returned.

Underlying the story is Henry's superb ability in Wing Chun kung fu, which the author has studied and taught. His graceful but deadly moves keep the story moving when there's trouble. Along the way, the reader learns just enough about Wing Chun to understand why Henry's personality and character makes him the top man at the school. Who knew there were so many kinds of kung fu?

Janet, meanwhile, is trying to fit in as the department's newcomer, dealing with "jokes" about Asians and women.

The story concludes with a heart-stopping contest between Henry and a woman who matches him in kung fu skill. And in the end — this is not a spoiler — a little dog helps Janet and Henry in their search for the dragon.

There will be a meet-and-greet with the author from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26, at Once Upon a Crime, 604 W. 26th St., Mpls.

"Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals" by Laurie Zaleski (St. Martin's Press, $27.99)

If it seems like the world is a miserable place these days, it's a good time to take a break in revel in a happy, loving story.

Like the one Zaleski tells in this memoir of humans and animals. From a wild childhood in the woods around her mother's falling-apart house to Funny Farm, home to 600 rescue animals in New Jersey, the author mingles humor with some tough times.

When she was very young, Zaleski lived in a well-to-do family. Her mother was an impeccable hostess whose parties were written about in the society pages. They didn't have to keep up with the Joneses, she writes. They were the Joneses. Her dad, a college professor, was the neighborhood king of the hill. But sometimes the professor's temper unleashed and the kids were strapped with his belt, then their mother was used as a punching bag.

When her father almost killed her mom, Zaleski's mother left with her three kids and only their clothing. She found a trash house, surrounded by acres of woods and fruit trees, and tried to make it a home. Laurie and her siblings had space to roam, play and run wild.

Much of the book is a homage to the author's mother, Annie McNulty, who somehow worked several jobs, saw that her kids were fed, and took in lots of animals she brought home after cleaning cages at the local animal control facility. She also endured her husband's harassment, including shooting Laurie's favorite horse.

Zaleski, who founded a successful graphics company, always promised her mother she would buy her a farm. And she did, purchasing the acres that would become the Funny Farm.

Annie didn't live to see the farm her daughter bought for her, but her spirit clearly dominates the place, which houses rescue pigs, goats, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, an emu and a skunk. Most roam free and interact with other species, making for strange friendships such as Debbie Da Goose who joined the dog pack and fell in love with the delivery driver. The story was picked up by the media and the driver's wife thought Laurie was in love with her husband. Awkward.

There's famous Stinky, the skunk, who always comes out of his house to greet young visitors. And Lorenzo, the llama, best friend with Jethro, the donkey.

When Zaleski was invited to bring a few animals to the local school, she was accompanied by a cow and the diva chicken who insisted on living in the house. She felt like a rock star as the kids surrounded her and the animals.

Realizing how important animals were to kids, Zaleski decided to open the farm a few days a week to the public. More than 100,000 visitors are welcomed at the farm each year, free of charge. Zaleski discovered that kids could learn to live a good life despite disabilities, as some of her animals did, and she started her Kindness Program, offering anti-bullying and special needs programs at schools.

If you need your spirits lifted, spend some time at the Funny Farm. You'll come away smiling.

Zaleski will virtually discuss her book at 7 p.m. March 1, presented by the Mark Twain House in Connecticut. to register go to: