Thursday, December 05, 2019

Like a Runaway Horse - Random Thoughts on the End of 2019

I don’t mean to sound like some cliché-addled whiner today, but here goes anyway: Where has 2019 gotten to? I realized just today that reading-wise I’m not prepared for it to end just 26 days from now. I still have way too much to do.

Every year, I prepare a couple of Top Ten lists for December posting, one for fiction and one for non-fiction. I limit the lists, of course, to the books I’ve actually read and reviewed on Book Chase, so in the great scheme of things, they don’t much reflect the big picture. But they do represent my personal reading year, and when I go back and look at the lists from prior years they remind me of all the great books I’ve already read – and they get me excited about all the great ones already out there in the pipeline for the next year. 

But this year, I’ve got at least three unread books on my desk that I know very likely deserve to be on one or the other of the two lists. I’ve read the authors before, some of their previous books are among my longtime favorites, and I was so excited to get my hands on the books in the first place that I shelled out the hardcover price for each of them the week they were published. Problem is, they were published in October or November and I don’t think I’ll be able to read them before next year because of the books I’ve already lined up for December reviews. (And I really don’t want to rush through them anyway and cheapen the experience of reading some of my favorite writers.) I suppose the good news is that they were published so late in the year, that I can, by my standards (books published between October 1 of the previous year and December 31 of the current year are list-eligible), consider them for my 2020 lists. 

The Unpeelable Sticker 
And I suppose that I should confess to being something of a reading contrarian. I’ve mentioned before how I find celebrity-headed book clubs to be cringe-worthy. Oprah is pushing it? Reese Witherspoon chose it for “Reese’s Book Club? Well, no thanks then. Honestly, I’m kind of embarrassed to be seen carrying around a book with one of their book club stickers on the cover because it makes me feel like a little lost lamb in a very large herd of sheep. And now to make things even worse, many of the books they choose come with their "stickers" actually printed as part of the book's cover; you can’t peel the sticker off even if you want to. 

That’s why I may be the last person in the world to read 2018’s Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I’m about 200 pages into the 34th printing (geez, how many millions of copies has this book sold) of the book right now, but even that probably would not have happened if my wife had not mentioned last month that she thought she would enjoy it. So, dutiful husband that I am (it’s OK to laugh), I came home with a copy the next day. She loved it – although that’s not always a good sign because she also loves just about every Hallmark movie she’s ever watched. But 200 pages into Crawdads, I’m starting to think that she is right about the book.

Too, I wish I didn’t feel so much like a magpie these days. I’m just as guilty of acquiescing to an urge to acquire every shiny new trinket I spot (brand new books) as that well known flying-thief is. And that means that I have read exactly nine books so far this year that were on my shelves on the first day of 2019. Nine! And I have dozens of them staring at me all day long from my shelves and waiting patiently for their turn to finally come along. Some of them, I keep reminding myself, have been sitting there since the mid-eighties and I’m starting to wonder if they will ever be read. (That may become an official challenge for next year, now that I think about it.)

Don’t let all of this whining make you think that I’m not excited about the rapid approach of 2020 and all that a brand new year offers, because I am, and I can’t wait to see what our book world has in store for all of us next year.  As I’ve said here many times before, readers are special people and book-blogging is the best way to bring some of them together where I can enjoy their company and be a more active part of the reading community. Thank you for being part of that community.

So, ready or not, I can’t wait for 2020.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

From the Grave - Jay Brandon

From the Grave is Texas author Jay Brandon’s second Edward Hall novel. It follows 2018’s Against the Law, the novel that introduced the impulsive ex-con, (disbarred) lawyer who never expected to practice law again but soon enough finds himself defending his own sister against a charge of murdering her husband. 

Now, this time around, Edward is back in the courtroom at the specific request of a Houston district attorney who wants him to defend the black man accused of kidnapping and terrorizing the D.A.’s sister. If he accepts the case, Edward will be facing a judge who justifiably despises him and a ruthlessly aggressive court-appointed prosecutor who wants to put his client away for the rest of his life. If it doesn’t sound like Edward has much of a chance of keeping his client a free man, that’s because he doesn’t. But Edward has been assured that if he impresses the District Attorney and her cronies enough with his handling of this case, the state board will consider reinstating his law license on a probationary basis. 

Jay Brandon
Edward Hall is no fool. He understands that the only way he is going to impress the D.A. is to lose the case in spectacular fashion. They are making it easy for him to let that happen, but Edward is not even certain that he wants to practice law again in the first place – and losing a case that will cost his client the rest of his life behind bars, is most certainly not the way he wants to get reinstated. It doesn’t hurt that the accused kidnapper happens to be the only friend that Edward made during his years in prison, the man who protected Edward from all-comers and made it possible for him to walk away from the Texas prison system in one piece. It’s a no-brainer; Edward is taking the case - and he plans to win it. 

Bottom Line: From the Grave allows Jay Brandon to expand nicely upon his Edward Hall character. Hall has a good sense of right and wrong, but he is not a man who plays by the rules if that means that the bad guys are going to come out on top. He considers burglary to be a useful evidence-gathering tool despite having been caught both times he’s previously tried that tactic. And now he has a girlfriend who is even more enthusiastic about the potentials of burglary than he is – so what could possibly go wrong? This one may be a bit farfetched, but that’s what makes it so much fun.

Review Copy courtesy of Severn House Publishers

Monday, December 02, 2019

Without Expiration - William R. Hincy (Book Trailer of the Week Series)

I have been a fan of well-produced book trailers for a long time, and I've been featuring them here on Book Chase since sometime in early 2012. Book trailers, I think, are an asset whose value is all too often underestimated by publishers and authors. In numerous cases, it was only because I stumbled upon a book trailer that I even became aware of the book's existence at all - and some of those serendipitous discoveries went on to become favorites of mine instead of forever remaining under my radar. 

The trailer below is in promotion of William R. Hincy's recently released paperback Without Expiration: 

Without Expiration is a collection of twelve of the author's short stories. I have not read the stories, but they appear to share the theme that personal mistakes do not come with expiration dates and that all of us are flawed - it's only a matter of degree - in one way or another. Or as the trailer puts it, "Are we bad people who sometimes do good things, or good people who do bad things?" 

And, in the long run, does it much matter?

William R. Hincy is a Los Angeles area writer whose work is described this way on his author's page: "...Hincy aspires to use literature to connect society on an emotional level through characters who no longer create messes but have instead become the mess." That may be a little too dark for some, but as a fan of noir fiction, I find it intriguing. 

And it all started with a book trailer.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

The Secrets We Kept - Lara Prescott

After struggling with it for years, in 1957 Boris Pasternack finally completed Dr. Zhivago, the novel that would come to define his life. But, unfortunately for Pasternak and his countrymen, there was no way that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would allow the book to be published there. It is thanks to the efforts of Italian publisher Gianglacomo Feltrinelli that the Zhivago manuscript was smuggled out of Russia and published (in Italian) in 1957 to became a best seller in the West. Strangely enough, Feltrinelli, a left-wing activist and militant would himself go on to die while setting explosives during a botched act of terrorism in Milan just fifteen years later.

As if all of that were not already crazy enough, it turns out that America’s Central Intelligence Agency saw the book as a useful Cold War propaganda weapon. To that purpose, the Agency had the novel translated back into Russian and it produced just over 350 copies that would be handed off to vetted Russians traveling in the West. Lara Prescott’s historical novel, The Secrets We Kept, tells us just how that may have been accomplished – and what the results were.

Beginning in 1949 and ending in 1961, the story is told in alternating “East” and “West” segments. The “West” segments are told largely through the eyes of members of the CIA typing pool, a group of women who have trained themselves somehow to type documents without absorbing the real meaning of the words they put on paper. But not all of these women are what they seem – to a woman, for instance, they know much more about what is happening around them than their male superiors suspect they know. And they have secrets of their own, secrets with the potential to get people killed. 

Lara Prescott
The “East” segments, at least until characters start to cross over, are narrated by Boris Pasternack’s mistress, a young woman who does several years of hard time in the Gulag because of her association with the author. Without her help and the secrets she keeps for him, it is unlikely that Pasternack would have successfully completed Dr. Zhivago. Olga may have sacrificed years of watching her two children grow up, but her love and support for Boris never wavered for long, and their relationship was a deep and meaningful one for both of them. 

Favorite Quote: “They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons – that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the heart and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game.” 

Bottom Line: The Secrets We Kept is based on an interesting piece of seldom discussed Cold War history, a period during which books and authors were important weapons in the propaganda war between Democracy and Communism. Lara Prescott has peopled the novel with a remarkable group of female characters that play key roles in the Doctor Zhivago story and how that novel became one of the key books of the twentieth century.  As evidenced by the three-page bibliography at the end of The Secrets We Kept, this is a well-researched novel, one likely to appeal equally to fans of historical fiction and to fans of books about books. If you are a fan of both types, this is your lucky day.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving from Book Chase

(I think these are supposed to be chickens, but I'm pretending they are turkeys.)

From all of us here at Book Chase (that would be me): 

Happy Thanksgiving to you all. I hope you had a better day than those guys up above.

And these:

For those outside the U.S., just know that we all ate and drank way too much today and will probably be sleeping later than usual  tomorrow morning. 

See you when we wake up. .

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Black Hills - M J Trow

I was initially attracted to M.J. Trow’s The Black Hills because it features two of the more interesting figures from the post-Civil War period - U.S. Grant and George Armstrong Custer - and because historical fiction is one of my favored genres. It was only later, after I began the novel, that I realized it is the sixth book in Trow’s “Grand & Batchelor Victorian Mystery” series (the book is clearly marked this way on its cover but I read an e-book version and did not see an image of the cover until later). Thankfully, however, The Black Hills works well as a standalone – although I did wonder a time or two about  Grand and Batchelor and how two such different men ever became detective agency partners in London.

As it turns out, Grand is a Civil War veteran and West Point classmate of Custer’s and Batchelor is his English partner. Grand may have been a onetime classmate of Custer’s but the two of them were never really friends, and in fact, Grand really doesn’t think a whole lot of Custer’s military talents. That said, Grand finds it difficult enough to turn down a direct appeal from “an idiot I was at West Point with” that he and Batchelor agree in March 1875 to meet Custer in Washington D.C. where they will back him as he presents evidence at a Congressional Hearing. In Washington, the pair soon learns that Custer is not much changed from his West Point days. The man still has a high opinion of himself, a big mouth, and a knack for making dangerous enemies, but despite Custer’s self-destructive behavior, Grand and Batchelor manage to get him out of Washington alive. It’s when the detectives decide to visit Fort Abraham Lincoln, headquarters of Custer’s 7thCavalry, before returning to London that things really get interesting.

M J Trow
Fort Abraham Lincoln is a political hotbed where wives compete over the accomplishments of their officer-husbands, Custer’s adjutants despise him, and the main means of entertainment consists of spreading rumors and gossip about rivals. Despite the monotony of everyday life in the Black Hills for civilians and soldiers alike, Grand and Bachelor are just beginning to enjoy themselves a bit when the body of a young soldier is discovered some distance from the fort. Grand and Bachelor, like everyone else, assume that the trooper was killed by the Lakota Sioux until they notice that the soldier had been riding Custer’s horse when ambushed. Have Custer’s enemies followed him all the way to the Dakota Territory and are they still trying to kill him?

Bottom Line: The Black Hills is a nice combination of historical fact and fiction that uses touches of alternate reality and lots of comedy to create a mystery with a light touch. While the reader is unlikely ever to feel that Custer will really be killed off by the author, it is still fun to watch Grand and Bachelor rescue the oblivious colonel time after time. Trow effortlessly blends real and fictional characters in a way that makes it easy to forget which is which (my personal favorite is Calamity Jane). And perhaps best of all, the solution to the mystery of who is after Custer, and why, is not one that many will see coming (well, at least I didn’t see it coming). 

Review Copy provided by Crème de la Crème an imprint of Severn House Publishers Ltd. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

When Sally Comes Marching Home - Richard Milton

World War II is finally over, the Allies have won the day, and Major Sally Honeychurch is coming home to a completely different world than the one she’s been living in for the past several years. Or is she?

Sally, a highly skilled British agent, spent much of the war in France behind enemy lines working with the French Resistance to slow down the progress of Hitler’s advancing army. There, her sex was an advantage because German soldiers found it impossible to believe that any woman was capable of doing them serious harm. By the time they figured out the truth, it was too late stop her. Now, however, Sally is back in London where, despite all she accomplished in France, she finds that her sex has turned into a huge career disadvantage because no one in the British military takes her seriously anymore. Instead of receiving the respect she has earned, Sally finds herself unceremoniously thrust back into civilian life to do the things that women of the day are expected to do.

But that is all about to change in a big way, and the powers that be are going to learn just how lucky they are that Sally did, in fact, come marching home. 

Richard Milton
Terrorists, whoever they may be, have managed to smuggle an atomic bomb into London and Sally has been called back into service by the Head of MI6 because she is one of the few people in the world who have actually seen such a bomb. If the terrorists are not identified, and the bomb located and disarmed in the next few days, hundreds of thousands of civilians will die. Even now, though, Sally is having to fight the prejudice of her male counterparts, men who much prefer that she sit at a desk studying files instead of searching the London streets with the rest of the team. If she is to have any chance of finding the bomb in time to save the city, Sally knows that she is going to have ignore every direct order that does not serve her purpose. If she fails, she could end up spending the rest of her life in prison. 

Sally Honeychurch is willing to take that chance.

Bottom Line: When Sally Comes Marching Home is a historical thriller that I expected to be a little over the top, one that would demand a complete suspension of disbelief if I were going enjoy it. And right until I finished the novel, that is exactly what I thought I was reading. (Not that I was unwilling to do exactly that.) Then I came to Richard Milton’s thirteen-page “Historical Note” explaining just how seriously such a threat was taken in post-war Britain, and how difficult it would have been at the time to stop anyone with the means to make it happen. I found from the note, too, that many of the main and secondary characters I had taken as complete fictional creations were actually based upon historical figures of the time. This one is fun – and eye-opening.

Review Copy courtesy of author and Bowater Books, Chichester, U.K.

Friday, November 22, 2019

New "Emma" Movie in 2020

Looks like there's another new Jane Austen movie coming out in February 2020, but that's not really why I'm sharing this new trailer for Emma today.

What really caught my attention is how cleverly this particular trailer is edited, and just generally so well done that I would now love to see the movie itself. It perfectly captures the sense-of-humor on display in the novel and leads me to believe that this one could really be fun. What do you think?