Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Book Chase: The December 2020 Reading Plan

 I only realized a few minutes ago that this is December 1, so I'll give a briefer than usual update on my reading plans/schedule for this last month of 2020: 

I've been looking forward to getting my hands on a library copy of this new Inspector Rebus novel for a while now. I was finally able to pick it up yesterday, and I've read the first couple of chapters already - and feel right at home being back in Rebus's world. I have to admit it was a bit of a shock to see that Rebus was in the process of moving from his longtime upstairs flat down to a ground-floor one in the same building because of the progression of his COPD. Why are all my favorite fictional detectives getting old at the same time? Don't answer that.

I am just over halfway through this 440-page Civil War novel now, and I'm enjoying the ride. I Jonathan is a recounting of the war through one man's eyes, a young man from Boston who found himself stranded in Charleston, South Carolina, when the war broke out. It has been interesting to watch the evolution in his thinking about the War and its causes. The story is being told by an elderly man to his great-nephew over a period of several visits by the nephew to a nursing home. 

A Share in Death was the very first Kincaid and James mystery, and it goes all the way back to 1993. I'm actually listening to the audiobook version of the novel right now, and it will probably be the first thing I finish in December. The novel is a good introduction to the Duncan Kincaid character, but I'm almost done with it and Kincaid and Gemma James have still not seen each other face-to-face despite her being one of his direct-report staff. The plot seems a bit old-fashioned both in its details and in its execution.

I'm a big fan of Robert Dugoni's writing, but I've never read one of of his Tracy Crosswhite books. Because this is already the eighth book in the series, I'm hoping that jumping in right here is not a mistake. Apparently Tracy is just returning to the Seattle Police Department where she is reassigned to the department's Cold Case unit. The problem she faces is having to investigate two cases at the same time: the kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl and the disappearance of a female jogger who never came home.

Strongheart is book number three in Jim Fergus's "One Thousand White Women" series. The books follow the lives of several hundred white women who went to live with the Indians as a gesture of goodwill and peace. The women all supposedly volunteered to move to the West and become Indian brides, but most all of them were found in prisons, insane asylums, and houses of prostitution. The women prove to be  surprisingly strong in body and spirit, however, and most of them thrived in their new lives. I've enjoyed the first two books.

Stillicide is a strange book I discovered in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review. It is a glimpse at one possible future for the world that we'd best avoid. After a worldwide draught, water has become a commodity, and countries are competing for their share of what's available. Whoever controls the world's water supply is in a position of power. As the novel begins, a huge iceberg is headed for London but terrorists are determined to damage or destroy the city's water pipeline. That can't be good.

I feel like I've seen about a dozen books with this cover-style in the last few months, but it's another one I just discovered on the NYT Book Review a couple of days ago. It's the memoir of an "indigenous" woman and it was a bestseller in Canada. The U.S. version has supposedly been updated to make it more applicable to readers here, and I'm curious to learn more about the lives of modern Native Americans and what kind of racism they have personally experienced. 

I didn't manage to get to Dark Passage in November, so I'm moving it to my December list. Part of my reading goal coming into 2020 was to read some of the novels published during the middle third of the 20th century, and this one fits nicely into that goal. Movie fans may remember this as a movie starring Humphrey Bogart - one I think I must have watched at some point in my life but, if so, I remember nothing about. David Goodis is described as someone whose style helped "transform American culture and writing," so I'm expecting a lot from this.

These are my first selections for December reading. It's not likely that all eight will get read, but it's a start. I have at least a dozen books on hold at the library, so anything that comes in with a shorter time fuse will bump some of these all the way into my 2021 reading. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Happy 185th Birthday to Mark Twain

Sam in His Birthday Suit
Happy 185th birthday, Mr. Clemens.  It is still difficult for me to believe that Sam Clemens has been dead for over 110 years now or that he was born so early in the nineteenth century (1835).  Even though the dates make perfect sense when I look at them (after all, Clemens was a Confederate army deserter during the Civil War), his work is still so fresh and readable to modern readers.  Too, the man was in his early sixties when my own grandparents were born - meaning that he shared space on this planet for about a dozen years with some folks I loved and knew well.  Oh, and then there is the video of Clemens and his daughters on YouTube that I've inserted below...something few Civil War veterans can claim.

Mark Twain, as he is best known, is truly one of the finest novelists ever, and most scholars still call him the "greatest American humorist" we have ever seen.  His own most influential novel (whether it was his best work might be debated, I suppose), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called one of the most influential of all time.

Twain was not the wisest of personal investors and, in fact, was more likely to lose money than make any from the inventions he backed with his fortune.  However, he was a man with a great deal of compassion.  I was reminded of this by my reading of Charles Flood's Grant's Final Victory in which Flood details Twain's critical involvement in the publication of Grant's memoirs.  Twain's (as well as Grant's) main concern in that relationship was to make sure that Mrs. Grant was left with enough money to sustain her standard of living for the rest of her life.  Grant was dying of throat/tongue cancer and had to race the clock to get the work finished before the illness claimed his life.  Twain published the two-volumes himself, making sure to give Grant the most favorable royalty terms ever seen at that time.  In effect, Twain took all of the risk and limited his own profits from the deal by granting the Grants such a generous deal.

So, Happy Birthday, Sam...wherever you are.  Your work will live forever, as will your image.  You were a serious novelist when you wanted to be, though always a wit, and you created a personae that many after you have failed miserably in trying to copy for themselves.

For those who have never seen it, here is the video I mentioned.  This was apparently shot in 1909 by Thomas Edison.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Any Other Name - Craig Johnson

Any Other Name (2014) is the tenth novel in Craig Johnson’s hugely popular “Longmire Mystery” series. As this one begins, Sheriff Walt Longmire is feeling the ticking of the clock in a big way because his daughter is about to deliver his first grandchild in a Philadelphia hospital — and he is supposed to be there when that happens. But instead of heading in that direction, Walt finds himself taking on a “mercy case” in a neighboring Wyoming county on behalf of his old boss, Lucien Connally. And, as any longtime fan of the Longmire series well knows, once Walt Longmire begins an investigation, he finishes that investigation no matter what.

It seems that an old friend of Lucien’s, a competent detective of many years experience, has killed himself. At least that’s what authorities in the county are saying happened. Lucien, however, is not buying it because suicide is completely out of character for Detective Gerald Holman, so he asks Walt to see what he can find out about Holman’s last investigation. After a quick visit along with Lucien to Holman’s widow, Walt agrees to look into the man’s death despite Lucien’s warning to the widow that “if she didn’t want the answers, she better not have you (Walt) ask the questions.” 

Walt soon learns that the detective had been investigating a cold case concerning the disappearance of three women from the county within just a few months. There is nothing to connect the three women or their disappearance, but when both the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department and the dead detective’s daughter pressure him to drop his investigation, Walt is determined to find out why that is. And, as Lucien warned the detective’s widow, if you don’t want to know the truth don’t let Sheriff Walt Longmire start asking questions. 

Bottom Line: Probably because this is the fourth Longmire mystery I’ve read in the last few months (and that I’ve now read 14 of the 16 novels in the series), Craig Johnson’s structural pattern is becoming a little bit too predictable to me. I’ve lost count of how many of the books see Longmire in eminent danger of dying from exposure to the elements of a harsh Wyoming winter  before he has a vision that gives him the advice and courage he needs to persevere in his chase of the bad guys. This time around, the weather does not quite so eminently threaten Longmire’s life, but his almost bleeding to death leads to the same result. (The visions and conversations with ghosts are something that Walt Longmire shares with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux.) Any Other Name follows the well-tested Longmire-formula a little too closely for it to ever become one of my favorite Longmire mysteries, but if you are a fan of the series (like I obviously am), don’t miss this chapter in the Longmire story. 

Craig Johnson

Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Shakespeare Thanksgiving Dinner Celebration

 If only Shakespeare had been in America for at least one Thanksgiving celebration, it may have gone something like this:


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Slow Burner - Laura Lippman

Slow Burner is Laura Lippman’s contribution to the six-story “Hush Collection” that is available free to Amazon Prime members. Four of the stories in the compilation, including this one, run in the neighborhood of thirty pages in length, but the Jefferey Deaver one clocks in at eighty, and the one by Lisa Unger is 61 pages long. The only other story from “Hush” I’ve read so far is Ruth Ware’s Snowflakes, and I read that one mostly as an introduction to Ware’s style since I had not read her previously. 

Slow Burner is a tale about cheating husbands and the wives who catch them at it. The particular husband in this one thought he was being especially clever by buying one of those cheap “burner” phones so that he could safely communicate with the woman he hoped to make his mistress. Unfortunately for him, that only works if you don’t forget to empty your pockets when you shed your dirty clothing at the end of the day. Our cheating husband, is simply not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

Once the would-be-cheater’s wife finds the phone, she goes into the “slow burn” alluded to in the title of the story. Her flame goes higher and higher, though, as she reads more and more of the text messages between her husband and the woman with whom he is so infatuated. 

This would not be much of a story, of course, if it ended well for all parties concerned, and Lippman does a good job of building a nervous anticipation in the reader about what is going to happen ultimately to at least one of the main characters. It’s only a question of whom you are rooting for. Do you want to see the “other woman” suffer, the cheating husband, both? Or do you have enough sympathy for them that you want the sneaky wife to fail in her efforts to get even? 

I won't tell you how I was hoping this one would end — or even if I was right. All I will say is that I figured out the ending way too early in the story, and that took away a lot of the fun I should have had with it. I’m a Laura Lippman admirer, and I’ve read quite a few of her novels and stories, so Slow Burner won’t change my opinion of her. I’m just a little disappointed that this one was as predictable as it turned out to be. 

Laura Lippman