Friday, April 29, 2016

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer

Skip Hollandsworth, a regular columnist for Texas Monthly magazine, became so intrigued by a true crime story from Austin’s past that he turned it into his first book, The Midnight Assassin.  The book recounts a series of murders that happened there in 1884 and 1885, murders that were so horrendously bloody that they rivaled those committed three years later by London’s Jack the Ripper.  The murders in the two cities were in fact similar enough that some newspapers of the day speculated that London’s Ripper may have tested and developed his skills in Austin before bringing them with him to Europe.

It all started when someone began slaughtering Austin’s black servant women.  Most of the victims lived in detached quarters adjacent to the homes of their white employers, and in each case, the killer escaped the area without leaving behind any clues that could identify him.  Early witnesses, some of them children of the murdered women, could not even agree on whether the killer was a white man or a black man. 

Austin’s 17,000 citizens were concerned about the murders, but because the victims were all African-American women, it was easy enough for them to write the crime spree off as being the work of a gang of “bad blacks.”  For a year, the rest of the city had little fear that the murders might spread into their own community and homes.  That all changed on Christmas Eve, 1885, when within the space of a few minutes two prominent white women were butchered in their homes.  From that moment, Austin’s politicians and policemen pulled out all the stops in their attempt to catch the murderer before he could kill again  - even hiring two sets of Pinkerton detectives from Chicago (one set being real, the other fake).

Skip Hollandsworth
The Midnight Assassin is as much a social history of the city of Austin as it is a true crime story.  Barely twenty years after the close of the American Civil War, the relationship between the state’s white and black populations was still eerily similar to what it was before the war was fought.  Slavery might have been a thing of the past, but most African-Americans still struggled to live on what little wages their white employers were willing to pay them.  It was no coincidence that from beginning to end almost single person considered to be a potential suspect was black.

Austin was a city on the make it the 1880s.  As state capital, the city had an image to live up to – even if it was one largely in the minds of politicians who saw the unsolved murders of white women as a personal threat to their own careers.  Upcoming elections, personal feuds, and business considerations made it imperative that the murderer be caught, but it never happened.  The first serial killer in American history was never identified  - and he probably never will be – but The Midnight Assassin is still one heck of a ride.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Movies for Readers: Papa Hemingway in Cuba

I just got an email from GoodReads telling me that this one is opening in a "theater near me" this weekend.  It is based on a true, but little known, part of Hemingway's life that perfectly fits the man and the "character" he came to be known as.  Definitely a man's man, was Ernest Hemingway.

Unfortunately, I can only find this in three Houston-area theaters and none are within 30 miles of me - and we are expecting another storm late Friday night and Saturday.  But I'm still hoping to catch it at some point because this trailer looks good.

Movies for Readers No. 24

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge

They don’t make many men like Hugh Glass anymore, probably never did.   Glass, the Philadelphia-born adventurer, was a hard man to kill, a man who, time after time, miraculously managed to beat the odds that claimed lesser men all around him.  Glass’s story was so intriguing, in fact, that newspapers of the day spread his fame across the country and around the world.  In the end, though, Glass was best known then (and still is) as the mountain man who survived one of the most horrific grizzly bear attacks ever recorded before “returning from the dead” to track down the two men who robbed him of everything he owned before they abandoned him to what seemed to be his certain death. 

But as The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, Michael Punke’s 2002 debut novel illustrates, Hugh Glass was just one of an estimated 3,000 “mountain men” and fur trappers who struggled so mightily to make their fortunes from the beaver population of the American West.  Ironically enough, although these men were among the most independently minded ever produced in America, they were forced into a lifestyle of almost military precision for the sake of survival.  The Indian tribes whose territory was plundered by the trappers reacted in different ways.  Some were willing to live in peace with the invaders, others waged open warfare against them, and some joined the white men in waging war on other tribes.  The problem was that the Indians were prone to changing their minds and allegiances almost from one day to the next. 

Michael Punke 
In an environment like this, a man needed someone to watch his back.  But when Hugh Glass most needed someone to do exactly that for him as he struggled to recover from the bear mauling, the two men left behind to help him abandoned him at the first hint of danger.  Bad as that was, what Glass would never forgive was how John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger robbed him of his rifle, powder, and knife before running off to catch up with the rest of their party – dooming him to an almost certain death. 

A lesser man would have just given up and died, but Hugh Glass was not that kind of man.  At first crawling only a few dozen yards a day, he began to track the two men he swore to himself he would kill.  Eventually he managed to crawl two or three miles a day, then to walk ten miles a day, and finally he was covering twenty or thirty miles between sunrise and sunset.  Glass did catch up with the two culprits, but when he did, things did not go quite the way he had expected.

The Revenant is Hugh Glass’s story – and Michael Punke tells it well.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Cartel

The only time most Americans think about Mexico’s drug cartel is when the violence crosses the Rio Grande and claims the lives of one or two American citizens.  Well, shame on us, because other than those rare moments when they spill blood here, do we even consider the reality of what Mexicans have been living through for at least the last two decades.  When it comes to controlling drug traffic and territories, everyone is fair game to the resulting violence: family members, newspaper reporters, teachers, women, children, policemen, the innocent and the guilty, alike.  And, worst of all, like their terrorist cousins on the other side of the world, the gangs now capture the shootings, explosions, and decapitations on video for the entire world to see.  Don Winslow’s The Cartel schools us on just how horrible the situation along the U.S./Mexican border really is today – and why so many Mexicans cross that border to escape the mayhem.   

Sometime Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Art Keller learned all about the cartel from the inside.  Keller, half-Mexican himself, has known reigning drug kingpin Ad├ín Barrera since the two were children.  The onetime close friends, though, are now mortal enemies, and each has sworn to put the other in his grave.  As The Cartel begins Keller is content with the new life and identity he has created for himself on the U.S. side of the river.  He knows that Barrera is looking for him, but Keller is surprised when his old DEA boss finds him first and presses him to rejoin the fight to destroy the cartel. 

The battle is on – and what a battle it turns out to be.  Over the next several hundred pages, Winslow follows the bloody evolution of a drug cartel coming apart at the seams as one drug lord after another falls in a pool of blood to his successor.  No one is safe; no one can be trusted; and no one is going to live long enough to become an old man.  The hell of it, though, is that they will take thousands and thousands of Mexicans down with them.

Don Winslow
This 19-CD audiobook clocks in at more than twenty-three hours of listening time, so finding an expert reader has to have been a high priority for its producers – a goal they met admirably by hiring Ray Porter for the job.  Porter’s mastery of accents, voices, and vocal inflections makes it easy for listeners to distinguish between the book’s many characters and their complicated relationships, something that audio readers will appreciate more and more as the book progresses. 

Bottom Line: The Cartel is a brutal crime thriller intimately based on the research that Don Winslow did on the Mexican drug cartel.  Its audiobook version is the perfect choice for the next extended road trip you take, just be forewarned that it is not a story for little ears.  It’s an ugly old world down there. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

With 3,000 Books Read, My List Has Reached a New Milestone

I was going to post a book review today (and still might) since I do that every Monday, but then I noticed something on a reading list I keep and decided to make note on Book Chase of a major milestone I've just reached.

Way back on February 18, 1970 I started a list keeping track of every book I read - and today I reached one of those nice, round numbers that stand out: 3,000 books read.  The 3,000 books listed do not include several dozen audiobooks that I completed during the same period, but they probably total another 100 or 150 books.  

With everything going on in my world these last few days, I had kind of lost track of how close I was to reaching that point.  As it turns out, number 3,000 was written by one of my favorite British authors, Gerald Seymour.  His Vagabond is a political/espionage thriller having to do with a rogue group in Northern Ireland that still believes violence is the only way to fight their British "occupiers."  It's a good book that I will be reviewing in a couple of weeks.

I admit to being a numbers freak, so if statistics bore you, it's time to tune out:

  • Number of books read in a given year varies all the way from 11 in 1975 to 141 in 2007. 
  • It took me 21 years and 4 months to read the first 1,000.
  • It took me 16 years and 10 months to read the second 1,000.
  • It took me 8 years and 2 months to read the third 1,000.
  • That's an average of over 65 books per year for just over 46 years.
  • The last 1,071 books I've read are reviewed here on Book Chase.
So enough with the stats.  It's time now to start on the next 1,000 books.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Never Turn Your Back on a Hateful Old Woman at an Assisted Living Facility

I'm pretty much exhausted at the moment and I'm doing some serious thinking about taking a nap.  This is the eleventh day that I've been taking care of my father, a period that began with an emergency room phone call, moved on to a hospital stay for testing, the insertion of a pacemaker, and four days of him recuperating at my home.  Sleep has been a catch-as-catch-can novelty for me during all of this, and there were only two or three times that I got more than three consecutive hours in.  

But this is what I want to tell you about.

I took Dad back to his assisted living facility a couple of days ago and stayed with him in his apartment there for three days.  There is no public wi-fi in the building, but they have a nice little computer room set up on the second floor that is open to residents and those staying with them on a temporary basis.  While dad was in a rare deep sleep, I decided to sneak upstairs for a few minutes to use one of the computers.  I went up and down the stairs every 15 minutes checking on my dad's sleep, but still managed to get in 90 solid minutes of computer time during which I wrote a review of Matt Gallagher's Youngblood (a new novel set in Iraq just before American troops were officially pulled from that country).  

One problem: I forgot to bring my flash drive upstairs with me, and that meant another trip downstairs.  As I was leaving, I mentioned to the elderly woman who was coming into the room that I was using the computer on the end of the row, and I asked her to keep an eye on it for me until I got back upstairs.  It took me an extra few minutes to remember where the drive was, but still I was back in the computer room in less than ten minutes.  

The old woman was nowhere in sight when I returned - and neither was my review.  Apparently, she sat right down at my computer and deleted the word document...then she proceeded to empty the recycle bin, leaving no trace of the document anywhere on the computer hard drive.  Then she disappeared.

The lesson here?  Never, never turn your back on spiteful old lady who thinks she is too old to be held accountable for her meanness.  The smartest thing she did was run for her life before I got back...she did us both a favor by doing that.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Kindle Unlimited Is Crap

I realize that I'm going to offend some people when I say this, but here it comes: Kindle Unlimited is pretty much a garbage service.  Hell, let's take it a step further: So many of the e-books being sold by Amazon are self-published crap that browsing the site for new, unknown e-books is largely a waste of time.  In fact, I quit browsing through Amazon for new books a long time ago because the experience, even on a good day, is frustrating...and don't ask me what word I would use to describe it on a bad day.

So now I use Kindle Books only to go through the back catalogs of authors I'm already familiar with or to buy titles I already know about.  That's not good for me, for authors, or for Amazon.  But this story from BoingBoing tells me that the situation is even worse than I imagined:

Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service allows subscribers to download as many books as they want, and then pays writers based on the number of their pages that readers have read. 
The service surveils your reading habits by checking the "furthest page visited" status on every book in your library, meaning that if you skip to the last page, the book considers you to have finished the whole thing. 
Crapflooding scammers have therefore supplied a glut of "books" that run up to 3,000 pages (the longest Amazon will permit), filled with garbage, which open with a link to the last page. By paying (or tricking) people to download their "books" and click the link, they rack up 3,000 pages' worth of credit to their author accounts. At $0.005/page, it can add up.

So now we have idiots uploading 3,000-page "books" and tricking people into downloading them from Kindle Unlimited.  Then through more trickery they manage to get people to click over to the last page of the book so that it appears that the entire book has been read.  Bingo: that means a nice little payday from Amazon of $15 for every crapbook unwittingly downloaded by a Kindle Unlimited subscriber.  

I like e-books and I read a lot of them.  But I hate shopping or searching for e-book titles amid the huge mound of garbage that Amazon is content to dump on top of the real books for sale.  Self-publishing can be a good thing, but more often than not, it is just the opposite.  Most unpublished books are unpublished for good reasons, and they deserve to stay unpublished - they are that bad - and I don't need them polluting the haystack I have to search through every time I want to buy an e-book.

But as long as Amazon is willing to pay scammers to puff up its own sales figures, that's the world we live in.  And I'm sick of it.  I'm looking at you, Mr. Amazon.

Friday, April 22, 2016


She, the new short story collection from Michelle Latiolais, has a way of sneaking up on you.  I have to admit that when I began reading the book I thought I had picked up a short novel about a runaway teenager fleeing to Los Angeles to escape her mentally abusive father.  It was only three or four segments into the book that I realized that I was reading a book of short stories exploring diverse facets of life in that city.  It is as if Los Angles is the main character in She, not the runaway we meet in the book’s initial pages. 

But, as it turns out, my initial impression of She was not completely wrong because Latiolais has so cleverly constructed the collection that, taken as a whole, it does read very much like a novel.  Every other story in the collection shares the same title, "She," each of these following the young runaway's progress after she escapes Needles with a little help from a sympathetic bus driver and a few of her fellow passengers.  The in-between stories, each individually titled, introduce other Los Angles residents, most of them struggling just as hard as the runaway to make a life for themselves in the big city.  Some of these characters will cross paths with the girl (aka “She”), others will not.

Read as a novel, She is a rather optimistic take on one girl's efforts to break free from the stifling life her harshly religious father is determined she will live.  With some encouragement from her grandmother (who dies before the girl runs away), the girl finds the courage to strike out on her own for a place where she can become the person she wants to be - not the one her father wants her to be.  And with the help of a few sympathetic souls, who in reality are struggling just as hard as she is to figure out who they are, she just might manage to do it.

Michelle Latoilais
But there are also some outstanding stand-alone short stories in She, stories that serve to illuminate the dangers and quirks of this new world our young runaway has entered.  Among my favorites is one titled "Gas" in which a young man flirts his way into the good graces of a long-legged beauty at an adjoining gas pump successfully enough to convince her to join him for a cup of coffee at the cafe across the street - with tragic consequences for the woman.  Another favorite, "Parking," features the empathetic botanist who makes her living by almost perfectly replicating real flowers as cake decorations for a famous pastry chef who takes full credit for her key contribution to his expensive cakes. 

Even one of the "She" stories, taken on its own, will stay with me for a long time.  In this one, the girl comes across an old lady sitting all alone at a bus stop shelter.  When the old lady invites the runaway to sit beside her, the girl, who can barely stand the old woman's odor, is terrified by the thought that if she doesn't find a place to stay soon she will end up smelling as bad as the woman she can barely tolerate.  I'm still taken with the image of that old woman and the portable paperback library she kept inside the wheeled-suitcase she was dragging around with her - and how willing she was to share her precious books with a stranger.

She is a dark, moody look at a city of extremes, one in which some live almost unbelievable lives of luxury while others live day-to-day on the city's dirty streets.  And none of them seem particularly happy to be where they are.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)