Sunday, October 13, 2019

After the Flood - Kassandra Montag: First 80 Pages Are About Perfect. Now What?

Is anyone else reading Kassandra Montag's After the Flood right now? I started the book yesterday because I have to return it to the library in just a few days, and I have to tell you that I am loving the experience. Dystopian fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and I have read some good ones, but this is the first time in a while that I find myself so fully immersed in a novel. The first 80 pages of this one are just about perfect. So perfect, in fact, that I find myself wondering what will go wrong with the book's last 340 pages. It's slowly building toward a thriller-type climax right now, and that's where many an otherwise-wonderful plot turns into a B-movie. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Montag avoids the trap.

It is about 100 years into the future, and a combination of rising floodwaters and heavy rains that last for years at a time, have just about completely flooded the planet. Humanity is down to living in just a few mountaintop colonies that are not exactly thriving. One woman and her small child are managing to stay alive, but now the woman learns that her older daughter (who was kidnapped by her husband who disappeared with the girl) has been spotted in a colony somewhere in what used to be Greenland. The girl is just about old enough to be moved onto a "breeding ship," so her mother knows that she has to act quickly if she is ever to be reunited with her daughter. But she can't do it alone, and she fears that she will end up loosing both her daughters if she goes anywhere near The Valley.

So you can see that the last part of the book is destined to be thriller-like - and that's not always a good thing in any kind of novel. Have any of you finished it, and if so, what did you think of it? Am I going to be underwhelmed / disappointed by the turn that After the Flood takes in its second half? (Without spoilers, of course.) Thanks.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Galway Girl - Ken Bruen

Galway Girl, book number fourteen in Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series, adds yet another brutal chapter to Jack Taylor’s long, dark history. Taylor is a former Irish cop with a history of mental illness who regularly drinks himself into the kind of stupor that can take days to recover from. The man has suffered the kind of personal loss that would have driven weaker men to suicide – but Jack Taylor is anything but a weak man. Nor is he a bad man.

What he is, though, is a cynic with a big mouth; a man who understands exactly how the real works and is not afraid to shout about it in public. Taylor can count the friends he still has in the Garda on fewer than half the fingers on one hand, and he gave up counting his active enemies on the force a long time ago. And while Galway is still very much a Catholic-Church-dominated city, Taylor has some very powerful enemies (particularly one who hopes to soon become a bishop) there, too. His few real friends are found among the regulars in Galway’s pubs. But most dangerous for the church, the Garda, and Galway’s criminals, Jack Taylor is still a do-gooder always willing to rush to the defense of those who can’t defend themselves.

But now members of the Garda are being assassinated one-by-one, and it looks like Taylor is somehow connected to the deaths. The killers are three young sociopaths who have bonded over their shared desire to destroy what little mental stability Taylor still has, and killing his ex-colleagues is just part of their longer-term plan. As the number of assassinations mount, the police turn to Taylor for help – much to the consternation of both sides.

Ken Bruen
But as usual in a Ken Bruen novel, the main plot is not the most important thing about Galway Girl; Bruen’s novels are more about atmosphere and character development than they are the main plot. Along the way, there are sometimes so many side plots being explored and resolved that the reader can easily forget what the main plot even is. Jack Taylor has a reputation on the streets (and he tries to make his meager living as one of Galway’s few private detectives) so it is common for him to receive visits from people afraid to go to the police for help. And, especially when those needing help are women or children, Taylor is always ready to drop everything else to see what he can do to help.

Bottom Line: Galway Girl is Irish noir at its best, a novel in which the city of Galway herself plays as important a role as any of the book’s characters. Surreal and dreamlike at times, the novel often requires a healthy suspension of disbelief to move one of its several plot lines forward, but that’s all just part of the fun for regular Ken Bruen readers. Bruen’s sparse and stylistically-unusual writing style is the icing on this Jack Taylor cake, a book that I particularly recommend to fans of really dark crime fiction.

Review Copy provided by The Mysterious Press 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Maigret and the Dead Girl - Georges Simenon

Fans of series featuring fictional detectives, even if they have not read any of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, are likely still to be aware of the author’s name and general reputation. Even though Simenon died in 1986, the Belgian author’s books are still easily found in bookstores all over the world. Obviously, Simenon was one of those writers who neither feared nor ever encountered writer’s block because he is said to be the author of over 500 novels and stories. Just his work featuring Inspector Maigret totals 75 novels and 28 short stories. In addition, almost two hundred of his stories were adapted into movies or television shows. But even with all of that work available to me, Maigret and the Dead Girl is the first Georges Simenon book I have ever read. 

And I know exactly why. 

I find it difficult to read the work of authors whose personal behavior bothers me so much that I can’t read them without constantly thinking about their lack of character. Ever since I learned that Anne Perry was once convicted of a brutal Australian murder (her real name is Juliette Hulme) I can’t read her murder mysteries. Similarly, for years all I really knew about Simenon is that he was accused of collaborating with the Germans in France during World War II and that because of that he was not allowed to publish anything new for five years after the war ended. So I didn’t read Simenon either. But my curiosity was aroused a few days ago after a friend gave me copies of ten of the novels from the Penguin Books series featuring Maigret. It helped, too, to find that the novels are all short enough to be read in just a day or two (1954’s Maigret and the Dead Girl, for instance, is only 171 pages long).

Maigret and the Dead Girl, a rather straightforward murder mystery, is the forty-fifth of Simenon’s seventy-five Maigret novels. As a mystery, it’s not all that much, and I was a little unhappy with the way that the mystery was eventually resolved without giving readers what I would consider a fair shot at solving it for themselves. It is impossible to solve this one until the books very last few pages – or to even single out a logical suspect or two. It all resolves around the young girl whose unidentified body is found just off a Paris street a couple of hours after midnight. No one knows her name or much of anything about her, so Maigret and his men have to determine who the victim is and why anyone would want to kill her. If you are a fan of police procedurals, you are likely to enjoy this one.

Georges Simenon
Inspector Maigret is a rather serious man who seldom displays anything resembling a sense of humor or irony. All the humor in this one comes from the unusual character known as Inspector Lognon, a man whose fellow policemen have nicknamed “Inspector Hard-Done-By” because of his belief that everyone else is involved in some kind of secret conspiracy to keep Lognon from being promoted. The truth is, though, that Lognon is a plodder who has to work twice as hard as almost everyone else just to keep up with them. Maigret is constantly worrying about hurting the man’s feelings, even though he sometimes feels that he is competing to solve a crime with a man who never sleeps or even goes home. 

Another amusing thing about  this 1954 novel is how often Maigret, no matter what the time of day, manages to stop off for a beer or a drink while traveling across the city to interview one witness or another. Maigret never encounters a bar he doesn’t find interesting enough to wander into for a quick drink no matter where he is headed. And then there’s Simenon’s obsession with street names and intersections. The author seems to believe that it is necessary for the reader to know exactly which street every witness lives or works on, every street on which the victim has lived or worked on during her entire life, and the street-location of every bar (and there are a lot of them) visited by Maigret and his crew, etc. The problem for American readers is that all the street names are in French and they start to all sound alike after reading one or two of them on what starts to seem like every other page of the book.

Bottom Line: Maigret and the Dead Girl is a good police procedural but these guys are plodders and they spend the entire book reconstructing what happened to the young girl whose body was dumped on a Paris street. And then, disappointingly, the mystery is resolved in a Sherlock Holmes manner at the very end of the story. The mid-series Inspector Maigret is interesting enough a character that I will eventually return to the series, but that’s more because I’m a fan of noir fiction than that I'm a big fan of Inspector Maigret. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Middle England - Jonathan Coe

I only learned that Jonathan Coe’s Middle England is the third book in a series that began in 2001 with The Rotters Cluband continued in 2004 with The Closed Circle after I began reading it. In retrospect, I can see that not being familiar with the backgrounds, relationships, and past experiences of the main characters from the first two books made it considerably more difficult for me to keep all of them straight in Middle England. Although Coe makes a valiant effort to tie the past to the present in Middle England , those readers who have already read the first two Rotters Club books are likely to perceive some of the book’s episodes differently (as in better or more precisely) than those reading Middle England as a standalone. But even as a standalone, this book is brilliant.

Jonathan Coe has written what many in Britain are calling its “state-of-the-nation” novel. Middle England begins with the 2008 financial crash and ends in late 2018 with Britain still unable (or perhaps unwilling) to figure out how to make the Brexit vote a reality. Benjamin Trotter, one of the book’s main characters, is a somewhat failed family man who now finds himself living alone and hoping to get his excessively long manuscript published. Ben spends much of his time as caretaker of his elderly father, a man who constantly complains that the England he remembers so well is being ruined by the outrageously high number of newly arrived immigrants to his country. The book’s other main character is Ben’s niece Sophie, a university lecturer who falls in love with a young man who shares many of the views of Ben’s father – despite vigorously disagreeing with those views herself. Most of the book’s more secondary characters appear in the previous Rotters Club books, but their relationships are largely defined in Middle England by their approval or disapproval of the Brexit vote. The “Remainers” and the “Leavers” only communicate by shouting at each other – and neither side is at all interested in what the other has to say. Long-term friendships are ending; parents, children, and siblings are no longer speaking; and marriages are ending in loudly contested divorces. It’s as if Britain had morphed into two separate countries. Sound familiar, America?

Jonathan Coe
The biggest surprise about Middle England, though, is how funny it is. Picture scenes like the one in which two children’s entertainers (one dressed as a clown, the other as a mad professor of sorts) come to blows and throw F-bombs and fists at each other during a little boy’s birthday party. Or what I consider to be the funniest sexual encounter scene I have ever read, during which two nearly-sixty-year-olds decide to recreate a sexual encounter from their high school days inside a cramped wardrobe. (Let’s just say that the results bear little resemblance to those of forty years earlier.) 

Another striking thing about Middle England is that its author treats both sides of the Pro-Brexit, Anti-Brexit argument with a measure of respect rather than taking a hardline approach in favor of either. He does the same, in fact, with the issue of immigration and national boundaries. Some of Coe’s  main characters feel strongly one way and others feel strongly the other way. Admittedly, the book’s more sympathetic characters all lean in the same liberal direction, but in the end most of them adopt a more moderate approach to those with opposing views than they started with.

Bottom Line: Middle England is a funny and thought-provoking novel in which American readers will see many parallels between life in today’s Britain and today’s America. The novel exposes the absurdity of politics in both countries (and the rest of the world, for that matter) while offering a little hope that more moderate voices will eventually return to some power and influence. Although it will help, an interest in politics is not a prerequisite for reading Middle England because it is an entertaining novel filled with interesting characters for whom the reader will come to care. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

The Night Fire - Michael Connelly (Three Covers for Three Markets)

The twenty-third Harry Bosch novel will be hitting the bookstores on October 22 and I can't wait. But since this is also the second teaming-up of Bosch and his new partner Renée Ballard, Ballard fans might instead be calling The Night Fire the second book in the Renée Ballard series. Call it what you will, this is most definitely a win-win situation for Michael Connelly fans. (Personally,  even though I've already become quite a fan of the new Ballard character, this is a Harry Bosch novel in my eyes.)

Publisher Little, Brown and Company is going with different Night Fire covers for different parts of the world. When this happens, I usually prefer the version targeted toward the U.S. audience, but this time around I find myself preferring the middle cover shown up above, the one aimed at the U.K./Ireland market. What do you think?

Click on the image for a much larger view of the covers.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Knots and Crosses - Ian Rankin

Knots and Crosses is the first book in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, and it most certainly  introduces John Rebus with a bang. Rebus is, in fact,  presented as such a flawed character here  that it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely main character for a series that is now some twenty-two books long and counting. Inspector Rebus is not a likely candidate to live long enough to collect his pension. 

As Knots and Crosses opens, the 41-year-old Rebus is not a happy man. He is divorced and seldom sees his almost-twelve-year-old daughter anymore. He is a loner with almost zero friends who “resents having to play the part of a normal human animal” and he prefers it that way. He has been an Edinburgh cop for fifteen years but is really going nowhere because of his own behavior and because his fellow cops largely resent his presence on the force. The man is a cynic who has somehow retained his faith in God, although he tempers his belief with a sense of humor about it all. During one particularly boring briefing he thinks, “Perhaps if he stopped praying, God would take the hint and stop being such a bastard to one of his few believers on this near-godforesaken planet.” This is John Rebus – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ian Rankin
Already overworked and way behind on his present case-load, Rebus is not exactly thrilled to be reassigned to one of the biggest manhunts ever seen in Edinburgh. Little girls are disappearing from around the city without a trace only to have their strangled bodies turn up a few days later. At first, Rebus is just another grunt in the army frantically searching for the killer, but it seems that the killer has something special in mind for the inspector (something that every veteran reader of detective fiction will figure out long before it clicks with Rebus). 

Bottom Line: The mystery part of Knots and Crosses is rather straightforward and reader-solvable but that is not really the point of this one. Instead, Rankin spends more than half the book fully fleshing out the John Rebus character. We learn who Rebus is today and all about how he got to be the way he is. We learn about his family history and his strained relationship with his only brother, a stage-hypnotist who followed in their father’s footsteps. We learn about Rebus’s military career and how that will impact the rest of the man’s life. We learn who John Rebus is, and by the end of the book, we know that we want to see a whole lot more of him.

Friday, October 04, 2019

River Queens - Alexander Watson

Alexander Watson’s River Queens: Saucy boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America is an education. I was already a longtime fan of road trip and long-walk memoirs but had never read one about a similar trip on America’s rivers before picking this one up. And the first thing I learned is that a river trip is more akin to a long walk than it is to a road trip – with many of the same advantages and benefits that traveling relatively slowly offers long distance walkers. There is simply no better way to take the pulse of America and her people than slowly working your way across large swaths of the country, all the while making new friends along the way. 

Alexander Watson
I am no boater, and neither were Alexander Watson and his partner, Dale Harris, until they decided to buy and restore the crippled wooden yacht that they would sail halfway across the country. The fact that Watson and Harris successfully managed to turn their dream into a reality despite their inexperience on the water is astounding. I can’t even imagine doing what these guys did. But they would need a whole lot of help as they made their way from Lake Texoma in Texas to Cincinnati, and luckily for them the river community was always there and eager to help them out.

It all started with a “forgettable” movie, one that failed to satisfy Alexander and Dale to the point that they were ready to head home. Instead, Alexander innocently enough made the suggestion that would define their lives for the next year and change: attending the 2001 Dallas Winter Boat Show. The boat show was a first for both men but it directly led to their purchase of the boat they would soon christen the Betty Jane, a beautiful 1950s-vintage wooden Chris-Craft admired by everyone who saw her on the water.  

Betty Jane
But it was not going to be that easy. Far from being a seaworthy purchase, the Betty Jane was ready to test every skill either of the men had acquired through their combined experiences with antiques and house renovations. As it turns out, getting her back on the water may have been the easy part. Now, Alexander and Dale had to prepare themselves to enter a whole new world, a culture with its own language, rules, expectations, and ways of doing even everyday things. They were going to need a lot of help and patience from their new friends – but would they find enough of either?

Bottom Line: River Queens is fun. But more than that, it is one of those memoirs that leave the reader with the hope that America may just not be as divided as she all too often appears to be. As a gay couple, Alexander and Dale knew that they were about to immerse themselves in a culture that might not welcome them, but not only were they welcomed, there were often tears left behind when they moved on down the river. If you are a fan of travel memoirs, this is a book you are going to love.

Review Copy provided by Author or Publisher

Thursday, October 03, 2019

When Old Photos Spring to Life

I realize that black and white photography and black and white movies are considered a distinct art form. And rightly so. But I've also noticed just how much life can be pumped into old black and white photos and films by realistically colorizing them. 

One of my very favorite websites is the Shorpy Historial Photo Archive which makes wonderful old black and white photos from the past available to those who colorize old pictures as a hobby. The results are often stunning; just take a look at these examples:

The first set is from 1905, the second from the 1950s, and the third is from the 1920s.

Don't they just spring to life? The added color makes me feel as if these folks are someone I might just spot walking down the street or at the mall today. I love that feeling.

Clicking on the photos should give you a larger view of them.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

More Than One-in-Four People in the U.S. Have Not Read a Book in the Past Year

At first glance, I found the numbers shown in this recent Pew Research Center study to be both astounding and terribly sad. But then it hit me. How many people in this country, I wondered, simply cannot read at all. What I found helped explained why 27% of the people in the U.S. have not read even one book in the past year, but it made me feel even worse about the state this country is in. 

As indicated on the graph shown above, 32% of men and 22% of women have not read a single book in the past twelve months. The percentage of non-readers is further broken down by race, education, and geographic location but there are no real surprises there. For instance, 22% of Whites are nonreaders, and the same can be said for 33% of Blacks and 40% of Hispanics. And the more schooling a person has, the more likely it is that they are a reader - as I would have expected. A little more surprising is that there is such a large gap between residents of urban/suburban areas and rural areas. But even that is at least partially explained by the relative difference between the two areas when it comes to access to educational opportunities and availability of reading material.

No, the real shocker is that 14% of this country's residents are illiterate and couldn't read a book even if they wanted to read one. Just take a look at this eye-opening statement provided by the Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy:
1. 32 million adults can not read in the United States equal to 14% of the population.
2. 21% of US adults read below the 5th grade level.
3. 19% of high school graduates can not read.
4. 85% of juveniles who interact with the juvenile court system are considered functionally illiterate.
5. 70% of inmates in America’s prisons can not read above the fourth grade level.
If that doesn't scare you, nothing will. Illiteracy is the cause of so many of the world's worst problems, including poverty and crime. It shouldn't be this hard to fix the problem - should it?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Cherokee America - Margaret Verble

Cherokee America is one of those rare novels that capture a place and a time so well that reading the book feels a little like what time travel must be like. In this instance, the place is the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, the time is 1875, and the book is about a mixed-race family trying to walk both sides of the line that marked the racial divides of the late nineteenth century. 

Cherokee America and her family are the survivors of a people long accustomed to having the United States government snatch from them anything it has a use for, be it their property or their very lives. By 1875, many on the reservation have grown a little complacent about their situation, but people like Check (as she has come to be called) know better. They understand that little has really changed and that their security is best protected by not giving the local marshal and his deputies any excuse for coming on the reservation in the first place. But the new judge and his men are always looking for a reason to interfere with reservation law enforcement – and if not given a legitimate excuse, they are certainly capable of creating one for themselves.

Cherokee America is long, complicated story about the generational relationships of three reservation families: The Singers (of which Check is the matriarch), the Corderys, and the Bushyheads.  The members and hired help of the three families interact so often and in so many different combinations that the two most important pages in Cherokee America may well be the ones used for the book’s “Cast of Characters,” a family tree of sorts that helps the reader keep all the players straight. I can’t, in fact, imagine anyone enjoyably reading this one without frequent reference to those two pages.

Check is married to Andrew, a white man on his death bed, and for Check, her five sons, and their hired help, life is pretty much on hold until Andrew’s passing. But on hold does not mean that young men are not going to get up to their usual mischief in the meantime – with not unexpected, but serious, repercussions. These people, whether related by blood or not, are family and what is good for one of them is good for all of them. Andrew’s funeral party is a perfect reflection of daily life on the reservation:

            “For after the ground was packed, the son of the most famous Cherokee preacher prayed over his grave, first in the native language and then in English. Ceremonial smoke floated from small fires set by family groups. On a spot southeast of the bare earth, a few men and women danced to a chant. Others in the party included white frontier entrepreneurs, former slaves, and more than one man who’d escaped from the law in the United States. But mostly the mourners were a large group of mixed-blood people who shared a common history. They were neither Indian nor white, but both. And uniquely American.”

Margaret Verble
But how much longer will they be able to protect themselves from outsiders who want what they have and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. After a young Indian girl suddenly disappears, an important member of the Cherokee Nation is murdered, and two white men are thought to be involved, Judge Isaac Parker (who came to be known as “the hanging judge”) is eager to use this excuse to extend his territorial control into the reservation itself. But the Singers, the Corderys, and the Bushyheads just might have something to say about that.

Bottom Line: Margaret Verble, author of Cherokee Nation, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and although the events of the novel are entirely fictional, the novel is loosely based upon members of her own family. Interestingly, one of the book’s more colorful characters is based upon the real-life grandmother of Will Rogers. Verble often uses humor to portray the deep connections between people and those places whose loss they mourn - and the other places they fight to keep. This one takes a little work (remember that “Cast of Characters” previously mentioned) but it’s worth the effort.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

How to Stop Time - Matt Haig

I have been a fan of serious time travel fiction (an oxymoron, I know) for a long time, but these days the genre seems to have morphed into some kind of romance novel/time travel novel combination so I’ve tended to read less and less of it. But I figured if I can’t find a time travel novel I want to read right now, why not one about the slowest kind of time travel possible - a book about a man who has lived for more than four centuries and is still going strong. That’s the premise of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, a novel that mostly works but at heart is really another romance novel. 

As the novel opens, Tom Hazard has moved back to London after a long time away and is interviewing for a history teacher job at a private high school. Tom, though, finds it a bit difficult to concentrate on the interview after the school’s young French teacher catches his eye. That’s not too unusual or surprising a reaction from a healthy 41-year-old man like Tom. But the truth is that Tom is not 41 years old; he is 439 years old, and the London he has been walking through all morning bears little resemblance to the city he left behind so long ago. 

Tom has only recently (recently in terms of his true age) learned that there are many others out there like him, people who have lived by their wits for centuries. Tom, a man who sailed with Captain Cook, worked at the Globe Theatre with Shakespeare, and was introduced to the Bloody Mary by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, has had to run for his own life more than once after superstitious locals noticed that he was not aging. Now he has the support of the Albatross Society, a group whose purpose is to keep the secrets of people like Tom. But unfortunately for Tom, the number one rule of the Albatross Society is a simple one: Never, ever, fall in love.

Matt Haig
Matt Haig uses numerous (maybe I should say countless) flashbacks to tell Tom’s story. That is, of course, the most obvious way to approach a story like this one, but it should have worked much better than it did in this case. The problem here is that there are so many flashbacks that they chop the present-day story into such tiny bites that they just barely move the segment along before another, longer flashback begins. And that can – and did – get very frustrating.  

Bottom Line: How to Stop Time is romantic science fiction that touches lightly, very lightly at that, on a few historical eras and events. Even at its climax it is difficult to believe that anything bad will really happen to Tom or those close to him. It’s not that kind of book, and it isn’t intended to be. I do see that How to Stop Time is soon to be a “major motion picture” starring one of my favorite actors, Benedict Cumberbatch, and I suspect that it will make an entertaining film.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Beautiful Signed First Edition of James Lee Burke's "The Glass Rainbow" - $2.99

I can't remember the last time before today that I purchased a book at a Goodwill Store - but today's buy was a doozy. 

I have been reading and collecting James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books since the beginning. How long ago was that, you ask? Well, long enough for Mr. Burke to age rather gracefully from the photo on the back of the very first Robicheaux book (Neon Rain) to the Western cowboy look on the back of the 2010 book (The Glass Rainbow) that I purchased today. (If Mr. Burke's latest books feature recent photos, the man has not aged much since 2010.)

Author Photo on Back of The Neon Rain  (1987)
Author Photo on Back of The Glass Rainbow (2010)
Now for the best part. I already had a pristine first edition copy of The Glass Rainbow and I almost walked away from the store without even picking up the copy they had on the books rack. But curiosity got the best of me, as it usually does, and I decided to take a quick peek at it. And that's when I noticed that this one was a signed copy originally sold by Faulkner House Books of New Orleans on July 10, 2010. Inside the book was a bookmark from the store and the original receipt for $32.49, including $6.50 shipping to Houston. (Faulkner House Books is housed in the one-time home of William Faulkner and was opened on the author's birthday a few years ago.)

Dust Jacket
James Lee Burke Autograph & Store Bookmark
This is the best find I've had in a while but it makes me wonder why and how the book ended up being donated to a charity shop. I suspect it's another case of someone's children disposing of a parent's "junk," something I've run into several times over the years in these shops. The takeaway here is to document those things of value well enough that your children or other heirs do not destroy them or give them away because they appear to have no monetary or sentimental value. Books do not strike everyone as being things of value. We know that they are valuable for a lot of reasons not exclusive to monetary value; nonreaders don't have a clue. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century - The Guardian

Britain's The Guardian newspaper has an interesting article titled "The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century" that caught my eye this morning. Essentially, of course, it is a list of what the newspaper considers to be the best books of the past two decades, meaning that something like 80% of the books on today's list are likely to be gone by the turn of the 22nd century.

The entire list can be found here. It's beautifully done, so take a look at it.

Of the Top 10, I've only read number 2, Marilynne Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead. That this one is on the list is not much of a surprise because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. I am a bit surprised that it rates this highly, though. From The Guardian: "Robinson’s meditative, deeply philosophical novel is told through letters written by elderly preacher John Ames in the 1950s to his young son who, when he finally reaches an adulthood his father won’t see, will at least have this posthumous one-sided conversation."

I seem to have done much better with the second ten on the list, having read six of them starting with number 11, My Brilliant Friend by the mysterious Italian author who uses the pen name Elena Ferrante. My Brilliant Friend is part of a four-book series that kept me reading for several weeks and was one of my favorite books of 2012. The other five I read were: Number 12, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004); Number 13, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (2001); Number 17, Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006); Number 19, Mike Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003); and Number 20, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (2013).

Of the next twenty (31-40), I've read only three: Number 22, Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013), Number 30, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016), and Number 40, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon (2005). The Whitehead book is one of my all-time favorites and it, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. I still think about that one sometimes because of the audacious approach Whitehead uses to make his completely serious points about slavery and its aftermath. It is brilliant.

Again, of the next twenty (41-60), I've only managed three of them: Number 41, Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001), Number 42, Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2010), and Number 51, Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn (2009). These three fall right into my wheelhouse because I'm a huge fan of both McEwan and Tóibín and I'm always on the lookout for a good baseball book, especially something like this groundbreaking one from Lewis. Really, what surprises me here is that a baseball book showed up at all on a "Best of" booklist in a British newspaper. That's kind of cool.

I didn't even do that well on the next twenty (61-80), having read only one of them and abandoned one other that only irritated me more with every page I turned. The one I read is: Number 64, Stephen King's wonderful book on writing appropriately titled On Writing (2000). The one that I found unreadable enough to give up on it despite all its hype was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. (That one is my candidate to be the first one to drop off the list next time its updated.)

And then there are the final twenty - and I can add only one of them to my list of ones read. It's The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell   (2000) which came in at Number 94.  I've read all the recent Gladwell books and have enjoyed each of them, but I'm starting to hear rumblings that his star is becoming a bit tarnished these days. Interestingly Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) comes in at number 97 (well, that surprises me) and I spotted a Jim Crace novel I didn't know about, 2013's Harvest at number 81. That one will be added to my TBR for sure.

So there you have it, a mere 15 out of the top 100 books of the past two decades. I realize that this is a British newspaper's list, but I read a whole lot of British literature and nonfiction so I'm still a little disappointed in myself. Anyway, take a look at the list by clicking on that link up above because you might very well spot something you want to add to your own TBR list. Good stuff here.

Monday, September 23, 2019

A Necessary End (Inspector Banks No. 3) - Peter Robinson

A Necessary End is book number three in Peter Robinson’s twenty-six-book-long Inspector Banks series. By the beginning of this one, Banks has comfortably settled into his Yorkshire surroundings and much prefers his new job to the one he left behind in London. The locals consider him to be a likeable enough guy, and more importantly, an honest cop who doesn’t cross the line. But when Scotland Yard sends a hotshot cop up to Yorkshire to take over a murder investigation, all of that is suddenly in jeopardy because the London cop is the exact opposite of Banks and doesn’t care who might object to his behavior. 

What should have been a small, peaceful demonstration in little Eastvale goes suddenly wrong when a policeman is stabbed to death during a confrontation between 100 demonstrators and the handful of police on hand to keep them under control. CID Superintendent Richard Burgess makes it perfectly clear upon his arrival from London that someone is going to pay for the crime – and the sooner the better because he can’t wait to get back to civilization. Banks, when he figures out that Burgess will build a case against the easiest target he spots, regardless of actual guilt, makes the potentially career-damaging decision to run his own parallel investigation behind the superintendent’s  back.

So, did the policeman die because one of the demonstrators just happened to pull a knife during the fight or is there more to the man’s murder? As it turns out, the young cop had a reputation for taking the opportunity to bash a few heads with his baton every chance he got and particularly enjoyed working demonstrations and protest marches. Had any of the demonstrators had a previous run-in with him - and a whole different motive for pulling that knife? Or not? The murder may just be a whole lot more complicated than Burgess wants to admit – and every bit as complicated as Banks fears it is.

Peter Robinson
The author does not add much to the Banks character in A Necessary End, and his wife and children are still pretty much blank slates in this third book. In fact, the whole family is out of town during the entire novel and their only communication with Banks is via short evening telephone calls. We do learn that Banks sees his job “as a defender of the people, not an attacker” and that he is now thirty-eight-years-old. But Robinson keeps Banks real by making sure that he is a long way from being perfect, as illustrated by what Banks reveals about himself to Burgess during one of their numerous pub-fueled conversations: “I don’t like violence. I’ll use it if I have to, but there are plenty of more subtle and effective ways of getting answers from people. That aside I never said I was any less ruthless than you are.” (Of course, Burgess sees through the bravado and spits beer while trying to stifle his laughter at the claim.)

As for personality quirks, the reader does learn that Banks is a chain-smoker who does not much concern himself with the private spaces of others and will force his habit into almost any situation and location. Too, he may be just a bit of a snob when it comes to his attitude toward American culture and the way that it is relentlessly spreading throughout Great Britain. After one conversation with Burgess, Banks finds himself wondering, for instance, “why so many people came back from America, where Burgess had been to a conference a few years ago, full of strange eating habits and odd turns of phrases – ‘pain in the ass’ indeed!” (The superintendent’s big sins were the way he cut and ate his meat in the American style and his love of donuts for breakfast.) 

But that’s about it as far as new revelations go.

Bottom Line: A Necessary End easily stands on its own merits as a standalone. Readers should definitely not be concerned with having to read the first two books in the series prior to picking up this one. It is based on a solid murder mystery with numerous plausible suspects that will keep the reader guessing right up to the end – and it solidifies the image of Banks as a “good cop” willing to buck superiors to ensure that justice is served. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Bookshop - Movies for Readers

We have both Prime and Netflix in this house, and over time I have come to appreciate how unpredictable and surprising the movies on Prime can be compared to those on Netflix. And today, it is one of those Prime movies that has made my day: The Bookshop starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, and Honor Kneafsey. The film is based on the supposedly well received novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald (a novel I am completely unfamiliar with).

The movie had a very limited showing in the U.S in August 2018, and it is worth searching for on Prime or on disc. Just take a look at this trailer, and you will see what I mean:

Number 32 in the series "Movies for Readers"

Friday, September 20, 2019

Tropical Storm Imelda: The 2019 Annual 500-Year Flood - and lots of Books and Reading Time

Here we go again.
People here are jokingly referring to Tropical Storm Imelda as Houston's "2019 Annual 500-Year Flood" because we have had so many of these once-every-500-years floods in recent years. The fact is we are getting kind of used to them now and they don't pack the emotional impact of previous major floods - and that can be dangerous because that's exactly when people die from taking silly risks. We have severe flooding 20 miles north of us, 20 miles east of us, and 20 miles south of us but we seem to have been in some kind of pocket yesterday that only received about six inches of rain during the heaviest downpours. The areas that flooded had somewhere between 25 and 30 inches of rain during that same 24-hour period. And 100 miles southeast of us, something over 40 inches of rain was delivered. So plenty of people suffered flooded homes, business, and cars - and loss of livestock and pets. But we were lucky in my part of Harris County. 

Anyway, I ventured in to the library this morning to return some books and pick up a few others. While there I wandered the stacks just to see what would catch my eye, and this is what I found:

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly

I didn't check this one out but I was really tempted. Broadchurch is a series set in England that I watched on Netflix a few months ago, and this book is based on what, if I remember correctly, was the show's second season. I liked everything about the series and really enjoyed it. But here's the rub: this is a novel "based on the story by series creator Chris Chibnall." Like I said, this is a great story and quite a fine mystery, but I have a distinct prejudice against books based on TV or movies rather than the other way around. I probably don't give the book authors enough credit, but it seems kind of lazy simply to put some flesh on the bones of a screenplay and call it a novel. Maybe it's just me, but I always feel like I'm wasting my time when I read one of these.

Charles Todd Books on the Shelf Today

I always stop when I spot a bunch of books by a single author I've never heard of, and that happened today with this group of Charles Todd novels featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a World War I era Scotland Yard detective. When I see this many books from a series, I have to believe that they are popular and selling very well. But this time around, I learned that the Charles Todd writing the books is actually the mother-son team of Caroline and Charles Todd. One of them lives in North Carolina and the other in Delaware (not sure which is in which state). It appears that the series is over twenty books long and that a new one is already scheduled to be released early next year. But that's not all "Charles Todd" is writing. The pair started the eleven-book Bess Crawford series in 2009, and they have also written two standalone novels. Now, this is another of my bookish prejudices. I usually avoid fiction written by multiple authors, especially parent-sibling or married teams. Does anyone out there have any experience with the Charles Todd books?

The Deborah Crombie Novels on the Shelf

Deborah Crombie novels are not new to me, and I have in fact read three of the novels pictured here, but seeing several of them clumped together today reminds me that as much as I've enjoyed the four of hers I've already read I really need to read the others. But I really, really don't need to add another fifteen books to my TBR list...but you know I just did.

The rains are falling again as I finish this up, hard and steady, so it looks like we will get another inch or two this afternoon and into the night. I hope the folks already underwater are not experiencing the same because they really don't need that to happen to them after yesterday.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Machines Like Me - Ian McEwan

Machines Like Me is Ian McEwan’s cautionary tale about a future that we just may not be ready for when it finally arrives. Synthetic humans (robots) are coming and they may be far smarter than we are when they get here. That may not sound like much of a problem, but what happens when the robots figure that out and become bored with us and our human limitations. Will they have the patience to put up with us or will they decide to take over for our own good?  

McEwan ventures into the alternate history genre here to explore some of the what-ifs of the accelerating pace at which we are introducing artificial intelligence and robotics into our everyday world. The novel is set in a 1980s version of the world very different from the one recorded by the history books. Margaret Thatcher is driven from office in disgrace after badly losing the Falklands War; John Lennon is alive and well and the Beatles are still a band; and the Brighton hotel bombing this time does manage to kill a British prime minister (Thatcher’s successor). Oh, and Jimmy Carter wins a second term, John Kennedy survives his trip to Dallas, and novelist Joseph Heller finds fame with a book he titles Catch-18. You get the idea.

Charlie Friend, thirty-two years old and single, takes great pride in the fact that he doesn’t have to answer to any boss. Charlie lives alone in a London apartment where he sits in front of his computer all day long buying and selling stocks, earning just enough to cover his day-to-day needs. He is not the most ambitious guy in the world, and when he learns that what he earns from day-trading stocks is just below the wage of the average Londoner, Charlie is proud that he is doing that well without having to answer to anyone. He is not the type to worry much about his future. Now, though, Charlie is falling in love with Miranda, the student who lives in the flat above his - even though she does not seem to feel the same way about him. But after blowing all the money his recently deceased mother left him on one of the world’s first synthetic humans, Charlie may have just stumbled onto a way of binding Miranda to him. He lets her help him design the personality of Adam, the near-perfect physical specimen who will now be sharing Charlie’s flat. 

Ian McEwan
Miranda, as it turns out, has secrets of her own, secrets that she can’t hide from someone like Adam who never sleeps and spends all of his spare time researching and learning about the world into which he has so suddenly been thrust. And after Adam warns Charlie that Miranda is not really who she seems to be, things begin to get tricky – especially after Adam declares his own love for Miranda.

Machines Like Me explores whether or not artificial intelligence can ever understand human emotions, motivations, and reasoning. Will it be possible for such a created consciousness to grow beyond the black and white rules it has initially been designed to follow? And if not, how will the inevitable conflict be resolved? What is to be done when our synthetic humans decide that they know what’s good for us better than we do. Which of us crosses the line first?

This quote (page 370 of the Large Print edition) should give all of us, researchers included, something to think about: “They couldn’t understand us, because we couldn’t understand ourselves. Their learning programs couldn’t accommodate us. If we didn’t know our own minds, how could we design theirs and expect them to be happy alongside us?”

Bottom Line: Machines Like Me is a bit frustrating at times because of the long, detailed digressions that McEwan strays into that do not always do much to advance the “discussion” of the potential conflict between artificial intelligence and human intelligence - but the patient reader will be well rewarded for his patience. I suppose that Machines Like Me will be most easily appreciated by science fiction and alternate reality fans, but it is a thought provoking philosophical novel as well.