Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Motherless Brooklyn - The Book Is Now a Movie



It's time for another "Movies for Readers" post, this time on the soon-to-be-released film called Motherless Brooklyn. This one is based on an award-winning 1999 book of the same title written by Jonathan Lethem.  

The movie stars William Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and Edward Norton, but Norton was really the driving force behind getting the movie made. Norton started developing the novel into a film sometime in the early 2000s, and both Willis and Baldwin are said to have practically done the movie for free because of their friendship with Norton. Norton wrote, produced, and directed the movie.

1999 Book Cover and Author Jonathan Lethem

Shooting of the movie began in early 2018 but was halted because of an apartment building fire that started in an apartment being used as a movie set. A New York fireman was killed in the fire, and the fireman's widow (along with many residents of the building) ended up filing a lawsuit against Norton and his production company. Norton filed his own suit against the building owner, claiming that the man's negligence caused the fire and let it get out of hand before firefighters arrived. (It appears that this is all still ongoing - at least, I haven't been able to find any information regarding any kind of settlement of the suits.)

The story is set in 1950s Brooklyn and the main character of this hardboiled crime thriller is a private detective with Tourette Syndrome. I really like the look of this one, and it makes me want to go back and find the book, another one that flew right by me back in 1999 when it was published. I'm a big fan of Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, and I have generally been impressed by William DaFoe's work (and I can just about tolerate Alec Baldwin's acting) so this is one I want to see.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Paris by the Book - Liam Callanan

Like a lot of other avid readers, I can’t resist at least taking a look at any book whose title includes the words “book” or “bookstore.” Sometimes even the word “library” does the trick. But as many times as not, I find that the plot doesn’t really interest me enough to read them, or I do read them and end up wishing I hadn’t. I’m happy to report that neither of those things happened with Liam Callanan’s 2018 novel Paris by the Book. This one, about an American woman and her two daughters who buy a failing Paris bookstore pushed all the right buttons, but there’s a lot more going on here than button-pushing.

Leah Eady’s husband Robert writes children books, just not as many as he used to write. And these days Robert is taking way more writer’s breaks than he used to take, breaks during which he disappears from home for two or three days at a time. Robert uses the time to hole up in some quiet spot where he labors to turn out a more few pages toward his next book. Leah may not particularly like the idea, but by now she’s used to it. So when Robert disappears again she is not all that concerned at first; that comes later, after her husband has been missing for an entire week. 

Before he leaves, Robert often leaves little notes for his wife and daughters to find, but this time there’s nothing there – at least it seems that way. But then Leah uncovers tickets to Paris for herself and her daughters, and she wonders if the tickets might somehow be tied to Robert’s absence. She decides to take her children to Paris to see if they might find Robert there waiting for them – but he isn’t. What turns up instead is a partially completed novel that Robert has apparently been working on without her knowledge, a story set in a Paris bookstore owned by a family that sounds very much like hers. A close study of the partial manuscript leads Leah and her two girls to a small failing bookstore very much like the one in Robert’s story, so when the bookstore owner offers to sell the store to Leah she does what she thinks her husband wants her to do: she buys it. But where is he?

Liam Callanan
Paris by the Book is all about a damaged American family in Paris, one searching desperately to find the missing piece that will make it whole again. Leah and her two girls settle into their new lives nicely, but all three of them feel as if Robert is out there somewhere watching them do it. The girls go to school and make new friends, and Leah, despite herself, is starting to feel as if she were single again. As the months go by, she begins to wonder if Robert could be dead, but she is not sure she really wants to know the truth. Perhaps that truth, whatever it is, would be even harder on the family than believing that he would walk through their bookstore’s door one day to tell them he was back.

One of the things that most surprised me about Paris by the Book is how much I learned from it about Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline series of children’s books and about Leah’s all-time favorite book, one by Albert Lamorisse called The Red Balloon. Ellie and Daphne share their mother’s love of The Red Balloon and are thrilled to be living in the very Parisian neighborhood in which the book is set. These girls are definitely book people, so living above a bookstore is their idea of heaven. Leah explains her girls this way:
            
            “I have strange children. Or the world wanted me to think that way, at least when we lived in Wisconsin: my girls grew up loving to read. True, they liked milk, understood football, and were as bewitched by screens – TV screens, movie screens, and most definitely phone screens – as everyone else. But they were strange in that they loved reading above all else.”

Bottom Line: Paris by the Book is a booklover’s dream. It features a weird little English-language bookstore in the heart of Paris and some of the world’s favorite children’s books. It’s about solving the mystery of a missing man who walked away from his family one morning without saying goodbye and hasn’t been seen since. It’s about the streets of Paris and what happens in the city’s little neighborhoods after all the tourists have called it a day. And most importantly, it’s about books and how loving them can sometimes change a family’s life for the better.





Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Killer Bs - Bluegrass, Books, and Baseball!

I had every intention of driving to Austin this weekend to attend the 2019 Texas Book Festival. Then I started looking into the various sessions and came to the realization that everyone I most wanted to see required a "Friends" pass costing something like $100 - a ploy I find both distasteful and annoying. And then I started looking into the remaining sessions and found way too many of them featuring authors pushing a book with a political agenda (and this is Austin we are talking about, so I'll let you figure out which political agenda that is all by yourself...it's easy). Even some reporters from The New York Times are there with a session of their own about how the country has gone to hell and it's all my fault for not voting for Hillary in 2016. It just didn't look worth the 300-mile roundtrip and two nights in a hotel at the inflated Festival weekend rates to come away from the experience in a worse mood than I arrived with, so I opted to stay closer to home.

Just ten miles up the road is a little community called Tomball, and on the last Saturday of every October the town presents a little bluegrass music festival that I always enjoy. Since my video camera batteries were all charged up and I had the cameras packed in the trunk of my car anyway, I decided to make this a music weekend rather than a book one.

Here's a little taste of the great music (the bluegrass-uninitiated will have to bear with me on this one) that I enjoyed today:



Friday, October 25, 2019

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey - Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is that rare author whose books I can say directly affected me and my way of life. Theroux is the kind of traveler I try to be (to a much less adventurous degree), a traveler who enjoys straying off the beaten path to explore the places that tourists never get to see, someone who takes the time to meet a few of the locals, eat where they eat, and get a feel for what makes a community tick. Paul Theroux has done that all over the world, often placing himself into dangerous situations in the process. But even those of us who do our traveling in less exotic locales, or even from our own armchairs, consider the man to be a role model.

Theroux’s latest, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, proves that the man has not lost a step despite his admittance to himself that his future traveling days are limited by his advancing age. The now 78-year-old Theroux (who was 76 during his travels through Mexico) realizes that younger people see him as an old man well past his prime – the way they see everyone who manages to make it to seventy. To them he is invisible and easily ignored. Well, Theroux is not playing that game. He does concede, however, that his days of driving the backroads alone could end the very next time he has to pass the eye exam needed to renew his driver’s license. As Theroux puts it, his driver’s license now has a “use-by date” on it. So, if not now, when?

Theroux has been in some tight spots before during his travels, but his almost foolhardy decision to travel alone into the heart of Mexico has to rank somewhere among the most dangerous situations he has ever inserted himself into. The author began his Mexican journey by traveling from west to east the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, hopping back and forth between U.S. and Mexican border towns. He crossed into and out of those border towns more than a dozen times, the places most prone to the kind of random violence orchestrated by the several drug cartels that control the Mexican side of the border (and some would say also the American side). From the border, Theroux proceeded to Mexico City, where he spent some time teaching a course on writing, before heading further south where he would end up near the Guatemalan border. 

Paul Theroux
And the best part about all of this? Theroux went where the roads took him, figuring all the while that it was best to keep moving no matter how bad or how deserted the next road he turned onto might prove to be. Along the way, he spent time with peasants, artists, writers, students, the leader of a twenty-year-long rebellion, and indigenous inhabitants of the country whose Spanish was worse even than his own. That he was willing to take the time necessary to earn the trust and the friendship of so many Mexicans explains how Theroux survived an adventure that everyone warned him against – including the Mexicans with whom he discussed his general plan beforehand. His friends  took good care of him.

Theroux may have been plagued by dejection and self-pity when he began his trip through Mexico, but he ended it on a high note and with a smile on his lips. He proved one more time that there is a huge difference between traveling as a tourist and traveling as a lone observer of the world and its people. Paul Theroux is a role model for real travelers everywhere.

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir - Amy Tan

I came to Amy Tan’s novels very late in her career despite having been aware of her almost from the moment that The Joy Luck Club hit the bookstores back in 1989. Even saying that “I came” to her novels is a bit misleading as, to this day, that’s the only one of her novels I’ve read – and I didn’t finally read that one until 2015. But still, Amy Tan fascinates me enough that I recently purchased a copy of her 2017 “writer’s memoir” Where the Past Begins in hardcopy and borrowed the audiobook version from the library in order to hear Tan read her own work. Let’s just say that I was not disappointed and that Tan continues to fascinate me.

Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir intimately explores the author’s family history, especially that of her mother. Those familiar with Tan’s novels will already be familiar with the basics of her family tree and how the family ended up in America; even those like me who have read only The Joy Luck Club will immediately recognize several of Tan’s relatives and episodes from their lives. But what they will be reading for the first time is how it really was for Tan to grow up with a mother who often used the threat of suicide to get her husband and children to do what she wanted them to do. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Where the Past Begins, however, is that Tan even decided to share the cathartic process of writing it with her readers, in the first place.  

It all started for Tan when she decided to explore the contents of the seven plastic bins she kept in her office, bins containing photographs, letters, and miscellaneous memorabilia marking some of the “frozen moments in time” relating to her own past and to her family history (moments from before her own birth). During the process, she learned just how unreliable many of her childhood memories were, and she was forced to reconfigure and reassess the ones she had of her parents. Tan learned who her parents really were. 

Amy Tan
The author pulls no punches here. This is as honest a memoir as one could wish for, one in which its author reveals much about her mentally unstable mother (including one incident in which her mother came at her with a knife) and how the relationship shaped her into the writer she would became. Tan also shares frank details about her father and her two brothers and her relationship with each of them. Not awfully surprising, I suppose, she learns that her surviving brother’s memories of their childhood do not always mesh in detail or in content with those of her own. Amy Tan is figuring out here who she is and how she became that person – and she takes her readers along for the ride.

Equally intriguing and honest are the book’s segments on the writing process and how Tan works her way through it to produce her fiction. Tan is not one of those overconfident writers who can speed through the writing process with the full confidence that she will almost certainly produce something worth publishing. For her, almost the opposite seems to be the case, and it is an educational joy to read through the long email exchange she shares here between her and her trusted editor. 

Bottom Line: Where the Past Begins will interest both Amy Tan admirers and general fans of the memoir genre who know relatively little about the author herself. The audiobook version of the memoir is read by the Tan (at a slow pace that can at times become a bit annoying), something else that will appeal to her already-fans. The drawback to reading this one via audiobook, however, is not being able to study the numerous family photos and documents that are available in the printed version (additions I only learned of because I have a hardcopy of the book). But whichever way you decide to experience Where the Past Begins, it is an interesting look into the life of one of this America’s most respected authors.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"Every Bookstore Is Like a Safe-Deposit Box for Civilization"

Liam Callanan
I finished Liam Callanan's Paris by the Book this afternoon and will be doing a full review sometime in the next three or four days. I really liked this one a lot, not the least because it contains one of my favorite book/bookstore quotes ever:
Such hope is resilient; every town, every book, is a way to say, look, there's a new way, a different way. Every book in every bookstore is a fresh beginning. Every book is the next iteration of a very old story. Every bookstore, therefore, is like a safe-deposit box for civilization."
I have been collecting quotes about reading, books, bookstores and libraries for a long time, and this is one of the best I've found in a while.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

20 Essential L.A. Crime Books - Some Classics, Some Surprises

Because so many of us are fans of crime fiction, I thought it would be fun to take a look at “The 20 Essential L.A. Crime Books” highlighted by The Los Angeles Times in an October 17 article. It’s not that it’s particularly difficult to predict most of the twenty books on the list, but there are a few surprises that I want to take a look at now – and honestly? It’s kind of nice to have a little validation of my book choices, for a change. I'll start with a group of nine books - eight of which I've read (the books are not ranked):

The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye – both by Raymond Chandler, the guy I consider to be the grandfather of L.A. crime fiction. The Big Sleep (1939) is the first Phillip Marlowe novel and it was adapted for two major motion pictures, one in 1946 starring Humphrey Bogart and one in 1978 starring Robert Mitchum. The Long Goodbye (1953) is one of Chandler’s later novels and features a drunken writer character that Chandler based largely on own himself. The novel won the Edgar Award for Best novel in 1955. 

The Onion Field – Joseph Wambaugh seemed to come out of nowhere with the publication of this 1973 true crime book, the story of two policeman kidnapped by ex-cons and taken to a remote Bakersfield-area onion field for execution. One cop died, one managed to escape. Wambaugh is an ex-cop himself, and his account of the crime and its traumatic aftermath was favorably compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Wambaugh was everywhere for a few years; I remember seeing him for the first time on the old Johnny Carson Show.

The Black Echo and The Last Coyote – both by Michael Connelly, the first being the novel via which the world was introduced to Connelly’s long-running character, the great Harry Bosch. The Last Coyote (1995) is the fourth book in the series that has now reached twenty-three books in total, and it’s the one in which the story started to as much about Harry’s personal life as it is about the crimes he solves. Somehow, even though I've read most of the twenty-three books now, I have never gone back to read The Black Echo (1992), an oversight I’m going to fix very soon.

Devil in a Blue Dress – Walter Mosley set this 1990 novel in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles and used it to introduce black detective Easy Rawlins to the world. There are now fourteen books in the Easy Rawlins series, but they constitute only a portion of what the prolific Mosely has produced in the meantime. Mosely has written two other series, numerous standalone novels, several nonfiction books, some YA Fiction, some science fiction, plays, graphic novels, and screenplays. That’s over 50 books for anyone who’s counting.

Get Shorty – Elmore Leonard pushed all the right L.A. buttons in this novel about Hollywood and the studio system. Honestly though, Get Shorty is not one of my favorite Elmore Leonard books, and I'm a big Elmore Leonard fan. Leonard wrote some of the best dialogue the genre has ever seen – and, I would argue that his dialogue is every bit as good as, if not better than, most anything found in literary fiction.

Double Indemnity – This James M. Cain novella, along with his 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, was instrumental in turning me into a lifelong crime fiction fan. Double Indemnity was written in 1943, and was originally published as part of a three-novella collection. I remember how disappointed I was to learn that Cain had not written a whole lot after the 1950s even though he did not die until 1977. I'm greedy; I wanted more.


Helter Skelter – a true crime account (1974) of the Charles Manson cult murders that so frightened the country back in the day. One of the book’s co-authors, Vincent Bugliosi, is the man who actually prosecuted the case against Manson and his murderous followers in 1970.  The book has probably received as much criticism as it has praise, but it most certainly captures a point in time that those of who were around back then will never forget. 

Now, the ones with which I'm familiar but have not read - and may never read:

Black Dahlia (1987)and L.A. Confidential (1990) – both of by James Ellroy and both considered to be classics of their type. I have read neither of them, however, for one simple reason: I sat through a James Ellroy session at the Texas Book Festival several years ago during which the author astounded me by his lack of ability to go three consecutive sentences without dropping an F-Bomb somewhere in them. I acknowledge that Ellroy is a really good writer, but on this occasion he severely misjudged his audience (which included several small children and their mothers). I’m not sure if Ellroy was trying to sound like one of his own lowlife characters, make himself look cooler than he probably is, or is just incapable of speaking without cursing. Whichever the case may be, I haven’t exactly felt the urge to read the man’s books ever since that morning. 

That leaves nine others that are either new to me or that I know very little about, including True Confessions which I do remember as having been adapted into an interesting movie starring the great Robert Duval, who acted circles around Robert De Niro. 

Here are the nine:

True Confessions (1977)John Gregory Dunne’s take on the famous Los Angeles “Black Dahlia” murder case that also spawned the Black Dahlia novel by Ellroy.

Dorothy B. Hughes
In a Lonely Place (1947) – Dorothy B. Hughes helped break new ground for female writers in the genre with this one and has been called an “early feminist voice” as a result. She wrote some fourteen hardboiled crime novels and won the Edgar Grand Master Award in 1978. To say that she is underrated today is an understatement. This is one I definitely want to read.

The Grifters (1963) – Jim Thompson wrote this classic novel about con artists in Los Angeles. Thompson was so good that the Washington Post once said of him, “If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it.” High praise, indeed. Looking through my notes, I see that I have only ever read one Jim Thompson novel, and it wasn’t The Grifters. I really need to do something about that.

Joe Ide
IQ (2016) – This one by Joe Ide was the introduction to a new series featuring Isaiah Quintabe, a Los Angeles detective who is more brain than muscle. IQ was the debut both for the Quintabe character and for its author who has now written three books in this series – still a short series, so now is the time to take a look if you are one who prefers to read them in order.

Southland (2003) from Nina Revoyr, is a novel centered on the deaths of four young black men in a Japanese-American’s convenience store during the Watts Riots of 1965. It tells of two families with a shared history from the 1930s all the way through the 1990s. This one sounds so good that I can’t believe it got by me in 2003. I’ll be looking for it.

The Moving Target (1949) is Ross Macdonald’s introduction of Lew Archer, the character who would be featured in almost twenty books over the course of Macdonald’s career. I’ve read three of the Lew Archer books but the series never caught my imagination the way some others did. Now, however, I’m curious enough about this one. 

The Tattooed Soldier (1998) from H├ęctor Tobar sounds like a great psychological thriller/crime novel. The main character is a Guatemalan refugee living in Los Angeles who stumbles across the death-squad soldier responsible for killing his entire family back in Guatemala. Interestingly, this is another novel set during the time of the Watts Riots. (It’s starting to look like my 2020 reading plan is going to include a lot of fiction from the 1990s and early 2000s.)

Steph Cha
Your House Will Pay (2019) by Steph Cha was published just two days before the Los Angeles Times published the list I’m working from here. It focuses on the big city racial tensions between Koreans and Blacks and has already been highly praised by the likes of Michael Connelly and Attica Locke. (Well, at least I didn’t miss this one, so on the list for next year, it goes.)

No Human Involved (1997) by Barbara Seranella is a different take on the “man on the run” novel. This time it’s a woman who’s wanted for murder and trying to hide in the shadows long enough to figure out an escape plan. It doesn’t help that she’s also trying to kick a heroin habit at the same time. But for now, she’s working as an auto mechanic and trying to keep her head down. Sounds like another good one.

And there you have it. Because the earliest of the books goes back to 1939 and the latest was published just a few days ago, these twenty books give a nice historical overview of the evolution of crime fiction over the last eight decades. It's kind of a shame that there are only four women represented in this list of twenty books, but I suspect that that ratio will never be this heavily weighted again. The times, they are a changing. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

Emily Dickinson as Farce



I don't have Apple TV, and I don't know anyone who does, but I'm hoping that someone can tell me (after this premiers in early November) if their Dickinson series is as weird as it appears to be from this trailer. It is kinda-sorta based on the life of Emily Dickinson, but her story is shown through what some publicist calls "modern sense and sensibility." I just can't believe that this will really work. Is it an atrocity or will it somehow get the Millennials out there to at least recognize Emily Dickinson's name when they hear it? I'm tending to think "dud" more than "atrocity." (I hope I'm wrong and this turns out to be good comedy, but based on what I see here I'm not holding my breath.)

I know they are not aiming this one at anyone even close to my age, but just what audience are they going for here? 12-year-old-girls-on-the-bookish-side seems to be a pretty small niche audience to be shooting for. Good luck with that, Apple TV.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck - Ann Beattie

Every so often, I come across a book that has me so mystified that I can’t see any reason to keep turning its pages - so I abandon it before wasting another precious day or two of my reading time on it. A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is not one of those books. Although this one mystified me, I expected that someone who writes as well as Ann Beattie writes was eventually going to wow me with her usual skills. So I kept reading. And then I turned to the final page, read the last paragraph, and wondered out loud what had just happened. I still don’t understand what Beattie was aiming for here. Whatever it was, she missed it.

 The dust jacket blurb says that A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is “about the complicated relationship between a charismatic teacher and his students, and the secrets we keep from those we love.” That is the original hook that convinced me to give it a shot. And if that representation were a bit more accurate than it is, I would have enjoyed A Wonderful Stroke of Luck a lot more than I did. 

True, Pierre LaVerdere, the teacher who leads the honor society at an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school called the Bailey Academy, is one of the book’s main characters. And it’s true that LaVerdere challenges his students to think for themselves during the open discussion that defines the typical honor society meeting. But the book’s rather interchangeable characters really don’t spend all that much time with the teacher, and after they graduate none of them seem to see him for the next few years. Oh, he was a “character” for sure, and his name comes up in the stories they tell each other, but other than influencing the way that some of his former students still reason, he seems to be no big deal in their post-high-school lives. 

Ann Beattie
You will be hard pressed to find a more insulated, ordinary, almost boring bunch of young people than the ones that Beattie created for A Wonderful Stroke of Luck. Most of them live in exciting cities, have decent jobs, and are getting on with their lives. But they’ve already managed to get themselves into what seem more like mid-life ruts than the lives you would expect much younger people to be living. Ben, the real main character of the book, is perhaps the biggest failure of them all. He’s alone, and he is struggling – as or all of his old friends – to find some meaning in his life. These people all live in a bubble in which they only know, much less befriend, people who think exactly the way they think. They are all liberal Democrats who so readily demonize conservatives and Republicans that they don’t even notice each other doing it anymore. 

But more importantly for the reader, nothing much ever happens to these people. As in nothing. And what little does happen is boring. So, perhaps in an attempt to end the book with some kind of a legitimate climax, Beattie brings Pierre LaVerdere back on the scene very near the end of the story. LaVerdere does shake up things in Ben’s world a good bit, but in the final analysis even Ben ends up unsure whether his old teacher is simply a liar or is really guilty of the awful deed he confesses to Ben. I’m still surprised that I finished this one. 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

After the Flood - Kassandra Montag

2019 is proving to be a banner year for fans of dystopian fiction. And for the first time ever, the annual Book Chase Fiction Top Ten list may just end up containing multiple dystopian novels. Already this year, I’ve read three of my all-time favorite novels of that type: Christina Henry’s The Girl in Red; C.A. Fletcher’s A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World; and now Kassandra Montag’s After the Flood. What makes these three so special to me is how effectively each of the authors develops their main characters – regardless of which “end of the world” scenario they have chosen. 

It helps, too, that each of the books explores the adaptability of children who suddenly find themselves living in (or being born into) a world in which just making it to the end of the day can be considered a major achievement. It's little insights like this one that make After the Flood so believable:
"Pearl had to do everything early: swimming, drinking goat's milk, potty training, helping me work the fishing lines. She learned to swim at eighteen months but didn't learn to walk properly until she was three. Instead of walking, she scuttled about Bird (their boat) like a crab. Her childhood was the kind I'd read about in frontier stories, the children who knew how to milk a cow at six or how to shoot a rifle at nine." (page 80)

After the Flood takes place just over 100 years from now after rising floodwaters and heavy rains that sometimes lasted for years have so completely flooded the world that survivors are limited to living in mountaintop colonies surrounded by what has effectively become one gigantic ocean. Governments, armies, and policemen no longer exist in what has become very close to an “every man for himself” world. And that’s why some, like Myra and her seven-year-old daughter Pearl, have chosen to live on their boats , venturing onshore only long enough to trade surplus fish for the necessities they cannot provide for themselves. Myra has already lost one daughter, Row, who was stolen away by the girl’s father when he abandoned the then-pregnant Myra to the floodwaters that were about to flood Nebraska. Understandably, Myra trusts no one now – and she is more than willing to kill anyone who threatens Pearl.

Kassandra Montag
But everything changes when Myra learns from a stranger that Row has been spotted in a slave colony in what used to be Greenland – and that the young girl will soon be moved into one of the large “breeding ships” parked offshore. Now, desperate to reclaim her daughter before it is forever too late to save her, Myra and Pearl begin a new adventure that will only succeed if they learn to trust strangers. Myra knows that her boat is much too small to survive the long voyage into freezing waters and that she and Pearl won’t be able to steal Row back on their own. When they are invited to live with others aboard a much larger vessel, Myra realizes that she may have solved both her biggest problems: now she has a way to get to The Valley and enough people on her side to make Row’s rescue possible. But does she dare tell them the real reason she wants to go to The Valley? And if she lies to them, placing their lives in danger, hasn’t she turned into exactly the kind of person she was so afraid of just a few days earlier?

Bottom Line: After the Flood is what dystopian novel fans are always looking for, a world they can immerse themselves in for a few days – but one they probably would not want to live in no matter how much it fascinates them. Montag doesn’t hit a false note in this one despite my fear that the climax she was heading for would turn the novel into just another run-of-the-mill thriller with a high body-count. I needn’t have worried. Montag is too good a writer to let that happen – and she proves it in After the Flood, her debut novel.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Cynic in Me Is Not Surprised That There Are Two Booker Prize Winners This Year

Perhaps my cynical side is making me see something here that doesn't exist, but I'm thinking that once Margaret Atwood's The Testaments was nominated for the Booker Prize it became fairly likely that there would be two winners this year. Either that, or the book that otherwise would and should have won the prize was going to be cheated of its place in Booker Prize history.

So why do I say that? 

Because everything is political these days. Everything. And everything revolves around the near universal hatred of Donald Trump. Considering the newfound popularity of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale which is based almost entirely on the ease with which it can be used to spread the anti-Trump message around the world, it was simply inevitable (almost pre-ordained) that The Testaments, a follow-up to The Handmaid's Tale, was/is going to win any prize for which it is nominated. 

The Booker judges have only done this twice before, in 1974 and in 1992. And in 1992, the rules were officially changed to forbid a sharing of the prize in future years because the Booker Prize Foundation’s literary director, Gaby Wood, felt that splitting the prize “detracts attention from both, rather than drawing attention to either.” BBC News quotes Peter Florence, chairman of the judges, explaining the decision this way, “…when rebellion is in the air, maybe we were a little moved by that.” As I see it, these days everything is about politics, political correctness, and otherwise being properly “woke” (a term that drives the grammarian in me absolutely crazy). So if you don’t agree with the rule, ignore it. Everyone else does.

I am not saying that The Testaments is a bad book or even one necessarily unworthy of the Booker. The reviews I’ve read are mostly positive, many of them enthusiastically so, but I have also seen quite a few comments that the book is really rather ordinary by Margaret Atwood standards. What I am saying is that the coronation seemed inevitable the day the book was longlisted. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, the book that share’s this year’s Booker Prize, is notable because its author is the first black woman ever to win a Booker. The prize is particularly important for an author like Evaristo because, as she puts it, “It means my work gets out there to a much wider audience around the world.”

But, call me a cynic or not, I can’t help thinking that if Girl, Woman, Other had been written one year earlier, or one year later, its author would not be sharing the Booker Prize with another author. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Time After Time - Lisa Grunwald

The thing that surprised me most about Lisa Grunwald’s Time After Time was learning a few days later that Manhattanhenge is a real thing (I probably just totally embarrassed myself by admitting that). So, for the other three or four people in the world who have not heard about Manhattanhenge yet, I’m going to quote the Wikipedia definition of that phenomenon here:
           
             “Manhattanhenge, also called the Manhattan Solstice, is an event during which the setting sun or the rising sunis aligned with the east–west streets of the main street grid of Manhattan, New York City. The sunsets and sunrises each align twice a year, on dates evenly spaced around the summer solstice and winter solstice. The sunset alignment occurs around May 28 and around July 13. The sunrise alignment occurs around December 5 and around January 8. The best places for viewing Manhattanhenge are 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, and 57th Streets.”

In the case of Time After Time, it’s the sunrise alignment with a particular Grand Central Station window every December that matters because that’s when the beautiful Nora Lansing reappears in the station each year – much to the delight of every man who spots her. When Joe Reynolds, a railroad technical-engineer, meets Nora at the station’s famous gold clock in December of 1937, he has the feeling that there is something very different about her. It’s not just that Nora is dressed in Roaring Twenties style; she also appears to be both a bit bewildered by what she sees around her and a little too confident and happy for the times in which they live. But things really get weird when Joe agrees to walk Nora home, only to have her disappear just a few hundred feet from the station.

Lisa Grunwald
That was the first time they met, but it would not be the last time; just as it would not be the last time Nora abruptly disappeared from Joe’s life. As the years go by, the two manage to carve out bits and pieces of a happy life together, one that is severely tested by what Nora and Joe discover about Nora’s relationship to Grand Central Station and the borough’s winter Manhattanhenge. There is no doubt that Nora is somehow trapped inside the huge train station and that bad things happen to her every time she tries to leave it. But then, as Joe steadily ages and the neighborhood around the station begins to change, they realize that time is not on their side. So what, if anything at all, can they do about it?

Bottom Line: Lisa Grunwald’s Time After Time is a bit of light, fun reading that will have readers rooting for Joe and Nora to find a way to stay together all the way to the very end of the book (although I’m sure that the ending will not satisfy everyone). Really, the best thing about this one is how clear a picture it paints of the inner workings of Grand Central Station itself, how complicated a process that it was even in the thirties and forties - and how many hundreds of people it took - to keep the station running as efficiently as it did. 

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.