Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving from Book Chase

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

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

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

And these:

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

See you when we wake up. .

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Black Hills - M J Trow

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2019

When Sally Comes Marching Home - Richard Milton

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

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

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

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

Sally Honeychurch is willing to take that chance.

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

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

Friday, November 22, 2019

New "Emma" Movie in 2020

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Macmillan's War on Libraries and Library Patrons Moves to Absurd Stage

German-owned publisher Macmillan’s war on libraries and library patrons accelerated last week when the publisher went through with its plan to limit e-book sales to only one copy per library for the first eight weeks after publication. It matters not whether the library is serving a community of 5,000 patrons are one of hundreds of thousands – it’s one copy per library. So don’t bother getting in line to stream a new e-book anytime soon for anything published by Macmillan or any of its divisions, including Henry Holt & Company; Bloomsbury; Faarrar, Straus and Giroux; North Point Press; Picador; Metropolitan Books; Graywolf Press; St. Martins; Tor; and Forge, among others. 

Macmillan is apparently under the absurd impression that if library patrons are unable to get a free copy of an e-book from their local library they will run right out and purchase a copy of their own – at what many consumers consider to be the inflated price that publishers charge for e-books today. We all know that’s not going to happen. Personally, I read about 125 books a year on average, with approximately half of those 125 being books published in the year that I read them. Of those 60 or so books, maybe half of them are e-books that I get either from my county library system, directly from publishers as ARCs, from the Amazon First Reads program, or via Amazon purchases. Simply put, I read way more books than I can afford to read, and if I have to buy them they are not as likely ever to be read and reviewed or otherwise featured on Book Chase at all. I don’t kid myself into believing that what I do is all that important to the bottom line of a giant publisher like Macmillan. But I do know that there are hundreds of book bloggers out there and that, taken as a group, we are important contributors to the publicity that authors and publishers so desperately need if they are going to sell books in today’s market. 

I am just old school enough that I still much prefer a hard copy or quality paperback version of a book to its frailer e-book cousin. I often read an e-book that I end up loving so much that I add a hard back copy of the book to the permanent collection on my personal library shelves. E-books just don’t give me a sense of permanency, and I doubt that they ever will. I never know if I own them or if I’m just renting them long enough for a new format to come along, replace them, and make all my e-books obsolete. After all, music publishers have gotten away with that little trick for years, so can book publishers be far behind with some kind of “planned obsolescence” scheme of their own?

Libraries, too, are a source of free publicity for publishers and their new books. It’s already bad enough that libraries are charged three to four times the price that consumers pay for e-books, even though that makes a little sense considering how many times the e-books are being read and that they never wear out. Many, if not all, publishers limit the number of times an e-book can be checked out before it has to be repurchased by the lending library; again, that makes some sense to me. But this new scheme of Macmillan’s is (I sincerely hope) going to backfire on the publisher and its authors. I doubt that the increase in sales is going to make up for the reduced number e-book copies that libraries are going to purchase for “older” books when they are finally allowed that privilege – books whose marketing buzz is already over. Libraries have limited budgets and they base their book purchases on expected demand from their patrons. So why would they buy books that no one is asking about anymore?

One final thought: How many bestsellers, do you think, were constructed largely out of sales to libraries? Libraries, taken as a whole, buy lots of copies of books and what they buy can be enough to catapult a book onto the bestsellers lists almost instantly. Perhaps even more important, library sales can mean the difference between an author working years for very little return and making a nice income for their efforts. I can’t imagine that too many Macmillan authors are happy about this misguided approach, so let’s hope someone at the top comes to their senses soon.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore - Matthew Sullivan

I figured I was setting myself up for a huge disappointment when I let my enthusiasm about the cover of Matthew Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore convince me that I really needed to read this one. That’s happened to me several times before when I chose a new book based solely on what I saw on the cover – especially, it seems, with books about, or set in, bookstores (a major weakness of mine). This one, though, did not disappoint. 

Lydia Smith is a bookseller at the Bright Ideas bookstore, a young lady who truly loves books and what she does in the bookstore. And her customers love her right back - especially the BookFrogs, an eccentric group of regulars who claim the bookstore as a second home (for many of them, it’s their only home) and spend whole days there browsing or napping among the books. But when one of the BookFrogs hangs himself in the store at midnight, just before closing time, everything changes for Lydia for good. She will never, ever be the same.

Matthew Sullivan
Lydia not only discovers Joey’s body, she also learns that he has bequeathed all of his possessions – what little there are of them - to her. She already suspected that she was Joey’s favorite bookseller, but because Joey had only recently started actually speaking to her about himself a little, Lydia was taken by surprise by his gesture. What Lydia finds in Joey’s apartment is pretty much what she expects to find: lots of junk and lots of books. But when Lydia starts taking a closer look at the books in the apartment she begins to wonder what Joey was up to before his suicide. The books have been defaced in an apparently systematic way, with dozens of little windows cut into their pages, and Lydia knows that the key to what was going on in Joey’s head is hidden somewhere in the books he left behind.

Lydia has bloody secrets of her own, things about her childhood that she has shared with no one in the world, including her live-in boyfriend, David. But when she finds something from her childhood in Joey’s possession, it doesn’t make sense. Just who was Joey Molina, anyway? And does she really want to know the truth?

Bottom Line: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore satisfies on a couple of different levels. Fans of “bookstore books” will be pleased that so much of the plot takes place inside, or around the day-to-day routine of, the bookstore itself in a way that reveals lots about the quirky store and its often eccentric employees and customers. But this one is also a good mystery about a murderous rampage perpetrated by a villain so spooky that a whole generation of children would never forget him. It’s a mystery with enough solid misdirection in it that I did not solve it until the author intended me to solve it. My only gripe concerns the book’s ending (long after the mystery itself is solved), an ending that is really a little too abrupt to be much satisfying. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Rebus: Long Shadows - Ian Rankin & Rona Munro

I began 2019 hoping to fill in the gaps of a few crime series that I only started reading when the series were already a few books old. Among those was Ian Rankin’s John Rebus books, one of my favorite series of them all. As a result, the last two Rebus books I’ve read are 1987’s Knots and Crosses, which was the very first Rebus book, and 2019’s Rebus: Long Shadows, a brand new stage play featuring Rebus. In the first, Rebus was introduced as a 41-year-old cop; in the play, he is a retired cop in such poor physical condition that stairs are a challenge and he is as likely to fly as engage a suspect in a foot-chase. The good news is that Rebus is still Rebus; the bad news is that Rebus has a past that is catching up with him.

John Rebus allows his past to haunt him. He doesn’t spend any time thinking about his successes, all those bad guys he and his fellow cops have taken off the streets in the last three decades. Instead, he thinks about the ones who got away – and the young women they raped and murdered. He sees these women in his dreams, and he has long conversations with them in his head. Rebus knows, too, that time is running out for him. If he is ever to put away his longtime nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty, a crime boss he’s been chasing for twenty-five years, he is going to have to do it soon. The irony is that, of all the people in the world, “Big Ger” is perhaps the one who understands John Rebus best; their shared past forever binds them. They may not  be friends, but they are much more than just enemies on different sides of the law. 

Ian Rankin and Rona Munro
And then one night, Rebus comes across a young woman on the stairs waiting for one of his apartment neighbors to come home. He doesn’t know her, but he remembers her mother, the victim of one of those unsolved murder cases that he thinks about so often. Determined to finally find the woman’s killer, Rebus begins to ask questions, questions that will lead to yet another confrontation with “Big Ger,” a conversation with the power to ruin the career of the only real friend he still has, DI Siobham Clarke. 

In his introduction to Rebus: Long Shadows, Ian Rankin tells us that the play is set in “a parallel world that is almost identical,” one in which Rankin and co-author Rona Munro “have played with elements of Rebus’s history – and Cafferty’s – to make for an engrossing two hours of theatre.” The differences, whatever they may be, are subtle enough that most readers are unlikely to be troubled by them, if they notice them at all. 

Bottom Line: Rebus: Long Shadows works surprisingly well and manages to add another complex chapter to the John Rebus story within the concise parameters of a stage play. In the play, Rebus reveals just what a complicated and driven man he is today, and that he is still capable of out-maneuvering those who think they finally have him where they want him. This is a worthy addition to the John Rebus series and should be read as such. As Rankin says, “In Edinburgh, that most special of cities, Rebus knows the dead don’t always rest quietly, while the living remain troubled and – just occasionally – deadly dangerous.” Unemployed or not, John Rebus is far from done.

Scene from the Play in which Rebus is being "haunted" by Victims of Two Unsolved Murder Cases

Friday, November 15, 2019

Big Sky - Kate Atkinson

Big Sky is Kate Atkinson’s fifth Jackson Brodie novel, a series she started in 2004 with Case Histories. For a while, it seemed that Atkinson had settled into a routine of producing a new Jackson Brodie novel every two years, with 2006’s One Good Turn, 2008’s When Will There Be Good News?, and 2010’s Started Early, Took My Dog. Then nothing. Nothing, that is, until this year’s addition to the series, so you can imagine how excited Jackson Brodie fans were to get their hands on Big Sky. But nine years is a long gap, and even though I had read three of the first four books in the series, it took me a while to recall enough of Brodie’s personal circumstances for the novel to start feeling more like part of a series again than like a standalone novel. 

This time around, Brodie is living in a quiet (as in depressed) British seaside village where he offers his private detective services to one and all  – although most all of his clients are actually of the type eagerly seeking dirt on their spouses for financial gain. Brodie is a man who barely bothers to take care of himself, but he does seem to enjoy the part-time company of his old dog and his sullen teenage son when one of his ex-wives is too busy to care for them herself. At the moment, Brodie is engaged in gathering proof, including lots of pictures, that one woman’s husband is busily cheating on her. This kind of work is so routine to Brodie that he even leaves his son to keep an eye on the cheating couple for a moment while he buys the boy a promised ice cream treat. His routine, though, is about to get shaken up – and it all starts on the day that Brodie stumbles across a suicidal man standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff.

Brodie is also involved in an internet sting in which he impersonates a young girl vulnerable to sexual predators who use the internet to lure children to their doom. Now, after witnessing a young girl climb into a car that stops along the highway to pick her up, and failing to stop the driver after he loses the man’s car in heavy traffic, Brodie is haunted about what he suspects the girl’s fate may turn out to be. Human trafficking is one of the ugliest crimes on the face of the earth, and almost before he knows it, Jackson Brodie is going to find himself trying to deal with some of the most despicable people imaginable. 

Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson is not an easy writer for me to read, and Big Sky is not an exception to the rule. As usual, Atkinson spends much of the novel introducing seemingly unrelated characters and telling their stories in dozens of pages. And even though one knows that the author will tie all the loose ends together at some point, it may be hard for readers initially not to feel that they are starting three or four different novels at the same time. This also means that the central character of the book and the series, Jackson Brodie, is not “on stage” as long or as often as one might suspect (and hope) he would be. Atkinson does, as usual, bring everything and everyone together for a satisfying ending, and many of the characters and subplots we meet along the way are memorable ones, so Big Sky is another worthy addition to the Jackson Brodie series. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Kate Atkinson’s sense of humor, a tool she employs throughout her books. One of my favorite little throwaways from Big Sky begins with a  reference to the girl Brodie watched climb into the suspicious vehicle previously mentioned (she was wearing a backpack adorned with a unicorn):

            “The Girl with the Unicorn Backpack. It sounded like one of those Scandi noir books that he didn’t read. Jackson didn’t like them much – too dark and twisted or too lugubrious. He liked his crime fiction to be cheerfully unrealistic, although in fact he hardly read anything anymore in any genre. Life was too short and Netflix too good.”

I love that.

Bottom Line: Have a little patience, pay close attention to the subplots, and you will really like Big Sky. Grow impatient, let your mind drift too much, and you won’t. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

I first read Esi Edugyan in 2012, coming rather late to her second novel Half-Blood Blues, the story of three black jazz musicians who find themselves trapped in World War II Paris when Hitler’s army overruns the city. That one turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2012 (it was published in 2011), convincing me that Edugyan was a writer I wanted to watch. Although it had been seven years between 2004’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues, I really didn’t expect that it would be another seven years before Edugyan would publish her third novel. I was wrong, and now, unless she changes that pattern, I suppose we have something new to look forward to from Edugyan in 2025. 

Washington Black opens on an 1830s Barbados sugar plantation being run by the eldest son of an eccentric British family that enjoys the plantations profits without being much aware of, or even much caring about, its day-to-day operations. The book’s narrator is an eleven-year-old slave boy called George Washington Black, an outcast child who seems to suffer as much at the hands of his fellow slaves as he does from anyone else on the plantation. Wash, as he will come to be known, only survived his early childhood because Big Kit, a female slave who matches her nickname, made sure that he had enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. But now Wash is eleven and expected to carry a full load in his master’s fields. 

The drudgery and exhaustion Washington Black experiences every day is soul crushing, but the young slave learns to endure it, all the time living in fear that he might inadvertently do something to displease Erasmus Wilde, the sadistic plantation owner who delights in seeing his slaves tortuously punished for even the smallest infraction. Then the young slave’s world unexpectedly changes for the better when the owner’s much kinder brother “Titch” chooses him as personal assistant in a series of scientific studies the man is performing in the Barbados. Astounded by Wash’s mind and artistic abilities, “Titch” soon realizes that Wash has become an indispensable part of his project and the two become fast friends. The only question now is whether or not “Titch” will be able to protect the boy from the wrath of Erasmus and the jealousy of his fellow slaves who resent Wash’s escape from the fields.

Esi Edugyan
Washington Black’s friendship with “Titch” Wilde will define the rest of his life, a life that will largely be spent fleeing the bounty hunter who is determined to bring him back to the Barbados plantation he almost accidentally escapes from. Wash, though, does ultimately make a place for himself in the world, even finding the woman of his dreams along the way, as he makes his way  from the plantation to Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England, and finally to Morocco. 

Bottom Line: Language-wise, Washington Black is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, so it is easy enough to see why it won the Giller Prize in 2018 (making Edugyan only the third writer to win it twice) and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. However, the novel’s narrative progression seems to be rather the opposite of the expected path that moves a plot toward its climax near the end of the book. In fact, the opposite happens in Washington Black, with the bulk of the book’s tension and action taking place in its first two-thirds followed by a gradual winding down to an underwhelming ending. But despite that disappointment, Washington Black is still a book worth exploring, one that I am happy to have read.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Harper Lee Lives in My Head

Harper Lee
(If you make it all the way to the end of his long ramble, there's a special surprise waiting for you at the end.)

I have been fascinated by Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird ever since I was thirteen years old and spent a Saturday afternoon at the local movie theater watching TKAM's movie version. A couple of years later the novel was part of the required reading in my high school English class, and I felt like I was cheating because I already knew the story so well.  

Then a few years after that, I became equally fascinated by Truman Capote and his groundbreaking true crime book In Cold Blood. I even talked my parents into driving about 200 miles out of our way during a family vacation so we could get a look at the Clutter house  in Holcomb, Kansas, where those awful murders took place. Looking back, I'm surprised that they humored me that way, but it is still one of things I remember most about all those family road trips we used to take (we all got sick from carbon monoxide poising in Colorado a few days later, so I remember this particular trip very well).  

You can probably imagine my reaction when I found out that Harper Lee and Truman Capote first met when they were about five years old and that they grew up as next-door neighbors in tiny Monroeville, Alabama. They would remain on-again-off-again friends, largely depending on Capote's sobriety at any given moment in their relationship, until Capote's death. Lee even traveled to Kansas with Capote where she was instrumental in doing research and interviews that proved to be essential to the content of In Cold Blood
Outside the Old Courthouse, Monroeville, Alabama

How can anyone not be intrigued by the idea that two of the most  famous American writers of the 20th century grew up together in a remote Alabama farm town during the Great Depression? What are the odds, do you think, that something like that would happen?

What brings all this up is that I've been helping one of my grandsons prepare a research paper for his sophomore English class these last few days, a paper on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. My contribution is to help gather the research materials for the project, and I'm finding it way too easy to lose myself in the subject all over again. It's been great fun, but now I have to force myself to hand it all over to him so that I can get back to the reading I had planned for November. 

But out of curiosity, I decided to do a search on Book Chase  of the term "Harper Lee" to see what I've posted here relating to her, Capote, and/or their books. I was surprised to find so many posts:

"Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee - 8/8/19

"Capote in Kansas" - 3/28/08

"Did Harper Lee Agree to Publish New Book" - 2/6/15

"Righting a Wrong about Harper Lee" - 3/18/07

"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" - 4/2/07

"Harper Lee's Hometown Celebrates Go Set a Watchman" - 7/20/15

"Go Set a Watchman" - 7/28/15

"Harper Lee to Publish a New Novel about Scout" - 2/3/15

"My Christmas in New York - Harper Lee" - 12/12/15

"Brilliant Books Offers Refund on All Copies of Go Set a Watchman Sold" - 8/5/15

"A Fascinating Concept: But Will It Work" - 3/15/08

"Mary Badham and Harper Lee"  - 4/25/08

"Movies for Readers: To Kill a Mockingbird" - 12/5/15

"New Harper Lee Book Has a Face" - 2/7/15

"New Harper Lee Cover Revealed by Publisher" - 3/26/15

"In Cold Blood" - 2/5/08

And these are just the posts exclusive to Harper Lee, Truman Capote, or their books. I'm not even counting the posts in which they, one of their books, or a book about them was mentioned. It's true: I'm obsessed (and that's scary).

Now as a reward for reading all the way to the bottom, I'm going to repost an old YouTube video of Truman Capote's aunt, a lady who died at age 95 several years ago. She used to appear on the Tonight Show as the advice-giving Fruitcake Lady, and this is one of those appearances. 

This, I believe, is one of the aunts whose shared home was next door to the Lees, the home Truman lived in when he was in Monroeville, Alabama.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Someday This Will Fit - Joan Silverman

Memoirs have fascinated me for a long time now, and I find myself reading at least a dozen of them a year. The best of them are as fascinating as even the most melodramatic novels that top the bestseller lists every year before fading away into well-deserved literary oblivion. Memoirs, rather than fading away right on schedule, live on because they are real stories that happen to real people – people just like us – people willing to open their souls to the rest of us. Some writers tell their stories in standalone, one-volume books; others need two, three, four, or more volumes to get the job done. Good memoirs have a different tone than their cousin the autobiography, that first-person, birth-to-present-day chronological accounting of a person’s life. The memoir format grants its authors an almost unlimited freedom to explore incidents, influences, and traumas to a degree that the autobiography format can never match - and that’s why I prefer memoirs to autobiographies. 

But despite all my prior memoir-reading, I don’t recall ever reading one quite like Joan Silverman’s Someday This Will Fit: Linked Essays, Meditations, & Other Midlife Follies. Silverman is an East Coast writer of op-eds, book reviews, essays, and columns whom I had not read before learning of Someday This Will Fit because I simply don’t read newspapers now like I used read them in the good old days prior to the internetWhat caught my attention about the book was seeing it described as “an original memoir-in-essays.” Just how is a memoir fan supposed to resist that?

What Silverman has achieved here is really rather remarkable. Someday This Will Fit is not a story about extraordinary events in the life of a person shaped by them or lucky to have survived them. Rather, this is the kind of memoir one would expect from the neighbor down the street, a person busy trying to negotiate her way through everyday life, someone experiencing the same on-the-job training that life throws at all of us. What makes the book so remarkable is that after reading these dozens of short, connected essays, I actually do feel like Joan Silverman is someone who has lived next door to me for the last decade or two.

Silverman has sorted the chosen essays into fifteen distinct aspects of everyday American life: “At Home,” “Habits and Routines,” “Food,” “At Work,” “Health,” “Obsessions,” “He Said, She Said,” “But Who’s Counting,” “Family and Friends,” “Mother Lode,” “Shopping,” “Say, What,” “The Great Outdoors,” “Scents,” and “Departures.” Each section contains five or six page-and-a-half reflections that taken together gradually reveal the real Joan Silverman, a person, as it turns out, who is very much like her readers are likely to be. At only 159 pages (ARC version page-count), this is not a long book, but at about the half-way point, I began to think of Silverman as someone I knew, a person whose views on any given subject were less of a surprise to me than they were like a chat with an old friend over morning coffee. And It certainly doesn’t hurt that Silverman has a fine-tuned sense of humor and that she is not afraid to use sarcasm to make her point – just like all my best friends. 

Review Copy provided by Bauhan Publishing

Friday, November 08, 2019

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett

Those who enjoy multi-generational family sagas that take place over a number of decades (me among them) are going to enjoy Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. The story is told over a fifty-year period during which the Cyril Conroy family manages to go from poverty, to riches, back to poverty, and then back to riches again all without really trying very hard to make, or stop, any of it from happening. Passivity, in fact, seems to be a Conroy family trait – and going-along-to-get-along is not the best approach to dealing with a sociopathic gold-digger, a lesson Cyril didn’t live long enough to learn.

The ominous tone of The Dutch House is set in the book’s first chapter when Danny, the  narrator, explains how he and his sister Maeve ended up living in such a large Philadelphia  home with their father and the two women (themselves sisters) who did all the cooking and cleaning. Cyril had purchased the old mansion, complete with every physical possession owned by the Dutch family that owned it before him, without telling his wife that he was doing so. Mistake number one. Mistake number two came a few years later when Cyril let Andrea, a woman eighteen years his junior, wheedle her way into the Dutch House for good. Andrea was not so much the stereotypical evil stepmother, she was more the indifferent stepmother. Indifferent, that is, until the day she was able finally to banish the newly penniless siblings from her life forever. 

Now Danny and Maeve have only each other to depend on, and Maeve literally takes to sleeping on the couch of her tiny apartment so that the taller Danny will have a place to sleep at night. Maeve, who has always been more mother to Danny than sister, is suddenly thrust into the role of being her brother’s only protector, a role she claims as hers for the rest of her life. Danny, on his part, deeply feels their special bond and is always there when his sister needs him.

Ann Patchett
Danny and Maeve eventually get on with their lives but, no matter how hard they may try, neither can ever forget all they lost to Andrea and how the indifference of their mother and father allowed it all to happen. Now, the two of them feel most comfortable when sitting together in a parked car across the street from the Dutch House  talking about the past and what was stolen from them. And for years and years, every time Danny visits Philadelphia that’s exactly what they do. But can they ever really be happy as long as they allow the past to eat at them this way? And what will happen to Danny and Maeve when they are finally forced to confront the people who treated them so shabbily all those years ago? Will they ever be ready for that moment?

Bottom Line: The Dutch House is the kind of beautifully written novel that readers have come to expect from Ann Patchett, one filled with nuanced characters and (at times melodramatic) situations that will leave those readers thinking about them long after they have turned the book’s final page. Patchett uses multiple flashforwards and flashbacks to build tension all throughout the novel, sprinkling hints along the way as to what Danny and Maeve still have to endure before their story is finally told. And what a story, it is.

(Perhaps it’s just me, but The Dutch House reminds me very much of the kind of novel I’ve come to expect from Anne Tyler, another of my favorite writers.)

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Ernest J. Gaines - Dead at 86

Ernest J. Gaines (1933-2019)
In honor of Louisiana author Ernest J. Gaines who died yesterday at age 86, I'm going to do something I've never done before. I'm going to re-post the reviews of three of his books that I originally posted back in 2007. (I'm going to resist the temptation to edit these even though they are among the earliest book reviews I ever wrote, so bear with me.)

Gaines, the son of black sharecroppers, was born and raised on a Louisiana plantation that he later bought for himself. Gaines, in fact, was still living on the grounds of the plantation when he died last night in his sleep from cardiac arrest. The author is probably best known for his 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman because of the CBS television adaptation of the novel that won multiple Emmy awards, but my personal favorite is 1993's A Lesson Before Dying which earned Gaines both a Pulitzer Prize nomination and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. 

Originally posted on March 20, 2007

A Lesson Before Dying is the best known Ernest J. Gaines novel, even having been blessed as an “Oprah’s Book Club” choice in September 1997. Today it is read in many middle and high school English classes for the lessons that it has to teach all of us about human dignity and grace. Not all of Oprah Winfrey’s book choices over the years have been the wisest, but she got this one right.

The novel is set in a section of 1940s Louisiana that Gaines knows and portrays so well in his writing. Jefferson, a young black man who by sheer chance found himself at the scene of a store robbery that went terribly wrong is convicted of murder and sullenly awaits his date with the state’s electric chair. There is substantial evidence of his guilt since the money from the cash register is found in his pockets and he has helped himself to a bottle of whiskey from behind the counter. And he is the only man still standing since the white storekeeper and the two black men who gave Jefferson a ride to the store have all been shot to death.

It is when Jefferson’s defense attorney, trying to save him from the death penalty, describes him as something more like a hog than like a man that Grant Wiggins finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the pending execution. Wiggins is the first black man who has left the plantation for an education and he is unhappy and resentful that the only work for him is teaching the children of those who still work the fields of the cane farm as generations of their families did before them. In a way, he considers himself to be as much a slave of the system as all those who are still tied to the land for their survival. But his aunt, with whom he still lives, and Jefferson’s godmother pressure him into becoming involved. They want him to convince the condemned man that he is a man, not a hog, and that he needs to approach his pending execution with all the dignity and courage that only the best of us ever really possess.

Wiggens takes on this responsibility simply because he doesn’t dare to deny his aunt’s request and, when he believes that he is failing them all, he continues the struggle only because he cannot bear to disappoint her. It is only when Jefferson begins to slowly respond to what Wiggins is telling him, and asking of him, that Wiggins realizes that he is being taught a lesson every bit as important as the one that he himself is trying to teach. A Lesson Before Dying is an inspirational book, one that will be used in classrooms for many years to come, and it very much deserves the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that it received in 1993.

Originally post on March 12, 2007

In A Gathering of Old Men Ernest J. Gaines gives us a story of redemption, a tale in which more than a dozen old black men who grew up in rural Louisiana during the worst of the Jim Crow years finally find the courage and the will to stand together with dignity against a culture that had deprived them of their very manhood. Gaines himself was born on a plantation near New Roads, Louisiana, in 1933 and picked cotton in the plantation fields before he left Louisiana at age 15 to be with his parents who had moved to California. He never forgot Louisiana, eventually returning to the area as a University of Southwestern Louisiana professor and writer in residence, and made it the subject of his novels, stories and essays.

In the novel, Candy, a white woman who lost her parents as a child, was raised as much by Mathu, a black man employed on the plantation as she was by the white family who owned it. When she discovered a white man shot to death in front of Mathu’s house, her love for Mathu and her determination to protect him immediately suggested a plan to her. She will confess to the killing. And she will round up as many of Mathu’s old black friends as can be quickly gathered and will have them do the same thing. When Sheriff Mapes arrives on the scene and wants to take Mathu to the town jail he finds a group of elderly black men who are equally determined to confess to the murder in the face of any physical or mental intimidation that Mapes throws at them. The confrontation between this white lawman and these elderly black men has given the old men what they see as their one last chance to die as men rather than as the cowards they suddenly consider themselves to have been for their whole lives.

Gaines tells his story through the first person accounts of its main characters. It proceeds in straight chronological order, but as seen through the eyes of the various men and women intimately involved in what happened during the half a day that changed all of their lives forever. In the process, the reader gains a clear understanding of how society has formed each of these characters and what it is that motivates them to take a stand at this point in their lives regardless of what the consequences may be. A Gathering of Old Men packs numerous lessons and observations into what at first glance appears to be a simple story of just over 200 pages and proves what a fine novelist Ernest Gaines is.

Originally posted on March 28, 2007

Mozart and Leadbelly is a collection of short stories, essays and talks that Ernest Gaines has produced over the years. I was drawn to this short but repetitious book because I've read two Gaines novels this year and wanted to learn more about Gaines as a writer, more about his creative process, and more about the man that he is.

Ernest J. Gaines was born in Louisiana in 1933, a time when many black families were still tied to the land that their ancestors had worked as slaves. It was, in effect, a watered down version of the plantation system which had once thrived in that part of the state. Gaines learned many lessons before he left Louisiana to go to California for an education, lessons that serve him well to this day. He was raised by a crippled aunt who managed to cook meals, clean house and raise a vegetable garden by crawling on the ground much as a six-month-old baby might crawl. Her example taught Gaines that nothing is impossible and that quitting is not an option. He became a writer when he started producing letters for the illiterate friends of his aunt who came to him on her front porch and asked him to write to their distant family members. Seldom did they have anything to say other than "I'm fine and things here are fine," asking him to fill up the rest of a couple of pages with something interesting.

The essays will be of particular interest to fans of the Gaines novels, A Lesson Before Dying, A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman because of the insights offered into how those novels were conceived and constructed. In addition, there are five early short stories, including the first one Gaines ever wrote, "The Turtles," that display Gaines' remarkable talent for recreating a time through the eyes of the ordinary people who lived it. Not surprisingly, Gaines was influenced and learned from the writers who preceded him, in particular writers like Twain, Joyce, Turgenev, Chekhov and Tolstoy. But he also took inspiration from the great paintings which seemed to him to tell a story as well as any novel could do it, and from music ranging from Mozart to Leadbelly.


Ernest J. Gaines will be missed.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Gifted School - Bruce Holsinger

You have probably seen those bumper stickers around town that say something like “My Kid Is an Honor Student at Such and Such Elementary School.” Do you find those as sad as I find them? Every time I see one, I can’t help but think of those parents in the carpool line whose children have learning disabilities or other things going on in their lives that keep them from being “honor roll kids” and how the sticker must make them (parent and child alike) feel. It’s bad enough that even youth sports teams are so cut-throat today that kids whose parents can’t afford to hire private coaches find it hard to compete with kids whose parents can. These kids start competing for college scholarships when they are ten years old, and their parents hope that the thousands of dollars spent on private coaching and cross-country travel will give their kids the edge they need to get noticed by the big-name schools. But is that the only reason they do it?

Bruce Holsinger doesn’t think so. Holsinger’s The Gifted School looks at a group of parents in fictitious Crystal, Colorado, that have a different reason for demanding that their kids excel in everything they do. These parents, many of whom regret their own youthful mistakes and failures, are busy reliving their own childhoods through those of their children. They are so invested in the success of their children that failure is not an option, resulting in the kind of unbearable pressure on the kids that can lead to burnout, drugs, or even suicide. Four young Crystal couples are about to learn all of this the hard way.

The four couples have been close friends for over a decade – ever since bonding over their toddlers – and they have always been there for each other in times of need. They may have first met when their kids were just babies, but now those babies are headed for middle school, their parents are doing well financially (some more so than others), and it’s time to start preparing their children for the future their parents want for them. So when the Crystal public school system announces the creation of a special new school for only the very brightest middle and high school students in the district, the friends all want to ensure that their kids make the final cut. This is not going to be easy because only 1,000 of the 100,000 students in the area will be accepted into the new school. 

Bruce Holsinger
The first cut is made via the kind of standardized test that the Crystal students have been taking all their lives, so other than paying for private coaching and study plans, there is little that any of the parents can do to gain their child an advantage. The second phase of the process, however, requires each qualifying student to create a “portfolio” highlighting a special skill, talent, or interest they possess, something that will impress the judges enough to choose them over even someone with a higher round-one test score. 

So now the fun begins. Is playing strictly by the rules the best thing they can do for their children, or is this the time to bend those rules to their breaking points and beyond? As the pressure mounts, friendships crack, marriages crumble, and people surprise themselves with what they are willing to do to get their kids in the gifted school.

Bottom Line: The Gifted School is a satirical indictment of the compete-through-your-kids culture that is so prevalent today. Too many people are guilty of stealing their children’s childhoods right out from under them, and Holsinger shows here just how bad an idea that is. If this one opens a few eyes, it will have done its job. The novel is filled with interesting characters from multiple generations – and it has an ending that will probably surprise you. Even though this one has a serious message, it's fun.

Monday, November 04, 2019

The Hanging Valley - Peter Robinson

The Hanging Valley is book number four in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series. By this point, Chief Inspector Alan Banks has been in Yorkshire for almost two years and is settling nicely into a considerably slower pace of crime-fighting than the one he once faced in London. Banks really enjoys detective work, and always has, but in London he knew that too many citizens see contact with the police as a confrontation - and he found the resulting unpleasant pressure to be more uncomfortable than it was worth. Too, Banks found it difficult to work while under the constant scrutiny of superiors, and in London he felt there were way too may chiefs meddling in his investigations. But in Eastvale, Superintendent Gristhorpe is happy enough to let him get on with things on his own, and Banks is a happy man.  

 This time around, Banks is called to the nearby village of Swainshead to look into the death of a hiker whose two-week-old remains are discovered by a wildflower enthusiast out on a hike of his own. Quickly enough, it is determined that the man’s death is a homicide – and that this is not the first murder this tiny village has seen in recent years. When Banks moves into the village’s only hotel to begin his witness interviews, he begins to realize that Swainshead’s citizens are hiding a lot of secrets – from him and from each other – and that this will be no simple investigation. Swainshead is a little self-contained world all its own, a world in which ancient grudges, out-of-control ambition, a still-powerful wealthy family, and deep-set guilt will all play their part in bringing the hiker’s killer to justice. Before that happens, Banks will spend a week in Toronto tracking down a key witness and time in Oxford where he hopes to identify the link between the murders and the person responsible for them.

Peter Robinson
Four books into the series, it is becoming clear that Peter Robinson is not particularly interested in sharing his main character’s personal life with his readers (perhaps this will change in later books). Readers know that Alan’s wife, Sandra, is supportive and that she understands his frequent absences from their home. They know that he has two children, Brian and Tracy, but they know very little about the children’s personalities or how they are coping with the move from London to the Yorkshire countryside. More times than not, the detective’s entire family is conveniently out of town during his homicide investigations, and they only return when the case is over or at some investigatory lull. After four books, the reader still doesn’t have much of a feel for who they are and what their world is like. 

Bottom Line: The Hanging Valley is a complicated, but rather straightforwardly handled, murder mystery that requires the reader to pay close attention if it is all to make sense in the end. The ending itself is a bit abrupt (in an almost off-putting way), and the climax relies a little too heavily on a lot of conversational explanation from Banks to his sergeant (too much telling and not enough showing is never a good thing). By this point, Robinson may have realized just how complicated his plot was and decided that the conversation was something he needed to do to ensure that his readers were up to speed. Maybe he was right.