Saturday, July 04, 2020

Another Reminder That We Are Doing It All Wrong - Kim Stanley Robinson's "Aurora" (2015)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Author of "Aurora"

One of the books I'm reading right now is Kim Stanley Robinson's 2015 science fiction novel Aurora. It tells the story of what is known to science fiction fans as a "generation ship," a space ship that will literally take multiple generations of human life to reach its final destination. The ship in Aurora has more than 2,000 passengers on it, all of them living in small replicas of the lives they left behind. In their case, it takes 170 years to reach what they hope will be their new world.

As you can imagine, this is a longish book, coming in at almost 500 pages. As of this morning, I'm only about 40% of the way through Aurora, but I just came across another of those serendipitous passages that speak to what we are all enduring today. At this point in the book, the ship's passengers have just learned that their new world is poisonous to them, they have had to refuse re-entry into the ship of 77 of their fellow passengers, and no one can agree on what to do next. 

Robinson describes their situation this way:
"Now the test was upon them, and very quickly cracks in their façade of civility began to appear. Where there is faction, there is conflict; where there is conflict, there is anger. And anger distorts judgment. So now they were getting angry with each other, and thus scared of each other. And anger and fear were not the right emotions for the situation facing them."
If these wise words don't describe our world today, nothing does. 

Friday, July 03, 2020

Pompous Twit Takes It Upon Himself to Declare Dickens a Racist by Defacing Museum

In case you haven't noticed yet, the world has gone mad. 

Now, some self-righteous lunatic has taken it upon his holier-than-thou self to declare Charles Dickens a racist by proudly posing for pictures while defacing the Dickens museum in Broadstairs, Kent. The jackass even posted the pictures to his own blog and said that he expects to be contacted by the police. Here's hoping they contact him via nightstick. 


"A former councillor has admitted to targeting a museum dedicated to beloved 19th century author Charles Dickens after being inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Ian Driver scrawled  'Dickens Racist, Dickens Racist,' on the outside of the The Dickens House Museum in Broadstairs, Kent, and attempted to black-out the lettering on a street sign for nearby Dickens Road.

The carer wore a denim jacket and cream shorts as he took to the streets in the dead of night on Saturday to campaign against what he claims is 'institutionalised racism' in the seaside town." 

One of the self-incriminating photos posted by the genius on his blog

The only question I'm left with is one regarding a word in the last paragraph I quoted above. Is "carer" a synonym for "twit," or not? Has to be. 


Thursday, July 02, 2020

Charles Webb, Author of "The Graduate," Dead at 81

Charles Webb wrote one of the defining books of my generation, The Graduate. I suspect that most people today do not even recognize the name Charles Webb, and that they would be surprised to hear that Webb preferred it that way. But most people, even if they are not familiar with Webb's novel, do know the 1967 movie starring a very young Dustin Hoffman and Ann Bancroft as the older woman who seduces him. The movie was aimed at the rebellious and anti-materialistic high school and college students of the day, and it is still an icon of the 1960s.

Charles Webb
Something else that will surprise most people is that Webb, who originally billed the novel as "based on a true story," didn't just talk the talk. He walked the walk in a big, big way, and at the time of his death he was living in poverty in England, having given away every dime he ever made from any of his books or the movies based on them. 

All Webb's son, John, said about the author's death on June 16 is that he died "in hospital," but other sources indicate that he died from a blood disorder. Webb, a San Francisco native, and his wife (who died in 2019) lived near Brighton, England. 

In addition to 1963's The Graduate, Webb is the author of several other books (some of them having been written specifically to pay of debts he had incurred):

Love, Roger (1969)
The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1970)
Orphans and Other Children (1973)
The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place (1976)
Elsinor (1977)
Booze (1979)
New Cardiff (2002)
Home School (2007)


Wednesday, July 01, 2020

This Tender Land - William Kent Krueger

By the time I was about one-third of the way through This Tender Land, William Kent Krueger’s Depression era coming-of-age saga, I started thinking that the novel reads a lot like what I imagine a Charles Dickens version of Huckleberry Finn would read like. Children traveling downriver on a raft, one of the travelers being an eye-catcher because of his race, all of them on the run because they are tired of being so badly mistreated by those in whose care they find themselves…it all makes you think of the Twain book. Then there are all the eccentric characters who pop in and out of the story, very Dickens like, as the children make their way toward St. Louis, some characters threatening, others not, but all of them memorable. And even more Dickens-like, a main theme of the book is the everlasting exploitation of the working class by the factory owners and others they depend on for the jobs that feed their families.

 

So imagine my delight when I spotted these bits from the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel this morning:

 

            “When I began to consider the story I wanted to write, which, quite honestly, I envisioned as an update of Huckleberry Finn, the Great Depression appealed to me as the perfect, challenging setting.”

 

            …

 

            “I love the works of Charles Dickens, and in part my decision to open This Tender Land in a fictional institution called the Lincoln Indian Training School was a nod to his powerful novels of social inequity.”

 

The story begins in 1932 at a Minnesota boarding school called the Lincoln Indian Training School. The school’s student population is comprised of young Indian boys and girls, most of them having been removed from their parents by force, who are at the school to be educated in the ways of the dominant white society that surrounds them. Their native clothing is taken from them, their hair is cut in the white fashion, and all their personal belongings are confiscated. It is forbidden that the children speak their native language even among themselves, and their labor is often provided free of charge to local farmers willing to “donate” funds to the school. Worst of all, the boys and girls are often the victims of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of teachers and disciplinarians.

 

William Kent Krueger
Strangely enough, there are also two white boys in the school, two orphaned brothers who were taken in at Lincoln because the state orphanages supposedly had no room for the boys due to the depression. Odie, some four years younger than his brother, Albert, is a rebellious kid who is always in trouble with the Superintendent’s wife, a woman determined to break the boy’s spirit no matter what it takes. But that, as “the Black Witch” will learn the hard way, is not going to be easy no matter how much of her black heart she pours into the effort. Odie and Albert would rather be just about anywhere but the Lincoln school, but they have seen how few runaways escape for good - and how harshly the ones who don’t escape the Black Witch’s clutches are punished when she gets her hands back on them. Anyway, where would they go even if they made a break for it?

 

But then it happens.

 

One night, in the act of defending himself, Odie is forced to commit a crime so serious that he fears for his life. The brothers need to run for their lives, and they need to do it right now – but it all gets complicated when their best friend, a mute Indian boy, decides to join them in flight and a six-year-old girl begs to come along. All the “Four Vagabonds” want to do now is make it down river from Minnesota to St. Louis in their little canoe.

 

Bottom Line: Krueger doesn’t break a lot of new ground in This Tender Land, so readers may feel that they’ve read it all before. In the tradition of Twain and Dickens, the author depends heavily on coincidence and luck to move his runaways steadily toward St. Louis, but that allows the coming and going of numerous characters caught up in the life and death struggle faced by so many during the Great Depression. Odie and his fellow travelers learn all about life in their few weeks on the river, especially about what constitutes a real family.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Chase: The July 2020 Reading Plan

I managed to stay fairly close to my reading plan in June, having read five of the ten titles on the list and almost finishing a sixth. As usual, my library did surprise me by releasing some of my holds early, so I had to work those books into my schedule because of the 14-day clock that immediately starts ticking when that happens. (I've come to expect now that when my library indicates that a book will be available in "less than three weeks," that really means "any day now, be ready.") 

As it turns out, I will have read nine books total during the month of June; five from the list, three unexpected library books, and one NetGalley ARC I hadn't planned to read before August. Considering all the distractions, mood swings, and stay-at-home boredom I experienced, I suppose it wasn't all that bad a reading month.

Now, the July list:


1. 
Saul Bellow wrote The Dangling Man in 1944 but his reputation was not really made until 1953's The Adventures of Augie March, a novel I've long admired. One of my 2020 goals is to read some "classic" literature from the first half of the 20th century that I've missed, so this one fits right in to that goal. Too, it's part of my Library of America collection - and I really need to delve deeper into the 106 volumes than I  have so far acquired. I'm already over half way through with this one going into the new month.

2. The Dead Don't Sleep is about a soldier who managed to survive the Vietnam war in one piece despite all he saw and did there. He even managed to carve out a nice peaceful, and rather normal, life for himself when he got back home. But then, in a chance meeting at a firing range, one of the ghosts from his past, a fellow veteran of that war comes back to haunt him. Now, all bets are off. If nothing else, this one promises to be very different from what I've been reading lately. Why I keep postponing it, mystifies me. This one has been on the list for two months already.


3. 
Ian Rankin's Strip Jack falls squarely into another of my 2020 goals: reading the earliest books from my favorite detective series. This is the fourth book in the John Rebus series and it was first published in 1992. I own it in the paperback version of the hardcover I've used to illustrate it here (same cover, different color). I haven't read any of the three Rebus novels in this collection, so this will let me catch up on books four, five, and six. Rankin is a Scottish author and his fascinating Rebus stories are set in Edinburgh. This one is a holdover from the June list.


4
If You Tell by Greg Olson is a true crime story about three sisters who somehow managed to survive life with their psychotic mother. Others, apparently, were not so fortunate. I'm in the mood for more nonfiction than I've been reading so far this year, and I think this one should be pretty good. Actually, it serves another purpose, too. I have something like 350 ebooks on my reader, of which I've only read about 75, and I need to start reading them - or quit buying them (and I know that won't happen). This is another one from June's list.



5
. William Kruger's This Tender Land is a book I've been wanting to read since last year but never managed to get to. As it turns out, this is one of the library holds that got to me way earlier than I expected it to, so I'm finally reading it. In fact, I'm about half-way through it, and I'm still not sure what to think. It receives great reviews from most readers and critics, but I'm not feeling anything but a 3-star book at this point. No big surprises yet in this coming-of-age story. We'll see how the second half goes.


6
. Strangely enough, The Story I Am: Mad About the Writing Life by Roger Rosenblatt is a book I can't quite  figure out why I have. It showed up in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and it is so exactly the kind of book that I most enjoy reading, that I surely must have asked for this review copy. But I'm drawing a blank. This is a collection of the author's pieces about his lifetime love of the writing art, and a quick flip-through of the book makes me think it's going to be pretty good. 


7. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is a book that was nowhere on my radar screen this time last month. And then I started doing one of those "Great Courses," this one on "How Great Science Fiction Works," that rekindled my interest in classic science fiction, especially novels about "generation ships," those spaceships that travel literally for generations before reaching their final destination. This is a 2015 generation ship novel, a more modern take on a classic theme.

8. Kissing Fidel: A Memoir of Cuban-American Terrorism in the United States is a memoir by Magda Montiel Davis recalling how her life was almost ruined after she made the terrible mistake of "kissing" Fidel Castro in public while in Cuba attending an international conference. The Cuban-American recounts how her own Miami community turned on her even to the point where she feared for her life. (Sounds very familiar in our own days of "culture canceling.")


9. James Agee's A Death in the Family is one of those books I tried reading years ago but didn't manage to finish. Perhaps back then (I'm hoping), the timing just wasn't right. This is the novel that Agee left unfinished at the time of his death, but because it was so close to completion, Agee's editor was able to edit and release the book two years after its author died. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a year later (1958). How about that?


10. I'm betting that this library hold will be available to me by mid-July, so I'm going to put Deacon King Kong on the list. I'm a big admirer of James McBride's writing, and I can't wait to read this one about a church deacon who decides to do the "right" thing for his community by gunning down a local drug dealer. This is a character study that doesn't stop with the deacon; it looks at how other members of the community are impacted by his decision to take the law into his own hands. If you haven't read his The Good Lord Bird, you really need to fix that. 

So that's the plan for July, what will surely be another long month in the world's battle against the Covid-19 virus. I'm wondering today just how much progress we will make on that front in the next month - or how much worse off the world will be by the end of July. Frankly, I'm not nearly as optimistic - or as naive - about the virus and its impact as I was going into the month of June.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Saul Bellow's Dangling Man Would Understand Just How We Feel

At a time when many of us, especially the older and necessarily more cautious of us, have come to realize that the surest way to keep ourselves safe from Covid-19 infection is to venture from home as little as possible, it is still difficult not to grow bored by the whole process. Four months of this level of isolation, be it self-imposed or government-mandated, is starting to leave its mark on all of us. What remains to be seen is whether that mark will be indelible or erasable.

That's why I had to chuckle to myself a bit this afternoon when I read this passage from Saul Bellow's 1944 novel, Dangling Man. These are the thoughts of the novel's main character, a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown because his whole life has been placed on hold while he waits to be drafted into the military during World War II: 

        "But what such a life as this incurs is the derangement of days, the leveling of occasions. I can't answer for Iva, but for me it is certainly true that days have lost their distinctiveness. There were formerly baking days, washing days, days that began events and days that ended them. But now they are undistinguished, all equal, and it is difficult to tell Tuesday from Saturday. When I neglect to look carefully at the newspaper I do not know what day it is. If I guess Friday and then learn it is actually Thursday, I do not experience any great pleasure in having won twenty-four hours."

Those last two sentences are particularly true. If I mistake a Friday for a Saturday, I can't get excited at all when I realize that Saturday is still to come, that it's not already half over. After all, there is no difference anymore between a weekday and a weekend day. Nothing is open and there's no place to go because, at least for the moment, I have all the groceries and medicine I need.

I find it rather serendipitous when I stumble on connections like this one between June 2020 and a novel written 76 years ago. It's a reminder that books are treasure chests - and that you don't know what's in them until you open them up. Pity the poor non-readers out there.

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War - Delphine Minoui

 

One day in late 2015 Delphine Minoui stumbled upon a picture on a Facebook page maintained by “Humans of Syria” that would ultimately change her life. It was a picture of two young men in what appeared to be a windowless library of some sort. One of the men was leaning over an open book, and the other was browsing one of the library’s  crammed shelves. The photo was captioned simply, “The Secret Library of Daraya.” The French-Iranian author/reporter was well aware that Daraya was a Damascus suburb that had been under siege by Bashar al-Assad’s army since 2012. She knew that the city was completely surrounded, and that thousands of people were trapped there as everything was slowly being destroyed around them.

 

And yet these two men were making use of a “secret” library somewhere in the city. How could that even be possible? She had to know their story, and after several calls on WhatsApp and Skype, she finally found the man who could answer all of her questions, photographer and library co-founder, Ahmad Muaddamani.

 

The library, as it turns out, was filled by books that Ahmad and others found in the rubble of Daraya’s bombed out buildings. Their underground library relatively quickly became home to some 6,000 volumes, and would eventually grow to 15,000, each of them lovingly marked inside with the original owner’s name. That would be amazing enough, considering that all of this happened during the time an army was trying very hard to wipe out the city and every one of its inhabitants.

 

Delphine Minoui
But what is even more amazing is how the salvaged books helped make life bearable for so many of Daraya’s people. For some the books were an escape, a window into the outside world; for others they were a source of inspiration, a glimmer of hope that a better life for them was still possible; and for others, the books offered a whiff of the freedom that Bashar al-Assad was trying to steal from them. They could read and study whatever they wanted to, and the dictator could do nothing to stop them.

_______________________________________________

            “The conflict causing bloodshed in Syria has paradoxically brought them closer to books. Reading is the new foundation for the bubble of freedom they’ve constructed. They read to explore a concealed past, to learn, to evade insanity. Books are their best way to escape the war, if only temporarily. A melody of words against the dirge of bombs. Reading – a humble gesture that binds them to the mad hope of a return to peace.”

_______________________________________________

 

Bottom Line: The Book Collectors is a reminder of just how powerful the written word can be, and why dictators around the world consider the “wrong” books to be such a threat to their hold on power. They are right about that. Without Daraya’s secret library for inspiration and comfort, it is unlikely that the city’s fighters and civilians could have resisted their powerful enemy as long as they did. Inspirational as The Book Collectors is, its overall style is more reminiscent of a long newspaper article than a standalone nonfiction book. Considering that Minoui is a reporter and Middle East correspondent for France’s Le Figaro, this is understandable, if a bit regrettable.


Uncorrected Digital Galley Provided by Publisher for Review Purposes

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Nothing to See Here - Kevin Wilson

I have to hand it to Kevin Wilson. The first seventy or so pages of Nothing to See Here lulled me into believing that I was reading just another one of those school-roommate relationship-gone-bad stories that I’ve already read more than once. And then, just when I was even considering abandoning the book, Wilson hooked and reeled me in within one single scene. But it’s a scene I can’t tell you about because I don’t want to spoil its surprise and overall effect on readers seeing it for the first time . Just know that you will recognize the scene when you see it, and that from that scene onward, you will be reading a whole different book than the one you thought you were reading.

 

Keep in mind that this is a story about ten-year-old twins who spontaneously burst into flame when they get angry or agitated by others. Enjoyment of Nothing to See Here requires a significant degree of willingness on the part of readers to suspend disbelief about this core premise of the book, but readers willing to do that for Wilson are amply rewarded for doing so.

 

Lillian and Madison are two very different people and always have been. They meet as teens when Lillian is one of the very few scholarship girls at a private school attended by rich girls whose parents want them to tick off that “box” on their “way to a destined future.” As it turns out, Madison’s wealthy father looks at girls like Lillian as disposable stepping-stones for girls like his daughter – and Lillian’s mother proves him right in that assumption by accepting a deal that will ensure Madison’s future at the expense of her daughter’s.  

Kevin Wilson

The girls have been exchanging empty letters for years, so Lillian is surprised by Madison’s request that she become the nanny of her husband’s children from a previous marriage. The job comes with some nice perks, but the children, a ten-year-old girl and her twin brother, do come with a little baggage: they can  burst into flame without warning, and often do. After Lillian reluctantly accepts the position and moves into the pool house that sits behind the family mansion with the twins, something surprising starts to happen. A woman who never even considered the possibility of having children becomes the most fierce protector the twins have ever known – and for the first time in their lives, the twins have found an adult that they believe they can trust.  

 

Bottom Line: As startling as the premise of Nothing to See Here is, this is really a story about emotionally damaged people who learn to support and love each other in a relationship that none of them could have imagined beforehand. It is a story about out-of-control ambition, hypocrisy, ego, and emotional growth. It is a story about what money can and cannot buy, but it is also a story about how sometimes someone else’s money, if you let it, can give you the chance to live a life you didn’t even know you wanted – your best life.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Night Fire - Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is well known for the way he has the main characters from his series  appear in each other’s books – even to the point where fans are not always sure how to classify a particular novel within the author’s bibliography. The Night Fire, for instance, is a “threefer” that combines the leads from all three of Connelly’s main series: Renée Ballard, Harry Bosch, and Mickey Haller. Past experience indicates that the Ballard/Bosch books get counted in both series, but that the Haller books don’t always get numbered that way. So this one will probably become known as Renée Ballard #3 and Harry Bosch #22, with only an honorable mention going to Mickey Haller who gets fewer pages in this one than the other two characters get. The Haller series, in fact, numbers only five books to this point although that character has also appeared in four Bosch books. To be fair, Bosch is limited to the same honorable mention in two of the five Haller books.

 

I make you suffer through all of this number-crunching because I’m starting to believe that Harry Bosch’s days as a main fictional character may be numbered (pun intended). Now retired from the LAPD and approaching seventy years of age, Harry is not capable of doing some of the things he did in the past. The only badge he carries nowadays is the reserve deputy badge of a small police department near Los Angeles, and he only has even that one because he may be needed to testify in a couple of cases that are still open in that jurisdiction. Bosch keeps his hand in the game mainly by working under the radar with LAPD Detective Ballard, who has agreed to partner up with him on cold cases that catch their interest, or by helping his half-brother Mickey Haller work up legal defenses for clients. Spoiler Alert: And now, Connelly throws a new (and unresolved)  complication into Bosch’s life that may just further lessen his effectiveness as a street detective. Frankly, it’s starting to look like Ballard is being eased into her series just as Bosch may be approaching the end of his. (I hope I’m wrong about this, believe me.)

 

Michael Connelly
As The Night Fire opens, Bosch is attending the graveside service of his old LAPD mentor John Jack Thompson, the man largely responsible for shaping rookie Bosch into the cop he would ultimately become. Later, Thompson’s widow gives Bosch an old case file that her husband walked away with when he retired twenty years earlier. Bosch, after reviewing the file for himself, and still unable to figure out why John Jack was so interested in it, convinces Ballard, unbeknownst to her LAPD bosses, to work the cold case with him. But when it becomes obvious to both of them that John Jack Thompson added nothing new to the file during the entire twenty years it was in possession, Bosch wonders whether his old friend was more interested in making sure the case was forgotten about than he was in solving it.

 

Bottom Line: The Night Fire is another excellent, character-driven police procedural from Michael Connelly. Ballard, who has had her ups and downs with her immediate superiors in the past, is now politically savvy enough to simultaneously investigate a cold case with Bosch and another very different case on her own while keeping both of them from the wrath of vengeful LAPD detectives who would love nothing more than to get even with both of them. Bosch is getting older, and he’s starting to feel it every day. He’s closer now to being a desktop consultant than he is to being a street cop, and he knows it. Where the Renée Ballard/Harry Bosch partnership goes from here will be very interesting to see, and I can’t wait for Ballard #4/Bosch #24 to find out what happens next. (Bosch #23 is a collaboration with Mickey Haller scheduled for publication later this year). There are those numbers again.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

When Snoopy Won the Cliché Trophy




I love how happy Snoopy is about winning that huge Cliché trophy -  and how Lucy works with him to reach near cliché perfection. 

This one got me wondering which contemporary author is holding that same trophy today. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Carlos Ruiz Zafón Dead at 55

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón is dead today at the age of 55. Although an official cause of death has not been released as of this moment, it is known that the author had been suffering the effects of colon cancer since 2018. Zafón died in Los Angeles where he had lived for the better part of thirty years. 

Zafón is best known for his "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" series, a four-book series beloved by avid readers across the world. The series is so popular, in fact, that it has been published in forty languages and in forty-five different countries, making Zafón the most "widely published contemporary Spanish writer" of them all. 

The series began in 2001 with the publication of The Shadows of the Wind, a mystery about one man's mission to identify and stop the man who is attempting to destroy every copy of every book written by author Julian Corax. The second book in the series, a prequel to the first, was published in 2008 with the title of The Angel's Game. The series was concluded by  2011's The Prisoner of Heaven and 2017's The Labyrinth of Spirits

Zafón's most popular work is set in Barcelona and reflects the influence that nineteenth century writers had on his writing style. His novels have both a Dickensian flavor and a noirish tone that combine well to produce the kind of bookish thriller that particularly appeals to those who most love books and reading them. 

Over the years, Zafón's books have provided readers with some of their favorite quotes, such as these two from The Shadows of the Wind:

    "Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes downs it pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."

and,

    "Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside of us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day."

Zafón's work had a way of encouraging his readers to be "great readers," and along the way, he created more than his share of them. Now, they will miss him. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

A Hundred Million Years and a Day - Jean-Baptiste Andrea

 

Jean-Baptiste Andrea is a successful French novelist, screenwriter, and director whose work I have been unaware of until this month’s U.S. publication of his second novel, A Hundred Million Years and a Day. Andrea’s first novel, Ma Reine (My Queen), won its share of awards, including one for Best French Debut Novel. Andrea is not a particularly prolific writer, and that’s a shame, because A Hundred Million Years and a Day is one of the most memorable novels I’ve read so far in 2020. I was disappointed to find that he does not have a long backlist for me to explore.

 

Perhaps the most amazing thing about A Hundred Million Years and a Day is how deeply Andrea manages to explore the makeup of his four main characters within the confines of the 160 pages he allows himself to tell his story. Stan, the narrator is an obsessed paleontologist who has been estranged from his father for years; Umberto is a student Stan once mentored, a man still willing to risk his life for Stan; Peter is a German student currently being mentored by Stan in a relationship much like the one Stan and Umberto still have; and Gio is the mountain-climbing guide tasked with keeping all of them alive. As the characters and their relationships evolve in real time, their individual backstories are provided via brief flashbacks that turn them into real people.

 

Stan has been a budding paleontologist since he was six years old and discovered his first fossil while breaking rocks with a hammer out of anger. As he puts it:

 

            “I imagined the face of Miss Thiers (his teacher) on its surface – and one, two, three – dealt her a vengeful blow. The stone immediately split open, as if it had just been pretending to be whole. And, from its mineral depths, my trilobite looked me in the eye, every bit as surprised as I was.

 

            It was three hundred million years old, and I was six.”

 

Jean-Baptiste Andrea
That was in 1908. Now it is 1954, and Stan is living his childhood dream. Now 52 years old, Stan has just heard a credible story about the chance discovery of a unique fossil decades earlier by a frightened teen forced into a cave during a mountain snowstorm. The huge skeleton described to him sounds suspiciously like what could be the first complete brontosaurus fossil to be discovered or even that of an entirely new species.

 

So now Stan, Umberto, Peter, and Gio are on top of a remote mountain in search of the lost cave and its mysterious inhabitant. And the clock is ticking. If they don’t leave the mountain top before winter sets in, and the only way down ices over, they will die there. Only Gio, with all of his mountain-climbing experience, can tell when it’s time to give up the search and head down. But what if the others won’t listen to him?

 

Bottom Line: While there is an incredible amount of story and character development packed into this short novel, the author still manages to convey a vivid sense of his mountain top setting and the harsh elements with which his characters are having to deal. As the weather worsens, tempers flare, and exhaustion sets in, a sense of dread develops, and A Hundred Million Years and a Day becomes a real page-turner. This is a good one.


Advance Reading Copy Provided by Publisher for Review Purposes

Monday, June 15, 2020

Many Rivers to Cross - Peter Robinson

By my count, Many Rivers to Cross is Peter Robinson’s twenty-sixth Inspector John Banks novel. I only discovered the series with book number twenty-five, Careless Love, a novel I very much enjoyed and was excited to have stumbled upon at my local library. From there, I decided to start reading the books in the order in which they were published, and I’ve now read the first five books in the series. Obviously, however, it’s going to take a few years for me to catch up with the series, so I’ve decided to read the latest ones when they are published rather than waiting that long to get to them.

 

And that brings me to Many Rivers to Cross.

 

 Imagine my surprise when I discovered what a foul mood author Peter Robinson is in these days and how he’s let that mood bleed so heavily into this latest Inspector Banks novel. Somewhere between pages three and five (depending on the version being read), Robinson makes clear how much he despises the American president, certain French politicians and their political stances, and most of all Brexit and anyone who dared vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Robinson has one of his two main characters speak words to this effect in the very first conversation in the book – a conversation that, in fact, will turn out to have nothing to do with the plot other than potentially supplying an alibi later in the story that is never requested with any seriousness anyway.

 

Most readers, I think, will recognize the conversation for what it is, a way for Robinson to blow a little steam. That becomes even more obvious in the last quarter of the book when the author twice describes a physically unattractive character by referencing vocal Brexit proponent Nigel Farage as someone the character rather closely resembles. I as a reader, and a fan of Robinson’s novels, get it. I understand which side of the political divide he is on, and I understand his frustration. What I don’t understand is Robinson’s failure to resist the urge to be so in your face about his feelings instead of using a more subtle, and ultimately much more effective, method to get his message across to readers.

 

Peter Robinson
The plot of Many Rivers to Cross is nothing new really, except for the way that Robinson emphasizes so strongly the inherent racism of so many of the characters in the novel, most of them, of course, being criminals - or elderly citizens who display their casual racism without even realizing that their manner of speaking could ever be considered racist by anyone hearing them speak. Everything revolves around a little Syrian boy whose dead body is found curled up inside a large trash bin. No one knows who the little boy is or where he is from, but it is obvious to investigators that he is “Middle Eastern.” And it is obvious that Peter Robinson believes that a substantial percentage of Brits are not really going to worry much about the murder of a little boy with skin darker than theirs, and he wants to make sure his readers get that point.

 

One thing leads to another, as it always does when Banks and his team start pulling on loose threads and trying to reconnect them in a way that identifies a murderer, and before long they are immersed in a world of sex trafficking, drug dealing, Albanian mobsters, crooked real estate deals, and wild parties at the home of a prominent Eastvale businessman. The chase is fun, as it always is, because Robinson is particularly good at creating a living, breathing environment for the fictional Eastvale and he populates it with believable characters, both major and minor.

 

Bottom Line: Many Rivers to Cross is a book with a heavy message, one that needs to be told. Unfortunately, Robinson’s approach is so heavy-handed that it even makes the ending of his novel a very predictable one. Too, I have to wonder how many readers tossed the novel aside after completing only the first chapter, either having been offended by the words Robinson has one character speak in that chapter, or because they were hoping for a book that would help them escape for a few hours the constant drumbeat of political disharmony that has so divided our world and our lives. The author may have overplayed his hand in this one.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

More Books I Don't Want You to Miss , Even if I Miss Them Myself

Here are a few more books that have come to my attention in the last few days that I think are worth your consideration. I've managed to get my hands on a library copy of one of the four I highlighted back on June 2, Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel, but I haven't started reading it just yet...but the old due-date clock is ticking away on it. 

So, these are some of the books that I added to my virtual TBR list this week:



Little Eyes was published in May 2020. It's said to be a little creepy, but it is set in a world not much different from the one we are living in today. "A camera-equipped pet," a little toy has become so popular that it is in millions of homes all over the world. And those homes are being virtually spied upon by the toys. As the NYT Book Review puts it, "Owning one is like inviting a mute stranger into your home."



Nothing to See Here was published last October but I had not heard of it until this week. This one sounds a little strange, but Kevin Wilson pulls it off by creating some truly memorable characters.The New York Times apparently even labeled it as one of the best books of 2019. It's about a woman who agrees to become the nanny for her friend's unusual twins, called the "fire twins" because they "burst into flames" when they become severely agitated. She becomes their stoutest protector and forms a strong bond with the children. 

The Choice was published on June 2, so I suppose it caught my attention relatively quickly. The rather clever premise of this one is that it examines "two possible futures" for a young woman faced with a difficult choice. The man who tried to assault her falls down a flight of stairs and is still barely alive. Does she call for help and face all that will consequently follow, or does she go home and keep her mouth shut? As it turns out, neither choice leaves her with an easy life. Will she risk going to jail or will she take the "easy" way out?


The Vanishing Half 
 is another one that was published on June 2, and considering the way that race dominates the news cycle so much today, that timing couldn't be much better for its author and publisher. In this one, twin sisters take very different paths when one of them decides to pass for white and the other does not. The novel explores the pain caused by the split and how it is not limited to the sister passing for white. Those "left behind" are left with a struggle of their own. 


There you have it. Four more books I badly want to read but am unlikely ever to get to. MyTBR list getting so long now, that I can't imagine that there are any people left in the world who say they "have nothing to read." How is that even possible?


Friday, June 12, 2020

Run with the Wind - Jim Cole

Run with the Wind is the second book in Texas author Jim Cole’s planned trilogy, a series that began in 2016 with Never Cry Again and will be concluded in 2023 with the publication of Brothers.  Never Cry Again is a coming-of-age novel set in Depression era Texas and Arkansas; Run with the Wind, takes place in World War II Galveston; and Brothers will be set in 1950s Dallas.

 

“There was no way Sarah Jacobs could have believed that within fifteen minutes there would be a dead man in her front yard.” (First sentence of Run with the Wind)

 

Sarah is already nervous because her ten-year-old son is late coming home from his fishing trip, so she is hoping to spot Benji from her front lawn when it all happens. First, she notices Benji, who is moving toward her at a much faster clip than any kid dependent on an aluminum wrist cane to get around could ever reasonably be expected to move. Then, she hears the roaring engine of the car that is barreling toward her and Benji from less than a block away. Almost before she can react, the car crashes through her fence, and there is indeed a dead man in her front yard.

 

Sarah is a young widow, and Benji, who has suffered the effects of polio since he was just over a year old, is her only child. Ever since her husband’s sudden death, Sarah has struggled to pay her son’s medical bills, but she and Benji are so determined to beat Benji’s crippling illness that the thought of losing to the disease never crosses their minds. Benji has promised his mother that one day he will “run with the wind,” and she believes him.

 

Now both their lives are about to change forever. And it all starts with the dead man in their front yard.

 

Jim Cole
America’s entry into World War II is on the horizon, and when that day comes, Sarah will become instrumental in helping to keep American oil tankers as safe as possible from the German submarines patrolling the Gulf of Mexico. Her job with the Galveston Pilots’ Guild is to schedule the pilots of all the ocean-going ships entering the Gulf via the Houston-Galveston ship channel. This becomes a particularly critical responsibility when Germany starts sinking ships off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana without warning because the channel is not wide enough for the large vessels to make an emergency U-turn. The only way to get back to safety is to leave the channel for a time-consuming change of direction before re-entering it.

 

But even during a world war, life goes on. The ever-determined Benji grows into the much physically stronger Ben, a new man comes into his and his mother’s lives, and Sarah proves to herself and her community how much a strong woman like her can do when given the chance.

 

Bottom Line: Run with the Wind is both historical fiction and another of Cole’s inspiring  coming-of-age stories. Readers of a certain age will recall what living through the annual polio scare  was like. Younger readers will not, but perhaps the current pandemic will give them a small sense of what it was like for parents to watch their children be so suddenly struck down by such a horrible crippling disease – and worrying about the possibility constantly. Watching Ben work so hard to beat polio is what makes Run with the Wind such a memorable novel for someone like me who still vividly remembers the day that everything he owned as a four-year-old was burned in a single barnyard fire after one of his playmates was diagnosed with polio.

 

 

Review Copy provided by Author for review purposes

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Profiles in Corruption - Peter Schweizer

Peter Schweizer’s Profiles in Corruption is not an easy book to read, especially in today’s political environment of constant fighting, name-calling, and finger-pointing. Maybe it’s always been this way, maybe not, but today’s political class, regardless of party affiliation, seems suddenly to have way more than its share of hypocrites, liars, cheaters, and sexual predators.

 

Profiles in Corruption takes a long, hard look at eight of the worst offenders. I do wish that, for the sake of his own credibility, Schweizer had not concentrated his efforts exclusively on “progressives” who, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, are all card-carrying Democrats. (This is, however, a well-documented and cited book with hundreds of source references.) Political corruption is a problem for Democrats and Republicans alike – and whatever it is that Sanders calls himself in private. How else to explain all the newly-minted multi-millionaires who earn their fortunes never having held a single job outside of government during their entire adult lives?

 

Schweizer’s eight profiles are in this order: Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Eric Garcetti. None of what the author discloses about any of the eight is particularly surprising to anyone who’s been paying much attention to what goes on around them. None of what any of the eight have done to enrich themselves and their immediate families at the expense of the taxpayer is particularly creative, either. They are doing the kind of things that politicians like them were guilty of more than 100 years ago, and they are using pretty much the same old playbook to do it.

 

Every allegation and point that follows is documented in the book.

 

Perhaps most disconcerting of all the disclosures, is the selective justice wielded by some when they were still public prosecutors with the power to decide which cases would be prosecuted and which would be ignored. You guessed it: ignored most often were big-donor white collar criminals often also doing business with members of the prosecutors’ families. Making each other rich and/or keeping the prosecutor in a powerful position was more important than guilt or innocence. Particularly good at this little game, it seems, were Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar.

 

Peter Schweizer
Two of the eight, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, stand out as much for their utter hypocrisy as for their unethical behavior. Both men brand themselves defenders of the common man and claim the working class as their base, but both have become wealthy elitists in the process of “working” for their constituency. Biden has made himself, his three children, and his siblings wealthy by so willingly selling his political influence through businesses and boards run by relatives. Sanders and family have become wealthy by funneling campaign contributions to companies headed by his daughter, and by allowing his wife to bankrupt a small private college even as she profited handily from her job as president of the school. Even as a young Vermont mayor, Sanders  made a spot on the city payroll for his then-girlfriend, and then gave her a huge raise when she became his wife. And then there are the books that so many politicians, Sanders among them, write to huge advances so that their political committees can buy them up with donated funds for distribution to backers. According to Schweizer, Sanders has pulled off this particular trick three times. (This appears to be a common scam among “big name” politicians.)

 

With Sherrod Brown, it’s his unblinking pay-for-play game with America’s largest unions in which the Senator is always eager to back bills that are bad for consumers and taxpayers but good for unions. For Eric Garcetti, It’s shady real estate deals in and around Los Angeles that made him so rich and powerful. With Cory Booker, it’s a heavy duty pay-for-play scheme from his days in New Jersey that made him rich and powerful.

 

Bottom Line: Profiles in Corruption will make you as sad as it makes you angry. It’s hard to read that so many of America’s most prominent politicians are such petty, dishonest hypocrites. But now it’s time for a look at some prominent Republicans, because I suspect the result will be just as saddening and irritating as the disclosures in Profiles in Corruption.

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Book of Lost Friends - Lisa Wingate

Lisa Wingate’s The Book of Lost Friends is one of those books that I feel I should like a lot more than I actually do. After all, it has a very timely multi-generational story to tell about the relationship between slaves and slave-owners, and how what happened all those years ago still has an impact on how members of different races see each other – and themselves - today.

 

It took me two tries to get through the book. The first time I picked it up, I put it aside after two chapters because it just didn’t speak to me at all. A few days later, I tried the novel again and, although I did finish it, I found myself dreading the alternating chapters that were set in the nineteenth century. The characters from those chapters are largely stereotypical cardboard cutouts needed to write the mini-thriller that allows three very different women to make their way from Louisiana to Texas in search of the plantation owner who fathered two of them (one by his wife, the other by his mulatto New Orleans mistress) and once owned the other.

 

Lisa Wingate
That’s bad enough, but even worse is that readers unable to suspend completely their sense of disbelief are going to struggle mightily to take this story seriously despite its worthy overall message. The Book of Lost Friends is based on an actual historical event involving the tools used by ex-slaves for several decades after the Civil War ended to search for scattered family members. That is a story that is as inspirational as it is sad, and it is a story that would have been better told as a serious piece of historical fiction than as a combination of nineteenth century thriller and twentieth century romance novel, a combination that I found to be especially jarring.  

 

Bottom Line: The Book of Lost Friends deserves a look if for no other reason than that it tells a part of the slavery story that few readers will have heard before now, and perhaps it is only because of the political and racial turmoil that the world finds itself in today that I wish Wingate had taken a more serious approach to it. Maybe it was simply written just a few months too soon for that to have happened.