Saturday, May 30, 2020

Book Chase: The June 2020 Reading Plan

I strayed farther from my May reading list than I've have on any of the earlier ones. I could feel myself starting to slip into another of those reading funks where my concentration was getting worse and worse, and I knew I had to do something quickly or it was going to turn into a serious slump. I found myself putting books aside if they didn't grab me in their first 20-25 pages. Even that didn't completely do it for me, though, and I'm going to end up reading fewer pages this month than I have in a long time. But it did keep me reading and exploring the digital world for new books to try. 

As it turns out, I will have read nine books during the month of May but only three of them will have come from the reading list. I will probably have a fourth one from the list, Robert Dugoni's The Last Agent, at least fifty percent done by June 1, but the other six were either temporarily set aside or didn't even get opened. Another part of the problem this month is that I kept get distracted by shiny new books suddenly being made available to me from my library hold list - despite the fact that just a few days earlier the library was still estimating at least a six-week wait on all of them. Go figure.

So, the June list. I'm not going to slide all six of the remaining books from May onto the list, as I would normally do, in hopes that adding some different ones might help to get me back to turning pages at a more normal clip.

1. This is one of the three I'm holding over from the last list. I didn't even crack it open in May, sort of fearing that my somber mood would somehow taint the experience of reading the latest book from one of my favorite writers of series detective fiction. As I look back to what I said about The Night Fire on last month's list, I'm also  wondering if maybe I'm subconsciously reluctant to read this new one - because then I've got to start that long wait until the next one arrives.  There's just something nice about having an unread book around that I just know I'm going to enjoy on several levels. 

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. 

The Last Agent by Robert Dugoni is a Charles Jenkins book that sounds as if it picks up right where The Eighth Sister leaves off. Charles Jenkins is a six-foot-five-inch black man so he's not the ideal secret agent to be nosing around in Russia, but that's a large part of the fun. Not being able to blend into a crowd is most certainly not a good thing for a spy. I've only read a couple of Dugoni novels, but I've been impressed by both of them, and I really happy that he has a substantial backlist for me to explore. I will be about halfway through this one coming into June.

. The Book of Lost Friends is one I got stalled on and set aside after only 20 pages in May, but I'm not willing to give up on it just yet because I've heard too many good things about it from a lot of trusted sources - including several blogging friends. It was one of those surprises I got early from my library, and I only have another eight days to read it before it automatically goes back to the library. I don't know why I found it difficult to get into this one because it is partially set during the Civil War, and that is normally smack dab in the middle of my reading wheelhouse.

. A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea is an ARC that I received from LibraryThing a few days ago. It appealed to me because of its unusual plot and because it is a translation from the original French (one of my 2020 goals that I'm doing particularly poorly in so far is reading more translated fiction). It is set in 1954 and is about a group of men trying to find a huge fossil they've heard rumors about buried deep in an Alpine glazier. 

. Run with the Wind by Jim Cole is another book I've received for review purposes. It's Cole's second book in what is a planned trilogy. I read Never Cry Again, the first book in the trilogy, a few months ago and enjoyed it so much that I'm looking forward to this new one set in Galveston. Jim Cole is into his eighties now, and I love the idea that he's carving out a whole new world for himself by turning to writing at this stage of his life. 

7. 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. Another 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 those 106 volumes than I have to this point. I fight being distracted by the shiny new ones out there, but I seldom am able to do it successfully for very long.

8. 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, 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).

9. Ian Rankin's Strip Jack falls squarely into another 2020 goal of mine: reading the earliest books from my favorite detective series. This is the fourth book in the series and it was first published in 1992. I own it in the paperback version of the hardcover I've used to illustrate this selection. 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. For those of you not familiar with Rankin, he's a Scottish author and his Rebus stories are set in Edinburgh. 

10. The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard is a book I've owned for about fifteen years but have still read only one of the stories from. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up the book intending to read a few of these old magazine stories - and how many times that didn't happen. So I'm formally challenging myself to read some of the stories in June - maybe even all of them - because Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite crime fiction writers and I expect that his westerns will also be outstanding.

Now, realistically, I don't expect to read all ten of the books on this list. What I do expect is that I will receive at least one or two early surprises again from my library, and that my wandering eye will lead me to half a dozen other books before the month is over. But that's a big part of the fun of being an avid reader...right?

Friday, May 29, 2020

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family - Robert Kolker

Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family is one of the most tragically fascinating family histories I have ever read. Frankly, reading this one felt akin to slowing down just long enough to take in all the gory details of a bloody roadside accident before continuing on the way. What happened behind the closed doors of the Galvin family home for decades is almost unbelievable – especially since Don and Mimi Galvin seem to have been so oblivious to the worst of the horrors that were going on all around them. Don Galvin’s solution was to absent himself from the house as often as possible by taking on work projects that required him to be on the road. His wife, Mimi, on the other hand, largely remained in classic denial until she died in her nineties.


Between 1945 and 1965, twelve children were born into the Galvin family, ten boys followed by two girls. Statistically, this alone would make the Galvin family an unusual one, but this is just the beginning of their story. What makes the family a true statistical rarity is that six of the ten Galvin boys, starting with the oldest, were afflicted with schizophrenia. For decades, theirs was a household literally at war with itself, one in which brothers were constantly in the kind of physical warfare with each other that placed them and everyone else in the home in grave danger. Six of the boys, as they reached adolescence, so lost touch with reality that they became a danger to themselves and anyone who had to live with them, especially their two little sisters – who suffered the worst kind of abuse imaginable from several of their brothers.


And Don and Mimi Galvin, often victims themselves, were helpless to stop what was going on around them. This was all happening when schizophrenia was still largely a misunderstood mental illness, a time when locking up patients long enough to stabilize then with drugs or electric shock therapy before releasing them back into the world was really the only answer that doctors had. And that did not work; some patients, including more than one of the Galvins were in and out of the same hospital dozens of times until their minds were effectively fried by the drugs imposed on them. Perhaps even more tragically, two of the Galvin brothers died at age 53 of heart attacks, the cumulative effect of all the drugs they had taken for four decades.


What I, as an outsider, find most difficult to understand is how Don and Mimi Galvin could have continued to have children, almost year after year, when it should have been so obvious to them that the illness afflicting the children they already had was likely to be an inherited one. Particularly since both parents were very concerned about image and reputation, this makes no sense. Being in utter denial seems to be the only answer that makes much sense.


Robert Kolker
Robert Kolker
The good news about the Galvin family – and there is some -  is that the family agreed to participate in a study in which their genetic material was studied by scientists looking for answers about the illness. What causes schizophrenia? Is it inherited or is it a product of environment (it used to be blamed entirely on an over-controlling mother)? Can the illness be prevented? The Galvin family was a goldmine for researchers because no scientist had ever found so many full-blooded sibling schizophrenics in a family before. The genetic material they provided has become central in the study to unlock some of the secrets of the illness that have plagued human history.


That research continues to this day.


Bottom Line: Readers will find Hidden Valley Road fascinating for two distinct reasons. First, is that everyday life inside the Galvin family reads more like something out of a farfetched Stephen King novel than it does as something out of the real world. What those fourteen people (maybe especially the eight trying to cope with the behavior of the six schizophrenics in the family) endured for so many years was horrendous. Second, is the chronological history of our understanding of schizophrenia and its treatment that is interspersed in separate chapters throughout the book. The Galvin family is a truly remarkable one.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Library of America Just Made My Day - Again

I have a handful of "go-to" publishers, companies that I know I can always count on for a quality product both in content and in physical makeup. But at the very top of my list is Library of America, a non-profit company that keeps the best American writing alive by publishing new editions that will last for generations and generations to come. It all started in 1979 with a $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and a $1.2 million grant from from the National Endowment of the Humanities. The grants allowed the LOA to publish its first four books in 1982, and the publisher has continued to add to the list ever since. There are now some 272 books in the collection, including James Baldwin: Later Novels, the latest volume, published just this month.

I continue to add LOA titles to my personal library, and days like today, when new ones come in the mail always make me smile. Today I added the two Edith Wharton titles shown above, Collected Stories 1891-1910 and Collected Stories 1911-1937, the 105th and 106th volumes in my Library of America collection. I've pictured them with their dust jackets still in place, but as you can see from the picture, I don't actually shelve them with the jackets on. They are just too beautiful to hide, and I enjoy seeing them add up in their four colors. 

Now don't get the idea that the Library of America publishes nothing but the books you may have been forced to read in high school or in college. There are plenty of titles like the two I received today - all the iron horses of American writing are there - but there are also titles representing things like the best science fiction writing from the 1950s, the best American Noir (crime novels), Women Crime Writers, Reporting Viet Nam, The Civil War, and American Musicals. Some of my personal favorites are the multi-volume sets from the likes of Philip Roth, Elmore Leonard, Philip K. Dick, Mark Twain, and John Steinbeck. There is literally something for every reader when it comes to Library of America books. I've barely scratched the surface.

If you are interested in books of the highest quality - in every sense of the word - the Library of America is for you. 

Here's a direct link to the main LOA website page that contains all the tabs explaining just who LOA is and how you can get participate in what they do.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Is Ending a Novel with a Cliffhanger Ever Justifiable?

I saw a post on another blog this morning praising a book whose predecessor had ended in an exciting cliffhanger. The blogger went on to say how much this had made him look forward to the next book in the series, and how happy he was finally to get his hands on this latest one. That got me to thinking about book series and my own reaction to the ones that abruptly end before the climax has been fully resolved - or sometimes even partially resolved. 

I don't particularly mind books with open-ended endings where the author leaves it up to the reader to figure out for himself, based on all that comes before the last page, what is most likely to have happened offstage to the main characters after the written story ends. (I do prefer the author doing the work, however.) But that's not at all the same as having a book end in the kind of cliffhanger I used to see in those old movie serials that were so popular on Saturdays when I was a kid. We all knew this was part 4 out of 13, and we weren't at all worried about our hero.

After all, if the book is part of an established series, we already know that the main character and 99% of the supporting characters are going to survive whatever danger the author is leaving them in. So why the silliness of making readers wait an entire year to resolve the action? By then, details from the previous book are going to be at least a bit hazy to readers, meaning that the new book is likely going to start with a recap of how the previous one ended. Boring.

I even remember one debut novel that without giving any  indication at all that it was the first book in a new series ended in a physical cliffhanger that seemed near-impossible to escape.  So, new readers were tricked into investing several hours reading a story that would not end until the second book was published a year later. And we would only even learn a few months after being left holding the bag that this was only book one of several to follow. I felt cheated and angry enough to avoid the rest of the series to this day - and I doubt I was the only one to feel this way. 

So, what do you guys think? Are cliffhangers at the end of books a good idea? Do you enjoy them and do they make you look forward even more avidly to the next book in a series? Or do they tick you off, the way they tick me off? 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Benefits of Breathing - Christopher Meeks

The Benefits of Breathing is the first short story collection from Christopher Meeks since 2008’s Months and Seasons. In the meantime, Meeks has written five novels, but fans of his shorter work will tell you that it’s been way too long between short story anthologies to suit them.

This time around, Meeks delves into the romantic complexities between men and women that, over time, are likely to plague us all. Long-term relationships are not easy, and as so many of us have learned the hard way, they often end in the kind of failure that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. The Benefits of Breathing is not some feel-good romantic fantasy of a book; this is about the real world. Among its eleven stories are instances of love needlessly discarded, love lost, love settled for, love that withers and dies, love squandered, love that backfires, and love nipped in the bud. But not all of the stories, including my favorite of them all, “Nestor by the Numbers,” end in failure, despite the emotional trauma suffered by the narrators along the way. These are stories  about life the way most of us live it, complete with all of its ups and downs; it’s about people like you and me. It’s about life in the twenty-first century, and surprisingly enough considering its overall tone, this is a collection that includes a good bit of optimism and hope.

Christopher Meeks
I found several of the stories to be particularly memorable, but I suspect that other readers are going to do the same with an entirely different list of stories than the one I created for myself as I read the collection. Among my personal favorites is the opener, “Joni Paredes,” in which a still-young woman is wary of the romantic-gold she discovers at her daughter’s wedding reception. Another is a story with a bit of a surprise ending that had me hooked as soon as I read its title, “I’d Rather Die Than Go to North Dakota.”
And then, there’s the title story itself, “The Benefits of Breathing,” that speaks to the power of persevering until the right one finally comes along.

But my favorite story is the longest one in the collection, “Nestor by the Numbers,” a story about a man whose wife decides on their twentieth anniversary that their marriage is over. The man’s ensuing experiences as he works his way through more than twenty potential partners via online dating services are both hilarious and poignant – sometimes, believe it or not, at the same time. I completely lost myself in this one and hated to see it end.

Bottom Line: The Benefits of Breathing is an interesting and entertaining collection of short stories about who we are and how we relate to the opposite sex – whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not. It was worth the wait.

Advanced Reading Copy provided by Publisher/Author for Review Purposes

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road - Anne Tyler

I’m going to go out on a limb here and call Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road a coming-of-age novel. And it is one, if you concede the point that some people don’t manage to get that job done before reaching their fortieth birthday. Micah Mortimer is one of those people.

Micah is in his early forties now, and he still lives alone. In fact, he lives in the basement of the small apartment building he manages on the side for its out-of-state owner. In lieu of a salary, Micah lives rent-free in the basement apartment. His “real” job, the one that actually brings him in a little cash, is as a computer-problem troubleshooter for his little one-man company called Tech Hermit. Tech Hermit could not be a more appropriate name for the company – or for Micah – because it’s who he is.

The world sees Micah this way:

            “He has a girlfriend, but they seem to lead fairly separate lives. You see her heading toward his back door now and then with a sack of takeout; you see them setting forth on a weekend morning in the Kia, minus the TECH HERMIT sign. He doesn’t appear to have male friends. He is cordial to the tenants but no more than that. They call out a greeting when they meet up with him and he nods amiably and raises a hand, often not troubling to speak. Nobody knows if he has family.”

The scary part about all of this is that Micah is perfectly content to go on living exactly the same way for the next thirty or forty years. Even when his girlfriend makes it obvious  that she has had enough of the status quo, Micah is so egocentric that he doesn’t get the message. And when a teenager shows up at Micah’s front door wondering if he might just be the boy’s biological father, all Micah can think about is how his old girlfriend, the boy’s mother, suddenly dumped him the way she did all those years ago.

So it’s now or never for Micah. If he’s ever going to grow up, this may be his last best chance.

Bottom Line: Redhead by the Side of the Road is a satisfying character study of a novel centering on a not-so-young-anymore man who is still trying to find himself. He is not particularly likable, even to the reader, the way he is, so it is easy to root for an emotional awakening on his part. This Anne Tyler novel may be a relatively short one, but Micah Mortimer is a complete character – like him or not.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

I Really NEED to Visit a Brick & Mortar Bookstore - And Soon

I can't tell you how badly I want to get inside a brick & mortar bookstore right now - any brick & mortar bookstore will do. I want to want to experience again the immense pleasure that comes from picking up a book that I know absolutely nothing about, a book whose cover just reached out and grabbed me as I was walking past it. There's nothing like experiencing the crispness of a brand new book, the weight, the paper grade, the way the pages have been cut and bound, and best of all the new book smell that, for me, is rivaled only by the smell of a new car. 

I want to wander the shelves aimlessly on a Saturday morning, maybe taking the occasional coffee break along the way, and gathering up a few books to take home with me that I didn't even know existed on Friday night. 

I want to search the "Bargain Book" shelves to see if something by an author whose work I collect has recently ended up in the stacks of remainders there. 

I want to take a look at the magazines on offer to see if there's some new literary magazine I need to read or subscribe to. 

I want to listen in on the occasional bookish conversation between customers or between customers and booksellers that often make me smile to myself. (Sometimes, I even gather the nerve to worm my way into the conversation - even if a bookseller is part of it.)

 I want to browse all the bookish junk that bookstores place near the front of the store in order to tempt you one final time as you stand in line to check out (bookmarks, pens, journals, book-lights, bookends, bookstands, etc.).

I even want to look at all the puzzles, games, toys, and LPs on offer in so many bookstores today - a practice I've often criticized, so I must be getting soft.

The thing that scares me most about not being able to shop an actual bookstore is the possibility that I will forever miss out on dozens and dozens of books I would have otherwise discovered for myself by browsing shelves. 

And, I'm really getting tired of reading so many e-books. That's just not the same reading experience as reading a hardback or quality paperback, and it never will be.

Just writing this short post has made me realize that if I ultimately contract Covid-19, the most likely reason will be that I started shopping bookstores before it was really wise to do so. 

I can hold off on most other shopping without much of a problem because I didn't do all that much of it even before this mess began. And, as for groceries, I find that if you go early enough in the morning, and keep that cart moving, you don't run into all that many people anyway. So I'm not as nervous about grocery shopping as I was just a few weeks ago. 

No, it will be a bookstore that gets me, I'm pretty sure, if anything does. I can't imagine holding out until a vaccine is available in a year, or two years, or ever. I really need my bookstore-fix, and I need it soon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Cruelest Month - Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month (2007) is Louise Penny’s third Inspector Gamache novel. With the addition of 2020’s All the Devils Are Here, that popular series now numbers sixteen novels and one short story, The Hangman, which is published separately and rather generously called a novella by its publisher, so seventeen books in all.

Three Pines, a little Canadian village not very far north of the border with the U.S. is not long on entertainment possibilities, especially in the colder months of the year. For that reason, when someone with even a remotely unusual talent comes to stay in the village for a few days, Gabri, who helps run the local bistro, is quick to try to put them to work. This time around, he has convinced a visiting psychic to hold a séance to entertain the locals. Unfortunately, one of them ends up being entertained to death – and Inspector Gamache and his team are going to have to figure out why and how it happened.

Louise Penny’s Gamache novels more or less begin where the previous one ended, and although it takes almost fifty pages for Gamache to make his first appearance in The Cruelest Month, that is largely the case with this one, too. After making a quick determination that the victim was murdered and did not simply die of fright during the séance, Gamache and his team of misfit investigators are faced with the task of determining which of the tiny group of suspects had reason to kill a woman who seemed to be so universally popular. (As it turns out, at least half-a-dozen people who attended the séance that night will qualify as legitimate suspects before this one can be solved.)

The Cruelest Month is the kind of solid murder mystery that readers have come to expect from Louise Penny. It comes complete with multiple credible suspects and tosses out enough red herrings to keep most readers guessing to the end as they narrow down the list of suspects in their own minds. But Gamache fans are not necessarily there to solve a mystery. Instead, they are there to watch the brilliant Gamache do the hard work as they learn more and more about what makes the man tick, how his methods work, and what is going on behind the scene in his personal life.

Louise Penny
And then there is the core group of Three Pines citizens that readers, especially those who may have started reading the series halfway through like I did, have already learned to enjoy so much. We want to know more about people like Ruth, Gabri, Olivier, Myrna, and Clara, so the early books in the series now read to us more like prequels than anything else. We want, too, to learn why investigators like Isabelle Lacoste and Jean-Guy Beauvoir are so loyal to Gamache, and more about younger versions of Gamache’s wife and children. The Cruelest Month does not disappoint in any of this.

But personally, I will remain particularly fond of The Cruelest Month because of its introduction of Rosa, the duck who will be Ruth’s constant companion from this title onward. Who knew that Rosa ever had a sister called Lillian? Also, this is, I think, the first Gamache novel in which the Inspector seriously contemplates a life for himself and Reine-Marie in Three Rivers – either before or after retirement from the Sûreté. Gamache still has enemies in high places, men who are determined to force him to resign in disgrace because of how he exposed the corruption of a very powerful colleague of theirs. The problem is that, so far at least, Gamache is smarter than them – and much, much more patient.

Bottom Line: Don’t miss this one, Gamache fans. There’s a lot to chew on here.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Past Reason Hated - Peter Robinson

Past Reason Hated, published in 1991, is Peter Robinson’s fifth Inspector Banks book. By this point in the series, even though Robinson is not an author prone to using much of a subplot to explore the personal life of his main character, Inspector Banks is better known to series readers. He is now 39 years old, his wife Sandra is probably about the same age, his son is 17, and his daughter is a preteen with a rapidly expanding interest in boys, make-up, and what her friends think. The man absolutely loves to drink and smoke, preferably at the same time, and he still seldom passes up the chance to do either even when on the job. Interestingly, too, he does not seem to be particularly empathetic when encountering homosexuals of either sex during an investigation – even when, as in his current case, the victim turns out to have been a lesbian. (Was 1991 really that long ago?)

Banks left the London crime scene behind a few years earlier hoping to be able to do his crime-solving at a much slower pace, but so far the citizens of Eastvale, the North Yorkshire town that became his new home, have not much cooperated. Instead, Eastvale and its surrounding suburbs have supplied Banks with a rather steady supply of murders to investigate. In Past Reason Hated, the murder victim is a young lesbian whose bloody corpse is found on her couch just three days before Christmas. Poignantly, the room is well-lit by a decorated Christmas tree, and an album of classical music is playing over and over on the stereo.

Caroline Hartley was a new member of a community theater group on the verge of opening a timely production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, so Banks and his team begin their murder investigation with an immediate abundance of suspects. But, starting  with the fact that no one else in the group even suspected that Caroline was gay, Banks and his investigators will soon learn that the real Caroline Hartley hardly resembled the woman she presented herself to the world to be. Banks keeps pulling on threads, the number of suspects grows longer and longer, and Banks even finds himself following leads all the way to the strip clubs in London’s SoHo district and back before he identifies the murderer.

Peter Robinson
This is one of the more complicated plots of the early Inspector Banks novels, but ironically, it is also one that seems easier for the reader to solve than it is for Banks and his whole crew to figure out. It is a case of “one of these things is not like the others” that will give many readers a solid hunch about the murderer’s identity some 60% or so of the way through Past Reason Hated. And if those readers are like me, they will be disappointed in just how predictable this makes the book’s entire climax. This is one of those times I would have really preferred to be wrong because a surprise at the end would have been a whole lot more fun.

Bottom Line: Past Reason Hated is a well-written literary murder mystery that fails to completely satisfy the veteran mystery reader because it is a little too solvable. That does not mean that fans of the Inspector Banks series should skip this one, though – not at all -  because it does add a few details to the Banks character, especially as it relates to the detective’s past, that fans are sure to appreciate.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

In West Mills - De'Shawn Charles Winslow

De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s In West Mills is not at all the kind of novel that would usually grab my attention – not even close. But back in the good old days, sometime during March 2020, on my very last visit to a brick and mortar bookstore before virus-hell suddenly broke out all around the world, I spotted a copy on a display table near the store’s front door. Looking now at the book’s front cover, I’m still not sure why I stopped to pick it up, but I’m grateful that I did because this 2019 debut novel has become one of my favorite reads of 2020.

The book’s main character is Azalea Knot Centre, a brand-new schoolteacher who has come to little West Mills, North Carolina, in the early 1940s to school the town’s black children in their separate, but hardly equal, schoolhouse. “Knot,” as she becomes known to the black community, is not a typical starry-eyed young teacher, however. She is most definitely her own woman, and she doesn’t care who knows it or resents her for being it. Oh, Knot enjoys teaching well enough, but her three great loves in life are really good moonshine liquor, men, and 19th century literature (especially Charles Dickens novels), pretty much in that order.

Obviously, two of her three main loves, especially when experienced together, have a tendency to get free-spirited women like Knot into a lot of trouble (hint: Great Expectations is not part of the problem). Knot’s lifestyle did not much lend itself to teaching school in the first place, so when the inevitable finally happens, and she finds herself pregnant, her days in the classroom are destined for an early end. Knot simply cannot see herself as wife-material, much less as someone qualified to raise a child, but she knows she will have to give birth to the baby because, “As scared as Knot was of being someone’s mother, she was more scared of dying on some old woman’s kitchen table, trying to avoid becoming someone’s mother.”   

Right now, marriage and motherhood may just be the last two things she wants, or needs, in her life:

            “Knowing that she wasn’t ready didn’t mean she liked not being ready. But it felt safe to her – the only kind of safe Knot felt all right with. Safe by not having to worry about hurting a child’s feelings, the way her mother had hurt hers. Safe by not becoming someone’s wife just to figure out, years later, that she didn’t want him. Safe to get a bit of joy from the moonshine – something that couldn’t hurt her or be hurt by her.”

De'Shawn Charles Winslow
But with a little help from her friends, especially neighbor Otis Lee Loving, Knot Centre creates a nice little life for herself in West Mills, North Carolina. As it turns out, in fact, this woman who spent most of her life living all alone, will have as great an impact on the lives of the citizens of West Mills as most anyone who ever lived there.

Bottom Line: In West Mills may be De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel, but it certainly doesn’t read much like an author’s first book. The novel spans the years 1941-1987, and it is great fun to watch its colorful cast of characters age and mature over the decades as West Mills itself evolves. There is a lot going on in this one, especially with the complicated relationships that develop between the main characters, but it would be unwise to risk inadvertently revealing a major spoiler or two by saying much more about the plot. This is one you need to experience for yourself in order to get the most out of it.    

Friday, May 15, 2020

My Sister the Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite

Once upon a time, two very different sisters shared a home in Nigeria with their mother and a handful of servants. Their father, a corrupt and brutal man, has died – but not before leaving his indelible mark on both daughters. During his lifetime, the girls feared their father much more than they loved or admired him, but now that he is dead, they still try to live their lives in a manner that would make him proud of them. They can’t help themselves.

Korede and Ayoola are sisters, but they could hardly be more different. Korede, the oldest of the two, is a tall, “sensible” woman of average looks who works for a charismatic doctor in a small clinic. She gets along well with the young doctor, and although he hardly notices it, Korede is falling in love with him. Ayoola, on the other hand, is very short, with stunning good looks; the word “sensible” is not one likely ever to come up in anyone’s description of her. As Oyinkan Braithwaite reveals in My Sister the Serial Killer, the more appropriate s-word for Ayoola probably would be “sociopath.”

Oyinkan Braithwaite
Early on in My Sister the Serial Killer, Korede receives a shocking phone call from Ayoola that by this point in their relationship is not really unexpected. Ayoola has just killed her third boyfriend with the same knife, and once again the tiny Ayoola needs her big sister’s help in disposing of the body. The always sensible Korede knows that her sister is a murderer, and she understands that telling the police about Ayoola’s tendency to end relationships so permanently is the right thing to do. But she’s had three chances to do the right thing now, and hasn’t done it yet. Ayoola is, after all, her only sister, and Korede will do whatever it takes to protect her sister from the law.

But that all changes on the day that Korede learns Ayoola’s new boyfriend is none other than the same young doctor she herself has been fantasizing about for months. Korede knows that she can’t just sit back and wait for the man she loves to become her sister’s next victim. But how can she stop Ayoola before it is too late, and how far is she willing to go to do it?

Bottom Line: My Sister the Serial Killer is satirical comedy disguised as bloody crime fiction. It is as much about sibling rivalry and how adult relationships between siblings are shaped by events shared in childhood, as it is about serial killings and the disposal of bodies. The bloody, bizarre novel is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and it’s filled with a handful of memorable characters that left me wishing it had been a little bit longer than it is. This one is fun, so don’t let all of the blood in it put you off it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

A Week of Reading at Half-Speed

During the last week, my time has been almost totally consumed by the logistics of arranging for my father to be moved from a rehabilitation center (where he is being treated for a broken hip) to a facility that can offer him the kind of care that he will need for at least the next several months. 

Consequently, I haven't done a whole lot of reading of tree-books, e-books, or even audiobooks. I listened to two hours of the audiobook version of Peter Robinson's Past Reason Hated a couple of days ago only to realize later that not a single thought made its way to my brain, so I had to re-read all of those pages via an e-book copy of the book I have on hand. I have no idea what I was thinking for those two hours of listening to the book, but reading them in the e-book one day later made it obvious to me that the audiobook had turned into some kind of white noise as I packed. 

Every day is still filled with some combination of phone calls, video calls, and physically packing up dad's old residence in preparation for his impending move. I'm really hoping that once he's in place next week, things will get back closer to whatever has become the frustrating new normal we've all faced for the last eight weeks or so. I miss reading! Reading less than 20 pages a day is driving me nuts - and playing havoc with my planned-review schedule. 

Surprisingly, though, the 386 pages I've read in the last week did result in two completed books (and a little progress on the Peter Robinson title) because most of the pages I read came during the second halves of both books. Now, I need to find the time and energy to review the books before I forget too many of the details to do the job properly. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, and different as they are, it was easy to get back into their plots despite the few number of pages I could work into my day. 

My Sister the Serial Killer is a story of sibling-rivalry set in Nigeria in which the older, less attractive, sister finds herself helping her younger, stunning, sister dispose of the bodies of her victims. The older girl has to decide where family loyalty ends - if it does. In West Mills is set in a black community in North Carolina. It begins in the 1940s and ends near the present day as it tracks a core group of characters whose lives intertwine in surprising ways during  all those decades. Of the two books, I especially recommend In West Mills.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

I, John Kennedy Toole - Kent Carroll and Jodee Blanco

By now, most fiction readers know who John Kennedy Toole was and at least a little about the failed struggle he went through to get his novel A Confederacy of Dunces published. They know that the book did not get published in Toole’s lifetime – and that Toole took his own life. They know that his mother took up the struggle to get the book published after Toole’s suicide, and that with the help of people like Walker Percy and Kent Carroll she finally got that done. And, they know that A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when it was finally published in 1980. These, though, are just the barest of facts about John Kennedy Toole and the prize-winning novel that even today has somewhat of a cult following. What most of us still wonder about is what would drive such a young, talented writer to so deep a despair that he would choose to end his life over continuing to try to interest a publishing house in his work. The man was only thirty-one, after all, when he asphyxiated himself on that deserted backroad near Biloxi, Mississippi.

Now, Kent Carroll (the same Kent Carroll who was so instrumental in getting the book published in the first place) and Jodee Blanco offer their own well-researched insights into the John Kennedy Toole story. I, John Kennedy Toole is billed on its cover as “A Novel Based on a True Story,” and that is exactly how the novel reads. Much of it reads more like a biography than it does a fictional account of Toole’s life, complete with historical references to remind the reader of exactly what was going on in the real world during each of the specific years of Toole’s life being explored at the moment. Too, dialogue between characters is rather limited, with most of it occurring in the second half of the novel, further giving the book its biographical feel.

That the authors chose to use this form to tell Toole’s story is both the good news and the bad news. On the one hand, fiction allows the authors to speculate about what was really going on inside Toole’s head to a degree and a depth that no biography would have allowed them to do. On the other, so much specific biographical information is included, complete with dates, names, locations, and the like, that the reader is left unsure as to where the facts end and the fiction begins. Even the fictional reporter who investigates Toole’s life some twenty-five years or so after his book’s publication, is not completely sure when people are lying to him or just struggling with their personal memories of significant events in Toole’s life.

John Kennedy Toole
What is particularly interesting in I, John Kennedy Toole is the authors’ speculation that Toole’s mental state allowed him to see Ignatius J. Reilly, the obese loudmouth main character from Dunces, as a real person. The fictional Toole often argues loudly in public with the demanding, obnoxious Ignatius, and even feels that he has let the man down by not being able to present his story to the larger world. Especially often on the final road trip that would end with Toole’s suicide were the two verbally at each other’s throats. That Toole suffered from some combination of paranoia, depression, and perhaps schizophrenia seems likely, and the authors take full advantage of that state of mind to explain his short life.

The key relationship in Toole’s life was the one between him and his dominating mother, a relationship that likely exacerbated, at least in part, Toole’s depression problems. If it were not for the efforts of Toole’s mother, his masterpiece would have never been published; that is beyond doubt. That the woman is a very flawed heroine is also beyond doubt, and the authors make that point very clearly in their novel.

Bottom Line: I, John Kennedy Toole is a well-researched novel that fans of Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces will want to read, if for no other reason than their desire to learn  more about what drove the author to such a level of despair. The concept of the novel is a good one, but at times this one can read more like a dry biography than as the fictional account of a doomed man’s life that it is. Still, it is worth the effort, and I recommend it to anyone interested in John Kennedy Toole’s story.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Blood: A Memoir - Allison Moorer

On the day that their estranged father shot and killed their mother on the front lawn of their little Alabama house before doing the same to himself, Allison Moorer was just fourteen years old and her sister, Shelby Lynne, was almost eighteen. What happened on that August 12, 1986, morning may not define their lives, but it forever changed who they were and who they would become. Allison Moorer’s Blood: A Memoir is their story.

“There are parts of a heart that can never heal once they are broken. There is no glue that will hold.” (Allison Moorer, page 14)

Blood is Allison Moorer’s book of memories, and as such, it is told from her point-of-view, but one of the book’s most touching parts is the short “Foreword” written by her older sister, Shelby. Shelby has also written about her parents and their marriage but she says that she “always wondered where Sissy was in it.” She realized that each of them always had their own memories about living with their parents, but that in her memories Allison is always “in the background.” Now having read her sister’s book, Shelby knows exactly where Allison was all those years ago:

            “While I was trying to protect Mama and watch our failing parents’ every move, Sissy was there scared, worried, alone, suffering, and I never knew it. She was there hanging back, hanging tough, watching, observing, worrying, testing the waters of her world, waiting…We were together.”

There is no doubt that the sisters know where each other are now. They are best friends, bonded forever by what they endured and experienced as children. Somehow, even though they can never forgive their father for taking their mother from them when she was only 41, neither of them hate the man. Instead, they hate what he did.

Allison Moorer’s father was an alcoholic who felt that he had married the most beautiful woman in the world. And he was a jealous man, one convinced that there was a man “around every corner” who wanted nothing more out of life than to steal his wife away from him. He wanted, and he had because his wife couldn’t stop him from taking it from her, the authority to “approve her every action.” But according to Moorer, although never diagnosed as such, her father may have had other issues. She almost hopes he was bipolar, schizophrenic, or suffering some other kind of borderline personality disorder because she does not want to believe that it could have been just plain old “meanness” that made him “erase” her mother the way that he did.

Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne may have survived the trauma of their teen years, but they did not come out of the experience whole. They are, and will always be, emotionally scarred by the actions of the first male role model in their lives, an impatient, angry man who was disappointed in himself and his failure to earn an independent living for his family. Moorer recalls how, “He always seemed to have something on his mind. I was always careful about what I said around him. I never wanted to bother him and risk him directing his anger at me.” As the older sister, it seems Shelby was not so fortunate, and she was more often struck by their father. One of the saddest segments of Blood is the barely-two-pages-long one titled “What happens when you hit your daughter” detailing how a daughter’s personality will forever be changed for the worse by an abusive father who strikes her – especially when it comes to how she deals with every man with whom she will have any kind of relationship for the rest of her life. Those two pages are among the most difficult to read pages I’ve ever encountered in my life.

Bottom Line: Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne are lucky to have had music in their lives to help them through the most difficult days of their childhood and their adulthood. Both women have enjoyed successful music careers - although Shelby seems to struggle to see it that way sometimes - in the music industry, but even their music is influenced by the childhood trauma they suffered. Blood tells the story of two remarkably strong women who are always there for each other, two women determined not to repeat the all too common mistakes of their parents. They are trying to break the cycle for good.