Friday, July 31, 2020

Book Chase: The August 2020 Reading Plan

My July reading took me to several books that were not on my radar at the beginning of the month, but for the most part, I didn’t stray all that far from the list. I managed to read six of the ten listed books and was over 100 pages into a seventh one before I abandoned it out of sheer bewilderment. So, the only ones that did not get opened in July turned out to be The Dead Don’t Sleep (Steven Max Russo), If You Tell (Greg Olson), and A Death in the Family (James Agee). I intend to read those three at some later date. The library forced my hand again in July, and a couple of ARCs arrived only a few days before their publication dates and had to be tended to quickly, or I may have actually completed one of my monthly reading plan lists for the first time ever because, all told, I completed eleven books in July.


I haven’t given much thought to August yet other than to check the ARCs on hand, so I’m going to put this list together a bit more on the fly than I normally do. (I'm also writing this using "New Blogger" to see if the bugs I talked about two posts back have been squashed or not.)

1. Let's begin with what may be my favorite science fiction series of all time, Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books. I discovered the series via this 1983 paperback copy of the first book in the series. The premise is that everyone who has ever lived is being reborn along the banks of what seems to be a never-ending river. And if they don't like it there, they can commit suicide or otherwise die, wake up the next morning somewhere else along the river, and see if that works better for them. I've read this first book at least three times before, but after picking it up yesterday, I find myself wanting to read it again.

2. This is an ARC I wanted to read mainly because I like the way that Larry Watson tells a story. It's about a woman so beautiful, even in her old age, that her entire life has been defined by her  physical attributes. No matter how hard she works at anything, or how impressive she is, men have never given her the credit she deserves. Even now that she is a grandmother, she is being pestered by a considerably younger man who wants her attention. The novel takes place over several decades, so it should be interesting to see how Watson handles a female character through a lifetime of changes.

3. This is the new Inspector Gamache book coming out on September1. I'm going to "read" this one via the audiobook version, so I'll have to take notes along the way. This one promises to be a little different from previous Gamache books in that it takes place in Paris rather than in, or around, the little Canadian village of Three Pines. The setting makes sense because at the end of the previous book Gamache's son-in-law and fellow cop moved there with Gamache's daughter and grandchildren.

4. I read the first few pages of Little Eyes this morning, and now I can't wait to see where this one is headed. It's set a world many of us already fear as we wonder what all those smart devices in our homes are really up to. It seems that a new electronic "pet" has caught the imagination of the world and is now in millions and millions of homes all around the world. The pets interact via cameras and microphones with the household...but exactly who is on the other end of those things? That's the big question, and the answer is a scary one. 

5. As I've mentioned many times, I love road trip books, be they trips by foot, bus, train, or car, so I'm really looking forward to this one. Josephine, I think, may be what the British author and his wife call the 1989 Dodge Caravan they use for their trip across the U.S. In case any of you are interested in reading this one, it is a late 2016 book that has recently been added to titles available for borrowing through Amazon Prime. I completely missed it in 2016, but I see that it has been reviewed 1,020 times on Amazon and has a composite rating of 4.5 stars.

6. This is one I didn't get to in July, but maybe it will happen in August. This is a true crime story about three sisters who were abused by their sadistic mother for years before they made their break for a different life. From what I've heard about the book, the three women are "survivors" in every sense of the word, and that they all seem to be doing so well today makes their story a truly amazing one. The abuse took place in the family farmhouse located in Raymond, Washington. 

7. This is the only Fredrik Backman novel that I haven't read, but because I so much enjoy Joan Walker's audiobook work, I decided to go with this version. This one is kind of a prequel to the Britt-Marie Was Here audiobook that I recently listened to, and it includes a precocious seven-year-old girl (and a huge dog) that I defy anyone not to fall in love with - especially as brought to life by Joan Walker. (I'm about mid-way through it going into the month.)

8. This 2011 novel is said to be highly researched and fact-driven, so there is the risk that it will read as very dry fiction. But based on the previous work of the two authors, I'm willing to bet that will not be the case. The Battle of the Crater was, at least to me, one of the most fascinating battles of the entire Civil War. It took place along the siege lines at Petersburg in June 1864. At the time, Petersburg was the last line of defense that Richmond, the Confederate capital, had left. (From my shelves)

9. I used to be a big fan of Le Carré's spy novels, but he turned very anti-American in his old age and I quit paying much attention to him. That said, I found this 2013 novel in a box of books last week that sounds intriguing enough to get me to give it a try. It is about a rogue operation to snatch a terrorist that may have been covered up to hide just how terribly it all went wrong. Now it will be up to just one man as to whether the truth ever gets out. (From my shelves)

10. This is part of the ten-book Quinn Colson series that first brought Ace Atkins to my attention. Atkins is one heck of a storyteller, and the small-town-Mississippi setting gives the Quinn Colson novels a whole lot to work with. I've read four or five books from the series, but it's been a while now, so I'm looking forward to this 2019 novel. Atkins has never let me down, and the fact that he was chosen to keep Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels alive after Parker's death says a lot about his writing skills. He has added seven novels to that iconic character's story now - and I'm starting to think that he does it better than Parker was doing it near the end of his own run with the series. 

So there you have the plan going into August. Now I'll see what really happens.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Books Found in a Dark Closet

Joyce Porter
Sometime in the early nineties, already a fan of detective fiction series but only following one or two of them at the time, I was in a local bookstore (probably Houston's Murder by the Book) looking for something new. That’s when I stumbled on a nice little set of books written by a new-to-me author by the name of Joyce Porter. I’m always attracted to a set of books that share so similar a physical style that they really look good on the shelf, and the ten Porter books I found that day really did look good together. I did notice that the first book in the series had originally been published in 1964 and the last in 1980, but I didn’t much wonder why they had all been reprinted together in this particular set between 1989 and  1991. What struck me was the high probability that they would be good mysteries if a publisher as small as Foul Play Press, out of Woodstock, Vermont, had taken the risk to reprint them as a set (a book of related short stories was not published until 1995, and I don’t have a copy). I learned just today that Porter had just died in December 1990.

The 11 Dover Books, Less the Short Story Collection
When I brought Dover One to the cash register, I was surprised at the enthusiasm the bookseller showed when he noticed what I was purchasing. I remember him telling me that he was a Joyce Porter fan, but that’s about all I really remember other than his tone. Now, five or six dollars’ worth of disposable income was a lot of money to me in the early nineties, so his comments made me feel better that I wasn’t wasting my precious book “allowance” on something that would ultimately disappoint me. Turns out, that the bookseller was right, and over the span of a few months, I returned and purchased the other nine Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover books one by one.

I read all ten of these in less than a year, and that was almost thirty years now, so I don’t remember much about them anymore. Nor have I ever seen Joyce Porter’s name or the Dover books come up on any of the book blogs I’ve been reading for the last thirteen years or so. Surely, she can’t be that well-kept a secret.

According to Wikipedia, Porter served in the Women’s Royal Air Force between 1949 and 1963, retiring so that she could be a fulltime writer. She is also the author, I see, of two other series (Eddie Brown, The World’s Most Reluctant Spy and the Constance Ethel Morrison Burke books), and that the BBC Radio did adaptations of five of her Dover books. So, she must have been at least fairly well known, at least in Britain, at one time.

The Dover books are all rather lighthearted takes on the mystery genre in which Detective Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover solves crimes almost despite his laziness and general incompetence. His sidekick, Sergeant MacGregor was Dover’s opposite. And that’s a good thing, because Dover’s obesity slows him down a bit and he has even been described as “the only man in the Metropolitan Police Service with underarm dandruff.” All of that said, don’t be too put off by the comedic aspect of the books, because Porter, from the little I can still remember about her plots, wrote fairly complicated mysteries – even though in my mind I always pictured Inspector Dover as an Oliver Hardy clone. (Apparently, so did this publisher, as can be seen from the covers of several of the books.)

Oliver Hardy
(Click on images for larger versions.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

What a Damned Mess

I've been working for two hours on a post featuring my favorite detective series of all time, eleven of them. I wrote up a summary of each of the series and included pictures of all the authors. 

The Blogger Software system started acting up in the middle of my work by failing to save all of what I had written, so I started saving repeatedly and checking over and over to make sure it was all there. Then, when I finally had it all together, proof-read, and ready to post, I did a "preview screen" only to see that everything has been lost but the mess shown below. 

I don't have the heart to do this again because Blogger is obviously not permanently saving everything right now. I surrender, Blogger, you win.

Extra credit to the first person who can even name all eleven series based just on this mess:

A fellow book-blogger (thank you, Lark) posted a couple of days ago about the various book series that she is following and how far behind in some of them she has fallen. That got me curious enough about my own love of detective series to do a little recap of my own. I’ve been reading some of these series for a long time and I’m reluctant to take on new ones because they still account for a substantial portion of my annual reading hours.


1. The

2. The

3. The

4. The

5. The

6. The

7. The

8. The

9. The Poke Rafferty series by Timothy Hallinan - This is one of three series I read that are no longer being added to by author choice or author death. The series began in 2007 with A Nail Through the Heart and ended just this year with Street Music. All of the books are set in Bangkok and feature some of my favorite fictional characters of any crime series I've ever read. I've read all nine of these and wish there were another dozen or so coming but Tim says this is it.

10. The

11. The

That's "officially" it for the number of series I'm currently reading or, in one case, have completed. I say "officially" because I've probably already accidentally started new series, or two, that I don't recognize as such yet. That's the way it usually happens; the right book comes along and grabs you. Then if you are very, very lucky you find yourself at the very beginning of a new series or, maybe even better, you discover a wonderful backlisted series that will keep you reading for years. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Strip Jack - Ian Rankin

I find Ian Rankin’s Strip Jack, the fourth book in his Inspector Rebus series to be particularly interesting because of the way it so consistently portrays the lighter side of the inspector’s personality. John Rebus, as most readers think of him, is a rather gloomy, cynical man both in his personal life and in the way he views everything he sees on the job. That is certainly the way I’ve come to think of the man based on the dozen or so Rebus books that I’ve now read. But that’s not at all the John Rebus that readers get in Strip Jack.


Instead, this John Rebus has a great, dry sense of humor; he’s a man who loves puns and other word play, and he displays that sense of humor so consistently that it seems to annoy his superiors to no end, especially those who are trying to get under his skin or reprimand him just before Rebus throws one of his pun-bombs in their direction. Rankin, who wrote this and two other Rebus novels while living in France, in fact, remarks on the overall tone of the novel in his “Introduction” to the three-book collection (Three Great Novels) that includes Strip Jack:


“I think the resulting novel is one of the lighter additions to the series. There’s not too much darkness; not too much blood. It was my attempt at a more traditional whodunnit. Maybe my surroundings were to blame. I’d exchanged high-pressure London and its daily grind for rolling hills, time and space. It couldn’t last and it didn’t.”


Ian Rankin
The Jack being “stripped” in Strip Jack is MP Gregor Jack, and the stripping process begins when the MP is caught in an Edinburgh brothel during a late night police raid on the establishment. Rebus begins to think something is unusual about Jack’s bad luck of being there exactly when cops show up as soon as he notices that all of the big, national newspapers have reporters and photographers outside the house but none of the local papers are even there. It’s obvious to Rebus that someone has tipped off the London papers in advance of the raid. And, Rebus being Rebus, that doesn’t sit well with him. Also, Rebus being Rebus, the detective that makes him curious enough to start poking around in MP Jack’s personal life to see if he can figure out who is working so hard to disgrace the man and strip him of everything he holds dear, including his political office.


Rebus, always willing to risk the ire of his departmental superiors, immediately begins his own “unofficial” investigation into the leak by stopping by the MP’s home to warn him about the tactics of the mob of reporters who are gathered at the man’s front gate. Then, more officially, he starts yanking on threads and following where those threads take him.


Bottom Line: Strip Jack, because of its lighter tone, will likely draw mixed reactions from longtime fans of the series. This John Rebus is not the man those readers know so well by now, and they may even find the character to be a little jarring in this iteration. The mystery surrounding Gregor Jack, his friends and his enemies, is not treated lightly by Rankin, however, and in the end, it is a satisfying one.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Four-Year-Old British Poet Signs His First Book Deal

Photo of Nadim as Posted to His Twitter Page

I'm still not entirely sure what to think about this story from The Guardian about a four-year-old U.K. boy-poet who just got a book deal from Walker Books. The publisher plans to release a collection of Nadim Shamma's poems this summer, and the little boy has already been interviewed by the Sunday Times and Sky News. I tend to worry a little about any inadvertent pressure being put on this precocious little boy to keep producing poems, but his Sky News interview, during which Nadim had to be reminded on-air that putting his finger up his nose "on live telly" is not a good idea, gives me hope that he is not letting all of the instant fame bother him very much. 

And then, too, there's this bit from the article:
Nadim himself sounded excited, although not excessively so, about the book deal. “I like writing poems especially about nature. I feel happy that my poems will be in a book,” he said. “When my poems are in a book, can I please have a copy?”
Personally, no matter how much poetry I have tried to read, I remain a near poetry-illiterate to this day. But from what I see of the poems posted to Nadim's Twitter account (@nadimthepoet), he may be one of the few poet's whose work I am entirely comfortable reading.

Nadim is a talented young man, and being able to see the world through the eyes of a child capable of expressing his thoughts so well should be a moving and refreshing experience for readers around the world. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Choice - Gillian McAllister

The whole premise of Gillian McAllister’s The Choice is a clever one – and the book has caught the attention of prominent book-related publications such as the New York Times Book Review – so I expected big things when I picked it up. But that’s not really what happened.


The plot, admittedly, really is clever. In her panic, a young woman mistakenly pushes what she assumes to be a male accoster running her down from behind the instant he makes contact with her. The man, largely carried by his own momentum, takes a header down seven steps, and the woman hardly has time to take another breath before she is looking down at an unconscious man, a man who now hardly seems to be breathing. So now what does she do? “The choice” is hers and hers alone to make.


Does she simply turn and run, assuming that since it’s near midnight and no one is around, she can just go home and pretend none of this happened? Or does she dial 999 (this is London), confess what she’s done, and get the man the medical attention he seems so desperately to need? This is where McAllister makes a good decision. Rather than limit Joanna, the narrator, to a simple binary choice, the author allows her to make and experience both of them. For the rest of The Choice, via alternating chapters that are synced to the same chronological progress of time, the reader follows along as one Joanna calls 999 for help and the “other” Joanna runs away and tries to blend back in with her ordinary life.


Gillian McAllister
Interestingly, as the months pass ever so slowly for the two Joannas, they suffer in very similar – and very different - ways, but they both suffer. The most unexpected consequences of Joanna’s decision, either way, are how those closest to her are affected. The lives of her best friend, her husband, her brother, and her boss are all very differently lived out depending on which way Joanna goes with calling or not calling for help.


Bottom Line: The Choice is based on an interesting premise, but the slow pacing of the novel and its limited action make for a bit of a disappointment to those hoping for, and expecting, more from the story. Joanna is not a particularly appealing character in the first place, and her prig of a husband is irritating in both versions of himself. Not unexpectedly, the victim turns out to be one of the only truly sympathetic characters in the novel, and I can’t help but wonder how much more interesting it may have been if he had turned out to be less of an innocent than he is portrayed as here. The Choice is not at all a bad book, but it’s nothing really special either.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

How Charles M. Schultz Used Peanuts to Promote Reading and Libraries

I love the way that Charles Schultz used his Peanuts comic strip to promote reading and libraries over the decades. Here are just a few examples of how he did it:

The real beauty of Schultz sharing his reading passion the way he did is that he didn't always have to use long, complicated panels to do it. Sometimes he did it without using any words at all, so that even his youngest readers could see their favorite characters enjoying books so often, and in so many ways. 

(Click on images for a larger view.)

Friday, July 24, 2020

A Late Mid-Year Look at My 2020 Reading Goals

I started adding up the numbers this afternoon to see what kind of progress, if any, I’ve been making toward meeting my 2020 reading goals. After getting over my initial disappointment at the lack of much real progress, I realized that, considering the on-again-off-again slump I’ve been in for most of the year, I shouldn’t be all that surprised by what the numbers are telling me.


Coming into the year, my goals were simple enough:


1.    To read more American and World History (1)

2.    To read more translated works (4)

3.    To read from my own bookshelves (12)

4.    Read more literary classics (1)

5.    Read books published between 1920 and 1979 (7)

6.    Read the earliest books from series I stated mid-way (7)

7.    Read more foreign titles not from Canada or the U.K. (5)


As you probably guessed already, the numbers in parentheses represent the number of books from each category that I’ve read to this point in the year. Even if I manage to double those numbers by the end of 2020, I’m going to be way short on my goals for several of the categories.


And I know why this is happening. In the past, the vast majority of my reading has been done in physical books that I either purchased for myself or acquired from the local library. Now that both libraries and bookstores are locked up tight, and physical books are so much harder to get hold of, I’ve been forced to read more e-books than ever before. Library e-books tend to be more recently published ones than not, and bookstore e-books are so expensive that I don’t buy all that many of them. (Just last week I purchased too e-books that, with tax, ended up costing me right at $32. I’m sorry, but that seems outrageous to me, because it is almost the cost of physical copies of the same two books, one of which was published in 2020 and the other in 1985.)


The result is that of the 64 books I’ve read to-date, 41 of them were published in either 2019 or 2020. And that doesn’t play well with some of my goals. I was a bit surprised to see that I’ve read 26 e-books and 25 physical books, a smaller number of e-books than it’s felt like I’ve been reading. But, throw in the 13 library audiobooks I’ve read this year, and it all starts to make sense why two-thirds of my reading has been confined to books published in the last 18 months. Library holds for e-books and audiobooks are a wonderful thing right now, don’t get me wrong, but choices are so heavily weighted toward newer books that it’s easy to find yourself reading almost exclusively nothing but bestsellers and other “hot” titles. And that’s what has happened to me since March.


Other tidbits that jump out at me:

·      5 abandoned books (a much lower number than usual for this time of year)

·      39 books written by men, 24 by women, and 1 co-authored by one of each

·      4 books by British writers, 4 by Canadians, 2 by Iranians, 1 by a Nigerian, 1 by a Swede, and 1 by a Frenchman


I love crunching numbers almost as much as I love reading – as you can probably tell.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Street Music - Timothy Hallinan

Poke Rafferty, always the champion of the underdog in any situation, is a good man. And now that Tim Hallinan has decided to end his Poke Rafferty series at nine books – Street Music being that ninth book – I’m going to have to learn to do without a new Poke Rafferty novel every year. A big part of the overall appeal of the Poke Rafferty books is their Bangkok setting and the little family that Poke, his Thai wife Rose, and Miaow, the little street girl they adopted several books back, have stitched together for themselves. The crime-fighting thrills along the way (and make no mistake, these are first rate thrillers) turn out to be the icing on what is already a damn fine cake.


The big surprise in Street Music is that it is not really a book about Poke Rafferty. Instead, this is a book about his daughter, one that explores Miaow’s origins and why the five-or-six-year-old (no one knows her real age prior to the revelations of Street Music) was living on Bangkok’s streets when Poke took her into his home eight years earlier. It took Miaow a long time to learn to trust in the permanence of her new family, but she finally got there. Now, it is not so surprising that she is reacting to the presence of her new baby brother pretty much the way any teen who unexpectedly loses only-child status might react: with a purposeful indifference to the boy and a whole lot of  jealousy at all the attention he is getting.


Poke, too, is finding it a bit difficult to adjust to little Frank’s high rank in the family hierarchy. In addition to Poke having to spend his nights on a lumpy couch while Rose tends to Frank’s every need, the Rafferty apartment is almost constantly filled with Rose’s friends, all there to help and to admire Frank, so Poke is starting to feel a bit unnecessary. With all the ruckus, he has become a travel writer who can’t write, can’t sleep, and can’t get much of his wife’s attention. Poke badly needs something to keep him busy, so when one of regulars at Leon and Toot’s (formerly the Expat Bar) goes missing, Poke is more than willing to investigate the old man’s disappearance.


Then it happens.  Someone shows up at Poke’s door whom he never expected to see, someone with the power to tear his little family apart forever. And it turns out that Poke kind of likes her.


Tim Hallinan
Street Music is a fitting farewell to Poke Rafferty in the sense that he has reached a stage of life in which it is appropriately time for him to slow down a little and start thinking more about the future of his wife and two children. Even now, although Poke cannot quite resist the familiar urge to help people who are so lost that they can’t help themselves anymore, his family is always on his mind, influencing just how much he is willing to put himself at risk to help others.


So, take care of yourself and the family, Poke. We are going to miss each and every one of you.


Bottom Line: Street Music is probably not the sendoff that most longtime Poke Rafferty fans expected it would be, but it is a satisfying enough last look at Poke and everyone in his world. The only quarrel I have with the novel is more a technical one than a plot-based one. The book is broken into three parts, with Part I being largely the set-up to what will follow next, Part II being the (I think) too-long backstory of the character who knocks so unexpectedly on Poke’s door, and Part III being the resolution of the book’s two plot lines. Part II, at something like 130 pages of the e-book’s 366 total pages, probably because I already knew this is Poke’s last hurrah, just seemed to go on forever, and I grew frustrated as the remaining page-count kept dwindling away for so long. My reaction to Part II may be more a compliment to my devotion to the Poke Rafferty character than to anything else, but I know that I would have gladly traded some of the pages of Part II for additional pages in Parts I or III.