Saturday, August 29, 2020

Personal Note to My Blogging Friends

Herman Sattler (1922-2020)
Messing Around Somewhere in Germany at the End of WWII

This is a personal note to my blogging friends, many of whom have been aware of my father's ill health in recent weeks and how difficult it has been for me to deal with his problems during this awful pandemic.

Dad passed away peacefully this afternoon with the immediate cause of death listed as congestive heart failure. He had been unconscious for the last three days, subconsciously listening (I hope) to the Cajun music he grew up on in southwest Louisiana being played at his bedside. He sincerely believed in an afterlife and looked forward to seeing my mother for the first time in 21 years. Perhaps, he got his wish today.

Dad was born on a small farm in Louisiana in 1922 and lived there until moving to Texas for the first time in 1946. He was drafted into the U.S. Army one week after Pearl Harbor, landed at Normandy, and fought his way through France, Belgium, and most of Germany before the end of World War II. He tried farming again briefly after the war, but eventually decided to join one of his older brothers in Texas to start a new life here. He worked as an air-conditioner installer and repairman for almost exactly thirty years before being forced to retire because of bad knees. He liked to joke that he had been retired longer than he had worked at the job, something that is possible, I suppose, when you reach your 98th birthday.

Herman Sattler was indeed one of the lucky ones, but he was also one of the best men I ever knew in my life, always an example to his two sons and to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I, for one, didn't always live up to his standards, but it was never because I didn't know better.

We will miss him.

(Even now, things are complicated. Dad is to be buried in the little southeast Texas town he lived in with my mother for over 50 years. But...the town lost power during Hurricane Laura earlier this week, and both the funeral home and the church are still without power. So, it's still one day at a time.) 

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Children's Blizzard - Melanie Benjamin

In theory, it is way too early for me to be posting a review of Melanie Benjamin’s The Children’s Blizzard. The novel won’t even be published until the middle of January 2021 – but I’m excited about this book right now, and I want to start spreading the word about just how good it is. (I’ll probably repost the review – without these comments – again in January just to close the loop.) So, this is going out today.

I only even became aware of The Children's Blizzard because a book blogger, whose posts I follow closely, a few days ago put the novel on a list of books she is looking forward to reading soon. I read a considerable amount of historical fiction, and I’m particularly fond of writers able to immerse me completely in the period being featured. I discovered that Melanie Benjamin has that particular talent back in November 2011 when I read her The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, a novel that I lost myself in for several days. So, I’m not particularly surprised by how much I like The Children’s Blizzard.


The Children’s Blizzard is closely based upon a real-life blizzard that struck parts of  Nebraska and Dakota  on January 12, 1888. As it turned out, the storm could not have arrived at a more perfect moment than it did to claim a high death toll. Bitterly cold weather and a blinding snowstorm struck the area on the afternoon of a day that had begun as the first break in below-zero weather settlers had seen in days. Children were excited to be back in school after such a long absence, and most of them, along with their teachers, came to school wearing clothing barely adequate even for the light freeze they expected to face on their walk home at the end of the day. Even worse, the storm system arrived just as students were being dismissed, ensuring that most of the blizzard’s several hundred victims would be children who either froze to death on their way home or while huddled in their poorly insulated classrooms waiting for someone to rescue them.


Benjamin uses a cast of fictional characters to tell her story, but many of the events and details she writes about are based on what she calls “recorded history” in her “Author’s Note.” Key characters include sixteen-year-old Raina and her eighteen-year-old sister Gerda, both freshly minted schoolteachers who have moved away from home to run small schools attended by the children of farming families when those children are not needed at home as farmhands. And children like Anette, a little girl whose mother sold her to a farmer and his wife for a pig and a couple of chickens, and Fredrik, the little boy who falls madly in love with Anette even though all the other children prefer to shame her. Most prominent among the adult characters are the Pedersens, the couple who purchase Anette in order to exploit her free labor, and Gavin Woodson, the freelance newspaperman responsible for luring so many immigrants to Nebraska via the misleading ads and “fake news” stories he plants in newspapers all over northern Europe and America.


The Children’s Blizzard recounts a nineteenth-century American tragedy, but this is a tragedy filled with heroines and heroes of all ages. The biggest heroes are only children themselves, including the schoolteachers forced to make life and death decisions about the dozen or so younger children entrusted to their care. Some made the right decision; some did not. Either way, those who endured and survived the blizzard would be marked by the experience for the rest of their lives.


The Children’s Blizzard is a remarkable novel, so don’t miss it.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Laura Gave Houston a Free Pass

Lake Charles, Louisiana 

 Hurricane Laura finally made her turn slightly to the north that some forecasters were expecting, and that turned out to give the storm  enough of an angle into extreme southwest Louisiana that the Houston area was hardly impacted at all. I think Galveston had a little street flooding, but that was about it even that close to the Gulf. I live in one of Houston's northern suburbs, and up here we couldn't even tell that anything was going on.

I'm equally amazed at how tightly packed the eye of the hurricane has remained even after reaching land. That meant that the worst of the winds and rain did not impact nearly as wide an area as most hurricanes I've experienced in the past. Laura followed, and continues to follow, pretty much a straight line up through Louisiana. It will be curving eastward somewhere in Arkansas and will bring heavy rains eastward from there. It appears that even when Laura reaches Shreveport, she will still be categorized as a Category 1 storm.

After a lifetime of watching and living through hurricanes, I'm still surprised by their unpredictability even with today's high-tech tools to predict their paths. Twice in the past, I've even evacuated to areas for safety that unexpectedly turned out to be directly in the path of a hurricane, leaving the home we evacuated from high and dry.

My heart goes out to my friends and family in Louisiana who took, and are still taking, the brunt of this one. Thankfully, Laura is moving much faster than recent hurricanes, and that doesn't give her the time to drop torrential rains for hours and hours on the same area. The winds are doing terrible damage, but at least most families won't have to deal with horrendous flooding before they start the massive clean-up they will be facing now. Coastal areas, of course, did suffer flooding from rising tide levels that were pushed by the storm's 150 mph winds.

Keep everyone in your prayers. They need them right now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

As Hurricane Laura Approaches

 This quick post is just a heads-up of sorts that I, along with numerous other bloggers, am likely to disappear for a bit when Hurricane Laura finally lands somewhere around the Texas-Louisiana border late tonight or early in the morning. Even as close to land as the storm is now (maybe 150 miles out and moving about 15 mph), no one is quite sure yet exactly where it will make shore. It is expected to first impact land with winds between 145 and 150 mph, so wherever it hits, it will be bad news.

The best guess seems to be that it will strike somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana line, placing the Houston area on the west side of the storm system. That's the "dry" side, so we would not be subjected to most of the heavy rainfall. But it doesn't take much wind to knock out the power in this area, and sometimes it takes days - not hours - to restore power after something this massive. About eleven years ago, for instance, a hurricane (I've lost track of all their names now) knocked out power in my neighborhood for 14 days.

Houston has a decent shot at getting off lightly this time around, but just 100 miles southeast of us over 100,000 people are still in the process of evacuating their homes. That area includes the little town I grew up in, and I have numerous friends and relatives there still.

So for now, millions of people up and down the Gulf Coast are in the process of holding their breaths until Laura finally decides who is to be punished this time around. Here we go again.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Snowflakes - Ruth Ware


Amazon offers its Hush Collection of six short stories to Prime subscribers as loans, so I decided to read the first story in the collection last night, Ruth Ware's "Snowflakes." The good news is that you can download each of the stories individually; the bad news is that you can only borrow ten items from Prime at a time, so I could only download three of them. In addition to Ware's story, there are stories by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Laura Lippman, Jeffrey Deaver, Allison Gaylin, and Lisa Unger. The only one in the bunch I'm unfamiliar with is Gaylin, and that's probably my fault.

"Snowflakes" is a 21-page short story about a man who evacuates his family to an island because "war" is fast approaching their home and he wants them to be safe. The man's children know that he is a tyrant, but they understand that everything he makes them do is to help ensure their survival. Now, they are pretty much self-sufficient except for the things the man manages to occasionally smuggle in from the mainland. 

The children may not like their father, but they trust him - right up until the point he has them start building a high wall all the way around their compound. They sense that something has suddenly gone very wrong in their little world. And they are correct.

"Snowflakes" is, believe it or not, my first experience with Ruth Ware's writing. The story impresses me as being a well-written one, and I especially enjoyed the way she ended it. I'm always amazed at how much "story" good writers can pack into so few pages. Now I'll look forward to my first Ruth Ware novel. 


As an aside, I came across this Thomas Mann quote about readers that confuses me. I'm not sure what he is really saying (which may partially explain why I have never managed to finish The Magic Mountain):

"In books we never find anything but ourselves. Strangely enough, that always gives us great pleasure, and we say the author is a genius."

I think that Mann underestimated readers when he said this, but I'm open to having his meaning explained to me. Any takers?

Monday, August 24, 2020

All Shall Be Well - Deborah Crombie

I have an uneven history with Deborah Crombie’s eighteen-book Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series in that I jumped into the series way late at book number fourteen. By the time I picked up 2012’s No Mark Upon Her, Duncan and Gemma were married and had what seemed to be a house full of kids and animals. Since then, I’ve read a couple of books from the middle of the series and three of the four that followed No Mark Upon Her. What all of those have in common is the obvious love for each other that Gemma and Duncan enjoy, and their complete dedication to caring for their makeshift family. So, everything felt a little off kilter to me as I got deeper into the second book in the series, the 1994 novel All Shall Be Well.


It’s all early days for Duncan and Gemma in this one. Sergeant Gemma James, a young woman whose ex-husband has recently quit paying child support for their young son, reports directly to Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, a man with an ex of his own. In this second case of theirs, they work so well together that Kincaid allows James more investigatory freedom than he would grant many others on his team (not that Crombie spends any time actually introducing the rest of that team in this one). Gemma respects Duncan’s professional skills, and she is comfortable enough with him to call him out whenever she thinks he’s going the wrong way on a case. Duncan, on the other hand, in addition to his respect for Gemma’s skills, is beginning to feel a romantic spark or two whenever he’s around her.


The pair are investigating the death of Duncan’s downstairs-neighbor, Jasmine Dent. Jasmine was a terminally ill cancer patient fast approaching the end of her life, so no one is particularly surprised when she is found dead in her bed one morning. But then, just about the time that Duncan is about to write off the death as one caused by natural causes, a close friend of Jasmine’s remarks that she is relieved now that she backed out of her agreement to help the woman kill herself. After the autopsy confirms that Jasmine did not die of natural causes after all, and Duncan rules out suicide, he and Gemma immediately begin a murder investigation on their own. Did Jasmine’s decision not to kill herself somehow end up leading directly to her death?


Bottom Line: Without the domestic and departmental complications of later books in the series, All Should Be Well is pretty much a run-of-the-mill mystery story. That is not to say that the story is not competently told because Crombie is a very good writer and her writing skills are on display in this one, too. I was a bit put-off by the sudden brainstorm very near the end of the novel that gave Duncan all the answers for which he had been searching so long because this made the ending seemed more rushed than it should have been. Fans of the series will remember All Should Be Well more because of the budding romance between Duncan and Gemma that is on display than they will for the case they solve.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

All Systems Red - Martha Wells

I don’t read all that much pure science fiction these days, so I doubt that I would have become aware of Martha Wells’s Murderbot Series if I had not read a blogger’s review of All Systems Red, the first book in the series. As it turns out, there are currently four novellas of approximately 150 pages each, one 350-page novel, and one short story in the series - with a fifth novella scheduled for publication in 2021. All Systems Red was published in 2017, followed quickly in 2018 by the next three books. However, it was not until May 2020 that the Murderbot Diaries novel was published, so longtime fans of the series must have been thrilled to see it resumed.

The central character of All Systems Red, and of the whole series, is a “droid” supplied to planetary explorers and scientists somewhere in the distant future for security purposes when they are on the job far from any possible support or backup originating on Earth. The bots can be programmed and reprogrammed to perform various tasks, including becoming combat soldiers, as necessary. The particular group of scientists we encounter in All Systems Red has had the good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) fortune of having rented a bot smart enough to have hacked its own “governor module,” meaning that it is now capable of making its own decisions instead of always doing exactly what its humans tell it to do. Our bot, unknown to his humans, has dubbed himself “Murderbot.”


So what are Murderbot’s plans now? As you can tell from the book’s opening paragraph, not all that much, really:


            “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”


Murderbot is perfectly content to turn into a couch potato while performing the minimum required to keep his humans safe until they can be transported home by the company. But then something funny starts to happen: Murderbot starts to develop a personal relationship with the humans around him. And he hates that thought because he does not want to feel anything even remotely resembling a human emotion. He can’t wait to get back to watching his space operas, not realizing that he is learning all about what it is to be human from those same serials.

Bottom Line: All Systems Red does turn into quite a space thriller with good humans and bad humans using their bots to maim and kill each other over the potential profits the unknown planet might generate. But that’s not the kind of thing that will necessarily make readers anxious to get hold of the next book in the series. What hooks readers here, I think, is the idea that Murderbot is in the process of figuring out all for himself the meaning of his life. By the end of the novel, he is his own man. And I, for one, can’t wait to find out what’s next for this killer with a heart.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Keep Their Attention Long Enough and Maybe They Will Return


This one is aimed directly at my fellow book-bloggers. With the exception of some recovery-time off due to two major car accidents within a two-year period, I've been doing this now for well over thirteen years. A whole lot has changed in the book-blogging world during those years: numerous blogs I used to follow are history now, video-blogging and podcasting have augmented (if not replaced entirely) lots of book blogs, and cosmetically, at least, blogs are a lot more sophisticated now than they were back in 2007. 

But there are constants, too. Mainly, that my favorite book-bloggers, some of whom I've known since my first month of blogging, remain some of the kindest, most helpful, and most open people I've ever met. I firmly believe that we are mostly here for the same reason: we love books and we love talking about them with people who love books as much as we love them. But we love and admire the people who write books just as much - and we all want to help promote the work of our favorite writers alongside the exciting fresh crop of writers that we are always discovering. The good news is that writers sincerely seem to appreciate all the book chatter that we generate.

My question to you guys is one that sprang to mind when I found a short piece on ProBlogger entitled "15 Ways to Keep Readers on Your Blog." Coincidentally, the post is based on Episode 35 of the ProBlogger podcast, so these guys seem to be using both formats to communicate with prospective and current readers of their stuff. Under the assumption that all of us would like to reach as many readers as we can - and make more friends in the process - I'm going to list my favorites of ProBlogger's suggestions:

1. Link Your Posts - This means linking your current post to similar posts you've made on the same subject in the past. That's the best way to make some of your content into the "evergreen" variety that can give new readers a better idea of what they can expect from you in the future. Recycling is a good thing.

2. Increase Interaction - This is an area that I enjoy most despite the rather limited number of comments I get since my return to regular blogging in May 2019. Comments lead to conversation, conversation leads to sharing ideas and learning from each other, and that is really what this is all about. ProBlogger suggests two-way commenting, challenges, and competitions.

3. Be as Personal as You Can - Or, as personal as you feel comfortable with being. That's where the friendships develop and it's what a lot of readers will be attracted to, and the connections you build with your readers will keep them coming back to your page.

4. Pay Attention to the Parts of Your Blog Getting Traction - Notice  what works best on your blog and do those things more. 

5. Work on Your "About" Page - Every time I try out a new blog, that's my first stop. I want to see who the blogger is and what they intend for their blog in the future. I want to know who is behind the curtain.

I know that not everyone is at all concerned about building traffic, and I respect that. Many of us, me included, started book-blogging more as a personal record of what we were reading, an electronic journal of sorts. Then we were pleasantly surprised to learn that there are lots of people out there just like us. And I really enjoy meeting and interacting with first-time visitors to Book Chase.

You guys are the real experts out there. ProBlogger has some good ideas, but I suspect you have better ones. What works for you?

There are ten more ideas on that ProBlogger page I linked to, so do take a look at it there.

Friday, August 21, 2020

If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood


I have read a considerable number of true crime books over the years, and few of them have failed to fascinate me in one way or the other. Even fewer of them managed to simultaneously fascinate and repulse me the way that Gregg Olsen’s If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood did. The fascination comes from what Michelle “Shelly” Knotek was able to get away with for so long. The repulsion, maybe revulsion is an even better word, comes from having to be in her company for the three days it took me to read this account of how evil the woman was – and from all accounts, still is.


That Knotek’s three daughters (Nikki, Sami, and Tori) have managed to live relatively normal lives after the horrible physical and mental abuse they suffered at their mother’s hand and direction, is astounding. Although it is not addressed much in Olsen’s book, it is hard to believe that the three of them are not still suffering the consequences of the years their mother tortured them. Nikki, the oldest, is married and raising a family in Seattle; Sami, the middle daughter, is an elementary school teacher in a rural Washington town where much of the abuse happened; and Tori, the youngest is now in her early thirties and living somewhere in central Oregon.


Others of her mother’s victims were not so lucky.


Shelly Knotek was never happier than she was in the middle of physically torturing her victims. She lived for nothing more. And with the help of her third husband, Dave Knotek, a pathetically weak man who still defends his wife’s actions, she was able to hide what was happening from authorities for years. Ultimately, Shelly would be convicted of her crimes (via what is called an Alford plea agreement) and sentenced, after having talked herself into an extra 5 years for arrogantly denying everything at her formal sentencing, to 22 years in prison. It appears that she will be released sometime in 2022 after having served about 18 years of the sentence. Dave Knotek was sentenced to just under 15 years in 2004 and was released from prison in 2016.  


If You Tell includes an Afterword by Katherine Ramsland that goes a long way in explaining  how Shelly Knotek so easily found victims outside her immediate family. In one heartbreaking  passage, Ramsland sums it up this way:


“First, they look for compliant people with few resources: their own children or elderly parents, friends in need, homeless people, the mentally ill, or those without family ties. Then they pursue a program of steady erosion of their victims’ ability to resist. Even in the face of outrageous behavior, such people will be too frightened, docile, confused, or incapacitated to retaliate or seek help.”


But it is Nikki, Sami, and Tori who are given the last word, a warning to the public, especially to those who are vulnerable to people like their mother, that she will be released soon – and that she will do it again.

Michelle and David Knotek

Thursday, August 20, 2020

It's Book Festival Season - and It's All Going Virtual

 I think it's time to make a little lemonade out of all those sour lemons handed to us by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Have you guys always wanted to attend some of the more prominent book festivals in the U.S., but for lots of good reasons just never got it done? I sure have. Well, now's your chance because one of the best things to come out of this brave new world we are all living in right now is the virtual book fair. I've been noticing articles about how so many of this year's fall festivals are going to be streaming events via YouTube, and wondering how much attending virtually might cost us. Now, comes a bit of good news for you.

This article from the Miami Herald indicates that almost everything happening at the Miami Book Fair this year will be recorded or live-streamed to readers at no cost to them. Absolutely free.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done what 9/11 and Hurricane Andrew couldn’t do: It forced the fair, which began in 1984, to cancel its annual weeklong book frenzy at the college for the first time in 37 years. But the show will go on virtually — and it will go on for free.


That means a blend of pre-recorded events and livestream, possibly recorded interviews with authors and live Q and A sessions. Some events will be available on the website for one night only; others may linger online longer.


Mendez envisions it as “Netflix for books” accessed through a new and upgraded website. You’ll sign in with your email and create a password, and the site will take you to a list of programs, panels and conversations that you’ll view the way you view your Netflix catalog. Click on what you want to see, and the link will take you to a YouTube-like page where you watch the event.

I don't know about you, but I'm really excited by this news, and by what I've heard about the the Texas Book Festival and a few others that are planning something very similar to what Miami is doing.

Mark November 15-22 on your calendars so that you don't miss out on taking advantage of this rare chance to experience a major book festival without having to leave home. It's not the same experience as actually being there, of course, but it's got to be the next best thing. I'm hoping now that book festivals continue to share content with readers around the world even after the pandemic is finally in our rear-view mirrors. I'm pretty sure that authors and booksellers would sell a lot more books that way.

Other links for you to explore:

Texas Book Festival Goes Virtual  This is the 25th anniversary of the founding of this festival by Laura Bush back in 1995. It is usually a one-weekend event, but this year the sessions are being spread out between October 31 and November 15.

The San Diego Festival of Books  This appears to be a considerably smaller event taking place online on August 29.

Festival of Books in the Alleghenies   There is an event, with linking-up instructions, on the website for August 26.

South Dakota Festival of Books  Schedule for October 1-24, this one is in the process of converting itself into a virtual festival

Brooklyn Book Festival  This virtual festival is scheduled for October 24. 

And this is the tip of the iceberg. Book Festival season is largely a fall thing, and I see that quite a few festivals are yet to announce any plans for going virtual. Those later in the season are probably still hoping it will be business as usual for them, but their odds are not good, so keep your eyes open. 

This could really be fun. 

Read more here:

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Val McDermid Says the World's Leaders Should Read More Fiction - For Our Sake


I have long been of the opinion that readers of novels and other fiction are more empathetic and understanding than people who read only a steady diet of nonfiction, or don't bother to read anything at all other than their local sports page. And I think that's especially true for readers who started reading fiction from a young age.

Well, as this piece from The Guardian points out, author Val McDermid agrees - and takes it a big step or two further:

The most impressive political leaders during the coronavirus crisis have one thing in common, one of Britain’s most popular novelists believes: they all read fiction.

By contrast, the leader of one of the most “shambolic” responses is reading endless biographies of men who have gone before him, the “queen of crime”, Val McDermid, lamented at the Edinburgh international book festival.


Governments that seem to have done best “are led by people who read fiction” she said, naming Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland and Sanna Marin in Finland among them.

“They are all people who read fiction. What fiction gives you is the gift of imagination and the gift of empathy. You see a life outside your own bubble. If you’re sitting there reading your endless biographies of Churchill or Attlee or whatever, you’re not looking at the world outside your window. You’re not understanding the lives of ordinary people who populate the country you’re supposed to be governing.

“My advice to any politician is: go and read a novel and you’ll understand the world better and you can imagine a changed world better.”

I don't pay all that much attention to an author's political views - unless they promote them in their fiction - because I don't want to let my personal feelings interfere with my enjoyment of their work. (But in total honestly, there are two or three authors I cannot read with any pleasure anymore because they make their politics so simplistically obvious in their work.) I don't always agree with the outspoken McDermid's personal views, and I much appreciate her for not saturating her novels with them. I love her work...and I think here she has paid a great compliment to fiction readers around the world. Do you agree with Val?

Do, please, click on the link to The Guardian for the rest of the story. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Lives of Edie Pritchard - Larry Watson

Every time I read something by Larry Watson I wonder why it is that I haven’t read more of his work. I know his novels are out there, and I know that I’ve enjoyed each of the ones I’ve read , but for some reason I never go looking for more of them. The Lives of Edie Pritchard, which more or less fell into my lap, just reminded me again how good Watson’s writing is and how wonderfully he captures contemporary life in this country’s western states. 

The Lives of Edie Pritchard is set primarily in Montana where Edie Pritchard grew up alongside the twin brothers who both fell madly in love with her in high school. The brothers are, in fact, so in love with Edie that Dean, the lucky one, married her and Roy, his twin, regularly begged her to run off with him to start a new life despite already being married himself. Edie is a beautiful woman who catches the eye of every man she ever crosses paths with, but her attractiveness is about more than physical beauty. She’s so smart and self-confident that she’s been the big prize in her little part of Montana for as long as anyone can remember. Edie, though, is not happy about being defined only by her beauty, and that’s what has happened to her. She is better than that, and as the years go by, she is losing patience with those too blind to see it.


The novel is broken into three distinct sections, each being twenty years removed from the preceding period, of Edie’s life. The first part of the book covers the years 1967-68, the second catches up with Edie in 1987, and the third looks in on her as a 64-year-old grandmother in 2007. Along the way, Edie struggles with her marriage to Dean, a man who never seems to tell her the whole truth about what he is doing or thinking; falls into a second marriage to a man who sees her as his personal possession; and suffers even the sexual harassment of a man in his mid-twenties when she is already the grandmother of an eighteen-year-old granddaughter. All three men learn the hard way that when Edie has had enough, she has well and truly had enough.

Perhaps Edie should never have expected more from her little hometown in Montana. Maybe she was naïve to believe that such a small community would evolve right along with her, and that she would finally be seen as the real woman she knew herself to be. But she would learn the truth soon enough:


            “I mean, all of us are someone else through the eyes of others. And for all I know, maybe that other is as true, as real, as the person we believe we are. But the thing is, when you’re back home, you never have a chance to be someone other than who you were then. Even if you never were that person.”


Edie, though, is a smart woman who can take care of herself, and she finally gets it right – and does something about it:


            “I used to think maybe there’s a God who dreams up a special punishment for each one of us. And mine was to have twin brothers both want me.”


Bottom Line: The Lives of Edie Pritchard is a novel filled with memorably deep characters, all of them flawed in one way or the other. That’s part of the joy of watching Edie Pritchard finally figure out who she is and what she wants from the rest of her life. This is a good one.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Melbourne City Library Goes Well Beyound the Call of Duty by Calling Patrons for a Chat

 How about a bit of feel-good news for a change?

From The Guardian comes a story about how the Melbourne, Australia, city library and its regional libraries reacted to being closed down by the Covid-19 pandemic back in March. The article is titled "When Covid closed the library: staff call every member of Victorian library to say hello." It could have just as easily been titled "Another reason we love our libraries and librarians so much."

When Melbourne’s Yarra Plenty regional libraries first went into lockdown in March, shut the doors and left the remaining unborrowed books on their shelves, staff were sent home with a phone.

“One of the hardest things about lockdown was people being separated from their community,” said Lisa Dempster, Yarra Plenty’s executive manager of public participation.

“The library is often a hub for the community, and we identified the most vulnerable cohort of our community would be the elderly.”

So the library staff pulled from their database the phone number of every library member over the age of 70 – a total of 8,000 records.

Then the librarians started calling those members. All of them.

Librarians and social workers made those 8,000 calls. Some of the calls lasted five minutes or less, and some of them went for as long as thirty minutes. The goal was giving the elderly library patrons back their sense of community and connectedness. And it worked. The library system also delivered as many books as possible before the pandemic lockdown tightened, and they did that in innovative ways. 

Now, with Melbourne being in its fifth week of what they are calling "lockdown 2.0," the staff is calling all 8,000 of its elderly patrons again to see how they are coping with the stress of being shut-in for so long. 

Click on the link up above for the rest of the story. It's a good one.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Oxford University's Ten-Minute Book Club


As someone who has never been a member of a book club, even an online one, I'm intrigued by Oxford University's recent announcement about its new "Ten-Minute Book Club." The announcement on the university's website says that the club is especially for readers "short on time and low on energy." Well, these days I have a whole lot of time on my hands, but not nearly enough energy to use all that time either wisely or productively, so I'm pretty sure I qualify for membership.

Starting this week, and every week until October, a ten-minute literary extract will be released by the project team, led by Dr Alexandra Paddock, Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr and Dr Erica Lombard.  These will be from a wide selection of genres, including novels, essays, poetry and short stories. Each will be accompanied by a short introduction (in text, video or audio format) by an Oxford academic suggesting themes or contexts and suggestions for further reading - with a free link to the full text. 


Dr Paddock added, ‘We have designed Ten-Minute Book Club as a DIY collection of readings to be enjoyed alone or to spark discussion with family, friends, colleagues or anyone else…We chose a mixture of classic well-known literature and outstanding works which deserve more prominence, mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.’

In a definite nod to the times we live in, the book club's first  selection is 1903's The Soul of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois. If I read the announcement correctly, all the featured books, with one exception, are out of copyright and will be available for free downloads via Project Gutenberg. The club began last week, so in addition to Du Bois's book, a long poem called "The Royal Ascetic and the Hind," by Calcutta poet Toru Dutt is also up for reading and discussion.

I confess again to be poetry-illiterate, so I'm going to go with the selection from The Soul of Black Folks and wait for next week's selection. Take a look.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Disappearing Earth - Julia Phillips


I experienced/read Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth in its audiobook version. The book is narrated by Ilyana Kadushin, an experienced narrator of many previous audiobooks, including the popular YA Twilight series. Interestingly, as her name indicates, Kadushin is herself of Russian ancestry, lending an authenticity to her pronunciation of all the Russian surnames and place-names in the book. But, best of all, she is a great storyteller and very easy to listen to.

 Julia Phillips has had extraordinary success with Disappearing Earth, especially considering that it is her debut novel. The New York Times bestseller even went so far as to became a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award.  The story is set on a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East, a part of the world that is said to have one of the highest concentration of active volcanos anywhere. Kamchatka is, in fact, so remote that it is basically inaccessible by land, and is home to a mixture of Russians and an indigenous group of people known as the Even People. The bulk of the peninsula’s 315,000 population is concentrated in the capital city but there are much smaller native villages several hundred miles to the north. Phillips sets her novel in the capital and the much smaller native village called Esso. Remarkably enough, the author lived in Kamchatka as she researched her novel firsthand.


It all begins with the kidnapping of two little girls who are playing on the beach. Alyona and her younger sister, Sophia, disappear pretty much without a trace except for one witness who thinks she saw them getting into a shiny black car with a large blonde man. As you would expect, the girls’ parents are devastated by the loss of their daughters and the uncertainty of their fate, but life has to go on. Everyone understands that because the girls do not turn up within the first twenty-four hours of their disappearance, they are most likely already dead. Within weeks, the police have pretty much given up the search and are waiting for the winter thaw so that they can begin a search for the bodies of the two little girls. The only one who refuses to give up is their mother.

 There are thirteen chapters in Disappearing Earth, each of them narrated by a revolving cast of female characters who, taken together, give a clear picture of what life in Kamchatka is like for women. And it is not a pretty picture. None of the women appear to be much happy with the lives they live there, lives they correctly believe to be second class to those of their husbands and boyfriends. Readers get a clear message, too, that the indigenous population of Kamchatka is generally looked down upon by the Russians who now live there. So much so, that the disappearance of a native girl a bit older than Alyona and Sophia is quickly written off as being simply the case of a teen runaway.


Bottom Line: Disappearing Earth is a highly atmospheric novel with a deeply felt sense of place, one in which readers will easily immerse themselves. What did not work so well for me is that the “middle” eighty percent of the book is used only to illustrate the ripple effect that the kidnapping has on various secondary characters – all of whom seem already to hate their lives. The girls disappear in the first pages of the book, and the case does not advance again until its final two chapters. I found myself growing more and more impatient until I finally realized that this is not intended to be a mystery at all.

Narrator Ilyana Kadushin 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places - Gareth E. Rees

Gareth Rees’s Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places certainly lives up to its title. Despite having lived in the U.K. for a number of years, and the thousands of miles I’ve driven there, Rees took me to some places I never even got close to exploring (not that I would have likely explored them even if I’d known about them), some truly “unexpected places.”  

 Picture if you would a study of the country’s electric pylon networks, its ring roads and roundabouts, its abandoned housing and industrial estates, its underpasses and flyovers, its “concrete castles” (otherwise known as multi-story parking garages), and its abandoned hospitals. My personal favorite chapter in the book is its last, one titled “An Emotional Life of the M6,” in which Rees details his still very strong attachment to that particular motorway. This is the chapter that readers will most easily identify with, especially if they have their own memories tucked away of some long highway or interstate they once traveled regularly with their parents.  

Gareth Rees visited multiple cities and towns in England, Scotland, and Wales in search of weird stories “about the lore of everyday urban life.” He traveled to major cities like Manchester, London, and Birmingham as well as to lesser known towns and villages such as Harlow, Grimsby, Greenock and Kirkintilloch. You might think that he was only looking for “haunted” spots in each location he stopped to explore. After all, how easy must it be to convince yourself that an abandoned hospital – complete with beds and other left behind equipment – or a long abandoned factory that looks like everyone just decided never to return one after work one day, is haunted? It would be particularly easy to do so at dusk, exactly the time of day Rees most often visited such places.

But Unofficial Britain is not a book about ghost hunters or one written for them. Rees has a much deeper observation than that to share with his readers. Rees reaches the conclusion that even though everything about a place changes over the years, very little that matters actually changes. He maintains that a certain place tone and spirit is maintained forever despite what is overlaid on any place through the centuries – that each use of a place leaves something behind forever in an “ever-turning cycle.” He uses examples such as these:


            “The flyover where a viaduct once stood. The Victorian workhouse that became a hospital. The steelworks on the site of a monastery. The burial cairn surrounded by a busy interchange. Motorway earthworks that rise alongside their Stone Age predecessors.”

All places that Rees visits in Unofficial Britain” – all places where he feels the pull of the past so strongly that it gives him goose-bumps.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

25 Women Writers from the Past Reclaim Their Names Thanks to Bailey's/Women's Prize for Fiction

Photograph: Baileys/Women's prize for fiction

As part of the overall celebration of the 25th year of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Bailey’s, the prize sponsor, is to re-publish the works of 25 female authors who for one reason or another originally published the books under male, or male-sounding, nons de plume. The difference this time around is that the real names of the authors will be attached to their work.

And the good news for readers around the world, is that Bailey’s is making all 25 of these new e-books available to the public for free downloading. So, if you’ve been longing for a copy of Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans, your wish is about to come true.

According to this article from The Guardian,:

Some of the books, like Middlemarch, are well-known, including A Phantom Lover, a ghost story from Violet Paget, who wrote as Vernon Lee; and Indiana, a romance from Amantine Aurore Dupin, the 19th-century author better known as George Sand, who famously scandalised society by wearing male clothing and smoking cigars in public.

Others are being brought to the forefront after forgotten decades, such as Keynotes, a collection of feminist short stories from 1893 that includes open discussions of women’s sexuality. The stories were written by Mary Bright, who wrote as George Egerton, in 1893; she would say of them that “I realised that in literature, everything had been better done by man than woman could hope to emulate. There was one small plot left for her to tell; the terra incognita of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as man liked to imagine her.”


“This was about looking back to the women in whose footsteps we walk – the way that other women did get their work into print or couldn’t get their work into print. It’s just such a joyous idea,” said the novelist Kate Mosse, who founded the Women’s prize 25 years ago, following an all-male Booker prize shortlist.

I love this idea - and now I'll be keeping my eyes open for an announcement from Bailey's that the books have been published and made available for downloading. If any of you, especially those of you in the U.K., see anything before I do, please do add the information here as a "comment." Thanks. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Are Little Free Libraries Being Raided by Used-Book Bookstore Operators? Sure Looks That Way.


Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.who reported this story

I suppose it was always only a matter of time, and I doubt that this is the first time something like this has happened, but one Washington D.C. bookseller has been accused of raiding Little Free Libraries to help stock his own bookstore's shelves. 

According to this article, Don Alexander may have been caught stripping Little Free Libraries in his Alexandria Virginia, neighborhood of sellable books and replacing them with books he cannot sell in his soon-to-be-opened D.C. storefront.

"...Hodgins says she’s seen Alexander go through her Little Free Library several times, piling books on the roof of the library and then replacing them with books she’s unlikely to have stocked, including a Sudoku book. She has put more than $400 into building and maintaining her Little Free Library, which she fills with books from her book club as well as some by authors from her native Canada, that she’s purchased at full price with the expectation that they’ll be taken for noncommercial purposes."

Alexander denies that he has done anything wrong, even to mentioning that he has a Little Free Library in front of his own home. I may be a cynic, but his vehement defense, including his personal Little Free Library, just does not ring true to me. It defies common sense; what better way to acquire books for resale in your own shop could there ever be than a little baited trap at your own front door?

"It’s not illegal to sell books from a Little Free Library, though anyone doing so would defy the spirit of the program, which it describes on its website as “fostering neighborhood book exchanges.” In its FAQs, the organization encourages people who believe someone is taking books from their Little Free Library with the intention of selling them them to stamp books or mark their spines with a Sharpie to make them less salable. On its website, it shares the story of a Little Free Library “steward” in the Chicago area who successfully got the police involved with someone who was clearing out his box."

You decide. Go to the Washingtonian link up above for more details, including Alexander's snottily aggressive first response when challenged about what he was doing.  Personally, I'm betting that all that vigorous protesting of the anti-social charge against him is a whole lot of hot air. 

The bigger question, though, is how big a problem this is around the country? As the article points out, this practice is not currently illegal; but it sure as heck is unethical.