Monday, November 30, 2020

Happy 185th Birthday to Mark Twain

Sam in His Birthday Suit
Happy 185th birthday, Mr. Clemens.  It is still difficult for me to believe that Sam Clemens has been dead for over 110 years now or that he was born so early in the nineteenth century (1835).  Even though the dates make perfect sense when I look at them (after all, Clemens was a Confederate army deserter during the Civil War), his work is still so fresh and readable to modern readers.  Too, the man was in his early sixties when my own grandparents were born - meaning that he shared space on this planet for about a dozen years with some folks I loved and knew well.  Oh, and then there is the video of Clemens and his daughters on YouTube that I've inserted below...something few Civil War veterans can claim.

Mark Twain, as he is best known, is truly one of the finest novelists ever, and most scholars still call him the "greatest American humorist" we have ever seen.  His own most influential novel (whether it was his best work might be debated, I suppose), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called one of the most influential of all time.

Twain was not the wisest of personal investors and, in fact, was more likely to lose money than make any from the inventions he backed with his fortune.  However, he was a man with a great deal of compassion.  I was reminded of this by my reading of Charles Flood's Grant's Final Victory in which Flood details Twain's critical involvement in the publication of Grant's memoirs.  Twain's (as well as Grant's) main concern in that relationship was to make sure that Mrs. Grant was left with enough money to sustain her standard of living for the rest of her life.  Grant was dying of throat/tongue cancer and had to race the clock to get the work finished before the illness claimed his life.  Twain published the two-volumes himself, making sure to give Grant the most favorable royalty terms ever seen at that time.  In effect, Twain took all of the risk and limited his own profits from the deal by granting the Grants such a generous deal.

So, Happy Birthday, Sam...wherever you are.  Your work will live forever, as will your image.  You were a serious novelist when you wanted to be, though always a wit, and you created a personae that many after you have failed miserably in trying to copy for themselves.

For those who have never seen it, here is the video I mentioned.  This was apparently shot in 1909 by Thomas Edison.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Any Other Name - Craig Johnson

Any Other Name (2014) is the tenth novel in Craig Johnson’s hugely popular “Longmire Mystery” series. As this one begins, Sheriff Walt Longmire is feeling the ticking of the clock in a big way because his daughter is about to deliver his first grandchild in a Philadelphia hospital — and he is supposed to be there when that happens. But instead of heading in that direction, Walt finds himself taking on a “mercy case” in a neighboring Wyoming county on behalf of his old boss, Lucien Connally. And, as any longtime fan of the Longmire series well knows, once Walt Longmire begins an investigation, he finishes that investigation no matter what.

It seems that an old friend of Lucien’s, a competent detective of many years experience, has killed himself. At least that’s what authorities in the county are saying happened. Lucien, however, is not buying it because suicide is completely out of character for Detective Gerald Holman, so he asks Walt to see what he can find out about Holman’s last investigation. After a quick visit along with Lucien to Holman’s widow, Walt agrees to look into the man’s death despite Lucien’s warning to the widow that “if she didn’t want the answers, she better not have you (Walt) ask the questions.” 

Walt soon learns that the detective had been investigating a cold case concerning the disappearance of three women from the county within just a few months. There is nothing to connect the three women or their disappearance, but when both the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department and the dead detective’s daughter pressure him to drop his investigation, Walt is determined to find out why that is. And, as Lucien warned the detective’s widow, if you don’t want to know the truth don’t let Sheriff Walt Longmire start asking questions. 

Bottom Line: Probably because this is the fourth Longmire mystery I’ve read in the last few months (and that I’ve now read 14 of the 16 novels in the series), Craig Johnson’s structural pattern is becoming a little bit too predictable to me. I’ve lost count of how many of the books see Longmire in eminent danger of dying from exposure to the elements of a harsh Wyoming winter  before he has a vision that gives him the advice and courage he needs to persevere in his chase of the bad guys. This time around, the weather does not quite so eminently threaten Longmire’s life, but his almost bleeding to death leads to the same result. (The visions and conversations with ghosts are something that Walt Longmire shares with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux.) Any Other Name follows the well-tested Longmire-formula a little too closely for it to ever become one of my favorite Longmire mysteries, but if you are a fan of the series (like I obviously am), don’t miss this chapter in the Longmire story. 

Craig Johnson

Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Shakespeare Thanksgiving Dinner Celebration

 If only Shakespeare had been in America for at least one Thanksgiving celebration, it may have gone something like this:


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Slow Burner - Laura Lippman

Slow Burner is Laura Lippman’s contribution to the six-story “Hush Collection” that is available free to Amazon Prime members. Four of the stories in the compilation, including this one, run in the neighborhood of thirty pages in length, but the Jefferey Deaver one clocks in at eighty, and the one by Lisa Unger is 61 pages long. The only other story from “Hush” I’ve read so far is Ruth Ware’s Snowflakes, and I read that one mostly as an introduction to Ware’s style since I had not read her previously. 

Slow Burner is a tale about cheating husbands and the wives who catch them at it. The particular husband in this one thought he was being especially clever by buying one of those cheap “burner” phones so that he could safely communicate with the woman he hoped to make his mistress. Unfortunately for him, that only works if you don’t forget to empty your pockets when you shed your dirty clothing at the end of the day. Our cheating husband, is simply not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

Once the would-be-cheater’s wife finds the phone, she goes into the “slow burn” alluded to in the title of the story. Her flame goes higher and higher, though, as she reads more and more of the text messages between her husband and the woman with whom he is so infatuated. 

This would not be much of a story, of course, if it ended well for all parties concerned, and Lippman does a good job of building a nervous anticipation in the reader about what is going to happen ultimately to at least one of the main characters. It’s only a question of whom you are rooting for. Do you want to see the “other woman” suffer, the cheating husband, both? Or do you have enough sympathy for them that you want the sneaky wife to fail in her efforts to get even? 

I won't tell you how I was hoping this one would end — or even if I was right. All I will say is that I figured out the ending way too early in the story, and that took away a lot of the fun I should have had with it. I’m a Laura Lippman admirer, and I’ve read quite a few of her novels and stories, so Slow Burner won’t change my opinion of her. I’m just a little disappointed that this one was as predictable as it turned out to be. 

Laura Lippman

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Monday, November 23, 2020

Afterlife - Julia Alvarez

This is my first experience with something from Julia Alvarez, but I know that she is a deeply respected author who has been well rewarded in the past. Her In the Time of the Butterflies, for instance, is said to have over one million copies in print now, and was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of that group’s Big Read program. Also, in 2013, President Obama presented Alvarez with the National Medal of Arts because of her “extraordinary storytelling.” Granted, Alvarez is known primarily as an author of coming-of-age novels for younger readers, and this is her first novel for adults in some fourteen years, so the fact that I’ve been pretty much oblivious to her work up to now is not really all that much of a stretch. 

Sadly enough, even though I came to my first Julia Alvarez story so late into her career, I have to say that Afterlife did not really worked for me. 

Afterlife is the story of a “sisterhood” of four women somewhere in their sixth or seventh decades who immigrated as children to the United States from the Dominican Republic. The novel’s central character is Antonia Vega, who has just retired from the college at which she’s taught English (of all things) for four decades. Just when she’s having to make that adjustment, Antonia’s husband dies very suddenly, and leaves her all alone. Now she feels broken. 

Soon, there will be plenty to help take Antonia’s mind off of her retirement and the loss of her husband. First, despite herself, she decides to help the young Mexican working illegally on the farm next door after he tells her that he is desperate to get his fiancé away from the coyotes who helped sneak her into the United States. Then, Izzy, the oldest of the four sisters, disappears while traveling to an out-of-state birthday party. After the sisterhood meets to decide how best to find their lost member, Antonia comes home only to find an obviously pregnant Mexican teen waiting for her. And that marks the official end of any semblance of the solitary life of a recently widowed retiree for which Antonia feared she was destined. 

The premise of Afterlife is interesting enough, but because most of the characters remained stick-figures to me right to the end of the novel, I never felt moved by the plight of any of them. None of them, including Antonia herself, ever felt real enough to me to make me forget that I was reading just another version of a story I’ve already heard too many times for it ever to seem fresh again. 

I do rather like Antonia’s idea about an afterlife, however, when she reaches the conclusion “that the only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them. Otherwise the world is depleted.” I was struck, too, by Antonia’s realization that she “has to live the only mortal life she is sure to have,” and how she uses an old Yiddish saying, “If I try to be like you, who will be like me?” to explain herself to herself. 

Bottom Line: I never managed to get myself in sync with Afterlife, and I wonder if I would have even finished it if it had been much longer than it’s just under 300 pages. Perhaps it is because the novel is so politically correct and predictable that I found myself growing bored with it about half way through. 

Julia Alvarez

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Unwilling - John Hart

The Unwilling is not my first experience with a John Hart novel, and because of that, I thought I knew what to expect from Hart’s writing. But I was wrong. Hart’s novels have always been intense, character-driven thrillers about bad things happening to good people, but this one is Hart on steroids. Admittedly, that feeling of souped-up intensity is partially the result of me having experienced The Unwilling via its audiobook version. Narrator Kevin Stillwell, by altering his voice and accent to fit the book’s various characters, expertly expresses the emotion on the page, but he doesn’t make the mistake that some audiobook readers do by turning a book into more of a personal performance than the reading of someone else’s prose. That can be a fine line to walk, but Stillwell remains firmly planted on the correct side of that line here. Stillwell is not the kind of audiobook narrator who gets in the author’s way; he is the type readers can forget about while enjoying the ride. When it’s all said and done, though, you then realize just how good a job he has done.  

The central character of The Unwilling is high school senior Gibby French. Gibby, whose father is a police detective, is the youngest of three brothers. One of his brothers has already died in Vietnam, and the other one came home from the war so emotionally scarred that he earned himself a three-year prison stint. Come June, Gibby and his friends will be facing difficult decisions of their own regarding the horrible war in that faraway country. Jake, fresh out of prison, wants to reconnect with Gibby, but that’s not something his parents want for their youngest son. Jake’s mother, in fact, often refers to Gibby as her “last good son,” and she does not plan to welcome his older brother back into the family at all — end of discussion. Gibby, though, knows his own mind, and what he wants is to get to know the only brother he has left. If it has to be behind his parents’ backs, so be it. 

And then it happens.

On the way home from a day at the lake with their dates, Jake, Gibby, and the girls catch up with a bus full of prisoners being transported back to their cells. Much to Jake’s dismay, his date decides to sexually taunt the prisoners as their car passes the prison bus. When the young woman’s horribly mutilated body is found a few days later, Jake becomes the prime suspect in her murder. Then, a little later, after Gibby’s own date is kidnapped, he joins his brother on the same list of suspects. When it appears to Gibby that even his father has resigned himself to seeing Jake spend the rest of his life in prison, Gibby decides to find the real murderer himself. All he has to work with are his best friend, Chance, the bicycle he rides to school on, a few dollars in his wallet, and a whole lot of determination. Maybe even enough determination to get himself and Chance killed. 

Bottom Line: The Unwilling is an experience. Part coming-of-age novel, part family saga, part serial killer thriller, this one also includes my favorite fictional villain since Hannibal Lecter showed up on the scene in the eighties. I’m going to remember The Unwilling for a long, long time. 

John Hart

Review Copy provided by Publisher - Book Available on February 2, 2021

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses - Lynne Sharon Schwartz

I’m a little embarrassed to say that even though I enjoyed and was impressed by Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Leaving Brooklyn when I read it back in June 1992, Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses is only the second  thing of hers I’ve read. Schwartz is, after all, the author of twenty-seven books, some of which (including Leaving Brooklyn) have been finalists for major awards such as the National Book Award and the PEN Faulkner Award. How such a fine writer could have completely slipped off my radar screen is beyond me.

Truthtelling is a collection of 25 short stories between three and twenty-something pages long. The title story itself, “Truthtelling,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award, and many of the other stories have been published previously in prestigious collections such as Best American Short Stories 2005 and O. Henry Prize Stories 2015. The collected stories are about ordinary men and women facing up to life the best way they know how as they encounter the kind of problems that are familiar to all of us. As the book’s subtitle suggests, the stories offer the reader intimate glimpses into the lives — and minds — of twenty-five characters not so different from the rest of us. 

There is a story about an elderly couple that has finally reached the age when each deems it safe to confess past sins to the other, one about a man who’s ex-wife figures out the perfect way to make him hurt as much as she does, and another about a woman who betrays the kindness of a stranger on a whim. There are stories about writers, singers, and even one about a concert pianist’s page-turner. Some of the stories are about people whose minds are not functioning quite right, placing them in unique and sometimes embarrassing predicaments. But all the stories are about what it means to be human, and how difficult the struggle can be at times for all of us.

Among my personal favorites is “Am I A Thief,” a story about an almost accidental theft (of a surprising object) inside a darkened movie theater and how the “thief” justifies the strange encounter to herself. Another is one of the longer stories in the collection, a story called “But I Digress…” in which a woman sitting at her father’s deathbed thinks about her father’s life and how his family’s experiences shaped her into who she is. My favorite of them all is also one of the saddest in the collection, a story called “Career Choice” in which a young woman decides that, because of her lack of job skills, there is only one choice open to her: marry an elderly rich man and hope to cash in before too many years go by. 

Bottom Line: Lynne Sharon Schwartz is a brilliant storyteller, and Truthtelling is filled with the kind of stories that will have readers thinking — and talking — about them long after they put the book down. If you are a short story fan, this is one collection you should not miss.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Salt Lane - William Shaw

Depending on where you look, William Shaw’s Salt Lane is either the first or the second book in the author’s DS Alexandria Cupidi series. Personally, I am of the opinion that it is the second book in the series because Alex Cupidi is one of the central characters in The Birdwatcher, a Shaw novel that preceded Salt Lane. And especially since there are at present only four Alex Cupidi books in all anyway, I would recommend that everyone read The Birdwatcher before picking up Salt Lane. 

Alexandria Cupidi comes across in The Birdwatcher as a self-absorbed, shrill, insensitive, holier-than-thou you-know-what — but a very good cop nonetheless. All in all, in fact, it was hard to figure out why Shaw thought anyone would want to read a second book about the woman at all. She certainly was not the kind of sympathetic character that anyone could love. All of that, though, largely changes in this second look at Cupidi. She has settled into life now in her small Kentish seaside community, and the rest of the police department there have accepted her now. They may not like her much, but they see that she is a good cop and that she’s good for the department. It helps, too, that we learn much of Cupidi’s backstory in this one.

Oh, Cupidi is still having problems with her young-teen daughter Zöe, so there’s that. At times the two of them barely communicate even though they live alone in an isolated beach cottage that seldom sees a visitor. Zöe has her avid bird-watching and Alex has her time-consuming work, and both of them are totally absorbed in their own worlds. By the time Alex realizes how isolated Zöe has become, the only solution she can come up with is to ask her mother to move in with them for a while. But then, because Alex has never really gotten along with her mother, all of a sudden she is the odd one out.

William Shaw
The real beauty of Salt Lane for me involves the bonding that happens between DS Cupidi and Jill Ferriter, the fearless young constable who’s been assigned to her care and mentoring. Jill is the kind of young cop who reminds me of what Alex must have been like as a young cop herself — minus all the rough edges. Both women live to get justice for the victims of people who do not deserve to be on the outside of prison walls. But both of them are prone to jumping into dangerous situations before calling for proper backup, a habit that often sees them nursing each other’s wounds in the aftermath. Their new partnership works so well because each is  willing to learn from the other, and because each of them probably sees a little of herself in the other. 

This one begins with the discovery of a woman’s body found floating in one of the countless waterways in the marshland along the Kentish coast. Police do manage to identify the woman, but they can’t find a cause of her death. Things get weird when police pay a London visit to the woman’s son only to learn that his mother had just spent the previous night with him and his family. Because the recovered body had been in the water for days, that was impossible. So who is the dead woman, really? And who is the homeless woman who showed up at the man’s London home claiming to be his long lost mother, the very woman who had put her son up for adoption as a two-year-old?

That’s bizarre enough, but when a second body, that of a man who appears to be in the country illegally, turns up on a nearby farm, the small police department is stretched to its limits. Can the murders possibly be related? It’s up to Alex Cupidi, Jill Ferriter, and their colleagues to figure this one out, but before it is over, it is Cupidi and Ferriter who will pay the steepest price of them all.

Bottom Line: I am now thoroughly hooked on the Alex Cupidi books, so hooked that I find myself wanting to slow down on them so that I don’t have to wait months for a new fifth series book to be published. The books are very atmospheric and very character-driven. There are no superheroes in the Cupidi books, only a lot of ordinary people doing their best to achieve something rather extraordinary with their lives. Do take a look at these because I think you will enjoy them. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Books: Objects of Art vs. Reading Material

While out on an errand a couple of days ago, I made another quick stop at my local Half-Price Books. As a buyer, I've always appreciated the diverse offerings of Half-Price Books but, as a seller, there's no way I'm going to let them rip me off ever again. Anyway, it was only my third visit (second to this store) since early March - and I only allowed myself a window of 15-20 minutes inside while avoiding people as much as possible.

My desire to avoid other customers ended up with me spending more time than usual in the "nostalgia" section of the bookstore. That section is generally filled with over-priced and worn out books from the fifties and sixties, but it also includes a lot of special editions that are printed especially for collectors. Stuff from publishers like the Folio Society, The Franklin Library, Easton Press, etc. Some of the books are bound in leather, some come in slipcases, and most of them include some really wonderful illustrations on high-quality paper. They are, in fact, rather beautiful, little pieces of art.

And that leads me to my question. Do book lovers buy these limited editions only of the books they've read and admire or do they buy them more as collectible art objects? These books are generally pretty expensive, especially the ones that are signed by authors and illustrators. They can go for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each, especially when word gets out that a particular edition is almost sold out. 

As for myself, partially because my available shelf space is nil, I can't imagine buying a book I already know deep down in my heart I won't be reading - or at least aspiring to read. But out of curiosity, I recently joined a Facebook group called "Fans of the Folio Society" because the pictures being posted there are so beautiful. The group is extremely active and friendly, and I've really enjoyed my two weeks there looking at the pictures and learning about the books and the mindset of those who love them so much. 

I even came home with my first Folio Society book, one appropriately enough titled First Folio. It is a collection of the forwards to 15 of the First Folio books published in the 2000s, and a few of the forwards are written by favorites of mine such as Colm Tóibín, A.S. Byatt, Peter Ackroyd, Jonathan Coe, and Julian Barnes.It is my understanding from the group I mentioned that the book was a Folio Society giveaway to subscribers back in 2008 when it was published. And, believe it or not, I enjoy reading book forwards and never skip over them, so I do "aspire" to read this one someday. (And it helped that it only cost five dollars.)

I'm not exactly hooked on the idea of collecting this type of book, but I'm intrigued enough to consider adding a few, especially if I can find them in used-book bookstores. I own three others of the type, all three having been signed (Margaret Atwood, E.L. Doctorow, and William Styron), already and I find something especially nice about handling such high quality books every once in a while. But every one of these I would place on a shelf would mean another book being placed out of sight, and I struggle with that enough already.

So how about it? Do you collect books as objects, pieces of art, or only as reading material? 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Tutoring Is an Education - Especially for This Tutor

Just time for a quick note this afternoon to let everyone know I'm still alive - but pretty tired. I've been tied up working with construction people and other really smart people to fix a couple of problems that have popped up around the house all of a electrical problem, a small roofing problem, and a gutter problem that led directly to the problem with the roof.

Add to that that I already spend several hours a day working with my high-school-senior grandson on his online schooling (100% online), and you can see my problem. I have, though, purchased a few books this week, including my first Folio Society book that I want to talk about in the next couple of days. In the meantime, as my grandson's tutor I have to stay one step ahead of him on these subjects:

  • Environmental Science
  • Aquatic Science
  • English 4
  • Pre-Cal
  • Government/Civics
  • Art History
  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
 Needless to say, I'm getting quite an education myself these days, but I'm really pleased that the resources he's studying play everything straight down the line - no politics or brainwashing at all, even the government and environmental science classes. There are five weeks left in this first semester, and we are trying to get at least 60% of the year's work done in the first half so that he (we) can coast a little bit in the second semester. I'm doing a lot of reading right now that doesn't show up on Book Chase.

My reading/reviewing/commenting is suffering...but it's all for a good cause. Oh, and I'm in the middle of selling my father's house, and that's eating up way more time than I ever believed it would even though we are fast approaching the formal closing on the sale right now (just got back from the bank to have even more papers notarized).

As Arnold says..."I'll be back." Very soon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

A Private Cathedral (Dave Robicheaux #23)

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books have always seemed darker and more violent to me than most of the other popular detective series of the day. Considering what Dave Robicheaux and his blood brother Clete Purcel have endured over the first twenty-two books of the series, they are lucky to still be standing, much less breathing. I have been reading the Robicheaux books as each of them is published all the way back to the third book in the series, Black Cherry Blues, so I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from A Private Cathedral when it comes to violence, mysticism, visions, and the like. Boy, was I wrong, because A Private Cathedral reaches a whole new level of darkness and evil brutality.

As the novel opens, Dave Robicheaux is a lonely man living with several cats and Tripod, his pet raccoon. The twice-married Robicheaux has by now been twice-widowed, and he is still grieving the loss of both women. Alafair, his daughter, is in school a long way from New Iberia, Louisiana, and Robicheaux misses her terribly, too. He’s lost his badge, and is waiting on investigators to decide if deserves to get it back (not that that much slows a man like Dave Robicheaux down). And now, things are going to get much, much worse for the “Bobbsey Twins,” Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcel. 

There are two major crime families in the New Iberia area, the Shondells and the Balangies, and they hate each other’s guts. However, in order to avoid a bloodbath, it’s important that the two families figure out a way to keep the balance of power from being tipped too heavily in favor of one or the other of them. When Isolde Balangie, the teen-aged step-daughter of the Balangie kingpin, tells Dave one day that she is being delivered to Mark Shondell, head of the Shondell family, he understands that some kind of deal has been struck between the two families. But it all smells too much like human-trafficking for Dave to ignore what he’s been told and what he already knows about Mark Shondell.

In a Romeo and Juliet kind of twist, Isolde Balangie soon disappears along with Mark Shondell’s nephew Johnny. Dave knows that can’t be part of the families’ masterplan, so he wants to find them before anyone else does. Not only won’t that be easy, it will result in Dave and Clete having to run and hide from what appears to be a time-traveling hitman from the bowels of hell, a “man” who travels on a ghost ship, can induce traumatizing hallucinations, and strike directly at the weak spots of his prey. Oh…and he doesn’t have a nose, does have beady little eyes, and from the color of his skin may just be more reptile than human. 

So, yes, A Private Cathedral requires a huge leap of suspended disbelief by the reader if it is to be taken seriously. But I don’t read Dave Robicheaux novels just for the plot; I read them to get inside Dave’s head - and sometimes inside Clete’s - in order to understand better what makes him tick. They are both “White Knights” despite their personal habits and their willingness to bend the law however much it takes to make sure that the good guys win in the end. They are both alcoholics, but only Dave seems to ever be on the wagon. They are both scarred by their mutual experiences in Vietnam. They are both Cajuns who believe in spirits, ghosts, and visions in a way that others will never understand. And, somehow, they are now two old men covered in battle scars from the past who have survived way longer than either ever expected to survive.

They are both rather brilliant, introspective men, although Clete hides it better than Dave. Dave describes Clete as “a closet bibliophile” who has “stored hundreds of paperback books he bought in secondhand stores and yard sales, most of them about American history and the War Between the States.” He reads and re-reads them. Dave, on the other hand, often speaks like a man with both a classical education and an education in the classics. He can’t hide his true character the way that Clete hides his own.

What worries me a little about A Private Cathedral is what seems to be a personal message from Dave to his admiring audience of readers. On the novel’s last page, Dave says:

“I didn’t want to hear any more of the story. I had already put aside the unhappiness of the past and no longer wanted to probe the shadows of the heart or the evil that men do. It was time to lay down my sword and shield and study war no more.”

It remains to be seen whether or not Dave is talking only about the Balangies and the Shondells or not. After all, James Lee Burke is 83 years old now, and one day we will have read the final chapter in the story of the Bobbsey Twins. And, honestly, Dave and Clete haven’t been acting their ages for a long time - Vietnam veterans must all be at least 70 years old now, and our heroes have hardly lost a step - but then again, neither has Burke. They are all still indestructible in the long run.

James Lee Burke

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Bob: The Right Hand of God - Pat Bertram

When I read the back cover of Pat Bertram’s Bob: The Right Hand of God, I figured it was going to be a lot of fun, a light-hearted story that would get my mind off all the negative things that have been happening in 2020. And, thankfully enough, it turns out that I was right. I was able to lose myself for several hours in Bertram’s tale about what might happen if God decided that Earth and all of His Earthly creations were only a pretty good first-effort badly in need of a do-over. 

Chet is a rather sensitive young man who runs a Denver pet store very fittingly called “Used Pets.” All of the animals that Bob works to place with just the right new owner have been abused or abandoned by previous owners. Some are elderly, some have crippling injuries, and others have outgrown even their usefulness as zoo animals. Used Pets defines Chet and the way he sees the world. His biggest problem, however, is driving him nuts. Chet has an overbearing mother who insists on micro-managing his life, and nothing he does to discourage her efforts does the least bit of good.

Finally, things do start to change for Chet, but only after a little guy called Bob makes an April Fool’s Day appearance on television to announce that God has decided to recreate Earth in the form of a theme park for visitors from around the Galaxy. Soon, despite having laughed off Bob as just another April Fool’s prank, Chet has to admit that everything around him is steadily being “deleted,” including his mother and millions of other people. Chet sees it happening, but he refuses to play Bob’s game. He refuses to enter any of the gates set up to gather those who have not been deleted. Chet is simply not a walk-toward-the-light kind of guy; he never has been and he never will be. But maybe that’s why Bob has taken such a shine to Chet and seems to be cutting him a little slack.

Now, as the world around him slowly disappears, only to be replaced with one oddity after another, Chet has some big decisions to make. Does he even have a chance of surviving on his own or will he eventually have to give up and enter one of the camps set-up for people like him? According to Bob, the camps are mini-paradises, but can Bob really be trusted? What is life really like inside one of the compounds? Well, there’s only one way to find out. So what’s a guy like Chet to do?

Bottom Line: Bob: The Right Hand of God is funny and it’s clever, but deep down, it has a message about the important things in life. Pat Bertram has written several books on grief and grieving and she brings that kind of emotional sensitivity even to a farcical tale like this one. If you are looking for something fun to read, this is one you should consider. 

Pat Bertram

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Saturday, November 07, 2020

First Visit to a B&N Bookstore Since Early March Was Depressing

 I've been very cautious about going places I really don't need to go during this whole COVID-19 disaster, but I decided to poke my head inside the door of a couple of local bookstores last week for the first time since early March. I figured I could judge by their parking lots whether or not very many people were inside before I ventured through the door myself. In both cases, the stores had maybe 10% of the number of browsers and shoppers I consistently found there in the pre-pandemic days.

Interestingly, one of the stores, Half-Price Books, looked exactly the way I remembered it looking last March. But the other one, a large one-floor Barnes & Noble, looked like someone had walked away with about 25-30 percent of the books they used to stock. Shelves had been moved around, there were empty wide-open spaces all over the place, and customers seemed to be doing nothing but browsing. I didn't see a single book actually being sold for the entire 30 minutes I was there.

This is what I mean. Look at the astounding amount of floor space being wasted. Back in March, space like this was utilized by rows and rows of shelving used to display books. The shelving, at least as I recall it, ran perpendicular to this pathetic little island sitting out there all alone. 

This is what's left of what was a substantial Fiction section in the store. It appears that more than half the old shelves are gone from this area. I did find a few remnants of the old shelves in other spots, but the number of books being carried by this B&N location is now pretty embarrassing. If you are looking for anything not brand new or on the bestseller list, forget it. That is unless it's the back catalog of such literary masters as Stephen King, James Patterson, Danielle Steele, or the like. 

This is a spot in one of the back corners of the store. This area used to house the store's nonfiction books, but it has suffered a fate similar to that of the fiction section I mentioned earlier. The one lone table, featuring a single book, highlights the emptiness and deterioration of the section. The history section is still pretty good, but not all of the nonfiction sections appear to have been so lucky. Lots of missing shelves, translates to lots of missing books from which to choose.

I put this photo here only to show that the store has decided to remove the benches that were on the green rugs before the pandemic changes. I do sort of understand that removing the seating in the store is probably a smart move until Texas gets its infection rate under control. The few remaining chairs in another corner of the store have also all been removed.

This just made me sad. Barnes & Noble has been struggling for years to survive the Amazon onslaught. B&N managed to help drive all the other bookstore chains out of business years ago, and then Amazon decided to do the same to them. But up until now at least, my local store still served as a place I could go into and come out of with some book I didn't even know existed until I spotted it on a shelf. And then, if I wanted to read something else by that surprise author, there was a chance that the store had at least another book or two by them.

Those days are gone now. Chances of finding something new and interesting at this B&N location are only slightly better than trying to wade through the Amazon dreck-haystack looking for something worth reading. In the Amazon case, it's a haystack so filled with utter garbage that good books get buried by the trash. In the B&N case, the haystack is now so small that the interesting stuff gets buried by the dreck written by the Kings, Pattersons, Steeles, and ghost writers of political books. 

These changes give me the impression that Barnes and Noble is hanging on by the skin of its teeth now. I certainly didn't enjoy my visit to this location, and I walked away empty-handed. Can't remember the last time that's happened. I entered all prepared to spend a lot of money on my first visit to a bookstore in over six months. I left without spending a dime - and that's B&N's fault, not mine.

I asked the store manager what was behind all the changes, and her explanation was that they were told to get rid of everything that "doesn't sell." For that reason, bestsellers and hack-authors now dominate the shelves. I even asked her if the "island spacing" had something to do with keeping customers more spread out during the pandemic. She looked at me as if I had just given her an idea of how to answer the question next time she was asked about all the missing books. But, no, she said this was the store's permanent new look.

And that depresses the hell out of me.

As did this book I found on display. How could Anne Perry, of all the people in the world, write a book with this particular title? This is the same woman who helped beat her mother's best friend to death with half a brick stuffed in a sock - the young mother who took the author into her home and included her on the very outing during which Perry helped murder her. The lack of personal awareness on exhibit here is astounding.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Good Eggs - Rebecca Hardiman

There are indeed a few “good eggs” in Rebecca Hardiman’s debut novel Good Eggs, but the truly good ones are not easily identifiable at first glance. Some of the “eggs” are better than others, some are not as good as they first seem to be, and others turn out to be a whole lot better than we thought they were. And, Dublin’s Gogarty family fills almost a whole carton of “eggs” all by itself.

Kevin Gogarty, father of twin teenaged daughters, a younger daughter, and a small son, has found himself relegated to the role of house-husband in recent months. His wife has necessarily taken on a more time-consuming job in order to support the family at least until Kevin manages to find a new job for himself. It doesn’t help, however, that all of Kevin’s experience is in a dying industry whose job-base is rapidly shrinking. In the meantime, Kevin is doing a passable job as house-husband while rather halfheartedly looking for a job and keeping tabs on his 82-year-old mother. 

Kevin’s world, though, is about to get interesting. Millie, his mother, seems greatly to be enjoying some of the freedoms that come with advanced age: speaking her mind, dressing comfortably at all times, eating whatever she wants to eat at all hours of the day and night, and — in her mind, at least — even a little bit of recreational shoplifting. It’s that last bit that gives Kevin the opportunity to finally insist that his mother accept a home-visiting caretaker into her life, a development that Millie sees as placing her giant step closer to the nursing home life she so dreads. In the meantime, Aideen, one of Kevin’s twins, has become so rebellious and unhappy with her life, that Kevin and his wife decide to send her away to boarding school. 

Rebecca Hardiman

Now, Kevin thinks, life will settle down into the calm routine he needs if he is to get on seriously with his job search. Let’s just say that Kevin could not have been more wrong about that if he had tried. 

Bottom Line: Good Eggs is a very funny novel with a heart. At times, the humor is almost slapstick in nature, but the reader is always aware that Millie Gogarty is really just an old woman trying to make the most of what time she has left. She is a memorable character, one with whom many readers will easily identify as they prepare (and hope) to age with a bang rather than with a whimper themselves. It is impossible not to cheer on Millie and Aideen as they enjoy together the adventure of their lifetimes. This one is fun.

Review Copy provided by Publisher - Novel to be published in March 2021

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

A Rule Against Murder - Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder (2008) is the fourth book in Louise Penny’s popular 16-book Inspector Gamache  series. Because I’ve now read thirteen of the novels, including the first four and the last seven, I’m trying to get my ahead around what this one must have been like for its readers in 2008. How much did it newly reveal about Gamache (who is now in his fifties), his wife, his children, and his evolving relationship with Jean-Guy Beauvoir, for instance? Was the little village of Three Pines beginning to take centerstage in readers’ minds despite it not being much featured in A Rule Against Murder? I began reading the series in such a random order that I can’t comfortably draw any conclusions for myself.

A Rule Against Murder reminds me a little of what my perception of an Agatha Christie plot was often like: someone is murdered in a setting that greatly limits the number of potential suspects and no one will be going far before the murderer is identified by investigators. In this case that setting is a small, luxury hotel called Manoir Bellechasse built deep in the Canadian woods almost a century earlier. 

As it turns out, Manoir Bellechasse is very special to Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache. They have been coming to the old hotel every summer for the past thirty years. In addition to housing the small room in which the married couple first slept together, the hotel serves as a retreat from the world in which the Gamaches can prepare themselves to deal with the life of a high-ranking policeman for another year. This year, however, they learn that the hotel has been booked by a single wealthy family for its annual reunion, and that they will be apologetically relegated to a small room at the back of the hotel. 

The Finney family is an extraordinary family in many ways, including the wealth that has already been partially distributed between the family’s adult children. Perhaps even more extraordinary, however, is the utter dislike and contempt the siblings share for one another, their mother, and even at times for their dead father. That they actually show up for the reunions — and one of them is here for the first time in several years — makes Gamache wonder what they may be  hiding from the world, and for that matter, from each other. When a body is discovered in the aftermath of a violent storm, it will be up to Gamache, Beauvoir, and the rest of the team to figure exactly that out.

Bottom Line: A Rule Against Murder is a fine addition to the Gamache series. Seldom has a murder been committed in so unusual, seemingly impossible, a way as the one presented here. I have to doubt that anyone will figure out the physics involved in this case until Penny reveals them near the end of the novel. Too, there is a memorable child in the Finney family who has inexplicably been named Bean, a child who tugs at the emotions of the reader more and more as the story plays itself out. Fans of Three Pines only get a glimpse of the village and its residents at the beginning and end of this one.

(I “read” the audiobook version of A Rule Against Murder. The audiobook is narrated by Ralph Cosham who also narrated Penny’s Gamache novel Still Life. I find him to be a solid narrator, the type that I can forget thinking about after just a few pages. For me, that kind of smoothness and unobtrusiveness works best.)

Louise Penny