Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Murder of Mary Russell - Laurie R. King

It seems that I’ve done it again, finally blundered my way into another new-to-me author’s back catalog. This time it’s Laurie R. King and her Russell and Holmes series that caught my eye — and it only happened because someone left a copy of The Murder of Mary Russell on the floor of my local library branch. After almost tripping over the book, I decided to re-shelve it before someone else had the same, or worse, experience, but a funny thing happened…the book ended up coming home with me. And now I’m hooked on both the author and the series. If The Murder of Mary Russell is any indication, this is going to be fun, so my thanks go to whomever it was that was too lazy to pick the book up from the floor that day. 

Even better, it appears that The Murder of Mary Russell could be the perfect spot for late arrivals to the Russell and Holmes series to jump in. The novel is set in 1925, but in long flashbacks it explores the backstories (as envisioned by King) of Holmes, Mary Russell, and especially Mrs. Hudson. King makes all three of these main characters, along with several side characters, vividly come to life as the younger versions of Holmes, Hudson, and Russell meet for the first time and become the more familiar older versions of themselves we have come to know so well. 

When a strange young man from Australia shows up on the Holmes doorstep one day claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s son, Mary Russell reluctantly invites him inside to see what she can make of the shocking revelation. She justifies her decision, one that will place her and everyone she loves in great danger, this way:

“Would most young women accept such a claim without question? Perhaps. And perhaps most young women would be justified in their naïve acceptance. However, I was married to Sherlock Holmes, had known him only a few hours longer than I’d known Mrs. Hudson, and the basic fact of life with Holmes was: the world is filled with enemies.”

And this particular enemy, Samuel Hudson, is here for one reason only: payback. 

As Mary listens to what Samuel Hudson has to say about Mrs. Hudson, she starts to believe him despite how badly she wants not to. The man is looking for something, and Mary can tell that the more frustrated he becomes in his failed efforts to find it among Mrs. Hudson’s things, the more likely it is that he will pull the trigger of the gun in his hand. But if one of them has to die, Mary is determined that it will not be her…or will it be? All Mrs. Hudson can later tell Holmes is that she found substantial pools of blood on the floor when she returned to the unexpectedly empty house. And, as Holmes quickly learns, the blood on the floor is of the same type as his wife’s. Holmes hopes that his wife is being held for ransom, but the amount of blood on the floor tells him how unlikely that is. Is Mary Russell already dead?

Bottom Line: It is easy to see why fans of Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories have so readily taken to Laurie R. King’s Holmes pastiches. King has been doing them so long now (this is the fourteenth of seventeen books in the series) that she knows the characters as well as anyone ever has, and if this book is at all typical of others in the series, she writes a first-rate historical thriller, to boot. This will definitely not be my last Russell and Holmes novel. 

Laurie R. King

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Thought I Was Dreaming - Boy, Was I Wrong

We woke up this morning about 4:30 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass and all kinds of crashing noises. At first I thought it was all a dream because the noise ended as suddenly as it began. But in the meantime, my wife jumped out of bed and proceeded to break one of her big toes before she could get the lights turned on. After that shock, we started looking around the house and could find nothing wrong maybe it really was a dream?

And then my wife opened up to bedroom closet and found complete chaos inside. Broken glass, piles of open jigsaw puzzles all over the place, books with bent covers and pages everywhere, just a complete mess that made it impossible even to step into the closet to take a closer look. That started a two-hour process during which I began to feel that I was trying to dig someone out of a collapsed mine shaft from the outside. Honestly, it was so awful that I can't even describe it, and I wish I had thought to stop and take a photo before I started in on the mess so you could have seen it. 

As it turns out, the builder made a rookie mistake 22 years ago when the shelves were installed on that side of the closet, and the shelves have probably been trying to escape from the wall ever since. The carpenter measured wrong and apparently missed the studs with all of the top screws. The only thing holding the shelves in place all these years have been the bottom screws because they were drilled into secure wooden mounts at the base of the shelving. Apparently it was easier just to fake it rather than fix it, and that's what the builder chose to do. And neither we, nor the inspector caught it. 

Anyhow, Goodwill has benefited from some of the cleanup efforts, and more will be delivered to them tomorrow. 

I'm finally settling down to do a little reading and wondering how in the world I could have missed out on reading Ann Cleaves and Laurie R. King all these years. I'm reading one each of their books right now, and absolutely loving both of them. I'm about halfway through each, and I'm finding it difficult to choose between them. They are both absolutely excellent.

Tomorrow has to be a better day; it's almost impossible that it wouldn't be. Thank goodness for Ann Cleaves and Laurie R. King because I especially need a good book right now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Winter Counts - David Heska Wanbli Weiden

David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts is largely set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Virgil Wounded Horse offers a measure of justice and revenge to crime victims who are ignored by both their own tribal council and local law enforcement officers. In simple terms, Virgil is the local enforcer — and he is good at his job. 

It is, of course, impossible not to compare a novel like Winter Counts to those of writers like Craig Johnson, Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman, C.J. Box,  and others who cover much of the same territory. The good news is that David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel proves that he can hold his on with the best of them. Several members of the club have, in fact, endorsed Winter Counts because of its authenticity, cultural insight, and riveting storytelling. Of all of them, I think that C.J. Box put it best:

“I’ve been waiting most of my life for this book without realizing it. Winter Counts is a knowing, authentic, closely observed novel about modern-day Lakotas that rings absolutely true, warts and all. The sense of place is breathtaking and raw. It’s a hell of a debut.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t give much credence to author blurbs, figuring that they are more often than not just another case of two writers scratching each other’s back. But now that I’ve read Winter Counts for myself, I could not agree more with the blurbs splashed all over the novel’s back cover. 

Virgil Wounded Horse, who as a kid was badly bullied by some of the same people he sees every day on the reservation, knows what it’s like to feel helpless and afraid. That is probably one of the reasons he is always ready (and why he enjoys doing it) to give an unforgettable beating as final warning to those who would otherwise not suffer a thing for their crimes on the reservation. But then Virgil’s nephew Nathan overdoses on the suddenly available heroin he was given for free at the reservation school and nearly dies. Game changer…now it’s all very personal and it’s going to take more than an “unforgettable” beating to satisfy the intense anger that Virgil Wounded Horse is filled with.

With the help of Marie Short Bear, his ex-girlfriend, Virgil tracks the dealer to Denver, but that’s where things get complicated enough to limit his options. Virgil learns that the man he is looking for is only the link into the reservation for some other very powerful people looking for a new market for their product — and that much more powerful men than him are already looking for a way to put the heroin dealers out of business. Unfortunately, Nathan is about to become a pawn in a scheme that could easily get them all killed.

Bottom Line: Winter Counts (winter counts were the Lakota calendar system) is a genuine thriller, one of those coming-of-age stories in which the kid nearing adulthood will be lucky to survive the process. Weiden is one heck of a storyteller, and it’s hard not to tear right through this one. But the novel is so much more than that. Weiden is himself an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and he has filled Winter Counts with cultural insights and history that combine to make it all seem terribly real. His explanation of how and why both the American and Tribal legal systems all too often fail Native Americans is a heartbreaking one. Fiction, though, often spreads the truth more readily than nonfiction accounts of the same situation. Perhaps that is the best thing about books like Winter Counts and Craig Johnson’s more recent Daughter of the Morning Star. Read novels like these and tell your friends about them. Maybe someone will finally listen.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

(My thanks go to Cathy at Kittling Books for tipping me off to this one back in April with her review of Winter Counts.)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Daughter of the Morning Star - Craig Johnson

Daughter of the Morning Star
is the seventeenth novel in Craig Johnson’s popular Walt Longmire series. This time around, Walt and his often-deputized best friend Henry Standing Bear work a case that shines the spotlight on the real world reality that Native American women are being murdered at a rate ten times greater than the national average — and that Native women are not strangers to violence of any kind. As Johnson puts it in his introductory “Acknowledgments” section: “…four out of five Native women have experienced societal violence, with half having experienced sexual violence as well. Half of the Native women have been stalked in their lifetime, and they are two times as likely to experience violence and rape than their Anglo counterparts. Heartbreakingly, the majority of these Native women’s murders are by non-Natives on Native-owned land.”

“It is said that no tribe is truly defeated until the hearts of their women are on the ground — but what if there are no women at all?” - Lonnie Little Bird, friend of Sheriff Walt Longmire

The story begins when Tribal Police Chief Lolo Long asks Walt and Henry for help after her niece Jaya starts receiving written death threats. Jaya is the star player on her high school basketball team, and on the reservation that makes the teen a high profile superstar. Jaya Long is so good at basketball that she’s earned the nickname “Longbow” in honor of her ability to hit shots from all over the floor. Defiant by nature, Jaya knows that the death threats are no joke because her older sister, also a talented basketball player, disappeared a year earlier and has not been seen since. But Jaya is determined to live life her own way, and that is going to make it difficult for Walt and Henry to protect her while simultaneously trying to figure out what happened to the girl’s sister.

Chief Long knows Walt and Henry well; she knows that they get things done and that they don’t always play by the rules in the book. She is hoping that the two can stir things up so much, and so loudly, that the general public won’t be able to ignore what is happening to Native women any longer. Turns out, she is right about that, but it also turns out that Walt catches the attention of a mystical spirit, a soul-catcher of sorts, called the Éveohtsé-heómėse that holds on to the spirits of the dead who are not yet ready to move on to the next plane of existence, whatever that may be. So not only will Walt and Henry face-off against the usual suspects…a small group of racist white supremacists, jealous Natives, rival basketball fans…they will have to deal with a spirit that wants to walk away with their souls.

Bottom Line: Daughter of the Morning Star is another fun visit into Sheriff Walt Longmire’s world despite the fact that Walt is once again on the road. When that happens, some of the series side characters either fail to make an appearance at all or only pop into the picture for a moment or two. That’s what happens this time with Walt’s snarky undersheriff, and love interest, Vic Moretti and his daughter, Cady. Vic does manage to make a brief appearance or two on scene, but Cady’s appearances are even more limited. 

This story is not over because now Walt is as interested in Éveohtsé-heómėse as the spirit is in him, and he’s decided that it’s “impolite” to keep the spirit waiting any longer. I don’t know about you, but my money is on Walt.  

Craig Johnson

Friday, October 15, 2021

A Thousand Steps - T. Jefferson Parker

T. Jefferson Parker’s A Thousand Steps is the coming-of-age story of a Laguna Beach, California, boy who is largely having to do it all on his own. Matt’s father deserted the family six years earlier; his brother is a Vietnam tunnel rat; his mother seems determined to drown her own problems in booze and drugs; and his only sister has just been kidnapped. Matt may be the youngest member of his family, but he is smart enough to know that he is the only hope is sister has now.

It’s 1968 and Laguna Beach is attracting naive dropouts and cynical drug pushers from all over the country. Idiots like Timothy Leary are taking advantage of the new drug culture’s chaos to make themselves famous and rich at the expense of anyone and everyone they can exploit - and it seems that way too many people in Laguna Beach are happy enough to be exploited. Those protesting the justifiably unpopular war in Vietnam make it even easier for the unscrupulous to make a quick buck from all the turmoil. Right in the middle of all of this, Jasmine, Matt’s sister, disappears and no one seems overly concerned about that other than sixteen-year-old Matt, who decides to find his sister on his own if he has to.

Tied down by a daily paper route that is his only source of income, and never sure where his next meal is coming from, Matt still manages to spend his every spare moment in search of his sister, a search that eventually attracts the attention of the Laguna Beach police. The police realize that Matt gets around, and one of them wants to turn him into an informer while another, more sympathetic, cop encourages Matt to keep doing what he’s doing because it is Jasmine’s best chance at being found alive. The boy is in so far over his head, though, that he will be lucky to survive the next few days himself.

Bottom Line: A Thousand Steps makes for a good coming-of-age story, but its setting is really the novel’s strongest point. Parker vividly captures a place, and a time, in American history that was every bit as ugly as it is memorable, a period that changed the country forever. For readers who don’t remember living through those days themselves, A Thousand Steps is a little like jumping on a time machine and traveling back to the counterculture of the late sixties.

T. Jefferson Parker

Review Copy provided by Publisher. A Thousand Steps will be released on January 11, 2022.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Salt Path - Raynor Winn

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a big fan of books written by people who test themselves by long, cross-country trips. It doesn’t matter whether they are walking, riding bicycles or motorbikes, boating, or even driving, I’ve always envied the authors. But now something a little different has come along: Raynor Winn has written a long-walk kind of memoir with a twist. The Salt Path is about the 630-mile walk along part of England’s southern coast that Raynor and her husband Moth took on only because they suddenly found themselves homeless and jobless. Needless to say, this time around I don’t envy the author one little bit.

It could perhaps be argued that Raynor and Moth brought their problems upon themselves, but the only thing they were really guilty of was being a little too naive and trusting when it came to doing business with a man Moth had known since childhood. When that man’s business failed, he wasted little time coming after the couple’s home and business to compensate himself for their supposed share of the failed company’s debts and obligations. Raynor and Moth tried to defend themselves in court, but not being able to afford a competent attorney turned out to be their downfall- and at the end, they were left with only a few days to vacate the property. Everything they owned, and life as they knew it, was gone.

Well, it could just not get much worse than that, could it? The short answer is “yes, it could,” and it does exactly that when within a matter of days of losing their home and everything they own, Moth is diagnosed with an illness likely to claim his life within five years. So, with no place to go, and no money other than the minimal benefits they are eligible for each month, Raynor and Moth begin walking westward along England’s southern coast even though they have no idea what they will do once they come to the end of the trail months later.

The Salt Path is Winn’s account of what it was like for two people in their fifties to strap rather heavy packs onto their backs and trudge along during daylight hours without having any idea where they will be pitching their tent at the end of the day. Along the way, the pair endures the heat of the day, cold and wet nights that make it near impossible to sleep, the constant problem of finding enough water to keep themselves safely hydrated, and living on whatever meager diet they can afford. And if that is not already bad enough, they have to live with the societal stigma of being homeless when people they encounter along the way more times than not treat them as if they are carrying the plague simply because they are homeless. It is almost as if homelessness is a contagious disease. 

Bottom Line: Sad as The Salt Path is, for this reader the saddest part of all is the way that their fellow citizens treat Ray and Moth as soon as they learn that the couple are not voluntary hikers/campers out on some lark. This is particularly disappointing when the penny drops in the middle of a conversation and Ray and Moth’s new “friends” abruptly excuse themselves and leave the area as quickly as their feet can carry them away. The Salt Path has a sequel titled The Wild Silence, but I’m not sure that I’m up to reading that one just yet.

Author Raynor Winn & Her Husband Moth

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Does a Graphic Novel "Count" as a Book Read?

 I have a question for everyone that would be best presented as a poll question, but since Blogger software doesn't make that an easy thing to do (at least I can't figure out how to do it), let's just do it the hard way.  

In all the years I've been reading, the number of graphic novels I've read may now have finally used up all the fingers on one hand. And the one that accomplished the trick was not really a graphic novel; instead,I would call it a graphic biography. It was this 155-page "comics biography" of science fiction author Philip K. Dick:

Despite my admiration for several of Philip K. Dick's science fiction novels, I knew almost nothing about the man's personal life before I picked up this condensed version of his life. To the book's credit, I feel that I now have a solid feel for how all of Dick's personal problems with mental illness, drugs, and alcohol so directly influenced his work - and resulted in five marriages. I may not have a lot of hard, factual detail to back up my impressions but the illustrations added a great deal of depth to the limited text, and I'm pleased with how much better I now know Philip K. Dick, the man. 

So why do I still feel guilty about counting anything but the longest graphic novel as a "book read"? It even took me a few years to stop feeling guilty about counting audiobooks, so maybe this is not even an issue for most readers. 

So my question is this one: Is it legitimate to count a graphic novel that you spent maybe 90 minutes with as a book read when compiling your numbers for the year? 

I will be happy with a simple "yes" or "no," but would appreciate any comments you want to add to your votes. Thanks for participating.

Monday, October 11, 2021

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good - Helene Tursten

Like Dexter, Maud’s more famous fictional serial killer peer, Maud doesn’t kill anyone that doesn’t pretty much deserve killing. Dexter probably has killed more bad people than Maud will ever manage to knock off, but then Dexter isn’t 88-years-old either. Maude, on the other hand, is very near 89 by the end of Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, and she’s still going strong, so who knows what her final bodycount will total?

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good is a collection of five stories featuring Maud, the “elderly lady” in question, who has lived in the same large apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, for her whole life. Due to a legal clause her father managed to slip into a sales contract, Maud has lived in the apartment entirely rent-free for the last several decades, something that is a constant irritant to its owner and her fellow apartment building tenants. Maud has no real friends, and she likes it that way. She is not a lady to ignore the small stuff, and those who threaten her emotional peace or threaten to harm her in any way often pay the ultimate price for their behavior. That may sound a little drastic on Maude’s part, but Tursten’s stories are so funny, and Maude’s victims so deserving of a whack or two on the head, that readers can’t help but laugh at Maude’s shenanigans while cheering her on. 

The five stories collected here were written between 2007 and 2018, but Maud’s attitude  changes very little over time (the five stories are not even presented in the order in which they were written). Sometimes Maud is out there avenging old friends, sometimes neighbors (she has a vested interest in this one), and sometimes just — as she sees it — defending herself. Interestingly, the fifth story turns out to be a prequel to the story that comes just before it so that everything can be seen again from Maud’s point of view rather than that of the first person narrator (and neighbor of Maud’s) who gives us the original version of why a dead body was found in Maud’s apartment. That fourth story (“The Antique Dealer’s Death) is the only one of the five told in the first person; the other four are all in the third person.

Bottom Line: Maud is a hoot. Readers may feel a little guilty about laughing at the way Maud eliminates her problems, but it is impossible not to cheer her on. A second collection, of six stories, titled An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed has just been published, and it promises to continue Maud’s adventures and test her skills to stay out of prison. Go, Maud, go…

(Both collections are translated into English by Marlaine DeLargy.)

Helene Tursten

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics - Heather Lende

Heather Lende lives in one of those little towns where it seems like sooner or later just about everyone who wants to will eventually hold some kind of political office. For Lende, that would turn out to be a position on the Haines, Alaska, town assembly. Haines sits in the extreme southeast part of Alaska, and is a place pretty much only accessible by plane, boat or ferry since the only road out of town goes northward toward the Yukon and terminates in Haines. Because of that, everyone in Haines knows everyone else in Haines…and pretty much everything about them and their families. But as Heather Lende would find out, politics in such a small, insulated community can be a little tricky. And in Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics, she tells us all about it.

Haines may be small, but its citizens take politics very seriously, and as in the rest of the country these days, political disagreements are all too often allowed to end old friendships and affect family relationships. Lende, who rather easily wins election to the Haines assembly,  barely settles into her new chair before she and two other of the more liberal representatives on the assembly become the targets of a recall petition and election. Much of Of Bears and Ballots recounts the emotional rollercoaster the author rides during that long, drawn out process, a process during which she feels betrayed by some of her closest and oldest friends and their families. That none of the three officeholders are successfully recalled is small compensation for the emotional scars Lende is left with and everything she suffers along the way.

While the portion of the book dedicated to the recall election is interesting, the real fun in Of Bears and Ballots comes from Lende’s description of daily life in a place like Haines, Alaska. What she has to say about the day-to-day goings-on that make a little town like Haines click is so intriguing that now I want to take a look at two of her earlier books in which she does the same in much more detail: 2011’s Take Care of the Garden and the Dogs (which was her mother’s dying wish) and 2006’s If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. 

All in all, and despite her rough start in local politics, Lende comes away from the experience feeling better about and more proud of her community than ever. I do have to admit, however,  that I was a little surprised that despite everything she says about being openminded, considering all sides of an argument, and simply listening during assembly meetings, Lende manages to fall into the same old trap that so many of us fall into these days when it comes to dissenting political views. On numerous occasions, she makes sweeping generalizations about her more conservative constituents and their national counterparts that are so naive that they made me smile (despite the fact that I know I often do the same to those who disagree with me).

For instance, apparently even in a town as isolated as Haines, Alaska, it is possible to exist in a bubble so tightly sealed that a reaction like this one is possible: 

“When I admitted to the Unitarians that at least two of my dear friends and many people I know and have hosted in my home voted for Trump, they gasped.”

I know I’m not supposed to find that funny, but it makes me smile…and this is one of the kindest generalizations that Lende makes about “Trump voters.” I won’t point out the more strongly worded ones, but there are something approaching a dozen of them that jumped out at me. Still, that lack of self-awareness is so especially common these days that it is easily forgiven in a book that was as much fun as Of Bears and Ballots.

Heather Lende

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Heaven - Mieko Kawakami

Mieko Kawakami’s 2009 novel Heaven has now been translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd and has been published in a Europa edition. It follows the success Kawakami enjoyed last year when her novel Breasts and Eggs became the first of her books to be published in English. 

Because of its heartbreaking plot, Heaven is not an easy novel to read. It tells the story of two middle school students, one male and one female,  who are so tormented and abused by their classmates that their lives are no longer their own. Everything that happens to the two of them is recounted by the unnamed boy who is being so badly bullied. He is the target of a small group of boys led by class favorite Ninomiya, a handsome, charismatic, but extremely cruel young man. Another gang member, a boy called Momose, is always around when our narrator is being bullied, but never gets his own hands dirty, preferring simply to stare from the outskirts of the action with a blank look on his face and his arms crossed. 

“Without school, I could get by without seeing anyone or being seen by anyone. It was like being a piece of furniture in a room that nobody uses. I can’t express how safe it felt never being seen. I knew the peace could never last, but it was immensely comforting to know that, if I never left my room, no one in the world could lay a finger on me. The flip side was I had no way of engaging with the world, but that was how it had to be.” - Narrator 

Kojima, a girl who comes to school everyday unwashed and having taken no care at all to her personal appearance, suffers a similar fate from a gang of girls who delight in tormenting her both emotionally and physically. She and the boy, despite their common suffering, have never acknowledged each other in the classroom, much less spoken about what is happening to them. Then one day, Kojima leaves an unsigned note hidden in the boy’s pencil case saying, “We should be friends.” The boy is almost certain that this is just another trick and that he is being set up for a new embarrassment at the hands of his bullies, but the notes keep coming and his curiosity keeps growing. Finally, more desperate for a friend than he knows, the boy agrees to meet the note-writer in the stairwell after school. And he and Kojima become each other’s only friend.

For the rest of the school year, through the summer, and into the new school year, the boy with the lazy eye and the “dirty” girl exchange letters and notes, and even meet occasionally to share their lives. They are still mercilessly bullied by their peers, but their lives are a little better for the friendship they share. But, of course, that will not be tolerated by either set of bullies when they finally figure out that Kojima and the boy have become friends behind their backs.

Bottom Line: Heaven is a disturbing novel that shines a spotlight on bullies and their victims. Kojima and the boy justify to themselves their own passiveness to everything they suffer, but the bullies sense their unwillingness to defend themselves and continue to escalate their cruelty. That is hard to watch, and I kept wondering where the adults were while all this was happening — realizing of course, that this kind of silent suffering at the hands of peers often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers until it is too late to do anything about it. This is a coming-of-age novel from Hell, and Hell would have, perhaps, been a more suitable title for this one than Heaven (the title has a specific meaning to the boy and the girl).

Mieko Kawakami

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Book Memories: What You Remember and What You Forget

I stumbled upon a 2018 article from The Atlantic this morning that reminded me of exactly why I began Book Chase back in 2007. Even before I went public with my efforts, I had been writing very short "reviews" to myself for a while of the books I was reading because I realized how little I was retaining of them despite enjoying them so much while turning their pages. 

The problem seemed to be getting worse, but I was not ready to call "aging" the culprit, especially since everyone I knew, despite their own ages, readily admitted to the same thing. I more readily blamed it all on the emergence of e-books and all the other reading all of us do on our computers (and now even on our phones). Nothing seemed to sink in the way it used to do, nor did it stick around as long.

In the article mentioned, Pamela Paul (who was the editor of The New York Times Book Review at the time) explains her own reading memories this way:

"I always remember where I was and I remember the book itself. I remember the physical object. I remember the edition; I remember the cover; I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me; what I don't remember - and it's terrible - is everything else. 

The article goes on to discuss why that is for so many people, but it so precisely described my own reading memories in 2007, that it surprised me to think that someone in Pamela Paul's position would have the same problem. Luckily, I've gotten relatively better at remembering what I read, and I attribute that to two things: "reviewing" to one extent or another everything that  I read, and having learned to concentrate much, much more effectively on what I read electronically. 

As a result, I think I love reading...and books...more today than I've ever loved them in my life. That's really saying something, because I've been a confirmed book-nerd since I was about four years old, and that was a long, long time ago. All of this tells me that even after Book Chase is no more, I'll be writing reviews on scraps of paper for a (hopefully) long time to come.

(Do read the article if you're interested in more of what Julie Beck has to say about her own experience. The Atlantic allowed me to read the full piece despite me not being a subscriber to the magazine.)

Monday, October 04, 2021

What Lies Between Us - John Marrs

I want to tell you all about John Marrs’s What Lies Between Us. I really do…seriously, I do. But that is not an easy thing to do without ruining some of the surprises that Marrs sprinkles throughout the entirety of this 363-page crime novel. So I’m going to have to be very careful with what follows. First, though, you should know that the International Thrillers Writers group called this one Best Paperback Original when announcing its 2021 awards. As someone who has never been sure why some books are paperback originals and others are not (marketing department decisions, I assume), I too often tend to downgrade paperback originals in my mind when looking for new reading material. And then a novel like What Lies Between Us comes along and blows my prejudice right out of the water. Now maybe, I’ve finally learned my lesson.

The safest way for me to describe the novel’s plot is to quote directly from its back cover:

“They say every house has its secrets, and the house that Maggie and Nina have shared for so long is no different. Except that these secrets are not buried in the past.

Every other night, Maggie and Nina have dinner together. When they are finished, Nina helps Maggie back to her room in the attic, and into the heavy chain that keeps her there. Because Maggie has done things to Nina that can’t ever be forgiven, and now she is paying the price.

But there are many things about the past that Nina doesn’t know, and Maggie is going to keep it that way — even if it kills her.”

The hook described in this cover blurb is enough to make readers curious, but, really, it does not do the complicated plot full justice. Marrs has written a story about two women in a very strange relationship that will have the reader questioning over and over which of them is really the victim in that relationship. And every time they think they finally have it all figured out, along comes another revelation or hint that begins the process all over again. The twists and turns, in fact, keep coming right up until the book’s final couple of pages when readers reach the novel’s stunning conclusion. 

Bottom Line: I wish I could tell you more, but if you read this one, you’ll understand why I can’t. Let ’s just say that I had more fun with What Lies Between Us than I’ve had with almost any other book I’ve read this year. 

John Marrs is a former UK television interviewer who is now a full-time novelist. What Lies Between Us is his seventh book. 

John Marrs

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Not Tonight, Josephine: A Road Trip Through Small-Town America - George Mahood

Because I enjoy wandering the back roads (I hate interstate highways with a real passion) so much myself, I’m always on the lookout for a well written travel memoir about that kind of trip. It doesn’t matter if the travelers are walking, biking, or driving; I’m ready to make the trip with them. I’ve made lots of those trips in the US and Canada, even a bunch in the UK when I was younger, so George Mahood’s Not Tonight, Josephine: A Road Trip Through Small-Town America from my first glance at its cover seemed just about perfect. 

Two young Brits, author George Mahood and his buddy Mark, decided to spend the better part of a year exploring America, having correctly assumed that the experience would be a much better way to learn about the country and its people than exclusively following the usual tourist track instead. Their plan, however, changed even before they landed in New York because Mark was granted only a 90-day visa, leaving George on his own when it was time to turn their rather ancient Dodge Caravan (called Josephine) around and head back to New York for the flight home. (George would inadvertently have his own visa problems later on.) Thankfully, Mark was able to join George before anything happened to George as he wandered around solo through places like some of Baltimore’s most drug-infested neighborhoods on foot searching for a place to sleep. 

Not Tonight, Josephine is every bit as much fun as I hoped it would be. Because the boys, due to budget restraints, spent the bulk of their nights sleeping on Josephine’s too-small seats, parked wherever they felt relatively safe, they had more than a few encounters with local cops who spotted them parked overnight in unusual spots. And because the trip began so late in the year, they often woke up with ice on both sides of the windows and chattering teeth. Even some of America’s cheapest, dirtiest, and weirdest motels began to look good to them at that point. 

There is even a love story happening in Not Tonight, Josephine despite the fact that George and Rachel have the Atlantic Ocean firmly fixed between them. At one point, as George continues to move westward and Rachel decides to relocate to Ireland, they manage to put more and more miles between them. For both, it is a new relationship with an old friend, and George fears that he is destroying it even before it begins. After Mark returns to England, George wants nothing more than to have Rachel join him for the return leg of the trip, but she is not so sure that is what she wants to do.

Bottom Line: I ended up liking Not Tonight, Josephine even more than I expected I would. George and Mark steered Josephine through many of the small towns and more-isolated regions of the country that I’ve explored on my own, and reading about their experiences brought back some good memories. It’s the “little things” and unexpected encounters that make this kind of trip a true success, and despite all the things they barely missed seeing on their travels, George, Mark, and Rachel ended up experiencing a very successful road trip with a lot of help from Josephine. This one is fun.

George Mahood

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Book Chase October 2021 Reading Plan

I started gathering books in preparation for my October reading plan a couple of days ago, and ended up with eleven strong possibilities for the next four weeks, a bunch of books I really want to read soon. Then today, I dropped by the library to return The Reading List and to pick-up the new Craig Johnson Longmire novel only to walk out of the building with five other books also in my hands. Luckily, I'm able to keep a few of the books well into November because there is no way that I'm going to read anything near sixteen books in October (I don't recall reading more than twelve in a single month - ever). 

Here are the most likely ones to get read and reviewed first:

I'm carrying this one forward from September, and I'll likely finish it in the next day or two. It's the travel memoir of a young Brit who decides to take a several-months-long road trip through "small-town America," beginning the trip with a male friend who ends up having to leave the road early and finishing it alongside his English girlfriend. I'm particularly enjoying the portion of the trip that happens in the American West, but still shaking my head a little at all the things Mr. Mahood manages just barely to miss.

I came across What Lies Between Us in a list of 2021 award-winners from the International Thrillers Writers. The novel won "Best Paperback Original. This one has a strange premise: "Every other night, Maggie and Nina have dinner together. When they are finished, Nina helps Maggie back to her room in the attic, and into the heavy chain that keeps her there. Because Maggie has done things to Nina that can't ever be forgiven, and now she's paying the price." I'm 62 pages in...and loving it so far. 

Mieko Kawakami is a new writer to me, but after reading Diane's review over on Bibliophile by the Sea, I knew it was something I wanted to read. This one is a coming-of-age novel set in a Japanese school and tells the story of a boy and a girl who become friends there largely because each of them are so terribly bullied by their peers. I've read about thirty pages so far, and the bullying described is really heartbreaking. I'm not sure where it's headed, but Diane describes it as a novel with "deep" and "complicated" characters, so I expect to like (if not exactly enjoy) this one.

I'm consciously trying to read more of the mid-twentieth century fiction that I've missed out on, and this 1947 novel by Jean Stafford is part of that quest. It is a coming-of-age novel set in California and focuses on the two youngest children in a family of four siblings, a ten-year old boy and his eight-year-old sister. The two are a little "wilder" than their older sisters. I'm a little bogged down on this one right now and have put it aside for a breather. But I'll definitely be back.

This is Craig Johnson's seventeenth Longmire novel, and since I've already read the other sixteen, I find myself a little reluctant to read it right now. Somehow, the library system allowed me to check it out this morning for six weeks, so Daughter of the Morning Star may end up slipping into my November reading. This one addresses a serious issue: "the plague of missing Native women in Indian Country." I've been reading about this for a few years and still find it hard to believe that the disappearances continue at such a horrible pace.

Diane did it to me again when she mentioned this book in a review she wrote for the second book in the series. The main character sounds like a real hoot, and because I enjoy short stories as much as I do, this one seems like a no-brainer, something I will enjoy for sure. Maud is described this way: "Maud is an irascible 88-year-old woman with no family, no friends...and no qualms about a little murder." What's not to like about a character like Maud? This should be fun.

I can thank Cathy at Kittling: Books for first bringing this one to my attention (way back in April) when she reviewed it on her blog. My memory was later triggered when I saw that the International Thrillers Writers awarded this one Best First Novel on that same list I mentioned earlier. The clincher was a quote from Craig Johnson calling the book "a testament in napalm you won't be able to put down because it burns and holds fast." It features Virgil Wounded Horse, "local enforcer" on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

I've always been a Sherlock Holmes fan, but longtime fans of those tales know that there is always new Sherlock material to be enjoyed. I've not read any of Laurie R. King's Holmes-related series, so I'm jumping in with this fourteenth book in that seventeen-book series. It's a long story, but this one from 2016 finally caught my attention . From the back cover: "Mary Russell is used to dark secrets - her own, and those of her famous partner and husband, Sherlock Holmes. Trust is a thing slowly given." 

I find myself in the mood for something from the great Shirley Jackson, and this one came to mind. I watched the movie version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle several months ago and found it riveting...and memorable. I've read lots of Jackson's work, mostly the short stories, but have somehow never read this 1962 novel. It is relatively short, but the characters, two sisters, are what make this one so special. It was published only three years before Jackson's death.

I've had William Shaw's Deadland on hand for a while now, but I've been reluctant to read this third Cupidi book because I know how difficult it is to find Shaw's novels in the U.S. (Shame on Mr. Shaw's publisher for that crime.) DS Cupidi is a great crime fighter and the books are very atmospheric. She is, though, no politician, and she doesn't find it easy to be "one of the boys" or even be all that likable, when it comes right down to it. I love this cover.

I also have a small stack of books that may end up displacing some of the ones I've featured here, depending on how the reading-mood strikes me during the month. Among these are Louise Penny's The Maddening of Crowds, Denise Mina's two-volume graphic novelization of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gerald Seymour's The Walking Dead (one I've mentioned before), Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and an e-ARC from T. Jefferson Parker titled A Thousand Steps. It's all a little overwhelming when I think about it...and now I can't wait to get the fun started.