Sunday, May 09, 2021

Happy Bookish Mother's Day to All

 Happy Mother's Day, everyone.  Enjoy the day! Here's hoping you add a few books to your "emotional support pile" today. (I think I'm going to start using "ESP stack" in place of "TBR stack" from now on).

Friday, May 07, 2021

Hombre - Elmore Leonard

1961 First Edition Cover

Rightfully so, Elmore Leonard is best known for his crime fiction, but Leonard was not always a mystery writer. He began his career, in fact, as a writer of western novels and short stories, and he made significant contributions to that genre. And, just as with his crime novels, several of Leonard’s westerns were chosen by Hollywood producers to become major movies of the day. Hombre, written in 1961, was one of those so chosen, and in 1967 it became a feature film starring Paul Newman as “Hombre,” a white man who had been raised by his Apache kidnappers. 

“Maybe he let us think a lot of things about him that weren’t true. But as Russell would say, that was up to us. He let people do or think what they wanted while he smoked a cigarette and thought it out calmly, without his feelings getting mixed up in it. Russell never changed the whole time, though I think everyone else did in some way. He did what he felt had to be done. Even if it meant dying. So maybe you don’t have to understand him. You just know him.”

As a boy, John Russell was taken from his family by Apaches who made him one of their own. Now, Russell so easily passes for Apache that the light color of his eyes is the only startling thing about his physical appearance. Russell continued to live with the tribe even when it was eventually forced onto the reservation, so for all practical purposes he considers himself to be Apache - not white. But now, John Russell, sporting a fresh haircut and dressed as a white man, is on a personal mission of his own, and he finds himself on a small stagecoach making its final run across that part of Arizona. 

When the other passengers realize who John Russell really is, they want nothing to do with him — even to forcing him to ride atop the coach with its driver. The passengers include a young woman who has just been recaptured from the Apaches who had held and abused her for several weeks, another woman and her Indian Agent husband who has a secret of his own, and an intimidating cowboy who bullied his way into the stage at the last minute. Russell, who has little other choice, tolerates the abuse, but he’s listening to their words — and he’s taking notes. 

But then everything changes. 

Suddenly, the passengers are begrudgingly depending on John Russell to keep them alive. And John Russell is probably just as surprised as they are to find himself defending a bunch of people who hate him so much. 

Bottom Line: Hombre is significant in the degree to which it exposes the exploitation and deadly abuse suffered by the Indian tribes at the hands of those who continually invaded their lands, and it is highly sympathetic to that point of view. It is also a novel about the foolishness and hypocrisy of any kind of racism that happens to have been written in the midst of America’s civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties — and the timing was no accident. This is a reminder of just how good and impactful a western novel can be, and I highly recommend it.

Elmore Leonard in the Sixties

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Lost - and Found - in My Kindle

I've been more dependent these past few weeks than ever on Kindle books because I've gradually developed eye problems again, and I'm finding it a little difficult to read the print in physical books right now. The good news is that I finally got into my retina doctor yesterday and, after a long and thorough examination, she assures me that the macular degeneration in both eyes is as stable as ever, so that's not the problem. Thankfully, that condition has not worsened in over five years now. 

Turns out that the problem is related to the cataract surgery that I had two summers ago, especially in my right eye. The problem is not related to the surgery itself or to the replacement lenses; it's only that the eye-capsule that holds the lens in place in my right eye is clouding up. Unfortunately, that is almost as bad as having cataracts themselves, but it's relatively easily fixed. So late this afternoon I'm going to have my eye doctor take a look, and I'm hoping for a simple, quick bit of laser surgery to get me back to reading "real books."

And, that leads me to the point of this post....finally:

I've discovered all kinds of lost gems hiding deep inside my Kindle, books I have never read and have forgotten all about. I barely recognize some of the titles, and couldn't begin to tell you when I acquired them or why. This morning I started one from 2014 by Catherine Ryan Hyde called Take Me with You that I'm completely charmed by after reading only its first twelve pages. The writing is perfect, the four characters I've encountered so far are all likable as heck, and the story is already setting up nicely.

This is the book's synopsis from Amazon:

"August Shroeder, a burned-out teacher, has been sober since his nineteen-year-old son died. Every year he’s spent the summer on the road, but making it to Yellowstone this year means everything. The plan had been to travel there with his son, but now August is making the trip with Philip’s ashes instead. An unexpected twist of fate lands August with two extra passengers for his journey, two half-orphans with nowhere else to go.

What none of them could have known was how transformative both the trip—and the bonds that develop between them—would prove, driving each to create a new destiny together."

This may be exactly the kind of feel-good story I need right now for so many reasons. August Shroeder, a man who spends his summers on the road, is definitely a guy I can identify with, so here's hoping.

But now I can't help but wonder what else is in that little electronic gizmo, good stuff I hoarded and intended to read at some point. That's the main problem with e-books; it's just way too easy to acquire books that almost immediately disappear, seldom if ever to be seen again. According to Kindle, I have 366 books, 5 book samples, and 60 periodicals, either already downloaded or up in the magic cloud in the sky, just waiting for me to open them up and read. But if Kindle can be believed, 235 of those books remain unread (I'm not yet convinced that's really true). 

I'm determined now to start reading from this stash on a regular basis...and I'm betting I'm not the only one sitting on this kind of book "gold mine." Do you guys have similar stashes of your own?

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Earthlings: A Novel - Sayaka Murata

Where do you even begin when you want to describe the experience of reading a book like Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings? I’m a reader who, over a lifetime of reading that spans decades, has read thousands of novels, but Earthlings may just be the most stunningly horrifying one I’ve ever read. Think of the most universal cultural taboos there are, the ones shared across the globe, and it is likely that Murata has made them part of the story she tells in Earthlings about a little Japanese girl who fights so hard not to become part of her country’s “baby factory.” This is a coming-of-age novel like none you have ever read — or will want to read again.

Eleven-year-old Natsuki is a misfit whose mother reminds her every day that she is inferior to her sister in all the ways that count. That’s bad enough but, unfortunately, it is not the only kind of abuse that Natsuki suffers. Things gets even worse for her after a handsome young teacher at her school begins to give her private lessons outside normal school hours. So it is little wonder that Natsuki’s best friend, the only one she can confide in, is a plush hedgehog-looking toy she’s named Piyyut who tells her that he has come from the planet Popinpobopia to help her save the Earth. As her mother will make very clear to her, no one else will help Natsuki.

Thoroughly traumatized by her childhood experiences, Natsuki grows into exactly the damaged and disturbed young woman she was destined to become. But members of her family, and her few friends, have no idea just how disturbed she really is. Nor do they realize that Natsuki has attracted two kindred souls who are every bit as disturbed as she is — two young men who are as determined as Natsuki not to give in to Japan’s cultural restrictions or the government’s pressure to reproduce for the good of the nation. 

Bottom Line: That is the gist of the plot of Earthlings, but it is not what makes the novel so horrifying or difficult to read. The real horror, instead, comes from Murata’s detailed and explicit descriptions of the abuses suffered by Natsuki and the ways that she responds to the abuses she suffers. The author uses the same calm, straightforward prose style, almost a clinical approach, throughout the novel no matter what situation she is describing. And, somehow, that makes it all even more horrifying than it already is. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that reading Earthlings requires a strong stomach. Almost despite myself, I had to keep reading this one long enough to see how it would end — and what an ending it turns out to be. 

Sayaka Murata 

Monday, May 03, 2021

Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry

I have now re-read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove two times since first discovering it in a Houston B. Dalton bookstore shortly after it was first published in 1985. In both instances, because I always fear that a book will not hold up to my earlier reads of it, I waited more than fifteen years between my re-readings of Lonesome Dove. A novel itself, of course, will not change, but readers, their perspectives, and their perceptions of the world do change — especially during this period in our history when we’ve allowed a loud group of political and social-media bullies to decide what new books should be published and which ones from the past should be erased from public consciousness. Thankfully, the mob has not yet come for Lonesome Dove or its readers.

I am happy to report that even after three reads, Lonesome Dove is as fresh as ever. It is still one of the funniest and one of the saddest books I’ve ever read; it is still home to some of my favorite fictional characters; and it still keeps me entertained throughout its (depending on which edition you read) near-1,000 pages. McMurtry’s story is a long and complicated one that explores the long relationships of a core group of Texans, men and women, who define the world and themselves based largely upon their mutual experiences and what they have learned from each other. 

“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and it’s rattling days were over.”

These opening sentences give a sense of Lonesome Dove, the little south Texas border town that former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call now call home. Gus and Call, along with a couple of other ex-Rangers, run a little outfit there they call the Hat Creek Cattle Company. Gus, Call, Pea Eye, and Deets have been on the southern border ever since the governor sent them south to watch the state’s border during the Civil War. Now, all these years later, the only real action along the state’s border with Mexico comes from the raiding parties that cross in both directions to steal cattle and horses from each other. And the retired Rangers enjoy doing that as much as anyone. 

Call, though, is feeling his age now…and he’s fast becoming bored with this life. Gus, on the other hand, spends much of his time drinking whisky wherever he can find shade, or at the Dry Bean saloon where he spends time with the town’s one and only whore, and he’s happy enough to go on doing so. Call yearns for one more big adventure in his life, and he wants it now, so when another ex-Ranger, Jake Spoon, rides into Lonesome Dove with stories about the unspoiled grazing paradise to be found in Montana, Call decides that the Hat Creek Cattle Company is going to be the first outfit to drive cattle north of the Yellowstone River. 

What happens next is epic. 

Bottom Line: It is impossible even to hint at everything that happens in Lonesome Dove, so I’ll quote McMurtry’s preface to the edition I read instead. The author addresses the novel’s theme this way: “…if one cuts more deeply, the lonesome dove is Newt, a lonely teenager who is the unacknowledged son of Captain Call and a kindly whore named Maggie, who is now dead. So the central theme of the novel is not the stocking of Montana but unacknowledged paternity. All of the Hat Creek Outfit, including particularly Augustus McCrae, want Call to accept the boy as his son.”  

Lonesome Dove is a not-to-be-missed masterpiece. 

Larry McMurtry

Saturday, May 01, 2021

The Book Chase May 2021 Reading Plan

May caught me by surprise - I suppose because every day and every month has been pretty much like the one that preceded it for more than a year now. For that reason, I'm more or less organizing the month's reading plan on the fly, and my actual May reading may end up bearing little resemblance to what I see ahead of me right now:

Lonesome Dove, despite the fact that I've been slowly enjoying it for weeks, will end up being called a May book because I'm now down to about 25 pages to go in this 946-page masterpiece. I'll almost certainly finish it today. This is my third time reading Larry McMurtry's most famous book, and I am thrilled that it has held up so well again. Since I only read it every decade or so, it has remained as fresh - and as moving - as it was my first time through. Now, I can't wait to re-read the other novels featuring Gus and Call.

Sayaka Murata's Earthlings is another of the books I was already reading coming into this new month. I am about two-thirds of the way through the audiobook version, and although I'm growing a little weary of the book's reader, I'm still intrigued about where this one seems to be heading. I haven't reached the climax yet, but I'm hoping that it's headed where I think it is. Some of the characters in Earthlings resemble the main characters from Murata's Convenience Store Woman enough that I'm starting to wonder if Murata herself is not a bit obsessed by the theme of the two novels. 

Even though Paul Theroux is a writer whose work I've often enjoyed in the past, I'm finding it difficult to get into his latest novel. Under the Wave at Waimea is about an over-the-hill surfer who is now struggling to win against his much younger competition. That's a world I can't identify with, but I think I'll eventually lock into the book's rhythm because it's really, I think and hope, a mystery about what happens after the old surfer runs over someone while driving home from the bar one night. Theroux is just too good a writer for me not to give this one another try.

The Real Cool Killers is a 1959 novel from Chester Himes's Harlem Detective series featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones (just those names make me want to read the book). Himes is a black writer who started publishing short stories while serving time in prison for armed robbery convictions. His work is still seen as having been quite influential in the genre, and after leaving prison and moving to Europe for the rest of his life, his books were popular there as well. I've never read Himes, so I don't know know what to expect.

Hard to believe, but Not Dark Yet is book number twenty-seven in Peter Robinson's DCI Banks series. Banks is a Yorkshire cop I've not completely warmed up to despite now having read the first five and the last two books in the series. I do have to say that I've enjoyed the last two more than I did those at the beginning of the series, so I'm hoping that this one works well for me. I think my problem with the books has been that so little of Banks's personal life is shared with the reader. The novels are, however, excellent police procedurals. 

I've read and enjoyed several of Mike Bond's books in the past, and I've just recently received a review copy of his new one, America: Volume 1. The novel is the first book in a seven-book series via which Bond plans to explore life in America decade-by-decade beginning here with the 1960s. It focuses on two couples who come of age during that decade and how such a volatile time changed and influenced them for the rest of their lives. This was my own coming-of-age decade, so I'm curious to see what Bond has to say about it.

The infamous Blake Bailey biography of Philip Roth arrived yesterday as Amazon promised, and I've already taken a quick look at it. I'm impressed with the physical quality of the book, including its approximately 100 photos, and its organization. But Philip Roth: The Biography is over 800 pages long, so it is unlikely that I will finish it during May. It will most likely instead turn into a multi-month read much like Lonesome Dove has done. Yes, Blake Bailey may very well turn out to be the criminal he is accused of being...not his book. 

I really dislike this cover of Elmore Leonard's Hombre, but don't let it put you off the book itself. Leonard started his career as a western writer, and had great success in that genre in print and movie versions of his stories. Hombre (1961) is one of the best of them, and it may even have been a little ahead of its time because it's the story of a man who, because he was raised by Apaches, is held in contempt by the white settlers around him right up until he's the only thing standing between them and death. Considered by many to be one of the best westerns ever written, it was also adapted into what became one of Paul Newman's best-remembered movies.

Of course, I expect at least three or four other books to demand immediate attention - some I already have on board, and some I don't even know about yet - so things will change. It's only a question of by how much.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place - Can "Bad" People Write Important Books?

As evidenced by the above photo, I'm a big fan of Philip Roth's novels and nonfiction - and I have been since the late 1960s. The books shown in the picture are part of my Library of America collection, and they represent the vast majority of what Roth published during his career, but I also have some of his novels and nonfiction books in their original editions. 

Now, I have almost nothing in common with a man like Philip Roth, but that is a big part of the attraction. Roth was Jewish, he was born in New Jersey, he was a rather infamous womanizer; I am none of those things. So I turned to a writer like Philip Roth to explain that world to me, and even though I doubt that I ever came close to really understanding it, Roth got me as close to that point as any writer ever could. Philip Roth expanded my universe, and I am grateful to him for that. His personal life and habits, intriguing as they were, were his business, and I didn't think much about them.

But Philip Roth is gone now, and what promises to be his definitive biography has recently been published, and I really want to read it - and I want a copy of my own to shelve and reference. Until Monday, I had not ordered a copy, just kept putting it off because I already have so many books stacked up to be read. Then, I spotted an article in The Times of London that W.W. Norton & Company was yanking the book because Blake Bailey, its author, has been accused in New Orleans of sexual misconduct that may have occurred decades ago during his tenure there as a middle school teacher. If the charges are true, Blake Bailey deserves whatever legal punishment his actions merit. No doubt about that.

Bailey, however, was handpicked by Roth to write this biography, and that means that he was given the kind of access to Roth that future biographers can only dream about. From what I've read, the biography exposes extremely unflattering aspects of Roth's personal behavior, so it promises to be frank and, I hope, honest. Bailey was even at Roth's deathbed, from what I gather. As I've said, I want to read this book, and I want to own it.

I realize that I'm going out on a bit of a limb here, but since I review everything I read, if this book arrives today, as Amazon promises it will, I will read it, I will display it on my shelves, and I will review it. Frankly, I consider "cancel culture" to be nothing more than thinly veiled censorship, and I abhor it. Blake Bailey may very well be a despicable human being; I don't know. But if he is, that does not lessen the quality of this book - and even though it will probably be published by someone else eventually, I want it now. And if I could afford to do it, I would probably buy a couple of dozen copies to give to likeminded people because this kind of thing makes me very nervous. 

As a friend of mine says (and he probably stole it from somewhere), "Woke me when it's over."

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Killer inside Me - Jim Thompson

Original Cover of "The Killer Inside Me"

Simply put, Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me is a stunner, one of those novels that, once picked up, demand the reader to keep turning pages. Mostly during the 1930s and 1940s, Thompson wrote over thirty novels, and most of those, including The Killer Inside Me, were published as paperback originals. That’s probably why Thompson got so little critical appreciation during his lifetime. He was, however, “rediscovered” during the 1980s, and several of his novels have now been filmed or republished. The Killer Inside Me even opens the Library of America collection titled Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, a five-novel collection that includes Patricia Highsmith’s remarkable The Talented Mr. Ripley along with works from the classic noir writers Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes. 

“I grinned, feeling a little sorry for him. It was funny the way these people kept asking for it. Just latching onto you no matter how you tried to brush them off, and almost telling you how they wanted it done. Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill themselves?”

Twenty-nine-year-old Lou Ford, narrator of The Killer Inside Me, is a cop in the small West Texas town he’s lived in his whole life. Central City, Texas, is an oil boom town that has grown from a population of 4,800 to one of more than 48,000 during Lou’s lifetime, and it is not anything like the quiet little community it had been when his father was the town’s family doctor. Lou is the cop everybody likes, the guy who doesn’t appear to be all that smart but always has the time and good advice for those who need it most. And that’s just the way Lou wants it.

The real Lou Ford, however, is nothing like the one people think he is. No, the real Lou Ford is brilliant. He reads in several languages, a feat he taught himself by reading from the extensive library his father left behind in the family home/doctor’s office after he died. He’s read his father’s medical texts — and he’s completely conversant about their contents. With his photographic memory, Lou could have easily become a doctor and taken over his father’s established practice had he wanted to do that. But most importantly, the real Lou Ford is a psychopath who is just as likely to kill you as smile at you and quote some homespun advice he’s memorized from his reading. He’s a man who, entirely for his own amusement, manipulates everyone unfortunate enough to know him. And the really scary thing is what he’s capable of doing to the people he grows tired of — or those who make the mistake of crossing him.

Lou Ford is an unforgettable narrator who, despite his mental illness, turns out to be the exact opposite of the unreliable narrator. Instead, Lou wants the reader (often addressing them directly) to know exactly what he is thinking and planning — even to telling them that he is going to kill someone long before he actually does it. He is a brutal, violent man in the midst of losing the self-control that has allowed the killer inside him to remain hidden as long as it has. But that is about to change…and the body-count is mounting.

“…the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything. But I want to get everything in the right order. I want you to understand how it was.”

Bottom Line: The Killer Inside Me is a surprisingly disturbing novel, but the disturbance does not necessarily come from the explicitness of Lou Ford’s murders. I was much more taken aback by the ease with which a man like Lou Ford (and his real life versions) is able to lure innocent victims into his web of murder and abuse. The horror of that ability is magnified by the pleasure that Ford takes in giving his readers such a revealing account of how easy it is for someone like him to kill — and to get away with it.

Jim Thompson

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Dry Bones - Craig Johnson

Dry Bones
(2015) is the eleventh novel in Craig Johnson’s soon-to-be-seventeen-book Sheriff Walt Longmire series. According to Johnson, Daughter of the Morning Star, that seventeenth Longmire novel is scheduled to be published on September 21, 2021, something I’m particularly happy about because as of right now I’m down to only one unread Longmire book, 2016’s An Obvious Fact.  

Dry Bones is one of the funniest — and one of the most tragic — books in the series. The humor largely comes via the comments springing from Deputy Victoria Moretti’s observations about the differences between life and policing in Absaroka County, Wyoming, and her native Philadelphia. The woman, who is also Sheriff Longmire’s love interest, calls them like she sees them no matter the audience or circumstances, and half the fun in Longmire novels comes from watching the other characters react to what she blurts out. It is no accident that most of my favorite Longmire novels are the ones in which she is given her larger roles. Unfortunately for Walt, the tragedy that plays a major role in Dry Bones strikes directly at him and his family, and its impact will be strongly felt even in subsequent books.

“Jen,” the eight-million-dollar Tyrannosaurus rex, has put Absaroka County on the map to a degree that no one could have expected — or have been prepared for. Now, potential buyers from all over the world, including every major museum in the US, want to get their hands on what is likely to be the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton ever seen. Jen’s potential eight-million-dollar price tag does not much worry any of them except for the local High Plains Dinosaur Museum whose director wants so badly to keep Jen at home. Soon enough, “Save Jen” becomes the local rallying cry.

But after Danny Lone Elk, the man on whose property the fossil was discovered, turns up dead before his agreement with the High Plains Dinosaur Museum has been formalized, multiple parties come forward to claim Jen as their own: Danny’s family, the tribe, and even the federal government. And it doesn’t help that the comically pompous acting deputy attorney shows up in town along with the FBI to oversee the whole process. Someone wanted Danny Lone Elk dead, and now it’s up to Walt Longmire, his deputies, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear to figure out who that is.

Bottom Line: Dry Bones is a pivotal novel in the Walt Longmire series. What happens in this one will lead directly to the plots and themes of some of the books that follow after a villain from Walt’s past comes back to haunt him and his family in an unimaginable way. Even though I didn’t do it that way myself, because the Longmire series is one of those whose greatest impact comes from a chronological reading, I suggest that the books be read in order of publication as much as possible.  

Craig Johnson

Friday, April 23, 2021

In the Woods - Tana French

Tana French’s In the Woods, the first novel of her Dublin Murder Squad series, did quite well for itself when it was published in 2007, even going on to win the 2008 Edgar Award for best first novel. The series, now totaling six books, is still popular with readers of mystery and suspense fiction, but French hasn’t added to it since 2016. Rather, her last two novels, The Witch Elm (2018) and The Searcher (2020), are both standalone titles.

In the Woods focuses on the work and personal relationship of two Dublin murder investigators, Rob (the novel’s narrator) and Cassie, who have developed the kind of partnership that makes them much more effective as a team than either of them would be if they worked alone or with a different partner. They are so good at what they do together that they are allowed to partner-up despite the relative lack of experience that either of them have. But that doesn’t stop the other cops from talking about their “relationship” or their boss being nervous about having two such young cops work together. 

Rob is a cop with a past he has kept hidden from everyone other than Cassie: just over twenty years earlier, he had been one of three victims of an unsolved crime much like the ones he investigates now for the Dublin Murder Squad. As they often did, Rob and his two twelve-year-old friends, a boy and a girl, had gone into the woods to play. Hours later, Rob was found in blood-filled shoes clinging to a tree in shock; his two friends were never seen again, and the mystery of their disappearance is yet to be solved. And now, Detective Rob Ryan and his partner are investigating the murder of a twelve-year-old girl whose body has been found just a stone’s throw from the woods into which Rob’s friends disappeared all those years ago. 

Shockingly, it appears that the two cases may be linked in one of several possible ways, so  Rob knows that if he finally reveals his past he will immediately be yanked from the case, and maybe even fired by the police. Because that is the last thing that Rob wants to see happen, he decides to keep his mouth shut, and because Cassie values their friendship so highly, she plays right along with his game. The problem is that even though Rob has no memory at all of what happened to him and his friends in the woods that day, he is reluctant to interview certain witnesses who may still recognize him from those days, limiting his investigatory effectiveness.

And then, as memory fragments start to come back to Rob little by little, his emotions begin to impact his decisions so negatively that the whole investigation is placed in jeopardy.

In the Woods is a solid police procedural, but it is more about the deep Platonic relationship between Rob and Cassie and what happens to that relationship when Rob begins to crack. The emotional stress that Rob and Cassie experience as their personal loyalties are tested is what makes the novel so deservedly stand out from the crowd the way that it does. Along the way, however, Rob Ryan morphs from an entirely sympathetic character to an annoying whiner of a character who spends much of his narration making excuses for his own behavior. And, frankly, he becomes as personally annoying as the behavior he is trying to excuse. If that is what Tana French was going for, she hit a bases-loaded home run; if not, she swung and missed. 

Bottom Line: In the Woods, in the end, left me feeling frustrated by having had to spend so much time with a character as childishly irritating as Rob Ryan is. But my main complaint is that, after almost 500 pages of reading, only one of the key mysteries in the book gets solved and I’m left wondering about the other one. Thankfully - at least as far as I can tell — the next book in the Dublin Murder Squad series features Cassie, not Rob Ryan. Here’s hoping that Rob has been allowed to walk permanently into the sunset.

Tana French

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Great Courses: Mystery & Suspense Fiction (36 Lessons)

TV Screen Shot from "The Return of the Classic Detective," Lesson 10

Many library systems around the country make the online service called Kanopy available to its library card holders. With the exception of one short time-blip of a few weeks when the county decided Kanopy was just not in its budget, my library has given its patrons limited use of the service for the last 2-3 years. We are, however, limited to four movies, documentaries or series per month, so I assume that there may be different tiers on Kanopy depending on how much a library is willing to pay for the service. 

But four has always been plenty for me with the exception of the months when two or three of my movie choices turn out to be so bad that I can't finish them. Honestly, though, the real reason I keep coming back to Kanopy every month is that the service also offers quite a few educational courses from the Great Courses franchise. The good news is that each Great Course - even those that include as many as thirty-six  individual lessons - counted as only one selection against my allotted four. But Kanopy got even better after I received an email saying that my library no longer counts a Great Course as even one selection. In practical terms, that probably doesn't mean much since I have never gotten through more than one of the courses in a calendar month anyway, but it does make it possible for me now to fearlessly sample the courses without the risk of squandering my four selections in the process.

And,  that brings me to a course I'm doing there right now called "Mystery & Suspense Fiction," a thirty-six-lesson class that covers the history and evolution of both genres from their beginnings to 2016 (when the lectures were filmed). Each of the lessons are about thirty-five minutes long, and they are all presented by the same lecturer, Professor David Schmid, a man to whom I can gladly listen for all  twenty-one hours of "Mystery & Suspense Fiction." 

David Schmid is a New York Professor of English and Political Science

To this point, I've listened to eleven of the lessons, including: Murder in Cozy Spaces, African American Mysteries, Nordic Noir, The Sidekick, and The Criminal. 

The full course encompasses:

  1. Mystery Fiction's Secret Formula
  2. The Detective Is Born
  3. The Criminal
  4. The Sidekick
  5. Detecting Clues
  6. Case Closed? The Problem with Solutions
  7. The Locked Room
  8. The Dime Novel
  9. Murder in Cosy Places
  10. Return of the Classic Detective
  11. The City Tests the Detective
  12. The Private Eye Opens
  13. African American Mysteries
  14. The Femme Fatale
  15. The Private Eye Evolves
  16. Latino Detectives on the Border
  17. The Lady Detective
  18. Violence Waits in the Wings
  19. Violence Takes Center Stage
  20. Psychopaths and Mind Hunters
  21. Police as Antagonist
  22. Police as Protagonist
  23. Native American Mysteries
  24. The European Mystery Tradition
  25. Nordic Noir
  26. Japanese and Latin American Mysteries
  27. Precursors to True Crime
  28. True Crime in the 20th Century
  29. Historical Mysteries
  30. Spies, Thrillers, and Conspiracies
  31. Female-Centered Mystery and Suspense
  32. Poetic Justice
  33. Courtroom Drama
  34. Gay and Lesbian Mystery and Suspense
  35. Adapting the Multimedia Mystery
  36. Mysterious Experiments
I've already learned a lot about mysteries and how they've evolved over the centuries, and I highly recommend the class to other fans of either genre. If you are into mystery and suspense, as so many book bloggers and readers are, this one is not only great fun; it helps you appreciate the genre even more.

If any of you try this or one of the other Great Courses - or already have- I would love to hear what you think of them. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Back Home - Dan L. Walker

Back Home is billed as Dan Walker’s “follow-up novel” to his 2016 book Secondhand Summer in which Walker first introduces the fourteen-year-old Sam Barger and his Alaskan family to readers. In Secondhand Summer, the Bargers move from a tiny Alaskan community to one of Anchorage’s poorer neighborhoods where Sam does not cope very well with the drastic lifestyle change forced upon him. Now, in Back Home, Sam is a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore living alone with his mother. Sam’s father is dead, and Joe, his brother, is doing a tour of duty in Vietnam. 

1968 was one of the most dramatic years in modern American history, but even the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy really would not have rocked Sam’s world much were it not for the pretty girl he met in the school cafeteria one day. All Sam really wants to do is get by until the next summer break arrives. That means putting the least possible effort into his studies that will allow him somehow to get passing marks; work his job at Polar Pizza; maybe get Joe’s old truck running again before his brother comes home from the war; and meet girls — especially girls like Iris, the hippy who tempts Sam into joining the peace march that ends up with his picture on the local paper’s front page.

Hippies are not real popular in 1968 Alaska, but Sam and Iris could have survived that easily enough if the battle-scarred Joe had not come home to recover from his wounds, including the ones that cause him to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, just when he did. Back Home is a coming-of-age novel complicated by the tumultuous time in which it is set. It is one in which Sam and Joe Barger, despite being the only sibling each has, find their love for each other severely tested by how differently they view the war in Vietnam.

Bottom Line: I was primarily drawn to Back Home because I lived through the period myself and was curious to see how Walker (who based both books partly on his own experiences) would handle it. My disappointment stems from my definition of the term “follow-up novel.” To me, a follow-up is simply the book that follows a predecessor-novel, even if some of the same characters are featured. A follow-up novel is not necessarily going to be the second book in a longer series of novels. A series, however, appears to be the plan here because Back Home abruptly ends before all the subplots and questions are wrapped up. That leaves me imagining that a third Sam Barger book is in the works, one that will begin with a dramatic flashback to the point where this one calls it quits because the Barger brothers are quite literally not yet out of the woods when this one goes kaput. (Otherwise, why would a 196-page novel stop where this one does?)

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Council of Animals - Nick McDonell

Nick McDonell’s The Council of Animals is likely to be the most unusual novel I will read in 2021. Publisher Henry Holt & Company calls this one “a captivating fable for humans of all ages,” and that’s not an overstatement. Comparisons to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, numerous as they are certain to be, are also appropriate because of how in both books animals rebel against humans and try to build a better, fairer world for themselves. 

The animals in The Council of Animals, however are considering a question that goes a giant step further than the animals in Animal Farm were prepared to go; they are meeting to discuss whether or not the few humans who have survived The Calamity deserve to live. If the vote goes against the humans, they will all be killed and eaten. The council that will decide the fate of the humans consists of a bulldog, a horse, a bear, a cat, a crow, and a baboon, each of whom has been chosen to represent its species. They are gathered to cast their own votes while they wait for the arrival of the “mythical” animal that will cast the pivotal (if it comes to a 4-3 split) seventh vote. 

The debate soon becomes heated, even dangerous to its participants, and the animals, whether they want to admit it to themselves or not, soon prove that their own nature is really not very different from that of humans who have by now practically destroyed the environment. Much of the fun in The Council of Animals, in fact, comes from watching animal behavior so closely mimic all the finger-pointing and other foolishness that is all too common today: claims of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and looking down upon what are perceived by mammals to be the inherently lesser species. When it is revealed, for instance, that dogs are often denigrated by the other animals with their own version of the N-word, I almost laughed out loud. Amusing misdirections like that one, though, make the book’s overall message and surprising ending even more memorable than they otherwise would have been. 

Bottom Line: The Council of Animals is a book I can envision being used in classrooms around the world for years to come, much like Animal Farm has been used for the last several decades. Its clever use of humor and its suspenseful plot keep the reader — no matter what age — turning pages until its deeper message seeps in. This deceptively simple novel has a lot to say about us and the world we have created. Maybe, just maybe, it will open a few eyes as to what is important — and what is not.

Steven Tabbutt's illustrations, sprinkled throughout the book, have a nostalgic feel about them, and I found myself looking forward to them. This one is typical of Tabbutt's style:

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

I'm in the Mood to Bring Home Some Books

Now that I've been fully vaccinated for a while, I've ventured back inside two different Barnes & Noble bookstores and one Half Price Books location. And, I've been pleased to find that the urge to buy physical books is as strong in me today as it ever was. In just the last three weeks, I've brought tree-book copies of these home with me:

I picked up a like-new hardcover of this one in Half Price Books for a whopping $4. This is book number six in Atkins's ten-book Quinn Colson series, a really good crime fiction series set in contemporary, small-town Mississippi. I started reading the series after snagging a review copy of the second series book back in 2012, but I've still only read the second, third, and fourth Quinn Colson books. Couldn't pass this one up at that price, and I'm looking forward to returning to that world soon. 

I bought this Tana French standalone after enjoying her latest book, The Searcher (which is the only other standalone French has published) so much. That one was my first exposure to French's writing, but I'm now such an enthusiastic convert to her books that I plan to snag the odd marked-down copy like this one whenever I run across them. I was happy to find a never-read copy for $10 at Half Price Books. 

About two weeks after purchasing The Witch Elm, I made another visit to Half Price Books and found a never-read copy of the second book in French's Murder Squad series. This one was published in 2008, so I was a little surprised to find a copy in such good condition for only $8. That gives me a little hope that, if my enthusiasm about the books holds up, I'll be able to put them all on my shelves at a fairly decent price...although I haven't priced the first book in the series yet, so that may not be true. 

As I've said many times, Library of America is my favorite publisher. I admire the job that this non-profit publisher is doing in printing high-quality editions of the best and/or most interesting writing this country has ever produced so much that I now have 118 of their books on my own shelves...and counting. LOA  have finally gotten around to Hemingway, and I found it on Amazon for $21.49. This is normally a $47 book, so there's no way I could have passed it up at the sale price.

At the same time as I was buying the Hemingway, I noticed that the LOA edition of Jean Stafford's novels was also on sale for $23.95. This one is a little slimmer than the Hemingway book, but it is regularly $40, so it seemed like the perfect time to add Stafford to my collection - and reading experience as well. The three novels were published between 1944 and 1952, and Stafford is one of those writers whose work is in danger of just dropping through the crack. One of LOA's mission is making sure that kind of thing doesn't happen. 

Reading Walter Mosley's fifteenth Easy Rawlins novels a few days ago made me want to read some of the earlier books in that series, and I spotted this one at one of the local Barnes & Noble's stores (the good one...more on that later). Devil in a Blue Dress is actually the first book in the series, and the edition I have is an oversized paperback that was on sale for $6 the day I was in the bookstore. 

As much as I have enjoyed each of the Easy Rawlins books I've read, I like some of Mosley's standalones even better than the Rawlins books. I found Down the River Unto the Sea on the same B&N visit I mentioned above. This one is about a New York cop who was framed and did prison time before becoming a private detective. I find it interesting that it is set on the East Coast, a country...and world...away from Easy's West Coast setting. This never-read hardcover was $7. 

The Guns of Last Light is part three of Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," the author's World War II trilogy. It's almost 850 pages long, so I'm guessing that the trilogy must be close to 2,500 pages all told. This is a quality product; it's on heavy, paper and includes some nicely reproduced black and white photos from the European battlefields. My father was in almost all of the battles chronicled in the book, and I'm hoping that the book can give me a better understanding of what he went through during the war. I doubt I'll ever read the whole thing, but it's perfect for dipping into and out of as the mood strikes.

Now, back to that comment I made earlier about the "good" Barnes & Noble store. I am near-equidistant from two B&Ns, and the two could not be any more different if they purposely worked at it. One store has almost completely eliminated its marked-down fiction section; the other seems to have expanded it. One devotes more and more floor space to toys, games, stationary, greeting cards, and calendars all the time; the other seems to be holding the line on those items. One has eliminated so many bookshelves, that browsing the store is like walking through a forest after a brushfire has killed a third of the trees. The other has rearranged the front door area display, but not messed around with the other shelving at all. One will get my business from now will not.