Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Book Chase February 2021 Reading Plan

 I surprised myself a little this month by sticking to my reading plan a lot closer than I normally do. Even though a whole lot of new books caught my attention, as they always do, this month I managed to hold most of them off for February reading. So of the eight books I highlighted coming into January, I read and reviewed six. One of the eight is being moved to February and one is being dropped for the moment. In addition, I did read four others not on the list, bringing me to a total of ten for the month. 

This is how February is shaping up:

Who Is Maud Dixon is an ARC that I'm reading right now. The basic story is that a young entry-level publishing house employee, unhappy with her life, manages to get a job as personal assistant to a famous author whose real identity is a well-kept secret. After the writer seems to disappear, the assistant decides to assume her life by becoming her. Intriguing, right? Well so far, I'm mostly bored by this "psychological thriller," and still hoping it gets better soon.

Scottish crime writer Denise Mina has been a favorite of mine for several years despite the fact that her prose style always seems to slow me down a little. It takes me longer to get into her rhythm than it does for many authors. This one is about a doctor who finds her birth family only to learn that her mother was murdered years earlier by what appears to be a serial killer. Now she has to decide whether or not she wants to work with her aunt - because the police won't do anything - to identify the killer.

Speaking of favorite authors, Elmer Kelton is my favorite western writer of them all. I didn't really plan to read Shadow of a Star right now, but my grandson was looking for a book report book, and I pulled this one off the shelf for him. It's a 1959 book of Kelton's I never got around to reading, but after flipping through it while telling my grandson what to expect, I decided to read it along with him. It's more a YA-level book, but I'm loving it already. Kelton has never disappointed me, so I'm not really surprised.

Chuck Wendig's Wanderers is one of those rare books that I learned about by browsing randomly on Amazon one day. That hardly ever happens because I don't usually "browse" Amazon, only going to the site to purchase something specific. Anyway, it's a 2019 pandemic book (I know...just what we need to be reading right now) that is really well-written. But I grabbed a library copy before noticing that the book is 800 pages long. Now the race is on to finish it before the library snags my electronic copy back for the next person on hold.

Anyone who has read my reviews for very long knows that I'm a huge fan of the Akashic Books noir series. So when I found out that the publisher was starting a new series of "speculative fiction," I was thrilled. And then I got really lucky by being offered an ARC of the very first volume of the new series, Speculative Los Angeles. As in the noir series, these short story collections will be set in various cities around the world. I'm hoping that by "speculative" the publisher means "alternate history" at least a little bit. This one will be published on February 2. 

As so much of my reading is, this one is the recommendation of another book blogger (Cathy at Kittling: Books this time) who reviewed another of the books in this eight-book series. It seems that the books are set in 1960s Texas, my own coming-of-age decade here, so I'm curious to see how Wortham handles that time period. This is the first book in the series, and it's a library copy, so the clock is ticking on this one, too. It features a "bald-headed pot-bellied" hero called Ned Parker. It sounds like fun, and I'm hoping it hooks me on the series.

This is the one I'm carrying over from my January list. It's an ARC for a book that won't be published until June 8, so there's really know hurry, meaning I probably won't be posting a review for a while. But it sound good, and I'm curious, so I do hope to read it in February.It's about triplet sisters, all very different people, who grew up in a little town whose water supply was declared "unfit" about the time they were born. Their mother wanted answers, but never got them Now the three sisters are determined to get them.

The Music of Bees is another ARC, this one set to be published in April. It is said to be "uplifting," and since we all need to be uplifted right now, it sounds pretty good to me. It tells the story of three grieving strangers, one woman and two men, who find their way to a local honeybee farm where they surprise themselves by becoming friends. The blurb says it's about finding a second-chance when you least expect it. It's the kind of book that can easily go off the rails by becoming too sentimental, so we'll see. Hoping for the best.

I'm going to stop with eight titles because I want to leave a little wiggle-room for the surprises that always come along. In addition to these eight, I already have eight books set aside to choose from at the end of February - and that stack will probably double by then. I haven't even mentioned the nine books I acquired in January, only one of which I've read so far. Really, my goal is only to give all of them a chance, and to enjoy eight or ten of them a month. It's not like I don't have enough to choose from, so the odds are with me.

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Queen's Gambit - Walter Tevis

I still find it hard to believe that until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Walter Tevis. After all, two of Tevis’s six novels, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hustler, were turned into two of the more memorable films from the seventies, and late last year Netflix released a wonderful mini-series based on his 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit. It didn’t help, I suppose, that Tevis died at the relatively young age of 56 in 1984 or that his body of work consists entirely of six novels and a collection of short stories, but still I wonder how I missed him for so long. 

The Queen’s Gambit is Beth Harmon’s story. Beth spends her childhood years in an orphanage after the tragic death of her mother. If that were not sad enough already, this is the kind of orphanage that feeds tranquilizers to the children every day because that makes them easier for staff to handle. Beth is one of the unfortunate children who develops a lifelong addiction to the pills, and who suffers terribly after the orphanage is forced by authorities to stop illegally drugging it wards. The same pills, however, allow Beth to focus her mind in a dramatic new way, an ability that changes her life after she learns the game of chess from the orphanage janitor, a gruff man who only reluctantly begins to teach her the game after she starts coming  down to the basement to clean classroom erasers. 

Soon enough, eight-year-old Beth is outplaying her chess tutor and anyone else she gets a chance to compete against, including the local high school’s entire chess team - which she defeats in simultaneous matches. Everyone is astounded by the little girl’s talent except the orphanage director, a woman who delights in punishing Beth by refusing to let her play the game. That all changes finally when Beth, at age 13, is adopted. Chess becomes her life, although it is a life she will spend battling her addictions, and in a few years Beth Harmon may just become the most famous chess player not only in the United States, but in the entire world.

With The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis does the seemingly impossible for non-chess players. He makes the life of tournament chess come alive in a way that makes it all as exciting as the Super Bowl, the World Series, or March Madness can be for rabid sports fans. Tevis’s revelations concerning “inside chess,” along with his explanations of the various offenses and defenses used by the masters of the game are fascinating enough. But Tevis tops himself by making his move-by-move descriptions of key matches so interesting that even a non-chess-playing reader ends up holding his breath to see which player will finally be caught in an inescapable trap. 

Bottom Line: The Queen’s Gambit is great fun on several levels. The side story of who Beth Harmon is and how she got to be the young woman she becomes by the end of the novel is both entertaining and, at times, heartbreaking. The chess tournament scenes, dry as the subject may at first sound, are equally fascinating because Tevis begins them with all the preparation, strategy, and gamesmanship involved. But the biggest surprise of all, is that the non-player comes away from The Queen’s Gambit with an above average sense of how how the game really works - and why some people are able to play it a such a high level at such an early age. If you haven’t read this one yet, you need to fix that. It’s really very, very good. 

Walter Tevis

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Apple Tree Yard - Louise Doughty

Seldom has it happened that a television production I watch ends up leading me back to the novel adapted for that video presentation. Although this is happening more than ever right now because of the semi-isolated lifestyles so many of us have been forced to adopt in recent months, it still comes as a pleasant surprise to me when it does. I recently came across Louise Doughty’s 2013 Apple Tree Yard as a four-part television series that was originally broadcast by the BBC in early 2017, and I didn’t notice the book-credit until I began the second episode. The series stars Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin, and Mark Bonnar, among other familiar faces. I noticed, too, that Doughty was not the screenplay writer, and that made me more curious about how the book and the television adaptation would compare.

I enjoyed the BBC production, but I’ve found that despite their overall plot similarity, Doughty’s novel is much the better of the two. In the BBC version, most everything unfolds in its natural, chronological order. One thing happens, and that leads, to the next, etc., and the viewer is right there to see it all happen. In the novel itself, things only happen as they cross the mind of the book’s narrator and central character, Yvonne Carmichael, as she holds an internal conversation with the book’s other central character. As Yvonne ponders something that has happened, or she wonders what would have happened if she had done “this” instead of “that,” everything is slowly revealed in the manner of jigsaw puzzle pieces falling into place. The novel, in fact, begins near the end of the story, so as Yvonne thinks back about her life and reveals more to the reader, we already know that all of this is not going to end particularly well.

“And after the imagined drama that made our daily lives bearable, we got a real drama, more of a drama than we could handle, and then we wanted our daily lives back, but they didn’t exist anymore. We discovered that safety and security are commodities you can sell in return for excitement, but you can never get them back.”

Note: Anything that follows is also revealed by the novel’s book jacket - no spoilers.

As Apple Tree Yard begins, Yvonne Carmichael and a man she hardly knows have been charged with murder and their trial is reaching its climax. The wonder of the story is how someone of Yvonne’s stature could have ended up where we find her in the novel’s prologue. She, after all, is a middle-aged woman who has been married for decades to the man who fathered their two adult children. She is a well-respected geneticist who at one point was involved in some groundbreaking work regarding the mapping of DNA. She is so good at what she does that she is often called in as an expert to advise special Parliament committees on ethics matters and potential legislative fixes. 

But now, her reputation, her future, and her very life hinge on one disastrous moment of sexual attraction and reckless behavior that led her to do something so out of character in a London alley called Apple Tree Yard that she can’t explain what happened even to herself. Or can she? She certainly tries hard enough to rationalize everything that happened before and after that encounter, but can we trust her to tell us the truth? 

Bottom Line: Apple Tree Yard, the novel, is brilliant. Its pacing is so perfect that, even after already having watched the BBC series, I could hardly wait to get to the next chapter. There are differences in the endings of the BBC show and the novel, mainly, I suspect, because the television series needed more dramatic visuals than the novel provided at the point in the storyline, but the novel is still the hands-down winner of the two. In Yvonne Carmichael, Louise Doughty has created one of those fictional characters I don’t think I will ever forget. I highly recommend this one.

Louise Doughty

Monday, January 25, 2021

Book Chase Is 14 Years Old

Well, here's a Book Chase first for you. Book Chase turned fourteen years old five days ago, and the anniversary sailed right past me without making even a tiny ripple in my consciousness. Something like that has never happened to me. I've always been near-obsessed by numbers and statistics, but it looks like the Pandemic Year from Hell has somehow altered my brain. Anyway, I'll do a quick recap of the key cumulative numbers now because they really do still fascinate me:

  • 1,349 Book and Short Story Reviews (99% books)
  •    209 Posts about bookstores
  •    331 Posts about specific authors
  •      33 Author obituaries (very sadly)
  •     581 Posts about book news
  •     181 Posts about Libraries
  •     110 Posts about readers who make the news
That's all well and good, I suppose, but the numbers are telling me that my focus has drifted a bit and that a significantly higher percentage of my 2020 posts than usual were devoted to book reviews or book discoveries. I guess I can blame it on the REAL pandemic and on the political pandemic, but I'm not taking the time anymore to seek out those book-related stories that I usually find so interesting. Too much of my time is being spent thinking about things that only lead to distress and/or a depressed mood. I hope I can change that in 2021, but I'm off to a slow start.

Anyway, thanks to everyone (Bloggers, readers, writers, publishers, librarians, and bookstores) for making me feel part of the book world during 2020, and for the hundreds of conversations we've shared in the last twelve months. You guys make it all worth it. Keep on reading...and talking about it.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Mitford Murders - Jessica Fellowes

Jessica Fellowes’s The Mitford Murders is the first book in what is now a well-established four-book series involving the real-life Mitford family. This first book is set in and around London shortly after World War I, “the war to end all wars,” has failed miserably at doing anything remotely like that. 

The mystery novel’s central characters are Louisa Cannon, a young woman desperate to escape the poverty of her London life, and the teen-aged Nancy Mitford, eldest of the six Mitford sisters who would all go on to achieve some combination of fame and notoriety in the following decades. Nancy, in fact, became a successful novelist. Half (more than half?) the fun of The Mitford Murders is getting a look at what life in the household may have been like while Nancy was still somewhere between innocent teen and young woman. 

Louisa, running from her abusive uncle, makes her London escape by landing a position in the Oxfordshire home of the Mitfords as assistant to the children’s nanny. Nancy immediately sees Louisa as a confidante she can trust rather than as a chaperone, and their relationship turns into a strong friendship of two equals. Things go well for the pair, and will continue to do so as long as Louisa can keep her uncle from discovering her whereabouts. But then everything changes when nurse Florence Nightingale Shore (goddaughter of the famous Florence Nightingale) is murdered in a train and Nancy, who considers herself a first-rate amateur sleuth, and Louisa start pushing around the edges of the investigation. With some help from the young cop who is infatuated by Louisa, they start to make some dangerous people very uncomfortable, and that is never a good thing.

I experienced The Mitford Murders as an audiobook, and I’m glad I did it that way because I discovered one of my new favorite audiobook narrators in Rachel Atkins. Atkins is quite the storyteller, and her talent of seamlessly flipping from accent to accent, along with her voice inflection and flair, helped make the various characters seem real - and easily identifiable. 

Bottom Line: I am not a big fan of the cozy genre, and even though this one - perhaps because it is based on a real-life unsolved murder - is a little rougher around the edges than many cozies are, I almost certainly would not have enjoyed it as much if I had flipped its pages for myself. And that complicates my overall rating of The Mitford Murders a bit. Overall, I rate this a 4-star book, the average of 5 stars for its narration and 3 stars for its plot. 

Jessica Fellowes

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Foregone - Russell Banks

“He tries to say, ‘Forgive me,’ but all he can say is, “Forgone.” He feels himself being pulled as if by the crushing force of gravity into a black hole from which not even light can escape.”

In 1968, when Leonard Fife crossed the Canadian border in the early dawn hours, he claimed to be a draft dodger from the U.S. hoping to begin a new life in Canada. Fifty years later, the 78-year-old Fife, now one of the most respected documentarians in Canada, lies on his deathbed, himself the subject of a documentary being filmed for Canadian television. A film crew, including some of his former students, is there to record Fife’s final words and thoughts for the film world and his fans. Fife is happy they are there, but he has something else entirely in mind for what is about to happen.

Even though Leonard Fife accomplished a lot during his lifetime, he is not at all happy with who he is and how he got it all done. Before he goes, he wants to make certain that Emma, his wife, knows exactly who she has been married to for the last few decades. He hopes she will still love him when he’s done talking, but before he dies, Fife is desperate to tell her all the things he has been hiding from her for so long. And so he looks into the camera and begins to tell the uncensored, unvarnished story of his life.

Or is he really?

Russell Banks’s Foregone is a deeply drawn character study, but even that character is not certain if what he is telling the world about himself is really true. Leo does know that he cannot say any of this to his wife’s face; he cannot look her in the eye and get even this close to the truths he wants her to know. So, in a darkened room, with one light shining on his face, he begins at the beginning, hoping to make it to the end of his story before he draws his last breath.

The problem for Leo is that the film crew is not happy with his rambling monologue, his wife can barely stand to be in the room while all this is happening, and the more he fades, the less sure he is that the stories he is telling really happened - and if they did happen, whether or not it was even him they happened to.

Bottom Line: Foregone is one of those books that demand a good bit of patience from the reader. It is a book in which readers are likely to dislike just about every featured character (the exception being Leo’s nurse and - mostly - his wife Emma). It is not filled with a lot of action despite the fact that it is the coming-of-age story of a man who ran from every problem he got himself into, abandoning friends and loved ones all the while. It’s a book about despair and giving up, a book about a man who, at the end of his life, doesn’t seem to like himself very much. All of that said, Leo Fife is a man and a character I will not soon forget. It is not important that I like him or not; I know him now.   3 Stars

Russell Banks

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Apple Tree Yard: Written Word vs. TV Adaptation (First Impressions)

I've finally been able to begin Louise Doughty's 2013 novel Apple Tree Yard, a book I've been curious about since recently watching the mini-series for which it was adapted a couple of years ago. I've been curious, as I always am after  watching a video adaptation of a book before reading it, to see how the TV series and the book compare. 

So far, I've only made it through the book's prologue and first chapter, but I can already see that the book much more cleverly than the movie builds the suspense that is so critical to its plot. Not to give too much away, I'll just say that the plot hinges on an immediate erotic encounter a woman has with a man she meets by chance in a professional setting. She knows nothing about the man, and he knows nothing about her. What follows that encounter has the power to ruin both their lives, and probably will.

Now I have to be careful that I don't reveal too much more plot detail because, although the book flap reveals a lot of what happens after their chance meeting, the movie plays it all in  strictly chronological, real-time order. It is only in the third episode (of four) that the TV series reveals just how much trouble these two have gotten themselves into. So, if any of you plan to watch the series, this may be one of those cases where watching the "movie" first would be the best way to go.

The book, on the other hand, begins near the end of the series by using the prologue to show exactly where the couple end up. Chapter 1 then flashes back to the night after their encounter before it describes what happened that day. All in all, I find this a much more clever way of building up to how they got there than the way the screenplay decided to do it. It's a great hook, and if I were reading Apple Tree Yard with fresh eyes, I would be well and truly hooked at that point. Even now, I'm looking forward to seeing how many other "hints," Doughty may use as the plot unfolds.

Louise Doughty is one of those new-to-me authors who has immediately impressed me. I've only read 30 pages of her work, and already I'm immersed in the world she's created and find her main character totally believable. And, good news, she has a back catalogue I'll be able to explore later on. I haven't done the research, but according to the book's "Also By Louise Doughty" page, in 2013 she had already written six other novels and a nonfiction book called A Novel in a Year. Now, I'm hoping that my enthusiasm holds up for the duration of Apple Tree Yard and that I've "discovered" another new author to enjoy for years to come. I'll know more in a few days. Time to read.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Mother May I - Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson is a good storyteller, and she tells another pretty good story here in Mother May I. The author lives in Decatur, Georgia, and as is usually (always?) the case in one of her novels, the action is set in the Georgia/Alabama geographic area. Mother May I is a crime fiction thriller, but it is one with a not-so-hidden message to mothers and their sons about both the consequences, and the definition, of what constitutes the crime of rape. I hope they are listening.

Bree Cabbat, the book’s central character, lives a life of privilege that only the truly wealthy ever experience. Bree, however, was not born into that lifestyle. Rather, she grew up in small-town Georgia in a single-parent home headed up by a mother who was almost paranoid about the dangers of everyday life for people of their class and means. Bree has never wanted to believe that the world is really the dangerous place her mother still believes it is, and she is quite comfortable, if still a little insecure, in the lifestyle her husband’s money and family background make possible. 

And then she learns the hard way that her mother was right all along. One moment her infant son is safe in his car seat right beside her while she watches her daughter in rehearsal for a school musical; the next time she thinks to look toward her son, he’s gone. She is certain now that the “witch” she saw looking through her bedroom window early that morning was not something she dreamed. The woman was real, and the woman very probably now has her son.

After a note instructs her not to go to the police and warns her that she is being watched, Bree realizes that she will do whatever it takes to get her baby back. Nothing is off the table. But why her? Why has she been targeted this way, and why now? Gradually, it all starts to make sense, and Bree learns exactly what she is capable of doing if it means recovering her son from the mad woman who has him.

Bottom Line: Mother May I begins as a mystery, but as the action builds it becomes more a thriller than anything else. Jackson switches from first person to third person viewpoints as the investigation and action progress and, several times, I had to re-read half-pages to make sure which POV was being used so that I could understand exactly what Bree knew and what she still did not know. The plot proceeds along rather predictable lines, but it ends strongly in a development I did not see coming at all, and that saved the entire novel for me.  3 STARS

Joshilyn Jackson (EV Jackson photo)

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Friday, January 15, 2021

When TV and Film Lead Back to Books, You Are Having a Good Day

I gave up on most television channels years ago with the exception of a few exceptional series, the rapidly dwindling list of sports I still follow, and what passes for television news these days. My attention, instead, went to whatever appealed to me on Netflix, Prime Video, and more recently, the PBS/Masterpiece Theater app. In the last year, I've noticed that the offerings on Prime often interest me more than what Netflix has on offer, and I'm very much enjoying the fact that the PBS app also offers series and movies from all over the world via its affiliation with "Walter Presents." As a result, I've become quite proficient now in reading subtitles as they go past, but they can be pretty quick sometimes. Surprisingly, since I still understand and read French at a basic level, I have more difficulty reading French titles because it makes me realize that the translations are far from literal - that they have been "Americanized" for the intended audience. 

So why am I rambling on about this? Well, I've found that some of the series I've watched end up leading me back to the books from which they were adapted. And, in fact, I have two of those books stacked up right now with all the other library books I've picked up in recent weeks. 

I'm looking forward soon to comparing these books to their movie/TV versions:

This one is a Masterpiece Theater production that caught my attention because it marks the return of actress Glenda Jackson to movies for the first time in 27 years - and her performance is remarkable. The premise is that the best friend of Jackson's character has disappeared and no one seems to take it seriously. The kicker is that the two women are elderly and the Jackson-character suffers from advanced dementia, so even she is not certain what she is hallucinating and what is real. But because victims of dementia so often have vivid memories of the distant past, things start to make sense in the disappearance of the Jackson-character's own sister more than sixty years earlier. Elizabeth is Missing was British author Emma Healey's debut novel, and it looks like she struck gold with it.

I watched the Apple Tree Yard in late December only because it grew on me. After the first episode, I would not have bet that I would continue on, but I did and it turned into quite a courtroom drama with a twist at the end that actually surprised me. It's another one I found on the PBS app via Prime. I don't want to give anymore away about this one because it would be too easy to spoil it. Just know that I can't wait to see if the book is even better than the film adaptation. Books almost always are, in my experience. This one, too, is British, although Apple Tree Yard is far from Louise Doughty's first novel. 

I'm finding myself watching quite a few documentaries on Netflix, too. I just finished one there called Pretend It's a City that is actually seven thirty-minute interviews of Fran Lebowitz, a 70-year-old New York comedian and writer I'm embarrassed to say I never heard of before watching this. Fran's delivery and smart, dry wit remind me of the comedians I loved so much a few decades ago when nothing was out of bounds in comedy. I didn't always agree with what Fran had to say, but she made me laugh - or more importantly, think - even about the things upon which we don't think alike. This can easily be binge-watched over a couple of evenings, and I really recommend it.

I may not be reading as many books as I read in the past, but I'm learning so much more about the world now because we are blessed with so many choices and possibilities. Some feed my addiction to crime fiction and drama; others teach me things I never even suspected I didn't know. What a beautiful time to be alive this is.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

I'll Be Seeing You: A Memoir - Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth  Berg’s I’ll Be Seeing You is, I can tell you from recent experience, an accurate reflection of what it feels like to watch a parent become less and less capable of taking care of themself  over a number of years. If you are lucky enough to have a parent live into their late eighties and beyond, what Berg describes in this heartfelt memoir is inevitable. It is only a matter of time before child and parent are required to switch roles, and the formerly-protected becomes the protector. 

My favorite quotation, in fact, from I’ll Be Seeing You comes from the book’s prologue:

“I think as long as a parent is alive, it’s easier to feel young. It’s easy to feel that in some respects you are still being taken care of, even when it becomes more you who takes care of them.”

Berg takes the reader through almost a year of transition for her parents, October 2010-July 2011, during which they were forced to come to the realization that they could no longer live in the family home they had enjoyed together for four decades. As Berg and her siblings learned, however, realization comes a good bit before acceptance, and even after her parents have moved into an assisted living arrangement, they refuse to sell the family home because they still hope to return there someday. 

The experience that Berg describes is a very emotional one that was not helped by her father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The author was, I think, somewhat surprised by her mother’s resentment that if not for her husband’s mental problems, she, at least, would still be living at home. As her mother found it harder and harder to hide her feelings from her children, they began to resent the way she was treating their father - even, it seems, to worry about whether she was taking proper care of their father. Things were said, feelings hurt, and relationships damaged. 

The sad part is that all of it was perfectly normal, maybe even healthy in the long run. 

Those who have not experienced this situation yet with their own parents - and those in that situation right now - can benefit from a memoir like I’ll Be Seeing You because they will see that what they are feeling, but may be reluctant to say out loud, is all very normal. It is part of the cycle of life that none of us like to think about, but it is something that more and more of us are going to experience. So why not listen to what those who have already been there have to say?

I would have liked to have heard more from Berg’s sister, the child who lived close enough to their parents to be their day-to-day caretaker. The author is quick - and she does it several times - to credit her sister as being the one who went the extra mile for their parents. And that is good to see. Having been the “local” in my father’s case, I know that that experience is a completely different one from the one those who live hours away have. And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, because the years I spent in that role brought me closer, and to a better understanding, of my parents than I would have otherwise ever managed. 

If you see this coming into your own life soon, do read I’ll Be Seeing You. It will help.

Elizabeth Berg

Monday, January 11, 2021

Dead Land - Sara Paretsky

Because I hadn’t read one of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels since 2009’s Hardball, I wondered how much I would remember about Vic and all her supporting characters. A decade away from exposure to Warshawski’s Chicago is, after all, plenty long enough time to forget most of the details of that world, even as vividly as Paretsky always presents them. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried because before I knew it, Dead Land fit like an old glove and I was totally immersed in Paretsky’s story. Dead Land even marks kind of a milestone in the Warshawski saga because it is the twentieth novel of the series.

This time around, Warshawski finds herself doing battle with some powerful, and very rich, people who understand exactly how to manipulate Chicago’s corrupt political system in their favor. For these people, it’s all about making millions of dollars by exploiting public property on Chicago’s Southside lakefront - and if they bribe a few of Chicago’s finest politicians along the way, they can make it happen. That’s bad enough, but it all gets personal when Vic’s Canadian goddaughter stumbles into a situation that might expose their scam before it happens. Those same rich and powerful folk can’t let that happen, so people begin to die, and it is only a matter of time before they come for Vic and her goddaughter. 

That’s the main plot, but I enjoyed the side plot even more. It seems that Bernie Fouchard, the goddaughter in question, has found a famous protest singer living in squaller on Chicago’s streets. The woman is mentally unstable and in danger of dying from exposure. Lydia Zamir, the singer, watched her husband shot to death on stage and never recovered from the shock. She eventually disappeared and no one realized where she was until Bernie and her friends spotted her in her street-nest playing a tiny toy piano and singing songs to herself. Now, Bernie wants to protect the woman - but she and her boyfriend are bringing way too much attention to this part of Chicago to suit the criminals who want to exploit the area. 

Bottom Line: Sara Paretsky writes a complicated novel and, at times, I did struggle to keep up with all the threads and names she was exploring. But the struggle is worth the effort because Dead Land ends in a very satisfying manner with all the loose ends tied together - and Paretsky does that without having to use the book’s last pages to have one character annoyingly explain to another character everything that’s just happened as so many mystery/crime writers seem to do today. If you are wondering, Dead Land will also, I think, work as a fine standalone novel for those unfamiliar with the Warshawski timeline and character. Now I wonder why I stayed away for so long.

Sara Paretsky (book jacket photo)

Friday, January 08, 2021

Dark Passage - David Goodis

David Goodis’s 1946 novel Dark Passage could not possibly be more aptly named than it is because this is one of the darkest novels imaginable. According to the Library of America, Dark Passage is the novel that gave Goodis the little bit of fame that he enjoyed during his lifetime, and that was primarily because the book was turned into a popular movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Other than that relatively brief moment, it appears that his work was kept alive  mostly by what LOA calls an “international cult following” which included several prominent European film directors who adapted Goodis’s work for the screen. 

The story begins with Vincent Parry escaping San Quinton Prison where he has been jailed for the murder of his wife. Parry, though, is one of those rarities among a prison population that never stops protesting its innocence - he really is innocent. He did not kill his wife, and he was convicted of the crime almost entirely based upon the trial testimony of a friend of his wife’s. Now, recognizing the perfect set of circumstances that have come together, Parry makes his escape and heads for San Francisco where he hopes to hide out long enough to figure his next step.

Parry’s luck bizarrely continues long enough for him to reach the city. And that’s where his real problems begin.

With Vincent Parry, David Goodis created one of the most paranoid characters imaginable, a man who cannot afford to be wrong about any of the people he encounters in the city while he tries to figure out how to disappear forever. He is paranoid, but he is justifiably paranoid, and Goodis places the reader inside the man’s head for pages at a time, eerily allowing readers to experience that feeing of paranoia for themselves. We literally hear, word-by-word, what is going on inside Vincent Parry’s head as he faces one critical situation after another.

Dark Passage is not a long novel, coming in at around 200 pages depending on which edition you read, but it paints a picture of 1940s San Francisco that is hard to forget. This is a city where life is lived in the shadows and after dark, a place where every one (including the cops) seems to have angle, a place where nothing is exactly as it seems and no stranger should be trusted. It is a city whose underbelly is not confined to only a few blocks, and as Parry moves through it, searching for a safe way out, things begin to happen to him. People die, people fall in love or think they fall in love, and several of them expose the blackness of their own hearts to the world. 

Bottom Line: Dark Passage shows clearly why David Goodis has come to be known as somewhat of a pioneer of American noir novels. His distinctive style, and his feel for troubled characters and city streets, make his writing stand out even in a genre filled with more famous writers. The Library of America volume of five novels, in which this is the first entry, also includes: Nightfall (1947), The Burglar (1953), The Moon in the Gutter (1953), and Street of No Return (1954). 

David Goodis

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Pretty Little Children - Sophie Hannah

Seldom does a book keep me reading all the way through to the end despite the frustration I feel the entire time I am turning its pages. Sophie Hannah’s Pretty Little Children just achieved that rarity - and I still feel frustrated. So let me tell you why.

First, the book’s hook is based entirely on a single sentence that is even prominently displayed on its cover: “Twelve years have passed…so why don’t Thomas and Emily look a day older?” The sentence is expanded upon inside the book jacket, too, with only a little more character background provided to entice potential readers. I’m not much of a fan of fantasy or horror novels, but because Perfect Little Children got nice coverage in one of the year-end issues of the New York Times Book Review as one of 2020’s better novels, I thought I’d give it a chance. 

To her credit, Sophie Hannah’s writing style makes for a relatively easy reading experience, so before I knew it, I was fifty or sixty pages into the novel. If I am going to abandon a book, this is the point at which I would normally do it, but I was no closer to the truth about the kids, and I was well and truly hooked by its essential question. I knew that if I abandoned it, I would wonder for weeks what the answer to the riddle on the cover was, so I read on…and on, and on without getting much closer to an answer. And that is my second complaint about Perfect Little Children. Nothing much happens, and when something does happen, it moves the reader only a minute distance toward any answers about what is going on with Thomas and Emily. All the while, Beth, the book’s main character is struggling to make anyone take her seriously, even most members of her immediate family. And then everything ends in one of those big-reveal confessionals in the book’s last couple of short chapters. I admit that the book’s ending is a clever one, but by that point I was so frustrated with its pacing, that I still wish I had never started Perfect Little Children. 

Bottom Line: So little happens that it is almost impossible to share any of the plot without risking an inadvertent reveal or two in the process, so I won’t even try to do that. Perfect Little Children is billed by its publisher as an “expertly plotted tale of psychological suspense.” Let’s just say that it plods along much too slowly to generate all that much suspense.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Four Days into the New Year and Here They Come

 Four days into the new year, and I'm already stacking up new books at an impossible reading-pace. They are coming from several different directions, but the primary culprit has been my local library branch (the Harris County, Texas, public library system is wonderful). 

I came into January already having several library books on hand from December, but I picked up three new ones this morning. Thankfully I was able to extend the check-out time on all three of them to six weeks:

This one comes highly recommended by a blogger whose opinion I trust, so I expect to enjoy it. It's set in 1964 Texas, a time period and a place I remember well for having experienced them for myself.

I've been a fan of Denise Mina for years, but haven't read anything new from her for a while. As part of my new year's cleanup, I replaced my digital subscription to the New York Times Book Review with a full-access digital subscription to the U.K.'s Times and Sunday Times newspaper. I trust the paper's book section to be more complete and inclusive than what I've been getting from the New York Times for the last couple of years, and I remember it fondly from my London years. And that decision directly led me to this Denise Mina book. 

This one came in quicker than I expected it, so I'm going to have to work it into the schedule. I'm a Jo Nesbø fan, but this thing is a doorstop, coming in at 550 pages. I've read the first several pages, though, and it appears to be a fairly quick read.

I've also purchased one tree-book:

This one is officially called "Mickey Haller Book Six," but because the Harry Bosch character is on hand to work with his half-brother in this new Haller book, I couldn't resist it when I found it for a good price at a local retailer.

And then, there are the two free e-books that Prime gave me yesterday: 

I knew nothing about either of these before they showed up on the Amazon Prime First Reads list, but both show some promise. I'm familiar with Rice's books and like them, and the Hadley & Grace novel is said to be sort of a Thelma & Louise situation. Now, the problem is going to be finding the time to read them.

So there you have it: four days and six new books in my life already. Along with that subscription to the Times and Sunday Times, that means I need to start turning some pages.