Sunday, May 30, 2021

No Thanks to Amazon and UPS...

 Well, I managed to return my copy of Blake Bailey's Philip Roth biography for a copy that included the 32 pages that were missing from the first copy that Amazon sent me. So there's that.

But this time around, the shipping experts at Amazon packed the book into a box that was too large for the book unless the box was also stuffed with protective padding or paper. So guess what they didn't do?You got it...only the book was inside the box, meaning that there was nothing to keep the book from rattling around inside the box while UPS did it's best to destroy its contents without actually losing it. The box (I wish I had thought to take a picture of it) had been slammed around by the UPS people so much by the time it arrived that one corner was so crushed that you could see into the box through a good-sized space that had popped open. All of that resulted in a book with a book jacket that showed the wear and tear of a much-handled book. The book itself is in pretty good shape, but its sheer weight made sure that it took a beating, too. 

But I give up. I'm going to settle for this copy because it's just not worth the hassle anymore. I've put a protective cover on the book that pretty much disguises the damage to the jacket, and that will have to do. At least now I can read past page 114 without wondering what I missed between there and page 147. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

The Mist - Ragnar Jónasson

The Mist
is the third book in Ragnar Jónasson’s “Hulda series,” a trilogy consisting of The Darkness, The Island, and The Mist. Each of the books features police detective Hulda Hermannsdottir at various stages of her career with the Reykjavik police department. What makes the series unusual is that Hulda’s story is told in reverse, with each succeeding book focussing on a younger version of Hulda than the book that precedes it. Please note that Jónasson took this approach for a reason, and that in order to experience the Hulda Hermannsdottir story the way the author wants you to experience it, the books need to be read in the order they were published. 

As The Mist opens Hulda is just returning to work after being out on compassionate leave for several weeks. Her bosses suspect that it is still too soon for Hulda to be coming back, and they encourage her to take more time off if she feels that she needs it. Hulda, however, believes that losing herself inside a police investigation is exactly what she needs right now if she is ever to regain her emotional stability, so her bosses reluctantly put her back to work. What no one, including Hulda, counts on is how closely the investigations assigned to Hulda will mimic the recent tragedy in her own life. 

A young woman, just out of school, who is traveling around Iceland on her own with the permission of her parents suddenly disappears without a trace. Because murder is still relatively rare in 1987 Iceland, no one wants to believe that she has become the victim of a crime. Hulda, though, begins to lose hope that the girl will be found alive. Then the bodies of a man and woman, apparently dead since December (it is now February), are found in their old farmhouse in one of the country’s most sparsely populated areas. Hulda is reluctantly assigned to lead that investigation, too, because it demands more skill and experience than the locals have. 

Then, as the investigations progress, Hulda learns as much about herself as she learns about the crimes she’s investigating.

Bottom Line: The Mist is constructed in such a way that the two cases Hulda is working progress in real time while the earlier tragedy from her life progresses at the same pace in a flashback that alternates with the real time investigations. Because readers of the earlier books already know how Hulda’s tragedy ultimately unfolds, having both the flashback and the present-time plots simultaneously build toward their horrific climaxes makes for an intense reading experience. Fans of crime fiction series will not want to miss the Hulda series. 

Ragnar Jónasson

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Real Cool Killers - Chester Himes

I first became aware of the books of Chester Himes from one of the thirty-six segments of the The Great Courses class on Mysteries and Thrillers. I was already a fan of writers like Walter Mosley and Attica Locke, but the segment entitled “African-American Mysteries” introduced me to other writers like Himes, Barbara Neely, and Valerie Wilson Wesley whom I had never heard of. Of the three, I was most fascinated by Himes’s personal story.

Chester Himes was born in Missouri in 1909 and, although he did not start writing stories until he was serving prison time for a jewel theft in the 1930s, he would eventually publish almost twenty novels before he died in 1984. Fifteen or so years after being released from prison, Himes moved to Europe and became particularly well known in France, his new home country. He is best known for his Harlem Detectives novels featuring black NYPD detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. The novels are set in the 1950s and 1960s, and The Real Cool Killers (published in 1959) is one from that series. 

The gist of the plot is that a large white man has his life threatened by a knife-wielding black man who resents his presence in a Harlem bar in which everyone else inside is black. The white man is rescued by the bartender only to end up being chased down the street by a second black man firing shots at him from a pistol. After the white man learns the hard way that he can’t outrun bullets, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger are called to the scene of the crime to see what they can figure out — and all hell breaks loose. The result is that Coffin Ed is suspended from duty pending investigation of what he did after he arrived on the scene. Now, it is up to Gravedigger Jones not only to find the white man’s killer, but to justify his best friend’s behavior at the scene of the crime so that he can be reinstated to duty on the NYPD. 

If The Real Cool Killers is any indication, the Harlem Detective novels are an over-the-top, almost surrealistic representation of the Harlem of the fifties and sixties, but they still accurately portray the tone of how blacks and whites most often saw each other during those decades. In describing his black characters, Himes uses every racial stereotype in the book — many, if not most of them, so derogatory that even a back author would be unlikely to get away with using them in today’s politically correct world. That allows Himes, I think, to rather subtly slip in observations about how easy it is for Harlem’s residents to fool and manipulate the whites they encounter every day in their neighborhood, including the cops. (I should mention, too, that a key element of the plot is a simplistic and insulting view of the Muslim faith as seen through the eyes of one of the story’s villains.) 

Bottom Line: The Real Cool Killers is surely to be appreciated by fans of noire crime fiction because it doesn’t get much darker than this, and it's easy to see the influence that Chester Himes had on African-American crime writers, especially Walter Mosley, who followed him. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger are two characters I want to get to know better, so this will not be the last Chester Himes novel that I read. The work of Chester Himes compares favorably, I think, with two of his contemporaries: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Fans of those two should definitely take a look at Himes. 

Chester Himes Through the Years:

Monday, May 24, 2021

A Ruth Rendell Paperback Bonanza

Ruth Rendell was one of the first mystery and crime writers whose new books I could hardly wait to get my hands on every year. Rendell was, of course, the author of the Inspector Wexford series, but she also wrote dozens of standalone crime novels and short stories under her own name or using the pen name Barbara Vine. When Rendell died in May 2015 she even left behind a "just completed" manuscript that was published a few months later as her last novel, Dark Corners. I reviewed that novel in June 2016, but I think that's the last post exclusively dedicated to Ruth Rendell that I ever wrote. And I'm not the only one who seems to have done that because I can't remember the last time I've seen her featured in a book blog or in one of the few remaining newspaper literary supplements still out there.

I've been thinking for a while that I want to go back and re-read a few of the Ruth Rendell novels I purchased over the years. I have almost twenty Rendell/Vine hardcovers on my shelves, but I remembered also buying dozens of her novels in paperback - and the paperbacks were nowhere to be found. Then, just when I grew convinced that they had all been lost somewhere during all the packing, moving, and storing of books that I did in the nineties, I found them in a small, mislabeled box that had been put away in the depths of a closet for the better part of twenty years.

As you can see from the picture, there were about 35 Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vince novels in the box, including both her first standalone and the first Inspector Wexford novel. So now I have over 40 novels to choose from along with just about every short story she ever published. These days, I'm feeling an urge to go back and read the crime fiction pioneers and masters. Ruth Rendell was not one of the pioneers, but no one deserves to be called a master of the genre more than she does. I can't wait to enjoy the books again.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Premonition - Michael Lewis

I’ve learned a lot from reading Michael Lewis books in the past, and I’ve always enjoyed the author’s writing style and talent for making it as much fun to read truth as it is to read fiction. The Premonition, however, pretty much fails to reach the high standard Lewis set for himself in his previous books. In fact, because The Premonition, for all practical purposes, chronologically ends around March 2020, it left me as baffled as ever about what has been going on behind the scenes regarding this country’s battle with COVID-19 for the past year-and-a-half. 

“In February 2021, The Lancet published a long critique of the U.S. pandemic performance. By then 450,000 Americans had died. The Lancet pointed out that if the COVID death rate in the United States had simply tracked the average of the other six G7 nations, 180,000 of those people would still be alive.”

So what happened? Whose fault is that the American response was as ineffective and inefficient as it was? And most important of all, why did it happen?

According to Lewis, politicians (Republicans and Democrats, alike) share a large part of the blame for the country’s unfocused response to the coronavirus that probably hit our shores for the first time around December 2019. But the politicians, again according to Lewis’s reckoning, are not the primary villains here; that honor belongs instead to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the agency that Americans at one time could depend on to protect their health, not make things worse out of a fear to look bad. As Lewis puts it”

“The CDC did many things. It published learned papers on health crises, after the fact (emphasis mine). It managed, very carefully, public perception of itself. But when the shooting started, it leapt into the nearest hole, while others took fire.”

Perhaps the biggest — and thus, the most shocking — revelation that Lewis makes in The Premonition is that the CDC’s horrible leadership during the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic stems all the way back to the agency’s politicization in the mid-1970s. That’s when politicians started appointing the chief of the CDC rather than allowing the best man or woman to rise to the top based on effectiveness and years of experience. That change, in effect, caused CDC leaders to worry more about their jobs and personal futures than about the diseases they were there to combat on behalf of the public. 

The bulk of this 300-page book follows a small group of brave scientists willing to risk their reputations, many of whom had once worked in either the Obama or Trump White Houses, as they come to grips with the idea that if the virus is going to be contained, they are the ones who are going to have to come up with the plan to do it. So that’s what they do. But we will never know if their plan would have worked because no one in Washington D.C. or inside the CDC would even listen to their ideas. Instead, they were blown off until it was too late for their plan ever to work as well as it could have — and even today (May 23, 2021) just under 1,000 Americans per day are still dying from COVID-19.

Bottom Line: The Premonition is not the book I was hoping it was when I picked it up, so it is partially my fault that I find it disappointing. I want to know what happened in 2020 after the federal government put the burden on state governments to solve the problem for themselves. I want to know who did, and didn’t do, their jobs at all levels of government. That’s the book I want to read about COVID-19. Maybe it was just too soon to expect that one.

Michael Lewis

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Blogger/Blogspot Comment Problems

This is just a quick heads-up to those of you who use the Blogger platform for your book-blogging. I suspect that there may still be something going on with the way the software is handling/not-handling comments made by readers of the blogs. 

I don't know how to tell for sure, but I do know that I've left comments on three or four Blogger-platformed blogs in the last few days that never end up being posted as intended despite being tagged for "approval" by the blog owners. It's become a frustrating problem because "conversation" is the thing I enjoy most about blogging, and I am finding it impossible to comment on some blogs. 

Are any of you noticing the same thing? I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you are moderating your comments that you allow open comments to appear on postings that are less than 10 days old. It's the older ones that attract most of the spam because spammers hope that we aren't paying attention to those anymore. I've got my comment moderation set that way and only very occasionally does a spammer comment to a newer post (and now I'm hoping that all the idiot spammers out there never actually read this post). 

And now...hopefully everyone interested will actually be able to comment here.

Friday, May 21, 2021

My Library Has Opened Its Doors for the First Time in 15 Months

I had a great surprise on Thursday morning when I called my local library (Barbara Bush Branch) to schedule curbside pick-up of three books that were waiting for me there. The librarian asked what time I wanted to pick them up...but offered me the option of coming inside and checking them out for myself anytime I wanted to because the library OPENED its doors yesterday for the first time in the last fifteen months. 

As you probably guessed, I immediately drove over to the library, found my three books, and proceeded to browse the shelves on both floors of the library for the next 90 minutes. And, now, as you also probably guessed I have library books stacked all over my desk again just like in the good old pre-pandemic days.

The Great Courses video class on mysteries and thrillers has been so much fun that I've taken to creating a special TBR just from books mentioned in the videos. I'm particularly taken by some of the older stuff like the Chester Himes novel from the fifties I'm reading right now, but I've also learned about mysteries written by other minorities (Himes is African-American) and by writers from other parts of the world. Two of the books I brought home this afternoon were mysteries written by Native Americans in the nineties: 

I also spotted this one by Qiu Xiaolong, who was a student in the United States in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square tragedy took place back home in China. He was granted asylum in this country, and is now a prize winning novelist and poet who is well known (I think) in Great Britain for his Inspector Chen Mysteries and their BBC adaptations. This is a new series to me, but Becoming Inspector Chin is already the eleventh novel in the series. 

My reserved copy of Any Weir's new science fiction novel, Project Hail Mary, was also waiting for me today. Weir, of course, earned his fame, reputation, and lots of cash from the huge success that The Martian turned out to be for him a few years ago. I opened up Project Hail Mary while still inside the library, and before I knew it, I had read a dozen pages. This one promises to be very good and lots of fun.

And, finally, there's a series of interviews conducted by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager called The Writer's Library that I couldn't leave behind. This one is subtitled The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives, and it includes 22 interviews in all. Among the authors interviewed are several favorites of mine like: Louise Erdrich, T.C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Richard Ford, Donna Tartt, and Russell Banks.

I easily spotted at least another half-dozen books I'd love to read right now, but I managed to stop for today with only these five coming home with me to join the two that were already here. Having a whole public library almost to myself (apparently word is not much out yet that the doors are actually open again) today was a total joy. Now, I'm tempted to stop by there every day until word does get out and it starts to get more crowded. After all, the library system allows me thirty total check-outs at a time, and I still have room for twenty-three more at the moment. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Books with Missing Pages - How Big a Problem Is It?

I just got an unpleasant surprise after finishing up Chapter 8 of Blake Bailey's controversial Philip Roth biography. It seems that Norton, the publisher of the bio, has some quality control issues when it comes to bookbinding. Pages 115 through 146 are missing, and the missing pages include all of chapters 9 and 10, and a portion of chapter 11. Making it even worse, this seems to be the chapters during which Roth wrote Portnoy's Complaint and faced a backlash from the Jewish community for doing so - a part of his life I was particularly interested in learning more about. (It's hard to know exactly what's missing, but that's my best guess of the contents of the missing section.)

Now the question is do I bother asking for an exchange of the book or not? It's a hassle to get to a UPS store to mail the book back to Amazon and there are no guarantees that I'll receive a complete book the second time around. We have a large Amazon warehouse facility about 35 miles from us here, and I'm willing to bet that a replacement copy would come from the same "tainted" batch of books sitting in that warehouse. So, this could turn into a chain of returned books...and I don't think I'm up to that. 

Too, I spotted a review of the book on Amazon that said that the reviewer's copy was missing a 32-page section beginning with page 433, so this does not appear to be a particularly isolated problem with the way that Norton bound Philip Roth: The Biography. I've had this kind of thing happen to me only three or four times despite having handled and read thousands of books over the years, but I can't believe that it happened here in what is otherwise such a high-quality book. I don't know what kind of quality control problems Norton had, or has, during its printing process, but this is particularly frustrating in a book that has already officially been yanked from publication by its publisher in an attempt to avoid conflict with all the Cancel Culture hypocrites out there. 

Luckily, I got to page 115 before the return-window on the book closed for this purchase, but I could easily have not noticed the problem before the return-option was closed to me. Oh, well. I suppose some would say that, because Blake Bailey's personal reputation is in tatters right now, there is a little bit of poetic justice here for all involved. 

I'll decide in a couple of days whether I want to fool with the whole return-process or not, but now I'm wondering how often you guys have run into this kind of thing. (I do remember getting duplicated pages in a book one time, too, by the way.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Island - Ragnar Jónasson

The Island
is Ragnar Jónasson’s second book in his Hulda Hermannsdottir trilogy, a trilogy  comprised of: The Darkness, The Island, and The Mist. Hulda is a detective in the Reykjavik Police department who, mostly because of her gender, still feels like a department outsider despite all her years on the force. Often, I would be pointing out about now that this second book in the series picks up right from where the first one left off, but the opposite is true of the Hulda series. Hulda’s life story is told in reverse, and that is a large part of what makes the three books so intriguing to those of us who love crime and thriller fiction so much. 

The Island begins with the recounting of a romantic trip taken by a two teens to the remote summer house belonging to the girl’s father. The two go to the house in October when it is already very cold, so the area is even more deserted than it normally is when they are there, meaning that the terrible thing that happens in the house will go unnoticed for several days. 

Next, we flash forward ten years to 1987 to find a group of friends getting together in a remote hunting lodge on an island off the coast of Iceland. The two young men and two young women had been best friends as teens, and they are hoping now to reconnect in some meaningful way. The problem is that one of them will not leave the island alive — and that they are the only four people there when the death happens. Cue one Hulda Hermannsdottir who is, as she  always is when investigating a crime, doggedly determined to find out what happened on that very first night the four young people were together. Then, after recognizing a potential link between the death in 1977 and the one in 1987 Hulda senses a way finally to get the credit that she deserves as a first-rate crime investigator.  And if what she discovers proves once and for all that one of her colleagues should never have been promoted over her head, so much the better. 

Bottom Line: The Island adds a considerable amount of detail to Hulda’s backstory, including what she learns, and doesn’t learn, about herself on a side trip she makes to America to connect with an aging World War II veteran. But the most fascinating thing here is how reading about Hulda’s life and aspirations while already knowing how everything turns out for her, enables the reader to know what it must feel like to be able to see into the future. So do keep in mind that in order to experience the Hulda series at its best, the three books most definitely need to be read (at least the first time around) in the order in which they were published. 

Ragnar Jónasson

Monday, May 17, 2021

My Least Favorite Book of Henning Mankell's - And What Happened Next

(I posted this review back in September of 2011 when author Henning Mankell just about scared me away from his books forever. But even though I don't think I ever read another of his standalones, I didn't completely give up on Mankell - and I came to really love his Kurt Wallander books. I had forgotten all about how much I disliked this particular book, and had to chuckle a little as I read it.)

Henning Mankell is best known for having created fictional detective Kurt Wallander, a character I am familiar with via a couple of BBC adaptations of Mankell’s work.  Wallander is typical of the genre, I suppose.  He is another of those broken down, older detectives whose personal life is in ruins but who gamely carries on with catching the local bad guys.  It is all very dark and moody, but I almost always take to that type of atmosphere and character and that is what I expected to get from The Man from Beijing.

And, at first, that is what I got.  The story opens at the scene of a spectacular mass murder in one of Sweden’s most isolated little villages.  All but three of the village’s twenty-two inhabitants have been brutally slaughtered in just a few hours and police are struggling to identify either a motive for the murders or a suspect.  When Judge Birgitta Roslin, who is on a two-week medical leave from the bench, realizes that this is the same village her mother was raised in, she decides to go there for a personal look.  Once there, and sensing that the police investigation is headed in the wrong direction, Roslin begins her own - an investigation that leads her to believe that a Chinese assassin is responsible for the deaths.

Butting heads with the local police, however, proves to be rather fruitless, so Roslin continues to nose around on her own.  Her amateur investigation brings her all the way to China where her efforts attract the attention of the wrong people.  Just happy to escape Beijing in one piece, Roslin returns to Sweden only to find that her Chinese troubles have followed her home.

Henning Mankell
Henning Mankell had the makings of a snappy crime thriller on his hands if he had only stuck with this basic plot and characters.  Even the long flashback dealing with San, a Chinaman kidnapped to work on America’s transcontinental railroad was interesting (and directly pertained to the plot), although, for the most part, very dryly narrated.  By the time Mankell got back to present day Sweden, I was beginning to get a little hazy on some of the murder details and the Swedish characters.  I managed to get myself back on track only to find that Mankell had a long, boring harangue in store for his readers.  The author managed to move the side plot along eventually, but along the way he had one of his main characters read segments of political speeches that in real time were said to last four or five hours.  As I listened to Mankell defend the likes of Chairman Mao and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I began to understand how the character’s captive audience must have felt.

This is a good book gone very, very bad.  It reads more as an excuse for Mankell to preach his own leftist political views than as a book to be enjoyed by mystery/thriller fans.  Had The Man from Beijing been properly edited, it could have been a gripping police procedural about a stunning crime.  As is, it is a tremendous bore about a stunning crime.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Much Needed Day Trip to a Historic Texas Cemetery

I decided yesterday to drive out to a little community northeast of Austin to see if I could locate an old cemetery someone on Facebook was talking about last month. After driving the 150 miles to get within what should have been just a few hundred feet of the little dirt road I needed to turn left on, I couldn't find it. And then, just when I was about ready to give up, I spotted a gate with a sign on it that I hadn't noticed before...and there it was: 

The Hornsby family cemetery is located about a quarter of a mile down this road, but this section of the road is misleading, to say the least. There are long ruts just a bit past this section where the road curves to the left that are so deep that I had to almost scrape the fence line in order to make my way past them.

The state of Texas put up this historical marker in 1936 to mark the spot where the Hornsby family settled exactly 100 years earlier. The marker is almost 100 years old now itself, but it can still be pretty easily read if you click on it for an enlarged view.:

The gravesite shown below is one of the biggest ones in the section devoted to the Hornsby family, and it tells a little bit about them. There are also numerous Texas Rangers from the era buried in this section:

The Rangers' graves all have the small crosses with badge replicas near the headstones.

Only a "hurricane fence" separates this cemetery from the one that contains the graves mostly of Mexican Americans and (possibly/probably) Tejanos who were buried here a few years before Texas became first an independent nation and then one of the United States.  The gate to that section looks like this:

Just as in the Hornsby part of the cemetery, people continue to be buried here on occasion, but the Mexican-influenced part of the cemetery is much more colorful.

There are at least two older graves that ended up being on the "wrong" side of the fence that segregates the two populations:

And, baseball fans will want to note that the Hornsby cemetery is also the final resting place of one of the greatest players of all time, Triple Crown Winner and Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby who played for the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, among others. Note the little pony someone placed on the grave marker in respect, I suppose, for Hornsby's love of betting on the horses:

This little trip marks the first time in over a year that I actually believe that we are getting closer to returning to pre-pandemic days now. I even stopped off for a burger - and ate inside the restaurant - on the way home. What a wild and crazy guy.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Darkness - Ragnar Jónasson

Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jónasson has been receiving such high praise from high places recently, that I decided it was time for me to get ahold of one of his books to see for myself what all the talk is about. Because I’m a big fan of crime fiction series anyway, I decided to start with The Darkness, the first book in Jónasson’s three-book “Hulda Series.” And what a perfect way to get acquainted with Ragnar Jónasson’s crime writing, that turned out to be!Reykjavik Police Detective Inspector  Hulda Hermannsdóttir (now you know why the series is called simply the “Hulda” series) is one of the least obvious candidates to have a police series of her own I’ve ever run across - and that makes The Darkness memorable. 

As The Darkness begins, 64-year-old Hulda is being forced into retirement a full six months earlier than she had planned to leave the Reykjavik police. Despite her shock at being pushed out the door this way, Hulda does manage to wrangle an additional two weeks on the clock during which she will be allowed to work on the cold case of her choice. Everyone knows that the odds against her solving any cold case singlehandedly in just two weeks are not good, but Hulda very badly wants to end her career with a win, so she takes the deal her boss offers. 

One year earlier, the body of a young Russian woman who was seeking asylum in Iceland washed ashore. All indications are that the woman committed suicide, and the original investigative file indicates exactly that. But Hulda knows that the police failed the woman both while she was alive and again after her death, and she wants to rectify as much of that failure as she can before it is too late ever to learn the truth.  Now, after learning that just days before her body was found, the woman had been notified that her application for asylum had been approved, Hulda knows that suicide is an unlikely answer as to what happened to her. And then, Hulda learns that a second young Russian woman, the dead woman’s best friend, has herself missing for months. She is certain that the fates of the two women are connected, but no one but her seems to care - and now she only has two weeks to figure it all out. 

Hulda, though, is not exactly a by-the-book cop, and she never has been one. She steps on toes, keeps her boss so far out of the loop that he’s always frantically trying to get her on the phone, interviews whomever she pleases whenever she pleases, and bends the law beyond its breaking point whenever she thinks that’s the right thing to do. And that’s exactly why her two weeks suddenly turns into three days. If she is going to figure all of this out, Hulda is barely going to have time to sleep.

Bottom Line: Hulda Hermannsdóttir is a woman with secrets of her own, and it is great fun to watch Jónasson build the character layer-by-layer into one that eventually bares little  resemblance to the Hulda I thought I was reading about at the beginning of The Darkness. And please - for your own good - DO NOT read the ending first. I know that some people still read novels that way, but this is absolutely not the time to do it. I’m telling you…don’t do it. 

Amanda Redman’s audiobook narration is excellent, and it makes listening to her read The Darkness a real pleasure. 

Ragnar Jónasson
(Photo by Bill Waters)

Friday, May 14, 2021

Take Me with You - Catherine Ryan Hyde

Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Take Me with You (2014) reminds me very much of her When I Found You, a novel I read back in 2008. In both instances, a man has his life turned upside down by children who randomly come into his life. In Take Me with You, the main character encounters the two young sons of the small-town mechanic he’s hired to get his travel rig back on the road, and in When I Found You, a man finds a small baby that’s been abandoned in a field he is walking across on his way to hunt ducks. In both novels, the men have to deal with unreliable relatives of the children who resent the long term relationships that will develop between the men and the children. It should be noted, however, that Take Me with You does have a much more positive tone and ending than When I Found You.

August, a high school science teacher on a tight travel budget, is on his way to Yellowstone National Park when his rig breaks down in a small California town, and now it appears that the repair costs are going to eat up all of his allocated gas money and then some. For very personal reasons, August is desperate to get to Yellowstone, but now it looks as if he is going to have to try again next year.  And then it happens: the mechanic, who is about to begin a 90-day DUI jail sentence, offers to do the repairs for free if only August will take his two boys along with him and keep them until school starts again in September. August knows there are all kinds of reasons that he can’t — and shouldn’t — even seriously consider what the man is asking him to do. But when he drives away, the boys are with him. 

On the road, August learns that the boys, aged 12 and 7, have been emotionally damaged by living alone for the past few years with their alcoholic father. In their own way, the boys are as damaged and fragile as August, himself a recovering alcoholic and newly divorced, knows himself to be. An entire summer of life on the road together will not be easy for any of them, but it will end up being the defining moment in each of their lives despite their reluctance to admit it to themselves or, most difficultly, to each other.

Bottom Line: Take Me with You strikes me as a novel whose message is that life is only made more difficult, and more precious time wasted, when good people fail to communicate with each other out of a misplaced fear of offending each other. This is, in effect, as much a coming of age novel for August as it is for the two boys for whom he suddenly finds himself totally responsible. Hyde tells a good, satisfying story here despite the fact that I found myself sometimes wishing I could shake a couple of the main characters by the shoulder and tell them to just get on with it.  

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Libraries Are Racist...Librarians Are Racist...The Dewey Decimal System Proves It!

"America's Wokest Librarian"

Oh, good grief.

So, let me get this straight. Now it's libraries, librarians, and the Dewey Decimal System that are racist? Forgive me if I struggle with this one a bit. I woke up this morning thinking that I must have had some kind of surreal dream during the night, but no, a quick search on Bing confirms that this ludicrous charge has been put forth by some woke extremist of a Cornell librarian who wants to claim her 15 minutes of fame before this whole woke-nightmare finally burns itself up out of sheer silliness. 

According to the Toronto Sun:

America’s wokest librarian doesn’t appear to actually like libraries.

Reanna Esmail, an outreach and engagement librarian (whatever that is) at Cornell University, claims that libraries aren’t the knowledge repositories you thought they were.


“Libraries are predominantly white fields, and Cornell is no exception in this regard. Libraries themselves also have a fraught history of being complicit in racism, and in some cases, upholding and disseminating racist ideas.”

I'm not going to go into this woman's reasoning, faulty as it is,  because, frankly, I just can't take it all that seriously. I feel sorry for this wanna-be book burner, and I hope she enjoys her fifteen minutes.  I do hope that someone at Cornell is suitably embarrassed on her behalf.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Couple Found Slain - Mikita Brottman

Mikita Brottman’s Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder is a true crime volume with a twist. Most true crime accounts focus almost entirely on the crime, and on the identification and incarceration of the party responsible for committing it. This, however, is only the beginning of what Brottman has to say about Brian Bechtold’s 1992 murder of his parents in Silver Spring, Maryland. The author focuses instead on what happens to the 22-year-old after he turns himself in to authorities in Port St. Joe, Florida - and what his life has been like for the almost three decades following the murder. 

That Brian Bechtold would shotgun his parents to death should have come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to what life in the Bechtold home was like, least of all to Brian’s parents. The Bechtold family is one that has been plagued with mental illness for generations, and neither of Brian’s parents were entirely free of the problem themselves. Perhaps that is why neither of them seemed to feel physically threatened by Brian’s behavioral problems right up to the moment he turned his shotgun on both of them on the morning of February 21, 1992. 

But that is only the beginning of Brian Bechtold’s story. 

Brian was so obviously mentally disturbed (eventually being diagnosed as schizophrenic) that he was held “not criminally responsible” by a jury and confined to Maryland’s Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center for an indefinite period of time during which doctors would supposedly work to cure him of his mental illness so that he could eventually be released back into the public.  And that’s right where he would still be when Mikita Brottman encountered him in that same facility more than two decades later — no closer to being released back into society or even, according to his doctors, “cured” of his illness.

Couple Found Slain is Brottman’s reaction to what she learned about Brian and the situation in which he now seemed to be trapped forever. Her well researched recounting of daily life inside Perkins explains how difficult it became for Brian to cope with what seemed to him to be an endless stream of reliving the same day over and over again. What Brottman describes as life inside Perkins, especially in the maximum security unit where Brian spent so much of his time, makes clear how difficult it must have been for Brian or anyone else to retain their sanity, much less try to regain it under those conditions.

Bottom Line: Couple Found Slain is an eye-opener for those of us who do not pay attention to what happens to people confined to psychiatric facilities by the courts. That longterm residents of the facilities often come to see being transferred into the prison system — and act out, accordingly — as their only way out of the grind of living in a psychiatric hospital tells you everything you need to know about the mental torture of living life under such an indefinite sentence. 

The audiobook version of Couple Found Slain, with the exception of brief remarks by the author herself, is read by Christina Delaine whose voice and pacing are such that her words are  always easily understood. Delaine’s delivery, however, does tend at times to swing into a  monotoned, almost robotic, style reminiscent of computer-generated narration, and that can be distracting.  

Mikita Brottman

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, May 10, 2021

Not Dark Yet (DCI Banks #27) - Peter Robinson

Not Dark Yet
, Peter Robinson’s twenty-seventh “DCI Banks Novel” picks up where the  previous Banks novel, Many Rivers to Cross, leaves off, bringing Zelda’s story to what seems to be a logical place to leave it. Zelda, for those unfamiliar with the goings-on in Many Rivers to Cross, is a stunningly beautiful Eastern European woman who was abducted by a sophisticated ring of sex traffickers as a seventeen-year-old as she walked out the front door for the last time of the orphanage in which she had grown up. Zelda now lives in Yorkshire with one of Banks’s best friends, and if he were only to admit it to himself, Alan Banks is probably a little bit in love with Zelda, too.

Zelda is something called a “super-recognizer,” meaning that she is highly skilled at recognizing faces years after she has last seen them, even in old photos and videos. This is a skill especially valued by law enforcement authorities, and they have made good use of Zelda’s willingness to work with them in locating and identifying sex traffickers who would much prefer to remain anonymous. But being a super-recognizer also allows Zelda to locate the men responsible for making her a sex slave so that she can extract her own brand of revenge on them, and she is determined to do exactly that.

In a parallel plot-line, Banks, Annie, and the rest of the team are trying to find the killer of Connor Clive Blayton, a wealthy man who was found floating face-down in the luxury pool inside his mansion. Blayton was known for the wild, anything goes, parties at which he enjoyed nothing more than surrounding himself with celebrities and powerful politicians. But after a trove of secretly recorded video recordings are found — and reviewed — the list of people who would be happy enough to see Blayton’s mouth closed for good turns out to be a long one. One recording, however, stands out to investigators because it shows the brutal rape of what appears to be an underaged young woman — and that’s the thread that investigators start  yanking on in hopes that it will somehow lead them to the killer they seek. 

At this point in his career, Banks is a seasoned investigator with a good track record, and he has pretty much seen it all. But it’s one thing to investigate a crime, and it’s another thing entirely to get caught up in the crime himself. Before this one is over, Banks will be second-guessing both  his future as a policeman and the fine line that sometimes separates the good guys from the bad guys.

Bottom Line: Not Dark Yet is a satisfying chapter of Alan Banks’s life, adding personal details about Banks, his family, and his friends to the man’s history while the two separate police investigations run their course. There’s even a potentially ominous (for fans) hint at the end of the novel that Banks may be pondering a change in his lifestyle when one character asks if Banks is going to arrest them, and he responds, “No, I’ve had enough of all that. More than enough.” So, even if he remains a cop, Alan Banks is going to be a different cop from the one he was before he met Zelda. 

Peter Robinson author photo