Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Book Chase July 2021 Reading Plan

As another month draws to a close, I've just finished my eleventh June book, Reavis Z. Wortham's The Right Side of Wrong, so ready or not, it's time for me to start looking forward to what my July reading might look like. I see that I ended up reading six of the nine books I expected I would be reading in June (and abandoned two others), plus five others that were not even on my radar thirty days ago. That near 50-50 split has become pretty much par for the course this year. 

Here are my initial picks for July-reading:

I've had a paperback copy of this 1980 travel memoir around for a while, but because I hate movie-tie-in covers with a passion, I've decided to use this cover in place of the one I actually own. Here, Robyn Davidson recounts her "solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian outback" that she made along with her four camels in 1977 as a 27-year-old. As much as I dislike the cover of the copy I have, I think I would probably enjoy the movie version of this tale, so I'll be looking for a way to watch the 2014 movie soon. 

She's Leaving Home is a 2014 standalone novel from William Shaw, a crime fiction writer whose work I've really come to admire. I found the book in the library while searching for the later books in Shaw's Alex Cupidi series. Those books are proving to be particularly hard to find, and since I was curious about Shaw's standalones anyway, I decided to grab this one while it was available. I did buy a British copy of the third book in the Cupidi series, but I don't expect to read that one in July. 

As everyone probably knows by now, I am a huge fan of the Akashic Books long, long series of crime fiction noir short story collections. There are well over 100 books in the series now, most of them collecting stories all set in one of the various cities around the world. Palm Springs Noir is to be published on July 6, so I really want to get it read and reviewed soon. This fourteen-story collection of almost 300 pages, is edited by Barbara DeMarco -Barrett, a Los Angeles-based writer.

Wednesday's Child (1992) is the sixth novel in Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks series. I'm reading this one as part of my 2021 personal challenge to finally read some of the earlier novels from series that I only started reading at the mid-way point or later. I'm pretty sure I watched a television version of Wednesday's Child sometime in the past, so this one may seem overfamiliar to me once I begin reading it. It begins with the abduction from her home of a seven-year-old girl by a young couple posing as social workers.

The Child's Child is a 2012 standalone novel written by Ruth Rendell under her Barbara Vine pseudonym. The Vine books are generally suspenseful, character-driven thrillers and I've enjoyed many of them in the past. This one is about two adult siblings who put aside their differences to live together in the London home they've just inherited from their grandmother. The siblings manage to get along OK until Grace's brother moves his boyfriend into the house with them. The cover calls this one a "novel-within-a-novel."

I've been fascinated by John Lennon ever since I first heard the Beatles sing a song back in 1964. I always thought he was the most talented of the four Beatles, with Paul McCartney a relatively close second, and I vividly remember the news bulletin that announced his murder during a Monday Night Football game in 1980. This biography by Lesley-Ann Jones promises to "delve deep into (the) psyche of the world's most storied musician - the good, the bad, and the genius."

I picked this one up in late May, and I'm hoping to finally read it sometime in July. It is a series of interviews conducted by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager in which they ask notable authors to talk about "the books that shaped them and inspired them to leave their own literary mark." Among those interviewed are: Russell Banks, T.C. Boyle, Michael Chaben, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, Donna Tartt, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Susan Choi, and Jennifer Egan.

I've become a Ragnar Jónasson fan this year, and I'm looking forward to reading his standalone novel The Girl Who Died. Some of you have already read this one (the latest one, I think that is available in the US), and from what I can tell going in, the plot sounds almost claustrophobic in the sense that a young woman who wants to get a fresh start in life decides to move to one of the most isolated villages in all of Iceland - a village in which a grand total of ten people live. She finds herself an outcast there with no way out.

I suspect that only five or six of these eight are going to be read before the end of July, and I'm looking forward to learning which other books I'm not even thinking of right now will cause that to happen. In addition, I'm still reading three or four short stories per week from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse

It's hard to explain why, but the first day of every new month always fills me with a new enthusiasm. The ringer in July is that I am also hoping to finally hit the road for a couple of weeks to do more exploring in states like the Dakotas, Utah, New Mexico, Iowa...maybe even Wyoming again. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I feel safe and confident enough to stay in hotels again by mid-July. If not, no trip.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven - Sherman Alexi

Sherman Alexi’s 1993 collection of short stories is one I will long remember. The only other work of Alexi’s I had read to this point was his serial killer novel Indian Killer, so I didn’t know at all what to expect from his short stories. But from its title, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which disappointingly turned out to be the title of one of the stories I liked least in the whole book), all the way through its twenty-two stories, this collection is special. 

One of the surprises I got from the collection is that it contains two or three stories that are probably as good as any short story I’ve ever read. Another surprise is that the collection contains a couple of stories that are definitely among the worst, and least comprehensible, short stories I’ve ever read. As I said…a memorable collection. The interrelated stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are very dark, and many of them are filled with despair, but they are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, too. The stories are structured and placed within the book in a way that shares snapshots into the lives of several recurring characters throughout their lifetimes. In style, they veer all the way from the brutal realism to fantasy and magical realism, a style that almost always requires a more patient reader than I will ever be. 

The despair in the stories largely comes from watching the innocence and hopes of young Native American children turn into a passive lack of hope for the future by the time they are in their early teens. The humor springs from the clever coping mechanisms that so many of the mature characters use to make their daily lives tolerable. But lurking in the background, always,  are the addictions to drugs and alcohol that eventually control the lives of so many of the characters the book’s readers first meet as children. 

Here are a few examples of Alexi’s style and tone:

“It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don’t wonder if it’s half filled or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer.” (From “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore”)

“While Victor stood in line, he watched Thomas Builds-the-Fire standing near the magazine rack talking to himself. Like he always did. Thomas was a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to. That’s like being a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth.” (From “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”)

“Victor and Thomas made it back to the reservation just as the sun was rising. It was the beginning of a new day on earth, but the same old shit on the reservation.” (Also from “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”)

“Still, he drank his coffee straight today. In other yesterdays he poured vodka into his cup before the coffee was finished brewing. ‘Shit,’ he said aloud. ‘Nothing more hopeless than a sober Indian.’” (From “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance”)

Bottom Line: Stories like these, written by an author who observes the culture from the inside (Alexi is himself a member of the Spokane tribe and grew up on the reservation) are more revealing than anything ever likely to be produced by some sociologist or governmental bureaucrat. Books like The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven should be required reading for any outsider who believes he can solve the problems of such a unique culture by throwing money or platitudes at it. Sadly, I doubt that it was read by many/any of them. These stories, of course, were written almost thirty years ago, but there is still a lot to be learned from them and others like them. 

Sherman Alexi photo from book's back cover

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Notes from "The Secret of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction" (The Great Courses) - Part 2

This is Part 2 of the notes I took for myself while watching the 36 lectures from The Great Courses class on "The Secret of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction." While I took the notes primarily as a checklist for my own reference, a list I could choose books and authors from for a long time to come as I more deeply explore the genre, I hope that others might find it useful in their own reading.

Nordic Noir and Mystery:

  • Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahloo - Swedish co-writers (1965-1975) of a ten-book series featuring police detective Martin Beck
  • Jo Nesbó - Norwegian author of the Harry Hole series
  • Henning Mankell - Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander series
  • Hanne Wilhelmsen - Former Norwegian Minister of Justice and author of the Ann Holt books

Latin American Mysteries:
  • Leonardo Padura Fuentes - Cuban author of the "Havana Quartet", Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red, and Havana Black
  • Paco Ignacio Taibo II - Spanish/Mexican author of the Hector Belascoaran Shayne series, including The Uncomfortable Dead (2004)

Japanese Mysteries:
  • Edogawa Ranpo - author of surrealistic mysteries
  • Seicho Matsumoto - author of the realistic mysteries featuring Inspector Imanishi
  • Soji Shimada - author of over 100 mystery novels, including The Tokyo Zodiac Murders
  • Natsuo Kirino - novelist best known in the mystery genre for the novels Real World and Out
  • Fuminori Nakamura - Award winning author best known for Evil and the Mask and The Gun

African Mysteries:
  • Kwei Quartey - Ghanan author of police procedurals featuring Inspector Darko Dawson, including Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street
  • Mukoma Wa Ngugi - Kenyan poet and author  best known for Nairobi Heat
Female Mystery Writers:
  • Dorothy Hughes - 1940s author of "Domestic Thrillers" such as The Blackbirder (1943) and In a Lonely Place (1947)
  • Evelyn Piper (pen name of Merriam Modell) - best known for Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957)
  • Vera Caspery - best known for Laura (1942) and Bedelia (1948)
  • Margaret Millar - Canadian wife of Ross MacDonald (pen name of Kenneth Millar) best known for The Invisible Worm and Beast in View
  • Stella Remington - former Director General of MI5 who writes well received spy thrillers

As in the first list I posted, these are hardly the only authors featured in "The Secret of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction" lectures. I've confined the two lists almost exclusively to writers who were entirely, or relatively, new to me so that I can use the list for my own future mystery and suspense reading choices. Hopefully, there is something here that others can also use for that purpose. I highly recommend the entire lecture series to anyone interested in the topic; it's fun, entertaining, and instructive.

Course Lecturer David Schmid

Friday, June 25, 2021

When We Were Young & Brave - Hazel Gaynor

I was drawn to Hazel Gaynor’s When We Were Young & Brave because of the novel’s focus on a facet of World War II I’ve read so little about: what happened to the expatriate school children who were suddenly trapped in countries like China after Japan declared war against the US and Britain. Gaynor’s novel explores what happens to the mostly British students at the China Inland Mission School after that school for the children of missionaries and diplomats falls under the control of China’s Japanese invaders. 

Gaynor begins with a 1975 prologue written by Nancy, a forty-something-year-old woman who is looking back on her experiences as a ten-year-old student in the Chefoo School more than thirty years earlier. The rest of the story is told in alternating flashback chapters written from the points of view of Nancy, the child, and Elspeth, one of the school’s young teachers. 

“…our war wasn’t one of battles and bombs. Ours was a war of everyday struggles; of hope versus despair, of courage against fear, strength over frailty. For all the time we spent under the control of the Japanese regime, without any certainty of when — if — it would end, not one of us could be sure which side would win. So we simply went on, rising and falling with each sunrise and sunset; forever lost, until we were found.” (page 242)

The story begins in December 1941 when Nancy is only ten years old. She and her best friends, Sprout and Mouse, by this time have already been separated from their parents (missionaries working hundreds of miles away in inland China) for the better part of a year. All told, 124 children have remained at school for the Christmas holidays, along with a handful of teachers and missionaries, because the Sino-Japanese war has made it so dangerous to travel across the country to their parents. According to the headmaster, the boys and girls are composed of “ninety British, three Canadians, five Australians, two South Africans, eighteen Americans, three Norwegians, and three Dutch.” Most of the students began their internment as children; by the time they are rescued in August, 1945, they would be young adults.

Over the four years of their confinement by the Japanese army, the children and their teachers experience a steady decline in housing conditions, medical treatment, and food quantity and quality. No matter how bad things get, however, the dedicated teachers and staff, who continue to school them on a daily basis, manage to shelter the children from truly understanding the fragility of their existence. For almost five years, the courageous teachers substitute for the parents that are missing in the lives of these children who, by the end of 1945, can barely even remember life at home with their families. 

Bottom Line: When We Were Young & Brave is a touching and inspirational story about a small group of students and teachers suddenly placed into a life-or-death situation for which they are totally unprepared. Their reality changes from one day to the next, but they find a way to cope with whatever is thrust upon them. However, despite the atrocities they suffer over the years, Gaynor tells their story in a way that seldom leaves the reader with a real sense of the terror and brutality of life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. When We Were Young & Brave has more the feel of a good YA novel than one written for adults looking for an understanding of what the experience was really like for those who experienced it. 

Hazel Gaynor

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Heathens - Ace Atkins

The Heathens
is the eleventh novel in Ace Atkins’s Sheriff Quinn Colson series. The series began in 2011 with The Ranger, and Atkins has added a new novel to the series every year since the first one. That is a fairly standard schedule for most series authors, but the remarkable thing about Atkins is that he has been able to keep to his book-a-year schedule even after having been tapped by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue Parker’s outstanding Spenser series of books. Since 2012 Atkins has added ten new novels to that forty-nine-book series. 

As The Heathens opens, Sheriff Quinn Colson is in a good place. He and Maggie have a new baby girl, and Quinn is closer than ever to Brandon, Maggie’s little boy. Maggie, a nurse, and the children have brought new life to the old family farm Quinn has lived on his whole life. Now almost forty years old, Quinn is a genuinely happy man for the first time in his life. Some things, however, never change — and the Byrd family is one of those things. It seems like something is always going on with the Byrds that requires the sheriff’s attention. If it’s not Gina Byrd, a drug addict who regularly suffers physical abuse at the hands of the men in her life, it’s TJ, Gina’s sixteen-year-old daughter, who is accused of petty theft or fighting again. 

But it won’t be so simple this time. Now, Gina Byrd has disappeared, and after her body is found and TJ and her boyfriend Ladarius become suspects in the murder, the teens and TJ’s nine-year-old brother hit the road, always just barely one step ahead of the law. The problem is that Quinn is not the only one chasing them — and not all the chasers are interested in keeping the kids alive long enough to figure out exactly what happened to Gina Byrd. 

Among the chasers is Lillie Virgil, a former deputy of Quinn’s who is now a U.S. Marshal. Unlike Quinn, Lillie is already convinced that TJ and Ladarius are guilty of murder and she is determined to catch up with them. So while Lillie chases the teens from state to state, Quinn investigates the case from Tibbeha County, Mississippi. And the more he learns, the more he is convinced that TJ and Ladarius had nothing to do with the murder of TJ’s mother. The problem is that someone very much wants to see TJ and Ladarius dead rather than in a jail cell. Now, he and Lillie need to catch up with the runaways before their Bonnie-and-Clyde-like chase ends up just like the original one. 

Bottom Line: Longtime readers of the Quinn Colson series feel comfortable in the Tibbeha County setting, and they will enjoy again catching up with their favorite characters (even the bad guys). By this point, the sheriff has done much to clean up the county corruption the former sheriff, Quinn’s own uncle, more often than not turned a blind eye to, but there’s still a lot to do. Some things just never seem to change. 

Ace Atkins

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Monday, June 21, 2021

Short Stories from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse (Part 3)

Continuing with my survey of the thirty-four short stories collected in Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, today's post covers the fifth, sixth, and seventh stories in the book. This trio of stories includes one of the type I would just as soon never read again in my life and two others that I really liked.

Is anyone else as bored by Zombie Apocalypse as I am now? It's become so difficult to avoid stories like "Not this World, Not this War" that they have all started to blend together in my mind. The overkill probably results from the huge success of The Walking Dead television series, but I really think it's time for writers to move on now and go back to being a little more creative with their apocalyptic stories. Jonathon Maberry, to his credit, does give "Not this World, Not this War" a nice twist by putting his main character, a military-trained sniper, in a difficult emotional situation when he learns that the zombie hoard coming for him is made up almost entirely of busloads of small children who were being bussed to safety when they got infected with the zombie-bug. That was enough to save the story for me, but I do hope it's the last zombie story in Wastelands. (But I bet it's not.)

"Where Would You Be Now," by Carrie Vaughn, is my new favorite of the seven stories I've read so far. What I like best about this post-apocalyptic short story is that it focuses more on characters and relationships between characters than it does on the cause of the apocalypse or the violence that follows society's destruction. Instead, Vaughn puts her characters in an interesting setting and lets them show the reader who they are in their hearts and souls. Her story is the first one so far that ends on at least a bit of a hopeful note that good people will survive and be able to adapt to their new world. The title of the story is the question that occupants of the medical camp in which the story is mostly set ask each other when they want to relax and get to know each other better. The title ties directly in to the overall mood of the story and its last two sentences: "It doesn't matter. This is where I am." 

The most optimistic story so far is Timothy Mudie's "The Elephant's Crematorium," a story in which no animal has been able to reproduce for the last seven years, including humans. James and Liyana are alone on what used to be an African elephant preserve, and the surrealistic  aftereffects of the war that devastated the planet have made the world around them - and its dangers - completely unpredictable. Liyana is pregnant, but it's not the first time since the war, and James fears that another pregnancy could cost her her life. Liyana's bigger concern at the moment is finding out why small groups of elephants are spontaneously combusting into piles of ashes. Are they doing it on purpose; is it a kind of suicide pact between the animals? After she figures it all out, a remarkable thing happens that leaves both the humans and the elephants better for the bond they form. Even as surrealistic as this story is at times, I enjoyed more than most because its focus on the characters instead of on the customary violence that is at the heart of so much apocalyptic literature. 

These last two stories, because they show more variety than most of the earlier ones, have left me much more hopeful, even enthusiastic, about reading the rest of the collection, and I'm looking forward to reading four or five more of them this week.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Revival Season - Monica West

Monica West’s debut novel, Revival Season, is a classic coming-of-age story in which fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton comes to the realization that the world she has been living in is gone forever, and more importantly, that it had really never existed in the first place. Miriam may have been a naive teen at the beginning of Revival Season, but by the end of the book she is more an adult than her own parents may ever be again.

Miriam’s father is a Baptist preacher well known for his healing powers. Every summer, Reverend Horton packs up his whole family and heads east from their Texas home to hold a series of tent revivals throughout the Southeast. Revival season is an exciting time for the Horton children, an adventure they look forward to every year, and after the first revival goes so well, it looks like this is going to be the best revival season ever for their father. But it doesn’t turn out that way.

It all starts to go bad after a disastrous healing service during which Reverend Horton’s healing powers are loudly called into question by an old blind man. The way that the preacher reacts to being challenged, and the resulting violence that immediately follows, scares Miriam and makes her begin to question everything she thought she knew about her father. Now she has questions not only about Reverend Horton, but even about her faith, and the healings she has taken for granted for so long. But, within his family, Reverend Horton is a tyrant, a man who refuses to be challenged or questioned by his wife and children, a man quick to use the belt on his children for even the slightest violation of his principles. If Miriam is going to find answers, she will have to find them on her own.

And then it happens.

Miriam accidentally discovers that she may have her own healing powers despite the fact that both her father and her church have always made it very clear that God denies this kind of power to women. It is, of course, impossible to keep her newly discovered abilities completely secret, and over the next few months Miriam quietly, and privately, heals a handful of others. She knows that what she is doing could end up destroying her family and her church, and she is terrified by what her father will do when he learns what she has been up to. And now, at the beginning of a new revival season, she climbs with her brothers and sisters into their worn out old minivan knowing that she will have to decide between her family and her God before she ever sees Texas again. 

Bottom Line: Revival Season is a remarkable debut novel. Monica West is a good storyteller, and she creates here a believable family being forced to live within its own secretive world by a man who tolerates no questioning of his authority and power. Miriam Horton, though, is a young woman brave enough to think for herself; the question is whether she is also brave enough to defy her authoritative father. Revival Season ends in a way that lends itself to a sequel, and I’m hoping that happens because I would love to know what happens next to Miriam Horton and her family. 

Monica West

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Notes from "The Secret of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction" (The Great Courses) - Part 1

I finished The Great Courses class called "The Secret of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction" the other day, thirty-six lectures that totaled close to nineteen hours in all. At first I skipped around a bit, but after I started watching the lectures in the order in which they are numbered, their interconnectedness made it easier to understand the evolution of mystery and suspense novels as it was being presented by the lecturer. I highly recommend the course to anyone who has access to it; it is well worth the time required.

Whenever a name, a book, or a concept was new to me I made a few brief notes that I want to share here, partially for my own record-keeping, but mostly in hopes that some of you might discover a new author by scrolling through the names and comments shown below:

Mystery milestones:

  • Father of Detective Fiction: Edgar Allan Poe
  • Mother of Detective Fiction: Anna Katherine Greene
  • Author of First Detective Series: Ebenezer Gryce
  • First Fictional American Detective: Amelia Butterworth novels begun in 1878 by Anna Katherine Greene

Relating to Other Early Fictional Female Detectives:
  • Harriet Vane - created in 1930 by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • 1972 novel Private Eye by P.D. James
  • Kate Delafield - first lesbian detective - created by Katherine V. Forest in 1984 when she began the Kate Delafield series

Important Contributors to Native American Mysteries:
  • Linda Hogan: Mean Spirit - 1990
  • Sherman Alexi: Indian Killer - 1996
  • Mardi Oakley Medawar: Murder on the Rez
  • Tony Hillerman

Some Groundbreaking European Mystery Writers:
  • Ferdinand von Schirach: German author of The Collini Case
  • Bornhard Schlink: German author of the "Self Trilogy")
  • Jakob Arjouni: German author of Kismet and Brother Kamal
  • Carlo Emilio Gadda: Italian author of That Awful Mess on Via Merculana, the "anti-detective novel" written in 1957
  • Leonardo Sciascia: Italian author of the Sicilian novels The Day of the Owl (1961) and Equal Danger (1970)
  • Andrea Camilleri: Italian author of The Shape of Water and the Inspector Montallbano series
  • Manuel Vasquez Montalbon: Spanish author of An Olympic Death and the Detective Pepé Carvalho books

Notable African-American Mystery Writers:
  • Chester Himes: 1950s writer of "absurd" mysteries set in Harlam
  • Barbara Neely: author of the Blanche White novels
  • Walter Mosley: prolific author best known for his Easy Rawlins novels
  • Valerie Wilson Wesley: writer of the hardboiled "Hayle novels" such as When Death Comes Stealing
  • Attica Locke: author of the "Jay Porter novels" set in Houston

Notable American Latino Mystery Writers:
  • Rolando Hinojosa: author of novels such as The Valley (1973), Fair Gentlemen of Belkin County, Korean Love Songs, Partners in Crime (1985), and Ask a Policeman in addition to the Rafé Buenrostro detective novel series
  • Rudolfo Anaya: author of the Sonny Bacco four-book series
  • Lucha Corpi: Eulogy for a Brown Angel (a Detective Gloria Demasco book), Cactus Blood, Crimson Moon, and Death at Solstice
  • Hector Tobar: The Tattooed Soldier
These notes cover about half of what I jotted down while watching the lectures. I plan to prepare a second post that will cover "Nordic Noir and Mystery," "Latin American Mysteries," "Japanese Mysteries," "African Mysteries," and "Women Mystery Writers." In the meantime, I hope you find something here that leads your mystery reading in an unexpected direction or two.

Course Lecturer David Schmid

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Essence of Nathan Biddle - J. William Lewis

The Essence of Nathan Biddle
, by J. William Lewis, is one of the more satisfying debut novels that I have read for a long time. Here, Lewis, himself an Alabama native, uses the Alabama coastal region of the 1950s as setting for the coming-of-age story of a remarkable young man, Kit Biddle, a high school senior who may just be a little too intelligent for his own good. It can’t be a good sign when a high school student starts obsessing too much over questions about the meaning of life and why others insist on seeing him through their own versions of reality. Kit feels like a fraud, and he doesn’t like to feel that way.

But to Kit’s credit, if anyone has a reason to wonder about the meaning of life and who he really is, it’s probably him. Kit and his mother only moved to the city after Nathan Biddle, Kit’s cousin, was murdered by his own father, a man who still believes that he sacrificed the little boy only because God instructed him to do exactly that. Crazy Uncle Nat, as Kit has thought of him ever since, practically destroyed his whole family that day. Although Kit’s other uncle, Newt, is only eight years older than him, Kit grew up believing that Newt was always right, that he knew all the answers to all the important questions. When, after the murder Newt “dropped out of everything except beer joints,” Kit had to start answering even life’s toughest questions for himself.

Despite the Biddle family tragedy, an event of which almost everyone in town is well aware, Kit is doing pretty well for himself before being unceremoniously dumped by Anna, his brilliant and breathtakingly beautiful girlfriend. He is probably the fastest runner on the school’s track team, and he is well on his way to being ranked high in the top ten graduates of his entire class. After Anna’s rejection, however, Kit decides to start doing things his way; he will be the person he knows himself to be, not the person everyone else believes, or wants, him to be. And the next thing Kit knows, he is speeding down the highway in a stolen golf course maintenance truck, about to have the terrible accident that will change the rest of his life. If he really wants answers to life’s big questions, he is going to have to have help. And it is going to be a long way back.

Bottom Line: The Essence of Nathan Biddle, while not exactly a feel-good novel, is certainly an inspirational one. It is impossible not to pull for Kit Biddle as he goes through his emotional and physical struggles — and it is equally difficult not to worry about the girl who comes into Kit’s life after Anna - so when Kit finally turns the corner by openly confronting the Biddle family problems, the reader feels a sense of relief for both of them. Maybe Kit is smart enough to figure out all the answers after all.

J. William Lewis

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Monday, June 14, 2021

Short Stories from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse (Part 2)

Last week, I commented on “Bullet Points,” the first short story from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse. As you may recall, I found “Bullet Points” to be a clever — and amusing — take on what it might be like to be one of the last people on the face of the Earth. I’ve now read the second, third, and fourth stories in the Wastelands collection and found them to be very different from “Bullet Points” — and as far as that goes, from each other. That kind of variety is one of the common characteristics of any good short story compilation, and it encourages me to keep reading (although I would hate to think that the “best” story in the collection turns out to be the very first one I read). 

These three stories are moodier than the opener, and each of the stories offers a more horrific take on what a post-apocalyptic world might be like. “The Red Thread,” by Virginia writer Sofia Samatar, is about a woman and her teenaged daughter who are moving from safe place to safe place after the world has effectively been destroyed by the devastating economic crash that follows the complete drying up of the Earth’s oil reserves. Governments and borders have collapsed, and now only isolated pockets of civility still exist. The girl is hoping to find her boyfriend; the mother is just trying to find a place to rest.

Oregon writer Wendy N. Wagner’s “Expedition 83” is just as gloomy as “The Red Thread,” but it has considerably more action. In Wagner’s story, everyone who has survived the dual catastrophes of global warming and the nuclear winter that followed now live underground. It has, in fact, been several hundred years since anyone has lived on the surface. Today, people most fear the super-fungus that, once it starts growing on any part of the body, will eventually encase even their mouths and noses. Surgeons can keep infected people breathing for a while longer, but the end is always the same. But now, two women are being allowed to see the surface for themselves. 

“The Last to Matter,” by Adam-Troy Castro, a writer who lives in Florida, is the first story from Wastelands that did not even come close to working for me. It is a surrealistic look way into the future at the point that the last city on Earth finally dies. The message, I think, is that all of the survivors are by now so bored with their lives that they welcome the end. I say “I think” but I was myself way too bored by the story to want to spend much time trying to figure it all out. 

Bottom Line: As in any short story compilation that includes the stories of dozens of different authors, there will be “hits” and “misses” among them. And readers will never agree on which are the “hits” and which are the “misses.” That’s part of the fun. All in all, at least for me, Wastelands: The New Apocalypse has gotten off to a pretty good start, and I’m eager to see what follows.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Monster in the Box - Ruth Rendell

The Monster in the Box
(2009) is the twenty-second book in Ruth Rendell’s twenty-four-book Inspector Wexford series. The Wexford books were published  over an almost-fifty-year period (1964-2013), so there is a noticeable shift in style and character development in the Wexford books as they progress over the years. The earlier books have a bit of an old-fashioned feel to them today, and Wexford and his cohorts do not always feel particularly real. This is particularly noticeable to me, I suppose, because I have just read the fourth Wexford novel, The Best Man to Die (1969), and The Monster in the Box almost back-to-back. 

As it turns out, The Monster in the Box is my favorite of the fifteen Wexford novels I have read so far. Not only does the plot involve two intriguing mysteries that need solving, one of the mysteries (because it involves a man Wexford has believed to be a murderer for decades) allows Rendell to show what kind of young policeman, and man, Wexford had been at the very beginning of his career. Much of the book involves Wexford contrasting, mainly to himself, all the cultural changes that he’s observed during his long career without, I think, realizing just how much he himself has changed over the years. And that limited self-awareness on Wexford’s part will serve as the perfect set-up for the little surprise that Rendell throws into the end of this one.

It was while investigating his very first murder case that Wexford first encountered the muscular little man wearing a scarf and walking his dog along the street outside the victim’s home. The man seemed intent on sending Wexford a message by staring so unflinchingly directly into Wexford’s eyes before he continued his walk past the home. When Wexford began running into the man so often, sometimes near the scenes of other murders, he began to feel that this Eric Targo was toying with him, almost daring him to prove Targo’s guilt if he could. And then the man disappeared.

Now, after all these years, Wexford spots Targo on the streets again, and even though he has never mentioned his suspicions to anyone before, he decides now to share his fears with his old partner, Mike Burden - who listens patiently, but just isn’t buying Wexford’s theory much at all. About the same time, Burden’s wife starts to worry that a local Pakistani family may be in the process of arranging the forced marriage of — if not even the honor killing — of Tamima, their teenaged daughter who has been seeing a boy they do not approve of. In what begins as simply a favor to his partner’s wife, Wexford assigns someone to look into what is happening in the Rahman family, but when it turns out that no one in Tamima’s extended family can account for the girl’s current whereabouts, the police start wondering if they are searching for a corpse instead of a girl who may have been forced into an unwanted marriage.

Bottom Line: The Monster in the Box ticks all the right boxes. Longtime fans of the Wexford novels are certain to enjoy such an extended look at Wexford’s early years as he reminisces about his first girlfriends and what he learned from those relationships. The two mysteries are interesting, and they come complete with all the twists and turns that mystery readers enjoy so much. Then, when the two plots begin more and more to intertwine (as they almost always do in mysteries), the climax that follows is a completely satisfying one — especially with that little surprise Rendell tosses her readers at the very end. Too, watching the Kingsmarkham police tiptoe around the Rahmans, a Muslim family, in an attempt not to offend them even while suspecting them of a possible murder, is a reminder of how difficult it is to walk the fine line of political correctness these days — and this novel was written a dozen years ago. In the end, the Rahman family was more offended by all the tiptoeing around than anything else.

Ruth Rendell

Friday, June 11, 2021

Twitter Is Fixable...Facebook Not So Much

I spent a few hours this week eliminating some of the aspects of the internet that can always be guaranteed to ruin my mood, if not my whole day. I love the internet in many ways, and I can't imagine daily life without it, but certain apps and many, many people I run into on the net are no longer worth my time or patience. For that reason, I've been doing a lot of internet spring cleaning this week. 

I started with Twitter...not all of Twitter, though, only the people who go there just to use a hit-and-run technique to viciously smear those who are not "woke" (I hate that word) enough to suit them. Now, I enjoy the "book people" on Twitter a lot, most of them anyway, so I started blocking everyone who says anything nasty - or just stupid - about others in order to make themselves look good (the kind of "virtue signaling" we've all heard so much about). "Blocking" is a relatively easy process on Twitter, and after having blocked almost 450 accounts, I now have a fine-tuned Twitter feed that is all about books, college sports, and jigsaw puzzles. Sadly, not all "book people" made the cut, though, because a few prominent authors are among the most self-absorbed virtue-signalers on the planet. But now I can actually look forward to clicking on Twitter to see what the chatter is all about.

I wish it were that easy with Facebook, but the powers-that-be who run Facebook are so obsessed with censorship of viewpoints they disagree with that I've grown tired of the whole Facebook experience. I deleted my Facebook account on Monday, and my only regret is that I've lost my Book Chase Facebook page in the process of deleting my main account. Facebook censors (who call themselves fact checkers) decide not only what "truth" is, they decide how much exposure your posts are going to receive, and what posts (even from friends) you will be allowed to see. But I don't have to worry about that anymore because now I won't be seeing anything posted to Facebook or adding to even the book-conversation there anymore. And I feel as relieved about that as if I had just yanked a splinter out of my thumb.

I'm tired: tired of political correctness, tired of "wokeness," tired of cancel culture, and tired of having to work so hard not to offend a bunch of morons on both sides of every argument. It's just all gotten too silly for me to bother with anymore. So it's goodbye to Joyce Carol Oates, Don Winslow, Stephen King, Greg Isles, Rebecca Makkai, Attica Locke, Tim Hallinan, and Brad Thor, among over 400 others who refuse to stop displaying their own brand of group-hate to the world so regularly. The "400 others" include every politician or news person on Twitter who makes it to my Twitter feed because I no longer trust a one of them to tell me the truth, and I don't want to hear about their books anymore.

I don't need Twitter or Facebook for "the news." I get my news from multiple sources from all over the world so that I can compare "facts" and interpretations of those facts from varying viewpoints. The "Twitter Books" app I've created for myself turns out to be a pretty good app. Twitter and Facebook...not so much. 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Another Kind of Eden - James Lee Burke

Another Kind of Eden
is the second book in James Lee Burke’s Aaron Holland Broussard series, following Broussard’s introduction in the 2016 novel The Jealous Kind. Burke fans may remember that Burke first started writing about the Holland family in 1971 with his first Hackberry Holland novel, Lay Down My Sword and Shield - although he did not add a second Hackberry Holland novel until 2009. In the meantime, Burke began his Billy Bob Holland books, the first of which, Cimarron Rose, won the 1997 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel. In addition to these, Burke has now written two Weldon Holland novels and the two featuring Aaron Holland Broussard. All told, novels featuring these four branches of the Holland family now total twelve. 

The Jealous Kind, set in 1950s Houston, although he barely survives it, is Aaron Holland Broussard’s coming-of-age story. By the time that Another Kind of Eden opens in early 1960s Colorado, a lot has happened to Aaron, and he has the emotional scars to prove it. Aaron is an unpublished novelist who has taken to jumping in and out of boxcars and working odd jobs to sustain himself. In Trinidad, Colorado, Aaron finds both the farm work he is seeking and the young woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. Joanne McDuffy is a college student and a talented artist who does waitress work to afford the basic lifestyle she allows herself. Aaron does not have a doubt in his mind that she is the only woman meant for him.

It is obvious that the attraction is mutual, but as Aaron and Joanne will learn: there are always monsters among us. In this instance, the monsters come in the form of the disgusting professor who is intent on taking advantage of Joanne in every way imaginable and the drug-riddled cult that the older man brings into her life. If that were not bad enough, a powerful businessman and his son, both crazed by their own brand of hatred, take special delight in making Aaron’s life as miserable as possible. 

All Aaron wants to do is get his novel published, convince the woman of his dreams to marry him, and earn enough money to live on until his dreams finally come true. But it will not be that simple because Aaron is a man with emotional problems of his own. He suffers from the aftermath of the terrible things that have already happened to him, and he has to endure the memory blackouts that have stolen much of his past from him. He knows that when driven to a rage, he will find it hard to stop the violence until someone, maybe him, is dead. But he never expected to end up in Hell itself.

Bottom Line: Another Kind of Eden continues the Holland family saga, but (much as with Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels) the stories are getting darker and darker. This one requires a substantial suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but  readers who can manage that level of disbelief-suspension are going to enjoy this one a lot. 

James Lee Burke

Review Copy provided by Publisher Simon & Schuster 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Indian Killer - Sherman Alexi

Sherman Alexi’s 1996 novel, Indian Killer, is a first rate serial killer novel that is almost certain to intrigue any fan of that crime fiction subgenre. But it is so much more than that. 

First, the book’s title is, at first glance, a little misleading. From its title, most readers would assume that Sherman Alexi has written a book about someone who is choosing Native Americans as his crime spree victims (as in the sense that Custer was an “Indian killer”), but exactly the opposite is true here. Instead, this is a story about a Native American, an Indian-killer, who is terrifying Seattle by randomly murdering and scalping his white victims. 

Second, author Sherman Alexi is himself a Native American who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Alexi’s insight into what could motivate a main character such as this particular one to become the coldblooded killer he turns out to be makes the story all the more terrifying because it is all so logically crazy (if logical craziness is even possible).

 Third, using primarily his secondary characters, Alexi shares a frank look with his readers about how many, if not most, Native Americans still feel today about what happened to their ancestors and the people responsible for the genocide they all too often suffered over the centuries. What Alexi’s characters have to say about all the Indian “wannabes” out there, those people who want so desperately to claim that they carry Indian blood for reasons of their own, is particularly damning. It is reminiscent, although it predates it by more than two decades, of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s embarrassing exposure as a shameless fraud who claimed to be a Native American entirely for her own personal gain. 

So, there is already a lot packed into Indian Killer that readers will want to consider. And that’s even before the realization that an Indian is stalking white men sparks an all-out race war in Seattle. As the search for the killer goes on and on, tensions are high on both sides. Seattle’s Native Americans are nervous about leaving the reservation, and those who live in and around the city are mostly keeping their heads down. White hotheads, possibly as much to disguise their own nervousness and fear as much as anything else, are starting to mouth-off at any Indians they see on the streets. Seattle’s homeless Indian population is in particular danger from the nasty retaliation that occurs after each white victim is discovered.

Throw into the mix a novelist who badly wants people to believe his claim that he is an Indian; a bigoted radio talk show host who keeps his listeners on the verge of anti-Indian violence at all times; and a young Indian college student who leads campus protests about the  bigotry she believes is directed at Indian students like her, and the city is sitting on a powder keg. 

Bottom Line: Indian Killer is a memorable novel that only a Native American would have had the real credibility to write. There is almost as much in between the lines of this one as there is in the plot itself. It is a well written, fast-paced thriller with a message, a book that I recommend for all the reasons I’ve mentioned.  

Sherman Alexi in 1996