Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Book Chase October 2021 Reading Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Reading List: A Novel - Sara Nisha Adams

Where to begin? First off, The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is not at all what I expected it would be. I was expecting more of a novel showing how each of the eight novels on “the reading list” had something specific to teach us about being human beings living lives we too often take for granted…with emphasis on the themes and characters of each book. Adams does, I think, convincingly make that point, but she accomplishes it by taking a rather barebones approach to the eight books on the list themselves. 

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that Adams perfectly tailored The Reading List to her chosen target audience: those of us who self-identify as readers. Adams likely assumed that most of her readers would already be familiar with the eight novels on the list and the one other one that plays a large role in this, her debut novel. (I’ve read seven of the nine books, and I suspect that might be about just about the average for people drawn to The Reading List.) For those wondering, the list consists of To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, The Kite Runner, Life of Pi, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Beloved, and A Suitable Boy. The Time Traveler’s Wife is not actually part of the list, but it will turn out to be the most significant book in Adams’s story.

The Reading List is rather cleverly constructed. It is divided into nine sections, each carrying the title of one of the nine books I’ve mentioned. Within each of these sections there are several short chapters titled with the name, or names, of the book’s two main characters, Aleisha (a teenager whose life centers entirely on taking care of her invalid mother) or Mukesh (an elderly Hindu man who has been a widower for one year). Intermeshed with all of this are brief flashbacks to 2017 (the book is set in 2019) that feature a handful of side characters that play key roles in the story. 

At first, I found it all a bit confusing, and then when I figured out where we were heading, I began to have second thoughts about reading this one at all. It all seemed too cute and make-believe, a fairy tale of sorts just for avid readers. And it was obvious that Sara Nisha Adams is a talented writer who knows where all the “buttons” are — and that she planned on pushing each and every one of them before she was done. Not going to work on me, I thought, so why read on? Well, let’s just say that I was wrong; even though I knew exactly what Adams was up to by pushing all those buttons, I could not resist reading the next page, then the next chapter…and then I was well and thoroughly hooked. The Reading List is, as it happens, a character-driven novel after all, and I found myself caring about Aleisha and Mukesh and could not wait to find out how things would turn out for them and those closest to them.

As The Reading List opens, Mukesh is a timid little man who seldom ventures outside his home anymore. His three adult daughters worry about him, but they really don’t have the time to make sure that he is doing well after the loss of their mother. Mukesh wants nothing more than to find a way of bonding with his little bookworm of a granddaughter, and he finally gets brave enough to venture into the local library in search of a book they can share. There he meets Aleisha, a rather cranky library summer-worker, who practically runs him out of the building. Aleisha, though, has recently found a book list inside a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that she was shelving, and after her boss coerces her into making amends with Mukesh, she decides to recommend those eight books to the old man — one by one. 

But the only way Aleisha can discuss the books with Mukesh is to read each of them before she gives him the next book on the list. And what happens next is the sometimes tragic fairy tale at the heart of The Reading List. 

Bottom Line: The Book List is a novel aimed at dedicated readers, and Sara Nisha Adams, herself an obvious reader, strikes the perfect tone here. As sad as the novel is at times, it manages to be just the kind of feel-good story that we need every so often. Even the little side incidents used to develop the characters strike the right tone.One of my favorite passages from the novel describes the day that Mukesh takes his granddaughter Priya to the flagship Foyles bookstore in London:

“Wow!” Priya gasped quietly. She quickly shook off her awe, trying to play it cool. Mukesh felt the same. He’d seen books now, but the library was sparse compared to this. Shelves and shelves. Floors and floors. Tables and tables. Piles and piles of books. It was as if they were floating all around him, lifted up by some kind of magic, offering new worlds, new experiences. It was beautiful. 

And then Mukesh brings his granddaughter to the till where he tries to impress her by asking for copies of Rebecca, The Kite Runner, and To Kill a Hummingbird. Now there’s a scene I’ll remember for a while. 

Sara Nisha Adams

Monday, September 27, 2021

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: "The Crooked Man" by Michael Connelly

Talking about the collection of Nero Wolfe pastiches and parodies, The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, last week reminded me of a book that has sat neglected on my shelves for five or six years now. This one is titled In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon and it was published in 2014. I think I was probably inspired to purchase it because its fifteen stories include ones by some of the writers whose work I've enjoyed reading for several decades. That's why I bought it; I just wish I had an answer for why I never read it.  

Anyway, the six authors that immediately caught my eye were: Michael Connelly, Sara Paretsky, Jeffery Deaver, Cornelia Funke, Harlan Ellison, and John Lescroart. Of these half-dozen, I'm particularly fond of Connelly and his Harry Bosch books, so when I saw that Connelly's "The Crooked Man" was the first story in the collection and that it was a Harry Bosch short story, I knew I had to have the collection. 

"The Crooked Man" opens with Harry and his partner, Jerry Edgar, being called to an early-morning murder scene in what seems to be the most prestigious gated-community in all of Los Angeles, one that sits on top of a mountain looking down on the rest of the city - in more ways than one. There, the detectives find a Hollywood studio exec sprawled out dead on the floor of his library and displaying a massive head wound. They also find, much to Bosch's delight, coroner Art Doyle, a man so well known for correctly assessing death scenes that everyone calls him Sherlock. And that's when the real fun begins for Sherlock Holmes fans.

Before this fifteen-page story is over, "Sherlock" will have successfully led Bosch to a solution of the murder, identified the culprit, and even diagnosed a hidden illness that Bosch has attributed to his fast approaching old-age (Bosch is about to turn 60 in this story). 

"The Crooked Man" was particular fun for me because it gave me another glimpse into Harry Bosch's world, but I'm intrigued now about the other stories, so I'll be reading the other fourteen soon. I am pleased to see that the collection even includes the first graphic short story I've ever seen, one by Leah Moore and John Reppion called "The Problem of the Empty Slipper." Too, Gahan Wilson's contribution to the collection includes three of his classic cartoons, all of them, of course, related to Sherlock Holmes. 

Maybe In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon had to sit on my shelves until the moment I would most appreciate it. Now feels like the perfect time.

Editor Laurie R. King
(also edited by Leslie S. Klinger)

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Left-Handed Twin - Thomas Perry

As I’ve learned from experience, beginning a series with one of its later books is always a bit of a gamble for a reader. There is just so much backstory already out there that the new-to-the-series reader may experience the novel completely differently than veteran series readers will experience it. And that is never a good thing. Some authors do a better job than others in catching a new reader up with at least the basic backstory, however, and Thomas Perry turns out to be one of those with that skill. This means that The Left-Handed Twin can be enjoyed as a standalone by new readers as well as the latest addition (the ninth) in the Jane Whitefield series. 

Jane Whitefield has a very special skill, and she is good at it. She can keep “runners” alive long enough to make them disappear forever. Not only does Jane create new identities for them, she teaches her runners the skills they will need to remain hidden for the rest of their lives. She helps them find new jobs, leaves them with enough cash to get started, and vows to carry their secrets with her to her deathbed. She has, in fact, sworn an oath to the runners and herself that she will die before allowing herself to be forced to reveal any of the new identities she has created. 

But despite having successfully relocated over 100 people now, Jane has a life of her own. She’s married to a successful doctor, a man who has learned to live with Jane’s occasional sudden disappearances from his own life despite his fear that one day she may disappear for good. So when Dr. Carey McKinnon comes home one evening to find that Jane has prepared a special evening at home for the two of them, he knows that she is going to be leaving their western New York home again sometime before the night is over.

This time, it is a young Los Angeles woman whose boyfriend has been found innocent in a murder trial despite the woman’s eyewitness testimony against him who desperately needs Jane’s help. The man wants the woman dead — and Jane refuses to let that happen. It all seems fairly routine to Jane right up to the point that the boyfriend manages to hire the Russian crime brotherhood to help him find Sara and bring her back to him for disposal. But why would an organized crime group as powerful as this one want to help a nobody like Sara’s boyfriend?

It turns out that Jane is a very valuable commodity to the Russian mobsters. They plan to capture her alive and force her to reveal the new identities of all the people she has helped hide over the years. And they plan to make millions of dollars by selling Janes runners, one-by-one, back to the people still wanting to get their hands on them. It is not the first time that a chaser has figured out that Jane is much more valuable than the people she helps, so when she learns that the Russians are after her, Jan knows that this is a whole new ballgame. And the real chase is on.

The Left-Handed Twin is a terrific chase thriller that winds its way through several cities of the Northeast before Jane decides to put her outdoor fitness skills to use by leading four Russians on a trek across the roughest part of the Appalachian Trail, a deserted 100-mile stretch known as Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. Jane plans to walk out of there alone — or die trying.

Bottom Line: Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield character is an interesting one. She is a direct descendent of Seneca warriors and she sees her role in life as one she shares with her ancestors. By now, Jane is a veteran of her chosen profession, but she may be in more real danger now than at any time of her life. That’s something I want to learn more about, so now I’ll be turning to the earlier books in the series to “continue” the Jane Whitefield story.

Thomas Perry

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw - Charles Leerhsen

Even today, it’s hard to avoid the names Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when traveling around the Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota area like I did back in July, so when I spotted a copy of Charles Leerhsen’s 2020 Butch Cassidy biography in Wall, South Dakota, I was intrigued enough to bring it home with me. Pretty much all I knew about Butch and Sundance to that point came via the entertaining 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Butch and Sundance, respectively. We all know not to take movie biographies too seriously, however, and William Goldman, author of the screenplay, admitted that he knew only a handful of sketchy facts about the pair when he wrote the script. As it turns out, Goldman got the basic outline pretty much right and even captured the correct personalities of the two outlaws, but that was pure luck in the movie business of the day. Still, it was all a jumble of a few basic facts in my mind.

Robert Lee Parker, who tried several aliases before settling on Butch Cassidy, was born into a large and dirt-poor Mormon family in Utah on April 13, 1866. Amazingly, the last member of Butch’s “Wild Bunch” gang (a woman who may have sometimes held the horses for the gang while they were otherwise occupied) was not “put into the ground” until December 1961, only eight years before the movie making celebrity outlaws out of Butch and Sundance was released. Butch and Sundance, themselves, were shot down in Bolivia in November 1908. Butch was 42 years old.

A lot happened to Butch in those forty-two years. And Butch was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He must have been one of the most charismatic men in the West during his day because even his victims often praised the way he handled his bank and train robberies, and the large ranchers who suffered cattle and horse losses to Butch’s rustling ways were often reluctant to charge him with the crime. Butch was just so damned likable, that it was hard for those who knew him to imagine him languishing in a jail cell. The Pinkerton Detective Agency used the threat of being robbed by Butch Cassidy to drum up business for the company, often knowingly attributing robberies to Butch and his gang when they knew the case to be otherwise. Butch refused to rob train passengers or bank customers, and went out of his way to limit violence during the robberies. The movie got that kind of thing pretty much right.

But, surprise, surprise. Butch was almost certainly gay or, perhaps reluctantly bi-sexual. Along with Sundance and Sundance’s partner Ethel Place (who was mistakenly re-named “Etta” on a Pinkerton wanted poster) he formed a threesome that raised a few eyebrows even at the time. Butch was not formally educated, but he was a reader and a natural loner who spent much of his downtime with his nose in a book. And by the time that Butch and Sundance were finally cornered and killed (there is some evidence that Butch killed Sundance before shooting himself in the head) in Bolivia, their celebrity-outlaw status was such that people refused to believe that they could be dead. Butch was the Elvis Presley of his day, and Butch Cassidy sightings in the US were reported for decades after his death. 

Bottom Line: Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw is both fun and informative, something that is a little rare in a biography. It explores the Parker family roots in some detail, chronicles the comings and goings of Butch during his forty-two years, speculates on what he was up to during the dead spots in his history, and tries to explain the man’s motivations as he alternated between periods of thievery and trying to go straight for good. Charles Leerhsen uses an irreverently humorous style to tell the story of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, and he does much to debunk the many myths and legends that have become associated with Butch and Sundance over time. Surprisingly enough, the “true story” may just be even better than the myths.

Charles Leerhsen

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Blacktop Wasteland - S.A. Cosby

S.A. Cosby’s 2020 debut novel, Blacktop Wasteland, most certainly did not go unnoticed. The book garnered praise from the likes of Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Ace Atkins, and Craig Johnson even before it was published. It went on to become a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner, a New York Times Notable Book, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020, BookPage’s #1 Mystery and Suspense novel of 2020, and Sun Sentinel’s #1 Best Mystery of 2020. 

But, as Cosby points out in issue Number 169 of Mystery Scene magazine, he is not exactly an overnight success:

I’ve been writing seriously since I was 20, and I’m 47 now. So, you know, people think like Blacktop Wasteland “Oh it’s got a movie deal,” and Razorblade Tears has a movie deal, “Oh you’re just this overnight success.” But man, it’s a lot of noes to get to that one yes. It hurts, it sucks, it’s awful.

I was blown away by Cosby’s Razorblade Tears when I read it, despite it being one of the most overtly violent novels I’ve read in a long time. Cosby is first and foremost a first-rate storyteller, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. So I already kind of knew what to expect when I picked up Blacktop Wasteland. What I didn’t expect, however, was a crime novel even better than the page-turner that Razorblade Tears is, but that is exactly what I got.

The story is about Beauregard “Bug” Montage, a small town Virginia auto mechanic who dearly loves his wife, their two young sons, and his teenaged daughter from a previous relationship. Bug has a nice little business going, and with the help of a cousin, the little repair shop is doing a steady business — right up until a bigger, more modern repair shop swoops into town and undercuts all of Bug’s prices. Now the rent is due, suppliers are screaming for their money, and Bug can barely put groceries on the table. 

So what’s the fallback plan? Well, as it turns out, Bug has a past, a past in which he earned the reputation as being the best “wheelman” in the business. Bugs, in other words, was one heck of a getaway car driver, and he knows he still has it. And now he needs it. That’s why when a shady smooth-talker from his past stops by with an opportunity to make some quick money, Bug reluctantly decides to take a chance on the man despite how badly he was misused on the other heist they pulled together. This one sounds almost like it’s just too good to be true - and as Bug is about to find out, it is.

Bottom Line: Blacktop Wasteland is an enthralling crime novel, and S.A. Cosby is a master storyteller. Readers will find this one hard to put down after they have immersed themselves into Bug Montage’s world because, ready or not, they are going to care what happens to Bug and his family even though Bug is far from a nice man. He can be, and is, a ruthless coldblooded killer, a man capable of just about anything required to protect his family. But it’s complicated; Bug Montage is more than that, much more. And S.A. Cosby, despite being a bit over-the-top on occasion, makes you believe it. The man writes some of the best dialogue I’ve read since Elmore Leonard.

S.A. Cosby

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Long Call - Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves published the first of her thirty-five novels in 1986, A Bird in the Hand, the first novel in what eventually became her eight-book “George Palmer Jones” series. Even before ending that series in 1996, Cleeves was already deep into her six “Inspector Ramsey” books, but she only added one more Ramsey book before ending that series in 1997. That’s when Vera Stanhope, one of the author’s most successful characters came along, and Cleeves has written nine Vera Stanhope novels between 1999 and 2020. During those same years, Cleeves also produced an eight-book series featuring DI Jimmy Perez. These eight novels, because of the television series based on the character and novels, are commonly called the Shetland (Island) novels, but the publisher also labels them “The Four Seasons Quartet” and “The Four Elements” novels. Interestingly, Cleeves has only ever written two standalone novels, one in 2001 and the other in 2003. 

And that brings us to the author’s “Two Rivers” series featuring Detective Matthew Venn. Cleeves began the series in 2019 with The Long Call and the second book in the series, The Heron’s Cry, has just been added. The author’s habit of simultaneously writing two series continues, so hopefully the “Two Rivers” series has helped lessen the pain of fans still mourning the end of the Shetland series. 

All that said, my own first exposure to anything created by Ann Cleeves came via the Shetland television series. More recently, I’ve also watched the first two episodes from season one of Vera. But somehow, despite having seen the name “Ann Cleeves” in bookstores for a long time, I never picked up one of the novels before I finally bought myself a copy of The Long Call.  And The Long Call turned out to be exactly the kind of crime novel, one that is primarily character and setting driven, that I love most. This is particularly true for a series of novels featuring one main character because it is the evolution of the recurring characters that keeps readers coming back for more. If the main characters don’t change, or if they are just inherently uninteresting to begin with, the crimes or mysteries they solve are not enough on their own to keep readers wanting more. 

Well, Ann Cleeves has come up with another winning combination with Matthew Venn and her North Devon, England, setting. Both are unique enough and interesting enough to make readers of this first Venn novel want more. 

Detective Inspector Matthew Venn left the strict evangelical North Devon church community in dramatic fashion years before he took a transfer back to the area to work with the local police. His departure from the church and the area was, in fact, so abrupt and so public, that he is shunned by the church members, including his parents, to this very day. Venn only returns to North Devon because his new husband, Johnathan, runs an important community center in the area, a place depended upon every day by many of the locals, and can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything anywhere else.

But now, even while Matthew is trying to fit in and earn the respect of his new colleagues inside the department, his life is about to get even more complicated. First Matthew’s father dies, and Matthew can only watch from afar as the man is put into the ground, and then someone connected to his husband’s community center is murdered. Not only will the murder investigation lead Matthew Venn directly back to the community which shunned him all those years ago, he will also have to deal with what appears to be a conflict of interest regarding Jonathan’s connection to the dead man. Surely Jonathan can’t be involved…can he? 

Bottom Line: The Long Call is a very good introduction to the Matthew Venn series. Venn is a conflicted character with an interesting take on his fellow cops, and even though he is the lead investigator, he is happiest when out alone following his own leads and hunches. He would never sit behind a desk if he didn’t have to. By the end of this first series book, the reader has a good feel for the supporting cast also: Ross May, a hotshot young constable who irritates Matthew with his obvious craving for attention; Jen Rafferty, a single-mom and a department sergeant who Matthew is starting to see as his go-to investigator; and Jonathan, Matthew’s husband, who is a Matthew’s opposite in so many ways. The murder mystery around which everything else hangs is a rather conventional one that is not particularly difficult for readers to solve for themselves. But that’s not the most important thing here…in the long run, it’s the characters that make this one fun. 

Ann Cleeves

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: "The Damned Doorbell Rang"

My recent re-introduction to Rex Stout's terrific Nero Wolfe mysteries led me to a 2020 short story compilation with a title as long as Nero Wolfe was wide: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street. What I find most intriguing about the collection is that none of the stories in it were written by Rex Stout. Instead, all of them were written by authors who were fans enough of the series that they consider Stout to have been an influence on their own work. Interestingly, the collection even includes a story written by Rebecca Stout Bradbury, the daughter of Rex and Pola Stout. Other contributors include the likes of Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, Robert Goldsborough, John Lescroart, and Otto Penzler.

The book is divided into three sections titled: "Pastiches," "Parodies," and "Potpourri," and the story title that jumped right out at me turned out to be the very last one in the collection, "The Damned Doorbell Rang," by Robert Lopresti. I figure this one caught my attention first because I recently purchased a copy of Stout's novel The Doorbell Rang and I've found myself more and more eager to begin reading it.

The biggest surprise about "The Damned Doorbell Rang" is that Nero and Archie only make an appearance in the story at all via the memories of a woman explaining to her granddaughter why she and the girl's grandfather moved out of New York City decades earlier - and she doesn't even know the names of the two men who lived next door to them there in the city. And she never did.

"The Damned Doorbell Rang" begins as one of those "worst neighbors ever" stories, this one about various comings-and-goings at all hours of the night, oddball visitors who often rang the wrong doorbell, celebrity sightings, explosions, and attempts on the life of the fat man next door. Nero Wolfe fans, of course, will recognize early on who these horrible neighbors have to be, so it's hard not to laugh out loud when the grandmother assures her husband that he is wrong about the two men being gay - and that she knows this for certain only because the younger one "gave her the eye" on occasion. Turns out that Gran even deserves credit for saving Wolfe's life not too long before she and her husband fled to a quieter lifestyle in New Jersey - a lifestyle that her granddaughter now finds terribly boring.

 The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, which even includes a story envisioning Nero Wolfe as the son of Sherlock Holmes, promises to be great fun. As much as I would love to read all of the stories in it, the clock started ticking on this one a few days before I could get to it, and the library will electronically yank it away from me my in just a few days. But if this one is half the fun I'm hoping it will be, I'll gladly get back in line for a second go at it. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Klara and the Sun - Kazuo Ishiguro

Despite all the international acclaim garnered by Kazuo Ishiguro in recent years, Klara and the Sun is my first experience with one of his novels. The immediate buzz about this one was so great that I knew I had to read it, but ended up waiting for five months for my name finally to reach the top of my library’s “hold list.” Thankfully, Klara and the Sun was worth the wait, and now I can look forward to reading more from Ishiguro, including his backlist. 

Klara and the Sun takes place at some time in the relatively near future in an unnamed country in which people seem to have splintered into communities that share certain characteristics and status levels. Those wanting to move to a new city or state first have to  find a community willing to invite them there. This is definitely a country of haves and have-nots, and the impression is that rapidly advancing technology, especially the use of artificial intelligence, has a lot to do with the economic split. 

The novel’s narrator, in fact, is a lifelike robot called Klara, who introduces herself this way to the reader in the novel’s first few sentences:

When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazine table side, and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside — the office workers hurrying by, the taxis, the runners, the tourists, Beggar Man and his dog, the lower part of the RPO Building. Once we were more settled, Manager allowed us to walk up to the front until we were right behind the window display, and then we could see how tall the RPO Building was. 

Klara and Rosa, two robotic Artificial Friends (known to the world as AFs) themselves become friends while they spend all those hours waiting to be taken home by the one teenager who will choose them off the showroom floor. They are friends, but they are not really much alike. Klara, in fact, is everything that Rosa is not: curious, thoughtful, empathetic, and observant. And she will turn out to be the perfect match for the teen girl who finally returns to purchase Klara just when the AF is beginning to think it will never happen for her.

Klara’s new human friend, Josie, is not having an easy time of it at home, but she could not have made a better choice for an AF than Klara because Klara is completely dedicated to her new role as Josie’s protector and advocate. Klara, though, must work within the limitations of her role and she sometimes, especially in the early days, allows herself to be manipulated by others who may not have Josie’s best interests in mind. Klara, though, never stops believing that better days are ahead for Josie and her family — and she never stops working to make that happen.

Bottom Line: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara is one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve encountered in a while. Some may argue that Klara’s selflessness and dedication to her friend Josie is only to be expected; Klara is, after all, only a well designed machine; that she has no choice but to do the things for Josie and her parents that she does. But even Manager, the woman Klara refers to in the novel’s opening paragraph, believes that Klara is special, that she is, in effect, almost human. One of the more intriguing aspects of Klara and the Sun is watching Klara figure out things for herself as she experiences more and more of the world. This is one novel I will not be forgetting…especially that ending.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel - Carl Safina

Trying to figure out what animals are thinking and what emotions they feel is such a tricky business that scientists have come to see it as a landmine capable of destroying their reputations and careers for good. Attribute too much logic or awareness to a non-human species, and you just might become a laughingstock within the scientific community forever. Carl Safina took that risk in 2015 in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, a 411-page book in which he emphasizes that, “Speculation about animals’ mental experiences happens to be the main quest of this book. The tricky task ahead: to go only where evidence, logic, and science lead. And to get it right.” 

It’s hard to read Beyond Words without coming away with the impression that Safina did exactly that. What fascinates me most about Safina’s work, however, is how he came into the study wanting to learn two things: how animals are like humans and what observing them can teach us about ourselves. Instead, what he ended up walking away with was just the opposite: a better understanding of how humans are like animals and what being human can teach us about animals. The more he learned, and the more he thought about his goal, Safina realized:

I’d somehow assumed that my quest was to let the animals show how much they are like us. My task now — a much harder task, a much deeper task — would be to endeavor to see who animals simply are — like us or not.

Beyond Words is divided into a prologue, four parts, and a two-page epilogue. Part One is dedicated to elephants, Part Two to wolves, Part Three (the shortest section) to several different species, and Part Four to whales. Each section details the observations that Safina made during the time he spent working with small groups of scientists who have dedicated their entire lives to tracking and learning about a single non-human species. The big surprise about being around people like these scientists is how deeply they relate to individuals within the animal populations they have grown so familiar with. Often, it seems that the researchers have developed genuinely deep relationships with individual elephants, wolves, whales, and other animals. They have become friends in every sense of the word.

At first glance, it may sound as if these scientists may have strayed into dangerous territory. But as they observe their favored species, the “evidence, logic, and science” begin to pile up so overwhelmingly that it is difficult to disagree with what they say. Readers of Beyond Words will experience a wide range of emotions that includes skepticism, awe, surprise, anger, despair, and hope for the future.

Bottom Line: Beyond Words is an eye-opener, a book that reminds us of where our own species fits into the world, along with just how much damage we have done to other species during our ascension to becoming the most dominant animal on the planet. The ultimate takeaway for me, personally, is that being the most dominant species on the planet does not at all mean that we are the most “humane” species on the planet. 

Books like Beyond Words have the power to rock your world. As one of Carl Safina’s neighbors (J.P. Badkin) put it: “If you’re not careful, you can learn something new every day.” Well, here’s your chance. 

Carl Safina

Saturday, September 11, 2021

On Distractions and Mixed Emotions

This is one of those days that I'm filled with mixed emotions, even to the point of not being able to focus on the things I need to be doing. It is, of course, the twentieth anniversary of the 9-11 murders, a somber day to be sure, but an anniversary (considering recent events in Afghanistan) that fills me with a whole new kind of regret. So today I feel guilty about not wanting to think much at all about what happened to all of us all those years ago.

Instead, I'm focusing on the little things that are happening all around me right now, like finally getting my car back from the body shop after four weeks of waiting for a new headlight to arrive so that the repairs could be completed. The covid pandemic has caused our supply chain to be crippled in a way that the world's interconnected economy is obviously still struggling to overcome. Four weeks for a headlight to make it to Houston from the supplier is ridiculous! The fellow-who-hit-me's insurance company ended up paying almost a $1,000 in rental car payments on a repair that the shop only charged $1,605 to complete. But now, after a month, it feels like I'm driving a brand new car...and I don't have to putter around in that boxy little Kia Soul anymore.

And college football is back. It feels so good simply to type that sentence. As I do every season, I have high hopes that my team, the Texas A&M Aggies, will have a great season. It doesn't always happen...make that it hardly ever happens...but I always hope that this will be the year. The problem is that A&M competes in the same conference and same division as Alabama, a team that seldom loses more than one game a year. That means that finishing second is almost the most we can ever realistically hope to achieve. Still, I can't wait to see how the Aggies fare against Colorado this afternoon in the second game of the season.

And I visited a couple of used-book bookstores last week and came away with some good stuff. At one store, I found a 1965 copy of Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang and even though the book was minus its jacket, I am happy to have it on the shelf. I also found an unread copy of Ian Rankin's A Song for the Dark Times in the same shop, and despite already having read and loved it, I added it to my Rankin collection. 

At a different shop, I came home with three books I didn't even know I wanted when I walked through the doors - love when that happens. One is a signed copy of Sherman Alexi's 2012 short story collection called Blasphemy. Alexi is a native American author whose work I've really enjoyed in the last few months, so I'm looking forward both to reading this one and adding it to my permanent collection of short story compilations. 

I'm also a huge fan of Gerald Seymour's books and was happy to find an unread copy of one of his novels, The Walking Dead, that I was unfamiliar with. Thankfully, just so you know, there are no zombies in this book. This is the story of a British secret service agent who is sent to Saudi Arabia on an anti-terrorist suicide mission. Seymour writes some of the best thrillers of this type imaginable, so I'm really looking forward to reading this one. To show how highly Gerald Seymour is thought of around the world, The New York Times says of him, "The three British masters of suspense, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and John le Carré, have been joined by a fourth - Gerald Seymour." I agree.

The third book I picked up in that bookstore was the last one I reviewed here: I'd Rather Be Reading, a book I responded to with a different type of mixed emotion. I don't exactly regret purchasing this one, but...well, you get it by now. 

The highlight of my book-buying week, however, was the arrival of a copy of The Library of America's volume of Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. This one is over 900 pages long, and I've already read it three times, but I know I'll want to read it again. This is a novel I first read in high school, and I feel as if it is the one that made me fall in love forever with crime novels. Even though it is fiction, because of Dreiser's style and the nature of the crime he describes, it reads very much like a true crime book at times. And the physical book itself is absolutely beautiful - as are all hardcover books coming from Library of America. As the 121 LOA books on my shelves clearly shout out, Library of America is my favorite publisher of them all. 

Well, it's almost game time, so I'm going to fix a quick lunch and settle in for that. Maybe tomorrow, I'll be ready to think about this twentieth anniversary of the tragic mass murder of September 11, 2001, at least in small doses. I just can't do it today, so I'm purposely avoiding tuning in to certain television channels. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

I'd Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life - Anne Bogel

I stumbled upon Anne Bogel’s I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life a few days ago at a used-book bookstore and snatched it right up, figuring that Bogel had to be a kindred spirit. And, even though the book was a little less inspiring than I expected it would be, I was correct about Bogel. She is.

I’d Rather Be Reading consists of an introduction and twenty-one short “reflections” on readers, reading, and the books we love so much. Really avid readers know how difficult it is to pass by books like this one when we run across them unexpectedly. I think we enjoy these so much because reading a book about the joys of reading is almost like having a private conversation with a stranger who actually gets who we are. There are lots of us out here in the real world, but it is not every day that we run into each other, so books like I’d Rather Be Reading (along with book blog commenting) are the next best thing. 

But avid readers know a great book doesn’t exist only in the realm of the material. The words between those covers bring whole worlds to life. When I think of the characters and stories and ideas contained on a single shelf of my personal library, it boggles my mind. To readers, those books — the ones we buy and borrow and trade and sell — are more than objects. They are opportunities beckoning us. When we read, we connect with them (or don’t) in a personal way.”

And then, there’s this tidbit: 

“We are readers. Books are an essential part of our lives and of our life stories. For us, reading isn’t just a hobby or a pastime; it’s a lifestyle.”

Bogel even touches briefly on one of my own pet peeves:

“We know the pain of investing hours of reading time in a book we enjoyed right up until the final chapter’s truly terrible resolution…”

And these quotes are all from just the book’s introduction, so yeah, Anne Bogel gets it.

Bogel’s topics for reflection include these:

  • Confessing your literary sins — all those classics you’ve never read,
  • The difference between searching for the next perfect read and having the book find you instead,
  • The unbelievable good luck of living right next door to a city library,
  • How books allow readers to live thousands of different lives,
  • The great fun of organizing and reorganizing your bookshelves — over and over again,
  • The danger of becoming a “book bully” who pushes books on friends and family,
  • All the different readers she has already been during her (relatively short) lifetime,
  • How library due dates motivate her to read more and read faster,
  • How your reading choices influence your real-world coming-of-age,
  • The joy of meeting a “book twin,”
  • Re-reading (“Again, for the First Time”),
  • Personal bookshelves being the true “windows to the soul,” and
  • The difficulty of remembering off the top of your head which books you read even one month ago.

Bottom Line: While I’d Rather Be Reading is fun, and sometimes inspirational, it left me feeling that the author had only skimmed the surface of most of her chosen topics. Some of the chapters read more like introductions to an idea or topic than true reflections, and I was often left wishing for more. I suspect that I would have enjoyed this one more if I had found it a couple of decades earlier (impossible, I know, because I’d Rather Be Reading was published in 2018), making me think that I’ve already read too many similar books — and that maybe there’s just not that much left to say.  

Anne Bogel