Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Texas Job - Reavis Z. Wortham

I’m still not entirely sure whether to call Reavis Wortham’s The Texas Job a standalone novel or a prequel to his Red River series because, really, I can see it qualifying as either. The novel’s main character is Texas Ranger Tom Bell who, as an old man, plays a prominent role in The Right Side of Wrong, the third book in the Red River series. That book is set in the mid-sixties when Bell proves that he still has a lot of fight in him despite his retirement from the Rangers. The Texas Job, on the other hand, brings Bell up into East Texas from down on the southern border in 1931 and gives readers the chance to see what he was capable of in his prime. 

Tom Bell is only in Pine Top at all because he believes that the murderer from down in south Texas he’s been tracking may be hiding there. But even before he makes it all the way to the newly created shanty town, Bell - with considerable help from a young boy he meets on the trail — stumbles upon the remains of a woman whose dead body had apparently been hidden there days earlier. As a harbinger of things to come, Bell soon finds himself in a shootout even before he can make his way to local law enforcement officers to report what he’s found.

Pine Top, you see, is more boomtown than it is shanty town. Oil has recently been discovered in East Texas and the area is overrun by hundreds and hundreds of men and women looking to make a quick buck out of the discovery. That not all of them are concerned about making that money legally, is an understatement. The people who should be becoming rich, the ones who own the land on top of the oil, are in more danger than they realize. They are sitting on top of the kind of fortune people can only dream about, and some in town are willing to kill to get their hands on it. Tom Bell has no idea what he’s just ridden into, but he’s about to find out.

Bottom Line: It is always easy to get caught up in the historical period during which Reavis Wortham sets his crime novels, but this one is especially fun for readers curious about what a Depression Era oil boomtown must have been like in the day. Unsurprisingly, it was much the same as the gold mining boomtowns most of us are probably more familiar with, and Wortham captures all the inevitable chaos, greed, recklessness, and lawlessness common to this kind of race to get rich before others beat you to it. The Texas Job is a version of the classic tale in which a lone lawman rides into a corrupt town and, with the help of a few good townspeople, does everything he can to clean up the mess he finds there. It may be a classic formula, but Wortham is a good storyteller, and he handles it well.

Reavis Z. Wortham

Review Copy provided by Poisoned Pen Press

Expected Date of Publication: February 15, 2022

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Book Chase December 2021 Reading Plan

Even though it's almost time for most of us to start thinking about next year's reading plan and goals, we do have one more month to work on some of the 2021 goals we set a year ago. If you're like me - and it's not necessarily a bad thing - your actual reading and your planned reading during the last eleven months don't match up all that well. For me, it's been a year of discovering new authors and going off on reading tangents I never even imagined while setting goals in December 2020. I love how that happened.

Coming in to this final month, I'm already reading four books, and the likelihood is that I will be lucky to finish even one of them before December 1:

This is the third book in Shaw's Alex Cupidi series. I picked it up a couple of days ago, and it ended up temporarily pushing the other three books out of rotation. From the back cover of the UK edition: "Two teenage boys speed off on a moped with a stolen mobile, ready to celebrate their luck at last. Until their victim turns up looking for what's his - and is ready to kill for it." And on the other side of Kent, a severed arm ends up as part of an art installation. Cupidi catches both cases. 

I'm only a couple of chapters into S. Kirk Walsh's The Elephant of Belfast but I'm already taken with the main characters in this story about a young woman who bonds with a young zoo elephant in 1941 in the aftermath of the Easter Tuesday Luftwaffe attack on the city. From the book flap: "...renders the changing relationship between Hettie and Violet (the elephant), and their growing dependence on each other for survival and solace." I've heard nothing but good things about this one.

The Texas Job will be published in early February 2022, and I'm still not sure if I should call it a standalone or part of Wortham's Red River Series. The main character in this Depression era novel is Texas Ranger Tom Bell who is featured prominently in the third novel of that series, The Right Side of Wrong, as an old man in a 1965 setting. The Texas Job is set in 1931 when Bell is still very much in his prime and chasing a murderer up into the "Red River" setting. Prequel, maybe?

Louise Erdrich is a longtime favorite author of mine, so there was no chance that I would let this one slip past me. What I didn't intend to do was read it as an audiobook but that turned out to be the quickest way I could get hold of a library copy. The unexpected bonus of the audiobook version is that Louise Erdrich narrates it herself - and does a completely excellent job of this haunted bookstore story. Wow.

In addition to these four in-progress books, I plan to choose a few from my small stack of "comfort reads," books I've set aside for a while because I sort of hate not having them "in the bank" for later...probably these:

Other than Penny's latest Gamache novel, How the Light Gets In is the only one of the seventeen Gamache books I haven't read. I'm to the point where I'll soon have to be waiting a whole year between my Gamache fixes, but I think I've held onto this 2013 novel long enough now. This is the one in which Gamache seems to be near rock bottom as far as his career goes. He and everyone around him are struggling but Three Pines, he hopes, can save all of them. 

The Dark Hours is both the fourth book in the Renée Ballard series and the twenty-fourth book in the Harry Bosch series. Now that Harry is more or less working on his own, teaming him up with a much younger LAPD detective like Ballard offers a brilliant solution to allowing Bosch to keep his head in the game. The two have very little in common and were a little wary of each other at the beginning, but they have now meshed into one of the most effective crime-fighting teams in Los Angeles. Connelly is just a brilliant writer. Period.

Fleshmarket Alley is the fifteenth of twenty-three Inspector Rebus novels. I think this is one of the more underrated crime series out there today even though it's one of my very favorites. I've read the earlier books and the later ones in the series (this will be my 14th) but have a gap in the middle. This 2004 book will be bring me back to that period in Rebus's career. Rebus, like so many of the detectives I've been reading for twenty or more years, is officially retired now but still somehow involved. That's probably why I love them so much; we have aged together. This is pre-retirement John Rebus.

Depending on time  and mood, I may finally get to Ann Cleeves's second Vera Stanhope novel, Telling Lies, also. I meant to read it this month but ran out of time. And if I really feel ambitious, I might even return to Tana French's second Dublin Murder Squad novel, The Likeness. I've already given that one two tries and have bogged down both times, first from the utter unbelievability of the plot,  and second from the inertia of a plot in which everything seems to be happening in slow motion. I see that I stopped on page 140 of the 466-page book on my second try. Still a long way to go, and I'm beginning to wonder if The Likeness is going to end my Tana French phase. 

Now, it's on to December.

Friday, November 26, 2021

William Shaw's DS Cupidi Series and the Real Dungeness, England

 I've finally started reading William Shaw's Deadland, and I'm surprised at how quickly I'm becoming totally immersed in the book's unusual setting of coastal Dungeness, England. The closest I drove to Dungeness during the years I lived in the UK was Rye via the A259...oh, if only I had known what was only a dozen or so miles away. I hate now to think that I was so close and missed the opportunity to take a look at a truly unique portion of England. But even though I've never been there, Shaw's Alex Cupidi books make me feel that I have seen the place with my own eyes. Setting is so important to the plots of the Cupidi books that I can't imagine them taking place anywhere else now. 

These pictures will give you an idea of what Dungeness looks like (fans of the series will not be overly surprised because Shaw so vividly describes the region):

It is easy to picture DS Alexandria Cupidi living here with her teenaged daughter Zoë, and going about her business of helping to solve the assorted murders that have plagued the region since her arrival - and the incarceration of fellow cop William South. The selected photos show the often referred to nuclear power plant and the isolated area that give home to the bird sanctuary so beloved by Zoë and South. 

I'm reading the "quality paperback" edition of Deadland that was published in the UK, and I've also purchased the UK edition of Grave's End from the Book Depository, so I have that one on hand now, too. Next, it looks like I'll be ordering 2021's The Trawlerman from the UK because Shaw's publisher is sinfully negligent in getting his books into US bookstores. I'll never figure that one out.

Those as intrigued by the whole Dungeness mystique as I am, will probably enjoy this short YouTube video from 2015:

I highly recommend this author and this series to readers who enjoy high quality, and very atmospheric, crime fiction. Shaw does it as well as anyone out there today.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill - Deanne Stillman

I particularly enjoy reading history books that manage to put a more human face on figures from the past, books that offer the reader more than the usual dates and a dry regurgitation of a version of the “facts” we all suffered through as public school students. I know that not everyone is happy with what some have come to call “pop history,” but I enjoy being reminded that major historical figures were not so different from all of us today. Keeping that thought in mind makes what happened in the past all the more real and memorable to me. And that’s precisely the approach that Deanne Stillman takes in Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. 

Indian Chief Sitting Bull and scout Buffalo Bill Cody would seem to have had little in common other than being on opposite sides of the fighting that would eventually result in the near extermination of America’s indigenous population. After General George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a battle in which Chief Sitting Bull was mistakenly credited with having personally killed Custer, the US government would settle for nothing less than confining every Native American to one of the country’s ever-shrinking reservations. No one in their right mind could have predicted shortly after the 1876 routing of Custer’s troops by those of Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse that Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, a scout who helped soldiers chase Sitting Bull out of the country, would become close friends in just a few years. But that’s exactly what happened. The caption of a publicity photo the pair took together in Montreal in 1885 capitalized on that unlikelihood by putting it this way:

Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.

As it turns out, both Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody were national icons of their day. The men were among the earliest of America’s national celebrities, and they were treated as such by the media and the general population. Both were well aware of their images and, by the second half of their lives, both were comfortable (for different reasons) with the showmanship required to maintain those images. However, what began as a business partnership turned into what seems to have been a genuinely deep friendship that lasted right up to the moment of Sitting Bull’s cowardly assassination at the hands of Indian policemen and American calvary. Cody, in fact, was looking for Sitting Bull, hoping to talk him into peacefully surrendering to authorities, when the chief was killed by a shot into the back of his head. The premise that Sitting Bull’s life may have been saved if only Cody had not been purposely misdirected by a cavalry officer to follow the wrong trail is a haunting one. We will never know what could have been.

Bottom Line: Blood Brothers uses short biographies of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the woman that Bull saw as a daughter and Bill as a sister, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, to explore the remarkable friendship they had together and how each of them made the others better during a remarkable period in American history. It all seems to have happened so long ago, but then Stillman reminds us that these were just people doing their best with the hand that life dealt them, just like all of us are doing today. I still find it amazing that in the same decade my own grandparents were born, some in the US government still considered Sitting Bull to be so dangerous that they wanted him dead. They got their wish and we all know what happened next. 

Deanne Stillman

Monday, November 22, 2021

Until Leaves Fall in Paris - Sarah Sundin

Sarah Sundin’s fiction can best be categorized as Christian Romance, but the author specializes even further by setting all of her novels around the World War II period. Sundin has won numerous awards for her work, including having Booklist name two of her novels to the “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years.” Frankly, I knew none of those things about the author before I began reading Until Leaves Fall in Paris Again or I would have very likely never read it at all. I want to be completely honest here by saying that I am definitely not part of the target audience for this author’s work, and that I never will be. 

That said, I was attracted to Until Leaves Fall in Paris because I do enjoy historical fiction, and — although WWII historical fiction seems to be everywhere these days - I usually gain some insight into that period from good storytellers who have done the research necessary to make their novels meaningful. Too, I found it interesting that Until Leaves Fall in Paris is partially set inside a Paris bookstore that, in 1941, is still selling English language books despite Paris being occupied by the German army, and I was curious to learn more about how that may have worked. And, come on, who could resist that cover?

The plot of Until Leaves Fall in Paris involves two very different Americans who have decided to stay in Paris despite the greater and greater certainty that the city will eventually fall to the Germans. Lucie Girard, a young ballerina with the Paris Opéra Ballet for the past ten years, has lived in Paris since she was a child. Lucie was raised above Green Leaf Books, a bookstore she decides to purchase from the Jewish couple who opened their home to her so that the two will have the money to escape to America before it is too late to get out. Now, Lucie has quit the ballet to run the bookstore in hope that the couple will one day have something to return to. Paul Aubrey, recently widowed, and his four-year-old daughter have remained in Paris at the request of the US government so that Paul can keep his factory open. The government is hoping that Paul will be able to gather useful intelligence information via his contact with the German military who now want him to produce trucks for the German army. 

Neither of the Americans, however, is what they seem to be to the outside world, or even to each other. Paul believes that Lucie is simply a kind woman who was willing to do anything to protect the couple who made it possible for her to reach her ballet dreams. Lucie, on the other hand, believes that Paul is a despicable collaborator, and despite adoring his young daughter, Lucie wants nothing to do with the man. Both of them are doing everything possible to slow down the German war effort; the question now is whether either of them will survive long enough to learn the truth about the other. And what happens if they do?

Bottom Line: Until Leaves Fall in Paris has all the makings of a thriller encased inside what is, in the end, a typically predictable romance novel. As I’ve said, it is not to my taste, but I recognize that Sarah Sundin is a good storyteller and writer. Readers looking for gritty realism in their historical fiction will not find it here, but readers who enjoy novels about strong women during wartime — with a heavy dose of romance thrown into the mix — are going to like it. Those readers will be pleased to learn, also, that Sundin has an extensive back catalog to be explored. 

Sarah Sundin

 Review Copy provided by Revell Books

Anticipated Publishing Date: February 1, 2022

Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Religious Body - Catherine Aird

Catherine Aird was the pen name used by Kinn Hamilton McIntosh to publish her twenty-eight-book Inspector Sloan series, a series comprised of twenty-seven novels and one short story compilation featuring the inspector. The Religious Body, published in 1966, was both Aird’s debut novel and the first book in the series. Aird, who is now 91 years old, last added to the series in 2019 with Inheritance Tracks. 

Aird begins her story with the discovery of a literal “religious body” found inside the Convent of St. Anselm after it is learned early one morning that a nun’s small cell/bedroom is empty. Believing at first that the missing nun has made her way to the convent’s sick bay on her own, it is only later in the morning that the resident nuns begin to search for the missing Sister Anne. When they find her dead body at the base of the cellar stairs, the Reverend Mother knows that, as much as she wishes it were not so, she is going to have to call the police — and worse yet, she is going to have to let them inside the convent.

That’s where Inspector C.D. Sloan of the Calleshire CID learns that he has more than fifty potential suspects, and that most of those are nuns. That’s bad enough, but later when the all-boys agricultural school next door to the convent burns a guy dressed as a nun on Guy Fawkes night, Sloan and his team have to add another few dozen potential suspects to what is already proving to be an overwhelming list.

The Religious Body is a bit of a cross between a cozy and a police procedural, with the emphasis being on cozy. People do die, but they do so behind the curtain, and even after the bodies are discovered, the reader is largely sheltered from any detail about the murders themselves that would ever be considered offensive or shocking to modern-day readers. What I find most appealing about The Religious Body is the author’s rather subtle sense of humor — a style reflected both in the title of the book and in the little asides peppered throughout the narrative that Aird uses to add funny, but meaningful, insights into the make-up of key characters. 

Bottom Line: If The Religious Body is any indication, fans of cozy mysteries are going to enjoy the Inspector Sloan series a lot. Keeping in mind that the series was produced over the course of five decades, it is, of course, possible that the tone of the books changed over time. Because I’m a fan of more realistic mysteries that don’t so obviously pull their punches, it is unlikely that I will explore the series any further but if you like a good cozy, this is definitely an author — and a series — you need to consider.

Catherine Aird

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

A Trick of the Light - Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light
is book number seven in Louise Penny’s seventeen-book Chief Inspector Gamache series. The novel falls near the halfway point of the series in more ways than one. By this point, longtime series readers already knew the main characters well enough to appreciate how their experiences were changing them and their relationships to each other. Gamache and his fellow cops had been through a traumatic experience that changed all of them — and some were more obviously than others still suffering from the psychological trauma of the shootout they were so lucky to have survived. But Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, who both first came to Three Pines on a murder investigation, by now consider several of the villagers friends, a development that often complicates their official visits to the community. 

Much has been revealed about personal relationships already, but those relationships continue to evolve in A Trick of the Light. Gamache and Jean Guy are struggling to define the way they see each other after what they experienced together in the infamous warehouse gun battle that will forever mark their careers and their feelings about each other. Jean Guy’s marriage is in trouble; Annie’s (Gamache’s daughter) marriage is in trouble; and the cracks in the marriage of Clara and Peter Morrow (longtime Three Pines residents) are about to shatter that relationship. Still, despite the number of times that Gamache has been called to Three Pines on serious police business, he realizes now that he loves the place and feels great peace there. All of these things foreshadow a new phase in lives that will be explored in the second half of the series.

Right now, though, Clara Morrow is enjoying the moment. After years of struggling as the anonymous artist wife of her slightly better known husband Peter, whose art pays most of the family bills, Clara is about to get the break of a lifetime: the major solo show that could suddenly make her famous and wealthy. Despite Clara’s fears that it is all too good to be true, the show goes well and the reviews, though a bit mixed, are enthusiastically positive in the publications that count most in the art world. But Clara, as it turns out, was right to be worried because the morning after her celebratory party in Three Pines her husband discovers a dead body in their backyard. 

Once again, Gamache and his investigatory team set up shop in little Three Pines. And that’s when the fun begins. Gamache will learn the dirty little secret of the Québec art world: nothing is as it first seems; it is a world of greed, jealousy, ego, and dirty tricks. The book jacket puts it this way:

“Behind every smile there lurks a sneer. Inside every sweet relationship there hides a broken heart. And even when facts are slowly exposed, it is no longer clear to Gamache and his team if what they’ve found is the truth, or simply a trick of the light.”

Bottom Line: All of the best detective/crime series have one thing in common: memorable characters that readers enjoy revisiting year after year. Setting and plots are important, of course, but without continuing characters the reader can truly care about, those alone will not make a series stand out from the crowd for long. Louise Penny, remarkable storyteller that she is, offers the whole package. If you are not already reading the Gamache series, you need to grab a copy of Still Life (2005) and get started.

Louise Penny

Monday, November 15, 2021

2021: A Reading Year Filled with Surprises

Ann Cleeves

As we approach the end of 2021, I've started preparing my own "Long Lists" for favorite fiction and nonfiction titles of the year. I already know that it's going to be a shorter nonfiction list than usual because, as of today, I've read only 22 nonfiction titles. It also looks, 
because of my efforts to read more from prior decades this year, like the lists are going to be a mix of new and old books rather than being strictly limited to books published in 2021. 

Sherman Alexie

But what jumped out at me today as I scanned the 116 titles I've read so far is how many "breakthrough" authors there are there - authors I either barely knew or didn't know at all,  just a few months ago - who have now become
must read authors to me. 

Thanks largely to my fellow book bloggers, I will be looking forward to new books from these authors, as well as reading their back catalogs, for years to come:

  • William Shaw
  • Reavis Z. Wortham
  • Tana French
  • Ann Cleeves
  • Ragnar Jonasson
  • Sherman Alexie
  • S.A. Cosby
S.A. Cosby

This is the first time ever that I've ended a reading year being this excited about so many new-to-me authors. Usually, I'm lucky to add one or two writers to my list of favorites; never anywhere near seven, so 2021 has become one of my favorite reading years ever. With only six weeks in 2021 still to go, and a few goals still to be worked on, I'm hoping that 2022 can be half as much fun as 2021 has been.

Tana French
William Shaw

Ragnar Jonasson

Reavis Z. Wortham

Saturday, November 13, 2021

The Silent Sisters - Robert Dugoni

The Silent Sisters
(2022) marks the completion of Robert Dugoni’s Charles Jenkins trilogy, following The Eighth Sister (2019) and The Last Agent (2020). For the uninitiated, Charles Jenkins is a six foot, five inch black man who in his sixties has been called back into CIA service so that he can extract several women who were trained to spy for the US since birth. You read that right: a huge, black American spy is expected to go undetected inside Russia long enough to help US spies escape the only country they have known their entire lives. Rather surprisingly, Dugoni makes it all seem very possible…if not likely…to work.

Originally, there were seven women working in critical Russian positions who were providing key intelligence information to American counterintelligence officers. Each of the women had been groomed and trained by their Russian parents from birth to believe in what they were doing, and to do it well. But now, things are starting to fall apart, and time is running out on the Seven Sisters because an American traitor has revealed their existence to the Russians. Russian intelligence officers do not know their names, but do know that seven women were planted —  and that some of them are still on the job. Now, the Russians are ruthlessly looking at all women in their early sixties who are working in jobs that would allow them to pass critical intelligence to the US. In biblical fashion, all of these women are going to be eliminated in order to make sure that no spies survive the purge; they will be tortured and killed, one-by-one, until that possibility is eliminated.

The CIA knows that two of the women are still active, but each has gone silent in recent weeks, meaning that the women realize the end is near for them. They need to get out of Russia, and if they are to survive, they need to do it now. Charles Jenkins, who has already gotten one of the seven women out, is going back again to rescue the surviving pair before they meet the fate of those who have already been arrested, tortured, and killed. That the odds are stacked against Jenkins is an understatement. Before this one is over, Jenkins and the women will simultaneously be chased by Russian intelligence agencies, the Russian police, and the Russian mafia, all of whom want to capture Jenkins for reasons of their own. But is being chased by three such powerful groups at the same time necessarily a bad thing?

Bottom Line: Robert Dugoni writes a heck of a thriller, the kind of story involving long, potentially deadly chases where the hero must run for his life even though survival seems a long shot at best. But what Dugoni does better than most thriller writers, is create characters that the reader truly cares about because they become so easy to identify with. We learn about their spouses and children, their hopes and their fears…what makes them tick. And Dugoni does it for both the good guys and the bad guys. The world is not as black or white as we used to believe it was; it’s a hundred shades of grey, instead. There are good guys, and there are bad guys, on both sides. The beauty of The Silent Sisters is watching the good guys find,  recognize, and help each other. 

I recommend the Charles Jenkins trilogy to spy novel fans, and personally I’m happy to see that Dugoni has at least left the door cracked open enough to allow for the possibility of a fourth Jenkins book. So here’s hoping this is not the last time I’ll be reading about the man.

Robert Dugoni

Review Copy provided by Thomas & Mercer

The Silent Sisters to be published on February 22, 2022 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy - Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Travels with George is one of those books that appeals to readers on multiple levels. In my case, it particularly appeals because it recounts a modern road trip that exactly mimics the one taken by George Washington in 1789 only six months after his inauguration as America’s first president. But, in addition to being a book about identical road trips separated by centuries, Philbrick also explores Washington’s intimate involvement in the enslavement of Africans and their descendants for the benefit of himself and his wife’s family. 

Washington knew in 1789 that the country he had been elected to help govern could fall apart much more quickly than it had been created. Governors of the thirteen former colonies, to a man, still considered their state boundaries as the “country” in which they lived. Two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, had not even ratified the Constitution by the time that Washington’s inauguration came. And that is precisely why Washington hit the road.

The brand new president decided it was time for him to make himself available to ordinary citizens so that they could express their concerns about the new government directly to him. At the same time, Washington hoped to convince the people he spoke with that they now had a new identity in common with everyone else in the former colonies: they were Americans. Some 229 years later (in 2018), Nathaniel Philbrick decided to follow in Washington’s tracks to see if the people in America were any more united today than they were when Washington first embarked on his own travels. 

Washington began his trip by traveling through the New England states, but he bypassed Rhode Island until that state finally ratified the Constitution. The president would only, in fact, visit Rhode Island after the state’s ratification of the document, and he combined that portion of his road trip with a tour of Long Island where it is believed he spent time with several of the anonymous spies who were instrumental in key military victories over the British. A second, even longer, road trip was undertaken a few months later during which all of the Southern states were visited. Washington was happy to learn during this portion of his tour of America that the expected opposition from Southern leaders was not as common as he had feared it to be. 

It is unlikely that any other national figure could have united the former colonies as quickly or as securely as George Washington managed it through his reputation, words, and action. During his travels, the purposely accessible new president stayed in public inns rather than in the much more comfortable, and private, homes of political allies who would have been happy to offer him shelter. He also despised all the pomp and ceremony that so many local dignitaries wanted him to sit through, and despite being a very private man, he made sure that everyone at least got a look at him if they wanted one. 

Washington, though, was far from perfect. He owned slaves, his wife owned slaves, and the family’s profiteering from slavery cannot be glossed over. Philbrick, to his credit, takes an approach to the past that I appreciate: he hides nothing, but he never forgets that:

“A reckoning is going on in which many Americans have come to wonder whether anything from our country’s history is worth saving. People from the past — even from just a few decades ago — will inevitably fail to meet the evolving standards of the present. That does not mean they failed to meet in their own imperfect way, the challenges of their own time as best they could.” (Page 171)

I wish more people, historians included, would keep this in mind.

Bottom Line: I thoroughly enjoyed the comparisons that Philbrick makes between what he and his wife encounter on the road and what Washington saw in the same locations two centuries earlier. This country may be just as divided today as it was during Washington’s first term as president but the union held then, and what Philbrick heard from strangers during his own travels gives me confidence that the same will be true today. George Washington was a remarkable man, someone who came along at precisely the moment he was needed most. Washington sensed that he had the power and the charisma to make the United States into whatever he wanted it to be, even into a dictatorship if he chose to do so. But as Philbrick says, “…his (Washington’s) only interest was in establishing a federal government that was strong enough to survive without him.” And he did it.

Nathaniel Philbrick

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed - Helene Tursten

In An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed, Helene Tursten provides the backstory of the 89-year-old killer she first introduced to the world in her five-story compilation, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good. As her victims would attest to if only they could, Maud was most definitely up to no good in that first collection, and in this second book featuring her, anyone crossing Maud is still likely to pay the ultimate price for doing so. This time around Maud, who has decided it’s time to enjoy the money she’s accumulated over her long lifetime, is embarking on a luxury vacation to South Africa. This is the structure Tursten uses to tie the book’s six stories together so that they read more like a short novel than as a collection of short stories.

If Maud has any kind of motto to live by, it’s probably this thought that she has at the end of “Lancing a Boil,” the third story in the book:

“Certain Problems have only one solution. That’s just the way it is.”

In the book’s first story,”An Elderly Lady Begins to Remember Her Past,” Maud has attracted the interest of two police detectives who do not buy her explanation about the dead antique dealer she supposedly discovered in her apartment (in a story from the previous collection). The two cops keep returning for follow-up interviews, and Maud is beginning to fear that she may have finally gone too far in solving her own problems. She decides the best thing to do is to make it impossible for them to question her for a while, and decides that this is the perfect time for a return visit to South Africa. 

It takes a while to get from Sweden to South Africa, though, and Maud, who is determined to get every penny’s worth of what she has payed for her first class ticket, is enjoying more — and better — booze than most of her fellow passengers. She can barely hold her eyes open anymore, and when she falls asleep, it is only to dream vividly about some of the memories she has more or less suppressed over her long lifetime of solving “Certain Problems” for herself. 

In the next four stories, we learn: how Maud dealt with two boys who were bullying her older sister; how, as a fresh graduate, she turned a part-time teaching job into the full-time job she held for the rest of her life; the truth about how she was finally freed from having to be her sister’s caretaker; and how she rescued her only friend from certain financial ruin. But Tursten saves the best for last, a story titled “An Elderly Lady Takes a Trip to Africa,” which comprises just over half the book’s total pages. 

This final story is a blending of two Maud’s, one we’ve seen before, and one we never expected to see at all. Maud has discovered her soft side now that she’s approaching the end of her life, and although she’s not above using her usual solution to solving Certain Problems, she finds herself wanting to keep a family she’s met from becoming homeless in just a few weeks. But because there’s no one to kill to make this new problem go away, Maud comes up with a creative solution that will change their lives — and hers — forever. 

“In Maud’s case, it had taken an unusually long time, but now everything felt right. She’d even gained a little family in the process. Not bad for an elderly lady, she thought. She decided to treat herself to a little dose of Power of Life with her coffee.”

Bottom Line: So are Maud’s killing days over for good now? It remains to be seen whether or not Helene Tursten has more in mind for Maud, but it’s already been one heck of a ride with one of the most memorable serial killers the fiction world has ever seen. It’s been fun. 

Helene Tursten

Sunday, November 07, 2021

"Cutting the Cord" and Saving Money in the Process

This has unexpectedly turned into a weekend of very little reading...but this time,  I'm OK with that. It's taken several hours of web research and set-up time, but we have finally cut the cord with traditional "cable TV." In the process, we've cut our cost by around $80 per month while gaining a video menu much more suited to what we enjoy watching - and the picture is finally coming in at the quality AT&T uVerse has been promising us but never delivering.

Oh, we also upgraded our AT&T-provided internet speed to the maximum offered for the same price we were paying for less speed because promotional offers were available that AT&T keeps secret from longtime customers already paying the same cost for less speed. That, and our so-called "landline," is what AT&T is now providing us.

So what do we have now? Well, for $80 less (plus the around $20 worth of Federal taxes associated with it), we now subscribe to Hulu plus Live TV, Discovery Plus, and Hallmark movies. In addition, we get a bundled price through the Hulu subscription for Disney+ and ESPN+. You can probably see that some of the choices were my wife's and the others were mine. She loves the old Disney classic cartoons; I love all the extra live sports events on ESPN+. She loves the Hallmark movies and all the programming that comes with the Discovery Plus connection. I love the fact that the SEC network is part of the live programming offered so that I can keep up with the Texas A&M Aggies and the rest of the conference.

We both love that all of our local channels are available through Hulu Live (with the exception of our local PBS station). We love the cloud DVR that gives us 200 hours of recordings we make off of live TV broadcasts (I've already saved A&Ms 20-3 win over Auburn yesterday). And we love all the on-demand programming that comes with the various services. Because the local channels are streamed via Hulu, there's no $50 antenna to buy for the local stations, which used to be the only way to cut the cable cord and still have access to local stations.

But most of all, I love the picture quality that streaming delivers as compared to what AT&T was delivering via its fiber optic network. The difference, in some cases, is astounding. My televisions have never looked so good. 

In addition we were already subscribed to Prime, Acorn, and BritBox. So, yes, we are still spending too much money on entertainment...but now it's first rate, and more importantly, we are not overpaying for things that just cluttered up the menu. And there are no contracts on any of this stuff; we can cancel or "pause" the services whenever we want to without being tied to the calendar. I suppose it's all still an expensive extravagance, but hey, it's a whole lot cheaper - and better - than it was on Friday.

Now I need to tear myself away from the screen and get back to my reading.