Friday, December 31, 2021

Chasing Books: 2021 By the Numbers

2021 turned out to be a strange year, didn't it? There for a few months it was looking like the country may have finally turned the COVID-19 corner and was moving in the right direction. For several months during the second half of the year it really looked that way, but then we ended the year with a new covid outbreak that leaves us wondering if this will ever end. Frankly, I was more optimistic a person this time last year than I am today.

That's not going to stop me, though, from my annual crunching of the Book Chase reading stats (my inner-accountant's favorite post of the year): 

Number of Books Read - 130 

Fiction - 105:   
  • Novels - 98   
  • Short Story Collections - 7  


Nonfiction - 25:
  • Memoirs - 5
  • Biographies - 3 
  • Books on Books - 3
  • True Crime- 1
  • History - 6
  • Science - 2
  • Entertainment - 1
  • Politics -  1
  • Travel -  3

Total books are up 10 from 2020, and I seem to have settled comfortably into a 120-130 book per year range for the last several years. (Strange, though, that I don't feel very that optimistic about hitting those numbers in 2022).

  • Books Written by Men - 70
  • Books Written by Women - 55
  • Books Written by Both - 5

This is the second year in a row that I've read almost as many books authored by women as by men. Until last year, my male-to-female author ratio always ran 2-1 in favor of male authors.

  • Audiobooks - 24
  • E-Books - 32
  • Library Books - 85 
  • Review Copies - 25
  • From My Shelves - 21 
  • Abandoned/DNF - 16
  • Average Pages Read per Day: 120
  • Total Pages Read: 43,700 

The source-mix of my books is very similar to last year's mix, but I'm seriously considering a change of plan for 2022. I find myself getting a little burned out on chasing so many new books all the time, so I may concentrate more on older stuff and a lot of "catch-up" reading that I never seem to get around to. That would mean even fewer review copies than ever...a number that has been dropping from year-to-year already. I'll see how that works out. 

My goals coming into the year were simple ones: read more in translation, more from my own shelves, more literary classics, more from the years 1920-1979, more foreign authors from countries other than the UK and Canada, and catch up on a few of the detective series I follow. Let's just say I did better on some of the goals than on others:

  • 12 translated works (happy enough)
  • 21 from my own shelves (satisfied)
  • 1 literary classic (embarrassed)
  • 11 from 1920-1979 (frustrated)
  • 14 early books from my favorite series (happy enough)
  • 13 foreign authors not from the UK or Canada (happy)
  • 30 books by UK and Canadian authors (happy)

I am feeling a little frustrated to see how heavily I depended on newish books for my reading material again this year. Thirty-nine of the books I read in 2021 were published in 2021, another five will be published in 2022, and nineteen were published in 2020. Numbers like that make me wonder if I'll ever make the time to figure out what I missed during all those years I was way too busy living life to read more than twenty or thirty books a year. I suppose I'll never know unless I finally find enough willpower to better resist all the bright and shiny new ones that keep getting dangled before my eyes. Maybe 2022 will be the year it finally happens.

All in all, I feel blessed to be a committed reader because I think the last two years would surely have been a lot tougher if not for books, my local library, and all of the reading friends I've made via Book Chase. Thank you all for being there and sharing the year with me. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Boys - Ron Howard & Clint Howard

I’m four or five years older than Ron Howard, but when I see him or watch one of the movies he’s directed, I feel like I almost grew up with the guy. For those of us of a certain age, our relationship with “Ronny” Howard began with the still wonderful-to-watch The Andy Griffith Show, but that was far from Ron Howard’s first venture into movies and television. That is, however, where the Ron Howard clean-cut image began taking form before being further strengthened by smash hits like the George Lucas film American Graffiti and the hit television series Happy Days. Ron Howard seemed to us to be the ideal All-American boy even though some may have suspected that the image was just too good to be true.

Well, they were wrong. Ron Howard really was the All-American boy he appeared to be on film. And strangely enough, before I read The Boys, the new biography/memoir by Ron and Clint Howard, I ran across quite a few negative comments saying that The Boys makes for pretty boring reading. Why? Because all the love in his family, their work ethic, and their success in the business became too plain vanilla to hold a reader’s attention for a whole book. They were hoping for some dirt on the Howard family, and they were obviously disappointed not to find much of it there. (I do have to believe that some of the book’s harshest critics quit reading before Clint Howard opened up about his alcohol and drug abuse problems, however.)

The Boys is co-written by the Howard brothers, although Ron, as you would expect, gets the bulk of the page count. That doesn’t, however, mean that Clint does not contribute to the flow of their memoir. In fact, the contrasting views of the two authors combine to tell a family story that neither of them could have come close to telling as accurately or as movingly on their own. 

And it’s pretty much all there. Both men cover their individual careers in some detail, offering stories and insights that only they are privy to. Ron hits all the highlights, especially his Andy Griffith Show, Happy Days, American Graffiti, and Music Man highlights. He also explains where, and when, his great desire to become a movie director originated, and how lucky he considers himself to be that he was able, ultimately, to live his true dream. Clint Howard’s work will likely surprise some readers because he has accumulated some 200 movie and television credits since he began acting as a toddler, including, of course, the Gentle Ben television series. Clint whole heartedly embraces his status as a character actor, and it has translated into a career that has served him well for over fifty years now. 

Personally, what I find most compelling about The Boys is learning about the personal sacrifices that the Howard parents made so that their boys could find and earn their places in life. Those sacrifices were numerous, and as it turns out, they were well worth it.

Bottom Line: The Boys will be of particular interest to fans of Ron Howard’s acting and movie directing talents but, really, the best thing about the book is the way the boys credit their parents for their success. That Jean and Rance Howard were able to give their sons a relatively normal upbringing while working in an industry that so often destroys families is remarkable. The critics are right: with a couple of exceptions, this is a feel-good book…just what I needed as we close out a year like the one 2021 turned out to be.

Ron & Clint Howard

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Love, Hope, Peace, and Books from Book Chase

 Merry Christmas to all. I hope you are all having and enjoying a wonderful day with friends and family. 

Plans here changed on Wednesday when we learned that two family members had been exposed to Covid, so for the second year in a row we are celebrating a quiet Christmas, just the two of us. It's disappointing, but we did have a good run of family gatherings during the rest of the year, so 2021 could have been a whole lot worse - and it was much better than 2020. I'm betting/hoping that we finally turn the corner next year.

Happy Reading, friends!

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Ox-Bow Incident - Walter Van Tilburg Clark

As it turns out, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who was a thirty-one-year-old English teacher at the time, struck literary gold in 1940 with the publication of his debut novel The Ox-Bow Incident. The novel was made into a major motion picture starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Harry Morgan in 1943, and today Tilburg’s novel is considered a classic of its type. 

Most readers will be familiar with plots similar to the story Clark tells in The Ox-Bow Incident even before they pick up the book for the first time. Tales about a group of cattle rustlers being chased down and lynched by a posse of local vigilantes have been played out in countless novels, movies, and television shows for near one hundred years now. The stories are usually rather gut-wrenching ones even when those being hanged from the nearest big tree really are the bad guys. But when mistakes are made, and innocent men are rashly killed by a mob of executioners, the stories truly are heartbreaking.

What makes The Ox-Bow Incident so different from most of the others is the emphasis Clark places on the motivations of the twenty-eight men who band together to chase down the men they believe have killed a local ranch hand while in the process of running off with forty head of cattle. The novel is both a character study and a hard look into the power of a mob to carry men to places they would never otherwise be willing to go. Even as the posse is being pulled together, the novel’s narrator makes this observation:

“Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones. There are a lot of loud arguments to cover moral cowardice, but even an animal will know if you’re scared.”

Then, a few pages later, the narrator points out how the local men are being pushed into riding with the posse by having it pulled together out in front of the local saloon rather than inside it:

“…a lot of these men must be fixed so that nothing could turn them off unless it could save their faces. The women were as stirred up as the men, and though a lot of them would have been glad if they could keep their own men out of it, that didn’t make any difference. When a man’s put on his grim business face, and hauled out a gun he maybe hasn’t used for years, except for jack rabbits, he doesn’t want to go back without a good excuse.”

It is inevitable. Twenty-eight men, led by two or three bloodthirsty types who always enjoy bullying and fighting anyway, are going to risk their own lives to chase three or four unidentified men into the blizzard that is fast descending upon them all. Most of them don’t really want to be part of a lynching, but only the town’s two preachers (one of them white, the other black) have the courage to speak up about what they are doing. The riders already assume the guilt of those they are chasing, and they do not intend to bring them back to town for a jury trial. The posse will be judge, jury, and executioner — and no one is going to stop them. Guilty or not, someone has to die tonight.

Bottom Line: While Clark’s moral arguments can get a little longwinded and a little repetitive as several of his characters attempt to find the moral courage to refuse to join the posse and to persuade others to do the same, the pace with which the posse finally forms helps build the tremendous tension readers feel as the book reaches its climax. What happens at that point, and what happens in its immediate aftermath, is heartbreaking for all concerned. Walter Van Tilburg Clark hit a home run his first time at bat.

Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Telling Tales - Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves has written five different crime fiction series since publishing her first George Palmer Jones novel in 1986, usually alternating novels between whichever are the two most current of her series. These days that means that Cleeves is alternating between additions to her nine-book Vera Stanhope series and additions to her latest series featuring Detective Matthew Venn - which is now two books long. Telling Tales (2005), the second Vera Stanhope novel, re-established that pattern for Cleeves. The novel was published a full six years after the first Vera Stanhope novel because the author published her only two standalone novels in between the first and second Stanhope books. The following year (2006), Cleeves introduced her Shetland series featuring Detective Jimmy Perez, and the Stanhope and Perez books together carried her to a whole new level of popularity she has enjoyed ever since. 

Telling Tales sees Vera and her young partner, Joe Ashworth, reinvestigating a ten-year-old murder conviction that has fallen apart. It turns out that the woman serving prison time for the murder is every bit as innocent as she has been proclaiming herself to be for the last ten years. A witness has finally come forward to prove that Jeanie Long was in London when the fifteen-year-old victim was strangled hours away in her rural village. Unfortunately for Jeanie Long, the news did not reach her in time to save her life. Now, much to the chagrin of the local police, Vera and Joe have been called in as unbiased outside investigators to figure out where and how everything about the initial investigation could have gone so wrong. 

And, even more importantly, to find the real killer who has escaped justice for the last decade.

Neither objective is going to be easy to achieve, however, because Vera soon learns that this is a village full of people hiding secrets about the past from each other — and now, from her. All Vera knows for sure is that none of them can be trusted or taken at face value, including the two cops who worked the murder case ten years earlier. Soon enough, Vera is not sure which she dislikes more, the village’s boringly flat landscape or the people who lie there. 

Bottom Line: Readers have come to expect complicated and satisfying mysteries from Ann Cleeves, and Telling Tales is no exception. I do suggest that, right from the beginning of the novel, readers begin making a list of character names and descriptions as each new character is introduced. There are many of them, and their relationships get more and more complicated as the story unfolds. I found myself referencing my own character notes almost to the end of the book, and without them, I think I would have missed out on some of Cleeves’s subtle hints and tricks — the very ones that make mysteries like Telling Tales so much fun.

Ann Cleeves

Saturday, December 18, 2021

And in the End - Ken McNab

My fascination with, and appreciation of, the Beatles goes back to the first time I heard them on radio in early 1964. I have vivid memories of their Ed Sullivan appearances, and even managed to see the first of two shows they did in Houston in August 1965. As I recall, that ticket cost me five dollars, but that was when minimum wage in the US was all of $1.25 an hour, so it’s all relative.

I recently spent about eight hours watching the Beatles documentary Get Back on Disney+, and I plan to watch it again in shorter chunks because there is just too much there to absorb in a single viewing. Something like fifty-six hours of old video and about 250 hours of audio produced during what became Abbey Road (album and movie), were used to produce the eight-hour, three-part documentary. Fans remember the film, and even the record album, as marking the end of the Beatles as a band. But why did it have to happen that way?

Ken McNab’s 2020 book And in the End chronicles what happened to the band after the cameras and microphones were turned off in January 1969. Via chapters dedicated to each month of 1969, McNab makes it clear that the timing of the breakup of the Beatles was inevitable, and that it happened for numerous reasons — not just because Yoko Ono became John Lennon’s shadow about that time. Ono certainly was a contributor to the band’s demise, but as it turns out, she gets more credit for the breakup than she deserves. In both And in the End and in the Get Back documentary, Ono comes across more as an irritating distraction and joke to Beatles fans than as a real reason the group decided to call it quits. The other three Beatles, who had to work with John every day, however, did find her to be more irritating than distracting - as evidenced by lots of eye-rolling and blank stares.

No, the real reasons the Beatles broke up are a lot more boring than the silliness and shallowness of Yoko Ono - and John Lennon’s utter infatuation with the woman. There were business problems: their company, Apple Corps, was almost bankrupt by 1969, and the group could not agree on whom to hire to manage their various interests. Paul McCartney insisted on one choice while John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr insisted on another. And it didn’t help that John and Yoko were now both heroin addicts, or that George Harrison was tired of having his own compositions ignored by the Lennon-McCarney songwriting team. Or that Ringo Starr was finally having some success in movies. Or that the band was terrified of performing live on stage anymore. Or that McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison were starting to enjoy creating music as individuals now that modern technology made it so easy for them to stay home and do exactly that. 

No one person or event killed the Beatles, but when they reached their natural tipping point it was all over.

Bottom Line: And in the End is for Beatles fans, especially those still avid enough to spend eight hours watching the new Get Back documentary. The book picks up pretty much where the documentary leaves off and explains what happened during the rest of 1969 and beyond. It’s a sad story that will leave fans wondering, but doubting, if the band breakup could have some way been avoided. Sadly, to this fan at least, it just all seems to have been a matter of time.

Ken McNab

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Book Chase 2021 Fiction Top Ten

It's unlikely that I will read another book published in 2021 before the end of the year, so I have decided to go ahead with a post my top ten 2021 books today. I may also do a similar list in a few days for my favorite "older" books read this year, "older" rather ridiculously encompassing anything prior to 2021, since 70% of my reading fell into that category this year.

2021 Top Ten Favorites

1. Ridgeline by Michael Punke - This is a well-researched, fictionalized account of what was the single worst defeat the US cavalry had ever suffered at the hands of American Indians when it happened in 1866. The experience at Fort Phil Kearney, Wyoming, taught the Indians exactly how the whites could be defeated, and some of the same chiefs were on hand ten years later at the Battle of the Little Big Horn where they achieved an even larger victory. Punke uses his storytelling skills to make the participants on both sides very real - and their stories as sad as they were inevitable.

2. Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout - Oh William! gives us another look into the life of Strout's wonderful character Lucy Barton. This time around, Lucy is rather surprised when William, her ex-husband, asks her to go with him on a road trip to examine a surprising bit of family history he has just learned. The wonderful thing about this novel is what it reveals to Lucy about both her past relationship with William and how she still feels about him today. Strout is brilliant, as always.

3. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro - This is probably the most imaginative novel I read all year long. It tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend, from her "birth" to her "death." In the world that Ishiguro has created here, artificial intelligence and robotics have combined in an advanced stage at which teens are able to buy the perfect friend and take them home with them. The chosen AFs then dedicate themselves to learning everything about their "owners" so that they can make their lives better and better. So what could possibly go wrong now?

4. Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby - Cosby was one of those writers who hit my radar for the first time in 2021. Razorblade Tears is Cosby's second novel, and the intensity and pace of it caught me completely by surprise. It's the story of two men, one black and one white, whose gay sons were murdered together. The men want to know why it happened, and they reluctantly team up to get some answers. What happens next is as wild a ride as any novel provided me this year. What the two fathers learn about each other and their sons is at the heart of the story. Thriller with a deep message.

5.  Revival Season by Monica West - This is a coming-of-age story about a fifteen-year-old girl who for her entire life has spent every summer traveling the black church revival circuit with her preacher father and the rest of her family. The girl's father is a well-known "healer," and he historically draws large crowds wherever he sets up his big tent revival. But this is the summer that Miriam Horton is about to learn the truth about her father - and more importantly, about herself and the rest of her family.

6. The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin - This is the story of an unlikely trio who unexpectedly become almost a family just when each of them needs a new family most. When forty-four-year old Alice almost runs over a teenaged boy tooling down the side of the highway in his wheelchair, she brings him home with her and her newly purchased bees. The two are joined there later by another teen boy who has just lost the only "family" he wants any part of. Now, the three of them begin to protect each other while creating a new life for themselves.

7. The Sentence by Louise Erdrich - It's impossible to go wrong with a Louise Erdrich novel, and The Sentence is no exception. The "sentence" in the title refers to the long prison sentence the main character receives for agreeing to move a dead body for a friend, a body she had no idea was being used to transport illegal drugs across state lines. Years later, the same woman is working in a bookstore and living the life she never expected to have. All about Native American culture, bookstores, readers, and relationships. 

8.  Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir - Weir, author of The Martian has done it again. Ryland Grace, astronaut, wakes up in deep outer space with no idea why he is there - or what killed the rest of the crew before they were awakened. By the time he figures out that a successful conclusion of the mission he is on is the only chance that Earth and humanity have at survival, he knows he can't possibly do it all on his own. Well...turns out that one of the cleverest - and most personable aliens - in the history of science fiction is up there with him trying to do the same thing for his own planet. Teamwork.

9.  The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams - Admittedly, this book is a bit overly sentimental, but I found it impossible to resist because of its message: a love of books and reading can forever bond together just about anyone. A shared love of reading is all it takes. This is a story about a non-reader grandfather searching for a way to bond with his young avid reader of a granddaughter, and the reading list that ends up impacting an entire community and library. It's all rather beautiful, really. Readers are just cool people.

10. Daughter of the Morning Star by Craig Johnson - A new Sheriff Walt Longmire novel is always good news, but I found this one particularly interesting because it takes a hard look at the real life way so many Native American women disappear every year without making much of a blip on the national consciousness. When Longmire and Henry Standing Bear are hired to protect a young star basketball player on the reservation team, life gets interesting quickly and sets the sheriff on a quest that will be continued in the next Longmire book (number 18 in the series). 

Note: The list would have almost certainly looked a little different if I had read the 2021 books published by two or three of my go-to authors. I have, however, purposely held those for reading in 2022 because it makes me feel good to know they are waiting for me there. And that explains why I'm considering a second Top Ten list this year; I postponed some really good 2020 books until 2021, and that allows some great ones to slip through the cracks rather than being recognized at a year's end the way they should be. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Likeness - Tana French

I don’t think I’ve ever reacted to a crime novel before the way that I reacted to Tana French’s The Likeness (the second book in the author’s Dublin Murder Squad series). Almost from the beginning of the book, I found its basic premise to be implausible, if not impossible. There was simply no way that I could ever convince myself that an undercover cop could investigate a murder by moving into the victim’s home — especially when the home’s other four residents knew the victim so intimately — and pretending to be that dead woman. After two false starts during which I frustrated myself for a month, I finally put the book aside at page 140 for almost three months before finally picking it up again. And that’s when something funny happened. About a dozen pages later, I realized that French had finally quit trying to convince me that  such an investigation really could happen, and was ready to tell me the rest of the story. That shift in emphasis let me finally suspend my disbelief long enough to lose myself in The Likeness for the first time. Now what I find most unbelievable is how much I ended up loving this novel and its characters…all of them.  

Detective Cassie Maddox thought she was forever finished with murder investigations after what happened to her on her last one. But now, just six months after leaving the squad, Cassie has been called to the scene of a murder by her boyfriend Detective Sam O’Neill, who is still a member of the Murder Squad. When Cassie looks down at the dead woman, she immediately knows why Sam called her there: the victim could be Cassie’s identical twin. 

And that gives Frank Mackey, Cassies former undercover boss, an idea: What if they pretend that the victim somehow survived long enough to make it to the hospital? What if a few days later, the “dead girl” comes home to live with the people she lives with and claims that she doesn’t remember a thing about the incident that nearly killed her? What if the other four people living in the house fall for the charade long enough for Cassie and Frank to figure out which one of the four murdered the dead woman? And what if they don’t?

Even Cassie and Frank are a bit surprised when she seems to have successfully passed herself off as the dead Lexie. But they know that it will take only one little slip, one oddity out of character with the real Lexie, to expose Cassie to whomever killed Lexie. But instead of being overwhelmed by the precariousness of her situation, Cassie reacts in a way no one could have foreseen. She finds herself enjoying the lifestyle and the people she’s living with so much that she begins to protect some of their secrets from her boss. What could possibly go wrong now?

Bottom Line: The best thing about a Tana French novel is the characters she creates. French does not write short books (this one is 466 pages long), and that gives her the time needed to create very real, if often eccentric, characters. The reader is given all the time needed to learn not only the basics about each character, but all the little things about them that make them individuals: their petty rivalries and jealousies, their pasts, their fears, their hopes for the future, and where all the scars are hidden. I only reluctantly climbed into their world this time around, but I’m very happy that I made it. Don’t make the mistake I almost made by giving up on The Likeness too soon. Keep turning those pages. 

Tana French

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Third Time Really Was the Charm with Tana French's The Likeness

Over the past several days, I've had a nice surprise about Tana French's The Likeness, a novel I very nearly decided to abandon for good at the 140-page mark because I found the basic premise of the book to be too absurd to take even remotely seriously. The only thing that kept me from giving up on The Likeness was that I had so thoroughly enjoyed both French's 2020 standalone, The Searcher, and her first Dublin Murder Squad novel, In the Woods. I was so excited about having finally discovered Tana French for myself that my reaction to The Likeness (the second Dublin Murder Squad book) really surprised me.

The novel's basic premise is this: Five highly educated young people live together in a remote house that they are in the process of restoring, three men and two women. After one of the women is stabbed to death in a ruined cottage near the house, the police immediately notice that one of their own is almost the identical twin of the dead girl. So they pretend that the stabbed girl somehow survived the attempt to kill her, and replace her with the cop. 

And that's what I found absurd. These five people were a self-contained unit that spent almost twenty-four hours a day together, and they intimately knew everyone else's little quirks and eccentricities. There is simply no way the cop would be able to pull this off...but she does. Then, to make it even worse, nothing much seemed to be happening for the first 140 pages, and I set the book aside twice for days at a time (I first started reading the book in August) because I couldn't connect with the story. 

Even then, I kind of knew that I wasn't ready yet to give up on a Tana French novel, and with a little encouragement via some of the comments recently made here on Book Chase, I decided to give the book one more shot. And it worked. Only ten or so pages deeper into the book, French finally stops focusing on only the cop's efforts to pass herself off as the dead girl, and begins to move the story forward. She develops the main characters, makes them human, and even manages to do that with the quirky side-characters. 

Suddenly, I was finding it hard to put down The Likeness instead of finding it so difficult to keep turning its pages. I found myself more than willing to suspend my early disbelief of the plot and I'm now totally caught up by the story and characters. I'm down to the last 70 or so pages of this 466-page novel, and I can't wait to see how it all ends. 

I'm fairly quick to permanently abandon books these days, figuring that there are only so many reading-days still ahead of me, and that there is no reason to waste any of those days on books I don't enjoy or learn something useful from. So giving a book three tries is a first for me, and I'm really happy that I did it. Many thanks to the commenters who encouraged me to give it another go.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Double Wide - Leo W. Banks

Double Wide
by Leo W. Banks is both the author’s debut novel (2017) and the first book in his two-book Whip Stark series. Banks has also been a correspondent for several newspapers and has written articles for magazines such as Sports Illustrated, National Review, and The Los Angeles Times Magazine. In addition, Banks is a regular columnist for True West magazine and has authored four books on Old West history. 

Whip (Prospero) Stark, the main character of Double Wide, is a young man with an interesting personal history. Stark is a superior athlete who just a few years earlier possessed the kind of fastball that seemed destined to carry him to the top tier of professional baseball. Unfortunately for Stark, his baseball career came to a screeching halt in Mexico where he was playing ball there and preparing himself to make the big leap into the majors. But instead of moving up to the next level, Stark moved to a Mexican jail cell after he was wrongly charged with cocaine possession.

These days Stark contents himself with managing a small piece of property he owns in the desert outside Tucson that he calls “Double Wide.” He lives there in his own double wide trailer among a handful of other trailers that he rents out to any of society’s misfits who are content to live in the middle of nowhere with him. Stark is, in fact, called the mayor of Double Wide by his little community, a responsibility he takes seriously.

Whip Stark, though, has his self-contained little world rocked mightily one day when someone leaves a severed hand outside his trailer for him to find — a tattooed hand Stark easily recognizes as one two belonging to his former catcher in the Mexican League. Stark will not be able to rest until he learns the whole truth about what has happened to his friend. But is he searching for a dead body or a still-breathing man with one hand? After his initial efforts catch the unwanted attention of a Mexican drug cartel honcho, Stark is pretty sure that his friend is beyond rescue. 

Double Wide is full of offbeat characters willing to risk it all (not that they have all that much to lose) to help the mayor of Double Wide, Arizona, find out what happened to his missing friend. But it’s when Stark catches the attention of Roxanne Santa Cruz, a former teenaged stripper now turned on-air reporter for a Tucson TV station, that things really get wild as the pair fearlessly takes on anyone who stands in their way of learning the truth. And that means anyone.

Bottom Line: Double Wide is one of those violently bloody crime novels that can somehow best be described as humorous and lighthearted. Whip Stark and most of the side characters use wisecracks to lighten whatever situation they find themselves in, and Stark, as narrator, is particularly funny when addressing the reader with snappy little asides as he tells his story. That can be a lot of fun, but it does not always make for a realistic crime novel, and that’s the case here. It’s hard for the reader to take Double Wide completely seriously, but if you prefer crime novels with a lighter approach, this is one I think you will love.

Leo W. Banks

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Short Story Thursday: "Natural Light" by Kathleen Alcott

I love short stories for many reasons, but I particularly love them because I’ve discovered several of my favorite novelists by first reading one of their stories. Perhaps I would have discovered those writers at some point anyway, but reading their shorter work led me to them much earlier than would have otherwise been the case. That, I don’t doubt. 

Along those lines, this morning I read a story by new-to-me author Kathleen Alcott called “Natural Light” in which she explores one’s relationship with a dead parent — and what can happen when new information about that parent is exposed long after their death. The story immediately opens with a hook that I could not resist:

I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph — or rather, what was being done to her — just that when I saw it for the first time, in the museum crowded with tourists, she’d been dead five years. It broke an explicit promise, the only (one) we keep with the deceased, which is that there will be no more contact, no new information.

The story’s narrator knew that her mother had lived in New York City for six months before she met the narrator’s future father. Her mother, however, had always brushed off any questions about that period in her life by literally waving them away when asked. Now, completely out of the blue, our unhappy narrator (who has obvious problems of her own) comes across photographic evidence that her mother had good reason to keep her secrets. The narrator’s heart breaks when she studies the filthy room in which the picture was taken and realizes just how low her mother had sunk in just a few short months in the big city.

She wants to know more — but, try as she does, no one really wants to help her.

Bottom Line: “Natural Light” left me as mystified as the narrator must have still felt at the end of this seventeen-page story. And that was probably the point. The story is disturbing and moody, even frustrating — and I think this mirrors the emotions that the narrator must have felt while trying to figure out her mother’s past. I get it. But as a reader, I can’t help wanting a little more from “Natural Light.” I prefer to have my mysteries solved before the last page is turned, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the picture portrayed. (I have a good guess, but I won’t speculate in fear of spoiling the story for others.) 

Kathleen Alcott

“Natural Light” was originally published in 2018 in Zoetrope: All Story, vol. 22, no. 1. I read it from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt collection The Best American Short Stories (2019). Alcott is the author of numerous short stories and at least three novels (I don’t see that she has published a novel since 2019.) 

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The Elephant of Belfast - S. Kirk Walsh

There seems to be more WWII fiction around these last few years than ever before — and I’ve read a lot more of it than I ever expected I’d be reading. The problem, for me, is that the books tend to start blending together in my memory after a while because their plots are not really all that different from each other. And that’s exactly the reason I was attracted to S. Kirk Walsh’s The Elephant of Belfast. I figured that a book whose main character was a young female zookeeper who took an elephant home with her during the 1941 Easter Tuesday German bombing raids on Belfast had to stand out from the crowd. Well, it does.

Hettie Quinn is a twenty-year-old zoo volunteer when The Elephant of Belfast begins. The Quinn family has had a rough go lately; Hettie’s father has seemingly abandoned the family for good, and Hettie’s only sister has recently died giving birth to her first child. Now, Hettie lives alone with her mother, and Hettie is in bad need of a distraction, something to take her mind off the family’s recent troubles. 

That distraction comes along in the form of Violet, a three-year-old orphaned elephant from Ceylon that has been purchased by Bellevue Zoo & Gardens where Hettie works. From the very first moment Hettie helps to walk Violet from the Belfast docks to the zoo, she is in love. All she can think about, to her mother’s dismay, is Violet. So, when the German bombing raids begin, Hettie is determined to ensure Violet’s survival — even if it means running to the zoo on foot during the raids to make sure that Violet is not being completely terrorized by all the commotion. 

As the devastating raids continue, the zoo not only struggles to feed its small collection of exotic animals like Violet, administrators also have to contend with an order from the police to kill off the animals that could be dangerous to the population if they escape during one of the nightly bombing raids. Hettie is having none of it, and with the help from others who feel the same, she leads Violet away before it is too late to save her.

But how do you hide an elephant in a city like Belfast?

Bottom Line: The Elephant of Belfast is about kindred spirits who save each other’s lives. Hettie and Violet meet just when they will most need each other: Hettie, to take her mind off of the utter destruction of property and lives all around her; and Violet, to make sure that she doesn’t starve to death, loose her mind as the bombs are falling, or have to be destroyed because she has become a danger to the traumatized citizens of Belfast. It’s a rather beautiful story, really, one in which the unexpected bonding between man and beast offers the hope and love two very different creatures need if they are going to survive what is happening all around them.

S. Kirk Walsh

Monday, December 06, 2021

Photos from Vera and Shetland TV Series

I know that a lot of you, like me, are fairly avid watchers of British crime series such as Vera and Shetland. Both of these series are, of course, based on books and/or characters created by author Ann Cleeves who has also just recently had a new series called The Long Call make its US debut via the BritBox app. 

I've come to realize that I watch the various series almost as much for the settings they depict as anything else, and that got me to playing around with my cellphone and TV long enough to capture a few stills from the series for myself:

Vera Stanhope's fictional home in the middle of nowwhere

Vera and team at the home of a suspect

Vera and Joe, mid-investigation

Joe and his wife (from Vera)

Jimmy Perez interview (Shetland)

Kenny on his way to an interview

Investigation Scene

The images are clickable if you're interested in seeing a larger image.