Friday, July 01, 2022

June Reading Highlights and One Disappointment

June worked out pretty well for me as I continued to explore Mick Herron's work, read the latest from one of my all-time favorite authors, and read what I think is the definitive biography of my favorite singer, Merle Haggard. 

It's kind of hard for me to believe that I only so recently discovered Mick Herron's "Slough House" series of novels and short stories because I've now read three of the books. The series is a rather cynical look at international espionage and those who spy for a living, and I've enjoyed reading all three books - and I'm looking forward to reading the series all the way through. 

Merle Haggard is unfamiliar to lots of people who don't believe they have anything in common with real country music (not that watered down stuff called country today...that's not even close to being music, much less authentic country music). But if a person were forced to listen to only one singer for the rest of his life, Haggard would be a good choice. The man was a musical genius who combined his wonderful voice and songwriting skills with his life experience to create some of the most beautiful, and meaningful, music ever recorded. Haggard's life story is so unusual that Marc Eliot's Merle Haggard bio, The Hag, reads like a novel at times.

It was nice to catch up, too, with Anne Tyler again via her latest novel French Braid. This, like most of Tyler's work is an understated look at a Baltimore family over several generations. It's impact begins to hit the reader about three-quarters of the way through, and by the novel's end I found myself truly caring what would happen to these people.

So, these are the ten books I completed in June:

  1. Dolphin Junction - Mick Herron - collection of short stories & novellas featuring his series characters - uneven, but fun
  2. The Hag - Marc Eliot - maybe the definitive Merle Haggard bio
  3. Dead Lions - Mick Herron - "Slough House" #2 - excellent story about Soviet sleeper agents who "wake up" after two decades
  4. Trunk Music - Michael Connelly - Harry Bosch #5 in which Harry reconnects with ex-FBI agent Eleanor Wish and they marry
  5. Death Be Not Proud - John Gunther - memoir of a father who watched his son fight a brain tumor for 15 months (1947 death)
  6. Hidden Depths - Ann Cleeves - Vera Stanhope #3 (2007)
  7. The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery - Amanda Cox - heavy-handed Christian novel with boring final third
  8. The List - Mick Herron - Novella, "Slough House" #2.5 
  9. French Braid - Anne Tyler - Gradual changes in family-tightness over four generations of a Baltimore family 
  10. Nightfall - David Goodis - New York noir classic from 1946
I have to say that I was disappointed and bored by The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery but that was more my fault than the author's because I didn't do my homework before getting well into the novel. If I had, I wouldn't have begun it at all because it is part of a genre I try to avoid: "Christian novels." My distaste for these novels has nothing to do with personal faith; I simply find the vast majority of them to be very heavy-handed and predictable. And, as a result, boring.

Nightfall is a 1946 novel that could serve as the blueprint for the entire noir crime genre with its very dark, almost surreal, setting and the way that all of the main characters (cops and crooks, alike) seemed to be doomed in one way or the other. I've been a fan of David Goodis novels ever since reading Dark Passage a while back, and this one is even better than Dark Passage in my estimation.

I spent the last couple of days in June immersed in Deon Meyer's Devil's Peak but didn't finish it up until today, so it will go down as a July read. I only discovered Meyer a couple of weeks ago when I saw that he was featured on the cover of the current issue of Mystery Scene magazine. Meyer is a South African novelist who is translated into English from Afrikaans, and he is brutally honest about the culture in which he lives and writes. I'll try to add something more about him later as time allows.

I hope you are all doing well these days and that things, tough as they can be, are at least slowly returning to the life we so used to take for granted. Still busy here as always, but hoping to speak with you guys soon.



  1. Sam, I am glad you had the time to put together this summary for the month. I like to know what you are reading and your thoughts on the books.

    Also glad to hear that you are still enjoying the Slough House series. I did read the novella, The List, also, but I have two other novellas in Kindle versions that I have not read yet.

    Your thoughts on Nightfall by Goodis were interesting. I have only read Dark Passage so far, and liked that a lot, and I have several more in a Library of America edition.

    I have only read one book by Anne Tyler, years ago, but French Braid sounded interesting to me. Maybe someday I will get to it.

    1. Hi, Tracy. I'm hoping to be able to pop in a little more often as the "new normal" becomes more normal because I really miss the conversations here...a lot.

      I'm still very enthusiastic about the Slough House books, just totally intrigued by the premise of a bunch of "loser spies" being shuttled out of sight until they can be convinced to resign. I'm convinced that David Goodis is one of the more underestimated writer to come out of the forties. I say that Nightfall is better even than Dark Passage because of how totally into the story I was right from the beginning. It's all a little surreal, especially the New York setting, but to me it reflects my definition of noir fiction absolutely perfectly.

      French Braid is one of those books in which not a whole lot seems to be happening until you get toward the end of the road and look back on where it all began. Sort of like real life in a lot of ways.

  2. Hey, Sam! You make me want to check some Merle Haggard CDs out of my library and given them a listen just to hear some real country music. ;D And I'm glad to know you're liking Herron's other books so much. I've got him on my TBR list and hope to read him soon. I hope you and your family have a very happy Fourth of July this weekend!

    1. Haggard and Herron...what a strange (and wonderful) combination that turned out to be. I can't wait to hear what you think of Mick Herron's Slough House books. When/if I catch up with that series, I plan to try some of his other work.

      Have a great Fourth!

  3. Hi Sam, So glad to read your newest post and your book blog is really a must for anyone who loves books. You write so well and I need to read more each month and you have inspired me. Not surprised that the Merle Haggard biography is so good. He's a great singer and also if I remember correctly the biographer Marc Elliot also wrote the biography of Phil Ochs: Death Of A Rebel. I read that biography years ago and it has stayed with me

    1. Wow, Kathy. I'm overwhelmed by your kind words. You made my day.

      If I remember correctly, Marc Elliot has made quite a career for himself writing celebrity/singer biographies. This is the first of his I've read, but I was suitably impressed by it. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  4. Sam, it was so good to see your monthly update and although I'm not really much of a music fan these days but, Merle Haggard is an icon - I like country songs that speak to me and it can be any kind of music. Do you have some favorite Haggard songs? I'm with you with Christian fiction as well, I don't want to be preached to when I'm reading and, the same goes for authors who get on the political bandwagon - right or left.

    I've only read French Braid which I really enjoyed even if it wasn't my favorite. Glad you found a new series that you enjoy too and that life is coming around a bit for you and yours.

    1. It's hard to name just a few of my Merle Haggard favorites, Diane, but here are some of them: Big City, I Threw Away the Rose, You Take Me for Granted, The Bottle Let Me Down, Always Wanting You, Swinging Doors, My Favorite Memory, Kern River, I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am, I Must Have Done Something Bad, Today I Started Loving You Again, and The Way I Am. I could go on forever...

      I was lucky enough to meet Merle just after he had hit it big with his first album, and I've been a fan of his music since that day in the sixties.

      I think French Braid hit home to me mostly because of the family dynamic it describes and how families so easily drift apart over very few generations, especially when they are so much smaller these days than in previous generations. Some of Tyler's early novels are just pure fun, but they all have family at the core.

  5. I'm glad to see another update from you, Sam, and it sounds like you've had a really good reading month.Merle Haggard is the first name that pops into my mind when country music is mentioned, though my husband would say Johnny Cash. I know nothing about his life, but this sounds like a biography worth reading.

    Death Be Not Proud is a book I read in early high school. I've had a mental "rereading high school" list for several years now and that's on it. Hopefully it won't take too much longer to get there. So far, The Old Man and the Sea is the book that has surprised me most upon rereading. Hard to believe it's even the same story I read back then.

    Anne Tyler is an author I've been reading for decades. A few months ago, my mother waved me off French Braid and suggested I go back for one of her earlier novels I may have missed instead. There are a few of them, but I am disappointed she wasn't especially enthusiastic about Tyler's latest.

    1. Haggard had a lot of warts in his life story, JoAnn, some of which he was very open about and some he tried to keep quiet. All in all, he lived one of the more interesting lives of the 20th century, I think, and I often wonder why a movie bio hasn't been produced on him.

      You make me want to go back and read The Old Man and the Sea to see if it strikes me differently. I swear I read it first in a Life Magazine (maybe several issues) but that make be a faulty memory. I do have a vivid memory of a black and white photo of Hemingway on the cover of at least one Life Magazine from that era.

      Your mother's reaction to French Braid seems to be quite common, really. I would have agreed with her right up till near the end when the cumulative story suddenly struck me. I do agree it's not one of my favorite Ann Tyler novels.

  6. I admit I am one of those who never heard of Merle Haggard but since you recommend him so highly, I promptly went to have a listen on youtube. First song I heard on his greatest hits was "Okie from Muskogee" and it cracked me up because instantly reminded me of Roger Miller- who my dad used to make us listen to in the car as kids.

    1. That song was kind of a mixed blessing for Haggard. He wrote it while on the band bus driving through Oklahoma. It was triggered by a road sign showing the distance they were from Muskogee, in fact. It was written during the heart of the protest era and was taken seriously by some prominent people, especially conservative politicians. He tried to laugh it off at first but ending up going with the flow, and made a fortune from that song.

      Do try some of his mid-career, more serious, stuff so you can get a real feel for the man's talent.