Wednesday, August 31, 2022

August Reading: Quantity Was There, Quality Not So Much


 

While I did manage to read 11 books during August, a good part of my reading seemed to go more sluggishly than usual. I'm not sure if I simply made some poor choices this month or if it's more a problem with my general attitude. Whichever it was, I'm really looking forward to a fresh start in September...although that's the peak of hurricane season in this part of the country, so it could turn out to be an extra-interesting month. Looking at the ones I finished in August, I'm a bit surprised to see that six are novels and five are nonfiction because I don't usually read nonfiction in that kind of ratio to fiction.

  1. The Good Daughters - Joyce Maynard - Two very different families share a huge secret for over 50 years
  2. We Came, We Saw, We Left - Charles Wheelan - man travels around the world for 9 months with wife & 3 teens - Nonfiction
  3. To Hell with Honor - Larry Sklenar - Brilliant explanation of what happened at The Little Big Horn and who was responsible
  4. Stupid Things I Won't Do When I Get Old - Steven Petrow - writer vows to practice what he learned from watching his parents age
  5. The Woman in the Library - Sulari Gentill - Disappointing mystery using novel-inside-a-novel structure that is stupefyingly formulaic 
  6. Real Tigers - Mick Herron - #4 in the terrific Slough House series 
  7. A String of Beads - Thomas Perry - Jane Whitefield #8 - Jane hides he childhood Seneca best friend from cops and killers 
  8. Bridge of Spies - Giles Whittell - Account of U-2 pilot Gary Powers, his capture by Russia and exchange for Russian spy
  9. Blood Safari - Deon Meyer - Second novel in Meyer's Lemmer series about a South African bodyguard
  10. In a Dry Season - Peter Robinson - Inspector Banks #10 - a case going back to World War II; Banks meets DS Annie Cabbot
  11. Packing My Library - Alberto Manguel - Argentinian author's 10 essays and 10 "digressions" on packing away his personal library
I think I'm a little disappointed with this lot because even some of my favorite crime writers didn't impress me all that much this month. I read four of my favorites this month: Mick Herron, Deon Meyer, Thomas Perry, and Peter Robinson. Of the four books of theirs, the only one that stands out to me as representative of their best work is Herron's Real Tigers, and based on that one's not-so-promising plot summary I was surprised by how much I liked it. I absolutely loved the first third of Meyer's Blood Safari, but it became a routine thriller after one of the book's two main characters was sent to hospital in a coma - where she stayed for almost the rest of the book. I "liked" Perry's A String of Beads right up until I realized that Jane Whitefield was going to be using the same evasion techniques that she uses in all of the novels featuring her and that she was simply teaching them to a new client. This is only the second Whitefield novel I've read, though, so maybe that criticism is premature. As for Robinson's 10th Inspector Banks novel, it is built around one of the things I like least in fiction: an author "telling" what happened rather than "showing it." In In a Dry Season, Robinson flashes back and forth via an unpublished manuscript that fills in most of the holes from the WWII portion of the novel. And that goes on for about ninety percent of the novel. It became tedious because the "manuscript author" wrote so passionlessly.

And then there were two 2-star books this month: the robotically written The Woman in the Library and the way-over-my-head Packing My Library. I had high hopes for the latter, even to purchasing an e-book copy of it, but it was a real slog for me, and I'm still not sure what I read...or why. The Woman in the Library is so formulaic that it could have been written by a software program. Before that one is over, just about every main character in the novel has been featured in the role of red herring. It just got silly sometimes.

My favorite book of the month turned out to be To Hell with Honor by Larry Sklenar, an in-depth study of exactly what must have happened at the Little Big Horn in 1876 when Custer and most of his 7th Calvary were destroyed. It is very well researched and explains how such a thing could have happened - along with whom was really responsible for the poor decisions made that day by the US Army leadership. It is a real eye-opener, and it's earned a permanent slot on my History bookshelf.

Now that I've come to the end of this month's reading recap, I realize just how "blah" a reading month I really had. Having had only one particularly outstanding book all month long means that September almost has to be better without even trying very hard. 

As August ends, I'm at various stages of reading: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Burgler (a 1954 noir novel by David Goodis, Isaac's Storm (Erik Larson's third book), The Three-Cornered War (a Civil War history by Megan Kate Nelson), and Leave the Grave Green by Deborah Crombie. Already, these seem to be going better than almost everything I finished it August.

Bye for now.

34 comments:

  1. Hi, Sam! I'm sorry the books you read in August were less than stellar. Some months are like that. I like the sound of To Hell With Honor. I got to visit the Little Big Horn battle site this summer and it was so amazing; I'd like to read more about it...and now I know what book to try. :D Hopefully September will bring you better books.

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    1. Isn't The Little Big Horn site fascinating? I grew up with that story/legend/myth and always wondered what really happened those two days because even as a kid I had the sense that we weren't being told the whole story. And boy, was I right? I actually purchased this while re-visiting the Little Big Horn in July after someone else returned it to the shelf while muttering that it just couldn't have happened the way this one says it did. I think you'll like the book...lots of psychology included.

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  2. Sam, I agree that sometimes it is "us" nit necessarily the book. Bad timing often causes me to be disappointed in books that others have loved. I thought of you when I saw a Thomas Perry book in this mix featuring Jane W. I am listening to his latest: The Left Handed Twin featuring Jane W. I was surprised she is supposed to be in her 30s as the narrator makes her seem much older. Yes, even in this one one, she is teaching a new client with new identities and evading their pursuers. Lets' hope September is a better reading month and that you don't have to worry about hurricanes.

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    1. I really do think it was more me than the books this time around, Diane, but it is really hard to separate the two causes sometimes. I'm all of a sudden struggling with two of the books I'm reading right now: Wuthering Heights and The Burgler, two very different books by two very different writers. Has there ever been a larger cast of utterly unlikable characters in a single book than Brontë squeezed into Wuthering Heights? And I'm ticked that the author of The Burglar didn't follow the plot line I was most enjoying before veering off in a whole new direction...it's gotta be me. Just can't seem to concentrate right now because I'm having to read in short spurts instead of settling in for longer reads.

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    2. Oh no as Wuthering Heights was one of the classics I wanted to read by year's end. The Burglar is one I'm not familiar with but, I had a similar experience with an August book: A History of Wild Places which started out great and then took off into unexpected territory and a different genre than I was expecting as well - hate that. Let's hope September is better.

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    3. I'm convinced it's me, Diane. I just realized that I suffered with daily headaches for almost the entire month and how difficult that has made it for me to concentrate - and to physically read, for that matter. I only really realize it now because this is one of the few days in the last 5 weeks that I am totally headache free. That really helps...LOL

      Wuthering Heights is special and everyone needs to read it at least once even though I kept looking for more than one likable character and never did find one. The housemaid who moves between both families in the novel is the only one I've found through 2/3 of the book.

      And I've read more of The Burglar now...and guess what? David Goodis knew exactly what he was doing in that plot change. It opened up a whole world of possibilities that otherwise were unapproachable.

      Yep, it's been me.

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  3. Nice to hear from you Sam, but sorry that you had a frustrating reading month. I've been rewarded a few times by putting a book back on the shelf and trying it again months or even years later- but it sure is hard to hold on to them that long for the honest attempt. One I'm sure was "just me"- I tried it twice, no interest at all, and the third was so different- turned out to be one of my favorites that I've now re-read several times over!

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    1. Hi, Jeane. I've had the same thing happen to me more than once myself. Also, the reverse where I've loved a book and pick it up for a re-read a few years later only to be completely shocked at how awful the book reads on a second-time around. Timing does seem to be the key. That's probably why I've experienced weeks and weeks where almost everything rates a personal four or five stars. Kind of makes me wonder...

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  4. Hi Sam, Sorry to hear that the books you read in August were not that great.. But reading 11 books! Congratulations! I am a slow reader. Too slow. As for the books on your list the only author that jumped out at me was Joyce Maynard. She writes memoirs too. Wuthering Heights a great book but puzzling as to what Emily was trying to say.. Regarding noir have you tried Cornell Woolrich. Read one short story by him and Wow was it disturbing. But clearly I wasn' t urged off because I am planning to read his novel Waltz into Darkness.

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    1. My problem is that I want to try, literally, everything that's published. That means I read faster than I probably should because of the tiny, tiny fraction of books that anyone can ever get to. Not fair to the authors or to me, I suspect.

      I have long been intrigued by Joyce Maynard's personal history with JD Salinger, so I've wanted to read something of hers for a long time. This was probably not the one to begin with but it was one of those Amazon Prime free reads, so I started with it. I plan to try something else of hers, probably a memoir. Do you know if she much gets into her time spent living with Salinger?

      The only thing I've read by Cornell Woolrich is I Married a Dead Man...and I really liked it. Noir crime fiction at its best, and was even made into a movie if I remember correctly.

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    2. Hi Sam, The memoir in which Joyce gets into her relationship with Salinger is "At Home In the World". I don't remember the book that well but PW weekly gave it a pretty good review

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  5. On 22 July 2022 Mick Herron’s sardonic spy thriller series called Slough House deservedly won him the Theakston Old Peculier crime novel of the year award. If Jackson Lamb had won it he'd have had a huge hangover this morning but let's not dwell on what that might have sounded or smelt like. Both Mick Herron's Slough House series and the Burlington Files series of espionage thrillers by Bill Fairclough were initially rejected by risk averse publishers who probably didn't think espionage existed unless it was fictional and created by Ian Fleming or David Cornwell. It is therefore a genuine pleasure to see an anti-Bond anti-establishment novelist achieving immortality in Masham. Let’s hope Beyond Enkription, the first stand-alone fact based spy thriller in The Burlington Files series, follow in the Slow Horses’ hoof prints!

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    1. Great to hear that Herron's work is winning awards these days. Jackson Lamb is one of the most memorable characters I've run into during a long lifetime of reading, reading that's included lots of spy thrillers and the like along the way. Seldom do I laugh out loud while reading a thriller; Herron manages that trick five or six times in every one of his novels I've read.

      Thanks for the heads-up on the Bill Fairclough novels; that's a new name for me. I'll be taking a look at those soon. Much appreciated.

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    2. MI5 know who is reading the Slough House ... they now have laughter level monitors on most street corners! As for Bill Fairclough there are two levels of equal interest - his life as per free bios on the web which are scary because he could have been your friendly banker or accountant and his bio in Beyond Enkription the first of six (only one published so far) and that is simultaneously a raw and cerebral thriller solely about his life in 1974. Worth just looking at the bios and if fascinated take it from there.

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    3. Thanks again for the info. I'm off to see what I can find.

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  6. I enjoyed the first few books of Perry's Jane Whitefield series but tired of Jane's teaching the same tricks to new dogs in each installment and stopped.

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    1. Sorry to hear that he continued to do that all the way through the series. I've only read the last two, and I have the first one on my desk right now. I might read that first one, but it could very well be the last. I suppose they are really great standalones, however, for people unaware that there is a Jan Whitefield series.

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  7. Wow, two 'two star' reads last month, that's a lot! How disappointing for you. I was interested in Stupid Things I won't Do When I Get Old (I bet he will). What was that like, Sam? And how is Wuthering Heights going? I read that aged 15 and have not read it since. I remember I read that, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre in quick succession and Wuthering Heights was my least favourite.

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  8. "Stupid Things" was pretty good, but not nearly as insightful as I had hoped. A few of the "stupid" things he swears he will never do make much more sense when you do get old...he'll see. LOL

    I'm about 60% of the way through Wuthering Heights. I read it in the early nineties but don't remember it being as much of a downer as it is. I swear that everyone in the book is unhappy and totally focused on getting revenge their worst enemy. That said, I'm glad to be re-reading it...just have to be careful to be in a pretty good mood going into it. :-0

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  9. I am glad to see you are still liking the Mick Herron series. Sorry to hear that most of your reading this month was not so good.

    I hope I like The Woman in the Library better than you did, I have been looking forward to it.

    I hope you are enjoying Leave the Grave Green by Deborah Crombie. I loved the first 7 or 8 books in that series, after that they became so so for me.

    I know lately my mood has affected my enjoyment of many books. Doesn't help that much to know that though. Some I plan to go back and reread some day, if that is possible. And sometimes I read too fast and miss a lot, which doesn't help.

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    1. I'm starting the fourth Slough House book of Herron's tomorrow, Tracy, and I'm already looking forward to it. I'm getting the feeling that the series is going to hold up pretty well.

      I hope you like The Woman in the Library more than I liked it, too. I really got frustrated with it when it started to feel like the author was just adding pages because she could. I was way past the point where I wanted a solution to be revealed because I was kind of bored with that whole world of hers.

      Just finished the Crombie book...it's the one where the pair of them finally give in to their "romantic" impulses, so I guess it is an important book in that regard at least. I liked it...not overwhelmed with the crime plot, but it all made sense, so I was happy with that, and I'll be going on with the series from here.

      My mood seems to have lightened a lot since I was in that terrible slump, and I can see that reflected in the way I'm reading and getting more out of the books than I did for a while. It's making me appreciate this bunch of books for what they are instead of wanting to pick them apart. Always a good thing.

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  10. I'll be starting the fourth book in the series, Spook Street (2017), tomorrow. As long as I can find them in order when I'm looking for them, I'll probably keep doing that.

    That said, I much appreciate your thoughts on Herron and the series. Honestly, if not for Gary Oldman being in the Apple+ series, I likely would have never given it or the books a chance. I had heard good things about the books, but it was hard for me to imagine that I would enjoy them based on the whole premise of a character like Jackson Lamb. And now, just a few weeks later, I'm recommending the books and Herron to everyone who will sit still long enough to listen (a rare trait these days).

    Crime fiction is a hobby of mine, but my first bug was for espionage fiction as handled by Le Carré before I moved on to Deighton's series. Bond, to me, was always great fun, but more of a teenaged boy's vision of the spy-life. So, finding Herron all of a sudden has been a treasure of a find.

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    1. There is a huge gap between espionage fiction and non-fiction but the non-fiction has two big pluses and one minus. The bad news is that in real life espionage is mostly boring. Take the Undeclared War for a good example. It deserves many plus points for realism but that renders it somewhat terse and some say boring. On the other hand the non-fiction Beyond Enkription is action packed compared to a John le Carré thriller.

      The good news is that with non-fiction you actually experience what made those spooks' hairs stand on end. In addition, researching related press articles etc can be as rewarding as reading the real life novels. As for espionage fiction it is mainly many yards from reality including John le Carré notwithstanding he was a brilliant "writer" and unquestionably best in class in the espionage genre. In fact though, even on seemingly trivial points such as recanting executive meetings, John le Carré unintentionally demonstrates he never attended that many!

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    2. I don't disagree with you on the points you're making here. I think that my problem with espionage nonfiction is that I find it difficult to believe that the truth has, or ever will be, written. I think that most of us now understand that we live in an era of fake news...and that we probably always have. We are only allowed to know what those pulling the strings want us to know.

      I do suspect that most real life espionage is boring as hell. But what I don't trust is that we will ever know the "whys" of decisions and operations that our governments undertake on our "behalf." It would be interesting to find separate the bunglers from the incompetents at the highest levels...and that would probably scare me to death.

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    3. John Madden’s "remake" of Operation Mincemeat and Ben Macintyre’s novel make for great viewing and reading. The Madden film is based on Macintyre’s novel, and they are both a fake news aficionado’s paradise when it comes to trying to differentiate layer after layer of fact and fiction. As for espionage non-fiction being basically true, according to experts both Ben Macintyre's A Spy and a Traitor and Bill Fairclough's Burlington Files are reasonably accurate. As for the latter you can read and research more at https://everipedia.org/wiki/lang_en/bill-fairclough and you can even check him out at Companies House or in old press articles.

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    4. I've put The Spy and the Traitor on hold at my local library and hope to have it in-hand sometime in the next week or so. I do appear to be number one on the list, but there's no telling what branch the actual copies are sitting in at the moment, so availability is hard to predict. I'll look for Burlington Files in a bit, too, so thanks for those.

      The wiki entry you link to has a whole lot on it that needs some careful reading and digesting, so I'll return to that soon as time allows. Already, however, I can see why anyone would be fascinated by the man.

      Coincidentally just finished Herron's Spook Street and, of the five I've read, it may be the best of the lot. The only other that may be its equal, in my estimation, is Slow Horses. I do hope that other books in the Slough House series are made into TV adaptations because Slow Horses proves how well they lend themselves to that kind of thing.

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    5. As you imply, Mick's Slough House series is great reading - although it meanders a little do also try his more recent Bad Actors. As for libraries having Beyond Enkription don't forget it is available in Paperback, Hardback and as an eBook. I know in the UK you can get the hardback from some libraries if you push them!

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    6. I most definitely have it on my radar now, so it's only a matter of time. I suffer from wanting to sample and/or read many more books than I legitimately have time for...

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    7. You can read a lot about The Burlington Files for free by reading this https://everipedia.org/wiki/lang_en/bill-fairclough and following the links. Some Amazon customers can access the eBook for free too.

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  11. I'm sure your September reading will be much better. Though that Custer book sounds very interesting. I'm trying to recall the main error of the lead-up to the Battle at Little Big Horn. Error in reconnaissance and judgement? There's many Custer books it seems. Good luck with September reads.

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    1. September has been leaps and bounds better than August, reinforcing my suspicion that I was not in the mood for reading almost that entire month. Still not entirely sure where my head was.

      According to this particular author, the Little Big Horn battle was lost for a variety of reasons, all of them the result of the three officers in charge of the 7th Calvary, including Custer. In Custer's case, it was a matter of being overconfident in believing that he could fight and bluff his way out of any battle, even if out-numbered, because he always had. Custer split his army into three parts; he led one, Reno another, and Benteen the third. Reno was a drunkard in battle, along with being a cowardly leader, and he failed his troops miserably. Benteen actively hated Custer, and had for years, so he moved very slowly and failed to come to Custer's aid when he should have. He moved very slowly throughout the two days of fighting and only survived the battle because he never seemed to catch up with the fight on time.

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  12. I have dipped in and out of Peter Robinson's "Inspector Banks" series and really did enjoy that rather slow, laborious style of storytelling and the dour characters. I have watched every episode of the television adaptations several times too!

    I have read a couple of Deon Meyer's books; however, those have both been from the 'Benny Griessel' series, which I also enjoyed. A completely different style of writing to Peter Robinson's, that's for sure!

    I hope that September shaped up much better for you :)

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  13. I was greatly saddened to hear that Peter Robinson passed away last week at age 72 after what sounds like a relatively quick illness. I will really miss him. Thankfully, I have about a dozen of his Banks novels yet to read, but it seems strange that he is gone so suddenly.

    September was better...but I see that I missed posting about it.

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