Friday, June 30, 2023

Review: The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken


The narrator of The Hero of This Book insists that it is not a memoir, that it is instead a novel, or perhaps it is something called a fictional memoir (but don't most experienced memoir readers already know that memoirs, based as they are on memory and perception, are all likely to be fictional to one degree or another?). Call it what you will. I can't help but believe this is a thinly disguised memoir of McCracken's own mother, "the hero" of this book.

McCracken certainly gives enough clues along the way, including these:

"My mother distrusted memoirs and I wasn't interested in the autobiographical and for a long time that made things easy. But writers change even if mothers don't.

(Mothers change plenty. Don't trust a writer who gives out advice. Writers are suckers for pretty turns of phrase with only the ring of truth." 


"If you want to write a memoir without writing a memoir, go ahead and call it something else. Let other people argue about it. Arguing with yourself or the dead will get you nowhere."


"(I've heard some memoirists say that they don't worry whether their renditions of people are 'fair,' since there is no fair: We all have our own memories, and a memoir is one person's. What's the difference between a novel and a memoir? I couldn't tell you. Permission to lie; permission to cast aside worries about plausibility.)"

and, finally, this

"The dead have no privacy left, is what I've decided. Somebody else  might decide otherwise, that the only thing the dead have left is privacy. Anyhow, here in this book, I am writing about the dead and the fictional, and not the living and the actual, whom I love, and whom I will leave alone."

And it can be no accident that the one and only footnote in the entire book appears near the very end and reads simply: "Natalie Jacobson McCracken, 1935-2018."

So, back to the novel in which our fictional narrator takes a solo journey to London some ten months after the death of her mother. While there she revisits many of the same spots she and her mother enjoyed together on a previous trip. This, of course, allows the narrator to make comparisons between the two experiences while exploring her mother's past in relation to their mother-daughter bond. 

As it turns out, the fictional author/narrator reveals as much about herself as about her mother, but by the end of this rather beautiful little book, it becomes clear why her mother is absolutely "the hero of this book." I enjoyed The Hero of This Book a lot, and had to keep reminding myself that I was supposed be calling it a novel and not a memoir. I enjoyed it almost as much because of all the "writing" tips and admissions that the narrator includes, but the most surprising thing is that I walk away from The Hero of This Book with the feeling that I truly know and understand Elizabeth McCracken's mother to a depth that may not have been possible in a "real" memoir.

Elizabeth McCracken (book jacket photo)

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Review: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese


I have been a fan of Abraham Verghese's work for a long time, having already discovered how easy it was to lose myself first in his novel Cutting for Stone as well as in his two memoirs My Own Country: A Doctor's Story and The Tennis Partner. The man is a brilliant writer and storyteller, and I was excited by the prospect of digging into his new novel The Covenant of Water (which comes in at well over 700 pages). I have to admit right up front, however, that I was a little disappointed that this one didn't grab me quite to the degree that the other three books grabbed my full attention for days at a time. Despite that, The Covenant of Water is very likely to be one of the most memorable books I will read in 2023.

The Covenant of Water, which begins in 1900, is a family saga  covering three generations of an Indian family living in the St. Thomas Christian community of Kerala, India. It begins when a twelve-year-old girl leaves the only home she has ever known to marry the much older man who has been formerly matched to her by her parents. Her new husband, now widowed with a young son, is looking perhaps more for a new mother for the boy than he is looking for a wife for himself. Luckily for all, the marriage thrives and, in time, the twelve-year-old will become known as "Big Ammachi" (Big Mother) to everyone in her household.

But all is not well in Big Ammachi's new family because the family has suffered what family members prefer to call a "condition" for as far back as anyone can trace the family lineage. It seems that some family members have a panic-driven aversion to water that cannot be explained - a condition so deadly that those afflicted with it are likely to panic and drown in even the shallowest of ditches. And in each generation of the family, at least one person has drowned in one way or the other. 

The novel devotes about 250 pages to each generation of the family from 1900 to the 1970s, years that are filled both with tragedy and with triumph as each generation becomes more and more educated about the family "condition" and how best to cope with it. At the same time, a mostly separate plot line about a young Scottish doctor who comes to India for surgical experience is being woven along the same timeline. It is only when the two plot lines eventually merge, and the final secrets about Big Ammachi's family are revealed, that the full impact of The Covenant of Water is felt. The terribly sad, but completely satisfying ending of the story is enough to make this one unforgettable. I rate it a very solid four stars on a five-star scale.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Review: The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman


Honestly, what drew me to The Life She Was Given in the first place is its wonderful cover art. Well, that and the 1930s traveling circus setting because that lifestyle has intrigued me since I was first exposed to traveling carnivals way back in the early fifties. Those things always carried an air of disreputable people and shows maybe just barely kept within the confines of local laws, a dangerous self-contained little world that the "rubes" had best not look too closely at. So where else would a kid want to be?

And that is most certainly the world that Ellen Marie Wiseman recreates in this 2017 novel. Even though it may seem otherwise, I promise you that I am not going to reveal any spoilers that the publisher does not reveal in its own description of the novel. In fact, I probably won't go as far as the publisher did because I think they revealed a little too much already.

This is the story of two little girls who grew up in the same house some nineteen or twenty years apart, one in the 1930s, and one in the 1950s. Neither child really enjoyed the experience, but Lilly (the first of them to live there) had it the worst by far. Lilly, you see, lives the first twelve years of her life in the house's third-floor attic, never being allowed outside a single minute of her life...until her mother decides to walk her across the fields one night in order to sell her to a circus that is leaving the area the next morning. 

Julia grows up in the same house, with the same parents, believing she is the first child to do so. But Julia's mother is so strict, so overprotective, and so unbending that Julia runs away from home as a teenager and will not go back until she inherits the house and horse business from her deceased parents. That's when she stumbles upon some evidence that all was not as it seemed during her childhood, that some child spent a whole lot of time living in the attic of her childhood home.

I never expected Lilly to have an easy life in the circus; I expected her to be exploited and forced to do some things she would have never done on her own. I knew that circus animals, especially the performers, were not always trained or treated as humanely as some might think. And of course, that's a big part of the tension in the novel's plot. But - and I suppose it proves the power of Wiseman's prose - I didn't expect to be nearly so horrified by the intensity of the scenes involving animal cruelty, sexual brutality, and child abuse. 

Consequently, I still haven't decided how to "rate" The Life She Was Given in terms of "stars." Is it a one-star book or a five-star book? A legitimate argument can probably be made either way depending on the individual reader's reaction to those scenes and topics. I finally gave up and decided to call it a three-star book. Others may scoff at whatever rating you choose, because it all comes down to your own tolerance for reading about this kind of violence. Your call.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Closing the Circle: From Television to the Written Word


Saul from "Better Call Saul"

I think that most readers of crime/detective fiction are also big fans of television series based on their favorite reading or offering similar themes and settings. I know I am.

I still remember how completely taken I was by the HBO series The Sopranos back in the day when that kind of programming was still a relative rarity. As soon as that one was done - a whole year between seasons drove me crazy - I was looking for another series to feel that way about and luckily came upon Breaking Bad. Then Breaking Bad spawned the spinoff series of its own called Better Call Saul. Well, you get the idea. 

That's why I was pleased to see a short piece from the website Novel Suspects (if you don't know that website, you really ought to take a look at it at this link) that highlights a few books you should consider if "you loved Better Call Saul." 

The list includes one true crime title, two crime novels, and one blend of fact and fiction labeled a "true crime novel," something for every taste, and closing the circle from television series to the written word. 

Click Here for Novel Suspects Article

The "true crime novel" on the list

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Review: Such Kindness by Andre Dubus III


Such Kindness by Andre Dubus III is one of those deceivingly simple novels that, by the time you read the last words on the last page, you look up only to realize that you're going to remember this one for a long, long time. 

"I have spent many hours contemplating pain. Its constant presence seems like such a dark joke, really. Like the school bully who sits on your chest and spits in your face years after both of you have moved on. My pelvis and hips were fractured years ago. Do they have to keep spitting in my face?"

 Tom Lowe was a man who built things - things of the highest quality - and he loved his work. He was willing to work as long, and as hard as necessary, to give his wife and son the home she dreamed of. But Tom was not very good at financial questions, and he never really understood the balloon payment loan that he was talked into signing by a man he trusted. So when he fell off the top of a house and shattered his bones so severely that he will never be able to stand up for more than a very few minutes before the pain overwhelms him, he lost it, dream home, wife, and son. 

Now living in public housing, and barely able to pay even that amount of rent, Tom has to reinvent not only himself but his very reason for still walking this earth. The process by which Tom finally figures it all out turns out to be one filled with painful ups and downs, but eventually he does come up with a plan: to perform small acts of kindness for each and every person still in his life, even the new ones he meets every day that he can get up from his plywood-topped sofa long enough to venture out his front door. 

What happens next is amazing.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Houston's Little Banned Library

 The banned-books issue in Texas is not all that surprisingly one that reflects the same political divides that separate most of the country these days. Lots of people on the left, lots of people on the right, and a much smaller number closer to the middle. Personally, I strive (it's not always possible) to keep myself as near the political center as I can on most issues, and that's where I find myself on this one. 

I generally do not believe in banning books...period. But my conscious makes it  impossible to be that far to the left on this one anymore because I do support limiting access to certain books to age-appropriate readers. There are some subjects no on will ever convince me that early elementary school children should be exposed to. Too, I think there are certain books simply too dangerous to be made available in public libraries, for instance, those that contain detailed information about bombs that can be built in the privacy of your own home. I realize that the information is out on the web, and that those crazy enough to want it are going to find it, but I draw the line at making it so easy for would be anarchists or terrorists to get their hands on the instructions. This leaves me trying to answer the question of whom, or what group, should be deciding appropriateness for the rest of us. Yet another nut to crack. 

Anyway, I stumbled upon this video today that shows the rather creative approach one Houston man is taking to ensure that many - but not all - of the books recently banned by various school boards in the area are available to the young readers living in his own Houston neighborhood. The video shows how he has made a clever adaptation to the Little Free Library concept to get the books out there.

Now I'm curious to know if the optimism expressed here has survived the past three months, but so far I haven't found an update anywhere. If I turn one up, I'll come back to post a follow-up. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week

 I finished up two of the five books I was reading last week, decided to drop one, and have added a couple. It turns out to have been an exceptional reading week for me because I absolutely loved Louise Penny's A World of Curiosities and enjoyed every page of McIlhenny's Gold by Jeffrey Rothfeder. I'll be, I hope, enjoying this bunch just as much for the rest of the week:

I've read a little Andre Dubus III before, and have always been impressed by the depth of the characters and  issues he tackles in his fiction. This one is no exception. Such Kindness tells the story of a working man who never wanted anything more in his life than a family of his own. And he had one right up until the moment he fell from a rooftop and so injured himself that he will never be able to work again. Flash forward and he's lost everything: business, home, and family. This is the story of how he copes with his new life without losing his kindness.

There's a long waiting list for this new one from Abraham Verghese, so I know that the library system will automatically suck it back up in 14 days, exactly to the minute. I have to be crazy to risk it disappearing before I'm done with it because it is well over 700 pages long, and I won't be reading it exclusively. But Verghese is another of those storytellers in which whose work I can totally immerse myself inside settings I know absolutely nothing about. This is a generational saga set deep in remote India, and it begins in 1900. 

In addition, I'm still reading three from last week: the circus-life novel The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman, the noir crime novel Oddyssey's End by Matt Coyle, and the historical roadtrip book Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz. Lots of variety to choose from, so it should be a pretty good reading week.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

My Take: A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny

I have been reading Louise Penny's Gamache series for years (this is the eighteenth book in that series), so I thought I knew what to expect from her by now. What I never expected this deep into the series is to read a book so much more complex, moving, and generally mind-blowing than any that preceded it. But she did it.

Readers of the series clearly understand how important Armand Gamache's family is to him, and how his beloved wife, his children and their spouses, and his grandchildren are to him. They have been, and forever will be, this Montreal policeman's highest priority. He will absolutely die for them. And now something from Gamache's past has come back to threaten the lives of Gamache and every single member of the family. Most terrifying, even if Gamache were to die protecting them, he knows that it is almost certain that they will still follow him death.

A World of Curiosities is so complicated and intricately plotted with subplots and flashbacks that I'm not going to risk posting a spoiler by trying to explain it in any detail. Let's just say the the storytelling skills on display here are of the highest caliber imaginable. In its basic form, it involves a monster criminal from Gamache's past who appears to have escaped prison without it having been noticed. The monster's one remaining goal in life has always been to get his revenge for what he feels is the betrayal on Gamache's part that kept him there for so long in the first place. Gamache fears that the man has help - and that it is possible that the help is coming from someone he himself is responsible for being back on the streets, someone Gamache has been close to for a long time. 

And he suspects nothing until a hidden room that was walled up over a century earlier is discovered in a Three Pines attic. Inside the room, villagers discover what at first appears to be the artistic masterpiece called The Paston Treasure that dates back to the mid-seventeenth century. The painting displays the treasures acquired by a wealthy collector of that period, and it is truly "a world of curiosities" - so much so that it has been intricately studied by expert historians for decades. But this is not that painting; this one has dozens and dozens of subtle changes and additions to it, and each of the changes turns out to be a clue about what is to come in Gamache's immediate future now that he has released the demon back into his world.

The Real Painting

I loved this book for its storytelling and what it had to say about multiple issues that still plague us today. But I think what I loved even more were the new things I learned about the origins of Three Pines and what Gamache and his family and friends learned about each other. This is a very satisfying addition to the Armand Gamache series, and longtime readers are guaranteed to count it as one of Louise Penny's best. 

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Avery Island, Louisiana: Home of McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce (July 2019 Photos)

 As a quick follow-up to yesterday's review of McIlhenny's Gold, I thought some of you may be interested in a peek at the handful of photos I took there in July 2019 during a relatively brief visit to the island. I regret not having spent more time on the island so that I could see all of the island and not just the museum, company store, and bottling factory facilities there. I hope to rectify that sometime this summer while visiting relatives in that part of the state.

Tabasco Peppers on Display

Chili Mash Aging Casks

Huge Processing Vats

Almost Ready to Be Shipped

"Pepper Pickers 1903"

There's so much wildlife and other interesting sites on the island to see that I really regret now that the clock ran out on me when it did. I arrived too late in the day to see anything else. 

(A click on the photos should enlarge them.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Re-Read and Second Review (16 Years Later): McIlhenny's Gold by Jeffrey Rothfelder


I first read McIlhenny's Gold back in October 2007, and I was very impressed with it at the time because it appeared to tell the truth about Louisiana's remarkable McIlhenny family and what they accomplished over about four generations dating from the Civil War period forward. It appears to me to be well researched, and despite the pushback my first review generated in 2007, it is obvious to me that the author did interview several members of the extended McIlhenny clan. Granted, these were family members not at all directly associated with the tabasco sauce business, but they were all still direct heirs who receive royalties to this day. The more immediate family members, especially those working on the product, absolutely refused to speak with Rothfeder.

A lot has happened since I posted that review in 2007. I personally visited Avery Island a few years ago and looked around for myself. Avery Island is the location of the manufacture and bottling of at least the domestic supply of the Tabasco Sauce brand sold in this part of the world today, although it is now produced in several other foreign locations for consumption in those regions. I did not get the impression from my visit that the actual peppers used to produce the sauce are grown away from the island now, but that has been the case for quite a while as it turns out. The peppers grown own the island itself are used to produce the seeds that are planted elsewhere in order to ensure that the plants are all direct descendants of the original chilis chosen by the founder of the company in the 1860s. Maybe I missed it, but if that was disclosed to visitors on any of the exhibit signage, I didn't see it. 

What I did discover during my visit to the island is a McIlhenny Company brew called their "Family Reserve" variation of the sauce. There is a marked difference between the tase of the Family Reserve version and the original one, and I fell in love with this more expensive version. Rather than being cask-aged for three years like the original, the Family Reserve is aged up to eight years before the mash is processed and bottled. Unfortunately, it is only available via mail order or in person at the company store, so I've ordered it in boxes of three or four bottles many times now since I was there. 

I now understand why the McIlhennys in charge of things hate this book so much. It details all of their accomplishments, especially the amazing growth the company sustained over the last 150 years in almost a steady fashion. It will never be for sale in the company store on Avery Island, because it also very clearly points out the decline in management style and ability that seemed to begin after the first two generations. That decline was caused by the wealth (each direct descendent receives a royalty from company profits) that allowed future generations to pursue other interests, and it became more and more difficult to find a male family member who knew anything about the business itself (or much about business in general). Insisting on always having a McIlhenny became more a liability than an asset eventually.

The book does not shy away from issues involving workers, race, free plantation-style company housing for certain workers, and the overly paternal management style that some people began to resent over the years more than take advantage of. It's all there, the good and the not so good. But in the end, the McIlhennys do not have anything to be ashamed of as far as I'm concerned, and I still am fascinated by what seems to be a rather rare achievement: keeping a thriving family business entirely in the hands of the family for more than a century-and-a-half...and counting.

Curiously, the Proof copy I read from has a cover identical to the one published with the exception that on the Proof "McIlhenny's Gold" is actually in gold letters and the author's name in green letters. That makes more sense to me than the final cover turned out.

My first review offers a clearer summary of that history.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Books on Hold: All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby Can't Come Soon Enough


I seem to always have somewhere between six and ten books on hold via my county library system, and I think I'm approaching my self-imposed upper limit again right now. And that's exactly how my "shiniest object" approach to reading always gets me in trouble because it seems like none of them are available for pickup for two or three weeks  and then they all appear at once or spread only over a week or two. Because so many of them have other people in line, that means I have two weeks to read the newest, most popular titles when I finally get my hands on a copy - and the very kind of pressure I'm trying to avoid these days is on full-burn before I realize it. But it's not all bad, because I'd be broke without a library to supply the bulk of my reading (plus shelf space is at a premium around here). 

Of all the holds I'm waiting on right now, the one I most look forward to receiving is S.A. Cosby's All the Sinners Bleed, the third book the author has published since his big breakthrough with Blacktop Wasteland in July 2020. That one was followed almost exactly one year later with Razorblade Tears (which, looking back is my favorite of the two). I've linked the titles shown here to my original reviews of the books if you are interested in learning more about each. These were followed last December by a reprinting of the novel Cosby wrote before he hit it so big, My Darkest Prayer. I have not read this one yet, but I do also have it on hold, and from what I understand, it's very good if perhaps not quite as gripping in the books that followed it.

All the Sinners Bleed features a black sheriff who dedicates his life to keeping the peace in a small southern, mixed-race community. As such, he is just as surprised as anyone that he got elected to the job in the first place, but not really surprised that neither the blacks nor the whites seem to trust him. Although it was just published on June 6, 2023, this one is already garnering major accolades from prestigious critics, reviewers, and newspapers around the country. Stephen King has even reviewed it for The New York Times, from what I understand. So far, at least, Cosby has written only standalones, but I'm kind of hoping that Sheriff Titus Crown turns out to be the character around which he can build a series of books. 

I even listened to a podcast based in London just this morning called Simon Mayo's Books of the Year that this week featured a forty-minute interview with Cosby about the new book. Mayo is calling it his favorite of 2023 to this point in the year. A click HERE should bring you to a simple way to find the podcast for a quick listen.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week

 Because I'm usually reading several books more or less at the same time - and concentrating now more on a slower, more absorbent reading pace - I'm not completing books nearly as quickly as I have in recent years. I'm avoiding short deadlines,  both review-imposed ones and self-imposed ones (can't do much about the library-imposed ones), as much as I can, also, but did want to highlight the books that have most recently caught my attention. 

Having an unread Louise Penny novel is akin to having money stashed in the bank in case of urgent need; it's just a great feeling. But I was in such need of a Gamache palate cleanser after watching the horribly-presented Amazon Prime series, that I can't hold off any longer. It helps that I do keep Penny's 2013 Gamache novel, How the Light Gets In around as my final unread Gamache at any moment. I'm a little over 100 pages in, and I'm enjoying this one a lot but still not sure where it is ultimately headed.

I'm not familiar with Ellen Marie Wiseman but the cover of this one reminded me so much of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, a novel I really enjoyed, that I decided to give it a shot. ( I'm sure that resemblance is not just a happy coincidence.) And about 85 pages in, I'm happy to say that I'm feeling pretty positive about it. It has two separate plots that are explored in alternating chapters (I like that style) and are set about 20-25 years apart (one - I think - set in the 1930s and the another in the 1950s. 

This is actually a re-read of a book that I first read and reviewed back in 2007. This was an "unauthorized" history of both the product that made the McIlhennys a generational family of millionaires and the family itself. The original review was vehemently attacked and ridiculed by what I still suspect was an anonymous member of the family. To this day, I don't find the book to be insulting to the family at all because what is recounted, especially taken in context of the times, should not surprise anyone. I"m enjoying it even more this second time around.

I was first exposed to rugby (and almost instantly became a fanatic probably because cricket and soccer don't much appeal to me) in the nineties when living in London. But I left the country still pretty much a self-taught fan, and still get a bit confused by some of what I see on the pitch. I'm finding that Rugby for Dummies has all of the answers to those nagging little questions I still have, and I'm slowly working my way through the manual. It's proving to be a well written book that is not at all boring, and that's seldom the way with "rules books" like this one.

This is the only one I'm reading at the moment for the specific purpose of writing a review, and it is not scheduled to be published until November 2023. I decided to take it on because I'm always open to exploring a new series centered upon one anchor character, and "Rick Cahill" is certainly an interesting guy. This is actually the tenth novel in the series, though, and I'm catching a pretty beat-up guy here. I'm just a few pages into it because I struggle to read pdf files on my Kindle, but I already feel like I need to read the first series book next. 

I'm looking forward to dipping back into each of these, a very good sign for what is to come in the days just ahead. Today will be spent on a little bit of cleanup outside to gather up the debris that accumulated in the yard as a result of yet another massive thunderstorm that moved through the area last night with 60-70 mph wind gusts. We lost power for about five hours, but regained it about two a.m. Luckily we had all the backup chargers ready to go, including some light bulbs that automatically use battery power to light up things just as always when the power goes out for just a few hours. Happy reading, guys.

Friday, June 09, 2023

Totally Frustrated and Saddened by What I Find at Barnes & Noble (And What I Don't Find) Nowadays

I very clearly remember the feeling of stepping into a Barnes & Noble bookstore with a feeling that I was certain to leave the store with at least four or five books in my arms. I remember just how much fun that was. The problem is I can't remember the last time it happened.

However, a quick look at Wikipedia tells me it was probably not too long after Elliott Management Corporation acquired the company for $683 million back in August 2019. B&N remains a wholly owned subsidiary of Elliott's to this day. Elliott also owns and runs the huge Waterstones Booksellers chain in the UK, and the problem is that the new owners decided to use the British bookselling model on Barnes & Noble rather than using the American model on Waterstones. 

That means effectively that everything sold in either chain is priced at the recommended list price that the publisher chooses or it is put on sale in one of those "buy one at full price, get another at 50% off, schemes that I seldom use (in effect, that means paying 75% of list for each book). I lived for several years in London and frequented Waterstones because it seemed to be everywhere I went, but I probably didn't make that decision more than a half-dozen times in all those years because the "second book" part of the deal was limited to just a handful of books similar to the one I really wanted at the moment.

That used to be not such a big problem at B&N (even in London), though, because of the always-arbitrary selection of bestsellers that they chose to discount in both hardcover and softcover versions. Look at this picture:

This is today's bestseller grouping from my local store. If there's a similar grouping for softcover books, I never ran across it. Now admittedly, there are a couple of books here that may actually be worth reading, but B&N has so obviously tailored the list to highlight the lowest common denominator of reading tastes that I hardly ever find anything on that shelf that I want to take home with me. If you're not into thrillers by the usual suspects, you're pretty much out of luck. (If there's a similar selection of nonfiction, YA, and children's books, I missed those, too, because I don't really shop those departments.)

Remember those fun displays of what I call "remainders" from major publishers that B&N used to place so prominently in their stores? Well, don't hold your breath until you pluck some current fiction or nonfiction from the chain's new, horrible Book Annex groupings. Clue: you're going to die first. Those displays are only made up now of stale, cheap reprint editions in the nonfiction area, and of classics in the fiction area. (That could very well be because publishers don't do the huge print runs like they used to - meaning that the remainders stock is limited from the source.)

I used to count on going into a B&N and walking out with five or six one-or-two-year-old previous bestsellers for about $40 and another two current books that I paid near full price for - along with a couple of magazines. All for about $80 or $90. And I did that every 60 days or so. 

Now look at these photos from the store this morning near noon and ask yourself what is missing from each of them:

If you guessed "people," you win the prize. There were actually fewer people in this large store today than there were workers (I think I counted four other people plus about 4 small children).

Don't get me wrong; I want to see Barnes & Noble do well. They are, after having effectively run all of the other bookstore chains either completely out of business or out of my area, now the only major bookseller available to me. I hope that the B&N braintrust figures out that their new marketing strategy is not going to work...especially during a period of hyperinflation like the one we are experiencing right now. If they don't, they are doomed just the way they helped make sure that all the competition was doomed.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Short Takes: My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni


I find myself in kind of an interesting position with Robert Dugoni's My Sister's Grave. This 2014 novel is the first in Dugoni's Tracy Crosswhite series (although it was preceded by what appears to be a short story and a novella in which the character appears), and the only other book from the series I've read is 2021's In Her Tracks. So I first met Tracy as a more settled and mature cop who was definitely marked by the abduction and murder of her younger sisters when they were still teens. That experience was a life-changing experience for Tracy, of course, but I didn't come away with the true awfulness of what happened all those years earlier - or all the little nuances involved in having something like that murder occur in a very small, and relatively isolated, Washington town.

In My Sister's Grave Dugoni gives us a coming-of-age/origin story that begins when the two girls are small children and explains why and how they became such close sisters despite the four-year difference in their ages. Because Tracy had such a second-mother-like relationship with her fifteen-year-old sister, and because she was the last person to see the girl alive, she carried a constant feeling of guilt around with her for the next twenty years.

The novel begins, in fact, twenty years after the murder when all of the research done by Tracy during her off-duty hours as a member of the Seattle police department finally begins to pay off by creating doubts about the way the murder trial of her sister's killer was handled. Now Tracy is on a mission to expose the truth about what really happened all those years ago - but to do so she will first have to free the man who has been in prison for 20 years. Be careful what you wish for.

My Sister's Grave is a really good introduction to the series to follow, especially because of Dugoni's skill in creating a fully-fleshed and believable character like Stacy Crosswhite. Even some of the side characters I expect to see in future books are very well presented here. But the book's final chapters are really a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller plot in which it always feels like only a matter of time (usually at the very last second) before the heroine and other good guys find the miracle they need to survive. 

I would give this one three stars out of five, definitely enough here to make me want to read the next one.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

Short Takes: Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom


Stephanie Rosenbloom, a travel writer for the New York Times, over the course of one year lived in, and explored, four different cities (apparently on her own dime), including her home base of Manhattan. The other three cities were Paris, Florence, and Istanbul. 

But here's the hook: she did it all alone. 

Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude explains the wonderful benefits of traveling alone and why Rosenbloom prefers that mode of travel and exploration. On a personal note, I think I should mention that because I've been blessed with one of the most understanding wives in the world, I've been traveling this way at least once a year for more than thirty years now - so I was already predisposed to agree with the premise of the book. 

The main reason I enjoy traveling solo so much (and I think it's also the strongest argument that Rosenbloom makes in favor of "alone time") is that my tastes can be a little eccentric. I enjoy traveling, especially when on long road trips, in a way that few others enjoy to the same degree. So as Rosenbloom puts it, this way I don't have to feel guilty - or frustrated - in trying to equally split choices with others who feel differently. For instance, I'm primarily a wanderer. When I come to a crossroads that offers near equally adequate driving conditions, I never know which direction I'm going to turn until I make the turn, and then there's no looking back. I just play a hunch...which has admittedly led me into a few "iffy" situations. 

And that's what leads directly to some of the other solo-travel benefits that Bloomberg speaks to in the book: meeting and potentially bonding with strangers who are either traveling through or live in the area; quiet time that allows for a full appreciation and absorption of everything around you (as she puts it: "bringing into sharp relief the sights, sounds, and smells that one isn't necessarily attuned to in the presence of company"); the opportunity for self-reflection and evaluation; and best of all, the chance to travel guilt free (my wife has told me more than once that she has seen enough old cemeteries now to last a lifetime. I'm sure she would still be willing to stop at one or two cemetery-discoveries a trip, but I know that I would go so quickly through them that I would be unable to absorb the atmosphere peculiar to each of them. 

The prose in Alone Time seems to vary from section to section in ease-of-reading, but that's likely more me than Rosenbloom because of the trance that prose heavily peppered with foreign place-names often leaves me in. That's probably why I enjoyed - and got through- the sections on Paris and New York most. It is intriguing to watch Rosenbloom look at her section of New York City through the eyes of a tourist, a skill she mastered by spending the first nine months of the year in the other three cities first. That's something I want to try with Houston soon.

There are lots of tips to help you enjoy, and stay safe during, solo travels at the end of Alone Time, so if you've ever considered solo travel, this is a good place to begin your research.

Saturday, June 03, 2023

Slowing Down Is Good for Me


I've purposely slowed down my reading pace (well, it was not entirely voluntary for me to slow down...but that's another story for another time), and I find myself enjoying books - of several genres - more than I have in years. Rather than always chasing the shiny new covers and flashy new novelists of the day, I'm letting one book just lead me naturally to the next one. That doesn't mean that I'm reading one at a time, just that I'm reading fewer total pages per day. And that works wonders for me. It's even, I hope, freed me up to doing shorter...but semi-regular...posting again - good intentions that may go astray, I admit.

So instead of the 120 to 130 books I've read each year for a long time, I'm probably going to read, re-read, and re-re-read maybe 60 or 70 each year for a while. The biggest surprise as I near one-half a year at this new pace, is that my concentration and first-read comprehension levels seem to me to have significantly increased. I can't tell you how often I use to have to go back and read paragraphs, or even whole pages, for a second timebecause I had obliviously slipped into some kind of daydream. 

All that said, this is a simple list of what I read in May:

  1. The Rising Tide - Ann Cleeves
  2. Expanded Universe - Robert A. Heinlein
  3. Hell and Back - Craig Johnson
  4. Justice Corrupted - Ted Cruz
  5. Tastes Like War - Grace M. Cho
  6. The Jealousy Man - Jo Nesbø
  7. The Best American Travel Writing 2012 - Various Writers
Now I'll find out where June carries me.

Friday, June 02, 2023

Short Takes: The Rising Tide by Ann Cleeves


 I admit that I am so deeply invested in the characters in both the Shetland and Vera series by Ann Cleeves that I can't imagine ever reading a bad book in either series. I, in fact, finished the Shetland series quite a while ago without ever being disappointed by one of those. I am always happy if the books continue to further develop the characters and age them, more-or-less, in real time between story lines. Plots are somewhat secondary. So all of my comments on either series come with that warning.  

The Rising Tide is no exception. This one from 2022 finds Vera rather foolishly putting herself in near-fatal personal danger during an investigation when she runs off half-cocked without waiting for any of her team to accompany her. That's not something I thought Vera - who's not exactly in fighting condition anymore - capable of. But then, Vera does expose many of her personal weaknesses and emotional flaws in this one, also, and that all just serves to make her more vulnerable and real to readers who have watched her change over the years. 

The basic premise of this one is that a now-elderly small group of high school friends gathers every five years on what becomes an island when the tide comes in each day. This time one of them appears to have been murdered, and because the murder happened on an island the number of suspects is limited. But is it really? Or did someone time access to the island perfectly enough to get onto the island, commit a murder, and get back off again just in the nick of time? It's all up to Vera, Joe, and the rest of the team to figure it all out.

But really, it's this relatively new self-reflective Vera who makes The Rising Tide a special book to me. Vera realizes now that she sees Joe as the son she never had, and that by keeping him tethered to her the way she does will only limit his longterm career with the police, not enhance it. But in the end, she just can't turn loose. It will be  interesting to see where Cleeves is going to take their relationship next.

You guessed it...I have to give this one a full five-star rating.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Short Takes: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing


Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing is a memoir detailing Perry's addiction problems, fears, insecurities, successes, and repeated failures. The memoir ends on a very hopeful note despite the multiple relapses inflicted upon the author's ravaged body for almost his entire adult lifetime. 

I found the book to be fairly well written but not as motivational and moving as I expected it would be. I did, however, come away from the book wishing all the best for Matthew Perry and sincerely hoping that he will be able to remain sober for the rest of his life. The man has been through almost unimaginable mental and physical hardships, and I suspect that many people fighting problems like his will be very moved and motivated by reading the memoir. I salute Mr. Perry for that reason.

I would rate this one about 3.5 stars out of 5.