Sunday, July 30, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week

 As it turns out, I made some real progress on my planned reading last week, finishing four of the six books (Odyssey's End, Playing Games, Crow Mary, and They May Not Mean to, But They Do) that I started the week reading, abandoning one (Time Is a Killer), and making steady progress on the other (Demon Copperhead). Somewhere along the way, I also unexpectedly started reading Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks by Shauna Robinson, Somebody's Fool by Richard Russo, Where I'm From by Rick Bragg, and All the Sinners Bleed by S. A. Cosby. Three of the mid-week adds are library holds that became available quicker than anticipated and one (The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks) that just happened to catch my eye on a library shelf.

So this new reading week starts this way:

I am happy to report that I am fully immersed in the life of young Demon Copperhead and that by reading 50-60 pages a day in this remarkable coming-of-age novel, I should finish it on time for the next person waiting on it. I've read just over 400 pages now, and I'm really enjoying the vast cast of weirdos and social misfits who make up Demon's immediate world as they come and go. Finding the humanity in each of them is sometimes a challenge, but there's always a payoff with each new character. The opioid crisis portion of the book, however, is becoming a bit of a drag now.

I'm a fan of Richard Russo novels from way back, but I didn't expect to get my hands on Somebody's Fool quite so quickly (and of course, it has a two-week short fuse and is 451 pages long). This is the third book in Russo's North Bath (NY) Trilogy, following Nobody's Fool and Everybody's Fool. Russo's long-running character "Sully" Sullivan is now dead, and this novel focuses on his son Peter who is still in North Bath, New York, and having family and relationship problems of his own. It's good to be back in North Bath.

Elizabeth Strout is another of my favorites, and I'm enjoying my reunion with Lucy, William, and their daughters despite the rough time they are all having in Lucy by the Sea as Strout portrays all of the anxieties, grief, and disorientation that so many of us experienced in 2020 as we all listened to the experts lie to us 24-7 about the scary new virus that threatened to kill us all in our sleep. I have no idea what Strout was going for here as regards reader reaction, but my own has been a strange blending of sadness and anger...probably not what she was shooting for. 

The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks caught my eye one morning when I went to the library to pick up another book being held for me. I find it impossible to walk past any book that has the word "bookshop" in its title, so I picked this one up for a look despite its rather blah cover - and I ended up bringing it home. It's turned out to be fun so far, a book about a barely surviving store whose "silent owner" bans any book written after 1968. So...the new emergency store manager starts an underground book club and dares to sell new books under the counter. All very tongue-in-cheek.

I'm halfway through S.A. Cosby's fourth novel, All the Sinners Bleed, and to this point I don't find myself enjoying it to the degree that I did the earlier three. That may be because this one is considerably more preachy about current day politics and race relations in this country than the first three books were. It seems that a certain amount of subtlety has been sacrificed in favor of ensuring that certain points are not missed. Still a headfirst, full throttle crime novel, though, and Cosby's writing skill is as obvious as ever.

I was in the mood for an audiobook late last week, and I found this one by Rick Bragg, a man whose reflections on life I've been enjoying for a long, long time. What makes this one so special is that it is read by Rick Bragg himself in that slow Alabama drawl of his that makes these Deep South "stories" come back to life as Bragg recounts memories from his boyhood to his current life. This one - especially if you can resist the urge to kick Rick's delivery up to 125% speed on your device - is just kind of beautiful to anyone having grown up in small town America. 

So there you have it, the plan. Now I can't wait to see the surprises that come out of nowhere.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Review: Crow Mary by Kathleen Grissom


Set primarily in the 1870s and 1880s, Kathleen Grissom's novel Crow Mary is a fictionalized look at the very real Cypress Hills Massacre that occurred in Saskatchewan, Canada, in the spring of 1873. The ambush caught a small tribal group of Nakodas completely by surprise, and the ensuing slaughter of forty innocent men, women, and children forever changed the lives of Crow Mary and her white trading-post-owner husband who witnessed the whole thing. 

Once the drunken massacre is underway, it is impossible for anyone to stop it without being themselves killed. But after Mary witnesses five female survivors being taken inside the camp of the men who killed their families, she knows that she will either rescue them or die trying. After her husband forbids her to approach the camp, Mary knows that she - and her two pistols - will be doing it all alone. So she does. 

The novel begins with a short foreword written by Nedra Farwell Brown, a great-granddaughter of Crow Mary herself. Brown is understandably proud that her grandmother's story is finally being celebrated this way, and says this about Crow Mary: 

"My great-grandmother, Goes First, who became known as Crow Mary, was a beautiful, strong young woman who married a white man she did not know. That she faced this world with such bravery makes me proud to think that I carry her blood."

Crow Mary explores a period during which the native population on both sides of this country's northern border were being pushed into ever shrinking reservations and denied the ability to feed and clothe their families in the manner their ancestors had done the job for countless generations. They were told that they could no longer hunt outside the arbitrary boundaries of their new "reservations," and that  the government would supply them with the food they needed if it was not available to them within those boundaries. The politicians wanted to turn them all into subsistence farmers and cattle ranchers. But as it turns out, that would lead to the bloody fighting that marked the rest of the decade. 

Crow Mary and Abe Farwell tried to put things right after the Cypress Hills Massacre, testifying in trials on both sides of the border against the men who participated in the slaughter. Sadly, the chief result of their efforts was a lifetime of denunciation and hatred directed toward Farwell as being nothing but a traitor to his race; no convictions of the killers were handed down by either of the biased juries. Crow Mary is as much Abe's story as it is Mary's even though Abe suffered in a whole different way than his wife.

Readers interested in the history of this period will, I think, come away from Crow Mary with a clearer understanding of what a clash of cultures this all really was, and how tragically misguided and callus those in charge of policy were. Sadly, it all seems so inevitable, even in retrospect, that it triggers my general feeling of pessimism about the human race...are we any better today, really?

Friday, July 28, 2023

Why Is It So Difficult for Barnes & Noble to Get It Right?

 I suppose I'm being oversensitive about the relatively new Barnes & Noble "Rewards Card" program, but my limited experience in the program screams SCAM very loudly. 

The basics: B&N pushes this heavily at checkout, and because it was a quick sign-up process (hand over an email address and get your new card in about two minutes) I went along with it. The program says that for every $10 spent, the customer will receive one digital "stamp," and that ten stamps will earn you a $5 store credit. So, effectively, you are getting a 5% rebate on every $100 spent...not much, but what the heck; it's more than I was getting before and it pays a little over one-half of the sales tax due on any given purchase. 

But here's the kicker: One day last week I bought a $35 book, and today I bought a $17 book. That's a total of $52 before sales tax, so I would expect to have earned five digital stamps at this point. But no way is B&N going to bother to keep track of actual spending. Instead they round down to 3 stamps on purchase number one, and one stamp on purchase number two, resulting in four stamps. The additional $12 spent earns squat. 

The main reason I find this so irritating is that it's just another sign of how stupid retailers believe their customers are. If B&N can keep track of how many stamps I have in my specific account, they can keep track of my true cumulative spending. It's the same process. As it is, the whole plan is borderline ridiculous, but this little trick of theirs to round down on every purchase definitely throws it into the "not worth the effort" category for me. 

Yep, I'm feeling cantankerous I'm sure you can tell. 

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Review: Odyssey's End by Matt Coyle


(Odyssey's End is book number ten in Matt Coyle's Rick Cahill series, a series unfamiliar to me before I decided to read this volume. It is scheduled for publication on November 14, 2023.)

By this point in his career, Rick Cahill has been through life's wringer and he's very lucky to be alive, much less still out there battling the bad guys like he does. In addition to all of his old injuries, Cahill is also now facing the onset of a brain disease (CTE) that he recognizes is messing with his emotions, especially his temper. Much worse, he knows that the disease has the potential to kill him even while it steals his memories and personality. Cahill's wife recognizes the symptoms, too, and she and their young daughter have moved into the home of her parents where she feels the little girl will be better protected from exposure to Cahill's temper. 

Cahill knows the clock is now ticking faster than ever for him and that he still has not banked enough to provide for his young daughter's future. He wants to keep working as a San Diego private investigator as long as he can, putting away as much as he can every step of the way. That's why when an old enemy of his approaches Cahill with what seems like a simple missing person's case (one that pays very well), Cahill decides to take the case despite all of his instincts telling him there has to be more to the case than he's being told.

Rick Cahill is a sympathetic character and it's difficult not to root for him; he's the obvious good guy in the novel. But the bulk of the story reads like a conventional thriller rather than one about a man suffering major disabilities, both mental and physical. The story is well plotted and written, and longtime readers of the series are likely to enjoy it very much. New readers like me, however, would have been better served, I think, by a deeper exploration of the brain disease Cahill is so concerned about. As it is, I did not feel nearly the sympathy for the character that I probably should have felt. And that's kind of a shame.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Review: Playing Games, edited by Lawrence Block


I have been a fan of Lawrence Block's books for a whole lot of years, but Playing Games has somehow managed to make me appreciate him now more than ever. Block invited sixteen authors to write short stories, each of them centering around the common theme of making a specific game the core of their story, and it appears that all of them were eager to respond with one. The result is seventeen (Block contributed the last story in the book) really good tales - all of them written in 2023. 

Quick Aside - I got a kick out of the book's "About the Editor" section, a career biography obviously written by Block himself, because of this sentence beginning the section's second paragraph: "In recent years, Lawrence Block has found a new career as an anthologist, having realized how much easier it is to dash off an introduction while inveigling others to supply the actual stories." I love that.

The "bigger" names contributing stories to the collection are probably Block, S.A. Cosby, Robert Silverberg, Jeffery Deaver, and Joe R. Lansdale. Surprisingly to me, none of the five authored one of the stories I most enjoyed - although Cosby came very close. 

One of my favorites is Tod Goldberg's "Paladin," one of the longest stories in the collection. It tells the story of a cop's best friend who is lost at sea while attempting to rescue a distressed vessel. I was particularly impressed at how much like a full novel this one reads, with so much information and so many twists packed into relatively few pages.

Another favorite is "Lighting Round" by Warren Moore. "Lightning Round" is about a man who loves from afar the woman who is running the Trivia Night game at his local pub every week. He has given it his best shot, but she has firmly rebuffed him and now he just comes to the weekly game to see her. But once he begins to suspect that she has serious boyfriend trouble, something very clever and dramatic is about to happen on Trivia Night.

Similarly, David Morrell's "The Puzzle Master" puts an entirely new twist on jigsaw puzzles and those who illustrate the boxes and puzzles. One couple, new to puzzling but loving it, notices a pattern in one artist's puzzles when they go back and begin to work them in chronological order. What they learn makes them suspect that a serious crime is being hinted at - and they decide to solve a whole different kind of puzzle for themselves.

The best thing about Playing Games is the consistency of the work. I've read a whole lot of short story compilations, and their biggest flaw is almost always the same: three or four really great stories, a bunch of average ones, and two or three real stinkers. Playing Games, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of very good stories, with a handful of excellent ones and only one real stinker (which will remain nameless). If you're a crime fiction fan but are new to reading crime fiction short stories, I can't think of a better place to begin.

My thanks go to Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery who alerted me to this collection via a post earlier this month. Click here to read her post.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week

 My book greed has caught up with me - and it's my own fault. I have so many books on hold at the library all the time that they seem to come in bunches...never just one or two at a time. (Do librarians get a kick out of making sure that the books arrive in bunches in between lengthy lulls where none come in at all?) What's happened this time is that not only have several come in at once, but that they include some very long books that can only be checked out for two weeks because others have holds on them, too. And the clock is ticking. 

So these are the ones I'm reading right now:

This is a 516-page mystery by French writer Michel Bussi (the translation is really seamless and well done). It involves a woman who goes on a family holiday to Corsica with her husband and teenaged daughter despite having lost her own parents and only sibling in a horrific car crash there when she herself was just a teen. It was a miracle that she survived the accident, but now she is starting to believe that her mother (who is said to have died in the crash) may still be alive.

This is the 546-page Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner that readers seem less impressed with than I would have supposed. I've only read 13 pages into the story, but the Dickens connection is obvious and kind of fun, at least to this point. I like the main character and how he came to be stuck with the nickname "Demon Copperhead." As always in a Barbara Kingsolver novel, this one is well written, but there are so many people waiting for this one behind me that the pressure is on. I hope I can finish it on time.

I was drawn to Crow Mary because of the good reviews it consistently gets, and because of its Montana/Canadian setting. I'm becoming more and more interested in learning about the 1870s-1890s period, especially what was still happening to the Native American population on both sides of the border. This historical novel covers that topic in detail...but again, there's a short fuse on this one (and it's almost 350 pages long).

There's a short fuse on this one, too, but I've already read fifteen of the seventeen short stories in Playing Games, so it will definitely be the next book that I finish. I have really been surprised by how well the "games" theme has held up for this entire compilation of stories. In fact, it's turned out to be one of the most consistently enjoyable collection of short stories that I've read in quite a while. There are some really good stories in this one, and almost nothing I would rate below a three-star story. That's not easy to do.

Even though I'm about 70% through this Cathleen Schine novel, it may be neglected this week so that I can take chunks out of the longer novels mentioned above. I'm not sure what I think about this story of middle-aged children having to deal with their "suddenly" aging parents. It's kind of depressing at times, humorous at others...sort of like real life, I suppose. (And yes, the title is taken from the famous Philip Larkin poem "This Be the Verse.")


Odyssey's End by Matt Coyle is a review copy of a series thriller that is set to be published around October. I've been reading this one off and on for a while, am about 80% of the way through it, and I'm sorry to say that it's not really "grabbed me" yet. That means pretty much total neglect for at least this week, I'm afraid, and probably next week. I've heard good things about Matt Coyle and this series, but I think I may be joining readers way too late in the game to appreciate the character. Probably a bad choice on my part.

I'm thinking that this may be the bunch that end up leaving me with a tough decision at some point. Do I keep the books a few days longer to finish them, or do I risk returning them on time in the hopes that I will get them back soon enough not to lose my train-of-thought with them? I've been brainwashed for so many years about not keeping books past their due date when others are lined up for them, that I can't even predict my decision yet. I suppose it all depends on how close I am to finishing them.

Have a great reading week, y'all!

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Review/Reaction: Road Ends by Mary Lawson

Road Ends, published in 2013, was Mary Lawson's third novel and, from what I gather, when taken together with her first two novels (both of which I loved) Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, this completes a trilogy of northern Canada books for her. It's been a while since I've read those first two novels, but I remember very vividly how Lawson seemed to have come out of nowhere and jumped into my world as an author whose work I immediately loved and admired. Now, Road Ends confirms my initial reaction to Mary Lawson.

You would be hard pressed to find a more dysfunctional family than the Cartwrights of tiny Straun, Ontario. The family continues to grow year after year despite the bewilderment of the man who continues to create children with a woman who seems almost unaware of their existence after they pass through the toddler stage. Unfortunately for second-born Meg, she is the only daughter in this family of eight children. More unfortunately for Meg, she is also the only person in the family of ten who seems to have a clue as to how to run a household - so she begins to take over those duties at about six years old and continues them until she turns twenty-one.

At that point, Meg craves a life of her own and leaves for London to carve out one for herself. Of course, that's when the Cartwright family implodes. By the time three years have passed, no one seems to be in charge at the Cartwright home: Meg has a new baby brother she's never seen; her four-year-old brother is almost starving because there is seldom any food in the house that he can prepare for himself; her older brother Tom has become a recluse since the suicide of his best friend; two of her brothers have left home for life on the open sea; two others have stopped going to school; and neither of her parents even seem much aware of any of what is happening all around them.

Lawson uses flashbacks to good effect throughout most of Road Ends, although for most of the novel they serve more as flashes forward than as flashes backward. The novel begins in January 1966 as Megan is preparing to break the news to everyone that she is leaving home for a life on her own, but the second chapter is set in January 1969, some three years after Megan's departure. The novel's structure is one that alternates chapters between the points-of-view of Megan, Tom (her only older sibling), and Edward, their father. Cleverly, the author stays in "real time" in chapters about the deterioration of the family in Canada, but moves at an accelerated pace in the Megan-flashbacks until the two timelines finally converge deep into the novel. 

Along the way, readers learn what shaped all of the key characters into the people they became and why none of them (including the mother) seem to have anything approaching the emotional maturity that Megan has acquired. This is important because, with the exception of Megan, this is simply not a likable bunch of people. With a little patience, though, we learn enough about the past of each to at least empathize with them, and b the end of the novel, I felt as if I understood all of them despite how destructive each of them were to the family's stability and welfare.

But it was the end that I will always remember because of how I could see it coming way before I turned that last page. The feeling was like noticing an imminent car wreck seconds before impact of the vehicles; you know what's about to happen but keep hoping that you're wrong. I highly recommend all three Mary Larson novels that I've read now, and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on her latest.

Thanks to Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea for bringing Mary Lawson back to my attention. Diane's thoughts on the novel can be found here.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Review - Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen C. Guelzo


I love the design of the cover of Allen C. Guelzo's recent Lee biography, Robert E. Lee: A Life, and how it gives the impression that maybe we have never seen the complete face of the man - exactly what Guelzo wants to correct with this new Lee biography. In full disclosure, I will say that I have read numerous Lee biographies ranging all the way from the fawning multi-volume bio by Douglas Southall Freeman to the early exposé biography The Marble Man by Thomas L. Connelly. And I have been left believing that the truth is, not al all surprisingly, somewhere in the middle of these two approaches to historical biography. 

Guelzo puts all of his cards on the table right in the first paragraph of his prologue to Robert E. Lee by asking:

"How do you write a biography of someone who commits treason? The question is complicated, because (as Paul Murray Kendall wrote in The Art of Biography) the usual task of the biographer 'is to perpetuate a man as he was in the days he lived...' What my (Guelzo's) question suggests is that there may be some lives that we hesitate to perpetuate, and among the reasons for that hesitation must surely be treason."

Later I read a passage in that same prologue that gave me the confidence that the author, a man who was "catechized at my grandmother's knee in the righteousness of the Union war," was able to put aside his own biases long enough to write a fair representation of the man Robert E. Lee was. He said this:

"But casting Lee in contradiction - as either saint or sinner, as either simple or pathological - is, in the end, less profitable than seeing his anxieties as a counterpoint to his dignity, his impatience and his temper as the match to his composure."

Guelzo begins at the beginning, with the arrival of the first Lee in Virginia from England in roughly 1640. He explores succeeding generations right up to Lee's own birth in 1807, especially focussing on young Robert's relationship with his father Light Horse Harry Lee, one of George Washington's key generals during the Revolutionary War. Guelzo believes that it was Harry's abandonment of the Lee family when Robert was just six years old that made him into the man he became. Ultimately, Robert was so embarrassed by the man his father turned out to be, that he worried for the rest of his life about having enough income to support his own growing family. 

The bulk of Robert E. Lee: A Life is comprised of a concise history of the four years of the American Civil War (a helpful summary of the war for those not already familiar with its details). First, however, readers watch as Lee agonizes over his final decision as to what he will do if war becomes imminent: take command of the Union Army, stay home as a neutral, or take command of the newly constructed Confederate States of America Army. Then they get to stay by Lee's side during all of his, and his new army's, ups and downs for the war's duration.

The final section of the book explores Lee's surprise postwar decision to accept presidency of the tiny Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Guelzo makes it clear that this decision was almost entirely an economic one made by a man who had no other way to feed and house his family. One even has to wonder if economics was behind Lee's decision - a decision made, after all, by a man deeply scarred and embarrassed by family poverty in his youth - to stay home and personally protect his and his wife's Virginia property rather than leave it all to be destroyed during the coming war. 

Robert E. Lee: A Life is an honest, evenhanded approach to the life of a complicated man, a man whose many virtues are offset by his many flaws and imperfections. My biggest surprise after having read the book is that my original assessment of Lee, along with my net  admiration of the man, has not changed all that much. Robert E. Lee was a man of his times, as were all of the people who lived in his day, and those who want to condemn Lee by using today's standards and sensitivities in order to do it, are both misguided and overzealous in their (often) trumped up sudden, new anger.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Review - The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives


Otto Penzler's The Lineup is a fascinating look at the origin stories of more than twenty of the most popular fictional crimefighters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Some twenty-two writers (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are co-authors of the Pendergast books) were turned loose to share the inspirations that created such characters as Jack Reacher, Hieronymus Bosch, Inspector Morse, Tess Monaghan, Rambo, Spenser, and Precious Ramotswe. Some chose to give a straightforward nonfictional version of how the characters that made them famous were born, and others decided to take the short story or fictional interview approach to revealing the same. 

Along the way, I learned some things about even those characters I was already familiar with, became curious about a few authors I haven't tried yet, and confirmed that a few of them are just not meant for me despite their immense popularity. 

These are some of the surprises I had:

  • Hieronymus Bosch did not receive that name until Michael Connelly was working on the second draft of the first Bosch novel The Black Echo. Until then he was called Detective Pierce.
  • John Connolly's Charlie Parker is American and not Irish (Connolly is Irish) mainly because "mystery fiction has never really been part of the Irish literary tradition."
  • Colin Dexter made the decision to end his Inspector Morse series at only thirteen books because he himself was getting older and in poor health - and because he felt as if he were beginning to repeat himself.
  • Carol O'Connell's Mallory is a genuine sociopath, and as such, the character does not change over time. Take her or leave her is the author's attitude and that's why each of the novels can be read as a standalone. 
I was pleased to see that the twenty-one fictional characters or teams include five of my all-time favorites: Jack Taylor, Harry Bosch, Charlie Resnick, Spenser, and John Rebus. Of the five, two are American, one Irish, one English, and one Scottish...where are the great Welsh fictional detectives/cops? Of the ones I haven't tried yet, I'm most curious about Elvis Cole and Joe Pike (Robert Crais), Alex Delaware (Jonathan Kellerman), and Lincoln Rhyme (Jeffery Deaver). On the flip side, I'm also certain now that Aloysius X.L. Pendergast, Rambo, and Precious Ramotswe are just not for me so I can check them off the list. And then there's the sleeper in the bunch, a writer so personally repellant to me that I haven't read them in over a decade and never will read them again. 

As you can see, there are a lot of good reasons to read The Lineup: a chance to learn something new about an old favorite, the possibility that you will learn about a character that will become a new favorite, and the chance maybe to eliminate quickly a couple of series you've been wondering about for a long time.

A solid four stars of five to this excellent compilation by Otto Penzler.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Review: Crime Novels Five Classic Thrillers 1961 - 1964 (Library of America #370)


By the time the crime novels collected here first appeared in the early 1960s, the popularity of the type of crime fiction pioneered by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others had already peaked. Now, as Geoffrey O'Brien points out in his introduction to the collection, "the best crime writers reinvented the genre." That was probably the only way the genre had much of a chance, according to O'Brien of competing with powerful competition from a burst in popularity of science fiction novels, fantasy novels, spy novels, and political thrillers.

Represented in this volume of Crime Novels are five very different writers, writers who found varying degrees of success during their lifetimes. Whether or not all of them lived to enjoy the success and respect they deserved, all five are recognized today as some of the best crime fiction writers of their day.

The collection opens with Fredric Brown's The Murderers, a story about a group of sociopaths in Los Angeles who will do just about anything to keep themselves financially comfortable. When two frustrated actors decide to swap murders that will benefit both their careers, innocent people will die but nobody really seems to care. Brown's novel is a scary look inside the mind of a true sociopath.

Next comes The Name of the Game Is Death by Dan J. Marlowe, another psychological novel that follows a bank robbery gone bad after one of the three robbers is shot dead, one escapes with the all the cash, and the narrator goes into hiding until it's safe for him to rejoin the other surviving gang member. But after the man with the money suddenly cuts off all contact with the main character, all bets are off. Much of the character development in this one occurs through flashbacks that illustrate just what a pure sociopath our hero is.

Third in the collection is probably the best known of the group, Dead Calm. Some twenty-six years (1989) after Charles Williams published the novel in 1963, Dead Calm was turned into a successful movie starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill, and Billy Zane. The novel tells the story of a young couple alone on their yacht who pick up what appears to be the only survivor of a sinking vessel on which the survivor claims everyone on board has died of food poisoning but him. It's easy to imagine the tension that will build over time as the stranger's story begins to unravel.

Then we have The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, the only novel in the collection written by a woman. Hughes is largely ignored today, but Geoffrey O'Brien's introduction calls her "one of the most important crime writers of her era." Hughes dared to tackle racism in the heat of the racially turbulent 1960s by making her message a major factor governing the behavior of her main character, a young black doctor who happens to have picked up a young female hitchhiker who is later found dead.

The last novel in the collection is Richard Stark's (Richard Stark is a pen name used by Donald Westlake at times) The Score. This one is actually the fifth book in Stark's twenty-three book "Parker" series. The most unusual thing about the series is that Parker is not a cop or a detective; he is a successful criminal. The Score serves as a reminder that even the best mind can become a little overconfident and overambitious. The caper-gone-wrong here is one in which Parker and his gang decide to simultaneously rob multiple locations in one small town.

This volume of Crime Novels  is the first of two volumes soon to be published by Library of America. The second collection will feature similar fiction written in the second half of the decade.

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Murderers by Fredric Brown


Fredric Brown's 1961 noir crime novel The Murderers made me realize just how much more sensitive to sexual slurs and crimes even my boomer generation has become since the whole "Me Too" movement broke a few years ago. And that's a good thing, of course. Surprisingly enough, I had to keep reminding myself that even in 1961 Brown was using those terms and attitude descriptions only to describe what turns out to be a pretty despicable lead character - not to show that they are the norm of the day. 

That character, Willy Griff, is a struggling actor who barely manages to cover his day-to-day living expenses in a cheap Los Angeles boardinghouse. That's largely due to Willy's habit of spending any spare cash he accumulates on cheap booze, drugs, and young women as much on the make as he is. Willy's been getting some extra cash from his current lover who just happens to be the wife of the Southern California "seat cover king," but after their affair is exposed, the pair figure out that they can still have each other and all that seat cover money if they can only figure out a foolproof way to eliminate the king.

That's when things get complicated.

Another struggling actor, who lives in the same boardinghouse, has been blackballed by a vindictive producer, effectively ending the man's acting career even before it starts. Struggling actor #2 will certainly shed no tears if something were to happen to Mr. Producer. So maybe a you-kill-mine-and-I'll-kill-yours deal can be struck between the two? Be careful what you wish for, boys.

If this plot reminds you a little (or a lot) of Patricia Highsmith's 1950 novel Strangers on a Train, you are not alone. And like Highsmith's hugely successful novel, The Murderers is largely a psychological novel in which considerable time is spent developing the lead novel's  character and motivations. The Murderers even has one of those ironic Alfred Hitchcock kind of endings we all enjoyed so much in the sixties and seventies. Despite the sometimes formulaic structure of this one, I enjoyed it enough to give it three stars out of five.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Gonna Be Three Very Long Days Around Here

NOT my house, but I have at least this many roofers crawling around on mine right now

 Well, as promised, the roofers arrived about six-thirty this morning to start moving their equipment into place (all raw materials were delivered yesterday afternoon). And by seven-fifteen the ripping and banging was well on the way, so I'm hoping my next door neighbor and the houses behind me were wide awake at that point. If not, I'm sure it didn't take long to get them all to that state of being. 

Too, that means cars and trucks are parked all over the corner I live on, including the three vehicles that live here with us. So barely controlled chaos seems to be the plan for the rest of the week. I have to say that the neighbors are all being very patient because several of the homes within "listening distance" are also scheduled for new roofs following the hale storm that killed off mine. (And my house is only the second one that's even gotten to this point of the replacement process, so it's going to be noisy around here for a while.)

I did try reading for a while while I was having my coffee this morning, but that didn't go very well because of the racket overhead. So we opted for breakfast out, followed by a quick library stop for me to return a book from my stack that I abandoned yesterday (a debut novel by a young Irish guy filled with characters who seemed in a big hurry to go exactly nowhere). Big mistake. In the ten minutes I was there, I dropped off the one book and spotted three new ones to take home with us.

Couldn't resist these for even ten minutes:

I've read and enjoyed three or four other titles by Sandra Dallas, so I knew the name, but in all honesty what snagged me on this one is that beautiful, eye-catcher of a cover. Dallas writes period-novels about very ordinary people and their lives, and at least all the ones I've seen are set in the American west of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This one is about a young school teacher who moves to a "two-street" Wyoming town in 1916. The story is about how she finds a husband and forms strong bonds with the other women living around her.

The Revivalists is one of those apocalyptic novels I've loved so much since I stumbled upon my first one as a young teen reader. Now they read to me more like training manuals for our likely future, so I hope that something from all that reading has sunk in and makes me useful enough that the new ruling class decides to keep me around for a while. In this one, it all starts when "Shark Flu" emerges from the meltdown of Icelandic permafrost. Global warming, anyone? Who knew we had to worry about Iceland now, too.

I'm a big fan of the Outlander TV series, which has just begun its sixth season, so when I spotted this memoir from actor Sam Heughan I had to take a look. As it turns out, the memoir combines with another favorite genre of mine, books about Long Walks, so it was an obvious choice to make this morning's cut. It appears that Heughan made a ninety-six-mile walk across some of Scotland's West Highlands during one of his long breaks between Outlander seasons. Can't imagine how he made it, so this should be an interesting one.

I just realized how quiet it's suddenly gotten...sounds like there are only one or two guys on the roof. Must be lunch time because the crew is gathering in the shade of the tall Oak tree in my front yard. Now I need to grab something to read for the next hour.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Missing in the Snow by Ann Cleeves


It was really good to get a glimpse of Jimmy Perez's new lifestyle now that he's turned over the bulk of his day-to-day Shetland policing duties to the more than able Tosh, a young mother of two who came up through the ranks under Jimmy's guiding hand. 

The basic premise of this eight-page short story is that an English author has come to Shetland to do some research for his next project and he has suddenly gone missing. Tosh asks Jimmy to fly in so that she can discuss the missing persons case with him, and so that they can look over the man's rented cottage together. Jimmy, of course, knows everyone on the island, including their history, so a little brainstorming with Jimmy Perez goes a long way toward solving any crime there.

So why am I not thrilled by this short story (you can get a copy free for yourself just by signing up for "The Best of Pan Macmillan" newsletter at this link). I suppose my "blah" feeling about the story comes from the author having crammed too much plot into such a short piece. I can see how good this plot could have been if fleshed out a little into a novella, or even given the full-novel treatment by Cleeves. So while it was wonderful to see Jimmy and Tosh together again, the way the story ends in one sudden summation of all that has happened in the dark of the background left me feeling way less than satisfied with the reading. Sadly, I have to give "Missing in the Snow" only two of five stars.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Review: Your Perfect Year by Charlotte Lucas


Your Perfect Year is a German romance novel by Charlotte Lucas (pen name of Wiebka Lorenz). The 480-page novel was translated into English by Alison Layland, whose translation never once felt to me as if I were reading something translated from the original German; she did a remarkable job here. Romance is not a genre I read very much of at all, so I was surprised that I completed such a long one. What kept me reading was the mysterious journal/day planner that becomes the hook around which all the action and character development of the novel centers. 

Jonathan Grief (just look at his surname if you want a clue to his personality) is not an easy guy to be around. He's 42 years old, divorced, lives alone, and is terribly bored by the publishing business his more-senile-every-day father has placed into his hands. Too, Jonathan is a creature of habit, the kind of man who runs for exercise every day no matter how terrible the weather may be. That's why he's running near the river bank early on New Year's Day in such a nasty rain - and that's why he sort of resents the intrusion into his personal life of having someone hang an expensive year-long day planner on his bicycle's handlebars when he isn't looking. 

Now exactly what is he supposed to do with that?

It is only after Jonathan explores the diary a little more that he starts to wonder why it was left for him to find the way it was. And when he notices that all 365 days are already filled in with suggestions for the day, and that the handwriting resembles that of his mother whom he hasn't seen in decades, Jonathan finds himself wanting to believe that someone may have prepared the book specifically for him. 

All Jonathan knows on day-one is that someone identified only as "H" is apparently the person who filled the day planner with exercises, suggestions, and appointment times. Almost as a game with himself, Jonathan begins to follow the writer's suggestions, and now the game truly is on. All he can think about is finding the mysterious "H" first just intending to return the day planner, but eventually to ask a whole bunch of questions that are driving him crazy.

I'm going to round my 2.5-star rating of Your Perfect Year up to a full three stars because of the simple fact that it managed to keep me reading for almost 500 pages of "romance." The plotting is both complicated, and well executed enough, that I kept reading to the end so that I could satisfy my curiosity about where this all was going to end up. Sometimes, though, I thought the plotting got a little bit too "cute," what with all the near-misses that started to happen between "H" and Jonathan. The best compliment I can give Your Perfect Year is that it would have made a great eighties movie starring the young Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I'm just not much into stories like those anymore, but I suspect that a whole lot of readers are going to love this one. And they should.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Review: Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy


It would be difficult to find two people more unlikely to take easily to the farming life than Antonia Murphy and her husband Peter as they were in the early 2000s. The couple lived in ultraliberal San Francisco and were totally into the lifestyle; the only farm animals they ever saw were found in the meat department of their favorite grocery store. But somehow the Murphys found the courage to go for it. 

Both Peter and Antonia were into sailing, so they felt comfortable packing up their worldly goods and heading off to an entirely new world and life via sailboat. First, they made their way through Mexico and Central America, then across the Gulf of Panama, down to Ecuador, and finally, across the Pacific to New Zealand. By the time they arrived in New Zealand to begin their new lives, Antonia was six months pregnant with their first child. Then a few years later their son was born with major genetic developmental disabilities, and the Murphys decided they needed to relocate to a more self-sustaining lifestyle in a rural part of the country. 

As it turns out, the family found a lifestyle that perfectly suited their wants and needs. Probably most importantly, little Silas was taken under the wing of an entire community of diverse New Zealanders who loved him and respected him for who he was. And that's when the real fun begins.

Upon arrival, the Murphys hope to learn about animal husbandry and living off the land, and to be fully accepted and acclimated into the little community in which they've moved. Luckily, a small farm becomes available for a twelve-month lease when that farm's owners decide to move to Germany for a year. The transplants spend the next year learning the farming ropes, meeting neighbors, and becoming a loved and integral part of the community. Almost before they know it, the Murphys are owners of nineteen farm animals (a goat, sheep, chickens, alpacas, turkeys...but purposely, no pigs) - and a lease that expires in just two months leaving them no place to go. 

Largely because Antonia Murphy writes with such a good sense of humor and irony, Dirty Chick is a fun memoir to read. The only warning I will give more "squeamish" readers is that Murphy does tend to focus on the scatological aspects of farming life. Farming can be, and usually is, a dirty business, one in which farmers are often up to their elbows in natural substances they would otherwise avoid at all cost. It's this kind of thing, however, that more easily shocked Antonia as she adjusted to farm life, and it is her lessening aversion to such things over the months that gauge her transformation from urbanite to farmer - so I get it.

The memoir ends with a short epilogue that sums up everything nicely, but it was written nine years ago, and I was curious about what has been going on in Antonia Murphy's life since 2014. I'll leave it up to the curious to Google her, but color me surprised...big time. 

(I discovered Dirty Chick via Jeane's review on her always interesting book blog Dogear Diary. Jeane's review can be found at this link.)

Sunday, July 09, 2023

Short Story Sunday: "You Never See Apaches..." by Elmore Leonard

Clip from an Elmore Leonard Youtube Video

Elmore Leonard is best known for his crime novels, several of which were made into successful Hollywood productions over the years, but it was the author's Western short stories for 1950s pulp magazines that actually jump-started Leonard's literary career. Hollywood adaptations of Leonard's western novels include: Hombre (starring Paul Newman in the lead role), 3:10 to Yuma, and Valdez Is Coming. Fans of Elmore Leonard's shorter work were also been blessed with the publication of a compilation of all of the author's "Western Stories" by publisher William Morrow in 2004. That one-volume collection, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, is home to all thirty of the author's western stories. 

I don't read as many short stories these days as I used to. That's partially my fault, and it's partially my library's fault because my local branch has eliminated its Short Story section in favor of shelving short story collections in the General Fiction section. So you have to know what you're looking for, or you have to depend on blind luck for finding new collections of interest, and that's the same hit-or-miss kind of browsing you are faced with on websites such as Amazon nowadays. Honestly, I never thought any library would adopt such a bad system - but my complaining about it have done exactly zero good. 

Luckily, my own shelves are filled with several hundred unread short stories in compilations I've dipped in and out of for years. I just need to keep reminding myself that they are there. 

So this afternoon I pulled my Elmore Leonard book off the shelf and read his fifteen-page story titled "You Never See Apaches..." -  a story first published in Dime Western Magazine in 1952 as "Eight Days from Wilcox." And I was totally immersed in the story's tense atmosphere by the time I turned the first page.


Angsman is a scout and tracker who has seen it all in his day. He's killed and almost been killed by warriors of various Western tribes since he was a young man - and he's no longer a young man. When three men come to him with a treasure map in hand and offer to make him rich if he leads them to  "one little X on a piece of paper," he knows it would be a mistake to tie-in with them. But the trouble, is that Angsman is bored, very bored, sitting around in Wilcox, and he's way past ready for a little adventure. 

Leonard creates three very different characters in the story for Angsman to deal with: the generally level-headed older man who was given the map by a prospector on his death bed, the young Mexican gunner who is smart enough to listen to the voice of experience, and another young gunslinger who thinks he's so smart (and fast) that he will live forever. Somewhat predictably it's the young gunslinger whose recklessness puts the other three men into a no-win situation in which someone is going to have to pay the ultimate price for daring to be where the Apache war leader catches them.

The plot itself is not a very surprising one in pulp magazines of the day. What is surprising is the talent Leonard exhibits for creating such believable characters in so few pages, plus the realistic dialogue between those characters, and the tenseness that the story's readers feel despite knowing what is likely to happen at the end of the day. I am a big fan of western novels and movies (having grown up on fifties and sixties television, how could I not be) and "You Never See Apaches..." pushed all the right buttons for me. I feel just like I once did after walking out of my hometown movie theater after a Saturday spent watching movies and serials all day long for 35 cents. 

I really miss Elmore Leonard.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

Library Haul...Now What?


I live relatively close to my local library (my wife would say too close), and it's by far the best branch in the entire county system. So I stop by the library at least once a week, and it's often twice a week. As a result, this stash has accumulated over the last two weeks or so, but luckily all of these were available for a six-week check out. They are stacked with the one due first placed on top of the stack, the ones due last at the bottom. I suspect that a few of you will recognize titles that you just reviewed yourselves in the last couple of weeks. If you do, just know that this is all your fault because that's why those titles ended up in this stack.

If this stack were all I planned to read in the next six weeks, I wouldn't have much of a problem, but that's not the case. From my own shelves, I am also about 120 pages into a 500-page Robert E. Lee biography (one written well after the Great Awakening that trashed the man's reputation and promises to set the record straight), a little over 100 pages into The Lineup anthology, well over 300 pages into my e-book copy of Your Perfect Year, plus about 100 pages into a review copy of Matt Coyle's series novel Odyssey's End. (I won't even talk about the other 10 books that are still on hold.)

And I know that you guys are going to keep adding to my immediate stack via the great books you all continue to uncover and review every week. I would think that something is seriously wrong with me except for the fact that I've read so many similar confessions on many of my favorite book blogs. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Review: The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen


Sometimes the perfect book comes into your life at exactly the moment you need it most. It's all part of the serendipity of life. I happened to be wandering around a Half Price Books location in my area because they had emailed me a 15% discount coupon in celebration of my birthday. Some of you know that I have a love/hate relationship with that particular book chain, entirely dependent on whether I'm wearing my buyer's hat or my seller's hat (a hat I have permanently retired) that day. That and the fact that Half Price books so unceremoniously closed up the store location 15 minutes from me, leaving me sitting sort of in between drives of 35 minutes or 45 minutes to two of their now-closest stores. It's a chore to get to either one of them in Houston traffic, so I hardly shop Half Price Books anymore and I used to spend a small fortune at the nearer location on a regular basis.

While browsing the store's tiny Literary Criticism section, I found Steve Leveen's 2005 book The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. It was only when I got it home that I noticed that this first edition copy is signed "Steve" even though it doesn't look as if the cover had been cracked open since Steve signed it. 

But it is definitely what is inside that makes this 111 page book so special to me - and I'm sure to others. The book is divided into five chapters titled:

  1. "Uncovering the Books That Will Change Your Life"
  2. "Seizing More from Your Reading"
  3. "Reading with Your Ears"
  4. "Sharing the Fellowship of Books"
  5. "A Life Uplifted"
In addition, are Leveen's great kick-off prologue and an extensive bibliography I plan to dig into as time allows. 

The Little Guide is filled with tips and so many quotes that I could barely keep up with them. The quotes and points may sound simplistic to your ear at first, but they all make legitimate points and offer encouragement to readers who don't feel comfortable following the beaten path that most readers take: a life of reading classics from "Great Books lists" compiled by others or one of chasing the bestseller hits that everyone else seems to be reading at the same time. As Leveen puts it in the prologue:
"Do not set out to live a well-read life but rather your well-read life. No one can be well-read using someone else's reading list Unless a book is good for you, you won't connect with it and gain from it. Just as no one can tell you how to lead your life, no one can tell you what to read for your life."

During Leveen's research for The Little Guide, he uncovered some of the best quotes about books and reading that I've ever seen in one place, and he's not bashful about sharing them here. These are some of my favorites:

"No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading now, or surrender yourself to self-ignorance." - Atwood H. Townsend, On Reading

"The way a book is read - which is to say the qualities a reader brings to a book - can have as much to do with its worth as anything the author puts into it...Anyone who can read can learn how to read deeply and thus live more fully." - Norman Cousins

"When one stops to consider what life would be like without the ability to read after age forty or thereabouts, and the consequences for the life of the mind in general, eyeglasses suddenly appear as important as the wheel." - Barbara Tuchman, The Book

And there are many, many others both from Leveen and from others. In fact, here's one last one from Leveen (perhaps my favorite quote in the whole book):

"While we should exercise our entire lives, we do not generally improve at physical activities after age thirty or so but merely retard physical aging. Reading is almost the opposite. If you have led an active reading life, your reading power at age eighty will tower over you reading power at age thirty."

I found the only discouraging (not intentionally discouraging on Leveen's part) thought in the book in its fourth chapter about "sharing the fellowship of books." I've kind of yearned to be part of a really good book group for years, but I've never been able to find one that feels comfortable - especially since the vast majority of them are populated 100% by women. And starting an all-male one or even a mixed one from scratch has always seemed too difficult a challenge. Several pages of Chapter 4 give all the reasons why more men are not part of book groups, the primary one being that women purposely won't have us because we change the whole "dynamic" of the group. I get it...but come on. Give a guy a chance.

I know you can sense my enthusiasm about The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life already, so I'll just end by saying if you are looking for something like this in your life right now, this is the one. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2023

Is Michael Connelly More Popular Than Louise Penny or Craig Johnson or...


Some of you may have noticed that I keep separate bibliography tabs at the top of my Home Page for ten favorite authors of mine - along with an eleventh tab listing all the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners by year. In looking over my "Last 30 Days" recap that Blogspot provides, I've often wondered if the number of page views for each of the author tabs accurately gauges current reader interest in this small group of writers:

  • Michael Connelly - Bosh series, Lincoln Lawyer series - 63
  • Louise Penny - Gamache series - 45 
  • Craig Johnson - Longmire series - 40
  • Ian Rankin - Rebus series - 40
  • James Lee Burke - Robicheaux series - 33
  • Larry McMurtry - Lonesome Dove - 31
  • Ruth Rendell - Inspector Wexford series - 30
  • Elizabeth George - Inspector Lynley series - 26
  • Ann Cleeves - Shetland series,  Vera Stanhope series - 20
  • Ann Tyler - quirky standalones - 18
I suspect that the readers most likely to stop by Book Chase do so because they see some of the titles I've reviewed. That would have a lot to do with why Ann Tyler is at the bottom of this small sample. Too, Larry McMurtry and Ruth Rendell are both deceased now, so I would expect some drop off in interest in their body of work now that they won't be producing new titles for the best seller lists (the out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing). But really, I think this is pretty much what I expected from this particular grouping.

What do you think? Does this 30-day sample accurately reflect who's hottest at the moment among these great writers? (I love statistics, but I know they can "prove" anything.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Do you guys write in your books? Why not?


With the exception of my college years, I spent the first 60 years of my reading life treating books as if they were my first born children. I read them so carefully that, if they were bound correctly in the first place, they looked as nice when I finished them as they did when I first cracked them open. I think it all started when I attended a Catholic parochial school for my first seven years of schooling. Books truly were precious in our tiny school library, and the Dominican nuns in charge made sure that we all knew it. Books were equally precious in my childhood home, as I was really the only one who was much of a reader at all, and often used my entire weekly allowance to buy books for my own tiny library. 

I've been a book buyer my whole life and, believe me, as book prices rose higher and higher over the decades, I really had to juggle the budget sometimes in order to bring new books home. But I did it - and the cost alone ensured that I took great care not to ruin any of them, especially by writing anything in them, including my name. 

But then I discovered used-book bookstores, and that discovery made me realize just how common and over-printed most books really are. They are kind of like that new car you drive off the lot only to realize that you've just eaten a whole year's worth of depreciation before you even get to make the first payment on it. The minute a book leaves a bookstore, it loses most of its monetary value. That's just a fact of life unless you're shopping in a rare books bookstore.

I would still never write in the first edition of any book that gets a very limited first edition pressing. Some of those have potential to become collector's items, and I have many debuts on my shelves that have done exactly that. But any book that gets a first printing of 100,000 or so is fair game, as are most instructional books, history books, business titles, etc. Those are doomed never to have any resale value, and their real value comes from the knowledge inside them. 

So about ten years ago, I began writing notes to myself in certain books (beginning with, I admit, "sticky notes," so that I could retrieve the info when I needed it for some reason - or just wanted to check my memory against something I'd read in a different book. Soon enough, I took to highlighting certain passages just like I had done in college and making my own notes in the margins in ink (although I do use an erasable pen just to keep it neater). And now I can't imagine not doing it even to novels that become or almost become bestsellers. 

Now, it can all be taken to the extreme, the way a New York friend of mine took it there about fifteen years ago. She absolutely hated flashbacks so much that she would dismantle a book so that she could rearrange the chapters so that the two plot lines could be read separately. First she would read the flashback chapters, and then she would tackle the current day chapters. She had a bookshelf filled with books held together by rubber bands because she was a big fiction fan and the alternating-chapter construction is so common in modern fiction. It worked for her, so who was I to argue with her about ripping up brand new books?

Heck, I even remember a couple of times that she took to solving mysteries by building her own police-like crime board filled with sticky notes and strings showing the connections between various characters and events. I doubt that anyone other than the authors understood those mysteries better than her when she was done. That woman was a hoot, and I absolutely loved talking books with her before she "ghosted me" for a reason I've never figured out...maybe I needed to make my own "crime board" to figure out what happened. you guys write in your books? If not, why do you think that is; I know that library books are off limits, etc. If you do write in them, when did you begin doing so, and was it something that evolved gradually over time as it did for me? Let me know how you feel about writing in your books.