Thursday, August 31, 2023

Dickens and Prince - Nick Hornby


Comparing Charles Dickens to Prince is not something I would have ever dreamed of doing, but then I'm not Nick Hornby. A book like Dickens and Prince is also something I would have been unlikely to have ever read if it were written by someone other than Nick Hornby.

"Were they happy? Probably not. Were they crazy? Probably...This book is about work, and nobody ever worked harder than these two, or at a higher standard, while connecting with so many people for so long." Page 159

 Dickens and Prince is a 159-page essay in which Nick Hornby expresses his theory that Charles Dickens and Prince shared a particular type of artistic genius that turned each of them into one of the most prolific and hardest working artists ever seen. In order to make that case, Hornby compares certain characteristics in the men's personal make-up and the lives they lived, with a separate chapters devoted to each characteristic.

Hornby not only believes that there is more to the two than that they "literally had more than their fair share of talent." He wonders why, with that kind of talent, they were both driven to work so much harder at their crafts than all of their contemporaries. He goes on to speculate about how they may have been damaged both personally and professionally by their immense talent, and that their exceptional talent may have even killed both of them.

The mostly self-explanatory chapter headings of the book are:

  • Childhood
  • Their Twenties
  • The Movies
  • The Working Life
  • The Business
  • Women
  • The End
What Hornby has done with Dickens and Prince is build a strong case that neither of the men were ever satisfied with their accomplishments, so they continued to be strongly driven to produce more and more their whole lives - even to the point of eventually working themselves into early graves. There can be no doubt that Dickens and Prince produced more in their limited years than almost anyone we can compare them to, yet neither of them reached sixty years of age. 

I'm happy that the "Nick Hornby" on the book's cover caught my eye when it did or I would have likely missed out on what I think is a solid four-star book.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Librarianist - Patrick deWitt


Patrick deWitt is not a very prolific writer, and this is only the second novel of his that I've read, but as I felt just after reading The Sisters Brothers a few years ago, I can't wait to see what's next. I just hope it doesn't take so long for me to "rediscover" deWitt next time around.

The Librarianist is not a novel that I would have ever expected from Patrick deWitt because in so many ways it is completely different from his novel The Sisters Brothers, a wild shoot-em-up western with great characters. The Librarianist does explore some of the same issues addressed in that one, but the setting is closer to the present day this time, and the main character is a 71-year-old retired librarian searching for some meaning to the rest of his life. Librarian Bob Comet could not be more different from either of the Sisters brothers if he tried. The laugh-out-loud humor that made The Sisters Brothers so much fun is replaced here by a more subtle, but no less effective, style of humor that keeps sneaking up on the reader when least expected.

The rest of Bob's life begins on the morning that he stumbles upon a near catatonic woman while on one of his daily walks and decides to return her to a nearby assisted-living facility. Bob has not felt so useful in a long time, so he decides to volunteer some regular hours at the center mingling with its residents and day- care visitors. But exactly who is Bob Comet and how did he manage to reach this late stage of his life with no family or friends anywhere to be found?

Patrick deWitt uses flashbacks to fill in those blanks. What is a little different about deWitt's flashbacks, however, is that they take up the bulk of the novel and, the longer one reads them, the younger Bob becomes, ending with a long section about the time Bob ran away from home, before finally returning to the present. I admit to getting a little frustrated at times by the length of the flashback section of the book, but by the time I finished that section I realized just how well I now knew the Bob Comet character and what made him the man he turned out to be. And then deWitt hit me with an ending that so effectively tied everything together, that my rating jumped a whole star based on the construction of the novel I had been questioning. 

From what I see, The Librarian is getting mixed reviews, but I'm rating it a full four stars because I find it so memorable a story. 

Patrick deWitt (jacket photo)

Monday, August 28, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (August 28)

 Despite a busy week that cut deeply into my reading hours, I still somehow managed to read a decent number of pages. That allowed me to complete four of the eight books I came into the week reading (The Revivalists, Satan Is Real, Flags on the Bayou, and The Constant Soldier), and I decided to abandon one other (American Ramble).That means that three (The Librarianist, Cleveland Noir, and Dickens and Prince) will be carried into the new week - and that several newbies will be added:

I've expressed my love of Mary Lawson's novels before, and at least through the first 30 pages I'm happy to see that A Town Called Solace is every bit as good as I'd hoped it would be. It's a complicated story of a still-missing 16-year-old girl who ran away from home. The story unfolds from three different viewpoints: the missing girl's little sister, the old woman who lives next door, and the old woman's thirty-something son who has recently come to town.

Mick Herron is a relatively new favorite of mine, but I've already read almost everything he's had published in the U.S. I am, of course, a big fan of his Slough House series, but Herron's standalones make for exciting reading also. The Secret Hours, set for a September 12 publication date, is one of those standalones. It's all about an investigation of MI5 that reveals a classified 1994 Berlin operation that went horrifically bad and has been covered up for the last thirty years.

I enjoyed reading Somebody's Fool so much a few days ago, that I decided to go back and re-read this first book in Richard Russo's North Bath trilogy. I first read the novel back in the mid-nineties sometime, so believe me when I tell you that other than already being familiar with the recurring characters, it's like reading the novel for the first time. At 560 pages, it's another long one, but reading it so close to finishing the novel that ends the series makes Nobody's Fool read more like a fun prequel than the standalone it must have felt like when I first read it in the nineties.

I have read and enjoyed a couple of Brian Kilmeade's histories in the past, and I'm hoping that I enjoy Teddy and Booker T as much as I enjoyed those. This one is about how much of the country reacted in 1901 when Teddy Roosevelt made the famous Booker T. Washington  part of his inner circle of counselors.  Apparently, both Roosevelt and Washington were surprised by the wave of racist violence that followed Teddy's decision. The book will be published on November 7, 2023.

Those will start me off with seven active books, but I'm already fairly close to finishing two of them, so it's not as ambitious a week as it may appear to be at first glance. I spent most of yesterday at two different urgent care centers with my grandson who suffered a deltoid muscle tear at work early Sunday morning, so I didn't get a lot done reading-wise. I suspect that this new week will happen at a lot slower pace, though - at least I hope so - because it almost has to. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

The Constant Soldier - William Ryan


There is a lot of World War II fiction out there to choose from, but William Ryan's The Constant Soldier takes one of the more unusual approaches to the subject I've come across in a while. The narrator of Ryan's story is a young man who is only in the German army at all because he and a young woman had been arrested in occupied Poland as suspected agitators. Given the choice of army or prison, Paul Brandt chose the military option.

Now he is back home, a terribly maimed soldier who is pitied by most of his neighbors, but resented by many others because of his service to the Germans. Brandt is not proud of what he did on the Eastern Front, and he is battling demons of his own making. Then on one of the long walks Brandt uses to calm himself, he spots what he will later learn is a "rest hut" for the SS officers running the Auschwitz concentration camp twenty miles away. Appallingly, he also recognizes one of the female prisoners being forced to work in the rest hut, the very woman for whose arrest he still feels a terrible responsibility.

Now he has to find a way to keep her alive.

What William Ryan offers here is more than the usual war thriller. The Constant Soldier provides insight into the mindset of the SS officers and the civilian population surrounding the camp. As the novel evolves, some of the officers will recognize the evilness of what they have done but others will still take pleasure from what they do every day. Polish civilians, already under suspicion for simply being Polish, will manage to form a resistance of sorts, but most will have to resign themselves to simply trying to keep their own families alive. 

All the elements of a thriller are here, but it is Ryan's exploration of the minds of characters on both sides of the fight that make The Constant Soldier such a standout in the World War II historical fiction genre.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Flags on the Bayou - James Lee Burke


James Lee Burke has often alluded to the South's Civil War history in the past and has even set whole novels during that period, so this is not new territory for him. Flags on the Bayou, however, has the feel of being Burke's final statement on the impact that slavery and a war to defend slavery still has on America's southern region today. As he so often does, Burke reminds readers again that evil men are capable of just about any level of violence toward others - and he does it here in very explicit prose.

The novel is set in late 1863, a few months after the tides of war have turned against the Confederate states for good. During a period in which Southern commanders are trying to regroup their armies and come up with an effective plan to counter major defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, New Iberia, Louisiana, finds itself plagued by a group of Southern irregulars under the leadership of a man who thrives on murder, rape, and looting.  

Burke tells his story through the eyes of several diverse characters whose fates suddenly seem to be tied together:

  • Wade Lufkin - the pacifist nephew of an elderly plantation owner who has taken him in
  • Pierre Cauchon - the local sheriff who gets little respect from anyone, including the military, wealthy whites, and slaves, but who doggedly keeps trying to enforce the law
  • Hannah Laveau - a slave, and cousin of the famous Marie Laveau, who wants more than anything else to find the young son she lost during the Battle of Shiloh
  • Florence Milton - a white woman (she is antislavery) who was raised in the North but still appreciates some attributes of Southern society
  • Colonel Carleton Hayes - the vicious leader of a large contingent of irregulars/terrorists who have more control over southwest Louisiana than anyone else
  • Darla Babineaux - a slave woman who "jumps the broom" with Pierre Cauchon and has grown to love and depend on him   
The novel reaches its climax at the point in which the fates of all six narrators finally collide in a cloud of utter violence and death.

I have seen elsewhere that Burke considers Flags on the Bayou his "best work." He even confidently makes that remark in the book's Acknowledgments section. I am a longtime fan (I just counted up thirty-six previous Burke novels I've read) of Mr. Burke's work, and I have to disagree with him on that point. Flags on the Bayou is a haunting novel and the narrators are memorable ones, but in my estimation, the narrative was over-the-top on multiple occasions. Some of the craziness involved made the plot less "real" to me, and lessened the effectives of what I think its intended message was. 

Rated at a solid three stars 

Friday, August 25, 2023

My Very First Book Club Meeting - Ever

I'm about to leave for the very first book club meeting I've ever attended in my whole life. I've always wondered about book clubs, but never managed to hook up with one that felt like it might be a fit for me because most of them have near 100% female membership. This sounds sounds a little different, and because I've been invited to attend the meeting by a friend, I'm thinking it's going to be a lot of fun. The clincher is that they are discussing one of my very favorite books.

Michael Punke's Ridgeline takes center stage this evening - and guess what? It's a club in which the host provides food somewhat related to the book being discussed. Considering the 1866 western setting of Ridgeline, beef brisket is the perfect choice for this meet-up. 

But because I read the book almost three years ago, I've been reviewing my April 2021 review and flipping through the book itself most of the afternoon. It will be interesting to see if others enjoyed the story of the 1866 Fetterman Massacre as much as I did. Punke is a historical novelist who bases as much of his plot as he can on facts and real people. He then fills in the blanks. Since history cannot tell us who was responsible for following a small band of Native Americans into a 2000-warrior ambush, Punke comes up with what seems to be the most likely answer. The official Army cover-up on the massacre details was a massive effort by some very influential civilians and military men, and at the very least, the book exposes them as the conscious frauds they were.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Satan Is Real - Charlie Louvin & Benjamin Whitmer


Sadly, Charlie Louvin died a year before Satan Is Real, the Louvin Brothers biography he co-wrote with Benjamin Whitmer, was published in 2012. Charlie, though, is very alive within the pages of the book, because Satan Is Real employs a very conversational style to tell the Louvin Brothers story. One can easily imagine that the book was taken from recordings of Charlie just sitting back and telling stories one after the other as he recalled them. 

When they were growing up on a small farm in Sand Mountain, Alabama, Charlie and Ira Loudermilk could never have imagined that they would grow up to become world famous as Charlie and Ira Louvin, The Louvin Brothers. But the two immensely talented and driven boys would do exactly that, and in this frank and revealing biography Charlie recounts how it all happened. The boys grew up during The Depression, and they were expected to help their father put food on the table by working long hours in the fields and around the house. They did that, but it did not stop them from discovering a love of music that stayed with the brothers for the rest of their lives.

The tragedy of the Louvin Brothers, of course, is that Ira also discovered that he could cope with neither his out-of-control addiction to alcohol nor with his resentment towards his father about the way he was raised. Charlie had neither of these problems; instead, his problem was that he found it more and more difficult to cope with Ira's destructive habits and behavior. Hauntingly, the brothers were no longer singing as a duo when Ira and several people in his car were killed in a head-on collision in Kansas in 1965.

Along the way, the Louvin Brothers created some of the most beautiful vocal harmonies the world has ever heard while creating songs that are today considered true country music classics. The first songs they learned to sing together at the feet of their mother were those brought with them by some of America's earliest settlers. Like so many who came before and after them, they honed their skills in their small church, one in which everyone was encouraged to express their emotions in song. And then they hit the road, and they sang, even for free, anywhere that anyone would listen to them. It took a long time for the Louvin Brothers to achieve some measure of success and respect, but when that opportunity came, they were certainly ready.

Charlie Louvin uses some rather blunt, a time or two even bordering on lewd, language in Satan Is Real, but I found that this choice only added to the truth of what Louvin reveals about his and Ira's lives. As the back cover puts it, "Satan Is Real epic tale of two brothers bound together by love, hate, alcohol, blood, and music." In my estimation, this is a solid four-star biography. 

Aside: This rather unusual book cover is actually a mashup using an a Lovin Brothers gospel music album cover and the elements of a book cover. Below, is that album cover:

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

The Revivalists - Christopher M. Hood


Christopher M. Hood's The Revivalists promised to be a perfect fit to my reading tastes because I'm a fan of well plotted post-apocalyptic novels as well as a fan of accounts of long road trips, be those fictional on nonfictional. Although I didn't end up enjoying this one as much as I expected I would, it did mostly turn out to be a fun book to read.

The novel begins in the aftermath of a new worldwide pandemic that by some estimates has eliminated 60-70% of the world's population, something like five billion people. Governments across the globe have collapsed, survivors (called "dippers") have come out the other side of the virus with immunity, and anarchic gangs control large regions of America's roadways. The virus, dubbed the Shark Flu, was unleashed after Iceland's permafrost began to melt, and no one saw that coming.  And after the virus rapidly spread around the world via airline travel, there was simply no time for anyone to come up with a plan that could have stopped it in time.

Now, the best solution for most people is to remain where they are if conditions there allow them to survive on their own or with the cooperation of neighbors, friends, and family. One couple, however, is not content to stay in New York because their college student daughter was in California when the transportation system collapsed, and now it seems that she has joined some crazy religious cult. So Penelope and Bill decide to drive across the country, not having any idea if that is even possible, in order to bring their daughter home - whether she wants to come home or not.

Along the way, the two will have to make their way through various communities and groups that will do their best to stop them in their tracks. Some of the people they encounter are eager to kill them for what few possessions they carry, some are wanting to enslave them, and others want them to pay for the privilege of using the highways under their control. But Penelope and Bill are determined to keep moving west until they drop.

The Revivalists has all the makings of a great plot, so why did I lose some of my enthusiasm about the book? It all boils down to just how completely I could suspend my disbelief for the duration of the novel, something I don't usually have a problem doing. In this case, it was easy enough to suspend disbelief that global warming could really unleash an ancient virus that has been trapped beneath Iceland's permafrost for thousands of years. The difficulty I ran into was suspending my disbelief that two people could make so many dumb decisions in a few days and survive them all. Some...maybe...but these two didn't seem to learn much from anything that happened to them.

That's why I'm rating The Revivalists a three-star novel. As soon as I found myself talking back to Bill and Penelope, I suppose that was bound to happen. 

Monday, August 21, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (August 21)

 I read quite a number of pages last week, but in the process, I still ended up acquiring several more books than I completed. I met up with my brother in a neighboring small town for lunch and a quick swap of books, and came home with four new ones that way - but I managed to give him over twenty at the same time, so I created some shelf space via the swap (a really good thing). Now add in three review copies that came in through the mail, along with five library pick-ups, and I'm more stacked up than ever. 

I did finish three of the books I began the week reading and decided to return one other to the library unread because I was just not feeling at all excited about even beginning it. Also, I'm about 70% done with the week's other two selections and enjoying both of them, so all in all, it was a successful week. The in-progress books are Satan Is Real by Charlie Louvin (a Louvin Brothers bio) and the apocalyptic novel The Revivalists by Christopher M. Hood. Both of those should be finished and reviewed here this week. 

Here are the new ones on the horizon:

American Ramble is one of those long-walk books I'm so fond of. In this case, Neil King Jr. recounts the highlights of his hike from his Washington DC home all the way to New York City. King is a recent cancer survivor, and his aim for the rest of his life is to truly relish and get the most out of every day he has left. With that in mind, he is walking backroads with a planned schedule in mind, but is still willing to let serendipity rule the day whenever he crosses the paths of interesting people or places.

Patrick deWitt first came to my attention a while back with his novel The Sisters Brothers, and I've been a fan ever since. The Librarianist is the fictional biography of a now 71-year-old former librarian who lives alone, has no friends to speak of, and is looking for a new purpose in life. The book begins as Bob Comet stumbles upon a lost elderly woman in a convenience store and walks her back to the facility from which she's wandered away. The bulk of the book, though, is a flashback to Bob's life before that fateful day. 

Sometimes it feels like I've been a James Lee Burke fan forever, so I've been looking forward to Flags on the Bayou for a while. It's the story of Civil War Louisiana as seen through the eyes of several alternating characters: a slave woman, an elderly plantation owner, that plantation owner's pacifist nephew, the local sheriff, and the leader of a renegade band of former Confederate regulars who is terrorizing that part of the state, among them. It's a novel that reads quickly but tells an intriguing tale. Not sure yet just how realistic a tale, but...we'll see.

I've lost count of exactly how many of the Akashic Books noir short story collections I've read now, but it must be at least twenty of them. Each of the collections is very dark, in the old style, and most of the stories are written by writers native to, or who have other close ties to, the city in the title. Some of the authors are world famous, of course, but some of the best stories always come from writers I was introduced to for the first time in these collections. I'm anxious to get into this one to see how it compares those I've already read.

I see that William Ryan's The Constant Soldier was initially published in 2016, but I recently acquired an early-read copy of this soon to be published edition of the novel. It's set in Germany during World War II, and its main character is a man who has returned home after having been terribly disfigured in battle. He soon learns of a "rest camp" for SS officers that is nearby, and that a woman whose arrest he feels responsible for is one of the women being forced to work there. 

Nick Hornby is another of those guys I've been a fan of for a long time. Hornby is kind of all over the map, but Dickens and Prince seemed like kind of a stretch even for Hornby before I started reading it. Hornby believes that Charles Dickens and recording star Prince shared a particular kind of genius that made them as awesomely productive as they were - especially while both were still in their twenties. I have to say he's making a strong argument in favor of his case.

So that's where my Monday morning begins. But Monday is going to be a lost reading day because I'm off to the town I grew up in (about 110 miles southeast of here) to have lunch with a few folks I graduated high school with way back in the mid-sixties. I do hope you all have wonderful books lined up for the week, too...can't wait to hear all about them.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Where Coyotes Howl - Sandra Dallas


Sandra Dallas is known for her historical fiction about the ordinary people who chose to make new lives for themselves in northwest America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have read several of Dallas's earlier novels, so I knew of her work well before finding her latest novel, Where Coyotes Howl, in the library. But I have to tell you that it is the book's wonderful cover that first caught my eye. (Proving yet again that cover art is a big, big deal in the publishing world.)

Where Coyotes Howl begins in 1916 when Ellen Webster, a young woman who accepted a schoolteaching position sight unseen, arrives in tiny Wallace, Wyoming, to begin teaching in the town's little one-room schoolhouse. This part of Wyoming is not at all how Ellen pictured it in her mind before leaving Iowa, and she is a bit stunned at what she sees in every direction: the horizon. But as seems to be the pattern with Wallace schoolteachers, Ellen will barely finish the first school year before leaving to marry a young cowboy whose eye she caught almost as soon as she stepped off the train on her first day in Wallace.

The novel focuses on what life was like for the "pioneer" women of the West even well into the twentieth century. Making a go of a small ranch/farm was never a given, and the prairie was dotted with the abandoned homesteads of those who failed to make it work for them. Whole families were likely to pack up and leave quietly every spring after having desperately struggled to survive the previous winter. But life in the West was especially precarious for women. For some it would be death during the birth of a child, for others being moved to an asylum after having lost their minds due to the extreme isolation that surrounded them during the long winters. 

Where Coyotes Howl is another memorable Sandra Dallas novel, one in which Dallas pulls no punches about the day-to-day struggle so many families endured in order to begin their lives anew with a decent chance of bettering themselves. It was a time when every neighbor was a valuable asset, a time when survival really did depend on "treating your neighbor as yourself." It was a tough world, one in which wives and mothers usually had to play the  toughest roles, a world that Sandra Dallas vividly brings to life in Where Coyotes Howl. 

Thursday, August 17, 2023

A Killing of Innocents - Deborah Crombie


A Killing of Innocents is the nineteenth novel in Deborah Crombie's remarkable Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series. As this one begins, Gemma (Duncan's wife) has been assigned to a special task force studying knife crimes, and she is no longer carrying a specific caseload of her own. But when a young London doctor is expertly stabbed to death while rushing across Russell Square, Duncan immediately gets Gemma involved in his investigation of the murder. 

Dr. Sasha Johnson has recently faced some personal stress in her life, but her knifing seems to be almost as random as a lightning strike to the detectives trying to find a motive for her murder. Without a motive, they don't know where to begin, and it is only after a nurse from the same hospital suffers a fate similar to Sasha's that detectives begin to realize just how complicated a case they have on their hands. When Duncan and his team begin yanking on all the loose threads, they learn that they almost have more potential suspects than investigators can keep straight. 

All of Crombie's novels spend as much time exploring the family dynamics of the Kincaid-James marriage, and the personal lives of their support staff, as they spend on solving the actual crime in question. A Killing of Innocents is no exception. Gemma and Melody both find themselves in department positions they are not very happy with, and both yearn to get back into the action. The family's hodgepodge three children are very much in the picture: the oldest son's calling is cooking and he loves preparing the family meals, the other son has discovered dance and how good he is at it, and the little girl the family took in is still traumatized by nightmares.

As they go, A Killing of Innocents is pretty standard stuff for this series. That's not to say that the novel is not entertaining, even intriguing at times; it's more to say that Crombie has set the bar so high for herself  in previous novels, that it is not going to be easy for her to keep topping herself over a series as long as this one now is. Now I'm looking forward to seeing what Chapter 20 of the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series brings readers next year.

I rate this one a solid three stars. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Chenneville by Paulette Jiles


Union officer John Chenneville suffered a terrible head wound shortly before the end of the Civil War, and he remains in a Virginia hospital long after the war before he suddenly surprises everyone by regaining consciousness. But even after John finally makes it back to his Missouri home, he can remember very little of life there before the war, and details are slow to come back to him. For weeks, his health is deemed to be still so precarious, in fact, that John's uncle fears giving him some tragic family news: John's sister, her husband, and their baby boy have all been brutally murdered...and the man responsible is going to get away with it. 

A.J. Dodd is out there somewhere, and now all John Chenneville can think about is finding him - and killing him. It will be another year before John is physically able to begin the chase, one that will take him all the way from Missouri to Texas. Once Dodd figures out exactly who is so determined to find him, it is all he can do to stay one frustrating step after another ahead of his pursuer, but he does. 

Sometime on foot, sometime on horseback, John refuses to give up the chase despite the numerous setbacks he encounters. This, however, is more than just a test of the man's physical endurance. As the miles mount up, John will as often be threatened by murderous scoundrels as he will meet kindhearted people wanting to help him find Dodd. The problem is in telling one from the other.

In John Chenneville, Paulette Jiles has created a memorable character, one that becomes more and more real to readers as they come to know him. John is a good man, but he is a man whose pride and love of family demands that he avenge the death of his sister and her family. He has no other choice, and he knows it. He will think of little else until he confronts Dobbs face-to-face. But as the miles begin to take their toll, John can't help but wonder if he will ever find the man:

"He was deeply afraid of another disappointment, another dead end. He was afraid not of other men but of despair." 

 Call it historical fiction, call it a western, but what this is is a novel about a man who has had his future stolen from him, and who knows he will never be able to get it back. Now someone has to pay, and John Chenneville knows exactly who that is.

Paulette Jiles (Texas Monthly photo)

Monday, August 14, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (August 14)

 Last week worked out pretty well for me mainly because the library didn’t notify me to come in and pick up any held books. That's about to change this week, however, because I got an email yesterday saying that five books are now being held and another is "in transit." At least two of those have long lines behind me, so they will have to be given top priority when I pick them up on Wednesday (on the way home from a dreaded dental appointment).

Looking back, I see that I finished three of the six books I began the week with, abandoned another, and am still reading the other two. So this is what's planned for the week ahead:

I started this one mid-week and I'm about 200 pages into it now. It's Deborah Crombie's nineteenth Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novel, and I'm really getting into the story now. A Killing of Innocents is about a young doctor who is knifed to death while walking across London's Russell Square at the end of a rainy day. The victim is dead before she hits the ground but only one little boy actually saw the murder take place. What is feared to be a random killing turns out to be something very different.

I love the writing of Paulette Jiles, but I was having a little trouble warming up to her soon-to-be published novel Chenneville until near its midpoint. Then something clicked for me, and now I find myself racing through the second half of this story about a man seeking vengeance for the murder of several members of his family. I had to chuckle this morning when I found that one of the most despicable characters in the book happens to share my very own surname. Jiles is a Texas writer so I wonder if she's familiar with the little town not too terribly far from where she lives that goes by the same name. It's not a common name, so I'd love to ask her about it one day. 

Sandra Dallas writes wonderful historical fiction about the American northwest, and Where Coyotes Howl is another good one. It tells the story of a young school teacher who takes a job offer in a tiny Wyoming community in 1916. She almost immediately catches the eye of a young cowboy there and barely finishes the school year before she finds herself married and living own a small ranch in the middle of nowhere. Now she has to adapt to an entirely new and unexpected lifestyle if she is to survive.

Believe it or not, the cover of Satan Is Real is pretty much a copy of a gospel music album released by The Louvin Brothers in 1959. It is actually the biography of the brothers written by Charlie Louvin and Benjamin Whitmer in 2012. I've been meaning to read this one for several years but have just now gotten around to it. It's one of those memoirs that was probably pulled together from taped interviews and thoughts of the author, and it reads that way. Some of the language used in the narrative is almost shocking based on the standards of 2023 even though this book is only eleven years old. Even so, I am finding that it makes for a fascinating read.

Covid-19 was a piece of cake compared to the Shark Flu that springs from Iceland's melting permafrost one October. By December everything around the world has stopped, and the lucky survivors are just trying to hang on. As one character puts it, "it is no longer relevant whether the application of twenty-first century medical science was the equal of the virus because we no longer lived in the twenty-first century." The flu spreads so quickly because no one is willing to suffer the restrictions experienced during the first two years of the covid pandemic again so they refuse to play the game. 

I haven't started this one yet, so I'll rely on the jacket for some information. Robie is the only passenger on a cargo flight; she's acquainted with the pilot but does not know anything about the co-pilot. When the plane suffers engine failure, Robie finds herself fighting for her life in the water until the co-pilot pulls her onto a life raft. They have no water, and their only food is a single bag of Skittles candy. There is an island ahead but no one knows where they are..."and that's when the real terror begins."

I'm hoping for another good reading week, and I'm pleased with all of the ones I’ve mentioned, plus the ones I'll be picking up in a couple of days. That doesn't even account for the stack that's already lined up behind this bunch, so it’s time to get started. 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Review: Waypoints: My Scottish Journey by Sam Heughan


Actor Sam Heughan is one of those lucky people who get to work at their childhood dream job for the rest of their lives, and to his credit Heughan knows exactly how fortunate he is and truly appreciates it all. In Waypoints: My Scottish Journey, he uses the five days it took him to complete a 96-mile walk across the Scottish Highlands to reflect upon his life and how he has ended up as perhaps the biggest star of the still-ongoing Starz series Outlander. It is a journey that readers will be happy to take right alongside him.

The walk itself physically tested Heughan to an extent he never imagined it would when he started out on his spur-of-the-moment trek. It is the wrong season to be tackling the walk in the first place, and Heughan's last minute enthusiasm the night before he begins walking results in him buying way too much camping gear for even a man his size to carry on his back for what will turn out to be more than 100 miles of rugged hiking and mountain climbing. Despite coming close to giving up at one point, Heughan, largely through the kindness of strangers who come along just when he needs them, finally figures out how to get the job done. Still walking largely on his own, however, he learns as much about himself and the kind of man he wants to be as he does about getting up and down the trail from Point A to Point B. Waypoints, you see, is about more than one "Scottish Journey."

Sam Heughan is an interesting man who was blessed with a remarkable mother who raised him and his older brother on her own. Heughan's father abandoned the family when Sam was just two, so he has no memory of ever having a father at home. His mother, however, recognized her son's acting ambitions early in his life, and she made sure that he was always in a school that would allow him to hone his skills, even to relocating the family when that became necessary. Heughan's perseverance ultimately paid off in the career-making role as Jamie in Outlander, but a whole lot had to happen before that lucky break made him into the star he is today.

As Heughan puts it:

"For me, this journey has removed the noise and demands of everyday life to remind me that we're all just passing from one waypoint to the next. What matters is that we can look back at each stage knowing that we made the most of it." Page 233

Or as C.S. Lewis put it in this Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian quote offered by Heughan, "Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?" 

Heughan has structured the book so that each chapter contains several alternating sections covering his life with what he is experiencing on the actual walk across the Highlands. The structure works well for the most part, my only complaint being that some of the segments are individually too short - just when I was sinking into them, they were too suddenly over and I was having to switch reading gears again. Sam Heughan fans are sure to enjoy the book, and I suspect that readers unfamiliar with Outlander or Heughan are going to become fans of the man they meet for the first time in Waypoints. (I'm calling this one a solid 3.5 stars rounded up to 4 stars for rating purposes.)

Friday, August 11, 2023

Review: Somebody's Fool by Richard Russo


Somebody's Fool is the third book in Richard Russo's series featuring Donald "Sully" Sullivan and his family. The two preceding books are titled Nobody's Fool (1993) and Everybody's Fool (2016). I have to admit that the number of years between the sequels did make Somebody's Fool read more like a standalone at first, but once I became reacquainted with the characters and their relationships, it all started to feel like one big reunion. It was fun to catch up again with everyone in North Bath, New York. (Please do note that Somebody's Fool can definitely be enjoyed as a standalone.)

By this point in the story, "Sully" has been dead for ten years and he would barely recognize all the changes in North Bath. For one thing, the town is being annexed by the larger, wealthier community that abuts it - and the North Bath police department is being eliminated. Peter, Sully's son is still in North Bath, and is dutifully checking in on everyone on the list that Sully left behind for him while he renovates the old house Sully inherited shortly before his death. Sully would like that a lot. But things take a much less positive turn one day when one of Peter's two estranged sons suddenly appears on his doorstep carrying a grudge about the way that Peter abandoned him and his younger brother years ago to their crazy mother to raise. Now Peter worries that he has been as bad a father to his three boys as Sully was to him. And it looks like he's right.

As readers of the earlier books will remember, however, this series is not just about the Sullivans. All of the old characters, along with a few new ones, also get their day in the sun in this one. 

Ruth (Sully's married mistress) is struggling to find a reason to go on, caught in the middle, as she is, between her daughter and her granddaughter. Doug Raymer, the newly jobless police chief of North Bath, is wondering what will be next for him now that his former girlfriend has been appointed police chief in the annexing city, but he barely has time to figure things out before a body is found hanging in an abandoned North Bath hotel. Because Raymer is so familiar with everyone in town, it makes sense that he be hired to help figure out what that is all about - and he even inherits the mixed-up twin brother of his ex-lover to help him in the investigation.

Richard Russo (jacket photo)
As you can see, it is all rather complicated, but Russo does a masterful job telling the story by alternating chapters between the two main threads of the plot: what's going on with Peter and his sons, and what's happening with Raymer and his investigation while he tries to get back together with his ex. All of the secondary characters (some of whom prove not to be secondary at all in the end) come and go in both threads until everything merges beautifully by the end of the book. Russo has done it again. (I'm going to call this one a 4.5-star book, rounded up to 5 stars for rating purposes.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Review: The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks by Shauna Robinson


Shauna Robinson's The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks is one of those light fantasies that avid readers really enjoy immersing themselves into for a few days...especially when, as in this one, an appealing bookstore is thrown into the mix. 

Lead character Maggie Banks is a young woman between jobs, so coming to Bell River to run a friend's bookshop while that friend goes on maternity leave is a complete no-brainer. Maggie plans to be in and out of Bell River in a matter of weeks so that she can resume her job search. But something happens; Maggie finds herself falling in love with the town, many of its residents, and one special guy who just so happens to work for the bookstore's majority owner - who turns out to be also the store's worst enemy. By buying controlling interests in various businesses in town, this man has been able to transform Bell River into a shrine to his dead grandfather, Edward Bell, a mid-century author whose reputation he fiercely protects and profits from. 

According to legend, Edward Bell wrote his breakthrough novel at a small table inside what is now Cobblestone Books. For that reason, Cobblestone has become almost a Bell museum and the store is now forbidden to sell any book published after 1968. Notably, there are no other bookstores in town, and the only reliable customers Cobblestone has are literary tourists who come there to purchase Bell's books along with an occasional classic.

Maggie, though, is not a rule-follower, and she is determined to make the store more profitable during her friend's absence. That, as it turns out, translates into selling books "under the counter" and an upstairs bookclub that finds creative ways to rewrite the classics being sold downstairs in the bookshop. Disaster, of course, is always a breath away because the Bell grandson is inevitably going to find out what is really responsible for the increased sales at Cobblestone sooner or later. And when he does...well you can imagine what will happen.

I had a lot of fun reading The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks, but I was a little disappointed in the way its ultimate climax is resolved. What happens is predictable, but that's not really my gripe. It comes down to more of a problem with how drastically one of the principle characters very suddenly has to change personality in order for this particular ending to make any sense at all. Bell River's problems are just too easily and quickly resolved for me to have felt comfortable in that wonderful fantasy world all the way to the end. Of course, other readers may consider that all part of the fantasy world that Robinson creates here. If they do, they will absolutely love The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks.

Shauna Robinson

Monday, August 07, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (August 7, 2023)

 Last week was another good reading week for me during which I managed to read and review four of the six books I came into the week reading. I also made good progress on Richard Russo's Somebody's Fool and Shauna Robinson's The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks. And, happily enough, I'm really enjoying both of those - despite how really different from each other they are.

So I'll start with those two and then add the other books I've started or am about to start:

Richard Russo is the absolute master of the slowly building climax. Just about the time the reader begins to wonder where it is all headed, all of the seemingly unimportant, individual dramas in a Russo novel start to combine in ways that were hard to anticipate. I'm 300 pages into Somebody's Fool, and the intricacies of this one are finally growing clearer to me; now I'm finding it difficult to put the book down. I realized this morning that even though I've read about half of Russo's back catalogue, there's a whole lot of his work yet to enjoy and look forward to.

I keep saying (mostly to myself) that books like this one are not really the kind of thing I enjoy reading - but once again a Rom-Com of a novel is proving to be a whole lot of fun. I have about 75 pages to go, and The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks is right on the verge of reaching its long anticipated climax. It's all very far fetched, especially in the current business climate, but the characters are pretty much all enjoyable, even the villain of the piece, so it verifies that any book with "bookshop" in the title deserves at least a second look.

Actor Sam Heughan is, of course, best known for his leading role in the long-running Outlander series. About the only other thing I knew about the man when I began Waypoints is his extreme love of, and pride in, his Scottish heritage. I'm about 40 pages in, and have learned that Waypoints is as much a biography as it is a memoir about the author's 96-mile solo trek across the Scottish Highlands in the dead of winter. I've also learned that Heughan's prose is not all that compelling, but it's definitely enough to keep me turning the pages.

Chenneville (the last name of this historical novel's main character) is scheduled for a mid-September publication. I'm a fan of the novels of Paulette Jiles, so I was really pleased to get my hands on an advance reading copy of this one. I'm about 40% done now, and this story of a wounded Union soldier who returns to his family home near St. Louis several months after the war only to learn the tragedies his family suffered during the war is a compelling one. Set on personal revenge, Chenneville is tracking down the man responsible for what happened - from Missouri to Texas.

Fans of the kind of "pulp fiction" written primarily in the forties and fifties are likely familiar with the name Cornell Woolrich, one of the best, and most underrated, writer of that style of noir fiction. Black Is the Night is a collection of 30 new short stories supposedly written in Woolrich's style as a tribute to him. I've read the first four stories in the compilation, and I'm a bit concerned because usually a short story collection opens with at least one or two of its better pieces. If that's the case here, I might not be finishing this one...kind of underwhelmed at this point.

I've enjoyed Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James books for a number of years now, but I've probably only read about half of the books in the series. Since I'm taking forever to catch-up on the series, I thought it might be a good time to read the latest of them, A Killing of Innocents. I still find it hard sometimes to remember that Crombie is a Texan and not a Brit because of how well she captures that part of the world in her novels. From the few pages I've read so far, this one promises to be another worthy addition to the series.

It always happens, and this week will likely be no exception; I'm probably going to pick up a couple of books not mentioned here, and there's always the chance that one or two of these will end up on my "abandoned books" list. But that's the fun of keeping a long TBR list, isn't it?

I want to briefly mention that I "discovered" a new genre author this morning at my local library. The library search-and-hold app has been acting up a bit these last two days, so I spent more time studying the shelves than I usually do. A little book titled Holmes Entangled caught my attention - and the description inside did the trick. In this one Holmes is a "real" person in his seventies who has retired from solving crimes and mysteries. But then he's approached by the Arthur Conan Doyle (author of all the Sherlock Holmes novels) to identify the person threatening Doyle's life. That premise is just hard to resist.

Right next to the Holmes novel sat one by the same author called Woman with a Blue Pencil about a Japanese American "academic" who can't get seem any help from the WWII era Los Angeles cops to solve his wife's murder. He's getting nowhere on his own - not realizing that he is an author's "discarded fictional creation," not a real person. 

The author responsible for both these novels is Gordon McAlpine, and I know absolutely nothing about him or his work. Any fans/readers of his out there? 

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Review: Lucy by the Sea


Lucy by the Sea is Elizabeth Strout's fourth Lucy Barton novel, all of them part of what has come to be known as Strout's Amgash (Illinois) series. The earlier books in the series are My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), Anything Is Possible (2017), and Oh, William! (2021). The Amgash books followed Strout's Olive Kitteridge, a collection of interconnected short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009, and to the joy of Olive Kitteridge fans everywhere, Olive continues to make appearances in Strout's books - including several cameos in Lucy by the Sea. In between Olive Kitteridge and the first Lucy Barton book, Strout published The Burgess Boys, my own personal favorite of her novels. 

"We are all in lockdown, all the time. We just don't know it, that's all. But we do the best we can. Most of us are just trying to get through." Lucy by the Sea, Elizabeth Strout, page 287 

Lucy by the Sea, set largely in 2020 is also Strout's "covid novel," as it takes a brutally honest and vividly accurate look at how life was so drastically changed (if not ended) for so many people during the height of all the government-induced paranoia of that long, long year. As the novel begins, Lucy's ex-husband William has convinced her and one of their two adult daughters that they all need to flee New York City or face the likelihood of dying there. Consequently, Lucy and William quarantine themselves in a large rented home in Maine, while their daughter does the same with her husband on property belonging to her in-laws. 

The novel resolves some of the situations left open in Oh, William! over the next few months as Lucy, William, and the few people they manage to see during all the confusion (all the while, of course, socially distancing themselves and wearing masks even outdoors) adapt to the new lifestyle foisted upon the world. The novel ends on what I will call a hopeful note only after Lucy, William, and both their daughters resolve soul searching issues of their own. Now I can't wait to find out how Lucy and William are doing in the relatively post-covid world. Here's hoping this isn't the final chapter in the Lucy Barton saga. 

Saturday, August 05, 2023

Review: Where I Come From by Rick Bragg


I recently found myself in the mood for an audiobook and, as it turns out, I could not have chosen a more perfect one to fit my mood than Rick Bragg's 2020 collection Where I Come From. And just to top it all off, Bragg himself is the perfect reader/narrator for this collection of columns originally published in the likes of Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines. The book, in fact, turns out to be one of the best memoirs I've read this year.

Rick Bragg grew up in rural Alabama, and he only has to open his mouth for people to figure that out. The man's heart took its first beats  in Alabama, and it still beats strongest when he is somewhere in the Deep South. (A word of advice: Listeners to Bragg's narration should not expect him to get the job done quickly. Southerners don't work that way. So, please, for your own sake, resist the temptation to kick up the man's verbal pace to 125% - or more - on your listening device. You'll soon learn to appreciate the author's pace and how much it adds to his substantial storytelling charm.)

The collected columns are all very personal ones addressing everything from what Harper Lee and her book mean to Southerners and the world, to his deep love for Tupperware, to the most satisfying way to kill fire ants (especially the ones that have already claimed their pound of flesh from your legs), to sharing a series of fictional letters he has written to Santa over the years in an attempt to stay on the fat man's "good list." And those are all great.

But I got some of my best laughs at the author's thoughts on his experiences of being solidly locked inside Atlanta's terrible traffic jams, his wonderfully comic takes on his mother's behavior and opinions, his sincere love of mongrel dogs, and his banteringly competitive relationship with his brothers. Bragg shares a talent usually only found in the best of comedians; he can make you laugh out loud because of his willingness to expose the silliness and absurd behavior of himself and those closest to him - all the while making you laugh with those people, not at them.

Where I Come From is a reminder that we are pretty much all alike, and how important it is these days to be able to laugh a little bit at ourselves. Don't read this one...let Rick Bragg read it to you.

Friday, August 04, 2023

Review: All the Sinners Bleed by S. A. Cosby


All the Sinners Bleed is S.A. Cosby's fourth standalone novel, and I'm sad to say that I never fully engaged with this one, primarily because it seems to lack almost all of the subtlety evident in Cosby's earlier novels.

Sheriff Titus Crown is the first black sheriff in the history of his  Virginia county, and he is still finding it a bit hard to settle into a job he never really expected he would have in his hometown even after a career with the FBI. He knows that some in the community will never accept a black man in such a high position of authority, and he knows that there is really very little he can ever do to change their minds. 

But that's not even close to being Sheriff Crown's biggest problem after he is suddenly confronted with a school shooting in which a young black man kills a beloved school teacher before himself being gunned down by deputies in front of the school. Crown's investigation leads to the discovery that several black teenagers have been tortured and murdered in his county without anyone even noticing. Equally horrifying is Crown's discovery that there is still an active serial killer out there somewhere threatening not only every young black person in the county, but also Titus Crown himself and everyone he personally holds dear. 

The plot has all the makings of a rip-roaring crime novel, and Cosby executes it well, disguising the identity of the serial killer right up to the end of the novel - although for readers who take pride in solving the crime before the Big Reveal, I'm not sure that enough clues are given to make that likely in this case. And Titus Crown is a very sympathetic character right from the beginning, although early on he does comes dangerously close to being too good to be true. So why did I not enjoy this one as much as the three Cosby novels that precede it?

Because it's preachy and heavy-handed when addressing racial issues and race relations. Rather than send the same messages, and make the exact same points, in the subtle manner Cosby managed it in his earlier novels, he beats readers over the head with it in All the Sinners Bleed. At one point near the end of the book, three chapters in a row become almost boring because of that technique, and all I could think of was getting past them to see who the killer is. And that's a shame, because Cosby's other novels left me thinking about the issues he addresses in them. This one not so much. Too, I can't help but notice that this one has more than its share of stereotypical characters, just one more thing that makes All the Sinners Bleed less believable and emotionally touching than previous Cosby work. 

I'm disappointed more than anything else, I suppose, because I don't see a lot here that will make All the Sinners Bleed stand out from the crowd in the long run.