Monday, October 30, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (October 30, 2023)

 Last week's plan kept changing on the fly as "short-fuse" books fell into my hands. I did finish two of the books I expected to finish, Jane and the Final Mystery and Old God's Time, but all of a sudden I'm back to alternating my reading time between seven different books (I do, though,  kind of love it when that happens). 

Take It Out in Trade, first published in 1957, is the book that triggered all the changes to my expected week because I'm such a pushover for pulp fiction style book covers. The novel was out of print for over sixty years before Cutting Edge Books released a new edition recently. This is the book's original cover when it was published back in the day by Ace Books as a paperback:

The novel's history intrigued me, as did that original cover, and I couldn't resist adding it along with a few others to those I was already reading:

This is the new cover art for the Cutting Edge Books edition of Take It Out in Trade by Walter Whitney. "Walter Whitney" was the pen name for an author whose real name, at least as I understand it, was never "officially" released by Ace Books or ever used again. Part of what intrigued me about the book is that in 1957 it was declared "Objectionable" on the monthly Roman Catholic Church's Office of Decent Literature list. As a kid, I used to love looking at that list of books and movies so much every month that this brought back vivid memories. (By today's standards, and despite its theme, the novel is surprisingly tame, I do have to say.)

As I mentioned last week, Death Writes is the sixth book in Andrea Carter's Inishowen Mysteries series. Luckily, the novel is working very well as a standalone, and I'm really enjoying its coastal Ireland setting along with all the colorful characters who inhabit the little town in which a former Booker Prize winning novelist suffers a very public death during his appearance at the lone bookstore's annual literary festival. There's also an intriguing side plot involving the main character's parents that I'm just as interested in as the murder.

The Last Ranger is my first experience with a Peter Heller book, but it won't be my last. The man is a great storyteller, but I'm even more impressed by the amount of knowledge about the everyday life in a national park for humans and animals alike that I am so painlessly absorbing within a story about poachers and locals who sometimes resent living in such close proximity to the federal government's direct reach. I'm reading this one via its audiobook version, and that's working so well that I'm sometimes sorry to reach my driving destination.

Ramona Emerson's 2022 debut novel Shutter is even better than I expected it would be. The basic premise of a Native American forensic photographer being guided at crime scenes by the ghosts of murder victims is intriguing enough, but it's Emerson's layer by layer construction of main character Rita Todacheene that really impresses me most. Even within her tribe, Rita's ability to see and converse with ghosts is a scary proposition. The author, in flashbacks to Rita's early childhood shows exactly when it all started and how Rita learned to cope with such a mixed blessing.

The Puzzle Master, from Danielle Trusson, just arrived late yesterday evening so I haven't had the chance to read even a page or two from it yet. I'm looking forward to watching the relationship develop between a puzzle-solving savant and an imprisoned murderer who has refused to speak for decades but has constructed a puzzle that may hold all the answers for what she did. Apparently, only fifty cases of this type of savant syndrome triggered by traumatic brain injury have ever been documented throughout the world.  Who knew this could even happen?

A Spell of Good Things is one of my short-fuse Booker Prize books, so I'll be spending a lot of time with it this week, I'm sure. Ayòbámi Adébáyò's is a Nigerian author and her novel explores the "gapping class divide" that exists in that country and how the classes intermix at the class fringes. Nigeria, unfortunately because it's a country more famous for phone and internet fraudsters than anything else these days, is one whose daily life I know very little about. I'm hoping that A Spell of Good Things gives me a better feel for its people than the stereotypical image now lodged so firmly in my brain.

Actor Tom Hanks's debut novel The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece is quite literally among the heaviest books I own. Hanks has had some short story success in the past, but this novel about the making of a superhero movie based on yet another comic book seems to be an ambitious one. I've only read about twenty pages into the book, but I'm very impressed already with how well Hanks writes. I'm not sure yet just how much I will enjoy the plot, but Hanks is doing a fine job so far of introducing characters and setting the scene. If I need to drop anything from the week's reading list, however, this is likely to be the first one tabled for a revisit.

This is likely to turn into a week of surprises for me because so many books are right on the verge of arriving, and I might end up juggling priorities again. Happy reading to you all...tell me all about it.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

2023 Booker Prize: 13 Books to Consider (Part 1)

 I have been fascinated by the books formerly listed for consideration for the Booker Prize for a number of years now, and I've ended up reading many of the winners along with more than a few of the contenders. This year for some reason I can feel myself being sucked even deeper than normal into the whole Booker Prize process. I've read and reviewed only one of them so far, Old God's Time by Sebastian Barry, but I do have two more of the nominees on my desk that need to be read in the next two weeks. In addition, a few others from the list are on hold via my library system's website. All in all, thirteen books have been considered this year, with the winner to be announced on November 26. 

On my desk are: 

(Short ListWestern Lane is a coming-of-age novel by London author Chetna Maroo about an eleven-year-old girl who becomes obsessed with playing competitive squash after the death of her mother. The little girl becomes so obsessed by the game and her training exercises that she becomes a loner, preferring the court even to the company of her sisters and father.

 (Long List) Ayòbámi Adébáyò's A Spell of Good Things is set in Nigeria and is said to "shine light on Nigeria, its gapping class divide and the shared humanity that lives in between." The book jacket description is not very clear on plot details, but it seems to be a story of romantic obsession that catches a young woman and her family squarely in the middle of a violent clash between two very different families.

And these will be arriving relatively soon:

(Short List) If I Survive You is Jonathan Escoffery's collection of connected short stories about a family from Kingston, Jamaica that has fled that country for the relative safety of life in Miami. The family arrives in Florida shortly before Hurricane Andrew and the 2008 recession that would follow the storm. Despite being pegged by many as just another immigrant family in America living on government handouts, these guys are determined to make a success of their new life.

(Short List) I've seen more buzz (pun intended) about The Bee Sting than about any of the other 2023 Booker books. Lots of people seem to think that this is the book most likely to win the prize. The publisher throws around various phrases like: "tragicomic family saga," "tour de force," "dazzling story about the struggle to be good at the end of the world," to describe the novel.

(Long List) The House of Doors is based on real events from the 1920s and has author Somerset Maugham as one of its main characters. It looks to be a complicated, highly atmospheric, novel about colonialism, revolutionary times, personal betrayal, and ultimate redemption. Honestly, this one doesn't appeal to me much at first glance, but I look forward to getting my hands on it and giving it a try.

(Long List) Elaine Feeney's How to Build a Boat is a coming-of-age about a thirteen-year-old boy who lost his mother at his birth. Things Jamie O'Neill loves most in the world include: "the colour red, tall trees, rain that comes with wind, the curvature of certain objects, books with dust jackets, rivers, cats, and Edgar Allan Poe." Jamie sounds like the perfect bully's target, but his dreams help him to survive everything that life throws at him.

Counting Old God's Time, this will have given me a look at seven of the thirteen listed books for Booker 2023. I already know that at least two of the remaining six are not available through my library, but I haven't checked on the other four at all yet. My nightmare is that they all start showing up at the same time because all are limited to two-week checkout periods for now. I don't expect to read all thirteen even in the long run, but I do hope to get my hands on each of them long enough to come away from the whole process with an informed opinion about the 2023 Booker Prize.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Old God's Time - Sebastian Barry


The first thing you need to know about Sebastian Barry's Old God's Time is that it was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize. Almost by definition then, Old God's Time is a seriously literary novel despite it also being a crime novel. Too, the novel can be confusing at times because everything the reader sees, past or present, is first heavily filtered through the mind of a recently retired Irish police detective whose memories are not nearly as reliable as they once may have been. 

Tom Kettle has enjoyed nine months of retirement by the time two young detectives come knocking on his door to ask about a reopened case involving the murder of a child-molesting priest that occurred several years earlier. Tom knows that his memory is failing, but this particular case forces him to sort through the horrors of his own childhood. Himself raised in an orphanage run by the Christian Brothers, Tom's earliest memories include the beatings and sexual abuse he suffered there. And as fate would have it, Tom's wife suffered through the same kind of childhood. 

Despite not yet being an official suspect in the priest's murder, Tom is smart enough to realize that he may be headed in that direction if he can't explain his past actions to investigators. But how will he ever be able to do that when he himself is so unsure of what really happened on the day the pervert priest died?

Seldom have I read a novel with a first person narrator as confused as the one in Old God's World. Tom Kettle often struggles with reality, even conversing with "ghosts" on occasion, but he always works hard to distinguish between fact and false memories. Layer by layer, he reveals his past to the reader, and little by little the reader begins to understand who Tom Kettle really is - and why he is the way he is. Old God's World is a vivid indictment of those who for reasons of their own fail to expose child molesters in their midst - and the thousands of lives they help destroy in the process of their longterm cover-ups. 

Not always easy to read, Old God's World is most definitely worth the extra effort involved. 

Sebastian Barry jacket photo

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Jane and the Final Mystery - Stephanie Barron


Jane and the Final Mystery is the fifteenth novel in Stephanie Barron's "Jane Austen Mystery" series, and as the title implies, it is also the last book in the series. The Final Mystery, in fact, ends with an accounting of Jane Austen's actual death on July 18, 1817. 

By the time the story begins in March 1817, Jane Austen's health is in obvious decline. Nonetheless, Jane decides to travel with her nephew several hours by coach to Winchester in support of an old friend whose son has been accused of murdering a Winchester College rival. Jane never falters in her belief of the boy's innocence, and she is determined to prove him innocent by identifying the real killer. Despite the toll her efforts take upon her health, Jane (with a lot of legwork help from her nephew) sets out to do exactly that almost as soon as she arrives in Winchester. 

The appeal of the Jane Austen mysteries is not particularly difficult to understand. The novels are well researched and Jane's voice as first person narrator is based on actual correspondence the revered author left behind. Jane Austen fans regretting that there are so few Jane Austen novels will naturally gravitate to this series because the mysteries are very Austen-like in tone. Even better, this is also a complicated, first class mystery story that offers multiple motives and suspects in the death of a young man who is perhaps the most despised student in all of Winchester College. 

In my limited experience, there is a lot to like about the "Jane Austen Mysteries," especially by readers who prefer their crime fiction presented in the cozy style rather than in a more grittier version. I will note that it took me a while to get my "reading ear" attuned to the more archaic English spoken by Jane and her contemporaries, but once I jumped that hurdle the novel's pace - along with my own reading speed and enjoyment - almost immediately increased. So if you are a Jane Austen fan, or someone who generally enjoys a mix of historical fiction and mystery, this is a series you are almost certain to enjoy. You know who you are.

Stephanie Barron jacket photo

Monday, October 23, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (October 23, 2023)

 I read and reviewed three very different books last week and was lucky enough to enjoy each and everyone of them, so it was a good reading week. In the mix were a funny cozy sprinkled throughout with great characters, including a baby elephant (The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra), a novel that I was certain I had prejudged correctly for its first 80 pages until suddenly proven very wrong (Lone Women), and a very literary crime fiction novel (Intercessions). I'd have to search long and hard to find any three consecutive books I've read that are more different from each other than these three.

I replaced each of those with a new book and added an audiobook to the mix because I was in the mood for having someone read me a good story. I've begun reading two of the three I mentioned as possibilities last week:

I'm about 70% of the way through Stephanie Barron's final Jane Austen mystery, number fifteen in the series - and Jane is beginning to fade fast at this point. She doesn't have the money to see a "fancy" London doctor, and she realizes that her days are numbered. Still, she's in Winchester to help prove that her best friend's son is not guilty of murdering one of his schoolmates even though the boy is not trying very hard to defend himself. The novel is very much in the style of a Jane Austen novel, and Barron does a wonderful job of capturing Jane Austen's voice as first person narrator. 

Old God's Time is probably the most "cerebral" crime novel I've ever read. I hadn't realized that this one was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize before beginning it, but it's easy to see why it was. I'm eighty pages in, and it's just now getting to the point that a retired Irish policeman is being dragged back into an old cold case investigation. But the set-up is absolutely brilliant, with some very poignant observations on aging that are hitting way too close to home for comfort. I'm mentally working overtime on this one for sure. 

This is book six (to be published on December 5) of the Inishowen Mystery Book series, but I'm assured that it works well as a standalone. So far that's the case through the first twenty-five pages. This one jumped out at me because of its Irish setting and the big literary festival where the initial crime takes place. It features an Irish solicitor and her policeman boyfriend, but it opens with Benedicta (Ben) O'Keefe, the solicitor, having to make an unplanned visit to her elderly parents to find out why they suddenly seem to have taken in a houseful of strangers she's never heard of.

I was surprised that the audiobook version of Peter Heller's The Last Ranger was available for immediate library check-out. It is prominently featured in Bookmarks Magazine's brand new Nov/Dec issue, and it's turning out to be every bit as good as they said it was. The main character is a Yellowstone Park ranger who is thriving in the solitude of his job after unexpectedly losing his wife. But now he's dealing with a poacher who may also be involved in the attack on a female park employee, and he's decided to go rogue and become a vigilante - if you want something done right, to it yourself. That's the ticket.

Up next will most likely come a couple from this group:

Shutter is Native American author Ramona Emerson's 2022 debut novel about Rita Todacheene, a forensic photographer who "sees the ghosts" of crime victims when she's working the scene of a crime. Because she allows these ghosts to direct her efforts, Rita's photos often provide the perfect clues to break a case wide open for investigators. But when one outraged ghost takes control of Rita and leads her on a personal mission of revenge, Rita is forced to tackle the Albuquerque cartel head on. 

It's been a while again since I've delved into a science fiction novel, but Wick Welker's Saint Elspeth caught my eye a few days ago. It involves an alien invasion that unleashed the use of nukes against the invaders from several different governments. Earth 1, Aliens 0. But as you might expect, there are not a whole lot of livable space to be found on Earth now. Then one scientist and her team of investigators discover that the aliens are back, and they are living in what's left of California. Here we go again, Earthlings. What did we learn?

I don't have my copy of this one yet, but I hope it arrives sometime near the end of the week so that I can get on it. It involves a man with a traumatic brain injury that leaves him with almost supernatural puzzle solving skills. Now he's been called in as a police consultant on a case involving a woman who has been imprisoned for five years without speaking a single word. The woman has drawn a perplexingly complex puzzle that cops believe will answer all the questions about her crime, but they need outside help to solve it. Can't wait.

So that's what I'm looking forward to this week, best laid plans and all that nonsense. Have another great reading week, guys. Keep turning those pages and telling me all about it.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Intercessions - Kathleen Eull


Intercessions, a crime novel about two young girls who are approached by a pervert while walking two school one morning, is author Kathleen Eull's debut novel. The attack on the girls is a horrific one, to be sure, but instead of taking the more common path of carrying readers along as law enforcement officers try to identify and apprehend the killer, Eull chose instead to focus on the surviving victim and what the girl's life  becomes in the aftermath of the abduction and murder of her best friend. Narrator Corianne Dempsey, now a young woman, unreliable as her testimony can at times be, makes it very clear that she has never felt safe again since the moment she began to run back home in complete panic - nor does she ever expect to feel safe again. 

On the first few anniversaries of the murder, as the townspeople gather to remember the young victim,  Corianne's mother brings her for a few days stay at the remote farm belonging to Evie, her own girlhood best friend, and the woman's husband, Bill. Here, Corianne comes closest to finding the kind of peace she can only dream about at home. Over a number of years, before the visits abruptly stop, Corianne develops a disturbing crush on Bill, one that the man finds it more and more difficult to ignore or hide. 

Years later, Corianne is again so plagued by overly realistic nightmares that she finds it almost impossible to sleep. Her long-term relationship with her boyfriend is splintering before her eyes, she is more and more reclusive every day, and her therapist is unable to help her. In desperation, Corianne decides that surprise visit to Bill and Evie's farm is exactly what she needs if she is ever to regain control of her life. At the farm, with Bill's help and guidance, Corianne begins to sort through her childhood memories hoping to determine how much of what she remembers is true - and how much is not. What really happened that day?

Intercessions is an impressive debut that reminds readers just how literary in nature crime fiction can be when it is in the right hands. Eull has created memorable characters here that become more and more realistic as their flaws are exposed over time. All of them are dealing with struggles of their own, and their actions directly reflect those internal struggles. As Eull, reminds us, crime victims are not limited to the obvious ones. The ultimate impact of the crime recounted in Intercessions is staggering. 

Kathleen Eull jacket photo

(Intercessions will be published by Black Rose Writing on November 22, 2023.)

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Lone Women - Victor Lavalle


I find myself tiptoeing through my review of Victor Lavalle's Lone Women as I attempt to give a good feel for the book without spoiling it for potential readers. I have to start by stating that I knew next to nothing about the novel or its author before I brought it home with me from the library. That is how I began my reading despite having already read a brief review of the book in the October issue of Bookmarks magazine. Obviously, I must have been daydreaming while I read that review.

I mean, look at the cover. Doesn't that cover just scream historical fiction at the reader? I love historical fiction, and I've read a lot of it in recent months focusing on the period during which places like Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas were being settled by homesteaders brave enough to take on the elements found in those territories. Even after reading the brief disclosure inside the book jacket, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting from Lone Women. And I was wrong, very wrong.

Let's just say that I got my reading shock of the year when everything abruptly changed on page 81 of Lone Women and I realized that all bets were off. Ready or not, I was in for a memorable ride. I doubt that most readers are going to begin Lone Women as uniformed about the book or its author as I was, so I'm going to risk saying that the shock came from a sudden, dramatic genre-switch, a genre mash-up that works surprisingly well, as it turns out. So, on to the book now.

Adelaide Henry, a thirty-one-year-old black woman, is still single only because she's been largely confined to her family's California farm for her entire life. Her family has a secret it is so desperate to keep hidden from neighbors that the three of them only briefly ever see outsiders when they run in and out of church on Sunday mornings. But one morning in 1915, Adelaide has to go on the run after burning down the family farmhouse with her two dead parents inside. Carrying only a bag of six books and the heaviest steamer trunk imaginal with her, she flees to the isolation of a homestead in remote northern Montana, a state that does not distinguish by gender when granting government homestead to new settlers.

But as the book jacket hints, Adelaide is not really traveling alone. She carries a secret inside that heavy trunk, and she is prepared to guard that secret with her life. Unfortunately - or depending on whom you ask, perhaps very fortunately - for Adelaide, her new friends, and the townspeople of Big Sandy, the secret in the trunk is not going to consent to being kept under lock and key forever.

I can't tell you more than that despite not having any idea how this review will read to someone knowing little or nothing about Lone Women. I will add only that Victor Lavelle is a very good writer and stylist, that his "normalization" of the f-word in descriptive passages is both funny and effective, and that I now want to try something else of his. I will also say that Lavelle stretched my ability to suspend disbelief a tad over the line for a number of pages near the end of Lone Women

Most importantly, despite my rating of three stars for the novel, I will tell you that I'm happy that I read it because it was quite an experience.

Victor Lavelle jacket photo

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra - Vaseem Khan


Although I'm reading more in the cozy mystery genre these days than ever before, I still do not consider myself to be much of a regular fan of the style. It's books like Vassem Khan's The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, however, that are steadily starting to change my mind about that.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, unbeknownst to me when I took it home from the library, is actually the first book in Khan's "Baby Ganesh Agency Investigations" series. And it is a fun introduction to Inspector Chopra, his wife Poppy, the inspector's pain of a mother-in-law, and perhaps best of all, to the baby elephant called Ganesh. It is not an exceptionally long series, but I do have four more novels and two novellas to look forward to reading, all written between 2015 and 2019. Khan began publishing his now four-book-long "Malabar House" series in 2020. 

"In a country where thieves and crooks were becoming ever more commonplace, particularly in the highest offices in the land, where people openly applauded those who managed to hoodwink millions and get away with it, Chopra was a man who stood for everything that was right and good about India."

As the novel opens, Chopra is enduring his final day as a Mumbai policeman. The inspector has recently recovered from a heart attack, but he's nonetheless being forced to retire some 10-15 years earlier than he had planned. But ever the vigilant cop, Chopra is going to work on the final case to hit his desk until the very last minute of his very last day on the job. And that's exactly what he does before returning home to Poppy and the baby elephant that had unexpectedly arrived on his doorstep that morning.  

No surprise to anyone who knows anything at all about Chopra's dedication to fighting crime in his city, it will not be easy for him to step away. Chopra realizes that the case of the young man whose drowning seems so suspicious to him will be quickly closed because the man had no clout in life - and he certainly will not be granted clout in death. After visiting the man's elderly father and promising to find out what really happened to him, Chopra goes rogue and begins his own private investigation.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, simply put, is fun. It's fun to watch Chopra try to figure out why his baby elephant is so depressed that he refuses to eat anything; it's fun to watch Chopra call for the help of the same cops who previously reported directly to him; and its fun to watch Chopra verbally spar with his wicked mother-in-law, among others. But most of all, it's both fun and rewarding, to watch the relationship between Chopra and Ganesh the elephant develop into what it turns out to be, a partnership of two equals in the fight against crime. 

If you have room in your reading world for another series, you could do a whole lot worse than the "Baby Ganesh Agency" series. Give it a look.

British Author Vaseem Khan

Monday, October 16, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (October 16, 2023)

 Last week's reading went very differently than planned. I did finish up two of the books I began the week with, but two others suddenly jumped their places in line and I started reading them instead of the two I had planned for the end of the week. Finished up were Harbor Lights by James Lee Burke (loved it), Last Day on Earth by Eric Pulcher (liked it), and one of the queue-jumpers, The Rise by Ian Rankin (OK). 

I'll be starting the week with one holdover from last week and a couple of new titles, one of which has just given me one of the biggest surprises I've ever encountered in a novel.

I'm well into this first Inspector Chopra book now, and just as I felt it was starting to bog down a bit, it took a nice little turn that leaves me very curious to see what the ultimate relationship between the retired inspector and his little elephant will be by the end of the novel. Even when the book was dragging for me, I found myself enjoying Vaseem Khan's wit and his sporadic little asides to the reader. It's a clever way to add depth to the characters. 

Kathleen Eull's Intercessions has pleasantly surprised me by the way it focuses more on the characters than on the crime that changed all of their lives. What happened to Corianne Dempsey as she walked to school with her best friend one morning was truly awful. Her friend died and the man who snatched her was not caught. The novel explores the aftermath of that crime by letting Corianne tell what her life has been like in the following years as she struggles with the emotional scars she suffered on that morning. I'm impressed.

You're going to have to trust me on this one because I can't tell you what came as a total shock to me about eighty pages into Victor Lavalle's Lone Women without spoiling the reading experience for others. I can't even imagine yet how I'm going to review this one without spoiling it. The novel is set in 1915 when its central character decides to leave her California family farm to move on her own to the middle of nowhere Montana homestead she qualifies for. She brings only one carry-bag and the heaviest steamer trunk imaginable with her as she flees the farm.

I seem to have settled into a rhythm of just three or four books going at a time for the last two weeks. Right now that feels very comfortable to me, so maybe I'm getting better at restraining my jump-the-gun curiosity about the books all around me still waiting to be read. We'll see how long that lasts. As I look around the desk and library due dates coming up, these are the most likely candidates to be started later in the week:

As I mentioned last week, this is the fifteenth, and final, novel in Stephanie Barron's "Jane Austen Mystery" series. I'm entirely new to the series, but I can imagine that longtime readers of the Jane Austen mysteries are going to be a little heartbroken to experience both the end of the series and the death of Jane in this final story. I'm hoping that Jane and the Final Mystery motivates me to go back and read the other fourteen books in this series. Better late than never. (This cover reminds me a lot of early postage stamps.)

Old God's Time will be my first exposure to Irish author Sebastian Barry's work. Tom Kettle is a retired cop who has managed to find shelter in a lean-to of some sort that's attached to an old Victorian-age castle overlooking the Irish Sea. He's in complete isolation until another couple of cops show up one day to talk to Kettle about a case several decades old that still eats at their retired colleague. Barry has been shortlisted twice and longlisted twice for the Booker Prize, so I'm expecting this one to be a little different from typical crime fiction.

Shutter is Native American author Ramona Emerson's 2022 debut novel about Rita Todacheene, a forensic photographer who "sees the ghosts" of crime victims when she's working the scene of a crime. Because she allows these ghosts to direct her efforts, Rita's photos often provide the very clues that break a case wide open for investigators. But when one outraged ghost takes control of Rita and leads her on a mission of revenge, she is forced to tackle the Albuquerque cartel head on. 

So here we go...have a good reading week, everybody. 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

The Rise - Ian Rankin


The Rise is a new eighty-page short story from Ian Rankin that has recently been published by Amazon Original Stories. Rankin is already well known as the author of the highly successful Detective John Rebus series, but fans of that series will find that The Rise is more of a traditional police procedural than the Rebus books are.

The Rise is a twelve-story building in the center of London with twelve apartments that only the wealthiest people in the country can possibly afford. In fact, on the morning that a murdered security guard is discovered in the building lobby, only six of the apartments are leased - and not even all of those were occupied on the night of the murder.  Detectives on the scene are relatively confident that they will catch those responsible for killing the guard because the building is said to have a sophisticated, state-of-the-art security system that severely limits building access to outsiders. That system, combined with the limited number of possible insider suspects, means that it should be only a matter of time before the killer is identified and dealt with. 

But first things, first. Why was the guard killed? Was it personal or did he try to stop someone who was in the process of committing a completely different crime? 

Despite allowing himself a relatively limited number of pages in The Rise within which to work, Rankin creates a step-by-step crime investigation that is perfectly logical as it unfolds toward its ultimate conclusion. The characters, cops and suspects alike, have distinct personalities and motives of their own, and I would be especially happy at some point to spend time in a longer format with one of them in particular: Detective Sergeant Gish, a woman completely dedicated to the job despite the problems she has to juggle at home. Ian Rankin fans will certainly appreciate The Rise, and those not already familiar with Rankin's style can use the story as a test drive to find out what they've been missing.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Last Day on Earth - Eric Puchner


Last Day on Earth, published in 2017, is a nine-story collection from Eric Puchner that focuses on family relationships and difficult coming-of-age situations. None of the characters in the nine stories can be said to be having an easy time negotiating their way through the lives they are living. But even with all of that in common, the nine stories are very different from each other in style - one of them even being outright science fiction. 

The stories are largely of two distinct types. They either feature a boy struggling at a key juncture in his coming-of-age experience, or they feature characters in middle age who are disappointed by the lives they find themselves living. As I look back on the collection, four of the stories particularly jump out to me:

"Mothership" is a story about an unstable woman who is taken into her older sister's home after being released from a psychological care facility. The lack of control exhibited by the younger sister and how her behavior impacts her sister's whole family is fascinating to watch.

"Independence" explores the deep friendship that has developed between three book nerds who work in a small indie bookshop together. The story explores the fragility of a relationship comprised of two men and one woman and how easily the relationship can be destroyed.

"Expression" is the story of two unpopular teens who find themselves at the same arts seminar one summer. The two boys share a dorm room even though one of the two actually lives within walking distance of the campus. It's a story about the exploitation of another family's secrets for personal gain.

"Last Day on Earth" explores the relationship between a fifteen-year-old boy and his single-parent mother whose ex-husband left her burdened with the care of his two hunting dogs when he left. She is in the process of carrying the two elder dogs to a shelter that will only try to place them for seventy-two hours before euthanizing them. Her son is desperate to save them.

At first glance, I thought that the stories in Last Day on Earth would be a good bit over the top in their exploration of the relationships between family members and close friends. Turns out that I was wrong about that; these stories all have something important to say, and Puchner says it well.

Eric Pucher author photo

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Harbor Lights - James Lee Burke


Harbor Lights, which includes seven short stories and one novella, is the first collection of short fiction from James Lee Burke since 2007 when the author published a ten-story collection titled Jesus Out to Sea

Burke's stories, no matter their length, have always focused on the very real battle between good and evil, and have featured main characters incapable of ignoring evil when confronted with it. At one point in "Strange Cargo," the novella's central character explains this impossible to deny obligation to directly confront evil when it drops into his lap by saying that he really doesn't want to do what he is about to do, but knows that if he doesn't do it he will never again find peace of mind or be able to live with himself. This is typical of a James Lee Burke hero. The author's books have always been darker than most, with the very real forces of evil, no matter what form they take, portrayed as formidable obstacles for good people to survive, much less overcome. Now, if anything, Burke manages to up the ante with Harbor Lights.

In one story, a man is just trying to get his son home safely after their car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, and he has to seek the help of  threatening strangers. In another, a college professor is drawn into the fight when his seventeen-year-old daughter comes home in a taxi after being brutally beaten outside a local bar. What both men will learn is that sometimes there is simply no one turn to for help, even those paid to do so; that if they are not willing to fight back, they and those closest to them will lose everything. 

The evil that Burke portrays in Harbor Lights often exists in the form of corrupt law enforcement officers. Some of these stories expose the utter darkness of prison life dominated by brutal guards who exploit the system and the inmates. One is about WWII federal agents who try to destroy a man after he reveals details to the press about the enemy submarine he and his son watched sink an oil tanker off the U.S. coast. The stories in Harbor Lights are a reminder that evil does not always appear where it is expected, that it is often embodied by the very people tasked with the difficult job of fighting it. 

Readers of the Holland Family series of books will recognize some of the central characters in these stories as direct descendants of Hackberry Holland often reflect on their gunfighter ancestor, a man who himself teetered on the border of good and evil during his lifetime. 

By my count (far from official), James Lee Burke has now published forty-seven books, and I have read some thirty-eight of them. For that reason, I knew what to expect from Harbor Lights. What I did not expect is how much a page-turner it is, or how much I enjoyed it. I highly recommend this one to Burke fans, and I warn the rest of you to hang on tight because Harbor Lights is a wild ride. 

Monday, October 09, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (October 9)

 I feel as if my reading pace slowed down drastically last week, but I still managed to complete three of the four books I started the week reading: Rabbit Hole, Between Them, and The Heron's Cry, despite reading very little in the last two days. I'm also well into the upcoming James Lee Burke short story compilation, Harbor Lights, and I've started a story collection by new-to-me author Eric Puchner. So, I'll be kicking off the new week with these:

I can't imagine a short story collection more James Lee Burke than Harbor Lights. The stories are surprisingly dark, however, even for Burke. There are few winners in the bunch, and if there is a word darker than "noir" to describe the stories, that's the word I'm searching for. A typical James Lee Burke hero is a man who cannot stand to watch powerful people abuse those incapable of defending themselves; it bothers them so much that they willingly put their own lives and futures in jeopardy in order to bring some measure of justice to the bad guys. These stories are filled with crusaders who suffer greatly for their consciences, and the Louisiana bayou/Texas Gulf Coast setting is right up my alley, so I'm really enjoying the book.

Eric Puchner's stories focus on family internals and relationships between friends, and in a different way, it's almost as dark as the Burke collection. The common theme through the first several stories in Last Day on Earth is the fragility of family and friendships, and how easily those relationships can be destroyed or forever altered via carless words or behavior.Some of the stories fit neatly into th science fiction genre, giving them a little twist that is very entertaining and thought provoking.

Proving yet again that I should never actually go inside a library to return a book, I ended up walking away with more books than I returned the day I brought The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra home. I was so taken with the plot, that I immediately wanted to read it. It's about a Mumbai detective who is on his last day of the job, when an intriguing case drops suddenly into his lap. It's also the day that the inspector learns that he's just inherited a baby elephant. I have only read a chapter so far, but I can already tell that I'm going to enjoy Vaseem Khan's writing style. 

In addition, one or two of these will probably be started later this week:

Jane and the Final Mystery is the fifteenth book in Stephanie Barron's Jane-Austen-as-Detective series, and it's going to be the final one because Jane succumbs to illness at the end of this one. I'm doing the series-thing completely backwards with the Jane Austen mysteries because I have not read any of the previous fourteen books in the series, and have heard almost nothing about them. I figure that if I like this one, the other fourteen can easily be read as an extended prequel to it. By the way, the fact that Jane dies in this one is in all the publisher information provided about the book, so that's not a spoiler...seems to be a key element in the book publicity.

I know very little about General Benedict Arnold other than the basic fact that he was a traitor to the country during America's Revolutionary War. I anticipate that Jack Kelly's upcoming book God Save Benedict Arnold is about to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about the man and the illustrious military career had had right up to the moment that he decided to switch sides in the fight. Apparently, he's believed to have been the best combat commander on either side during the Revolutionary war. I'm very curious about this one.

I'll admit that it was the cover that grabbed my attention on Intercessions, but the plot description is certainly the icing on that cake. It's the story of what happens in later life to a woman who experienced a deadly traumatic experience as a young girl on the day that she and a friend on their way to school together were approached on the road by a stranger. Only one of them made it home that day; the other died. Now, the survivor is experiencing tremendous guilt about her behavior and is beginning to doubt her own memories of what really happened to her and her friend.

As usual, I suffer from an abundance of choices, with a large stack of books here patiently waiting for me to give them their chance. Among these are: Suffer Little Children by Freda Hansburg, The Murder Specialist by Bud Clifton, Not Dead Enough by Phillip Thompson, and The Rise by Ian Rankin. And those are just the tip of the TBR iceberg that sits atop my desk today (and every day).

Sunday, October 08, 2023

The Heron's Cry - Ann Cleeves


The Detective Matthew Venn novels, of which The Heron's Cry is the second book in the series, follows four previous mystery series of varying degrees of popularity created by British author Ann Cleeves. Readers are most likely to be familiar with the Shetland series featuring DI Jimmy Pérez and the DCI Vera Stanhope series that followed it because each of these served as the basis of a long-running television series. Cleeves's earlier work includes eight novels featuring elderly bird watcher George Palmer-Jones and another six that feature Inspector Ramsay. (New editions of the six Inspector Ramsay books are said to be planned for publication beginning in June 2024.)

The Heron's Cry begins with the murder of a hospital inspector who is looking into the suicide of a teenager who may have been prematurely released by the psychiatric hospital to which he had been admitted for treatment. That investigator, Dr. Nigel Yeo, has apparently been stabbed to death by a sharp piece of glass taken from the remains of a vase created by his own glassblower daughter. But Matthew Venn's investigation of the murder will barely be underway before another victim is killed in the same manner. Frustrated as Venn is at times by the close relationship between his husband and the first victim's daughter, he knows that he and his team are going to have to eliminate the list of prospective killers one by one. 

The mystery at the heart of The Heron's Cry is a solid one enhanced by Cleeves's manner of presenting it. An Ann Cleeves novel can always be counted on to include an atmospheric setting and memorable side-characters; in this case, those are Venn's second-in-command DS Jen Rafferty and the often oversensitive DC Ross May. Her mysteries are always complex, so there are more than enough potential murderers in this one to keepVenn, Rafferty, May, and readers busy for quite a while eliminating one red herring after another. 

Matthew Venn is proving to be a little more difficult for me to warm up to then some of Cleeves's other centerpiece characters. Part of that, I think, is because Venn is such a cold fish of a character, a man who struggles to display his emotions or to really understand the different personalities that surround him on a given day. I am sympathetic to Venn and the terrible upbringing he endured that shaped him into the adult he became, but he never seems to try very seriously to change himself for the good even after he recognizes his flaws. That said, I'm an Ann Cleeves fan, and I am curious to see what she has in mind for Matthew Venn, so I'll probably be reading the third installment of Venn's story soon. 

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Between Them: Remembering My Parents - Richard Ford


"From almost the first moment in the room where he had died, I felt my father's death surrendering back to me nearly as much as it took away. His sudden departure, the great, unjust loss of his life, handed me a life to live by my own designs, freed me to my own decisions. A boy could do worse than to lose a father - even a good father - just when the world begins to array itself all around him."   Richard Ford

Richard Ford's father died of heart failure in 1960, four days after Richard's sixteenth birthday. Fifty-five years later Ford wrote a short memoir focusing on what he could remember about the man and their relationship. His mother died in 1981 from cancer, and this time Ford almost immediately produced a memoir about her and the two decades he shared with her following his father's sudden death. Between Them: Remembering My Parents pulls together both memoirs, beginning with the memoir focusing on Ford's father and ending with the piece on his mother. 

Ford was an only child. He believes that his parents "all along" wanted children but that it simply had never happened for them after fifteen years of marriage. And by the time it did happen, Parker Ford was an unhealthy 38-year old traveling salesman, and Edna, 33, was enjoying riding along with her husband on most of his extended sales trips throughout the South. The couple rented permanent quarters for weekends, but much preferred the more exciting lifestyle of living together in the hotels Parker frequented on his trips. 

Suddenly, though, that lifestyle was at an end because the family's new addition had literally come "between them." Now Edna had to stay home. After Parker left on his regular Monday-Friday road trips, she and her son had to create a new lifestyle for themselves in his absence. As it would turn out, Richard's father would not be around a whole lot during the sixteen short years following his son's birth, leading to Ford's regret that he never had the opportunity of having an "adult conversation" with his father.

After Parker Ford's death, Edna stoically went on with her own, now more independent, life. She was a self-contained woman who did not demand much from life or from her son, and after Richard left home for the first time to attend Michigan State, he never lived with his mother again. Their relationship for the rest of Edna's life was a loving one, but it was one always maintained from a distance, something that does not seem to have particularly bothered either of them. 

Richard Ford, childless himself, and now approaching 80 years of age, is very much the son of Parker and Edna Ford. Between Them: Remembering My Parents is an unusual approach to memoir writing, but it proves to be a very effective way of explaining the somewhat unusual upbringing Ford had and the influences that shaped him into who he would ultimately become. 

"Had my father lived beyond his appointed time, I would likely never have written anything, so extensive would his influence over me have soon become."   Richard Ford

Parker, Richard, and Edna Ford