Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Fourth Rule - Jeff Lindsay


I've been an admirer of Jeff Lindsay's writing ever since he so successfully managed to pull off the near impossible task of turning a bloody serial killer like his Dexter creation into a completely sympathetic character. So much so, that to this day I remain intrigued by both the Dexter novels and by the groundbreaking HBO series derived from the books. The Fourth Rule, however, is my first exposure to Lindsay's Riley Wolfe character despite it being the fourth book in that series.

Riley Wolfe is a master thief whose main mission in life is to make the impossible score over and over again, and if along the way Wolfe can steal something from under the nose of some rich person who never deserved the prize in the first place, so much the better. Wolfe himself puts it this way:

"For me, the cash payoff is secondary. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love having money. But what I love more, what I absolutely need, is to take something that everybody else agrees is absolutely impossible to steal. And if I grab it from the snotty overprivileged .1 percent of entitled born-into-it asshats who are holding it in a hereditary death grip - that makes it even sweeter."

 Riley Wolfe considers himself to be the best in the world at what he does, and he's been doing it successfully for a long time. But that career longevity comes at the price of Wolfe adhering to a strict set of self-imposed laws. And "Riley's Fourth Law" says: "Even if you're the best there is, watch your back. Because somebody better is coming."

In between jobs at the moment, Wolfe is touring London museums and searching for a challenge worthy of his talents. Not only does Wolfe come away with the challenge of a lifetime, he gains a capable partner who helps him plan his next heist: stealing the nearly two-ton Rosetta Stone right from under the eyes of the museum security team that keeps it under intense 24-hour a day scrutiny.  

But then Wolfe begins to have so much fun that he forgets "Riley's Fourth Law," and that's when the real challenge begins.

The Fourth Rule is a wildly entertaining thriller that works really well as a standalone novel for those jumping into the Riley Wolfe series for the first time. Much like the series character Dexter, Wolfe is one of those witty, likable bad guys it's near impossible not to root for, and now I'm really curious about the three earlier Riley Wolfe books.

Jeff Lindsay jacket photo

(The Fourth Rule will be published on December 5, 2023.)

Sunday, November 26, 2023

2023 Booker Nominations (Part 4)

I had planned to watch the Booker Prize announcement live on YouTube this afternoon but because of its timing in the Houston area, I'm going to be watching the end of the Houston Texans vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars football game about the time it all begins. Then, the time required to work my way out of the stadium and make the drive home pretty much guarantees that I'll miss out on the live Booker experience this year. 

At this point, I'm still expecting that The Bee Sting will win, but the more I read from the Booker list, the more I realize that the competition is pretty stiff this year. Since my last note on the Booker, I've unexpectedly gotten my hands on a copy of Pearl by Siân Hughes, and even though it didn't make the shortlist, I'm quite enjoying Pearl - at least to its halfway point. 

Pearl is a coming of age story about a little girl whose mother goes missing when Marianne is only eight years old. Now it's just Marianne, her baby brother, and a father who has to figure out a way to care for his children while he struggles with simply keeping a roof over all their heads. Marianne is the novel's narrator, and her effort to reconcile her childhood memories of her mother's disappearance with what she learns as she gets older makes for compelling reading. 

I also spent a considerable amount of time with the Martin Macinnes entry titled The Ascension (150 pages worth, actually) last week. And since I found myself still waiting for something interesting (to me) to happen, I gave up on this one. The Ascension stood out to me mainly because it is science fiction, and that has to be fairly rare thing for the Booker Prize lists. I suspect I'm missing something here, but just couldn't make myself stick it out long enough to maybe find out what that might be. 

Having now read four of the nominees, most of another, and abandoned two (one at fifty pages, the other at 150 pages), my personal ranking of those seven looks like this:

I started Paul Harding's This Other Eden yesterday evening but I haven't read many pages yet. I do hear that its main mixed-race characters tend to be so exaggerated in an attempt to make them seem superior despite their isolation and lack of education that they lose their effectiveness. That's not an obvious flaw early on, but I can see how that might eventually wear on the reader over time if true. It is set in 1912 on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. 

So this brings me to seven books ranked, two on hand (The Other Eden and The House of Cards), two still unpublished in the US (Prophet Song and All the Little Bird-Hearts), and two still on library-hold (How to Build a Boat and Study for Obedience). 

What I'm Reading This Week (November 27, 2023)

I didn't get in many pages yesterday because the day was pretty much taken up watching the Texans lose a 24-21 heartbreaker to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Traffic in and around the stadium was truly horrendous because of the perpetual road construction going on in that part of town, and getting back to the north part of the county was a real nightmare. 

But looking back at the week, I see that I finished three books (The Longmire Defense, If I Survive You, and The Fourth Rule) and abandoned two others (the Booker nominated The Ascension and Tim O'brien's America Fantastica). I abandoned The Ascension out of sheer boredom with it, and abandoned America Fantastica because I found it to be much to farcical to suit my reading taste. 

So I'll be beginning the week with five books, several of which I've mentioned before: The Blues Brothers, Pearl, The Other Eden, The Raging Storm, and Saved. I seem to have stalled on The Blues Brothers at about the forty percent mark, but I'm looking forward to getting much deeper into the two Booker nominated novels (Pearl and The Other Eden). At the moment, the book I'm most enjoying is the eye-opening memoir Safe by Benjamin Hall, but I'm also finding Ann Cleeves's The Raging Storm to be the best book in her now three-book Detective Matthew Venn series. For the first time, I'm actually looking forward to spending more time with Venn and his cohorts. 

My library queue also decided to cough up four new books that I need to pick up today, but I'm hoping that most of these will be eligible for six-week checkout so that I am not faced with some difficult choices again after waiting so long to get my crack at some of them. I can already tell it's going to be an interesting week with these new ones thrown into the mix:

I have thoroughly enjoyed every Fredrik Backman novel I've read, so I wonder how I missed this 2017 novella for so long. This one tells the story of three generations of men who love each other very much. Never has that been so apparent as when the grandfather in the story began to suffer from dementia. Now the old man needs the help of his son and grandson...but he still has much to offer them in return for their love and for helping him adjust to his new reality.

This is the fourth installment of the Thursday Murder Club Mystery series by Richard Osman. Despite some speculation that this was going to be the final book in the series, Osman has assured readers that it is not. The plot focuses on a "dangerous" package that turns up missing after a friend of the club members is murdered. By this point, fans of the series are pretty familiar with all the main characters, so I'm pretty confident that I'm going to enjoy The Last Devil to Die a lot.

Kathy, over at Reading Matters, gave The Last Talk with Lola Faye such a glowing and intriguing review last week that I had to run right out and find it. The novel sounds like one of those intellectually challenging literary mysteries that don't come around nearly often enough. I didn't expect it to show up so quickly at my library, but it looks as if I'll be bringing it home this afternoon. It is centered around a face-to-face meeting, a very unexpected one at that, between a writer and the woman he holds responsible for his father's death years earlier. 

Have you ever read a book description that baffles you? That's what this one did to me: "A servant girl escapes from a colonial settlement in the wilderness. She carries nothing with her but her wits, a few possessions and the spark of god that burns hot within her. What she finds in this terra incognita is beyond the limits of her imagination and will bend her belief in everything that her own civilization taught her." I still don't get it, but I trust Lauren Groff enough to take a look at everything she publishes, so here goes... 

This should be a calmer week than the one before, so I'm looking forward to some good reading and checking in on all the blogs I've neglected these last few days. Happy reading to all.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Booker Prize Odds

I'm not a betting man, but just knowing that people are placing bets on which book will win the 2023 Booker Prize makes me smile. Who would have believed that so many people would be betting on a literary event? That either speaks well for the popularity of reading books for pleasure, or poorly for the desperation of gamblers. I'm not sure which case is nearer the truth, but I'm choosing to believe that readers are having fun with Sunday's prize announcement. 

As of this moment, the OLBG betting website shows these odds:

Prophet Song (Paul Lynch)   5/2 Odds   28.6% Probability

This Other Eden (Paul Harding)   3/1 Odds   25.0% Probability

The Bee Sting (Paul Murray)   7/2 Odds   22.2% Probability

If I Survive You (Jonathan Escoffery)   5/1 Odds   16.7% Probability

Study for Obedience (Sarah Bernstein)   11/2 Odds  15.4% Probability

Western Lane (Chetna Maroo)   13/2 Odds   13.3% Probability

Looks like a two-tiered race according to the oddsmakers - and that it's pretty likely that someone named "Paul" is going to be considerably richer come Monday morning. 

(It is worth noting that Prophet Song will not even be published in this country until December 12. I haven't checked to see who the publisher is, but have to say that they really dropped the ball on this one.)

If I Survive You - Jonathan Escoffery


As I continue to explore the thirteen 2023 Booker Prize nominees (two of the books will not actually be published in the U.S. until after the prize winner is announced), Jonathan Escoffery's If I Survive You has been the most pleasant surprise to me so far. By its very nature, this one is unusual because it is the only book of short stories on a nominee list otherwise comprised of twelve novels. Escoffery's eight stories, however, are so well connected that If I Survive You tells a more coherent story than several of the Booker novels I've read this year. 

This is the 1970s coming-of-age story of two brothers, one born in Jamaica where his parents then lived, the other in Miami after the family fled Jamaican political violence for a safer life in the United States. Although the stories are mostly told from the point of view of Trelawny, the youngest of the two brothers, Escoffery sometimes uses first person, sometimes second person, and sometimes third to tell them.

Trelawny is the only member of the family born in the U.S. but that doesn't keep him from being the family's most conflicted member. As a boy, he struggles to find a comfortable niche for himself among his fellow public school students but soon learns that no group will have him around for long. Trelawny is a light-skinned Jamaican, so he is not black enough for the Blacks to claim him; but he is obviously enough not white that the White students don't want him around either; and although he is often at first glance mistaken for a Hispanic, Trelawny speaks no Spanish, so the hispanic kids also want no part of him. 

The family begins to fall apart almost from the beginning because Topper, the boys' father, is more interested in drinking and chasing women than he is in bringing home a regular paycheck. Then Sanya, their mother, becomes so disillusioned with her husband and life in America that she returns to Jamaica on her own, only to find that she no longer feels Jamaican enough to live in that country. And Delano, Trelawny's older brother, seems to believe that being first born entitles him to disinherit Trelawny. So he does so.

The eight stories in If I Survive You are chronologically linked together so well that they could just as easily be called chapters in a novel as called short stories, so it's easy to see why the Booker judges included the book on their shortlist. The stories combine to portray vividly the immigrant experience, especially that of first generation Americans as they walk the fine line between the culture of their parents and that of the only country they themselves have ever known. 

This is a worthy addition to the 2023 Booker shortlist, and I would not be at all surprised if it were to win the prize.

Jonathan Escoffery jacket photo

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Happy Thanksgiving, Y'all

 Among other things, 

Partially because it usually seems to be less stressful to me than Christmas, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year. I love the way the holiday combines family, good food, and football all in one fun day. It's a time when I get to see some people I don't see often enough during the year, a day of telling stories from the past while remembering family members no longer with us, and a day to celebrate the large, combined family of friends and relatives we still have around us. 

And then, way at the end of the day, there's just nothing better than sitting down with one more "small" piece of pie and a really good book. 

I hope you all having a wonderful day, too. Remember to make the most of it...

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Longmire Defense - Craig Johnson


The Longmire Defense is Craig Johnson's nineteenth Walt Longmire novel, and I'm a bit sad that I've read all nineteen of them because now I'm going to have to wait most of another year to revisit Walt and his Absaroka County, Wyoming, sheriff's department again. That's the bad news, but there's lots of good news, too, because The Longmire Defense is exactly the Walt Longmire novel that series fans have been waiting for for a while now. 

This time around Walt pretty much operates inside his home county. With no mountain blizzards or wilderness treks to deal with, all those great series side characters readers have grown to love become integral pieces of the investigation that Sheriff Longmire unexpectedly finds himself in the middle of. That means readers get to catch up with what's going on in the lives of Walt's best friend Bear, his daughter Cady, and his love interest/deputy Vic rather than just watching those characters pop in and out of the book a couple of times in what sometimes feel like cameo appearances.

Walt has been called out on a routine search for a tourist who has wandered off the road and gotten herself lost, but - thanks to Google Maps - this has happened so often lately that Walt knows exactly where to start looking for her. As expected, he locates the young woman (who doesn't appear to be particularly concerned that she's lost) rather quickly, but Walt also comes away with old rifle that has been hidden in a rock crevice since the late 1940s. The location of his find brings back old memories of a story Walt remembers his father telling him about "the first time he saw a man die," but a man as curious as Walt Longmire wants to know more. 

Even after learning that the found rifle once belonged to his own grandfather, a man he greatly resents even to this day, Walt is determined to learn what really happened on the fateful day his father watched a man die for the first time. Walt can handle the ethics of honestly investigating his grandfather's potential involvement in the case; what he didn't bargain for was stirring up some very powerful people who are willing to kill today to cover up a murder that happened 75 years ago.

I'm calling The Longmire Defense a five-star book, but I understand that longtime fans of the books are much more likely to agree with me than those who read the novel as a standalone. Reading a series is all about becoming comfortable with its setting and its recurring characters. After a reader, over several novels, achieves that level of familiarity, the books perhaps become more about the characters and their development than about plotting. That's where I am with the Longmire books...and I have to tell you that the last paragraph of the last page of The Longmire Defense just may be the best paragraph in the whole novel.

Craig Johnson jacket photo

Monday, November 20, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (November 20)

 Despite losing almost three days of reading time last week to in-state traveling, I managed to finish one of the longest books I've read all year, Paul Murray's The Bee Sting, along with a much shorter book that wasn't even on my radar when the week began, Halcyon by Elliot Ackerman. 

Coming in to this new week, I'm concentrating on the first three in particular:

Craig Johnson's Sheriff Walt Longmire novels are true comfort reads for me. This is the nineteenth book in the series, and I've already read each of the previous eighteen. I'm really loving this chapter of Walt's story because most everything is happening in Walt's home county for a change. That means that all of the great side characters in the series are getting the time they deserve - including Cady, Walt's daughter. But even at home, Walt's is being threatened by some very powerful people who want to kill his efforts to solve a cold case going all the way back to 1948.

I got so caught up in the Longmire novel that I pushed The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store aside for a couple of days. At roughly 100 pages into the story, I'm finding the book's pace to be rather sluggish. After a really good introduction to the main Jewish and black characters, along with lots of hints about where the plot tension is going to come from, McBride isn't in much of a hurry to get it all started. I suspect that when the pace picks up (soon, I hope) I will start enjoying it more. 

If I Survive You is one of the 2023 Booker Prize nominees that I've mentioned several times before. I've read four of the eight interconnected short stories in the book to this point, and I'm impressed with how well Johnathan Escoffery paints the immigrant experience. In this Jamaican family only the youngest son was born in the U.S., and that makes him different from everyone around him, including his parents and brother on the one hand, and all of his fellow public school students on the other.

Even though I'm in no particular hurry to finish The Blues Brothers, by reading one chapter every night just before bedtime I've now read almost forty percent of the book. I'm past the dual biographies of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and have moved into the section of the book covering the creation and early seasons of Saturday Night. Despite having watched and enjoyed the pair, especially Belushi, for a long time, I'm kind of stunned to learn that Belushi's obvious out-of-control drug abuse was allowed to go on for so long without anyone stepping in and getting the man the help he needed to save his life.

I've had my eye on Benjamin Hall's memoir about the war injuries he suffered in Ukraine for a while, but didn't expect to be reading it this week. But then I decided to treat myself to a Kindle Scribe tablet/reader a couple of days ago, and that purchase came along with a free 90-day trial of Amazon Unlimited where Saved was the first book to catch my eye. I've seen Hall interviewed about his experiences and how tremendously lucky he is to have survived the bombing that killed the two colleagues of his who were in the car with him when bombs fell into the street, so I expect this to be a very powerful memoir.

Three or four other books are already clamoring for my attention because I'm running out of check-out time on them, so I imagine I'll be juggling the lineup again well before the week is over. Those include The Raging Storm by Ann Cleeves, America Fantastica by Tim O'Brien, and In Ascension (a Booker Prize nominee by Martin MacInnes), and The House of Doors (a Booker Prize nominee by Twan Eng Tan).

...and then, too, there's Thanksgiving with family on Thursday and a Texans football game to drive to on Sunday. What a great week ahead!

Happy reading, everyone.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

2023 Booker Prize Nominations (Part 3)

After finishing up the 643-page Booker Prize nominee The Bee Sting by Paul Murray, I've now read three of the thirteen nominated novels, abandoned one, and am about halfway through a fifth. I'll be picking up another The House of Doors from the library on Monday, and have two others on hold that are likely to show up in a week or two, so I feel as if I've put a pretty good dent in the list now.  

My personal ranking of the five I'm now familiar with goes like this: 

Even though I rated Western Lane a full 5-star book and The Bee Sting something just under 4.5 stars, I still feel that Murray's book is most impactful on the reader because of how superbly developed its main characters are. The only reason I rated it lower is because I'm not a fan of ambiguous endings, especially in a book as long as The Bee Sting. But that's a personal reading quirk of mine, and I'm not completely blind as to how well that kind of ending works here. 

Unfortunately, I am coming into The House of Doors with very low expectation that it will be a fit for me, but who knows, I might be wrong. All I know about it really is that it is set in 1921 and that a version of author Somerset Maugham is one of the book's main characters. The whole 2023 Booker Prize list seems to be comprised of really gloomy books, and this sounds like it will fit right in with the rest of the list.

(I've linked my reviews to three of the titles mentioned up above.)

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Bee Sting - Paul Murray


Paul Murray's The Bee Sting is a novel about the lies, deceit, cover-ups, and soul destroying self-guilt endured by the Dickie Barnes family. 

Dickie and Imelda Barnes live in rural Ireland with their teenaged daughter Cass and adolescent son PJ where Dickie runs the car dealership started by his father when Dickie was just a boy. Everyone in town envies the family and their prosperous lifestyle. But that is only because no outsider can possibly know that this is a family right on the verge of fragmenting into nonexistence. Dickie, instead of going to the dealership every day where he belongs, spends his time building an end-of-the-world bunker in the woods for his family; Imelda is tired of pretending that she and Dickie still care about each other and is considering an affair with a man she can barely tolerate; Cass has gone from top student to one just counting the days until she can begin a new life for herself in Dublin; and PJ is trying to figure out the best way to run away from home without being caught even before he gets out the door.

The tricky thing is that Dickie, Imelda, Cass, and PJ are not the people they are pretending to be, even to themselves, much less to each other. Each is hiding a secret that eats away at them, but none dares discuss their secret either inside or outside the family.

The Bee Sting is long (643 pages), but it is so well constructed that it reads much shorter than it is. The novel opens with four long sections, each written from the point of view of a different Barnes family member. The section titled "Sylvias" features Cass, a bright teen who senses that things are not right at home or in the family business but, like most teens would, worries more about how it all affects her than about what it means in the long run for her family. Next in "Wolf's Lair" is a look at the family through the eyes of twelve-year-old PJ, a boy who is more sensitive than his older sister as to how bad things really are in the family. PJ is busy making plans and saving coins to get out before it is too late. It is in the section titled "The Widow Bride" that readers learn Imelda's backstory and begin to understand just how fragile the Barnes family has been right from the beginning. And finally, in "The Clearing" readers get a look at Imelda and Dickie's backstory from Dickie's point of view. 

But as well as readers may think they know the main characters at this point in the book, there is still so much more to come.

Murray picks up the pace in a section titled "Age of Loneliness" in which he use shorter, alternating points-of-view segments from the same characters to build a sense of unavoidable, impending doom. As the Barneses continue to try to make sense of what is happening to them, their individual segments begin to end on little cliffhangers and hints of major trouble just ahead that keep the reader turning pages. 

Next comes the book's final 25 pages in which the points-of-view switches come at such a breakneck pace that The Bee Sting begins to feel more like a ride on a runaway train than the brilliant novel it is. And then there's that ending...which some will love, and just as many will hate, especially after such a long ride with the Barnes family. Murray chose an ambiguous ending for The Bee Sting, one that the reader is going to have to interpret for himself. It's an ending I've thought about all afternoon and into the late evening before finally reaching what I believe to be a logical conclusion as to how it all ended for the Barnes family on that dark, rainy night in the forest outside their home. I just wish I could tell you about it...

Paul Murray jacket photo

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Halcyon - Elliot Ackerman


Elliot Ackerman's Halcyon is a fascinating alternate history take on the cultural shifts that have so rapidly changed this country and the rest of the world in just the past few years. In this version of America, Al Gore wins the 2000 election instead of George W. Bush, and the Gore administration funds genetic research that finds a cure for death via a process called bioregeneration. However, only time will tell if this Lazarus treatment is really such a good idea for the resurrected and their families.

College professor Martin Neumann, who is recently divorced, is living at Halcyon, a large estate in Virginia owned by the widow of a respected lawyer while he completes research for a new book on the Civil War. It is only after the woman's "dead" husband begins to drop by Martin's rented cottage most afternoons that the professor learns of the still top-secret project that resurrected her husband. Robert Ableson is one of the project's early successes, but Ableson has been in hiding for so long that he is desperate for conversation with someone other than his wife. Over time, and after Martin gets over his initial shock, the two men strike up a genuine friendship. 

Because of his proximity to the family, Martin becomes a confidante of the Ablesons after news about the project finally breaks publicly, and even becomes an advisor of sorts to Robert Ableson as he tries to reinsert himself into the new world into which he's been reborn. Among the first things that Ableson learns is that old grudges against him did not die on the day he was declared dead from pneumonia complications. Instead, those grudges are resurrected right along with Ableson, and they are stronger and more fiercely held than ever. 

Halcyon touches upon many of the issues of the day, including the tearing down of monuments, the "Me Too" movement, the recasting of historical events to coincide with today's sensitivities, and the demands for increasing inclusiveness across the board. The novel, in fact, covers so many issues that it becomes impossible for the book to explore most of them in this relatively short book to the depth they deserve. That, however, is the book's only weakness because Ackerman is certainly a talented storyteller who leaves readers with plenty to think about when they are done with Halcyon.

Elliot Ackerman author photo

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Puzzle Master - Danielle Trussoni


The two main characters of Danielle Trussoni's The Puzzle Master are very different people. One is a former college football player whose career was abruptly ended when he suffered a traumatic brain injury on the field. The other is a convicted murderer who has refused to speak to anyone since beginning her thirty-year prison sentence five years earlier. What the two have in common, and what ultimately brings them together, is an extraordinary puzzle solving ability. 

Mike Brink's talent, however, is on a whole different level than Jess's. His brain injury left him with an extremely rare medical condition called acquired savant syndrome, and in Mike's case that translates into the ability to solve and create complicated puzzles in ways that seem superhuman to the rest of us. So when Jess Price seems to be trying to communicate with her prison psychiatrist via a puzzle she has created, the psychiatrist immediately calls Mike for help in making sense of the puzzle - and even invites him to the prison to meet Jess for himself.

After learning that Jess has solved every puzzle that he's ever published, including his weekly Times magazine contributions, Mike is looking forward to meeting her. But it is only when he learns that he is really there there at Jess's request, not the psychiatrist's - and he feels the physical attraction between the two of them - that Mike dedicates his every waking moment to figuring out the truth about what happened to her. Now he is as obsessed with Jess as he is with creating puzzles.

The Puzzle Master is a first rate thriller that puzzle fans are going to find especially intriguing. Inside is all the action that any thriller fan would ever want, but the key to Jess's freedom and Mike's survival boils down to  Mike's ability to solve a thirteenth century puzzle that has already claimed the lives of some who dared spend too much time with it. Despite it being a thriller with a heavy dose of well researched facts about puzzle history and brain injuries, The Puzzle Master still requires an equally heavy dose of suspended disbelief from its readers. 

But that's what thriller fans do...and we're pretty good at it.  

Danielle Trussoni jacket photo

(I also want to mention Trussoni's memoir Falling Through the Earth  about her experience growing up with a Viet Nam vet father who was traumatized by his combat experiences. It is from 2007.)

Monday, November 13, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week - November 13, 2023

Despite a weekend trip to Dallas that really limited my reading time last week, I somehow managed to finish two books that I've been working on: Hanging the Devil (reviewed) and The Puzzle Master (review to follow). I also made a little progress on two very different books I mentioned last week: The Blues Brothers and When Books Went to War. 

Unfortunately, after reading about 75 pages of The Lemon Man I ended up moving it - at least for now - into the "Did Not Finish" box. The novel was just not working for me at all. It uses a first person/present tense narrator, and while that combination doesn't necessarily bother me, this time I found myself feeling too much as if I were viewing the narrator's life through a body camera strapped to his chest to enjoy it. After I found myself cringing from the number of paragraphs (especially at the beginning of chapters) that begin with words like "I saw, I went, I cross over, I lift, I hear, I wake up, I see," and the like, I quit...reading. The plot is clever enough, but this pronoun/present tense combination really wore on me.

I have to admit that I've been a little frustrated by When Books Went to War, and even moved it into the DNF file for a couple of days before deciding to give it one more chance. I'm still not very far along, but it's starting to cover more of the ground I'm most curious about regarding the books sent overseas to American servicemen during World Wars I and II, so I'm enjoying it more and making steady progress toward its conclusion. Maybe I just expected too much.

My library hold-list came through last week with a couple of books that have very short check-out windows - and four more arrive this week, so I'll largely be reading from library books this week:

The Bee Sting is on the 2023 Booker Prize shortlist, but the novel itself is anything but short. It comes in at 642 pages and with exactly one week to go before I need to return it, I've read only 358 of those pages. It is the consistently bleak story of a family that is falling apart at the seams while only its youngest member much seems to care. I really like the way the plot is constructed by dividing the story into long, distinctive sections each narrated by one of the book's main characters. The different POVs covering some of the same ground make for interesting reading.

I've so far read only one of the eight interlocking short stories that comprise If I Survive You, but I've already been pleasantly surprised by this Booker Prize nominee. Much of what I've heard about this one has been negative, so I was a little skeptical about it before reading "In Flux," a story about the youngest brother in a family of four Jamaicans who come to Miami to begin new lives. The story immediately takes on the difficulties that first generation Americans can experience in trying to be accepted by either the country of their parents origin or by the new country in which they now live. 

These four are ready for library pick-up:

The Longmire Defense is book number nineteen in Craig Johnson's Sheriff Walt Longmire series. In this one, Longmire is working a cold case that goes all the way back to the late 1940s. The old case involves the murder of a man who became the first person that Walt's father ever saw die, but no murder weapon was ever found, so the case was never solved or prosecuted. But after Walt's dog discovers the missing rifle - one that turns out to have been owned by Walt's own grandfather - Walt's sense of right and wrong will be severely tested.

Tim O'Brien is one of those authors I highly respect but have had only limited experience reading. The problem is that O'Brien is just not that prolific a writer; America Fantastica is, in fact, his first new novel in two decades. This is a story about a bank robber who decides to take the teller hostage when he makes his escape from the bank. As it turns out, the teller is not unhappy to remain right where she is despite all the people on their trail. The New York Times called this "one of Fall 2023's most anticipated books."

The Raging Storm is the third novel in Ann Cleeves's Inspector Matthew Venn series. The whole town is excited when a celebrity sailor/adventurer takes shelter in the town during a gale, but before they can get used to the idea of having him there the man is murdered. The murder investigation brings Venn back to the same small religious community from which he was expelled as a young man - and after a second body is discovered, things get so messy for Venn that he begins to question is own judgement.

Chicken Hill is an abandoned neighborhood where African American families once lived side-by-side with Jewish families. Then in 1972, while clearing the old neighborhood and digging foundations for new buildings, workers discover a skeleton at the bottom of an old well. Now it looks like a lot of figurative old skeletons are about to be uncovered in addition to the real one workers found. I've enjoyed McBride's work before but this one has gotten mixed reviews, so we'll see.

A couple of these have been on hold since July or August, but of course they all have to become available in the same week. And they all have a long waiting list behind me, so once again I'm limited to a 14-day checkout period. This is not exactly what I thought I'd be reading this week, but here they come. 

How does your own upcoming week look?

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Hanging the Devil - Tim Maleeny


Hanging the Devil is Tim Maleeny's sixth "Cape Weathers Mystery," but because it has been four years since the fifth novel in the series was published, it was important that this one work equally well as a standalone. And it most certainly does. 

Cape Weathers is a San Francisco private investigator who partners up with Sally Mei, the "self-appointed guardian of Chinatown." Cape is a formidable investigator with a lot of connections that help him cut corners within the SFPD, but readers are going to enjoy the man's wit as much as they do his investigatory adventures. Sally is a young Chinese woman who began receiving martial arts training from a Chinese triad as soon as she could walk. Still known as the "Little Dragon" within the Chinese criminal world, Sally is a legend despite having escaped that world for her new life in San Francisco. 

But that criminal world intrudes on Sally's new life one day in the form of Grace, an eleven-year-old Hong Kong girl who has been smuggled into San Francisco to live with her museum security guard uncle. Grace becomes the only living witness to a helicopter crash into the city's Asian Art Museum and what happens immediately after inside the museum. Now on the run for her life, Grace literally runs right into the protective arms of Sally Mei. And after Cape hears the little girl's story, he contracts with her - at the hefty price of twenty-five cents - to protect her life and to catch those responsible for the art-theft-gone-bad that she witnessed.

 Hanging the Devil is quite a Mission Impossible kind of thriller that will keep readers turning pages. But rather surprisingly, it is the relationships between the main characters (and some of the side characters) that make this tale so much fun to read. Neither Cape and Sally nor readers are immune to the charms of Grace, the little dynamo of a girl who soon begins to morph into Sally's own mini-me sidekick. Even some of the villains in the story are so likable that it can be difficult to wish them a bad end. And all of it is held together beautifully by the cleverness and wit on display from Cape and others. 

Tim Maleeny is a superb storyteller, and if you are willing to go along for the ride, you are going to have a whole lot of fun with Hanging the Devil.

Tim Maleeny jacket photo

Friday, November 10, 2023

Western Lane - Chetna Maroo


Chetna Maroo's short debut novel Western Lane is on the 2023 Booker Prize shortlist, and so far it's one of my favorite nominations. Maroo did have numerous short stories published prior to publication of Western Lane and was also the winner of The Paris Review's 2022 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, so she already had a respected track record upon which to judge her work before this novel. 

The story begins just a few days after three British-Indian sisters living in Scotland have lost their mother. Gopi, the novel's narrator, is eleven, Khush is thirteen, and Mona fifteen. On the advice of the girls' aunt that what they need now is exercise and discipline, their rather bewildered father triples down on the time they have been spending on squash and badminton. And for a time, as the girls and their father work their way through individual grief, the idea seems to be working well.

But then as the two older sisters begin to lose their interest in squash just as Gopi begins to excel in the sport, everything begins to change for the family. Mona starts to resent her father for not more actively discouraging the sudden interest that other women begin to show in him, and Gopi begins to distance herself from the rest of the family while growing closer to the boy she practices with at Western Lane. All the while the girls' father seems unable even to avoid his own self-destruction, much less that of his daughters. 

This coming-of-age novel about three sisters forced to deal with devastating grief that their only remaining parent is ill equipped to help them work through is certainly a touching one. But, as evidenced below, what makes this such brilliant storytelling is how Maroo uses the sport of squash as a stand-in for the very mindset of Gopi, her siblings, and their father. 

"In the court, your mind is not only on the shot you're about to play and the shot with which your opponent might reply, but on the shots that will follow two, three, four moves ahead...This is how you choose which way to go. Though your mind is following several paths at once, it's not a splitting but an expansion forwards and backwards at the same time, and it happens so quickly that it feels like instinct. Sometimes, you don't even know you are thinking."

 Too, Gopi's favorite squash practice technique is one called "ghosting," in which the player imagines a series of shots while going through the physical motions of making them without actually using a ball. The same could be said for the way that the girls and their father move through the days that follow their tragic loss. At first I wondered why Maroo chose to make squash such a huge part of Western Lane; now I can't imagine her story being better told any other way. 

Chetna Maroo jacket photo

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

2023 Booker Prize Nominations (Part 2)


In one way or the other, I'm now done with three of the 2023 Book Prize nominations and have just gotten hold of two others: The Bee Sting by Paul Murray and If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery. At least two or three others should follow next week.

I rank the three I've worked through so far in this order:

Western Lane - Chetna Maroo - 5 stars (shortlist)

Old God's Time - Sebastian Barry - 4 stars (longlist)

A Spell of Good Things - Ayóbàmi Adébáyò - DNF (longlist)

The Bee Sting
(shortlist) is over 640 pages long and not eligible for an extended check-out period, so I'm going to have to hustle on this one. But it's been tipped by many book people as the most likely winner of this year's prize and it has become the odds on favorite, so I'm really looking forward to it. The plot focuses on an Irish family that, despite all outward appearances, is on very shaky grounds now that the economy has taken a downturn and the car dealer patriarch starts to doubt that he should still be selling gasoline-driven cars.

If I Survive You also made the shortlist, but do keep in mind that I'm not limiting myself to only the shortlisted books, so half the books nominated have already been eliminated from the competition. If I Survive You is a series of connected stories about a Jamaican family that relocates to Miami in order to start new lives for everyone. Of course, it's not going to be that easy.

The fifty thousand pound winner will be announced in the U.K. on November 26. 

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Shutter - Ramona Emerson


"All we're saying is that if you keep inviting dead things into your life, it could open the door. You never know what path a spirit has taken until they are in your head. Don't let them know there is a door. Don't let them know that you are the key." - medicine man's warning to Rita Todacheene about her ability to see and converse with the ghosts of murder victims

Rita Todacheene is a forensic photographer with the Albuquerque police department. She is especially good at her job because of the direction she often gets from the ghosts of people whose dead bodies she is photographing. Now, because police investigators have learned that Rita's photographs often provide exactly the evidence they need to get a murder conviction, she works extra-long hours that leave her mentally and physically in a constant state of near exhaustion. 

Seeing and talking with ghosts is not a recently acquired skill for Rita. It all began when she was a little girl, but Rita quickly learned never to tell her grandmother or school friends about the ghosts that visit her because it scared them. Both her grandmother and the tribe's medicine man fear that Rita's mind might be taken over one day by a ghost with evil intentions, and they beg her to stop allowing frustrated ghosts to use her for their own purposes.

As it turns out, Rita should have heeded their advice while she had the chance, because after a particularly relentless and vengeful ghost latches on to her, it is way too late. Now she has both crooked cops and a powerful Mexican drug cartel searching for her. And if they find her, Rita is likely to become a ghost herself. 

Shutter works exceptionally well during the part of the book that alternates chapter flashbacks to Rita's girlhood with chapters set in the present. It is fascinating to watch the little girl's interaction with the ghosts as she adapts herself to the realization that they are a secret she can share with no one. Unfortunately, after the flashback chapters and the present day chapters finally merge fully into real time, the novel becomes more a typical crime thriller with a predictable ending. Shutter is a solid three-star debut novel, however, and I look forward to seeing what Ramona Emerson publishes next.

Ramona Emerson author photo

Monday, November 06, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (November 6, 2023)

I feel like I had rather a strange reading week last week. I did finish four of the books that I'd hope to finish: The Last Ranger, Take It Out in Trade, Death Writes, and Shutter. I even managed to finish another book not mentioned in last week's "look ahead" post, the 2023 Booker Prize shortlisted novel Western Lane. In addition, I decided to table for now the Tom Hanks novel The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece and to DNF one of the Booker Prize nominees I'm working my way through after reading about 50 pages of it, A Spell of Good Things.

That means that I will be starting this new week with only three books in progress: 

I'm about 80 pages into Danielle Trussoni's The Puzzle Master right now and I'm very intrigued by the book's premise and its two main characters. Mike Brink is a puzzle savant whose ability to solve "impossible" puzzles only showed up after he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Jess Price is a convicted murderer who has refused to speak to anyone during her five years of incarceration. As it turns out she is also a huge fan of Mike Brink's puzzles and is not at all bad at creating puzzles herself. Now she wants Brink's help from prison.

Tim Maleeny's Hanging the Devil is the latest in the author's "Cape Weathers Mystery" series. Thankfully, it is working just fine as a standalone thriller, and at the half-way point I'm really enjoying it. Cape Weathers is a San Francisco private detective with the wit and sarcasm of a stand-up comic. His partner is a young woman, formerly a member of a Chinese triad, whose physical skills are almost at superhero level. And in this one, their client is a little Hong Kong girl whose physical skills aren't bad either. This is fun.

This Daniel De Visé book on the relationship between John Belushi and Dan Akroyd - and the making of The Blues Brothers movie - is not scheduled for publication until March 19, 2024 but I've already begun reading a few pages here and there because I'm so much of a fan of the movie and the two comedians. At the 50-page mark, it's still in the Belushi bio stage but I've already been surprised to learn that John was already doing some of his Saturday Night Live stuff while still in high school. Not sure how much more of it I'll read, if any, this week.

And I'll be adding one or two of these:

I could still kick myself for turning down a review copy of When Books Went to War back in 2014 because it seems like such a natural for me now. But, as I recall, I was so overwhelmed at that moment that I just couldn't take on another book. And then it slipped my mind for a long time until I started to see it mentioned somewhere or other every few months. The latest reminder came from Cathy over at her Kittling: Books blog, and this time I immediately put it on hold at my library - only to end up holding on to it until the very last moment. So here goes.

I've read two of Laurie Frankel's novels in the past and enjoyed both of them, so I'm happy to get hold of this latest of hers (to be published this January). It's the complicated story of a movie actress's experiences with the adoption process. She's an advocate of adoption and speaks openly about it, bringing some unexpected attention to her situation. I think I've already picked up on the initial spoiler in the story, but it's intriguing enough a premise to make me look past that unfortunate bit of pre-knowledge about the plot. 

The Lemon Man is a 2022 crime novel that recently won Australia's prestigious Ned Kelly Award for Best International Crime Novel. That's no small deal, so I want to read The Lemon Man before it's sequel is published in early 2024. Listen to this basic plot line: an Irish hitman who makes his hits from a bicycle somehow manages to get himself designated as the caretaker of a baby boy. Now he has to figure out a way to work hits into his busy domestic schedule. This one sounds like it could be a lot of fun.

The wild card this week is going to be my library. I already know of two books that need to be picked up either today or tomorrow or they'll go to the next person in line, and two new ones could be showing up there at any moment. The first two are both Booker Prize nominees with check-out time limited to two weeks...and one of those, The Bee Sting is over 640 pages long. Because The Bee Sting is the Booker nominee I most want to read, it will influence everything else that happens this week. I'm not at all surprised by any of this because it's the rule for me, not the exception. Y'all keep turning those pages...and tell me all about it.