Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Reservoir - David Duchovny


David Duchovny's novella The Reservoir was originally published in 2022 but a new paperback edition, which includes the addition of a short story titled "The Scare Owl," will be available in bookstores on January 30, 2024. (Shown above is the new edition's cover.)

Ridley is a Wall Street retiree who has been self-trapped inside his New York City apartment pretty much since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He lives in such fear of this mysterious new virus that he does little else all day long but stare out the apartment window  overlooking Central Park while contemplating his past personal failures. It doesn't help that Ridley is divorced and hasn't risked a visit with his daughter in months now. He lives alone, and he is a lonely man.

So when Ridley late one night notices flashing lights coming from an apartment window on the opposite side of the park, he is eager to connect with the mystery light-flasher, a person he convinces himself has to be a woman. He is so eager for some kind of human contact that he ventures outside, and into the park, in search of the woman he has fallen into a strange love-trance relationship with despite her, so far at least, living only in his imagination. Ridley is slowly, inevitably, being driven mad by his extreme isolation, and there is no one there to help him.

What happens to Ridley on the freezing nights he ventures into Central Park is at times surreal, and it is not always clear what is real and what occurs only in the man's head. Fearing now that he has foolishly exposed himself to COVID-19, Ridley retreats to the relative safety of his apartment, convinces his doctor to send the approved treatment to his door, and waits to see what happens next.

The Reservoir is about the way that people coped with the recent pandemic, but it is also a critique of the lifestyle choices and cultural changes initiated by the virus that are still with us today. The feelings of isolation, loss, and detachment from other human beings have become a way of life for too many people - and we were not made to live in that kind of world. The Reservoir may not be a long book, but it one that leaves behind a lot for the reader to ponder well after its last page has been turned.

But that's not nearly all there is to this book because its short story bonus, "The Scare Owl," also offers plenty to think about. This fable about a newly hatched crow raised by a murderous owl is one of the saddest coming-of-age tales I've encountered in a while, one that I am still mining for its complete message several days after reading it.

David Duchovny may be better known as an actor than as an author, but I'll tell you one thing...the man can write.

David Duchovny jacket photo

Monday, January 29, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (January 29, 2024)


Despite having to deal with some near flooding caused by a combination of three days of heavy rain and a fencing company's incompetence (and their refusal to return phone calls), last week was still an enjoyable reading week. I finished up Holmes on the Range, The Reservoir, and my first Agatha Christie novel, A Murder Is Announced. I also made pretty good progress on a few others: Larry McMurtry: A Life and Michael Connelly's Resurrection Walk, plus two others that weren't even in the mix this time last week.

Love him or hate him, Greg Gutfeld is a force to be reckoned with (I'm in the love-him camp), and I enjoy checking in with him just about every day. The man is a risk-taking comic who is not afraid of offending anyone at any given time, even those who consider themselves avid fans of his. What he does is make people think, and he shifts their positions on issues, sometimes so gradually and so painlessly that they hardly realize it's happened until it's all over. Greg Gutfeld is no conservative, and he even managed to change his own TV network, Fox News, before (I'm pretty sure) the folks in charge of that network ever saw it coming.

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez's memoir, My Side of the River, will be published in mid-February. I've read several chapters of the book, and with the exception of one hilarious dangling participle early on, I'm finding it to be well written and very readable. I was attracted to the book because I'm always on the lookout for an argument that can convince me that America's "anchor baby" policy is a good thing for the U.S. Gutierrez herself was an anchor baby whose parents came to Tucson just in time to have her born there before immediately returning to Mexico and Costa Rica. (She has been in the U.S. since she was four years old.)

I'm not as big a fan of Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer series as I am of the Bosch books, so I've been content to wait for months on my library hold list for my crack at Resurrection Walk. Well, as it turns out, this may be more a Harry Bosch book than a Lincoln Lawyer book because it's divided into titled Parts that alternate first-person narration by the two characters as they work together to free a woman wrongly convicted of murdering her ex-husband, who happens to have been a corrupt Los Angeles sheriff's deputy - and now that I have it in hand, the clock is ticking loudly because another 128 people are still waiting behind me for their turn. 

At a considerably slower pace, I'm also still reading in an out of The Blues Brothers, The Affair Next Door, Writing to Learn, Ruined by Reading, and What to Read. Two or three of the nine books in progress are likely to be finished this week, and I'll likely replace those with a couple of the ones I'm most anxious to get to next:


I'm looking forward to the week, and seeing what all of you are reading. I'm writing this early on Sunday afternoon, so I'll be coming by to see what you're talking about on your blogs after the football semifinal games are done. Have a great week, everybody.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Holmes on the Range - Steve Hockensmith


Holmes on the Range is the first book in Steve Hockensmith's nine-book series of the same name. As such, it serves as a wonderful introduction to the premise of the series along with its two main characters and Hockensmith's prose style. Let's begin with the author's style, as it is immediately displayed in the novel's opening lines:

"There are two things you can't escape out here in the West: dust and death. They sort of swirl together in the wind, and a fellow never knows when a fresh gust is going to blow one or the other right in his face."

The premise of the novels is a simple enough one cleverly applied. The novels are set in the 1890s, the peak of popularity of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels and stories (in this series, Sherlock is a living, breathing real-life detective). A cowboy working as a ranch hand out west has become totally infatuated with Sherlock's accomplishments, and is determined to make himself into a cowboy version of the famous detective.

The narrator of the series is Otto Amlingmeyer, a young redhead most often called "Big Red" who works alongside his older brother, the Sherlock Holmes fanatic who is better known as "Old Red" than by Gustav Amlingmeyer. Old Red never did learn how to read, but he knows everything there is to know about Sherlock from the stories that Otto reads to him at night in the bunkhouse or around the campfire. The brothers are the only survivors of a family that was otherwise wiped out by a horrendous flood.

Holmes on the Range finds the boys working on an isolated ranch where their movement is tightly controlled and restricted only to specific acreage. After the rather nerdy ranch manager (who is more of a bookkeeper than a cowboy) gets himself trampled to death during a thunderstorm, Big Red notices a few oddities about the man's remains - and being the Sherlock Holmes wannabe that he is, he runs with it. 

Before this one is over, the English owners of the ranch (including some minor royalty) suddenly show up, and it seems that the more digging Big Red is going to do, the more people are going to die.

Holmes on the Range is fun, exactly what it's meant to be, and it's easy to see how the series has continued to grow since its 2006 debut.

Steve Hockensmith

Friday, January 26, 2024

The Cover Wife - Dan Fesperman


I've enjoyed several of Dan Fesperman's novels since reading his The Prisoner of Guantanamo back in 2007. The books appeal to me primarily because they always seem to be on topics ripped right from the headlines of tomorrow's newspaper. The Cover Wife, even though it is set in 1999 Germany, feels just as current because it deals with a problem that is as scary in 2024 as it was in 1999: fanatical, Islamist-influenced terrorism that could strike anywhere, anytime despite the world's quarter of a century of trying to control the threat.

This is the story, much of it factually based, of exactly how close authorities in the U.S. and Germany came to nipping the 9-11 plot in the bud, even to being able to stop it before the terrorists ever reached the U.S. - and how authorities in both countries instead found a way to blow their one and only chance to get the job done.

Claire Saylor is not exactly a team-player of a CIA agent. So when Claire is chosen to impersonate the wife of a German-book-touring American professor whose new book is certain to bring the wrath of Islam down on his head, she sees it as punishment for the trouble she caused on her last case. Claire, though, starts to feel a little better about the assignment when she learns that the team leader is a man she both respects and has a little history with. She is officially to be the nerdy professor's head of personal security, but that's not all Claire is going to be doing - especially after the whole operation almost immediately start falling apart all around her and her team. 

In alternating chapters, Fesperman focuses on a young Moroccan immigrant to Germany as he is groomed by a small group of radicals at his local mosque. The young man's skills and loyalty are tested and judged via small assignments he is given to complete on his own, and soon enough he becomes member of the team. The Moroccan, however, has a secret of his own: the protective feelings he has for the Westernized Muslim wife of another young man in the same group of conspirators.

Claire recognizes that the new recruit may be a weak link the agency can exploit if she can only keep him alive long enough to do so. But that won't be easy because the FBI and German authorities are also aware of this particular group of Muslim radicals  - and no one is sharing intelligence or operational planning with anyone else. Three agencies, three separate missions, and no one is willing to share details or responsibilities. And that goes for the CIA and the FBI, as well.

Fesperman always handles a complicated plot very well, and The Cover Wife is no exception. In less capable hands, all of the inter-agency infighting, along with the numerous characters who come in and out of the story, may have made this a difficult plot to follow. The Cover Wife can certainly be read as a straight-up spy thriller, but readers paying a little extra attention will recognize that many of the characters and places are real ones snatched from what was learned in the aftermath of the 9-11 murders. If you don't already know Dan Fesperman's work, The Cover Wife and Safe Houses, the novel that precedes it, are good places to start reading.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Boys from Biloxi - John Grisham


It's been six years since I've read anything from John Grisham, and I don't remember having had quite this reaction to his work before. It was only my general weariness with "legal thrillers" that caused me to stop reading Grisham in the first place, so this is the first time I've been so underwhelmed by one of his books. The Boys from Biloxi strikes me as nothing more, really, than a boilerplate rehashing of a basic plot line I've read way too many times already.

This is the story of two very different families who live on Mississippi's Gulf Coast where boys from each family bond and become fast friends over their shared expertise at youth baseball. But of course, the boys are destined to take very different courses in life because one is the son of a crime boss who is the dominant vice provider in Biloxi, and the other is the son of a family whose patriarch dedicates his life to fighting exactly that type of crime. Each family, by definition, becomes the mortal enemy of the other.

Keith Rudy goes to law school and follows closely in his father's crime-fighting shoes; Hugh Malco, on the other hand, becomes his father's right-hand man, especially after the old man gets sentenced to Parchman, and follows closely in his father's brutal methods of running a crime syndicate. The clash between Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco is inevitable, and it will prove to be deadly.

So with a feel to it of "been there, done that," The Boys from Biloxi is both a coming-of-age novel and a very long, multi-generational family saga (454 pages in the edition I read) that still manages to feel rushed at times. There is a whole lot of "telling" in summary fashion of major plot shifts; short chapters of six or seven pages during which entire crimes are committed and solved; and poorly developed characters that appear over and over again without ever seeming to be all that real despite the numerous opportunities Grisham has to flesh them out. 

There is, in fact, so much "telling" going on and so little "showing" that the novel strikes me as more of a fully fleshed outline for a short series of novels rather than itself being one self-contained novel. But The Boys from Biloxi kept me reading for 454 pages, and for that reason alone I'm going to call this a three-star book.

Monday, January 22, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (January 22, 2024)


I'm coming off an enjoyable week of reading during which I finished up three novels (The Hustler by Walter Tevis, The Boys from Biloxi by John Grisham, and The Cover Wife by Dan Fesperman) and made pretty good progress on several others. Nonfiction is still coming slow for me this year, but a wildcard biography that I'm really enthusiastic about finally hollered loud and long enough a couple of days to get my attention. More on that one in a minute.

So I'm making good progress again on The Blues Brothers (an account of the making of the movie of the same name),  and Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced, along with Holmes on the Range (about a cowboy Sherlock Holmes wannabe), while trudging more slowly along on Writing to Learn and What to Read and Why

In addition, I've started these three:

I've barely dipped a toe into Anna Katherine Green's 1896 novel The Affair Next Door so my reaction to this one is definitely subject to change - but the thing that strikes me is how much a prototype the novel seems to be for the kind of crime fiction still being written today. Replace the carriage that pulls up next door late one night to discharge two strangers with a taxi cab or car, and the plot reads like one that could have just as easily been written this century. I can see already why Green is considered such an influence on the genre.

A paperback edition of David Duchovny's The Reservoir is going on sale on January 30 and its cover art is a modified version of this hardback cover. This is a novella that also features a new short story not included in the hardback edition. This may just be the ultimate New York City covid-novel because it captures all of the paranoia and loneliness associated with 2020 life in a big city. One lonely man, living in an apartment that overlooks Central Park, is attempting to make contact with a woman who lives in an apartment on the other side of the park - all by flashing room lighting to each other in the early hours of the morning.

I can barely remember a time that I was not a huge fan of Larry McMurtry's books, so this massive biography from Tracy Daugherty has been tugging at me since late last year. But I wanted to get a copy in my hands before purchasing one for myself, just to be sure about it first. That finally happened on Friday, and (now that I've finally found the perfect font size on my Scribe) I'm loving every page of it. I'm fairly familiar with McMurtry's life already, especially his Houston years, but this bio just keeps getting more and more interesting. I'll be sticking with the Kindle version because I don't want to feel rushed to finish and return the library copy I have...and I want to absorb as much as possible from this about-500-page biography.

I'm also juggling library due dates and ARC reviews promised, so any additions to this weeks reading are most likely to come from these:

So there you have it, the very fragile plan for this week. Happy Reading to you all!

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Book Chase Turns 17 Today!


It hasn't always been easy, but somehow (largely thanks to your support), I've managed to muddle through all of this for a total of seventeen years as of today. And because deep down inside, I'll always be a numbers guy, I can't resist sharing just a few of my favorite "numbers" with you today:

  • 1,567 Book and Short Story Reviews (over 99% books)
  •    212 Posts about bookstores
  •    339 Posts about specific authors
  •      34 Author obituaries
  •    185 Posts about libraries
  • 3,646 Total Posts (roughly one every other day for 17 years)
Too, I'm kind of fascinated that my all-time Top Five posts (based on page-views) are so all over the map. It's a little disturbing that book blog traffic is generally down from previous years, and that so many people now see blogging as passé, but a lot of us are in it for the long haul, and I'm happy to count myself in that group. The five posts in question are these:
  • Warning: Area 509 Phone Calls Are Dangerous - 59,200 views
  • Sarah's Key - 33,100 views
  • The Virgin Suicides - 17,100 views
  • 62 Ways to Read More Than 50 Books a Year - 10,500 views
  • Barnes & Noble Uses Liquid Soap to Destroy Books - 9,080 views
Kind of all over the map, aren't they, with only two of them being actual books reviews?

Thanks to everyone (bloggers, readers, writers, publishers, librarians, and bookstore staff, alike) for making me feel a part of the book community for the last seventeen years. It's shocking to think just how much the world has changed since January 20, 2007. Never saw any of it coming...

Friday, January 19, 2024

The Hustler - Walter Tevis


Almost despite himself, Walter Tevis was an amazingly successful writer whose novels have held up very well since his death to lung cancer thirty-nine years ago. I was very slow to pick up a Walter Tevis novel for the first time, but as it turns out, when I finally did (The Queen's Gambit), I already knew more about his books than I realized thanks to several of them having been made into major films. Including The Queen's Gambit, which was adapted into a hit series by Netflix in 2020, four Tevis novels have been filmed. The other three are The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, all of which are familiar to film buffs.

Tevis's hustler, who has come to be known as "Fast Eddie," is a young man who has been working his way across the country from pool hall to pool hall so that when he makes it to Chicago he will have enough money in his pocket to challenge the big boy pool hustlers there. Eddie wants as much as anything to make a reputation for himself, and he will be pleased to learn that his reputation, and expectation of his immanent arrival, precede him to the biggest pool halls in the city.

And that's where Eddie finds his own "white whale" waiting for him in the person of the almost grotesquely fat man who is acknowledged to be the best pool player in the country, one "Minnesota Fats." Fat the man may be, but something almost miraculous happens when he picks up a pool cue and strides toward the table:

"He stepped up to the table with short, quick little steps, stepping up to it sideways, bringing his cue up into position as he did so, so that he was holding his cue, standing sideways to the table, out across his great stomach, the left hand bridge already formed, the right hand holding the butt delicately, as a violinist holds his bow - gracefully but surely...And then Fats began moving around the table, making balls, all of his former ponderousness gone now, his motions like a ballet, the steps light, sure, and rehearsed."

Walter Tevis was an artist himself, and it's passages like this one that prove it to me. His novels are character-driven tales populated by flawed people whose deepest thoughts and motivations are all on full display for the reader to absorb and judge. The Hustler, while not exactly a coming-of-age novel for the young man in question, is one in which Fast Eddie finally figures out who he is and why he is that way. It's a bumpy ride, but with a lot of coaching along the way Eddie turns himself from a loser into a winner. What a shame it is too late.

This 1959 novel was followed, finally, by a 1984 sequel that would turn out to be Tevis's last book. In 1986, The Color of Money was made into a successful movie featuring Paul Newman in a reprisal of his role as Fast Eddie from The Hustler film, and co-starring Tom Cruise as a young pool player that Eddie wants to turn into a professional hustler.  

A Young Walter Tevis

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

All the Little Bird-Hearts - Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow (and a 2023 Booker Prize Update)


For good reason, Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow's All the Little Bird-Hearts was included on the 2023 Booker Prize longlist. The novel's main character, Sunday Forrester, is autistic and lives alone with her sixteen-year-old daughter Dolly, a teen who is starting to explore the outside world on her own - something her autistic mother has never been capable of doing easily. Sunday is the novel's narrator, and everything that happens is seen and recounted via her individual way of looking at the world. It all seems very real to the reader thanks in no small part to the fact that author Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow is herself autistic.

Sunday is surprised one day to find a woman confidently sunbathing in the garden next door because Tom, her neighbor, had not told her to expect anyone in his absence. Little did Sunday know that she was beginning "The Year of Vita," or that in a few months she would barely remember the life she was living before meeting Vita on that fateful day. Within days, Sunday and Vita became "best friends," and Sunday and Dolly were joining Vita and her husband for regular Friday night dinners. Dolly, sensing a certain kinship spirt with the new neighbor, succumbed to Vita's charms just as quickly as her mother had done.

And that was the problem. 

Lloyd-Barlow's characters are all flawed in unique and individual ways, some more likable than others, but all of them so vividly imagined that they seem as real to reader's as their own neighbors and friends. Some characters understand themselves, some don't; some are weak enablers of bad behavior on the part of others; and some are just doing the best they can to make it from one day to the next.

Sunday is one of the ones who knows exactly who she is:

"My mind is an electrical and involuntary force. Everything touches many, many other things, and these points of intersection are the only way in which the world can be properly understood.

I remain convinced there is a universal code to be broken, a pattern to be understood...What would it be to live without the laborious work of translation, to hear and instantly know what you have heard."

Too, Sunday's way of seeing the world results in an unforgettable description of the behavior she observes in Vita, behavior she sees as being very bird-like:

"I see that my frequent muteness was a convenience to someone who was soft-feathered and sharp-eyed. And who sang away to herself in my presence, happily and without interruption, for she knew I had no song with which to call back...Birds have traditionally been banned from Italian households, whether as pets, paintings, or ornaments. They are believed to bring the Evil Eye...I would not have knowingly allowed even the image of a bird into my home, however beautiful. But I lived for and loved a bird-heart that summer; I only knew it afterwards."

 All the Little Bird-Hearts is very much a psychological drama, one in which the pressure is turned up on Sunday - and on the reader - so gradually that imminent dangers are never anticipated until it is too late to do much about them. The construction of the novel's plot is as clever and fascinating as the deep dive into the mind of a character like Sunday Forrester. If you enjoy well written psychological drama, this is one you should not miss.

Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow author photo


I have now read eight of the thirteen Booker Prize nominees and decided not to finish two others. The remaining three have been on hold at the library for so long now that I'm beginning to wonder if they will ever turn up. One of them is still showing "on order," and that doesn't give me a lot of confidence that I'll ever see it. I personally rank the ten Booker books I've spent time with so far this way:

  1. The House of Doors
  2. The Bee Sting
  3. If I Survive You
  4. Western Lane
  5. All the Little Bird-Hearts
  6. Pearl
  7. Old God's Time
  8. This Other Eden
  9. A Spell of Good Things
  10. In Ascension
Still to go:
  • Prophet Song (the eventual winner of the prize)
  • Study for Obedience
  • How to Build a Boat

Monday, January 15, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (January 15, 2024)


I finished three books last week ( Red Leaves by Thomas H. Cook, The Diabolical by David Putnam, and All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow), but I still managed to increase my in-progress reads from eight books to nine books by the end of the week. Momentum-wise, I've really been finding it difficult to put down Walter Tevis's The Hustler the last couple of days. Tevis creates such believable and complete characters that I think about them even when not reading.

In addition to the other books I'm carrying in from last week (Blues Brothers, The Boys from Biloxi, Writing to Learn, and What to Read and Why), I've begun these four:

Holmes on the Range is Steve Hockensmith's introductory novel in his series about a pair of cowboying brothers out West, one of whom (he's called "Old Red") is so infatuated by the Sherlock Holmes stories that he begins to model his entire life after the fictional detective - much to the exasperation of "Big Red," his younger brother. The brothers are working on an isolated cattle ranch when Old Red becomes convinced that the ranch manager's sudden death was not the accident it appears to be to everyone but him.

I'm a big fan of Dan Fesperman's thrillers ever since reading The Prisoner of Guantanamo back in 2007. Fesperman's novels usually reflect world politics of the day, and many of them have been about the impact of Islamic-influenced terrorism. The Cover Wife, a 2021 novel, follows a similar theme, but it is set in late 1999 before intelligence agencies around the world realized just how horrendous this kind of terrorism would soon prove to be. The "cover wife" in question is an American agent chosen to pretend that she is the wife of an author who has just published a book that fundamentalist Muslims consider very insulting to the religion. 

I love the idea that 84-year-old Lillian Boxfish has decided to take a NYC walk on New Year's Eve, a walk during which she interacts with people she meets on the street and wherever she stops for a moment. During the walk, Lillian looks back on her life and all the changes she's seen in the city since she first arrived decades earlier. I haven't been able to jumpstart this one yet because I'm not much enjoying the flashbacks, and keep wishing Lillian would return to the present. It's like two separate books, one I really like, and one that kind of bores me.

I've only read the first chapter of A Murder Is Announced so far, but at least I can finally say that I've read some Agatha Christie. I've found Christie to be surprisingly easy to read so far, and I'm intrigued by the set-up of this 1950 novel in which someone places an ad in the "Personals" of a local newspaper announcing a murder-to-be that will occur at a specific place and time. Everyone who sees the ad assumes that it's an invitation to one of the "murder games" that are so popular at the moment. Expect a crowd of suspects. 

Also most likely to be added later this week are one or two of these:

And that's not even to speak of the list of mystery writers I posted a few days ago and asked for your input on. I got some really great responses and will actively begin looking for some of the titles and authors most praised in the comments sometime in the next few days. 

Have a great week, everyone!

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Diabolical - David Putnam


The Diabolical is book number eleven in David Putnam's Bruno Johnson series, and by this point in the series Bruno is doing his best to live a quiet life in Costa Rica along with his wife, their new baby son, his grandson, and the eleven kids they've rescued from abusive homes in Los Angeles without bothering first about the required paperwork. All of that, though, is about to change, creating a dangerous situation for Bruno and Marie who are still wanted on murder and kidnapping charges back in the U.S. 

And it all starts out so innocently, just as Bruno and Marie are beginning to enjoy a bout of private skinny-dipping at the beach one night. Bruno's presence in Costa Rica has not gone nearly as unnoticed as he had hoped, something he realizes only after the searchlights hit his and Marie's naked bodies. The local police chief needs Bruno's assistance in solving the mass murder of six people that's just happened in a popular nightspot - and Bruno is going to going to help whether or not he wants to. The choice is not going to be his.

What follows is a twisted and bloody investigation during which Bruno is constantly looking over his shoulder and wondering if there is anyone out there he can still trust as he works through a long list of potential suspects and motives. But Bruno keeps yanking on threads long enough for things to start to unravel, and now he hopes that he can manage to stay alive long enough to identify the killer - and that his marriage will survive the process.

David Putnam fills The Diabolical with so many unforgettable characters that even the bad guys are kind of fun to have around. There's Otis, the fat, stinky drunk who hangs around the bar all day long as Bruno serves him one Grasshopper after another; Doris, Bruno's ice-queen boss, who delights in firing and re-hiring him over and over; Eddie, the oldest child taken in by Bruno and Marie, who has a sense-of-humor all his own; and Waldo, the dog that has an intense love/hate relationship with Bruno that drives Bruno nuts. 

Best of all, no matter what may have just happened to Bruno hours earlier, he always manages to show his appreciation for his family by carving out time for special games with the kids or a quiet moment alone with Marie. This man loves children, and his self-appointed mission in life is to rescue as many of them as he can - and no one is going to stop him. 

The Diabolical is fun. And that's what it's all about.

Toe-Tags Needed: 11

David Putnam jacket photo

Friday, January 12, 2024

My Favorite Scar - Nicolás Ferraro translated by Mallory Craig-Kuhn


Argentinian writer Nicolás Ferraro's My Favorite Scar is a stunner of a novel. Some readers will call it a coming-of-age novel, some will  characterize it as gritty crime-fiction, and others will see it as a work of literary fiction with vivid lead characters. Whichever you choose to call it, you are correct, because My Favorite Scar is all of that and more. 

"Dad taught me how to remove bullets and sew up cuts when I was twelve. He taught me how to shoot at thirteen, and how to hotwire a car a few months later."

As fifteen-year-old Ámbar Mondragón looks back on her childhood, that is what she remembers about her father, a man so caught up in a life of crime that he has to depend on his little girl to patch him up when things go wrong - and things often go wrong in Victor's world, so wrong, in fact, that Victor and Ámbar seem to spend half their lives hiding out in one rundown motel or another.

About her father, she says:

"Dad carries his scars like medals. His whole body tells his story better than he could himself. Victor Montdragón is a man who can be read in Braille better than he can be heard, but he can't be understood in any language."

But things have never been this bad.

This time Victor limps home with his dead partner in tow and a picture in his mind of the tattooed hitman responsible for killing his friend. Victor knows that he will be next unless he can find the shooter and his boss before they find him, so all he has time for is a quick patch-job from Ámbar before the two of them begin their bloody roadtrip across Argentina so that Victor can exact his revenge and reclaim what he believes is his.

Ámbar, as usual, is there to do everything her father asks of her - and more - but she is no longer Victor's little girl. Now that she's old enough to think for herself, she begins to question everything she  thought she knew about her father, the mother who abandoned her years earlier, and the secrets she is so certain her father is keeping from her. But will she live long enough to get answers? And what will she do when she's finally had enough of living her entire life in the shadows?

My Favorite Scar includes some unforgettable moments between Victor and Ámbar as Victor tries to explain himself to his daughter. Victor doesn't always tell her the truth, but sometimes truth manages to slip out. One of my favorite moments between the two is when Victor tries to explain how he could have possibly done some of the things that bother her most:

"Having a conscience is a luxury, Ámbareté. It's for rich people. They have a clear conscience because they pay other people to get their hands dirty for them, other people who can't afford to have a conscience. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that your stomach growls louder than your conscience."

 It's way early to be saying it, but I suspect that My Favorite Scar will turn out to be one of my favorite reads of 2024.

Toe-Tags Needed: 5

(My Favorite Scar will be published on January 23, 2024. It is the second Nicolás Ferrar novel to be published in English. The first was 2022's Cruz.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Night of the Storm - Nishita Parekh


Nishita Parekh uses the classic locked-room mystery format in her debut novel (to be published on January 16) The Night of the Storm. The novel explores how one surprisingly dysfunctional Indian-American family comes apart at the seams while trapped inside a home by rising flood waters and high winds as Hurricane Harvey devastates Houston and its suburbs in August 2017. 

"Friendship highways had several exit ramps, but sibling relationships had no open doors, even if siblings who loved playing together as children grew up into adults with nothing in common, and family tensions wreaked silent damage like an undetected tumor."

The book's main character, Jia, is the recently divorced mother of a twelve-year-old son who has recently moved to Houston from Chicago to escape her ex-husband. Jia's sister (Seema) has convinced her to make, what is by this time, a dangerous drive to Seema's home to weather the storm there along with Seema and her husband. Others sheltering in the home for the duration of the storm are: Seema's brother-in-law and his wife, Seema's mother-in-law, and Seema's toddler daughter.

This is not exactly one big, happy family, it is instead one already trying to hide a lot of structural cracks like: adult brothers still competing for their mother's affection, a family matriarch who enjoys playing favorites among her daughters-in-law, a brother who has recently been getting a little too handsy with Jia, and a white woman who has married into the family but still feels mostly unaccepted. It was probably only going to be a matter of time before someone cracked anyway under all the intolerable togetherness, but all bets are off when someone dies and the others figure out that someone in the family has to be a murderer.

Great premise for a murder mystery, no doubt about it, but The Night of the Storm didn't quite work for me. It doesn't help that details about what it's like to endure a storm of this magnitude, where you are basically on your own with no one to call for help, don't feel real. At one point in the story, the group even decides to place a dead body in the home's garage because it will be cooler there - an impossibility in any Houston garage in August. But the main problem for me is that this has to be the most narcissistic bunch of people I've encountered in one novel in a long time, including Kia who is intended to be the most sympathetic of the bunch. The only truly sympathetic characters in the book, in fact, are the two children.

And then there's that supposed-to-be-shocking twist that's clumsily  tacked onto the very end of the novel almost as an afterthought.

The bright spot is that I learned a lot about Indian culture, especially when it comes to the relationship between mothers and sons - and their sons' wives- and how all of that still works to some degree within many Indian families who have immigrated to other parts of the world. The author does a good job of creating a family brought together by marriage but pushed apart by tradition and jealousy.

Toe-Tags Needed: 2

Author Nishita Parekh

Monday, January 08, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (January 8, 2024)

 I've eased into my reading plan for 2024 by finishing up two review copies I didn't finish reading last week (Family Family and The Night of the Storm) along with another review copy (My Favorite Scar) that I will be thinking about for a long time. I can't wait to tell you all about that last one later this week.

In the meantime, I've started several new books while keeping in mind some of my set reading goals for the year. The result is that I'm rotating between eight books at the moment as the mood strikes me that it's time to switch books as one or another of them start to feel a little stale or tedious. Two of the "new books" (The Diabolical and The Blues Brothers) are actually review copy carry-ins from last year that are to be published in February and March, respectively. And as usual, my additions to what I'm reading don't exactly match last week's expected adds:

I'm a fan of David Putnam's Bruno Johnson series but have really been bad about reading them out of order, and that's not the best way to read this particular series. Anyway, The Diabolical is the latest, and finds Bruno, his wife Marie, and the fourteen children in their care hiding out in Costa Rica because there are criminal warrants out on both Bruno and Marie in the U.S. The kids, if you're wondering, with the exception of one of them, are rescues from terrible Los Angeles home environments. No paperwork required...

As you can see from the cover, All the Little Bird-Hearts is part of the 2023 Booker Prize longlist. It is one of the four remaining books I want to read from last year's list, and it is fascinating for a couple of reasons: it's main character and narrator is an autistic woman trying to cope with the new friend she has suddenly acquired from next door; and the author Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow is herself autistic. I'm only fifty pages in, but I already find myself enjoying the prose and the plot so much that I'm finding it hard to put this one down.

I've not read a lot of John Grisham recently, I suppose because I started finding his books to be a little repetitive in nature, but since The Boys from Biloxi is one of the books loaned to me by my brother last summer, I decided to see why he liked it so much. Grisham strikes me as kind of an old-school storyteller of multi-generational crime sagas - a style that builds to the real action very slowly over many pages (454 in this case) and that's what's happening here. So far, so good, and it reminds me that this style can be a comfort read.

I found a ratty copy of Francine Prose's 2018 What to Read and Why at a used-book bookstore a couple of years ago and until recently have done little more than thumb through it. But having read the novel about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein a few days ago, I was interested in learning more and it's all covered in chapter 2, so I started reading more carefully. And I still am. The book selections are not too surprising, but Prose has a lot to say about them and she says it all very concisely and clearly. This will take a while.

It's shameful to admit that I had never heard the name Walter Tevis before stumbling upon his wonderful The Queen's Gambit last year, but it's true. I was so fascinated by that novel and the Netflix series it resulted in that Tevis became someone I wanted to know more about. Turns out he was even bigger in his day than I imagined, and I've finally started reading The Hustler, a novel about pool hustlers that became a major motion picture during Hollywood's golden years.

I'm about to finish up Thomas H. Cook's Red Leaves and I'm chipping away at Writing to Learn, so I may have time to begin one or two from this bunch later in the week:

As I said up above, I'm easing in to the new plan, especially by searching for back catalogue books that I either entirely missed back in the day or just never got around to reading. Have a great reading week, guys, and don't forget to tell us all about it!