Home, Away

Baseball fans, do I have a book for you! Jeff Gillenkirk’s Home, Away is one of the best baseball novels I have ever read – and I have read a bunch of them. (I enjoyed this book so much that I actually used an exclamation point at the end of my first sentence, something I swore I would never do.) I realize that not everyone out there is a sports fan and that baseball-based novels do not appeal to every reader, but this is more than a sports novel. It is also one of the better love stories I have read in a while, although in this case, it is a story about the love a father has for his only son.

Jason Thibodeaux never really knew his own father, an offshore oil rig worker who was killed in a European rig explosion. Long before his sudden death, Jason’s father would disappear for months at a time, leaving the boy to grow up as if he had no father of his own. Jason, though, shared a love of baseball with his wandering father and he inherited great physical skills from the man. He also decided that he would never neglect his own children the way his father had neglected him. What Jason Thibodeaux never expected, however, was that he would have a son of his own by the time he turned twenty-one.

A star baseball player at Stanford University, and on the brink of a professional career, Jason has a one-night stand with a Stanford law student that leaves her pregnant with his son, Raphael (Rafe). Jason puts his senior season on hold so that he can care for the baby while Vicki completes law school and prepares for the bar exam. Then, just when he is ready to return to baseball, he discovers that his marriage is over and that Vicki is leaving him – and taking Rafe with her. Jason and Vicki will spend the next several years battling over their son, distracting Jason from his baseball career and earning him the reputation among baseball people as a “head case,” a player best avoided.

Through it all, though, Jason’s love for his son never wavers and, with Rafe’s best interests always in mind, he makes the toughest choices imaginable, including one that will see him walk away from a multi-year professional baseball contract worth more than $40 million. Rafe needs a father – and Jason is determined to be there for him.

Home, Away offers a bleak look at what happens to a family when divorce gets ugly because both parents believe only they can offer their children the best future. Jason and Vicki will spend years viciously fighting each other over their son and, of course, no one will suffer more from their fighting than the boy they both claim to love best. It is only when Rafe is on the brink of completely ruining his life that his parents will finally admit to themselves that it will take both of them to save him.

But the best part of Home, Away is the baseball insider’s look it presents of the game as Jason makes his way through several different major league teams. Gillenkirk’s game descriptions are first rate, and his insights into the war between pitcher and batter place the reader inside the heads of both. Particularly enjoyable are the segments taking place in Mexico, a country within which Jason manages to create the surrogate family that will help keep him sane during his darkest hours.

Baseball fans are certain to find themselves enthralled by the last forty or so pages of the book, and love story fans will likely feel the same about the books final three. Do not miss this one.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Kagan Is OK with Law Banning Books – Because It Will Never Happen Anyway

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan has the gall to argue that a law allowing governmental book banning is OK because “it would never be applied” anyway. Is this woman actually that naive? Is Kagan the best we can come up with for another lifetime appointment to the most important bench in the country?

You tell me:

Kagan places the burden on us to challenge any federal book banning. This woman is dangerously naive – or dangerously stupid. Listen to the sitting Supreme Court justices respond in horror to what this she is saying in her argument before that court.

“This statute covers it, but don’t worry, the FEC has never done it.” Oh, now I feel much better, Ms. Kagan…ridiculous.

Far Cry

It is often said there is no greater pain than that stemming from the loss of a child. When such a loss is compounded by the uncertainty of that child’s fate, the emotional pain suffered by those left behind is so great that their own survival is threatened. Marriages often fail, emotional breakdowns are common, and some parents, believing there is no longer anything to live for, take their own lives. This is the territory visited in Far Cry, John Harvey’s latest story featuring DI Will Grayson and his sometime partner, DS Helen Walker.

Detective Grayson is not happy to hear that Mitchell Roberts, a creepy pedophile he helped bring to justice, is being given an early release from prison. Grayson becomes so obsessive about his determination to protect his community from Roberts that he is willing to place his own future in jeopardy in order to keep Roberts from offending again. Despite his borderline tactics, including public humiliation, harassment, and physical contact, Grayson soon learns, however, that Mitchell Roberts will not be intimidated so easily. But when a young girl goes missing, and Grayson is put in charge of the investigation, he knows exactly where he wants to start.

It is 1995. Simon and Ruth Pierce, off on a mini-vacation to France after having reluctantly agreed to let their daughter accompany another family on holiday to Cornwall, receive a phone call telling them that she has gone missing there on a freakishly foggy evening. The Pierces will never see their daughter alive again.

Flash forward to the present. The Pierce marriage has not survived the tragedy of Heather’s death but Ruth is remarried and she and her second husband are raising their own young daughter, Beatrice. Simon, as far as Ruth knows, lives alone and has managed to piece together a new life for himself, however lonely that life might be. Astonishingly, Beatrice has now gone missing and Detective Grayson wonders what the odds against one woman losing both of her daughters to human predators, more than a decade apart, must be.

Far Cry is a nicely crafted police procedural but its real strength springs from the characters with which John Harvey has peopled his story. Harvey’s two investigators are not typical of popular detective fiction and, in fact, seem to share roles exactly opposite what most readers by now will have come to expect from the genre. Will Grayson has a good marriage and he looks forward to returning to his two children and their mother at the end of the workday. Helen Walker, on the other hand, plays the role of the loner prone to too much drinking and shaky decisions regarding her choice of sexual partners. Helen’s willingness to get involved with married men and to enjoy the occasional one – night stand leaves Will cold and he worries about her.

Ruth Pierce is a well developed character whose struggle to maintain her sanity can be disturbing to watch. She is a woman with secrets, particularly the fact that she often sees and speaks with the spirit of her oldest daughter. Ruth believes that neither of her husbands can possibly feel the loss of her children as deeply as she does and she keeps her emotional life largely hidden from them. Already struggling to maintain the semblance of a normal life, the loss of her second daughter moves her dangerously close to a mental state from which she might never recover.

Far Cry will naturally appeal to fans of John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick series but, because of the sensitive way it explores the nature of loss, it will work equally well for readers with little previous exposure to detective fiction.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

ROMP 2010 – Final Day

It’s already after midnight here in Owensboro and I still have to pack up for an early exit in the morning so there won’t be much in the way of detail, photos, or video until I make it back to Houston on Monday morning.

Yellow Creek Park was a little warmer than the day before – and the humidity had to be a lot higher today – so, bands, and fans alike, had to struggle a bit out there. The stage was still a hot, hot place to work according to Mike Snider (whose show did not end until about ten p.m. ) but the bands all did remarkable jobs up there. More later.

This band was intriguing:

Although one member is an American, this bluegrass band calls Hungary home. It was, I think, their first ever appearance in this country and they seemed totally thrilled to be in Kentucky, so close to Rosine, the official birthplace of bluegrass music (Owensboro is about 30 miles from Rosine). They played a little Hungarian music at one point – although the song they played sounded very Celtic or Irish to my ears.

ROMP Photos – Day 3

I am running late this morning but I want to share a handful of photos I took yesterday at Yellow Creek Park during this year’s ROMP event. It was markedly “cooler” yesterday than it had been the day before and it really cooled off nicely as the sun went down. The real blessing, though, in addition to the lower humidity, was the absolutely top notch bluegrass music that I heard for about thirteen hours.

Yesterday’s bands included Steel String Session, Jack Hicks & Summertown Road, Stringtown, Twenty-Three String Band, The Professors of Bluegrass, New Appleseed Band (Japan), Michael Cleveland & The Flamekeeper Band, Claire Lynch Band, Josh Williams Band, Dailey & Vincent, and G2 Bluegrass Band (Sweden). I have to tell you, though, folks that Dailey & Vincent stole the show, as usual. These guys just get better and better and I doubt there is a more entertaining band in any kind of music.

I’ll start with a picture of a portion of the Steel String Session and will follow with photos of Summertown Road, The Professors of Bluegrass, New Appleseed Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Claire Lynch Band, Josh Williams Band and Dailey & Vincent, in that order:

I also sat in on Michael Cleveland’s fiddle workshop yesterday afternoon (even though I don’t play a lick):

ROMP 2010 – Day 2

(Photo: RBI Radio interviews former Bluegrass Boys – including Tom Gray, Bluegrass Boy for 2 days)

Even while enjoying all the great bluegrass music in Owensboro this week, a guy has to eat. And yesterday I received unexpected treats at both lunch and dinner.

I walked a couple of blocks from the International Bluegrass Music Museum to a little Greek restaurant that does great lunchtime business. It was so crowded, in fact, that the only way I could get a seat was to share a table with a couple who walked in the door behind me (two Kentuckians in town on other business). About ten minutes after we sat down, the door opened and in walked Hisashi Ozaki and four people who traveled with him from Japan to Owensboro for ROMP 2010. Since our table was large enough to seat an additional five people, I invited Mr. Ozaki and his group to join us – and they graciously accepted the invitation. Ozaki is well known in bluegrass circles as the co-founder of the very first bluegrass band in Japan and he will display his mandolin skills later today when he sits in for a song or two with New Appleseed Band, a Japanese bluegrass band whose performance I am looking forward to enjoying.

That was the beginning of a full hour of conversation about bluegrass and country music in Japan, an hour during which I confirmed that lovers of real country music are the same all over the world. Takao Nakanishi, Secretary General of the Kamakura Opry, and Tetsuo Otsuka, disc jockey and President of the same Opry, were quick to remark that what’s passing for country music today (whether it’s called New Country, Young Country, or some other marketing lie) is definitely not country music. It was nice to see that the CMA is fooling no one these days; not even people on the other side of the world can be convinced that New Country is real country music.

During a break between sets, I stumbled upon Eddie and Martha Adcock sitting on a bench in the hallway and had a nice conversation with Eddie about the interest that Japanese television has in the complex brain surgery that allowed him to regain his picking skills. Eddie is looking good (he remarked that he has more hair on his head than when I saw him last year) and he says he is feeling very well. I spoke with Martha, in some detail, about the state of the recording industry today and how the digital music revolution is impacting the average indie artist out there. Martha has some interesting insights into what is happening to record labels and whether or not the internet is making it easier or more difficult for new artists to break into the business – and for established ones to find new listeners. According to Martha, it is up to the artist now; no more big brother to take care of all the marketing details. The Adcoks, as always, are two of the nicest people in town this week – and that says a lot when Owensboro is filled with friendly people wanting to do nothing more than share the music.

Dinner at RiverPark Center at a table filled with four of Bill Monroe’s former Bluegrass Boys was the perfect way to end the day – but there would still be sets from The Whites and Doc Watson, plus a recognition ceremony honoring about 70 bluegrass legends and Bluegrass Boys. At my table were Yates Green (Bluegrass Boy in 1956), Ernie Graves (1957), Bill Keith (1963) and Doug Hutchens (1971). It was fun to hear their stories about life on the road with Monroe, especially the stories about the four-hour shifts they had to put in behind the wheel getting the band from show-to-show, and some of the practical jokes the guys played on each other. The nice thing is that ROMPs are like big reunions for these guys and they seem to be having as much fun here as the rest of us.

I also spent some time with Steve Leatherwood of WGWG radio who hosts a three-hour bluegrass show on the station every Wednesday night with the help of his son Jeremy. Talking music (and small town life) with Steve was the perfect segue into the great music that ended day two of ROMP 2010. You can listen to WGWG here.

And there are two days yet to go. Gotta run.

ROMP 2010 – Day 1

(Photo includes Tom Ewing, Curtis Blackwell, Danny Jones, Randall Franks, Bob Black and other former Bill Monroe Bluegrass Boys)

My drive to Owensboro this year was a little different than those of the past four summers. For me, driving long distances on Interstate Highways is a combination of boredom and sheer terror. I am either fighting sleep or desperately trying not to be run over by the endless convoys of big trucks bearing down on me from behind. So this year, thanks to my trusty little GPS device, at least 95% of my driving was done on state highways. The only time I got on an interstate was a short stretch of about 40 miles on I55 just before I reached Kentucky – and that is one of the more deserted interstates in the country.

I was even able to chop about 100 miles off my total driving distance this way. Of course, I added about two hours in driving time because of all the little towns I passed through on those winding two-lane highways. And you know what? I loved it. This drive was a good reminder of what America is all about – lots of people going about their business, working hard for themselves and their families, just trying to do the right thing despite the harm their elected representatives are determined to do up in Washington.

This first day of ROMP 2010 (and most of tomorrow) is a celebration of the legends of bluegrass, those guys and gals who were there when Mr. Bill started it all. Today, I had the pleasure of listening to about two dozen former Bluegrass Boys get together on stage and out in the lobby of the theater for song after song. Let me tell you, folks, these guys are still some of the finest musicians in the business.

Among today’s performers were: Curtis Blackwell (guitar), R0ger Smith (fiddle), Ben Pedigo (banjo), Danny Jones (mandolin), Scottie Baugus (guitar), Bob Black (banjo), Randall Franks (fiddle), Gregg Kennedy, Wayne Jerrolds, Jim Moratto, and Bill Box…and others. And the good news is there will be even more Bluegrass Boys here tomorrow for Day 2.

As one of the guys said on stage, Bill Monroe passed so many musicians through his Bluegrass Boys they called it “making sausage.” Well, Mr. Bill knew how to pick them, for sure, and a few dozen of them are here in Owensboro, Kentucky, tonight.

(Former Bluegrass Boy – banjo – Ben Pedigo)

Best of 2010, Update 21

I have six new books to consider since my last update of twelve days ago – 6 books in 12 days is a pretty fast pace for me and I’m wondering how it happened. I decided to update my thoughts on this perpetual “Best of 2010” list while I wait for the big jam session to begin out by the Days Inn swimming pool. It has finally cooled off in Owensboro, Kentucky, and out-of-towners here for ROMP 2010 are determined to make the most of it.

Up for consideration this time are 5 novels and 1 memoir: A Bad Day for Pretty (Sophie Littlefield), The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (Sharyn McCrumb), The Poacher’s Son (Paul Doiron), The Third Rail (Michael Harvey), Mexico City Noir (12 authors), and Unfinished Business (Lee Kravitz). I am to the point that changes to the list are coming less often than before and only 2 of the 6 new books have cracked the list.

So, after due consideration, this is what the fiction list looks like after 47 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. Drood – Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. The Secret Speech – Tom Rob Smith (historical thriller)
7. Far Cry – John Harvey (police procedural)
8. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers – Sharyn McCrumb (Ballad Novel)
9. A Fair Maiden – Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
10. Johnny Porno – Charlie Stella (noir crime fiction)

And the nonfiction list from a total of 15 read so far this year is:

1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me – Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Losing My Cool – Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
4. Jane’s Fame – Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen’s reputation)
5. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz – (memoir)
6. The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
7. Game Change – John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
8. Damp Squid – Jeremy Butterfield (on the evolution of the English language)
9. Unfinished Business – Lee Kravitz (memoir)
10. Top of the Order – Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)

So that’s six books and two changes:The Devil Amongst the Lawyers enters the fiction list at number 8, squeezing The Samaritan’s Secret off the list, and Unfinished Business enters the nonfiction list at number 9, eliminating A Time to Betray. So these are the best 20 books of the 62 books I’ve read as of today…now it’s time for some bluegrass.

On the Road Again – Again

Somewhere near the Tennessee border heading to Kentucky

I just received the last go-ahead I needed to allow me to feel comfortable enough to leave Houston for a few days. I had planned to go up to Ohio at the end of July but a personal commitment during that same week makes it impossible for me to be gone then. Luckily for me, it now appears that Plan B is going to work out. That means I will be heading out before daybreak tomorrow morning to make my way back to Owensboro, KY – this time for ROMP 2010, the annual bluegrass music festival sponsored there by the International Bluegrass Music Museum.

It is about 975 miles from Houston to Owensboro and I usually drive that in one very long day. This year will be a bit trickier than normal because I’m leaving a day later for KY than I have in the past because of the way everything came together at the last minute. But, since this is the fifth year in a row I’ve attended this event, I feel confident that I will get there in plenty of time to enjoy everything that’s scheduled.

Posting will probably be light, at least for a day or two, but I do hope to post something new several times while I’m away from home. If last year is any indication, and it is supposedly even worse now than last year, Owensboro’s heat and humidity will completely zap me. But, hey, I have good intentions, so check back when you can.

Unfinished Business: One Man’s Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things

We have all been there. Sometimes life has a habit of getting in the way of our best intentions. Lee Kravitz, a self-admitted workaholic from a long line of workaholics, was perhaps even guiltier than most of us about drifting, completely self-absorbed, through life. It is not that Kravitz did not know how to do the right things; it is that, in his mind, there was never enough time to do them.

To his credit, however, when he was unexpectedly given the opportunity to right many of the wrongs in his past, he jumped at the chance. Suddenly thrown out of work in his mid-fifties, Kravitz decided to spend one full year taking care of “unfinished business.” As he puts it, “For a variety of reasons – my self-involvement, my hurry to get ahead, a sense that I would get to them later – I had neglected matters of great consequence. In the process, I had hurt the people closest to me and fed the fear and compulsion that had kept me chained to my job.” Now he had the time to make amends, and he was determined to make the most of his chance.

Unfinished Business is divided into ten chapters within which Kravitz revisits someone from his past: an aunt he has not had contact with in years, an old friend whose daughter was assassinated in Iraq, another old friend to whom he has owed money for several decades, a Pakistani friend he fears may have been caught up in the crazy religious hatred of his home country, an inspirational high school teacher, and even the bully he still hates, among them. Along the way, he also manages to help reconcile the relationship between his father and an uncle, and visits his grandmother’s grave site to reconcile his guilt over having neglected her in her last months and not having had the courage to attend her funeral.

The most surprising thing about Kravitz’s year of “trying to do the right things” is what he learns about those he feels so guilty about wronging in his past. Most of his supposed victims have moved on and do not feel victimized by Kravitz’s past behavior or neglect. They have a different perspective on their relationship with Kravitz and he is surprised to learn that they seldom even think about the incidents that make him feel so guilty. His monetary debt has been forgotten, his aunt is thrilled to see him, and even the bully, of whom Kravitz felt himself to be a special target, turns out to have considered him just another face in the crowd.

Unfinished Business is a bit uneven in the sense that some chapters are so meaningful and touching that they make other others seem almost trivial in comparison. The first chapter, describing a very happy reconciliation with the aunt who always considered Kravitz to be her favorite family member, is the strongest of the book. Other chapters dealing with family members, even the one outlining a visit to his grandmother’s grave, are the ones most likely to touch the reader.

Bottom Line: This is a book with a worthy message, one we would all do well to consider before it is too late for us to spend time “doing the right things” for those who have most impacted our own lives.

Rated at: 3.5

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers marks Sharyn McCrumb’s return to her popular Appalachian Ballad series, the books featuring Nora Bonesteel, one of several members of the Bonesteel family gifted with “the Sight.” Fans of the series have had to wait longer than usual for the next Ballad novel because McCrumb’s last several books have been set in the world of NASCAR, not a setting that appeals to everyone, me included. Can it really have been eight years? Anyway, it is nice finally to have a new Sharyn McCrumb novel for the rest of us.

This one, though, is a little different from earlier books in the series. It is based on a real life 1935 murder trial that took place in Wise County, Virginia, a case that seemed perfectly cast to help big city newspapers turn a nice profit on the crime. A young woman, a pretty schoolteacher who had escaped the hills long enough to earn a college degree, is accused of having bludgeoned her father to death. Now, major East Coast newspapers have sent reporters to little Wise County to milk the story for all it might be worth to them.

Among the reporters in town to cover Emma Morton’s trial is Carl Jenkins, cousin to 12-year-old Nora Bonesteel, who is nervously working the first big story of his budding newspaper reporter career. Jenkins, though, is overwhelmed by the approach that his big city reporter heroes are taking to the story. What they are writing about Emma Morton, her family, and life in Wise County only vaguely resembles the truth as Jenkins sees it. Consequently, what Jenkins writes for his own newspaper is so different from what is appearing in the big papers that his own editors begin to wonder if he is really in Wise County at all.

Jenkins, desperately looking for an angle he can exploit well enough to save his job, and hoping that young Nora’s second sight can discover the truth about the murder, asks her to come to Wise County to speak with the accused killer. Therein, lies much of the fun of The Devil Amongst the Lawyers. Longtime readers of the series will delight in meeting Nora Bonesteel before she became the wise old lady they are already know so well.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers surprisingly focuses more on the reporters in town to cover the trial than it does on the accused or her victim. McCrumb’s main theme, in fact, is that big city reporters (even in 1935) have preconceived notions about small town Southern life and those who live it – and that they will not let facts change their minds. The book’s three main characters are New York City reporters, two writers and a photographer, who know the story they will present even before they get to town for the trial. Because the accused is pretty, they will portray her as sweet young woman being persecuted by locals who believe she has grown too uppity for her own good. To sell this version, they will use various writing “tricks,” all explained in detail by McCrumb, and will present life and attitudes in Wise County more as if the trial were taking place in 1885 than in 1935.

The whole premise would have worked much better if McCrumb had not been so heavy handed in making her point. Over and over again, she has various characters explain how the truth is being ignored or manipulated by the big city reporters to their own benefit – truth be damned. A little subtlety would have gone a long way in making readers feel that McCrumb had faith in their ability to “get it” without all her extra help. I am, however, so pleased to have a new Ballad novel that I will forgive that little insult. Fans of the series are likely to enjoy this one and hope they do not have to wait so long for the next one.

20 Under 40 : US List vs. UK List

(Illustration from New Yorker magazine – U.S. authors on second list)

Could these be the U.K.’s 20 best authors under the age of 40? According to the Telegraph, they just might be:

1 Chris Cleave (b 1973) His first novel, Incendiary, was about a terrorist attack on London and was published on July 7, 2005. The Other Hand (2008), a cross-national thriller set in England and Nigeria, became a word-of-mouth hit.

2 Rana Dasgupta (b 1971) Born in Canterbury, but now lives in Delhi. His first collection of stories was set in a Tokyo airport; his first novel, Solo (2009), was about a 99-year-old Bulgarian chemist.

3 Adam Foulds (b 1974) After writing his verse novel The Broken Word about the Mau Mau rebellion, he wrote his Man Booker-shortlisted study of John Clare, The Quickening Maze (2009).

4 Sarah Hall (b 1974) The author of four novels, the first two of which were set in the early 20th century in her native Cumbria. Her most acclaimed work is The Carhullan Army (2007), about a band of women rebels surviving in a Britain hit by environmental disaster.

5 Steven Hall (b 1975) His debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts (2007) – about a man who loses his memory and tries to create a new identity for himself – unusually lived up to his publisher’s hype.

6 Mohsin Hamid (b 1971) The Reluctant Fundamentalist – a literary thriller about a Pakistani man who may, or may not, be a terrorist – came within a whisker of winning the Man Booker in 2007.

7 Anjali Joseph (b 1978) Her debut novel, Saraswati Park, is published next month. Sharp yet lyrical, the novel, which is set in Bombay, shows the influence of Amit Chaudhuri.

8 Joanna Kavenna (b 1974) Wrote seven unpublished novels before her eighth, Inglorious, was published by Faber and won the Orange new writers prize. Described as “Dostoevsky meets Bridget Jones”.

9 Benjamin Markovits (b 1973) Part way through a trilogy of novels about Byron and his circle, this assured writer has also just published an autobiographical novel, Playing Days, about a professional basketball player in Germany.

10 China Miéville (b 1972) Inspired by horror writers such as HP Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock, his science fiction and fantasy books – including Un Lun Dun for young adults – have legions of fans.

11 Paul Murray (b 1975) His second book, Skippy Dies, a comic novel set in a private boys school in Ireland, was recently described in the Telegraph as “gigantic, marvellous, witty…heartbreaking”.

12 Patrick Neate (b 1970) Won the Whitbread (now Costa) novel prize in 2001 for Twelve Bar Blues, a picaresque novel about New Orleans jazz artists. His most recent work, Jerusalem, deals, like his first novel, Musungu Jim, with European encounters with Africa.

13 Ross Raisin (b 1979) This Yorkshire-born novelist’s first book, God’s Own Country (2008), followed the dark story of a teenage farmer’s son living on the Moors.

14 Dan Rhodes (b 1972) After his second book, Rhodes declared he wanted to give up writing. Luckily for us he carried on with Gold (2007), about a Welsh-Japanese woman living in a coastal cottage, and his most recent book, Little Hands Clapping.

15 Kamila Shamsie (b1973) The author of five novels, mainly set in the Pakistan of her birth. Her most successful work is her latest: Burnt Shadows (1999) follows two families from the Second World War in Japan to the aftermath of 9/11.

16 Zadie Smith (b 1975) Wrote the wildly successful White Teeth while still at Cambridge. Her writing has matured since then, most notably in On Beauty (2005).

17 David Szalay (b1974) Winner of a Betty Trask Prize, Szalay’s The Innocent is told from the perspective of a KGB agent in late Forties Russia.

18 Adam Thirlwell (b 1978) Clever All Souls fellow who published Politics at the age of 25 and since then the Milan Kundera-inspired The Escape (2009).

19 Scarlett Thomas (b1972) The End of Mr Y (2007) was a surprise bestseller about a student who discovers a long-lost Victorian novel.

20 Evie Wyld (1980) After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009) was a haunting first novel set on the Australian East coat.

I read quite a few books each year that were first published in Britain so, when I first spotted the list, I fully expected to be familiar with at least four or five of the names. At the risk, of exposing the high degree of my ignorance about up and coming writers there, I am going to admit that I only recognized one name…one! I have a nice copy of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist but it has been in my TBR stack for a long, long time (and it never seems to work its way to the top of the pile).

According to the article (take a look here), the list was put together, at least in part, as a response to a similar list that was published in the U.S. last week by the New Yorker magazine:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32

Chris Adrian, 39

Daniel Alarcón, 33

David Bezmozgis, 37

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38

Joshua Ferris, 35

Jonathan Safran Foer, 33

Nell Freudenberger, 35

Rivka Galchen, 34

Nicole Krauss, 35

Dinaw Mengestu, 31

Philipp Meyer, 36

C E Morgan, 33

Téa Obreht, 24

Yiyun Li, 37

ZZ Packer, 37

Karen Russell, 28

Salvatore Scibona, 35

Gary Shteyngart, 37

Wells Tower, 37

I do a little better with the U.S. list (what would it say about me as a reader if I didn’t?) by being familiar with Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss and Philipp Meyer, still just four of twenty up-and-comers.

The good news, I suppose, is that I now have a couple of good checklists to work from next time I’m looking for something fresh.

Now and Then

Do you prefer reading current books? Or older ones? Or outright old ones?

Well, no, no, and no.

I really have no preference when it comes to the publication dates of the books I read. For me, it seems to be more an issue of what is available, or what mood I’m in, each time I feel like starting a new book. I do read a lot of brand new books, as indicated by the fact that I’ve already read 41 of the books published during the first half of 2010. But in past years, it has sometimes been the other way around, with me reading more books from past decades than from the current year.

And I’ve just rediscovered the joy of unearthing old titles that seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. I used to find this kind of book by searching the dusty shelves of used-book stores. Now I find them on the internet. The net, in conjunction with the Sony Store and my Sony Reader, has made it possible for me to find old books ranging from pulp fiction to hardcore noir detective novels, Civil War memoirs written by the war’s survivors, biographies written by those who actually knew the historical figures they wrote about, histories, and some of the greatest classic novels ever written. I’ve downloaded about two dozen books (with an almost limitless number to follow, I hope) and I plan to highlight them here on Book Chase as I finish them. It’s almost like finding buried treasure that you didn’t even know was missing.

I really need to start dipping into the classics again, too, but that might not happen until next year because of the quality of the review copies I’ve been receiving in the last few months. Even though I am more selective than ever about the review copies I accept, I am finding more and more quality stuff than ever before, and I’m discovering more new (to me) writers than any year in recent memory. That is hugely encouraging to a book freak like me.

So, no, year of publication is not important to me. I just need to read faster and longer. Yep, that’s the ticket.

The Poacher’s Son

This is a review of the 7-CD audio book version of The Poacher’s Son, as read by John Bedford Lloyd.

Maine game warden Mike Bowditch is not in a happy place. He believes that his girlfriend of four years left him because he refuses to resign his game warden position. Now that she is gone, all Mike has left are the solitary hours he spends watching for poachers and helping injured animals in his section of the Maine woods. Mike made his choice and is willing to live with it.

Things are bad now – but they will get much worse when he discovers a phone message from his hard drinking poacher father, the man who deserted Mike and his mother when Mike was just a boy. A phone call to his son is so out of character for Jack Bowditch that his son senses that something is terribly wrong. But even knowing what a disaster his father’s life has turned into, Mike Bowditch cannot imagine that he will soon be the only thing standing between his father and the lawmen who accuse him of assassinating a policeman and a paper company executive. Mike refuses to believe that his father is capable of murder and his biggest fear is that, before he can safely surrender, his father will be gunned down by the lawmen searching Maine and southern Canada for him.

The Poacher’s Son explores the strengths and weaknesses of the father-son relationship, a bond that is often strong enough to blind a son to his father’s weaknesses, and worse. Mike Bowditch convinces himself that, despite everything he knows about his father’s despicable behavior and his drinking problems, the man would never do what he is accused of having done. He so much wants to bring his father safely into custody that he is willing to put his own job on the line by interfering in the manhunt despite direct orders from his lieutenant to stay clear of the whole thing. But is his father as innocent as Mike believes him to be? Or, as the authorities believe, is he a killer willing to use his son to cover his tracks until he can escape his pursuers?

The isolated woods of Maine make an excellent setting for Paul Doiron’s story and he gives the reader a good feel for what life in that part of the country must be like. As Doiron describes it, the locale is a mixture of awesome beauty and isolation, a place the locals fear will be spoiled by the outsiders seeking to exploit its resources for their own purposes. Those woods provide Jack Bowditch with the cover he needs to stay on the run and the isolation they create makes possible many of the twists in Doiron’s plot.

Mike Bowditch is a young man, a likeable enough hero who knows his way around the Maine wilderness but is still a little too naïve and inexperienced for his own good. His temper, combined with his inability to control his mouth when he is angry, sees him consistently making things rougher for himself than they have to be. Some of the book’s other characters tend to err on the stereotypical side of the scale, however. This is the case with Truman (the drunken Indian), the retired game warden (and his devoted wife) who takes Mike under his wing when every other lawman within 500 miles would prefer to chew his head off, and B.J., the brash young woman/slut who grew up in an isolated fishing camp known as Rum Pond.

Perhaps these characters seem stereotypical because of the stoic way that John Bedford Lloyd reads the author’s characterizations. For most of the book, Lloyd uses the same steady monotone to present the book, only occasionally changing his voice or inflection to add a little life to one of the characters. Unfortunately, it is only toward the end of the book that Lloyd seems to gain any enthusiasm about the story he is telling, when he does a nice job on the book’s climax.

Despite my misgivings about The Poacher’s Son, Paul Doiron has made me curious enough to wonder how the Mike Bowditch character will evolve over time. I will very likely look at the next book in the series to see how he’s doing.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Third Rail

The Third Rail is Michael Harvey’s third Michael Kelly novel but my own first experience with the author and his series hero. Kelly is a Chicago ex-cop, a man who still has contacts within the department but knows too much about Chicago politics ever to be tempted back into to the job. He much prefers keeping his hand in the game by offering his investigative services to those Chicago citizens in need of a little private help – even though his work sometimes forces him to spend time with Chicago’s slimy mayor.

This time around, Kelly finds himself directly involved in the hunt for a serial killer who is terrorizing his city via several very successful random shootings. Kelly was at the scene of the first killing and he almost caught the killer in a chase through snow-filled Chicago, only to learn later that the killer was purposely sucking him into the investigation. The question is why.

Harvey knows his city well, and even readers who have never been to Chicago are likely to come away from The Third Rail with a sense of what life is like there for the locals. The book’s pivotal element is, in fact, based on a real life 1977 incident in which several L train cars derailed and fell to the ground, killing eleven people in the process. Michael Kelly, nine years old at the time, survived the crash but is still haunted by what he saw and heard that day. Apparently, he is not the only one.

The Third Rail is a nice blend of thriller and police procedural (Kelly gets himself attached to the official investigation as a consultant while working on the sly directly for Mayor Sleazy) and fans of the genre will likely enjoy the ride despite the spare style in which Harvey spins his tale. So much happens to Michael Kelly as he frantically tries to catch up with the shooter that Harvey has little time to develop his secondary characters – and even some of his more important ones. Perhaps readers of the first two Kelly books already know so much about Kelly and those closest to him that this is not problem for them, but first-time series readers will find themselves wishing they had been told more about the Third Rail characters.

And, as it turns out, there are lots of characters and culprits to keep up with: Homeland Security goons, duplicitous FBI agents, crooked cops, psychopaths, corrupt leaders of Chicago’s Catholic archdiocese, a nerdy computer wizard, a girlfriend, and, of course, Mayor Sleazy. So much happens, and happens so quickly, it is little wonder that the characters remain somewhat unrealistic to the very end.

Reading The Third Rail was a bit like frying up a skinny chicken; I kept wishing for a little more meat on the bones. Genre fans who enjoy a more spare approach to their thrillers, however, will probably love this book. If that’s your taste, give this one a shot.

Rated at: 2.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Mexico City Noir

Mexico City Noir is a collection of 12 crime-related short stories with settings in the various neighborhoods of Mexico City, from its richest to its poorest and most dangerous ones. The most intriguing idea behind publisher Akashic’s Noir series, of which this book is one of many, is that each collection strives to give the reader a good feel for life in the city in which the stories are set. I did not get much of a feel for the city of Boston when I read Boston Noir (the only other book in the series I have read), but this collection is a different story, pun intended. The tales vary widely in tone and style but they all seem to have one theme at their core: the corrupt police system of Mexico City is more dangerous to the common citizen than the criminals the police are supposedly trying to control.

This collection is unusual in another way. This is one of the rare times that the best thing about a short story collection just might be its preface. Editor Paco Ignacio Taibo II has written a striking description of life in Mexico City in the book’s preface entitled “Snow White vs. Dr. Frankenstein.” Taibo obviously loves his city and he correctly finds it to be an exciting and exotic locale in which to set contemporary Mexican fiction. However,Taibo is quick to describe how life for the average citizen of Mexico City is governed by the ever present reality that the local police are to be more feared than trusted. The stories that follow his preface illustrate just how dangerous local policemen can be and why they are such a threat to those they are paid to protect, even to the point that victims of petty crime are often afraid to report the crime to authorities.

Some of the stories are set in contemporary Mexico City; others go back decades in time. Some are told in a rather straightforward manner, some are a little harder to grasp, and one of them reads like something imagined during a bad trip on LSD. What they have in common is an excellent translation into English and the theme that the real danger in Mexico City is a police force that is so very often itself on the wrong side of the law.

These are stories of police brutality, forced confessions, bribes, rapes and assassinations by police gangs, corrupt priests and nuns, transsexuals, homosexual rapes, gangs of children on the city’s streets, homeless people who dare not stop moving during the day for fear of police harassment, and much worse. Those responsible for promoting Mexican tourism cannot be happy with books like this one because the overall impression it leaves with non-Mexican readers is a warning for gringos to stay the hell out of the city for their own good.

Bottom line, this is pretty good noir style fiction but it is definitely of the more depressing variety.

Rated at: 3.0

Reading Ebooks Against the Clock

I’ve been reading at a frantic pace all afternoon – but not for a reason I like.

For the second time in the past few months, I’ve had to rush through an ebook so that I could finish it before it disappeared from my Sony Reader. It’s not the Reader’s fault; it’s a fluke in the way the Harris County public library system regulates the use of its ebooks. Keep in mind that there are about 4 million people in this county (almost one of every six Texans lives in Harris County, in fact), so it almost always takes at least two weeks to gain access to one of the system’s electronic books.

Because of the high demand for what seems to be a rather limited number of ebook copies, the library does not allow an extension of time for downloaded ebooks. That means the clock begins ticking as soon as a patron’s download is finished and, after fourteen 24-hour periods, the book is killed regardless of what page a reader might be on. I get that and I undertand why it has to be that way right now. But, for at least the third time now, I have gone weeks with no checked-out ebooks only to have two or three of them become available to me simultaneously. Because the ebooks are available for just three days after patron notification, that means they have to be read within 16 or 17 days, at most.

I’m not a great fan of ebooks but I do enjoy the opportunity to download books from my library. Unfortunately, demand seems to be outpacing supply of ebooks in the Harris County system at a time when libraries are struggling to balance budgets while putting books, CDs and DVDs on the shelves.

I have mixed emotions about the whole thing, I have to admit. If the supply of ebooks can be increased only by cutting the number of real books on the shelves, is this a good thing? My vote is a definite NO.

As it turns out, I am not particularly thrilled by Mexico City Noir, a short story collection of crime fiction set in that city, and I wonder if my opinion was tainted by my rushed reading of the dozen stories in the collection. Reading against the clock is not an experience I want to repeat any time soon.

Best of 2010, Update 20

I have several new books to consider for a place in my real-time Best of 2010 list this time around: The Secret Speech, Republic, Damp Squid, Mr. Peanut and Horns. These are pretty much all over the map. Two are “political thrillers,” one is a literary murder mystery, one fits best in the horror genre, and one is a look at the evolution of the English language.

So, after due consideration, this is what the fiction list looks like after 42 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. Drood – Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. The Secret Speech – Tom Rob Smith (historical thriller)
7. Far Cry – John Harvey (police procedural)
8. A Fair Maiden – Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
9. Johnny Porno – Charlie Stella (noir crime fiction)
10. The Samaritan’s Secret – Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)

And the nonfiction list from a total of 14 read so far this year is unchanged:

1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me – Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Losing My Cool – Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
4. Jane’s Fame – Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen’s reputation)
5. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz – (memoir)
6. The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
7. Game Change – John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
8. Damp Squid – Jeremy Butterfield (on the evolution of the English language)
9. Top of the Order – Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
10. A Time to Betray – Reza Kahlili (memoir of Iranian CIA agent)

Five books, two changes:The Secret Speech enters the fiction list at number 6, pushing Not So Perfect off the list, and Damp Squid enters the nonfiction list at number 8, eliminating Goosetown. So these are the best 20 books of the 56 books I’ve read as of today…and the beat goes on.


Ig Parrish did something terribly wrong last night. The problem is that, with the exception of one of two rather vague details, he cannot remember exactly what he did to earn the devil’s horns that have suddenly sprouted from the top of his head. Ig does remember spending much of the night ranting about God and organized religion at the base of the isolated old tree under which his girlfriend had been murdered just a year ago. Now, unlike the hangover he had every reason to expect, he understands these horns won’t go away by the end of the day.

He thinks maybe he deserves his new horns. After all, local law enforcement officers and just about everyone else in his home town believe that he has gotten away with the brutal rape and murder of his longtime girlfriend. Even Ig’s parents are fairly sure that he did it, something he only learned accidentally by allowing his parents to see the new horns atop his head. The horns seem to compel others to speak aloud their deepest secrets – something they will not remember doing as soon as Ig and his horns are out of sight.

Horns is about Ig Parrish, an empathetic young man whose loyalty to someone who saved his life a decade earlier will come back to bite him over and over again. He has only ever loved one woman, a relationship that began when Ig met her in church when they were both fifteen years old. Suddenly, on one terrible night, she was snatched from him forever. But now, with the help of his new horns, Ig just might be able to make someone pay for what they did – or maybe not.

I almost gave up on this one. There is enough of what I consider to be a rather juvenile type of humor of the “gross out” variety that I was bored with the first quarter of the book. Then, Hill’s humor became more subtle and the characters, although they are never all that realistic, became somewhat more believable. Horns has an intricate plot, one told by flashbacks in which the same action is sometimes recounted from more than one point-of-view. That device often works well for Hill but I was frustrated by the occasions when the repeating of a scene provided very little new information to the reader and only seemed to pad the book’s almost-400-page length.

Hill, though, ties everything together in a satisfying ending that is well written and almost explains why Ig Parrish was gifted with his own pair of devil’s horns in the first place. Frankly, this one turned out to be a good deal better than I would have bet after reading its first 100 pages.

Rated at: 3.5