The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer

Skip Hollandsworth, a regular columnist for Texas Monthly magazine, became so intrigued by a true crime story from Austin’s past that he turned it into his first book, The Midnight Assassin.  The book recounts a series of murders that happened there in 1884 and 1885, murders that were so horrendously bloody that they rivaled those committed three years later by London’s Jack the Ripper.  The murders in the two cities were in fact similar enough that some newspapers of the day speculated that London’s Ripper may have tested and developed his skills in Austin before bringing them with him to Europe.
It all started when someone began slaughtering Austin’s black servant women.  Most of the victims lived in detached quarters adjacent to the homes of their white employers, and in each case, the killer escaped the area without leaving behind any clues that could identify him.  Early witnesses, some of them children of the murdered women, could not even agree on whether the killer was a white man or a black man. 
Austin’s 17,000 citizens were concerned about the murders, but because the victims were all African-American women, it was easy enough for them to write the crime spree off as being the work of a gang of “bad blacks.”  For a year, the rest of the city had little fear that the murders might spread into their own community and homes.  That all changed on Christmas Eve, 1885, when within the space of a few minutes two prominent white women were butchered in their homes.  From that moment, Austin’s politicians and policemen pulled out all the stops in their attempt to catch the murderer before he could kill again  – even hiring two sets of Pinkerton detectives from Chicago (one set being real, the other fake).
Skip Hollandsworth
The Midnight Assassin is as much a social history of the city of Austin as it is a true crime story.  Barely twenty years after the close of the American Civil War, the relationship between the state’s white and black populations was still eerily similar to what it was before the war was fought.  Slavery might have been a thing of the past, but most African-Americans still struggled to live on what little wages their white employers were willing to pay them.  It was no coincidence that from beginning to end almost single person considered to be a potential suspect was black.

Austin was a city on the make it the 1880s.  As state capital, the city had an image to live up to – even if it was one largely in the minds of politicians who saw the unsolved murders of white women as a personal threat to their own careers.  Upcoming elections, personal feuds, and business considerations made it imperative that the murderer be caught, but it never happened.  The first serial killer in American history was never identified  – and he probably never will be – but The Midnight Assassin is still one heck of a ride.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Movies for Readers: Papa Hemingway in Cuba

I just got an email from GoodReads telling me that this one is opening in a “theater near me” this weekend.  It is based on a true, but little known, part of Hemingway’s life that perfectly fits the man and the “character” he came to be known as.  Definitely a man’s man, was Ernest Hemingway.

Unfortunately, I can only find this in three Houston-area theaters and none are within 30 miles of me – and we are expecting another storm late Friday night and Saturday.  But I’m still hoping to catch it at some point because this trailer looks good.

Movies for Readers No. 24

The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge

They don’t make many men like Hugh Glass anymore, probably never did.   Glass, the Philadelphia-born adventurer, was a hard man to kill, a man who, time after time, miraculously managed to beat the odds that claimed lesser men all around him.  Glass’s story was so intriguing, in fact, that newspapers of the day spread his fame across the country and around the world.  In the end, though, Glass was best known then (and still is) as the mountain man who survived one of the most horrific grizzly bear attacks ever recorded before “returning from the dead” to track down the two men who robbed him of everything he owned before they abandoned him to what seemed to be his certain death. 
But as The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, Michael Punke’s 2002 debut novel illustrates, Hugh Glass was just one of an estimated 3,000 “mountain men” and fur trappers who struggled so mightily to make their fortunes from the beaver population of the American West.  Ironically enough, although these men were among the most independently minded ever produced in America, they were forced into a lifestyle of almost military precision for the sake of survival.  The Indian tribes whose territory was plundered by the trappers reacted in different ways.  Some were willing to live in peace with the invaders, others waged open warfare against them, and some joined the white men in waging war on other tribes.  The problem was that the Indians were prone to changing their minds and allegiances almost from one day to the next. 
Michael Punke 
In an environment like this, a man needed someone to watch his back.  But when Hugh Glass most needed someone to do exactly that for him as he struggled to recover from the bear mauling, the two men left behind to help him abandoned him at the first hint of danger.  Bad as that was, what Glass would never forgive was how John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger robbed him of his rifle, powder, and knife before running off to catch up with the rest of their party – dooming him to an almost certain death. 
A lesser man would have just given up and died, but Hugh Glass was not that kind of man.  At first crawling only a few dozen yards a day, he began to track the two men he swore to himself he would kill.  Eventually he managed to crawl two or three miles a day, then to walk ten miles a day, and finally he was covering twenty or thirty miles between sunrise and sunset.  Glass did catch up with the two culprits, but when he did, things did not go quite the way he had expected.

The Revenant is Hugh Glass’s story – and Michael Punke tells it well.

The Cartel

The only time most Americans think about Mexico’s drug cartel is when the violence crosses the Rio Grande and claims the lives of one or two American citizens.  Well, shame on us, because other than those rare moments when they spill blood here, do we even consider the reality of what Mexicans have been living through for at least the last two decades.  When it comes to controlling drug traffic and territories, everyone is fair game to the resulting violence: family members, newspaper reporters, teachers, women, children, policemen, the innocent and the guilty, alike.  And, worst of all, like their terrorist cousins on the other side of the world, the gangs now capture the shootings, explosions, and decapitations on video for the entire world to see.  Don Winslow’s The Cartel schools us on just how horrible the situation along the U.S./Mexican border really is today – and why so many Mexicans cross that border to escape the mayhem.   
Sometime Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Art Keller learned all about the cartel from the inside.  Keller, half-Mexican himself, has known reigning drug kingpin Adán Barrera since the two were children.  The onetime close friends, though, are now mortal enemies, and each has sworn to put the other in his grave.  As The Cartel begins Keller is content with the new life and identity he has created for himself on the U.S. side of the river.  He knows that Barrera is looking for him, but Keller is surprised when his old DEA boss finds him first and presses him to rejoin the fight to destroy the cartel. 
The battle is on – and what a battle it turns out to be.  Over the next several hundred pages, Winslow follows the bloody evolution of a drug cartel coming apart at the seams as one drug lord after another falls in a pool of blood to his successor.  No one is safe; no one can be trusted; and no one is going to live long enough to become an old man.  The hell of it, though, is that they will take thousands and thousands of Mexicans down with them.
Don Winslow
This 19-CD audiobook clocks in at more than twenty-three hours of listening time, so finding an expert reader has to have been a high priority for its producers – a goal they met admirably by hiring Ray Porter for the job.  Porter’s mastery of accents, voices, and vocal inflections makes it easy for listeners to distinguish between the book’s many characters and their complicated relationships, something that audio readers will appreciate more and more as the book progresses. 

Bottom Line: The Cartel is a brutal crime thriller intimately based on the research that Don Winslow did on the Mexican drug cartel.  Its audiobook version is the perfect choice for the next extended road trip you take, just be forewarned that it is not a story for little ears.  It’s an ugly old world down there. 

With 3,000 Books Read, My List Has Reached a New Milestone

I was going to post a book review today (and still might) since I do that every Monday, but then I noticed something on a reading list I keep and decided to make note on Book Chase of a major milestone I’ve just reached.

Way back on February 18, 1970 I started a list keeping track of every book I read – and today I reached one of those nice, round numbers that stand out: 3,000 books read.  The 3,000 books listed do not include several dozen audiobooks that I completed during the same period, but they probably total another 100 or 150 books.  

With everything going on in my world these last few days, I had kind of lost track of how close I was to reaching that point.  As it turns out, number 3,000 was written by one of my favorite British authors, Gerald Seymour.  His Vagabond is a political/espionage thriller having to do with a rogue group in Northern Ireland that still believes violence is the only way to fight their British “occupiers.”  It’s a good book that I will be reviewing in a couple of weeks.

I admit to being a numbers freak, so if statistics bore you, it’s time to tune out:

  • Number of books read in a given year varies all the way from 11 in 1975 to 141 in 2007. 
  • It took me 21 years and 4 months to read the first 1,000.
  • It took me 16 years and 10 months to read the second 1,000.
  • It took me 8 years and 2 months to read the third 1,000.
  • That’s an average of over 65 books per year for just over 46 years.
  • The last 1,071 books I’ve read are reviewed here on Book Chase.
So enough with the stats.  It’s time now to start on the next 1,000 books.

Never Turn Your Back on a Hateful Old Woman at an Assisted Living Facility


I’m pretty much exhausted at the moment and I’m doing some serious thinking about taking a nap.  This is the eleventh day that I’ve been taking care of my father, a period that began with an emergency room phone call, moved on to a hospital stay for testing, the insertion of a pacemaker, and four days of him recuperating at my home.  Sleep has been a catch-as-catch-can novelty for me during all of this, and there were only two or three times that I got more than three consecutive hours in.  

But this is what I want to tell you about.

I took Dad back to his assisted living facility a couple of days ago and stayed with him in his apartment there for three days.  There is no public wi-fi in the building, but they have a nice little computer room set up on the second floor that is open to residents and those staying with them on a temporary basis.  While dad was in a rare deep sleep, I decided to sneak upstairs for a few minutes to use one of the computers.  I went up and down the stairs every 15 minutes checking on my dad’s sleep, but still managed to get in 90 solid minutes of computer time during which I wrote a review of Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood (a new novel set in Iraq just before American troops were officially pulled from that country).  

One problem: I forgot to bring my flash drive upstairs with me, and that meant another trip downstairs.  As I was leaving, I mentioned to the elderly woman who was coming into the room that I was using the computer on the end of the row, and I asked her to keep an eye on it for me until I got back upstairs.  It took me an extra few minutes to remember where the drive was, but still I was back in the computer room in less than ten minutes.  

The old woman was nowhere in sight when I returned – and neither was my review.  Apparently, she sat right down at my computer and deleted the word document…then she proceeded to empty the recycle bin, leaving no trace of the document anywhere on the computer hard drive.  Then she disappeared.

The lesson here?  Never, never turn your back on spiteful old lady who thinks she is too old to be held accountable for her meanness.  The smartest thing she did was run for her life before I got back…she did us both a favor by doing that.

Kindle Unlimited Is Crap

I realize that I’m going to offend some people when I say this, but here it comes: Kindle Unlimited is pretty much a garbage service.  Hell, let’s take it a step further: So many of the e-books being sold by Amazon are self-published crap that browsing the site for new, unknown e-books is largely a waste of time.  In fact, I quit browsing through Amazon for new books a long time ago because the experience, even on a good day, is frustrating…and don’t ask me what word I would use to describe it on a bad day.

So now I use Kindle Books only to go through the back catalogs of authors I’m already familiar with or to buy titles I already know about.  That’s not good for me, for authors, or for Amazon.  But this story from BoingBoing tells me that the situation is even worse than I imagined:


Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service allows subscribers to download as many books as they want, and then pays writers based on the number of their pages that readers have read. 

The service surveils your reading habits by checking the “furthest page visited” status on every book in your library, meaning that if you skip to the last page, the book considers you to have finished the whole thing. 
Crapflooding scammers have therefore supplied a glut of “books” that run up to 3,000 pages (the longest Amazon will permit), filled with garbage, which open with a link to the last page. By paying (or tricking) people to download their “books” and click the link, they rack up 3,000 pages’ worth of credit to their author accounts. At $0.005/page, it can add up.

So now we have idiots uploading 3,000-page “books” and tricking people into downloading them from Kindle Unlimited.  Then through more trickery they manage to get people to click over to the last page of the book so that it appears that the entire book has been read.  Bingo: that means a nice little payday from Amazon of $15 for every crapbook unwittingly downloaded by a Kindle Unlimited subscriber.  

I like e-books and I read a lot of them.  But I hate shopping or searching for e-book titles amid the huge mound of garbage that Amazon is content to dump on top of the real books for sale.  Self-publishing can be a good thing, but more often than not, it is just the opposite.  Most unpublished books are unpublished for good reasons, and they deserve to stay unpublished – they are that bad – and I don’t need them polluting the haystack I have to search through every time I want to buy an e-book.

But as long as Amazon is willing to pay scammers to puff up its own sales figures, that’s the world we live in.  And I’m sick of it.  I’m looking at you, Mr. Amazon.

She

She, the new short story collection from Michelle Latiolais, has a way of sneaking up on you.  I have to admit that when I began reading the book I thought I had picked up a short novel about a runaway teenager fleeing to Los Angeles to escape her mentally abusive father.  It was only three or four segments into the book that I realized that I was reading a book of short stories exploring diverse facets of life in that city.  It is as if Los Angles is the main character in She, not the runaway we meet in the book’s initial pages. 
But, as it turns out, my initial impression of She was not completely wrong because Latiolais has so cleverly constructed the collection that, taken as a whole, it does read very much like a novel.  Every other story in the collection shares the same title, “She,” each of these following the young runaway’s progress after she escapes Needles with a little help from a sympathetic bus driver and a few of her fellow passengers.  The in-between stories, each individually titled, introduce other Los Angles residents, most of them struggling just as hard as the runaway to make a life for themselves in the big city.  Some of these characters will cross paths with the girl (aka “She”), others will not.
Read as a novel, She is a rather optimistic take on one girl’s efforts to break free from the stifling life her harshly religious father is determined she will live.  With some encouragement from her grandmother (who dies before the girl runs away), the girl finds the courage to strike out on her own for a place where she can become the person she wants to be – not the one her father wants her to be.  And with the help of a few sympathetic souls, who in reality are struggling just as hard as she is to figure out who they are, she just might manage to do it.
Michelle Latoilais
But there are also some outstanding stand-alone short stories in She, stories that serve to illuminate the dangers and quirks of this new world our young runaway has entered.  Among my favorites is one titled “Gas” in which a young man flirts his way into the good graces of a long-legged beauty at an adjoining gas pump successfully enough to convince her to join him for a cup of coffee at the cafe across the street – with tragic consequences for the woman.  Another favorite, “Parking,” features the empathetic botanist who makes her living by almost perfectly replicating real flowers as cake decorations for a famous pastry chef who takes full credit for her key contribution to his expensive cakes. 
Even one of the “She” stories, taken on its own, will stay with me for a long time.  In this one, the girl comes across an old lady sitting all alone at a bus stop shelter.  When the old lady invites the runaway to sit beside her, the girl, who can barely stand the old woman’s odor, is terrified by the thought that if she doesn’t find a place to stay soon she will end up smelling as bad as the woman she can barely tolerate.  I’m still taken with the image of that old woman and the portable paperback library she kept inside the wheeled-suitcase she was dragging around with her – and how willing she was to share her precious books with a stranger.

She is a dark, moody look at a city of extremes, one in which some live almost unbelievable lives of luxury while others live day-to-day on the city’s dirty streets.  And none of them seem particularly happy to be where they are.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Ruth Rendell: "And now, now it’s all over."

I finished up Ruth Rendell’s final novel, Dark Corners, in near darkness this morning as another major thunderstorm cell sat over me.  We lost power (for the third time in four days as the area continues to battle major flooding) about ten this morning, so I settled in near the window offering the most light to read the final 25 pages of the book.

I was pleased to see that the final sentence of the crime novel is this one: “And now, now it’s all over.”

That sentence fits the main character’s final decision perfectly, but it also reminds readers that there will never be another new book from the brilliant Ruth Rendell…because now it really is all over for her and for her fans.

Of course, the sentence could have been added by a clever editor at the publishing house.  But if that is the case, I really don’t want to know.  I would much prefer to believe that it’s Ruth’s way of capping her own career.  Call it serendipity or call it premonition, it really doesn’t matter.  

I will miss Ruth Rendell. 


A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is one of the best-known presidents in the history of the United States so most people are familiar with the story of his life.  They know about the poverty of Lincoln’s boyhood, the prodigious strength he developed as a teen, his debate skills and presidency during the Civil War, and his tragic end.  The most common gap in most peoples’ Lincoln biography is the one during which he was a young lawyer and aspiring Whig politician – the 1830s and 1840s.  Stephen Harrigan’s novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln spans precisely this period of the young Lincoln’s life. 

The “friend” of Lincoln’s referenced in the book’s title is the fictional “Cage” Weatherby, an aspiring poet from Massachusetts who has made his way to Springfield, Illinois.  As yet unpublished, Weatherby derives his income largely from the small boardinghouse he owns in the soon-to-be state capitol.  Weatherby and Lincoln have much in common: a deep love of poetry, reaching young manhood penniless, an uneasy way with the young women of the day, and a deep desire to leave their marks on the world rather than just passing through it.  As a result, the two become fast friends almost from the moment they first meet.  And they will remain good friends until the day that Mary Todd marries Lincoln and decides that Weatherby can no longer be part of Lincoln’s life.
Even as a young lawyer, Lincoln was a man consumed by political ambition.  Already a veteran of the Indian wars, he stood out in any crowd he was a part of, and that was just as attributable to his never ending supply of funny stories as it was to his unusually tall frame.  Harrigan’s plot, though, reminds us that Lincoln and Weatherby were young men who faced, and often succumbed to, the very same temptations that all young men encounter at that point of their lives.  Lincoln has as many vulgar stories to tell his male friends in private as he has stories suitable for mixed company – and he enjoys telling them maybe even more than his audience loves hearing them.  Early on, Mr. Lincoln envisioned himself in Washington D.C. as a Whig congressman – a dream that finally came true for him.
The Abraham Lincoln of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is a young man easily smitten by a pretty face and even more easily intimidated by a woman strong enough and bold enough to take the initiative in a relationship.  He is also a man so prone to clinical depression that, on at least two occasions, romantic encounters left him so suicidal that Cage Weatherby and others placed him under literal suicide watches. 
Stephen Harrigan
But it is the portion of the book that recounts Lincoln’s months spent on the Illinois legal circuit, during which he and a small team of lawyers and judges road horses from town to town trying court cases under rather primitive conditions, that is the most memorable.  During this period, Cage Weatherby learns that Lincoln is very much a man of his time and place.  He is willing to make whatever backdoor political deals might get him closer to Washington; he is as willing to take the cases of slave owners as he is to defend escaped slaves; and he will abandon his best friend in order to keep peace at home with his wife.

Cage Weatherby, however, is the true central character of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, and he is a man who proves to be every bit as interesting as Lincoln during this period of Lincoln’s life.  Both men are busy living their “real lives” while portraying themselves to the public as something other than what they are.  Harrigan has written a coming of age novel for both men, one that fans of historical fiction will very much enjoy.

The Dealer and the Dead

Gerald Seymour has a special talent for making sense of the bloody chaos that has become so much a part of the world we live in today, a world in which entire societies seem to crumble almost as fast as the borders of the countries that contain them.  Unlike so many thriller writers, Seymour creates characters that seem real, characters whose motivations are plausible and sympathetic no matter what mischief those characters may be up to.  Seymour knows that it is not the “action” in genre thrillers that sets one apart or above the rest of the pack.  What does it, is so deeply immersing the reader in the experience for a few hours that he understands why these things continue to happen – and will probably alwayshappen.  Gerald Seymour is truly the master of the literary thriller.
The Dealer and the Deadis about a man who might have to pay the ultimate price for a mistake he made almost two decades earlier.  In 1992, Harvey Gillott promised to deliver heavy weapons to an isolated Croatian village located along the border with Serbia, weapons the villagers desperately needed if they were to prevent the village from being overrun by the Serbs determined to destroy everyone who lived there.  Gillott took payment for the weapons but never delivered the promised weapons. 
Some eighteen years later, what remains of the bodies of the four men who had been sent to collect the weapons are discovered in a farmer’s field – and in the pocket of one of the dead men is a tiny piece of paper with a name written on it: Harvey Gillott.  Now that the culprit has been identified, an entire village- to whom the slaughter that occurred there in 1992 is still an open wound – wants Harvey Gillott to die for his failure to deliver the goods.  And somehow, they manage to scrape together enough money to hire the best professional assassin in England to make it happen.
Gerald Seymour
This is the point at which Gerald Seymour really begins to shape his story.  The groundwork for his intriguing plot has been set and most of the main characters have been introduced.  Now he will turn these characters into real human beings with everyday cares that sometimes overwhelm them, and he will begin to overlap their individual stories, all the while leading them to the place where arms dealer Harvey Gillott is expected to meet his fate. 
In addition to Gillott and the villagers who want him killed, there is Robbie Cairns, the young hit man whose self-confidence will be shaken almost beyond repair by the time he and Gillott meet for the last time.  We also meet Mark Roscoe, the British policeman who heads the small team sent to warn Gillott that there is a price on his head, and that the department has neither the manpower nor the funds to protect him from his past sins. Then there’s the retired British spook responsible for running Harvey Gillott at the time the decision not to deliver the weapons to the village was made.  And as always, Seymour surrounds his main characters with numerous supporting ones that the reader will come to know almost as well as they know the main characters themselves.  Seymour is never one to skimp on characters.

The Dealer and the Deadis a superb thriller, one that I recommend to all fans of the genre.  If you are unfamiliar with the books of Gerald Seymour now, reading this one is going to convince you to change that oversight. 

A Good Book Makes Even a Freezing Hospital Room Bearable

I have been practically living in a chair inside an uncomfortably cold hospital room for the past four days.  It all started Wednesday morning when I got a phone call at the barber shop telling me that my father was on his way to the emergency room because he had had another of his fainting episodes – this one, luckily, while seated in a church pew.  So now he’s been poked and prodded so much that it’s almost certain he’s had every kind of general diagnostic test available to modern medicine.

At the advice of a cardiologist, we made the decision together that he have a pacemaker placed in his chest to regulate his heartbeat in hope that his fainting problem would be solved.  That was done yesterday afternoon.  And this morning, we found out that there is a problem with one of the pacemaker leads going to his heart, so the entire procedure will have to be repeated Monday morning.  Throw in the long night we had trying to control dad’s confusion and hallucinating caused by the sleep medication given to him last night, and it’s been a bit of a struggle  – during which I have slept something like five hours in the last forty-eight.  (So please don’t deduct any points for grammar and spelling this time around.) I’m going to get some sleep tonight before heading back to the hospital early in the morning to relieve my son-in-law who has graciously volunteered to take a shift in my place.

I know you are wondering why am I writing all this here on a book blog.  One simple reason: if I had not had four or five books in that freezing room to keep me company for the last few days, I would have probably lost my mind.  The books allowed me to forget where I was – and why I was there- for at least a few minutes at a time.  Tired and sleepy as I’ve been, they kept me awake, they entertained me, and they reminded me of why I am such a reading advocate.  I cannot imagine a life without books and reading, and I am ever thankful to the small town librarian who encouraged me to keep reading, and who trusted me with books that were probably way over my head when I first read them.  Thankfully, she took a chance on me even though she was breaking library policy that way.  That woman (who seemed ancient to me at the time but was probably only about 70) opened up the world to me in just the right way and at just the right time in my life.  And it stuck.

I will never forget what she did.

Librarians, your enthusiasm is contagious, and if you treat young readers with respect, you just might permanently change a few lives for the good.  You may never even know that it happened, but if you are lucky, it will.  

Thanks, too, to the following authors for these books (the books I’m living with this week):

Matt Gallagher – Youngblood (a war novel with a mystery embedded in it that is set in Iraq)

Ruth Rendell – Dark Corners (her very last psychological crime novel, one that I suspect would have been a “Barbara Vine” novel if she had not recently died)

Gerald Seymour – Vagabond (new thriller set in Norther Ireland; a what if the Troubles start-up again novel)

Skip Hollandsworth – The Midnight Assassin (true crime book about an 1885 serial killer who terrorized Austin, Texas)

Andrea Valdez – How to Be a Texan (a how-to manual that reminds me just how fantastic a place Texas still is)

So it’s back at it tomorrow…hoping to post again soon.


A Darker Domain

In1985, in Fife, Scotland, Catriona Grant and her infant son were taken by kidnappers who demanded that her wealthy father pay a huge ransom of cash and uncut diamonds to get her and his grandson back.  Fearing that something would go wrong, Cat’s father only reluctantly got the police involved in the handoff of the ransom.  And, as it turned out, something did go terribly wrong on the beach that night, something that resulted in his daughter’s death and the disappearance of his grandson.
Now, some twenty-three years later, Detective Karen Pirie, who was only a child at the time of the botched kidnapping, is head of Fife’s Cold Case Review Team, a job she both enjoys and is very good at.  The Catriona Grant kidnapping case, although it was never closed, is not being actively worked at present, but all that changes on the day that a young woman walks into the police station to report that her father is missing – and has beenmissing for twenty-three years.  Intrigued by what the woman tells her, Karen decides on her own to classify this new case as a cold one – knowing full well that her superiors are going to explode when they learn that’s what she’s done – and begins to work on it before it can be assigned to another section.
Val McDermid
In typical Val McDermid fashion, the missing person report opens up a can of worms involving numerous characters, side plots, and settings that keep the reader guessing until the very end.  Detective Pirie, wondering why no one ever bothered to report Mick Prentice missing up to now, learns that the 1984 national miners’ strike greatly influenced what happened to the missing man. With the discovery of evidence that seems linked to both the Grant kidnapping and to the missing man, Pirie jumps at the chance to work to work the two cases simultaneously – whether her boss knows it or not.  The best thing she has going for her is that the two cases occurred within weeks of each other, meaning that the background information she gathers on one case often helps on the other.  As the two cases begin to overlap more and more, Pirie begins to understand that many people are still paying the price for what happened on one terrible 1985 night, and that they will do anything to keep their secrets hidden. 

If they haven’t already read this 2009 standalone novel, Val McDermid fans will do well to find themselves a copy of A Darker Domain and get to it.  This highly atmospheric novel also makes a good introduction to McDermid’s work for fans of the genre who may still know her only by reputation.

Born to Read Program Means New Babies Leave Hospital with a Library Card

What a great idea!  Every baby born in St. Louis County is going to leave the hospital with a brand new library card of their own.  It’s all part of the St. Louis County Library’s “Born to Read” program.  

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, each baby goes home with a little gift bag that contains, a book, a toy, and their new library card:

The child will also be invited to celebrate his or her first birthday at the library and receive another free book. 

[…]


There is no doubt that children should be read to from an early age. And even before kids are able to read by themselves, they should have chunky books to play with and to help them learn to look at pictures and turn pages.

The Born to Read program began last year with support from the St. Louis County Library Foundation. More than 15,000 families are expected to receive a bag from the program this year.

 

The purpose of the program is, of course,  to get parents to read to their children as often, and as soon, as possible, in the process exposing the kids to language, story-telling, and the whole wide world of books and learning.  As library director Kristen Sorth says, “Studies show that when children start behind, they stay behind.”  Kids, on the other hand, who grow up around books (theirs and those of their peers and parents) are more likely to become readers at an early age – and to do well in school.  

Congratulations to the St. Louis County Library system for making the effort to get kids there off to a good start.  

Running: A Love Story

The last thing Jen Miller ever thought she would ever find herself doing is running in competitive road races, even if her main competitor would turn out to be the clock (as every runner knows, any race in which you set a new personal best time is considered a victory no matter where in the pack you actually finish).  She, in fact, found the very thought of running for sport or pleasure, especially the latter, to be absolutely absurd.  She goes so far as to say that the word “detested” is “too kind a description” to explain how the teenaged Jen Miller felt about running.
But now she is a runner, one with a regular column in Runner’s World who has also written freelance newspaper pieces about the running experience.  Jen Miller discovered running when she needed it most – and that brings us back to the book’s subtitle: “A Love Story.”  As it turns out, the love interest referred to in the subtitle is not limited to the sport of running because the book also recounts each of the failed “love stories” that Miller endured while discovering all the positive things about herself that running was simultaneously teaching her. 
Jen Miller is not a quitter, and that is usually a good thing.  But when it comes to sticking with failed love affairs long past their sell-by dates, it can be a really bad thing.  Now combine that stubbornness with Miller’s tendency to bring precisely the wrong type of man into her life over and over again, and you have all the makings of a browbeaten woman who gives and gives and gives in a relationship until she hardly recognizes herself.  That’s where running came in for Miller: she badly needed a way to recreate her self-image into a positive one, and almost despite herself, running did that for her.
Jen A. Miller
Very few beginning runners enjoy the sport enough at first to envision it ever becoming an important part of their lives.  But if they stay with it long enough to get past the initial muscle pain and breathlessness they face – and if they don’t suffer the kind of injury that often serves as an excuse to give up the whole idea of ever running again – that is often what happens.  And it happened for Miller, who can now claim five marathons (and numerous races of lesser distances) for the ten years during which she has enjoyed “the life changing sport” of running. 
Running: A Love Storyis one woman’s story; it is not a running manual or a book about the more spiritual aspects of long-distance running such as the much vaunted “runner’s high.”  It is simply the story of a woman who changed from someone with a poor self-image – and a crushing willingness to go along to get along – into the self-confident, strong woman that was always hidden deep inside her.  For Jen Miller, the real running journey she’s been on for the past decade is one of self-discovery, not one measured in miles.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Movies for Readers: A Hologram for the King

This week’s Movie for Readers is called A Hologram for the King and is based on a Dave Eggers 2012 novel of the same name that was a National Book Award Finalist.  It stars the always likable Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, and Ben Whishaw.  The movie will be released on April 22.  

I have to tell you that the movie seems to have become the target of Saudis all over the world who claim that it is an unfair representation of their country.  I also have to tell you that I doubt that a National Book Award Finalist book would be subject to the same charges unless perhaps the book were a deliberate farce or satire that offended those searching for a reason to be offended.  I have not read the book, so I can’t speak to how closely the movie script follows the plot of the novel, but I’m definitely interested now in seeing the movie so that I can judge for myself whether the unhappy Saudis have a real gripe, or are simply embarrassed about certain aspects of their culture and country being exposed via a more liberal point of view than their own.  We’ll see.

Too, I also plan to find a copy of the  Dave Eggers novel for my TBR stack, so this is a twofer.  

Movies for Readers No. 23

The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler is the master, the guy who pretty much created the pattern for most of the fictional, tough-guy detectives that would follow Chandler’s own Philip Marlowe.  Written in 1953 (while his wife was dying of a terminal illness), The Long Goodbye is my favorite of all the Philip Marlowe novels because of how much it reveals about Marlowe’s character and core beliefs.  Marlowe is a cynic with a good heart, a man attracted to the down and out characters he so often finds on the streets of Los Angeles.  He still believes that he can help them, even though more times than not, he fails to do so.
One of those whom Marlowe tries to help is a hopeless drunk by the name of Terry Lennox.  Marlowe and Lennox meet late one night when a woman angrily drives away and leaves the appallingly drunk Lennox standing alongside Marlowe outside a restaurant.  After Marlowe takes the man home with him so that he can safely sleep off his drunk, the two men become friends of a sort. Things get interesting a few months later when Lennox comes to Marlowe looking for a quick ride to the Tijuana airport.  Marlowe, hoping to avoid incriminating himself, refuses to listen to the reason for the sudden trip but decides to drive his friend to Mexico despite his suspicions that Lennox is in trouble.  Upon his return to Los Angeles, Marlowe learns two things: Lennox’s wife was murdered just before the man left town, and the cops know that Marlowe helped him flee the city. 
Chandler, never one to shy away from using coincidence to move his story along, uses the device effectively several times in The Long Goodbye to keep Marlowe involved in Lennox’s problems long after their late night drive to Tijuana.  For instance, when a New York publisher asks Marlowe to help find missing writer Roger Wade, another out-of-control drunk, the detective (only after the man’s wife personally asks for his help) reluctantly agrees to take the job.  As it turns out, there are connections – several of them – between Terry Lennox and the Wades, and what Marlowe learns about those connections keeps him hanging around the Wades a whole lot longer than he ever intended to.
Raymond Chandler
Probably because of what he and his wife were going through at the time he was writing The Long Goodbye, the novel has a more serious tone than what Marlowe fans had come to expect from Chandler.  Marlowe is presented here as a cynic trying to get by, a hard man with a soft side who values friendship but has few friends because he understands that he lives in an every-man-for-himself world where he is all too often the odd man out.  This aspect of Marlowe’s character not only makes Chandler’s writing a little different from most of the detective fiction of his day, it is one of the chief influences on the writers who followed him. 

Philip Marlowe is the granddaddy of all the fictional detectives working the streets today, and Raymond Chandler deserves to be read and appreciated for his tremendous contribution to what is still one of the most popular literary genres in publishing.

National Library Week

I suppose it’s a bit ironic to begin celebrating National Library Week 2016 on Sunday, a day my own local library system no longer opens its doors because of ever constant budgetary constraint…but I’m doing it anyway.

I have to say, too, that I’m a little bit surprised (and disappointed) that the Harris County Public Library does not seem to be celebrating the event at all – at least for now.  There’s nothing on the library’s webpage acknowledging the celebratory week…yet.  Maybe when the doors open tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 (Monday hours were shortened at the same time that Sunday closings began) that will change.

Anyway, it really is National Library Week…someone tell the HCPL system for me.  

On the positive side, I see that my local branch will start handling U.S. passport applications this week and that Overdrive is offering library downloads of magazines now – and those magazine copies can be kept on your reading devices for as long as you want to have them, even forever.


The Lone Star Book Festival Was a Hoot

I had an absolutely brilliant time at the Lone Star Book Festival today, and now I really wish I had been able to attend the Friday sessions as well as today’s.  The festival was so well run that no one would have guessed that it’s a first-time event for the Kingwood campus.

I already knew which of the early sessions I wanted to attend when I arrived at the school, but I left the afternoon wide open to see what surprises I might find – and I’m happy I did because the last session of the day was one I’ll never forget.  In that one, thriller writer Jon Land set a new standard for author presentations that I doubt I’ll see matched anytime soon.  He set the bar just that high.


Hipolito Acosta, Bill Crider, Stephanie Evans

First up, was a session that included the prolific Bill Crider, mystery writer Stephanie Evans, and true crime writer Hipolito Acosta.  I’m a longtime fan of Crider’s writing, especially the two westerns he wrote in the nineties, but I was relatively unfamiliar with Acosta and Evans when the session began.  Stephanie Evans, as it turns out, writes a series of mysteries set in Sugar Land, a little town just outside Houston that is home to most of the city’s professional athletes, because as she says, “a lot of people in Sugar Land need killing.”  

As it turns out, the biggest surprise of the session was Acosta who is one of the most decorated border agents in the history of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.  Acosta has turned his extraordinary memory into two true crime books already, with a third one coming soon.  The man’s personal exploits as a border agent were astounding, and he uses a first person narrative in his books.


University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne

After wandering around the Brazos Bookstore book tent, I headed over to my second session, this one featuring Jerry Coyne in a discussion of his 2015 book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.  This one was interesting because, frankly, it takes guts to come to East Texas to discuss a book about atheism and “what it means to think scientifically, showing that honest doubts of science are better – and more noble – than the false certainties of religion.”  Before Coyne arrived, an elderly gentleman I met in the first session promised out loud that he was going to challenge the author’s premise and “exchange” books with him after the session.  The man (and I failed to catch his name) is an ex-minister and university professor who has authored several books in his time, so I was anticipating some fireworks.  It didn’t happen because Coyne politely listened to his questions before effortlessly batting away each of his arguments.  One or two others in the audience did try to “preach” a little (as Coyne asked them not to do), but because Coyne had already previewed their arguments and his rebuttals as part of his presentation, they, too, got nowhere.  


Emily Fox Gordon, Ann McCutchen

Emily Fox Gordon, Ann McCutchen, and poet Rich Levy shared a session called “Truth Telling in Autobiographic Writing” that delved into the question of just how much a right authors have to tell someone else’s story – even if their own overlaps with those stories.  Gordon and McCutchen are essayists and memoirists, but everything they had to say about their formats applied equally to Rich Levy’s poetry.  I have to admit that I’m no fan of poetry, mainly because, for me, reading poetry is like reading a foreign language, but all five poems that Levy read appealed to me like no poetry ever has before – perhaps because his poems are so autobiographical and full of familiar situations and emotions.


John Land

My last session of the day was the biggest surprise to me because of how much fun author Jon Land made it.  Land was originally scheduled to share the session with Texas author Skip Hollandsworth (author of the brand new true crime book The Midnight Assassin) who had to cancel his participation.  Land, most recently author of seven Caitlin Strong crime thrillers, is a dynamic speaker who seems to have as much fun as his audience.  Because he was flying solo today, Land changed the focus of the session a little to present “ten reasons we all love thrillers.”  I have to tell you, if you ever get a chance to attend a Jon Land reading, jump at it.  The guy is a great impersonator, knows the history of his genre intimately, and is as familiar with every aspect of today’s pop culture as anyone out there.  That combination guarantees there will be no dull moments when Jon Land has the floor.  He is another of those guys I knew little about before today (even though 17 of his 28 novels have been bestsellers), but he’s made me very curious about his Caitlin Strong books, especially since Strong is a fifth-generation Texas Ranger – an interesting job choice for his main character from a Rhode Island yankee like Jon Land.

So that’s two book festivals in two weekends…and now that I’m spoiled, there are no more festivals in sight.  Just my luck.


Midnight in Berlin

The Nazi atrocities of World War II are, of course, so well documented today that only the deliberately obtuse among us can claim ignorance of them.  What so many still fail to understand, however, is how easily it all might have been avoided if only the rest of the world had not been content simply to look the other way when Adolph Hitler first began the military posturing that led to the war.  In Midnight in Berlin, James MacManus explores what might have happened if only two people (British Prime Minister Sir Neville Chamberlain and the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson) had had the courage and boldness later exhibited by Chamberlain’s successor Winston Churchill.    
MacManus based the novel’s main character, Colonel Noel Macrae, on real life Colonel Mason-Macfarlane who was the British military attaché in Berlin during the critical years 1938 and 1939.  As the novel opens, Macrae and his wife arrive at a Berlin train station early on a cold Sunday morning so that Macrae can immediately begin his duties there as British military attaché.  Unfortunately for Macrae, a man who understands the importance of stopping Hitler before he can begin to march his armies across Europe, Sir Nevile Henderson, his boss, does not share his opinion.  Macrae soon learns that the only war Henderson and Prime Minister Chamberlain are willing wage is one of appeasement.  They are willing to pay almost any price if it means peace with Germany – and other countries do the bulk of the paying.     
The Gestapo takes Macrae more seriously than Henderson takes him, and hopes to neutralize Macrae by secretly filming him inside a Gestapo-run brothel known as the Salon.  Fortunately, as it turns out, Macrae falls in love with Sara (a young Jewish woman forced to work at the Salon in order to keep her brother alive) who warns him of the trap before it can be sprung. 
James MacManus
And the game is on.  Now it is more than just a question of whether Macrae will be able to convince the British government to change its policy in time to keep Hitler from throwing the world into another catastrophic war.  He also has to find a way to get Sara away from the Gestapo and out of Germany before Hitler closes the border to Jews trying to escape what they see coming.  Noel Macrae, though, has an ace up his sleeve – the same sniper rifle that he used so effectively during World War I – and he is prepared to use it against Hitler if the opportunity presents itself, no matter what Chamberlain and the rest of the British government might think about his decision. 

Midnight in Berlinis part thriller and part love story, but above everything else, it is an excellent piece of historical fiction that reminds the reader of how easily the course of history can be changed – for the better or for the worse. 

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)