Paradise Sky

0316329371-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_I have been a fan of Joe Lansdale’s work for a number of years and still consider his 2012 “hillbilly noir” novel Edge of Dark Water to be one of my all-time favorites. I mention that one here because Paradise Sky reminds me of Edge of Dark Water in tone, its bigger-than-life characters, and a generally outlandish plot that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat for several hundred pages.

Paradise Sky serves as the fictional autobiography of Nat Love, an African-American cowboy who after winning most of the events in a Deadwood, Dakota Territory, rodeo was given the nickname Deadwood Dick by his friends (taken from the already popular dime novel character of the same name). The fictional Nat Love of Paradise Sky, in fact, becomes the hero of a series of dime novels all his own (but as a white cowboy and not as the black man he really is), but points out on Paradise Sky’s first page that he is here “to set the record straight.” It will be up to each reader to decide just how “straight” Nat then proceeds to tell his story. But what a story it is.

It all begins a few years after the Civil War when twenty-year-old Willie, while running a town errand for his ex-slave father, lets his eyes stray for precisely the wrong moment in time. Before he knows what’s hit him, Willie is running for his life, his father has been murdered, and the family home is burning to the ground. Thus begins the great adventure that will transform Willie from ex-slave to one of the most famous cowboys in the country.

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The Real Nat Love

Along the way, Willie (who takes to calling himself Nat Love after this man) will stumble upon the white man who becomes a second father to him; spend some time fighting Indians as a Buffalo soldier; twice meet the woman of his dreams; befriend Will Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Charlie Utter; become a U.S. Marshall working out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, a railroad porter, and finally, a writer. But no life story runs in a straight line, and Willie’s is no exception.

There is, however, one constant in Willie’s story: the white man who one day imagines that he catches Willie staring at his wife’s generous rear-end as the woman strains to hang their wet laundry out to dry. When he first ran for his life, Willie believed that this insanely-jealous man would loose interest in him soon enough, and that he would be allowed to make a new life for himself as long as he never returned to his East Texas home. But that is not what happened – and by the time Willie figures out that the chase will end only with his death or that of his persecutor, it is almost impossible for him to protect himself from the madman.

Bottom Line: Paradise Sky, a bit reminiscent of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (the highest compliment I can pay it), is a rousing western adventure that from page-to-page is equally likely to have the reader laughing out loud as shedding a tear or two. This one is great fun.

The Blue Light Security Service / ADT Security Installation Experience from Hell

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I have been using the past several Sundays as a time to relax by doing some of the things I don’t have enough time to get to during the rest of the week. I read from a dozen or so book blogs that I follow regularly, decide which book will be started next, spend some time with my elderly father; that kind of thing. Most Sundays I don’t even get around to posting anything at all on Book Chase.

But this weekend has been trashed by the security system installer from hell – and part of it is my fault for giving him the benefit of the doubt. The guy showed up on Friday afternoon raring to go, and then discovered that he had about half the equipment he was going to need to install the system. We have twenty-one windows in this house, not nine. We have three doors, not two. We have a wired system, not a wireless system. This meant that the installer had to drive all the way back to his downtown warehouse to get the proper kit – a round trip that took him almost two hours to complete. And then when he got back here, he found that the “transmitter” he had just picked up from the warehouse was designed for a different system than the one we want installed.

Well, by then the warehouse was closed for the day, so now we are talking Saturday installation. And of course now we have to be added to his Saturday schedule, meaning that we are dead last for the day, so he didn’t even get back here until almost six p.m. Finally, by nine-thirty, he seemed to have everything in place, had checked out the system with the offsite monitor, and it looked as if we were done.

No such luck. About thirty minutes after he left the house, we noticed that the landline telephone was dead as a doornail. No phone, of course, means that the new security system cannot be monitored offsite, essentially turning it into nothing but a loud noisemaker.

I had managed to catch the guy on his rush out the door to remind him that he had not left me with any manuals or the normal welcome package that includes phone numbers and the like, but when I looked at what he left me, I found that it was only the instructional manuals for setting and operating the security panel, etc. There were no phone numbers, local or otherwise, by which I could alert someone about the problem we are having. Luckily, though, my cell phone had captured the installer’s personal number when he contacted me on Friday, and I was able to get hold of him that way.

So here I sit. It’s closing in on eleven a.m. as I write this, and the guy promised to be here at ten. And there is no sign of him. The topper is that the alarm system just locked up and is telling us that a window is open, keeping it from being ready to arm. There are no open windows in the house – none.  Now that means that the installer is going to have to figure out the solution to another problem.  God help us.

And there is still no word from the Blue Light Security Service installer that ADT Security uses for installation of their systems. I’m trying here, I really am, to look at this as just another of life’s little jokes – but the sheer incompetence and rudeness involved here is so representative of every experience I’ve had with service people, sales clerks, doctor’s offices, and the like, in recent months that it is really starting to bother me.  The world is filled with people who simply cannot, or will not, do their jobs anymore, and they are forcing customers to respond in kind with the same degree of rudeness and demands. Otherwise, nothing gets done.

And somehow they still manage to make me feel like the bad guy because I expect things to get done correctly the first time around.

Short Story Saturday: James Lee Burke’s “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans”

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James Lee Burke

 

This week’s Saturday Short Story is a particularly interesting one to me because it is one of the earlier pieces of James Lee Burke’s writing to feature the Holland family that has become such an important part of Burke’s work since 1997. “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans” was first published in the Atlantic in 1980 and is also the first story in a compilation of James Lee Burke short stories titled The Convict and Other Stories from 1985. From what I can tell, the only older Burke writing featuring one or another branch of the Hollands is the 1971 novel Lay Down My Sword and Shield.

The story is set close to 1947 Yoakum, Texas, and its narrator is a high school kid trying to earn some cash by spending his summer picking tomatoes in the fields belonging to the town’s only Baptist preacher. Hack, as he is known to his friends, also has his eye on a young Mexican girl working the same job, and finally finds the nerve to ask her to accompany him to the local root beer stand. But 1947 Yoakum is not ready to accept that kind of biracial relationship, and because Juanita’s father is also an organizer for the pickers union, it is inevitable that Hack will pay a heavy price for his tolerance.

convictIt doesn’t take long for Hack and his Uncle Sidney Holland to pay that price. One gets the tar beaten out of him; the other has a huge cross burned on his property during the early morning hours. Those familiar with the various branches and generations of the Holland family featured in Burke’s later novels already know, however, that this is not going to end well for the racist teens and their cross-burning elders. Just not going to happen.

James Lee Burke had been a published author since at least 1965 but in relative terms he had published very little (three novels and perhaps a handful of short stories) prior to “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans.” Burke has become a fairly prolific writer since those early years, and is now known primarily for his long crime series featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. He has, however, not published a Robicheaux novel since 2013 and seems now to be focusing on standalone novels featuring various members of the Holland family (Billy Bob, Hackberry, or Weldon).

“Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans,” early as it is in the evolution of the Holland family story, holds up very well and should not be missed by James Lee Burke fans.

A Shortage of Reading Material Is a Thing of the Past

51bukngrbpl-_sy346_ Beyond a doubt, the best thing about being an avid reader of close to seventy years of age is that I never have to worry about finding a book to read anymore.  I  remember how when I was in my twenties and thirties that my greatest reading-fear was waking up one morning and not having a single unread book at hand. Those were the days when buying even a paperback per week hit the budget a good solid lick. A library was usually within reach, but after working a forty-something-hour-week, I was often too tired to make it there. Thankfully, those days are long gone.

Nowadays, like most people my age who have read for their entire lives, I have my own library, one that includes more unread books than I could possibly read in three or four years of dedicated reading. There are numerous anthologies, short story compilations, novels, and Civil War history books awaiting my attention – not to mention the 91 Library of America volumes on the shelves, each of those including numerous novels and short stories. So I’m set for a while even if worse were to come to worst.

51pckawcosl-_sy346_But here’s the real secret: many of my reading friends are roughly the same age as I am, and our wives are constantly at us to clean out some of the books that are stashed all over the house. That means that I seldom visit a reading friend who does not shove three or four “must-read” books at me before I head home. And I’ve learned to return the favor, often carrying a like number of books to their home when visiting so that the exchange comes out relatively even. The good news is that, at least so far, all of our wives see this as a kind of game in which the winning wife is the one whose husband’s book-count drops even for just a week or two. It’s one of those strange win-win things that I hope the ladies never figure out.

51kmu2vjmwl-_sy346_Just this month, for instance, I’ve been given pristine hard copies of four of Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlenour novels (a really good series from Iceland); Conspiracy of One (a detailed study of the Kennedy assassination); Witness (the classic Whittaker Chambers book written during the early days of the Cold War); and One Ranger ( a signed copy of Texas Ranger H. Joaquin Jackson’s 2008 autobiography). Now keeping in mind that this is all part of a game of musical chairs played with books, my wife is happy to tell you that we are winning so far this month because way more books have gone out the door than have come in the door (our wives give us a free pass when it comes to library books, thank goodness).

Now if I could just learn to read faster, life would be just about perfect.

 

The Roanoke Girls

1101906669-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Roanoke Girls is author Amy Engel’s first entry into the adult fiction market. Engel is also the author of a two-book dystopian series known as The Book of Ivy series. I have not read Engel’s YA books, but I suspect (and hope) that they are very different in both tone and content from The Roanoke Girls, a novel that even many adults are certain to find disturbing.

After her mother’s suicide, there was simply no place for sixteen-year-old Lane Roanoke to go. She had never known her father, or for that matter, any other blood relative she may have had, and it appeared likely that she would be spending the next two years of her life with foster parents. And then someone found the Kansas grandparents Lane had never met, and she was off to a new life in rural Kansas. There she discovered Allegra, a cousin who could have been her twin; a generous and affectionate grandfather; a somewhat standoffish grandmother; and the cook from hell, a sour-faced woman who could not have been a worse cook if she had worked at it. For a while, it looked like Lane had found the perfect place in which to finally turn her life around.

But then she started to notice that everything about life at Roanoke was not what it seemed, and when she learned the horrifying history of the rest of the Roanoke girls on her family tree, Lane ran for her life, intending never to set foot in Kansas again. For ten years, she did not go back. Then came her grandfather’s phone call asking Lane to come home because her cousin Allegra had disappeared. Now, because she already feels guilty about having abandoned Allegra to her fate at Roanoke, Lane knows that the only way she can possibly make things right again is by finding Allegra – or figuring out what happened to her.

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Any Engel

The Roanoke Girls is set in a rural Kansas town, one that is culturally and economically dominated by the one wealthy family in the area, the Yates Roanoke family. Engel paints a bleak picture of life in the community, and an equally bleak one of its inhabitants. The young women are portrayed generally as losers caught up in a cycle of losing family situations, and even the two central character young men are so weak or damaged that it is difficult for them to do the right thing consistently.

The book’s plot is not a pretty one. The Roanoke family secrets it reveals are horrifying and disgusting ones – and those secrets scar four generations of the family. For that reason, the book makes for rather difficult reading at times as the reader comes to grips with the reality of the situation being described. That, though, is the least of the book’s problems. The Roanoke Girls depends so heavily upon a high degree of willfully suspended disbelief on the part of readers that I doubt that many of them will take its out-of-control ending very seriously.

Bottom Line: The Roanoke Girls should come with a warning label or two so that readers will know what they are getting into. The writing is often skillful, and at times the book is a page-turner, but good grief, this one demands a bit too much of its readers.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” Is Not Quite Doing It for Me. A Little help?

I’ve been searching for a series to watch after I finish up with the fourth season of Sherlock, but I haven’t found one yet that really grabs me. I have watched the first two episodes of A Series of Unfortunate Events (which is based upon books written by Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket) and while there are numerous clever moments in the show, there are just as many moments that seem a little flat or over obvious to me. Maybe the series is more sharply focused to fit the taste of young viewers, I don’t know. I can tell you that my fourteen-year-old grandson has watched the whole series and that he really loved it.

So…any suggestions out there? I tend to favor British police detective series or those featuring some of the more subtle style of British humor (think the polar opposite of Benny Hill’s style).

For those of you not familiar with the Netflix series, here’s a quick look:


The shows stars Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, K. Todd Freeman, and Presley Smith. The entire first season, all eight episodes of it, has been available on Netflix since January 13 and it’s one of the Netflix series that was produced in the new 4K (Ultra HD) with High Dynamic Range format. I purchased a wide-screen 4K TV in early December, and true 4K TV can be so spectacular at times that I’m always looking for something shot in that format.

Anyway, guys, if you have any particular favorites, I’m looking for suggestions again, so thanks in advance for chipping in.

Time Travel Tuesday: E.F. Benson’s “In the Tube”

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E. F. Benson

This week’s Tuesday Time Travel story comes from the pen of E.F. (Edward Frederic} Benson, a British writer perhaps best known for his Mapp and Lucia series written between 1920 and 1939. Benson died in London in 1940 at age seventy-two. Today’s story, “In the Tube,” first appeared in a 1923 issue of Hutchinson’s Magazine.  

The story’s narrator recounts an evening he spent in the home of one Anthony Carling, a man known among his London acquaintances as a great storyteller and gentlemanly host. As the story begins, the formal evening has ended and all the guests but one are making their way home under terrible, icy conditions. The narrator is the only guest who will be spending the entire night in the Carling home. Now, even though it is very late, the two men are enjoying the warmth of a comfortable fire when Carling begins to tell his guest of a recent experience on the London Tube.

Earlier in the month, Carling tells his guest, on the last train of the evening he found himself sharing an entire car with only one other passenger, a man he feels he should somehow recognize. Arriving at the next station, the two men changed trains, and again they were the only two passengers in their car. Shortly after the train began to move, however, Carling realized that he was the train’s only passenger. The very next evening, Carling was astounded to meet the same man at his neighbor’s home and reminded him they actually met on the previous evening – but the man insists the he arrived in London from the country on this very morning and could not possibly have met Carling the day before.

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Scene from 1920s London Underground

The next evening, while once again catching the Tube’s last westward-bound train, Carling spots the same man standing near where the train will pull into the station. But to Carling’s horror, when the train does arrive, the man steps in front of it and is crushed to death. No one else, however, sees a thing – because Carling, he is certain, has somehow been granted a look into the future.

Now should he try to prevent the man’s suicide, or will confronting him with what he knows, only place the idea of suicide into the stranger’s head? Why does he have this special spiritual connection with a man he has only ever met one time? And what if their connection survives even death?

Benson is known as a writer of ghost stories, and the ending of “In the Tube” is probably more reminiscent of a ghost story ending than that of a time-travel story. But whichever type story you choose to call it, “In the Tube” is one thing for certain: an intriguing look at what the editor of The Time Traveler’s Almanac calls the “theory that time possessed a geography that could be explored.” And explore it, E.F. Benson does.

Rather Be the Devil

3e8e0861de1d5c8596e78716e51444341587343Rather Be the Devil, it should be noted, is the twenty-first novel in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series – and a whole lot has happened to John Rebus since he was introduced in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Rebus is no longer the mentally fragile young detective of those early days who struggled with life as much as he did with the Scotland Police crime cases assigned to him. Instead, because of Rankin’s wise decision to allow Rebus to age almost in real time as the novels appear, Rebus is now an ex-cop struggling with the boredom of retirement and suffering the physical ailments of a lifetime of bad habits. The man has COPD and suspects that there could be something even more seriously wrong with his lungs than that.

Rebus cannot picture himself as a pensioner, and fortunately for him, some of his ex-colleagues with the Scotland Police themselves find it impossible to see him that way. This is especially the case with those for whom Rebus was a one-time mentor and for others who remember him as the effective crime-solver he was in his prime. And that explains how Rebus gets his hands on the files of a cold case murder that is destined to remain forever unsolved unless someone like him takes it on. When I say that the heavy drinking, chain-smoking John Rebus has now been limited to half-pints of low-alcohol beer and zero cigarettes, it will be easy for long-term fans of the series to forecast that the angry ex-detective is about to make someone pay for that old murder.

The case involves the 1978 murder of a promiscuous young woman in the hotel room in which she awaited the arrival of her latest lover. Also in the hotel at the time of the murder were seventies rock star Bruce Collier, Collier’s band, and all the hangers-on usually associated with an event like that one. As it turned out, there were so many people with potential access to the death scene and the victim that no one could be charged with the murder. Now, all these years later, the investigation leads Rebus into the world of international finance and banking – and right back to two local mobsters with whom he is well acquainted: his longtime nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty and the younger thug who is trying to take over Cafferty’s criminal empire.

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Ian Rankin

John Rebus may be more than a bit creaky these days, but he know his turf well and he is willing to bend whatever rule necessary to help him catch a killer, including impersonating a police officer. There are those with the Scotland Police who wish they had seen the last of him on the day he turned in his badge, but even they sometimes grudgingly ask his help. Rebus has contacts, he has snitches, and most importantly, he is just about the only cop that “Big Ger” Cafferty will speak with – both on and off the record.

Although it’s chief character has not physically aged very well, the same cannot be said for the series itself. With good reason, readers are always ready to snatch up the next Inspector Rebus novel, and Rather Be the Devil will leave them anxiously anticipating whatever Rankin has planned next.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Short Story Saturday: Michael Connelly’s “The Crooked Man”

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Michael Connelly

Today’s Saturday Short Story comes from a short story collection that I picked up at a used-book bookstore this week called In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon. As soon as I saw that the fifteen stories included one each from Sara Paretsky, Harlan Ellison, John Lescroart, and Michael Connelly, I knew I had to have it. I was really pleased to learn last night as I began reading it that “The Crooked Man,” Connelly’s story, features his much-loved character (Former) LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.

Harry and his partner have been called to a murder scene in the biggest house either of them has ever seen. As they arrive, Bosch is pleased to see that the coroner he considers to be “a crime scene artist” is already there and in the process of examining the body. The man is so good at what he does that cops have taken to addressing him as Sherlock. And that’s how Harry gets his attention:

“Ah, Harry. Come in to our little circle here. The game is afoot.”

517smtmudul-_sx329_bo1204203200_The young deputy coroner then proceeds to tell Harry what he has discovered about the body already, including the exact weapon that killed him (which does not appear to be in the room); the exact brand of cognac in the dead man’s stomach (ascertained by manually burping the man); and what state of mind the man was in just before he was struck by the blow that killed him. Along the way, in conversation with Bosch, he illustrates the movements of both the murderer and victim just prior to the crime and announces that the murder weapon is still in the room somewhere. Oh, yes – he also takes a moment to diagnose an illness Bosch is unknowingly suffering from because he has been attributing the symptoms of the disease to the aging process.

This story is great fun and Sherlock Holmes fans will appreciate the numerous nods to the Arthur Conan Doyle character that Connelly delivers. My only disappointment is that almost none of the Bosch personality shows through here. It’s almost as if a generic police detective had had Bosch’s name attached to it instead. That said, the story itself does work beautifully and exactly as Connelly intended it to. Now I’m looking forward to reading other stories from In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.

Book Chase Is Ten Years Old Today

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Today marks the tenth anniversary of Book Chase, an anniversary I never realistically expected to see happen – especially a few years ago when I was overwhelmed by so much family business that I had to take a few months off from blogging. And, frankly, I had some nervous weeks just after making the transition from Blogger to WordPress last July when it appeared that I had lost more readers than anticipated. Thankfully, things settled down and the numbers are looking better and better every week now.

I am not going to make a big deal of this. But being the ex-accountant that I am, a few numbers do jump out at me:

  • 3,008 total posts
  • 1,195 reviews (almost 1,100 of them book reviews)
  • 9 comprehensive author bibliographies
  • 327 book-related YouTube videos
  • 11,960 comments (a number I wish were three times higher)

I’ve been threatened with a lawsuit all the way from England (by the brother of one of the most famous people in that country, by the way), have made some good friends from the world of publishing, and have really enjoyed being a part of the book-blogging community. And what a community it is! Never have I met so many nice, like-minded people in my life. It’s been quite a ride, more fun than I ever dreamed I would have again, and I thank each and every one of you for being a part of it.

On My Fascination with the Sherlock BBC Series

It is no accident that I am always a latecomer to successful new television series. I plan it that way – much preferring to let a series get two or three successful seasons under its belt (proving its legs and its chops at the same time) before I begin to watch. I am impatient by nature, so I can’t even imagine anymore waiting like we all used to do a whole week for the next episode to become available. I have come to love watching one series at a time, all the way through, before moving on to a new one. That way all the details are fresh from episode to episode and I pick up on connections and relationships I may well have missed otherwise.

Anyway, all of that is to lead up to my current fascination with the BBC series Sherlock. The BBC has completed four seasons of Sherlock now, but from what I read, if there is to be a fifth series it may not happen for several years. Each of the four seasons completed encompasses three episodes of almost ninety minutes in length, for a total of twelve regular season episodes in all. A thirteenth episode, a throwback of sorts in which the cast is placed in Victorian England rather than twenty-first century England, was broadcast between the end of the third season and the beginning of the fourth.

Trailer for Series Two

Season One was broadcast in the summer of 2010, Season Two in January 2012, Season Three in January 2014, the special episode in January 2016, and Season Four in January 2017. So you can see that a delay between series of two or more years is not all that unusual in this case. Since the first of the year, I’ve watched the first three seasons and part of the special episode – and luckily enough, I automatically recorded Season Four because I have my DVR set to record pretty much everything shown on Masterpiece Theater anyway.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

And Sherlock is, I think, a masterpiece. It is so good that it has renewed my interest in the original Sherlock Holmes stories that Arthur Conan Doyle started writing in 1887. I haven’t read any of those stories since I was a kid, but the BBC series has reminded me about just how much I used to love them, and now I wonder if they contained the kind of subtle and ironic humor that the television series does so well. I’m so hooked on Sherlock again that I even bought a book today called “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon.” I figure that with stories by Sara Paretsky, Harlan Ellison, Michael Dirda, and Michael Connelly, among others, I can’t go wrong (especially since I found the book marked down to three bucks).

The series stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, respectively, and both of them are perfect for the role. Probably because Martin Freeman is a favorite actor of mine, I think that he generally steals the show as Watson, but I can’t imagine a better choice to play Holmes than Cumberbatch. The supporting cast is equally wonderful: Mark Gattis as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, Una Stubbs as landlady Mrs. Hudson, Louise Brealey as Molly Hooper, Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade, Amanda Abbington as Mary (Watson’s eventual wife), and Andrew Scott as one of my favorite villains of all time Professor Moriarty – Scott is so good in this role that he absolutely steals every scene he is in.

And now for my favorite villain in a long time: Professor Moriarty

Movies for Readers: Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

the-sense-of-an-ending1This week’s Movie for Readers is based on the 2011 novel by Britain’s Julian Barnes. The slim little novel (the ARC was only 163 pages long) was the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize despite the usual expressions of surprise when the prize was announced that year.  The story largely takes place inside the head of its main character,  sixty-something-year-old Tony Webster, who is forced to rethink the truth of what he remembers about his school days after an old girlfriend dies and leaves him her diary.  It is at times a frustratingly vague novel, and even after watching this trailer a couple of times, I’m wondering how well it translates to film.

“What you end up remembering isn’t always what you actually witnessed.”  Tony Webster now has to reconcile the two.

The film is set for a March 2017 release and it stars one of my favorite actors, Jim Broadbent as Tony Webster, along with Emily Mortimer, Michelle Dockery, and the always wonderful Charlotte Rampling.

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Julian Barnes

Time Travel Tuesday: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Time’s Arrow”

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Arthur C. Clarke

Today’s Time Travel Tuesday story, “Times Arrow,” comes from one of the absolute masters of science fiction literature, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008). The story, which was originally published in 1950, explores one of earliest plotlines of time travel fiction: traveling all the way back to the age of the dinosaurs.

“Time’s Arrow,” although it is based upon the “hard science” of Clarke’s day, reads a little more straightforwardly than many of the stories I’ve reviewed on Book Chase in the last few months. Its plot is so straight ahead in structure, in fact, that I was able to predict the way it would end at approximately the halfway point of the fourteen-page story. That, however, did not lessen my enjoyment or appreciation for Clarke’s writing and storytelling skills. “Time’s Arrow” is a great read.

As the story begins, three Geological Society scientists are exploring “petrified mud-flats” upon which are impressed the huge footprints of an as-of-yet unidentified dinosaur. The three have been following the footprints for weeks as it becomes easier and easier to predict what the animal was up to as it crossed the mud flats eons earlier. They are now certain that the huge creature was tracking, and then chasing, some smaller animal that was about to be devoured by the larger one, and expect finally to uncover the spot in which the chase ended.

article-2596038-1ccd95cc00000578-132_634x354The three men are aware that another scientific project of some sort is being undertaken nearby, but they have been unable to find out anything about it. That changes finally when the Geological Society boss is invited to visit the physicists working the other project. When the boss returns to the dig and refuses to disclose anything about what he learned, the other two geologists decide to do a little detective work of their own. And that’s when they begin to believe that the other project involves time travel – and that the work is being done near them precisely because of the dinosaur tracks they have uncovered.

Now the two geologists think they understand why their boss is suddenly spending all his time visiting the other project instead of working with them on his own. Who would not rather witness the culmination of this dinosaur chase in real time rather than speculating about what a bunch of ancient dinosaur tracks might tell them about it?

But what if dinosaurs don’t fear man nearly as much as logic might say they will when confronted by such strange new creatures? What then?

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century

41gpruffisl-_sx310_bo1204203200_Because in 1994 Anne Perry’s books were not yet selling in the numbers they soon would sell, many of her current fans (if they were old enough even to have heard about it at the time) missed the big announcement that year about the author’s true identity. Some forty years after having been convicted of one of the more infamous murders in the history of New Zealand, a New Zealand journalist revealed that Anne Perry is none other than convicted murderer Juliet Hulme – the same Juliet Hulme who in 1954, as a teen, helped Pauline Parker, her best friend, beat the girl’s mother to death with half a brick that Juliet brought from home for that specific purpose. Peter Graham’s Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century is a meticulously researched account of events leading up to the murder, the murder itself, the trial that followed, and what happened to the key players in those events once the two killers had been released from prison to go their separate ways.

Juliet Hulme, daughter of a prominent English couple, came to New Zealand as a young girl when her father was recruited for a university position in Christchurch. Her lack of social skills did not stop the physically striking Juliet from making an impression on her classmates, albeit it, for the most part, a negative impression. Pauline Parker, on the other hand, was blessed neither with physical attractiveness, nor with any social skills of which to speak. The angry and socially inept Pauline wanted badly to find a soul-mate to whom she could reveal her thoughts and dreams, and Juliet wanted just as badly to find someone she could recreate in her own image. The two girls were made for each other because each of them got their wish.

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Pauline’s Mother

Pauline Parker’s mother, Honorah Rieper, did not die an easy death. Barely aware of what was happening to her, the woman nonetheless valiantly attempted to fight off her attackers, and it was only when Juliet held her down by the throat that Pauline was finally able to finish off her mother. There was never any doubt as to whom the woman’s murderers were, but the defiantly gleeful manner in which the two teens confessed to what they had done still managed to shock and surprise the country.

Five and one-half years later, after the two young women were released from prison, they assumed new names and began the new lives far from Christchurch, that they hoped would shield them from further notoriety. And it worked for forty years.

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Scene of the Bloody Murder

There is a lot of material out there, including one major movie (Heavenly Creatures), a documentary made inside Anne Perry’s Scotland home (Interiors), and several books that attempt to explain how two fifteen-year-old girls could so callously murder the mother of one of them. In Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, Peter Graham explores each possibility, one by one, reaching his own conclusion that the strong homosexual ties between the two girls, compounded by a perfect meshing of two distinct personality disorders, created exactly the perfect storm needed to make such a thing possible.

Perhaps most shocking today, is how differently the two women have responded to what they did in 1954. On the one hand, Paulette Parker has lived a life of repentance and appears still to be much bothered by what she did to her mother. On the other, Juliet Hulme (Anne Perry) still shows no remorse whatsoever and has constructed a version of the events that she uses to explain why she had no other choice but to help her friend commit matricide. As Graham notes, Perry’s version of what led up to the murder is so obviously false that it cannot be taken seriously. Anne Perry appears to be much the same person that she was in 1954.

When asked if she ever thinks of the woman she and Paulette murdered, this writer who has made a fine living for herself writing bloody murder mysteries for the last four decades said this:

“No. She was somebody I barely knew.”

And yet, as late as 2006 according to Peter Graham, Anne Perry and her publisher were known to grant interviews about the murder just prior to the publication of a new Anne Perry book, under the theory, I suppose, that “no publicity is bad publicity.”

To this point, they seem to be correct about that.

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Pauline and Her Mother

Short Story Saturday: Shirley Jackson’s “The Third Baby’s the Easiest”

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Shirley Jackson

This week’s Saturday Short Story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Third Baby’s the Easiest,” a story that first appeared in Harper’s during the summer of 1949. Jackson was a popular writer during her lifetime but it was only after her death that literary critics really began to appreciate the literary quality of her stories and novels. The author died in her sleep in 1965 at age forty-eight.

“The Third Baby’s the Easiest” reads like a humorous, fictionalized version of Jackson’s own experience in giving birth to her third child, daughter Sarah, and begins with the narrator claiming that the third pregnancy is “the easiest because it’s the funniest, because you’ve been there twice, and you know.” She immediately sets the tone of the story by admitting that cynics say that women have a third child because, already having “two healthy, active children around the house (a woman) will do anything for ten quiet days in the hospital.”

As it turns out, the woman may be just a little bit overconfident about how easy it will be to give birth to her third child. Yes, she has prepared everything for the moment when she is to leave for the hospital: her bag is packed with exactly what she knows from experience she will want (not necessarily what she needs), a plan to call for a taxi in plenty of time for her five-mile trip to the hospital, and a good sense of precisely what will happen when she gets there.

But then reality sets in – and nothing is quite like what she imagined it would be.

1a292189645fa0ad8eb915c35f2ae799From the overcautious cabdriver who slows way down in order to avoid every bump in the road; to the nurse who refuses to record her occupation as “writer,” insisting instead on calling her a “housewife;” to the doctor and nurses who don’t really listen to her; to her husband who calmly spends hours reading the newspaper while she “has nothing to read, she is not finding the experience all that funny, after all. She is finding it all pretty damned irritating, actually – if anyone cares for her opinion – so irritating, in fact, that when the nurse with the hypodermic finally shows up, all she can say is, “Sure glad to see you.”

But despite all that she experiences this third time around, when while she is leaving the hospital for home and someone asks her what she had, she responds simply, “Girl. They say the third’s the easiest.” Nature has done its job on her memory, allowing her now to tell her friends in all sincerity that it really was easier this time.

Hulu’s New Adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale Coming Soon

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Anna and Elena Balbusso for The Folio Society

I am not a Hulu subscriber, and have not paid a whole lot of attention to the video service because there are just too many of those to keep track of these days.  And now that so many of them have taken to creating or funding their own programming, they all blend together in my mind more than ever.  But, probably because of the great visuals associated with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this promotional teaser caught my eye – and held my attention.  I won’t be subscribing to Hulu in order to watch the new ten-part series when it debuts, but I can’t say that I’m not tempted to do so.

 

Trailer for Hulu production of The Handmaid’s Tale

The series stars Elizabeth Moss, Jordana Blake, Alexis Biedel, Joseph Fiennes, and O.T. Fagbenie who appear in all ten episodes.  It appears that Margaret Atwood was actively involved in the series, too, because she shares in the writing credits of each episode and is listed as a “consulting producer.”  Hulu will debut the series on April 26 (I don’t know whether or not Hulu will release all episodes of the new series on the same day like Netflix and Amazon do for their binge-watchers).

Looks like a good one, so if anyone out there watches The Handmaid’s Tale, please do let me know what I’m missing.

Paris Street Tales

0198736797-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The completion of Paris Street Tales marked my completion of exactly one dozen short story compilations in 2016, allowing me to reach what, coming into the year, I figured would be one of the more unachievable goals I had set for myself. Needless to say, I enjoy short fiction as much as anything I read today, and this Oxford University Press publication reminds me why that is.

Short story collections can be pulled together in many different ways, including: best stories of the year; complete short works of a given author; an author’s work during a particular period; by literary genre (science fiction, crime, sport, etc.); geographic setting (country, city, etc.); or by theme. Paris Street Tales, though, is the first compilation I have run across that is based upon the stories all being centered around one city’s streets.

Helen Constantine, editor and translator of the stories, is fascinated by the development and history of Paris streets, and she carefully chose nineteen stories for the compilation that illustrate the time-machine experience that can often be had by reading descriptive fiction from the past. There are stories here from, as she puts it, “different centuries, different areas of Paris, with different subjects and tones of voice; some stories are serious, some amusing.” But what the stories all have in common is the Paris streets they use so effectively for their settings.

There are writers here who will be very familiar to American readers, and there are writers who will be completely unfamiliar to them. Among the more familiar are Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola, Colette, Marcel Aymé, and Georges Simenon – and among those more likely to be pleasant surprises are Didier Daeninckx and Arnaud Baignot. Among my favorite two or three stories from the entire collection, in fact, is the Daeninckx story that opens the collection.

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Editor Helen Constantine

“Rue des Degrés” is a twenty-eight-page police procedural in which police Lieutenant Mattéo is tasked with finding the killer of a young man whose body was discovered on the street early one morning by a cleaning lady. As the ingenious Mattéo begins pull all the clues and loose ends together, it becomes clear that if he doesn’t solve the case, it is not going to happen. (“Rue des Degrés” was also included in the 2008 short story compilation Paris Noir but, though I wish I had, I have not discovered other short stories using the Mattéo character.)

But as it turns out, my two collection favorites were written by Maupassant and Aymé: “The Rendez-vous” and “Rue Saint-Supice,” respectively. “The Rendez-vous” tells of a wealthy nineteenth-century Paris woman who has grown so bored with her weekly assignation with a lover that she searches for reasons to be late even as she is in the process of making her way to the tryst. It has gotten so bad for the woman that she is particularly overjoyed one day when, while on her way to the old, boring lover, a new man approaches her on the street.

In “Rue Saint-Supice,” a photographic studio specializing in “religious images” is desperate to find new faces to portray Jesus and Saint John the Baptist on the cards it produces for resale by churches and street vendors. The catalog has grown so stale that only fresh faces can possibly reverse the studio’s badly slumping sales. And then, right off the street comes the perfect face of Jesus – but what happens if the model becomes convinced that he really is Jesus?

Paris Street Tales is the fourth book in Helen Constantine’s series of French short story translations. Paris Tales, French Tales, and Paris Metro Tales preceded it.

The Reading Slump from Hell

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There is something distinctly different about 2017, and it’s making me nervous. January is usually my most productive reading month of the entire year because I know that I can banish all the unfilled wishes and regrets of the past year and simply start over again from zero. Everything is possible, and there is plenty of time to get it all done. It’s easy to be enthusiastic because it feels like the beginning of a huge do-over.

But I don’t have that feeling this year. Not even close.

It’s not that I’m not reading, because I am, and have in fact finished four books this month already and am closing in on a fifth one. It’s more a feeling that I’m having to push myself harder and harder to sit down and read for an extended period because it’s more difficult for me to focus than it has been in the past. I keep finding myself wondering what else I could, or should, be doing instead of reading.

Reading and blogging about what I read suddenly feels more like a job/obligation than it does the thing I’ve always enjoyed doing most in the world. My oldest hobby has suddenly gone very stale. I know that most of you have gone through a phase like this one yourselves, and it’s not the first time it’s happened to me either. But up to now, any reading slump I’m in automatically disappears with the close of the old year. It’s like magic – so why didn’t it work that way this year?

Maybe I burned myself out in 2016 by accepting more review copies than I have in several years. Maybe I didn’t read enough from my own shelves or choose enough books from my favorite genres (no baseball books in 2016, for instance, and that’s a first for me). Maybe it was my reaction to the monumental degree of condescending snobbery I discovered in one of my favorite writers when she let her utter hatred of a presidential candidate drive her to an insane perpetual rant against the man and anyone who even considered supporting him. (You know who you are, JCO.) That disillusioning experience would find me removing more than 100 books from my shelves for resale to the local book dealer who only reluctantly took them on.

And maybe, although it seems counter-intuitive to me, it’s because Book Chase will be ten years old on January 20. Maybe the approaching anniversary made me realize how tired I am right now, and how much work a one-man blog really is if it’s going to be produced on anything even close to a daily basis.

I wish I knew what it is. Right now, I just wish the slump were over and done with, so that I could get on with discovering, book by book, what 2017 is going to be like. So far, the most positive thing I’ve accomplished is my near-completion of the first book of a three-volume Spanish language course. Maybe that will jumpstart me…maybe not.

Time Travel Tuesday: Pamela Sargent’s “If Ever I Should Leave You”

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It’s Tuesday, and that means it’s time for another Time Travel story…so let’s do it!

“If Ever I Should Leave You” is a story by Nebula Award winner Pamela Sargent that appeared in a compilation titled Worlds of If in 1974 before the author completely reworked it in 1984 for publication in another collection called Afterlives. Sargent, who has enjoyed a productive and long career in the science fiction genre, was awarded the Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction and fantasy scholarship in 2012.

As the story’s narrator somewhat casually reveals, at this point in the future the normal lifespan has reached three centuries, plenty of time to let everyone live out all their dreams by changing careers every twenty or thirty years as they become more and more bored with their current jobs. Science has found a way to keep the human body rejuvenating itself for that amount of time. But there is one catch: when the body suddenly loses that ability, aging comes rapidly and without warning. What seemed like an eternally-young body just weeks earlier, suddenly turns into a geriatric nightmare for its owner.

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Pamela Sargent

Yuri, our narrator’s partner has reached that stage of life, but he is working hard to limit the emotional impact his death will have on her. Yuri is using the Time Station to visit remote locales in the past where the couple can meet again after his death, thus easing his way out of her life rather than leaving it with the abruptness of his impending death. Even though she tries not to visit all the spots set-up for their meets too quickly, the narrator is down to her last set of time coordinates before she knows it. But then, just as despair is setting in, she herself begins to show all the signs of aging that marked Yuri’s rapid decline and death.

Determined to make the most of the time she has left, the narrator does the unthinkable by convincing an old friend who works at the Time Station to do something that is strictly forbidden: he arranges for her to visit a time she has already lived through. She just wants to see Yuri one more time as he was on the day they actually met.

But has she just made it impossible for her that meeting ever to happen? Or can she still do something to ensure that it happens just as she remembers it? She’ll know in four hours when she returns to the present…keep your fingers crossed.

The Nearness of You

110188715x-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Nearness of You, Amanda Eyre Ward’s sixth novel, tells the story of Hyland and Suzette Kendall, a young couple that agreed before marriage that they would remain childless. Because of her mother’s mental illness (and her own instability during her college years), Suzette fears that any child of hers will be genetically inclined toward the same problem. If Hyland had not agreed with her decision not to have children, she would never have agreed to marry him. But now, despite the comfortable life they have created for themselves in Houston, Hyland is desperately craving the experience of raising a child of his own – and he comes to Suzette with a plan to make it happen: find a surrogate mother via the Fertility Clinic of Houston.

That’s where the “fertile, unstable, beautiful” Dorrie comes into the picture. Dorrie, who works as a penguin-feeder at Galveston’s Sea-O-Rama, badly wants to get off of Galveston Island and away from her mother, but she is too broke to make it happen. So when she spots the Fertility Clinic of Houston’s billboard seeking surrogate mothers, Dorrie thinks that surrogate motherhood might just be her way off the island. Then when she learns from the clinic that she can “trade nine months of her life” for a cool $35,000, she is sure of it.

Suzette, a heart surgeon capable of performing the most intricate and delicate surgery on infants, is still uneasy about becoming something she had decided never to be, a mother. She knows that motherhood will complicate her professional life, and fears that she does not have what it takes to be a good mother. But because Hyland is so enthusiastically happy about becoming a father, she reluctantly signs on to the deal with Dorrie, Even after the dinner celebrating Dorrie’s pregnancy (where Dorrie announces her certainty that she is carrying a girl), Suzette has to fight hard to control the panic she feels.

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Amanda Eyre Ward

And then Dorrie disappears.

Ward tells her story from three main points of view, using the third person when narrating from the perspective of Hyland or Suzette, and the first person when relating Dorrie’s thoughts and experiences. These shifting perspectives, which are often in conflict, add tension and drama to a plot that at times, however, already borders on melodrama, one in which the reader’s emotions are stretched right up to – or even beyond – the breaking point.

Bottom Line: The Nearness of You asks and examines some of the big questions regarding motherhood, such as whether or not a woman can change her basic nature and learn to both enjoy and be good at motherhood, and why some women can so readily give up a newborn while others cannot do it under any circumstance. The story unfortunately becomes a little too predictable and begins to resemble more what one expects from a Hallmark Channel movie than from a literary novel on the same subject.