As you may have noticed by now, nonfiction is not really my friend. I seldom choose to read it, and when I do make the attempt I seem to have a recurrence of the selective narcolepsy that has plagued me on and off for years, never making it past the first few chapters.
How lucky am I, therefore, to have friends who read, and friends who are also willing to write something about what they have read and allow me to share it here?
The review to follow is by Mary K. Chelton, a well known advocate for young adults and libraries. A retired professor of library and information studies at Queens College (New York), Dr. Chelton is co-founder of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) journal. and has published more than 60 articles in library literature. She has 20+ years experience as a public librarian, serving as a voice for all underserved library populations. One of her particular specialties is readers’ advisory, over which we recently bonded online. I am honored to share her thoughts about her reading.
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (Crown Publishing 6/30/2020, 272 pp.)
The chair of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies, who teaches a seminar on James Baldwin as part of that program, has done an exhaustive, critical examination of Baldwin’s writings, letters, interviews, and travels, to see what his thoughts and experiences might say to those of us trying, once again, through Black Lives Matter, to restart the Civil Rights movement.
Baldwin comes across as a tortured individual, in part because of his emotional and intellectual involvement in the movement, but also because of his sexuality and estrangement from both black and white politics in the United States. For example, he did not support the Black Power people, and he grappled intellectually with whether Black activists had to “become white” to achieve anything. He also became an unwilling celebrity as his writing was published and reviewed. Twice he tried to commit suicide, the first time after Martin Luther King was murdered.
Glaude follows his life and offers a rich interpretation of it with insights for those of us suffering through the Trump era, followed by a personal journey himself to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama to experience “the Lie” as he calls America’s underbelly of racist origins and structures. Begin Again is a wonderful work of scholarship, with something thought-provoking on every page.
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I mentioned about five or six posts ago that I had begun Charlie Higson’s young adult dystopian series The Enemy (review here) but would probably stretch out the reading of the entire thing by interspersing it with other books, which I have done. But this week I jumped back into it and quickly made my way through books #2, #3, and now I’m midway through #4. Finally, in this book, there has come a hint (no more so far) of how this whole thing started, which is certainly incentive to keep going.
And I do need a certain amount of incentive. On the one hand, I am still in awe of Higson’s abilities to write compelling characters about whose fate you come to care within a very short time of “meeting” them; but on the other hand, I’m wondering when I’m going to hit my personal limit for unmitigated gore. Because this is such a good story, my tolerance seems broader and more sustained than I would have expected, but after 3+ books of it I am getting as glazed in the eye as the kids who are encountering it and either going catatonic or becoming inured to its effects!
Lest anyone be either unduly impressed or put off by the size of the books, which are listed as 400+ pages apiece, keep in mind that this is a young adult series, and page count is not nearly as significant in terms of density. These are smaller-than-usual books, the typeface is several points larger than in an adult novel, and both the page margins and the leading (the space between lines) is generous. I’m finding it possible to zip through one of these in about two days, and that’s with reading only a couple of hours per day. So if you are intrigued by the reviews, by all means pick up the first one and see what you think. But one suggestion I would make is that if you don’t have a strong stomach, then don’t read these during meals!
In addition to being an avid reader and an instructor of readers’ advisory, the Book Adept (that’s me) is also a watercolorist and mixed media artist.
I have just opened an online shop through Redbubble, and included among the collections of artwork I am making available there is a wide array of reading-oriented things—art prints, cards and postcards, and also an occasional fun thing like a T-shirt, a clock, a spiral-bound journal, a coffee mug, even masks to keep you safe from Covid-19! So please, if you like stuff about reading as much as you like to read, go check out my new products!
The shop is here: https://tinyurl.com/yyaoyprg
Of course, you should also feel free to peruse the other collections you find there! Gardening, cooking, tea time, birds, politics…art for everyone!
I am a huge fan of Dick Francis mysteries. When he passed away and his son took up his mantle, I decided to reserve judgment until I had read a few. (I had been burned once before by this dynamic when the brilliant and innovative Frank Herbert died and his son Brian started writing decidedly inferior sequels to his Dune series.) It was noted that Felix had helped Dick with the massive research required to deliver his books, and since I was cognizant of what that involved (Dick’s books were chock full of interesting details about all sorts of things), and since it was also noted that Felix had co-written the last few, I believed that Felix might just have the master’s touch.
I have read several of Felix’s books since he began writing on his own, and while they weren’t quite Dick Francis, they weren’t bad. I enjoyed both Bloodline and Damage, and when I saw that Triple Crown was another book featuring Jeff Hinkley (the protagonist of Damage), I was somewhat enthusiastic about picking it up.
I think it will be my last authored by Felix.
I am not an apologist for such American quirks as overly armed police officers, or the animal cruelty that is present in the branding of cattle and horses, or the convoluted groups of associated government departments that nonetheless refuse to work together. Quite the contrary, in fact: Based on my experience working as a librarian who was constantly called upon to be a social worker for certain of our patrons, I applaud the recent movement towards scaling back police influence to do the things they are actually trained to do. I am a vegetarian and deplore all forms of deliberate injury to animals; and I think the level of jockeying for power in Washington is ludicrous. But that doesn’t mean I want to read about all those things and, if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be in the pages of what is supposed to be an entertaining mystery novel.
The plot seems like a reasonably good one: Jeff Hinkley, who works as a covert investigator for the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), is requested to come to America to help their Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) find out who in their organization is passing on confidential information that will help horse trainers and owners evade arrest when they get up to such things as drugging rival horses. After consulting with the agency’s Deputy Director, by whom he was invited to come, Hinkley sets up a sting operation in which he goes undercover as a groom for a trainer believed to cut corners to win races, hoping that, as an insider, he will be able to find information on the mole. As he discovers some horrifying steps this trainer is taking to win the Triple Crown, his added motive becomes to root out this corruption before more horses die.
The execution of the story turns into a vehicle for Francis, disguised as Hinkley, to exhibit a condescending supercilious attitude toward American horse-racing when compared with the British, and this attitude constitutes almost the only defining trait of the protagonist—he is otherwise so unmemorable that near the end of the novel, when he decides to dye his hair and beard dark as a disguise, I was utterly surprised that he had been a blond previous to the dye job, because his physicality was left so vague throughout the book. Hinkley is completely lacking in the charm, intelligence, or wit of a Dick Francis hero. He is a fatal combination of bland and pompous that endears him to no one, including his fellow characters or the reader.
In addition to the rather overbearing anti-American themes is the pedantic tone of his explanatory passages, which constantly trip you up and shove you out of the story. The dialogue is likewise stilted and formal, and the character development is rudimentary at best, and laden with offensive clichés. Hinkley’s attitude toward his co-worker, Maria, the Puerto Rican hot walker for the stable, basically consists of his observation that she’s a hot mama; his Mexican roommate is a drunkard and a simpleton; he seems surprised that a female federal agent could be such a crack shot; and another female agent becomes a stereotype of a whiny mistress to her colleague’s married man. Dick Francis’s gentle misogyny was both understandable (due to his age and upbringing) and predictable; but what is Felix’s problem with women in particular? It seems that, along with not respecting them, he doesn’t particularly admire them either. At least his father had a healthy appreciation and understanding of relationships and knew how to write them.
My constant feeling during the reading of this novel was that I was trudging through a quicksand of expository prequel while hoping the actual story would pick up at some point and become involving, but it never did. By the time the book reached the intended climactic scenes, I simply didn’t care—and the lackluster way in which they were written confirmed those feelings.
Next time I’m feeling nostalgic for an exciting mystery with a horse racing theme, I’ll go back and re-read the real thing. And perhaps, at this point, this Francis should quit putting “A Dick Francis Novel” on his covers.
There is a certain expectation when you see those words. Beach read. Like romcom. Or cozy. Or whatever genre you’re expecting.
I wasn’t exactly expecting what I got from Beach Read, by Emily Henry. I picked it up because all the women on my “What should I read next?” Facebook group keep pushing it, and it sounded more appealing right now than American Dirt or A Man Called Ove or Small Great Things. And I think on balance it probably was, but…
First of all, there is almost no beach in Beach Read, and the beach that there is resides on Lake Michigan, so…is that a beach? They say you can’t see the other side and it feels like an ocean, but as a California almost-native, I have my doubts. Anyway, I think the characters end up at the beach maybe three times? twice together and once the protagonist goes on her own, and the atmosphere and set-up just aren’t there.
Second, my idea of what a genuine beach read is supposed to be is a book that is casually engaging. You can take it or leave it, which means that you take it with you in the morning when you trail down to the beach with your chair and towel and umbrella, and maybe you read it for a little while, and then you put it aside in favor of sleeping or swimming or making a sand castle or simply staring out at the water until you go sun-blind. And that evening, or the next day, you desultorily pick it up again and keep going, but there’s no pressure, there’s no urgency. As my cousin Toni from Texas always says, “This is so pleasant.” That’s the epitome of a beach read. Which this was not.
THIS book was smart and funny, a little convoluted, with more angst than one would expect in a beach read. It had, in my opinion, a few too many coincidences upon which it depended—the meet-cute was a little more a saccharine surprise, and that also goes for many of the side characters, who give off a whiff of too-good-to-be-trueness as they enter and exit the scenes. But what this book really has going for it is two good protagonists who indulge in banter that is truly witty. And in between, their chemistry smolders for about two-thirds of the book until you’re ready to implode on their behalf, so you get the best of both worlds—smart-ass reality, and romantic fantasy. Also, because the characters are both novelists, you hear a lot about the creative process in a not-pretentious way, which was a bonus for me. All the background and family stuff, while giving context to why both characters were so difficult, was sort of generic and could have been swapped out with different BS, but you can’t deny the characters who were created from that morass—they were awesome. Naming your two protagonists January and Augustus might be considered a little over the top, but hey, they’re novelists and their parents must have known not to name them Tiffany and Jason, right?
So, while it wasn’t the quintessential beach read I was expecting, since I mostly read it on my Kindle under the covers on nights when I couldn’t sleep, I forgave it for that and enjoyed it thoroughly.
In between other more serious fare, I checked out the Kindle copies of the next three books in the Lucy Valentine psychic matchmaking series. I had enjoyed the first two, and thought I’d like to find out what happened to all the engaging characters (pardon the pun), most of all Lucy and her beau, Sean.
First was Absolutely, Positively, in which Lucy’s psychic ability to find things is finally unmasked to the public and she has to deal with the fallout, while discovering a new method to find “lost loves” with it that expands her father’s matchmaking business to a new department that includes Lucy plus private eyes Sean and his brother.
Then came Perfectly Matched, in which she hooks up with a bunch of other psychics to try to bring out more abilities and hone the one she has. Meanwhile, someone is targeting her boyfriend and his brother by setting fires at all the places where they grew up, and Lucy becomes increasingly desperate to discover why and, more important, who, before something bad happens. Lastly was Undeniably Yours, in which her policeman friend, Aiden, seeks her help finding a lost reporter, who also happens to be the mother of his (previously unknown) child.
I still liked the series after going through the next three books; the author is great at reminding you what has happened, adding to it by expanding knowledge and relationships in the next volume, and still drawing out the suspense in various pairings as well as various themes so you want to go on to the next.
What made me crazy was finding out that this isn’t the end of the series! If you picked up a book called Undeniably Yours with the couple in question in a clinch on the cover, wouldn’t you assume that this is the book in which the drawn-out relationship that started in book #1 would finally reach its HEA (happily ever after)? Well, I did, and I was mistaken! There are still things for the main couple (and other secondaries) to do, places to go, states to achieve (as in matrimony or whatever), and we leave them in the midst of a massive home remodeling project! So there will be more Lucy Valentine tales in my future after all. I don’t know whether I’m mad or glad.
I’m struggling a little with where to put these books in terms of genre. Is it magical realism if people have psychic abilities, or is it just paranormal fiction? Is it a romance if half the characters belong to a family of matchmakers and keep putting people together, or does it just have romantic elements? And is it relationship fiction, or is it a mystery cozy? There IS a mystery of some kind in each one…
Whatever. I enjoyed these books, and felt like each one improved upon the last, so that’s something.
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
If it’s September, it must be time for Louise Penny’s yearly addition to the chronicles of Armand Gamache, always a highly anticipated treat. I am happy to say that this year’s offering renewed my faith in her continued skill to deliver a nuanced, perplexing, utterly enjoyable mystery. (I wasn’t so happy with last year’s book.)
All the Devils Are Here disrupts tradition by setting the entire story in France, rather than centering it in the mysterious town of Three Pines (outside of Montreal) where the Gamaches currently live. Armand and Reine-Marie have traveled to Paris to be in at the birth of their daughter Annie’s and son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir’s second child. The Gamaches’ son, Daniel, and his wife and two daughters have lived in Paris for some time, but the Beauvoirs have only recently moved there, after Jean-Guy chose to leave the Sûreté du Québec for the private sector, an engineering firm in Paris, so this trip reunites everyone in the family.
Paris is also a home to Armand’s beloved godfather, Stephen Horowitz, who raised Armand from about age nine. Although his godfather remains hale and hearty, the man is 93 years old, so there may not be many more encounters in their future, and the occasion of the birth of Armand’s granddaughter is a particularly joyful one to share with Stephen, who serves in the capacity of great-grandfather.
Horowitz is a billionaire with diverse interests, and it becomes apparent to Armand that he is in Paris for more than just the birth. His cryptic statement (taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) that “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” reverberates in Armand’s mind throughout this trip. Stephen’s specialty in business has always been to root out corruption and bad dealings within and amongst companies and to reveal or thwart them somehow before they can do more harm but, contrary to his usual practice with Armand, he is silent about whatever issue is pending.
After a dinner en famille at their favorite restaurant, Armand and Reine-Marie watch in horror as a van barrels towards and runs down Stephen, who is crossing the street while looking at his telephone and pauses at the sight of the Eiffel Tower lighting up for the evening. But this was no accident; the hit-and-run was deliberate, and starts the story rolling as the family begins to ponder who would want to harm or kill Stephen and why. It soon becomes apparent that the Paris police, possibly at the very highest levels, are involved/not to be trusted, and Armand, his wife, and his two sons are soon playing a game of cat and mouse, hoping to avoid bad consequences while ferreting out the mystery Horowitz (now in a coma from which he is not expected to recover) has left behind for them to handle.
Paris is not a city about which I can be objective. It enthralls me whenever I am there, whether that’s literally (only twice and that briefly) or within the pages of a book. Penny makes the city one of the chief characters in the novel, especially as she weaves the histories of Horowitz and the various Gamache family members into its environs—Stephen’s presence in the Resistance, Armand’s marriage proposal to Reine-Marie, their current wanderings amongst its landmarks and personal favorite haunts. I thought, as so many others have said, that I would miss the critical element of Three Pines in this book, but I actually think it was brilliant to extract all of the characters from their regular venue—it made the story much more about their interactions and relationships when not constrained by the familiarity of background, especially set against the magnificence of Paris.
Armand’s family is front and center in this book, and we get to know some previously less prominent characters much better, including Reine-Marie and especially Daniel. There has been an estrangement between Armand and his son since Daniel’s adolescence, and this relationship is finally put under the microscope as the two men have to deal with the reality of mutual dependence to save them all from disaster. The scenes between them are among the most emotionally charged we have seen in this series, and that is saying something, considering Penny doesn’t shy away from interpersonal angst or joy.
The mystery, murder, and mayhem are likewise intricate, puzzling, exciting, and ultimately satisfying, involving as they do the past and present of all the characters and drawing in the movers and shakers of society and business and their contracted mercenaries. Penny really makes the reader stay on his or her toes along with the principals in her novels, in order to understand and solve this kind of puzzle.
I would like to say that I do still feel Penny has changed her narrative writing style for the worse, using as she does so many strung-together incomplete sentences punctuated by periods where there should be commas and semicolons: “The cracked and faded picture showed a young woman. Smiling. But her eyes were grave. And beside her was a young man. Arm across her shoulder.”
But…with a triumph this big under her belt, I’m not going to quibble overmuch. I can think of only one or two other entries in this series that I found so compelling. After my comparative disappointment with last year’s book, to say I am relieved is a big understatement.
As I have previously mentioned, I belong to a group on Facebook called “What Should I Read Next?” It takes a lot of patience to stay with the group, despite my love of delivering good readers’ advisory to its members, mostly because everyone in it seems to read the same 12 books and enthuse as if they are an original discovery about which no one can have heard. The adminstrator should change the title of the group to “The Nightingale and A Man Called Ove hang out Where the Crawdads Sing with Verity.” Another frustration with the group is that they ask the same questions over and over and over again, such as “Kindle or real book?” “I’m not enjoying this book, should I quit or keep going?” “How do I get my X-yo kid to read?” and a biggie, “What do you do with your books when you’re done reading them?”
This last came up for me this week. My answer to that question is,
If I like it well enough to re-read it, I will keep it. If it is part of a
series I like, I will keep it. If it is one of an oeuvre of a favorite author, I will probably keep it, unless I really dislike it. Everything else gets recycled—given to the library, placed in the local Little Free Library cabinet, or donated to Vietnam Veterans so they can sell the books and help the needy. Even with this strict list of criteria, I still own hundreds of books.
The subject also arose because I was distracted from my reading trajectory by a Facebook friend. I don’t know her well, but she’s an amazing artist whose product and output I admire. She commented on her page that she was re-reading a favorite series of books for the third time, and that she liked them as well and derived pleasure from reading them the third time as much as she had the first. For me, that’s a big deal. I don’t spend re-reading time lightly. I looked up the first book on Amazon, where it was on sale, so I bought it, and when I finished my slightly fluffy cozy mystery reads last week, instead of advancing on to Louise Penny and Jo Walton I detoured to Everything We Keep, by Kerry Lonsdale.
The book title is unfortunately not prophetic: This is not a keeper. (Sorry, Judy.) But before we get to that, what are the odds that, completely at random, I would pick up not one but two series in which psychics figured prominently, in a one-week period? Not to mention psychics with almost the same name?
In my last set of reads, Lucy Valentine had begun coming into her own as a psychic who could use her gift for finding inanimate objects in a creative way to aid her in finding people. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I started to read Everything We Keep. The story opens at a funeral for a young man named James, and the book is narrated by his erstwhile fiancée, Aimee. The wedding date had been set, the guests had been invited, the flowers had been ordered, and then, two months before, the groom had traveled on business to Mexico, gone missing while out on a fishing trip, and washed ashore weeks later. Not of a mind to be wasteful, the groom’s mother (a cold-hearted one, apparently) decided that the funeral would be held on the wedding day, since the church and flowers were already booked and paid for and the guests had made their travel plans.
After the funeral, as Aimee is attempting to be by herself for a few moments to recover her sorely shaken equilibrium, a young woman approaches her, introduces herself as “Lacey,” and claims that Aimee’s fiancé, James, is alive—he’s not in the coffin, he’s in Mexico, and he’s in danger, so don’t tell anyone, but he needs your help, Aimee! I paused to check the cover of the book for the author’s name, crazily wondering if this could be a later work by the same author who decided to put her psychic character undercover under a slightly different pseudonym in a drama instead of a comedy.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, because despite its dramatic beginnings, this book petered out into a snooze-fest that made Heather Webber’s light and entertaining Lucy Valentine series seem positively frenetic by comparison.
Let me ask you one question, although I think I know the answer: If you had grown up with a boy as his best friend, if this friendship had later turned to love, and if you couldn’t imagine your life without him, if he died just shy of your wedding day and then someone came to you to tell you he was, in fact, alive, and the whole thing was a hoax, wouldn’t you at least check it out? Wouldn’t you immediately (and that’s the key word) borrow, beg, or steal the airfare from someone and head south to see for yourself? Wouldn’t you call the psychic or go to her address and, instead of driving by and thinking “This is crazy” and aborting your trip, stop the car, go into the house, and confront her to discover what she knows or thinks she does? Wouldn’t you at the very least hire a private detective in the country where your lost love supposedly now resides and see if there is any truth to the story?
Nope. Aimee dithers. She worries at the thought, she wonders, she talks. For a YEAR. During that year, she opens a café with money given her by James’s brother as part of his estate, she meets a new guy, Ian (a photographer who takes pix of beautiful landscapes) and designs the interior colors of her café to complement her favorite one of his photos (a beach in Belize) with which he gifts her, and she begins falling in love with said photographer while refusing to do anything about it until she’s sure James is dead. But what does she do to become sure? Does she respond to two more contacts from the psychic? No. Does she listen to the private investigator whom she finally does hire, more than a year after the trail has gone cold, when he tells her there’s nothing and she should give it up? No. When she finally does decide that she needs to know, once and for all, there is no logical reason for why this urge has suddenly come upon her…she drops everything and buys a ticket to Mexico, and she takes Ian along with her. And while she is looking for any sign of James, Ian is having an epiphany in his art career in which he starts taking pictures of people instead of landscapes. No, I’m not kidding.
I won’t go any further because it would be all spoiler from here on out. But if you can get to this point in the book without throwing it across the room, you can find out what happens for yourself. There are two sequels. To say I don’t care would be quite the overstatement. Goodreads reviewer Molly delivered the best few lines I’ve read in a long time:
“If a Thomas Kinkade painting has ever made you tear up a little, this book is for you. Someone reading this is saying,
‘A Thomas Kinkade painting HAS made me tear up a little, you hipster asshole.’ I’ll own it.”
What can I say. I’m an art snob too. And Everything We Keep is going to the Vietnam Vets.