Saturday, November 5, 2016

All good things....

When I started writing a book blog what seems like a lifetime ago, I was a bookseller in real life. My intent had been to drum up a little business for the shop where I worked, develop a following, and maybe grow up to be one of those bloggers who break out and get recognized by publishers and writers.

The first hiccup in that journey happened when I wrote a lukewarm review for a book, to which the author and her fans took great exception. Out of deference to my employer, I took that blog entry down, and then decided that, if I couldn't offer an honest opinion there just wasn't any real point in publishing any reviews. I obliterated the entire blog and all its reviews, and as far as I can tell there is honestly no trace of any of it out there anywhere anymore.

The second act was an attempt to revive the blog, anonymously this time, with no identifiers regarding my location or my name or my employer. I clued in a small handful of people, but because I couldn't openly promote it, it went nowhere.

During that process I developed a profounder appreciation for the folks I know who are successful with book blogging. They put in hours and hours of time, mostly adhering to rigid schedules of publication of their reviews, joining challenges and actively interacting with other book bloggers, publishers, and writers across every form of social media.

I mean, I'm here to tell you -- they put the work in, people. I had to admit I just didn't have the focus or time or energy to do the same.

And then the bookstore closed. For the first time in nearly three decades, I became "just" another reader with opinions, and I could no longer pretend that The Surly Bookseller was anything more than an exercise in vanity. I own that. People who don't want other people to notice them and what they do don't publish things on the Internet and encourage people to read them. There is nothing in the world wrong with that, either. I love a good blog, and am grateful to those who write them.

But my heart just isn't in this anymore. I've begun writing very brief reviews on my Goodreads account. That's a one-stop place for me. I can keep a list of books I want to read, see what other folks are reading, and write a review or just settle for awarding stars when I don't have anything of interest to say about what I've read.

The thing I miss most, now that nearly a year has passed since the bookstore closed, is just being in the presence of other people who love books and reading. I miss needing to stay informed about what's out there, what's on the horizon. I stood in the children's department at Barnes & Noble in Hoover a few weeks ago and literally cried for missing being surrounded by new picture books and putting them in the hands of parents and grandparents so they could delight the children they love. My husband found me in the back corner, pretending to look at a rack of Star Wars socks for toddlers, having no idea that in that moment I had had to make peace with well and truly shutting the door to what had become a integral part of who I thought I was meant to be in this world.

I have ignored my other blog for a long, long time. It's time for me to get back to that one, as soon as I can figure out what the point of it should be. (Along with that whole vanity thing, of course.)

Truth is, my Mama wanted me to write. She believed in me, and I think I have avoided doing it because she isn't here to cheer me on. Maybe it's time to see if I can be my own cheerleader.

So ends this blog, then. I thank any of you out there who might have subscribed to it over the past years, or clicked through to read when I posted a link on Facebook or Twitter. Every comment you've ever made, every time you might have come into the bookstore because I'd piqued your interest and bought a book I recommended, you filled my cup. I will always remain grateful for that.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Redemption Road by John Hart

I'm taking a lesson from my last very tardy set of reviews. I'm no longer going to worry if a review doesn't feel fleshed out, or just doesn't seem long enough to justify a post. Getting back to basics when time doesn't allow for more is just what I'm going to have to do, or I'll keep putting it off like I did the reviews of the last three books I read. 

John Hart holds the distinction of being the only writer to be awarded the Edgar Award for Best Novel two years in a row. The Edgar (named for Edgar Allan Poe)  is given for mysteries, and those of us who enjoy a good mystery use the annual Edgar list of winners and nominees to find new folks to read. Nothing Hart has written to this point has been less than excellent, so when my son was in Portland I asked him to pick up a copy of his latest, Redemption Roadfrom the iconic Powell's Books because I had no doubt it would be every bit as good as every one of his earlier books. 

I'll cut to the chase. 

This was a hot mess of a book, and I don't mean that in a good way. One character in a book with an unbelievable back story can work; Hart gave almost every player in this novel one, even the minor characters who only make the briefest of appearances. The explanation for the crimes committed (young women bearing an uncanny resemblance to Liz, the woman at the heart of the story, murdered and displayed on the altar of a church) makes no sense whatsoever, and frankly, without going all spoilery, the murderer is telegraphed so early in the book I was actually stunned to find out that I'd been right about it. I don't even try to figure out the killer, so when I do I feel like the writer didn't do their job. 

This was just dreadful. Dreadful. Please -- read John Hart. Read every single one of his books. But for the love of Mr. Poe, skip Redemption Road. 

The King of Lies (Nominated for Edgar Award)

Down River (2008 Edgar Award Winner)

The Last Child (2010 Edgar Award Winner) 

Iron House

Thursday, July 21, 2016

One Post: Three Very Different Books

How ridiculous is this? 

Yes, I read more slowly these days than I used to, but this is nuts. These have all been in the finished stack for weeks, and it was my trying to find the right words for the final book in this column that kept me even more hung up. I think you'll understand when you get there. 

Y'all know I adore Ace Atkins, and although it's his Quinn Colson novels that are my favorites I have really enjoyed the Spenser Novels he has written with the blessing of the estate of the late Robert B. Parker. Slow Burn is, as the others have been, a quick read peppered with wonderful banter between characters who tend to be so well drawn you can see the pores on their faces. For my money, this one was a little more serious and had a little more depth than some of the others, and that is not a bad thing. It involves arson, and firefighters and  folks who are fans of both those things. While there was a certain level of predictability, when it's done as well at Atkins does it, who cares?  


Here's true confession time: I have been frustrated for months that my local library does not have this on their shelves, although most of the others are. There's nothing like loving the first novel in a series and not being able to get your hands on the second one! I actually stepped into the local Books-a-Million to buy a copy, and they didn't have it, either (and only a couple of the others). I couldn't find anyone there to help me, and left after working my way through what felt like dozens of displays with movie tie-in products and gee-gaws. So I did something I swore I'd never do:  I downloaded this onto an e-reader, and yes, I did so from the Evil Empire. 

Well, the first thing I have to say is that I learned that I really do not like anything about reading a book in this way save for one thing: not having to find a slip of paper and pen to make a note about the story while in progress. Typically I keep a little notebook and pen close at hand, or jot something down on whatever I'm using as a bookmark, but it does happen that those aren't always available. Will I e-read again? Maybe, if there seems to be a compelling reason to do so; but it will always be -- as it was this time -- a last resort. 

And the story itself? Just as delightful as expected!


We all remember where we were when the events at Columbine High School were unfolding in front of our eyes. We remember watching in real time law enforcement surrounding the school and the interminable wait for them to enter because there was so much confusion about what was going on in there. And then we got the horrific news that two teenage gunmen, wearing black trench coats, were responsible for the rampage and the nightmare within the walls of that school. 

Before the bodies of the dead were even removed, we were getting details about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and being told about conversations that had taken place between these murderers and their prey. We knew that our kids would never do such a thing because clearly both of these boys were utterly deranged and driven to mass homicide because they'd watched Natural Born Killers and Basketball Diaries too many times, and their parents were absentee and aloof, and, obviously, the boys must have been true loners with no friends, and the victims of bullying. 

It was only years after these events that the truth of all of it emerged, as detailed in Dan Cullen's fine book Columbine.  Most of what we thought we knew about the events of that day and the people whose names became household names was just wrong. Even worse, much of what we thought we knew for true was a construct of the media, who exchanged fact-finding for rumor-mongering and narrative-building in order to garner ratings. 

Sue Klebold has done a magnificently brave thing with her book: she has faced every ugly and hard truth about her son's devolution, and shared those with us. She hopes to throw open a national dialogue about mental illness (which she posits should be called "brain illness," in order to lesson the stigma) and suicide.. But further, she wants us to have a conversation about the role media continues to play in glorifying the violence by creating anti-heroes of perpetrators, something that feeds into the psyche of those on the edge who not only want to die, but who want to go out in a blaze of glory. 

There is a clear distinction between a person citing a reason for something and making an excuse for it, and Ms. Klebold keeps that distinction front and center. Her heart has always been, and still is, with the victims of her son's act. She is overwhelmed by those who have reached out to her with kindness, and holds no grudge against those who have met her with anger. She understands. And she grieves for the son she raised, whom she loved and enjoyed, and for whom she had every reason to dream big dreams. 

A Mother's Reckoning deserves your attention. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven - Chris Cleave

I'm crunched for time this morning, but I learned from the last purloined review that if I don't hurry and put fingers to keyboard and knock out a review it'll just hang over me like an albatross. Today's review, then, will be more concise than usual, but since I make the rules around here that's just the way it's going to be. There's not really a point to these reviews: they are, after all, just one old broad's opinion, but they serve as a good way for me to remember what I've read. You're just along for the ride, but I love you for it.


This was one of three novels that I asked my son to buy for me when he was out in Portland a few weeks back. I haven't BOUGHT a book since Capitol Book closed, you see. I'd been enjoying reading the stash I bought in a frenzy in the waning days, and checking books out of the library, but I knew there were a handful that I just wanted to own, and Everyone Brave is Forgiven was one of the three, because Chris Cleave's magnificent Little Bee is on my all-time-best-books-ever list. I was willing to take the risk with this purchase based solely on that.

Cleave's book is set in London in the early days of WWII, and tells the story of four fetching young adults being pressed into varying forms of service to their country. Each of them -- Mary, Hilda, Tom, and Alastair -- find their lives uprooted and inexorably changed. Cleave furrows no new rows in that, of course; it's standard fare for any novel set in wartime. Even the ways in which they find and lose and find themselves again (for the most part) aren't particularly fresh.

What I admire so about Cleave's writing is his vibrant dialog, the way in which you find yourself visualizing the slightest change in facial expressions of his characters in much the same way as you can visualize the set of your best friend's face when speaking to her over the telephone.

There was much in this novel that jolted me, primarily Cleave's use of racial epithets I'm accustomed to reading in books set in the American South during this period, but which I suppose I didn't realize were also used in Europe. These are not incidental: an important secondary character is a young black boy in whom Mary becomes emotionally invested, and who figures prominently throughout the novel.

I was only disappointed in this novel because it didn't quite measure up to the power of Little Bee, but even so, I find I can and will recommend it highly. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Where It Hurts -- Reed Farrel Coleman

Since I last posted a review (it feels like a century ago!) I've undergone a very significant life event: I have begun working again. I am now the Donor Services Manager for the Central Alabama Community Foundation, and while the work could not be more different from my nearly three decade gig as a bookseller, it is just as wholly satisfying.

When I was a bookseller, my job every day was to serve as a matchmaker between the written word and folks who needed something good to read. The CACF is also a matchmaker of a sort. Donor's gifts are pooled for long term investment income, and either by their direction, or through a grants and scholarships process, those monies are then distributed to non-profit entities in Central Alabama. My great-grandfather, Jefferson Davis Beauregard Lee Russell Crawford, known as The Reverend J. Russell "Jack" Crawford, once said, "Surely it takes grace, grit, gumption, and greenbacks to succeed." What a fortunate thing it is that each of those four elements come into play every day at the Foundation, and even more rewarding is that I get to play an admittedly small role in helping others make so many good things happen.

All those years working as a bookseller inculcated within me the desire to provide an experience to each customer that left them feeling appreciated and important. More than any other skill I have brought with me to this new place, this is the one that comes from my heart. Whether a donor has entrusted the Foundation with a sizable gift, or a contributor has added to a scholarship fund with the change they found in their sofa, I want them each to come away from any encounter we might have knowing that the Foundation and I have the utmost respect and gratitude for the role they play in making our shared communities the best that they can be.


My reading has slowed down a bit of late, which is not to say that I haven't been thoroughly doing it. The book I'm reviewing today is one that my former boss (and past, present, and future sister-in-law) strongly recommended I read..... as in dragged me into her house and put it in my hands and then pushed me out the door saying, "We'll talk when you finish it."  

At least that's the way I  remember it. 

Reed Farrel Coleman is by no stretch a newcomer, but I'd never read him. Shoot. I'll be honest here... I'd never even heard of him until he made an appearance at the 2015 Alabama Book Festival, and even then I wasn't drawn to his books. Not a clue why -- that's a me thing and not a him thing. I decided to dive in with Where It Hurts because it's the first in a new series, so Reed and I could both start out fresh with one another.

And boy, was this ever a good read. Gus Murphy is a courtesy van driver for a hotel. Gus had once been a happily married police officer, but that life was over for him in the aftermath of a profound personal tragedy. A phone call from one of the bad guys he'd brushed up against more than once in his former life, asking for his help in finding out who killed his son, draws Gus back into the orbit of people he'd never thought to work with (or against!) again. Murphy, who had lost his own son, is drawn to help against his better judgment.

While the plot plays out in great fashion, what I take away from Where It Hurts is that Coleman writes with tremendous heart and compassion. There were numerous times when I felt like I was sitting across a table, warming my hands around a cup of coffee, letting Gus just pour it all out.

I am so grateful to Cheryl for literally putting this one into my hands, and am looking forward to more Gus Murphy novels in the future.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

All Things Cease to Appear - Elizabeth Brundage

I ran into some happy distractions right after I started reading Elizabeth Brundage's novel, but this is definitely a case when I was glad that I was compelled to slow down my reading pace a bit. To have rushed through this magnificently odd book would have been a crime. 

Here's the lowdown: There's this couple who dies a tragic death in this certain house, leaving behind three orphan boys. Then there's a woman who, a few years later, dies violently in that same house, the only witness her three year old daughter. 

I chose this book believing it to be a mystery. But it is not that. 

Once I was fully engaged I began to believe I must be reading a ghost story. But it is not that. 

What it is is undefinable, and nearly impossible to explain, so I'm not going to waste my time or yours going on about it. 

Suffice it to say that not since I read Gillian Flynn's brilliantly evil Sharp Objects has a book affected me this way. What the novels share in common is a malevolence that is lyrical; that sense of being pulled, ever so gently, utterly willingly, into the maelstrom. 

I know this review doesn't give too many details. You don't need them. You don't want them. You just need to read this. 

Trust me. 

Published by Alfred A. Knopf
March 2016

Book borrowed from the 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Blackhouse by Peter May

This first in a series book has been on my To Read list for a long time. When I opened it up and saw a pronunciation guide I nearly ditched it. I get so bogged down in that stuff it makes me nuts, most of the time. There weren't that many names/words, though, so I dug in. 

While reading I had several run of the mill life distractions that didn't allow for much curling up and reading for extended periods of time. This is something that can be a real killer for me, especially in a crime novel. I read it in such a disjointed fashion, in fact, that there was a major element of the story in the beginning that I had completely forgotten about when it was mentioned again at the end. 

It's saying an awful lot, then, that it never crossed my mind to put it aside altogether. It is just far too compelling -- and I am not even talking about the mystery at the heart of it. 

The series is set in Scotland's Outer Hebrides on Lewis Island, which seems the perfect backdrop for bad things to happen. May's writing evokes a nearly tangible sense of isolation and describes an unforgiving landscape. When a man who has a long history as a bully is found murdered, it's clear there will be no shortage of suspects. Edinburgh Detective Fin Macleod, a native of Lewis Island, is dispatched to assist in the investigation. Macleod, recently back to work after a devastating personal tragedy, is on shaky emotional ground even before he is compelled to return to a place haunted by his difficult childhood and right back into the lives of people he had thought and hoped never to encounter again in his lifetime. 

May's Fin Macleod puts me in mind of Susan Hill's Simon Serailler in so many ways, and if this strong first in the series is indicative of what's to come, I am in for a treat as I work my way through this series. 

Book borrowed from the Coliseum Boulevard branch of the
Montgomery City-County Public Library

Published in hardcover by SilverOak
October 2012

Published in trade paperback by Quercus 
August 2014