Friday, October 4, 2013


Reading has been slow going for me this past week, for two reasons.

First, interruptions to my routine have been numerous, and my usual times for reading have been abbreviated. Nothing troublesome, it's just that some weeks are like that.

Second, I am in the midst of reading a bound manuscript of Greg Iles' novel, Natchez Burning. I find bound manuscripts uncomfortable to read. Literally. The binding is hard, unforgiving plastic, and the sweet spot I can generally achieve with my body curled on the sofa with a book laid open across my left forearm (to maximize gentle turns of the page with my right hand) is impossible to achieve. In the past, I have quit reading bound manuscripts for this reason. If reading is a chore, well, life's too short for that.

Short and sweet: Natchez Burning is, thus far, worth putting up with the challenges. Well worth it.

Friday, September 27, 2013

After Her -- Joyce Maynard

Let me save you some time. 

Rachel's father is a babe magnet. Her mother is a stick figure of a character. Rachel is late to puberty, and not popular.  She and a boy she doesn't even like engage in sexual play with one another awkwardly and often. She and her little sister like to play in the woods a lot, and generally just wait around for their father to show up so they can engage in some more hero worship while their mother dusts furniture or something. A serial killer is at work in their community, and her father is the detective who is very good at everything his job entails except catching serial killers.

That's what we learn, over and over, for about the first 200 pages.... at which point the story gets some wheels... right before it begins to spin them through a series of ridiculous red herrings, until it reaches its unbearably unsatisfying conclusion.

Not that I didn't like it or anything. 

Surly's Bottom Line:  You know a novel is tedious when you begin to wish the serial killer would shut the narrator up.

Publisher: William Morrow & Company
I read the ARC.
Publish Date: August 2013

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Maid's Version -- Daniel Woodrell

Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident?     -- from the dust jacket

In my estimation, Daniel Woodrell is one of the fiercest writers in contemporary American literature. He never uses three words when one well-chosen one will do, and he never gives his reader a chance to avert their eyes. If you read Woodrell, you're going to walk into some mighty dark places in the human experience. That's a guarantee. I have read two other novels by him, Give Us a Kiss and Winter's Bone, both of which were devastating in the best ways possible.

The Maid's Version, despite its interesting premise and exquisite writing, left me flat, even as it left me in awe of Woodrell's ability to capture a moment in words. Nobody writing today is better than he at descriptive passages that beg to be read aloud. The opening scene, in which Alma is brushing her long, long hair in front of her grandson, was so magnificent that I read it several times through. When he described the color of that hair as "...mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page" I ached with the memory of my mother's hair at the end of her life. 

I'm not sure what it was that kept me so disconnected from the story. Woodrell slips like mercury between events from the past and the book's present, a device that might have kept me from sinking all the way in for some reason. 

Surly's Bottom Line:  If you have not yet read Daniel Woodrell, go fix that -- but with a different book. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty

After my father and most of his friends retired from their important careers 15 years or so ago, they found themselves interested in The Soaps, and for reasons that remain unclear to me to this day, The Bold and the Beautiful was the one onto which they glommed. It struck me as high irony, given that they had spent most of their married lives teasing their wives for being chained to "their programs."

When I was a little girl I watched my mother and grandmother watch Days of Our Lives and Another World, and when I was a young mother back in my day, I was so obviously hooked on General Hospital that I was falsely accused of naming my firstborn after one of the primary characters. I come from a long line of addictive personalities, to be sure. Even so, I hadn't watched a soap opera since I went to work in 1983, and I never looked back.

A couple of years ago I took a leave of absence from work and spent every weekday for 6 weeks sitting with my father as his daytime caregiver. He didn't require much; just someone to help him perambulate, to fix and serve his meals, and generally just to be a companion to him. This meant I ate what and when he ate, adjusted my daily schedule to his, and watched the shows he enjoyed.  The Bold and the Beautiful was the one program around which I found it necessary to schedule meals and appointments and visitors who wished to stop by.

So, in the name of all that is good and decent and thoughtful, how did I find myself so addicted to The Bold and the Beautiful after just 6 weeks?  I'm two years out from being compelled to watch with my father, but my DVR is set now for 11:30 Monday-Fridays. This might not be my deepest, darkest secret, but it will have to do. We don't know each other well enough for you to know the juiciest ones yet, bless your heart.

The writing on this soap is godawful. When you condense it by judicious use of fast-forwarding there are only about 10 minutes of plot in a full week's worth of episodes. The rest of the time is filled with meaningful glances, heaving bosoms, and actors having to recite lines that are nothing like the way we talk in real life. (Seriously. How often does a woman have to refer to "my sister Hope" when she's talking to her other sister, Donna?). There is nothing redeeming about it, nothing that adds a whit to my understanding of the human condition.

And yet here I sit each afternoon after work, noshing on an afternoon snack to tide me over until supper, holding that infernal remote control in my hand, blinds pulled to prevent the neighbors from discovering my new vice, watching that day's installment before anything else gets done around here, proof that I would make a perfect lab rat for research into brainwashing.

I chose The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty to read when I saw a sales rep's wife with it under her arm during one of his sales calls to the shop. She always tags along with him on these road trips and just makes herself at home in the shop. I like her and their dog, who also accompanies them everywhere. I asked her about this one, and she said, "I'm hooked in spite of all my better judgement." Sort of her dirty little secret, it sounded like.

Thinking that I'd been on a run of books that I liked so much I was having a hard time staying surly, I brought it home, fully expecting that it would become the first book I'd read since I've resurrected this blog that would hit the Unfinished Hall of Shame The first bit of it was so full of forced, preciously funny lines that I was almost getting excited by the prospect, in fact.

But then the husband's secret is discovered, and I started putting off things like laundry and grocery buying and cooking to get back to it. It's what I will forever hereafter call the BatB effect. (Oh, God. Just shoot me now, I even know the official abbreviation for that accursed soap.) Three story lines that, for a time, run parallel to one another converge in clever ways, none of which feel forced, and all of which add new layers to the husband's secret. Aside from the shaky start, there is an unfortunate epilogue that goes off on a what-if thing that detracted from what was otherwise a perfectly satisfying ending to what had become a very entertaining read.

I have long held that there are great writers and there are great storytellers. Sometimes, but rarely, they are even the same person. Moriarty isn't a great writer, but she is a very fine storyteller. There is room on our shelves for both.

My favorite line: "Perhaps nothing was ever 'meant to be.' There was just life, and right now, and doing your best. Being a bit 'bendy.'"

Surly's Bottom Line: This is exactly the sort of book I think of when a woman asks me for a great beach/mountain/airplane read that still has something of substance to it. Pick up a half-gallon of Rocky Road Ice Cream on your way home from the bookstore as a go-with.



I  finally got around to reading Susan Hill's most recent Simon Serailler mystery, A Question of Identity which I put off during an unusually long dry spell when nothing was floating my boat. I didn't even want to start it in that mood. I'm not sure there's a writer out there today who has raised her own bar with every book in her own series as well as Hill, and hands down, this was the best of the best. Smart, smart, smart. I'm not doing a more fleshed out review because if you've read these books, you don't need my guidance, and if you have not read them I don't want you to waste a minute reading me when you could be reading her.

You must, however, start at the beginning with The Various Haunts of Men, and read them in order. If you don't, we can never have a civil conversation.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Letters from Skye - Jessica Brockmole

When I was in college and had to read Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, it put me off epistolary novels for 30 years, at least. For those lucky enough not to have ever heard of it, Pamela was the Fifty Shades of Gray of its time, a runaway bestseller that chronicled the gradual consensual descent into moral degradation of its narrator, although at the time I read it I remember thinking, "Oh, c'mon, Pamela, get on with it." Some critics hail it as the first truly contemporary English novel. Most of the rest of us consider it one of the worst.

It wasn't until many, many years later that I elected to read another epistolary novel, but this time I got much luckier and discovered a gem that has remained on my Favorite Novels Ever list:  Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger. Please read this if you haven't. 

I chose Letters from Skye to read for two reasons. First, I'd been on a steady diet of "dark" novels, which are impossible to recommend to some of my kinder, gentler customers who persist in showing up wanting to buy books, lord love 'em.  Second, I have to get off the death and mayhem fiction bus from time to time and read something in which people don't wind up in pieces. 

Jessica Brockmole's Letters from Skye is the story of the relationship in letters that begins just before America's entry into World War I when David Graham, a brash young American, sends a fan letter to reclusive Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn. One piece of their correspondence is discovered by Elspeth's daughter Margaret in the early years of World War II, a discovery that causes Elspeth to disappear from her home. The single letter Margaret holds is the only clue she has to where her mother might be. Her search is limned out in the letters she and the Royal Air Force pilot she loves send to each other. 

Letters from Skye doesn't break any new ground. It's spare, and sentimental, and predictable at nearly every turn. It was also quite, quite lovely, and I am, once again, the darling of the kinder-gentler crowd. 

Surly's Bottom Line: When one has a craving for a Krispy Kreme doughnut, one doesn't stop to analyze nutritional data, one just heads for the nearest location, praying for the flashing light that indicates a fresh batch of them is still warm from the oven. A steady diet of them would be dreadful, but a well-timed indulgence is a transcendent experience. Letters from Skye was a well-timed indulgence of the literary variety. Treat yourself. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Light Between Oceans -- M.L. Stedman

Every Tuesday, unless I forget or have something better to do, I post a review I originally posted on Goodreads in the near and not so near past.  Some of the books may no longer be in print, but I hope that most of the really good ones have survived. I'll do my best to let you know if one that is out of circulation is worth the time to find, though. I promise. Unless I forget.

This review of M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans originally appeared in August of 2012. Some editing has been done for this venue. 

When you're a bookseller in a small shop you develop, over time, a clientele that is loyal to you specifically, because your tastes click and they have come to trust your judgement.  By this criteria, Ms. W was most assuredly not one of my customers. Nothing I have recommended to her these past 25 years or so has suited her, and she has always taken great delight in letting me know. My co-worker is better with her, and it does not bruise my ego when Ms. W asks for her help, even if she has to wait a bit on her to finish up with another customer or another task.

It just so happened one day that I was at lunch when  Ms. W came in. My co-worker handed this book to her, based on what she'd heard me say about it to others, and Ms. W took it not realizing it wasn't really my co-worker's personal recommendation.  

About a week later, Ms. W came in the store, threw her elbow up on the counter, and said to my counterpart, "That book? That lighthouse thing?"  (At this point the hair on the back of my neck went up -- because I was itching to come to its defense when she slammed it.) "Well," she continued, "that might be the best book I've read in a long time."

I about fell off my stool. She did not know that it was one of "my" books, and when I chimed in -- I couldn't help it -- I think she was shocked, too. After all these years.... good lord gravy... I should probably just have retired right then and there. 

You have surmised, I am quite certain, that I liked this book, and the reason I'm telling this story and reposting this review is that I really am an apostle for it, and if you haven't read it yet, you must. You really must. 

The Light Between Oceans, set just after World War I,  is the story of a young couple who make their home on a lighthouse island, secluded from the rest of the world save for occasional trips to or visits by others from the mainland. Their attempts at having a child have all ended in heartbreak, and when a boat comes ashore their island with a man's dead body and a very much alive infant in it, they take the child in as their own. Things get complicated when, years later, a trip to the mainland yields clear clues as to the true identity of the child. 

I don't know when I've read a novel so full of characters who are all trying to do the right thing in all the wrong ways... or doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and what the novel has to say about how strong a marriage can be even with its broken places intact is profound. 

There was a scene at the end of the book that was so emotionally perfect I could scarcely bear to turn the page, and which, for me, provided catharsis owing to something that had happened not long before in my own life. (I find that even now I cannot write about it, but it was so powerful that I still feel it's impact in near full force a year later.) 

This novel wasn't perfect. There were a couple of plot developments that felt unnecessarily rushed and contrived, and I can't help but wonder if that wasn't an editor's misguided influence. That said, when I can think about a book a year after I've read it and still have an emotional reaction to it........ well. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

Several years ago I worked in a volunteer capacity with incarcerated women, and got to know more than a few whose crime was murder. Most of them had dispensed with men they claimed were abusive, some handful were party to drug deals gone sour, but there was one woman, I'll call her J, who stood convicted of one of the most depraved, cruel, and meaningless murders ever committed in this country. I have never feared meeting a person as much as I feared meeting J, but over the course of a few months I got to know her as a charming, warm, and thoughtful person.  Her sentence had been commuted from death to life without parole only weeks before we met, and I was struck by her humility at the opportunity she'd been given to live.

I was so unnerved by the dissonance I felt in her presence -- brutal murderess? misunderstood wretch? -- that I found the need to speak to a friend in the criminal justice system about her. I will never forget what I was told: J is a chameleon, and she can and does adapt instantly to the environment in which she finds herself, or the people with whom she finds herself engaged, and that makes her one of the most dangerous inmates in the system. Many of the facts of J's life tug at the one heart string I have left, but my God, what that woman did.......

I know you didn't come here for another chapter in my story, but the time I spent with J seems to draw me to books like this one. I'm still trying to put that whole encounter in the appropriate filing cabinet in my brain.

Hannah Kent

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.   ~~ Little Brown and Company

The true crime from which Hannah Kent drew inspiration for her novel Burial Rites took place in Iceland in the very late 1820's, a remove that allows her to use all the actual names, places, and historic records as material for the yarn she spins. Kent didn't set out to write a non-fiction piece about the life and crimes of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. The internal dialogues, conversations, and emotional lives of the characters never feel contrived, though, and as easy as it would have been for Ms. Kent to fictionally exonerate Agnes, she takes a much more authentic and satisfying road. There is an air of moral ambiguity about the nature of Agnes' crime that lingers long after the reader has closed the book for the last time and moved on.

Further, the descriptions of daily life in the late 1800's version of Iceland created an enveloping atmosphere: even as I sat in my summer-warm house I often felt a need to draw a blanket over my exquisitely pedicured toes, and I discovered a new fondness for my toilet, even though the handle always needs jiggling. Seriously, before I picked up this book that was the biggest irritant in my life. Now, I'm more like, "If I don't have to carry it out in a bucket, I'm good."

Agnes' striking narrative, interwoven randomly throughout the novel, is sheer poetry. I plan to return to the book in the future and read nothing but her voice, because I believe it would stand quite well on its own.

Admittedly, my experience with J colored how I processed much of Burial Rites. I understood without any trouble the way others became sympathetic to Agnes. She even deserved sympathy, but sympathy and exoneration are two separate things, and my most expensive hat is off to Ms. Kent for successfully suspending thoughtful readers between truth and fiction, right and wrong, and justice and unfairness.

My bottom line:  Wholly engrossing.    

Special note: Unless you are a linguist, Ms. Kent's pronunciation guide in the front will drive you insane. It's not that it's not good, but the distraction of flipping back and forth threatened to break the spell, so I stopped. I did, however, find her explanation of the Icelandic surnames interesting and helpful.

Release date: September 10, 2013

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

When She Woke - Hillary Jordan

Every Tuesday, unless I forget or have something better to do, I post a review I originally posted on Goodreads in the near and not so near past.  Some of the books may no longer be in print, but I hope that most of the really good ones have survived. I'll do my best to let you know if one that is out of circulation is worth the time to find, though. I promise. Unless I forget.

This review of Hillary Jordan's When She Woke originally appeared in August of 2011.

I had been eagerly awaiting a new novel from Hillary Jordan since the day I finished reading her beautifu novel Mudbound. When I read the blurb on the ARC of this new one it was clear she was going to take me in a whole different direction. That was fine. I don't think a novelist has to keep revisiting the same places or emotional landscapes over and over again. If they are good, I'm willing to follow them nearly anywhere.

Unfortunately, When She Woke is utterly devoid of any of the poetry, imagery, heart, or soul of Mudbound. This mash-up of The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid's Tale is a didactic mess. Mostly one-dimensional characters, predictable plot developments, and a general phone-it-in pall over the last half of the novel make this one utterly impossible for me to recommend. 

I usually stop reading any book that isn't grabbing me, but this one did initially, and in a big way. I would have quit reading it mid-journey had it come from anyone other than Ms. Jordan, but I was so sure that her voice would come through I kept plugging away and waiting for her to show up.

She might as well have been Godot. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Realm of Last Chances - Steve Yarbrough

A few months ago in a rather ambitious redecorating fit, I moved our red sofa to the place where our brown sofa had been, and vice versa. Somewhere in this process I couldn't help but notice there was a whole lot of stuff under and behind where they had both been. You know how that goes... "THERE'S that pen I loved and couldn't find and accused my husband of swiping!" or "I had no idea a banana peel would become petrified."

For a fleeting moment I thought that this project had been a lousy idea, not because it wasn't sort of necessary to swap the sofas out, but because now that I saw the mess that moving them exposed I would have to do something about it.

Let me make this clear: I was not designed to do something about the crap under a sofa, but because I prefer to stay just barely this side of qualifying for an episode of Hoarders I bucked my nature and just did it. I admit I felt better for it, but for pity's sake don't think I'm going to make this a habit.

I was reminded of that reading Steve Yarbrough's latest novel, because the marriage his characters have had has always worked just fine.... until they are forced to move to an unfamiliar place, literally and figuratively, and in this new place, compelled to confront all the cobwebs they never noticed before.


Cal and Kristen, the couple into whose marriage we are invited in The Realm of Last Chances, have had to relocate from California to Boston after Kristen loses her job, a change that exposes things about their relationship that long years of living in the familiar had allowed them to overlook.

Yarbrough's greatest gift as a writer is his economy of language. He bores full in to the marrow of his characters, and it is clear that he trusts his readers to get it when big things are happening in the the most insignificant moments, and to connect with them based on the universality of human experience.

And if you have ever looked hard at the person with whom you've shared a life for decades and wondered, WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING AND WHY AM I STILL THINKING IT, you will find something in Cal and Kristen's story that will resonate in a deep and very true way. I suspect this novel will start many a discussion betwixt married folks, and maybe that won't be a bad thing.

For my money, Steve Yarbrough is one of contemporary literature's most overlooked treasures, and I'm on a mission to fix that. 

Surly's bottom line: The Realm of Lost Chances is a mighty fine study of the character of a marriage, told with nuance and tenderness. If Yarbrough's book is hard to find where you are, make some noise and get it there.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Turning Back Time -- The Kitchen Daughter

Turning Back Time (appearing every Tuesday unless I forget or have something better to do) makes use of some of my old Goodreads reviews, as I migrate away from that site. Some of the books may no longer be in print, but I hope that most of the really good ones have survived. I'll do my best to let you know if one that is out of circulation is worth the time to find, though. I promise. Unless I forget.

I posted this review on Goodreads in April of 2011.

hardcover edition

The Kitchen Daughter
Jael McHenry

Author Jael McHenry has written the sort of novel I just crave when the world feels too big. The narrator, Ginny, lives with Asperger's syndrome. She is finely attuned to all the small things that assault our senses even in the gentlest ways, and it becomes the reader's privilege to experience the textures and aromas that Ginny does, in the ways she does. By the end of this deeply affecting novel, Ginny's disability seems more gift than burden. A delight in every sense, and most highly recommended. 

The jacket cover above is from the hardcover edition, which I thought was just perfect. The cover for the paperback, while appealing in that "oh, look, a little kid in feetie pajamas is making a mess" way, sacrificed art and subtlety in order to, I suppose, look more commercial.  But you tell me -- which cover do YOU like best? Which one would make you pick it up if you didn't know anything about the book? 

paperback edition

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Colour of Milk -- Nell Leyshon

This novella caught my attention months ago, at which time I brought it home and promptly misplaced it. It wasn't hard to do since the thing is less than 200 pages thick, and then I kind of forgot I was even supposed to be looking for it, but BINGO, I picked up a stack of magazines one afternoon on one of my declutter rampages, and there it was.

And then I couldn't remember why I wanted to read it, so I put it aside, albeit in a more conspicuous place than under back issues of Real Simple magazine. Ha! Real Simple. That title used to be descriptive of the recipes and DIY projects inside, but now only makes me think the title is meant to mock me.

Then it happened that I finished two really, really good books in pretty close succession and I didn't have anything else handy to read, and I figured, hey -- even if it's horrible, it's less than 200 pages, so there you are.

Even so, I have a list of Surly rules about reading and here is one of them: I never make myself finish a book if I am just not into it for the same reason I don't make myself eat the whole piece of candy from a box of chocolates, if after I bite into it I discover that there is coconut in the middle. I mean, c'mon. Why do they do that?  I know there are coconut lovers out there. Y'all just need your own boxes of chocolate candies.

 The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk, set in 1830-1831, is narrated by 15-year old English farm girl Mary, who has been sent by her brutish father to live with the vicar and his ailing wife. She is the youngest of four daughters, and lame, possessed of disarming honesty and a simple (but never stupid) view of the world. From the very beginning we understand that there is urgency in Mary's need to get this journal written and shared. It bears the hallmarks of one who is newly literate, but I found that it didn't take long to fall under her spell, regardless of the stilted language and spotty punctuation. Although the denouement was somewhat predictable it had Your Surly Bookseller's heart racing, and left me humbled by the power of Mary's story and Leyshon's writing.

My bottom line: Stunning.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Turning Back Time -- Never Tell a Lie

Turning Back Time makes use of some of my old Goodreads reviews of books that may or may not still be available. It will appear every Tuesday, excepting those Tuesdays when I have something better to do.

I posted this review in November of 2008.  I gave it one star, but I recall that's because I was having a glass of wine and a piece of fine chocolate at the time, and everything improves under those conditions.  

Never Tell a LieYou know how, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, you can find yourself trapped in a Lifetime Movie marathon vortex? There's always a woman in peril, and the story always ends with police cars, parked askew in the middle of an otherwise ordinary suburban street, their lights flashing as the camera pans back and the closing credits roll? You sit on the sofa and can't figure out why you are watching horrible actors reading dreadful scripts, but you can't tear yourself away. 

Reading this book was sort of like that. At some point I was only reading every third paragraph because it was so awful, but I still wanted to find out how the book ended.

Plot summary: Happy Couple who Has It All has a yard sale at which a creepy woman appears who was their high-school classmate -- the one nobody liked and everybody thought was weird. Yea, well, obviously they had her pegged correctly back then.

She disappears, is presumed murdered, and the Husband Who Had It All is accused of her murder by the Dunderhead Police Department, mainly, I think, because all other possible suspects knew how horrible this was going to be and they jumped into other novels.

Wife Who Had It All is very pregnant, by the way, and of course while her husband languishes in a holding cell, things come to an expected and idiotic head. Never Tell a Lie by Hallie Ephron (bless her heart) is rife with laughably improbable plot twists, and succeeded only in earning the next few books I read extra stars just for not being this one. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Broken Places - Ace Atkins

Let me get this out of the way first.

If you have never heard of Ace Atkins you are living a sad, sad literary life, so you should go fix that. I'm going all full disclosure on you here and telling you that I have had the opportunity to spend time with him, and putting aside the fact that the man is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as hell even when he's helping his toddler-sized son with a sippy cup, he's one of the nicest people writing books about bad people ever.

What you notice about Ace first -- well, okay, second -- is that when he talks to you he is totally into the conversation, even if you are only able to speak in single syllable, two word sentences for a few minutes while your brain adjusts to the realization that a Man Who Looks Like That is talking to a Woman Who Looks Like You and paying attention.

It is this gift of his, this ability to be fully invested and interested in people, that gives the characters in his books authentic appeal. His Quinn Colson novels, of which The Broken Places is the third, reflect his intimate knowledge of backwoods Mississippi and the people who live and love and, occasionally, inflict grievous injury upon one another there.

You do not need to have read The Ranger or The Lost Ones before you read this one, but seriously DO IT ANYWAY, because they will all blow you away, and you do not want me to think that you are one of those readers who comes late to the party and then gushes all over the place like you have discovered these characters because you and I will know the truth, won't we?

Here's the blah-blah-blah about The Broken Places: Quinn Colson, sheriff of Tibbehah County (wherein his hometown Jericho, Mississippi sits) is upset that his troubled sister is all wrapped up in a relationship with a recently released convict cum evangelical pastor, especially when it becomes clear that prison life isn't done with him yet. He's also still really invested in keeping his personal love life all screwed up. And then there's a catastrophic storm brewing that he can't do a blessed thing about, but lordamercy, will you ever know exactly what a tornado sounds and feels and smells like after you've read this book.

Ace doesn't take the easy way out with his characters. Colson and Stagg (his natural born enemy) are archetypes, make no mistake, but Atkins puts flesh and blood on them. Colson is the kind of guy women want to sleep with and men want to go hunting with.

Surly's bottom line: The Quinn Colson series started out strong, and has gotten better with each installment. If  the next book is any better than this one I do not know how I will stand it.

This is Ace. You can thank me now.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Turning Back Time - Trespassers Will Be Baptized

One of my favorite moments as a bookseller happens when a person comes in the shop and explains that for various and sundry reasons they haven't been reading for a long time, but want to start again. This gives me a chance to go back to some old favorites, and it shores up the truth of something I say all the time: any book you have not read is a new book.  

In an effort to migrate my old reviews from Goodreads to this forum, on Tuesdays I will be dragging them from there to here, in a regular feature called "Turning Back Time."  

Trespassers Will Be Baptized: The Unordained Memoir of a Preacher's Daughter
Elizabeth Emerson Hancock

Trespassers Will Be Baptized by Elizabeth Emerson Hancock
Funny and heartwarming memoir about growing up the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher in Eastern Kentucky. I love it when preconceived notions about what preachers are like at home get smashed -- in a good way. How can you not love a father who hums Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to his daughter when she's seriously ill?

I read this one in June 2008. It's a real gem. Sadly, it is no longer in print, but if you happen upon it in a second-hand store sometime, separate yourself from a couple bucks and pick it up if you could use a pick-me-up.


I plan to add a second regular feature here in Surlyville that will require some *gasp* reader participation. Have you ever wanted to ask your favorite Bricks and Mortar bookseller a question about the industry, how they really feel when you ask that stupid question, or what they really thought about Fifty Shades of Gray? Do you lie awake at night wondering how The Surly Bookseller really feels when a customer launches into a praise fest for their Kindle? Now's your chance to find out.    Submit your question to me via email: and I'll answer it here in this forum.  Nothing is off limits, so fire away. 

Please do not leave questions in the comments section. You do not want to start off on the wrong foot with me.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Son -- Philipp Meyer

Trust me.

This western epic will make you stop pining for McMurty's heretofore unrivaled Lonesome Dove.

Philipp Meyer makes outstanding use of a multi-voice narrative to give this big, chewy story its heart, and the three voices he used (Eli McCullough, his son Peter, and his granddaughter Jeanne Ann) enable the reader to travel back and forth across a wide swath of Texas history without getting bogged down. From the Comanche raid that resulted in the kidnapping of Eli when he was 13 years old to Jeanne Anne's astute running of the considerable family oil holdings, I was utterly swept up, time and time again. For Pete's sake, I even sat on a stool in the kitchen one night, stirring pasta sauce with one hand while holding this book in the other just so I could finish a particularly heart-thumping chapter.

Some folks may find some of the graphic descriptions of violence, including scalpings and the slaughter of buffalo for sustenance, off-putting, and it might be that the episodes of rather earthy sex in a time before we went and got all prissy could offend, but I figure a writer who wishes to present a place and time authentically has license to abandon modern sensibilities.

Bottom line: Fans of Lonesome Dove, Giant, and/or The Road have new reason to be excited about the current state of the western novel.  

Once again, with feeling.

Here’s the short version:

I had a book/bookselling blog once. Had to take it down, thanks to a writer who took exception to a lukewarm review and made life difficult for me at work.*  I migrated to Goodreads, but Amazon has taken it over, and I’d just as soon not help them sell books. My reviews have been known to cause stampedes, you understand.

But… by popular request (thank you, Q) I am resurrecting the Surly Bookseller and remaining quasi-anonymous. I won’t publicize this place, but if you find it useful, I hope you will spread the word.

I am not a book snob. I like books, that’s all. I have loved some pretty awful ones (Bridges of Madison County) and couldn’t finish some that the critics raved about because they were so damned earnest. You’ll know when I don’t like a book, but I hope any writers who stumble on this space will keep in mind that my sphere of influence is only a large one when I’m having a Walter Mitty kind of day.

This won’t just be reviews, though. I intend to entertain you occasionally with a true story from the world of bookselling. It is mostly a whole lot of fun, and my customers keep it interesting.

What you won’t find here, by the way, are longwinded recaps of a book’s plot. They pay people big bucks to write those, and if what I say about a book doesn’t tell you everything you want to know, I hope it will interest you enough to do some research at your favorite bookseller. You know, the ones made of bricks and mortar, who contribute to the tax base in your city.

So, we ready to do this — again?

* Coincidentally, this author, who had been the darling of the publishing world, saw their sales for the book I lukewarmly reviewed plummet, and while they have continued to publish, they have never enjoyed sales to rival their books about which I had been enthusiastic. Just a footnote.