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

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dimestore by Lee Smith

Where in the world have I been???

I don't expect that you've asked that, but I just realized that I'd slipped up and failed to publish my review of Lee Smith's new memoir, Dimestore.

It would be horrible if you wrote off my delinquency to lack of enthusiasm; it has been more a matter of my having been so delighted by it that trying to review it seemed like trying to review a charming visit with an old friend. 

I don't know Ms. Smith; I'd be stretching the truth even to say that I'd been one of her particularly avid fans. My sister-in-law strongly suggested I read this one, though, and passed it along to me as she obviously knew I'd eat it with a spoon. 

When Ms. Smith begins talking about the formative role movies played in her development as a writer I knew I was not in the hands of a literary snob. 

Was anything ever as scary 
as Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Or as sad as Imitation of Life?

Well, those two films are on my lifetime Top Ten list, so I sensed that now Lee and I understood each other. I mean, even now, if I need a cathartic cry I queue up Imitation of Life (the version starring Juanita Moore, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, James Gavin, and Susan Kohner, featuring Mahalia Jackson as the funeral soloist), and I begin weepin' and wailin' the minute the opening credits begin. 

This is the sort of memoir I'd write if (a) I were a writer, or (b) had anything interesting to say. This is a life told in snapshots and snatches of memories of people and places and episodes. It's like all the best Southern conversations, eschewing linear structure, relying instead on jumping off places. Each chapter is wholly satisfying, and each shares not only some insight into what made Ms. Smith a writer but offers the tantalizing possibility that the reader might have what it takes, too, if we will just own our stories. 

What a gift. Please do yourself a favor and read this one. 

Algonquin Books
Publication Date: March 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (and other stuff)

In 1992 I traveled to New Orleans to attend the Midsouth Booksellers' convention, courtesy of my bosses at the bookstore. There were two authors scheduled to appear there in whom I was particularly interested: Sharyn McCrumb, who had established herself as Southern Literary Mystery Queen with her Nora Bonesteel mysteries set in Appalachia, and first-time novelist Ann Patchett. I had read her debut novel, Patron Saint of Liars, and was bowled over by her talent. 

I rushed out of a session about children's literature so I wouldn't miss meeting either of these women, but proximity led me to Ms. Patchett first. I happened to be the very first bookseller at the convention she'd met who'd read and loved her book, and I think she was as excited to talk with me as I was to talk with her. 

Her subsequent novels bore out the promise of that first one. Whatever reservations the reader might bring her characters or stories is overcome by novel's end, because of the power she has to elicit that moment of recognition -- that we are all bound by our humanity, even when the binding might be thin as filament. 

So you might well be asking yourself: Bel Canto came out in 2001, and it took you 14 years to get around to reading it?   And the painfully short answer is yes.

I did try to read it in 2001. The advance copy had come to the store and I pounced on it. After work I headed out to pick up a child from school. He was at a rehearsal or practice or detention  or something, so I knew I'd have some time in the parking lot to wait. I opened up Bel Canto and for reasons I now have a profound inability to recall, I just flat did not like it. When my son joined me I chucked the book in the floorboard. I didn't bring it in the house when I got home, and then, I don't know -- maybe it rained and a passenger plunked their wet feet on it, or somebody spilled something on it, but it was doomed. 

National buzz--the buzz Patchett deserved beginning with that first novel--began to build, and soon Bel Canto had taken the book world by storm. My heart became hardened to it because I was a little ticked off that this woman for whom I'd been a passionate advocate for so many years was finally enjoying her success with a book I did not like. Bel Canto, for me, was like trying cold asparagus from a can one time and forever after refusing to try asparagus, no matter how it's prepared. Not. Going. To. Do. It. 

A few weeks back I visited the library and was browsing the shelves, and horrors of horrors, ran across Bel Canto OUT OF PLACE on the shelf. Not just a little bit. A LOT. This, dear reader, I took as a sign. I checked it out. And this time I actually, you know, read it. 

And I loved it, and I have no idea who that woman was who sat in that parking lot and went pffpth but she was wrong. 

Whatever your reason has been for passing on this one, don't wait a minute longer. You'll lose no points for being tardy, I promise. 

Note: Just so you know, I did read all the novels after this one the minute they came out, and was just as dotty for them as I'd hoped to be. In order of publication, her books are Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician's Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder. Read them all. Really. I mean it. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Quick Reads Edition

I took a couple of days off last week for a trip with my granddaughter, and it threw me so utterly off my schedule for everything. Of course, it's odd to say I took days off at all, considering that in my present circumstances, I don't exactly have on days. I suppose that's the same sort of thing as designating Monday - Thursday evenings as school nights, and using that as a reason not to go to the movies on them, when you've not had a school aged child in your home more than a decade. What I did manage to do, though, was get a little ahead in my reading, so this week's review post gives you a double dose. 

The two books I'm reviewing in this one space could not be any more different, which is the way I like to stagger my book choices. 

Just before finishing Karin Slaughter's brutal novel Pretty Girls, I headed to the library looking for something lighter and friendlier to have at the ready. I'd put off reading any of Alexander McCall Smith's novels featuring Mma Ramotswe, but this seemed the perfect time to begin at the beginning, with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. 

I expected to be charmed, and I was. My friend SuziQ, author of the Whimpulsive blog, tells me I really need to hear these on audio, and if I were better at staying awake and/or intensely focused I would love to try one in that format. I actually listened to, and enjoyed, the original Serial podcast on NPR, but even so I found myself snapping out of reverie so often and having to back up that I was months longer getting to the end that anyone else I knew who was listening. 


I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Precious and her friends and suitors and clients. McCall Smith interjects what are sometimes jarring reminders that human beings are prone to frailties, sadnesses, and darker impulses. Most of the mysteries Mma Ramotswe are hired to solve she handles with delicious wit and common sense. I found myself chortling more than once, and when she attempts to intimidate a person she's questioning by telling them that she just cut a cobra in two pieces, I nearly fell out laughing. (You need to find out for yourself why, of course.)

Was it a great book? No. Not by a long shot. There was a tendency for things to move along so quickly that at times it read more like a series of vignettes than a novel. But I will go back to Botswana to spend more time with Precious, because it was tonic. I can certainly foresee using them as "breathers" between novels that require a little more from me, or which leave me clamoring for places and people that don't get under my skin in a bad way. 

Published in 2003 
Anchor Books


Minette Walters wrote a couple of novels some years back--The Sculptress and The Scold's Bridle--that were unnervingly good. I'm not sure whether it was a her thing or a me thing, but I quit getting a rush from her novels, just a skosh at a time, until I quit reading her entirely. She's been off the radar for a few years, but when I learned that she was releasing a new book hope began to well up that she'd honed those sharp edges again. 

The novella, The Cellar, is the story of Muna, a young woman kept slave for years in the cellar of the home of the Songali family. She has spent her years with them being cruelly abused by more than one member of the household. When one of the sons of the family goes missing it becomes necessary for the family to introduce Muna as their daughter, and to allow her access to the world beyond her dark confines. Suffice it to say, she has a number of issues that come up those stairs with her, and the moral of the story has something to do with reaping what one sows. 

It was a fast, fast read, and at nearly every turn a predictable one. 

Published in February 2016
Mysterious Press

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Beyond Books (sort of) - My Cookbook Shelf

I have never fancied myself much of a cook. I say that out of no false modesty. Until a couple years ago it was something I didn't like to do. It was also something by which I was intimidated, quite frankly. 

My mother had a handful of recipes on which she relied, but unless she was cooking for a luncheon or throwing together some funeral food, what came off her stove or out of her oven didn't vary much. The things at which she excelled,though--potato salad, skillet chicken, cornbread dressing, pimiento cheese; pound cake--well, I could live on those things. 

My grandmother--her mother--was much the same way. We often wound up around her table on Sundays, and there are only three things I remember about those meals: my Grandpappy's mumbled blessing, which always included the words, "...and God bless all the little men and all the little women," because we were his heart; the butter pecan ice cream Nannaw'd serve in her Johnson Bros. Devonshire china; and having a one-in-four chance to be the lucky grandchild selected to wield the snuffer to extinguish the candles at the table at the end of the meal. 

Nannaw made a great Chicken Tetrazzini and her Sunshine Sauce is something I wish I had a good excuse to make. Oh, and her stuffed celery was always highly anticipated at holiday gatherings. Again, though, I certainly never got the sense that cooking was something she particularly enjoyed. 

On my maternal side, then, spending time in the kitchen trying anything new just wasn't part of my experience. What I grew up seeing were women who knew how to make some things that I loved, who'd prepare them without spending much time talking about the what or how. Mama did coach me in the making of her famous potato salad, and I say with no false pride -- because I have earned it -- that mine is almost always almost nearly as good as was hers. 

In spite of my protestations and natural aversion, I have managed to put together a really nice collection of cookbooks. For the longest time I'd walk past them, running my hands against their spines, hoping that kitchen osmosis might somehow cause me to begin talking like Julia Child, and stirring the pot in a way that would actually, you know, feed somebody. 

It wasn't until I'd ordered one of Mark Bittman's cookbooks to give to my son that the little light began to go on. Because, you see, Mr. Bittman gave me written permission to not be perfect, to leave out an ingredient I didn't have or didn't like, because mostly, recipes will work just fine with most of the things on the list...and if it was a key ingredient, Mr. Bittman whispered to me, "Just rename the recipe."

Some of the books here are in heavy rotation. Some I just like to peruse. Because I came to this about as tabula rosa as it's possible for a person to be, I learn something new every time. 

But my sentimental favorites are these. Both Blue Moon cookbooks used to be delivered to us at the bookstore by their author, until he ran out of copies he had in his garage. It was, perhaps, the single bestselling book we had at the bookstore, because no self-respecting Montgomery bride could set up housekeeping without a copy. There's a smattering of cookbooks published by the UMW of my church in years past. Seconds, Please!, another local one long out of print, is highly sought after and there are times I feel guilty for holding on to it when I know somebody else might actually cook something from it. (I hold on to it because one of the authors gave me a salad spinner as a wedding gift nearly 4 decades ago.) Oh, and that copy of White Trash Cooking was given as a joke, but lordamercy, there's some dangerously delicious stuff in it, and on a couple occasions, I've heard a sentimental sigh from my husband for some of the foods from his childhood he finds in there. 

(Lest you think I can claim high culinary ground here, my Mama routinely gave us mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, with a sugar sandwich for dessert. And even now, my mouth is watering for them. Damn. If I only had some white bread in my kitchen....)

Like any other good Bible, cookbooks that have been used and loved need to bear witness to the people who sat and thumbed through their pages looking for inspiration. I'm fortunate that the inherited cookbooks are chock-through with marginalia and clippings. Is there anything better than running across ink put to paper in the hand of someone you loved?  

Although I also use and rely on several food sites on the internet for inspiration, there is just nothing quite like sitting on the sofa with a cup of hot tea, flipping through pages of possibilities, is there? 

I just eat it up. 

I'm linking up with Weekend Cooking hosted by Beth Fish Reads

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Pretty Girls - Karin Slaughter

We had a really nice family dinner a few nights ago. All the adults at the table are in various stages of making healthy changes to our diets and lifestyles, but we were celebrating and I steadfastly believe that some things just do not need to be healthified. You enjoy them like they are, maybe being a little more mindful of how many pounds of bad-for-you food are on your plate. And then you eat a big ol' slice of cheesecake because you have clearly already thrown the evening over to total gluttony, and 30 minutes later your belly hurts so badly you would only be able to move if somebody on the other side of the room offered you Milk Duds or something.  

The answer to the question, "Why'd I DO that?' is a smug, "Because I'm a grown adult, and I just wanted what I wanted and I ate it all. Got a problem with that?" 

Well, that, my friends is the food equivalent of reading a book by Karin Slaughter. 

"Pretty Girls is the story of Claire and Lydia -- sisters, strangers, survivors. And now, in the wake of a shocking murder, they've been reunited after more than two decades to investigate both a present-day killing and the tragic disappearance that destroyed their family all those years ago."  -- from the publisher

This may be the shortest review of a book I've ever given.

It is not for the faint of heart.

I could not put it down, although I did read whole passages in scan mode. 

I'm conflicted about this, frankly. I'm not sure how to review it. Slaughter's characters are brilliantly drawn. Both the complicated family relationships and the unraveling of the crime that changed Claire and Lydia's family so profoundly are so well developed that from a critical standpoint I can say without reservation that Slaughter does her job here really, really well. 

But, my word. I'm a pretty hardened old soul, and I could not bear to read the increasingly graphic details of the crime at the heart of this story. 

I don't know what to do with the idea I had that I would not have finished this had a man written it, and I just don't want to spend time analyzing that too much. 

This recommendation, then, comes with a honkin' big warning sign: don't you dare read this and blame me for your bad dreams. You've been warned. 

Published in hardcover by
William Morrow
September 2015

Thursday, March 17, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

You'd be surprised, probably, to find out how many bestselling books I never got around to reading when I was a bookseller. The reason was simple: When a book began to light up bestseller lists, as well as the enthusiasm of customers who took it upon themselves to promote it to their friends,  it meant that a book I had not yet taken the opportunity to read didn't really need my help to find its way home with someone. My limited reading time needed to be spent finding the next book they should adopt.  

I didn't keep a list of the great books I missed out on over the years because of this. It's just as well. You'd think ill of me if you knew what some of them were. 

The worst thing about this, of course, is that I rarely ever went back and picked up whatever blockbuster beloved book it might have been, because staying current was just part of the job description. To the list of reasons that being a used-to-be-bookseller isn't completely horrible, then, add this: I can take yet another piece of my own book advice:  Any book you haven't yet read is a new book. Never apologize for being late to the party. 

Of course, there are risks associated with being one of the last people to read a book that everybody has read and most of them have loved. Chief among them is that expectations are heightened, and that can lead to disappointment. 

Such was not the case with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. 

If you somehow have managed to avoid knowing anything about this book, it's set during WWII, just before and during the Nazi invasion of France. Marie-Laure, a young teen who has been blind most of her life, and her father flee Paris and take refuge with her eccentric great-uncle. Marie-Laure's story is entertwined with that of Werner Pfennig, a young man who was brought up in an orphanage in Germany. 

Doerr helps us navigate Marie-Laure's world of darkness along with her, effectively allowing the reader to try on her disability. But the most extraordinary thing Doerr does in his novel is, in much the same way, drawing us into empathetic understanding of Werner, even as he is drawn more deeply into the Nazi machine. It is a most eloquent reminder that the the highest cost of any war is the cost to the souls of those who, having no truck with the ideology of their leaders, are compelled to serve in support of choices they did not make.

All the Light We Cannot See is an utterly complete and satisfying story, one that I suspect will find its way into my thoughts for years to come. 


Published in hardcover by Scribner, May 2014

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Whites - Harry Brandt

I suppose as long as there are those whose life's calling it is to insure that wrongdoers are brought to justice there will always be those who elude their efforts. In Harry Brandt's gripping novel, these folks are referred to as The Whites, and every member of the South Bronx anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese had at least one bad guy who managed to wiggle off the scales of justice. 

When the book opens, though, that group of officers has long ago disbanded, most trading in their careers in law enforcement for other pursuits. Billy Graves, however, is now a sergeant in charge of Manhattan's Night Watch. He and the other members of the Wild Geese have remained friends, and each of them are well aware of each other's "whites," so when those bad guys begin to turn up dead, Billy begins to struggle with the idea that some of his former comrades have decided to exact their own justice on the unpunished. 

None of these criminals are folks about whom you'd weep: they all fall under the heading of "had it coming," but Billy's commitment to law and order force him to care at least enough to try to piece things together. All this while his family--his wife Carmen, his sons, and his father, once an officer himself now wrestling against dementia--are becoming the targets of a stalker whom Billy assumes must be coming after him. 

Even minor characters are realized well enough to fairly leap off the page, and they all add such texture to the story. 

Brandt's ability to keep the heat up on the crime elements of this story while he fleshes out the very real, very poignant circumstances in his characters' lives sets this novel apart from others of its ilk. There is something nearly Shakespearean going on here, and it is, simply put, a magnificent story. 

I highly recommend The Whites to fans of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly most especially, but also to anyone who just loves a well-told story with an irresistible cast. 

Published in hardcover by Henry Holt
February 2015

Published in trade paper by Picador
February 2016

P.S. - I understand why some writers take on pen names to write novels unlike those their usual readers expect. There's a long history of that in publishing, after all. What I don't understand is why they no longer even attempt to keep it secret. As you can see from the picture of the book's jacket, well-established, well-regarded author Richard Price chose to publish this writing as Harry Brandt. Whatever works. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Beyond Books - Music! Poetry! Leaving One's Mark! - March 4, 2016

A weekly-ish look at stuff I had fun doing or finding or thinking about this week, mostly outside the pages of a book. 

Last summer I big-splurged on a pair of Bose sports earbuds. The difference between them and all others I'd tried was profound. So profound, in fact, that every time I'd see Bose speakers of any sort advertised anywhere I'd pine away, wishing I could justify the expense. Paul Harvey was right about this brand, folks. 

Well, a couple weeks ago I saw an ad for a Bose portable bluetooth speaker, and the price was right, and I realized that since I've been a full time homebody I listen to music all day long. (Well, except for a break I take at lunch to watch The Bold and the Beautiful, but that's a story for another day.)

Since I figured I could now justify the expense, I bit, and I couldn't be happier. It's simple to use, and the sound is more than acceptably good for the cost. I've particularly enjoyed using it in the kitchen as I prep supper, and in the dining room. Last weekend my grandchildren enjoyed their supper while listening to Boris Karloff's telling of Peter and the Wolf.  I am really looking forward to summer afternoons in the hammock that will now come complete with a soundtrack. 

Granted, this small speaker is no replacement for a fully rigged out sound system. We have a Bluetooth Sound Bar in the den, but even in our small house it can be hard to hear well without cranking it up. My neighbors should be as happy about this purchase as am I. 

She particularly likes her perch in my kitchen window, 
where she keeps me company as I fix supper and wash dishes.  

And now, for something completely different....

Whilst continuing on my course to eradicate my home of years of accumulated stuff, I ran across a cache of spiral bound notebooks that I tucked away years ago. They were filled with notes I'd jotted down, those half-formed thoughts you have that you think you'll want to remember later if you ever decide to write for a living. They also contained dozens and dozens of drafts of angry letters I wrote over the years to people, a bit of therapy my mother suggested to me when I was a child, and while that might make for amusing reading for somebody someday, I spent most of a day shredding every single page. 

But in of one of those notebooks, I discovered this: a half-begun draft of the last poem I ever tried to write. It served as a coda to years as an angst-ridden young woman who had a few really awful poems published in high school. I fully own that I was a pathetic poet, but I'm sharing this one here because I thought it less lousy than most. It was written just after my husband's heart attack in 2003. I am sure it's not complete: I never went back to fix it or finish it. 

Steady cadence for half a century
And then a pause--
Just enough to call us to attention; 
But not enough to halt the march. 

Yet, even so, 

When the rock crumbled
She became strong as stone ~ 
Shoring up against a tide of tears. 


And in the margins....

I'm still enjoying relearning this whole library thingI can't help but wonder, as I'm thumbing through a borrowed book, who might have been there before me. Last night I ran across this, and as I read on discovered many other such notations. I felt as though whomever did this is my kindred spirit. I am forever looking things up while I read a book: words that are unfamiliar or obscure; foreign phrases I don't understand; and venues that are important in the telling of a story. 

I would never write in a borrowed book.... but there is something charming about the enthusiasm this reader had in learning that compelled them to cast off such convention. 

Reading this week: 

Just finished: The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Just started: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
And via Serial Reader, continuing with Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Monday, February 29, 2016

Lila - Marilynne Robinson

I always told my customers not to feel like a lump if they were slogging through a book that everyone else just loved. "There's a reason more than one book is published every year!" I'd exclaim. I meant it then, and I still do. "Sometimes," I'd go on, "it's not about the book itself; it's about what is going on in your life while you're reading it. Put it down before you decide you hate it, and go back to it later."

As often as I gave that advice, I rarely took it myself. Surrounded by new books from which to choose virtually every day, I never made good on my best intentions to go back to any book I'd put down, even the ones I sensed were worth the effort. 

One of the best books I've ever read in my whole life, one that filled every cranny of my reading desires, was Marilynne Robinson's magnificent Gilead. It was the first in what would become the John Ames trilogy. For reasons that escape me now, I never picked up the second book, Home, but when the third volume, Lila, showed up I was downright gleeful. I had wanted to know more about her, John Ames' young and unusual second wife, since reading Gilead

I grabbed up the ARC that had been sent to the store, cleared my decks, and then..... just stalled out. I could not get beyond the first 25 pages or so. I kept it next to me for months, and would pick it up again, every time I'd finish another book. And every time, I'd be stuck again. It finally, regretfully, wound up in my giveaway pile. 

But I ran across the accursed copy again as I was cataloging my home library, and decided I would give it one more go. It is not an easy read; there are no chapter divisions, and very few natural breaks in the narrative. Sitting with Lila is a commitment. 

Lila, stolen as a child by a woman named Doll, is raised in the midst of a pack of drifters, where right and wrong exist on a different spectrum than they do for most of us. It's a culture in which salvation comes at the tip of an oft-used knife as often as it does on the banks of a baptismal river. When Lila is ultimately left to her own devices she makes her way to the small town of Gilead, where she happens in on the Pentecost service led by widower Preacher John Ames.There is nothing subtle about Lily; she speaks her mind and owns her heart. But there is nothing subtle about the gentle and soft-spoken love of John Ames, either. That these two set their faces towards an uncertain future together is an act of will and courage on both their parts. 

The most brilliant passages, though, deal with the questions that Lila has about the very nature of God. When presented with the notion of judgment and condemnation to Hell after death, even for those who have not had an opportunity to repent, Lila is struck by the thought that her beloved Doll will burn forever, 

Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her,
no bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven. 

Here is Ames' response to her worries. 

Thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. It's still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can't see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption.
 And presumption is a very grave sin.

What I loved most about the character of John Ames in Gilead holds true in Lila as well. He is a good man, one given to continued and thoughtful reflection about the exercise of faith about which he might have once been squarely decided. It's what mature faith requires of us all, I think. 

Just like Gilead, this book is not for every reader. Those who require a plot driven novel won't be able to find purchase here. Lila tells her story her way, full of looping back and standing in place, and every thought she has inspires a memory to which we become privy. It is bedeviling, and beautiful. 

I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to Lila, but I'm so very glad I did. 


Published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2014
Published in trade paper by Picador, October 2015

Friday, February 26, 2016

Beyond the Written Word, 2/27/16

A weekly-ish look at stuff I had fun doing or finding or thinking about this week, mostly outside the pages of a book. 


If I have any advice for you this week, it would be this: when you have an opportunity to put yourself in the path of good people doing good things, use it. 

To that end, I attended a concert this week given by the Side by Side Singers of First United Methodist Church's Adult Respite Ministry.  This program provides care, several hours a day several days a week, for those with Alzheimers' and other forms of dementia or memory disorders, and it enables caregivers to have some hours away for themselves confident in the knowledge that their loved one is in the hands of compassionate and well-trained volunteers. 

The Side by Side Singers grew into being when Jack Horner, the recently retired Minister of Music at my church and his sidekick, pianist Mickey McInnish, invited those in Respite Care to come sing--side by side--with their caregivers and others who just love singing, too. I don't know all their stories, but I am sure some of these beautiful people were once pillar and post in church choirs or civic chorales. This photo essay by photographer Luke Lucas captures so many of these wonderful relationships. 

It is impossible for me to describe what sitting in that audience felt like, but whatever emotion the words pure joy summons up in you would come close. Music memory is profoundly powerful; we've all experienced that in some way. I got a real dose of it myself when I realized that words to songs I learned many decades ago during elementary school music assemblies came back to me as though I'd been rehearsing them daily. And what I also knew, sitting in that audience, is that were my Mama still living she would have eaten this with a spoon. I happily imagined sitting there with her, Side By Side.

This ministry deserves emulation. If a program like this is something your community needs, I hope you will consider being in touch with its director, Daphne Johnston.


Since embarking on this practice retirement of mine, I've made good on a promise to do more letter writing and note-sending. While written responses in return would be lovely (hint, hint!) that's not really been the point. This week one of those letters bore fruit, via phone call, from one of my Mama's cousins. His mother, my Great-Aunt Lena, was just about my favorite person and her summer visits were true highlights of my childhood. She was the Postmaster of David, Kentucky, and one didn't dare call her "Postmistress," because as she said once in my earshot, "I do not carry on with the mail." I hadn't been in touch with Cousin Joe for years, and wasn't even sure the address I'd finally found for them was still valid. But I wrote, and took a $.44 chance that it might be. Well, Cousin Joe called this week! We had a wonderful conversation, and made promises to remain in touch - via letters and phone calls. 


And finally, I've been very deliberate about trying new foods in recent years. There was a time not long ago when I would not eat asparagus, okra, tomatoes, oatmeal, or strawberries, and now they are such mainstays in my diet I can't imagine what I did before. (Okay, I'm still struggling with tomatoes, but I've come a long way.) Yesterday I had lunch with my sisters-in-law, and there was something that looked very diet friendly on the menu: Seared Tuna on a bed of Cauliflower Tabbouleh. Huh. I knew what all these things are, of course, but I don't like cauliflower, and couldn't figure out how they made tabbouleh from it. But heck -- why not? And my goodness, it was good! Even better, when I got home to plug it into my WeightWatchers journal I discovered that it is incredibly points-friendly, and there's even a recipe for it on their website. I will be trying this at home, but please -- nobody tell my husband because he will not eat it if he knows what he's eating. 

Somebody who knew this was a thing should have told me, so I'm telling you in case you don't know.

You're welcome.