Here’s another blog about books that have recently made their way through my reading list. It’s the first list devoted to books I started or finished in 2022. These aren’t really reviews. Just short snapshots of what the books are about, and maybe a nugget or two about my reaction to them. If you’re a big reader, maybe you will find them useful.
Also: It’s a way to pimp my own book. So fair warning……
By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Agatha Christie: 2021 was the year I took a first dive into iconic English popular literature. I read my first Sherlock Holmes book last year, and my first Harry Potter book, and I started my first Agatha Christie book. You’d think I would have checked out Agatha Christie sooner, being a fan of crime fiction. But I had some wrong assumptions about her. I thought she was a late 19th/early 20th century writer, and I prefer modern stuff. It turns out she was much more contemporary (she died in 1976). And I thought she specialized in cutesy whodunnits, and there’s really nothing cutesy about her.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs is a cracking good tale about mysterious goings-on in the English countryside. It involves a married couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who go to visit Tommy’s elderly Aunt Ada at a retirement home. While there, Tuppence has a conversation with another resident, Mrs Lancaster, who unexpectedly says “Was it your poor child? There behind the fireplace.” That’s when the mystery kicks in, heightened by the suspicious deaths of some of the retirement home residents (including Aunt Ada). Matters hit a higher gear when the over-curious Tuppence starts snooping around a small village called Sutton Chancellor while Tommy is away on business. The plot gets more complex as other, darker characters emerge. I won’t say much more because, frankly, I’m too lazy to get into all the twists and turns. But it’s a page turner, and proof enough of Agatha Christie’s ability to reel you in.
Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country, R. Crumb: Robert Crumb, better known as R. Crumb, is a brilliant weirdo and one of my favorite artists and cartoonists ever (he’s also a fellow American expat living in Europe – in his case, France). He first made a splash in the late 1960s when he began drawing alternative comics as a transplant from Maryland (and later Ohio) living among hippies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. He eventually became one of the world’s best-known comic artists thanks to works such as the “Keep on Truckin’” cartoon; his cover art for a Janis Joplin album; and his Fritz the Cat character, which was later turned into a soft-porn movie he hated (not because he’s against porn – he’s not – but because the movie sucked). He even drew a comic version of the Book of Genesis, free of irony.
Crumb, now 78 years old, is also an amateur musician who favors old-timey American music – early jazz, blues, and country. In the 1980s he produced a series of trading cards featuring both well-known and obscure musicians who made recordings in the 1920s and early 1930s, before the Great Depression sent most of them back into obscurity. The cards were later collected in this book, Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country. The artwork is typical Crumb: technically astounding, full of depth and soul. Brief bios of the musicians accompany the art. My personal favorite here is Mississippi John Hurt, a Delta blues singer and guitarist extraordinaire.
Side note: Maybe it’s my inner woke going into overdrive, but the descriptions of the white country musicians seem to be much more comprehensive than the descriptions of the nearly all-black blues and jazz musicians. With the blues and jazz artists, the focus tends to be on short life sketches, while the focus on white country/bluegrass artists is much more geared toward the technical aspects of their playing. I doubt this was intentional. But even if done by accident, it inadvertently underscores the myth that black musicians are blessed with natural talent, while white musicians are much more technically sophisticated. That’s bullshit, of course – black blues and jazz artists were just as innovative and sophisticated as white musicians, and probably more so. The greatest musical innovations of the last century have been almost entirely created by African American musicians. I’m sure I’m reading too much into it. Still bothered me, though.
The Bone People, Keri Hulme: Sometimes a book can mesmerize you through the sheer force of a single memorable character (e.g., Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces). The Bone People, published in 1983, is one of those books. In this case, the character is Kerewin, a 40ish Māori woman (the author was also part Māori). Kerewin lives alone in a remote part of New Zealand, in a tower-like house near the sea. She hunts and fishes for her own food, is handy with tools, is estranged from her family, drinks a lot, curses a lot, resents everything and everyone, came into money through a lottery, used to be a painter but somehow lost her ability to paint, and has a chip on her shoulder the size of Jupiter. Oh, and she’s also a martial arts expert who can kick pretty much anyone’s ass.
One day a young, mute boy named Simon shows up in Kerewin’s tower out of nowhere, which aggravates her. She wants to shoo the boy away, but is hesitant to do so because it’s nighttime, and the weather is dark and stormy (of course it is). She gets on the phone and finds out Simon does this a lot – leaves home, shows up places uninvited. She’s told to wait for his foster father, Joe, to show up. Kerewin eventually learns that Simon was orphaned after his parents died in a mysterious accident. Joe, who lost his own wife and child in another accident, agrees to care for Simon until they can find out more about his background. Nobody knows where Simon comes from, though they assume it’s from some European background because of his light skin.
ANYway…. Kerewin develops a relationship with Simon and Joe. It soon becomes clear that Simon is a deeply troubled kid whose odd behavior drives Joe around the bend. Even though there is a clear bond between the two, Joe physically abuses Simon on occasion, which causes Kerewin to step in and give Joe a thorough beating. Things improve after that, and the three form a quasi-family unit of sorts. The first two-thirds of the book explore these relationships. It’s a fascinating and often troubling read, mainly because it follows such fascinating and troubling characters. The pace slows down during the final third of the book as the characters go their separate ways, which for me was much less interesting.
Still, this is another powerful novel from a female author, which is something I have run into a lot lately. The Bone People is a wholly original and unconventional story written in an unconventional way, with actions and thoughts colliding together. A very good book.
Weird side note: I’m pretty sure The Bone People has been in my reading queue for years. I’m not sure when I bought it, or where. I might have bought it in the U.S. and shipped it over here to London more than four years ago. I kept putting it off, and putting it off, maybe because I could tell from the first pages that it would be an unconventional novel, and sometimes it takes me a long time to grind through those. I finally started reading it earlier this year – and soon after found out that its author, Keri Hulme, had passed away maybe a week or so before. She died on Dec. 27, 2021 at the age of 74. I didn’t even know she had passed away until I started reading it. It’s as if she was going, “Well, I’m dead now. Will you finally read the damn book?”
Ratpack Confidential, Shawn Levy: I usually keep two books going at once – fiction that I read in the afternoon, and non-fiction that I read at night. One of the non-fiction books I recently finished was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, an epic, riveting and exhausting account of life in China during the 20th century. It ran nearly 700 pages – nearly every one filled with tales of misery and woe. After I finished it I decided that I needed something lighter, so I dove into Ratpack Confidential, an account of life with Frank Sinatra and his partying pals in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
It was just the kind of gossipy and shallow tonic I needed after Wild Swans. “Rat pack” was the name given to Sinatra and fellow Vegas/Hollywood bad boys Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. They drank, caroused, gambled, partied, golfed, and fornicated their days away. They did shows together, made movies together, shared lovers (together) – you get the idea. The book, published in 1998, provides a fascinating and depressing peek into the narcissistic lives of celebrities. Levy is the perfect chronicler with his biting wit and cynical worldview.
I enjoyed Ratpack Confidential, even though the key players could be some genuine assholes – particularly Sinatra, one of my favorite singers ever but an often petty and cruel dude away from the spotlight. The others don’t come off much better. Peter Lawford became one of Hollywood’s tragic figures, and you had to feel sorry for Sammy Davis Jr. having to face so much humiliation because of his skin color. Dino was a cool cat who breezed through life without a care in the world until his own life took a dark turn.
For a few years, everyone had a swinging, ring-a-ding-ding good time. It’s an era many idealize, myself included. But it died under the weight of its own excess.
What I Tell You Three Times is False, Donald Westlake. Westlake was such a prolific writer that he had to write under different names just to keep from oversaturating the market (one of his pen names was Richard Stark). His series of hilarious crime novels featuring the sad sack burglar John Dortmunder was among my favorites. What I Tell You Three Times is False is part of another series featuring lead character Sam Holt, a former cop who later became a TV actor playing a cop. In this 1987 novel, Holt and other actors who played cops or detectives travel to a remote island off the coast of Mexico to film a commercial for the American Cancer Society. They arrive during a tropical storm that knocks out communication to the outside world and also strands them there until it’s safe enough to fly back out. Oh, and the island used to be the preserve of a major drug kingpin, who built a huge mansion. People start dying. There’s a murderer on the loose! Can the actors summon up the characters they play to solve the case – before the murderer can kill again?!! There is nothing terribly original about this story, but it’s a fun read.
Voodoo Hideaway, Vance Cariaga. Forget my thoughts about this noir crime thriller. Let’s see what the critics have to say:
Reader’s Favorite, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway by Vance Cariaga is a fascinating crime novel with an incredible twist…The author creates and develops some very colorful characters, each of whom gave readers the whole cinematic treatment.”
OnlineBookClub.org, 4 out of 4 stars: “This was a well-told story in a well-written book that got me wishing there was a sequel. Vance Cariaga’s Voodoo Hideaway was a thrill to my imagination, and it was filled with suspense. The author did an excellent job connecting dots to one central piece that climaxed to an explosive end...Science fiction, mystery, and adventure lovers would relish this book.”
Manhattan Book Review, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway shines as an absorbing mystery/sci-fi tale from the outset…Vance Cariaga has written a clever story in which the action is as ceaseless as the plotting, with danger lurking around every corner.“
Here’s how to order it: