It occurred to me this past weekend, as I closed the cover of a book I had just completed, that the one good thing that came out of this past year - what with all the quarantining and fighting off the virus and shivering in that recent Arctic blast - was that I had ample opportunity to catch up on my reading.

Even when you’re a lifelong bookworm like myself, there are times when you have little choice but to stifle the urge to curl up with that latest acquisition from Barnes and Noble because there’s just too much other stuff that needs to be done. And while I’ve always been something of a fast reader, circumstances and responsibilities beyond my control can often result in the “must read” pile getting a little too high for my liking.

So while other people were complaining about not being able to get out and do things like they used to, I found myself joyfully returning to those days of yesteryear when all I needed to have fun was a good book, a glass of milk and the occasional visit from one of the family dogs looking for a little bit of attention. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a handful of mini-reviews of some of the titles I finally got around to reading in recent months. 

Some of them are more than a year or two old - that’s how long it took me to get to them - but they’re still recent enough that you shouldn’t have any trouble getting them through your favorite bookseller if you’re interested.

Unfortunately, the book I finished most recently proved to be the biggest disappointment - which is why I’m reviewing it first to get it out of the way. 

Dan Hanks’ Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire (Angry Robot Books; 2020) sounded like it would be right up my alley when I first heard of it. The novel was marketed as an old-time pulp style adventure in the spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tales of the Gold Monkey, focusing on the exploits of a former Spitfire pilot named Samantha Moxley as she battles former Nazis and a mysterious government agency in 1952. I really, REALLY wanted to like it.

Sadly, the book is an example of a good idea poorly executed. The story and the characters are interesting enough, and there are some fun moments when I half expected Rick O’Connell or the Rocketeer to show up. But Hanks’ prose is weak, far more so than one would expect to find in a tale of this type - and for me that problem is made all the more worse by the author’s tendency to overuse a certain four-letter expletive that rhymes with “truck.”

Look, I’m certainly no prude, and in spite of my best efforts to avoid it I’ve been known to utter the occasional expletive myself from time to time when in the throes of extreme pain or anger. (There are times when no other word will fit the situation... it was my mother who taught me that.) And I don’t have a problem with injecting the occasional epithet into a story for the sake of realism. But when it happens with this kind of frequency, it just comes across as laziness on the author’s part. 

I am reminded of something the great western writer Louis L’Amour once said about the lack of such obscenities falling from the mouths of his characters: “I can make them real without that. I think much of that kind of writing is a cover-up for lack of real skill.”

Sadly, L’Amour’s assessment pretty well sums up Captain Moxley. As much as I’d like to, I just can’t recommend it.

Far more enjoyable was James Boice’s Who Killed The Fonz? (Simon and Schuster, 2019), a sequel to the classic sitcom Happy Days that somehow manages to combine the humor of the TV series with a film noir-style detective story.

On the face of it that would seem a pretty tall order, but Boice pulls it off with such ease that I couldn’t help wishing that he might be considering a sequel. I’ve run across nothing to indicate that this might be the case, so maybe I’ll start a letter campaign...

The plot is simple: After enjoying some early success in his career as a Hollywood screenwriter, Richie Cunningham (he prefers to go by Richard these days and is friends with a certain director named Steven) has hit a dry spell and is already on the verge of becoming a has-been. In the midst of this personal crisis he receives word that his old friend Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli has been killed in a motorcycle accident... and when he returns to Milwaukee for the funeral he learns that it may not have been an accident, after all.

While Boice is mostly successful in paying homage to the TV series, he does manage to botch a reference to one of its most fanous episodes - which in is itself funny, given the plotline of the episode in question. (No spoliers, but it involves a shark…) 

But that is a minor quibble; all in all, Who Killed The Fonz? is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time, and it is definitely worth seeking out if you’re a fan of classic television or well-written detective tales.

Another fun work of fiction that I finally got around to reading recently was Andrew E.C. Gaska’s Death of the Planet of the Apes (Titan Books, 2018), a tour de force prose retelling of the first two movies in the original classic film series: Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).

Those films - both inspired by the 1963 French novel La Plante des singes by Pierre Boulle - remain landmarks in the science fiction genre, and Gaska does original screenwriters Rod Serling, Michael Wilson and Paul Dehn proud in his expansion of their work. And “expansion” is the better word than “retelling” in this case; Gaska builds on the original story by revealing the backstory behind Taylor’s decision to set out on his ill-fated mission to the stars in the first place, and the circumstances that led to Brent’s equally disastrous rescue effort.

As a child I loved the novelizations of the four sequels to the original Apes film, and for years my biggest complant was that there had not been a novelization of the first movie. (Boulle’s original novel is much different than the films it inspired, and as such cannot be read as part of the book series.)

Gaska gave me the book I had waited for since childhood, and I’m happy to report that it did not disappoint.

On the non-fiction side, one of the titles I found myself enjoying immensely was The Patriots (National Geographic Books, 2020), which focuses on the roles played by Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in pursuing America’s independence from Great Britain.

Written by Winston Groom - yes, the same author who wrote the novel Forrest Gump and whose output also includes several other highly regarded non-fiction historical tomes - The Patriots neatly compresses the lives of these three Founding Fathers into a book that is highly informative yet easy to read. What surprised me most - given the fact that, dating back all the way to grade school, I’d already read a number of books about the American Revolution - Groom still managed to share some historical tidbits that I had not run across for the first time.

If all high school and college history books were written in the style in which Groom composed The Patriots, I daresay students might be far more interested in taking those courses.

I don’t want to wrap up my compendium of mini-reviews without mentioning A Promised Land (Crown Books, 2020), the first of Barack Obama’s two-volume memoir of his years in the White House.

It is about as perfect an example of autobiography as I have run across in a good, long time: intelligently written, yet easy to read, with a candor about both the highs and the lows throughout his life and career that I found refreshing and enlightening. By the time I’d finished, my respect for the man had grown significantly.

It’s well worth the read - even if you’re not a fan of the man.

(Copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)