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Thursday, April 30, 2009

J.K. Rowling Wants No Part of E-Books (At Least for Now)

Have you wondered why certain books, many of them classics and huge bestsellers, are not available in e-book format? There are lots of reasons, actually, and not all of them have something to do with the bottom lines of the authors and publishers. The same thing happens in the music business, as Beatles fans who have searched for Beatles music online know well, but I was a bit surprised that so many writers are resistant to the idea of their work being published electronically.

Yahoo News discusses the situation in this article by Hillel Italie.

Many authors complain that the common 25% of net receipts royalty rate is simply too little for a product whose production cost is so minimal (the rate varies slightly from publisher to publisher). They would like to see that rate changed to 50% of net proceeds, doubling the royalty rate that was set eight years ago.

Big holdouts include J.K. Rowling who does not believe in e-books and prefers to see her work remain in paper format only. Other, now classic works, are also missing from the various electronic bookstores: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22 and even Atlas Shrugged, among them.

The folks in charge of Ayn Rand's publishing rights might want to rethink that limitation considering the renewed interest in her work that the Great Recession of 2009 has created.

Read the article - it's interesting.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Vern Gosdin Dead at 74

I heard very early this morning that the great voice of Vern Gosdin was silenced last night and I've had Vern on my mind ever since. Vern Gosdin was one of the best stylists in the history of country music and, for the most part, he stayed true to the genre by refusing to slide into the watered-down claptrap that passes for country music today. Of course, that meant Vern had to kiss country radio goodbye a long time ago - but he knew that was coming anyway because country radio, with rare exception, refuses to play anyone over 40 years old (much preferring the music of 17-year-old girls who cannot sing without an autotuner in their hip pockets).

I know that I'm ranting - but when I think of all the great talent that gets pushed aside for the likes of those who become "stars," my blood pressure tends to rise dramatically.

This, though, is about Vern Gosdin, the man called "The Voice" by those who love real country music and know its colorful history. Enjoy.



"Chiseled in Stone" was the 1989 country music song of the year and no one can possibly ever match Vern's version. The emotion he displays, in combination with how he uses his voice to sell this song, is simply superb. Vern was under-appreciated by the general country music audience but those who know country music best (singers, musicians, critics and astute fans) always place him among the very best singers in country music history. And, without a doubt, they are correct.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gosdin. Your fans thank you and hope to catch you on the other side.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Books Can Get You in Big Trouble


We've all seen those hollowed-out books that some people supposedly use to hide valuables among the books on their shelves. Those probably work pretty well because the vast majority of burglars are too stupid to read and a bookshelf is like a burglar scarecrow. The problem comes when someone tries to make an international shipment of "valuables" using the same technique.

The Dayton Daily News has the story in brief:
Federal authorities say they have found 7.75 kilograms of heroin hidden inside hollowed-out books shipped to southwestern Ohio from Iran.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers said more than 17 pounds of heroin, with an estimated value of $1 million, was in four shipments of two books, each bound for Toronto.
I'm not sure why the enriched-books were shipped via Ohio, but there are some guys in Toronto and Iran wearing big frowns today. You have to love it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rooftops of Tehran

Rooftops of Tehran is a coming-of-age novel that begins as the story of four young people caught up in the excitement of first love. In their exhilaration, the four of them see the adult world through youth’s fresh eyes and they can hardly wait to carve out places for themselves in that world. However, Rooftops of Tehran, set in the Shah’s Iran of 1973-1974, is much more than a love story; it is also a tragic tale of defiance and courage in a society in which the price of defiance is often imprisonment and execution.

Best friends Pasha and Ahmed have fallen in love with Zari and Faheemeh, two young women already engaged to be married to others. Faheemeh’s engagement is a recent one but Zari was betrothed to Doctor at birth, the result of an arrangement between two families wishing to ensure closeness for generations to come. Ahmed, bold and brash as always, refuses to be bound by tradition and challenges his rival for Faheemeh’s affections, willing to suffer a beating at the hands of Faheemeh’s brothers in the process. Pasha, on the other hand, has come to love and admire Doctor and he feels great guilt over his love for Doctor’s fiancé. Try as he might, however, Pasha finds it impossible to stop thinking about Zari.

Pasha, Ahmed, Zari and Faheemeh become inseparable friends during one gloriously innocent summer during which they spend long days at Zari’s home talking about life, books, and the future. It is a time during which Ahmed wins Faheema’s hand and Zari begins to question her feelings about Doctor and Pasha. Everything, though, comes crashing down around their heads one night when the Shah’s not-so-secret police pay a visit to the neighborhood. Pasha, alone in his rooftop hideaway, inadvertently exposes the person the police are seeking – a mistake that will have grave consequences for those closest to him.

Mahbod Seraji tells his tragic love story in a way that emphasizes the universal truths shared by people everywhere. All of us possess the same basic hopes, experiences and dreams for ourselves and our families, and we have more in common than not. This is so true that, while reading Rooftops of Tehran, it is sometimes easy to forget that the story takes place in Iran rather than in a location more familiar to the reader. When things begin to go bad, however, the reader is jolted back to a keen awareness of the dangers of everyday life under the Shah of Iran’s brutal dictatorship.

Seraji, who arrived in the U.S. when he was 19, has vividly recreated a world that no longer exists, an Iranian culture that, frankly, was probably no less tolerant than the one of today, considering the regime that replaced the Shah. It was a world in which family, morality, education, and tradition were keys to happiness – much as they are today in Iran and everywhere else in the world. Mr. Seraji tells a good story, one that will gratify fans of several different genres.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Short Story Sunday: "The Hartleys"

I am steadily making my way through the Library of America's Cheever: Collected Stories & Other Writings and I remain impressed by how much detail John Cheever could pack into a ten-or-twelve-page short story. Many of his short story characters are as fleshed out and memorable as those from his five novels.

One of the first stories in the collection is "The Hartleys," the story of a young couple who, along with their little girl, have decided to revisit the places that once made them happy. One of those places is the Pemaquoddy Inn at a little upstate New York ski resort they had last visited some eight years earlier.

Other guests of the inn note how attached the little girl is to her father, even to the point of preferring his company to that of her mother, and how when her parents are on the ski slope she never takes her eyes off them as they work their way back down to where she waits.

As the story progresses, the reader begins to get a growing sense that all is not well with this little family despite their best efforts to blend into the community they have temporarily joined. Cheever turns that sense of unease into one of true dread as the story approaches its unforgettable ending.

"The Hartleys" may only be nine pages long but no one reading the story will soon forget it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

An Eight-Book Week (Yikes!)


For the last few weeks, I've been reading books one-at-a-time instead of dipping in and out of 6-8 books at once as I've come to see as the more normal way for me to read. I made the change figuring that it would be easier to write reviews of the books if I concentrated on just a single book rather than reading a group of them at the same time. The ease with which I can prepare a decent book review increased so slightly, however, that I am easing back into my old pattern again. I just cannot resist the call of that stack of books over in the corner waiting for my attention.

My willpower to resist opening a new book diminishes in direct proportion to the number of books by which my reading stack increases and, just this week, I added 8 books to the pile.

Three of them are library books:

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster - a novel about a retired book critic who imagines, while in bed trying to recover from a car accident, an alternative U.S.A. in which 9-11 never happened and the 2000 election led to the breaking up of the Union.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris - a novel about what it's like in the office world of cubicle dwellers who find themselves in the midst of a business downturn serious enough to threaten their jobs.

Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss - I read a Houston Chronicle review of this one last week and managed to snag it from the library yesterday. It is the true story of a well-known 19th century scientist and western USA explorer who lived two very separate lives, one in which everyone believed him to be single, and another in which he passed himself off as a black man from the West Indies and raised a black family in New York City. I've only read a few pages of the book but I continue to be fascinated by the man's story. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction this time.

Two new ARCs arrived this week (and I think there are at least six more due in the next few days):

The Chameleon Conspiracy by Haggai Carmon - This is an international thriller involving a master criminal, the Mossad, the CIA and sleeper agents.

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo - This one is to be published in June and involves a serial killer who has returned to haunt the same Amish community that he struck years earlier. The case is placed in the hands of a female Police Chief, Kate Burkholder, and it appears that this may be first book of a series. I've always been fascinated by the Amish lifestyle and could not resist this one when it was offered to me.

The last three of this weeks new adds come from my trip to Barnes & Noble this morning. It has been almost a month since I've seen the inside of a bookstore (can't remember the last time that happened), so I consider myself lucky to have only purchased three books today:

Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin -This one has been the number one bestseller on the NYT list almost from the moment it hit the shelves and it takes a long, hard look at where this country is headed based on our history, our constitution, and our dreams.

Restless by William Boyd - Boyd is one of my favorite writers and it's been way too long since I've last read him. This is a spy thriller with a nice twist: the spy is an old lady who has been a sleeper since the end of World War II and she needs the help of her daughter to carry out her last mission.

The Mickey Mantle Novel by Peter Golenbock - Golenbock is one of my favorite sportswriters and he knew Mantle, Martin, Pepitone, Bouton and the rest of that bunch when they were on top of the world. I am going to have to keep reminding myself that this one is fiction as I read it. It promises to be quite frank about the sexual escapades of those days and the like. The 1960 Yankees were the first team I ever closely followed as a kid and players from that era are still special to me.

And that's it for just this week. I don't add 8 books every week, but this is not all that unusual, really. I only read 2-3 books a week, so you can see the problem - but what a great problem to have. Life is sweet!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Alabama Library Suffers New Low in Vandalism

The Bay Minette, Alabama, public library has suffered one of the most despicable acts of vandalism imaginable. It is not only that $650 worth of books was destroyed - it is the type of books that were chosen for destruction and how they were destroyed that makes this crime particularly difficult to stomach.

From the website of WKRG News 5 (CBS):
The Bay Minette Police Department is investigating what they're calling one of most sickening cases they've ever been involved with. Somebody urinated on more than 40 books inside the public library. The books were worth 650 bucks...all of them were in the religious section. Books about Jesus Christ, Christmas and faith are covered in urine and are now worthless. Bay Minette's mayor says the act of vandalism was vile, sickening and unbelievable.

"It was disgusting," says Mayor Jamie Tillery. "It was an act of vandalism against the entire city. We will not tolerate vandalism of any sort."

Librarians filed a police report and put the damaged books inside plastic trash bags. The books will eventually be thrown out.

I suspect that this was done by a young person and not an adult. Either way, though, someone needs to pay the price here, including a good dose of public humiliation to make sure this kind of thing does not happen again.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Brothers from Different Mothers

2008's hottest new bluegrass act continues to shine in 2009 with the release of its second album, Brothers from Different Mothers. How hot were these guys last year? Just look at the list of IBMA trophies they took home:

Entertainer of the Year
Vocal Group of the Year
Male Vocalist of the Year (Jamie Dailey)
Album of the Year ("Dailey & Vincent")
Gospel Performance of the Year ("By the Mark")
Emerging Artist of the Year
Recorded Event of the Year (Everett Lilly project)

That is an armful of awards for a group of guys who have been performing together for only about eighteen months. Now, with the release of their second album, Dailey & Vincent prove that their 2008 success was no fluke.

Brothers from Different Mothers is all about traditional bluegrass music, a style lovingly embraced by Dailey & Vincent, and one at which they excel. The harmony on this album is simply spot on, whether it be in the form of duet, trio, or quartet, and there is not really a weak song in the twelve album cuts.

The guys cover all the bases.

There are Southern gospel songs, including one written by Jamie Dailey called "When I Reach That Home up There," perhaps one of the best bluegrass gospel songs I have ever heard - and a very special one, "On the Other Side," written by former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune. Background strings were added to this one at Darrin Vincent's suggestion and the strings set the perfect tone for this tearjerker of a feel good song (yes, there is such a thing).

The strength of Dailey & Vincent, of course, is their traditional sound and they prove here that they can sound as authentic and traditional on new material as they do on bluegrass classics. First-time listeners to "Winter's Come and Gone," the new song written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings will find it hard to believe that the song is not decades old. "Girl in the Valley," a Jamie Dailey song that Jamie also sings on Doyle Lawson's "You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper" album, further proves that bluegrass tradition is far from dead.

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent are real fans of the Statler Brothers and two Statler songs, "There Is You" and "Years Ago" are included here. "Years Ago," in particular, reminded me how great the Statlers were and Dailey & Vincent have inspired me to go back into my LP collection to recapture some of that great music. I was also pleased by the appearance of Statler Brother Harold Reed in his Lester "Road Hog" Moran persona, the first time that Reed has ever recorded with anyone other than the Statler Brothers or Johnny Cash.

Dailey and Vincent used their road band on the album (something that is not always done in country music): Jeff Parker on Mandolin, Adam Haynes on fiddle, and young Joe Dean on banjo. In addition they received contributions from an all-star band of musicians: Ron Block on banjo, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Tim Crouch and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Andy Leftwich on mandolin.

Yes, I'm enthusiastic about this album, but more important to me is the way that Dailey & Vincent are keeping tradition alive in a world in which tradition seems to be less and less important to people. There is still hope in this world gone mad.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Saints in Limbo

In every sense of the word, Velma True’s lifestyle on the outskirts of Echo, Florida, is an isolated one. The elderly woman has lost her husband, and her only child, Rudy, is a womanizer just barely aware of the day-to-day needs of his mother. Making things even harder, Velma suffers agoraphobia to such a degree that she can force herself out of her house only when her food supply runs dangerously low.

To Velma’s great surprise, a stranger approaches her on her birthday and leaves her with an astounding gift, something that can transport her so deeply inside her memories that she is able to relive them exactly as they happened to her the first time. She finds somewhat to her dismay, however, that not all of her visited memories are good ones and that she is unable to choose the portion of her past into which she will be immersed. Most disturbing of all, Velma learns that something very evil is out there - and that it is willing to do whatever it takes to gain possession of her gift.

Velma is not at all happy with what she sees as the pointlessness of her life. She worries about her son’s lack of ambition and his willingness to drift from one meaningless relationship to another. She knows that her oldest, and best, friend is growing impatient with her inability to go much more than a few feet from her front porch. Revisiting her past has filled her with regrets about what could have been and she has come to feel trapped “between what was and what is.”

As Velma becomes more comfortable with what is happening to her, she is surprised to find herself filled with hope that she can release the past and change the “what is” part of her life. Things rush to a rousing climax as a young stranger makes her way to Echo on a surprising pilgrimage of her own, the forces of evil gather for a final showdown with Velma, and her son shows her that meaningful change is still possible for a man like him.

Saints in Limbo
, in an uncommon fusion of styles, is part traditional Southern novel, part Christian fiction, part romance novel, and part gothic horror novel. Surprisingly, the combination works well, and readers will find it to be a thrilling story with a touching message. It will particularly appeal, I think, to those who enjoy the Christian fiction genre.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Random House Introduces Enhanced eBooks

Canada's National Post has word of a new development in eBooks that I find very interesting. Random House is releasing ten ebooks that have special features similar to those found on enhanced music CDs and DVDs. The catch is that the features do not work on any of today's eBook readers and no company seems ready to admit that they are developing an eReader that will be able to take advantage of the new-style eBooks. So, for now, these particular eBook volumes will have to be read from a desk computer or laptop, something I'm not sure that I would do unless the enhancements are very, very special.


From National Post:
The initiative, called Book and Beyond, launched yesterday. The ten titles in the series so far includes Lee Child's Nothing to Lose, which is packaged with an animated graphic novel and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, which gives the reader the option to listen or read the book as each chapter begins. The memoir of the Canadian metal band Anvil is also available, complete with a video interview with the band, and an enhanced version of an currently un-named Irving Welsh book is in the planning. What they do with that one could be interesting.
This could really be fun. Imagine, for instance, reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity in an enhanced eBook version that includes music from the record shop or debut novels that include interviews to introduce readers to new authors. Historical novels could be packaged with photographs, audio clips, and newspaper clippings from the time. The ideas are limitless.

Interestingly enough, a quick check of the internet indicates that the ten enhanced titles are now available in the U.K. but I have not found the same type link for purchase in the U.S. Perhaps the company is testing the market in the U.K. before making similar titles available in this country - or, just as likely, I overlooked a link.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Case Histories

Frankly, Case Histories is my kind of detective fiction. Over the last few years, I find more and more that I am bored with the traditional whodunit that asks the reader to identify the real murderer from the multiple suspects, clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout the novel. These days I much prefer novels that delve deeply into the character of the murderer, the victim, and the detectives alike. I am no longer satisfied with “who did it.” I absolutely need to know the “why” of things and what makes all the main characters tick – or stop ticking. Kate Atkinson has written a literary detective novel that takes exactly that approach.

Case Histories features Jackson Brodie, a former Cambridge police officer now making his living as a private detective who is growing very weary of following wives at the request of husbands who suspect them of infidelity. His own wife has taken their little girl and moved in with another man, and Jackson cannot shake the feeling that his work and his personal life have become uncomfortably similar. There is just no escape for him.

Jackson is near his breaking point when asked to look into three old murder and missing person cases by relatives of the victims, and he gratefully welcomes the change-of-pace offered by the new work. In short order, he is asked to look into the 1970 overnight disappearance of a three-year-old girl from the backyard tent she shared with an older sister, the 1994 seemingly random murder of an eighteen-year-old clerk in her father’s law office, and the 1979 ax-murder of a man in front of his toddler daughter who has now herself gone missing.

Jackson Brodie works the three cases simultaneously, following each thread wherever it leads him while becoming more and more personally involved in the lives of those who have hired him. In the process, Jackson even manages to find time for an elderly long-term client whose cats seem to be disappearing one-by-one, and to survive the efforts of someone who seems determined to kill him.

The beauty of Case Histories is how Atkinson tells her story. There is nothing straight-forward about her approach; she uses a combination of flashback and differing points-of-view to allow the reader to see events more than once, each time adding a little more detail or shading that will meaningfully change what has come before. Layer-by-layer, she builds humanly flawed characters and adds them to the mix in a way that they all come together at the end in a satisfying finale that ties all the loose ends together.

Kate Atkinson is a talented juggler of multiple plot lines and numerous characters and, with Case Histories, she has produced a very fine mystery/character study without losing control of any of them. This one demands a little patience but, in the end, is great fun.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, April 19, 2009

JG Ballard Dead at 78

Another literary giant, one who has been ill for a number of years, is gone. JG Ballard, who is probably best known for Empire of the Sun and the more recent Crash, died this morning in the U.K. of prostate cancer according to Sky News.

Ballard was a controversial writer and many readers found his work, especially books like Crash, to be shocking, even disgusting. I don't consider myself to be a fan of his work but I will always remember the experience of reading Empire of the Sun, his personal story about a little boy captured in Shanghai by the Japanese during World War II. Ballard was 12 years old when captured and placed in the camp where he would be held for the next three years.

JG Ballard will be long remembered.

Obama's Free Book

Book bloggers aren't the only ones who pick up "review copies" now and then. Even President Obama snagged one this weekend. Unfortunately for Obama, though, his freebie came directly from the hands of that Venezuelan Bozo, Hugo Chavez - and it's in Spanish.

AZCentral.com has the details:
President Barack Obama's advisers cited a long reading list and the fact he doesn't read Spanish as reasons he might not read the book Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave him Saturday: "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn't say whether Obama planned to read the book, which argues that Latin America "continues to work as a servant."
Can't wait to read the presidential review...yeah, right.

Michigan Library Will No Longer Lend Books

The state of Michigan, particularly hard hit by our current Great Recession, is being forced to consider cost-cutting ideas that would have been laughed off the table just a year or so ago. There is definitely room for cost-cutting at all levels of government, despite the fact that politicians always choose to raise taxes rather than to cut wasteful spending, but what one Michigan county has resorted to strikes me as very, very sad.

From the Chicago Tribune comes this story:
Macomb County's library, which is formally known as the Macomb County Reference and Research Center, will close May 1 to be renovated as classroom space for Wayne State University, The Detroit News reported Saturday.

The last day for people to check out materials was April 4, according to the library's Web site.

When it reopens, no materials will be lent. A portion of the building located about 17 miles northeast of Detroit in Clinton Township will be open to the public to use computers and reference materials.
...
The library's collection will be divided among Harrison Township and Mount Clemens. Harrison Township is getting 130,000 books, CDs and DVDs to start a volunteer-run library at the township hall.
I wholeheartedly applaud the idea of a volunteer-run library system in place of the county library but I have to doubt how long it will last and where the new books will come from when the old ones are worn out, lost, or simply out-of-date. We all know that there is enough waste, even at the county level, that can be cut so that something like this really does not need to happen.

Hang in there, Michigan. Take advantage of the 2010 local and national elections to vote out of office every single career politician you can because that's the only message these weasels understand.

Read-a-Thon - Finish

Just after Hour 18, about 1:15 a.m. Houston time, I came to the realization that it was going to be impossible for me to stay awake for the whole 24-hour read-a-thon and still be able to do any good for my father come Sunday morning when he was ready to start the day. So, I decided to cash in my chips and get some sleep (about five hours worth, and I'm good to go again).

My final page count came to 401, and although I did not finish either of the books I spent the day reading, I will definitely be finishing both of them in the next couple of days. I also discovered how great John Cheever's short stories are, and how different they are from his novels. Short stories, I think, were his true gifts to the world of literature.

This was great fun and I am thoroughly impressed with how well it was all organized and how much time and effort so many people put into making it work. You guys are all great and Dewey would be proud of each and every one of you. She was a very special woman in the world of book blogging, and you all are doing a wonderful thing by keeping her memory and her traditions alive.

Thank you all very much.

Sam

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Read-a-Thon - Fifteen-Hour Update

Things have quieted down a lot and I had a pretty good last three hours, having gotten about 60% of the way through the two novels I've been reading. Both stories have become much more interesting and the reading, as a result, is going a lot quicker and requiring a lot less of a conscious effort. Some books never reach that stage for me, so I feel lucky that both of these have now gotten there.

I have reached 370 total pages read, but I'm really getting sleepy now that my father has gone to bed for the night and he's turned off the Astros-Reds game (Astros - 7, Reds - 0). The next few hours will be a real willpower test.

Read-a-Thon - Twelve-Hour Update

Well, we've made it to half-time - 12 down and 12 to go.

The weather here has taken a dramatic change for the better although I see on the local news that there are real flooding problems just south of Houston. Up here, on the north side of the county, it is brighter outside at 7:00 p.m. than it's been all day.

During the last three hours, I split my reading between the two novels I've been reading all day and I think I'm finally getting into the reading rhythms of both authors.

Although I've completed neither book, and probably won't do so during this marathon reading session, my total page count has reached 287 (and that's already, by far, the most pages I've ever read in a single day).

I'm feeling pretty fresh at the moment but it will be interesting to see what happens when my normal bed time approaches in about three hours.

Read-a-Thon - Nine-Hour Update

This was an interesting three hours. The weather here is so bad that, at times, it is almost as dark outside as night time and that, plus the sound of raindrops hitting the roof, has made it extremely difficult to keep my eyes open,

Then I decided to go back to Case Histories for another chapter or two - and that made me even sleepier until I found the most uncomfortable chair in my father's house and sat up in that to read for the last hour. Now I'm not sleepy but my back hurts.

Oh well, maybe the pain will keep me awake long enough to add more pages to my total. It's hard to believe there are still 15 hours to go...what is going to happen to me when it really does get dark outside?

I read two more Cheever stories (I'm really enjoying those more than anything I've read today), another chapter from Saints in Limbo and a long chapter from Case Histories (which started to catch my interest again toward the end of the chapter).

But all of that effort, surrounded by a half-dozen very short catnaps, resulted in only 62 pages read in three hours, bringing my total for the day to 203 pages. Very obviously, my goal of 720 pages is rapidly slipping out of reach.

Read-a-Thon - Six-Hour Update

Six hours into the Read-a-Thon now, and I'm still using the "slow and steady approach" to pile up a few more pages. I reached the point where I needed a change of reading material in order to give myself a little boost - the Atkinson novel was starting to drag and I found myself actively disliking two of the book's main characters (not something to make me want to keep turning pages).

I went back to the Cheever collection and luckily chose a really good thirteen-page short story of his called "The Sutton Place Story" in which a little rich girl wanders away from her babysitter and gets lost in NYC. I tell you what - Cheever packed more emotion and great characters into those thirteen pages than I found in over 90 pages of Case History. The man was definitely a master of the short story form and I think many of them are better than any of his novels.

I've also dipped into Saints in Limbo and find its style to be an easily read one but, after 2o pages, I'm still not hooked by the plot.

Anyway, after six hours (and eighteen to go!) I have read a total of 141 pages that includes segments of two novels and two John Cheever short stories.

Here comes hour 7...

Read-a-Thon - Three-Hour Update

We're three hours into the 2009 Read-a-Thon and I'm off to a pretty slow start so far. I suppose I'm not doing too badly considering that I've fixed breakfast for two, cleaned up the mess, and worked in a trip to the barber during these three hours.

This is what I've actually accomplished on the reading end:

58 total pages that include one Cheever short story (The Chaste Clarissa) and a good start in Atkinson's Case Histories (I've read the three cases now and am starting the fourth chapter).

I'm hoping to pick up the pace a bit during the next hour - the Atkinson book is slowly drawing me in and now I can't wait to see how the three cases are tied together the rest of the way through. I've heard pretty good things about the book and it's not disappointing me at all to this point.

Onward to hour 4.

24-Hour Read-a-Thon

Hour 1

Well, here I am with all my good intentions in tow to begin this year's Read-a-Thon.

I'm reading from my father's house where I've been staying for the last 9 days as he recovers from a 9-day stay in the hospital. The weather here is cool and wet - we had some really heavy rain come through the area yesterday evening - perfect reading weather.

I don't have any particular goals for the next 24-hours other than to cram in a whole lot of reading in between whatever needs to be done during the day and night for my father - meal prep, dispensing meds, etc. Honestly, I don't know what to expect and I wonder how many hours I'll make it before crashing.

I have six books here with me and I expect to be changing from one to the other every couple of hours, hopefully finishing at least one, maybe two of them, during the day.

Two of the books are ARCs I received this week:


Rooftops of Tehran - Mahbod Seraji
Saints in Limbo - River Jordan

Two are books that have been in my TBR for a while:

Father and Son - Larry Brown
Case Histories - Kate Atkinson

One is a book I've been stuck on for a few days, finding the writing style a bit tough to handle:

The Glenn Miller Conspiracy - Hunton Downs

The last is the Library of America collection of John Cheever short stories

So here we go.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fidali's Way

I have been immersed in Fidali’s Way, the debut novel of George Mastras, for almost a week because of the strong sense of place that Mastras gives his story of an American inadvertently caught up in the present-day conflict between Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists. Mastras very successfully places a human face on those involved in a tragic struggle (on both sides) that is little more than headline news to most of the rest of the world.

Nick Sunder, an attorney who became disillusioned by the dark impact of some of his courtroom victories, has been backpacking in Central Asia for a while before he joins up with a beautiful French girl and her British boyfriend. When the young woman is found murdered, Nick is arrested and tortured by the Pakistani police who want him to confess to the murder. Nick makes a narrow escape from the police, implicating himself in another crime in the process, and makes a run for India.

On the run and near death from exposure, Nick chances upon two of his former cellmates who, despite knowing nothing about Nick, offer to lead him to the relative safety of Indian-occupied Kashmir - a danger-filled walk of several days he barely survives.

But Nick Sunder is only part of the story. In alternating sections of the book, Mastras tells of a very special woman who grew up in the very village toward which Nick is headed and of the little boy who grew up there to become a ruthless muhajideen leader fighting the Indian army for possession of his part of Kashmir. Aysha, even as a child, was considered to be the village healer, and she grew up to become one of the few female medical doctors in her part of the world. Her fiancé, Kazim went a different way, choosing radical jihad over marriage to the beautiful Aysha, a decision both would continue to regret.

Their paths were destined to cross, and what happens when Nick, Aysha, and Kazim come together is at the heart of this beautiful and brutal story. The climax of the book, when personal grudges, religious fanaticism and rabid nationalism clash at the clinic run by Aysha to the benefit of Indians and Pakistanis, alike, illustrates the ultimate futility and folly of religious warfare in a way that readers will long remember.

George Mastras is a good storyteller and his knowledge of the remote part of the world in which he sets Fidali’s Way is impressive. His characters are complex enough that their motivations, decisions and regrets are believable, and readers will find themselves thinking about Nick, Aysha, Kazim, and Nick’s two guides long after they have finished the book. I did, however, find the book’s final resolution (during which Nick discusses the French girl’s murder with her British boyfriend) to be rushed, leaving me with the sense that it was tacked on simply as an attempt to tie up any of the story’s remaining loose ends. The unlikelihood of the two meeting under the circumstances described, reminded me that I was reading fiction just when I wanted to forget that.

Overall, this is a very fine thriller, especially for an author’s first time out of the gate.

Rated at: 4.0

Dewey's 24-Hour Read-a-Thon

Despite being more than a bit sleep-deprived for the past two weeks, I've decided to check in with Dewey's 24-Hour Read-a-Thon tomorrow. I'm still sitting with my father as he recuperates from pneumonia, so I have some time on my hands - if I can just keep my eyes open.

I've wanted to do this before, but the first two events happened on weekends during which I was out of state attending music festivals (in Kentucky) so this is a first for me. I'm so unprepared, in fact, that I only have one book here that I haven't read. It's a long one, though - a collection of every John Cheever short story ever published. I doubt my ability to read nothing but Cheever in such a concentrated dose, so I'll have to slip out and find some backups that will offer a little more variety.

I seriously doubt that I'll be up for anything near 24 hours straight, but I'm looking forward to the experience. If I read the time schedule correctly, it all starts at 7:00 a.m., Houston-time.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Sound of Music in an Antwerp Train Station

The internet is filled with mysteries like this one. Now I know that T-Mobile has done something similar in commercials and I'm thinking that this is possibly something they are using as a commercial in Europe - and, then again, maybe not.

Whatever it is, though, it is fun and if you haven't seen it yet, it's worth a look:



If anyone knows the details behind this Antwerp production, please share them here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

When a Kindle Turns Into a Brick

Happy Tax Day to My Fellow Patriotic Americans

Just before I push the button that will finalize my 2008 Federal Income Tax return, I want to thank all the other patriotic Americans out there who are doing the same - or have already done so. Since our somewhat comical Vice-President links paying taxes with true patriotism and "stepping up to the plate," I think we should be proud of ourselves today.

To especially make you proud of being even more patriotic than the average American, based on Biden's definition of the word, here's something from Reason.TV that puts it all into perspective. I'll bet you didn't realize just how patriotic you and your family are until you saw this:



(I don't mean to offend anyone...well, other than VP Joe, that is - just have to laugh a little or I'm going to end up with a rather soggy check to the IRS.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Echo Park

That Echo Park is my first experience with a Michael Connelly novel is a little hard for me to believe since it is at least the seventh or eighth Harry Bosch novel that I’ve purchased over the years. I’ve been aware of Connelly’s success for a very long time, and even ran into him at a Houston bookstore when he was signing one of his first Harry Bosch books. But, read him, I had not done until now, so it was probably not a great idea for me to start with the twelfth book in the series - too much water under the bridge for Harry, his co-workers, his lovers (past and present), his friends and his enemies.

That is not to say that Echo Park does not work well as a standalone novel, because it does stand just fine on its own. It is more the feeling I got that so much had already happened between some of the book’s main characters that Connelly did not feel it necessary to fully develop them again in Echo Park. But I’m not discouraged - I now plan to read the rest of the series in the order in which the books were written.

Harry Bosch, now almost 60 years old, has returned to the LAPD where he works cold cases, some of which he has been working off and on for years, a few even from home before he rejoined the department. Harry was never able to forget the Marie Gesto case involving a young woman, assumed murdered, whose body was never found. All Gesto left behind was an empty apartment and the neatly folded set of clothing found on the seat of her car.

Harry has a favorite suspect for the crime and periodically pushes on the man until a lawyer forces him to stay away from the suspect. When Harry is notified that someone else is willing to confess to the Gesto murder as part of a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, he is slow to give up on his favorite suspect. It is only when serial killer Reynard Waits leads the police to where Gesto’s body was hidden more than a decade before that Harry begins to believe that the real killer has been found.

His instincts have served Harry well through the years, however, and his sense of unease about what he is told about Gesto’s murder keeps him poking around the edges of the case until he becomes certain that there is much more to the plea bargain than he has been told.

The Harry Bosch of Echo Park is a borderline rogue cop, a guy determined to see justice done, department rules, be damned. He is willing to risk not only his own life, but the life of his FBI lover, Rachel Walling, if it means that he gets his man. Echo Park is a textbook police procedural, even if Bosch does not always follow accepted police procedure, but it is also quite a thriller, encompassing an exciting manhunt and showdown that bring out both the best, and the worst, in Harry Bosch.

Bosch seems to be a good cop trying to get by because it is all he knows how to do. It will be interesting to see how Harry ages as the series continues to move along, but first I am going to visit the much younger Harry Bosch from 1992’s The Black Echo to see how different he was as a cop close to 20 years younger than the one in Echo Park. It should be an interesting trip.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon Steps In It Big Time

Wow, it looks like Amazon.com really stepped in it today - and made an even bigger mess when it tried to scrape it off the bottom of its shoes. I'm not one who generally believes in conspiracy theories or cover-ups, but something does seem to smell about the massive de-ranking Amazon did of "adult books," many, if not most, of which fall under the "gay and lesbian" banner. Amazon is claiming this was all part of some kind of super systems glitch and that rankings for the pulled books are being restored as we speak. Some are buying the excuse - most, though, don't seem ready to let Amazon off the hook that easily.

The best recap of the situation I've seen anywhere comes from Jezebel.com. Check this out; it is fascinating regardless of how this all happened, and I have to wonder how this blunder will affect Amazon book sales - at least in the short term.

This will make a great MBA case study some day.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

New Pat Conroy Novel - Available for Pre-Order Now


Someone anonymously commented here a few days ago that Amazon.com is accepting pre-orders for the new Pat Conroy novel, South of Broad, for which so many of us have been anxiously waiting.

Because Pat Conroy is one of my favorite writers, and because the number of hits I get every time I post about Conroy indicates that I am just one of his many thousands of fans, I want to share that bit of good news today. So, for those who want to order this one early, here's where you can probably get the best deal, at least for now:




And, also from Amazon, comes the first synopsis of the book that I've seen:
Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a well-known Joyce scholar. After Leo's older brother commits suicide at the age of thirteen, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X; and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades-from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, and Charleston's dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for South of Broad is Pat Conroy at his finest; a long-awaited work from a great American writer whose passion for life and language knows no bounds.

...can't wait.

A Publishing Revolution

I doubt that anything has changed the world more in the last decade than the emergence of the internet. Think about how the ready availability of the internet has changed so much of what we do every day in: personal and business communication, banking, study, research, shopping, voting, paying taxes, etc. Everything has been so impacted, sometimes for the good and sometimes not, that it is hard to remember what pre-internet life was like.

I was reminded this morning of how much the world of publishing has changed in the last several years by this Houston Chronicle article on the emergence of "self-publishing," a change I enthusiastically applaud:
Long derided as the “vanity press,” self-publishing often has been synonymous with pet projects by wealthy people who could afford the hefty fees for committing their life stories to print.

But the Internet has dramatically changed that. For a nominal fee, writers today can upload their stories and photos to a Web site and contract with a company to design, publish and distribute books to online retailers. The companies print copies as demand dictates.

Online retailers also act as salespeople of sorts.
...
The process is not without drawbacks.

For one thing, the self-publishing companies do not have the distribution capabilities of, say, Random House and other giants that can promote their titles and get them into every brick-and-mortar Barnes and Noble in the country.

And then there’s the stigma. If a book is any good, the thinking goes, why can’t the author find anyone to publish it?

Traditionally, literary agents have been entrusted with weeding out the bad stuff. Without that vetting processing, many people assume that self-published work is substandard.

“People hear self-publishing and expect to see a lot of typographical errors,” said Taylor, a former Houston Post reporter who handled his own editing and proofreading for the book.

As a result, he acknowledged, newspaper book review sections have generally paid little attention to self-published books.

That is slowly changing.
The article focuses on one local author but what it has to say about self-published books has to be encouraging to anyone who has suffered the frustration of trying to find an agent or otherwise attract the attention of a traditional publisher.

In fact, several of my favorite novels and short story collections of 2007-2009 have been self-published efforts - proving (to me, at least) my theory that publishers are more interested in selling commercial trash than in publishing good literature. Thank goodness so many good writers have found a way to beat the system, but now the next step in the process needs to happen. Agents who have a bit of common sense or imagination should be looking at self-published novels as a way to scout new talent or to place self-published books with major publishers. It's a win-win situation for everyone: writer, publisher, bookstore, and reader.

Come on, guys, get with the program.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Middle-Aged Man & the Sea

Nine of the thirteen stories in this first Christopher Meeks short story collection were first published in journals and literary magazines around the country, and anyone reading this little book will certainly understand why that happened. Meeks has a particular talent for getting into the heads of his characters and taking their doubts and concerns as seriously as the characters themselves take them. As a result, readers of Chris Meeks stories do the same.

Not all of these stories are about middle-aged people; some of the main characters are in their twenties, some in their thirties, but they have all reached a place where uneasiness about the future dominates their lives.

The stories are about relationships – between marriage partners, between couples choosing to live together rather than marry, between daters, and between family members of different generations. There are men and women unhappy about what their marriages have become, older men being pressured into marriage by younger women who are becoming more and more desperate to get it done, and older people simply trying to die with a little dignity. Some of the stories are funny, some are touching and sad, and one of them has a Hitchcock-like ending. What all the stories have in common, though, is the ease with which the reader slips into and out of them, along the way learning something about himself and his own state of mind.

My personal favorite, “Nike Had Nothing to Do with It,” is an ironic tale about a man who heads out on a run to relieve his anger after the mother of his newborn daughter announces that their relationship is no longer working. What happens next is not what either of them expected when the day began.

Particularly touching are the stories about dying, “Dear Ma,” in which an old woman hides more and more in her past as her days run out, and “The Rotary,” in which a loyal and loving grandson receives an unexpected gift at his grandfather’s deathbed. Meeks, however, manages to make serious points even when he uses humor in his stories. “Divining” is about a man who has become so “Californicated” that, even in all of his weirdness, he believes that he is the normal one and the rest of the world is out of step. And, in “Shooting Funerals,” another of my favorites, a 38-year-old woman tries to reinvent herself by becoming the world’s first “funeral photographer” – and is honestly surprised by the reaction she gets on her first job.

The Middle-Aged Man & the Sea is a very fine short story collection and I highly recommend it, especially to those readers who might be dipping seriously into the short story genre for the first time.

This modern day collection is an excellent place to start.

Rated at: 5.0


Friday, April 10, 2009

National Free Comic Book Day - May 2

It's that time of year again - when free comic books will be handed out at comic book stores all across the country - so it's time to locate a store near you and make plans to be there early enough to snag one of the freebies. This year it happens on May 2.

Details come from Business Wire:
May 2nd, the day after X-Men Origins: Wolverine hits theaters, thousands of comic book retailers across North America and around the world will share the magic of comics with their customers when they give out over two million comic books free of charge during Free Comic Book Day.

Comic book heavyweights Dark Horse Comics, DC Comics, Image Comics, and Marvel Comics are among the many publishers creating special titles for this year's Free Comic Book Day, the eighth year for the annual event. The free books appeal to a broad range of tastes, from exciting super-hero adventures for all ages to cutting-edge graphic fiction for everyone.
Check here to locate a participating shop near you - and take the kids or grandkids out for some comic book excitement.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Major Bookstore Chains See Sales Fall Again

According to Publisher's Weekly, the three major chains had such a devastating fourth quarter of 2008 that overall 2008 sales fell more than five percent from those of 2007:
Dragged down by a horrible fourth quarter, in which sales fell 9.0%, total revenue for the country's three major chains fell 5.4% in 2008, to $8.9 billion. This is the first year that their combined annual sales have fallen since Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-A-Million came to dominate the retail book market. In 2007, sales rose 2.7%, despite a weak holiday season.
Borders seems still to be suffering the biggest decline in year-to-year comparisons: down 8.9% for the whole year and 13.8% in the fourth quarter comparison. Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, is down 3.1% for the year and 6.2% for the quarter. Books-A-Million is down 4.1% for the year but had the best fourth quarter results of the three chains, only falling 2.5% as compared to 2007's fourth quarter.

I suppose that the economy is having such an impact on discretionary spending that bookstores are certain to feel it. I know that I've purchased considerably fewer books in the last six months than in any six month period in several years - and that's a psychological thing. Since I feel poorer than I have in years and because it is impossible to ignore all of the negative economic news about at least the near-term future, I have, almost subconciously, cut back on spending for just about everything. I search hard for book bargains - and the library is my best friend.

I hope the chains survive this mess, but if they don't, I can easily believe that someone will be there to pick up the pieces when the economy takes off again - and that a new chain or two will be born.

Children's Book Author Accused of Trading in Child Pornography

This is one of the more bizarre news items I've seen in the last few weeks but, if you really think about it, it may not be all that surprising. In fact, it reminds me of all those stories about Cub Scout pack leaders who turn out to be child molesters.

K.P. Bath is accused in Portland, Oregon, of writing books for the very age group of children for which he also seems to have a perverted sexual interest. This is from the OregonLive.com:

A federal prosecutor said Bath spent the past few years writing children's books as he actively traded illegal photos and videos with other accused collectors. In one of his online chats, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Sussman, Bath wrote, "I'm glad there are molesters out there" because they supplied images of children being sexually violated by adults.

In an online chat with another accused child porn collector, Bath wrote, "I wish a 9 yr old was doing that to me," Sussman told the courtroom. "This," he added, "from a man who's writing books for 9-year-olds."

Bath fell under suspicion of federal agents in recent years when two agencies -- the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE -- began independent investigations of the author's alleged trading of child pornography.

Sussman told the courtroom Monday that when ICE agents searched Bath's home last June, seizing a Compaq Presario computer, portable memory devices and DVDs, they found movie clips of children -- some of them bound -- crying as they were sexually abused.
Bath has now lost his publishing deal with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and will have to look for a new publisher for the book that the New York publisher has taken off its Fall 2010 schedule.

This kind of thing, if the charges stick, is more than disgusting; it is scary for parents, especially for those who may have taken their children to a book signing of Bath's or might be wondering if he visited local schools to promote his books. Wow...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Magdalen Martyrs

The Magdalen Martyrs is the third book in Ken Bruen’s addicting (pun intended) Jack Taylor series and for me it was the book that finally caught me up on the series to-date. I mention this only because of the way my knowledge of the future of a few of the characters in The Magdalen Martyrs might have affected my reaction to the roles they play in this book.

Jack Taylor, by many standards, is an awful man. He is no stranger to violence - an alcoholic, a user of hard drugs both recreationally (including during sex) and to escape his troubles, not a man to be taken lightly. By other standards, though, Jack is a good and an interesting man. He will not walk blindly past a father publicly abusing his child; he respects the elderly for their experience; he is loyal to the core when it comes to old friends and old haunts; he is a literate man who knows history and loves books as much as physical objects as for what is inside them. Jack is also smart enough to know that he has caused most of his own problems in life but not smart enough to change the habits that keep him in so much trouble.

When Bill Cassell, an Irish mobster to whom Jack owes a personal favor, asks him to find the woman who helped Cassell’s mother escape the old Magdalen laundry decades earlier, Jack gets busy because he knows that no one refuses Bill Cassell and lives to talk about it. The Magdalen, once a church-run home for promiscuous young women, was staffed by nuns, one of whom, in particular, took delight in physically abusing the girls as punishment for their promiscuity. A few of the girls died at this woman’s hands, so to have escaped the Magdalen for a new life on the outside was akin to a clean jailbreak.

The Magdalen Martyrs is about fighting demons and there is no one better equipped to battle demons than Jack Taylor, be they demons from the present, from his past, or even from before he was born. Taylor, while simultaneously working two separate investigations, confronts the evils of the long-gone Magdalen laundry, his own multiple addictions, his violent temper, his intense hatred of his elderly mother, and his contempt for his mother’s pet priest, the odious Father Malachy – among other demons.

As always, a Jack Taylor novel is more about the man than the cases he works – exactly what keeps fans of the series coming back for more. Despite his many flaws, Jack Taylor is an easy man to like, and I wholeheartedly recommend the entire Jack Taylor series to readers who enjoy delving into an intriguing character to the depth that a long series, such as this one has become, allows.

Readers with the stomach for dark, hardcore action simply will not want to miss Jack Taylor.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, April 06, 2009

How Much Should an eBook Cost?

What is a fair price for an eBooK? Should Sony and Amazon charge more than the price of a paperback for an eBook considering that eBooks are delivered with numerous restrictions as to how they may be used? Are eBook customers being asked to over-subsidize the cost of physical copies? A group of Kindle2 owners thinks so - as noted by Gadget Lab (entire article):
"It just doesn't seem right," says Crystal O'Brien, a Connecticut librarian who bought a Kindle last year. For the last few days, O'Brien has spent a few minutes every day in the Kindle book store tagging the more expensive digital books with the '9 99 boycott' tag and removing it once the price drops below the threshold.

"You are not getting something you can lend out to other people, you are not getting a physical item," says O'Brien. "So you shouldn't have to pay so much for a digital copy."
...
But O'Brien says that the $10 price is just one part of the story. Looking back at her history of purchases on Amazon she has found prices of e-books steadily creeping up.

"Some of the Kindle books now cost more than their paperback version," she says. For instance, she points out that she purchased a digital copy of Small Favor, a book by Jim Butcher for $10 in June last year. The Kindle price then jumped to $13.94 and is now back to $8. A paperback version of the book costs $10.
...
O'Brien and other Kindle users who have joined the revolt have used the boycott tag more than 7,200 times so far. "It doesn't take that much time to do, and it sends out a message," she says.

Kindle books are limited in their use: They cannot be donated to a library, sold to a used-book store or even Amazon's used marketplace or traded elsewhere. In addition, some books are badly designed and offer little pictorial or other kind of visual relief, they say.

Personally, I do feel a bit ripped-off every time I purchase an eBook for much over ten bucks because I prefer a hard copy anyway, and I can often find one for pretty near what the electronic copy cost me. I understand that marketing costs, royalties, and the like, have to be prorated across all of a book's sales volume, but still something bothers me about paying near regular book cost for an electronic book that can so easily disappear or become corrupted. And I absolutely detest the DRM technology that keeps me from freely using something that I buy. I don't buy music that way and I likely won't be buying many more crippled books either. (I don't mean to sound grumpy tonight but Big Brother and my new Nanny State Federal government really tick me off.)

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Finding Grace

I have to admit that I was a bit hesitant to accept the opportunity to read and review Donna VanLiere's Finding Grace. Frankly, I have read very little in the Christian Fiction genre and I watch almost no television, so I was completely unaware of VanLiere's books or the movies made from them. However, I am definitely a fan of memoirs and something about her personal story made me curious to read what she had to say about her life and how she arrived at the point she is today.

Finding Grace is an inspirational story - probably more meaningful today even than when VanLiere was writing it, in fact, because of the way people all across the country, and the world, are being tested by the horrible economic crisis we all face. Thousands of jobs are lost everyday, along with the benefits attached to those jobs, such as health insurance, and parents are under tremendous pressure to maintain some sense of normality for their children.

Donna VanLiere shares her own story - and her theory that "broken dreams," the shattering of our expectations of the life for which we believed ourselves to have been destined, are the "launch pad to growth." VanLiere, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of two perverted young neighbor boys as a child, had her innocence stolen so early that she spent most of her life questioning God about his absence when she most needed His help. As an adult, her dream was to marry and raise a family of her own but her dream plan was shattered by her inability to c0nceive despite spending thousands of dollars and several years trying to right the problem.

It was only when she recognized that God had a different plan for her, adoption, that VanLiere reached what she considers to be a state of grace in her life. Now she wants to share her insights and experiences with others who may be struggling with their own faith as a result of the difficulties they face in their lives. VanLiere's message is one of hope - that when life is at its darkest is the perfect time to open one's heart to an alternative plan, one that just might be what was meant to be all along. VanLiere defines "grace" as "when you get something you don't deserve." It is a gift that you have to do nothing to earn because God wants you to have it, the kind of gift you may not even recognize until long after having received it.

Finding Grace will definitely offer hope to those in turmoil about their immediate futures - but it also reminds that life is a long journey with many crossroads, and peaks and valleys, along the way. The most important thing to remember, according to Donna VanLiere, is that it is never too late to accept the grace that is always there for the taking.

Rated at: 3.5

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Majors Books - 100 Years and Counting

I’m sitting in a local hospital with my dad who is suffering a severe case of double-pneumonia – a fairly dangerous situation for an 87-year-old. He’s having a bad reaction to some of the medicine so I will be here indefinitely, it seems (as I have been since Thursday afternoon). The good news, though, is that the hospital has a nice WiFi server working and I’ll be able to keep myself from going completely stir-crazy by making good use of the tiny Acer Eee PC that I bought a couple of months ago.

That said, I noticed an interesting article in the Houston Chronicle this morning about one of Houston's most unique independent bookstores, Majors Books. Majors is located in the heart of the Houston Medical Center area and has served the medical profession down there very well since 1954. According to the article, though, Majors was actually founded in Dallas over 100 years ago. Obviously things are tougher for Majors in this Amazon.com age, but the stores have adapted and are hanging on pretty nicely.

From the Houston Chronicle:

In the age of Amazon.com, it’s hard being a family-owned bookstore. But Majors Books has managed to survive for a century by offering special services to its customers, opening the store to events and adapting to the online world.

It resembles a model that the American Booksellers Association believes other independent bookstores should follow if they want to survive in this digital age of Kindles and iPods, where books can be purchased and downloaded in seconds.

Majors’ two stores, in Houston and Dallas, are among the largest medical bookstores in the U.S. Majors also sells medical equipment and scrubs.

Despite the emergence of medical information on the Internet, many health science professionals still prefer a book, said Roger Torres, the Houston store’s general manager.

“They still want to hold and feel a book, particularly the older doctors,” he said. “Just being able to pull out that book when you need it.”
...
Majors’ Houston and Dallas stores post combined annual sales in the $6 million range, he said.

“The online challenge to independent bookstores is still strong,” stronger than what they face from major bookstore chains, said Meg Smith, spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association.

“The independents still doing well have strong ties to the community and regularly hold events in the stores,” she said.
I've lived in Houston 37 years and have never been inside Majors Books - but I would grieve its loss to the community. Judging strictly by the tone of this article, Majors will be around for years to come..deservedly so, I think.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Woodsburner

Only one year before the move to Walden Pond that would result in his literary masterpiece, Henry David Thoreau had a very different experience with the rustic environment near his Concord, Massachusetts home. In a careless attempt to start a cooking fire under unusually dry circumstances, Thoreau watched helplessly as a strong wind spread his small fire, and as almost 300 acres of the Concord Woods were destroyed. In fact, if not for the efforts of the townspeople, Concord itself might have burned to the ground.

John Pipkin looks at this surprising incident from Henry David Thoreau’s personal history through the eyes of Thoreau and several fictional characters in his strong debut novel, Woods Burner. In the process of creating a back-history for each of his main characters, Pipkin provides a revealing look at Massachusetts society of the 1840s and theorizes on how Thoreau’s mistake heavily influenced the rest of his life and career.

Pipkin uses three main characters other than Thoreau: Eliot Calvert, a bookstore owner who considers himself a budding playwright; Reverend Caleb Dowdy, a radical preacher who plans to build a new church in the Concord Woods; and Oddmund Hus, a simple Norwegian immigrant farmhand who works on one of the small farms surrounded by the woods.

Surprisingly enough, this novel of almost 370 pages takes place in just one real-time day, beginning shortly before Thoreau and his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar, make the fatal decision to turn some of their fresh catch into fish chowder, and ending not long after the locals finally manage to control the runaway fire. Pipkin uses the bulk of his novel to illustrate the 1840s lifestyle by creating detailed backgrounds for his three main characters, each of whom has an interesting story worthy of its own novel.

Circumstances bring Pipkin’s characters together in a way, and at a pace, that allows the reader to gain a clear picture of Massachusetts life of the period at several different societal levels. The novel also offers insight into how Thoreau’s budding environmental concerns were strengthened and focused by what happened to him and his friend in the Concord Woods that day – suggesting, perhaps, that tragedy oftentimes produces positive change.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Will Sony Stiff PRS-500 Owners?

Those who follow technology news, particularly as it regards the various ebook readers on the market, will recall Sony's recent announcement of a partnership with Google that will provide free access to 500,000 copyright-free books on the Sony Reader. I was happy to see the announcement and anticipated downloading lots of classic or out-of-print books to my Sony Reader.

Silly me - that service is only available on Sony's newer readers. Owners of Sony's PRS-500 (I'm guessing there are at least 200,000 of us out there), the first Sony Reader, cannot take advantage of the new service because the PRS-500 software is not compatible with the Google-provided ebooks. Admittedly, I am not a software engineer and have absolutely no programming skills - but how difficult can it be to make updated software available for download from the Sony website that will let Sony's loyal early-adaptors participate in this new bonanza?

I wish I had an answer to that question, and I would certainly share it if I did, but I cannot get Sony to give me the courtesy of a response to my email asking them what their plans might be to add a little value and usefulness to my PRS-500. That's despite their email thanking me for my interest...blah, blah, blah...

Honestly, I love the little gadget and use it on those occasions when a book is too bulky to carry with me. I own dozens of ebooks and have traveled all over the world with my Sony Reader. Despite all the travel I've done with the reader, it still looks new and works as well today as it did several years ago when I first purchased it. It does not need replacing right now, but one day it will. Whether or not I go with Sony again over the Kindle II (or whatever the latest gadget happens to be at the time) will at least partially depend on what Sony does to share this book bounty with all of its customers - not just the latest ones to jump on the ebook bandwagon.

A word to the wise, Sony Corporation: loyalty is a two-way street.