Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Home, Away

Baseball fans, do I have a book for you! Jeff Gillenkirk’s Home, Away is one of the best baseball novels I have ever read - and I have read a bunch of them. (I enjoyed this book so much that I actually used an exclamation point at the end of my first sentence, something I swore I would never do.) I realize that not everyone out there is a sports fan and that baseball-based novels do not appeal to every reader, but this is more than a sports novel. It is also one of the better love stories I have read in a while, although in this case, it is a story about the love a father has for his only son.

Jason Thibodeaux never really knew his own father, an offshore oil rig worker who was killed in a European rig explosion. Long before his sudden death, Jason’s father would disappear for months at a time, leaving the boy to grow up as if he had no father of his own. Jason, though, shared a love of baseball with his wandering father and he inherited great physical skills from the man. He also decided that he would never neglect his own children the way his father had neglected him. What Jason Thibodeaux never expected, however, was that he would have a son of his own by the time he turned twenty-one.

A star baseball player at Stanford University, and on the brink of a professional career, Jason has a one-night stand with a Stanford law student that leaves her pregnant with his son, Raphael (Rafe). Jason puts his senior season on hold so that he can care for the baby while Vicki completes law school and prepares for the bar exam. Then, just when he is ready to return to baseball, he discovers that his marriage is over and that Vicki is leaving him - and taking Rafe with her. Jason and Vicki will spend the next several years battling over their son, distracting Jason from his baseball career and earning him the reputation among baseball people as a “head case,” a player best avoided.

Through it all, though, Jason’s love for his son never wavers and, with Rafe’s best interests always in mind, he makes the toughest choices imaginable, including one that will see him walk away from a multi-year professional baseball contract worth more than $40 million. Rafe needs a father – and Jason is determined to be there for him.

Home, Away offers a bleak look at what happens to a family when divorce gets ugly because both parents believe only they can offer their children the best future. Jason and Vicki will spend years viciously fighting each other over their son and, of course, no one will suffer more from their fighting than the boy they both claim to love best. It is only when Rafe is on the brink of completely ruining his life that his parents will finally admit to themselves that it will take both of them to save him.

But the best part of Home, Away is the baseball insider’s look it presents of the game as Jason makes his way through several different major league teams. Gillenkirk’s game descriptions are first rate, and his insights into the war between pitcher and batter place the reader inside the heads of both. Particularly enjoyable are the segments taking place in Mexico, a country within which Jason manages to create the surrogate family that will help keep him sane during his darkest hours.

Baseball fans are certain to find themselves enthralled by the last forty or so pages of the book, and love story fans will likely feel the same about the books final three. Do not miss this one.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kagan Is OK with Law Banning Books - Because It Will Never Happen Anyway

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan has the gall to argue that a law allowing governmental book banning is OK because "it would never be applied" anyway. Is this woman actually that naive? Is Kagan the best we can come up with for another lifetime appointment to the most important bench in the country?

You tell me:




Kagan places the burden on us to challenge any federal book banning. This woman is dangerously naive - or dangerously stupid. Listen to the sitting Supreme Court justices respond in horror to what this she is saying in her argument before that court.

"This statute covers it, but don't worry, the FEC has never done it." Oh, now I feel much better, Ms. Kagan...ridiculous.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Far Cry

It is often said there is no greater pain than that stemming from the loss of a child. When such a loss is compounded by the uncertainty of that child’s fate, the emotional pain suffered by those left behind is so great that their own survival is threatened. Marriages often fail, emotional breakdowns are common, and some parents, believing there is no longer anything to live for, take their own lives. This is the territory visited in Far Cry, John Harvey’s latest story featuring DI Will Grayson and his sometime partner, DS Helen Walker.

Detective Grayson is not happy to hear that Mitchell Roberts, a creepy pedophile he helped bring to justice, is being given an early release from prison. Grayson becomes so obsessive about his determination to protect his community from Roberts that he is willing to place his own future in jeopardy in order to keep Roberts from offending again. Despite his borderline tactics, including public humiliation, harassment, and physical contact, Grayson soon learns, however, that Mitchell Roberts will not be intimidated so easily. But when a young girl goes missing, and Grayson is put in charge of the investigation, he knows exactly where he wants to start.

It is 1995. Simon and Ruth Pierce, off on a mini-vacation to France after having reluctantly agreed to let their daughter accompany another family on holiday to Cornwall, receive a phone call telling them that she has gone missing there on a freakishly foggy evening. The Pierces will never see their daughter alive again.

Flash forward to the present. The Pierce marriage has not survived the tragedy of Heather’s death but Ruth is remarried and she and her second husband are raising their own young daughter, Beatrice. Simon, as far as Ruth knows, lives alone and has managed to piece together a new life for himself, however lonely that life might be. Astonishingly, Beatrice has now gone missing and Detective Grayson wonders what the odds against one woman losing both of her daughters to human predators, more than a decade apart, must be.

Far Cry is a nicely crafted police procedural but its real strength springs from the characters with which John Harvey has peopled his story. Harvey’s two investigators are not typical of popular detective fiction and, in fact, seem to share roles exactly opposite what most readers by now will have come to expect from the genre. Will Grayson has a good marriage and he looks forward to returning to his two children and their mother at the end of the workday. Helen Walker, on the other hand, plays the role of the loner prone to too much drinking and shaky decisions regarding her choice of sexual partners. Helen’s willingness to get involved with married men and to enjoy the occasional one - night stand leaves Will cold and he worries about her.

Ruth Pierce is a well developed character whose struggle to maintain her sanity can be disturbing to watch. She is a woman with secrets, particularly the fact that she often sees and speaks with the spirit of her oldest daughter. Ruth believes that neither of her husbands can possibly feel the loss of her children as deeply as she does and she keeps her emotional life largely hidden from them. Already struggling to maintain the semblance of a normal life, the loss of her second daughter moves her dangerously close to a mental state from which she might never recover.

Far Cry will naturally appeal to fans of John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick series but, because of the sensitive way it explores the nature of loss, it will work equally well for readers with little previous exposure to detective fiction.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

ROMP 2010 - Final Day

It's already after midnight here in Owensboro and I still have to pack up for an early exit in the morning so there won't be much in the way of detail, photos, or video until I make it back to Houston on Monday morning.

Yellow Creek Park was a little warmer than the day before - and the humidity had to be a lot higher today - so, bands, and fans alike, had to struggle a bit out there. The stage was still a hot, hot place to work according to Mike Snider (whose show did not end until about ten p.m. ) but the bands all did remarkable jobs up there. More later.

This band was intriguing:



Although one member is an American, this bluegrass band calls Hungary home. It was, I think, their first ever appearance in this country and they seemed totally thrilled to be in Kentucky, so close to Rosine, the official birthplace of bluegrass music (Owensboro is about 30 miles from Rosine). They played a little Hungarian music at one point - although the song they played sounded very Celtic or Irish to my ears.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

ROMP Photos - Day 3

I am running late this morning but I want to share a handful of photos I took yesterday at Yellow Creek Park during this year's ROMP event. It was markedly "cooler" yesterday than it had been the day before and it really cooled off nicely as the sun went down. The real blessing, though, in addition to the lower humidity, was the absolutely top notch bluegrass music that I heard for about thirteen hours.

Yesterday's bands included Steel String Session, Jack Hicks & Summertown Road, Stringtown, Twenty-Three String Band, The Professors of Bluegrass, New Appleseed Band (Japan), Michael Cleveland & The Flamekeeper Band, Claire Lynch Band, Josh Williams Band, Dailey & Vincent, and G2 Bluegrass Band (Sweden). I have to tell you, though, folks that Dailey & Vincent stole the show, as usual. These guys just get better and better and I doubt there is a more entertaining band in any kind of music.

I'll start with a picture of a portion of the Steel String Session and will follow with photos of Summertown Road, The Professors of Bluegrass, New Appleseed Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Claire Lynch Band, Josh Williams Band and Dailey & Vincent, in that order:













I also sat in on Michael Cleveland's fiddle workshop yesterday afternoon (even though I don't play a lick):

Friday, June 25, 2010

ROMP 2010 - Day 2

(Photo: RBI Radio interviews former Bluegrass Boys - including Tom Gray, Bluegrass Boy for 2 days)


Even while enjoying all the great bluegrass music in Owensboro this week, a guy has to eat. And yesterday I received unexpected treats at both lunch and dinner.

I walked a couple of blocks from the International Bluegrass Music Museum to a little Greek restaurant that does great lunchtime business. It was so crowded, in fact, that the only way I could get a seat was to share a table with a couple who walked in the door behind me (two Kentuckians in town on other business). About ten minutes after we sat down, the door opened and in walked Hisashi Ozaki and four people who traveled with him from Japan to Owensboro for ROMP 2010. Since our table was large enough to seat an additional five people, I invited Mr. Ozaki and his group to join us - and they graciously accepted the invitation. Ozaki is well known in bluegrass circles as the co-founder of the very first bluegrass band in Japan and he will display his mandolin skills later today when he sits in for a song or two with New Appleseed Band, a Japanese bluegrass band whose performance I am looking forward to enjoying.

That was the beginning of a full hour of conversation about bluegrass and country music in Japan, an hour during which I confirmed that lovers of real country music are the same all over the world. Takao Nakanishi, Secretary General of the Kamakura Opry, and Tetsuo Otsuka, disc jockey and President of the same Opry, were quick to remark that what's passing for country music today (whether it's called New Country, Young Country, or some other marketing lie) is definitely not country music. It was nice to see that the CMA is fooling no one these days; not even people on the other side of the world can be convinced that New Country is real country music.

During a break between sets, I stumbled upon Eddie and Martha Adcock sitting on a bench in the hallway and had a nice conversation with Eddie about the interest that Japanese television has in the complex brain surgery that allowed him to regain his picking skills. Eddie is looking good (he remarked that he has more hair on his head than when I saw him last year) and he says he is feeling very well. I spoke with Martha, in some detail, about the state of the recording industry today and how the digital music revolution is impacting the average indie artist out there. Martha has some interesting insights into what is happening to record labels and whether or not the internet is making it easier or more difficult for new artists to break into the business - and for established ones to find new listeners. According to Martha, it is up to the artist now; no more big brother to take care of all the marketing details. The Adcoks, as always, are two of the nicest people in town this week - and that says a lot when Owensboro is filled with friendly people wanting to do nothing more than share the music.

Dinner at RiverPark Center at a table filled with four of Bill Monroe's former Bluegrass Boys was the perfect way to end the day - but there would still be sets from The Whites and Doc Watson, plus a recognition ceremony honoring about 70 bluegrass legends and Bluegrass Boys. At my table were Yates Green (Bluegrass Boy in 1956), Ernie Graves (1957), Bill Keith (1963) and Doug Hutchens (1971). It was fun to hear their stories about life on the road with Monroe, especially the stories about the four-hour shifts they had to put in behind the wheel getting the band from show-to-show, and some of the practical jokes the guys played on each other. The nice thing is that ROMPs are like big reunions for these guys and they seem to be having as much fun here as the rest of us.

I also spent some time with Steve Leatherwood of WGWG radio who hosts a three-hour bluegrass show on the station every Wednesday night with the help of his son Jeremy. Talking music (and small town life) with Steve was the perfect segue into the great music that ended day two of ROMP 2010. You can listen to WGWG here.

And there are two days yet to go. Gotta run.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

ROMP 2010 - Day 1



(Photo includes Tom Ewing, Curtis Blackwell, Danny Jones, Randall Franks, Bob Black and other former Bill Monroe Bluegrass Boys)

My drive to Owensboro this year was a little different than those of the past four summers. For me, driving long distances on Interstate Highways is a combination of boredom and sheer terror. I am either fighting sleep or desperately trying not to be run over by the endless convoys of big trucks bearing down on me from behind. So this year, thanks to my trusty little GPS device, at least 95% of my driving was done on state highways. The only time I got on an interstate was a short stretch of about 40 miles on I55 just before I reached Kentucky - and that is one of the more deserted interstates in the country.

I was even able to chop about 100 miles off my total driving distance this way. Of course, I added about two hours in driving time because of all the little towns I passed through on those winding two-lane highways. And you know what? I loved it. This drive was a good reminder of what America is all about - lots of people going about their business, working hard for themselves and their families, just trying to do the right thing despite the harm their elected representatives are determined to do up in Washington.

This first day of ROMP 2010 (and most of tomorrow) is a celebration of the legends of bluegrass, those guys and gals who were there when Mr. Bill started it all. Today, I had the pleasure of listening to about two dozen former Bluegrass Boys get together on stage and out in the lobby of the theater for song after song. Let me tell you, folks, these guys are still some of the finest musicians in the business.

Among today's performers were: Curtis Blackwell (guitar), R0ger Smith (fiddle), Ben Pedigo (banjo), Danny Jones (mandolin), Scottie Baugus (guitar), Bob Black (banjo), Randall Franks (fiddle), Gregg Kennedy, Wayne Jerrolds, Jim Moratto, and Bill Box...and others. And the good news is there will be even more Bluegrass Boys here tomorrow for Day 2.

As one of the guys said on stage, Bill Monroe passed so many musicians through his Bluegrass Boys they called it "making sausage." Well, Mr. Bill knew how to pick them, for sure, and a few dozen of them are here in Owensboro, Kentucky, tonight.

(Former Bluegrass Boy - banjo - Ben Pedigo)

Best of 2010, Update 21

I have six new books to consider since my last update of twelve days ago - 6 books in 12 days is a pretty fast pace for me and I'm wondering how it happened. I decided to update my thoughts on this perpetual "Best of 2010" list while I wait for the big jam session to begin out by the Days Inn swimming pool. It has finally cooled off in Owensboro, Kentucky, and out-of-towners here for ROMP 2010 are determined to make the most of it.

Up for consideration this time are 5 novels and 1 memoir: A Bad Day for Pretty (Sophie Littlefield), The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (Sharyn McCrumb), The Poacher's Son (Paul Doiron), The Third Rail (Michael Harvey), Mexico City Noir (12 authors), and Unfinished Business (Lee Kravitz). I am to the point that changes to the list are coming less often than before and only 2 of the 6 new books have cracked the list.

So, after due consideration, this is what the fiction list looks like after 47 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith (historical thriller)
7. Far Cry - John Harvey (police procedural)
8. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers - Sharyn McCrumb (Ballad Novel)
9. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
10. Johnny Porno - Charlie Stella (noir crime fiction)

And the nonfiction list from a total of 15 read so far this year is:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
4. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
5. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
6. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
7. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
8. Damp Squid - Jeremy Butterfield (on the evolution of the English language)
9. Unfinished Business - Lee Kravitz (memoir)
10. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
So that's six books and two changes:The Devil Amongst the Lawyers enters the fiction list at number 8, squeezing The Samaritan's Secret off the list, and Unfinished Business enters the nonfiction list at number 9, eliminating A Time to Betray. So these are the best 20 books of the 62 books I've read as of today...now it's time for some bluegrass.

Monday, June 21, 2010

On the Road Again - Again

Somewhere near the Tennessee border heading to Kentucky

I just received the last go-ahead I needed to allow me to feel comfortable enough to leave Houston for a few days. I had planned to go up to Ohio at the end of July but a personal commitment during that same week makes it impossible for me to be gone then. Luckily for me, it now appears that Plan B is going to work out. That means I will be heading out before daybreak tomorrow morning to make my way back to Owensboro, KY - this time for ROMP 2010, the annual bluegrass music festival sponsored there by the International Bluegrass Music Museum.

It is about 975 miles from Houston to Owensboro and I usually drive that in one very long day. This year will be a bit trickier than normal because I'm leaving a day later for KY than I have in the past because of the way everything came together at the last minute. But, since this is the fifth year in a row I've attended this event, I feel confident that I will get there in plenty of time to enjoy everything that's scheduled.

Posting will probably be light, at least for a day or two, but I do hope to post something new several times while I'm away from home. If last year is any indication, and it is supposedly even worse now than last year, Owensboro's heat and humidity will completely zap me. But, hey, I have good intentions, so check back when you can.

Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things

We have all been there. Sometimes life has a habit of getting in the way of our best intentions. Lee Kravitz, a self-admitted workaholic from a long line of workaholics, was perhaps even guiltier than most of us about drifting, completely self-absorbed, through life. It is not that Kravitz did not know how to do the right things; it is that, in his mind, there was never enough time to do them.

To his credit, however, when he was unexpectedly given the opportunity to right many of the wrongs in his past, he jumped at the chance. Suddenly thrown out of work in his mid-fifties, Kravitz decided to spend one full year taking care of “unfinished business.” As he puts it, “For a variety of reasons – my self-involvement, my hurry to get ahead, a sense that I would get to them later - I had neglected matters of great consequence. In the process, I had hurt the people closest to me and fed the fear and compulsion that had kept me chained to my job.” Now he had the time to make amends, and he was determined to make the most of his chance.

Unfinished Business is divided into ten chapters within which Kravitz revisits someone from his past: an aunt he has not had contact with in years, an old friend whose daughter was assassinated in Iraq, another old friend to whom he has owed money for several decades, a Pakistani friend he fears may have been caught up in the crazy religious hatred of his home country, an inspirational high school teacher, and even the bully he still hates, among them. Along the way, he also manages to help reconcile the relationship between his father and an uncle, and visits his grandmother’s grave site to reconcile his guilt over having neglected her in her last months and not having had the courage to attend her funeral.

The most surprising thing about Kravitz’s year of “trying to do the right things” is what he learns about those he feels so guilty about wronging in his past. Most of his supposed victims have moved on and do not feel victimized by Kravitz’s past behavior or neglect. They have a different perspective on their relationship with Kravitz and he is surprised to learn that they seldom even think about the incidents that make him feel so guilty. His monetary debt has been forgotten, his aunt is thrilled to see him, and even the bully, of whom Kravitz felt himself to be a special target, turns out to have considered him just another face in the crowd.

Unfinished Business is a bit uneven in the sense that some chapters are so meaningful and touching that they make other others seem almost trivial in comparison. The first chapter, describing a very happy reconciliation with the aunt who always considered Kravitz to be her favorite family member, is the strongest of the book. Other chapters dealing with family members, even the one outlining a visit to his grandmother’s grave, are the ones most likely to touch the reader.

Bottom Line: This is a book with a worthy message, one we would all do well to consider before it is too late for us to spend time “doing the right things” for those who have most impacted our own lives.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers marks Sharyn McCrumb's return to her popular Appalachian Ballad series, the books featuring Nora Bonesteel, one of several members of the Bonesteel family gifted with "the Sight." Fans of the series have had to wait longer than usual for the next Ballad novel because McCrumb's last several books have been set in the world of NASCAR, not a setting that appeals to everyone, me included. Can it really have been eight years? Anyway, it is nice finally to have a new Sharyn McCrumb novel for the rest of us.

This one, though, is a little different from earlier books in the series. It is based on a real life 1935 murder trial that took place in Wise County, Virginia, a case that seemed perfectly cast to help big city newspapers turn a nice profit on the crime. A young woman, a pretty schoolteacher who had escaped the hills long enough to earn a college degree, is accused of having bludgeoned her father to death. Now, major East Coast newspapers have sent reporters to little Wise County to milk the story for all it might be worth to them.

Among the reporters in town to cover Emma Morton's trial is Carl Jenkins, cousin to 12-year-old Nora Bonesteel, who is nervously working the first big story of his budding newspaper reporter career. Jenkins, though, is overwhelmed by the approach that his big city reporter heroes are taking to the story. What they are writing about Emma Morton, her family, and life in Wise County only vaguely resembles the truth as Jenkins sees it. Consequently, what Jenkins writes for his own newspaper is so different from what is appearing in the big papers that his own editors begin to wonder if he is really in Wise County at all.

Jenkins, desperately looking for an angle he can exploit well enough to save his job, and hoping that young Nora's second sight can discover the truth about the murder, asks her to come to Wise County to speak with the accused killer. Therein, lies much of the fun of The Devil Amongst the Lawyers. Longtime readers of the series will delight in meeting Nora Bonesteel before she became the wise old lady they are already know so well.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers surprisingly focuses more on the reporters in town to cover the trial than it does on the accused or her victim. McCrumb's main theme, in fact, is that big city reporters (even in 1935) have preconceived notions about small town Southern life and those who live it - and that they will not let facts change their minds. The book's three main characters are New York City reporters, two writers and a photographer, who know the story they will present even before they get to town for the trial. Because the accused is pretty, they will portray her as sweet young woman being persecuted by locals who believe she has grown too uppity for her own good. To sell this version, they will use various writing "tricks," all explained in detail by McCrumb, and will present life and attitudes in Wise County more as if the trial were taking place in 1885 than in 1935.

The whole premise would have worked much better if McCrumb had not been so heavy handed in making her point. Over and over again, she has various characters explain how the truth is being ignored or manipulated by the big city reporters to their own benefit - truth be damned. A little subtlety would have gone a long way in making readers feel that McCrumb had faith in their ability to "get it" without all her extra help. I am, however, so pleased to have a new Ballad novel that I will forgive that little insult. Fans of the series are likely to enjoy this one and hope they do not have to wait so long for the next one.

Friday, June 18, 2010

20 Under 40 : US List vs. UK List


(Illustration from New Yorker magazine - U.S. authors on second list)


Could these be the U.K.'s 20 best authors under the age of 40? According to the Telegraph, they just might be:
1 Chris Cleave (b 1973) His first novel, Incendiary, was about a terrorist attack on London and was published on July 7, 2005. The Other Hand (2008), a cross-national thriller set in England and Nigeria, became a word-of-mouth hit.

2 Rana Dasgupta (b 1971) Born in Canterbury, but now lives in Delhi. His first collection of stories was set in a Tokyo airport; his first novel, Solo (2009), was about a 99-year-old Bulgarian chemist.

3 Adam Foulds (b 1974) After writing his verse novel The Broken Word about the Mau Mau rebellion, he wrote his Man Booker-shortlisted study of John Clare, The Quickening Maze (2009).

4 Sarah Hall (b 1974) The author of four novels, the first two of which were set in the early 20th century in her native Cumbria. Her most acclaimed work is The Carhullan Army (2007), about a band of women rebels surviving in a Britain hit by environmental disaster.

5 Steven Hall (b 1975) His debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts (2007) – about a man who loses his memory and tries to create a new identity for himself – unusually lived up to his publisher’s hype.

6 Mohsin Hamid (b 1971) The Reluctant Fundamentalist – a literary thriller about a Pakistani man who may, or may not, be a terrorist – came within a whisker of winning the Man Booker in 2007.

7 Anjali Joseph (b 1978) Her debut novel, Saraswati Park, is published next month. Sharp yet lyrical, the novel, which is set in Bombay, shows the influence of Amit Chaudhuri.

8 Joanna Kavenna (b 1974) Wrote seven unpublished novels before her eighth, Inglorious, was published by Faber and won the Orange new writers prize. Described as “Dostoevsky meets Bridget Jones”.

9 Benjamin Markovits (b 1973) Part way through a trilogy of novels about Byron and his circle, this assured writer has also just published an autobiographical novel, Playing Days, about a professional basketball player in Germany.

10 China Miéville (b 1972) Inspired by horror writers such as HP Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock, his science fiction and fantasy books – including Un Lun Dun for young adults – have legions of fans.

11 Paul Murray (b 1975) His second book, Skippy Dies, a comic novel set in a private boys school in Ireland, was recently described in the Telegraph as “gigantic, marvellous, witty…heartbreaking”.

12 Patrick Neate (b 1970) Won the Whitbread (now Costa) novel prize in 2001 for Twelve Bar Blues, a picaresque novel about New Orleans jazz artists. His most recent work, Jerusalem, deals, like his first novel, Musungu Jim, with European encounters with Africa.

13 Ross Raisin (b 1979) This Yorkshire-born novelist’s first book, God’s Own Country (2008), followed the dark story of a teenage farmer’s son living on the Moors.

14 Dan Rhodes (b 1972) After his second book, Rhodes declared he wanted to give up writing. Luckily for us he carried on with Gold (2007), about a Welsh-Japanese woman living in a coastal cottage, and his most recent book, Little Hands Clapping.

15 Kamila Shamsie (b1973) The author of five novels, mainly set in the Pakistan of her birth. Her most successful work is her latest: Burnt Shadows (1999) follows two families from the Second World War in Japan to the aftermath of 9/11.

16 Zadie Smith (b 1975) Wrote the wildly successful White Teeth while still at Cambridge. Her writing has matured since then, most notably in On Beauty (2005).

17 David Szalay (b1974) Winner of a Betty Trask Prize, Szalay’s The Innocent is told from the perspective of a KGB agent in late Forties Russia.

18 Adam Thirlwell (b 1978) Clever All Souls fellow who published Politics at the age of 25 and since then the Milan Kundera-inspired The Escape (2009).

19 Scarlett Thomas (b1972) The End of Mr Y (2007) was a surprise bestseller about a student who discovers a long-lost Victorian novel.

20 Evie Wyld (1980) After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009) was a haunting first novel set on the Australian East coat.
I read quite a few books each year that were first published in Britain so, when I first spotted the list, I fully expected to be familiar with at least four or five of the names. At the risk, of exposing the high degree of my ignorance about up and coming writers there, I am going to admit that I only recognized one name...one! I have a nice copy of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist but it has been in my TBR stack for a long, long time (and it never seems to work its way to the top of the pile).

According to the article (take a look here), the list was put together, at least in part, as a response to a similar list that was published in the U.S. last week by the New Yorker magazine:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32

Chris Adrian, 39

Daniel Alarcón, 33

David Bezmozgis, 37

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38

Joshua Ferris, 35

Jonathan Safran Foer, 33

Nell Freudenberger, 35

Rivka Galchen, 34

Nicole Krauss, 35

Dinaw Mengestu, 31

Philipp Meyer, 36

C E Morgan, 33

Téa Obreht, 24

Yiyun Li, 37

ZZ Packer, 37

Karen Russell, 28

Salvatore Scibona, 35

Gary Shteyngart, 37

Wells Tower, 37
I do a little better with the U.S. list (what would it say about me as a reader if I didn't?) by being familiar with Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss and Philipp Meyer, still just four of twenty up-and-comers.

The good news, I suppose, is that I now have a couple of good checklists to work from next time I'm looking for something fresh.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Now and Then

Do you prefer reading current books? Or older ones? Or outright old ones?

Well, no, no, and no.

I really have no preference when it comes to the publication dates of the books I read. For me, it seems to be more an issue of what is available, or what mood I’m in, each time I feel like starting a new book. I do read a lot of brand new books, as indicated by the fact that I’ve already read 41 of the books published during the first half of 2010. But in past years, it has sometimes been the other way around, with me reading more books from past decades than from the current year.

And I’ve just rediscovered the joy of unearthing old titles that seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. I used to find this kind of book by searching the dusty shelves of used-book stores. Now I find them on the internet. The net, in conjunction with the Sony Store and my Sony Reader, has made it possible for me to find old books ranging from pulp fiction to hardcore noir detective novels, Civil War memoirs written by the war’s survivors, biographies written by those who actually knew the historical figures they wrote about, histories, and some of the greatest classic novels ever written. I’ve downloaded about two dozen books (with an almost limitless number to follow, I hope) and I plan to highlight them here on Book Chase as I finish them. It’s almost like finding buried treasure that you didn’t even know was missing.

I really need to start dipping into the classics again, too, but that might not happen until next year because of the quality of the review copies I’ve been receiving in the last few months. Even though I am more selective than ever about the review copies I accept, I am finding more and more quality stuff than ever before, and I’m discovering more new (to me) writers than any year in recent memory. That is hugely encouraging to a book freak like me.

So, no, year of publication is not important to me. I just need to read faster and longer. Yep, that’s the ticket.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Poacher's Son

This is a review of the 7-CD audio book version of The Poacher’s Son, as read by John Bedford Lloyd.

Maine game warden Mike Bowditch is not in a happy place. He believes that his girlfriend of four years left him because he refuses to resign his game warden position. Now that she is gone, all Mike has left are the solitary hours he spends watching for poachers and helping injured animals in his section of the Maine woods. Mike made his choice and is willing to live with it.

Things are bad now – but they will get much worse when he discovers a phone message from his hard drinking poacher father, the man who deserted Mike and his mother when Mike was just a boy. A phone call to his son is so out of character for Jack Bowditch that his son senses that something is terribly wrong. But even knowing what a disaster his father’s life has turned into, Mike Bowditch cannot imagine that he will soon be the only thing standing between his father and the lawmen who accuse him of assassinating a policeman and a paper company executive. Mike refuses to believe that his father is capable of murder and his biggest fear is that, before he can safely surrender, his father will be gunned down by the lawmen searching Maine and southern Canada for him.

The Poacher’s Son explores the strengths and weaknesses of the father-son relationship, a bond that is often strong enough to blind a son to his father’s weaknesses, and worse. Mike Bowditch convinces himself that, despite everything he knows about his father’s despicable behavior and his drinking problems, the man would never do what he is accused of having done. He so much wants to bring his father safely into custody that he is willing to put his own job on the line by interfering in the manhunt despite direct orders from his lieutenant to stay clear of the whole thing. But is his father as innocent as Mike believes him to be? Or, as the authorities believe, is he a killer willing to use his son to cover his tracks until he can escape his pursuers?

The isolated woods of Maine make an excellent setting for Paul Doiron’s story and he gives the reader a good feel for what life in that part of the country must be like. As Doiron describes it, the locale is a mixture of awesome beauty and isolation, a place the locals fear will be spoiled by the outsiders seeking to exploit its resources for their own purposes. Those woods provide Jack Bowditch with the cover he needs to stay on the run and the isolation they create makes possible many of the twists in Doiron’s plot.

Mike Bowditch is a young man, a likeable enough hero who knows his way around the Maine wilderness but is still a little too naïve and inexperienced for his own good. His temper, combined with his inability to control his mouth when he is angry, sees him consistently making things rougher for himself than they have to be. Some of the book’s other characters tend to err on the stereotypical side of the scale, however. This is the case with Truman (the drunken Indian), the retired game warden (and his devoted wife) who takes Mike under his wing when every other lawman within 500 miles would prefer to chew his head off, and B.J., the brash young woman/slut who grew up in an isolated fishing camp known as Rum Pond.

Perhaps these characters seem stereotypical because of the stoic way that John Bedford Lloyd reads the author’s characterizations. For most of the book, Lloyd uses the same steady monotone to present the book, only occasionally changing his voice or inflection to add a little life to one of the characters. Unfortunately, it is only toward the end of the book that Lloyd seems to gain any enthusiasm about the story he is telling, when he does a nice job on the book’s climax.

Despite my misgivings about The Poacher’s Son, Paul Doiron has made me curious enough to wonder how the Mike Bowditch character will evolve over time. I will very likely look at the next book in the series to see how he’s doing.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Third Rail

The Third Rail is Michael Harvey’s third Michael Kelly novel but my own first experience with the author and his series hero. Kelly is a Chicago ex-cop, a man who still has contacts within the department but knows too much about Chicago politics ever to be tempted back into to the job. He much prefers keeping his hand in the game by offering his investigative services to those Chicago citizens in need of a little private help – even though his work sometimes forces him to spend time with Chicago’s slimy mayor.

This time around, Kelly finds himself directly involved in the hunt for a serial killer who is terrorizing his city via several very successful random shootings. Kelly was at the scene of the first killing and he almost caught the killer in a chase through snow-filled Chicago, only to learn later that the killer was purposely sucking him into the investigation. The question is why.

Harvey knows his city well, and even readers who have never been to Chicago are likely to come away from The Third Rail with a sense of what life is like there for the locals. The book’s pivotal element is, in fact, based on a real life 1977 incident in which several L train cars derailed and fell to the ground, killing eleven people in the process. Michael Kelly, nine years old at the time, survived the crash but is still haunted by what he saw and heard that day. Apparently, he is not the only one.

The Third Rail is a nice blend of thriller and police procedural (Kelly gets himself attached to the official investigation as a consultant while working on the sly directly for Mayor Sleazy) and fans of the genre will likely enjoy the ride despite the spare style in which Harvey spins his tale. So much happens to Michael Kelly as he frantically tries to catch up with the shooter that Harvey has little time to develop his secondary characters – and even some of his more important ones. Perhaps readers of the first two Kelly books already know so much about Kelly and those closest to him that this is not problem for them, but first-time series readers will find themselves wishing they had been told more about the Third Rail characters.

And, as it turns out, there are lots of characters and culprits to keep up with: Homeland Security goons, duplicitous FBI agents, crooked cops, psychopaths, corrupt leaders of Chicago’s Catholic archdiocese, a nerdy computer wizard, a girlfriend, and, of course, Mayor Sleazy. So much happens, and happens so quickly, it is little wonder that the characters remain somewhat unrealistic to the very end.

Reading The Third Rail was a bit like frying up a skinny chicken; I kept wishing for a little more meat on the bones. Genre fans who enjoy a more spare approach to their thrillers, however, will probably love this book. If that’s your taste, give this one a shot.

Rated at: 2.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mexico City Noir

Mexico City Noir is a collection of 12 crime-related short stories with settings in the various neighborhoods of Mexico City, from its richest to its poorest and most dangerous ones. The most intriguing idea behind publisher Akashic’s Noir series, of which this book is one of many, is that each collection strives to give the reader a good feel for life in the city in which the stories are set. I did not get much of a feel for the city of Boston when I read Boston Noir (the only other book in the series I have read), but this collection is a different story, pun intended. The tales vary widely in tone and style but they all seem to have one theme at their core: the corrupt police system of Mexico City is more dangerous to the common citizen than the criminals the police are supposedly trying to control.

This collection is unusual in another way. This is one of the rare times that the best thing about a short story collection just might be its preface. Editor Paco Ignacio Taibo II has written a striking description of life in Mexico City in the book’s preface entitled “Snow White vs. Dr. Frankenstein.” Taibo obviously loves his city and he correctly finds it to be an exciting and exotic locale in which to set contemporary Mexican fiction. However,Taibo is quick to describe how life for the average citizen of Mexico City is governed by the ever present reality that the local police are to be more feared than trusted. The stories that follow his preface illustrate just how dangerous local policemen can be and why they are such a threat to those they are paid to protect, even to the point that victims of petty crime are often afraid to report the crime to authorities.

Some of the stories are set in contemporary Mexico City; others go back decades in time. Some are told in a rather straightforward manner, some are a little harder to grasp, and one of them reads like something imagined during a bad trip on LSD. What they have in common is an excellent translation into English and the theme that the real danger in Mexico City is a police force that is so very often itself on the wrong side of the law.

These are stories of police brutality, forced confessions, bribes, rapes and assassinations by police gangs, corrupt priests and nuns, transsexuals, homosexual rapes, gangs of children on the city’s streets, homeless people who dare not stop moving during the day for fear of police harassment, and much worse. Those responsible for promoting Mexican tourism cannot be happy with books like this one because the overall impression it leaves with non-Mexican readers is a warning for gringos to stay the hell out of the city for their own good.

Bottom line, this is pretty good noir style fiction but it is definitely of the more depressing variety.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Reading Ebooks Against the Clock

I've been reading at a frantic pace all afternoon - but not for a reason I like.

For the second time in the past few months, I've had to rush through an ebook so that I could finish it before it disappeared from my Sony Reader. It's not the Reader's fault; it's a fluke in the way the Harris County public library system regulates the use of its ebooks. Keep in mind that there are about 4 million people in this county (almost one of every six Texans lives in Harris County, in fact), so it almost always takes at least two weeks to gain access to one of the system's electronic books.

Because of the high demand for what seems to be a rather limited number of ebook copies, the library does not allow an extension of time for downloaded ebooks. That means the clock begins ticking as soon as a patron's download is finished and, after fourteen 24-hour periods, the book is killed regardless of what page a reader might be on. I get that and I undertand why it has to be that way right now. But, for at least the third time now, I have gone weeks with no checked-out ebooks only to have two or three of them become available to me simultaneously. Because the ebooks are available for just three days after patron notification, that means they have to be read within 16 or 17 days, at most.

I'm not a great fan of ebooks but I do enjoy the opportunity to download books from my library. Unfortunately, demand seems to be outpacing supply of ebooks in the Harris County system at a time when libraries are struggling to balance budgets while putting books, CDs and DVDs on the shelves.

I have mixed emotions about the whole thing, I have to admit. If the supply of ebooks can be increased only by cutting the number of real books on the shelves, is this a good thing? My vote is a definite NO.

As it turns out, I am not particularly thrilled by Mexico City Noir, a short story collection of crime fiction set in that city, and I wonder if my opinion was tainted by my rushed reading of the dozen stories in the collection. Reading against the clock is not an experience I want to repeat any time soon.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 20

I have several new books to consider for a place in my real-time Best of 2010 list this time around: The Secret Speech, Republic, Damp Squid, Mr. Peanut and Horns. These are pretty much all over the map. Two are "political thrillers," one is a literary murder mystery, one fits best in the horror genre, and one is a look at the evolution of the English language.


So, after due consideration, this is what the fiction list looks like after 42 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith (historical thriller)
7. Far Cry - John Harvey (police procedural)
8. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
9. Johnny Porno - Charlie Stella (noir crime fiction)
10. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)

And the nonfiction list from a total of 14 read so far this year is unchanged:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
4. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
5. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
6. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
7. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
8. Damp Squid - Jeremy Butterfield (on the evolution of the English language)
9. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
10. A Time to Betray - Reza Kahlili (memoir of Iranian CIA agent)
Five books, two changes:The Secret Speech enters the fiction list at number 6, pushing Not So Perfect off the list, and Damp Squid enters the nonfiction list at number 8, eliminating Goosetown. So these are the best 20 books of the 56 books I've read as of today...and the beat goes on.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Horns

Ig Parrish did something terribly wrong last night. The problem is that, with the exception of one of two rather vague details, he cannot remember exactly what he did to earn the devil's horns that have suddenly sprouted from the top of his head. Ig does remember spending much of the night ranting about God and organized religion at the base of the isolated old tree under which his girlfriend had been murdered just a year ago. Now, unlike the hangover he had every reason to expect, he understands these horns won't go away by the end of the day.

He thinks maybe he deserves his new horns. After all, local law enforcement officers and just about everyone else in his home town believe that he has gotten away with the brutal rape and murder of his longtime girlfriend. Even Ig's parents are fairly sure that he did it, something he only learned accidentally by allowing his parents to see the new horns atop his head. The horns seem to compel others to speak aloud their deepest secrets - something they will not remember doing as soon as Ig and his horns are out of sight.

Horns is about Ig Parrish, an empathetic young man whose loyalty to someone who saved his life a decade earlier will come back to bite him over and over again. He has only ever loved one woman, a relationship that began when Ig met her in church when they were both fifteen years old. Suddenly, on one terrible night, she was snatched from him forever. But now, with the help of his new horns, Ig just might be able to make someone pay for what they did - or maybe not.

I almost gave up on this one. There is enough of what I consider to be a rather juvenile type of humor of the "gross out" variety that I was bored with the first quarter of the book. Then, Hill's humor became more subtle and the characters, although they are never all that realistic, became somewhat more believable. Horns has an intricate plot, one told by flashbacks in which the same action is sometimes recounted from more than one point-of-view. That device often works well for Hill but I was frustrated by the occasions when the repeating of a scene provided very little new information to the reader and only seemed to pad the book's almost-400-page length.

Hill, though, ties everything together in a satisfying ending that is well written and almost explains why Ig Parrish was gifted with his own pair of devil's horns in the first place. Frankly, this one turned out to be a good deal better than I would have bet after reading its first 100 pages.

Rated at: 3.5

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Mr. Peanut

Alice Pepin was well aware of her allergy to peanuts and she knew that eating even one or two of them would very likely kill her. Yet emergency responders found her dead on the floor of her kitchen with a handful of peanuts in her mouth. Did she commit suicide-by-peanut, as her husband claims, or did David Pepin force his wife to eat the fatal snack? I kind of figured I would know the answer to that question by the time I finished Mr. Peanut, the debut novel Adam Ross toiled over for more than thirteen years, but I have to tell you that I am still not sure what happened in that New York City apartment the day Alice Pepin died. Mr. Ross was kind enough to offer his readers several alternative endings as he closed out his story, so I suppose we can all pick one we like best and move on.

David Pepin is co-owner of the video/computer game design firm that made him and his wife extremely wealthy. Alice teaches in a private school for disturbed children. Money is not a problem for the couple but they are having other problems; Alice is extremely obese and the yo-yo effect of her constant dieting is ruining her health and placing as much emotional stress on David as it does on her. David, in fact, would prefer that Alice keep the weight and lose the stress.

Detectives Sam Sheppard and Ward Hastroll believe that David Pepin is a murderer and they are determined to prove it or force him into a confession. Pepin, though, never flinches and continues to proclaim his innocence. As it turns out, the gut feel that both detectives have about Pepin’s guilt probably come from experiences with their own wives. Both men have daydreamed about the deaths of their wives so often that they intuitively understand what must have driven David Pepin to kill his wife.

Mr. Peanut is an exploration of the evolution of three individual marriages that all end up in the same place. Readers of a certain age will quickly recognize that Detective Sam Sheppard is based on the real life Doctor Sam Sheppard who was convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death, only to be released from prison some years later when his conviction was overturned on appeal. A good portion of the novel explores, in detail, what might have happened between Sheppard and his wife when he was still a doctor at the hospital founded by his father - only in the novel does Sheppard morph into a police detective.

Ward Hastroll, the other detective, has a wife who has refused to get out of bed in his presence for several weeks. Hastroll fantasizes about her death and, at one point, he sells all of their furniture and refuses to provide his wife with food or water for several days. Only when he realizes that she is going to starve herself to death or die of thirst does he begin to feed her again. His is the most broken of marriages.

As Ross moves from marriage to marriage, eerie similarities in the situations become clear and the reader will likely find that the three marriages begin to blend into one very horrible situation. Each husband wants to be free of his wife and is considering murder as the best available option to make that happen. Each wife has been driven to the point of despair and depression by her husband’s insensitivity and lack of passion and is looking for her own way out of the marriage – but, for them, murder is not an option.

My favorite part of the book is the author’s tribute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock (several pages are devoted to a university film class studying the films of Mr. Hitchcock) and the way that David Pepin eventually finds himself in a nerve wracking situation the famous director would have loved. I did, though, find my enthusiasm for the book dwindling as I made my way through each successive section and by the time I reached its ambiguous ending I had grown frustrated by the book’s structure - and the multiple ending approach was the last straw. This is one good idea taken too far.

Rated at: 2.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Books on Vinyl

Now, this I like: short stories on vinyl.

It seems that a U.K. publisher has decided to "publish" short stories on 33 1/3 rpm vinyl discs under his new Underwood label (see the article to find out why he chose this name for his company - but I'm betting some of you already know the answer).
Nathan Dunne is either a very brave or a very stupid young man. At a time when a) the MP3 has supplanted the CD as the most popular format on which to listen to recorded sounds; b) literature as a physical artefact is coming under attack from the rise of iPads, Kindles and other digital reading devices; and c) the short story is as tricky to sell to publishing houses as it has ever been, Dunne has set up a new imprint called Underwood, whose remit is to produce 33rpm vinyl records featuring writers reading 20-minute short stories aloud. “Candidly, it’s an experiment,” he admits.
[...]
For Dunne, the current emphasis on the portability and ease of circulation of recorded sound rather than its sonic properties corrodes the intimacy of the listening experience.

“The MP3 has an alien digital gloss. It’s streamlined, corporate, like a mainline train station. Listening to a short story on vinyl is the purest antidote to that. It’s more immersive. It heightens engagement.”
This might just be crazy enough to work. I know I'm one of many thousands who still collect those old vinyl LPs that went out of style some time in the eighties. What better way for a vinyl collector to mix two hobby passions than "books on vinyl?"

For more information, please see the Telegraph article or go directly to the Underwood website.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner - Yours Free

Stephenie Meyer, in some sort of weird marketing campaign, is making her new novella, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, available on line where it can be read at no cost. Meyer does suggest that readers donate $1 to the American Red Cross since that is the amount being donated for every hardcover copy of the novella sold in bookstores.

So, if you don't mind reading an ebook version of the book on your PC or other WiFi device, this is where you can find it. Be aware that it is only available at this link until midnight, July 5.

It's not for me, but I thought some of you might be interested in reading or sampling the thing. If you do, please let me know what you think of it.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Currently Reading

(Photo of Stephen King and son, Joe Hill)


I'm reading (well, one is an audio book) three very different books right now and, not unexpectedly, I find myself having very different reactions to them. As my sidebar indicates, I'm actually involved with four books at the moment but I've not picked up one of them for several weeks now, so I don't consider it to be active at this point.

I'm about 25% of the way through the audio book version of Paul Doiron's The Poacher's Son, a book about a Maine game warden whose poaching father is on the run in the Maine woods, suspected of having played a part in the gunning down of a policeman and a businessman. The story is interesting so far, though certainly not exceptional to this point, but I am really taking a dislike to the voice and delivery of the book's reader, John Bedford Lloyd. Lloyd's monotone delivery is fine for short periods but is dull and annoying for anything more than ten or fifteen minutes at a go. Lloyd's tone changed so drastically from the end of Disc 1 to the beginning of Disc 2 that, for a few seconds, I thought a new narrator had taken over the job. It turns out, though, that some anonymous sound engineer failed to keep the recordings set at the same parameters. I'm hoping this one gets better - and there's still lots of time for that to happen.

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. This is an interesting look at the marriages of three men: one suspected of having murdered his wife by forcing her to eat something she was extremely allergic to and the two detectives trying to build a case against him. An interesting twist to this one is that one of the detectives is Sam Sheppard, the former doctor who had once been convicted of the murder of his own wife (based on the real Sam Sheppard's story). This is a well written novel and it is, by far, the most "literary" of the three books. I have a pretty high opinion of it so far and, depending on how the book plays out, this one should receive a high rating. It is, by the way, a debut novel, one apparently in the works for more than eight years.

And then there's Joe Hill's Horns, a horror novel about a young man who suddenly sprouts a nice set of devil's horns atop his head. The horns cause those exposed to them to share their innermost thoughts and wishes with the young man, often leading to disgusting admissions and truths he really does not want to hear about. Most of you know that Joe Hill is Stephen King's son and I'm starting to think that Joe has analyzed his father's work to the extent that his own writing is almost indistinguishable from his father's anymore. This is an ebook I downloaded from my library or I probably would not be reading it. As it is, at 50% of the way through the book, I'm still wondering why I'm bothering with it. Frankly, I'm finding that it is aimed at a whole different reading audience than the one I'm part of - and that "horror" has long since ceased to horrify or scare me at all. There's just too much content of the "gross out" variety to impress me that the book has much merit, and I'm only continuing it to find out the origin of the horns and whether the main character will finally shed them. At most, this will probably earn a 3.0 rating, maybe even a bit less.

I haven't abandoned a book in a good while, and seldom abandon them when at least 25% of the way through them, but Horns and The Poacher's Son are testing me.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Wales Out-Reads Rest of U.K.

At least that's what recently released statistics about U.K. library visits seem to say. According to the numbers (as noted at Wales Online) total library visits are down or stagnant everywhere in the U.K. except for Wales:
In total, across Wales there were almost 14 million visits to Welsh libraries, an increase of 3.7% on the previous year, according to the figures released by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).

This compares with a year-on-year decrease of visits to English libraries of 1.4%, a decrease of 4.1% in Northern Ireland and a tiny increase of 0.4% in Scotland.
I'm a little surprised that library visits would be down anywhere these days considering how terrible the world economy is. Where else can so much great free stuff be found? I say free but, of course, it's all paid for with your tax dollars - so support your local libraries before our misguided politicians decide they should be cut back in favor of another stupid government giveaway program.

Take a look at the very cleverly designed Central Library in Cardiff. The outside of the building is meant to look like a set of bookshelves:

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare

The English language, perhaps the most flexible languages there is, continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Some believe this evolution to be a horror, the destruction of a once proud language; others believe it to be a wonderful thing, the very reason that spoken English is now the dominant language in the world. Jeremy Butterfield’s Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare is an entertaining look at the origins of modern English, the history of the dictionary, the sources of new words taken into the language, English grammar, and why so many English speakers are “wobbly” about spelling even some of the words they use every day (among other assorted topics).

Damp Squid is unlikely to convince every reader that the language’s readiness to create, borrow and steal new words is a good thing, but it will entertain them with its evidence. Along the way, for instance, readers will learn that, depending on who is doing the counting and whether or not technical terms are included in the count, there are somewhere between one and two million words in the English language. Dictionaries leave out more words than they include - even the largest of dictionaries generally list only between 300,000 and 475,000 words. While the average university student is said to have a vocabulary of some 40,000 words, he likely uses less than half of those words “actively.” In fact, 50 per cent of what we write consists of a mere 100 words and, astonishingly, the ten most used English words comprise some 25 percent of written words: the, is, to, and, of, a, in, that, have, I.

According to Butterfield, modern English is the offspring of five major linguistic influences, each of which, but for the last one, had a dominant period of influence on the language: Old English, French, Norse, Latin (and Greek), plus the other 350 languages of the world from which modern English picks and chooses words it finds useful. That, alone, explains many of our spelling issues.

Let’s face it, though; it is reasonable to assume that a book on lexicography is going to be dry, at best, and, at worst, just plain boring. Jeremy Butterfield manages to avoid both those pitfalls by including sections that compare the idiomatic phrases of several languages, discuss the most hated words and phrases in the language, deride the Grammar Nazis of the past and present, and illustrate how the meaning of some common words is changing even now before our very eyes.

Damp Squid is a surprisingly entertaining take on a topic close to the hearts of most avid readers and writers, definitely worth a look.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

When I Buy a Book, I Expect to Own It, Not Rent It

If I don't really own an ebook, why does one cost so much?

Are you as sick of the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad and the Sony Reader as I am? I am disgusted by the fact that the hardware manufacturers are so fixated on the idea that only books purchased from their own "bookstores" should be read on their readers - and on making sure their ebooks cannot be read on other readers. Sony, at least, uses the common epub format, meaning that I as a Reader owner can check out ebooks from my local library. But Amazon.com books will only play on the Kindle, and Apple store books will only play on the iPad and Barnes & Noble books will only play on the Nook. That's outrageous, especially considering the prices being charged for ebooks now that the Apple egomaniac has his own reader on the market.

Why should readers/customers pay such high prices for ebooks that will forever tie them to one particular reader? Ebooks are convenient under the right circumstances but, because I have nothing physical to hold in my hands, I can't help feeling that I'm being ripped off. I can't tell you how much emusic I've lost over the last few years when hard drives or mp3 players crashed. The same is certain to happen with ebooks (yes, I know that I can back them up to other drives, etc. - but who remembers to do that all the time or can find the backups when they need them?)

I'm a fan of the Sony Reader mostly because of the access it gives me to free ebooks at my library and because so many out-of-print books can be found on the web and transferred to my Reader. But I haven't purchased an ebook from Sony in well over a year and that's because I feel like I'm left with an empty bag after I finish reading an ebook. Barnes & Noble, despite using the same epub format as Sony, has apparently made sure that I cannot read one of the B&N-sold ebooks on my Sony Reader - according to the B&N staff I questioned at two local bookstores.

Amazon, Kindle and Barnes & Noble want to tell me how I am allowed to read my books and they want to limit my right to sell or loan them to others. Fine, guys. If the books don't really belong to me, why do you insist that I pay full price for them? Pick a damn format and let your three ebook readers speak to each other. That's not too much to ask, and your customers will buy more ebooks when you stop limiting their usage rights to what you sell them.

See this Epicenter link for a look at this issue from the publishers' point-of-view.

Republic: A Novel of America's Future

In Republic: A Novel of America’s Future, Charles Sheehan-Miles offers a look at where America might be headed if the politicians in Washington continue to ignore the will of the people of this country. The book is largely an indictment against the Department of Homeland Security as that department was developed under the previous administration and it would have been scary enough if I had read it before the last national election. But, because things have only gotten worse under the present leadership, the book’s premise does not seem to be all that farfetched today, making it even more disturbing now than when it was first published.

The United States has suffered a terrorist attack and, as usual, innocent people have been slaughtered by the crazies amongst us. The Department of Homeland Security is determined to stop future attacks, be they from homegrown or from foreign sources, and will do whatever it deems necessary to achieve that goal. To make matters worse, the economy is suffering and the country is bleeding jobs to countries that can provide cheaper labor costs.

In one little West Virginia town, the manufacturing facility on which the town depends for its very existence has closed its doors forever, opting for some of that cheap foreign labor. When the locals decide to protest the losing of their jobs by occupying the facility, the military (along with a few hotheads from Homeland Security) is called in to remove them. Tempers flare, mistakes are made, and people are killed, ultimately leading to a statewide vote on West Virginia’s secession from the Union. The seemingly impossible happens, and West Virginia finds herself at war with the United States of America.

Sheehan-Miles tells his story from the viewpoints of those on both sides of the situation leading to war, including one unfortunate couple who find themselves fighting on different sides. Unlike the American Civil War of 1861-1865, this will be a short fight because the West Virginia National Guard has only enough ammunition and manpower to hold out for approximately 48 hours – if the state is very lucky. It will be up to politicians to negotiate a settlement before shots are fired. But these are typical politicians, after all, so what are the chances that cooler heads will prevail?

Republic is a thought provoking alternate history that is not as unlikely as one might believe at first glance. It is a solidly written story in which the dangers to this country from within are vividly illustrated – no happy endings to be had here.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Secret Speech

The Secret Speech is the second book in Tom Rob Smith’s proposed Russian thriller trilogy featuring Leo Demidov. I suspect there will be many readers like me, however, that will be getting their introduction to Leo Demidov from The Secret Speech rather than from the trilogy’s first book, Child 44. The good news is twofold: The Secret Speech functions well as a standalone novel and you still have the supposedly even better Child 44 in your reading future.

Set in the Cold War Russia of 1956, with flashbacks to 1949 when Leo Demidov, a young member of Russia’s secret police (predecessor to the infamous KGB), is busy denouncing and arresting those who dare to waver from the official party line, The Secret Speech is a study in individual responsibility, guilt and redemption. And that is what makes this one stand head and shoulders above the more common political thriller being written these days.

Leo Demidov is a man filled with remorse; he arrested so many innocent people that he has destroyed hundreds of families and thousands of innocent lives. Many of the people he arrested were quickly executed; others spent years in a frozen gulag where they died painful and brutal deaths, never seeing their loved ones again. Now, Demidov is doing everything he can to atone for his own crimes against humanity. He refuses to work for the new KGB and, instead, has created a controversial unit to investigate Moscow’s many homicides. In a symbolic gesture, he and his wife have become the official guardians of two sisters whose parents lost their lives because of Demidov’s work with the secret police. Nothing is more important to Demidov today than his makeshift family.

But someone is successfully taking revenge on people like Demidov. One by one, his old secret police colleagues are being assassinated or shamed into taking their own lives. When Demidov becomes the target of the same assassins he his trying to catch in his role as a homicide investigator, he is concerned more with the safety of his wife and “daughters” than with his own. As he sadly learns, when his 14-year-old daughter is kidnapped, his concerns were well placed, if not well defended.

Demidov’s efforts to recover his daughter will see him end up a prisoner in one of the gulag camps in which so many of his own victims suffered and died, and then scrambling for his life during the first days of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. He will match wits with a woman whose sole purpose in life is to revenge the deaths of those whose lives were destroyed, a hardhearted woman who will show him no mercy.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel, placing the reader deeply inside the brutality of a prison camp in dead-of winter Siberia one moment and in the chaos of the 1956 revolution in Hungary the next. The third book of the trilogy is to be published in 2011; in the meantime, I am going to find a copy of Child 44 so that I can learn how Leo Demidov became the man he is.

Rated at: 5.0


(Review Copy provided by Publisher)