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Monday, February 28, 2011

Autumn of the Phantoms

Yasmina Khadra (pseudonym of Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul) closes the circle on his Superintendent Brahim Llob series with this third book in the series, Autumn of the Phantoms.  Superintendent Llob’s tendency to speak his mind as bluntly with his superiors as with the criminals he chases has made him a marked man in present-day Algeria.  Not only does he have to worry about Muslim terrorists wanting to assassinate him; he has to fear the same from those in power inside his own police department.  Llob knows too much, talks too much about it, and is determined to go down swinging if he has to go down at all.

Now, it seems, his superiors have the perfect excuse to push Llob out the door: his novel, Morituri, in which the Superintendent exposed the corruptness of practically everyone with any power or influence in Algiers, including the police.  First fired, and then allowed to retire (with one of the most surreal retirement tributes imaginable), Superintendent Llob now has to decide what to do with the rest of his life.  Common sense dictates that he move to the countryside with his wife where, hopefully, he will no longer be a likely target for assassination.  But first, Llob must attend the funeral of one of his oldest friends, a man tortured and killed by those who want to do the same to Llob.  What happens after the funeral – to Llob and the local villagers, terrible as it is, is typical of what happened all over Algeria during the worst of the country’s so-called civil war.

Yasmina Khadra captures the paranoia and terror of Algeria’s recent religiously inspired bloodletting to such a degree that those already familiar with its details will cringe as they read the author’s account of what happened on a nightly basis to those unable to protect themselves from the terrorists - and from the soldiers and policemen charged with protecting them.  As one character put it as life went on and the carnage was ignored: “Here, young girls are raped and beheaded, children are maimed by bombs, whole families are hacked to pieces every night, and we behave as if nothing’s going on.”

Criminals and religious fanatics thrive in this opportunity to rape, murder, steal, and run wild in ways almost unimaginable.  The army and the police are so overwhelmed that many in their ranks grow to be as vicious as those they are supposed to control.  Civilians are the most unfortunate because they can trust neither the “bad guys” nor the supposed “good guys.”

Perhaps, as one of Superintendent Llob’s friends reflects, what hurts most is the realization that all the violence comes from fellow Algerians.  He said: 
“We’ve been taught to hate ever since we came into the world; we were turned from the Truth. We’re taught hatred of the Other, hatred of the Absent and the Foreign – a manufactured hatred, in short. And look, Brahim, just look. Who’s burning our schools today, who’s killing our brothers and neighbors who’s beheading our intellectuals, who’s putting our land to fire and the sword? Aliens? Malaysians? Animists? Christians? … They’re Algerians, just Algerians, who not so long ago were belting out the national anthem in our stadiums, who rushed in the thousands to help the victims of disasters and mobilized impressively for every telethon. And now look. Do you recognize yourself in them? – I don’t, not at all…My race of people, Brahim, are all those who, from one end of the world to the other, refuse to allow these monsters to be forgiven.”
I was fortunate to spend several years working in Algeria. What I read in Algerian newspapers (and what my Algerian friends told me) about the slaughter of whole villages in one bloody night, the beheadings of men in front of their families, the hijacking of buses filled with men who would be murdered on their way to work, and the beheadings of foreign workers, is even worse than what Khadra describes in Autumn of the Phantoms. I do believe that there are thousands of Algerians that “refuse to allow these monsters to be forgiven.” Pray that they survive long enough to get back their country.

Rated at: 4.5

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Best Selling Author on Amazon UK Is Self-Published

Stephen Leather
All of us, if we admit it, are probably a little bit stunned at the pace at which e-books and e-book readers are impacting the world of publishing.  While there are obvious pros and cons associated with this brave new world, other, less obvious, changes are occurring as well.  Take, for instance, this story in the U.K.'s Guardian about how one self-publishing author is doing quite well selling e-books via the Kindle.
...a British thriller writer who sells his novels as ebooks for as little as 70p is proving the naysayers wrong.


Not only does Stephen Leather, Britain's leading "independent" writer, estimate he has occupied the number one spot on Amazon.co.uk's Kindle ebook bestseller lists for "90% of the last three months", he is also selling "somewhere in the region" of 2,000 ebooks a day – and making big profits in the process.
[...]
Capitalising on the popularity of e-readers such as the Kindle, a new generation of writers is bypassing agents and publishers and using the flexible pricing model of ebooks to offer their work directly to the public at rock-bottom prices. Some, like Leather, are achieving huge sales, which, not surprisingly, is striking fear into publishers.
In Leather's case, he was already a published author when he decided to turn three rejected manuscripts into Kindle e-books. Selling the books at the minimum amount Amazon allows (99 cents) as he does, Mr. Leather's revenue stream is quite impressive, sometimes in the neighborhood of $16,000 per month.

It's no wonder that publishers might be a little concerned by this new business model.  After all, who is more perfect for this kind of thing than mega-seller James Patterson and a handful of others that sell in Patterson-like numbers.  Patterson, on second thought, might be a poor example.  He is, after all, a man that already farms out much of the writing upon which he slaps his brand, so doing his own marketing would not seem to be something he would find appealing.  Other big name writers, however, might enjoy the challenge.

But, three cheers for the little guy that might just be able to build a market for himself this way.  Is Amazon destined to become the largest publisher in the world?  It would not surprise me in the least.

For a better feel for how Leather has made this work so well for himself, take a look at his personal blog, called, appropriately enough: Stephen Leather's Blog.

And, please do click through (from the link in my first paragraph) to the entire Guardian article...lots more there.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pat Conroy Discusses His Reading Life

As sponsored by Borders:



This is a fascinating interview, full of insights into the evolution of Pat Conroy, writer (I especially like his take on Gone with the Wind).

Friday, February 25, 2011

From the Library to Your iPad - Via OverDrive

I downloaded the OverDrive Media Console software to my iPad tonight so that I could download e-books directly to my iPad from my public library system.  In the past, I've checked out e-books for my Sony Reader, but that involves first having to download to my PC for a secondary transfer of the e-books to the Reader.  OverDrive for iPad sounds so much simpler...I thought.

First problem encountered: how to make the Harris County Public Library system "save" so that I don't have to search for it every time I start the software?  After much trial and error, I find that I don't have to save, but I do have to log-in at each new start with my 14-digit library card number (a number I use so often that I have somehow committed it to memory).

Second problem encountered: there are very, very few books available these days; each choice requires the book to be placed on hold for later notification from the library when it becomes available.  Since the system only has one or two copies of each book, that could take months.

Third problem encountered: when I finally found a nonfiction book called Orange Is the New Black that was actually available (about a woman who was sent to prison for a crime she had committed in her youth, some ten years earlier), I got the title all the way to "checkout," pushed download, and was told that I needed to authorize my iPad through the Adobe website in order to use their software to complete the download.

Fourth problem encountered: after finally remembering my sign-in and pass word (set up months earlier to authorize the Sony Reader), I finally got the iPad authorized, and the book downloaded.

Fifth problem encountered: opening the book - not nearly as simple or intuitive a process as one might imagine, but I finally got there.

So now I have a 375-page book on loan to my iPad for 14 days, after which time the file will self-corrupt and become unreadable.  Isn't technology great?

By the way, I just heard today that some publishers are building "self-destruction" software into the e-books they SELL to libraries.  HarperCollins, for instance, kills the library e-books after they have been checked out just 26 times, the theory being that a physical copy of a book only lasts through 26 checkouts and the library needs to buy a new copy at that point - electronic blips or not.  I have to believe that a physical book is good for more than 26 reads.  The real number can't be 26, can it?

I suspect that I will eventually grow to love the OverDrive software, but getting it set-up and functioning has cost me almost an hour of valuable time tonight.  I already like the larger iPad screen so much that my Sony Reader is looking more and more like an antique destined to spend the rest of its life in the closet.  I do have some suggestions for enhancements to the software, however, if anyone at OverDrive is listening.

P.S.  This same app is good for checking out audio books from your local library but I haven't tried that function yet.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Shoppers Love You When You Liquidate

About now, Borders is being reminded of an old rule of thumb about shoppers.  As Sue Stock of newsobservor.com put it, "Shoppers love you when you have a liquidation sale."
The kickoff of the clearance sale and the buzz it generated was enough to draw hundreds of deal-hunters.


Lines over the weekend filled store aisles, and even on weekdays, busy folks on their lunch breaks are making time to stop by.
[...]
"Prices at Borders stores are higher than they were three weeks ago," de Grandpre said. "People think they're getting a good deal. ... The good deals do come, but they come at the end - six to eight weeks into the sale."
[...]
"Don't allow the hoopla that surrounds a liquidation sale to make you completely lose your judgment," he said.


Before the sales are over in April, discounts will likely reach 80 percent to 90 percent, de Grandpre (dealnews.com editor) said.
Exactly the same was true when Barnes & Noble shut down their last Bookstop bookstore in Houston a few years ago.  I found that shopping experience to be almost like participating in an eBay auction where everyone strives to get in the last second bid that lets them run away with their "winnings."  I bought a few dozen books over a 2-month period as the stock slowly diminished, most of them during the last week when prices were at, or very close, to the lowest levels they were likely to reach.

It was actually a lot like gambling.  Do I buy at this week's price or gamble that copies will be available even cheaper next week?  Is someone else playing the same game with that last copy of  a book I've been watching for three weeks?  When do I push the button?  I was having fun, especially when I found that my tastes were much different than the average Bookstop shopper's in that last two weeks.  That really improved the odds that my books would stay on the shelves a while longer.

I wonder how Borders employees feel about all these customers suddenly appearing in the same stores that have been ignored by book buyers for so long.  It must be a tad difficult for Borders salespeople to be polite to customers who have only come in to pick the stores' bones clean - like the vultures all thrifty shoppers have, by necessity, learned to be.

(If, from their side, Borders is playing the game the way Circuit City and a few other chains have played it in recent months, prices are, indeed, higher on many items this week than they were before the liquidation began.  Many of those 20% discounts being offered at Borders right now might be starting from the full recommended sales prices of items rather than from the, possibly lower, prices those same items were marked at last week.  The result could be that, even with the 20% "markdown," some items are higher priced now than before the sale began.  Buyer, beware.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hitch-22: A Memoir


I have been aware of Christopher Hitchens for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that I’ve really been much of an admirer of his.  It’s amazing how much “smarter” the man seemed to become as his political views grew closer to my own (for those unsure, this is my lame attempt at a joke) – even his “take no prisoners” debate style seemed less abrasive than before.

Hitch-22 is in some ways more than the book I expected and, in other ways, a bit less than I hoped for when I first picked it up.  On the one hand, Hitchens is frank about many aspects of his personal life, including the family scandal that cost his mother her life when she was killed by her lover in one of those murder-suicide incidents that destroy so many families.  He addresses his own bisexuality, tracing it all the way back to his boarding school days during which homosexual experimentation among the students was commonplace – and admits that he became more of a womanizer after he came to believe that signs of physical aging made him unattractive to men.  On the other hand, however, Hitchens says very little about either of his wives or his children, using them more as props, than anything else, in stories about some of his more famous friends, and enemies in the literary world.

Photo credit to be found here
Most interesting to me is the explanation Hitchens gives for his gradual shift of political views, all the way from being about as far left as one could be in 20th century England to becoming an advocate of the far right viewpoint on American/world politics by the 21st century.  Along the way, Hitchens became friends with some of the most influential political and literary minds of his day; as his politics changed, some of those same people would become his bitter enemies.  Hitchens, never one to pull his punches, tells the reader exactly what he thinks of the politicians, writers, pundits, and personalities he encountered along the way.  While that it definitely a good approach to writing a memoir, many American readers are likely to find themselves a bit befuddled by some of the names and situations Hitchens describes from his earlier life.  Too, these particular chapters constitute some of the most dryly written ones in the book, and it takes determination on the part of the reader to get through them despite the war zone adventures they often describe.

Hitch-22 does, though, reflect the personality of its author, and the book will not disappoint Hitchens fans.  The man’s feisty, confrontational approach to life, one leavened by his rather raunchy and witty take, is there for all to see – and enjoy.  Even taking into account his current fight for survival, few would say that Christopher Hitchens has been cheated by life.  His has been one of the more interesting ones of the 20th century and Hitch-22 proves it.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writer Sues Book Reviewer for Libel

It seems that an Israeli author has filed a libel lawsuit against a book reviewer who dared point out the weaknesses in her book.  Normally, I would laugh about this kind of misguided and frivolous lawsuit, expecting that the plaintiff would end up losing and having to pick up the court costs of the defendant.

But this one gets complicated.  According to the newser website:
...the Israel-based writer of an English-language book by a Dutch publisher that was reviewed in 2007 by a German professor for an American journal decided to sue in a French court.
The idea of shopping the world for a sympathetic judge is becoming more common as an increasing number of countries allow that kind of thing to happen - a scary trend, in my opinion.

As for the alleged libelous statements...how does this grab you?
Thomas Weigend wrote it (the book) has "analytical nuggets" and “meticulously covers all relevant topics,” but observed that it rehashes "the existing legal set-up" and found the author's “conceptual grasp” of some matters to be questionable.
If that is libelous, I suspect all book bloggers are guilty as charged by this crazy woman. It's disturbing to see yet another author trash her professional reputation by doing something so ludicrous. Here's hoping it costs her a bundle of Israeli, German, French, Dutch and American currency.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Standing at the Crossroads

Every so often comes along a novel that just won't stop haunting me. This time it’s Standing at the Crossroads, by Charles Davis – a novel of Sudan’s “civil war” as seen through the eyes of three very different people. First, there is Kate, a white woman traveling on her own and photographing the atrocities she witnesses as she makes her way across the country. Kate is determined to expose Sudan’s ugly truth to the world in na├»ve hope that someone, somewhere, will care enough to intervene in the slaughter taking place there in God’s name. Next, there is a little girl, almost mute, who has somehow managed to escape the slaughter of her village and is wandering the desert alone, and, finally, there is the book’s narrator, a black African man known to the villagers as “The Story Man” and to whites as “The Barefoot Librarian.”

This barefoot librarian lives and breathes Western novels. In honor of his favorite book, Moby Dick, he introduces himself to the reader as Ishmael, but remarks that he is a witness, not an outsider. Ishmael carries his library on his back, walking from village to village where he reads stories and leaves books behind in exchange for a place to sleep and something to eat. He acquires his books from those Westerners he encounters in the country and is always on the lookout for their castoffs. Hoping to get books from Kate, he approaches her at a crossroads village just as she is threatened by several “Warriors of God,” a group of religious fanatics willing to kill, burn, and mutilate in the name of their brand of religion. By defying the Warriors of God, Ishmael and Kate make a mortal enemy of the group’s leader and, if they are to survive, they will have to walk across the desert, just one step ahead of the men on horseback who want to torture and kill them.

Standing at the Crossroads has all the makings of a first rate thriller but it is more than that. It is the story of a remarkable man who has used the best of Western literature to transform himself into something unique for his time and place. Ishmael is not a religious man; rather, his entire philosophy of life is based upon his fiction reading. This is a man who, while walking what he estimates has been more than 20,000 miles, imagines that his friend Huck Finn or Miss Havisham is walking beside him in friendly conversation. He has a story for every occasion and he knows just when to tell them.

Though it is filled with much tragedy and violence, Standing at the Crossroads still manages to be a “feel good” novel of sorts in that no reader will be able to recall The Barefoot Librarian without indulging in a little mental smile about him. Reading and books are his life in every way. This is a man who adapted the very idea of reading into a survival tool, as when he was burying himself and Kate in sand in order to escape the approaching horsemen:
“I have never done this before, never inhumed myself, but the sensation is familiar, for it is what I have been doing my whole life long with reading, burying myself in books so that I will be invisible to the outside world and the outside world will be invisible to me. Inter yourself one way or another and you will feel safe, however illusory that safety might be.


The horsemen are not readers. If they were readers, they would know that you must pay attention to small details…I hear them pass, conversing in dull, bored voices, perhaps fifty feet from where we are lying, barely daring to breathe.”
This one I will remember for a long time, and I suspect already that it is destined to be one of the best books I read in all of 2011.

Rated at: 5.0
 
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I'm Surrounded

As I write this, it's about 12:40 p.m. and I've just finished lunch here in my local Barnes & Noble cafe - not a lunch to brag about, but it will get me through the afternoon. This is something I haven't done for a while and I had forgotten how calming an experience it can be. There is definitely something to be said for spending an hour or so completely surrounded by books and people who actually read them (as my Canadian buddy, Cip, will attest).

I've been reading Hitch 22, last year's Christopher Hitchens memoir for a few days now (should finish it today, I think) and I've been struck by his admiration of George Orwell, an author I only know through the books 1984 and Animal Farm. In one of those moments of serendipity that so often occur, I spotted on a bargain book cart at the store's entrance a copy of the 2002 Hitchens book Why Orwell Matters, a book I didn't even know existed - at the skinflint pleasing price of $3.50. I'll be boring you guys with my thoughts on that one in a few weeks, I suspect.

I also found a discounted copy of Anne Rice's Called Out of Darkness: A Spititual Confession from 2008. This is the book in which Rice explains her return to Catholicism after many years of living life as an atheist. This is another book I missed upon it's publication, but since I've often wondered about Rice's transformation, I jumped all over the chance to grab a copy for six bucks. I'm making an effort to read more nonfiction this year, so both of these books fit right in to my 2011 reading plan.

That's it for now; I can only spare another thirty minutes to hit the shelves upstairs, so I have to run. Have a great Sunday afternoon, everyone.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, focuses on one Julian Treslove, a man standing at the crossroad of life not at all sure about which direction he should turn.  He is not happy about where he is standing, that much he does know - and he senses that, in order to salvage the remainder of his life, he needs a complete makeover.

Treslove, twice married, abandoned both wives so early in the marriages that he barely knows his two sons.  He once worked as a radio programmer for the BBC but now resents the experience so much that he can barely stomach walking past his old building.  Now he works, when the agency can find it for him, as a celebrity lookalike at parties, not exactly a step up from being a BBC producer.  Treslove does not know who he is, much less who he wants to be.  His life has lost its meaning.

Even Teslove’s oldest friendship seems to be based more on rivalry and competition than on companionship.  Sam Finkler, popular author and television personality, makes his living selling shallow, but bestselling, self-help books.  Finkler, a Jew whose wife has recently died, is so rabidly anti-Zionist that he helps form a group of likeminded Jews who meet once a week to declare their shame in public.  When the Treslove and Finkler reconnect with elderly professor Libor Sevick, who has just lost his wife of more than fifty years, Treslove, as the single non-Jew in the trio, feels more disconnected from life than ever. 

In his great desire to belong, and to create a new identity for himself, Treslove decides to recreate himself in the image of a contemporary London Jew.  He immerses himself into the lives of his two friends, learns Yiddish, and even finds a Jewish lover who is in charge of the soon-to-opened Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture (located down the road from the Abbey Road recording studio made famous by the Beatles).  Julian Treslove is determined to become “a Finkler,” and author Howard Jacobson uses Treslove’s quest  to explore the whole “Finkler Question” and what it means to be a modern day “Finkler.”

Is The Finkler Question worthy of the Man Booker Prize?  In the sense that a tragicomedy like this one can so successfully explore the meaning of identity to the offspring of a people who have been so misunderstood, and have suffered so much personal violence over the past 2,000 years, yes it does.  That said, this is not an easy novel to like.  Its two main characters, Treslove and Finkler, are equally unlikable and unsympathetic – both are, in fact, more fools than not.  Too, despite Jacobson’s reputation as a writer who uses a good bit of humor in his novels, I found very little of it in evidence here.  I suspect that might be because it is of the “inside baseball” type of humor that only those having grown up in the Jewish faith can fully understand and appreciate. 

I do appreciate the insights Jacobson offers into contemporary Judaism as it is practiced and lived today,  but I am yet to answer the “Man Booker Prize question” even in my own mind.

Rated at: 3.5

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Borders Finally Pulls the Plug

(Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Well, as predicted, they've gone and done it.

Borders finally filed for bankruptcy protection this morning and a few of the numbers associated with that move have become public:


Around 200 of the 642 stores will be shut down.


Of the approximately 19,000 Borders employees, some 6,000 are expected to lose their jobs.


The company has secured $505 million in financing to be used in reorganizing under Chapter 11 rules.


Borders shares can now be had for 18 cents each - an all-time low share price for the company.


Borders owes $41.1 million to Penguin Group, $36.9 million to Hatchett Book Group, and $33.8 million to Simon & Schuster - only a small portion of the company's total debt of $1.3 billion.


Hiring 4 CEOs in five years (none of them with bookseller experience, by the way) is not a great idea.


A complete list of the stores being shut down can be found here.   (Surprisingly, none of the seven Houston stores are on the list but Dallas and Austin get hit hard.) 
Borders always did seem to be a step behind Barnes & Noble to me and I never really enjoyed browsing my local Borders the way I enjoy browsing so many other bookstores. There is just something about the layout of the store that creates such a sterile atmosphere that I seldom spend any real time (or money) there. I can't put my finger on what it is exactly, but it's some combination of a less than personable staff and the floor plan that irks me.

But that's just me, one customer. Where Borders seems to have been most shortsighted is in never really positioning itself in the e-book market; the company never could carve out an e-book niche for itself.  I mean, come on...all of us could see the trend coming years ago.  Right?  But for some reason, the revolving door managers of Borders missed the boat completely. Does anyone think "Borders" when they think e-books? Seriously?

I hate to be a pessimist when it comes to the survival of any bookstore but I can't see a way that this is going to end well. Borders could not compete in the market place even when it was supposedly financially healthy (the company has not shown an annual profit since 2006). How is a company as financially crippled as this one going to compete in that same market place?

I sincerely hope that I'm wrong, but that's not because I particularly love Borders bookstores.  It's just that it would be a shame to see this huge chain bite the dust after it ruthlessly put so many indie bookstores out of business during the last two decades.  Is Amazon.com going to the the only major bookseller still standing ten years from now?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Name Is Mary Sutter

Before it was over, the War Between the States would claim several hundred thousand lives. Sadly, a good many of those lives were given up by men who never saw a battlefield or by those who succumbed to secondary infections spread to them by the very doctors and nurses whose job it was to save their lives. Volunteers, especially at the start of the war, were thrown together in crowded camps within which little regard was given to sanitation. Young men from rural areas were suddenly victim to numerous infectious diseases to which they had never been exposed. Those from the city, not as likely to fall to the more common diseases, were still easy prey to the dysentery that ravaged the tent cities.

The war offered a unique opportunity to someone like Mary Sutter, the heroine of Robin Oliveira’s Civil War novel, My Name Is Mary Sutter. Already an accomplished midwife in her native Albany, New York, Mary desires more. With all her heart, she wants to become a surgeon. The local medical school, however, refuses even to consider the possibility of admitting a female and none of the doctors in the area will agree to teach her what he knows. When Mary hears that Dorothea Dix has convinced President Lincoln to allow her to recruit female nurses, she heads to Washington to offer her services to Dix - only to find out that she is too young to qualify.

But no one would accuse Mary Sutter of being a quitter. If Dix will not accept her as a nurse, she will find someone who will. A chance meeting with John Hay, one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries, ultimately leads Mary to the Union Hotel Hospital and the job of assisting the hospital’s chief surgeon, William Stipp. Stipp needs Mary’s help as badly as she needs him to teach her, so the two form a partnership each of them will barely survive. Mary is shocked by what she sees: the hospital is short on supplies and long on patients, Dr. Stipp seems to be learning as he goes, and many of the wounded survive horrific amputation surgery in good shape only to die within days anyway.

My Name Is Mary Sutter is Civil War history as seen primarily through the eyes of the doctors and nurses who struggled, so often in vain, to save the lives of the wounded and sick soldiers placed in their care. Robin Oliveira vividly portrays the medical knowledge and limitations of the day, be it through her detailed descriptions of amputations or those of the potential terrors associated with childbirth of the period. She also reminds her readers of the great number of lives lost so needlessly to secondary infection, a medical problem that would not be solved until after the war.

All of this is tied together by the intriguing story of the Sutter family itself and how the war all but destroyed it. Some readers, I suspect, will find some aspects of the family story to be a little too strongly of the sort found in romance novels; others will find this to be the best part of the book. My Name Is Mary Sutter will appeal to a variety of readers.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, February 14, 2011

Morituri


Yasmina Khadra (real name: Mohammed Moulessehoul) is a former high ranking Algerian army officer who moved to France in 2000 after having witnessed some of the bloodiest and most brutal days in Algerian history (and that is saying a lot).  Moulessehoul went into exile because he dared write about the fact that there were few “good guys” in the Algeria’s religion-based civil war, other than perhaps the countless civilians who were slaughtered in the process.  The Algerian army was often as guilty of atrocity as the terrorists whom the military struggled to control.

That Khadra/Moulessehoul would leave Algeria with a jaded outlook on life is no surprise.  That he would adapt his experiences into a classically noirish detective series would be more difficult to imagine – but that is exactly what he did with Morituri and the other Superintendent Llob books.

Superintendent Llob and Lieutenant Lino have been around long enough to understand the politics of police work in a city as politically corrupt as Algiers.  They recognize the relationship between corrupt politicians, businessmen, and high ranking police officials.  But those simple days are over.  Now, policemen like Llob and Lino are being targeted for political assassination by groups trying to collapse Algeria’s governmental system.  In order to speed up the cultural breakdown, policemen and their families are being assassinated alongside writers, singers, journalists, entertainers, and others deemed to be a threat to the Muslim revolution.  Men like Llob and Lino take each day one at a time, thankful each time they make it to the office without incident.

In the midst of the turmoil, Superintendent Llob is assigned to search for the missing daughter of one of the more corrupt powerbrokers in Algiers.  The search will force Llob and Lieutenant Lino into the underworld of Algiers that few Westerners would dream exists.  Llob, ever the tough guy, uses his contacts to get himself inside some of the most decadent settings one can imagine, places where anything and everything can be had for the right price, including young women, little girls, and little boys.  Llob pursues the search for the missing rich girl, crashing and bullying his way from scene to scene, despite what he learns about her and her father.

Yasmina Khadra
The strength of Morituri is in how the novel so deftly captures the atmosphere of 1990s Algiers, a city in which paranoia and fear ruled the day.  When I left Algiers in late 1993 (early in the evolution of the war), it was already a city of curfews, unreliable roadblocks, massacres of entire villages, beheadings, kidnappings, bombs, and assassinations.  Drivers had to decide on a hunch whether a roadblock was being manned by real military personnel or by terrorists dressed to look the part.  There was a shoot-on-sight rule for anyone caught on the streets after ten p.m. Villages, down to the last man, woman and child, were slaughtered within the sight and hearing of army posts but military personnel did not always bother to notice.  Westerners were targets of choice for kidnappers and assassins. Army and police personnel seldom bothered to take prisoners in shootouts with terrorists they confronted in the middle of a long Algerian night.

The difference was I could walk away from Algiers, never to return.  Superintendent Llob and Lieutenant Lino had to stay and to do their best to protect the streets of the city, an impossible task.  Yasmina Khadra has written Morituri in a style that can be a bit difficult to read at times – characters come and go at a rapid pace and the plot veers from scene to scene like a runaway train – but he has done a magnificent job in recreating the atmosphere of a major world city that was eating itself alive in the nineties.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On Bad Reviews and Comments from Author Sock Puppets


SFP's Pages Turned lit blog turned me on (way late, it seems) to the latest flaming backlash from an author who does not appreciate her book being less-than-positively reviewed by an unprofessional critic, otherwise known as anyone coming from the despicable book blogging community.  I suspect that many of you have experienced the same; it's happened to me several times and it is the main reason I've cut back so far on the number of review copies I nowadays accept from publishers or authors.

I will say, too, before going any further, that I have sometimes been overwhelmed by the graciousness of several authors who have stopped by to thank me for reviewing their books even though my reviews were far from being raves.  I am pleased to report that the "gracious group," in my experience, has outnumbered the "unprofessional group" by at least 5 to 1.

This is some of what Sylvia Massara had to say about book bloggers (only the ones who do not rave about her work, of course):
This is why I am warning authors to beware of this kind of reviewer. When you offer your book to be reviewed, first take the time to check out the reviewer. Have a read of some of the reviews they wrote in the past. See if they trashed someone else. Make sure they back up their reviews with facts and objective criticism. I learned my lesson the hard way and didn't do my research first, as I should have done.


Oftentimes, the people who set up these kinds of blogs have never written a thing in their lives, except maybe a grocery list. Most are avid readers who think they are qualified to review someone else's work. So it's very sad when they go about damaging the image of upcoming small press and indie authors with the rubbish they write.


My message to them is this: if you cannot write an objective review and back up what you say, then don't write anything at all. And next time you use the words "predictable" or "one dimensional" try to quantify what you mean--that is, if you are able to write about it. Please bear in mind that writers work very hard at their craft and the last thing they need is a smartass who makes subjective comments because they don't know how to do anything else.
This is tame stuff compared to the anonymous comments she left on at least two of the blogs that published unfavorable reviews of her latest romance novel.

Sylvia seems to be advising her pals to send their work out to only those "unprofessionals" that are willing to write a canned, positive review in exchange for the privilege of having received a "free" book.  Anyone daring to challenge Sylvia's skills is written off as just another "avid reader that has never written anything other than a grocery list."  Otherwise why would they fail to be dazzled by Sylvia's brilliance?

I cannot speak for others in the lit blog community, and I don't pretend to do so.  But, as for me, I started Book Chase a little over four years ago as a personal book journal.  I began with the intention of linking to what was already a thriving community of likeminded people, book lovers, writers, and heavy duty readers.  My "reviews" were as much notes to myself, as they were anything else.  I welcomed the opportunity to spread the word about "little books" that impressed me, the kind of book that seldom makes those trashy bestseller lists at the NY Times and USA Today.  I loved hearing from self-published writers, small presses, and university presses.

I pride myself on giving an honest opinion about what I read, and I think that my reviews have gotten better over the years.  But honesty is still the key ingredient, as far as I'm concerned.  I will admit to letting a few books drop into the Book Chase Black Hole, even though I could neither force myself to finish them nor find anything positive to say about them if I did manage to make it through to the end, precisely because I respected the authors for working so hard to get out the word about their books.  Some would say that is akin to pulling punches, but I have a soft spot in my heart for indie authors and small presses, and if I erred, it was on the side of "doing no harm."

I have only this to say directly to Ms. Massara: Book bloggers do not owe you a thing in return for a review copy other than their consideration of the book for an onsite review.  They certainly do not owe you a positive review.  There are a few "unprofessional" bloggers out there that will gladly do the dirty deed for/with you - and you can find them if you look around for a day or two.  Sadly, that group of bloggers is every bit as unprofessional as the "professionals" who do the same for their own friends and colleagues.  Perhaps, you should consider your own professionalism before leaving snarky anonymous comments around the web regarding what you consider poor reviews of your work.  Is being a "sock puppet" part of the professional image writers shoot for these days?  I doubt it.

(Follow the link in the first paragraph if you want to read Massara's original post (although she has self-servingly deleted about 180 comments she received) and two of the reviews of her work that got the lady in such a snit.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Trailer for Atlas Shrugged, Part I

So what do you think?  This just might turn out to be one of the most controversial movies in a long while. Personally, the trailer does nothing much to get me excited about the film but it does appear to be well done...and this is just "Part I."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Borders Nearing Bankruptcy

What has seemed inevitable for months is apparently about to happen.  Borders Bookstores is preparing to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy because the company's creditors refuse to throw more good money after the bad money they have already lost.  Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are reporting that the filing will likely occur early next week.
Borders, the beleaguered bookseller, is preparing to file for bankruptcy as early next week after efforts to refinance its debt faltered, people briefed on the matter said Friday.


The company had largely failed to persuade publishers to convert payments they had been owed since late last year into interest-bearing loans.
[...]
Neither of Borders’ biggest shareholders — the company’s chairman and chief executive, Bennett S. LeBow, and the hedge fund manager William A. Ackman — has indicated a willingness to put new money into the bookseller, these people said. Mr. Ackman disclosed in a regulatory filing late last year that he would be willing to loan Borders up to $960 million to finance a merger with Barnes & Noble, the company’s bigger rival.
Publishers are truly stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to dealing with Borders.  On the one hand, they, as a group, have potentially lost several hundred million dollars on books already delivered to the chain.  On the other, if they cannot find a way to work with Borders that will keep the company in business, a major seller of printed books is lost to them forever.  In today's publishing environment, one has to wonder if such a large chain of bookstores can ever be replaced.

Interestingly, Borders has apparently not given up on the idea of forcing itself on the Barnes & Noble chain.  Such a merger might save a healthy percentage of the Borders outlets (for now), but I can't help but wonder how the deal would affect the economic health of the already weakened B&N chain.

If you're a gambler, Borders stock can be had for about 25 cents a share.  Do you feel lucky?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lincoln's Men

In Lincoln’s Men (1999), William C. Davis provides an in depth study of the relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and the men of the Union Army during the War Between the States. Lincoln had an unusually close relationship with his fighting men – one that would sustain the president and his soldiers through even the bleakest periods of the war. Davis makes the case that, had this personal relationship not existed, it would have been much more difficult for the country, civilians and soldiers alike, to find the will to continue to fight a terrible war that seemed to be lasting forever.

That Abraham Lincoln became a father figure to a huge majority of the men fighting on the side of the Union, especially those in the Army of the Potomac, is beyond dispute. As his book’s subtitle announces (“How President Lincoln Became a Father to an Army and a Nation”), Davis explains here the “how” part of what happened. In order to do that, Davis searched through some 600 manuscript collections to see what the men themselves had to say about Lincoln during various milestones of the war. He quotes extensively (sometimes to excess, in fact) from the letters and diaries of the men who were there.

Lincoln’s Men is divided into nine chapters, beginning with one on Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 and ending with one on his assassination in 1865. Between these bookend chapters are others on creation of the Union army, Lincoln’s struggles with the reluctant-to-fight General McClellan, Lincoln’s evolving policy on emancipation of the slaves in Southern states, Lincoln’s efforts to keep his army armed, fed and paid, and one on Lincoln’s liberal pardon policy (perhaps the most revealing chapter in the entire book).

Each of the chapters is peppered with direct quotes from soldier correspondence that show Lincoln’s influence and effect on the men he so much respected and admired. Davis does not make the claim that love for Mr. Lincoln was unanimously shared by the army and, in fact, spends a good number of pages quoting from McClellan loyalists who remained in opposition to Lincoln right up to his death. Shockingly enough, some Union soldiers, those who insisted to the end that they had not enlisted to fight to end slavery, were cheered by the news of Lincoln’s assassination – and many learned to regret the mistake of expressing those feelings to Lincoln loyalists.

Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the perfect man for his time and his job. It is, of course, impossible to predict what might have happened if America had had no Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Men does make clear, however, how much a key element the personality of Lincoln was in holding the Union together long enough for the United States to conclude the war successfully. Without the strong emotional bonding between Lincoln and his men, the War Between the States may have ended very differently.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Joyce Carol Oates Reads from Sourland

YouTube continues to impress and amaze me.  The service makes it possible for all of us to enjoy things like this Joyce Carol Oates appearance no matter where we live.  This reading took place in Boston, a city I haven't visited in two decades, but thanks to YouTube and Forum Network, I feel like I was there (and I suspect that I had a better view than those who saw the event live).

This is the keynote address at the Boston Book Festival,  on October 15, 2010, during which Ms. Oates reads "Pumpkin Head," one of the short stories from her latest story collection, Sourland.  After the reading, Ms. Oates engages in "conversation" with an interviewer and takes questions from the audience.

I have not read Sourland yet but, from what Ms. Oates says in her introduction to the reading, it appears that many of the stories in the book share the common theme of sudden widowhood that she so frankly addresses in her recent memoir, A Widow's Life.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Quick Stop

Just stopping by for a quick check-in this evening.  I've been out-of-town the last couple of days to attend a family funeral and that has limited both my reading and my blogging efforts.  I think I went through internet withdrawal pains last night when I realized I would have to go for more than 24 hours without access to the net.  I'm almost embarrassed to mention how "lost" I felt.

I did start a mystery by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra called Moritouri.  The novel is set in Algiers during some of the worst of the Moslem infighting that happened there in the1990s and 2000s.  I am particularly intrigued by the novel because I lived in Algiers for more than a year just when the chaos was beginning there.  In fact, the U.S. government and my employer evacuated us from the city in late 1993 just when things were getting out of hand.  I was so naive while living there that I walked the streets alone for hours at a time, wondering why I was getting so many dirty looks and the silent treatment from everyone but some of the children.  This was just weeks before Western hostages started being taken in Algiers - when they were not just immediately taken and beheaded.  I was stupid - and lucky.

I did sense that there was a very corrupt and decadent "underground" society there that the rich and powerful exploited for their own purposes but it was all kept very quiet and secret because, after all, Algeria is a Muslim country and "that kind of thing doesn't happen in a Muslim country."  Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an ex-officer in the Algerian army (an army that was as brutally murderous as the terrorists it fought).  He is now in French exile and has revealed his true identity.

Now, Morituri is very "noir" in tone; that is,very dark with lots of exaggerated "attitude" on the part of its hero, so I don't really know how to judge it on the realism scale.  That, though, is part of the fun - Yasmina Khadra has created an Algerian Philip Marlowe, out-Chandlering Raymond Chandler himself.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Tallgrass

In Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas explores one of the more shameful aspects of American World War II history. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in various interment camps spread around the country. Tallgrass is the story of the impact one of those camps had on the locals of rural Ellis, Colorado, and those citizens that were forced to live within its fences for the rest of the war.

The story is told largely in the voice of young Rennie Stroud who lives on a Colorado beet farm with her parents and older brother. Rennie is well-placed to tell the story since her family’s farm is within easy walking distance of the new internment camp suddenly thrust upon the community. The townspeople are immediately curious about, and generally suspicious of, the newcomers, believing that the government has confined them to the camp for good reason. The Strouds, however, are an open-minded bunch, believing their new neighbors to be nothing more than a group of American citizens suffering unfair treatment at the hands of their government. This does not make the family at all popular with the majority of their fellow townspeople.

When a young girl, a friend of Rennie’s, is found brutally raped and murdered, most everyone in Ellis blames the Tallgrass camp for bringing this kind of criminal to their little community. Those already inclined to mistreat the camp’s residents verbally, are now even more inclined to threaten them physically and revengeful violence is only narrowly averted – for the moment.

Rennie has a different take on the situation. As more and more of the county’s young men, including her brother, volunteer to join the fight, it becomes difficult for the local farmers to plant and harvest their crops. In what the Strouds see as a win-win situation, they finally get permission to hire three young Japanese internees to help keep their farm solvent. As conditions continue to change, the family hires the sister of one of the boys and, eventually, two other Japanese women to help with the increased household workload. Over time, and despite the animosity aimed their way, the Strouds come to think of their Japanese employees as their extended family.

Tallgrass is a coming-of-age novel for Rennie Stroud, but it is equally a coming-of-age story for the whole town of Ellis, Colorado. That Rennie does a better job with the process is sad but not surprising. As the news from the Pacific front grows worse, and more local boys are killed or wounded there, the camp and its residents are often threatened with violence from the locals. The local sheriff finds it difficult to identify the murderer in their midst, and the Tallgrass internees will never be trusted or accepted for who they are until he does.

Tallgrass is a worthy addition to World War II home-front fiction, especially as it relates to what happened to Japanese-Americans during the war. It is written in a manner, and at a level, that makes it more effective as a Young Adult novel than as something aimed at an adult readership, however. The Strouds are just too perfect to be entirely believable and the Japanese characters are generally of the stereotypical variety. This one is perfect for middle and high school libraries and could be used as good supplemental material in history classes at either of those levels.

Rated at: 3.0 for Adult Readers
Rated at: 4.0 for YA Readers

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Glass Rainbow


By my count, The Glass Rainbow is number 18 in James Lee Burke’s wonderful Dave Robicheaux series – and I have read and enjoyed them all.  In the Robicheaux series, Burke has created two of my all-time favorite fictional characters: Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel.  Amidst all the violence and mayhem found in a typical Dave Robicheaux novel, these two men manage to nurture one of the most touching male friendships ever created by a novelist.  It is a friendship that literally keeps both men alive, and it is hard even to imagine what either of their lives would have been like if the two had never met.

The Glass Rainbow is about the search for a serial killer who has killed seven young women in Jefferson Davis Parish, just minutes from Dave’s home in New Iberia, Louisiana.   Suspecting that Herman Stanga, a lowlife New Iberia pimp, might know something about several of the victims, Clete and Dave confront him at his home.  Their visit to Stanga’s home gets the attention of someone who does not appreciate their efforts, and the race is on.   Will they survive the investigation?  Will Dave’s wife and daughter survive it? 

Seldom has Dave Robicheaux been confronted by evil of this magnitude.   It is said that psychopaths recognize, and have a way of finding, each other.  Dave and Clete are dealing with a snakes’ nest of psychopaths this time – and not all the snakes in it appear to be poisonous before they bite, leading to what is perhaps the most nerve-wracking finale of any book in the series (I could barely turn the pages fast enough to get through it).

Without a doubt, The Glass Rainbow is one of the best books in the series.  It is filled with action and the long-running characters face more personal danger in it than they have in a while.  But what makes it even more special is the way that Burke share’s Dave’s innermost thoughts and philosophies with the reader.  Dave Robicheaux is a thinker:

            “Someone once said that had Sir Walter Scott not written his romantic accounts of medieval chivalry, there would have been no War Between the States.  I doubted if that was true, either.  I believed the legend of the Lost Cause was created after the fact, when the graves of Shiloh and Antietam became vast stone gardens reminding us forever that we imposed this suffering on ourselves.”  (Page 121)

            “How about oil?  Its extraction and production in Louisiana had set us free from economic bondage to the agricultural oligarchy that had ruled the state from antebellum days well into the mid-twentieth century.  But we discovered that our new corporate liege lord had a few warts on his face, too.  Like the Great Whore of Babylon, Louisiana was always desirable for her beauty and not her virtue, and when her new corporate suitor plunged into things, he left his mark.”  (Page 242)

“In the alluvial sweep of the land, I thought I could see the past and the present and the future all at once, as though time were not sequential in nature but took place without a beginning or an end, like a flash of green light rippling outward from the center of creation, not unlike a dream inside the mind of God.”  (Page 243)

“George Orwell once wrote that people are always better than we think they are.  They are more kind, more loving, more brave and decent…But too often there are times when our fellow human beings let us down, and when they do, all of us are the less for it.”  (Page 293)

“Don’t let anyone tell you that age purchases you freedom from fear of death.  As Clete Purcel once said in describing his experience in a battalion aid station in the Central Highlands, it’s a sonofabitch.  Men cry out for their mothers; they grip your hands with an intensity that can break bones; their breath covers your face like damp cobwebs and tries to draw you inside them.  As George Orwell suggested long ago, if you can choose the manner of your death, let it be in hot blood and not in bed.”  (Pages 351-352)

And my favorite:

            Because that’s the way I’ll always see her.  A father never sees the woman.  He always sees the little girl.”  (Page 390)

Despite all he has experienced or witnessed in his life, Dave Robicheaux is still a white knight; he plays by the rules even when confronting the most repulsive of the bad guys.  Protecting those who cannot protect themselves is his mission in life, and he does it well.  One day there will be no Dave Robicheaux in New Iberia and it will be a poorer place.  So will the inner-world of readers everywhere.  James Lee Burke proves here that he is still very much on top of his game.

Rated at: 5.0

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Nook vs. the iPad

To be fair to Barnes & Noble and the Nook, I'm posting a comparison today between the Nook and the iPad.  In passing, the Kindle is also mentioned and, in fact, the Kindle App for the iPad is used for comparison purposes to the Nook.  Now, I suppose I need to find something featuring the Sony Reader just to cover all the major e-reader bases.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

It's Kindle vs. iPad

Those of you considering the purchase of an e-book reader might want to take a look at this short comparison of the Apple iPad to the Amazon Kindle.  The video impresses me as a fair representation of the strengths and weaknesses of both devices.  I have had an iPad since July of last year and I am loving it more every week, it seems.  In my opinion, it's no contest even with the substantial difference in price because the iPad is capable of doing so many things so well.  I have the basic version that, with accessories, cost me about $575.  I like the idea of having a multi-purpose device instead of yet another single-use gadget, but that's just me.  Take a look; I hope this helps a bit if you're on the fence.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London


Jack London, the man who several years before Mark Twain’s death unseated Twain to become America’s favorite author, was a man of contrasts.  Illegitimately born into a poverty stricken environment, for much of his adult life London would employ a full domestic staff, including a personal valet.  Even as an avowed and outspoken advocate of socialism, he saw nothing wrong with living the luxurious lifestyle his personal labor eventually earned him.  He was a staunch defender of the rights of “native peoples” but is said to have been a “racialist,” believing that no good would come from a mixing of the races.

London’s era was one still very much influenced by the sexual mores of the Victorian Age but he was always sexually active, even when married, and made little effort to explain his actions to either of his wives.  He enjoyed the company of children but was never close to the two daughters he fathered by his first wife, allowing them effectively to slip out of his life.  Those who knew him considered London a “spiritual” man, but he detested the way that religion helped maintain what he saw as an illegitimate and unjust society and considered himself an atheist.  He was capable of superb writing but was willing to do as much “hackwork” as it took to support his lifestyle.

Even in death, London was a mystery.  That he died in his sleep at age 40 is not disputed; the cause of his death, however, is still open to discussion.  Did London die of an accidental overdose of morphine or, as many suspect, was he so depressed that he decided to take his own life that night.  He was known to be upset about his health and the shape he was in but adamantly refused to change the lifestyle that was rapidly killing him.  Even had he not died as he did, it is unlikely that Jack London would ever have seen his fifties.

James L. Haley
All of this is explored in Wolf: The Lives of Jack London, James Haley’s recent Jack London biography.  Hayley approaches London’s life by dividing it into segments based on the various occupations that occupied him during his 40 years.  Those occupations range from what London called “work beast” (when, as a youth, he worked in places such as a pickle factory for ten cents an hour) to pirate, seal hunter, hobo, student, gold prospector, writer, muckraker, war correspondent, sailor and rancher.  Each of these jobs is given its own chapter treatment; other chapters include those on London the “lover” and London the “celebrity.”

Haley’s technique works well to explain how Jack London managed to reinvent himself as a world-class author.  This approach also puts a human face on a man who has too often in the past been stereotyped simply as a socialist/communist who happened to write very good novels or as a man’s man who traveled to the wilds of Alaska and the South Seas in search of new topics for his books.  The real Jack London, as it turns out was more motivated by finding a way to make a living with his mind rather than his back than by anything else.  That he succeeded to such a degree is a tale resembling those stories that so enthralled London himself as a young reader in San Francisco.

The odds were heavily against Jack London, but he made it.  James Haley tells how London did it in a very readable, and memorable, biography that is sure to please fans of literary biography.

Rated at: 5.0