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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Mirage


I don’t care what you say.  This one will, at least at first, make you feel a bit uncomfortable.  In the tradition of the best alternate history fiction, Matt Ruff uses The Mirage to turn history on its head in a way that makes one think.  American readers, in particular, will be forced to do some soul searching as they make their way through the mad journey that Ruff has prepared for them.

The Mirage, you see, begins on 11/9/2001 just as a group of Christian fundamentalists highjack four Iraqi airliners.  Two of the jets crash into the World Trade Towers in Baghdad, one into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh, and one heads for Mecca but, before it can reach its target there, passengers manage to crash it into the ground.  Soon, the United Arab States (UAS) are waging a payback war on terror and have invaded the East Coast.  Washington D.C. is turned into a Green Zone safe haven for the invaders who are ruthlessly attacked almost every time they venture outside its protected perimeter.  Eight years later, the invaders are still there, hoping to leave a stable government behind before they call the war done.

Ruff softens the shock of this jarring setup by creating several sympathetic Iraqi characters tasked with the mission of stopping further Christian terrorist attacks on Iraq and the rest of the UAS.  Mustafa al Baghdadi and his cohorts spend their days tracking threats and terrorist cells, hoping to stay one step ahead of the fundamentalists who want to bring more mayhem to the country.  So far, with a lot of luck, they have been successful.  But when Mustafa, during one of his arrests, finds an old newspaper that a suspect has hidden away, his world is shaken. 

This is not just any old newspaper.  It is a back issue of The New York Times dated 9/12/2001, and it tells a surreal story that Mustafa cannot comprehend.  Surely, it is a hoax; it has to be.  Then other captured terrorists begin to tell stories similar to what is in the newspaper, and Mustafa starts to doubt the world he lives in.  Is it all a mirage?  If it is, who is responsible and how did they do it?

Matt Ruff
Readers will enjoy the way that Ruff uses the main players from the 9/11 murders in The Mirage.  Most of them are there, but in entirely new roles – some of which are guaranteed to offend as many readers as they will please.  More intriguingly, others who had no actual connection with events following 9/11 participate here in key roles: David Koresh, Lee Atwater, Timothy McVeigh, and Terry Nichols, among them.  Although some will skip them, Ruff uses clever Wikipedia-like entries as chapter-breaks that should not be ignored because they fill in the narrative blanks, making it easier to understand this strange new world.

The ending Ruff chose for The Mirage, however, is weak.  His story, and his readers, deserve better.  Based upon the rest of the story, it is difficult to argue that the ending is too fantastic to be taken seriously (and the argument cannot be attempted without straying into “spoiler” territory).  But it is, and it lessens the impact that I belief Ruff was going for in The Mirage.  That said, do not miss this one because it is still one of the more intriguing novels you will encounter in 2012.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Novel Bookstore


Seldom have I had mixed emotions about a book to the degree that I have them about Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore.  I was initially drawn to the novel because it seemed to be a mixture of two of my favorite genres: books about books, and crime fiction.  And that is exactly what A Novel Bookstore is but, in this case, the two genres do not work particularly well together.  Perhaps that is because the dialogue is generally too stilted and otherwise unrealistic to give the crimes in question much teeth.  To my ear, these characters are more akin to something from a 1930s romantic farce than they are to 21st century France.  They just do not seem real – making me wonder whether the author intended A Novel Bookstore to be more fable than novel.

There is, however, much to like here.  Anyone who has ever spent much time in a bookstore will be drawn to the concept of a bookstore that only stocks the good stuff.  No James Patterson, Dan Brown, or Danielle Steele will be found in a bookstore like the one being designed by Ivan and Francesca.  The pair have come together to create a truly novel enterprise, one that sells only the finest world literature ever written.  They are so unconcerned about popular demand that it will take at least a year for a new book to hit their shelves – and not many of them will actually ever make it there.

The bookstore’s initial offering will be chosen by a committee of eight specially chosen people, each of whom will be asked to list their favorite 600 books.  Even with the overlap in choices, this means that more than three thousand books will be offered for sale on the bookstore’s opening day.  The store, despite generating little in the way of profit, soon attracts a loyal group of customers, some of whom browse daily and have to be reminded to leave when it is time for the store to close.  Ivan and Francesca are thrilled with what is happening, but the backlash soon begins.

Laurence Cosse
Authors and publishers that cannot find their way to A Novel Bookstore’s shelves are not at all happy about being frozen out by such a prestigious bookseller.  Attacks, both personal and otherwise, that try to make the owners look like literary snobs, begin to appear in newspapers and magazines.  That is bad enough, but the agitation is followed by threats and physical attacks against several of the committee members – a group of eight who were never identified by name even to each other.  Obviously, there is a leak somewhere.

That is the crux of the story, but what I enjoyed most were the pages devoted to designing the new bookstore and readying it for its opening.  Although many of the literary references (especially the French ones) were new to me, the whole process of choosing the best 4,000 books for the store intrigued me all the way through.  That is what kept me turning pages, and I am happy that I did.  A Novel Bookstore is any book-lover’s fantasy and, to be fair to Ms. Cossé, that might be why her characters, including the criminals, do not seem more real than they do.  It could never happen…or, could it?

Rated at: 3.5 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

As Barnes & Noble Goes, So Goes the Future of Publishing

A New York Barnes and Noble Location
Not all that long ago, I was able to choose between buying a a recently published book from Barnes and Noble, B. Dalton, Borders, Book Stop, Crown Books, and even a handful of really good, but much smaller, booksellers.  Now there are just Barnes and Noble and the Books-A-Million chains, the latter of which has never had much of a presence in Houston.  When they first appeared, all of the national chains were harshly accused of running out of business all the little guys that had been selling books locally for decades.  The chains were most definitely cast as the bad guys, and they probably were.  Now, however, I would kill to have them back because even the last standing giant, Barnes and Noble, may not be long for this world and the little guys are not likely to return even if that happens.

The CNBC website has posted a heartbreaking, and terrifying, New York Times article clearly presenting the predicament that traditional publishers are in today.  The publishers recognize that the survival of Barnes and Noble is now closely tied to their own future survival.  This is true, despite the fact, that the bookseller is walking a very fine line itself as it tries to compete with Amazon in the e-book market while not, as a result, entirely killing off so much of the demand for printed books that it has to close its brick and mortar bookstores. Without Barnes and Noble's bookstores, the future of printed books will be much different than today - and many experts are already predicting that Barnes and Noble has started down the path of a long, slow death spiral of its own.
Without Barnes & Noble, the publishers’ marketing proposition crumbles. The idea that publishers can spot, mold and publicize new talent, then get someone to buy books at prices that actually makes economic sense, suddenly seems a reach. Marketing books via Twitter, and relying on reviews, advertising and perhaps an appearance on the “Today” show doesn’t sound like a winning plan.
 What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one.
[...] 
While publishers’ fates are closely tied to Barnes & Noble, said John Sargent, the C.E.O. of Macmillan, it’s not all about them.
“Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt,” he said, “if Barnes & Noble does not prosper.” 
If, as a true book-lover, any of this scares you or makes you nervous, you should read the entire article. It will terrify you and make you wonder if Jeff Bevos, head of Amazon, is on the verge of killing off the industry dearest to our hearts...and yet, few of us can resist the lure of Amazon's cheap prices and quick delivery.  Are we nuts?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Male Writer vs. Female Writer - Which Has It Tougher

The Guardian pointed me in the direction today of an interesting "conversation" about male vs. female authors that has been going on for a while.

Jennifer Weiner
It seems that nine-time novelist Jennifer Weiner, whose most recent book is 2011's Then Came You, does not believe that the New York Times Book Review treats women writers fairly when it comes to reviews and feature articles.  The folks over at Slate.com took a look at the situation and it does appear that the raw numbers back up Weiner's assertion since somewhere between sixty and seventy percent of reviews and features have generally been allocated to male authors.

Teddy Wayne
But first-time novelist Teddy Wayne (Kapitoil) disagrees that female writers are finding it nearly as hard as male writers to earn a living from their work.  Wayne points out that it is women readers who buy two-thirds of books sold and, more importantly, that equates to 80% of the fiction being sold.  He further contends that book club membership is dominated by women - and that they all tend to read other women, not male writers.  Wayne goes on to argue that mid-list writers, like him, do not get covered by the Times, either, and that they do not have the women's magazines to fall back on for the kind of publicity that sells large numbers of books.

So what do you think?  Myself, I think both are correct in what they are arguing.  It seems to be only a matter of degree on the "Miserableness Index" that we are talking about here.

Follow this link to The Guardian for the article because there is a good bit more to it than I mention here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Full Dark, No Stars


I have never been bashful about expressing my disdain for about 80% of the authors who dominate the big bestseller lists, having at times been particularly hard on the James Patterson factory and the novels of one Mr. Dan Brown.  That has led several people to question my general fondness for the books of Stephen King, a writer whose work they characterize as a guilty pleasure of my own.  Well, I have been a fan of King’s work ever since the Fourth of July holiday of 1980 that I spent reading the first book of his I had ever heard of: The Shining.  I went on to spend much of the rest of that month catching up on his earlier books.

Over the years, my opinion of Stephen King’s writing has changed somewhat.  Where once I was most eager to get my hands on his latest novel, these days it is his new short stories and novellas that I most look forward to reading.  I have come to believe that the novella is really King’s forte and not, despite the fact that he has written some very successful ones, the novel.  Full Dark, No Stars makes me even more certain of that.

Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of over five hundred pages encompassing three novellas and one short story.  One or two of the stories being told remind me, for the first time in a while, of two of King’s best (and best known) novellas: Shawshank Redemption and The Body.  No so coincidentally, this pair also led to two of the best received movies ever produced from King’s work (The Body was re-titled Stand by Me for its movie version). 

“1922,” a grim confession by Wilf James to the bloody murder of his wife that he convinced his teenage son to help him accomplish and cover-up, opens the book.  The youngster, deeply in love with the girl from the next farm, is terrified that he might be uprooted and moved to the city as his mother is insisting upon.  Wilf plays on his son’s emotions to gain his trust but starts a chain of events that will ultimately leave him regretting much more than his wife’s murder.  The outstanding character development and feel for the period King invokes in this one make it, I think, the overall strongest story in the collection. 

“Big Driver” is a revenge story that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  When Tess, author of a successful series of bloodless, cozy mysteries is brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead by what she discovers is a serial killer, she must decide what to do next.  Using her mystery writing skills (bloodless as they have been up to now), Tess comes up with a plan she hopes will cover all the bases – and then, things get complicated.

Next up, is the book’s lone short story (about 45 pages), “Fair Extension.”  Perhaps the darkest story of the lot, this one will make most readers wonder what they would do given the same circumstances and choices.  Mr. Elvid offers Dave, a terminal cancer sufferer who is fast running out of time, the chance to rid himself of his cancer and live a healthy life for another 20 years.  The catch?  Dave must choose someone to take on the burden of his ill health and other bad luck – can he do it?  Will he?

The last story, “A Good Marriage,” visits what might happen if a woman happily married for almost 30 years were to discover that her husband has been hiding a horrible secret from her the entire time.  By the end of the story, Darcy Anderson, facing just such a predicament, learns as much about herself as she learns about her husband – and the last few pages of this one are the best section of the whole book.

Whether you call them long stories or novellas, you will not easily forget the four tales in Full Dark, No Stars.

Visit this Scribner link for a whole lot more about Full Dark, No Stars.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Short Story of the Week: "Tom's Husband" by Sarah Orne Jewett


Sarah Orne Jewett, a well known novelist and short story writer in her day, was born in South Berwick, Maine, in 1849.  At just a few weeks short of 60 years of age, she died there during the summer of 1909 after having suffered two strokes, the first of which paralyzed her.  My only previous reading experience of one of Jewett’s works came from having read the novel, A Country Doctor (1884), a book largely based upon her observations and personal ambitions gained from having accompanied her father on his rounds as a young girl.  It has been a number of years since I read that one, but I particularly remember being struck by the clarity of her writing.

Courtesy of The Library of America’s “Story of the Week” offering (the 108th story they have shared via email links), I read Jewett’s “Tom’s Husband” last night.  I was vaguely aware that Jewett has been a favorite of feminist readers and critics for a long time, and this story is a good example of why that is.  In addition to using themes like the one in this story, Jewett lived her life completely independently and had little concern for the social conventions of her day.  She never married and there is some speculation that she was the lover of writer Annie Fields after that woman’s husband (editor of the Atlantic Monthly) died.  The two lived together for several years after the death of James Fields. 

“Tom’s Husband” is a 14-page short story that tells of a young couple seemingly so perfect for each other that they cannot wait to be married.  Both, though, are a little disappointed by the realities of marriage and the “loss of eagerness that was felt in pursuit.”  As they settle into the marriage, the pair realizes that each would be happier taking on the role that is only reluctantly being filled by the other.  Mostly at the insistence of Mary, they strike a deal to reverse marital roles that creates one of the most unusual marriages of the nineteenth century (keep in mind that this story was published in The Atlantic Monthly in February of 1882).

The stories that The Library of America has been sending me for so long almost always make me want to read other work by the featured authors.  This one is no exception.

If you want to take advantage of The Library of America’s free short stories, follow this link to sign up for the service: http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Phuket Is Not a Dirty Sentence, Amazon

Fresh from the "this is the dumbest thing I've seen in a long time department" comes my frustrating experience trying to post the Vulture Peak review, as shown in the previous post, to Amazon.com (which was the source of my review copy, in the first place).

It seems that Amazon has some kind of snazzy computer program that looks for offensive words and the program kept rejecting my review.  I removed the obvious possibilities such as "sex industry" and "ex-prostitute" but still had no joy in getting the review through the Amazon robot censor.  I edited, and edited, and tried again, and again - a total of 8 more times.  Nothing worked.  The review got shorter and shorter.

Then it hit me.  I made reference to an island off the coast of Thailand called Phuket because that is where much of the novel's most exciting scenes take place.  Never did I dream that the computer would think that Phuket was my attempt to disguise the use of a rather common "obscenity."  But it did.

I removed Phuket from the list of places visited by the detective, and the review sailed right on through.

Unbelievable.  I just wasted an hour of my life.

Vulture Peak


Former London attorney John Burdett is said these days to split his time between Bangkok and France, so he most certainly knows Bangkok more intimately than most Westerners ever will.  If any oldsters wonder whether the Thai sex industry they remember hearing about during the Vietnam War (when Bangkok was a favored R&R spot for American soldiers) still exists, they only have to read one of the books in Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series to learn that little has changed except for the makeup of the clientele.  Vulture Peak, the fourth novel in the series, makes that clear – taking into account the grain of salt that fiction always throws into the mix.

As Vulture Peak begins, Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former Buddhist monk, still works for Police Colonel Vikorn.  Unfortunately for Sonchai, the manipulating colonel is no easier to work for now than in the past.  As is often the case with Vikorn, there is more to him than meets the eye and, when he assigns Sonchai to investigate a harvesting-and-sale of human body parts racket that seems to be centered in Thailand, the motive is more about getting himself elected to political office than it is about shutting down the gruesome profiteers.  If, in the process, Vikorn also can bring down the equally corrupt General Zinna, his longtime personal rival, it will have been a very successful investigation, indeed.

John Burdett
John Burdett’s books, despite their tendency to be over the top at times, are always long on atmosphere and memorable characters.  Vulture Peak is no exception.  Before it is over, Sonchai’s investigation will take him away from Bangkok and into the streets of Phuket, Hong Kong, Dubai, Monte Carlo, and Shanghai.  As the investigation moves forward, he must deal with an extraordinary cast of good guys, cops, suspects, and assorted villains of multiple nationalities.  The lineup includes two sisters I defy any reader to forget quickly, Chinese identical twins with a history of weirdness that goes back to their childhood and makes them perfect for the infamous world of illicit human organ harvesting.

Vulture Peak is Bangkok noir at its finest and will likely entice readers to read the entire series from the beginning in order to find out how the relationships between Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the ex-prostitute who lives with him, and Police Colonel Vikorn have evolved over time.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, January 23, 2012

Taking Flak: My Life in the Fast Lane


The 1978 and 1979 Houston Oilers football teams came along at a perfect time in the city’s history.  Houston, an oil boomtown for much of the seventies, was attracting jobs and workers from all around the country at an amazing clip.  Local children amused themselves by counting the Michigan license plates they spotted on Houston’s freeways, and their parents felt a level of enthusiasm about the future that will probably never be matched.  But all was not well because the Houston Oilers were suffering some tough seasons and their fans were not happy about it.

Coach Bum Phillips, running back Earl Campbell, and quarterback Dan Pastorini changed that in 1978, the first of two successive seasons that the Oilers and the Pittsburgh Steelers would meet in the AFC Championship game.  Oilers fans, despite their team losing both games, could remind themselves that the Steelers won both Super Bowls that followed their defeats of the Oilers.  Coach Phillips and Earl Campbell owned the city; it was not that way for Dan Pastorini. 

Taking Flak, written by Pastorini and co-writer John Lopez, is Pastorini’s very personal account of what those heady days were like for him, how he reached that pinnacle, and how his life would turn into a total disaster just a few short years later.  Pastorini covers it all but still leaves the reader wishing for more – he is that good a storyteller.  (Full disclosure: I was a fan of the team and Pastorini in the seventies, and I purchased my autographed copy of Taking Flak at a Houston Texan’s football game on January 1, 2012.  I enjoyed the chance to meet the man and to shake his hand – his display of courage and skill on the football field is one of my better memories of those days.)

Taking Flak starts at the beginning with Pastorini’s California upbringing as the youngest child in a family that had to hustle to make ends meet.  The kid, such a natural athlete that he sometimes competed on his older brother’s baseball team, soon realized that he could throw a baseball or football farther than anyone around.  He was convinced that he would become a professional ballplayer or drag racer and, in time, he would be both, as well as a professional speedboat racer.

Dan Pastorini
By the time he was a Houston Oiler, Pastorini was into pills, booze, and flashy women - often to the point that his self-destructive lifestyle became a conversation of topic around town.  And, of course, in this era of professional football, team doctors were known to give their players whatever it took to kill the pain long enough to get them through the next game.  The stories that got out about Pastorini’s scuffle with a rather obnoxious sportswriter, run-ins with local cops, his affair with Farrah Fawcett and his ten-year-marriage to June Wilkinson, and his relationship with team owners and coaches was just the tip of the iceberg.  He tells it all in Taking Flak, and he takes full responsibility for all the missteps along the way.

Dante Pastorini is lucky to be alive, but his personal future may be brighter today than it ever has been.  Read his story, shake your head a little, and applaud a man who is finally getting it right.

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, January 22, 2012

All I Did Was Shoot My Man


According to the Uncorrected Manuscript copy from which I read it, All I Did Was Shoot My Man is scheduled for a January 24 release.  Mr. Mosley is in Houston this week for a couple of bookstore appearances and I hope to catch one of his presentations, as I enjoy hearing him speak about his work.  This is the fourth book in Mosley’s Leonid McGill series.

Walter Mosley has created some memorable characters over the years, particularly Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill, and I have enjoyed following them over the years.  For me, a Walter Mosley novel is as much about the personal evolution of his regular characters as it is about the crime stories that anchor them.  That’s an especially lucky thing for me in the instance of Mosley’s new one, All I Did Was Shoot My Man, because while the reader learns a lot more about McGill and his family, plot development suffers a bit from what I see as over-ambition for it.

That is not to say that the plot, on its face, is not an intriguing one.  Leonid McGill is a complicated man, and there are some things in his past of which he is not especially proud.  One of those things is his direct involvement in framing a young woman for a crime that sent her to prison and forced her to give her baby up for adoption.  Now, that woman, Zella Grisham, is being released from Albion prison, and Leonid wants to help her to a good start on the rest of her life.  He is at the Port Authority Bus Station to meet her when the prison bus arrives, hoping to convince Zella that he is there to look out for her best interests.

Unfortunately for Zella and Leonid, others are also interested in her release – and the bulk of $58 million dollars that disappeared in the crime that sent her to prison.  Leonid, himself wondering who walked away with all that money, begins to push a little too hard on some of the parties he suspects, and soon has a trail of international hit men chasing him and Zella – certainly, an interesting plot upon to write a mystery around.

Book Jacket photo of Walter Mosley
I was distracted from the main plot, however, by two choices that Mosley made.  First, he threw so many strangely named characters into the pot (many of whom are in and out too quickly to make much of an impression on the reader) that I became confused just when everything should have started coming together in my mind.  Second, too much of the “action” comes to the reader second-hand by having one character recap in conversation with another things that happened offstage – always a boring device.

Those will be minor flaws to many readers, I suspect, but to me they were disappointing.  Still, this is a key addition to the Leonid McGill mystery series and fans of the series will not want to miss it.

Rated: 3.0

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Chase Is 5-Years-Old Today

Two of Book Chase's Biggest Fans
Well, you know what Robert Burns said about the "best-laid plans of mice and men"?  I am here to tell you that the man was right on the mark about that one.

I had rather grandiose plans to work Thursday evening and Friday afternoon on the announcement that Book Chase has today officially reached the ripe old age of five whole years.  I know that's not a real big deal just based on the fact that I've seen so many 10-year blog milestones marked in the last few weeks.  But, believe me, five years is about five times longer than I ever figured I would last.

Anyway, that was when the real world decided to take control of my schedule instead.  Last night my tweener granddaughter invited me to take her to the Middle School girls basketball doubleheader - where I sat with a few fathers while she visited with her friends at the other end of the stands.  (Hey, you take what you can get from them at that age.)  And then, this morning, I got a phone call from my father's assisted living center telling me that he had fallen and needed to go to the emergency room.  So here it is, almost five p.m., and I'm finally at home trying to post something before I completely miss the date.

So, a brief summation it has to be.  Since beginning Book Chase in January 2007, I have read 685 books and, according to the counter in my sidebar, I have reviewed 684 of them (and I have no idea why I skipped one, or which one it was).   This is post number 1,771 since the blog's inception, and those posts have drawn 9,445 comments.  Answering comments from interested (or provoked) readers has been the most enjoyable aspect of book-blogging for me.  I have been particularly enthralled by the long-running conversation under the post I made about Anne Perry's murder conviction - and how could I ever forget being threatened with a lawsuit by the brother of a very well-known and powerful British celebrity?

I do want to tie in some kind of giveaway to mark the end of the blog's fifth year, but that will have to wait until later this weekend.

In the meantime, I want to thank all of you who have read and/or commented on my posts here for the last few years.  One or two of you have, I'm pretty sure, been here since mid-2007 or early 2008.  It really is all about the book community and finding people who enjoy discussing the passion we all have for the written word.  Coincidentally, I ran into a quote in the book I'm currently reading, A Novel Bookstore, that makes that exact point:
"You have just confirmed to me that one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking."

Thanks for talking with me for the last five years.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Single Vote Worth $3.5 Million

We've all heard that "every vote counts" and, considering our most recent presidential elections, I think we all see the real truth in that old saying.  On a much smaller scale, here's another good example about why it is a mistake to stay home and expect others to show up and carry an election in the direction you might favor.

From Boston.com comes the story of how one single vote was enough to make a new library possible for the city of Shutesbury, Massachusetts.
A plan to build a new $3.5 million library in Shutesbury has been approved by a single vote after the town clerk determined that a previously uncounted ballot was valid. 
The original count in last week's referendum was a 522-522 tie, essentially defeating the measure for the town to borrow $1.4 million for the library. The other $2.1 million is coming from the state.
Library opponents, oc course, are ready for a "hanging chad" type recount.  Oh, well.

(Click on the link for a few more details.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Caring Is Creepy


Caring Is Creepy, in simple terms, is a coming of age novel about a rather naïve 15-year-old called Lynn Marie Sugrue.  Lynn hasn’t had an easy time of it so far -her parents split when she was six and she hasn’t seen her embezzler of a father since he disappeared with a load of cash when she was eight.  Now Lynn lives with her mother, a nurse who works way too many night shifts for Lynn’s good, and she can’t wait to grow up. 

But despite how Lynn and her best friend Dani try mightily to impress each other, it is obvious to anyone but them that both girls are blowing smoke when it comes to being world-wise.  It is not that they are unwilling, but the girls have experienced very little of the real world they imagine to be waiting for them just around life’s next corner.  Their trouble starts when Dani receives a computer for her birthday rather than the car she expects.  Dani, of course, is crushed by the switch but, when Lynn reminds her that the “plastic box” is full of naked men, she agrees that they should unpack the computer - strictly for “scientific purposes,” of course.  With help from a nerdy neighbor, Lynn and Dani, in the guise of a 50-year-old gay man from Dotham, Alabama, are soon practicing their mischief in a few adult chat rooms.  Their hometown, little Metter, Georgia, will never be the same.

The decision to reveal her real identity and personal details to a young soldier she meets on the Internet is where Lynn makes her big mistake.  Logan Loy, the 25-year-old soldier, has already served one tour of duty in Iraq and he is desperately searching for a way to avoid going back for a scheduled second tour.  Lynn, who emotionally depends on her little romance with Logan to keep her going, encourages him to go AWOL if he has to - and offers to hide him inside a hidden storage space that is accessible only from her bedroom closet, if he does.  Meanwhile, Lynn is beginning to realize that her mother’s druggie boyfriend has brought them to the attention of local gangsters searching for the drugs and money the lowlife owes them.  She and her mother are beginning to feel very pressured by all the attention.

At this point in the narrative, Zimmerman has set the scene for a violent clash of two worlds and, when it happens, Caring Is Creepy veers dramatically from coming-of-age comedy to intense crime fiction.  The experience is a little like reading two books that happen to share the same set of characters.  It is all a bit jarring, but it worked for me.

(Look for this one in April.)

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sourland


Sourland: Stories is a collection of sixteen Joyce Carol Oates short stories, fifteen of which appear to have been written in 2009 or early 2010.  The third story in the collection, “The Babysitter,” was first published in Ellery Queen and was reprinted in Horror: The Best of the Year 2006.  Readers who know something of Oates’s personal history will notice how clearly the tone of this work reflects the impact the author felt from the loss of her husband of some forty-seven years, Raymond Smith.  Mr. Smith, who seemed to be recovering from the illness that hospitalized him, died suddenly on February 18, 2008.  Considering the subject matter and feel of the stories, I do find it interesting that the book’s dedication reads: “for my husband Charlie Gross.”

Most of the stories reflect themes that fans of Oates’s work have come to expect from her: the persistent possibility of violence when it is least expected, adult males taking advantage of the innocence of young females, the often violent clash of the privileged class with those who have nothing much to lose, and the chaotic shock of sudden loss.  Several of these stories, however, in the persons of freshly minted widows, reflect more precisely the feelings expressed by Oates in her late 2010 memoir, A Widow’s Story.  Not surprisingly, these are the strongest stories in the collection.

The collection opens with one of these stories, “Pumpkin Head,” in which a young, isolated widow innocently sends all the wrong signals to an immigrant from Central Europe who offers to do her a personal favor.  When the man’s frustration with his new life in America suddenly explodes, she is a bit bewildered to find herself the target of his wrath.

The book’s title story, “Sourland,” and the one called “Probate,” are particularly reminiscent of the experiences and feelings described by Oates in her recent memoir.  The widows in each of these stories are still unprepared to function in the real world, but are unable to communicate their desperation and confusion to anyone who might help ease them back into a semblance of the life they knew before losing their husbands.  In “Sourland,” Sophie allows nostalgia and sweet memories of the stranger who has mysteriously contacted her to lure her into a remote area from which she fears she may never escape.  “Probate” is the dreamlike experience of newly widowed Adrienne whose courthouse experiences are horrifyingly detailed.  Both stories, in fact, probably resemble the type of nightmare one would expect a new widow to experience.

Joyce Carol Oates
Other stories in the collection are more akin to what one expects from Oates.  A young married woman seeks marital revenge and almost dies in the process.  A formerly admired teacher she happens to meet in a hospital cafeteria molests a 14-year-old girl.  The defender of one family’s honor pays for his audacity in the most heartbreaking way possible.  A little boy becomes terrified of his own father and refuses to give away his hiding spot despite the danger he is in.  And, there is more, much more.

Not all of the stories work equally well, of course.  Two “stream of consciousness” pieces and one other story left me particularly bewildered, but I am inclined to blame myself for that as much as I would put the burden on Oates.  Sourland is a collection of some of the darkest, most disturbing, tales being written today.  That it is also one of the most personal collections of stories ever released by Joyce Carol Oates makes it even more memorable.

Rated at: 3.5

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Is Amazon Buying an E-Book-Selling Monopoly?

Say what you will about the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, it has become a bonanza for self-published authors savvy enough to take advantage of it. The way I understand the process is that independent authors willing to give the Kindle Store exclusive rights to sell their digital work for a 90-day period can also opt to include it in the KDP Select program.  This becomes a big deal because the book also becomes part of the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, making it eligible to share in the big pot of money Amazon sets aside to compensate authors whose books are borrowed by Prime members.  There's the potential to make some good money in this deal.

Look at the numbers.  If I recall correctly, Amazon placed something like $700,000 into the pot for January 2012 payments to "borrowed authors."  Let's assume that 350,000 books are borrowed during the month - that means that Amazon will pay the author $2 each time one of his books is downloaded by an eligible Kindle owner.  If your book is borrowed 500 times, you score $1,000.  In the meantime, the book is still for sale in the Kindle Bookstore at whatever margin you have created for yourself there.  It's a sweet deal for independent publishers and writers.  Interested parties can get the details (and check my understanding of the process) here.

According to Amazon, the Top Ten KDP Select authors earned over $70,000 between them in December 2011.  Amazon also points to what seems a counterintuitive increase in sales for the most borrowed titles, creating a win-win situation for the authors in the program.

A question I haven't seen addressed anywhere yet is how all of this will impact traditional publishers, bookstores, and libraries.  Is this another nail in the coffin for the old way?  Should we worry about the long term effect on print publishing, or is this something that will have little impact on print books?  I suspect that it will impact bookstores more seriously than it will publishers, at least in the short term.

Seriously, is Amazon approaching monopoly status with writers who are likely to be reluctant to reclaim Amazon's exclusive rights to their work as long as the checks keep rolling in?  You tell me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

World Book Night 2012

"Do you love a book so much you want everyone to read it?"  If so, now is your chance to place 20 copies of that book in the hands of people who deserve to fall in love with it the way you did.

World Book Night fast approaches, but it is not too late to apply for a spot as one of those directly involved in giving 1 million books to people who have still not discovered the joy of reading.  All it takes to make this project successful is for 50,000 people to hand out 20 books each on the evening of April 23, 2012.

This is your chance to be part of the first World Book Night held in the United States.  The application process is pretty simple.  Click here for the details, including what will be expected of you if you are one of the lucky ones chosen to distribute books.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Sense of an Ending


The Sense of an Ending is a little book that won a big prize.  Depending on whether you count “blanks” as “pages,” the book comes in somewhere between 155 and 175 pages in length.  Julian Barnes packed so much into these few pages, however, that he won the 2011 Man Booker for his efforts.  But it is only when this character-driven novella finally shifts its emphasis to a dramatic plot development that the author’s aims become clear.

Tony Webster, now in his early sixties, has retired and is content with his rather solitary lifestyle.  However, when he learns that he is to receive a bequest from a woman he barely knew, Tony is forced to reminisce about his past and some of the key players from his schooldays, particularly Adrian Finn and Veronica Ford.  Adrian, a late-comer to Tony’s central London school, was almost immediately accepted into their circle by Tony and his other two friends.  Adrian’s obvious intelligence soon made him a favorite of his teachers, and the way he handled himself in and outside of class made each of the other three boys want to claim him as “best friend.”  Veronica Ford, whom Adrian later met at university, was his first serious girlfriend.  That she would be stolen from him by a young man like Adrian comes as no surprise.

Julian Barnes
But life goes on, as it always will.  Tony and his friends, Veronica included, manage to drift apart over the years despite their avowed intention to remain friends forever.  Even their proposed reunions come to little or nothing.  Time passes – and Tony believes that he understands his past as well as he ever will.  Decades later, he will be astounded to learn how little he was right about.

The Sense of an Ending is deceptively simple at times, and frustratingly opaque at others, but it is a memorable piece of fiction.  Whether or not the most deserving book has been chosen for each of the major literary prizes awarded each year is always arguable – and is always argued by book lovers.  That will certainly be the case with the 2011 winner of the Man Booker.  Whichever side of the question one comes down on, however, it is difficult to argue this is not a beautifully crafted piece of fiction that will have readers discussing it for years to come.

Rated at: 4.5

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Short Story of the Week: "Probate" by Joyce Carol Oates

Although I have written quite a few posts about short stories for Book Chase, most of those posts have pertained to collections rather than to individual short stories.  I find it easier to write about collections than about single stories because, with single stories, I have to fight my tendency to give away too much.  I hate reading spoilers and I try not to write any.  That's easier said than done when it comes to short stories.  I do hope to write about individual stories more during 2012, maybe twice a month, beginning with today's entry.

Perhaps I can begin safely with a "longish" short story from Joyce Carol Oates's 2010 collection entitled Sourland.  I've chosen the 37-page story called "Probate" because of how it so completely encompasses the general theme of the collection.  Keep in mind that these stories were largely written around the time that Ms. Oates unexpectedly lost her husband of many years, a tragic experience that greatly influenced the stories in Sourland.

"Probate" tells one widow's story - and a sad and scary tale it is.

The story opens "on the third day of her new life" as an older woman tries to find her way inside the Trenton, New Jersey, courthouse so that she can probate her husband's will.  Adrienne, the widow of three-days experience, is virtually helpless.  She knows very little about the legalities of probate and is somewhat disoriented to find that hers is one of the few white faces in the entire building.

Things go wrong for Adrienne almost immediately, beginning with her strange encounter outside the courthouse with a young woman who barely seems to be speaking the same language.  During the nervous conversation, Adrienne finally panics and runs for the building's back entrance when the young woman (jokingly?) offers to sell her her toddler daughter.  Inside the courthouse, Adrienne enters an alien world for which she is totally unprepared - and things keep going downhill.

"Probate" is a Oates's portrayal of the bleak and confusing life faced by so many older women who are unprepared for the sudden loss of a husband who has taken care of all of life's little details during their decades of marriage.  It is a powerful and unforgettable story told in the way only someone who has experienced similar moments could possibly tell it.  Joyce Carol Oates is a master at portraying the all too common violence and loss that can change a life instantly, and she tells Adrienne's story in the voice I have come to love so much over the past 25 years.  "Probate" is not pretty; it is haunting and real.  It is a Joyce Carol Oates novel in a nutshell.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Angel Makers


Jessica Gregson’s debut novel, The Angel Makers, is one of those novels that will make a reader question his feelings about crimes committed by otherwise admirable people.  Is a murder committed with good intentions any less a crime than a murder committed in the midst of rage or lust?  Would a good person allow other innocent lives to be taken simply because she does not want to be exposed as an earlier murderess of bad people?  Jessica Gregson will have you trying to decide the answers.

The Angel Makers is based upon a series of murders that occurred in Nagyrev, Hungary, over a 15-year period that began during World War I.  It is believed that at least 45 people were poisoned in the village during those years; some say the real number is closer to 300.  What is not in dispute is that the ringleaders, and source of the arsenic used to kill all of the victims, were the village midwife and her young assistant.  These two women, under fictional names, are the central characters of The Angel Makers.

One’s initial reaction might be to wonder how a crime of this proportion, one involving so many people, could have remained undiscovered for more than a decade.  Gregson’s description of the utter remoteness of life in rural Hungary during this period, and of the type of self-contained, closed society that developed there, makes it seem very possible – if not probable – that such killers could get away with their crimes for a very long time.  Even a series of crimes like this one, crimes that claimed the lives of multiple husbands, elderly parents, lovers, and sons, could remain a dark, self-contained secret when so many women had so much to lose if their crimes were exposed.

Jessica Gregson
So, what triggered the murders?  Simply put, when Italian prisoners of war were housed near the village, the women caught a glimpse of a life much different from the one they had been living with their husbands prior to the beginning of World War I.  With their own husbands away fighting the war, and a war from which they might never return, at that, it was too easy for the women to form relationships with the Italians for whom they were paid to cook, clean, and wash.  Because security at the makeshift prison was almost nonexistent, soon enough most of the village women had taken Italian lovers whom they preferred over their husbands.  When those husbands began to return from the front, the women had a choice to make.  Many were quick to choose their Italian lovers and the new lifestyle they had come to enjoy.

Is the murder of a man justified if it saves his wife from years of physical abuse or saves the life of the unborn child carried by that woman?  You decide.  The bigger moral question faced by the book’s two main characters involves what they did to hide their secret. Fearing exposure if they refused, the pair chose to make murder possible for other women who wanted to rid themselves of elderly parents, siblings in line for a family inheritance, or crippled husbands and sons.  Was Sari (the fictional midwife assistant) a good woman or a bad woman?  Did she deserve to hang – or not?  Read The Angel Makers before you try to answer those questions.

Rated: 4.0

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Where's Sam?

This is not exactly a "bookish" post, but it explains why a whole weekend has gone by without me posting on Book Chase.  Most of you know that the NFL playoffs are in full-swing as of this weekend - and I confess to watching too many hours of football, both live and on television.

Before a new work week begins, I just wanted to check in and post these two pictures of where I spent a large portion of Saturday afternoon and early evening: Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans who defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 31-10 in the first round of playoff games.


Click on the photos for a larger image.  This is a screenshot taken off the Houston Texans website.  I'm standing to the left of the goal posts, some 25 minutes before kickoff.


This is a zoomed in version of the same screenshot.  I'm the guy fooling with his telephone (just above that number 13 jersey at the bottom of the picture).  There's a little Texan's logo on my image to mark the spot.  To my left are my daughter's father-in-law, my grandson, and my son-in-law.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Push Has Come to Shove

As the grandfather of three children who suffer learning disabilities, I take great interest in books, like Steve Perry’s Push Has Come to Shove, that offer new ideas about educating this country’s children.  I also share the sense of urgency implied by the title Perry chose for his book – including its subtitle: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve – Even if It Means Picking a Fight.  It is past time that this nation gets serious about making the changes required to turn our public educational system around and, if picking a fight is the only way to do it, let’s get started.

How bad is it?  As evidence that it is very bad, indeed, I offer this heart-stopping quote from the chapter that discusses international test scores of school-age children:
           
            “Finland’s bottom 10 percent is better than our top 10 percent.”

If this quote is factual, it is the most terrifying thing I have read outside a Stephen King novel in years.  Imagine, for just a minute, what that really means.  Let it sink in.

When one considers that a minimum of “43 percent of students at two-year colleges and almost 30 percent of students enrolled in four-year colleges” required at least one remedial course before they can begin their actual college-level work, it is impossible to argue that our public schools are doing right by the children we entrust to them.  Too many parents, especially those whose children attend schools in white suburban areas, have been conned into believing that their schools are excellent because of the high percentage of students in those schools who rate as “proficient” on the standardized tests used to quantify such things.  As Dr. Perry points out, students who earn a “proficient” rating on these tests are, in fact, performing below grade level and their parent’s are being treated like fools.

Perry places the blame for the failure of our school system most squarely on the shoulders of teachers and the unions that make it almost impossible to fire them for anything less than sexual misconduct (and even termination for that crime is not always a “gimme” when the unions get involved).  He even titles one of his chapters “Teachers’ Unions: The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Education,” a chapter in which he exposes the absurdity of a system that unionizes to protect incompetent teachers at the expense of the students they are responsible for educating. 

Dr. Steve Perry
Push Has Come to Shove is not entirely negative, however, and it would be a failure if it were.  Perry offers solutions that include school vouchers to be used to place children in charter and magnet schools, as well as in the existing public schools that are actually educating children properly.  He argues that schools need an immediate redesign if we are ever to educate our children the way we need to get the job done.  This redesign includes: “great teachers and great lesson plans, committed principals, a lengthened school calendar, the use of technology, and an updated curriculum.”

I do not agree with everything in Push Has Come to Shove (especially with Perry’s recommendation to hire the most “attractive” competent teachers to be found because students tend to relate to them easier), but Dr. Steve Perry is definitely on the right track.  The alternative to trying some of the radical ideas espoused in the book is to accept the failed system that is already crippling this country.  The choice is a no-brainer.  It is time to “pick a fight.”

Rated at: 4.5

Thursday, January 05, 2012

No Mark upon Her

I do not come to Deborah Crombie’s No Mark upon Her as an experienced reader of her Kincaid/James mystery series.  That lack of background allows me to point out that No Mark upon Her works very well as a standalone mystery – so well, in fact, that I am now thinking about starting the series from the beginning.  Crombie’s character development and side plots are that good.  Crombie fans, too, are  probably already fairly familiar with her background, but I was intrigued to learn that, like Elizabeth George, Crombie is an American (from the Dallas area) who sets her novels in and around London.  And, as with George, had I not been told that she is American, I would have assumed that she is British.

Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Detective Inspector Gemma James have more in common than the paychecks they earn from Scotland Yard.  They are also a married couple trying to balance the Yard’s insatiable demand on their lives with the personal time they need to nurture their marriage and their two young children.  The family is, in fact, on holiday when Duncan is asked to help determine whether the death of Rebecca Meredith, another high-ranking Scotland Yard detective, is perhaps more than the accidental drowning it first appears to be.  That Meredith was an Olympic-caliber rower intimately familiar with the section of the Thames from which her body was pulled, makes it difficult to take her drowning at face value.

As his investigation progresses, Kincaid will discover that Rebecca Meredith probably had as many enemies as she had friends.  Unfortunately, some of those enemies work for Scotland Yard, and Kincaid begins to suspect that his superiors are more concerned about protecting each other and the image of the Yard than they are about tracking down the young woman’s killer.  Then, when his wife’s investigation into a separate series of crimes begins to overlap with his own, Kincaid is shocked by the number of suspects, some of them in position to end his career with Scotland Yard, he must work through.

Deborah Crombie
No Mark upon Her takes the reader deep into the world of competitive rowing, particularly as it involves those young men so completely invested in the annual race between Cambridge and Oxford.  Most American readers will, I think, be surprised at the lifetime’s worth of prestige accrued by the small group of men who earn the right to participate in that yearly event.  Win or lose, just having participated in the race can positively influence a man’s success for the rest of his life.  Few readers of No Mark upon Her will ever again see this competition as the college lark they may have previously perceived it to be.

Crombie’s in-depth exploration of the everyday demands on, and concerns of, her main characters makes them real.  These are not one-dimensional cops and robbers; they must deal with all of the complications of life that the rest of us face.  It is easy to see why this series has already extended to fourteen books and is still going strong. 

Rated at: 4.0 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Overkill vs. Lesson Learned

Just Kidding...
What do you think?  Is this a prime example of "overkill" or a valuable "lesson learned" for one little girl and her mother?  It seems that local cops, at the request of the little girl's library, showed up at her front door and left with the overdue library book her parents had checked out for her.

Of course, there's more to the story, some of it involving a misunderstanding as to just what book the police were actually asked to retrieve, but this Daily News article clears everything up (well, mostly):
Shannon Benoit told CBS Boston that little Hailey, 5, was worried she was going to be cuffed and arrested when Sgt. Dan Dowd arrived at their door in Charlton Dec. 27 asking for the book.
With the cops standing at the door, the family searched the house and found the text, and returned it to Dowd, according to the report.
But when he left, Hailey began to cry.
"I thought it was way overboard," Shannon Benoit told the TV station.
Read the article for the rest of the details (and to find out what the cops were really asked to retrieve) - including the fact that the child's mother apparently embarrassed herself during her phone call to the library by using some inappropriate language.  I feel sorry for the little girl, naturally, but maybe her parents should explain to her that it's not cool to ignore due dates and requests to return overdue materials to the library - or to curse at some librarian on the phone when you get caught doing it.

I'm on the library's side on this one.  I suspect that's the minority opinion, however, because cute kids win every time.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Detour


Andromeda Romano-Lax (more on this fascinating name, later) struck it big in 2007 with her debut novel, The Spanish Bow, a story set in Spain and Western Europe from the days of the Spanish-American War to the beginning of World War II.  That fascinating novel became a New York Times Editor’s Choice and was ultimately translated into eleven languages.  Her follow-up novel, The Detour, scheduled for a February 2012 release, is set in 1938 Italy and Germany and shares a theme similar to that of its predecessor: the wartime ethical conflict that often occurs between the worlds of art and politics.

Young Ernst Vogler is already having his doubts about Hitler’s Third Reich when he is chosen to travel to Italy to bring a famous Classical Roman statue, the Discus Thrower, back to Germany for Hitler’s private collection.  Even at this point in the history of the Reich, Hitler and the Gestapo are using intimidation to move Europe’s greatest art to new, permanent homes in Germany and Austria.  However, what is described to Vogler as a simple three-day job to move the Discus Thrower to the German border is complicated by the fact that there are those in Italy who see the looting process for what it is, and are determined to stop the piece’s transfer. 

Ernst Vogler, whose Italian skills are almost nonexistent, might not be the best man for the job.  Things go off track almost immediately when a misunderstanding makes him two hours late for the meeting at which the Discuss Thrower is to be inspected and packed for the run to the German border.  Way too suddenly to suit him, Vogler is riding in a beat up old truck with Italian twin brothers charged with the responsibility of getting him and his cargo safely out of the country.  When the truck’s driver abruptly breaks from the little convoy and makes a run for it on his own, things get interesting for Ernst Vogler and his little team.

Andromeda Romano-Lax
Vogler finds himself trying to navigate a world of secret agents, thieves, hapless lovers, and murderers - a world in which he can barely communicate and must, instead, rely on his instincts to separate the good guys from the bad ones.  The question is whether, when things fall apart as it appears they surely will, Ernst Vogler will have the skills to survive the bad guys on both sides of the border?

The Detour is based on Adolph Hitler’s actual purchase in 1938 of the Discus Thrower from Italian authorities.  This buy was one of Hitler’s earliest steps in his seven-year project to loot the rest of Europe of its most important art, a project so successful that it took years of work following World War II to accomplish its reversal. 

Finally, we return to the author’s interesting name and background.  Her first name is Greek, she shares a mixture of German and Italian ancestry, and she married into a Jewish family - a combination of factors almost certain to ensure that she have strong interest in Europe’s World War II history.  The Spanish Bow and The Detour are the product of that interest.

Rated at: 4.0