Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Books of 2009

This year I have combined my fiction and my nonfiction reading into one list of my 2009 favorites. The only two nonfiction books to make the list, in fact, sandwich my eight favorite novels of the year. After studying similar lists on other book blogs these last few days, I am fascinated that there is so little overlap on any of them, including this one. So many great little time to read them.

Even more fascinating to me is that six of the eight novels listed are debut novels. I doubt that will ever happen to me again.

1. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women – Harriet Reisen
This Louisa May Alcott biography answered all the questions I had about the Alcott family and its relationship with many of the literary stars and great thinkers of its day. The book is written in a very readable style and, because most readers already know so much about Louisa and her family, it almost reads like a novel. From my review of the book: "There is so much here that even the biggest Alcott fan will come away with a new appreciation of what this great writer accomplished in her relatively short lifetime."

2. Spooner – Pete Dexter
Pete Dexter has what some would consider a rather peculiar sense of humor – and I enjoy it so much I could listen to him tell stories all day long. The next best thing to that experience is reading a Pete Dexter novel and Spooner, in which Dexter creates one of his more memorable characters (Warren Spooner), is a real treat for Pete Dexter fans. From my review of the book: "He arrived only a few seconds after his more handsome twin brother and, even though his twin never took a breath, Spooner knew that his dead brother would always be his mother’s favorite child."

3. Bad Things Happen – Harry Dolan
Harry Dolan pays tribute to those who preceded him. Bad Things Happen is of the Raymond Chandler/James Cain/Dashiell Hammett school of mystery writing and this, Dolan's first novel, does not suffer in the comparison. From my review of the book: Its finely-crafted plot, filled with unexpected twists and turns, will keep readers guessing the murderer’s identify all the way to the end – wondering even to the last page if they have it figured out this time.”

4. The Brightest Moon of the Century – Christopher Meeks
This debut novel, based on one of my favorite Chris Meeks short stories, begins when Edward Meopian is 14-years old and ends when he is 45. A lot happens to Edward in those three decades, very little of it planned, and most of it seeming to get him no closer to achieving his dream. And when he does finally get there, life happens. From my review of the book: “Meeks’s characters, and his slightly off-centered view of life, continue to remind me of John Irving’s early work, definitely a good thing.”

5. Etta: A Novel – Gerald Kolpan
If you’re like me, I’ll bet you still have an imaged embedded in your brain of Etta Place riding a bicycle in that classic move about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. I’ll also bet that pretty much everything you know about Etta Place, you acquired from that one movie. Really, not much is known about Etta and how she became an outlaw, but Gerald Kolpan’s version of “what if” is great fun to read. From my review of the book: “First-time novelist Gerald Kolpan now offers Etta, the perfect companion piece to the movie that reintroduced Etta to the world some forty years ago.”

6. Travel Writing - Peter Ferry
This is a first novel that takes a (excuse me for this) novel approach to storytelling. Peter Ferry is the main character of his own novel and, beginning with the book's dedication, the reader will be wondering what is real and what is not. Ferry pulls off to great effect here one of those "novel within a novel" things and I suspect he drove more than a few readers nuts in the process. From my review of the book: "Peter Ferry is a storyteller and his debut novel, Travel Writing, is one terrific story.

7. American Rust: A Novel - Philipp Meyer
Yet another debut novel, but a much more serious one than the ones previously mentioned, American Rust takes a long, hard look at life in small town America. Meyer's story is a tragic one involving a bright young man whose life goes wrong in an instant, so wrong that he fears he could end up spending the rest of his life in prison. From my review of the book: "American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, is a hard story to forget. Beyond a doubt, it is one of the bleakest portrayals of small town America written since the Great Depression and its plot, for good reason, is a reminder of the fiction that came out of that era."

8. Rain Gods: A Novel - James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke is a master at his craft, a man I've read since the '80s and whose work I always snap up as soon as it is published. I feel like Dave Robicheaux is a personal friend; I even own a baseball cap that features Dave's old bait shop on the front and I actually wear it around town just to see if anyone gets the joke. Rain Gods, though, is a Hack Holland novel, not one of Dave's. I don't yet feel quite as attached to Hack as I do to Dave but Mr. Burke is getting me closer with every novel. This is one of the most atmospheric novels I've read in a long while and the writing is simply beautiful. Enough said.

9. Woodsburner: A Novel - John Pipkin
Would you believe another excellent debut novel? This one is about what had to be perhaps the worst day in Henry David Thoreau's life, the day he accidentally set fire to the Concord Woods and almost burned down the city of Concord. Pipkin uses this largely forgotten incident from Thoreau's life to create one of the best character studies of 2009. From my review of the book: "In the process of creating a back-history for each of his main characters, Pipkin provides a revealing look at Massachusetts society of the 1840s and theorizes on how Thoreau’s mistake heavily influenced the rest of his life and career."

10. Where Men Win Glory - Jon Krakauer
Pat Tilman is a hero, a special young man who felt it was his duty to defend America after the 9-11 murders. Most everyone knows how Tilman gave up a multi-million dollar contract to join the Army's special forces and of his death in Afghanistan. Jon Krakauer tells the rest of the story, including the military's attempt to cover up what really happened in the tragic firefight that killed Pat Tilman. From my review of the book: "Human nature being what it is, almost from the moment Tillman’s body was recovered, some on the ground seem to have been more concerned with covering up the poor tactical decisions that contributed to his death than they were about reporting the truth."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


There is no doubt about it: America is a nation of shoppers and ours is an economy driven more by consumption than by production. For some of us, the craziness of Black Friday is to be avoided at all cost; for others it is a contact sport they look forward to all year long. Lee Eisenberg’s Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on buying No Matter What, attempts to explain why that is.

Eisenberg divides Shoptimism into two parts, one from “The Sell Side” (Them Versus You) and one from “The Buy Side” (You Versus You). The first part focuses on the efforts retailers make to convince unwary buyers they cannot live without what the seller has to offer. It includes a history of retailing, advertising, marketing research and what, at times, seems like psychological warfare being waged upon the buyer by the seller. Eisenberg, in a past life, was executive vice president of Land’s End and he knows exactly how “They” play the game of getting cash from your pocket into theirs.

The book’s second part focuses on the “Why” and the “Who” of shopping. Why do we shop the way we do? Why do brands mean everything to some shoppers while others see avoiding popular brands as a badge of honor? How do male and female shoppers differ? Can shopping truly be an addiction or is that just an excuse some shoppers use to rationalize their spending habits? This section of the book includes chapters on “The Classic Buyer,” one that tries to get the most for his dollar and is willing to do the research needed to increase his odds of succeeding, and “The Romantic Buyer” that shops more with an impulsive heart than with a fact-filled head.

Although he uses graphs, tables, lists and illustrations for summary and clarification purposes, Eisenberg builds his case largely through the anecdotal style he uses to recount his own shopping experiences and observations. Thankfully, he also puts today’s shopping habits into historical context, explaining how we arrived at the point that President Bush would dare suggest shortly after 9-11 that the best things Americans could do for their country was to return to its shopping malls. According to Eisenberg, it was during the 1950s that America “underwent a bloodless coup that transformed us from engaged citizens into self-indulgent consumers.” In postwar America, Americans found that buying things made them happy – and American consumption has only gotten more frantic with each succeeding generation.

Some might find it easy to ridicule the shopping habits of their fellow citizens but before getting too carried away they should consider some of the things that now eat up such a large chunk of their own disposable income, expenses our grandparents never dreamed of: mobile phones, cable television, internet bills, hugely expensive printer ink, and the like. As one consultant tells Eisenberg, “The average American household spends more a year on technology-related products and services than it does on clothes, health insurance, prescription drugs or entertainment.” Consumerism has a way, in other words, of sneaking up on the best of us.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

End-of-Year Stats

Another year is done and I've managed to pull together some end-of-year numbers that reflect the kind of reading year 2009 was for me. I find that I was fairly consistent from month-to-month with my reading but that I had extended periods during which nothing really impressed me as being even remotely special. Sometimes when that happens I think I'm more to blame than the authors because I do seem to go in streaks of mediocre books vs. really good books. I wonder how much a reader's mood has to do with his reaction to a book, even to a classic?

Anyway, here's what 2009 looked like for me:
Number of Books Read = 124
Fiction = 86
Nonfiction = 38

Novels - 85
Short Story Collections = 1

Memoirs = 11
Biographies = 9
True Crime = 4
Essay Collections = 2
Sociology = 5
Business = 2
Health = 1
Education = 1
Current Events = 3

Written by Men = 80
Written by Women = 42
Co-Authored = 2

Abandoned = 10
Review Copies = 79
Translations = 4
E-Books = 7
Audio Books = 7

Author Nationality:

British = 13
Irish = 1
Canadian = 2
Spanish = 1
Iranian = 2
American = 105
I don't usually start the year with reading goals, but I think I'll do that this year without getting extremely specific about my aims. In general terms, though, I hope to read more from the rest of the world, a little more nonfiction, more short story collections, a series or two, more classics and more from some of my favorite genres. That should be vague enough to give me an alibi for whatever I fail to do by this time next year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

My internet break is officially over. I decided to go almost "cold turkey" 0ver the Christmas holiday, only checking in via my phone to respond to any email requiring a quick response (plus using my phone to check a few football scores when radio or television was not available). Surprisingly, I suffered no withdrawal pain and I find myself returning to the net rather reluctantly this morning (especially since so many book bloggers seem to have done the same thing).

Now I need to see if I can remember how to write a relatively coherent book review, so here goes.

I am a fan 0f the previous "Freakonomics" book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dunbar so I knew what to expect when I began Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. The book's tantalizing subtitle displays the overall tone and subject matter of the book: an irreverent look at topical issues, using humor and common sense to debunk some of the most common assumptions most of us have made about our world. Much as the first book, Superfreakonomics is fun to read and will leave the reader wondering why facts that make so much sense come as such a surprise.

Some of what the authors say will scare the reader and some of it will make him laugh and feel better about the world. In either case, however, the reader is not likely to forget what he learns, nor is he likely ever again to look at that topic the way he looked at it before beginning Superfreakonomics. The authors tackle big, important topics that affect all of us as well as subjects which, although they might have no impact on our individual lives, are intriguing because of how the authors present them through surprising facts and relationships that change what we thought we knew.

One of the more terrifying chapters in Superfreakonomics involves the astounding number of patients that die in hospital from causes unrelated to the treatment they sought there in the first place. The authors, via statistics, interviews and observation, determine why secondary infection is still such a problem in American hospitals and who is responsible for spreading the infection to unsuspecting patients. The "who" is not so surprising; it is the "why" that will anger most readers. The chapter also explores the "luck of the draw" involved in doctor-assignments to emergency room patients - with surprising revelations about which doctor offers the patient the best chance of survival.

Other topics include: the relative ineffectiveness of chemotherapy, why prostitutes make more money for less work on one particular night of the week, why switching to kangaroo burgers could help save the world, a comparison of seat belt effectiveness to that of car seats for children two and up, and a likely solution to the global warming problem that the world can actually afford (but will probably ignore because it will be repugnant to those too "green" to consider it).

Superfreakonomics might not be a book for everyone (if there is such a thing) but readers should not be put off by its title and subject matter. This book is fun to read and it will give its readers something to talk about at the next boring party or group dinner - topics that are likely to dominate the conversation for the rest of the evening.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

One Hacker Aims to "Unswindle" the Kindle

Hardly a day goes by anymore without some interesting news about e-book readers and the companies that produce them. Today it is about the Amazon Kindle and how at least two hackers have broken the code that keeps purchasers of Kindle books from reading those books on devices sold by other companies such as Sony or Barnes & Noble.

CIO Today offers the details:
Internet retailer had all the luck in getting its family of proprietary Kindle e-book readers into the hands of consumers while its rivals were faced with delays, but its luck may have turned. The Kindle's copyright protection Relevant Products/Services has been hacked.

An Israeli hacker who goes by the name Labba says he has been able to break the Kindle's digital-rights management protection, allowing its electronic books to be viewed on non-Kindle devices.

A U.S. hacker has also reportedly created a program called Unswindle that converts books stored in the free Kindle for PC application into other formats.
Amazon may close the door on the DRM hack, but other hackers will likely attempt a hack again, observers say.

Eventually, Amazon may follow Apple's lead. After launching its iTunes Store, a hacker broke Apple's DRM protection. As a result, Apple closed the security Relevant Products/Services hole, only to be hacked again. Apple now offers DRM-free music on iTunes
Amazon may close the door on the DRM hack, but other hackers will likely attempt a hack again, observers say.

Eventually, Amazon may follow Apple's lead. After launching its iTunes Store, a hacker broke Apple's DRM protection. As a result, Apple closed the security Relevant Products/Services hole, only to be hacked again. Apple now offers DRM-free music on iTunes
Personally, I hate the idea of DRM because when I buy a record album or a book I believe I have the right to copy it and enjoy it on other compatible devices I may own. I understand the potential copyright violations me having that ability implies but, since I am not a pirate wanting to steal my original copy of the work or to sell it to others, I refuse to purchase digital content that limits how I use it. That is why I will never own a Kindle and why, until Apple stopped that kind of foolishness, I refused to buy music via Apple's iTunes store. Who really believes that first-time Kindle buyers will remain content to own a Kindle forever? When better hardware comes along, why shouldn't Amazon customers be able to move their books to a different device?

This is exactly what drove me to purchase my second Sony Reader a few weeks ago. Thank you, Sony Corporation for having the sense to choose a customer friendly business model.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Barnes & Noble Updates Nook Software

I suspected this would happen - but not this soon. Barnes & Noble is already pushing a system software update out to early bird owners of its Nook readers. Considering the poor reviews the Nook received upon its release a couple of weeks ago, this is an excellent move on the bookseller's part.

According to
, this is what Nook owners can expect after the software update is automatically installed on their readers:
* Page turning and formatting of downloaded e-books has been improved.

* Start-up time for My Library, The Daily, and Setting has been improved.

* Barnes & Noble in-store content and promotions roll-out is fully supported.

* Launches reader immediately on Select from The Daily and My Library for books and subscriptions that have already been downloaded.

* Reading Now takes customer straight into the last book page read without reformatting the content.

* Displays the correct time on the status bar.

* No longer unprompted to the home screen when pressing the arrow or the select button.

* Displays correct error-message for pre-ordering books that are not yet available.

Good move, Barnes & Noble. I'm pulling for you guys to get this thing done right.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Home Repair

From its opening pages, Home Repair proves to be one of those novels that manage to walk successfully the fine line between tragedy and comedy.

It is the day of the family’s big garage sale and Eve is hoping to rid herself of the useless junk cluttering her house; if she can make a little extra money in the process, all the better. Noni, her nine-year-old daughter, commandeers the cash box and proves to be a ruthless negotiator, refusing to take less for anything than the price her mother has written on its price sticker. Marcus, Eve’s teen age son, comes outside only long enough to salvage a few of his favorite childhood items and carry them right back inside the house. Chuck, Eve’s husband, is simply not interested and decides to run an errand instead of hanging around to help Eve and Noni keep an eye on things.

All in all, Eve experiences a typical American garage sale, complete with the line-jumpers that arrive four hours early hoping to score the good stuff before the sale officially opens. She makes a little money, gets rid of a few things that had just been taking up space anyway and, by the end of the sale, is ready to give the rest away just not to have to carry anything back inside - nothing really unusual about her day. But then it hits her that her husband is not coming home and that he has chosen a silly garage sale to cover his exit, something she will have to explain to the kids and her mother.

Thus begins the rest of Eve’s life, maybe not the life she would have picked if given a choice, but one she will come to find that she is perfectly capable of handling. Her immediate reaction may have caused her to lose so much weight on the “heartbreak diet” that even her nine-year-old would grow worried about her, but Eve is about to discover just what an adventure the rest of her life will be. When several months later Chuck has the gall to show up unannounced for Thanksgiving dinner, he is shocked to find the table filled with people he never expected to see: a young Korean couple and their children, two of Eve’s co-workers, the big African-American caretaker of the local public park, and Eve’s mother. Though Chuck could not know it, the table is filled with some of the best friends Eve will ever have.

Frankly, Liz Rosenberg has surprised me. Home Repair is the kind of novel I generally pick up only reluctantly because of bad previous experiences with books that, at least on the surface, appear to be so largely geared toward a female readership. This, I am happy to report, is not one of those novels. Rosenberg made me care about Eve and her friends and what happened to them. I fell in love with the Marcus and Noni characters and the way they supported each other during their mother’s crisis. And I was cheered and inspired by the way Eve’s courage and hope are rewarded.

Liz Rosenberg says that one of Home Repair’s “ideal readers” is the “man awake reading at three thirty in the morning.” Strangely enough, I finished Home Repair just before four this morning myself (while not quite the insomniac Rosenberg envisions, I am pretty close), marking me as one of the book’s ideal readers -and one well satisfied with the experience.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by HarperCollins Publishers)

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Little Girl's Love of Reading Lives On After Her

Do you have time for a nice Christmas story? This one is about a little girl and the parents who miss her; it's about books and book people; and it's about making a difference.

Joe and Carole Hemmelgarn, of Colorado, lost their almost-10-year-old daughter to acute lymphoma leukemia about three years ago. Alyssa, a fourth-grader was an avid reader, sometimes going through two or three books a week. Her great love of books was one of the things that made her a special little girl, and her parents honor Alyssa's passion today by handing out thousands of free books in her memory.

From the Denver Post:
Her parents grieved hard for more than a year. And in recalling their daughter, they shared stories of her love of books, how she devoured them often at a rate of two or three a week.

They soon started the Alyssa Cares Foundation, registered and began soliciting donations to purchase books. A year and a half later, the Highlands Ranch couple has distributed for free close to 8,000 children's books to low-income students at four schools in Aurora and Denver.

They gave a book to each of the 408 children at Paris Elementary, where 94 percent are eligible for reduced-fee or free school meals. The couple now has at least 50 copies of 103 different titles.

"It is a way to keep Alyssa alive in a lot of ways," Carole Hemmelgarn, 45, said. "We want to pass along a gift she was given, her love of reading."
Many of the kids hug her (Carole). She hugs them back. It is why the foundation is just the two of them. The point, she said, is that they be at the schools, telling their story. After each child makes a selection, she slides the book and an orange bookmark into an orange bag, Alyssa's favorite color. She then asks each child to share the story with her when she returns, blinking hard to keep her tears at bay. "As long as there are tears and emotions," Carole Hemmelgarn explains later, "I feel like Alyssa is not slipping away, you know? "I don't care if I cry. I still love her so much."
Book people are special people. They prove it to me almost every day.

If you would like to help, please go to this link for the Alyssa Cares Foundation. Thanks.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Sony Plots Death of Amazon Kindle"

In other words, "Hope springs eternal" over at Sony Corp. headquarters.

Sony was probably first out of the chute with an e-book reader but Amazon had such a huge built-in market advantage when it later launched the Kindle that the company almost immediately became the market leader. And it still dominates that market.

The Sony Reader has something strong going for it, however - its books can be read on other e-book readers and books bought, or acquired, in places other than the Sony Reader store can be read on a Sony Reader. Amazon, on the other hand, makes sure that its e-books can only be read on the Kindle device (or with a software installation, on your PC or smart phone) and that, without jumping through all kind of hoops, books from other sources can't be read on the Kindle. For me, that's a huge red flag and deal killer.

Matthew Graven has this to say in The Register:
Some of Sony’s confidence must come from having a certain world power Gin its corner. Sony has worked closely with Google to offer hundreds of thousands of free titles in the Sony’s ebook store. And now Google, another supporter of the ePub format, is getting close to launching its own store, dubbed Google Editions.
In a mocking tone, Haber (president of Sony’s digital reading business division) gibes at publishing companies who have delayed the release of ebook titles. Simon & Schuster, for instance, recently said it may not make digital versions of books available until the hardcover copies have been on shelves for four months. This is similar to the delayed release of paperback versions. "f you don’t allow the content out there, people will find a way to get that content," Haber says. He adds that publishers cause piracy by delaying the release of books in digital formats and that their businesses will prosper if they embrace ebooks.

When asked what writers and publishers can do to help promote the growth of an ebook market and their own books, he suggests that they "spend time using the devices out there, experience them, and then think about what you can do differently with digital content that you couldn’t do with physical content." He tells authors they should "think through, perhaps, how you could make your content more interactive.
And the plot thickens.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pursuit of Honor

I am arriving way late to the Vince Flynn/Mitch Rapp party because, if I count correctly, Pursuit of Honor is Flynn’s tenth book in the Mitch Rapp series. It is my first exposure to the character – and I only wish I had arrived earlier. But the good news is that, although I have a lot of catching up to do, getting there should be quite a ride.

Pursuit of Honor starts just a few days after a terrorist attack on Washington D.C. has killed 185 people, including several members of Congress and other government officials. The terrorists even had the audacity to strike directly at the country’s counterterrorism nerve center where they managed to slaughter a good number of people before Mitch Rapp and his partner, Mike Nash, stop them with an audacious counterattack of their own.

When the smoke clears, three terrorists are still on the run, including the two responsible for planning the attacks, and Mitch Rapp wants them. More tellingly, he is willing to do whatever it takes to get them. Rapp is a realist, not a politician. He is not concerned with being politically correct, only with keeping his country and its citizens safe from the religious fanatics that are so willing to slaughter innocents in the name of their god. Rapp believes that assassination is a legitimate tool in a war in which the other side judges its victories in terms of civilian body count imposed and he is as ready to kill American traitors as he is Muslim terrorists. This does not, of course, make him popular with certain members of Congress.

Unfortunately for Rapp, and even more unfortunately for America, a handful of Congressmen have become so obsessed with his methods that they seem to be more concerned with seeing Rapp in prison than with protecting the country. They hold Mitch Rapp in contempt – and he returns the favor. Readers more aligned with Rapp’s way of thinking will particularly relish his confrontation with a female California senator during which the senator demands that Rapp address her as “Senator” rather than as “Ma’am.” What Mitch Rapp says at this meeting is typical of his politics and, as offensive as his views will be to some readers, what he expresses fits his character perfectly. This is who Mitch Rapp is, after all.

Vince Flynn keeps the tension in Pursuit of Honor at a high level by alternating chapters about Rapp and his team with those about the three terrorists trying to make their way unnoticed across Middle America. And, because Rapp has to spend so much of his time working the political side of the search, the chapters about the three terrorists, particularly those concerning the conflicts within that small group, are the book’s most tense ones. Flynn slowly brings the two groups closer and closer to each other until they finally clash in the book’s wild ending.

What Mitch Rapp’s congressional critics fail to recognize is that he is a moral man. His moral code may not be theirs but Rapp knows the difference between good and evil and he has dedicated his life to evil’s defeat, something that does not always seem to be the goal of his most vocal critics. Whether the real world would be a safer – or a more dangerous – place if there were more Mitch Rapps in it is subject to debate. But Pursuit of Honor does make one wonder.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Borders Hopes Its "Better Late Than Never" Approach Will Work

Borders might be missing out on e-book sales during the 2009 Christmas buying season but the company hopes that will not be the case next year. The bookstore chain has just announced a partnership with Canadian company Kobo Inc. to produce an e-book application and a new e-book store of its own by the second quarter of next year. However, unlike its competitors, Borders will not be marketing its own branded e-book reader.

(Photo of the Sony Reader (Touch) sold in Borders bookstores)

From Ann
The announcement comes as investors and book industry analysts have criticized Borders for lacking a defined e-reader strategy during the 2009 holiday shopping season, broadly considered a critical period for the struggling retailer.

The move means that Borders, which sells the Sony e-reader in its stores, is opting against developing its own e-reader.
Instead, Borders plans to allow its new e-book application to be downloaded on smart phones - including Apple's iPhone, the BlackBerry and Android - and other digital devices for use by anyone.
There is little doubt anymore that e-books will become a significant percentage of all books sold by the largest book retailers in the country. The Borders approach is a much cheaper one than the one Barnes & Noble chose and, considering the early reviews of the Barnes & Noble Nook, maybe even a wiser one. 2010 promises to be an interesting chapter in the development of the e-book market and I can't wait to see how all this turns out.

By the way, I've used Kobo's Shortcovers software to upload a classic or two on my Palm Pre smart phone and have read most of Edith Wharton's Summer on my phone. It works well, so I have to believe the Borders/Kobo partnership will be a good thing for both companies.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"U" Is for Undertow

I have been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series ever since “A” Is for Alibi. Unfortunately, I did not discover this first volume of the series until it hit my local bookstore in paperback format. If I had been able to afford the price of a hardcover book back in 1982, today I might be the proud owner of a little book that sells to collectors for about $1200 in the right condition and edition. Now, with “U” Is for Undertow, I have come full cycle – this one I read in e-book format.

It is 1988 and 39-year-old Kinsey Millhone, survivor of two failed marriages, is still living alone and running her one-woman detective agency in Santa Teresa, California when a young man walks into her office one afternoon looking for help. Michael Sutton is haunted by something he saw twenty years earlier, when he was six, and he wants Kinsey to find out exactly what he witnessed on the day he wandered away by himself from his neighbor’s yard. Did he, as he now believes, actually see two men in the process of burying the little girl they had kidnapped several days earlier? Kinsey might doubt Michael’s story but she has bills to pay – and Michael’s $500 for one day’s work is not something she can afford to pass up.

Thus begins a complicated investigation so intriguing to Kinsey Millhone that she finds herself working on it for many more hours than the ones for which she has been paid. Little Mary Claire Fitzhugh was kidnapped in July 1967 and, when her parents went to the police despite being warned by the kidnappers not to do so, she disappeared forever. Despite the best efforts of the Santa Teresa police and the FBI, no one was ever arrested for the crime and the little girl’s body was never found. Kinsey, who was in high school when the little girl was snatched, begins to believe that Michael really might have stumbled upon the killers that long ago day - and the chase is on.

“U” Is for Undertow is a fun reminder of just how primitive 1988 technology was when compared to all the gadgets available to us today. Kinsey does not own a fax machine or a cell phone; when she is in the field, she really is out there on her own. When she needs to research old addresses, business locations, or phone numbers she heads to her local library to use the cross-references and old phone books housed there. The microfilm reader is her friend and she uses index cards to capture her thoughts in a portable format. The reader will wonder if Kinsey, who is now 61 years old in 2009, much misses those old days.

Longtime Kinsey Millhone fans will be pleased, too, to find that “U” Is for Undertow opens a treasure trove full of details about her childhood and the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins Kinsey never learned of after the death of her parents. The chapters dealing with Kinsey’s family and the flashbacks to 1967 and its “Summer of Love” give the book a depth it would otherwise not have had. This is another fine addition to the series and it is hard to believe there are only five to go. It has been a fun ride.

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Random House Strikes First

Random House has taken the aggressive approach of informing literary agents that the publishing house is claiming "digital rights" to all books it published before the existence of such a thing as digital rights. Needless to say, this will be a somewhat controversial claim and literary agents and the authors they represent will almost certainly disagree with Random House's interpretation of all those old contracts.

(Photo: Markus Dohle, the man who signed the notification to literary agents)

From The Wall Street Journal:
In the letter, dated Dec. 11, Markus Dohle, CEO of the Bertelsmann AG publishing arm, writes that the "vast majority of our backlist contracts grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats." Mr. Dohle writes that many of the older agreements "often give the exclusive right to publish 'in book form' or 'in any and all editions.' "

He argues that, much as the understanding of publishing rights has evolved to include various forms of hardcovers and paperbacks, so too does it now include digital rights, since "the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discover stories, ideas and information through the process of reading."
Nat Sobel, a literary agent whose clients include James Ellroy and Richard Russo, both of whom are published by Random House's Alfred Knopf imprint, disagreed with Mr. Dohle's assertions.

Mr. Sobel said that prior to the September publication of Mr. Ellroy's novel "Blood's a Rover," the third volume in the Underworld USA trilogy, he received a letter from Random House asking for the release of electronic rights associated with the trilogy. He said he ignored the request because he has other plans for those rights.

"I don't accept Random House's position, and I don't think anybody else will either," Mr. Sobel said. "You are entitled to the rights stated in your contract. And contracts 20 years ago didn't cover electronic rights. And the courts have already agreed with this position."
Click on the Wall Street Journal link for all the details in what promises to be an interesting legal battle.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil

Are there better ways to meet our energy needs than the ever more frantic search for the world’s rapidly decreasing oil reserves? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is both “yes” and “no” because, while there certainly are cleaner ways to generate the energy that makes the world go around, the transition from oil to those cleaner sources might just bankrupt the planet during the transition process.

In Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, Peter Maass explains the impact of our oil addiction on those supposedly lucky countries having enough oil to export it to the rest of us. Most of the world’s remaining oil reserves will be discovered in, and exported from, third world countries. Unfortunately, the governments of those countries are most often manned by thugs and thieves who claim the oil riches for themselves and their families. These criminals might be quick to loot their country’s oil reserves but they are slow to plow any of the oil proceeds back into the country’s infrastructure in ways that would improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

Peter Maass devotes chapters to Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Ecuador, Russia, Iraq and Venezuela. Maass finds that these countries have one thing in common other than their vast supplies of crude oil. Each of them suffers from the “resource curse,” which states that countries whose economies are too closely tied to the exportation of a natural resource, such as oil, are doomed to “lower growth, higher corruption, less freedom and more warfare.” Doubters only need review the list of countries at the beginning of this paragraph to judge the accuracy of this “curse.”

Maass effectively argues that none of the petty dictators, thieves and kings could have looted their countries on their own. Without the enablement of Big Oil, it simply could not have happened. Oil companies have always shown a willingness to work with anyone able to guarantee them the contracts needed to extract oil, turning a blind eye to what happens in the producing country despite the billions of dollars the companies pump into government hands. Seeking an edge, oil companies have been known to bribe government officials with huge amounts of cash, high-paying “consulting” jobs, building rents, and “charities.” “Whatever it takes” seems to be the motto of many who spend their lives in search of the next huge oil field.

But all of this is overshadowed by the brutal wars fought by consuming nations to gain or guarantee access to the steady supply of reasonably priced crude oil so critical to the world’s economy. While Maass admits that the United States invaded Iraq for reasons in addition to oil acquisition, he correctly points out that the protection and control of Iraq’s oil fields quickly became a top priority of America’s occupying forces. Keeping the huge Iraqi oil reserves in friendly hands, even if not directly in the hands of American oil companies, clearly impacts America’s national security. Because the job of America’s military is to protect the country’s national security, and because every other major power feels the same way, fighting over the oil of producing countries is not likely to end before the oil runs dry.

The picture Peter Maass paints might not be pretty, but it is realistic. He knows that the world’s dependence on petroleum is likely to last another several decades but he urges us to make oil’s twilight as “short as possible.” Sadly, until reasonable alternatives to oil are found, we remain “complicit in the forms of violence – physical, environmental and cultural – that are the consequences of its extraction.”

(I write this as someone who has worked in the oil industry, and in several different oil producing countries, for the last 37 years.)

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by Knopf)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Any Tweeters Out There?

I am wondering (out loud) how many of my fellow book bloggers and visitors are active on Twitter. I was reluctant to get involved over there but I am finding it to be a fairly effective way to keep up with what's going on in the book/publishing world in real time. An amazing amount of information gets shared on Twitter (along with lots of trash and spam) in those 140-word blips and links used to communicate with like-minded souls.

So, if any of you are on Twitter and are interested in spreading the word about your activity, please leave a comment here about what it is you do there. I would love to link up with others in the book world that way (readers, writers, publishers, bookstores, libraries, etc.) but, frankly, I am finding it difficult to build much of a network so far. I have grown frustrated with the Twitter "search function" and I hope this might be both a quicker and a more productive way to make some meaningful connections. So holler at me it you tweet.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Nook - The Not Ready for Prime Time Reader?

Working models of the new Barnes & Noble Nook have finally made their way into the hands of reviewers and the reaction is not what Barnes & Noble hoped for - not even close.

I have taken a look at the dummy version that most B&N stores have been displaying for a while now, and my experience made me wonder how in the world so many people were willing to spend almost $300 on an e-book reader before first seeing it actually work. The display models don't even include a battery (or the equivalent weight of a battery), making them deceptively lighter than they will be when functional and, until one sees the actual display of the reader, there is no way to judge what the experience of reading a book on it will be like. Is it easy on your particular eyes - or not? Is the contrast right for you? I don't think I would have gambled $300 to find out but, according to Barnes & Noble, thousands of folks did just that.

There is "Not much love for Barnes & Noble Nook" according to The Christian Science Monitor:
The experts have finally gotten their hands on the device and the consensus among the media technorati seems to be: too little, too soon.
The color touch screen, writes David Pogue in the New York Times, “is actually just a horizontal strip beneath the regular Kindle-style gray screen.” Too often, he says, “the color strip feels completely, awkwardly disconnected from what it’s supposed to control on the big screen above.” Worse, he finds the screen to be “balky and nonresponsive.”

Reviewing the Nook for USA Today, Edward C. Baig (who overall finds the device to be “unfinished and sluggish”) notes although Barnes & Noble advertises that “a million titles are available for the Nook compared with more than 390,000 in the Kindle Store,” the comparison is “somewhat misleading, because Barnes & Noble includes a boatload of free public domain books, most from Google.”

And as for loaning books to your friends, Pogue says that the feature comes with a number of “buzz kill footnotes.”

He details: “You can’t lend a book unless its publisher has O.K.’ed this feature. And so far, B&N says, only half of its books are available for lending — only one-third of the current best sellers. (A LendMe icon on the B&N Web site lets you know when a book is lendable.) Furthermore, the book is gone from your own Nook during the loan period (a maximum of two weeks). And each book can be lent only once, ever.”
These reviews, and other comments I've seen make me wonder if Barnes & Noble has made a big mistake by rushing their e-book reader into this year's Christmas market. As a matter of fact, they have largely missed even that market as many thousands of the readers already sold will not be delivered until sometime in January, at best. Now it seems that they might be hurt by early word-of-mouth about the product because they have pushed it out into the real world before it is quite ready.

I don't doubt that the Nook will get a whole lot better than it appears to be right now. Firmware updates will likely solve most of the "sluggishness" issues this first version of the reader appears to have, for instance. But the company does risk irritating a large segment of the exact market it so desperately wants to capture. Today's market is one in which word-of-mouth can make or break a new product in record time or, at the very least, damage an already shaky one. I hope the Nook does not turn out to be the case of a good product killed by poor marketing decisions. Time will tell.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


From what I understand (not having read her before), Rainwater is a change-of-pace novel for its author, Sandra Brown. Already well known for her bestselling novels of the romantic thriller type, this time around Brown has written a more serious novel about a woman struggling to raise her autistic son in rural Texas during the Great Depression.

Ella Barron’s life has not been an easy one. Her only child has increasingly withdrawn into his own little world, to the point that at age ten he is unable to communicate with anyone, including his mother. Her husband, apparently unable to cope with the responsibilities of a son like his, walked away one day and Ella has not seen him in several years. She supports herself and Solly by working around the clock to keep her four long-term boarders satisfied enough to stay with her. Ella and Solly have fallen into a comfortable routine by the time that new boarder David Rainwater moves into the house.

Despite her conscious effort to keep her relationship with Mr. Rainwater on a strictly professional basis, Ella finds herself strangely drawn to the man almost from the beginning. Ella Barron is a proper lady of her day and she knows the damage that gossip can do to a woman’s reputation in a town the size of the one she has lived in all her life. Consequently, she works hard to hide her feelings for Rainwater and, luckily for her, the elderly spinster sisters and the traveling salesman who also board with her remain blind to the couple’s slowly budding romance.

David Rainwater, though, is a man with a secret and he has come to live in Ella’s boarding house for reasons of his own. As Ella learns, Rainwater is a man with little to lose and that makes him willing to take chances few men would be inclined to take otherwise. He will play an important role in the conflict that will soon tear the little community apart, a fight pitting the local sheriff and the town bully against townspeople, farmers, and the starving population of a nearby shantytown.

Rainwater is the story of a man that badly wants to do some good. And he does exactly that. The countless hours Rainwater devotes to little Solly pay off when the boy demonstrates an unexpected talent that encourages his mother to turn to medical specialists for advice about his condition. When he recognizes the utter brutality and wastefulness of what the sheriff is allowing to happen to local farmers and dairy ranchers, he organizes the locals in a way he hopes will limit the damage. Perhaps just as importantly, he brings love back into the life of a woman that had given up on it ever happening to her again.

Rainwater has a lot going for it but I did find it difficult to get very emotionally involved in a story that has so many one-dimensional characters. The town bully, for instance, is the stereotypical version of a bully most readers will be familiar with, right down to the rich parents who never bothered to tell him “no.” The cowardly sheriff is not developed at all and readers will have to wonder what motivates this man to remain in the shadows while so much evil is happening in his town. And the local doctor and a charismatic black preacher, admirable as they are, do not move far beyond being clichés. All of these characters are interesting and I wanted to know more about them.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Simon & Schuster)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman

I suspect that most Americans are still confused about Pat Tillman’s death because of how that tragic event was reported. Early reports stated that Tillman had been killed in an enemy ambush and that his heroic actions during the firefight earned him a posthumous Silver Star. A few weeks later, the truth about Pat Tillman’s death began to trickle out and the public learned that he had actually been killed by friendly fire. Conspiracy theories became common and now, more than five years later, some people still believe that Tillman was murdered by one of his fellow soldiers.

Those who still wonder how something like this could happen, how the truth about Tillman’s death could have been withheld from his family for five weeks, can finally find their answers by turning to the new Jon Krakauer book Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. What Krakauer describes in the book is as understandable as it is disheartening. Human nature being what it is, almost from the moment Tillman’s body was recovered, some on the ground seem to have been more concerned with covering up the poor tactical decisions that contributed to his death than they were about reporting the truth. Others, much higher up in the chain-of-command, saw an opportunity to use Pat Tillman’s image as a morale booster for the entire country and, for that to happen, his death had to be a heroic one. This perfect storm of a cover-up would ultimately mean that Tillman’s family would have to challenge both the Army and the U.S. government if they were ever to know how their son, brother and husband really died.

Pat Tillman, a California native, was a complicated young man whose ability to play football at the highest level provided him with a measure of fame and a comfortable life. Tillman had a passionate love for his family, especially for his mother and his wife, and he was as close to Kevin Tillman as any two brothers could possibly be. But Tillman always envisioned himself as a defender of those incapable of defending themselves and, in May 2002, he decided to walk away from his $3.6 million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army. He believed it to be his duty to help defeat those responsible for the 9-11 murders. Kevin Tillman, who felt the same obligation, enlisted at Pat’s side and the two served together right up to the moment of Pat’s death.

The manner of Pat Tillman’s death does not make him less a hero than if he had died at the hand of the enemy. The way he died is, beyond a doubt, a tragedy but American soldiers know that fratricide, death at the hand of a brother-in-arms, is nothing new in the heat of battle. Krakauer, in fact, points out that “21 percent of the casualties (both wounded and killed) in World War II were attributable to friendly fire, 39 percent of the casualties in Viet Nam, and 52 percent of the casualties in the first Gulf War.” To date of the book’s publication, Iraq and Iran casualties from friendly fire are 41% and 13%, respectively.

Where Men Win Glory uses an excellent group of simple maps to illustrate exactly what Tillman’s unit was trying to accomplish on the day he was killed and exactly how things went so wrong. Pat Tillman’s story is legend – Jon Krakauer shows us just how extraordinary the real man was.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, December 07, 2009

Book Giveaway

Christopher Meeks sends word that Backward Books is giving away a copy of his most recent book, The Brightest Moon of the Century. All it takes to put your name in the hat for the random drawing is a visit to Backward Books. Just leave a comment to the Meeks interview you will find there and you are automatically entered.

Book Chase readers might recall that I gave high marks to The Brightest Moon of the Century last Feburary and I know now that it will finish somewhere in my top 10 favorites of 2009. So here's your chance to pick up a nice freebie.

If we get a winner via Book Chase, please let me know. That would make my day.

The Puppet Masters (1951)

The Puppet Masters was first published in 1951 as a manuscript of approximately 60,000 words, eliminating some 36,000 words from Heinlein’s original story. The cuts were made because of concerns about the book’s length and the controversial (sexual) nature of some of the passages eliminated. Of course, what was risqué in 1951 is extremely tame by today’s standards and in 1990, two years after his death, Heinlein’s original version was finally published. I read the shorter version of The Puppet Masters sometime in the early 1960s but this review is based on my just completed reading of the long version.

When a flying saucer lands in isolated Grinnell, Iowa, it appears to be business-as-usual, just another hoax put together by a couple of Iowa farm boys with nothing better to do. Or is it? All the “Old Man” knows for sure is that he sent several agents to Iowa to investigate the landing and that none of them have been seen or heard from since. That is why he decides to go to Iowa along with two of his best agents, “Sam” and “Mary,” posing as a family of tourists in Grinnell to get a firsthand look at the flying saucer. What they see is an obvious hoax, a ship that would fool no one for long. What they learn before barely escaping Grinnell, however, is shocking.

The citizens of Grinnell, Iowa, are being controlled by alien parasites that have attached themselves to the spinal columns of their victims. Since the parasites are hidden by the clothing of those they control, all appears normal to unsuspecting humans until they, too, are saddled with a Puppet Master of their very own.

The “Old Man” and his two agents return to Washington D.C. where they face the difficult task of convincing the President and his staff that the threat from Iowa is real. Seeking evidence that will finally convince government authorities that the U.S. has been invaded by an alien culture, Sam returns to Iowa with two agents and a live camera capable of broadcasting “stereo” images back to Washington. Needless to say, things do not go well for Sam and his crew but he accidentally returns with the proof he needs to make his case: an agent who has been taken over by one of the alien “slugs.” Thus, begins America’s fight for survival but, despite the best efforts of America’s military, the entire center of the U.S., from north to south, is soon lost to the Puppet Masters.

The Puppet Masters is very much a novel of its time. Heinlein, for instance, makes comparisons between what it is like for an American living under the control of a Puppet Master and what it is like to live behind the Iron Curtain or in communist Russia. Sam comes to the conclusion that the two experiences must be very similar, maybe even worse for the unfortunate Europeans and Russians. Too, modern readers are likely to find Heinlein’s attitude toward women to be sexist, and at least a bit offensive, because his female characters, unless they are elderly, are always described in terms of their attractiveness, first, and their abilities, second. And, while this long version of the novel does include Sam’s sexual escapades, his romance with Mary, and references to orgies and the like, it is all presented in a very 1950s squeaky clean manner. It is the kind of thing that appealed mightily, of course, to teenage male readers of the era.

The Puppet Masters holds up surprisingly well today despite the fact that it was one of the first alien invasion novels of its type, one in which those being invaded by aliens took the initiative to fight back. One could not likely have read the novel during the 1950s without thinking of America’s cold war with Russia and all the horrors that might suddenly spring from that standoff. Mr. Heinlein knew his audience well and The Puppet Masters became a science fiction classic.

(The photo, above, is of the original cover of The Puppet Masters.)

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Physics and Tiger Woods

Did something good actually come from the Tiger Woods debacle of last week? Author John Gribbin probably thinks so because one of his books just received a huge sales boost after it was spotted in one of the photos of Tiger's wrecked vehicle. This kind of thing has happened before, of course, when celebrities or presidents are spotted carrying a book around, but this is a surprise because Gribbin's book is about physics, of all things. Take a look at this picture.

That's a copy of Get a Grip on Physics there on the floorboard. According to Britain's The Independent:
The book deals with the basics of physics, from its earliest developments to cosmology – although there is no mention of what happens when you shunt a heavy SUV into a stationary fire hydrant.
The book was 2,268th position on the Amazon sales list, up from 396,224th the previous day.
If these numbers are for real, and that's a big if, I wonder how many of the recently purchased copies of Get a Grip on Physics will actually be read. I suspect the percentage read will be very low - not that Mr. Gribbin is likely to care.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Dewey Tree

Lisa Roe, better known in the book-blogging world as The Online Publicist, has come up with a wonderful idea to honor the memory of a lady whose sudden death was a shock to all of us a few months ago. Dewey was a "community organizer" in the best sense of that phrase - she could have taught those who abuse that job title a whole lot about what is right and what is wrong in the world.

Lisa suggests that Dewey's fellow book-bloggers gather up a few of those hundreds of books we all have sitting around the house and pass them on to others in honor of what Dewey meant to our community. Details and suggestions can be found on Lisa's website, so please take a look there and help make this project a huge success.

Let's make sure that Dewey's good work continues forever. Thanks, guys.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Britain's Smallest Public Library

It's time for another feel-good story and this time around it comes all the way from the little English village known as Westbury-sub-Mendip. It seems that the villagers have adopted one of those old British phone booths, the reds one everyone remembers from the day when phones weren't carried in our pockets. But it's what they've done with it that is so cool.

They've created the U.K.'s smallest library. Actually, it's a village book exchange, but, hey, that's close enough for me - maybe even better. Details come from Mail Online:
Villagers rallied together to set up the book box after their mobile library service was cancelled.

It has really taken off,’ Parish councillor Bob Dolby told The Guardian.

‘Turnover is rapid and there's a good range of books, everything from reference books to biographies and blockbusters.’

The phone box library is open every day for 24 hours and is lit at night. There is a regular check on it to see if some titles are not moving. These are then shipped on to a charity shop to keep the phone box collection fresh.
As someone who has started book exchanges in locations ranging from Algeria's Sahara Desert to the tallest office towers in Houston, I have to applaud these guys. Well done, folks.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Warren Spooner was trouble even before he was born. Spooner weighed in at all of five pounds when his mother finally pushed him in out into the world after spending 53 hours in labor that first week of December 1956. He arrived only a few seconds after his more handsome twin brother and, even though his twin never took a breath, Spooner knew that his dead brother would always be his mother’s favorite child.

As difficult a child as he was to give birth to, Spooner’s mother found him an even more difficult one to raise, especially in contrast to his near genius siblings. However much Spooner may have struggled with reading and writing, however, he had certain skills of his own. At four years old, for example, he discovered a talent for breaking into the homes of his Milledgeville, Georgia, neighbors during the night, peeing into their shoes before placing them in their refrigerators, and making a clean getaway.

This little guy with such great potential in the field of home break-ins, though, was fatherless, leaving a hole in his family that would soon be filled by one Calmer Ottosson. Ottosson was a formal naval officer who managed to make such a fiasco of a congressman’s burial at sea that he was looking for a fresh start when he arrived in little Milledgeville. With Spooner, he got more than a fresh start; he would spend the rest of his life trying to salvage his new stepson.

Spooner is not a plot driven novel. Rather, it focuses on a series of events in the lives of Warren Spooner and his stepfather, often with significant gaps of time and experience between one event and the next. The steady passage of time, spread over more than 500 pages, though, results in a dual biography of two men whose lives were closely tied together for decades. The two first meet when Calmer begins to court four-year-old Spooner’s mother and they are still close when Calmer, suffering from early signs of dementia, is taken into Spooner’s home for the remainder of his life.

Along the way, the two, especially Spooner, do a lot of living, and the reader comes to care for both of them. Life would never be dull for Spooner; he makes sure of that via a series of reckless, spur-of-the-moment decisions that sometimes seem likely to kill him or drive him nuts. But Calmer is always there to help pick up the pieces and, when it counts most, Spooner is there for Calmer.

Pete Dexter has done a masterful job with Spooner, filling it with laugh-out-loud absurdity at times and with tear-jerking tragedy at others. Readers will have to decide for themselves if they are reading a comedy or a tragedy, something I am still trying to figure out for myself. Comic tragedy, anyone? How about tragic comedy? Either way, this one is definitely fun.

Rated at: 5.0

(Advance Reader Copy provided by Grand Central Publishing)