Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Person of Interest

Recently widowed, Felicia Fontenot has moved back into her childhood home in order to care for her elderly mother and she finds that not much has changed in the old neighborhood. Her mother’s neighbors are older than she remembers them but they are still keenly aware of what is happening on their street. Felicia is quick to notice one change, however - her first serious boyfriend, Luther Jackson, now lives with his wife and little boy directly across the street from her mother.

One morning, soon after her arrival, Felicia looks out her bedroom window to discover that the Jackson house has become a crime scene. Luther, out all night, has come home to find the badly burned bodies of his wife and son. Someone has murdered them, and it soon becomes obvious that Luther is the most logical suspect. Felicia refuses to believe that the man she loved so many years before could have had anything to do with the brutal murders of his own family and, when Luther’s aunt asks for her help, she decides to do whatever she can.

As the official investigation proceeds, and things begin to look worse and worse for him, Luther refuses to offer more than a minimal defense for himself. Felicia, puzzled by Luther’s silence, but still determined to prove his innocence, is dismayed to find that everything her own private investigator turns up makes it seem more likely that Luther is guilty of the murders.

Ernest Hill uses alternating chapters from the points-of-view of Felicia and Luther to tell his story, rarely bringing the two of them into contact with each other. In fact, Luther, who seems almost determined to sabotage his own defense, is just barely aware of the time and money Felicia is spending on his behalf. Felicia, ever the optimist, is as determined to save Luther as he seems determined to doom himself.

And that leads to my problem with the novel. I cannot decide if Luther Jackson is one of the most unlikable characters I have encountered lately or if he is just one of the most unbelievable. I think, actually, that he is a bit of both. His passiveness in the face of all that has happened to him is irritating; his refusal to defend himself in order to hide a personal secret (a rather common one) is not believable. Throw its way over the top melodramatic ending and stereotypical characters into the mix and A Person of Interest becomes a major disappointment despite its promising early chapters.

Rated at: 2.0

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Day Three at ROMP 2009

ROMP 2009 moved to Yellow Creek Park yesterday for its final two days, two of the hottest days I've ever experienced in Owensboro. The temperature supposedly hit 96 degrees yesterday and the humidity is very high - a bad combination for folks staying outdoors for 10 or 12 hours, many of those hours in direct sunlight.

It appears that the heat may have kept some of the locals from coming out this year because the crowd appeared smaller than in past years, especially early in the day. Here is a look at the park as folks gradually trickled in for the performances:

That's the legendary Bobby Osborne (with Rocky Top X-Press) in the last two pictures, of course. The crowd enjoying Bobby's music was considerably larger than it appears to be from these photos because most people were farther back, taking advantage of the shade line offered by the trees in the park.

Today's events include appearances by The Dixie Bee-Liners, The Special Consensus, Grasstowne, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and The Dan Tyminski Band. It will be another hot day - but a good one. There's just no such thing as a bad day at a bluegrass festival. I make my drive back to Houston on Sunday and will have a whole lot more next week to say about my four days in Owensboro.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Still Alive

The RiverPark Center - on the Ohio River, Owensboro, KY - Concert center for much of ROMP 2009 Bluegrass Music Festival

Just a quick note to say that I'm still alive.

It has been non-stop music for the last two days and by the time I get back to the hotel there's barely time to recharge batteries for the camcorder, digital audio recorder and camera before it''s time to crash for about six hours of sleep. That hasn't left much time for reading or writing but the break is doing me good - I'm recharging my own internal battery, too, I think.

I'm writing this note over a quick breakfast at Panera before heading out for 12 more hours of music - this time all of it outdoors in bright sunshine and 95 degree heat.

Thanks for checking in while I'm out. (More detail (including pictures), for those interested, can be found at Bluegrass & Honky Tonks.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Road Trip - The Drive

A few miles down the highway from Texarkana, Arkansas

The driving went so well yesterday that I decided to drive straight on through rather than to break the drive into two days. I ended up driving 933 miles, arriving in Owensboro just over 15 hours after I left my driveway. I've made this drive four times now and, for whatever reason, drivers seemed more laid back and willing to drive the speed limit than ever before. In the past, I've seen a few crazy ones on the road who seem determined to lead each little pack of vehicles they encounter - regardless of the fact that there's always a new pack just ahead of them. That didn't happen this time.

I also noticed there were far fewer truckers on the road yesterday than in previous years. I-40 is usually packed with them; this year they didn't seem to be nearly so numerous and that helped to keep things moving at the speed limit - and just beyond it. Maybe the economy really is having an impact on truckers.

It's still early in the morning but the music starts at 11:00 when a bunch of regional bands begin the festivities across the street from the Museum at Woodward's Cafe. Six bands are scheduled to perform up to about 5:00 and then there's a two-hour break before the big show with Mike Snider, Marty Stuart, and the Del McCoury Band.

Everything is indoor's until Friday when the two days at Yellow Creek Park start - and it is Hot, with a capital "H." And Humid deserves a capital of its own. Reminds me of home.

I didn't get much reading done - just 26 pages all day long, and that was before I left home. I'm well into Lawrence Block's memoir about his walking expereriences and I'm enjoying the book more and more. It started off a bit to slowly and, for just a couple of seconds, I was tempted to toss it aside. I'm happy that I didn't.

I plan to have lots of pictures, and some video, about the festival. Most of it will probably not be on Book Chase, however. If you're interested in that kind of thing, take a look at Bluegrass & Honky Tonks, my second internet home. Hope to see some of you there - now it's off to get this day started for real...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Road Trip - On the Road Again!

Just a quick note to tell everyone that I will be "on the road again" beginning tomorrow morning. I'm heading back to Owensboro, KY, for four glorious days of bluegrass music presented by the International Bluegrass Music Museum there.

I plan to get in a lot of music, a little reading, and some blogging while I'm away. Much of the blogging is likely to be on my other blog, Bluegrass & Honky Tonks, but I won't completely disappear from here either because I'm dragging at least half a dozen books with me and hope to actually finish a couple of them.

I won't arrive back in Houston until June 29 so things will be a little ragged for a while. I feel sort of like this little guy:

BTW, the Kate Atkinson review I posted this afternoon was my 1000th post on Book Chase and that is a great excuse for a book giveaway. I'll think about it this week and we'll do something when I get home.

When Will There Be Good News?

When Will There Be Good News? is Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel and in it, as she did in the first two Brodie novels, Atkinson successfully keeps several seemingly unrelated plot lines in the air long enough to bring them all together at the end for another of her rousing climaxes. Kate Atkinson is one hell of a juggler - she never drops anything.

The book begins on a rather normal day for a small town mother and her three young children, a day during which something will go terribly wrong, so wrong that only one of the four will survive it. Flash forward some thirty years and sixteen-year-old Reggie Chase, who looks more like twelve and has no one to look after her, is happily taking care of Dr. Joanna Hunter’s toddler son every day while the doctor works at the local clinic. Reggie gets along so well with Dr. Hunter and her baby that she feels the Hunter family to be a replacement for the one she no longer has.

Joanna Hunter, although she does not know the truth about Reggie’s personal life, thinks of Reggie more as a friend and younger sister than as an employee. The same, however, cannot be said for Joanna’s husband, Neil, a man so concerned with his business affairs that he barely acknowledges Reggie’s existence unless he needs her to cover his absence by staying longer into the evening with the baby.

Retired detective Jackson Brodie, in the meantime, is unwittingly hurtling toward his own personal chaos in Edinburgh, an accident that will put him out of commission and wondering who he is for a goodly portion of When Will There Be Good News? In Edinburgh, Brodie’s former love interest, DCI Louise Monroe, recently promoted and recently married, is beginning an investigation into the business affairs of Dr. Hunter’s husband while trying to locate the recently released prisoner responsible for destroying the young Mason family thirty years earlier.

So there you have it: one family already destroyed, a self-sufficient teen looking to replace the family she herself recently lost, a conscientious doctor married to an unscrupulous businessman, an Edinburg DCI charged with investigating that businessman, and Jackson Brodie headed their way in a rush. Jackson Brodie plays a smaller role in When Will There Be Good News? then his fans will expect in a “Jackson Brodie novel,” but what happens when he does finally come front and center will not disappoint readers of the two previous Brodie books.

Kate Atkinson has a way of creating characters, no matter how eccentric they may be, that take on lives of their own. Her characters, even the minor ones, are so finely developed that they become real and memorable. However, the real fun of one of Atkinson’s Brodie novels comes from watching her pull so many loose threads together in a way that makes perfect sense by the end of her story. She manages a complex plot as well as anyone, and I am looking forward to “Brodie 4” and her next juggling act.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bad News for Kindle Owners?

I might have some bad news for Kindle owners. If this report from paidContent.org turns out to be correct, Amazon will have to raise the average price of Kindle books substantially if the business model is going to work in the long term.
We think Amazon’s strategy, however, is to raise electronic book prices over time, while simultaneously influencing the book publishers to accommodate at least a partly electronic book model.” A suggested new price point that could “dramatically” increase margins for publishers and Amazon: $12.50.

The analysts argue that by raising the average price by $2.51, Amazon’s margins could increase from 6 percent to 20 percent on the sale of an e-book. That, they say, is “comparable to its physical book business” since Amazon would only have to sell 1.7 e-books to match the profits from the sale of a hardback, instead of 7.
Of course, this may or may not really happen. How much faith do you have in research analysts these days? They haven't been right much lately as far as I can tell. I also have to wonder if Amazon is really willing to tick off so many customers just when the Kindle is picking up steam and seems to be actually having an impact on overall book sales.

Would an increase of $2.51 per book cause you to buy fewer Kindle books, or is that below the tipping point for you?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Seven-Year-Old Writes Book to Help His Friend

One seven-year-old author and his family have put the self-publishing concept to good use. Drake Senseney, a student at Woolmarket Elementary School (Mississippi), decided to write a book to raise money to help a fellow student, Lexi Moore, who is being treated for T-cell lymphoma. And, despite not being able to sell his book at the local Wal-Mart, Drake has managed to raise about $2500 for his friend.

(Lexi and Drake at his book presentation)

The Sun Herald (Biloxi-Gulfport) has the story:
Lexi was excited that she was recently presented a copy of the book, “The Basketball Game,” by Drake himself.

“Guess what he let me do?” she asked. “He let me kiss him on the cheek.”

The two met at Woolmarket Elementary School.

Wanting to help his friend, Drake said he one day thought of writing a book. That was about three months ago.

So far, sales of the book have raised about $2,500 for Lexi. Several fundraisers for are being held this weekend.

To write the book, Drake’s mom, Dee Dee, said, “He had me make him a page on the computer. He did all the typing (hunt and peck method), and I had to show him how to do the clip art.”

Shea Williams, 20, Drake’s cousin, also drew a couple of pictures for the book.

The book sells for $1 because Drake insisted that his friends couldn’t afford more, Dee Dee Senseney said.
Some kids really do get it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tesco's Embarrassing Father's Day Display

I'm not sure what word best describes British grocery chain Tesco's decision to include one particular book as part of its special Father's Day book display.

Should I call it ironic, or should I call it stupid, that someone in charge at Tesco think's it's a good idea to include a book about a man who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and had 7 children with her in a display of books that should especially appeal to British fathers? I think I'm leaning toward stupid, especially after reading the company's explanation for how this all happened.

The Telegraph has all the ridiculous details:
Tesco has hit back at the complaints, saying it would smack of censorship to remove certain books because some people found them offensive.

A spokesman said: "It's a book about a true crime and fathers and people in general are interested in things like this, books about the war, serial killers etc.

"It's not a vulgar or grotesque book. It's a serious book about a very serious crime.

"It would be touching on censorship if we removed it. Where would we draw the line? Would you like us to go through every DVD we sell removing those that some may find offensive?

"Tesco are comfortable selling this book. Crime fiction and non-fiction are very popular. This was a high-profile case that occurred in recent times.

"I wouldn't be comfortable buying it as a Father's Day gift, but I wouldn't want to tell other people not to. No-one is being forced to buy it."

However, the supermarket chain later changed its policy.

“It was never our intention to cause offence to any of our customers. It was placed there by mistake and has been removed," a spokesman said.
As can be seen from from the last sentence quoted above, someone with a bit of common sense actually does work in Tesco management - they found that person just in the nick of time, don't you think? As far as I'm concerned, though, the damage is done - all that chatter about censorship and then claiming it was all a big mistake smacks of simple butt-covering. Maybe the PR manager needs to be sacked?

(Photo is of Josef Fritzl, the despicable man whose crimes are featured in the book in question.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Best Intentions

Lisa Barkley and her husband, Sam, are struggling to maintain their toehold on the upper income lifestyle they enjoy on New York’s East Side with their two young daughters. If their impending fortieth birthdays were not bad enough, both are facing a crisis of sorts in the workplace. Lisa’s PR firm has just been taken over by an aggressive Chicago firm and she senses that she is being squeezed out of the picture. Sam, a journalist, known for his exposés, is desperately searching for his next big story because he has an editor interested only in what Sam has done for him lately. Their money worries have become so distracting that Lisa is even starting to doubt that her husband loves her as much as he once did.

Things begin to get complicated after Sam reluctantly agrees to a reunion dinner with Lisa, Lisa’s best friend, Deidre, and Deidre’s old college boyfriend, Jack. Jack, in from Boston for a job interview, has not seen the three New Yorkers in several years and he seems determined to charm his old friends, especially Deidre. Jack’s re-entry into their lives, has come at a time when all of them are emotionally vulnerable, Sam and Lisa because of their financial worries, and Deidre because she is terrified that she will never marry and have a child if she reaches her fortieth birthday as a single woman.

Jack has come along just when stirring the pot can be a dangerous thing for his friends – and stir the pot, he does. Deidre finds herself trying to choose between Jack, and the future he seems so ready to offer her, and her current lover, Ben, a man who can barely bring himself to discuss his feelings about their relationship. Lisa is caught in the middle after Jack asks her help in finding out, on the sly, if Deidre still has a romantic interest in him, and Sam is reminded of just how much he has always disliked Jack.

Try as she might, Lisa cannot completely shake the nagging doubts that she has about her marriage and whether Sam might be involved in an affair. All the signs are there, and she is becoming more and more consumed by the thought that her world is falling apart. She is not the least bit prepared, however, for the great shock that will soon have her second-guessing everything she thinks she knows about her husband and her best friends.

I have not experienced much in the way of chick lit (I’m not even sure whether or not the term “chick lit” is considered a derogatory one) but I found Best Intentions to have a higher level of literary quality than the few others of that genre I have read in the past. Emily Listfield describes the lifestyle of upper-income New Yorkers, both the pros and the cons, so well that the city almost becomes another character in her story.

This is chick lit with a twist, a more literary approach to the usual story about relationships and feelings, all of it cloaked within a mystery that almost destroys its main characters when Lisa learns the hard way that even the best of intentions have a way of backfiring.

Rated at: 3.5

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hakeem, Mr. Brown and Superman

The New York Daily News has another of those "feel good" stories that I love so much.

It seems that a New York City special education student by the name of Hakeem Bennett won a national essay contest in which he wrote about his real-life hero, his favorite teacher. That teacher, Matthew Brown, is vision-impaired and Hakeem admires and loves the teacher for the way he does his job so well despite his handicap.

But the coolest thing about this story is that, as contest winners, Hakeem and his teacher will be featured in a Superman comic book - and Hakeem and Mr. Brown got their first look at the comic this week. Take a look at the newspaper article for a plot summary and some other great pictures from the comic itself. This has to be a great thrill for a thirteen-year-old boy - and his teacher.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Turnaround

The Turnaround, set deep in the heart of Washington D.C., is the story of six teenage boys, three of them white and three of them black, who have their lives forever changed on what should be just another day in the summer of 1972. Alex Pappas knows that he and his two friends, Billy Cachoris and Pete Whitten, have no business going into a black neighborhood looking for trouble but he cannot force himself to say the words that might stop Billy from driving them there.

After the three very briefly confront three black boys roughly their own age, Billy races them away in his father’s car only to find a turnaround barrier at the end of the street from which he had planned to escape the area. Still hoping to get away cleanly, Billy turns the car around but finds his only escape route blocked by the three neighborhood boys he is fleeing. In just a matter of seconds, one of the three white boys is shot dead and another is badly beaten and scarred for life. Two of the young black men are sentenced to long prison sentences a few weeks later and Alex Pappas begins the long process of putting his life back together.

Flash forward to 2007 and Alex is running the same family diner he worked in as a boy. He is a happily married man with one surviving son but is still deeply grieving the recent loss of his other son in Iraq. Every time he looks in a mirror Alex is reminded of “the incident,” as he calls it, so when a chance encounter at Walter Reed Hospital leads to contact with one of the black men involved in it, Alex agrees to meet with him to discuss their shared past.

The Turnaround is a novel about redemption and second chances, a character-driven story about six young men who randomly cross paths just long enough to make the biggest mistake of all their young lives. One of them paid the ultimate price and did not survive that day, two went to prison, and three of them had to pick up the emotional pieces and get on with their lives as best they could. Over all, The Turnaround is an inspirational story about personal loyalty, family ties, friendship and the mellowness and peace that sometimes come with age.

The novel does verge on over sentimentality at times, especially as regards its improbable sugar-sweet ending, but the level of brutality and violence exhibited by some characters saves it from reading more like a fairy tale than a crime thriller. As usual, Pelecanos has filled his novel with memorable characters, not the least of which is the city of Washington D.C. itself. Reading a George Pelecanos novel is almost like walking the streets of Washington D.C. at night – not, having now read Pelecanos on several occasions, something I am ever likely to do again.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Texicans

Even after its admission to the Union, Texas was a dangerous place for those staking a claim to a new life there. Life, already tough enough for the small farmers and ranchers working so hard simply to survive from one season to the next, was complicated by the presence of Comanche warriors unwilling to give up their tribal lands without a fight. Sudden, violent, death was still common enough to scare away all but the hardiest, or most desperate, of settlers.

Nina Vida’s The Texicans is the story of a handful of accidental Texans, a group with little in common who met in Texas for the first time and banded together for their common good and protection. Vida’s approach of describing this colorful period of Texas history through the experiences of its poorest, and often most desperate, settlers rather than through those of the state’s wealthier, well-known leaders gives the reader a strong sense of the odds faced by anyone seeking a fresh start in the state.

Joseph Kimmel, a Missouri schoolteacher bored with his job, comes to Texas to settle the business affairs of his recently deceased brother, a San Antonio storekeeper, but does not intend to settle in the state. Joseph, though, is the kind of man who cannot resist helping those in need, especially if he is their only hope. Before long, he finds himself responsible for the well-being of an assortment of new Texans who will change his life as deeply as he changes theirs.

Kimmel may have come to Texas with no plan other than to do right by his brother, but he somehow winds up with a ranch unlike any other in the state, one at which Mexicans, freed blacks, escaped slaves, Indians and immigrant Texans are treated as equals, partners, and neighbors. Among the castoffs living on the ranch is Aurelia, a young Mexican woman who finds herself suddenly widowed when her brute of a Texas Ranger husband dies in a skirmish against a band of Indians. Kimmel will remain infatuated with Aurelia his entire life despite his marriage to Katrin, the young Alsatian woman he marries in order to save her from the Comanche leader who wants her for his own. Kimmel also offers refuge to Luck, a runaway slave who once stole his horse and left him stranded in the wilderness, and to a family of four ex-slaves (father, mother and two young sons) abandoned on the trail by their owner when the father seems certain to die from a badly fractured leg.

The Texicans covers twelve years in the life of Joseph Kimmel and those closest to him during an exciting period of Texas history (1840s-1850s). Their stories represent both the harsh realities of life in Texas during this period and the romantic notions often associated with those years. Nina Vida, however, does not allow her plot to be dominated by its romantic elements. Her characters come to Texas for different reasons, and they have varying degrees of luck once they get there. Some are more successful than others are; some are happy, some not; some become rich men, others do not survive for long.

The Texicans perfectly captures the spirit and desperation of the times and, through the eyes of its diverse set of characters, shows what a crapshoot 1840s Texas was. Some won, some lost, and most were happy just to break even.

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, June 13, 2009

7th Grader Reads 503 Books in Nine Months

Seventh grader Demarcus Porter received a special medal from his teacher at the end of the school year, a well deserved award to recognize his outstanding reading feat. (Read the whole story here at the Truman Democrat.)

Porter, a Truman, Arkansas, student read an astounding 503 books during the school year, over 50 books a month, more than a book every day of the school year.
"I knew I was going to win," Porter said. "It gave me an excuse to read."

His reading list included all seven books in the Harry Potter series along with Twilight and Eragon series and several graphic novels in the Narto series to name a few.

He even read a history of China which he said was about "three inches thick."

Porter said he got most of the books from the school library but also would find a good comfortable chair to read in whenever he was at Barnes and Noble in Jonesboro.

"They have a little section there where you can read books," Porter said. "I'd read my favorites there."

Porter said he enjoys all types of books but especially likes history and old joke books the best and stories with a moral point to them.
Apparently, Demarcus is also an athlete and he will be spending his summer getting into football shape, costing him some reading time, but he plans to keep his mind in shape at the same time by continuing to be a regular reader.

Congratulations, Demarcus. You have a bright future ahead of you, young man.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Where This One Belongs

I abandon something in the range of 6 to 12 books in an average reading year but I seldom mention them by title or tell why I made the decision to toss them aside. Every so often, however, one of those books will irritate me so much that I decide to document exactly why I tossed it in the trash. My recent experience with Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream is one of those cases.

The Terror Dream is Faludi’s attempt to make sense of America’s reaction to the 9-11 murders. Granted, she has her facts pretty much in order; the problem is how she twists those facts to the degree that her book becomes little more than an attempt to transform the attack on the United States to an attack on feminism. According to Faludi, America had a “nervous breakdown” of sorts after the attacks and reverted to a relationship between the sexes that confined women to the roll they played in 1950s America.

Yes, men were the ones cast almost exclusively in the roll of heroes. Yes, women were usually portrayed as victims needing the protection of men, including some portrayals of females in the military. Yes, most editorialists and other media commentators in the 9-11 aftermath were men, and women in those jobs were largely ignored or even ridiculed. People, male and female, alike seemed comforted by an image of America from a safer period, a time when men like John Wayne were national heroes. No argument from me on any of this – it did happen.

What I quickly grew bored with, and then irritated by, however, is Faludi’s rather selfish insistence upon making this huge national tragedy into some kind of personal insult to her and her feminism-dominated cohorts, as if nothing else matters and no good at all came from the country’s temporary retreat from feminism and what is its often shrill message. I got through about 30% of the book before Faludi’s constant whining and shrieking about Fox news, President Bush and his team, and conservative commentators and publications got on my nerves. To be fair to Faludi, she did point out that this message was not being communicated strictly by conservative outlets. However, the worst of her dripping sarcasm was most often directed at Bush and conservatives, especially as regards the whole Bush White House team.

When I looked ahead in the book and noticed that the remaining 70% was more of the same, I gave up. How anyone can read this repetitive nonsense for 368 pages is beyond me. How I made it through almost 120 pages of it is also beyond me now that I look back.

I recommend this book only to the most radical of feminists, to whom this will be a red meat message. Others should beware.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lost Boy

Brent Jeffs is part of a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) royal family. The FLDS is a splinter group that, decades ago, broke away from mainstream Mormonism over the issue of polygamy, and Brent’s grandfather Rulon Jeffs became the church’s prophet in 1986. His son (Brent’s uncle), Warren Jeffs, an incredibly evil man who almost destroyed Brent’s family, succeeded Rulon Jeffs in that all-powerful position.

Lost Boy is Brent’s eye-opening account of what it was like to grow up in that cult under the leadership of his uncle. Brent Jeffs was raised in a polygamous family, one that included three sister-wives and something like twenty brothers, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters. His mother was the first to marry Brent’s father but she eventually lost her family leadership role when a younger, more aggressive wife became her husband’s favorite. That her husband’s second wife was her own blood sister made the loss of stature and affection even more difficult for Brent’s mother to accept. The second wife would be followed by a third, this time a sixteen-year-old, but his mother’s younger sister would maintain her hold on Brent’s father for years to come.

Brent vividly describes the frustrations involved in growing up inside a polygamous family, the petty jealousies and rivalries between the wives and the children and the constant struggle to get the attention of a father who could not possibly pay adequate attention to the emotional needs of all of his children. It was this lack of parental awareness that allowed Warren Jeffs to get away with sexually abusing Brent and two of his older brothers when each was around the age of five.

Warren Jeffs, during the period in which he abused the boys, was the most dangerous kind of pervert there is: a pervert with absolute power over his victims and their families. His power to excommunicate church members, a process in which they would lose their homes and their jobs before being forced to live in a world for which they were unprepared, made his crimes not only possible, but easy.

The book’s title, Lost Boy, refers to the several hundred teenage boys Warren Jeffs kicked out of the community because he saw them as rivals for the hands of their young female peers, girls and young women Warren and his followers wanted to add to their own collection of wives. Many of the excommunicated boys, such as Brent himself, turned to drugs and alcohol to survive the world into which they were suddenly tossed. Some of the least prepared, usually the ones with no family members already on the outside, were forced into male prostitution in order to survive on their own.

Brent Jeffs, despite his tough transition, found the courage to confront his Uncle Warren Jeffs in a courtroom. He survived his early years, seems to be doing well these days, and Lost Boy is his very personal story of the horror he faced as a child. Surprisingly, however, the book is written in such a dry style that it is difficult to emotionally bond with the author despite his willingness to share his deepest secrets. The writing is straightforward to the degree that it becomes flat and somewhat repetitive at times, a tendency that slows down the pace at which one expects a story like this one to be told. But this is an important story and Brent Jeffs must be commended for having the courage, first, to stand up to the pervert who so deeply damaged him and his family and, second, to share his story with the rest of us.

Rated at: 3.0

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Smell in a Can

Confession time, guys. How many of you can honestly say that you've never stuck your nose deep inside a brand new paperback and sniffed that great "new book" smell? Come on now, be honest. I'll readily admit that the smell of a new paperback book is almost as enticing as the smell of a new car for me - and it comes a whole lot cheaper.

With tongue-firmly-implanted-in-cheek, I bring to your attention a product I missed when it was introduced this past April 1. It's called "Smell of Books" and it comes in an aerosol spray can that's being marketed to all those new e-book readers out there. It comes in five scents, but I think that real bookworms will most enjoy either "New Book Smell" or "Classic Musty."

How can real readers possibly resist this sales pitch?
Now you can finally enjoy reading e-books without giving up the smell you love so much. With Smell of Books™ you can have the best of both worlds, the convenience of an e-book and the smell of your favorite paper book.

Smell of Books™ is compatible with a wide range of e-reading devices and e-book formats and is 100% DRM-compatible. Whether you read your e-books on a Kindle or an iPhone using Stanza, Smell of Books™ will bring back that real book smell you miss so much.
Now, dear readers, for the bad news: You are already too late. "Smell of Books" was born on April 1, 2009 and as of June 10, 2009 is long, long gone.

Introducing the Smell of Books

Smell of Books Under Attack by Authors Guild

Smell of Books Recall Announced

(Sorry, I love this kind of thing and couldn't resist posting about it.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Writers: How NOT to Self-Market Yourself

I mentioned Sunday afternoon that I was making progress in the four books I'm currently reading. One of those, The Texicans, a novel about life in the wide open spaces of Texas during the 1840s, caught the eye of one reader and she decided to comment.Now I love comments, and I try to answer all of them, but sometimes they do surprise me. This is one of those cases.

The comment I'm showing below was made by a writer/poet, someone I've never heard of but will not forget anytime soon. In this day of writers largely having to market themselves if they want to sell what they produce, this is a wonderful example of how NOT to do it:
I think Texas is the most horrid, hideous place on earth. Texas is despised worldwide for it's racism, it's sickening love for the death penalty, it's violence and all the morons and braggarts who live there. If there were any justice at all, a huge hangman's noose would drop from the sky and choke the life out of this evil state. Florida is just as bad. I hope a giant hurricane blows it off the planet. Thinking people should have nothing to do with another Texas Braggart Book.
The irony associated with this comment from California is that the author of The Texicans is herself a Californian, not another "Texas Braggart."


Monday, June 08, 2009

Border Songs

I lost count of how many times the novel Confederacy of Dunces popped into my head as I read Jim Lynch’s Border Songs, but I do not mean anything even remotely negative about Border Songs when I say that. Lynch’s new novel has a certain Confederacy of Dunces vibe about it that will appeal to fans of that memorable John Kennedy Toole novel of almost thirty years ago – and that is a good thing.

Unusual physical specimens, big men generally perceived by their friends and families to be of the hapless misfit variety, anchor both novels. And as Toole did for his Dunces hero, Lynch surrounds Brandon Vanderkool with quirky characters and plops the lot of them into a unique part of the country – two countries, actually – a little rural community living on both sides of the Washington/British Columbia border.

Brandon Vanderkool, six foot eight and so dyslexic that he speaks parts of his sentences backward in times of stress, is a loner whose father pushes him from the family’s small dairy farm into a job with the U.S. Border Patrol. Suddenly, Brandon is responsible for protecting the very border along which he has spent his entire life and, to everyone’s surprise, he turns out to be a natural. As a passionate bird watcher, he is so finely attuned to the comings and goings of the local bird population that he almost unconsciously senses when something is out of place. That sense of place allows Brandon to become one of the stars of the Border Patrol, a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to stopping illegal aliens and pot from crossing the border from the Canadian side. Brandon’s duties with the Border Patrol, though, bring him into daily contact with people he has known all his life, many of whom who still ridicule him out of habit and find it difficult to accept his new position of authority despite all his success.

Border Songs is a character driven novel and Jim Lynch has populated his little international community with some good ones. Brandon’s father, Norm, whose dairy herd is desperately ill, is shocked and even a little embarrassed by all the attention Brandon is getting around town. Norm, by nature a dreamer and a worrier, is also terrified at how rapidly Brandon’s good-natured mother is losing her memory. Madeline Rousseau, to whom Brandon still imagines he has a special bond, grew up within sight of Brandon’s house but on the Canadian side of the ditch separating the two countries. Now, though, she works for a major pot smuggler and she and Brandon are on different sides of the border in more than one sense.

Madeline’s father, a retired professor, stays busy these days yelling anti-American slogans across the ditch at Norm and trying to replicate great inventions of the past by meticulously recreating the original step-by-step research of the actual inventors. Then there is Sophie, the newly arrived masseuse and gossip collector who video tapes interviews with willing customers and seems to be the only person on either side of the border who has the big picture.
Border Songs is a comic look at life on an international border, in this case, a border that is nothing more than a drainage ditch serving the two countries it divides. It is a clear reminder that, while borders are important and necessary, their effects are sometimes absurd, especially when seen through the eyes of those who live so near them.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, June 07, 2009

In Progress - A Lazy Sunday Afternoon

I'm multitasking, as usual, this Sunday afternoon, watching my favorite last place baseball team stink up the home park again and messing around on the internet when the mood strikes. If I were really into this multitasking thing I would pick up one of the four books I'm reading right now.

All four of them, as it turns out, are review copies but they are very different books in style and subject matter. For instance, I'm about halfway through Nina Vida's The Texicans, her 2006 novel about the early days of Texas (1840s) and I'm enjoying it more and more - a great way to read a book. Her central characters are all very ordinary people, no big name heroes involved, most of them, in fact, from near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Unless the second half of the book falls flat, and I will be surprised if it does, this one will earn a high rating.

Then there's The Winter Vault, by Canadian author Anne Michaels. This novel tells the story of a Canadian couple working in Egypt to dismantle and reconstruct an ancient temple before it is flooded by the waters of the new Aswan Dam (1964). I'm just over a third of the way through this one and, frankly, I am finding it difficult to get very emotionally invested in the story. The married couple, to this point, are the only main characters and neither of them particularly appeal to me so far. This is one of those relatively long books, 341 pages, without chapter breaks, a characteristic that always bothers me. I find myself looking for natural "breaks" in the narrative and when they don't come, I grow frustrated with having to read longer than I intended. So far, this one has earned about a 3.5 from me but I hope it "clicks" later on. There's still time for that to happen but it's taking me longer to read than I expected it to take because I really don't look forward to picking it up - not a good sign.

I'm about 20% of the way through Emily Listfield's Best Intentions and I'm still not sure what to think about it. The main character, her husband, and a couple of their friends have been well introduced to this point and I find them to be believable. I think there's a murder down the road for one of the main characters but I have no idea what kind of story this will turn out to be. Is it a murder mystery? Or have I stumbled into another bit of Chick Lit? Only time will tell, but I have enjoyed it so far and it's one I look forward to picking up.

Finally, there's Lost Boy by Brent W. Jeffs, his personal story of growing up as part of one of the most prominent families in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. His grandfather and an uncle were, in fact, two prophets of the church. Brent's story is a tragic one involving child abuse, drugs and alcohol, and broken families. It is definitely a story that deserves to be told but its style is more than a little dry despite the fact that Jeffs had the help of writer Maia Szalavitz in putting it together. I'm at least 80% of the way through this one and will have a formal review up sometime in the next few days. I will say now, though, that this insider's look at the sociology of polygamy is eye-opening.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Book-Writing Is a Tough Way to Make a Living

"In short, book-writing is a worse-than-ever means to a livelihood, and mass-market renown is disappearing as a concept, fractioning into a million niches. Ultimately the only good reason to write books remains what it probably always was: The compulsion to try to entertain, persuade or make meaning is irresistible, and the process absorbs you like nothing else. If it doesn't, there's no reason to bother." - Elisabeth Eaves, Forbes magazine editor

Eaves said this after attending BookExpo America last weekend. Sadly, she is describing a continuing trend in two different worlds with which I am somewhat familiar, books and music. I've come to know quite a few writers and musicians over the last decade, and I've seen how hard they have to work to create their own "big breaks." Record labels and book publishers are not spending the money, nor are they willing to allow the time, that it takes to nurture the next generation of author and musician superstars. Rather, they are milking the same old stuff as long as it sells and are placing the burden of breaking into either industry entirely on those who, in the past, counted on publishers and record labels to provide publicity and advertising.

These days, many of my favorite writers and musicians have "day jobs" and they continue to do what they love only because its who they are. They are writers and they are singers first - and they always will be.

I salute them and, more importantly, I thank them for giving me so much pleasure by sharing their talents despite all the obstacles they face in today's economy.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Dumb Criminals Should Not Steal Books

Don't let anyone kid you, crime does pay. Some criminals, especially, it seems, politicians get away with their crimes for years. Some are never caught; others are caught with cash-filled freezers in their Washington D.C. apartments and still escape justice. I suppose that proves how special congressional criminals are.

But when it comes to the rest of us, a successful criminal career generally comes only to those with a little more intelligence than the common street thug or armed robber. This fact of life has apparently just been learned by two young Louisiana women who have been accused of stealing some 4,000 books from Barnes & Noble bookstores in two states and reselling them to a New Orleans college book reseller.

Nola.com has the details - including pictures of the two women dumb enough to bring all the stolen books to the same college bookstore. I have to say that Chimes Textbook Exchange was awfully slow in figuring this scam out, though. Did they think these two were taking classes around the clock, seven days a week and actually owned all those books, even multiple copies of the same textbooks?
Authorities say Vatter, 33, of Metairie, and Tabora, 23, of Kenner, have admitted to stealing books from at least seven Barnes & Nobles stores in Louisiana and Mississippi - an estimated 4,000 books worth $325,000 since August, according to Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office incident and arrest reports. The two took their stolen tomes to Chimes, where they received 30 to 50 percent of the cover price.


"It's really fortunate that they tried to sell those books to us. If they sold them all over the place, we would have never known and they never would have been caught," he said.

Vanessa Tabora told detectives all the books she and a partner stole were resold at the same New Orleans book reseller...
So these two were stealing 15-20 books a day, books that had an average value of $80, and were able to hit Barnes & Noble for something like 4,000 books in all. It appears that they are smart enough to beat whatever theft prevention system (including employees) is in place at B&N, but stupid enough to bring all the stolen books to the same book reseller. And that decision was very, very stupid, indeed.

You are not congressional material, ladies.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Fifteen Sticky Books

This week’s Booking Through Thursday suggests the following: “Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.”

That’s exactly the way I approached this – making a list of books in less than 15 minutes and then taking a few more minutes to explain why these books are the ones I chose. It was much easier than I thought it would be, and I think that doing it quickly is what makes it an accurate representation of some of the key books from my years of reading.

· Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – This Pulitzer Prize winner is arguably the classic western of all time and is destined to be the book that keeps McMurtry in print forever. Who can forget Gus, Call, and the rest of the crew?
· To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – This is another modern classic, one that made a huge impression on me as a young reader and is the book chosen by the city of Houston for The Big Read 2009.
· Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – one of my all-time favorites despite the way Dickens caved in to his critics and changed its ending.
· Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – Another one that had a great impact on me as a young reader because of how easily I could picture myself under similar circumstances.
· Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle - I picked this one up in paperback in Nashville while there on a three-day pass during Army basic training at Ft. Campbell, KY (1968). I read the whole thing on the bus back to Ft. Campbell and had to sneak it into the barracks and hide it for four more weeks because books were forbidden to us during basic and I couldn’t bear to part with it. I still have that paperback, in fact.
· Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the book (1990) that convinced me that Joyce Carol Oates is a national treasure, one of the most talented and important novelists of my lifetime.
· The Greatest Game Ever Played by Jerry Izenberg – Game Six of the 1986 National League playoffs between the Houston Astros and the New York Mets, and I was there for all 16 innings. I am even quoted by name in this one, so how can I ever forget it?
· Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin – My lifetime admiration of Abraham Lincoln went up another notch when I read this one about Lincoln’s idea to appoint his three biggest rivals to his first cabinet. Goodwin makes this one read almost like a novel.
· Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson – This is the most complete, and easiest read, one volume history of the four years of the American Civil War that I’ve ever found – a great combination.
· Deliverance by James Dickey – I read the book before seeing the movie, thank God, and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Its story of four city boys who find out the hard way that the world is not what they think it is.
· From Here to Eternity by James Jones – Jones, a WWII veteran, wrote what I still consider one of the best novels ever written about that war. I don’t have fond memories of the movie, but the book is one of my favorites.
· Life of Pi by Yann Martel – Just when I thought I had this one all figured out, everything changed and it became a whole different book.
· Resistance by Owen Sheers – I love alternate history (when it is done seriously) and this is one of the best alternate histories I’ve read in years. It is completely believable, one of best “what ifs” about WWII I’ve ever read.
· This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust – This history book explores America’s 19th century ideas about death and it puts the massive death toll of the American Civil war into perspective.
· In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Probably the first “true crime” book I ever read, one that I will always remember because of how Capote was able to mix elements of the novel with elements of nonfiction, effectively creating a whole new genre.

Koko Taylor Dead at 80

The legendary blues master, Koko Taylor, is gone. She died from complications resulting from the surgery she had about two weeks ago - but she will live forever.

She was one of the best in the business and I'll be listening to her music today - and a long time in the future.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret

Imagine the shock and confusion author Steve Luxenberg felt when he discovered that his elderly mother was not really the only child she had claimed to be for his entire lifetime. Luxenberg, after all, grew up knowing how proud his mother was to have been an only child, something of which she often spoke at family gatherings. It was only by chance that Luxenberg and his siblings learned that they, in fact, had an aunt whose existence they had never suspected.

Beth Luxenberg was in poor health by the time her children learned that she had a sister only two years younger then herself. Beth mentioned to a doctor that her little sister had been institutionalized at the age of two. Her children, assuming that Beth had no real memories of the little girl and believing that the age at which they were separated explained Beth’s claim to be an only child, decided not to confront her with their knowledge of her sister’s existence. That decision would be regretted by Steve Luxenberg long after his mother’s death.

Beth Luxenberg died in 1999, unaware that her children knew of the secret she had kept hidden from them for so many decades. However, within six months of his mother’s death, Steve Luxenberg was able to give his aunt a name, Annie, and he was beginning the research that would allow him to expose an astounding family secret (and a couple of less astounding ones), a secret his mother had hoped to take with her to the grave. Luxenberg discovered that Annie, rather than having been institutionalized at the age of two, had grown up in small family apartments with his mother and their parents. He was stunned to learn that, in fact, Annie had not been institutionalized until she was twenty-one years old and Beth was twenty-three.

Why had his mother worked so hard to keep Annie’s existence from her own children? Had his father known of Annie? Why was Annie placed in a state institution and what happened to her? These questions would lead Steve Luxenberg, longtime Washington Post reporter, on a search that would rewrite his family history.

Annie’s Ghosts is, at heart, a mystery but it is also a strongly written memoir in which Steve Luxenberg shares his experiences of being raised by a woman determined to keep the existence of her sister from her children. In his quest to find the truth, Luxenberg introduces numerous family members and friends, many of whom are able to add bits and pieces to Annie’s story. This is non-fiction, though, and much of Annie’s story seems lost forever despite Luxenberg’s determined research, including a trip to the European village from which his family immigrated to America.

Luxenberg, in an attempt to understand his mother’s motives for hiding her sister from her own family, includes a brief history of America’s twentieth-century mental-health movement and the country’s attitude about mental illness. What he learns about Annie’s treatment, and how different her life might have been if she had been born just 25 years later, is both heartbreaking and instructive.

Annie’s Ghosts
is a well-written account of Steve Luxenberg’s meticulously researched attempt to return Annie Cohen to the family that almost lost her memory for good. That he learned as much as he did about a woman he never knew existed, one whose past is barely documented, is amazing. Annie’s Ghosts is not a particularly easy read – but it is well worth the effort.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

More Than Books Get Stolen from Libraries

One library seems to have found out the hard way that it had more to lose than books and computers. Fox News 44 reports on the Proctor, Vermont, librarian who took the art right off the wall...took it to auction, in fact:
A librarian in Proctor has resigned after auctioning off a valuable painting owned by the Proctor Free Library.

Police say head librarian Mary Brough admitted taking "Curly Locks," a 26-by-33-inch Jessie Wilcox Smith painting that for years hung on the wall in a children's section of the library. The 1912 painting was sold for $96,600 to a Massachusetts auction house.
And she thought she could get away with this? What is her husband really saying?

Chinese Book Thief Really, Really Likes to Read

From ChinaDaily comes a story about a man who loves books more than anything else in the world. I hope Chinese authorities cut the guy a little slack.
A man who was arrested for trying to steal books in Chongqing municipality confessed on Monday that he stole 1,565 books in the last three years.

Surnamed Liu, he said he felt his crime was just a bad habit but the hobby costs several bookstores 37,000 yuan ($5,417) in losses.

After guards stopped him on Monday, he told police he wanted to read them, not to sell them.

"I have no money but like reading very much, so I stole the books," Liu said.
Good luck, Mr. Liu. I suspect you're going to need it.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto

Mark Levin begins his bestseller, Liberty and Tyranny, with the premise that conservatism equates to liberty and liberalism to tyranny – although he almost immediately substitutes the word Statist for liberal. That is certainly starting a book off with a bang, but the rest of Liberty and Tyranny, in which Levin rationally makes his case, proves him to be up to the challenge sure to come from readers who disagree with his choice of words.

(Full Disclosure: I believe myself to be a fiscal conservative and a moderate on social issues, even drifting over to the liberal side on some issues such as support for gay marriage. My chief concerns of the moment, other than the imminent bankruptcy facing this country, all relate to keeping the country safe from terrorism or to our current immigration policy, a policy sure to result in the balkanization of American society not too many years down the road. I say all this to allow that, going in, I knew I would likely agree with Levin’s case for the merits of Conservatism.)

Levin differentiates between the Conservative and Statist points-of-view in several key areas: Faith, the Constitution, Federalism, the Free Market, the Welfare State, Environmentalism, Immigration and Self-Preservation. He reminds the reader that this country’s founders considered the greatest threat to personal liberty to be “an all-powerful central government, where the few dictate to the many” – the obvious preference of the modern Liberal/Statist and a goal to which the current administration is supremely dedicated. Seldom in United States history have so few believed that they have the right (and, unfortunately, the power) to interfere so intimately in the lives of so many.

Sadly enough, both major political parties in this country seem to have abandoned the Conservative principles that made the country great, the very principles upon which the founders based our constitution. Make no mistake – George W. Bush did not govern as a Conservative, despite his claims to the contrary. These days, Conservatives, at election time, generally find themselves choosing between what is, in their judgment, the lesser of evils, a choice not always as obvious as one would hope in an age where the major parties are so much alike - and so thoroughly dominated by their corrupt leadership.

Levin ends Liberty and Tyranny with what he calls “A Conservative Manifesto” in which he enumerates ten things “the Conservative will have to do if the nation is to improve,” including: eliminating the progressive income tax, limiting Supreme Court judicial review power, applying anti-trust laws to the National Education Association, stopping “chain immigration,” fighting against a nationalized health system, and demanding that all public servants strictly uphold the Constitution.

The book also introduced me to an Abraham Lincoln quote with which I was unfamiliar, a quote to which, as a fiscal conservative, I am particularly drawn, “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” Or, to put it in modern terms, assuring that his own shall be safe from the Statist who wants to confiscate it and redistribute it to “the houseless.” God help us.

Rated at: 4.0