Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The good news is that Sara Paretsky is back. Even better news, though, is that she brought V.I. Warshawski with her this time around - and that longtime fans of Paretsky’s Warshawski novels will find reading Hardball to be a little like experiencing old home week. Not only will they be able to catch up on what V.I. has been up to since 2005’s Fire Sale, they will get to spend some time with other favorite characters like Vic’s elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras, and her doctor friend, Lotty Herschel.

When, as a favor to a nursing home pastor, Vic agrees to do a cut-rate search for a young black man who disappeared in 1967, she opens up a can of worms with the potential to ruin the reputation of her deceased father, Tony, a longtime Chicago policeman. 1966 was not a pretty year in the history of Chicago race relations and, when Martin Luther King led a peaceful march through one of the city’s parks, white protesters erupted in a riot that claimed the life of a young black woman marching near Dr. King. Vic knows that the man she wants to find was part of that march but she knows nothing about what happened to him after.

Lamont Gadsden has not been seen since he entered a neighborhood club one night, and the deeper she digs into the circumstances of his disappearance, the more complicated Vic’s life becomes. Her investigation is somewhat complicated by the unexpected appearance of an exuberant young cousin of hers who has come to Chicago for a few weeks to work on a political campaign. Although the two had never met before, Vic finds herself spending almost as much time with her enthusiastic cousin on a tour of Warshawski family history as she does on the search for Lamont Gadsden.

It all may seem like ancient history to Vic, but her investigation has made some very important people willing to play hardball to stop her from uncovering the truth about the 1966 murder and its aftermath. When her young cousin disappears, possibly at the hand of kidnappers, Vic finds herself searching for two people instead of one - and running for her life.

Hardball is a frank look at a subject as much in the news today as it was in the sixties, the rampant political corruptness of America’s third largest city and the related problems within the city’s law enforcement agencies. V.I. Warshawski is a social activist, a true believer who has lived in Chicago her whole life, and she refuses to look the other way even if her father might have been involved in something shady more than four decades earlier. Let’s hope that there are equally determined people in real world Chicago today.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, September 28, 2009

Selling Light

Peter Cooper is one of those rich young men who wake up every morning wondering what the world can do for him today. Self-centered to the degree that he truly believes he has been placed upon the Earth simply to enjoy himself, Cooper surrounds himself with people who acquiesce to his supposed superiority. That he will one day cross paths with George, the lighthouse keeper, and young research student, Briege, is unfortunate but not so surprising.

After all, when George decides to use the internet to sell his life, who is more likely to purchase it than someone like Peter Cooper? George, filled with personal despair, is ready to sell, and Peter, who will buy anything he thinks might amuse him, has the money to buy George’s life on a whim. And that is exactly what happens.

Meanwhile, Briege goes merrily along studying crabs and other assorted creatures offered up by the little seaside village. Briege, though, is no ordinary researcher. Rather, she comes to know the crabs she studies as individuals, even to drawing their personal portraits in her notebook, naming them, and recognizing them as individuals with personalities when she spots them again days later. Briege’s problem is that she relates better to the crabs than she does to people.

Effie Gray’s Selling Light offers a glimpse into the lives of people who are totally unprepared for what they find and feel when they stumble into each other. Gray often uses humor to make her point about the nature of modern relationships in a world in which so many find it impossible to form long term connections, but her message is both serious and sad.

Selling Light is another in the Roast Books series of Great Little Reads, books designed to be read in one or two sittings spread over a couple of hours. As usual, the back cover of the book contains its “List of Ingredients.” This time around those ingredients are: “Dilapidated Lighthouse, Obsessional Research Student, Identity Crisis.” Effie Gray brews up a complicated and entertaining little story from those ingredients.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Stranger than Fiction

I have never been much of a fan of sequels; just don’t trust them because nine times out of ten they disappoint me. But it is that one-in-ten chance that a sequel will prove to be the equal, or better, of an original book or movie that stops me from giving up on them completely. So, despite the fact that it has probably doomed me to nine disappointing sequels in-a-row, I am happy to report that Stranger than Fiction, Jim Murdoch’s follow-up to Living with the Truth, is a treat.

When I closed the pages of Living with the Truth, Jonathan Payne was a dead man. Jonathan, owner of a rather shabby little bookshop specializing in used books, had been visited by the personification of Truth and he had been made to take a long, hard look at the consequences of the choices made over his lifetime. Jonathan’s life was one of missed opportunities but, although he learned much about himself from Truth, he was left with little time to do much with his new understanding.

Well, it seems that Jonathan has not been the only one to fail at this thing called life. Not for the first time, God is unhappy with what he sees in the universe and He is just about ready to pull the plug on it again. He is losing patience with the whole project and is about ready to tackle something new. But, before he gives up, God has decided to perform a super-audit to determine why his universe has failed so miserably this time. Truth and his co-workers (Destiny, Reality, etc.) are assigned to interview every person who has ever lived in order to avoid their mistakes next time around.

Jonathan, with Truth by his side, gets to meet some important people from his past, including his mother, his father, and the only real girlfriend he ever had. Truth and Jonathan wander around in Jonathan’s past, both learning from the encounters what went wrong and what might have been done differently. The conclusion that Jonathan comes to, though it may have surprised Truth, is one the reader will admire him for reaching.

Stranger than Fiction might be served up with humor and filled with bizarre situations but, at its core, it is a moral tale and Murdoch’s deceptively simple prose is perfect for the story he tells. One of my favorite passages comes early on in the book and describes Jonathan’s love of books (after all, he is a bookseller):

“It was one of the few things you could say that he did love with any degree of certainty but you certainly couldn’t say he loved all books. Books were like women, some had wonderful covers with nothing inside, others had their dust jackets hanging off in shreds yet held such riches; there were thick tomes, slim volumes, hardbacks, paperbacks, first editions. He gave way to the unique pleasure of holding each one in his hands but only special ones were actually read; the rest were for looking at. And there was nothing like a well stacked bookcase. Apart from a well stacked woman.”

How perfect a way to describe a man’s love of books is that?

I was happy to find that Stranger than Fiction ends in a way that leaves the door wide open for a sequel to the sequel. I don’t know what the odds are about the success of such efforts because my sample is too small to make a judgment. I’m willing to take a chance on this one, though.

More, please.

Rated at: 5.0

Friday, September 25, 2009

Google and On Demand Books Partner to Make Hard-to-Find Books Readily Available

I am certainly no expert on the whole controversy involving Google's efforts seemingly to digitize every book that has ever been in print. Publishers and Google competitors have been screaming about copyright issues and unfair business practices for months and even the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten involved in the situation.

But I have to admit that the new venture between Google and On Demand Books sounds plenty cool to me. PC World offers the details:
On Demand's deal with Google puts approximately two million public domain books from Google's digitized book collection--Google Books--into Espresso Book Machines, which you could then print off at your local library, bookstore, or coffee shop.

There's no official word on how much a single book will cost, but the Associated Press is reporting the average price will be about $8. Google and On Demand Books will each take a dollar from every transaction, and donate the rest of the proceeds to charity, the AP says.
Thursday's Google and On Demand Books deal is a perfect example of how technology can revive content that would be impossible to reproduce through traditional publishing channels. The only problem is that Espresso Book Machines are even harder to find than some of the titles Google has made available.

There are about 14 EBMs in permanent locations around the world, only five of which are in the United States.
This is the YouTube video that Google prepared to explain the new project:

I sure wish one of those machines would show up in Houston...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bed Bugs Invade Denver Public Library

Just when you think you've heard it all, something like this story comes along. It seems that a patron has been checking out old, historic books and returning more than the books. I'm not kidding.

According to Denver's Channel 7:
"Some of the bed bugs fell out of those materials that had been returned," said Denver Public Library spokeswoman Celeste Jackson.

The infected books came from 69-year-old Denver resident Roger Goffeney. He checks out historic books, some 200 years old, and helps archive them online in an effort called the Gutenberg Project.

When he brought a few of the rare books back, bed bugs from his downtown apartment hitched a ride.
The library said the items with bedbugs were immediately quarantined and prevented from being released into circulation so they didn't affect the public.

The library banned Goffeney three weeks ago and asked him to return the rest of the books to a secure drop.

Instead, the library said Goffeney returned the books a week later to the main book drop and reinfected the library.

The library said it had to destroy 31 books that Goffeney checked out. Now, it wants him to pay as much as $12,000 for the rare books and $6,000 for fumigation costs.

"I have no intention of paying a dime," the retired minister said.
Unbelievable. How do you deal with idiots like Mr. Goffeney?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Shimmer

Dan Page is having a bad day. Flying the small airplane he inherited from his father usually provides him with an escape from the pressures of being a Santa Fe policeman, but today Page finds himself involved in one of those high speed chases the news people so much love to follow while pretending they are not hoping for a chase-ending crash of some sort. This one does end in a crash and, despite having done everything correctly, Page cannot help but feel a bit guilty about his role in the chase as he heads home to his wife.

The problem is that his wife, Tori, is nowhere to be found, and she has left behind only a short note telling Page that she has gone to see her mother. Page’s confusion becomes genuine concern when a phone call to his mother-in-law reveals that Tori has chosen to drive the 800 miles to San Antonio rather than fly there. After she fails to arrive in San Antonio as scheduled, Page, who has alerted authorities to be on the lookout for Tori’s car, is more confused than ever to learn that his wife has stopped in the little West Texas town of Rostov.

Rostov, Texas, is no ordinary small town. The mysterious lights that have appeared just outside town most nights for more than 100 years have turned Rostov into a tourist attraction, and Tori Page is just one of many who have become mesmerized by their existence. Tori is so taken with the lights, in fact, that she finds it hard to wait for darkness and is oblivious to everything around her when her husband finds her in the viewing area provided for those in town to see the lights. What happens later that night is just the beginning of a nightmare that Dan and Tori Page will be lucky to survive.

Fans of David Morrell’s thrillers are not likely to be disappointed by The Shimmer, a novel involving elements of the supernatural, government plots to produce new super-weapons, religious fanatics, mass murder, miracles, and a handful of dedicated lawmen who never give up despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

The Shimmer is an action-packed thriller but it only works as well as it does because Morrell has peopled his plot with characters about whom the reader will care. It all begins with Tori and Dan Page, two ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances that make them realize how much they still love one another. Working with the Pages to solve the mystery of the lights, and to contain the nightly violence the lights cause, are some of Rostov’s finest citizens, including the local police chief, a deputy, and an antique dealer who knows as much about the lights and their history as anyone alive. Morrell’s use of flashbacks to the experiences previous generations had with the Rostov lights gives the book a realistic feel that makes its fantastic plot all the more thrilling.

This one will be a page-turner for thriller and sci-fi fans, alike.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Asus E-Book Reader Might Break New Ground

I've been a big fan of the Asus people ever since I purchased one of their little Eee PC netbooks. That little netbook has become my traveling companion even when I am only taking a short day trip because it is so small that I hardly notice I have it with me. It does everything for me that I require from a road PC - and I got it for just over $200.

Now I'm pulling for Asus to offer some real competition to the giants, Sony and Amazon, when it comes to e-book readers. And it looks like it might just happen:
Asus’ e-reader will likely have color touchscreens, a speaker, a webcam and a microphone, along with the capability to make inexpensive Skype calls. Despite all those features, Britain’s Sunday Times reports, somewhat unbelievably, that it may be priced lower than its competitors from Sony and Kindle.
...all e-readers, available and planned, are black and white. Asus’ product will likely be the first to offer a color screen. The move, coupled with unexpected features such as speakers and mic, is the only way the company can stand out in a crowded market.

With dual screens, the new Eee e-reader could give readers a user experience similar to paper books. The device could also offer readers the option of using the second screen to browse a web page. The best part about the device, though, would be the price tag, says the Times report. The cheapest version of the Asus Eee reader could cost about $165.
Go, Asus. Competition is the only thing that's ever going to drive the price of e-readers low enough for them to really crack the consumer market. Right now they are way too expensive for the experience they deliver - I much prefer the real thing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

2009 Texas Book Festival

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the National Book Festival, I wanted to do something similar for the upcoming Texas Book Festival. Since Laura Bush made a formal announcement in Dallas earlier this month of the authors who will be attending this year, I can share that information:

2009 Authors

Jeff Abbott
Belinda Acosta
Buzz Aldrin
Jill S. Alexander
Jessica Lee Anderson
Margaret Atwood
Jimmy Santiago Baca
Blake Bailey
Derrick Barnes
Mac Barnett
Lidia Mattichio Bastianich
John O. Baxter
David Baxter
Kyle Beachy
Colin Beavan
Vince Bell
Marvin Bendele
Elizabeth Berg
James P. Bevill
Phil Bildner
Scott Blackwood
Pseudonymous Bosch
James R. Boylston
Jan Bozarth
Taylor Branch
Jay Brandon
Libba Bray
Bobby Bridger
Douglas Brinkley
Po Bronson
Katharine Brooks
Donnie Brown
Sandra Brown
Bryan Burrough
Andrew Busch
Robert Olen Butler
Janie Bynum
Howard Campbell
Bryan Carlile
Isobelle Carmody
Novella Carpenter
Ally Carter
Keith Carter
Oscar Casares
Kathryn Casey
Kristin Cast
P.C. Cast
Katherine Center
Dan Chaon
William Chemerka
Gary Clark
Rosemary Clement-Moore
Betty Bailey Colley
Gail Collins
Lucha Corpi
Sarah Cortez
Jim Crace
Dave Cullen
Marcia Hatfield Daudistel
Tracy Daugherty
Steven L. Davis
Carolina De Robertis
Gina Donovan
Dayton Duncan
Jancee Dunn
David Eagleman
Nadine Eckhardt
Owen Egerton
William D. Eggers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Kurt Eichenwald
Elizabeth Engelhardt
Ted Lee Eubanks Jr.
Harold Evans
Percival Everett
Glenda Pierce Facemire
Bruce Feiler
Willa F. Finley
Brian Floca
Jonathan Safran Foer
Greg Foley
Jamie Ford
Bruce Foster
Kinky Friedman
Tad Friend
Amanda C. Gable
Dwight Garner
Julia Glass
William H. Goetzmann
Barbara Renaud Gonzalez
Brad Gooch
Keith Graves
Jack Graves
Amelia Gray
Michael Greenberg
Jeff Guinn
Melanie Haupt
Giuliano Hazan
Heather Hepler
Robert Hinkle
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith
K.A. Holt
Vickie Howell
Ard Hoyt
Rupert Isaacson
Sid Jacobson
Francisco Jimenez
Jacqueline Jones
Daniel Kalder
Jacqueline Kelly
Gary Kent
Ellie Krieger
Harold S. Kushner
Christian Lander
Joe R. Lansdale
Victoria Laurie
Peter Lerangis
Jonathan Lethem
Lance Letscher
David Liss
Amanda Little
Victor Lodato
Loren Long
Diana Lopez
Jose Lozano
Frank Luntz
Peter Maass
C. Marina Marchese
Katherine Marsh
Jeff Martin
Kati Marton
Michael H. Marvins
C.M. Mayo
Brian McCall
Annette McGivney
James McManus
Wyatt McSpadden
James E. McWilliams
Bryan Mealer
Bill Minutaglio
Jane Clements Monday
Benjamin Moser
Cara Natterson
Dina Nayeri
Daniel Nayeri
Bill Neal
Antonya Nelson
Clay Nichols
LaShara J. Nieland
Louise S. O'Connor
John O'Leary
Mary Jo O'Rear
Lauren Springer Ogden
Scott Ogden
Daniel M. Olsen
James A. Owen
ZZ Packer
Christos H. Papadimitriou
Laurence Parent
John Pipkin
Gerald Posner
Lucas A. Powe, Jr.
Brad Powell
Rebecca Rather
Andy Rhodes
Steven Rinella
Rick Riordan
Robert Rummel-Hudson
Richard Russo
Benjamin Alire Saenz
Rene Saldana Jr.
Michael J. Sandel
Bob Ray Sanders
Lisa Sanders
Tammi Sauer
Gerald Saxon
Liz Garton Scanlon
Judy Schachner
Bill Scheft
Jon Scieszka
Michael Scott
Mark Seal
Danzy Senna
Jason Sheehan
Lucy Silag
Anita Silvey
Jane Smiley
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Andrew Ross Sorkin
Julie Speed
Willard Spiegelman
Aaron Starmer
Deanne Stillman
W.K. Stratton
Carmen Tafolla
Woody Tasch
David A. Taylor
Billy Taylor
Cecilia Thompson
Helen Thorpe
Sergio Troncoso
Luis Alberto Urrea
Samantha Vamos
Henk Van Assen
Jeannette Walls
Robb Walsh
Amanda Eyre Ward
Diana Welch
Rosemary Wells
Mark Weston
Kathy Whitehead
Colson Whitehead
Allen J. Wiener
Mo Willems
Jennifer Williams
Terry Tempest Williams
Diane Wilson
Brenda Wineapple
Dan Winters
Heather Green Wooten
David Wroblewski
Anissa Zamarron
Sara Zarr
Gwendolyn Zepeda
A few names jumped out at me on my first quick glance at the list: Margaret Atwood, Jay Brandon, Sandra Brown, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kinky Friedman, Richard Russo, Jim Crace, Buzz Aldrin, Jane Smiley, Douglas Brinkley...

I had a great time at the festival last year and I learned a lot about making the most of the experience. It can all be a bit overwhelming because of the huge number of authors and books being presented, but I'll be much better organized this year. I've learned a lot from my music festivals about capturing the event in as much detail as possible, so I'll be carrying a still camera, a video camera, a digital sound recorder and plenty of paper on which to jot down notes and reminders. Last year, my still camera broke on the very first image I tried to capture and I was left with only a sound recorder. I have some interesting readings and lectures, as a result, but they would be much better if accompanied by some pictures of the authors and the festival setting.

Speaking of the setting, it all happens on the Capitol grounds and many of the sessions are in the Senate or House chambers themselves:

I still get a kick out of getting to a session early enough to grab a seat at one of the desks on the chamber floor but even the gallery seats upstairs are good ones. The sound inside the chambers is excellent and it is easy enough to grab one of the upstairs seats near the speaker's stage.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

National Book Festival - Thank you, Laura Bush

It's that time of year again. The National Book Festival (started by Laura Bush when she lived in D.C.) happens on September 26 and the Texas Book Festival is scheduled for the end of October. I doubt I'll ever be fortunate enough to get to Washington D.C. for its book festival but I'm really starting to get excited about spending some time in Austin for the one in Texas.

Click here to get to the festival homepage. The site includes lots of information pertaining to this year, great links to prior festivals, and links to digitized historical newspapers and author podcasts.

(Click on the poster for a better look - it's great.)

Those who plan to attend the National Book Festival will have the opportunity to meet and hear a large, diverse group of author/speakers:



Sponsored by James Madison Council


Sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rain Gods

In his second Hackberry Holland novel, Rain Gods, James Lee Burke explores the battle faced by Texas lawmen charged with stopping drugs and illegal aliens from crossing the state’s southern border. The fact that Hurricane Katrina flushed some of the worst New Orleans scum into Texas, criminals who thrive on human suffering and weaknesses, including human trafficking, makes Sheriff Holland’s job just that much tougher.

Hack Holland admits to himself that he has lived a full life but even at seventy-something years of age he is not ready to call it quits, and he his still the chief law enforcement officer in his little corner of southwest Texas. Hack is a reasonable man, not a judgmental one. He readily admits that his own past includes a time during which he was both a “drunk and a whoremonger” but those years have given him keen insight into the human condition. What he discovers behind a church late one afternoon, however, will shake him to his core.

Working on an anonymous tip directing him to the empty ground behind the abandoned church, Holland unearths the machine-gunned bodies of nine women and girls who had been killed there just hours earlier. What he sees and smells as he uncovers the bodies causes him to flash back to his days as a Korean War POW and he knows that his nights are destined to be filled with nightmares again. What he does not know is that he has just stepped into the middle of a fight between New Orleans lowlifes that began decades earlier.

Rain Gods is an epic confrontation between good and evil but it is one in which those on the side of good are not always squeaky clean and those on the side of evil sometimes live under a moral code only they can understand. Its plot is a relatively simple one - but plot is not the most important thing in this James Lee Burke novel. What Burke does best is create complicated, totally believable, characters by adding layer after layer to their makeup while exploring what it is that makes each of them tick. And that is exactly what he does in Rain Gods.

Joining Hackberry Holland in this powerful story are Pam Tibbs, the young deputy who is falling in love with Hack as she works along side him to catch the killers; Pete Flores, the drunken Iraq War vet who knows too much about the murders to be allowed to live; Vikki Gaddis, Pete’s long-suffering girlfriend; and “the preacher,” a killer with enough of a conscious that he almost becomes a sympathetic character. Interestingly, Burke uses three very strong female characters to save some of his male characters from themselves: Holland has Pam Tibbs to save him from his fatalistic decisions, Vikki Gaddis is willing to flee alongside Pete Flores , and New Orleans gangster Nick Dolan finds that his wife Esther will fight like a tiger to save his life. Without their women, none of these men would have likely survived what happens to them in Rain Gods.

Burke has a good feel for what life in southwest Texas is like and he uses the look and climate of that part of the state almost as an additional character. Its bleakness and isolation offer the perfect setting for the story being told, a battle between the not-so-perfect and the not-completely-bad set in an environment that can be beautiful and depressing at the same time.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Houston's Alabama Theater Loses Bookstop Tennant

One of the most memorable bookstores in Houston has just shut down. For 25 years, Houston's old Alabama Theater was home to Bookstop, one of the first really big bookstores I ever visited. The bookstore didn't do a lot to change the interior of the old movie theater when it moved in other than to remove the seats and set up bookshelves. The floor still ran downhill to a large magazine display where the old movie screen would have been and the lobby was used as the check-out area. The walls and ceilings still looked like something one would expect to see in the heyday of beautiful movie theaters - when people still got dressed up to go to movies.

Now the doors are locked and, as long as the building remains empty, its very existence is in jeopardy. According to Houston's Channel 11:
”As long as the building stays empty and it isn’t in productive use, it’s a risk for demolition. It’s that’s simple,” said David Bush with the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. “The land is too valuable, that’s what it comes down to. Everything inside the loop, what it usually comes down to, is the land value versus the improvements.”

I remember seeing Star Wars there for the first time and bringing my young daughters to see a Donald Duck cartoon festival sometime in the '70s. I also remember seeing the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show there at a couple of its regular Saturday midnight screenings - and how much fun it was to watch the audience do its thing.

Houston has a terrible track record when it comes to preserving its historic buildings and that doesn't give me much confidence that the old Alabama, dating from 1939, will survive much longer.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Prayers for Sale

Eighty-six-year-old Hennie Comfort is starting to feel old. She knows it is time to start spending at least the winter months at her daughter’s home in the milder climate of Fort Madison, Iowa, rather than in her own home high in the Rockies where she has spent most of the last seventy winters. Middle Swan, Colorado, is a gold mining town and, considering the depth of the Depression, its residents are happy to have the steady work, dangerous though that work might be.

Hennie is wise enough to know that once she settles in Iowa she might have neither the health nor the energy needed to return to the Colorado high country. She finds the possibility that her new, more static, lifestyle might speed her aging process, or stifle her will to remain active, to be a depressing one because she is not ready to say “deep enough” to Middle Swan. It is the unexpected appearance of seventeen-year-old Nit Spindle, who hopes to start a new life with her young husband in Middle Swan, that gives Hennie a new sense of purpose as she prepares herself to leave the mining town.

The two first meet when Nit stops to ponder the “Prayers for Sale” signed attached to the fence in front of Hennie’s house. Not realizing that the sign is a sentimental joke, the young woman offers Hennie her last nickel for a prayer. Hennie refuses the money, offers to say the prayer for nothing, and invites Nit inside where the two women begin to forge the remarkable bond both will come to cherish. On the one hand, Hennie, who arrived in Middle Swan at about the same age as Nit, sees much of herself in Nit Spindle and she remembers full well how difficult it was for her to fit into such a strange new place. On the other, Nit, desperately lonely and far from her Kentucky home for the first time in her life, senses in Hennie the kindness of someone willing to help ease her into her new life.

Prayers for Sale is the story of a deep friendship between two very different women. One of them is old enough to have lost family during the Civil War, and the other has come of age more than sixty years later during America’s Great Depression. Hennie Comfort is a born storyteller and, to Nit, it seems that she has accumulated a never ending supply of fascinating stories during her long life. It is through Hennie’s stories and advice that Nit learns the skills needed to thrive in her new environment, and telling those stories gives Hennie a sense that she is completing the circle she began some seventy years earlier when she climbed out of the wagon that brought her to Middle Swan.

Sandra Dallas has created two memorable characters in Hennie Comfort and Nit Spindle – she even manages to surround them with a circle of women the reader will remember for a long time. But what make Prayers for Sale special are the stories through which Hennie Comfort reveals her life story a little at a time, right up to the present day when she is finally ready to say “deep enough” to her old life. I will not soon forget Hennie Comfort, her mountain lore, or her stories, and I suspect that Nit Spindle and her husband held Hennie’s memory close for the rest of their lives. Prayers for Sale is a very fine character-driven novel.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, September 14, 2009

Guest Blogger: Sandra Dallas (Author of Prayers for Sale)

I finished the new Sandra Dallas novel, Prayers for Sale, early this morning (about 4:45 a.m., Houston time, in fact) and I will be posting my thoughts on the novel tomorrow. In the meantime, Sandra has been kind enough to provide me with her thoughts about the support and friendship she receives from fellow writers.
I was halfway through writing a piece about dialogue for you when I left to attend a book signing at Murder by the Book here in Denver for William Kent Krueger. He’s the author of the highly popular mystery series set in northern Minnesota featuring a sheriff, Cork O’Connor. I love the series, but just as important, Kent Krueger is a friend. Oh, we’d never met, but we share an agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, and Kent was kind enough to write a book jacket blurb for my novel Tallgrass. So it was a chance not only to get Kent to sign a book but to thank him in person.

We had a chance to hug, compare notes on writing and promotion and to discuss, among other things, the significance of blogs. Driving home, I began thinking about the importance of writer friends, and so I decided to blog about that instead of dialogue.

A number of years ago, I got to know a bunch of struggling western artists—Ned Jacob, Buffalo Kaplinski, Bill Sharer, Ken Bunn, among others. It intrigued me that they were not competitive. They shared their patron lists attended each other’s openings where they promoted the featured artist’s work, and when one learned something new, he shared it with the others. I remember one telling the others, “Hey, I just learned how to draw feet. Come on over, and I’ll show you.”

That same kind of support exists among writers, and we are all richer for it. Maybe we ought to be competitive and run down each other in hopes readers will buy our books instead of theirs (and some authors, I admit, are exactly like that), but we don’t. In fact, we talk up each other’s books.

In Denver, much of this support originated with John Dunning, the author of the best-selling Clifford Janeway series about a rare bookseller sleuth. After my first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café, came out, John and his wife, Helen, invited me to dinner with Michael Allegretto, Diane Mott Davidson, and Wick Downing, all successful mystery writers. It was the first of many get-togethers with these writers and others. Each summer, we hold a writer party at our house in the mountains. I remember overhearing one author complain about something a publisher had done, and another writer remarking, “Did that happen to you, too? I thought I was the only one.”

Griping, of course, is a big part of why we get together, but much of our relationship is more positive. When I was having trouble with the plot of a book, Wick Downing talked me through it. Arnie Grossman, author of Going Together and a friend since college, and I act as a sounding board for each other’s ideas. We read each other’s manuscripts and critique them (a threat to any friendship, but ours has withstood it for 50 years.) The authors I know attend each other’s signings. I ran into Wick at mystery writer Margaret Coel’s signing at the Tattered Cover last week. We talk each other through the bad times, and there are plenty. A rejection letter, a bad review, poor sales—these are the times that we need not just friends but friends, but friends who understand. And only another author knows how fragile your ego is. We delight in each other’s success. When I made the New York Times best seller list with Prayers for Sale, I received the first congratulations from fellow writers. And I got an email yesterday from John Shors, author of Under a Marble Sky, about a movie deal I’m working on. He wrote, “I’m happy for you.” And I’m happy that his new novel, Dragon House, is doing well.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. Arnie Grossman and I are having lunch, and I have this problem with a character…

Sandra Dallas
Check back tomorrow for my review of Prayers for Sale (sneak preview: I like it)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lynndie England Sues Man Who Wrote Her Biography

"Tortured: Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib and the Photographs That Shocked the World"has sold somewhere between 20 and a few hundred copies according to Gary S. Winkler, the man who wrote it. To add to Winkler's problems, he is now being sued by England who claims that Winkler has stolen her story (and its profits) from her.

A quick check of shows the book at number 371,361 - with one copy in stock. From those numbers, I have to suspect that the profits are minimal, at the very best. According to the Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail:
Winkler denies any wrongdoing and said he welcomes a Sept. 23 hearing in Hampshire County Circuit Court.

"The book is not selling well,'' said Winkler, of Fincastle, Va. "I think there's this impression I've been sitting on this cash. I wish it were true. ... Nobody's getting rich here. I'm in the hole.''
The Huff & Bluff blog (some still insist on calling it the Huffington Post) quotes Winkler as saying:
Winkler said his relationship with England, Hardy (England's attorney) and Hardy's wife, Christy, has been difficult from the start, when he signed on to what he believed would be an autobiography. But he said he took on a bigger role when England had trouble communicating.

"She's not a deep person unless you make her reflect on what was going on," Winkler said. "The only way to get anything out of her was to go up there and get into her home and sit down at her kitchen table. I had to hammer her. I sat with her for countless hours. I wanted people to see a human being."
What a mess. Why don't I feel sorry for any of these folks? Torture is what I would have to experience before I would even consider reading this.

Friday, September 11, 2009

South of Broad

The mythical world of Charleston, South Carolina, is alive, if not so well, in Pat Conroy’s South of Broad. Pat Conroy is a Southern writer, a man who understands his people and the tragedies, both large and small, that mark so many of their lives from generation to generation. His flowery style is as Southern as the people and places he writes about, and Conroy’s fans love him as much for that style as for the stories he tells them. South of Broad may be a bit melodramatic, it may have a stereotypical character or two, and its main character may even be a little too saintly to be true – but nobody tells this kind of story better than Pat Conroy, and he has done it again.

What happens on June 16, 1969, will change Leo King’s life forever. Leo is soon to begin his senior year of high school and his mother, the school’s principal, asks him to offer his help to several new seniors transferring to the school. Over the course of one long day, Leo will meet those to whom he will remain closest for the rest of his life: beautiful Sheba Poe and her equally beautiful twin brother, Trevor; Ike Jefferson, one of the school’s first black students who is transferring to the school because his father has just been named head football coach there; brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge, from one of Charleston’s wealthiest and most prestigious families; Chad’s girlfriend Molly Huger; and Niles and Starla Whitehead, rebellious sibling orphans.

None of the new students are particularly happy to be starting their last year of high school in a school filled with strangers. Chad and Molly are there because their private school expelled them after they were caught in possession of drugs, Niles and Starla because their history of running away from orphanages has now seen them transferred to a new one near the school, and Trevor and Sheba because their mother is trying to hide the family from their psychopathic father. Even Ike, despite the fact that his father has broken new ground by becoming the school’s first black head coach, would prefer remaining in his old school over helping to integrate his new one.

Leo King is not without problems of his own. Only eight-years-old when he discovered his ten-year-old brother’s blood-soaked body in the bathtub the boys shared, Leo has spent a considerable amount of time in mental institutions. And entering his senior year, he is still on probation and performing community service hours for a drug offense in which he was involved.

Conroy, ever the master storyteller, flashes forward to 1989, a twenty-year leap that finds the friends coming together to save one of their own from a lonely death. Although the group is now bound together forever by marriage and strong friendship, demons remain to be fought. Class, racial, and sexual boundaries have been, at times, only painfully crossed and childhood demons, real and imagined, have followed the friends into adulthood.

Pat Conroy’s Charleston is bigger than life and it is inhabited by people whose personal stories fit Conroy’s vision of his beloved city. Charleston is one of those almost mythical cities to which Southerners are drawn because of its history and beauty, and reading a Pat Conroy novel is the next best thing to being there. I enjoyed losing myself in Pat Conroy’s world again for a few days – it’s been way too long since I’ve last been able to do that.

Rated at: 4.0