Friday, April 30, 2010

Islam on the Written Page

It seems to me there has been a huge increase in this country in the number of published books relating to Muslim culture. I have to imagine that 9-11 is the reason for the increase – the same reason it took me so long to pick up any of the Muslim-related books.

I admit that my gut reaction to the murders of September 11, 2001 was one of anger. Then, I developed a rather nasty desire for revenge. I worked in a Muslim country for almost ten years (1992-2002), living in Algeria when it was safe to do so and commuting there from London or Houston when it was not. I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslims from Algeria, Tunisa, France, Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, and India. I was naïve enough to believe I had a good understanding of Muslim culture as it relates to the ordinary citizens of those countries. I made many Muslim friends and still keep in touch with some of them today despite not having seen them since mid-2002. My anger about the events of 9-11 was/is always just beneath the surface and I had no desire to read about Muslim culture, even in the sense that it is always better to know your enemy than not.

But one day I started to notice a constant stream of new books about Muslims, some written by Muslims, some not. Suddenly it seemed there were interesting new novels and intriguing nonfiction books about Muslims everywhere I looked. The book that finally broke the ice for me was Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a book I still think about sometimes. I didn’t read that one until May 2007 when it appeared in trade paperback, but I followed it up quickly with a hardcover version of Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. From there, I was off to the races and, during the last two years or so, I have read another 23 titles relating to Muslim culture: 15 novels and 8 nonfiction books.

Looking back, I see that the titles are all over the map. Many of them are serious looks at the culture and many of them are thrillers and detective fiction set in Muslim countries. Strange as it might sound, I think I learn every bit as much about the culture from fiction as I do from the nonfiction titles I have been reading.

In addition to the two Hosseini titles, I've read these:

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat (Nonfiction - Iran)

Now They Call Me Infidel - Nonie Darwish (Nonfiction - Egypt)

Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Nonfiction - Somalia)

The Prisoner of Guantanamo - Dan Fesperman (Novel about Gitmo)

The Amateur Spy - Dan Fesperman (Novel set in Jordan and Jerusalem)

Live from Jordan - Benjamin Orbach (Nonfiction set in Jordan)

The Sirens of Baghdad - Yasmina Khadra (novel set in Iraq)

Finding Nouf - Zoe Ferraris - (novel set in Saudi Arabia)

In the Land of Invisible Women - Qanta A. Ahmed (Nonfiction - Saudi Arabia)

Land of Marvels - Barry Unsworth (Novel set in Egypt)

Harbor - Lorraine Adams (Novel set in Algeria and U.S.)

The Weight of a Mustard Seed - Wendell Steavenson (Nonfiction - Iraq)

Fidali's Way - George Mastras (Novel set in Pakistan and Kashmir)

The Writing on My Forehead - Nafisa Haji - (Novel about immigrants to U.S. from Pakistan)

Rooftops of Tehran - Mahbod Seraji - (Novel set in Iran)

Saffron Dreams - Shaila Abdullah (Novel about Pakistani immigrants in New York)

Pursuit of Honor - Vince Flynn (Thriller about Muslim terrorists in U.S.)

Protect and Defend - Vince Flynn (Thriller about Muslim terrorists in U.S.)

My Prison, My Home - Haleh Esfandiari (Nonfiction set in Iran)

The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (Novel set in Palestine)

A Grave in Gaza - Matt Beynon Rees (Novel set in Gaza Strip)

A Time to Betray - Reza Kahlilli (Nonfiction set in Iran)

The Jewell of Medina - Sherry Jones (Novel about life of Mohamed)

Admittedly, these books are very different from each other. I don't regret reading any of them - all added to my understanding of Muslim culture - and that was the point.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Malthusian Catastrophe

“What would you do differently if you learned right now that you had one thousand years to live?”

That is the question put to Michael Jeffs during his job interview at Aseso Nutraceuticals, a company whose sole product is an herbal supplement called Sinsen. That huge numbers of people across the globe believe Sinsen to be an effective anti-aging product, does not hurt the company one little bit and, in fact, Aseso’s biggest problem is one of keeping up with the enormous demand for its product. But think about that question for a minute. What would you do if you found there was a way to keep yourself from aging? Would you be willing to spend whatever it takes to get your hands on the magic pills, even at the expense of money you might have spent to the long-term benefit of your children? Or would you prefer to live a normal lifespan because you do not believe in playing God - and you simply want to grow old with your partner and children?

David Oats and Toshiro Tanaka, co-founders of Aseso, are brilliant men in more ways than one. Not only are they responsible for the discovery and production of Sinsen, they are also smart enough to avoid the attention of the FDA. By letting rumor and word-of-mouth work in their favor rather than directly claiming that Sinsen provides medical benefits for its users, the two doctors are able to market their product as just another herbal supplement, something the FDA does not regulate. Their secrets, and their monopoly, will remain safe from competitors as long as the FDA is uninterested in testing their “herbal supplement.”

The Malthusian Catastrophe, by first-timer Ernesto Robles, is a look at what might happen when limited supply meets unlimited demand on a product that could very well be the difference between living and dying. The book illustrates a world in which demand for a product, one that can only be produced in mass quantities by cutting back on food production, continues to grow beyond the planet’s ability to provide the resources necessary to create it. What will happen when the vast majority of the world’s population is priced out of the market? Do national governments have any responsibility to offer potential immortality to everyone within their borders, regardless of ability to pay?

Nineteenth-century (or is it 18th century, since he straddles both of them) economist Thomas Malthus said that when the world’s population grows to a level high enough to outstrip its food supply, catastrophes such as mass starvation, devastating disease, and major wars will occur until the food supply is once again able to sustain the surviving population. Offered the possibility of living forever, would the citizens of the world finally prove Malthus correct?

Ernesto Robles explores to good effect these and other complicated moral issues in The Malthusian Catastrophe. The real beauty of the book, however, is how successfully Robles cloaks all the social issues inside such an entertaining thriller. This is an intriguing debut novel, one that will leave the reader wondering what, given the same circumstances, his own choices would be.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Talking Library for the Visually Impaired

I think that I'm typical of most avid readers in that one of the worst nightmares I can imagine is the loss of my sight. Never does a day by without me picking up a book or two to sneak in as much reading time as I can manage. No matter what I accomplish in a given day, if I have not read at least a few dozen pages, the day feels wasted. So stories like this one from the Rome News-Tribune (GA) really make my day.

Picture from: Rome News Tribune

(The Northwest Georgia Talking Library provides flash drives preloaded with books (left) and digital players used to play them free of charge for those who can no longer read for visual reasons or who can no longer physically hold books. (Kevin Myrick/RN-T))
The program, which covers 11 counties in Northwest Georgia, provides books through the National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped.

Delana Hickman, the local talking book library coordinator, said the books are typically for those who can no longer read regular print on books or who can no longer hold books.

“What we do is we send audiobooks through the mail on flash memory,” she said. “We have all types of books, magazines and periodicals available.”

Those who use the service are beginning to transition over to a new digital player provided by the library which takes the books, stored on a USB-type flash drive, and plays them using simple controls.

Hickman said that before the new players patrons used cassettes, which were harder to use.
Take a look at the article for more details. This all sounds so simple, considering today's technology, but imagine what a great thing this is for people who find it difficult to read the printed word.

I think I'll sleep a little better tonight - one less nightmare to worry about.

Roadside Crosses

I enjoy a good whodunit as much as the next guy and I am relatively easy to please when it comes to the type of detective novel/thriller so popular today. I do, though, expect a few things from the author: fully-fleshed main characters, explicit descriptions of crime scenes, and side plots to reveal more about the makeup of the main character’s life, among them. Most important of all, though, I expect the author to play fair with me as a reader. Just give me a chance to figure out “whodunit” on my own – fool me if you can, but give me a fighting chance. That is where Jeffery Deaver let me down in Roadside Crosses. I found out, only after reading well over 500 pages, that I never really had a chance.

Those roadside crosses placed along the highways of America at the scenes of fatal accidents seem a little creepy to many people even though they probably feel sympathy for those who placed the crosses there. In Roadside Crosses, Jeffery Deaver imagines just how creepy it would be if someone planted roadside crosses along the highway to announce the date of his next murder.

That is exactly what someone in California is doing and agent Kathryn Dance of the California Bureau of Investigation and her crew are finding it impossible to stop him. Dance suspects the killer might be a sixteen-year-old victim of cyber-bullying who is seeking the ultimate revenge on those who have most viciously attacked him on “The Chilton Report,” a hugely popular blog based in his home town. The young man is being vilified on the blog because of his involvement in an accident that claimed the lives of two popular high school girls he barely knew. Dance’s efforts to track the killer, and to identify his potential victims, take her deep into the worlds of blogging and internet gaming and she is shocked by the viciousness she finds there – and how the cyber world is more important to some people than the real world.

With every new victim, Dance becomes more desperate to stop the killer but she cannot escape the other distractions in her life. Her boss, who is all about bureau politics and covering his own butt, ups the pressure on her every day to end the case – or to show enough obvious progress to keep the papers and his own CBI bosses calm. Her mother has been arrested and charged with a mercy killing (see the previous Kathryn Dance novel for a tie-in from there) and Dance feels that she is letting her mother down by spending so much time on the Roadside Crosses case. To top things off, she is a single mom trying to raise two young children on her own.

Roadside Crosses is filled with enough twists and turns to keep the reader turning pages – there is, in fact, much to like about this novel. The concept of a killer pre-announcing his kills through roadside crosses is intriguing; the cyber-investigation into the gaming and blogging societies is interesting; and Kathryn Dance is an absorbing enough character to merit her continuing series. But, and it is a big “but,” I still feel so cheated by how the book’s ending unfolded that I feel I wasted my time with it.

Rated at: 2.5

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Drood is more than a book; it is an experience, a total immersion into Victorian England and the personal lives of two of the most famous authors of the day: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Either way the reader chooses to experience this Dan Simmons book, by reading it or by listening to the audio book version, requires a major commitment of time and effort. The book itself is almost 800 pages long and the audio version of 24 CDs requires just under 30 hours of listening time. The audio book, read by Simon Prebble, is the route I chose to follow.

Drood begins with the June 1865 train wreck in which Dickens, his mistress and her mother barely escape with their lives. Amidst the mutilated, dead and dying passengers, Dickens encounters a ghoulish character called Drood; a man Dickens comes to believe is actually taking the lives of injured passengers rather than trying to save them. Dickens becomes obsessed with the idea of Drood and he recruits his close friend, Wilkie Collins, to help him track down the ghostlike man. Dickens, Collins, and various detectives and bodyguards will spend the next several months trying to catch up with the mysterious Drood, a man Dickens is told is responsible for more than 300 London murders. The chase will lead Dickens and Collins into London’s “Undertown,” a cavern-like part of the city, complete with its own underground river system, inhabited largely by criminal gangs, opium dealers and addicts, and London’s thousands of orphaned street children. Things become uncomfortable for the two authors when Drood takes an interest in them and begins to manipulate the pair in unexplainable ways.

There is much more to Drood, however, than the search for a man Dickens believes to be the most successful serial-killer in England’s history. This is the story of two men, both highly successful authors of their day, and their supposed friendship. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were friends and collaborators for a number of years and the working relationship seems to have served both men well. Simmons, though, chooses the voice of Wilkie Collins to narrate Drood and what Collins has to say about Dickens opens the reader to a whole different possibility about their relationship.

As portrayed here, Wilkie Collins is not a happy man, especially when it comes to comparing his literary status to that of the only man he considers a rival, Charles Dickens. In truth, Collins despises Dickens and cannot believe that the supremacy of his work over that of Dickens is not universally recognized. After all, he has written a masterpiece in The Woman in White and has even created a new genre, that of the detective novel, with The Moonstone. But Dickens is still the literary king of his day – and Charles Dickens is not above reminding Collins of that fact at every opportunity, even if he has to create those opportunities himself.

As Collins struggles to surpass the reputation of Dickens, or at least to equal it, his use of opium increases to such a degree that he begins to lose touch with reality. Collins begins to suspect Dickens of murder (as research for a future novel) and has opium-induced dreams of his own in which he murders Dickens and hides his remains so that “the Inimitable” can never be buried in Westminster Abbey. Opium plays such a large role in Drood – and in Collins’s perception of reality – that the reader will often wonder what is real and what is not. Does Drood really exist or is Dickens making his old friend the victim of a sadistic practical joke? One has to decide for himself but, in the end, it does not really matter because this book is really about the clash of two massive egos and the drug culture of the day. The mysterious Drood is just the hook on which Simmons hangs this clever character-study.

Dan Simmons has written a wonderfully atmospheric, character-driven thriller that is almost certain to appeal to lovers of British literature. The audio book reader, Simon Prebble, does a remarkable job in making Dickens, Collins, and a cast of assorted characters come to life. He does such a good job of providing distinct accents and speech patterns for the main characters that they are soon recognizable by the “sounds of their voices,” a feat few audio book readers even come close to achieving.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

Two female authors from past centuries, different as their personal lives were, still command extreme loyalty and interest from their readers. Jane Austen, because so little is known about her life and personality, lends herself easily to the current craze in speculative fiction about authors from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Louisa May Alcott, though, is Austen’s opposite when it comes to what is known about her personal life. Alcott used so many of the real-life experiences of the Alcott family in her own fiction that her loyal readers already feel that they know everything worth knowing about her. That aside, first-time novelist Kelly O’Connor McNees now offers a tale about a supposed “lost summer” during which Alcott experienced the passionate, though short-lived, romance of her lifetime.

The summer in The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott begins when 20-year-old Louisa moves with her family from Boston to Walpole, New Hampshire, because her father is once again dependent on the goodwill of friends to provide a temporary home for his large family. Louisa does not expect much good to come from the move and she intends to escape to Boston (where she hopes to kick her writing career into high gear) as soon as she feels the family has successfully settled into its new lifestyle. But, as is so often the case, life happens first, and Louisa finds herself reconsidering her plans – a most shocking turn of events because it involves her romantic feelings for a young man, feelings Louisa fights hard to ignore. On a trip to the town’s general store to purchase material for new curtains, Louisa and her sister meet Joseph Singer, a young man clerking in the family business for his desperately ill father. Louisa feels a strong attraction to Joseph but denies it even to herself. Joseph, on the other hand, feels the same attraction to Louisa and is determined to court her despite whatever obstacles she might throw his way.

Louisa’s “lost summer” will be one filled with tragedy, misunderstanding, passion, anger, tenderness, tears, laughter, sadness and sacrifice – even an amateur stage production. But although this short summer will forever change Louisa May Alcott and Joseph Singer, it will not, as Alcott’s fans already know, divert her from her path toward spinsterhood. Louisa’s strong desire to live her life as an independent woman beholden to no man would not so easily be overcome.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott does a nice job of capturing the atmosphere of small-town America in the decade just prior to the American Civil War. The Walpole of 1855 is portrayed as the kind of place in which everyone knows everyone else, a town in which those of courting age still do so much as described in the novels of Jane Austen – but also a town in whom much is going on just below the emotional surface of many of its residents. As Louisa will learn, family connections are important and marriages are still sometimes arranged by fathers strictly for financial reasons.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
is a rather straightforward historical romance novel, but it is an interesting one because of its main character. I particularly recommend it to those readers who already have a built-in fascination for anything to do with Ms. Alcott – for them, despite it not offering an alternate history, this one will be like reading about an old friend.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 16

I'm still finding it difficult to snatch even a few minutes a day of any kind of internet time, much less enough time to post something here on Book Chase. It's times like these I wish I had a blog partner to take up some of the slack. I've been so busy lately trying to get my father situated in his new home and shutting down things at his house that my reading time was almost zero several days last week - there were days I read less than 20 pages...can't remember the last time that happened.

I have managed, though, to read three novels and the book on Jane Austen since my last update of the Top 10 lists. There will be only one change to the fiction list, however, since neither Still Midnight nor Roadside Crosses can beat out any of the books already on the list. Drood enters the fiction list near the top and Jane's Fame fits nicely into the nonfiction list at number three.

So this is what the fiction list looks like after 31 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)

5. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
7. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)
8. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow (novel)
9. The Man from Saigon - Marti Leimbach (Vietnam War novel)
10. Lay Down My Sword and Shield - James Lee Burke (1971 novel)

And the nonfiction list is finally a Top 10:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
4. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
5. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
6. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
7. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
8. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
9. Never Tell Our Business to Strangers - Jennifer Mascia (memoir)
10. Highest Duty - Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (memoir)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Crankshaft Discovers E-Books

My favorite school bus driver discovers the world of's mainstream now for sure.

(Click on strip for larger version.)

Just How Environmentally Friendly Are E-books?

Well, it turns out that reading books on an e-book reader is not nearly as environmentally friendly as it's been advertised to be.

It is difficult to compare the environmental impact of the readers to that of producing millions of books on paper every year but some interesting facts do emerge when everything is considered. I was especially surprised by the break even point suggested by the article (the number of books that have to be read on an e-book reader before it begins to contribute to an overall positive impact on the environment). The article is from Steven Levingston, "Political Bookworm" of the Washington Post:
... surely e-readers must be a more eco-friendly way to read, right? Not so fast, said Green Press Initiative program manager Todd Pollack.

“It is almost certain that e-readers have the potential to reduce the impacts associated with harvesting trees and forest conversion, but that does not guarantee that they are the better choice from an environmental standpoint,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t have enough information to say which method of reading a book is best for the environment.”
Things get complicated because there is more to the energy cost of an e-book reader than the juice used to charge its battery. In addition to that cost there is this:
“About forty percent of the energy costs is embedded in the supply chain” — mining, shipping, water usage, manufacturing, etc. — “and it is difficult to put numbers on that,” he said. Many manufacturers aren’t keen on sharing what’s in the devices, anyway.

Furthermore, the server farms that allow a digital book to be downloaded to an e-reader also consume an immense amount of energy.
Then there's what happens to all those e-readers when they bite the dust. The article claims that manufacturing one e-book reader has the same environmental impact as producing 70 books. All in all, journalist Danial Goleman estimates that users of electronic readers only break even after reading 100 books on their readers. As he says, “If you’re going to be an e-reader, you have to be dedicated about it.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Top of the Order

Maybe it is because the season is so long, some 162 games stretching over a full six months during which a baseball fan can live and die with his team for three or four hours at least five days a week. Maybe it is because the game attracts the kind of sports fan who loves nothing better than immersing himself in the detailed statistics and history of the game. Whatever the cause, there is just something special about the long-term bond between a baseball fan and his favorite players and team that other sports do not quite seem able to match.

Even though most baseball fans have a favorite all time player, they might find it difficult to explain their choices to other fans because not everyone makes the obvious choice. It would be too easy if everyone chose Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds (unlikely, these days) or one of the game’s great pitchers. Choosing a favorite player is a personal thing and many fans choose their favorites as much for what they do off the field as for how those players have affected the record books.

In Top of the Order, published just in time for the 2010 baseball season, twenty-five journalists, novelists, former players, and entertainers offer short pieces about their own favorite players and how they made those choices. Some of the players chosen are surprising, some not, but the real fun of Top of the Order comes from reading how and why these particular players were chosen. Among the more expected choices are players like Tom Seaver, Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera. But among the twenty-five favorites are also players like Steve Dembowski, Michael Jordan, Mookie Wilson, Neifi Perez and fictional catcher Crash Davis. Many readers, I suspect, will be drawn first to the essays on the second group of players out sheer curiosity to find out why a fan holds them in such high regard. As author W.P. Kinsella says in the book’s foreword, “Favorites, it seems, come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of talent.”

Readers/baseball fans will delight in the relationship between writer (and minor league pitcher) Pat Jordan and his all time favorite player, Tom Seaver. They will be astounded by the unique talent that Steve Dembowski, Jim Bouton’s choice, had for getting hit by a pitch almost at will and how he was never given a look by a major league team despite his incredible college career .729 on base percentage. They will perhaps wonder at how Whitney Pastorek could still choose Roger Clemens as his favorite all time player knowing what we know about the man today. And they will enjoy revisiting the careers and personalities of some of the greatest players who have ever played the game.

A portion of one paragraph from Jonathan Eig’s remarks on Lou Gehrig, though, says it all for the baseball purists out there who so strongly detest how the steroid-generation of players has corrupted the game and its history: “As a boy, I hadn’t cared a bit if my heroes were decent or dreadful people. They were ballplayers, and that was all. Now, with Bonds, one of the greatest ballplayers of all time struck me as one of the lowest pieces of dung ever scraped from the bottom of a shoe. He didn’t just kill the notion of ballplayer as hero. He beat it to a bloody, lifeless pulp, and stood over the corpse and sneered.”

There is something in Top of the Order for everyone, even non-fans of the game, but Eig’s words are sure to touch the hearts of those who feel betrayed by what was allowed to happen to the sport for so many years, depriving the true greats of their records and cheapening those very records forever.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Louisa May Alcott

I've spent a good bit of time with fictional versions of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Louisa May Alcott these last few days.

During my daily commute to the office (25 minutes each way), I've been listening to Drood, the Dan Simmons novel focusing on the rather strange relationship between Dickens and Wilkie Collins. The novel is almost 800 pages long, and the audio version takes right at 30 hours of listening time, a real chunkster.

I'm also about two-thirds of the way through The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, a brand new novel by Kelly O'Connor McNees in which the author imagines a summer romance for Miss Alcott (in which the young lady actually loses her virginity...what a scandal).

On a personal note, I'm still living with my father as he recovers from surgery and two emergency hospital stays in the last three weeks. To top everything off, we have just started the process of closing down this house so that he can move to an assisted living community this weekend. The good news is that I'll get to go home in a few days - the bad news is that I'll be stuck with a house to sell that will still be about 60% full of my dad's stuff. I've been able to get in a good dose of daily reading but I'm really finding it difficult to scrounge up any computer time...ever try to shred 40 years worth of old financial records? Take it from me - you don't want to go there.

I'm thinking my way through a review of Drood right now. There is so much there that I don't yet know where I'm going to start. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out how much of what Collins tells really happened, how much was dreamed, and how much he experienced while in his numerous drug-induced stupors. Have any of you guys read this one? I don't think I would have challenged myself with a written version but the audio book, because of the narrator's great reading skill, is lots of fun.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Still Midnight

I have to admit that, because I have been a fan of Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan and Garnethill books for a while now, I began Still Midnight with high expectations. I also have to admit that the book was a bit of a disappointment to me – in some part, probably, because I did expect so much from it going in.

Denise Mina’s Glasgow has always been a dark and dangerous city but she has outdone herself this time. This Glasgow is a wet, cold city surrounded by swampy grounds and abandoned buildings and filled with some of the unhappiest people in the world.

Her story begins when two rather incompetent thugs invade a family home in search of a young man they are being paid to kidnap. Things begin to go bad for Eddy and Pat almost from the moment they enter the home to find that none of its residents have even heard of the man they want. After the would-be kidnappers, armed with handguns neither man has ever fired before, accidentally shoot a teenage girl, they settle for snatching the girl’s father in place of their intended victim and flee the home in near-panic.

At the crime scene, DS Alex Morrow, of the Strathclyde CID, senses this is more than a case of two incompetent criminals banging on the wrong door. The kidnap victim is Aamir Anwar, patriarch of the large family living under his roof: wife, teenage daughter, and two sons (one a recent university graduate and the other whose own wife and baby share a bedroom with him). Morrow senses that the younger son and his friend know more about the crime than they are admitting and she begins her investigation by interrogating the two at police headquarters.

Alex Morrow is stunned that same night to learn that what should have been her investigation is, instead, being given to her less competent departmental rival, Grant Bannerman, a man hand-picked to move up the ranks ahead of her. Sexism is alive and well in the ranks of the Strathclyde CID. Alex has no intention of being a team player but still manages to contribute most of the breaks in the investigation. The reader will have to decide whether she is rewarded for her efforts - or not.

Still Midnight is long on atmosphere - and that is a strong point of the book. Mina takes it so far this time, however, that it is also one of the book’s weaknesses. There are simply no happy or content people in this book. Criminals are as unhappy with their lot as their victims; polis are backstabbing cutthroats or burned out zombies; husbands and wives are sick of each other; businessmen hate their customers, and children hate their fathers. Even the kidnap victim is sick of himself.

Despite the violence, and ever present potential for more, it is at times difficult to take the Still Midnight as seriously as it is meant to be taken because of the comic nature of Eddy, its chief villain. Eddy is such a bumbler that most readers will wonder how the man survived the mean streets of Glasgow long enough to reach adulthood. He is almost a parody of a real criminal. The novel’s ending, one I will not spoil here, is also such a stretch that it provides a jarring contrast to the rest of the book. This one does not quite work for me because it never quite feels real.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

I have been no great admirer of Jane Austen, having long considered her the mother of the romance and chick-lit genres, but still an author whose reputation demands that her work be sampled. I have, in fact, read only four of her six novels. My opinion of her work falls between that of Mark Twain who said, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone” and that of the most ardent Janeites who read little other than Jane Austen novels. I have, however, often wondered how Miss Austen became the literary icon she is today. In Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman explains exactly how that happened.

As Harman points out, despite the great fame she enjoys today, very little is known about the “real” Jane Austen. No proper image of her was left behind and, with the help of her sister Cassandra, the bulk of her private correspondence and papers was destroyed after Jane’s death. Jane Austen died in 1817, at age 41, living to see the publication of just four of her six novels and only some local success as an author. Even this came to her only after almost twenty years of work as an unpublished author – and for most of the 1820s, the decade immediately following her death, none of her books would be in print. Jane Austen would, in fact, be almost forgotten by the reading public for most of the next forty years.

All that would finally change when Jane’s nephew, one James Edward Austen-Leigh, published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870, beginning a steady rise in his aunt’s reputation. The book, written fifty-three years after Jane’s death, is based upon the reluctant memoirist’s impressions about his aunt and it offers, at best, a misleading view of her life and her attitudes toward her writing. By World War I, a British soldier seeking mental escape from the horrors of war was likely to lose himself inside the pages of a Jane Austen novel, buried in the calmer, saner England he would find there. But the best for Jane Austen’s reputation was yet to come.

In 1995, the BBC had a huge success with its production of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and a new industry was born – a steady flow of adaptations of Jane Austen novels for the cinema and television. Pride and Prejudice would be followed by other BBC adaptations and big-screen versions of several other Austen works, including Emma and the highly regarded Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson. Suddenly, Jane Austen was mainstream – and the rest is history.

Jane’s Fame is a well written explanation of how such an unlikely rise to fame for Jane Austen could happen despite her near disappearance from the literary landscape in the several decades following her early death. She is now a cultural icon (one of those people instantly recognized by just her first name) even to those who might never read one of her six novels, but serious fans of the woman who wrote about “three or four families in a Country Village” will almost certainly want to add Jane’s Fame to their Austen collection.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

2009 U.S. Book Sales Numbers Are In

Daily Finance (AOL) reports some mixed numbers for 2009 book sales in the United States. Some categories are up (hardcovers and e-books) and others are down (trade and mass market paperbacks) but, overall, it was another down year for U.S. booksellers:
Total net book sales were reported to be $23.8 billion, down 1.8% from $24.9 billion in 2008 -- which itself was down 2.6% from the previous year. Overall sales of trade books -- the fiction and non-fiction books you know and love -- totaled $8.1 billion, a 1.8% drop from last year. However, adult hardcovers jumped 6.9% to $2.6 billion, helped in part by a little-known author named Dan Brown. (Just shoot me now.)

Trade paperbacks fared worse, falling 5.2% to $2.2 billion, and mass market paperbacks weren't so hot, dropping 4% to $1 billion.
E-books sales, however, were busting out all over. With month after month of exponential growth, it should surprise few that total 2009 sales were approximately $313 million, up 176.6% from 2008. And already in 2010, that growth curve is shooting up even more, as January sales alone were $31.9 million -- 10% of 2009's total, and a much higher proportion than the 3% to 4% of total book sales last year.
E-books are off to a great 2010 start and you do have to wonder how big an impact Apple's iPad is going to have on e-book sales for the rest of the year. Are we approaching a tipping-point year for e-book sales, the year when they total more than 50% of all books sold? Next year, the year after, five years from now? It's going to be interesting to watch this evolve.

Baby Book Recall

According to television station KXAN, Gund is recalling a series of baby books (more than 15,000 books total) that have dangerous bindings. Apparently, the Styrofoam used to fill the bindings can be pulled off to become a choking hazard to the little readers.

Take a quick look at the attached video - thankfully, these books are easily recognized.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Want a Copy of Addict at 10?

The publisher of Derek Steele's memoir about his experiences with drugs, Addict at 10, is offering three Book Chase readers a free copy of the book. All you have to do is be one of the first three readers to respond to this offer - take a look at the book trailer, below, and let me know if you want a copy. If you show up as one of the first three comments to this post, just email me with your mailing details and we'll get a copy out to you.

It doesn't get much easier than this, now does it?

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Scent of Rain and Lightning

Jody Linder is one of the youngest members of the most prominent ranching family in little Rose, Kansas. The Linder family is a respected one but, because of its unusual power and influence, the family sometimes creates resentment and jealousy in a few of the locals. Jody, in fact, lives alone in the very home in which her father was murdered, and from which her mother disappeared, when Jody was only three years old – more than twenty-three years before The Scent of Rain and Lightning opens. Now, Jody is shocked to learn the person convicted of the murder all those years ago, a young man who once worked on her grandfather’s ranch, has been granted a new trial and will be returning to Rose until the lawyers can do their work.

Nancy Picard follows this set-up with a long flashback to the time prior to the horrendous crime suffered by the Linder family, a flashback during which the reader is introduced to all the members of the family: one sister, three brothers, and their hardworking parents. The Linders run a hands-on ranch, and the three Linder brothers are expected to carry their share of the load right along side the men being paid to do the same work. The Linder patriarch also enjoys working with troubled boys and, over the years, he has used his ranch jobs as a way to give these boys a chance to start their lives over again on a positive note before it is too late. The boys seldom let him down – but one, Billy Crosby, the man convicted of the murder of Linder’s oldest son, would fail in a spectacular way.

When Billy Crosby comes back to Rose, most of the town unites with the Linders in outrage that the man is back among them. Jody, since she was a little girl, has been obsessed with finding the truth about what really happened to her mother but what she learns from the few skeptics in town willing to talk about the trial details, and about Billy’s condition on the night of the murders, leaves her wondering if Billy Crosby could really have had anything to do with what happened to her parents.

That Billy Crosby, evil as he still is, might be an innocent man, will not surprise many readers. The fun of The Scent of Rain and Lightning comes from figuring out whom, if not Billy Crosby, is the murderer of young Linder and his wife. Along the way, Nancy Pickard will drop clues about several of the book’s main characters, little tidbits that create enough doubt about several of them to bring them to the reader’s attention as possible suspects. And Picard sprinkles around enough possible motives and character defects to keep the reader guessing the killer’s identity right up to the end of the book. In the meantime, Billy Crosby, never his own best friend, keeps things interesting by acting like the loose cannon he has been all his life.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning is an entertaining mystery, one filled with its share of tension and action, especially as it draws closer and closer to the crime upon which it is centered. Author Picard, though, does not quite play fairly with her readers in the end and chooses the easiest of possible endings for her story. And while her characters are believable and sympathetic enough for the most part, the book’s conclusion suffers in the end when the villain goes flat on us.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review copy courtesy of publisher)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 15

Happy Easter everyone. Here's hoping that everyone who observes this particular religious holiday has a nice day wherever you might be. It's a very overcast day in Houston, and here in the north part of the county a light drizzle has been falling all morning. I'm still in "nurse mode" and staying with my father while he recovers from his surgery, but we are going to have lunch with the whole family this afternoon and that will brighten the day.

I have read three novels since my last update of the Top 10 lists but none of them will make a big (nor, I suspect, a long) impact on the list. In fact, one of them will not hit the list at all.

So this is what the fiction list looks like after 27 fiction books read:
1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
6. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)
7. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow (novel)
8. The Man from Saigon - Marti Leimbach (Vietnam War novel)
9. Lay Down My Sword and Shield - James Lee Burke (1971 novel)
10. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (novel)
Numbers 8 and 9 are additions to the fiction list.

And the nonfiction list remains a Top 9 for now:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
4. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
5. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
6. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
7. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
8. Never Tell Our Business to Strangers - Jennifer Mascia (memoir)
9. Highest Duty - Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (memoir)

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Man from Saigon

The Vietnam War meant different things to different people because they cane to the war in very different ways. Some entered it, kicking and screaming, via the nerve-wracking military draft of the sixties, and a few joined up in order to avoid the prison time they deserved. Others, for reasons of their own, volunteered to join the fight. But, even then, common foot soldiers saw the war through eyes very different from those of the career officers who led them. Nurses, doctors and journalists had yet another Vietnam War experience – and, then, there were those rare female journalists who experienced something else altogether different.

Marti Leimbach’s latest novel, The Man from Saigon, tells the story of one of those female reporters, Susan Gifford, a woman who came to Vietnam to write special interest stories for a women’s magazine but could not resist the dangerous pull of going into the field with her fellow reporters, a decision she would often regret after it was too late to do anything about it. Susan’s willingness to place herself in harm’s way would eventually lead to her capture (along with Son, her Vietnamese photographer) by three North Vietnamese soldiers who would march her deep into the jungle in search of the unit from which they had become separated prior to stumbling upon Susan and Son.

The Man from Saigon, though, is about more than the trauma associated with chaotic firefights and ambushes by enemy soldiers. It is about personal relationships and how those relationships are shaped and changed when the constant possibility of a brutal, and sudden, death hangs over one’s head for months at a time. The novel explores the willingness of those who place themselves in that kind of situation to live all aspects of their lives on the edge. Needless to say, romance seldom plays much of a role in the practical relationships that often develop inside a war zone.

Susan finds herself involved with two very different men: a physical relationship with a married network news broadcaster who has been in-country for some twenty-nine months and a friendly relationship with the Vietnamese photographer who shares her tiny apartment in Saigon between their trips into the field to cover the war. In a way, she loves both of them, and neither of them – but together they give her the emotional support she needs to survive her Vietnam experience.

Marti Leimbach offers an insightful look at the whole Vietnam War experience, but with a slightly different twist to it. As she puts it in the novel, “It feels to her (Susan) that the universal theme of this country is departure and loss. Everyone is always in the process of leaving. Everyone is dying or disappearing or going away or being sent home. You never got used to it.”

Those readers who have read, or plan to read, the moving new Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes will find that The Man from Saigon is a nice companion piece in the way it looks at the war from a completely different point-of-view, this time from the viewpoint of those paid to be there to tell the rest of us what was really happening there.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by publisher)