Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Paperback Writer" Bluegrass Style - The Punch Brothers

This is another song from ROMP 2011, this time from Chris Thile & the Punch Brothers.  These guys had kind of a Beatle vibe going all night long, and they finally made it official by breaking into this bluegrass version of "Paperback Writer."  The band is using the five instruments that traditional bluegrass bands always include: guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and stand-up bass.  I particularly like their instrumental break when Thile shines on mandolin and the other guys come in for their own short solos.

So here you have it, the Bluegrass Beatles:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Prodigal Hour

Is there anyone not fascinated by the notion of time travel?  Whether the pull is simple curiosity about what the past was really like, or wonder about the future one is doomed to miss out on, there is just something irresistible about the possibilities of traveling up and down the time continuum at will.  Or, perhaps, the lure is more personal, a desire to right some personal wrong we have done or suffered, for instance.  Whatever the reason, Will Entrekin is here to tell you to be careful what you wish for – because you might just get it.

If Chance Sowin, the main character of Entrekin’s new novel, The Prodigal Hour, had arrived for work at the World Trade Center just a few minutes earlier, his life might well have ended on September 11, 2001.  Survival, however, does not mean that Chance’s life has not been changed forever.  He is no longer the person that entered the building that morning with his naïve optimism intact.  Chance knows that he is one of the lucky ones, and he feels almost obligated to take charge of his life, to make himself a better man than he was on September 10.  Now, it is a question of where to begin.

Chance is from New Jersey and, when his father asks him to move back home until he can figure out what he wants to do next, Chance decides to take him up on the offer.  For the second time in just a few weeks, though, Chance’s arrival time is fated to get him almost killed.  He gets home just in time to interrupt what appears to be a home invasion by a man threatening his father.  When in the ensuing scuffle his father is shot dead, Chance is left to deal with federal agents who hint that his father may have been working with international terrorists.

That Chance refuses to believe his father, a prominent research scientist, could have been involved in research on behalf of any terrorist group, is not surprising.  The notion is so farfetched that he is not even temporarily shocked by it.  The real shocker for him comes from Cassie, a young woman Chance shared his first kiss with when they were kids: his father has invented a time machine and she knows how to use it. 

Now what?  Should they use the time machine to go back in time to save Chance’s father from being murdered – and what will happen if they do?  If they save Dennis Sowin’s life, will they inadvertently alter the future in a way that causes other innocents to die – perhaps by the thousands?  Thus begins an adventure that will see Chance and Cassie visit some of history’s most intriguing hotspots.  Only when the pair decides to “improve” upon the past, do they get in trouble.  Will they, and the rest of us, survive their not so subtle tinkering with the past?

I enjoyed The Prodigal Hour, my fellow time-traveler wannabes.  I think you will, too.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Real World 1, Me 0

Man, do I need a vacation!

After seven days away from the reality of work, family, and personal obligations I slammed back into the real world today - and the real world kicked my butt.  My "Monday" began with an eight a.m. dental appointment, meaning that I got to the office about 2 1/2 hours later than I normally do.  That would not necessarily be a bad thing but, since I was still traveling on Monday and Friday is a holiday, I somehow have to cram five days worth of work into the middle three days of the week.  That is not going to be easy - especially since I left the office at my regular time in order to see the first game of a Little League doubleheader involving my youngest grandson.  Just two days to go, and I didn't make much of a dent in the workload today.  Oh, and my brother, whom I see only two or three times a year, is in town staying with my father.

Also, for the first time in Book Chase history, I am five books behind on my reviews: This Book Is Overdue (Marilyn Johnson), The Bone Garden (Tess Gerritsen), Long Gone (Alafair Burke), Saturday (Ian McEwan), and The Prodigal Hour (Will Entrekin).  Since the Entrekin book is going to be released on July 1, I'm moving it to the top of the queue - look for that one on June 30.

I feel like I've walked into a buzz-saw, but I would not trade last week's experience for anything.  This, too, shall pass.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Carolina Chocolate Drops Do ROMP 2011

I've been traveling home the last couple of days and haven't been able to stop long enough to post anything bookish or musical here on Book Chase.  But, I do want to share this video tonight that I shot in Owensboro on June 25 featuring The Carolina Chocolate Drops.  This group generally performs what they call "old time Negro music in a style other than the blues," but this song was a real highlight of their ROMP 2011 set.  Keep in mind that this is a Grammy award winning group and that they have been doing this for a while - although the members on both ends of the stage are fairly recent additions to the group.  They have a lot of energy and stage presence and they turned out to be one of the most popular groups of the whole three days.

I was sitting something like ten rows deep when I shot this, so you will see a bit of crowd movement as I adjust my range trying to minimize the effect of all the wandering about that bluegrass crowds are famous far (it's hard to resist all that great food up on the hill).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

ROMP 2011, Day 2

The Punch Brothers
Amazingly, the unusually cool weather continues to hold here in Owensboro, Kentucky.  It did get a bit warm yesterday afternoon until the sun dropped below the tree line behind the stage, but it cooled off to a very pleasant evening within a few minutes of that finally happening. 

It was an interesting day of "bluegrass music."  ROMP brings in several of the more progressive bluegrass bands, all of which include a cast of excellent musicians despite their tendency to drift into the realm of jazz and jam bands - songs of seven or eight minutes in length are common, for  instance.  I tend to be a traditionalist when it comes to country music (and that most certainly includes bluegrass) but I really had a good time with Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers last night.  Imagine this if you can: a knockout version of "Paperback Writer" done with perfect harmony, a mandolin, a banjo, a fiddle, a guitar, and a massive stand-up base.  Believe it or not, it worked perfectly.  I'm a new convert to the music of these guys.  Check them out on YouTube and you will see what I mean.

Emmylou Harris Sound Check
Today should be a day of more traditional bluegrass, although it does end with a set from The Infamous Stringdusters, not exactly a trad bunch.  The highlight of the day is almost certainly going to be Emmylou Harris's set.  We went out about 9:30 this morning to place our chairs for the day and stumbled right into her soundcheck of several minutes.  Good stuff - and now we're psyched up for her  8:20 evening show.

Believe it or not, I'm managing to get a little reading in on the side - over half way through Will Entrekin's book and it is starting to get wild.  Also reading from a nonfiction title noted on my sidebar (not exactly feel good reading, but instructive). 

Later, y'all.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When Bluegrass Fans Forget Who They Are (Steve Martin at ROMP)

Banjo Player Steve Martin
It's another great day in Owensboro, Kentucky.  Of the six years I've been coming to Owensboro for the ROMP bluegrass music festival, this is the first year of daytime temperatures much below 100 degrees.  Yesterday peaked out somewhere in the 80s and by the time we left the park at midnight it was actually a little bit chilly - this really does not seem like a ROMP festival.

Part of the reason for that, of course, is of Steve Martin's appearance with the Steep Canyon Rangers last night. There are definite pros and definite cons about having Steve Martin appear at a smallish bluegrass festival.  Best of all, Steve Martin is an excellent banjo player, songwriter, and entertainer.  He more than holds his own on stage with the Rangers (a band of excellent musicians and singers, to be sure) and, in fact, almost every song in their 98 minute set was written by Steve.  The show is a great blend of comedy and some very serious music. 

Now for the cons associated with having Steve Martin come to your smallish bluegrass festival: he draws a completely new crowd, a crowd of boorish, rude loudmouths who are not at all like the usual fans who attend bluegrass shows.  Right next to me sat a young couple who insisted on standing for minutes at a time while using their fancy cameras to snap picture after picture of Martin.  When asked to sit down so that those behind them might get a look at Martin and the Rangers, they rudely lied that they had been here for hours to get their location and had "warned" everyone behind them that they would be standing for most of the show.  Sadly, they were just the tip of the iceberg.

As some of you know, it is a bluegrass festival tradition to place an empty chair early on in order to claim your spot for the show.  Because of Steve Martin's appearance, many people arrived four or five hours early to get spots near the stage - only to have dozens of people arrive late to stand in front of them all night long by squeezing between the stage and what was officially the first row of seating.  Those in the first couple of rows of seating, the people who had  been in the park the longest, did not see a whole lot of anything except the backs and butts of the rudest people in the park.

To his credit, Martin noticed what was going on and told the intruders that when they "finally got their pictures, they should sit down so that those in the front rows could see."  Didn't happen.

Having Steve Martin appear is a great thing for the International Bluegrass Music Museum in terms of selling tickets and raising the profile of the museum.  Now, I can only hope that the excess of idiots from last night bought only single-day tickets and things will get back to normal for the last two days.

(The photo is one I took of Steve Martin and the band warming up outside their tour bus about 30 minutes prior to their appearance on stage.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Guest Blogger Will Entrekin on time travel and The Prodigal Hour

I'd like to introduce guest blogger Will Entrekin, a writer I became a fan of after reading his collection of short stories and nonfiction pieces modestly entitled Entrekin.  (Just kidding, Will.)  It is hard to believe that was almost three years ago, but I see that my review of that collection goes all the way back to September 2008. Will mentioned at the end of Entrekin that he was working on a time travel novel and, because I do love my time travel stories, I'm happy to see that Will is releasing that novel, The Prodigal Hour, on July 1.

Thanks to my iPad, I'm reading The Prodigal Hour while I'm here in Kentucky, and I hope to post a review in the next few days. But first, here's Will to tell you about the new book and his theory about why most of us find the concept of time travel so appealing:

Given that I know Sam is a big fan of country, bluegrass, and blues (and other music for uplifting gormandizers, as Hilly Kristal would elaborate), I thought I would begin by alluding to the old joke that if you play a country music song backward, rather than finding the coded Satanic messages of heavy metal, you get your wife back, your house back, your truck back, and your dog back. I think somewhere in the sentiment behind that joke is the truism that is the heart of my upcoming time-travel novel The Prodigal Hour.

When the story opens on Halloween 2001, Chance Sowin is in the sort of situation that might inspire a country music song except for the fact that Chance was living in Manhattan, which is not exactly the sort of town that inspires twang. On the morning of September 11th, when his commute to his World Trade Center law office was cut short, his life fell apart. He appreciates that he’s better off than a lot of other people he knew--some of whom perished in the terrorist attacks--but that knowledge doesn’t change his realization that if he wants his life to change and to become better, it’s time for him to take control of it himself. He temps for a few more weeks after the attack, but when his father, Dennis--a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey--invites Chance to move back home, Chance accepts.

On the day he moves back home, however, he interrupts a burglary during which his father is shot and killed, and the murder investigation only becomes more complicated and suspicious when the federal government shows up and starts making allegations: that Dennis was conducting illicit research, that he was keeping secrets, and that he was working with al Qaeda.

What Chance learns is that his father discovered a way to time travel.

I think one of the reasons we, as a culture, are fascinated by time travel is similar to the truism at the heart of a country music song. We remember “the good ole days,” even though things like civil rights and universal suffrage are relatively new ideas. Hindsight is not only 20/20 but also most often colored by rose-tinted lenses, and the past is often a time we idealize. We live not so much with regrets but rather “What ifs”; what if I’d married her? What if I’d never left? What if I hadn’t quit that job? What if I hadn’t turned down that transfer? What if I’d just told her how I felt?

Time travel is one way we vicariously answer those questions, because ultimately it comes down to a simple one: if you could do it all over again, what would you do? So much of our lives can come down to decisions we have no choice but to make in the blink of an eye, without any time to either think or prepare. So many tragedies leave us with “If onlys”; if only she hadn’t taken that train. If only he’d gone to work that day.

It’s part of our nature to replay our lives. To consider what we might say given just one more moment with a loved one, what we might do given just one more chance at a difficult time. To not only regret that kiss, but wonder how our lives would be different if only we could take it back. There’s an element of time travel in the idea of playing a country song backward to get your wife back, in the idea of just wanting things to go back to the way they were before. Of course they never can, but that doesn’t stop many of us from wishing it might be so.

The Prodigal Hour will be available for purchase on July 1st via Amazon. In the meantime, you can find some of my other work--including a novel, a collection, a few short stories, and an essay--on my Amazon author page here:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Missouri's Mini-Arch Marks the Spot

Cement Arch at Arkansas/Missouri Border
It's been a long day of driving but I am finally settled into a motel room for the night and, because I drove a few extra hours today, I can sleep a little later tomorrow  before setting out on the road again.  I'm actually within about 140 miles of my final destination (I drove almost 800 miles today).

I've had no time for reading, of course, but I'll get a few pages in tonight before I crash - can't wait to get back to Alafair Burke's Long Gone to see how that one turns out.  I have less than a 100 pages to go and still can't figure out just who the "bad guy" really is.  Very cool book.

(The photo is of a rather crude arch that marks the border between Arkansas and Missouri on Highway 61.  This is a fairly isolated spot, so little traffic this evening, in fact, that I was able to stand in the middle of the highway to take the picture.  Two cars came by in the whole time I was there (over five minutes).  I wonder if Missouri has put more of these little arches along its border? 

Monday, June 20, 2011


With Room, Emma Donoghue set out to do something quite difficult, write a full-length thriller entirely from the point-of-view (and in the words) of a five-year-old child.  And not just any five-year-old – this little boy has spent literally every single moment of his life confined to the 121 square foot room in which he was born.  The only window in the room is a skylight through which he occasionally gets a glimpse of the sun or moon, or the leaves that fall onto it once in a great while.  The only person he has ever spoken to is his mother, although the boy does sometimes gets a sneak peak at Old Nick from the wardrobe in which he hides when Nick comes to visit Ma late at night.

Unbeknownst to Jack, his mother has not seen the outside of Room for the seven years she has been Old Nick’s prisoner.   Without Jack, Ma would have no reason to go on living.  She has created an entire world for the boy inside this small space, a world in which she is the source of all knowledge, love, and support.  The outside world makes its way into Room only because Old Nick allows the pair a small television set, but Ma is the one who decides what Jack will watch and how what he sees will be interpreted for him.  Imagine a world in which Room is all that is real, and everything seen on television is make-believe.  That is the way Jack sees the world.

Room reaches the gut-wrenching stage when Ma decides that it is time to escape the little prison in which she and her son have been trapped for so long.  Try as she might to come up with alternate plans, escape seems impossible without Jack’s willingness to face Old Nick.  But even if she is able to convince Jack to go along with her plan, Ma knows that they will have only one shot at escaping Old Nick; failure means death for both of them.

Emma Donoghue
For the most part, Donoghue’s idea to filter what the reader knows and sees through the eyes of a small boy works remarkably well.  One comes to admire Ma, as seen through his innocent eyes, as she seeks new ways to educate and entertain her young son; the woman takes recycling to a high level as she creates toys for her son from every bit of packaging material that Old Nick allows to enter Room.  Part of the fun, too, comes from following Jack’s evolving logic as he combines what he sees on television and reads in his little books with what his mother tells him about the world.  Through Jack’s innocent eyes, often come basic life truths that adults sometime have forgotten.

Having Jack narrate Room generally works pretty well for Donoghue.  There is more of a problem with the key element in the book’s plot, something most readers are likely to find it difficult to believe would be possible knowing what they know about Jack.  It is a plot twist I cannot discuss in any detail because doing so would require me to reveal the book’s biggest spoiler.  However, Room is so unusual that I am perfectly willing to put aside plot details if that allows me to get inside Jack and Ma’s world for a few hours.  This one is definitely worth a look.

Rated at: 4.0  

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and the Steep Canyon Rangers

Finally!  Just a couple of more days before I head out for my 6th annual road trip to Owensboro, Kentucky, to attend my favorite bluegrass music festival: ROMP 2011, the creation of the International Bluegrass Music Museum.  In five years, I have driven something over 10,000 miles getting to and from Owensboro, and I will be adding just over 2,000 additional miles in 2011.

Take a look here at one of those who will be appearing on the first evening of the event,  Steve Martin.  Martin has been working with a really good bluegrass band off and on for more than a year now (The Steep Canyon Rangers) and this clip is from one of their live appearances.  By the way, Martin's two bluegrass albums have sold pretty well and have gathered considerable critical acclaim.

These guys will appear in Owensboro on June 23 - if you're anywhere around that part of Kentucky or southern Indiana, don't miss this festival.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rhino Ranch

Rhino Park (2009) marks the end of Duane Moore’s story, a story that Larry McMurtry began all the way back in 1966 with The Last Picture Show.  This five-book series also includes Texasville (1989), Duane’s Depressed (1999), and When the Light Goes (2007).  Along the way, Duane and his Thalia cohorts age pretty much in real time.  Duane was a high school football star in The Last Picture Show, an aging man who feels bad that he has outlived most of his old friends by the time we get to Rhino Park.

Duane and his young wife, Annie, call Patagonia, Arizona, home.  Theirs has been a rather chaste relationship since Duane suffered a heart attack that almost killed him while he and Annie were making love.  Duane knows that Annie has taken on lovers since the incident, but he has learned to live with the situation.  But, after Annie decides that even that arrangement is not good enough, Duane heads back to Thalia where he still keeps a house and his beloved cabin.

Duane might be slowing down, but Thalia is not.  K.K. Slater, said to be a billionaire, has decided that Thalia is the perfect place for her to open the Rhino Ranch, a preservation facility to ensure the survival of the endangered black rhinoceros.  Along with the ranch, comes a few new jobs, and a couple of Duane’s oldest friends suddenly become rhino wranglers. 

Despite not really wanting to have anything to do with the rhino ranch, Duane is slowly sucked into its day-to-day activity.  First, he mysteriously bonds with the biggest rhino on the ranch when it insists on walking the fence line, side-by-side with Duane, that separates the ranch from the property on which Duane’s cabin sits.  Then, he finds that K.K. Slater has a way of keeping life in Thalia interesting and starts keeping company with her and her big city friends.

Rhino Ranch is all about one man’s reflections on a life well lived.  Duane senses that his time is largely past and he is struggling to find a sense of purpose.  His friends are dead or dying (that kind of bad news just keeps pounding on him), and he is starting to feel like the Lone Ranger.  His son has taken over Duane’s oil business, there are no women in his life, and he is not all that crazy about his two daughters.  If it were not for his grandson, frankly, he would not feel particularly close to anyone in his family.

Duane Moore is one of modern literature’s memorable characters, and Larry McMurtry fans have been following his progress for literally a lifetime.  Rhino Ranch is a good way to say goodbye.

Rated at: 5.0

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I had some fun with the audio version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a while back, particularly enjoying hearing the narrator read the farce in her "oh so proper" English accent.  The book was laugh-out-loud funny in places and, overall, was a very clever idea.  I have been pretty much avoiding other books of this type, but this book trailer is tempting me to give the genre a second go:

These days, anything that can make me laugh is a very good thing to have around.  Doesn't this look like fun?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Half a Life

In May 1988, a bit more than half his life ago, Darin Strauss “killed a girl.”

Eighteen-year-old Darin was in his last month of high school on the day that his life changed forever. Headed toward a game of miniature golf with some friends, he did not see the bicycle that swerved into his lane of traffic until he was right on top of it. The next thing he remembers is a girl slamming into his windshield. That girl, as he would soon find out, was Celine Zilke, a sixteen-year-old classmate he barely knew.

Half a Life is Strauss’s effort to understand what he felt immediately following the accident – and has continued to feel for the next twenty-three years. It is his way of finally dealing with the stress and guilt that he has lived with for more than two decades, years during which Celine Zilke has become almost an alter-ego of his. Perhaps because the girl’s mother suggested that it was Strauss’s responsibility to live life for the two of them, he seldom approached any new experience free of the realization that Celine would never experience what he was then enjoying for the first time. She has been a larger part of his life in death than she ever was in life.

Although authorities almost immediately exonerated him of any blame in the accident, Strauss was not so easy on himself and was unable to shake the feeling that he could have done something to avoid striking Zilke. But despite his conscious good intention to keep Celine and her parents uppermost in his mind, Strauss would find that his main concern would almost immediately be about how other people perceived him after the accident. Would they blame him, hate him, shun him? Was he portraying the proper image for someone in his position? Was his life ruined? He worried that he did not feel the proper amount of despair because of his egocentric concerns.

That the accident would become the “deepest part” of Darin Strauss’s life is not surprising. What is surprising is that he considers the “second deepest part” of his life to be the efforts he made to hide the accident from anyone he met after it occurred. Strauss divided his life into “before” and “after” phases and he worked hard to make sure the two phases never overlapped.

Strauss now believes that human beings are able to deal with the worst things that life can throw at them, that the accident formed him and, especially because of the key period in his life at which it happened, that it will be with him forever. He also feels that, because he has now grown into adulthood, it is time for him to say “no” to all the guilt and hurt he has carried for the last twenty-three years. He is ready to move on; Half a Life explains how he finally got to that point.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Best Longterm Backup for E-Books? Would You Believe Tree-Books?

The best longterm backup for e-books might very well turn out to be old fashioned tree-books.  That's exactly what the folks running the Internet Archive project believe, anyway.  And, they just might be right.

From, come the interesting details:
...a number of reasons for wanting to preserve physical copies of works that are being digitized; for instance, a dispute could arise about the fidelity of the digital version, and only access to a copy of the original would resolve it. Kahle also told Kevin Kelly that we’ll eventually want to rescan these books at an even higher DPI, so the digital copies will be waiting when we do.

Another reason for keeping a physical copy, and one that Kahle doesn’t mention, is that the problem of long-term digital storage still isn’t completely solved. The cloud as a large-scale storage medium has only recently emerged, and it’s definitely not perfect as a long-term archival medium.
Realistically, Kahle and Co. expect to preserve 10 million books, out of an estimated 100 million published. These will be packed into climate-controlled storage containers, and stored in a facility in Richmond, CA that opens this month.
I've often wondered about the longterm integrity of e-books being sold today.  Think about it.  We have all been around long enough to see numerous hardware changes that make old media systems unusable.  Remember 8-track tapes, beta video tapes, cassette tapes, 78 rpm records, LPs, etc?  One only has to look at the fact that, even today, all e-books are not readable on all e-book readers.  What happens when the market kills off a few of the readers?  Are you prepared to repurchase e-books that are readable on the winning hardware if you are not lucky enough to bet correctly on which company will ultimately win out?

Tree-books rule.  They will still be with me when all the e-readers in the world have been fried by some catastrophic event caused by Mother Nature or her idiot sons, Man.

Please read the whole article at

Monday, June 13, 2011

What It's Like to Go to War

Karl Marlantes’s 2010 Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn, was some thirty years in the making, years during which Marlantes continued to fine tune his story while waiting for the marketplace to be ready for him. Following the success of this acclaimed debut novel, Marlantes, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, now uses his real life combat experience as the basis to explore how insufficiently America’s young men and women are prepared for modern warfare.

In What It's Like to Go to War, Marlantes addresses the history of warfare, a history as old as man himself, and the methods used by various cultures to prepare young men to risk giving their lives for the perceived good of their country or tribe. The author believes that, compared to warriors of the past, today’s soldier not only has far superior weapons, he is, in fact, better prepared “technically and tactically” than ever before. His concern is that these young soldiers are not being prepared to cope with the moral and psychological stresses associated with modern warfare. Marlantes does not, however, believe that the kind of individual soul searching necessary to prepare them properly for war can be accomplished via today’s cookie-cutter training programs. This must be accomplished, he offers, by the individual, alone or with the help of a peer or mentor who has already successfully crossed that bridge.

What It's Like to Go to War is Karl Marlantes’s attempt to help America’s young fighters maintain their sanity – both during, and after, their combat experiences. To his way of thinking, if these young men and women go into war with the proper mindset, they will not only do no more harm than their mission requires of them, they will be able to make a healthy adjustment to life when they return home. In order to accomplish this, the terror and horrors of war they experience have to be placed into their proper context so that the overall experience means something.

One of the most striking characteristics of modern warfare addressed by Marlantes is the way that modern technology has blended the worlds of combat and home. Today’s soldier has the luxury of calling home within minutes of the end of a firefight in which he thought he would die. In addition to communicating by telephone, he can exchange photos and messages via email, and if he is so inclined, can tweet on Twitter and check-in with friends and family on their Facebook pages. His two worlds become so blurred that it is near impossible for him to leave behind the stress of combat when he is thrust back into the arms of his family at breakneck speed.

What It's Like to Go to War should be read required reading for every young man and woman before they place their lives on the line for the first time - if not even before they formally become part of the military. It should be read by our policy makers, those who decide where, and how many of, our soldiers will be put in harm’s way each time a new hotspot flares. It should be read by those drill sergeants and officers that train our troops for combat. And, just as importantly, it should be read by the families of those who serve so courageously. This is an important – and practical – book.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Terry Pratchett Considers His Options to Letting Alzheimer's Kill Him

“It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It's called living.” - Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, is hoping to die with his dignity intact.  Mr. Pratchett has been suffering from Alzheimer's since 2007 and he is rather courageously considering whether or not he wants to end his life while he is still in a position to make decision for himself.  Pratchett announced on his illustrator's website in December 2007 that he was suffering from the disease.  This came as a huge shock to the author's fans since he was only 59 years of age when the diagnoses was made public.

I noted the announcement here on Book Chase on December 12, 2007 with some detail about why Pratchett had decided to go public about his illness.

Now, according to the Guardian, Pratchett is ready to consider his options before it is too late for him to have a say in how the end of his story is to ultimately play out:
Sir Terry Pratchett, the fantasy writer who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2008, said yesterday he had started the formal process that could lead to his own assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

Pratchett, whose BBC2 film about the subject of assisted suicide is to be shown on BBC2 tomorrow, revealed he had been sent the consent forms requesting a suicide by the clinic and planned to sign them imminently.
Sad as this is, it brings to mind the even sadder end of one of Pratchett's fellow British writers, Iris Murdoch, in whom the devastating disease ran its full course before her death.  Unfair as I know it is, it somehow bothers me more when Alzheimer's claims one of the world's great thinkers than when it strikes a more "normal" person.  I know just how unfair that feeling is because, as I type this, we are dealing with what the disease is doing to my mother-in-law, one of those more "normal" victims.  What a horrible, horrible disease this is.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Reservoir

The plot of John Milliken Thompson’s debut novel, The Reservoir, reminded me in many ways of Theodore Dreiser’s classic An American Tragedy.  It is the same basic story: young woman from a common background finds herself pregnant by a young man of higher status and better prospects in a day during which abortion is highly dangerous, illegal, and usually not the first choice as a solution to the “problem.”  And, like Dreiser’s heroine, Lillie ends up dead at the hands of the man who supposedly loved her so much.

As it turns out, Thompson’s story is based on an actual event that occurred in Richmond, Virginia, in 1885.  Thompson, an historian and author of three nonfiction books, put his research skills to use in developing the basic plot of his first novel. But it is his skill in creating the unknown personal details and motivations of those involved in the case that makes this a very fine debut novel. 

When Lillie was found drowned in a Richmond city reservoir, all the evidence pointed toward suicide.  When it was discovered that the unmarried young woman was far along in a pregnancy, that ruling seemed even more certain.  Soon enough, however, evidence indicating that Lillie had not come to the reservoir alone was discovered – and, by the time her body had been identified, there was enough physical evidence to see investigators in search of her killer.

The Cluverious brothers, Tommie and Willie, could hardly be more different.  Willie is a quiet man who wants little more from life than to make a success of his farm; Tommie, on the other hand, has always been the ambitious one.  Neither of the brothers has yet achieved his goals, but  23-year-old Tommie is certainly heading in the right direction, having become associated with a respected Richmond law firm.  The one thing the brothers seem to have in common, other than their shared childhood, is their longtime infatuation with Lillie, a cousin of theirs.

John Milliken Thompson
The Reservoir combines common characteristics of historical fiction with those of a police procedural and a psychological crime novel.  Thompson tells Tommie’s story slowly and steadily, building toward a climax that, by its end, is not unexpected.  Along the way, the reader gets a good feel for the period and the methods then used by policemen and private detectives to solve a crime.  The times may have been simpler, but the case (and the main characters) will feel familiar to anyone that watches much of today’s tabloid television. 

John Milliken Thompson’s debut novel is a good one that should appeal to fans of historical fiction and crime fiction alike.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bess the Book Bus Comes to Detroit

One Florida woman had the courage to cash in her retirement savings to fund a dream - putting books into the hands of children who might otherwise not have easy access to them at home.  (I'm sure that every financial advisor in the world would recommend against this, but I have to admire her for doing it.)

As detailed in this Detroit Free Press article, Bess the Book Bus made it to Detroit this week:
Frances bought a Volkswagen bus, filled it with books, affectionately named it Bess the Book Bus (inspired by her grandmother) and traveled around her Tampa community, handing out storybook after storybook to underprivileged children.

Now, thanks to numerous sponsors and donations, Bess the Book Bus is on its third national road trip.

"I want kids to feel that sense of being transported somewhere away from their current environment, because a lot of our kids' day-to-day is not that bright and shiny," said Frances, 40.
On the road trip, Frances plans to hand out more than 100,000 books to 20,000 children in 44 states. Tour partners Transitions Optical and VSP Vision Care also will provide free eye exams and glasses along the way.
Jennifer Frances, I applaud you.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Dogsbodies and Scumsters

Dogsbodies and Scumsters is a collection of Alan McCormick short stories written in two very different styles.  Dogsbodies, the longer, and to my mind, more effective, stories feature characters suffering from physical or mental defects serious enough to define their lives.   Scumsters, the short (often less than a page in length), almost stream-of-consciousness pieces are all based on the fanciful illustrations of Jonny Voss. 

Jonny Voss’s illustrations are so complicated and packed with detail that a good storyteller like Alan McCormick would have little problem with putting the images into words.  Those images, however, are so nonsensical that the resulting scumsters tend to be absurd to the point of making little sense.  Of course, that is probably exactly what the author and illustrator were going for – a flash of an image or feeling rather than anything resembling a straightforward storyline.  (I often found myself studying the sometimes Picasso-like illustrations to see what other stories they might tell me.)

The dogsbodies, on the other hand, do a remarkable job of developing a wide assortment of characters that live life the hard way, usually unhappily and, for the most part, alone.  In these longer stories, McCormick offers a wide assortment of fragile losers, people who have little going for them now, or perhaps ever before in their lives.  These characters (a widely assorted lot, including a woman who abandons her young daughter, an immigrant who emotionally terrorizes her husband’s family, a woman content to live with a neighbor’s dead body, a woman who intentionally makes her daughter ill, a female Walter Mitty who cannot keep her lies straight, and a builder that destroys his client’s property) are surprisingly sympathetic. 

These are stories about people who live in very dark places, even if those places are largely inside their own heads.  Their lives are intense, and that is style in which McCormick chooses to tell their stories.  There may be no “feel good” stories in Dogsbodies and Scumsters, but the collection is filled with the powerful stories of as unforgettable a cast of unfortunates as one is likely to encounter anywhere.

Rated: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Best of 2011, Update 4

I think it's time for me to update my "Best of 2011" lists before my recollection of my most recently read titles starts to fade.  I think I get a better final list if I go through this process every 3-4 weeks (at least in worked out that way for me last year).

I read seven fiction titles since I updated the list three weeks ago, but only one of them will crack the new Top Ten: That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo goes into the number five slot.

Fiction: (Top 10 of 39 considered)

1. The Glass Rainbow - James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux series)

2. Dead Man's Walk - Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove series)

3. Nemesis - Philip Roth (novel)

4. Beach Music - Pat Conroy (novel)

5. That Old Cape Magic - Richard Russo (novel)

6. Love at Absolute Zero - Christopher Meeks (novel)

7. Autumn of the Phantoms - Yasmina Khadra (Algerian detective fiction)

8. Standing at the Crossroads - Charles Davis (British novel)

9. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe (classic British novel)

10. One Thousand White Women - Jim Fergus (Western novel)

Strangely enough, all three of the nonfiction titles I read since last time are appearing on this updated list - What It Is Like to Go to War, Called Out of Darkness,and The Reading Promise.
Nonfiction: (Top 10 of 17 considered)

1. Wolf: The Lives of Jack London - James L. Haley (biography)

2. Hitch 22: A Memoir - Christopher Hitchens (memoir)

3. Tiny Terror - William Todd Schultz (psychobiography of Truman Capote)

4. Chinaberry Sidewalks - Rodney Crowell (memoir)

5. We Were Not Orphans - Sherry Matthews (memoirs from a Texas home for neglected children)

6. What It Is Like to Go to War - Karl Marlantes - (memoir)

7. Lincoln's Men - William C. Davis (Civil War history)

8. The Siege of Washington - John and Charles Lockwood (Civil War history)

9. Called Out of Darkness - Anne Rice - (memoir)

10.The Reading Promise - Alice Ozma - (memoir)

So, there you have it...almost to the half-way point, these are the best 20 books I have encountered in far.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Reading Promise

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared is not what I expected from its title.  It is much more.  I was initially intrigued by both the book’s title and its cover, figuring it would focus (as the title indicates) on the books that one man and his daughter shared while she was growing up and how the reading impacted the little girl’s life.  That would have been enough to satisfy me.  As it turns out, The Reading Promise does focus on their reading, if not so much on specific books, but it is more about how “The Streak” helped to create a very special bond between this father and daughter.

The Streak is, of course, the hook that will draw most readers to Alice Ozma’s memoir.  Imagine this: 3,218 consecutive days during which Jim Brozina read aloud for a minimum of ten minutes to his daughter, Alice, regardless of what was going on in either of their lives during this eight-year period.  The Streak started when Alice was in the fourth grade and it did not end until she left home for college.  During this period, Alice’s mother would leave the family, her older sister would leave home for a year as an exchange student, Alice would grow into a young woman with friends and plans of her own, and her father would begin dating again.  But, despite a few near misses (one caused by her father’s terrible case of laryngitis) and logistical problems caused by Alice’s sleepovers with friends (during which the reading was accomplished by telephone), the reading streak survived until the two consciously pulled the plug on it at exactly the right moment. 

Jim, an elementary school librarian whose passion was reading to classes when they visited his library, used the reading streak to teach his daughter about life as she was experiencing it.  As Alice puts it, “What he was doing specifically, was trying to use The Streak as a solution to a problem.  It was something he did often, even it he wasn’t doing it intentionally.  There were just trends: after my mother moved out, we read stories about young girls without mothers.  When there were bullies at school, we read about kids who outsmarted their nemeses rather than resorting to fistfights.”

Alice Ozma
There is no doubt that Jim and Alice are very close – or that The Streak had much to do with assuring they would be so.  Jim also believes that all of that reading, and the general love of books that Alice developed, also had plenty to do with making her an accomplished student.  She was one of only three eighth grade students (of more than 300 in her class) to score “advanced proficient” in her state’s reading test; she had the highest PSAT in her eleventh grade class; and she won to first place awards in a national competition during her senior year. 

Alice believes that The Streak was “really more of a promise.”  She and her father promised to each other that they would always be there for each other, and the reading provided comfort and hope when they needed it most.  Jim and Alice believe in “the power of the printed word” and they feel a responsibility to treasure and protect it, no matter what.  The two believe that literature has the ability to change lives for the better.  Who would better know than them?

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Cat Who Is No More (Lilian Jackson Braun Dead at 97)

Bestselling author Lilian Jacskon Braun died on June 4 at age 97 according to her husband, Earl Bettinger.  Braun was the author of 29 "The Cat Who..." mysteries, a series she began in 1966 with The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.  According to Bettinger, Braun was working on the 30th book in the series at the time of her death.

After adding two more books to the series, Braun devoted herself to a full-time job with the Detroit newspaper, and eighteen years would pass before she published the fourth "The Cat Who..." book.  The last book in the series, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, was released by Putnam in January 2007, and what would have been book number 30, The Cat Who Smelled Smoke, has now been cancelled.

Braun, who was born on June 20, 1913, missed her 98th birthday by just sixteen days.

(I have seen Ms. Braun's books in bookstores for most of my life, it seems.  They are hard to miss in the mystery section because of the way the covers generally share a common design - but I never read one, always getting the impression that the books were of the "cozy" type more aimed at a female audience than a male one.  Whatever the case, she was a major figure in mystery writing for a long, long time, and I'm sure that her fans are saddened by news of her death.)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

I'd Know You Anywhere

Back in the summer of 1985, when she was still a naïve fifteen-year-old, Eliza Benedict was kidnapped by a man she stumbled upon in the woods.  Little did she know at the time, that Walter Bowman had just finished disposing of his latest kidnapping victim moments before she came upon him.  Walter himself was unsure how much Eliza might have seen but, taking no chances, he grabbed her while he had the chance.  He would hold her for almost six weeks.

Flash forward to the present where Eliza is now the happily married mother of two little girls of her own, little girls who have no idea how lucky their mother was to have escaped the hands of a serial killer when she just a few years older than them.  As for Walter Bowman, he now owns the record for most years spent on Virginia’ s Death Row, but it appears that his time is finally running out.

Imagine Eliza’s shock when, out of nowhere, she receives a “Dear Elizabeth” letter from the killer, a letter in which he describes his reaction to spotting her in a society party photo in Washingtonian magazine, “Of course, you are older, a woman now.  You’ve been a woman for a while, obviously.  Still, I’d know you anywhere.”  Now what should Eliza do?

I’d Know You Anywhere is first-rate psychological drama.  Much of the drama, of course, takes place in the present as Eliza decides how to deal with Walter’s request to communicate with her before he is put to death.  But Lippman, using very effective dramatic flashbacks to 1985, also details exactly what happened to young Elizabeth during the six weeks she was Walter’s prisoner, an experience that makes her reluctant to ignore his letter even all these years later.

What really happened to Eliza?  She has yet to figure out why she was allowed to live when all of Walter’s other victims were killed almost immediately after being kidnapped and raped by him.  What was so different about their relationship that she was allowed to live?  She is not the only one to wonder; the mother of Walter’s last victim blames Eliza for her daughter’s death.  Eliza will never know the truth unless she sees Walter one last time – but the executioner’s clock is ticking.

Fans of psychological crime fiction will be fascinated by I’d Know You Anywhere because of the depth into which Lippman gets into the psyches of her three main characters: Walter (the death row criminal), Eliza (his only victim to survive), and Barbara (the woman who passes Walter’s letter to Eliza).  The book, in fact, compares favorably to similar ones written by some of the genre’s masters, such as Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) and Elizabeth George.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (movie trailer)

On Tuesday I embedded a book trailer for Emma Donoghue's Room here on Book Chase because one look at it inspired me to add the book to my TBR stack.  It is, in my opinion, that good, and that effective, a book trailer.  It achieves everything it set out to do.

Today I am embedding a movie trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a film that is scheduled for release in December 2011.  I have not yet read any of the Stieg Larsson books (although I'm sure I'll get around to them eventually), so I know absolutely nothing about the book's plot.  Maybe that's why this movie trailer does nothing for me.  It makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo look exactly like about two dozen other movies I've seen over the years.

I'm curious, though.  I know that many of you have read the three books in this series already, and that some of you love them.  If you are one of those...does this trailer excite you?  Is this a "do not miss" movie?  Is this a movie trailer aimed exclusively at book readers?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic begins and ends with weddings attended by many of the same people.  But, despite the overlap in the guest list, and the fact that the two weddings are barely one year apart, they could hardly have been more different. 

As the book begins, Jack Griffin and his wife, Joy, are making their separate ways to Cape Cod to attend the wedding of their daughter’s best friend.  Another university year has ended, and Jack, too impatient to wait one more day for Joy to finish up her administrative work at the school, has left for the Cape without her.  Technically, however, he is not alone since he carries his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car and plans to dispose of them somewhere along his route to the wedding. 

The Griffins, who have been married for more than three decades, have weathered lean times and tensions with the in-laws to carve out a rather comfortable existence for themselves.  They have, in fact, attained the lifestyle that Jack’s own parents always yearned for, but never achieved for themselves – all of it centered on their work at a respected liberal arts college in Connecticut.  For Jack, driving to Cape Cod for the wedding is a bit like coming home.  As a boy, he spent part of each summer vacationing with his parents on the Cape, and it was where he and Joy had honeymooned.  All things considered, Jack Griffin is satisfied with his life.

One short year later, Jack is driving to the coast of Maine for his daughter’s wedding, but much has changed.  He is still carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk, but this year his father’s urn has been joined by a second one containing the ashes of Jack’s mother.  Like last year, he and Joy are making their separate ways to the wedding – but this time each of them has brought along a date.  The flaws in their marriage, obvious during the first wedding weekend, have seemingly doomed it just one year later.

That Old Cape Magic is told from Jack Griffin’s perspective, the reader ensconced in Jack’s head for a series of flashbacks going all the way back to his boyhood.  Jack is an introspective man and, as he considers the events of his childhood and his relationship with his parents, the reader begins to understand Jack Griffin, the man.  He has reached a threshold in his life – his marriage seems over, his parents are dead, his only child has just married, he has been granted a leave of absence from the university, his Hollywood screenwriting job is not going well - and he has no idea what comes next.    

That Old Cape Magic might be one man’s story, but Jack Griffin’s contemporaries will easily identify with it and the realization that little things, given enough time, and occurring in the right combination, can ultimately chip away at one’s whole world.  Russo uses a good bit of humor (his daughter’s wedding rehearsal is genuinely hilarious) and over-the-top characters (Jack’s parents are unforgettable snobs of the first order), however, that make this one fun despite its rather somber theme.

Rated at: 5.0