Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Chase: 2012 By the Numbers

Another calendar year is in the books and in just three weeks, I will mark the completion of six years of Book Chase - and I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to Year Seven with as much excitement as I felt on day one (January 20, 2007).  Because I retired from the rat race three days ago, I should have more free time to devote to the things I most love doing.  How that will affect Book Chase is anyone's guess, but I can't wait to find out.

I always enjoy looking at the year-end numbers because they bring back lots of good memories.  So here goes:
Number of Books Read - 134

Fiction - 102:
Novels - 94
Short Story Collections - 8

Nonfiction - 32:
Memoirs - 12
Biographies - 5
Books on Books- 2
Business - 2
Travel - 2
Other- 5
Sports - 1
Science - 1
History - 2

Written by Men - 91
Written by Women - 40
Co-Authored by Both - 3

Audio Books - 5
E-Books - 10
Library Books - 39
Review Copies - 87
Started but Abandoned - 9

Translated: 5
Pages per Day: 110

Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 40,200 
And now, it's on to 2013.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Trailer of the Week - Ken Bruen's "White Trilogy"

I have been fascinated by Ken Bruen, both the man and his books, for a few years now, so I'm really happy to see that some of his earlier work is being re-published for those of us that were a little late getting to Ken.  And, that leads me to what will be my final 2012 Book Trailer of the Week.  The video I've embedded here is part of an announcement from Mysterious Press about the publisher's decision to bring back Bruen's "White Trilogy."

Ken Bruen, known as the "Father of Irish Crime Fiction," captures the tone of his books perfectly when he says that he believes in "dancing on the Titanic."  He and his characters always manage to find some humor in even the bleakest moments of despair (maybe that's an Irish thing), so I can easily imagine that the author would indeed have danced on the decks of the Titanic right up to the final moments.  Check this out:

  (17th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

March Madness for Book Lovers

Now this is my kind of "March Madness."

It won't be long before the 9th Annual Morning News Tournament of Books kicks off.  If you are unfamiliar with the rules and set-up of the competition, take a look here, and put this one on your March calendar.  It's fun, you meet some great new book people, learn about some fiction you may be in danger of letting slip through the cracks, and you get an opportunity to contribute your own thoughts along the way.

I enjoyed following along the last couple of years, and I'm looking forward to the 2013 competition, even though I've only read two of the 16 books that will be going head-to-head this year.  I'm familiar with several others on the Short List - and I have to admit that I'm surprised at some of the titles that were culled from the Long List to arrive at this "Sweet Sixteen."

Friday, December 28, 2012

Half-Blood Blues

By the time I finally picked up a copy of Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s novel already had quite a reputation going for it, the result of having won Canada’s Giller prize and having been a short-listed candidate for Britain’s Booker Prize.  I am happy to report that this story of three black jazz musicians, who find themselves trapped in Paris when Hitler’s Nazis overrun the city, largely lives up to that reputation – except for maybe a quibble or two I will mention later.

Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones have known each other forever.  The two grew up together in Baltimore where they honed their musical talents to so a high level - Sid on base and Chip on drums - that they would become popular in Berlin as the core of a jazz band they called the Hot-Time Swingers.  But they really hit the big time when they add trumpeter Hieronymous Falk to the mix.  Hiero, a mixed-race German, is so special a talent that he catches the attention of one Louis Armstrong - who invites the band to join him in Paris to cut a record.

The tough decision to shut things down in Berlin is made easy for the band when Hitler labels jazz as “degenerate music” and bans public performances of it.  When the Hot Swingers, including its German members, realize that more than their mere livelihood is at stake, the scramble is on to find papers good enough to get them across the border and on their way to Paris.  Little do they know it, but Hitler’s army is not all that far behind them.

Sid Griffiths, the book’s narrator, tells this intriguing story from the perspective of just over fifty years in the future.  Sid and Chip are old men living in 1992 Baltimore with plans to attend the imminent Berlin debut of a documentary film honoring the now legendary jazz trumpeter Hiero Falk.  Hiero, caught in a Nazi roundup of “undesirables,” has not been heard from since the day of his arrest and is presumed to have died in a Nazi death camp.  The mystery surrounding his arrest, details of which only Sid knows, have turned Hiero into the kind of musical legend that only dying young can do for a musician. 

Esi Edugyan
But Sid knows the whole story, and even though the truth is still eating at his soul, he does not really expect, or want, to go public with it.  Surprise, surprise, Sid.

Esi Edugyan has Sid speak in the vernacular of jazz musicians of the thirties.  While this initially slows the reader down, once the speech pattern becomes familiar, this technique gives Half-Blood Blues a feeling of authenticity it otherwise would not have had.  This does, however, bring me to my first “quibble.”  When Sid is thinking out loud for the reader, he sounds nothing like he does in conversation with his friends - even in 1992 – and that is sometimes a little jarring to the reader’s ear.

 But more importantly, the book’s ending does not quite measure up to the hugely dramatic build-up leading to it.  Perhaps unrealistically, I was hoping for more.  I did, however, still very much enjoy this one, and I suspect that I will be thinking about it for a good while, so if you like WWII history from a civilian point-of-view, you will likely love Half-Blood Blues.  Esi Edugyan is most certainly a talent to be watched.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Advice for Struggling Writers from Anne Rice

This is a great pep talk for struggling new writers, or those who are still dreaming of taking that first step toward a writing career.  Anne Rice is just so enthusiastic and sincere in this video that I feel better about life just for having watched it.  She's a jewel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year

By the middle of 1863, it was obvious to most observers that the Confederacy was doomed; it was only a matter of time.  If the North could just find the will to keep fighting, the Union would survive.  But only eighteen months earlier, the outcome had been very much in doubt, and were it not for the particular talents of one man, things might have turned out very differently.  As often seems to have happened throughout history, the right man was in the right place just when he was most needed: Abraham Lincoln was in the White House.

Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year is David Von Drehle’s account of how Lincoln, during 1862, evolved into exactly the leader the United States so desperately needed if the Union were to win the Civil War.   The book offers a month-by-month account of the challenges faced by a President in command of an army led by one incompetent general after the other.  Von Drehle makes a strong case that if Lincoln had not been up to the challenges of 1862, the military successes of 1863 may never have happened because it could very well have already been to late by then.

Lincoln’s first task was to build an army almost from scratch.  The military was unprepared to fight a war of the scale of the one it now faced, and the thousands of newly recruited soldiers depended on a handful of experienced officers (thanks to the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848) to get them ready for combat.  By 1862, Lincoln expected his army to be the aggressor, but he had little luck in finding a commanding general capable of taking the fight to the enemy.  That he allowed the incompetent egomaniac George McClellan to keep overall command of the Union army for as long as he did was, perhaps, Lincoln’s biggest failure.  But by the end of 1862, when he had finally ridded himself of the insubordinate little man, it was obvious that Lincoln had solidly redefined his role as Commander-in-Chief - and that he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to win the war.

David Von Drehle
Incompetent generals with no game plan were not Lincoln’s only problem.  The civilian population of the North did not seem to have any more of a will to fight, or confidence in ultimate victory, than most of his generals had.  His cabinet was, by Lincoln’s choice, filled with political rivals with agendas of their own.  And in addition to his political problems, the president had to overcome the great personal grief of losing a son to typhoid, and had to endure the erratic, often embarrassing, behavior of his wife as she tried to cope with the same loss.  Not a moment of peace, would this president know.

But, endure it, he did, and in the process, Lincoln would claim his place in history as one of the greatest leaders, especially in time of war, that the world has ever seen.  David Von Drehle’s account of the year Abraham Lincoln “invented the modern presidency” is a fascinating one that now has a permanent home on my bookshelves.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

As 2013 Fast Approaches

This is the time of year when most folks pause for a moment to contemplate the year just completed and  the new one fast approaching.  Sadly, if what I recall is correct, it is also the time of year during which more people are overwhelmed by despair and loneliness than at any other time of year.  With all the stress on family, happiness, and spending associated with the whole holiday season, it is easy enough to understand why this happens.

Too a much less tragic degree, this year I am even seeing it happen in the book blogging community we all share.  In the last week, I've seen notices from three book-bloggers that they are shutting things down for good - after periods of six, three, and seven years of sharing their love of books with the rest of us.  Two of them even shut down comments so that no one could try to talk them out of quitting or even say goodbye, a decision I find kind of sad.

Believe me, guys, I understand why you're doing it.  As much as we love what we do with our blogging, it does have a way of taking over one's life.  I sometimes find myself scheduling the rest of my week around the time I need to spend on my blog posts and reviews.  Even though all the stress is self-induced, stress by any other name is still stress.  I get it.  I doubt there is a book blogger out there that has not, at one time or another, considered shutting things down.  I know that I have...more than once.  But I keep coming back, and Book Chase turns six years old on January 20, 2013.

I do think I'm going to have to take a slightly different approach, though, if I'm going to get the most out of blogging next year.  At least for a while, I'm going to be more selective than ever (and I was already pretty damned selective) about the books I take on for reviews.  I'm the kind of guy who reads every word of a book I review - and I strive to review every book I receive.  Don't get me wrong, I love doing it, and my main goal has always been to spread the word about as many books as possible.  I hate, absolutely hate, the thought of good books just slipping through the cracks of a world dominated by the kind of trash that dominates today's bestseller lists.

But it all takes time - and I want to spend some of that time re-reading some of my old favorites, along with new work from authors I love most.  My taste has definitely changed (I like to think it has grown) over the years, and I need, if I am going to stay enthusiastic about my reading, to concentrate on  the kind of reading that still excites me.  Too, I've promised myself for a long time that I was going to go back and read some of my favorite series all over again, one-by-one.  I'm starting on one of those series tonight, in fact: James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books.  There are something like 19 in the series, and my first edition copy of book one, The Neon Rain sits on my desk right now, just waiting for me.

So, here's to a fresh start in 2013.  Hang in with me if you can.  There are likely to be fewer new books mentioned next year, but I really want to share with you the books that I love, and have loved most for a long, long time.  Thanks for being here.

Merry Christmas, Book Lovers

Even Santa enjoys a good book now and then.

Here's hoping everyone has a wonderful Christmas with family and friends.  Stay safe and warm.

The weather here in the Houston area is fairly miserable for the second year in a row.  We had a loud mid-morning thunder storm, lots of wind, and the temperature will drop almost forty degrees when the sun goes down this evening (that's only into the low thirties, however).

I hope you get (and give) lots of books and bookstore gift cards for Christmas because, of course, we all need more books.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"

I picked up my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories again this afternoon and, after flipping through it for a minute or two, settled on the 31-page short story "Sonny's Blues."  James Baldwin wrote this one...and, I'm strictly guessing here...sometime in the late fifties, and it is a beautifully written experience for the reader.

Frankly, it caught me a bit by surprise.  I was initially unimpressed with what seemed to be a straightforward account by a Harlem man of his younger brother's arrest and imprisonment for using and selling heroin.  It is the classic story of two brothers, one who works hard to make something of himself, the other who succumbs to the temptations of the neighborhood streets.  Nothing new, there.

James Baldwin
But very subtly, the story shifts to one about a man's addiction to music and his sadness that his brother will never understand how much music means to him and to those that share his addiction.  Sonny knows that his older brother will never understand their relationship, or him, unless he finally hears music the way Sonny feels it as he plays it.

The moving part of this story has nothing to do with the musician's struggle to stay clean or with the older brother's attempts to help him through that pain.  (In fact, the saddest thing about "Sonny's Blues" is that, despite the troubled Harlem neighborhood Baldwin describes, the story reads more like a description of the last days of a golden age for black families...a far more innocent time.)  No, the moving (and most beautiful) part of the story is Baldwin's description of Sonny's performance in a jazz club, during which the story's narrator finally understands his brother, through having truly felt the music for the first time in his life.

Every musician should read this one because the last two pages of it are very special - James Baldwin got it, and he expresses it here as only a great writer could have done.  Powerful stuff.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Little Wolves

Little Wolves is a tough novel to explain.  I understand why some people do not like to see the word “literary” used to describe a novel type but, for lack of a better word, I am going take the notion one step farther and will call this one “literary crime fiction” – or “literary thriller.”  That is exactly what Little Wolves is: a character and setting-driven novel with a plot encompassing elements of both the mystery and thriller genres.  It has an exciting story to tell, and it tells it in literary fashion.

Lone Mountain is one of those 1980s Minnesota prairie towns in which everyone pretty much knows the business of everyone else, a place where personal grudges are sometimes carried for decades, and even passed from one generation to the next.  And when, shortly after the arrival of a new pastor and his wife, the town is shocked by the shotgun murder of Sheriff Will Gunderson by a local teen, a violent chain of events is unleashed that will finally expose the ugly core of this little community. 

As Grizz Fallon, the young murderer’s father, tries to make sense of what his son has done, he learns how little he really knew about what was going on in the boy’s day-to-day world.  But the more he discovers about his son and what drove him to kill, the more resistance Grizz gets from the remaining town sheriff, a man who has had it in for Grizz for a long time.  Grizz, though, believes that he failed his son and, despite being warned to mind his own business, he will not rest until he knows the truth about what happened on that bloody morning.

Thomas Maltman
Grizz is not the only one feeling guilty.  Clara Warren, the new preacher’s wife, now believes she could have prevented the shooting if only she had had the courage necessary to do so.  Clara, who has a strange personal connection to the town, encouraged her husband to take the Lone Mountain job for reasons she has not been entirely honest with her husband about.  But the more she learns about her past, and its connections to the present, the closer she comes to cracking from all the pressure.

Thomas Maltman has written a complicated novel, one that can be read and enjoyed on several levels.  The novel has the kind of action that most pleases thriller fans, and the mystery at its core is an intriguing one.  Even better, it is filled with well-developed characters (of the hard-to-like, but easy-to-understand variety) and a complicated set of dual plots (filled with literary references) that tie together beautifully at the end. 

Now that I think about it, maybe I should have called it a “literary page-turner.”  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Best Books of 2012

2012 was another good year for readers, one in which many of our favorite authors produced new books while fresh new voices got our attention with wonderful debut novels and short story collections of their own.  It was also a year during which the memoir genre remained very hot and new takes were offered on some of history's greatest figures.  Even though I neglected nonfiction titles a bit this year, I believe that my nonfiction list is one of the strongest ones I've had in my six years of producing year-end Top Tens.

Best Fiction of 2012

  1. Edge of Dark Water - Joe Lansdale (This redneck river adventure is like reading something written by a Mark Twain on steroids.  Not for the faint of heart...and that is a really good thing.
  2. The Angel Makers - Jessica Gregson (World War II fiction with an interesting twist about wives who have finally had enough from their abusive husbands.  I still think about this one sometimes.)
  3. Heading Out to Wonderful - Robert Goolrick (Sometimes "wonderful" is not good enough, as two star-crossed lovers learn the hard way.  I love the setting and atmosphere of this haunting novel.)
  4. The Headmaster's Wager - Vincent Lam (A Saigon schoolmaster gambles with his son's future as the city falls to its North Vietnamese invaders.  Really captures the mood of the times.)
  5. The Solitary House - Lynn Shepherd (Dickens fans will feel right at home in this London setting and will even recognize a few Dickens characters doing their thing...lots of fun.)
  6. The Round House - Louise Erdrich (2012 National Book Award Winner, a coming-of-age novel in which a boy comes of age while his parents are themselves aging under very traumatic circumstances.)
  7. Canada - Richard Ford (Sometimes crossing a border, be it an emotional or a national one, does mean you can never go home again - if you ever had a home to begin with.)
  8. The World without You - Joshua Henkin (An emotional Fourth of July weekend during which a family gathers to mourn a lost son, brother, and husband - and learns that the family can never again be the way it was.
  9. The Beautiful Mystery - Louise Penny (Set in a remote Canadian monastery, this is a takeoff on the classic locked-door mystery structure in which a limited number of characters could have actually committed a murder - atmospheric and entertaining.)
  10. Malena - Edgardo David Holzman (The world sat back and watched Argentina nearly destroy itself.  Holzman puts a face on a handful of the "disappeared" and makes us wonder how we could have let this happen.)

Best Nonfiction of 2012
  1. The One - R. J. Smith (Soul singing pioneer James Brown lived a very publicly self-destructive life, so we think we know all about him.  Well, here's the rest of the story...all of it.)
  2. Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year - David Bon Drehle (1862 was a make-or-break year in American history, and thanks in large part to the personal efforts and skills of one man, the country managed to survive.  A permanent addition to my shelves)
  3. Game Over - Bill Moushy and Bob Dvorchak (The Penn State child-rape scandal was every bit as bad as you feared it was - and much worse.  You won't believe what some "good people" did to cover this one up while more boys were being molested on campus.)
  4. Private Empire - Steve Coll (A frank and detailed history of the corporate evolution of Big Oil's ExxonMobil, this is a fair a representation of Big Oil as I have seen in a long time.)
  5. Mr. Churchill's Profession - Peter Clarke (Few people realize how dependent Churchill was on the revenue earned from his books.  Very interesting book that approaches the famous politician from a whole new angle.)
  6. Wild - Cheryl Strayed (One woman's walk-for-her-life, and one of 2012's best selling memoirs. A very frank look at one woman's life...a woman who is quite a writer, as it turns out.
  7. The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe (Another 2012 bestseller - a man and his mother talk books as a way of making it through the final months of her cancer illness.  Book lovers will understand this one on several levels, I think.)
  8. Visiting Tom - Michael Perry (Everyone should be lucky enough to have neighbors like Tom and his wife.  Tom, one of the most patient men imaginable, shares his learned wisdom with Perry and the rest of us.)
  9. Holy Ghost Girl - Donna M. Johnson (An insider's look from a woman who grew up on the road as her mother followed a traveling tent-preacher from town to town.  A whole new world.)
  10. Elsewhere - Richard Russo (More about Russo's mother than it is about him, a relationship that dominated Russo's life from childhood to the moment his mother died.  Surprising.)

(Only books published between October 1, 2011 and December 15, 2012 were considered for these lists.  Most previous lists were based on what I read during the calendar year, regardless of publication date.  I will be following this more traditional approach from now on.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books

With one exception, Book Finds is an excellent reference for aspiring book collector/dealers and a good review for collectors who might be returning to the hobby after an absence of a few years.  The notable exception is the author’s limited handling of the multitude of online resources available to today’s serious collector.  (I am working with the book’s 2001 second edition, and there is a 2006 third edition that might be more complete in this area).  However, because of the rapid pace at which things change on the Internet, the author’s decision to present the information in summary fashion is probably as good as any.

But there is a lot more to Book Finds – and much of the information presented in the book is timeless.  Book Finds includes chapters covering “edition, condition, and scarcity;” the scouting of books; auctions and catalogs; collectible authors; collecting trends; signed vs. unsigned books; acceptable book repairs; safe ways to clean books; and dealing vs. collecting.  Depending on one’s previous experience, some of these chapters, particularly the ones regarding edition-identification and condition, have the potential of saving the reader a lot of money.

Five rules, according to Ellis, are the “glue that holds the process together,” and the new book collector or dealer will be wise to master each of them:

1.     “Specialization” – no one can know everything.
2.     “Condition” – when it comes to value, nothing is more important than condition
3.     “The Rule of Three” – “A book has to be worth three times what you just paid for it in order to make a profit on it.”
4.     “Keep Looking” – “Anything can be anywhere.” (attributed by the author to Larry McMurtry)
5.     “Trading” – “Never pay cash for a book when you can trade for it instead.”

Book Finds also includes an appendix, in alphabetical order, by publisher, showing how to recognize each publisher’s method of designating a book’s first edition.  While the appendix is far from being complete, the major publishers are included alongside some of the lesser-known publishing houses.  It is a good beginning reference that, for the more serious collector, can be supplemented by standalone volumes on the same subject.

Also interesting is the book’s final chapter, “1,001 (More or Less) Collectible – and Findable – Books.”  The list, more than a decade old now, is a fascinating look at which authors were hot at the turn of the new century, which others were expected to join them, and how easy it is to be wrong about collecting trends. 

These are interesting times for book lovers.  E-books threaten to replace tree-books, authors are self-publishing both in virtual and in print format, major publishers are struggling to find a business model that makes sense, and bookstores are disappearing as fast as record stores did in the early years of the century (and we all know how that saga ended).  Book Finds should help new book collector/dealers make sense of it all - and to make a little profit while they have a whole lot of fun.