Wednesday, February 29, 2012

No, E-books Can't Burn, But...

Tim Parks said some things in his recent New York Review of Books article, "E-books Can't Burn," that I find almost nonsensical.  I understand what he is trying to say, and I can see the logic he used to arrive at his conclusions, but his points are so near the opposite of my gut feelings about physical books and e-books that I find them ludicrous.

This is a section of that article (highlights are mine) that particularly makes me shake my head in disbelief:
The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
 Let's start with the last sentence.  This is a medium for grown-ups?  Hardly.  It is a medium with particular appeal to the gadget-minded children of today who are living in a world in which they have never known a day of not plugging in to some electronic game, music gadget, video player, or smart phone.  To them, e-book readers are the way of the world, another way to impress their friends (if friends are still impressed by someone reading a book, that is) that they are living "on the edge" of modern technology.  Most adults are perfectly fine with a physical book, thank you, and find, once the new wears off, that e-book readers are largely to be dragged from a drawer and loaded prior to the beginning of another business trip or vacation.

As for e-books "discouraging anything but our focus on where we are," I submit that longtime readers find it more difficult to focus on the written words electronically than by reading those same words in a physical book.  Distractions seem to more easily tear one's eyes from electronic ink than from the written page.  It has been my experience, and that of several I have asked about it, that one's retention rate when reading an e-book falls somewhere between what one retains in listening to an audio book and reading a physical copy.  Perhaps that is different for less experienced readers.

Experienced readers understand the value that different fonts and white spacing have in setting a mood and a pace for the reader.  They understand that reading a classic novel in an early printing and binding can be a very important part of the reading experience.  They understand that reading an e-book is a relatively sterile experience and that reading one e-book is much like reading any other e-book.

No, "e-books can't burn," but they can disappear into the electronic void at any moment or become inaccessible when an e-book reader crashes and burns.  Publishers and sellers (as Amazon has done) can yank them back to make changes and edits any time they want to do so.  Or, most troubling considering their ever-rising prices, e-book formats can (and will) change, pretty much making entire e-libraries obsolete when they do.

Do read Mr. Parks's article.  I expect that many of you will agree with him and that others will find much of what he says to be as ludicrous as I find it to be.  Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye (First Look)

I know it will sound strange, but I finally felt good enough to go to the doctor today.  Actually, I first went to the office and put in five hours of catch-up effort, physically crashed, and then managed to make my way to one of those pharmacy clinics where I was prescribed some 60 antibiotic pills to take over the next ten days.  I feel so awful right now that I probably won't be heading back to work until Thursday morning, at the earliest.  But, hey, I made a huge dent in what was stacked up and got everything done that was due by the end of February.

But here's some really good news.  I am a huge Anne Tyler fan, having read every novel she has written over her long career, and in today's mail I received an Advance Reader's Edition of her latest book, The Beginner's Goodbye.  This one is to be published in April and has this to say about itself:
Crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron has spent his childhood fending off a sister who wants to manage him.  So when he meets Dorothy, a plain, outspoken, independent young woman, she is like a breath of fresh air.  Unhesitatingly, he marries her, and they have a relatively happy, unremarkable marriage.
But when a tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed, Aaron feels as though he has been erased forever.  Only Dorothy's unexpected appearances from the dead help him to live in the moment and to find some peace.  And gradually he discovers that maybe for this beginner there is a way of saying good bye.
A beautiful, subtle exploration of loss and recovery, pierced throughout with Anne Tyler's humor, wisdom, and always penetrating look at human foibles.
 Considering that my fiction-reading-ratio favors men authors by more than a 2-1 margin over women authors, it was unlikely that I would so completely fall in love with the fiction of Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates the way I have, but the pair of them (different as they are) have been two of my top four favorite authors for over three decades now.  Ms. Tyler is much less prolific (as in not prolific at all) than Ms. Oates when it comes to releasing titles, so this is good day - and this one might just jump to the top of my monster-sized TBR stack.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The China Gambit

Political thriller fans demand a few specific things from the genra, among them: non-stop action, a plausible plot, and fearless good guys they can watch spoil the dangerous plans of the baddies.  It is a bonus when any of the main characters are especially believable or well-developed.  Allan Topol comes very close to giving his fans that bonus in his latest, The China Gambit, the first volume of his planned trilogy featuring ex-CIA agent Craig Page.

Since being pushed out of the CIA, Page, in the role of private consultant, has taken his fight against international terrorism to Europe.  But when he learns that his daughter has been killed while working on a “big story” for a New York City newspaper, Page puts everything aside to find out who is responsible.  When both Page and his daughter’s editor, Elizabeth Crowder, become convinced that Francesca Page’s death was no accident, they team up to avenge her murder. 

Unfortunately for those responsible for the murder, they have unknowingly killed the daughter of a man directly experienced in stopping just the sort of plot they are devising to cripple the United States economy.  Even more unfortunate for the bad guys, Elizabeth Crowder, though less experienced than Page, will prove to be a highly capable partner to him as their investigation takes them around the globe. 

Allan Topal
The China Gambit is a wild ride that will find Craig and Elizabeth working undercover inside both Iran and China, usually one tiny step ahead of those determined to stop them – when they are lucky.  Craig Page proves to be an interesting character with a long history and an intriguing worldview.  Topol does an admirable job of telling Page’s backstory in this first volume, but readers will likely learn much more about the man’s makeup in the last two books of the series.  Elizabeth Crowder, on the other hand, is almost too good to be true, considering that she has almost no hands-on experience in fighting (or even much being around) terrorists and what they do.  But she is not really too much of a stretch because, for most thriller fans, suspending one’s disbelief is second nature; it comes with the territory.  After all, do any of us ever really expect that our hero will die or fail in the end?  Consider how much more exciting political thrillers would be if we could achieve the impossible by convincing ourselves that things might actually go wrong for our hero.

Rated at: 4.0

Sleepy in Houston

It seems like I've been gone forever - and I suppose that, in the blogging world, four days is pretty much the equivalent of forever.  Frankly, I have felt so terrible during most of my MIA days that this is the first time I've even considered cranking up the computer.  Seems that I finally picked up the version of the Houston Crud that's been plaguing my side of town for the last three weeks or so, and it turns out that this bug is a hard one to shake.  Some of my co-workers (and my wife) have fought it over the better part of two weeks before returning to anything even close to feeling normal.

For me, with Friday and Saturday being by far the worst, it's only been a total of five days.  I'm a good bit better today, but I spent at least 20 hours sound asleep on Friday, followed by another 14 hours on Saturday.  In the middle of all this, two rooms of my house are being re-floored - and I slept right through it all.  Anyway, I'm planning to try to return to the office tomorrow.  Wish me luck with that.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money

Thanks to television networks such as The History Channel and A&E, hundreds of thousands of people now dream about getting rich off something they stumble on at a neighborhood garage sale.  A few of them even have high hopes that someday their flea-market habit will produce a steady enough profit to free them from the nine-to-five rat race they dread so much.  Maureen Stanton’s Killer Stuff and Tons of Money (subtitled: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America) is here to tell you that it is not nearly as easy as American Pickers and Pawn Stars make it appear to be.

Over the years, Stanton’s longtime friend Curt Avery occasionally has taken her along when he goes to work in the morning.  What makes that a rewarding experience for both of them is that Avery’s workplace is the multitude of flea-markets, estate sales, antique shows, and auction houses to be found on the East Coast.  He tries to pass on some of the knowledge with which his years of experience have rewarded him, and Stanton provides a little bit of free labor toward unpacking, re-packing, and setting-up his sales area.  Killer Stuff and Tons of Money is very much Avery’s life story.

Although it does a remarkable job of educating the reader via valuable tips on how to judge the authenticity and value of particular types of antiques, this is not an antique guide.  It is, rather, a portrayal of what one man goes through 52 weeks of the year as he tries to pay his family’s bills and put food on the table by hustling from one flea-market or antique show to the next.  It is a dose of reality for the dreamers that believe this is going to be easy.

Maureen Stanton
Curt Avery has been an antique picker ever since his boyhood days of digging for bottles in some of the nation’s earliest garbage heaps.  He probably, because of his reading and on-the-job studying of them, knows as much about antiques as most anyone out there.  Avery readily admits, however, that his instinct and his skill in bundling numerous bits of information to reach a likely conclusion about a piece guide his purchases as much as what the books tell him.  His is a world filled with con men, forgers, and fakes that fool even the most knowledgeable high-end antique dealers.  Avery has, of course, been burned numerous times by fakes (scary as that thought is to amateurs like us) but chalks his losses up as part of the cost of his education.

Maureen Stanton has written a painlessly educational book that at times reads more like a novel.  Following Avery’s ups and downs through the years and meeting some of the regulars with whom he competes is great fun.  As one would expect, those who make their living in the world of antique hunting and reselling are a separate breed.  Killer Stuff and Tons of Money allows the rest of us safe access to that world for a little while.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Black on Black Book Trailer Scores

Michael Ian Black, as of just ten minutes ago, was not a name that I recognized - meaning that I had no idea a new memoir of his is being promoted.  Then I stumbled upon this Simon & Schuster book trailer, a clever piece of film editing that allows Black to interview himself about the book.

So it's "mission accomplished", Simon & Schuster.  The book is now on my radar and, if I see it on the bookstore shelves, I will almost certainly spend a few minutes looking it over.  Who knows what might happen from there?

Rather than tell you anything about Michael Ian Black, I'll let you watch the trailer cold (assuming that many of you will also draw a blank on him like I did) to see if it makes you as curious about the new book as it made me.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sleep No More

Sleep No More is my first exposure to anything written by Greg Iles and, in fairness to him, I want to stress that I experienced the novel in audio book format, not as a printed version.  Although the book’s narrator did grow on me over the course of the book's ten CDs, his lack of preparation irritated me a number of times.  For instance, the man had no idea that Schlumberger is not pronounced to rhyme with hamburger.  Schlumberger is a French oil field service company, one of the largest in the world, and to hear its name mispronounced a dozen or so times in quick succession became a major distraction.  In addition, several of the book’s characters are from Louisiana and, in dealing with them, the narrator managed to mispronounce a city or two from that state and speak in one of the least authentic Cajun accents I have ever heard.

So remember that I am reviewing an audio book here – not simply a Greg Iles novel – and that one point has been deducted from my rating based on the quality of the audio work.

The storyline of Sleep No More is an intriguing one that kept me guessing for a long time whether I was reading a straight crime novel or a Stephen Kingish horror novel.  Its principle character is John Waters, who while attending the University of Mississippi had a passionate (and destructive) affair with a young woman who became Miss Mississippi while they were involved.  Sadly, just a few years later, Mallory Candler was raped and murdered in New Orleans.  Before her death, however, her bizarre behavior almost cost John Waters his life.

Years later, John Waters is married, has a little girl, and is making a good living as a Mississippi oil wildcatter.  His is a risky business, but he has been successful more times than not.  All is well in John's world until a beautiful young woman approaches him on the soccer field after one of his daughter’s matches.  The woman, Eve Sumner, leaves John with a knowing look and the same whispered word that he and Mallory exchanged when they wanted to sneak away together.  He is spooked by the encounter and cannot stop thinking about it. 

Greg Iles
Sleep No More is a better mystery than it is a horror novel.  Its best moments come when John is trying to determine exactly what is happening to him, whether or not he can trust his partner and best friend, and his fight to stay out of prison.  The horror aspect of the novel is not nearly so satisfying, at least in part because of the lack of closure provided by the book’s final pages.   

Rated at: 3.0

Monday, February 20, 2012

Abandoned: The Confession

I know how he feels...
I've been told that in parts of the Arab world a husband can legally divorce his wife by declaring to her three times in succession the words "I divorce thee."  Whether this old law is still actually practiced anywhere, I don't know.  What I do know is that I must say something very similar to John Grisham's The Confession: I abandon thee, I abandon thee, I abandon thee.

There, it's official.  No more will I have to suffer through the boredom of page after page of the recitation of facts about death row and the implementation of the death penalty in Texas.  Nor will I have to force myself through page after page of a recapitulation of the fictitious trial transcript of one of the book's main characters, a young black man on death row for something with which he had nothing to do.  Enough, already!  I can't believe I forced myself to endure this kind of thing for almost one-third of the book.

I refuse to go on...and I feel better already.  Damn it, guys, in a novel I want you to show me, not tell me.  When such a high percentage of a novel's pages (especially whole chapters) do this kind of thing, I may as well be reading nonfiction - and nonfiction on the same subject is almost always better written than this kind of rote regurgitation of fact after fact.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Library of America Reaches 225 Books on March 29

Did you know there are now 225 books in the Library of America series?  The LOA was founded in 1979 with the mission "to help preserve the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America's best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions."  It's first volume was Herman Melville, Typee, Oono, Mardi, and its most recent (number 225), David Goodis, Five Noir Novels of 1940s and 50s,  will be available on March 29.

I bring this up because this is my favorite series of books and one that I have been collecting for a number of years (although from my slow progress, you would probably wonder how it could really have been that long).  There are no modern books that look as good grouped together on a bookshelf as the LOA books.  The series comes in high quality cloth bindings in four basic colors: tan, blue, red, and green - all in very classy, traditional tones.  The cloth used is consistent within volumes of an author's work no matter what year the book may have been published, so removing the dust jackets and grouping them by color allows authors' works to be kept together.

This picture from June 2010 shows that I had only 14 LOA titles
(See middle section, 2nd shelf - double click on the photo)
Just today, I picked up two more of the Mark Twain volumes, giving me five of the seven Twain collections in the LOA series.  All told, that gives me 35 LOA books on the shelves - with two other brand new ones that I picked up in eBay auctions on Friday night arriving soon (I hope).

If you are a collector as well as a reader, you would do well to consider the Library of America books as something to enhance your collection.  These books are of such high quality that they will last forever and can be passed on from generation to generation as the core of a traditional American lit library.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stunning Colorization of Abe Lincoln Portrait

You'll have to take my word about the link I'm going to post below: It is going to be one of your favorite photos of the year.

This is a colorized portrait of Abraham Lincoln that will stun you with its clarity and realism.  You will notice (probably for the first time, as I did) that Mr. Lincoln was almost perfectly still during the taking of his portrait other than the movement of his hands - as evidenced by their blurring and the double image of the pencil he held.

I am truly amazed at the life and humanity color adds to a picture I have seen in black and white so many times.  The quality of this photo, as evidenced by the beard and facial creases, is breathtaking.

Go here for the photo (I didn't want to wait for permission to post the actual picture here).

Do make sure that you view the picture as close to full screen size as you can.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Authors Guild Fires Its Own Shot at Amazon

Monopoly Man

Yesterday the Authors Guild joined in the attack on Amazon for what so many in the industry see as that company's unfair business practices.  Mincing no words, the Guild hammered home its main points at the website:
Useful innovation should of course be rewarded, but we've long had laws in place (limits on the duration and scope of patent protections, antitrust laws, stricter regulation of industries considered natural monopolies) that aim to prevent innovators and others from capturing a market or an industry. There's good reason for this: those who capture a market tend to be a bit rough on other participants in the market. They also tend to stop innovating.
Amazon's reward for developing the wireless e-reader should have been that it would become a significant vendor of e-books and earn a profit commensurate with the value it added to the publishing ecosystem. Whether it would then continue to be a significant e-book vendor should have depended on whether it continued to innovate and provide good service to its customers. Amazon's reward should not have included being able to combine its wireless e-reader, deep pockets, and an existing dominant position in a related, but separate, market -- the online market for physical books -- to prevent other vendors from entering the e-book market. 
...through creative use of its capital and ever-growing market power, by compelling publishers to participate in its free book-of-the-month club for Kindle owners, by requiring public libraries to redirect their patrons to Amazon’s commercial website to borrow books for their Kindles, by starting an imprint to compete for authors now published by the largest commercial houses, and, no doubt, by countless uses of its powerful database of consumer behavior, Amazon continues to tighten its grip on the book industry.  
...Barnes & Noble is book publishing’s sole remaining substantial firewall. Without it, browsing in a bookstore would become a thing of the past for much of the country, and we would largely lose the most important means for new literary voices to be discovered.
A truly competitive, open market has no indispensable player that can call the shots. The book publishing industry has such a player, and Amazon is poised and by all appearances eager to use its muscle to rip up the remaining physical infrastructure of book retailing and the vital book-browsing ecosystem it supports. 
In my effort to make clear the Authors Guild's position on the Amazon vs. Other Booksellers war, I have done more quoting than I like to do.   Please click on the link at the beginning of this post so that you can read the whole thing on the Authors Guild website.  This is getting serious.  If Amazon keeps growing its market share at the pace it is growing now, we will ultimately be faced with higher book prices, fewer choices, and few bookstores left to put our hands on books before they arrive in the mail - if there are still physical books to mail, that is.  I, for one, am horrified by the thought of a book world dominated by e-books.

I collect books, not bytes.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Holy Ghost Girl

I have not experienced the kind of religion described by Donna Johnson in Holy Ghost Girl, but I have long been curious about what really happens in some of those large tent revivals that one ran across so frequently in past decades (and in lesser numbers even today).  How much money is actually used for the purposes for which it is donated?  Are any of the healings unexplainable, or are they all preplanned fakes?  What are these “men of God” like after hours, behind closed doors?  Are they believers or performers?  Donna Johnson, whose family became part of David Terrell’s traveling ministry when she was just three, is certainly in the position to answer these questions and, in Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir, she does answer many of them.

From Johnson’s earliest memory, her family was part of David Terrell’s inner circle.  Her mother was Terrell’s organist, and with her mother and brother, she traveled from city to city in Terrell’s personal vehicle alongside his wife and two children.  The families’ relationship was a close one, but it would be some time before Johnson was old enough to figure out just how close her mother and Terrell really were.

Johnson very effectively tells her story through the eyes of a child.  What she reveals from one chapter to the next is largely how she perceived events while things were happening around her.  She speaks both of the awe she felt at some of what she witnessed and the utter boredom that came with having to sit in a folding chair night after night (and during afternoon sessions) during the nearly weeklong revivals that she experienced for several years.  Johnson’s account of the ministry’s early days, days during which there was barely enough money for gasoline and fees to set up in the next city, is particularly affecting.  But she also visits the other side of the coin, when the money was coming in so fast that Terrell could squander much of it on separate, hidden homes for the lovers (including her mother) he stashed around the country.

Telling this story through the eyes of a youngster, however, allows some questions to remain unanswered.  There is little doubt that David Terrell did some good things.  Particularly impressive was his willingness in the 1960s to physically stand up to the KKK thugs who threatened his life, and tried to shut him down, when he refused to close his ministry to blacks even while working in the deepest South.  Less impressive is Johnson’s revelation about what Terrell and his inner circle really felt about blacks during that period – in their closed door, inner circle moments.

Donna M. Johnson
Frustratingly, no truths are revealed about the healing aspect of this type of ministry.  Johnson describes many of the successes she witnessed without ever questioning their validity.  Some of what she describes, if it really happened the way she recalls it, would certainly qualify as miraculous.  My disappointment with the book is that, considering how young its author was when she witnessed most of what she describes, I feel no closer to the truth about the healings than I was before I read her story.

But how anyone could possibly resist a memoir whose prologue begins with a sentence as intriguing as this one left on Johnson’s answering machine: “Donna, I don’t know if you’re coming to the funeral, but I heard Daddy’s gonna try to raise Randall from the dead.”

I could not.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Read Pulp Magazines Online

I've been playing all afternoon over at a site I stumbled upon called The Pulp Magazines Project.  The project is described this way on the website:
The Pulp Magazines Project is an open-access digital archive dedicated to the study and preservation of one of the twentieth century's most influential literary & artistic forms: the all-fiction pulpwood magazine. The Project also provides information on the history of this important but long neglected medium, along with biographies of pulp authors, artists, and their publishers.
All that is wonderful, of course, but the best part is that lots of the pulp magazines from the very early twentieth century (if not earlier) have been digitally reproduced there and whole copies of the magazine can be leafed through and read page-by-page.  These old magazines are fascinating even if you do nothing but read the advertising inside them.

I will warn you that the PDF versions of the magazines seem to take forever to open up.  The FlipBook versions, on the other hand, open up very quickly.

I can already see that I'm going to be spending a considerable amount of time on the site.  If you enjoy this kind of thing, take a look here.  When you get to the homepage, just click where it says "Magazines in the Project Archive."

Have fun.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This Mobius Strip of Ifs

Seldom have I run across a collection of essays as revealing, provoking, and inspiring as Mathias Freese’s This Mobius Strip of Ifs.  Freese is at a place in his life that lends itself to deep introspection about the “what-ifs” of a lifetime spent searching for the truth about himself and his relationship to a society of which he largely disapproves.  This collection of thirty-six essays, written over a period of four decades, chronicles everything from Freese’s childhood memories, to his battle to free himself of society’s conditioning and regimentation, to the loss of an adult daughter who succumbed to the chronic pain she could no longer tolerate and took her own life.  There are so many ideas packed into this 164-page book, in fact, that it is difficult to know where to begin discussing them. 

The essays themselves are divided into three sections, the first of which is titled by a Nietzsche quotation: “Knowledge is Death.”  In this section are pieces on things such as Freese’s experiences as a frustrated high school teacher, his later career as a therapist, his admiration of Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, and a scalding few pages about the pretentiousness and maliciousness of book-reviewing bloggers, “some of whom imagine they are literary critics.”

I find one quote from the Hitchens essay to be particularly striking – and revealing:

“To learn that most of what you have learned from the elders of your own family, your ethnicity and your nation is organized bullshit can be terribly frightening, ultimately moving and then considerably bracing.”

Mathias B. Freese
The book’s second section is entitled “Metaphorical Noodles” and focuses on Freese’s appreciation of a handful of actors and movies.  This portion of the book includes individual essays on Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, and Orson Welles, as well as one on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  Freese’s deep love of Buster Keaton’s work convinced me that finding some of Keaton’s early films is something I need to do.  Having enjoyed two of the films now, I thank him for that.

The third section of the book, “The Seawall,” is comprised of Freese’s thoughts on his relationship to his children and his “Remembrances of Things Past.”  The theme here, if perhaps a bit more concisely expressed, is much like what Freese presents in the book’s first group of essays.  Looking back on his life now, Mathias Freese can say, “I have few regrets.  It is what it is, it is what I have been given.”  He had to work very hard, for a long, long time, to reach this point in his life.  May This Mobius Strip of Ifs gently push the rest of us in that direction.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler’s fourth Philip Marlowe novel, was written just a few months after Pearl Harbor (published in 1943) but there are surprisingly few references to the war in it.  Perhaps this reflects Chandler’s take on how the war affected Americans of the day – that, unless a son or husband was in the military,  everyday life went on pretty much as normal.  Or maybe he simply did not want to clutter up his murder mystery with too many references to such a catastrophic world event.  Whatever his reasoning may have been, The Lady in the Lake still holds up well when compared to most of the crime fiction being produced today.

Philip Marlowe has been hired by Derace Kingsley, a perfume company tycoon, to find his missing wife, a woman Kingsley believes has run off to Mexico with her lover.  As a place to begin his search, Kingsley points Marlowe in the direction of the couple’s remote getaway cabin located in the California hills on Little Fawn Lake.  While being shown around the site, Chandler and the property’s caretaker, Bill Chess, spot a woman’s body in the shallow waters of the lake.  That is when Chandler realizes that he is dealing with something much more complicated than the search for a man’s runaway wife.

Raymond Chandler is deservedly well known for his noir fiction and The Lady in the Lake is representative of that style.  The novel is filled with strong characters bordering on what have become almost stereotypical types in noir fiction, all of whom play their parts well but offer little in the way of surprises.  Derace Kingsley is the hard headed businessman who has little time or respect for those who do not play in his league.  Al Degarmo is a brutal cop so confident and high on himself because of his unchallenged power on the streets that he has no fear of ever being exposedOn the other hand, two of Chandler’s characters do have a nice feel of authenticity about them: Bill Chess, the cantankerous caretaker at Little Fawn Lake, and Sheriff Jim Patton whose jurisdiction includes the lake area.  Patton, in particular, is one of those memorable characters with whom most readers will easily identify.

The flaw in The Lady in the Lake appears late.  As the book nears its finish, Chandler’s hardcore style morphs into what more resembles the Agatha Christie school of cozy detective fiction endings.  Trapped in a small cabin with the person he believes is a coldblooded killer and the lawman that can make the arrest, Marlowe begins a monologue during which he notes and eliminates, one-by-one, the possible suspects.  Marlowe does manage to spook his suspect into a fatal mistake, but it is always a letdown to the reader to have so much action take place “offstage.” 

The Lady in the Lake may not be considered classic Chandler in the way that The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely are, but Chandler fans will not want to miss it.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Its Amazon vs. Everyone Else in the Publishing World

Here's a bit more on Amazon Print Books vs. the rest of the Publishing and Bookseller World.

The Barnes & Noble decision not to sell Amazon-published books in its bookstores has been applauded (and duplicated) by two Canadian booksellers: Books-A-Million and Indigo.  In addition, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) has decided to boycott the books.

Too, according to this article on, Publishers Weekly has reported that the ABA-owned IndieCommerce company will not be listing any of the Amazon-published titles in its database.  Spokesman Matt Supko had this to say about the decision:
"While Amazon is seeking to distribute its print catalogue through conventional means, it seems that they are simultaneously pursuing a strategy  of locking in e-book exclusives which other retailers are not allowed to sell.  IndieCommerce believes that is wrong."
Whether any of these decisions has a significant impact on Amazon's business strategy remains to be seen, of course.  But it is becoming very obvious that the rest of the book world is not willing to sit back and allow Amazon to work its way toward a bookselling monopoly uncontested.  This is getting more and more interesting every day.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Amazon Plans to Open Brick and Mortar Store of Its Own?

The battle between Amazon and Barnes & Noble is starting to remind me of a chess match.  A few days ago (Feb 1, to be exact), I posted about B&N's strategic decision not to sell Amazon-published books in any of its brick and mortar bookstores.  B&N said at the time that the decision was a protest against Amazon's policy of tying publishers and authors to exclusive deals that would hurt other booksellers.  So, effectively, Amazon print books were being banned from the largest remaining bookstore chain in the country.

OK, Amazon, you're move.

Yesterday I read this article about what appears to be Amazon's decision to open up a test brick and mortar store of its own in Seattle.  Reportedly, this store will sell much more than just books, but if it does well in Seattle, it is easy to see Amazon stores spreading across the country - if not the world - opening up a walk-in market for Amazon print books.
We have heard that the time-frame of their first location starting up will be before the end of the year to capitalize on the lucrative holiday season. The store may also roll out towards the Fall when their own publishing imprint will officially launch and the first few books will be released. I expect it to launch soon after the Kindle Fire 2 is announced to maximize the exposure they are going to get.

OK, Barnes & Noble, you're move.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Nympho Librarian

You guys know how much I love and enjoy those old paperback covers from the fifties - as I've posted in several "Sinful Saturday" topics here on Book Chase.

Well, this one is destined to become one of my all-time favorites as it combines my love of books and libraries with my love of pulp fiction covers:

What a multi-tasker...he's still holding tight to his favorite book.

I hope all my librarian friends out there have a good sense of humor...if not, let me hear from you anyway.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Fallen

Once again, I find myself showing up late for a series of novels featuring several recurring characters.  Thankfully, as is the case with Jassy Mackenzie’s Jade de Long series, that is not always a bad thing.  The Fallen, Mackenzie’s third Jade de Long novel, works so well as a standalone novel, in fact, that I now want to go back and read her two previous ones featuring this feisty South African private investigator. 

Jade de Long is taking scuba lessons in St. Lucia while she waits for her boyfriend, police superintendent David Patel, to join her for the romantic holiday she has planned for them.  Still fighting the panic attacks that make it impossible for her to remain underwater for any length of time, Jade is grateful for the kind and patient attention she is receiving from dive instructor Amanda Bolton.  She genuinely likes the young instructor and is intrigued when she learns that only a few months earlier Amanda had been working as an air traffic controller. 

Things begin to go bad when David arrives with news about a personal matter that will adversely affect their relationship.  Jade, reacting badly to David’s revelation and not wanting to return to the cabin she shares with him, winds up spending the night in another man’s bed.  Then, before she can confront David about whether they still have future together, she discovers that Amanda Bolton has been stabbed to death. 

David offers to help the undermanned local police department with the murder investigation, and Jade, feeling some personal loyalty to Amanda, works with him every step of the way.  As Jade and David pick away at the few clues they start with, they learn just how complicated the situation they have stumbled into really is.  Each thread they pull on leads them in a new direction, adds suspects to their list, and puts their own lives at greater risk.

Jassy Mackenzie
Jassy Mackenzie certainly has a winner in the fearless Jade de Long character, but the greater strength of The Fallen is how she blends her characters into the fabric of contemporary South African culture.  The book offers enlightening looks at the dangerously high crime rates of the country’s major cities, everyday interaction between the races, and the environmental issues that threaten that part of the world.  All of this is so seamlessly integrated into her storyline that it is absorbed as just another element of a Jade de Long mystery.

The Fallen is not scheduled for publication until April 2012, so there is still time to read the first two books in the series, Random Violence (2008) and Stolen Lives (2010), before this new one hits the shelves.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Happy 200th Birthday to Mr. Dickens

Happy 200th birthday to Charles Dickens. I posted this little BBC biography a couple of years ago and was pleased to see that it is still available.  Take a look... the whole life of Charles Dickens told in just over four minutes.

 I haven't read any Dickens in several months but this is making me want to pull another one off the shelves.    Enjoy.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Good Father

Political assassinations are such horrifying events that we search for ways to explain them to ourselves.  We hope that the murderer is insane or the member of some extremist group so far on the fringe that he and others like him are exceptionally weird - and rare.  The last thing we want to believe is that these killers can spring from average families that include loving brothers and sisters, or that their parents are as surprised by their sons’ crimes as the rest of us.  A normal person should just not be capable of such a crime.  What few of us ever consider is the effect, both long and short term, this kind of crime has on the killer’s parents.  Dr. Paul Allen, the main character of Noah Hawley’s The Good Father, is one of those parents.

Daniel Allen’s parents divorced when he was seven years old. After the divorce, Dr. Allen moved from Los Angeles to New York to begin his new medical practice.  There he remarried, fathered two young sons Daniel barely knows, and became one of New York’s most prominent physicians.  In the meantime, Daniel was growing up under the care of a woman who could hardly care for herself, much less him.  In his teens, Daniel would move to New York to live with his father’s second family but he would never feel that he belonged there. 

The country is stunned when the man who seems destined to be the next president of the United States is gunned down at a Los Angeles political event.  The Paul Allen family receives an even greater shock when, just minutes later, they see on television that 20-year-old Daniel is believed to be the shooter.  Suddenly, the FBI is at Paul’s front door and television news reporters are right behind the agents.  This marks the beginning of Paul Allen’s quest to prove his son’s innocence, a journey that will see him put his new marriage at risk, consider the most outlandish conspiracy theories imaginable, spend thousands of dollars, and relocate his family to rural Colorado in search of a place to live in peace.

Noah Hawley
The Good Family is a book about obsession, rationalization, and false hope.  It is a book about blind love and parental guilt, but it touches on broader themes such as how one instant can forever change individual lives and the direction of an entire country.  The Good Family is about choices – those made and those not made. 

All of these are worthy themes for a book to tackle, but the story itself is surprisingly lifeless considering the depth of emotions Paul Allen experiences.  Paul is the only fully developed character in the book, causing all the rest, even Daniel, to feel a bit flat in comparison.  Too, the numerous case studies of famous real life assassinations, within which Paul tries to find some similarity between those assassins and his son, give the book a disjointed feel.  There are also the way too many reminders that Paul is taking a “scientific approach” to proving his son’s innocence, the same approach he uses in his practice to diagnose a mysterious illness. After the third or fourth reminder, I grew bored with the repetition and began to question the author’s faith in his readers’ memories.  This is a case of a plot and message being better than their execution.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Squeezing in a Few Pages on Super Bowl Sunday

Ferris Bueller Superbowl Commercial
As I'm sure all of you know, this is Super Bowl Sunday.  It's hard to hide from it, even if you might want to do that.  I had lunch with my dad this morning and learned that his assisted living is going to show the game in the little movie theater they have there.  It seats about 60 people, the sound is excellent, the screen is huge, and it looks like a great place for up to half the residents to watch the game together.  I think I talked him into watching at least the first half of the game there.

My wife is in the kitchen preparing a potato salad to feed twenty that we are carrying to our own Super Bowl party this afternoon.  So, all in all, I won't have much reading time today.  I have, however, finished The Good Father, a novel about the father of a boy who becomes a political assassin.  I did not find it to be nearly as moving a read as I expected it to be, so I have to call it a bit of a disappointment.  I'm going to gather my thoughts on that one for a couple of days before trying to express them in a formal review.

I decided to go to my Library of America Raymond Chandler collection to choose one of his "later novels" as my next book.  I settled on The Lady in the Lake from 1943, and I'm already hooked.  It really surprises me how contemporary this one still feels.  Except for the obvious references to telegrams instead of cell phones, and the like, this one could be set in today's world.  Of course, I'm only about 35 pages in, so that will likely change.

Well, I'm off to get in another few pages before it's time to get dressed for the party...have fun.

Friday, February 03, 2012

It's Not Too Late - But Hurry

"Dear World Book Night book giver."  Hey, that's me - and it could be YOU!

I received an email this morning alerting me that my application to participate in World Book Night on April 23 has been approved, so it looks like I'll be giving away 20 copies of one of my favorite books, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, that night.  I'm looking forward to the evening, and I plan to document the experience via a few photos.

But, even better is the news that it's not too late to land a U.S. spot in the event for yourself because the application deadline has been extended to midnight (not sure what time zone that is, so play it safe) on February 6.

Visit the WBN site from this link and sign up if interested.  All the details can be found there, including the application and a list of 30 titles from which you can choose your giveaway copies.  Should be lots of fun - and a very rewarding experience to boot.  Hurry...

Thursday, February 02, 2012

A Stranger on the Planet

Seth Shapiro is blessed, some would say cursed, with the ability to remember all the little things that have ever happened to him.  His estranged father tells Seth that he remembers “everything that’s not important.”  Perhaps what Seth remembers is unimportant to everyone else, but each specific incident he recounts in Adam Schwartz’s debut novel, A Stranger on the Planet, marks him deeply and helps make him into the man he becomes.

It is 1969 and the Shapiro family, having been abandoned by Seth’s father, is down to four: twins, Seth and Sarah; little brother Seamus; and Ruth, their 35-year-old mother.  Dr. Shapiro has moved out of state to start a family with his new French wife and Ruth is overly anxious about finding a new father-figure for the children.  Unfortunately for all of them, Ruth is the kind of woman willing to accept just about anyone she can plug into that slot.

The kindest thing one can say about Ruth’s relationship with her three children is that she means well.  She wants the best for them but, deep down inside, it is really all about Ruth.  Hers is such a fragile ego that she relies on her children for the kind of emotional support she should be offering them.  That their father seems oblivious to their existence (despite the financial support he provides), compounds their emotional instability.

Adam Schwartz
Seth, Sarah, and Seamus respond quite differently to their dysfunctional upbringing.  Seamus, too young to remember much about his father, looks to a strict adherence to his Jewish faith for the stability and structure he needs in his life.  Sarah and Seth turn to each other for that kind of stability, but react differently to their father’s indifference toward them.  On the one hand, Sarah accepts her father for what he is: a man too cowardly to confront his new wife’s feelings about his first family.  On the other, Seth never stops yearning for his father’s respect and love, but does not recognize how much alike he and his father are.  Each of them, to his detriment, finds it impossible to express his emotions.

Much of this coming-of-age novel is funny, some of it even laugh-out-loud funny – especially when Seth, in his refusal to compromise his beliefs or feelings, uses his wit and biting tongue to deflate the pretentiousness he often encounters.  But, as the years pass, and Seth continues his struggle to understand himself and his family, the serious tone of the novel becomes more and more evident.  The tragedy of a young man who cannot relate to the mother who raised him, but pines for the love of a father who wants as little to do with him as possible, can be hard to watch.   There is a lot to take from this one.

Rated at: 4.0