Saturday, March 31, 2012

John Irving "Encourages" Aspiring Novelists

My warped sense of humor causes me to find this John Irving piece kind of amusing.  I know (or, I hope) that Irving was trying to encourage aspiring first-time novelists to keep at it, but if I were one of those, this would probably scare the crap out of me.  This is nothing against Irving, by the way, because I generally admire the man's writing and he has written at least two novels that I consider to be among my all-time favorites.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Best of 2012 - First Quarter

Hard as it is for me to believe, we are already at the end of the first quarter of 2012.  This is proving to be one of my favorite reading years in a long while because it seems that everywhere I turn this year, I'm finding another great book to read,  That means that, although I read strictly from my TBR stack for the whole month of January, that stack seems to reach a record height about three times a week - and it's still growing.

To this point, these are my favorite novels of 2012 - books that entertained me, made me think, taught me lessons about the world, and kept me up way too late on work nights:

1.  State of Wonder - Ann Patchett - an unforgettable drama in the Amazon
2.  The Might Have Been - Joseph M. Schuster - baseball and life
3.  The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes - read this one very carefully
4.  Edge of Dark Water - Joe R. Lansdale - hillbilly noir
5.  The Angel Makers - Jessica Gregson - WWI historical fiction
6.  The Beginner's Goodbye - Anne Tyler - a deceptively simple tale
7.  The Detour - Andromeda-Romano-Lax - a WWII love story/thriller
8.  Taft 2012 - Jasons Heller - Taft runs for president in 2012
9.  Carry the One - Carol Anshaw - guilt carried for a lifetime
10. The Iguana Tree - Michel Stone - sympathetic look at illegal immigration

So much good fiction has found its way to me that my nonfiction reading has unfortunately suffered greatly.  Because I have only read seven nonfiction titles in the last 90 days, I am going to hold off until at least the end of June to post my first nonfiction Top 10 list.

I can't wait to see what surprises me in the second quarter.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

Because I have been an on-again-off-again fan of James Brown’s music since the mid-sixties, to me it feels like the man has always been there.  I remember him best as the ultimate showman, an impression that is easily confirmed by watching some of the many James Brown videos that are readily found on YouTube today.  Brown, because of the controversy surrounding his death and his multiple funerals, was a performer even in death, and I think he would have enjoyed and been pleased by that.  I thought I knew James Brown – or, at least, everything I needed to know about him, but R.J. Smith’s new James Brown biography, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, showed me just how wrong I was.

The One (which actually refers to the way that he emphasized the upbeat rather than the downbeat in his music) focuses on Brown’s career path, as it should, but manages to get inside the man’s head in a way that helps explain where much of his chronic reckless behavior originated.  James Brown, like all of us, was the product of his environment, his deeper culture, and his upbringing.  Unfortunately for those around him, he often embraced the worst elements of all three, making life for his several wives, his children, and his employees miserable, at best – and unsustainable, at worst. 

Smith documents Brown’s troubled life in great detail.  The failed marriages, the thousands of women who kept him company on the road, the children (most of whom he hardly knew), the drug abuse of his later years, the susceptibility to physical violence he could not always control, his mental abuse of band members – it is all there.  James Brown was an extreme control freak; band members did not work for him – he owned them – but few would argue with the results of his musical vision or his impact on popular music and culture.

R.J. Smith
One important part of Brown’s legacy is seldom spoken of today.  Largely because his music would eventually find a passionate white audience, he became an important figure in the civil rights movement of the sixties, often rubbing shoulders with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the era.  Brown saw himself as someone capable of unifying the races and he did his best to make it happen - even to the point of offending those of his own race who did not believe in the nonviolent tactics of Dr. King.  National politicians of the day, although they sometimes abused his trust, recognized the importance of having his support – support that would eventually trigger a financially crippling boycott of Brown’s music led by vocal elements of the black community.

The One is for anyone interested in music history, pop culture, the civil rights movement, or simply what makes all of us tick.  It is easy to forget (if we ever even realized the extent to which it was true) that James Brown was a real player in his prime, one of those important, but tragically flawed, people who comes around only every so often.  The One will go a long way in setting the record straight. 

(Below you will find one of the most famous live performances of all time, Brown's appearance on the TAMI show, which includes his signature song, "Please, Please, Please."  Enjoy

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Carry the One

Carry the One, the latest offering from Carol Anshaw, is sneaky.  The novel begins as a straight-forward description of a hippie-style wedding attended by the bride’s siblings but not her parents.  It is here that the reader meets the story’s main characters: siblings Carmen (the bride), Alice, and their doper brother Nick, along with Nick’s stoned girlfriend Olivia, Tom (a folk singer with negligible fame), and Maude (the groom’s sister).  Reminiscent of the wedding described by Mario Puzo in The Godfather, a good bit of steamy sex ensues amongst these six during the wedding reception. 

All is well as this sleepy, stoned, and mostly sated crew piles into one car to make its way back to the big city and individual lives.  Mere minutes later, their world is shattered when Olivia, who is behind the wheel of the car, strikes and kills a little girl trying to cross their remote highway.  Anshaw presents even this tragic accident and its immediate aftermath in a straight-forward account.  At that point, however, the novel shifts in a more literary direction in which the reader will follow each of these young revelers well into middle-age via a series of jumpy flashbacks.

Numerous lives are damaged by the way that ten-year-old Casey Redman dies.  Her parents, of course, suffer most obviously and most immediately, but they are not the only ones to sustain crippling damage to their souls.  Carmen, Alice, Nick, Maude, and Tom are perfectly happy to let Olivia take the entire blame for what happened.  But for the rest of their lives, they struggle to keep their personal guilt hidden – often even from themselves.  Tom, who seems least affected, walks away from the whole thing as quickly and cleanly as possible, only to resurface years later with an idea that will disgust the others.  And, although Olivia takes the biggest hit of all, none of them will ever be able to forget what happened that night.

Carol Anshaw
If nothing else, this group of friends is filled with overachievers.  One will become a prominent astronomer, one a painter of international repute, one a model/actress, and one a diligent political activist.  Each of them is, however, so insecure that they expect to find failure around the next corner.  After all, they deserved to be punished, do they not?

Carry the One tells a sad story, one that is much more complex than it initially appears to be.  It is about personal guilt, family, love, addiction, and recovery – recovery of several varieties, in fact.  Even though only one of the characters expresses her guilt outwardly, the life of each has been forever limited by the painful burden that keeps them tied together. 

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, March 26, 2012

Winner of Being Flynn Giveaway

Renee, you are the winner of the Being Flynn book-movie-tie-in with lucky number 19.  That was the second number to come up - but no one chose 17, so the book and Fandango bucks are yours.

Just send your mailing instructions to samhouston23 at gmail dot com and I will forward the information to the movie publicity people so they can send the prizes directly to you.

Congratulations to Renne, and a big thank you to everyone else who entered.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

B*itches in Bookshops (Bear with Me on This One)

First, I want to say that this post is not meant as a rant against rappers, nor what they so ludicrously dare call "music" (OK, I couldn't help myself - had to get at least one lick in).  But I could not post the following video without saying something up front because me promoting a video recorded in this style is not something I ever dreamed I would be doing; I normally would turn this kind of thing off as soon as I could find a place the right place to click.  Some of you might feel the same, but do give this one a chance because it has a positive message about reading - and, at this point, anything that can make reading a book "cool" to young people is probably a good thing. So, despite the depths to which popular culture has been dragged by rappers and the thugs who produce it, give this one a look.

Here goes.  Try to get past the title of the piece and listen to the message.  It will surprise you, I think.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Last Chance to Win Being Flynn

There is still time to put your number in the hat for a chance at the book tie-in to the new Robert De Niro movie, Being Flynn.  Right now, your odds will be pretty good since I have less than ten entries.

I am going to announce a winner on Monday afternoon, so there are just three more days to enter.  I received a copy of the book being given away by its publisher and it looks good.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Android Fully Loaded

I never take the time to go through the owner's manual of any device I purchase before I start pushing buttons and learning about it through what often turns into a painful trial-and-error process.  I just do not have that kind of patience.  And that probably explains why I am often later drawn to much better written manuals produced by third-party writers who seem to know everything there is to know about my new toy – and exactly how to explain it to me (with color pictures).  Android Fully Loaded is one such manual that caught my eye.  Even though I have been using my Android-based cell phone for about nine months now (after switching from one of the now failed Palm phones), I learned things from Rob Huddleston about my phone and its capabilities that I probably never would have discovered on my own.

Huddleston begins with several chapters on the general layout and screens of Android smart phones.  These chapters cover subjects that all but the newest users of smart phones will already be familiar with: various screen displays, using the phone to actually call someone (imagine that), where to find new applications (both free and sold), the Google calendar, and the set-up and use of Gmail and Email (which is almost always set-up for the owner by his salesperson).

Part II of Android Fully Loaded deals in much detail with the specific areas of maps, music, shooting pictures and video, and using the web from an Android smart phone.  It was in the music chapter of the book that I had my first revelation, in fact.  Listening to music via my phone is not something that I do a lot of mainly because that process is a real battery-eater for most phones, so I was perfectly happy with what I could do with Pandora (which allows the user to create his own "radio stations") and I-Heart Radio.  Huddleston, though, introduced me to Google Music, a service through which I uploaded much of my song collection to a Google server (20,000 songs can be uploaded at no charge) for playback at my leisure anywhere I can connect to the web.

The book's final section is entitled "Working and Playing" and includes separate chapters on documents, games, cool apps, troubleshooting, and more advanced topics.  These chapters will almost certainly introduce most users to a few applications that will make them wonder how they lived without those apps for so long.  What did it for me were applications like "Where" (which uses the phone's GPS system to locate businesses and the best gas prices close to me), "Walkroid" (a pedometer that works better than some I have paid as much as $40 for), and "Zedge" (which offers countless free ringtones).

Android Fully Loaded is likely to have something helpful for all but the most sophisticated smart phone users.  Newbies will appreciate the full-color illustrations (actual screenshots from the author's own cell phone) and more intermediate users will make use of the tips, shortcuts, and new applications found in the book.  Android Fully Loaded, which also covers Android tablets, is one of the best books of its type I have seen in a while.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Socialized Bookstores Next for France?

Because I am a firm believer in capitalism, I find something like this proposal from France to be totally misguided and destructive.  I don't know that the tax situation regarding is the same in France as in the United States but, if it is, the Minister of Culture there is overlooking the obvious.  Even if the sales tax policies are different, this is a bad mistake because businesses that cannot survive on a level playing need to adjust accordingly.

As it stands now in the U.S., Amazon only has to collect and pay sales tax to states within which the company operates a physical facility of some sort, usually a huge warehouse or two from which items are shipped.  That does, in my opinion, give Amazon an unfair edge on their competitors - businesses that have to collect sales tax on every sale they make.  Amazon is leeching customers from these other companies and, especially in this tough economic time, customers will continue to flock to any retailer that starts with an eight or ten percent immediate price advantage.  That's only consumer common sense.

Now Frederic Mitterand, the previously mentioned minister, is proposing a special tax on Amazon and large bookstores there to "help out" the smaller stores.  Why not just close the tax loophole that allows Amazon to pay so little tax in comparison to smaller companies?

Europe is not America; I get it.  But socializing bookstores is bad business and will, I imagine, have numerous unforeseen consequences for everyone - including consumers and those very bookstores that would receive the cash infusions.  Just watch book prices skyrocket in France - unless they are already regulated by the government of that country.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Anne Perry / Juliet Hulme (Part 4)

I am truly surprised that a series of posts that started on Book Chase more than four years ago is still drawing comments from around the world.  Those posts began as a discussion of my   reaction when I first learned that Anne Perry had been convicted and punished for her participation in a very brutal murder when she was a teen.  The many comments added to the posts have expressed shock, negative reactions (including a difficulty enjoying Perry's mysteries any longer), and substantial amounts of support for the author.

I know that Book Chase finds new readers every day, so I think it would be appropriate to post links to two of the earlier posts here as a way of exposing the discussion to some to whom the information might be new and interesting.  My personal opinion concerning Ms. Perry's crime and the irony associated with her choice of profession (author of murder mysteries) has softened a bit over the past four years, but I still find it impossible to read her work.  Others do not.

Hopefully, this will start a fresh discussion - and some new material associated with the murder and its aftermath will be brought to my attention.  To this point, I have learned of an Australian book on the subject, a video interview in which Perry discusses the murder with author Ian Rankin, a major film about the girls and the murder, and a documentary shot in Anne Perry's home.  Links to each of those have been included in prior posts.

To regular readers this is old news, of course, and I apologize for repeating myself to them.  Others, I hope, will find the subject to be as fascinating as I do.

Prior posts and all the details can be found here:

Anne Perry / Juliet Hulme (Revisited)

Anne Perry / Juliet Hulme (Revisited Again)

Monday, March 19, 2012


Justin Curfman’s debut novel, Wrecker, is a powerful condemnation of the horrible effects on a child that stem from neglectful (and, in this case, malicious) parenting.  I want to stress that much of the book’s power stems from how graphically its disturbing content is presented.  Some readers might be unable to finish this one; those who do make it all the way through will not soon forget it.

High school senior Sammy Fennell is working long hours in his father’s convenience store and looking forward to his high school graduation.  Sammy, though, has girlfriend problems that are like a ticking time bomb set to explode in his face.  With beer in hand and, hoping to win his girl back, he knocks on her mother’s door one night only to discover that her little sister is there alone.  Hours later, Sammy wakes up on the floor to the realization that the combination of too much beer and a wise-beyond-her-years young teen has led to a mistake that will almost certainly have tragic consequences for both of them.

Flash forward a few years, and Sammy is providing for his wife and two young children by driving a wrecker for the man who befriended him just when he most needed to meet someone he could trust.  But all is not well in Sammy’s young family: his new baby has serious health problems, his wife can barely cope with daily life since giving birth to the little girl, and his little boy is largely on his own until Sammy comes home every evening.   Bad as things are already, after Sammy is falsely accused of molesting his young son, they get a whole lot worse for the Fennells.  Forced by court order to vacate the family trailer, Sammy bunks at the wrecker yard and loses himself in his work – where he has developed the rather morbid hobby of removing and collecting the milometer from each vehicle involved in a fatal accident that he tows to the yard. 

Justin Curfman
Wrecker begins as an almost comical look at life in the small town South, and so slowly morphs into a story of shocking depravity and abuse, that what happens to young Eric Fennell packs a much more powerful punch than it would have otherwise.  Readers will likely be somewhat surprised again by the subsequent shift of tone that occurs when Curfman reveals the novel’s surprising ending.  This one is quite the rollercoaster ride.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Faded Love in Spring, TX

I did get some quality reading time in this morning, but I just wanted to share a little taste of where I spent the afternoon.  This is some footage I shot at a benefit for a local guitar player who is suffering from cancer and trying to raise money for his treatment.  His friends and fellow-pickers turned out for about seven hours of nonstop music on his behalf.

This is "Faded Love," and you would never guess from watching this that it was the first time these guys had ever played together in this combination.  With no rehearsal, they killed on this song (the young man in the red shirt and the fiddler with the pony tail are from an Irish rock band that calls Houston home base).  The rest of the group have played together a lot and are some of the mainstays of the Houston country music scene.  Lead singer is Leslie Sloan, a friend; the swing guitar is played by Wayne Turner; Harlan is on bass.  Enjoy.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Being Flynn Giveaway

An interesting movie hits theaters today and the folks at Focus Features have asked me to sponsor a giveaway here on Book Chase in support of the new film.

The movie, Being Flynn, is based upon Nick Flynn's 2004 memoir entitled Another Bulls-t Night in Suck City, the story of Nick's non-exsistant relationship with his father, Jonathan - a man he has not seen for 18 years.  Then his father suddenly reappears in Nick's world.

What will make this one especially interesting to avid readers like you guys is, I think, that both of the Flynn's are writers.  The movie's trailer gives a good feel for the movie's content and quality:

This looks like one of those ever-rarer literary films, something for grownups - the kind of thing that might actually get me back inside an actual movie theater despite my aversion to the noise and rudeness that represents the typical behavior of today's movie audience.  De Niro is, of course, a draw in himself and, although I am less familiar with Paul Dano's work, what I see of it in this trailer is impressive.

So, for a chance to win a paperback copy of the movie-tie-in novel and $25 worth of Fandango bucks, reply to this post with your choice of a number between 1 and 30.  I'll dust off my handy dandy random number generator to choose a winner some time in the next 10 days, depending on how many entries I get.

Additional links you might enjoy:

Official website 
Facebook Page                    

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Professionals

The longer we live in what is proving to be the worst recession since the Big One of the 1930s, it gets easier and easier to feel this might just be the new normal – that this is as good as it is ever going to get.  Especially hard hit, are the young people coming out of universities with no prospect of making a decent living for themselves.  Their study choices have not prepared them for today’s feeble job market, and now they face the prospect of moving back in with their usually less-than-thrilled parents.  Might a short-term career as a professional criminal be the answer?  Can they bank enough quick cash to last them far into the future, if not for the rest of their lives?  This is the premise of Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, a fast paced crime thriller entitled The Professionals.

Pender (the group’s de facto leader), Marie, Sawyer, and Mouse have been best friends for a long time.  University graduation, for them, is as scary as it is exciting because only one of the four has any idea what to do next, and he is not thrilled about doing it.  When, during a post graduation celebration, Marie jokingly mentions that they should turn to kidnapping for a living, she is surprised that the others are so willing to take her idea and run with it – and run with it they do. 

By keeping their ransom demands at the $60,000 level, carefully choosing their targets, and confining their crimes completely to the borders of their victims’ home states the four manage to stay well below the radar of the FBI and any other big-time crime investigators.  For two years, things go so well for the four that they hope to retire on their savings within another three years.  Then they make their fatal mistake by kidnapping a Detroit businessman whose wife has personal ties to the mob - and now it seems that everyone is after them: state cops, the FBI, and even more terrifying, the mob.  They learn within hours that they will not be allowed to walk away from this one because, even if they evade the law, professional hit men are already closing in on them.

Owen Laukkanen
Laukkanen creates quite a dilemma for his readers.  On the one hand, one recognizes that the good guys (who will, in fact, team up in subsequent books) are the female FBI agent and the state cop working with her.  On the other, the young kidnappers are all highly sympathetic characters who do not see themselves as real “criminals,” and it is easy to root for them.  Right up to the end of this wild ride, it is difficult not to hope for an ending that will somehow satisfy both sides. 

The Professionals is not a perfect crime thriller, but it is first rate.  Perhaps readers will have to suspend their disbelief a little more than they like to (especially when the mobsters and kidnappers clash directly), but it is worth it.  Laukkanen has shown a whole lot of promise with this first novel, and it will be interesting to see what the rest of the series offers.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Used E-Books

A headline over on the Chicago Tribune website caught my eye this afternoon.  Eric Zorn has written a short piece on the e-book pricing controversy in which he offers a tweak to the current business plan being used to overcharge (in my opinion) readers for "major" e-book titles.  The headline that caught my eye reads this way:
In the idea oven: 'Used' e-books
Zorn argues that even the backlists of many publishers are overpriced in e-book format, forcing buyers to opt instead for cheaper paperbacks or used copies of the books they want to read.  In the case of used books, as he points out, neither publishers nor authors receive a dime from the sale of their work to a second, third, or fourth reader.  Why  don't publishers instead, Zorn asks, drop their prices (based on the calendar, or otherwise) so that they and the authors sell more e-books and put money into the pockets of all concerned?

That started me wondering.  Would you (I know I would) buy more e-books if you had the right to sell them to another buyer, or even give them away?  I realize that the e-book bookstores would have to change their tracking mechanism in a way that would allow them to register the transfer to the new owner, but don't tell me they can't cope with that.

I would be a regular buyer of e-books if they were priced at $8 or $9 each and I knew that I could get half of my money back by selling the books to someone else.  What I will not be doing is paying $15 for an e-book - any e-book - and I don't see myself as the loser here.  I will take that $15 and buy a hard copy, the version I prefer anyway, a book I can resell, trade, or give away.  After all, unlike an e-book, I actually own a printed book.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Might Have Been

Baseball is special.  The number of novels about the game, both in quality - and certainly in quantity - probably exceeds that of all other sports combined.  The length of the baseball season, the pace of an individual game, and the potential for any player (regardless of size, position, or past performance) to be a hero for at least one day all lend themselves to good storytelling.  And, because good storytellers seem particularly drawn to the sport, baseball fans who read novels are a lucky bunch.

Joseph M. Schuster is one of those good storytellers, and the good news is that he has chosen organized baseball as the centerpiece of his debut novel, The Might Have Been.  As the book’s title implies, the hero of this story, however, is only a baseball hero if one considers perseverance to be the stuff from which heroes are made.  At age 27, Edward Everett Yates (who prefers being called by both his first and middle names) does make it all the way to the show with the St. Louis Cardinals, but what happens to him there is the very definition of tragedy.  He experiences the kind of nightmare one rainy day in Montreal that often crosses the mind of anyone who dreams of getting his name in the baseball record books as his only chance of making a mark on the world before he leaves it.  No one, though, will ever call Edward Everett a quitter. 

Now, fast approaching 60 years of age, he is managing a team barely perched on baseball’s bottom rung; it’s A-ball in the middle of nowhere.  The Might Have Been is the story of how he ended up there despite all the baseball promise he showed as a young man.  But it is also the story of countless other young men that Edward Everett coached and managed over a lifetime in the game – all of them, just like him, the best athletes to come out of their high schools and little towns in a decade and considered to be sure things when they left home.  Way too soon, they all learn that everyone in A-Ball left home with the same reputation and high expectations, that suddenly they are competing against equals and the game has become a whole lot tougher than it has ever been for them before.

The Might Have Been is a book about choices made and not made.  It is about lost dreams, the story of one man’s regrets and disappointment as he looks back at his life, wondering how he ended up where he did, but coming to the realization that it was a whole series of little spur-of-the-moment decisions that combined to make him who he is today.  As in the tradition of the best baseball novels, this one is about the game of life as much as it is about the game of baseball.  Baseball fans will certainly be intrigued by this frank look at life in the minor leagues, but even non-fans will appreciate The Might Have Been as the excellently written dramatic piece it is.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, March 12, 2012

On the Road Trailer

I see that a new lit-movie is headed our way.  This time it's going to be Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

I have always been repulsed by the whole "beat" scene, the hippie culture of the sixties, and the drug culture, for that matter, even though I came of age in the sixties and was exposed to much of it.  So for me personally, this is probably a no-go or, at most, a NetFlix experience, but I thought some of you might be curious.

Too, I have never read On the Road - my question to you is, should I?  Considering my distaste for the pretentiousness of that era, is there anything in there that might change my mind about Mr. Kerouac?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Taft 2012

Jason Heller and Quirk Books have timed the release of Heller’s debut novel, Taft 2012, perfectly.  Because we live in an era in which the “race for president” clamors for our attention three out of every four years, most of us have, at some point or another, longed for simpler times.  Now, just when things are really heating up again, along comes Taft 2012, an alternate history exploring what might happen if we were to get at least part of our wish.

It seems that William Howard Taft, America’s 27th president, disappeared on the very morning in 1913 that his successor, Woodrow Wilson, was inaugurated.  He was never seen again – until the 2011 morning that, covered in dirt and mud, he stumbles into the White House Rose Garden.  Perceived as a serious security threat, this bear of a man is wounded by a Secret Service agent assigned to protect the White House’s current resident.  After DNA testing confirms his target’s identity, this same agent will be assigned to protect the man he shot, 154-year-old William Howard Taft.  That is when the fun starts.

William Howard Taft
Taft is understandably shocked by the modern world he wakes up in, but his natural curiosity and adaptability serve him well.  Not long after being introduced to his congresswoman great-granddaughter and her family, he is appearing on a CNN-like network to be presented to the world – and the world likes what it sees.  That is when the “draft Taft,” movement first makes itself felt, eventually leading to an all-Taft, third-party ticket to take on the establishment candidates offered by the Democrat and Republican parties.

The first half of Taft 2012, during which Taft learns about all the technological and social changes to the world he woke up in, is its strongest half.  Even though he is not nearly as shocked by the changes as one might expect, it is still great fun to watch Taft’s initial reaction to things like cell phones and Google.  Too, Taft’s first contact with “the public” is often humorous and touching.  The book’s second half, a more serious look at Taft’s struggle with modern politics and what is being asked of him, suffers a bit in comparison.

Jason Heller
Regular readers of alternate history know that one has to leave “disbelief” at the door.  Others may need to keep reminding themselves that a suspension of disbelief is one of the requirements if they are to enjoy books like this one.  Taft 2012 is a mix of political satire, alternate history, and humor.  More importantly, especially considering the current political environment, this one makes politics fun again – in only for a little while.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, March 09, 2012

Little Shutesbury (MA) Library Needs Your Help

Here's a worthy cause that is getting more national, even world, attention than the creators of this little video probably ever dreamed would happen.  It what you see, dear readers, touches your heart, why not send a few bucks their way?  They will appreciate it, and so will I.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Four D

Gregory Morrison has written one of the strangest (and most interesting) books I have read in the last several years.  Four D, Morrison’s collection of four short stories, is both confounding and thought provoking.  At times, particularly during the book’s first offering, “Space,” I had little idea where the story was heading or what had really happened in the portions of it I had already read.  I hate to admit it, but the story was probably over my head.  Hoping to clear up at least some of my confusion, I pressed on to “Four Rooms.”

“Four Rooms” is not quite as surreal as “Space,” and I was able to lose myself in this story of a young woman trying to negotiate her way through a series of interconnected rooms and doors.  She has no idea why, or how, she has ended up in such a place, but she is determined to escape this trap.  Several times, she finds herself at what seems like the end of the line – much like what one experiences in working a maze puzzle – but eventually, sometimes through sheer luck, manages to find her way to the next room.  Again, I am not at all sure of Morrison’s real meaning here, but I enjoyed the nerve-wracking atmosphere the story evoked.

Gregory Morrison
Morrison uses a much more straightforward, linear approach in the book’s third story, “Luigi.”  Luigi wants to change his life, and he does it by burning every bridge linking him to his past and present life.  That includes employers, friends, and lovers.  He is not a man I would want to sit down to dinner with, but Luigi is a character that I will remember for a long time.  Watching him so recklessly dismantle his life is similar to the feeling one gets when trying not to stare at the aftermath of a bad car wreck while slowly working one’s way around it.  This is an excellent short story.

The final story, written more in the surrealistic style of the first two, is entitled “Guest” and, at only 18 pages, it is by far the shortest story in the collection.  The story’s brevity, however, did not make it any easier for me to understand its author’s intent or message.  All I can say for certain about reading this one is that it left me with a distinct feeling of dread - a very moody story.

Four D is Gregory Morrison’s debut work.  While I will remain somewhat bewildered by most of what he has written here, I sincerely applaud him for the creation of “Luigi.” 

Rated at: 3.0

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye

For Anne Tyler fans (among whom I count myself), the arrival of a new novel of hers is a major literary event.  Tyler’s way of creating wonderfully quirky characters and placing them in universal life situations is probably what attracts so many of us to her work.  Her fans know not to expect lots of action or overly complicated plots from her; the woman writes beautiful novels about people and what makes them tick.  She has done it again with Aaron Woolcott and The Beginner’s Goodbye

Aaron Woolcott and his spinster sister, Nandina, run Woolcott Publishing, a company with two basic sources of revenue: what, before the advent of self-published e-books, was called “vanity publishing” and a long series of books for “beginners” that are even more dumbed-down than the real-world “for dummies” series that is so popular.  Aaron has recently lost his wife in a tragic, fluke accident and is struggling to say goodbye.  He badly needs to feel a sense of closure but, because Dorothy died almost immediately after an argument with him, Aaron is too filled with regrets to let her go.  Thus, the title of the book.

The novel’s self-description emphasizes how Aaron begins to see Dorothy at random intervals and places.  Sometimes she speaks to him, sometimes she does not.  Strangely, others often see Dorothy by Aaron’s side, but they instinctively focus on Aaron and never acknowledge Dorothy’s presence – even, it seems, to themselves.  Surprisingly enough, despite the book blurb’s emphasis on it, Dorothy’s return plays a much smaller role in the story than one might expect.    

Anne Tyler
The Beginner’s Goodbye is about how one man comes to terms with his grief.  I suspect that all of us handle grief somewhat differently and that we do not truly know ourselves until we are tested this way.  Aaron prefers to handle it internally despite the number of sympathetic and loving co-workers and friends with which he is surrounded.  It is easier for him to deny that he is suffering than to explain to his friends the level of grief he is feeling. 

But, as he will learn, the world continues to evolve, people change, and new relationships are formed.  I find that the first and last sentences of The Beginner’s Goodbye perfectly encapsulate Aaron’s story:

            “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

            “We go around and around in the world, and here we go again.”

This deceptively simple little novel has a lot to say about life and love.  Anne Tyler fans will jump all over it.  I hope that others less familiar with Tyler’s work will not miss out.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Holidays in Heck

Sometimes it seems as if I’ve been reading political humorist P.J. O’Rourke forever, so when I spotted Holidays in Heck in the “new books” section of my local library a few days ago I grabbed it.  This one bills itself as “the follow-up to the classic Holidays in Hell” -a 1989 book I thoroughly enjoyed - the premise being that O’Rourke, this time around, will tell us about some of his family vacations in place of describing the hellhole war zone days of his prior life.  (O’Rourke swore off war zones after the Iraq war.)

Holidays in Heck is written pretty much in the expected P.J. O’Rourke style, but his observations do not seem to have quite the bite of his earlier work (even though the book is largely rewritten from articles published as early as 2003 in magazines such as Forbes, The Weekly Standard, and World Affairs).  Perhaps this is because of the nature of the subject matter, or because O’Rourke places less emphasis on politics this time than he usually does, but this one reads as a tamer version of his earlier writing style.

The book, for some reason, chooses to open with its weakest chapter, one called “Republicans Evolving” in which O’Rourke describes a 2003 trip taken to the Galapagos Islands with some of his Republican friends.  Largely one-joke repeated too many times to be funny (his Republican friends’ first concern always seems to be the edibility of every creature they observe on the islands), this chapter is thankfully not representative of those that follow.  Subsequent chapters find O’Rourke, often with his entire family in tow, visiting places such as the National World War II monument in Washington D.C., Brays Island Plantation in South Carolina, China, the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Hong Kong, Disneyland, or Afghanistan.  Along the way, he even manages to go skiing in Ohio (who knew?), riding to the hounds in England, and convinces his family to vacation at home one year.

Holidays in Heck is an interesting travelogue, and much of what O’Rourke had to say as he passed through various layers of “heck” made me smile.  Surprisingly, I began to look forward to the observations of O’Rourke’s two little girls, “Muffin” and her younger sister “Poppet,” as their father wryly reported on their innocent world view.  Seeing a bit of the world through the fresh eyes of children is never a bad thing.

Rated at: 3.0    

Monday, March 05, 2012

Waiting for Sunrise

Readers of William Boyd’s new novel Waiting for Sunrise had best be prepared to play amateur detective because this one is filled with enough twists, turns, false leads, hints, and clues to make anyone’s head spin.  Best of all, it is both an admirable piece of historical fiction and a whole lot of fun.

We first meet British actor Lysander Rief in 1913 Vienna, to which he has temporarily relocated in order to be treated by a Sigmund Freud disciple with an office only a short distance from the master himself.  Although Lysander’s psychoanalyst has modified some of Freud’s methods, he proves to be particularly adept at “curing” the sex-related problem that Lysander brings him – so successful, in fact, that Lysander, while still in treatment, initiates a torrid affair with a married woman he first meets in the doctor’s waiting room.

The affair will end badly, forever changing the lives of Lysander and Hetty Bull, his lover.  One will flee Vienna barely a step ahead of the law; the other will still be in Vienna as the ugliness of World War I begins.  One will be forced by British intelligence to take on the role of soldier/spy, a spy in search of a traitor who is costing thousands of British lives by leaking intelligence to the enemy.  The other continues the tortured and destructive life that made analysis necessary in the first place.  Unfortunately for both, their paths will cross again in London.

William Boyd
Waiting for Sunrise is long on atmosphere and character development.  Boyd builds his main characters (in particular Lysander, Bull, and Lysander’s mother) gradually, layer by layer, until the reader comes to know them as well from their innermost thoughts as from their actions.  If, as is often said, literary fiction tends to focus more on style and the emotional depth of characters than on plot, Waiting for Sunrise handily qualifies as such.  This is not to say, however, that the book has no plot, because Boyd’s intricate and rewarding plot, if it is to be followed, demands the reader’s full attention from first page to last.

Lysander’s pursuit of the mole inside British intelligence will leave him second-guessing everything he thinks he knows about himself and his own background.  When he becomes suspicious of those closest to him, he begins to wonder if he is just a player in someone else’s spy game, but this game could end up having more disastrous consequences for Lysander than for the man he pursues.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Taft 2012 - First Impressions

I have fallen in love with a new book, one that came directly from the publisher, but for which, frankly, I did not have high hopes.  I am particularly thrilled when something like that happens.

The title in question is Jason Heller's debut novel, Taft 2012.  To call this a "what if" novel is an understatement.  "What if" William Howard Taft disappeared on his last day in office and was never heard from again?  "What if" he was suddenly found wandering around the White House grounds - in 2011, 150 years after his birth?

"What if" much of the country suddenly realized that he was a perfect candidate for the 2012 presidential election?

I am about half-way through the book right now and I have to admit that I wish it were actually happening.  That probably says more about my politics than I intend to say (I reserve Facebook as the place where I regularly make an ass of myself) but that's what kind of novel this is - a "feel good" book for people wishing there were alternatives on both sides to what is being offered for our November 2012 consideration.

Taft 2012 is part satire, part farce, great alternate history, and just plain old fun.  I can't wait to finish it, and I pray that the second half lives up to the book's first half.  I'll know sometime tomorrow.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

You Have to See This

I'm going to run out of adjectives to describe this short animated film.  Let's just use: stunning, touching, amazing, beautiful, and perfect.  Those are just for starters.

The piece runs for about 15 minutes but it is more than worth the time.  I guarantee you, book lovers, that you will feel better after watching it.

Friday, March 02, 2012

52 Pick-Up

I have been reading (and now re-reading) Elmore Leonard for decades and I plan to do the same, if I’m lucky, for at least another decade or two.  Leonard, who is now 86 years old, shows little sign of slowing down or losing his momentum.  In fact, if the television series Justified is any indication, his work is as popular as ever.  Considering that almost 20 of his books have been made into Hollywood movies, and another half-dozen or so into television movies or series, that is saying something.

52 Pick-Up, first published in 1974, is one of Leonard’s earlier novels – and, despite being set in a Detroit that is almost unrecognizable today, it still holds up well.  Leonard has always been one of the great masters of realistic dialogue, and dialogue is one of this novel’s strong suits.  Leonard’s dialogue is special because he captures more than just cadence and accent.  After a few pages of a Leonard novel, the reader begins to hear each character as a unique and recognizable voice that exposes as much about itself in speech as it does by its actions. 

Elmore Leonard
Our 52 Pick-Up hero, Harry Mitchell, is a happily married Detroit businessman who seems to have everything going for him – until he makes one fatal mistake and falls in love with a woman he meets in a bar.  Harry is a full-speed-ahead kind of guy, and before long he is spending most of his spare time at the apartment he rents for the second woman in his life.  When blackmailers threaten to expose Harry’s affair to his wife, he refuses to play their game, preferring to confess to his wife and directly confront his tormentors.  And then the blackmailers up the ante with a homicide, and it’s game on.  Sometimes it is just not easy to be a blackmailer.

52 Pick-Up is not one of Elmore Leonard’s better known novels (those would have to be the ones that were turned into bigger movies or series such as Hombre, Mr. Majestyk, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown (Rum Punch), and the current Justified, but it is one that Leonard fans are sure to enjoy.  These early Leonard works may be a little more difficult to find sometimes, but the extra effort is worth it.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Girl in the Box

The Girl in the Box, set deep in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, begins in February 1983 as Guatemalan rebels continue their fight against the military government that rules the country.  The Mayans find themselves caught in the crossfire – forced by the rebels to provide food and shelter, but brutally punished by the army when caught doing so.  Despite the continued fighting and associated danger, Canadian psychoanalyst Jerry Simpson has returned to the area for another extended visit.

This time, however, he will return to Canada with a girl who has been forced by her Mayan parents to live for several years inside a “box” they built for her.  Inez refuses to speak but appears to be physically healthy and willing to travel with Dr. Simpson.  Until he can find the right treatment facility for Inez, Simpson plans to hire a private nurse to live with him and Inez in his home while a colleague of his works with her there. 

Caitlin Shaughnessy, an independent journalist and Simpson’s longtime partner, is able to put aside her initial misgivings about the situation and comes to love the charismatic Inez almost as much as Simpson loves her.  But Caitlin’s world will be shockingly shattered when she learns that his young Guatemalan patient has killed the doctor.  Inez, more uncommunicative than ever, cannot explain what happened and investigators assume that she killed Dr. Simpson in a fit of rage.  No one can know what triggered that rage.  Caitlin, though, understands that she will be unable to forgive Inez, or even to resume her life, until she learns exactly what happened between Simpson and Inez – and why.

Sheila Dalton
Sheila Dalton’s portrayal of village life during this bloody period in Guatemalan history is both enlightening and touching.   She populates the village with ordinary people, some simply trying to get by the best they can and others, like the local doctor and the woman who runs a tiny cafĂ©, who become everyday heroes by their efforts to help the nearby Mayans.  Dalton primarily tells her story in a series of overlapping flashbacks of events seen through the eyes of Dr. Simpson and Caitlin Shaughnessy, an effective device that does falter a bit toward the middle of the book.  At that point, the author spends an inordinate number of pages on one of the doctor’s other patients and in describing philosophical differences between Caitlin and Simpson regarding the value of therapy.  Hopefully, readers will not succumb to any temptation to give up on the book at this point because those who persevere will be rewarded with an intriguing solution to the puzzle.

Rated at: 3.5