Thursday, May 31, 2012

Favorite Dust Jackets of 2012 - So Far

Just thirty days from 2012's halfway point, I thought I would feature some of the more striking cover art from the new books I've read through May.  You will notice quite a contrast in styles here, but what the covers have in common, in addition to their sheer beauty, is how much each of them tells potential readers about what to expect from their book.

I love the colors and the contrasting lights of this cover.  The picture gives a good feel for what it must be like for a young, mediocre pitcher to find himself all alone, with tens of thousands of eyeballs focused on him, as he struggles to find the plate often enough to survive the experience.  (Memoir)

The Bastard Year is a coming-of-age novel focusing on a young man who learns that his parents are not the people he imagined them to be just a few months earlier.  You can feel the boy's loneliness here even before you read the first page.  (Novel)

This cover leaves no doubt what The Lifeboat is all about, does it?  That tiny little speck on the ocean is going to be home to the best and worst of every human emotion imaginable before rescue comes.  The blending of the skyline with the water makes the little lifeboat seem even less significant than it already is.  (Novel)

Mudwoman is oh, so Joyce Carol Oatesish - and the cover sets the book's spooky tone long before the first page of this rather long novel will be turned.  (Novel)

Freaks is the only one of these books that I have not read in its entirety- because it is, so far, only available in Europe.  I have, however, read one of the short stories in this collection (and featured it on Book Chase).  The cartoon art featured on the book's cover seems to be a near perfect representation of these stories involving people with unusual (but aren't they all, I suppose) superpowers.  And I really like the cover...  (Short Stories)

Joe Lansdale has done it again.  Edge of Dark Water is a very dark, sort of  Huck-Finnish novel that takes place up and down what proves to be a very dangerous river for all involved.  The reader can pretty much guess the book's overall tone from this cover.  (novel)

A little girl the reader never meets in life is at the center of Carry the One.  What happens to her haunts the book's main characters for decades (thus, each of them "carries the one") and I particularly like the way the girl stands all alone at the center of this image.  That's the story in a nutshell.

Holy Ghost Girl is the true story of a little girl who grew up following a tent preacher across the U.S. because her mother was infatuated with him.  Donna Johnson had it all figured out long before her mother twigged to the truth.  But, considering the cover image, did I really have to tell you that?  (Memoir)

I can't wait to see what images I collect during the rest of the year because I use my cover collection as the image feed to my screensaver.  I sometimes purposely allow the screensaver to kick in, in fact, because I so much enjoy watching them float by, one by one, for minutes at a time.  Weird...I know.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lehrter Station

Unbeknownst to me when I began reading David Downing’s new novel, Lehrter Station is actually the fifth book in a series of World War II novels featuring spy-of-all-trades, and British journalist, John Russell.  Much of what happened to Russell and those closest to him in previous books is unobtrusively recapped here, however, meaning that Lehrter Station works well as a standalone.  Many readers new to the John Russell character, me among them, will want to go back and read the earlier books in the series even if they begin with this one.

Having successfully bought his way out of Berlin just a few months earlier, Russell now lives in London as 1945 draws to a close.  He shares a cramped flat there with Paul, his grown son; Effi, his German girlfriend; Rosa, the little German war orphan they are caring for; Zarah, Effi’s sister; and Lothar, Zarah’s young son.  Although John Russell hopes to begin a new life with his makeshift family, he knows the odds are stacked against him.  He is a man with a cloudy past, and he owes his escape to London to a deal he made with the devil – and now the devil wants to be paid for his services.

Russell delivered German atomic research secrets (with promises of continuing cooperation after the war) to the Soviets in exchange for his family’s safe passage out of Berlin.  Now, forced to return to Berlin by the NKVD, Russell and Effi find the occupied city to be every bit as dangerous for them as it had been during the war.  Russell, who has convinced both the Russians and the Americans that he is spying on their behalf, will have to keep both sides happy if he and Effi are to survive.  Then, when his snooping inadvertently threatens to expose a former German army officer’s new role, Russell’s life becomes even more complicated.

David Downing
Lehrter Station, though, is much more than a “spy novel.”  It is an interesting piece of historical fiction that vividly portrays life in post-war Berlin as its American, French, British, and Soviet occupiers begin to settle in to the four zones into which they carved Berlin.  Thousands of displaced citizens are flooding the city only to learn that their former homes no longer exist or that other refugees have been placed in them.  Their scramble for shelter is worsened by all the others who join the returning Berliners because their own homes are now outside the newly-drawn German borders.  The streets are still filled with bomb rubble, public utilities are unpredictable, and the currency of choice seems to be the American cigarette.  The country’s legitimate economy has been replaced by a cutthroat black market one already infiltrated by former German army officers – under new identities – and used by scores of occupying soldiers for personal profit. 

In the midst of this chaos, John and Effi search for word of missing friends and relatives while John tries to negotiate the complications of simultaneously trying to please two very different spymasters.  Dealing successfully with the devil is not easy.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Spam Can Be a Good Thing when it makes me laugh out loud.

Spammers and spambots regularly make me laugh, but I know that's not their intention when they try to link up, via a comment, to some post or another that I've made.  But, man, if I believed half of the good things these "folks" are saying about me and my writing, my ego would be the equal of Alec Baldwin's.

Take a look at some of the more recent stuff that Blogger has caught for me:
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Well, you get the idea.  I have a few dozen of these in my spam box still, so before I delete them I decided to share them with you guys.  Bet you didn't realize I was this good, did you?

Book Trailer of the Week - "Arlo Needs Glasses"

A heavy schedule of Little League baseball with the grandsons over the long weekend has caused me to be a bit late with this week's (really, last week's) Book Trailer of the Week.  This one highlights a little book designed to make young children feel better about wearing glasses.  It would be interesting to see which is most effective, a positive book like this one, or the nearest young verbal bully who makes a cutting remarks about wearing glasses.  I'm betting (well, at least hoping) that the book will leave a longer-lasting impression.

By the way, one of the boys had a teacher who made wearing glasses such a cool image thing that he was thrilled to be one of the few wearing glasses in his classroom.  That's a great teacher...

5th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase

Monday, May 28, 2012

So Many Books

Gabriel Zaid’s slim book on the status of reading and publishing is as pertinent, if not even more pertinent, today as when it was published in 2003. Much of what the author predicted, particularly in regard to e-books and the evolution of the publishing business model, is now coming to pass. His thoughts make me realize how oblivious I was nine years ago to most of what was just around the corner for publishers – and how the changes would affect me, a dedicated reader, personally.

The aptly titled essays collected in So Many Books cover a variety of book-related topics, everything from the overwhelming number of titles published each year, to the search for each book’s specific/perfect readers, to why a book can sell relatively few copies but still turn a nice profit…and many others. 

For instance, in “Some Questions about the Circulation of Books,” a piece I found particularly interesting, Zaid argues that it is not necessary or even desirable for all books to sell a million copies. What is important, he says, is that books find their “natural readership – the readership they might have in a perfect world where distribution was flawless and price not an issue, giving every interested reader the opportunity to read them.” Ironically, he points out, that a big problem in finding that readership is that “college graduates are more interested in publishing books than reading them.” I suspect this observation is truer today than ever before.

Gabriel Zaid is, if anything, very quotable. While reading So Many Books, I found myself marking sentence after sentence as something I wanted to revisit later. 

Consider here a few of the ones I believe give an accurate feel for the book’s tone:

Gabriel Zaid

“…it isn’t easy to reach thirty thousand readers. Not because the lower price is still too high, but for a reason we prefer to ignore: the majority of titles published are of no interest to thirty thousand people – you couldn’t give away that many copies.” –“Complaining about Babel

“Every private library is a reading plan…Having unread books on display is like writing checks when you have no money in the bank – a way of deceiving your guests.” –“An Embarrassment of Books” 

“…the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.” –“An Embarrassment of Books” 

“Given the rapid changes in hardware and software, digital texts from just a few years ago may be harder to preserve and read than books printed centuries ago, or thousand-year-old manuscripts.” –“In Search of the Reader” 

“…there are many practical ways in which the traditional book is superior. On the most basic level, there is no need to have a machine running in front of you, with the text up on the screen. This practical advantage, and many others (portability, the lesser likelihood of theft, the impossibility of lending a book to a friend without the proper reading device, author’s rights) tend to be ignored in futuristic fantasies, but they influence the decisions readers make.” – “In Search of the Reader”

These are representative of the thoughts and arguments Zaid presents in So Many Books – only a few of which have become even a bit dated during the last nine years. Gabriel Zaid is passionate about books and the people who read them – and he will find his “natural readership” in the thousands of avid readers who always manage to find and devour books about books.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

BEA to Live Stream 20 Hours from New York

I seriously doubt that I will ever make it to BookExpo America (BEA) despite my good intentions and ardent wish to get there some year.  The only way I'll make it is if hotels, restaurants, and airlines decide to accept good intentions and sincere wishes in trade for their services.  Not likely.

So, I had to smile when I learned today that the BEA folks will be streaming some 20 hours of live author events from this year's exposition - and adding even more streaming content to their website after the fact.  If you're like me, this is a rare, unexpected opportunity to "participate" in BEA that you won't be able to pass up.  Jump all over this one.

For all the details, click on the banner I've posted directly above, and mark June 5, 6 and 7 on your calendar so that you don't miss all the fun.  This is cool.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Lifeboat

Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, The Lifeboat, is set in 1914, just two years after the tragic loss of life associated with the sinking of the Titanic.  It is likely that the similarity of the fictional situation to the real tragedy will bring the novel to the attention of countless readers who otherwise would have missed it.  Unlike what happened with the Titanic survivors, however, Empress Alexandra survivors lucky enough to make it to a lifeboat will not be blessed with a quick pick-up from relatively nearby ships. 

Grace Winter, the novel’s narrator, hints at what is to come in the book’s short prologue:

            “…along with two other women, named Hannah West and Ursula Grant, I was to stand trial for my life.  I was twenty-two years old.  I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six.”

Grace Winter, an ambitious young woman until recently unsatisfied with her lot in life, is traveling with her wealthy new husband aboard the Empress Alexandra when the ship is sunk by a devastating explosion.  Thanks to Henry’s determined efforts, Grace manages to find a place with 38 others on one of the ships lifeboats.  As the passengers will soon learn, there are not enough lifeboat seats to accommodate everyone aboard the sinking ship.  Just as tragically, some boats are lowered in a panicked rush before taking on a full load, while others are dangerously overfilled.  Within hours, it is evident that Grace’s lifeboat is in danger of sinking because of the excess weight it is carrying.

Because Grace recounts her story via a journal she is preparing for her defense lawyer, the book’s tension does not stem from wondering whether anyone will survive the torture of being lost at sea for more than three weeks.  From the beginning, it is obvious that there will be survivors - and that murder may play a direct role in deciding which passengers will survive and which will not.  The core of The Lifeboat story is what the 39 survivors learn about themselves and their fellow travelers as they are faced with moral decisions that will determine exactly who lives and who dies.  What are they willing to do to increase the odds of their own survival, even at the expense of the man or woman sitting next to them in the lifeboat?  Some will surprise even themselves.

Charlotte Rogan
Charlotte Rogan explores in detail the moral dilemma the passengers face as weather conditions worsen, food and water are exhausted, and it becomes obvious that survival now depends on a willingness to engage in physical and psychological warfare against fellow passengers.  Alliances are formed by likeminded passengers, only to be reshaped within hours or days as paranoia becomes the order of the day for those who manage to hang on to their spot aboard the lifeboat.

The Lifeboat, although it has a heartbreaking story to tell, suffers from being presented entirely through the eyes of a single character.  Readers will only know as much about Grace’s fellow passengers as she learned about them before the explosion or after being confined with them on the small lifeboat.  Not enough character development is offered to make the secondary characters entirely sympathetic or to explain their actions aboard the lifeboat.  Perhaps this is Rogan’s way of showing that everyone is capable of this kind of behavior in a confined, life or death situation.  The emotional impact of the novel, however, would have been greater were the characters better developed.

This one will, I think, especially appeal to Titanic junkies and fans of the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat.    

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

National Short Story Month - Let's Celebrate!

In celebration of National Short Story month, the folks at Open Road Media have produced an illuminating little video about that form of writing.  Short stories are something that I have come to read fairly regularly - but only after taking years and years to warm up to the format - and I have long said that I believe them to be more difficult to write than a novel.  I suppose that, at least for James Jones, they are completed faster, but telling a complete story or creating a lasting impression within the scope of a limited number of words cannot be easy.

Here, several authors tell us what they think about short stories and a little about how they do it:

And here's some icing for your short story cake: a special collection of six stories by F.X. Toole, Edward Bunker, Eileen Pollack, Brian Garfield, Edna O'Brien and David Corbett gathered just for National Short Story Month.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kings of the Earth

Jon Clinch first caught the literary world’s attention with his 2007 debut novel, Finn, a deliciously gory tale about Huck Finn’s father that provided the details Mark Twain could only hint at.  That one probably shocked more than a few fans of Twain’s story.  Kings of the Earth is Clinch’s 2010 follow-up to Finn, and in a different way, it is every bit as shocking and surprising as its predecessor.

Set in upstate New York from the years of the Great Depression through 1990, Kings of the Earth is the story of three brothers who still work the farm that has been in their family for more than six decades.  None of the now-elderly men ever married and they, in fact, still sleep together on the same mattress they shared as children.  The men eke out a meager living from the small herd of dairy cows they own but have lived in isolation for so long that the rest of the world left them behind long ago.  Since the passing of their mother - and their only sister’s escape into marriage and a respectable home of her own, the brothers live in complete squalor.  So seldom do they bathe, wash their clothing, or clean the room in which they live, that townspeople avoid them even to the point of not wanting to take their smelly currency in trade.

Their little world is shattered when one of the brothers is found dead in the bed they share.  Suddenly, the surviving brothers (one is mentally slow and finds it difficult to speak and the other is very persuadable) have to face outsiders with questions about what happened during the night their brother died.  When investigators decide that a crime likely has been committed, the two elderly men prove incapable of defending themselves against the accusation.

Jon Clinch
Kings of the Earth is told from multiple points-of-view in a burst of short chapters (many of which are barely half a page long) that flash to scenes occurring between 1932 and the present day.  Some of the chapters are first person narratives of family members, neighbors, and investigators; others are told in third person but focus on events directly experienced by these same secondary characters.  In this manner, bits and pieces of the hardscrabble brutality of Proctor family history is revealed by their sister, mother, father, brother-in-law, nephew, near neighbors, and criminal investigators. 

As in Finn, Jon Clinch pulls no punches here.  His story hints at the violation of a sexual taboo or two, and because of its extremely short chapters and constant switching between narrators, it can be a little jarring at times.  The book’s ending will not please everyone, but Kings of the Earth is most certainly not a story that readers will quickly forget.  This one is not for the squeamish - but fans of mysteries featuring well developed characters will be happy they discovered it.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book Trailer of the Week - "Radio Iris"

I'm not going to pretend that I have any more of an idea what Radio Iris is really about than before I watched this eery book trailer - but I do have a sense of the book's tone, I think.  More importantly, I plan to get my hands on a copy of this May 15 release to see if it might be something into which I want to invest a few reading hours.  So it's another job well done by all involved, making it my Book Trailer of the last week.

Anyone read this one yet?

4th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Bastard Year

Set in 1980, a year during which Jimmy Carter’s presidency went down in flames because of his failure to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis, The Bastard Year makes for a memorable coming-of-age novel.  Young Zain’s problem is that at precisely the point in a boy’s life when he needs to feel most secure in his world, his father is enduring a mid-life crisis with the potential to destroy everything around him. 

His father, a career CIA agent, has suddenly lost his job and moved out of the family home to live alone.  Now living with his mother, Zain is still somewhat bewildered by everything that is happening but learns just enough of the details to blame himself for his father’s job loss.  Before this “bastard year” ends, Zain will struggle mightily with his own self-image, as well as with his perception of who his parents are.  No longer able to view them through a child’s eyes, he will begin to understand their strengths and weaknesses as he watches the pair cope with the devastating demands the family faces. 

Zain, despite the false starts and reckless risks he takes with his own future, will prove to be much tougher than he could have imagined just a few weeks earlier.  The fifteen-year-old will learn things about life, country, family, and himself to a depth he may never have experienced but for his “bastard year.”  Not all of what he learns is good, or even encouraging, but it will make him a man.

Richard Lee Zuras
Richard Lee Zuras’s debut novel is not long on development of secondary characters or descriptive narration.  Rather, the author has chosen to set the scene (a Washington D.C. suburb) and to have Zain recount what the three central characters personally experience as their world collapses.  This focus works surprisingly well during a year in which the boy’s father begins drinking heavily while trying to survive as a D.C. taxi driver, his mother is forced to go back to work, and Zain resorts to some light shoplifting and underage drinking.

The Bastard Year is not a feel-good coming-of-age story; it is more than that, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether its message is an optimistic or a pessimistic one.  This is one of those books in which a reader’s overall perception can be changed by its very last sentence – so, if you find yourself flipping through this one before you begin to read it, please stay clear of the final page.  You will be glad that you did.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State, and the Culture of Silence

Bill Moushey and Bob Dvorchak, authors of Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State, and the Culture of Silence, have definitely struck a nerve with thousands of Penn State alumni and Happy Valley residents.  It appears, based opon the “reviews” of the book I see posted on Amazon, that the pair faces a vicious backlash based more on emotion than on reason – and that almost all of the negative “reviews” posted there have been written by people who did not bother reading the book before damning it.  It seems that it will be left to those without ties to Penn State, and a minority of Penn-Staters themselves, to gauge the objectivity and effectiveness of the book.

 On one level, Game Over is an excellent recap of the news that starting leaking out of Happy Valley, PA, in early November 2011.  Those that may have come to the story a little late will find the chronology presented to be especially helpful.  Others are likely to focus more on the additional details attached to the original revelations, disgusting as some of those details are.  Readers should, in fact, be forewarned that several descriptions of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged assaults of the young boys under his sponsorship and care are disgustingly graphic in nature and leave little to the imagination.

On a second level, what Game Over reveals about the culture espoused by Penn State administrators, its athletic coaches, its students, and the community that supports and benefits from the school’s presence, is almost as disturbing and horrifying as the crimes Sandusky is alleged to have committed against his young victims.  That there was, and to a lesser degree still is, a “culture of silence” surrounding Penn State that allowed this kind of criminal behavior to continue for decades, cannot be disputed.  Moushey and Dvorchak present their case in detail, naming names and shaming those who deserve it, in the process.  Only the court system can determine the degree of guilt or innocence of the various parties involved in all of this, but Jerry Sandusky should not be the only one facing a judge and jury of his peers before this is over.

From what the Game Over authors have to say, it appears that the second worst “crime” committed during this whole period, may lay at the feet of Coach Joe Paterno, the man who really ran Penn State while all of this was happening.  If the allegations are true, Paterno was instrumental in bringing shame to the university and he forever sullied his own reputation and famous catchphrase: “Success with Honor.”  Paterno’s silence seems to have been the signal to Penn State’s coaches, administrators, and others that the entire Sandusky matter should be kept within the confines of the Penn State “family,” and that outsiders were not to be trusted with this information.  Joe Paterno had just that much clout in Happy Valley – he had, in fact, almost been granted sainthood by the locals, making a cover-up of this magnitude a relatively easy thing for the school to pull off.

Halo Added to Wall Mural After Paterno's Death
(Portion of Photo from Game Over)
Much remains for the courts to determine, including: the culpability of two principal university administrators in the cover-up; the part in the cover-up played by The Second Mile insiders (Sandusky’s charity for poverty stricken boys); how much Sandusky’s wife knew of multiple crimes said to have taken place in her home; and whether Sandusky remained at Penn State (even after resigning from its coaching staff in 1999 while at the top of his game) simply because his charity provided him with a ready supply of victims of just the right age. 

As James Murtha, a 1977 Penn State graduate, put it, “…in retrospect, you could almost predict how this would turn out because of the way Penn State does business.  Isolation is one of its charms, but it’s also part of the problem.  They all drink the Kool-Aid up there.  They lost all focus.  The only way to solve a problem is to admit that you have one.  It’s crisis management 101.  When I saw the way they handled it, I wanted to projectile vomit.

So did I, Mr. Murtha so did I.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ShelfLook Relieves Neck and Back Pain?

I don't have an iPhone, but I do have an iPad that I almost always take with me whenever I visit a bookstore.  Because iPhone applications generally have iPad versions, I regularly browse the new apps that are being pushed for iPhone users and I stumbled on one today that intrigues me.

You know how it is (and if you are bookstore fanatic, I know that you know this feeling) when you are scanning row after row of vertical book titles and you find yourself being slowed down by all of that neck tilting?  Well, now there's an app that will rotate everything from the vertical to the horizontal for you - so that you can read the titles without getting a crick in your neck.

Or, will you suffer from arm fatigue and eye strain?  Or, perhaps worse, will you be embarrassed by all the stares you will get from other shoppers?

ShelfLook in Action
Digital Journal explains how it works:
Using ShelfLook is exceptionally simple. Users just launch the ShelfLook app, hold the iPhone horizontally, and look through the screen. Book titles that were once hard to read are now easily read horizontally on the screen. For low light environments, ShelfLook conveniently provides enhanced lighting at the push of a button.
When viewing lower shelves, rather than crouching down, users can remain comfortably standing by simply pushing the record button and panning the iPhone across the lower shelf. When ready, they can play back a video of the book titles, horizontally displayed and easy to read.

This might just turn out to be one of those apps that solve a problem I never knew I had before reading the Digital Journal article - but at just a buck, what card-carrying book lover can resist it?  What do you think...overkill or great fun?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Hour I First Believed

Wally Lamb wrote only three novels between 1992 and 2008, but with a couple of assists from Oprah Winfrey, the first two eventually became bestsellers and established his reputation.  Lamb worked on the third, The Hour I First Believed, for ten years before it was published in 2008, and then produced a short Christmas novel in late 2009.  It is said that his next book will be released sometime in 2012.

Lamb’s ten-year project to complete The Hour I First Believed resulted in a 740-page novel that moves almost from coast to coast in its telling, covers more than 150 years of Quirk family history, and encompasses three of the worst tragedies in recent U.S. history (the massacre at Columbine High School,  Hurricane Katrina, and the Twin Towers murders).  Readers also come to know, and often intensely dislike in the process, an array of interesting characters of all ages, social classes, and occupations.  This is a big book.

The novel’s two central characters are high school teachers, Caelum Quirk and his third wife, Maureen.  As the novel begins to take shape, the Quirks both work in Columbine, Caelum as a teacher and his wife as a part-time school nurse.  It is with a sense of dread that one reads the everyday comings and goings of the high school’s students, teachers, and administrators as Lamb sets the scene for the tragedy to come.  And set it, he does.  Lamb is never in any hurry to get to the action, even in a case like this one in which his readers know it is coming.  Rather, he takes the time to develop multiple characters, including even Caelum’s detested in-laws and the two villains of the school shootings themselves.  By the time the two boys burst upon the scene to start shooting their schoolmates and teachers, it is almost a relief finally to have arrived at that point. 

Wally Lamb
What happened at Columbine affects Maureen so terribly that even relocation to the Quirk family farm in Massachusetts offers little relief from the constant stress and fears that haunt her.  As Maureen’s downward spiral accelerates, it appears that neither her marriage nor Caleb will emerge intact.  Then, just after a final tragedy strikes the Quirks, Caelum begins to discover family secrets that threaten to change his lifelong perception of who he is.

Things to like about The Hour I First Believed are numerous.  Among them, are the multitude of memorable characters; interesting takes on the real-life Columbine shooters; mini-histories on female incarceration, race relations, and 1940s advertising schemes; and Lamb’s willingness to allocate as many pages as necessary to explore adequately the several interesting side plots he includes.  But this willingness to explore side plots so deeply is also the chief flaw of the novel because Lamb’s verbatim inclusion of countless pages of diaries, newspaper accounts, and verbal histories often leads to reader fatigue. 

The Hour I First Believed explores what happens to two people forced to realize that they are not the people they always believed and wanted themselves to be. It is about the Quirks’ struggle to recover what has been snatched from them - and it teaches the rest of us plenty.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Barnes & Noble Prefers Customers to Shop from Home - Removes Customer Seating from Stores

This has been one of the busiest few days that I have experienced in a long time, meaning that I have not even been able to visit my own website since last Friday.  I was relieved to see that the Blogger folks had not misplaced it this time while I had my back turned.  As a result of what so far seems to have been the successful removal of the cataracts on her left eye on Thursday morning, my wife has been unable to drive.  That means that, in addition, to getting her back to the surgeon's office for follow-up exams and in preparation for this Thursday's surgery on the right eye, I've been running errands and carting grandkids around.  Enough said.

I suppose the good news is that I have been able to do a lot of extra reading while sitting around hospitals and the doctor's office - and the bad news is that I'm now five book reviews behind and still losing ground.  In fact, I'm about 60% through one of the better spy novels I have read in a few years, Lehrter Station, by David Downing.  This thing is so good that I did not realize until today that it is the fifth book in a series featuring British journalist/spy, John Russell.  I can't speak for the first four books, but I find this one particularly interesting because it takes place in occupied Berlin only a few weeks after the end of World War II - before the wall went up.  More later, of course, but I already feel like recommending Lehrter Station to everyone I meet.

I dropped by my local Barnes and Noble for a few minutes on Saturday morning and was disappointed to see that all the comfortable seating the chain previously provided for customers is long gone.  This is so wrongheaded of Barnes & Noble management that I don't even know where to begin.  Rather than spend an hour or two browsing the store, I lasted about twenty-five minutes before my back began bothering me and I put my three potential purchases back on the shelf because I couldn't face standing an additional ten minutes in line.  What is B&N thinking? Traditional shoppers and book lovers are already getting the message from those guys that the Nook is where they want to take the chain and that traditional books are not all that important to them anymore.  If you don't believe me, just look at all the wasted open space completely surrounding the huge Nook displays that slap you in the face when you walk into one of the stores.  Personally, I am insulted that Barnes & Noble is trying to push me out the door so that I will shop via my computer rather than browsing for a while.  Stupid, stupid, stupid...but when you have no brick & mortar competition, you can get away with stupid for a while.  But only for a while, B&N, because you are quickly alienating people like me who have supported you for years.

Pat Bertram, a writer I follow over on Goodreads, has an interesting piece there about some of the unintended consequences of the literary world's rush toward digitalization.  Pat has been brilliantly posting about the grieving experience she has been enduring, but this piece is a bit different.  I'll let its title lure you in - if you find it intriguing, just click on this link: Is a Salinger-Like Reclusiveness a Viable Option in Today's Book World?

Speaking of Goodreads, I don't know if you will be able to read the post I've linked to unless you are a member with a password - if not, do yourself a favor and use this as the incentive to join the site.  You will most definitely enjoy it.  I find that Goodreads and LibraryThing are not so redundant that I have to have only one or the other.  Both sites have features that I enjoy and offer benefits not available on the other site.  So it's a win-win situation, if you can spare the time, to belong to both of them.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here, the latest from Graham Swift, is one of those novels that take place largely inside the heads of its main characters – when there is much of what might be called “action,” it is usually part of the book’s alternating flashbacks recounting Luxton family history.  Swift, as usual, tells his story in methodical fashion, but he constructs here a first-rate drama, layer-by-layer, that will reward patient readers with its ultimate impact.

The novel is told from Jack Luxton’s point-of-view.  Jack and his wife run a tourist campsite on the Isle of Wight, but the couple grew up on adjoining farms in a remote part of the English countryside, and their current lifestyle is nothing like the one they left behind.  The couple has much in common, things that should help keep them together but, as Wish You Were Here begins, Ellie is nowhere to be found and Jack stands gazing out his bedroom window, loaded shotgun on the bed behind him, expectantly awaiting her return.  What he plans to use the shotgun for is not at all clear at this point, and learning what placed him in that position will require a bit of patience, but it is well worth the reading effort involved.

Jack Luxton, it seems, has witnessed the absolute dismantling of his world and, he is not at all certain that the life with which he replaced his old one makes for all that good a swap.  Growing up on a small dairy farm is not an easy life for a boy, but Jack, his brother, and his parents managed to cope well enough for most of his boyhood.  Despite the demands of dairy farming (cows have to be milked every morning and they are not happy about waiting for it to happen), Jack can easily picture living on the farm for the rest of his life.  The property, after all, has been in his family for generations and, as the eldest son, he feels the obligation to keep it that way.  Regrettably, this is not to be.

Graham Swift
Jack, Ellie, and their families are relatively simple people; their whole lifestyle tends to make them more insular than those that grow up in more urban areas, but that does not mean they do not feel emotions strongly.  The problem is that they do not, at least in this story, seem to be able to express to each other what they are feeling, part of the reason that Jack ends up with a loaded shotgun on his bed. 

Much of the satisfaction of reading a Graham Swift novel comes from the way that Swift describes what seems like an unimportant fact or incident only to reveal later, little piece by little piece, what that fact really means and why it happened.  It is a little like looking at the picture on a jigsaw puzzle’s box and then putting all the pieces in place – only then, can the impact of the whole be picture felt.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Trailer of the Week - "The Year of the Gadfly"

I am going to confess that until this evening I had never heard of author Jennifer Miller.  (I would love to hear how many of you know of her already.)  What caught my attention is the book trailer that Jennifer is using to promote her new novel, The Year of the Gadfly."

The novel, based on this reading of a page from the book, does sound interesting and worthy of consideration as yet another book to be added to everyone's ever-exapanding TBR lists.  But what makes this trailer exceptional and great fun is just who is doing the reading.  This lady has connections, folks.  Just take a look at this:


3rd Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Devil

Ken Bruen is one of the true masters of noir.  The man’s writing style, some kind of cross between outright poetry and weirdly formatted prose, is a nice visual representation of the genre – and private detective Jack Taylor is the perfect noir character.  It just does not get any darker than Jack Taylor.

As this eighth novel of the series begins, Jack is disappointed (but not surprised) to learn that he has been denied passage to the States because of his past run-ins with the law.  Always moody, the deeply introspective Taylor stops at the first airport bar he sees, to load up on Jameson and Guinness before heading back to Galway.  There he makes the casual acquaintance of another bar patron he will come to know as “Mr. K” – and will regret the encounter for the rest of his life.

Jack Taylor is a contradiction.  On the one hand, he can be as physically vicious with Galway’s criminal element as is required for him protect the innocent from them – even if the thugs end up floating face first in the river.  On the other, he has a soft spot for children and their mothers, so when asked to find a missing university student by the boy’s mother, Taylor feels compelled to take the case.  But when the boy’s mutilated body is discovered, and it appears that Mr. K might have something to do with the horrible death, all hell (literally) breaks lose.

Ken Bruen
When Jack Taylor begins to wonder if Mr. K might be the incarnation of Satan himself, The Devil veers wildly from the solid footing of the seven previous Jack Taylor novels.  At this point, the novel becomes not so much a piece of detective fiction, as a beautifully written supernatural thriller.  This development will probably disappoint some Ken Bruen fans at least a little, me included, but there is enough of Jack Taylor in The Devil that this is still a must read for regular readers of the series. 

Jack Taylor aficionados will always welcome another chapter of the Irish detective’s life story and “be-jaysus,” we can’t wait for the next one.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Step Into My Time Machine (Favorite Time Travel Novels)

There is something about time travel novels that particularly appeals to me.  I suppose it is that chance to go back for a free re-do, be it a personal one or one that positively (hopefully) affects the history of the whole world.  That second type often involves eliminating someone like Adolph Hitler before they gain power - or changing the course of some major war like the Civil War or one of the two World Wars.  Fun stuff, if done correctly with in depth character development and a side plot or two to worry about.

These are some of my favorites from the last few decades (in no particular order):

I first read Time and Again in the summer of 1970 and later added a first printing copy to my personal collection.  I consider it a modern classic of the genre and believe that it influenced a whole bunch of time travel novels that followed it.  The plot involves a man chosen by a secret government agency to be transported back to 1880s New York in order to test the theory of time travel.  Our time traveler, of course, falls in love, only to come to the realization that the government wants more of him than just standing around and observing everyday life.

The book is illustrated by numerous old photographs of the various locations the time traveler wanders through during the novel.  This was a groundbreaker.

Time on My Hands is one of those time travels novels that focuses on real life historical figures - in this case, former president Ronald Reagan.  Here Peter Delacorte explores the case of a young man hired to return to the Hollywood of the late 1940s where he is to make contact with a young actor by the name of Ronald Reagan.  His assignment is to do anything necessary to somehow push Reagan from the path that would bring him to the White House in 1980.  What happens when our hero befriends Reagan under false pretenses but starts to actually like him makes for a fun ride.

At first glance, Time Out of Mind is pretty much just a ripoff of Finney's Time and Again, but John Maxim gives it enough twists to make it work well even for fans of the great Finney novel.  This one was written some 16 years after Finney's novel, and I suppose that Maxim and Houghton Mifflin were hoping that everyone had forgotten about the Finney masterpiece.  It even goes so far as having each of its chapters begin with an old photo or illustration to set the scene.

The hero of this one goes back specifically to the great New York blizzard of 1888.

Laura Watt's Carry Me Back incorporates one of my favorite music genres (hard core traditional country) into a time travel novel...a perfect combination for someone like me.  This 1997 novel involves ex-con Webb Pritchard who buys an old banjo to entertain himself after his release from prison.  Unbeknownst to Pritchard, this is a magic banjo that transport him back to 1951 where he manages to wrangle himself a job with the man who went on to become country music royalty before he died at age 29, Hank Williams.  The romance story inside this one is another that pays homage to Jack Finney.  Carry Me Back  is still on my shelves and I plan to re-read it in the next year or two.

Time travel novels often involve some kind of moral dilemma for the time traveler to deal with - in this case, our hero has to decide whether or not to prevent the bombing of Hiroshima.  Till the End of Time is part of author Allen Appel's time travel series featuring Alex Balfour, a history teacher for whom the ability to time travel runs in the family and has been genetically handed down to him.

Along the way, Balfour interacts with people like Albert Einstein, Betty Grable, John Kennedy, and FDR.  This one is fun, but the appeal largely comes from getting to know the Balfour character well through several books.

One last one for this time around is Stephen Fry's Making History.  This is one of several time travel novels I've read in which the protagonist goes back in time to do something about Adolph Hitler before it is too late.  In this instance, the time traveler wants to take the most certain path by going back to the time before Hitler was even conceived - and making sure that his parents never get together.

Stephen Fry is one of the most talented people I know of: author, film star, comedian, television star, documentarian, etc.  This man can do it all and this novel is no exception to the quality of his work.  It is great fun...and one of the best snuff-Adolph time travel books I've encountered.

That's it for now, but this is fairly representative of my favorites of the genre.  I haven't even mentioned older books like The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, but that is the one that created my love for time travel books in the first place when I first read it at age 12 or 13...and, of course, there was that great 1960s movie version of the novel.  The movie locked me in for good.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Out of My League

Out of My League is Dirk Hayhurst’s second inside-baseball look at what it is like for those thousands of young men around the country whose only goal in life is to break into the big leagues.  Only a small percentage of college baseball players manage to get to, much less past, A-Ball, and then only a small percentage of that lucky bunch will ever play major league baseball for any length of time.  Despite these long odds, some players still find it so impossible to walk away from the game that they will spend the better part of a decade chasing their dreams.  Failure most often follows from a lack of talent or physical ability, but sometimes it results from something the player cannot control, such as a career ending injury or getting stacked up inside an organization that has no room on the major league roster for promotion even after it has been earned by one of the organization’s talented young minor leaguers.

Baseball memoirs are, of course, usually written by players with name recognition.  These players are so talented that, although the details will differ, their stories are somewhat predictable.  What makes them most interesting is the little peek they allow the rest of us into their world – the more honest and revealing they are, the better.  Dirk Hayhurst is not a player with a lot of name recognition working for him.  Hayhurst spent several years in the San Diego Padres organization before getting his short-lived shot with the big club.  His baseball skills, rare as they are, could only carry him so far – good enough to earn him his major league shot, but not good enough to keep him in the show once he made it there.  Surprisingly, this is exactly what makes Out of My League such an interesting baseball book.

Dirk Hayhurst in San Diego Uni
Hayhurst’s account of his quest is a frank one, one in which he reveals things about his immediate family (parents, brother, and a disastrous grandmother) that cannot have pleased any of them.  Especially in the book’s first half, he spends as much time describing what goes on in the offseason as he does what he experiences during that year’s six months of baseball.  This is both a strength, and a weakness, of the book.  While it provides insight into the offseason financial struggles so many long term minor leaguers struggle with, Hayhurst’s recollections finally become a bit tedious, leaving the reader as happy to see the beginning of the next season as Hayhurst himself must have been to see it arrive.  But without these insights regarding his relationships with his family and his fiancĂ©, some of the decisions Hayhurst makes during the season would be mystifying.  As it is, they still left me shaking my head at times. 

Particularly fascinating, I think, is what Hayhurst expresses about what it is like for a rookie to join the big club: the awe these players feel for their surroundings, the everyday perks available to them, and the veteran players on the field with them.  Players like Dirk Hayhurst meet good guys, bad guys, and more than a few jackasses along the way.  Thankfully, he has decided to share his story (and that of countless players like him) with the rest of us.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Civil War Battle Re-enactment (Jefferson, TX)

My 13-year-old granddaughter has succumbed to the romantic elements of Civil War history as a result of her recent exposure to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (both movie and book versions) and a couple of weeks studying its actual history in 7th grade.  So, we made a 475-mile roundtrip up to Jefferson yesterday for that historic little town's annual Civil War battler re-enactment

The pictures from yesterday that I'm posting give a feel for the dedication and expense expended by the re-enactors that participated in the fight.  I cannot even estimate how much these guys must have spent on the ammunition expended yesterday- in addition to thousands of blank rounds fired from rifles and pistols, there were dozens of cannon shots that included explosions on the ground a few hundred feet away to simulate actual cannon balls landing (and they do it all again today for a new crowd).  Those things were so loud and powerful that we could feel the compressed air striking us and the ground tremble where we stood thirty yards away to the side of them.

This was great fun, and because the guys wandered around town in uniform during the day, very educational since they were all very willing to answer questions about their hobby and the authentically copied uniforms they wore.

A few pictures from the day (click on the images for larger versions):

I highly recommend these things to everyone interested in American history - but I want to stress that you should bring earplugs - and not forget them in the car like I did.