Monday, July 30, 2012

A Blaze of Glory

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh begins the new Jeff Shaara trilogy focusing on events of the Civil War’s Western Theater.  As fans of Shaara’s The Last Full Measure and his father’s The Killer Angels will attest, his return to the Civil War era is a welcome one.  I was particularly pleased to see that the new series begins with the Battle of Shiloh because of the number of hours I have spent walking that particular battlefield site over the years.   A Blaze of Glory leaves me with a better understanding of what happened during those two critical days in 1862 and, just as importantly, what might have happened if either army had been better prepared for the fight.  (My interest probably stems from the fact that my great-great grandfather was a member of the 18th Louisiana Infantry Brigade that suffered a forty percent casualty rate on the battle’s first day – him not among them.)

Shaara, as in his past historical novels, uses a range of characters (some real, some fictional) to tell his story.  This allows the author to offer insights into the personalities, motivations, jealousies, fears, doubts, and dreams that were carried to the field by all those soldiers on April 6-7, 1862.  All told, more than 100,000 men fought on this relatively small patch of ground and almost 24,000 of them are counted as casualties of Shiloh (although less than 4,000 actual deaths are included in the total).  The battle’s rotating points-of-view include those of Generals Grant, Sherman, Johnston, and Beauregard, along with those of a few lower-ranking officers and enlisted men.

Jeff Shaara
Caught by surprise at dawn on the first day of the battle, Union troops, as dusk approaches, have been driven as far as they can go without drowning themselves in the rain-swollen Tennessee River.  Unfortunately for the Confederacy, General Albert Sidney Johnston is dead (having bled to death from a leg wound he barely seemed to notice at the time) and has been replaced by his second-in-command, the more cautious General P.T.G. Beauregard.  The battle will turn on Beauregard’s decision to rest and reorganize his men for what he sees as a certain Union surrender requiring only a last surge on his part the next morning.  But the next morning, the reinforced Union army attacks first and the Confederates are the ones forced to concede the field to a victorious army.

One must remember, of course, that A Blaze of Glory is historical fiction and that Shaara uses the genre to speculate his way inside the heads of some of American history’s key players.  His books, however, are not some alternate history version of America’s past. Shaara does not change historical facts.  Rather, he uses his research and insight into the human condition to explain why things happened as they did.  Naturally, his speculation and interpretation of events can be disputed, but without a doubt, he has humanized the Civil War in a way that even the best history books are unable to match.  Shaara’s painless history lessons are so exciting that many of his readers will, I am certain, be compelled to pick up “real” history books for the first times in their lives.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Joy Brigade

The Joy Brigade is Martin Limón’s ninth thriller featuring Sergeant George Sueño, and after reading it, I am pleased that I finally discovered the series.  This time around (it’s1972), George is on a secret mission deep inside North Korea where the odds are heavily stacked against him.  He knows that he will be lucky to survive the mission, but he has personal reasons for attempting it – a former lover of his, Doc Yong, possesses the ancient maps he has been assigned to get hold of, and George hopes that she will return to South Korea with him once contact is made.

George Sueño is a Military Police investigator with the U.S. Eighth Army in South Korea.  Because his crime investigations often involve South Koreans, either as victims or as perpetrators, he has numerous Korean contacts, speaks the language quite well, and has a keen understanding of the culture.  But he is not a spy, and he knows that his chances of surviving this assignment are ridiculously low.  Getting himself north of the DMZ will turn out to be the least of his problems; shaking his handlers long enough to find Doc Young and her ancient maps and to make his escape will be the big challenge.

U.S. intelligence agencies know that something big is happening in the North.  It appears that the People’s Army is preparing to invade South Korea, making the longtime rumors of the existence of a massive tunnel system linking the two countries more disturbing than ever.  If the tunnels really exist, it is vital to the defense of South Korea that they are located, and Doc Yong’s ancient manuscript offers the best chance of finding them in time to stop the underground invaders in their tracks.

Despite some help from well-placed anti-government North Koreans, things soon get complicated for George.  When he learns that his only chance of penetrating the upper echelons of the North Korean army is to win a foreigners-only martial arts tournament, it appears that his mission will end before he accomplishes anything other than getting himself tortured and killed. 

Martin Limon
Martin Limón offers a chilling look into North Korea that is very much reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.  It is a world of blind obedience and general despair that citizens dare not challenge.  A few people, however, do have the courage to work for change from within and they, along with one memorable villain, transform The Joy Brigade into a first-rate thriller.  Limón’s description of the bleakness of everyday North Korean life is particularly striking because it is so easy to imagine that conditions are much the same there even forty years later.

The Joy Brigade is the best kind of thriller - one peopled with a host of memorable characters.  George Sueño in his role as a vulnerable but determined spy is easy to root for, but my favorite character of them all is Rhee Mi-Sook, a beautiful leader of the North Korean secret police.  This woman enjoys her work (in numerous ways, it turns out) – and she is good at it. I am looking forward to the tenth book in the series because what happens in the last paragraph of The Joy Brigade hints that Book Ten is going to be a doozy.  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Life of Pi: Official Movie Trailer

Life of Pi is one of those books people seem to feel very strongly about - pro or con - and either way, they talked a lot about the book.  As a result of all that chatter, the book became a huge bestseller and propelled its author, Yann Martel, to well deserved fame and fortune.  Several of Britain's major publishers, as often happens, passed on the novel before it was finally published in 2001.  The novel went on to win the Man Booker in 2002, and the rest is history.

This is what I had to say about the book back in February 2009 when I finally decided to read it:

I must be almost the last person in North America to read Yann Martel's unforgettable tale, "Life of Pi." Consider that there are now over 1900 reviews of the book on Amazon despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of a book's readers will ever take the time to do that, or that 16,095 members of Library Thing own it, making "Life of Pi" the 21st most popular book there. Well, I can finally tell everyone that it was worth the wait.

Yann Martel has written an inspiring story about the defining event in one man's life, an event that 16-year-old Pi Patel miraculously survives when so many others around him do not, something that shapes the rest of his life. It does not hurt, of course, that the story involves a shipwreck, a 450-pound Bengal tiger, one small lifeboat drifting the vast Pacific Ocean, cannibalism, and a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere.

Until his mid-teens, Pi Patel is raised in remote Pondicherry, India, where he and his brother are lucky enough to live on the grounds of the zoo managed by his father. Pi's father, though, becomes disillusioned with the Indian government of the mid-seventies and decides to move the family to Canada. The Patel family leaves India on the same freighter carrying a large number of zoo animals destined for new homes of their own in North American zoos. Plans for man and animal alike, however, change one day just before dawn when Pi realizes that the ship is rapidly sinking.

Suddenly the ship is gone and Pi finds himself sharing a 26-foot lifeboat with a severely injured zebra, a female orangutan elder, a manic hyena and, most importantly, a tiger so large that he alone fills half the boat's limited space. Animals do what animals do, especially when faced with starvation, and only Pi and the tiger he calls Richard Parker are still around when the boat reaches land 227 days later.

Yann Martel mixes realism and magic to just the right degree, allowing his readers to suspend their disbelief to the degree that everything that happens seems possible - and then he throws readers the kind of curve ball that will leave them standing at the plate with bats on shoulders, an alternate version of his entire story. Each reader will have to choose for himself the version he believes to have happened, a choice that will tell much about the reader himself. I cannot imagine a more perfect choice for book club discussion than "Life of Pi."

If you are one of the few yet to read "Life of Pi," you have quite an experience ahead of you.

...comments to this post ran the gamut of opinion.  Some could not force themselves to finish it; others mentioned reading it multiple times or that they considered it a sure thing to become a "classic."

Frankly, I hope the movie does it justice, but I fear that, even if the movie remains true to the novel, the "surprise" will be spoiled by word-of-mouth very quickly.  Looks like it will be released in December, so I'll have to wait until then to form a final judgement.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Amateur

Political books, especially those written in election years, have always been somewhat questionable when it comes to their handling of “the truth.”  Readers of these things generally come into them with their minds already made up about the subject – and seldom change them – tending to focus on the parts of the books they like and to ignore the parts with which they disagree.  That is, of course, exactly the reception that Edward Klein’s bestseller, The Amateur, is receiving.  And well that it should.

All of that said, a few things about The Amateur particularly strike me:

  • In the process of gathering information for the book, Klein interviewed almost 200 people, many of those having known Barack Obama back to his first days in Chicago.  Some of these people are officially on record (even on tape); others are not.  Some of the book’s direct quotes, because of their sources are a bit shocking, even if upon further thought, they are not surprising.  Caroline Kennedy, for instance, after having been snubbed along with the rest of the Kennedys by the Obama White House is quoted as saying, “I can’t stand to hear his voice anymore.  He’s a liar and worse.”  Initially, this is a rather shocking statement on Kennedy’s part – then, not so much. 
  • One of the most vocal interviewees, all of it on tape, seems to have been Jeremiah Wright who is understandably bitter about the way he was treated by the president in 2008.  If Wright is being honest in what he describes about his longtime relationship with Barack and Michelle Obama, it is understandable why the president’s advisors wanted to keep the details of that relationship hidden – even to the point of offering the preacher a cash pay-off (according to Wright) to go away quietly.
  • There seems to have been almost eagerness on the parts of those who are said to know Obama best to share negative facts and observations about the man. 
  • The personal revelations about Michelle Obama are particularly unflattering because of the petty vindictiveness and jealousy described.  For instance, according to Klein, Michelle’s jealousy directly led to her husband’s eventual snubs of ardent supporters Caroline Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey. 
  • Much of the book, as noted just above, can best be characterized as the spreading of gossip – truth or not, it still has the feel of gossip.
  • The president is characterized as an “inept” president “who doesn’t learn from his mistakes, as “a man who blames all his problems on those with whom he disagrees…who discards old friends and supporters when they are no longer useful…who is so think-skinned that he constantly complains about what people say and write about him.”   Distasteful as all of this might be, it is hardly the worst of what Klein has to say about him.
  • More disturbing is Klein’s contention that Obama naively overestimates his abilities, that he takes even constructive criticism personally, that he only listens to those who already believe exactly as he does, and that he truly believes himself to be a “child of destiny” meant to save America from itself.
Although Klein stresses that some of his sources had positive things to say about Obama, these things are so overwhelmed by the negative case he presents in The Amateur that I do not remember one of those positive things.  Perhaps I missed them - and perhaps that is Klein’s intention.

The Amateur is an easy read, a good recap of the current political environment.  It definitely has an agenda, however, and that should surprise no one.  It is, after all, a political book, and this is a critical election year.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Literary Ink of a Different Nature

When it comes to tattoos, I am neither particularly pro, nor con.  I do wish that more people would realize that where they choose to place all that body art can drastically limit their future employment prospects...but, hey, that's their call.

I do get a kick out of particularly clever tattoos, those one-of-a-kind things that perfectly express someone's true personality and passions.  Authors should be better at choosing body art than most people, I would think - and, as shown on this FlavorWire link, that might just be the case.

Follow the link tol find pictures of Rick Moody's one-word (plus a comma) tattoo that is part of a 2,095-word story published only in tattoo ink; Harry Crews's "Mr. Death;" John Irving's shoulder Maple leaf; and the strange little people on Kevin Wilson's arm - among others.

But my favorite of this type is still this one that I discovered a few years ago, although I have no idea whose arms these are.  Click on the picture to read a bit of A Tale of Two Cities.  Mr. Dickens would be proud.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Wait Till Next Year

Wait Till Next Year, by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a book I have been meaning to read for years but never seemed to get to until now.  This has to be at least the third time I checked it out from the library, and I would not be surprised to stumble upon a copy buried somewhere among all the books around the house.  As it turns out, Wait Till Next Year is not exactly what I thought it would be – but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

This is Goodwin’s coming-of-age story and, while her love of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers is at the core of that story, she does a remarkable job of recreating the Long Island neighborhood in which she grew up.  It was, to say the least, a different era – more innocent in some ways, and scarier in others.  It was when every parent on the street knew, and felt a bit responsible, for every kid that lived on the block.  Local merchants knew and appreciated their customers, fathers worked and mothers stayed home with their children, and watching television was a spectacle neighbors enjoyed together.  But it was also the age of air raid drills (duck and cover) in public schools, scary civil-defense films, bomb shelters, and polio epidemics.  Way too soon, children learned how fragile life really is.

Goodwin’s love for the game began the day her father taught her how to keep her own official baseball score sheet so that she could recount the details of the day’s Dodger game to him each evening when his workday was over.  Because, for a while, her father kept the existence of newspaper box scores a secret from her, Goodwin came to believe that she was his only link to all those workweek day games.  Her father's eagerness to listen to her daily game-recaps impressed upon her just how integral a part of life baseball becomes for its most avid fans – and she became a lifetime fan.

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Goodwin does not neglect the Dodger stars of the day (Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Jackie Robinson, among them), nor her horror when the team was yanked from its fans and moved all the way to Los Angeles.  And, because New York is one of those cities lucky enough to have more than one major league team, she details the neighborhood rivalries that grew up between fans of the Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants.  On 1950s Long Island, baseball was more than a game; it was one of the most intensely felt passions of the day.

The book’s narration tends to be a little too straightforward and dry at times, but for those of us who grew up in the same era, and with a similar feel for the sport, it is a heartwarming reminder of how it all happened and why baseball is still such a large part of our lives and our childhood memories.  This one is for all the grown-up boys and girls who loved baseball before the game was a daily television event – when the arrival of the local paper and those magical box scores was a huge event.  I do remember when.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cat for Sale - First $25,000 Takes Him

J.J. the Cat
You can be the proud, new owner of J.J. the cat for only $25,000.  Oh, and J.J.'s owner will throw in a bookstore if you want one.

Jinx Books, a 12-year-old bookshop in Fulton, Missouri, is for sale because its owner, Kathryn Wade is ready to move on, as is her longtime employee who is about to take own a full-time grandmothering role.

Details can be found in this Fulton Sun article.

Contact Information can be found at this link.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Extra Innings

I think most people were shocked to learn shortly after the death of Ted Williams that his body had been cryogenically preserved.  I suppose we all assumed that Mr. Williams, or members of his family, hoped that he would some day be brought “back to life.”  Then, most of us shrugged and said, “Yeah, right.”  Well what if exactly that was to happen near the end of this century?  What would Ted think?  What would he do?  This is the proposition around which Bruce Spitzer builds his new novel, Extra Innings.

Some ninety years after his death, Ted Williams wakes up in a hospital wondering how he got there.  Frankly, his doctors, not really expecting quite such a successful “reanimation,” are soon almost as shocked as Ted himself.  Accounting for Ted’s relatively quick recovery of a fully functioning body is that his head has been affixed to the body of a young tennis professional who was killed in an accident that conveniently (for Ted, not for the tennis pro), destroyed his head in the process of killing him.

Bruce E. Spitzer
Although the set-up for all of this is a little long, particularly as it involves Ted’s physical therapy work in the hospital, don’t give up on it because you will miss the fun if you do.  Extra Innings might be a bit closer to a stand-up triple than a home run, but I never complain about good, solid triples.  Just as in real life, Ted’s story has two distinct chapters: an illustrious baseball career interrupted by service to his country at the behest of the United States Marines.  In fact, I felt a little like the Ted Williams character himself when the book suddenly shifted from a baseball story to a war story.  As the fictional Ted Williams put it, “It was as if his life was a novel, a baseball novel, and in the middle of it an entirely different book broke out.”  Don’t worry, though – it’s all good.

Bruce Spitzer, with any luck, will find quite a broad audience for Extra Innings because the book should appeal to baseball fans, science fiction fans, environmentalists, and fans of military fiction.  It is not the most serious piece of fiction out there, but amid all the fun, I came away from it with a new appreciation for Ted Williams, the man, and what he accomplished in his life – and wondering how I might live my second life differently if given that chance.

Click on the jacket image for a close look at this brilliant cover.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Reading Fifty Shades of Grey Backfires

Not sure that those falling victim will think this is funny...but it does appeal to my sometimes-shallow sense of humor.  I really do hope this is from a real bookstore display because that would make it all that much more clever.  Anyone know the photo's source?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Lost Ones

I was a little skeptical when I first heard that the Robert B. Parker estate had chosen two writers to continue Parker’s popular Stone and Spenser series.  It is not that I had anything against either author chosen for the jobs; in these situations, I always fear that the original work will somehow be tainted by what follows an author’s death.  When I saw that one of the writers (who was new to me at the time) has a name that sounds more like a character from a Spenser novel than a writer, I really started to wonder.  No more.  Ace Atkins is a writer, a good one, and he proves it here in his second Quinn Colson novel, The Lost Ones.

Quinn Colson, a former Army Ranger, is the new sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi.  To call Tibbehah County “backwoods” would not be stretching the point.  Sheriff Colson and his small group of deputies have to deal with more than outright criminals; they have to find ways to overcome the rampant cronyism that taints the way public funds are spent there.  The county’s good old boys are experts in the art of scratching each other’s backs, and they want to make sure nothing hinders them.

But now, the Tibbehah County Sheriff’s Department has much bigger problems.  A Mexican drug cartel is setting up shop in rural Mississippi and is, at the same time, shopping for military-grade weapons to ship back to Mexico.  Almost simultaneously, Quinn learns that a baby-selling operation involving imported Mexican babies has also taken root in the county.  When the two investigations begin to intersect, and it appears that one of Quinn’s childhood friends is a key player in the gunrunning, things get complicated.

Ace Atkins
Ace Atkins does a fine job of developing characters and their interrelationships by including enough backstory to explain how they became the people they are.  Particularly effective is the revelation of what happened to Quinn and his sister, Caddy, when they were just children – an event so traumatic that Caddy still fights the demons that were created that day.  She has come home – yet again – and wants Quinn to talk about what happened all those years ago but he cannot force himself to revisit that part of his past. 

The Lost Ones is filled with memorable characters, good guys and bad guys.  In addition to Caddy, there are Chief Deputy Lillie Virgil, a strapping young woman who is pretty much training Quinn on the job; Boom, Quinn’s one-armed, veteran friend, a black man battling demons of his own; and Caddy’s mixed-race son for whom Quinn is gladly serving as father-figure.  Along the way, too, we learn about Quinn’s uncle, the now deceased County Sheriff who helped the children cover up what happened to them.  Other interesting characters are Donnie Varner, the old running-buddy of Quinn’s now involved with the cartel; a seductive FBI agent with whom Quinn “bonds;” and County Commissioner Johnny Stagg, the man who still runs Tibbehah County as if he owns it.

This is good stuff, and luckily for those of us just becoming aware of Quinn Colson and his crew, we have only missed one previous book – and, with luck, there are many to come. 

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Trailer of the Week - "Goodbye for Now"

Laurie Frankel needed a book trailer to introduce the world to her new novel, Goodbye for Now - so she made one.  And it is witty...and fun...and it works.

I am especially taken with the dark humor in the Virginia Woolf portion and the sarcasm exhibited by Mr. Einstein.  Have to admit that I'm also intrigued by a book about a guy who uses computer science to find a way to simulate email responses from the dead - based on the emails and conversations they left behind.  I'll be adding this one to my TBR list.

8th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase

Monday, July 16, 2012

Willy's Ballgame

As the Houston Astros struggle through another death march of a summer (and as their asinine, Commissioner-dictated, transfer to the American League rapidly approaches), I find myself turning to baseball novels and memoirs for relief.  I have also adopted the St. Louis Cardinals as my new hometown team even though I have been to St. Louis only once…simply refuse to watch AL baseball on a regular basis…but that’s a story for another day.  Baseball fantasy does have a way of reminding me of what first so attracted me to the game all those years ago.  My most recent choice, Dennis Ricci’s Willy’s Ballgame, accomplishes exactly that. 

Willie Mae Beal has baseball in her blood – literally.  The 28-year-old, who stands two full inches over six feet, is the granddaughter of one Reuben Henry, a veteran of thirty years in the “blackball” leagues who began playing catch with Willy when she was just a little girl.  Reuben gradually transformed her into a pitcher in his own image, and Willy became a dominant softball player at Florida A&M.  Baseball is so much a part of Willy’s life, that despite now earning her keep as a poorly paid high school track coach, she still keeps her pitching arm in game shape.  This is her story.

Willie Mae Beal inherited more than her athletic body from her grandfather; “Rube” also passed on everything he knew about pitching strategy and deceiving hitters.  That he also taught her every pitch in the book, and that she has a 90 m.p.h. fastball and pinpoint control, is the icing on her baseball cake.  When circumstances combine to bring Willy to the attention of a major league player needing a strong arm to fill a spot on the Winter League team he is managing, her performance there surprises everyone. 

Dennis N. Ricci
This YA novel centers on the remarkable friendship of “Rube” Henry and his longtime friend, Amos “Teach” Jones, a man who played with and against “Rube” for an entire generation.  The friendship that Willy and Amos’s sons carry into the next generation turns out to be just as special to them.

Willy’s Ballgame will be an inspiration to young women unwilling to settle for anything less than they are capable of achieving.  And, although it might be less obvious at first glance, there is enough “baseball” in this one to keep male readers just as intrigued as young women will be by the novel’s storyline.  My only disappointment is with the book’s last three words: “to be continued…” I did not come away from Willy’s Ballgame with the sense of closure I like to feel at the end of a novel; younger readers, more attuned than I am to reading extended series featuring the same characters, may feel differently.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stephen King and Don Robertson - 1988

Going through a box of old photos I had forgotten about, I found this one in the middle of the stack.  I took this rather dull shot on January 29, 1988 when Stephen King and Don Robertson came to Houston to promote Don's new book, The Ideal Genuine Man.  Along with coming away from the River Oaks Bookstore with a copy of the book signed by both men, I managed to snag this quick photo.  Needless to say, the guys did not stand around for pictures long, so I was lucky to grab one.

King wrote a cool 15-page introduction to the book and was along to help Don move a few copies.  My impression of the two men was that Robertson was a bit shy and introverted in comparison to King, but I suppose that most authors are.  Sadly Mr. Robertson is no longer with us.

The Ideal Genuine Man is described this way (via this excerpt from the book jacket):
Set in Houston - a Houston which in Robertson's hands becomes a simmering nightmare landscape - it is the story of Herman Marshall, a retired truckdriver whose wife is dying of cancer and who is himself trying to come to grips with the fact of his own old age in a society where the elderly are discarded like empty beer-cans.
I haven't read the novel since 1988, but just handling the book today has convinced me that it deserves to be reread and talked about again.  More later...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Write Like the Wind, George R.R. Martin...please!

Never having read one of George R.R. Martin's books, I cannot claim to be anxiously awaiting his next book in the popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, the first volume of which is The Game of Thrones.  I do know that I see references to Game of Thrones everywhere I look lately, so I am probably one of the exceptions to the rule here.  But I can easily identify with a fan's impatience with a favorite author who is slow to sell him his next book fix - are you listening, Pat Conroy?

That's why this video makes me laugh.  Book nerds make me proud sometimes...

(There might be a quick ad at the beginning of this patient because it is well worth the wait.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful

 It does not happen as often for me anymore as I would wish, but every so often, I can completely lose myself in a book.  I live in a different place or time for two or three days and find myself wishing I could return to the book even when the real world is calling for my attention.  Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful is one of those special books for me.

Set in rural Virginia in the summer of 1948, Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of Charlie Beale, a World War II veteran who arrives in little Brownsburg carrying everything he needs to start a new life: one suitcase full of money, and another containing a complete set of high-quality German butcher knives.   Soon enough, Charlie decides that Brownsburg is exactly the “wonderful” place he is searching for and has talked the local butcher into giving him a job.  After he is taken under the wing of Alma, the butcher’s wife, and has demonstrated his superior meat-cutting skills, the locals accept him as a welcome addition to their community.

Life is good for Charlie Beale.  He is much admired by everyone for his skills in the shop and on the baseball diamond, and has formed a special bond with Sam, Alma and Will’s five-year-old son.  He even owns a house and has fully furnished it, with Alma’s help, via farm and estate auctions around the county.  But all is not as it seems, and that becomes obvious on the morning that the beautiful Sylvan walks into the butcher shop and eyes Charlie Beale for herself.

Robert Goolrick
Sylvan is married to “Boaty” Glass, the wealthiest man anywhere around Brownsburg.  The contrast between “Boaty” and his wife could not be greater.  On the one hand, Boaty is a middle-aged fat man with a reputation for ruthlessness and condescending ways towards everyone else in town.  On the other, Sylvan is a striking beauty still in her teens that “Boaty” treats more like a possession than a wife.  All Charlie knows is that he has to have Sylvan for his own – and that he is going to make that happen no matter what it might cost him or the town.

From the moment Charlie first sees Sylvan, the reader feels increased tension in the air, a sense of the impending doom Charlie decides to ignore.  Goolrick has perfectly recreated a world (that to a lesser degree probably still exists in deeply rural communities) in which everyone in town knows everything about everyone there.  These people have grown up together, as did their parents, and their children are friends.  Grudges and hard feelings exist, but they are kept hidden for the sake of getting along.  Preachers are filled with enough righteous indignation that their congregations are willing to take their marching orders from the men even when their sympathies are elsewhere.  No one is willing to rock the boat in little Brownsburg, Virginia – until Charlie Beale comes along.

Then, all bets are off.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Wedding at Bookmans

I really love this.  You just know these two are perfectly matched because there can't be all that many people in the world (especially women) willing to get married in a bookstore.

And...what a cool wedding cake!  Looks like a fun day for all involved...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong

Generally speaking, the Vietnamese families who came to the United States at the close of the tragic war in that country have, as a group, done well here.  Their work ethic and devotion to education meant that most of them and their children would achieve financial security in remarkably short order.  Easily overlooked, however, is what it was like for whole families forced to leave behind everything but what they could carry with them.  Aimee Phan’s The Reeducation of Cherry Truong tells exactly what it was like for two of those families.

Spanning three generations and three countries (Vietnam, France, and the United States), The Reeducation of Cherry Truong is the story of interrelated families forever split because of a decision made by one man.  Cherry (pronounced like the fruit) Truong, having grown up in Little Saigon, California, does not know what happened all those years ago, but her efforts to convince her brother to return to California will finally expose her family’s secrets.  Under the leadership of Cherry’s maternal grandmother, Cherry and her cousins are living quite comfortably in California and have promising futures.  Now, however, her grandmother worries that some of her weaker grandchildren are looking for shortcuts to the easy life.

Things have not gone quite as well in Paris for Cherry’s paternal grandparents and her uncles but, there too, her cousins are preparing themselves for what they hope will be brighter futures.  Sadly, her grandfather is suffering from Alzheimer’s now, one of her aunts is unstable, and her grandmother has discovered a family secret on her own.  After visits to Paris and Vietnam, Cherry Truong’s reeducation will be done and she will understand the full impact of the choice her grandfather made all those years ago.

Aimee Phan
The Reeducation of Cherry Truong is about secrets and the destruction they can cause, but along the way, it offers genuine insights into family life in Vietnam both during and after the war.  Too, despite the fact that few of the book’s characters are especially likable, it is difficult not to admire what the two families achieve for their children.  Particularly touching is the ever-widening generational gap that becomes obvious as the first generation immigrants struggle to maintain the old ways that seem less and less important to each succeeding generation.

Readers should, from the beginning, refer to the two family trees offered at the beginning of the book.  Ms. Phan uses a series of old letters and flashbacks to several different points in time (and to all three countries mentioned earlier) to tell her story.  Paying attention up front to the various relationships will make it all much easier to keep track of - and will provide the reader with a much more rewarding experience.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Red House

It is a bit difficult to get into the rhythm of Mark Haddon’s The Red House, but readers who stick with Haddon to the end will be well rewarded for their persistence.  The book focuses on eight central characters, all of them related either by blood or marriage, who are sharing a vacation home in the English countryside for a week of getting acquainted/reacquainted.  Richard, a wealthy physician, and his sister Angela have been estranged for a number of years.  Prompted by the recent death of their mother, Richard would like to reconcile with Angela and her family.  Accompanying Angela to the rented Herefordshire house is Dominic, her husband, and their three children: Alex (17), Daisy (16), and Benjy (8).  Richard brings his second wife, Louisa, and Louisa’s 16-year-old daughter, Melissa. 

The Red House is divided into eight sections, beginning on the Friday everyone arrives, and ending on the following Friday morning when the frazzled families depart for home -an organized and logical way to subdivide the story.  However, the narrative is not that straightforward.  The off-putting bit stems from the manner in which Haddon introduces each of his main characters by allotting each a random stream-of-consciousness paragraph of their own.  Before meeting the characters in any context, the reader is suddenly placed inside the heads of eight very different people.  Thankfully, although Haddon continues this approach to the last page, the characters will eventually become distinct, perhaps even clearer and better defined than if he had taken a more direct approach with them.

Mark Haddon
Eight people share the same red house, but each seems to be very much alone, harboring individual concerns that have very little to do with anyone around them.  This is not particularly surprising about the three teens, but their parents seem to be every bit as insulated as Alex, Daisy, and Melissa.  Even little Benjy, a precocious little boy, is happy to exist in his own world – a world in which he is a highly effective little warrior/death machine. 

Angela is feeling the melancholy of her mother’s death and questions the strength of her marriage; her husband feels himself to be an inadequate provider, especially when he compares himself to Angela’s doctor-brother; Richard is uneasy about the aftermath of a surgery that left a little girl paralyzed and is unsure that he will keep his medical license; and his new wife is concerned that he might learn the details of her sordid past.  As for the teens, of course, all they think about is sex – even when they try not to.

The Red House is a first rate domestic drama.  It is certainly not a feel-good book, but it offers insights into the isolation and self-centeredness that so many feel even when surrounded by “loved ones,” especially loved ones who feel just as isolated as them.

Despite the likely temptation to do so, do not give up on this one too early because, as soon as the characters become recognizable as individual voices, it has a lot to say.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Garcia Marquez Career Appears Over

From The Guardian comes word that the writing career of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is over.

The newspaper reported yesterday that the author's senile dementia has now reached the stage that makes it impossible for him to write.
Jaime García Márquez told students in Cartagena, Colombia, that his older brother, affectionately know as Gabo, calls him on the telephone to ask basic questions.
"He has problems with his memory. Sometimes I cry because I feel like I'm losing him," he said.
"Dementia runs in our family and he's now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death," said Jaime. "Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defences and cells, and accelerated the process. But he still has the humour, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had."
Jaime said that he tried to keep his brother's condition a secret, "because it's his life and he's always tried to protect it". However, he was moved to speak openly because of the inaccurate speculation he encountered.
This news particularly saddens me this week because I just spent two days in the company of my mother-in-law who is also a victim of this horrible disease.  She is only a shadow of the woman I have known for over 40 years, and the hardest thing for my wife to handle is the realization that, bad as things are for her today, they will never be even this good again.  So, I can easily imagine the pain and sadness with which Jaime García Márquez is watching his renowned brother's ordeal.

Honestly, I am not a huge fan of the "magical realism" style for which Garcia Marquez is best known but I am a an admirer of One Hundred Years of Solitude despite my reluctance to embrace the style.  My favorite of the author's works is Love in the Time of Cholera, the first book of his I ever read.  Very sadly, it is all but certain that Garcia Marquez will be unable to write the second volume of his ironically-titled autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale.

Perhaps some of you would like to join me in contributing to the Alzheimer's Association in honor of this great writer's career.  As the massive baby boom generation continues to age, this dreaded disease will touch all of us in one way or another.  The clock is ticking...let's help find a cure.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

From Abandoned Wal-Mart to Beautiful Public Library

I am cheered by the news that the South Texas city of McAllen has a huge, new public library - in fact, at over 124,000 square feet, it is the "largest single-story library in the U.S."  And I am particularly impressed that the building is a former Wal-Mart store that is said to have been abandoned by its owners.  How cool is this, book lovers?

(I am going to share a few pictures from the architect's website under the assumption that they will welcome me spreading the word about this great project.  If that is not the case, MS&R Architects, please let me know and I will immediately remove the pictures.)

For more information, including a floor plan and list of awards won by this project, please visit the MS&R Architects website by clicking on this link.

To see larger versions of these images, just click on one of them.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Fear Artist

All Poke Rafferty wanted to do was paint his Bangkok apartment.  Unfortunately for him, he needed to buy paint before he could start the job.  That is what almost got him killed.

The Fear Artist is Timothy Hallinan's fifth Poke Rafferty book, but my first, so I am guessing that as Poke has aged over the series, his priorities have changed.  He is now very much a family man, and the two most important people in the world to him are his Thai wife, Rose, and the young teen they rescued from the streets of Bangkok when she was just a child.  As the book opens, Bangkok is threatened by rising water and Rose and Miaow are in the north of the country visiting Rose's family while Poke paints their apartment.

As he exits the paint store, heavy cans in hand, Poke is slammed into by a large man and the paint crashes to the sidewalk, the two men not far behind.  Suddenly, Poke realizes that the man, who appears to be either German or American, has been shot and is dying from his wounds.  Before he dies, the man manages to whisper a woman's name and a city into Poke's ear and slips a piece of paper into his shirt pocket.  Left covered in paint and the man's blood, Poke is shocked when a Thai detective tells him that the man appears to have died of a heart attack - and was not shot.

Poke is willing to mind his own business, but when he is hauled in for a police interrogation, he learns that some very powerful people suspect that he knows more about the man and his death than he should.  Soon, Poke will be running for his life from Thai authorities and some very cutthroat agents of the U.S. government.  They, however, turn out to be the least of his worries because he has become a threat to “The Fear Artist,” a psychotic American determined to eliminate anyone who knows what he did during the war in Viet Nam as an agent of the U.S. government.

Tim Hallinan
The Fear Artist is filled with wonderfully developed characters, not the least of which is the city of Bangkok itself.  Those already familiar with the series, will know how delightful Rose and Miaow are, but those two do not reunite with Poke until near the end of the book.  Rather, it is the side characters and side plots (including Poke's reunion with his half-sister, Ming Li), that really make The Fear Artist so much fun to read.

Even though Murphy, “The Fear Artist,” is a bit over the top, he is made more human by the warped relationship he has with his own mixed race daughter, a little girl he is shaping into an image of himself.  When Murphy's determination to train his little girl in the deadly arts spooks Ming Li, who remembers her father’s insistence on teaching her the same trade, Poke will find it difficult to make her see the difference in the two men’s intentions. 

Tim Hallinan's story is long on atmosphere and character, but it includes all the traditional elements of a good international crime thriller, as well.  This is another series I am putting on my list of series to catch up on.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)