Sunday, June 30, 2013

Random Thoughts at Mid-Year

Hard to believe that 2013 is already half way in the books, but in one more flip of the calendar that's exactly where we will find ourselves.  It's been a much busier year than I anticipated coming into it, but that's not all bad.  

1.     I wondered what retirement would be like, not really expecting it to live up to my hopes - and, frankly, it's somewhere between what I hoped for and the daily work grind that preceded it.  It seems that much of my free time goes toward helping out family members where I can, especially when it means they would have to take off work to get something done.  Throw in regularly scheduled tutoring hours I spend with a grandson, and I hardly know where the days go sometimes - but that's a good thing.  

2.     I do wish I had the energy to tackle a few longterm projects that I have in mind, such as learning the finer points of French and dabbling in Spanish a bit more.  Same with taking some formal classes in subject areas like Civil War history, American and World Literature, and enjoying more road trips (music, history, and baseball related), but I'm not giving up on any of that yet.  Just need to get more settled in to the newness of all this, I think.

3.     Much of the first six retirement-months have been taken up dealing with insurance companies, Medicare sign-up, simplifying our investment strategy, and the like.  Thankfully, that's all pretty much done now -  but what a chore it all turned out to be, and much more time-consuming and stressful than I ever imagined it could be.

4.     I see that Jane Austen is probably the frontrunner to replace Charles Darwin on the British ten pound note when the next change is made.  The Brits have been using historical figures on their banknotes for over 40 years, but only two women have managed to make the cut during that entire period - and one of those has already been retired, so I think this is a great idea.  I would guess that the tenner is probably one of the most heavily used banknotes in the country, so Ms. Austen's face would be virtually everywhere.

5.     Here's a rather neat site (Placing Literature) that lets you "map scenes from novels."  With a lot of user-help, the site is slowly accumulating maps that place scenes from novels into real maps that can be used for exploring a new city - or even your own. From what I can tell, there are something like 2,000 locations mapped now, and the database will continue to grow as word gets out.  Sounds like great fun...and perfect for some of you guys, I'm willing to bet.  (Houston, fourth largest city in the U.S. has only one map entry...I need to have some fun with this thing.)

6.     As you can see from the sidebar here, in addition to book news and reviews, I often write posts on libraries, bookstores, publishers, and authors.  I admit, that some of the posts are about outrageous failings on the parts of some of those institutions, especially libraries and bookstores (but, hey, that's half the fun).  Every so often I get some negative feedback but no one has ever denied the truth of something I've posted (well, at least with the exception of one Brit who wanted to sue me all the way from England because of something a commenter posted on Book Chase).  But here's the curious bit.  In the last week, I have had five different public libraries/library systems quit following my "tweets" on Twitter.  No big deal, I know, but I have to wonder which of my posts was the one that finally pushed them over the edge.  I'll probably never know.

7.     My goal, coming into 2013, was to read and review 135 books this year, but it doesn't look as if I'm going to make it because I'm going to finish June with only 62 books read and 57 of them reviewed.  I think I see my problem, though.  Now that I'm not commuting to work, I'm unable to work recorded books into my daily schedule.  Even though I only "read" five of those last year (and fifteen in 2011), they are the difference between reaching my goal and not reaching it.  I'm planning to travel a bit in the second half of July, however, and might be able to make up some lost ground on the trip. 

8.  Question: if new print books do ultimately become rare (and expensive) whose fault will it be?  Are readers really rushing to convert to e-books and e-readers, or are they being pushed in that direction by publishers who see electronic reading as the most cost efficient way for them to publish?  I've tried e-books, and have even owned a dedicated e-reader for several years - Sony's very first model, in fact, but I just can't make the transition comfortably.  For some reason, I find it difficult to concentrate when reading an e-book and often have to re-read whole pages after my mind has drifted.   Maybe it's because I'm always being tempted to check my email or twitter account...

So much for thinking.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Havana Lost

As the Fidel Castro era slowly draws to a close, it is a bit difficult to picture (much less actually remember) the U.S. influenced decadence of pre-Castro Cuba. The country, Havana in particular, was so shamelessly exploited by U.S. businesses and criminal interests during those years that it is little wonder that Castro booted all of them from the country as soon as he could.

Libby Fischer Hellman's new historical thriller Havana Lost, via the fictional Pacelli family, vividly recreates both pre-and-post-Castro Cuba for the reader.  As the book opens, time is running out for the mobsters running Havana's plush casinos, and some of the bosses are beginning to hedge their bets by publicly supporting Batista, the country's dictator, while privately shipping arms to Castro's rebels.  Well, good luck with that. 

Francesca Pacelli's days in Havana are numbered.  Sensing the imminent fall of the Cuban government, her mobster father is sending her back to Chicago in order to keep her safe from harm - and kidnappers.  And now, at the worst possible moment, Frankie falls passionately in love with a young Cuban she barely knows, a man who just happens to be a pro-Castro rebel.  Unfortunately for both, after her father forcibly removes her from the country, Frankie never sees her lover again.

Libby Fischer Hellman
But, as Frankie will learn decades later, Cuba is not done with the Pacelli family just yet.  Lured back into the country by the possibility of immense wealth to be had for the taking, the family will pay for its sins - past and present.  Havana Lost tells the story of three generations of a family trying to balance greed and family loyalty, but in the process, spectacularly failing at both. It is a tale of innocence lost and innocence abused, all in the name of easy money.

Thoroughly researched by its author, Havana Lost has all the makings of a first rate historical thriller. It is a genuine page-turner that allows the reader to experience Cuba-past and Cuba-present through the eyes of ordinary people forced to endure both eras.  That level of authenticity is not a surprise in a Libby Hellman novel, however (see A Bitter Veil).  In my estimation, what makes Havana Lost special is the author's willingness to take chances with so many of the characters central to her story.  Havana Lost is filled with surprises I wish I could tell you about - but then they wouldn't be surprises, would they?  Thriller fans, you need to read this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Library Fines Add Up to Big Bucks

Those nickels, dimes, and quarters collected as library fines  really add up fast at the Cuyahoga Falls (near Akron, Ohio) library.  But, rather amazingly, no one noticed that about $350,000 was skimmed off the top in just a six-year period by one of the library's employees.
According to, Theresa Karm managed to do just that.  
Library director Kevin Rosswurm told the Akron Beacon Journal that Karm was questioned at least once in the past about the big drop in fines collected, from nearly $37,000 in 2005 to just over $11,000 in 2011.

Rosswurm said that during previous questioning, Karm seemed to adequately explain the decreased revenue and kept her job.

The library now requires two people to count money. “I think it’s a pretty secure system we have in place now,” Rosswurm said. 

Wow, doesn't anyone there return library items on time?  How she got away with this for six years is hard to figure...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Light of the World

Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell – and those closest to them – have certainly earned a little downtime.  Barely having survived the gunfight that ended The Glass Rainbow, Dave and Clete were soon battling pure evilness again in the nineteenth book in the Dave Robicheaux series, Creole Belle.  Now, as Light of the World opens Dave and Clete, along with Dave’s wife Molly and daughter Alafair, are recovering on a friend’s ranch in a remote part of Montana. 

Life is good  – at least until Alafair is almost killed by an arrow while running on one of the ranches wooded trails.  Dave, not a man who believes in coincidences, immediately starts nosing around (much to the chagrin of the local sheriff) and is soon reminded that the forces of evil never take a day off.  The fight is on.  And then Clete’s daughter (introduced in Creole Belle) shows up and throws a little gasoline on the already simmering fire.

Dave and Clete, personally flawed as they are, pride themselves on representing good in the perpetual battle between good and evil.  They defend those who are incapable of defending themselves – and, because they are willing to get their own hands dirty to get the job done, they do it very well.  And when it comes to protecting their daughters, all bets are off, especially when facing someone like Asa Surette, a ghostlike psychopath who has been nursing a grudge against Alafair for years and finally is in the position to make her pay.

Alafair, however, is more than ready to defend herself, and takes a surprisingly active hand in confronting the man whose attention she feels so guilty about bringing into their lives.  Readers will decide for themselves (I found her new warrior-like persona to be a little jarring) whether the new Alafair is, perhaps, a bit of a misstep on the author’s part. 

James Lee Burke
Now twenty books long and twenty-six years old, the Dave Robicheaux series is as strong as ever.  Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcell have become as familiar to avid fans as members of their own families.  The men, especially Clete, may not be perfect but it is their flaws that make them so effective in fighting the human predators so common in their world.  They are willing to give as good as they get, and we love them for it.

Bottom Line:  Light of the World is a great addition to the Dave Robicheaux series and fans will want to grab it.  James Lee Burke is as good as ever – maybe even better.  Gretchen Horowitz, Clete’s recently discovered adult daughter, is great fun and one hopes that she will be around for a long time.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

James Lee Burke Picking and Singing

I love these little glimpses into the downtime of one of my all-time favorite writers, James Lee Burke.  Both videos were shared via Facebook yesterday by Pamela, one of Mr. Burke's daughters.  Pamela advises that she took them last week at her father's home:

The videos feature Mr. Burke on guitar and lead vocal. The songs, both classics, include the Cajun "national anthem," "Jolie Blon."  (Nice peeks through the window at what appears to be a very green Montana).

Monday, June 24, 2013


The man they called "Shoe" was in way over his head.  Having been chosen from a group of immigrant day workers standing around a mall parking lot, he showed up at the construction site without the steel-toed boots he needed to protect himself.  Now, he was so deep inside a slippery, muddy trench that he could barely make his way back to solid ground after the foreman grew frustrated with his work.  Instead of helping him, the rest of the crew laughed at Shoe's efforts to get out of the hole he stood in.  But Shoe was used to it.  That was pretty much the story of his life.

Jon Pineda's Apology is the story of a simple man with a tragic childhood who is still hoping to make a better life for himself in the United States.  For someone who started life the way Shoe did, that should not be all that difficult, but all these years later he is still struggling to find his place in his new country.  He is grateful that his brother has taken him for the moment, but he knows he is in the way and that his sister-in-law will be happy to see him go.  Shoe will miss his brother and his nephew Mario - even his sister-in-law - but he understands why she feels that way.

Things will change sooner than any of them expect.

Tom and Teagan, nine-year-old twins, are part of Mario's neighborhood crowd.  After Teagan suffers a devastating brain injury that forever traps her inside her childhood, she is unable to tell investigators what happened.  The few clues available to investigators, however, all point toward Shoe, and rather than admit to police that his young nephew was somehow involved in the incident, Shoe chooses silence and a long prison term.  Scarred by his own childhood, he wants to make sure that Mario gets off to a better start than he managed for himself.

Jon Pineda
Apology, because it uses a rapid-fire series of scenes and flashbacks to tell Shoe's story, has a cinematic feel that makes a vivid impression on the reader.  This debut novel is filled with the kind of questions that do not have black or white answers.  Readers will have to decide for themselves if Shoe's decision to sacrifice his own future on his nephew's behalf was the right one - or whether it was even necessary.  Did it really change anything for Mario?  Was it, perhaps, the only thing Shoe could have ever done to transform his own life into a success story?  Was it worth it?

Bottom line:  Jon Pineda packs a lot into what is a relatively short debut novel.  Apology might be a tragedy, but it is likely to leave the reader feeling a little better about the human condition.  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Urbana Free Library Discards Wrong Books

Urbana Free Library (When it had a lot more books)
In a monumental screw-up...I mean "miscommunication..." the Urbana Free Library (Illinois) recently discarded a whole lot of the wrong books.  Don't you just hate when that happens, Deb Lissak?

According to the Chicago Sun-Times:

“There was a miscommunication,” said Deb Lissak, director of the library for the past six years, who had told her staff to flag all non-fiction books more than 10 years old and consider them for removal.
“I said clearly mark the ones you want to keep, and they said we thought you wanted to get rid of the lot,” she said.
Link to Sun-Times story

Friday, June 21, 2013

Life Sentences

Some childhood events are so remarkable (or horrific) that they dramatically impact the self-image of the adult the child will become.  But what most forget is that, whatever the experience, they were children when the events happened, and they experienced the events through the eyes and perceptions of children.  So what happens when what they remember is not the way it really happened? Whose fault is it?  Cassandra Fallows is about to find out.

Cassandra grew up in one of Baltimore's more racially mixed neighborhoods where her best friends Donna, Tisha, and Fatima, were all black.  Calliope Jenkins, another little girl, also black, tried to make her way into their inner circle but was only grudgingly accepted every now and then.  Now the girls have largely gone their separate ways and Cassandra has not seen any of them for years.  This, however, has not kept her from using her childhood memories to earn her living.

Cassandra's two memoirs have, in fact, earned her a very nice living and she has every reason to believe that the royalty checks will keep coming for a long time.  Her frank willingness to expose herself - and anyone who has ever impacted her life - to public scrutiny has made the books long-term bestsellers.  Then, perhaps overconfident, Cassandra decided to turn her pen toward her first novel, with, at best, mediocre results. 

Laura Lippman
Now she and her publisher agree that Cassandra needs a new memoir, one with a fresh hook - and Cassandra believes that the little girl who wanted to be part of her crowd all those years ago can provide the very hook she needs.  Calliope Jenkins spent seven years in jail for contempt of court, accused of killing her infant son but refusing, the whole time, to answer a single question regarding the whereabouts of the boy.  Eventually, the court was forced to release her even though the mystery was never solved. 

Cassandra, believing she has found her next bestseller, is back in Baltimore where she hopes to shake things up enough to get at the truth of what happened to the baby boy.  But if she thinks it will be easy, she is in for a big surprise.  None of her old friends are happy to see her, Calliope Jenkins is nowhere to be found, and what Cassandra is about to learn about herself might just turn her two bestselling memoirs into works of fiction.

Bottom Line:  Life Sentences, based on a real life incident in Baltimore, is an interesting mystery but, as usual in a Laura Lippman novel, the real fun comes from immersing oneself in the relationships between the book's intriguing characters.  Lippman fans will not be disappointed in this 2009 novel.