Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year from the Book Chase Minions

While I dream of finding a couple of real Book Chase minions for 2015, let's sing along with these two little guys..."Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind?  Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And days o'lang syne!"

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014: By the Numbers

Another calendar year is in the books, and in just three more weeks, I will mark the completion of eight years of Book Chase blogging.  I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to Year Nine with as much excitement as I felt on the day I posted my first Book Chase entry (January 20, 2007).  

Even though I was forced to shut things down for just over a year (September 7, 2013 - October 21, 2014), I am pleased that so many of you still stop by regularly to talk books - and that other old friends continue to trickle in. Truth be told, that long layoff is one of the reasons I'm so excited about beginning a new year.  2015 really does feel like a year of rebirth to me, a fresh kick-start of my book blogging.

I enjoy looking at my year-end reading numbers because that process usually brings back lots of great reading memories - and 2014 was an exceptionally good period, one of those years filled with more quality book and author discoveries than I've experienced in a single year in a long while. 

I've previously posted my Top 10 lists in fiction and nonfiction, but this is what the rest of the year looked like:
Number of Books Read - 126

Fiction - 86:
Novels - 81
Short Story Collections - 4 
Nonfiction - 40:
Memoirs - 10
Biographies - 6
Books on Books- 3
Baseball - 4
Travel - 5
Other- 0
Sociology - 2
Science - 2
History - 8

Written by Men - 82
Written by Women - 41
Co-Authored by Both - 3

Audio Books - 3
E-Books - 20
Library Books - 60
Review Copies - 23
Started but Abandoned - 17

Translations: 6
Pages per Day: 105

Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 38,250 

A couple of things immediately jump out at me here, both relating to the long shutdown of Book Chase: the number of review copies (23) I accepted is the lowest in at least the last four years, and the number of books obtained from my library system (60) is the highest ever for me.  

And now it is time to move on to 2015...let's do it!

Amazon Anonymous Protest in U.K. Redirects Christmas Sales

According to this Guardian article, a group of unhappy Amazon customers in the U.K. has managed to redirect something like $7.6 million dollars in Christmas sales from Amazon to the pockets of independent retailers.  Do keep in mind, however, that this figure comes from the protesting group itself, Amazon Anonymous. 
"The campaigners launched their call for an “Amazon-free” Christmas on 18 November, with 41,509 people now signed up, having pledged to spend a total of £5.53m elsewhere. “Christmas is Amazon’s busiest time of year – it’s also our best chance to disrupt their business,” they urge online. “They don’t pay their workers a living wage. They dodge their tax. They take money away from our local shops. So this year, let’s take our money away from them.”
Set up last Christmas by a group of three disgruntled Amazon customers, Amazon Anonymous has now collected more than 130,000 signatures to a petition calling on the retailer to pay workers the living wage. This year it is also targeting the retailer over its tax practices."
'“Everyone signed up seems to have really enjoyed the Amazon-free challenge so far – lots of people [are] saying they have actually found it relatively easy to find alternative retailers for their gifts, others say they have been badgering their whole family to join them,” said Hay. “I think this may well be the first of many ‘Amazon-free’ Christmas challenges.”'
The Amazon Anonymous group began with only three members a year ago, has now gathered 130,000 signatures on an  anti-Amazon petition, and rounded up 41,509 shoppers to yank their business from Amazon this Christmas.  Group leaders say that the longer they are ignored by Amazon, the longer the protest will last.  Looks like a lot of Brits agree with them.

Monday, December 29, 2014

13 Hours in Benghazi

Truth is in short supply these days.

The entire truth about why American Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in Benghazi, Libya, on the night of September 11-12, 2012, for instance, may never be known - especially the part about decisions made in the White House as events unfolded.  But if you want to know exactly what happened on the ground that night, 13 Hours in Benghazi is a book you need to read. 

Mitchell Zuckoff, with the help of five of the men who defended the U.S. State Department Special Mission grounds and the nearby CIA facility that night, has put together an almost minute-by-minute account of what happened there.  Three of the book’s contributors allow their real names to be used: John “Tig” Tiegen, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, and Mark “Oz” Geist.  Two others contribute their stories under the cover of pseudonyms: Dave “D.B.” Benton and Jack Silva.  All five of the men worked for Global Response Staff and were in Benghazi as guards for the CIA’s secret facility there.  The five lost two other comrades to mortar attacks sustained during the night’s fighting: Tyrone Woods and Glenn Doherty. 

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens
Their story is both tragic and heroic.  Against staggering odds, these men fought a battle in which they could never be certain which Libyan militiamen were the enemy and which were there to help them.  Often they suspected that even the Libyan militia officers in charge of forces coming to their aid were playing both sides simultaneously in an effort to survive the night themselves.  With a sense of relief and gratitude, they tell of Libyans who, on their own initiative, decided to defend the Americans and help rescue those still trapped on Mission grounds.  It was too late to save Ambassador Christopher Stevens and computer expert Sean Smith, but through their combined efforts about a dozen other Americans were able to escape the city with the loss of only two more lives. 

Certainly, things could have gone much worse for the Americans.  But, according to the men on the ground, in reality, things should have gone better than they did.  The five all agree that a twenty-minute delay, during which their team leader, a man referred to in the book only as “Bob,” talked on the phone and refused to let them leave the CIA compound to begin their rescue effort, likely cost Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith their lives. 

As it is, their story reads like thriller fiction, and Zuckoff presents it in that style.  None of the men involved seem particularly concerned about the politics of their situation other than in how political indecision may have contributed to the delay of the start of their rescue mission.  They seem as equally unconcerned about what appears to many to be a White House orchestrated attempt to keep the truth from the American public by blaming an offensive YouTube video for inciting the attack.  Readers seeking those bits of truth will have to find it in another book.  13 Hours in Benghazi will tell you what happened in Benghazi that night – but not why it happened.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Expanding Book Universe

The overall book universe is expanding, and I love it.  

According to the Guardian, tree-books are doing very well these days, thank you.  And now that e-book market penetration seems to have plateaued at something like thirty percent of the entire book market, the future of tree-books, for a change, appears to be a bright one.  
"...if you examine the underlying figures for, say, 2012 and 2013, stripping out the exceptional impact of Fifty Shades of Grey, then it is quite possible to conclude that the book-buying universe – digital and printed – is expanding, not contracting. It isn’t a question of either/or. It is a question of both..."
The plateau is real. And one sentence sums up an essential difference. “Targeting is not a solution for discovery, except in a technologist’s head. Discovery is motivated by an exemplary browsing environment, something that online is very poor at.” 
 One problem for the Kindle revolution is the tablet revolution that came just behind, providing a wide range of other diversions besides books available on a single screen – which, in turn, cuts into reading time itself. The tablet is enemy as well as friend: and no one can tell where technology will go to next. 

As the article says, "It isn't a question of either/or.  It is a question of both..."  That's exactly the way it works with me.

I still very much prefer reading physical books over reading their electronic versions.  The reading experience is more rewarding and comfortable to me when I hold a physical book in my hands and can feel its weight, the texture of its paper, and even experience its individual smell.  When possible, I always go for a tree-book over an e-book and I probably always will.

There are times, however, when a physical book is less practical than its electronic cousin.  E-books at bargain prices are so common that I sometimes can't justify spending more money to have a physical copy of the same books.  Sometimes I'm traveling and want to travel lightly.  Sometimes I really don't want the public to know what I'm reading.  Sometimes I'm stuck in a long line, and I'm happy that I remembered to stuff my e-book reader deep inside a coat pocket.

But the crazy thing?  I'm reading more books than ever - and, believe me, I have read a whole lot of books in my life.  Still, I never dreamed I would be so consistently reading at a 125-150 books-per-year pace like I've done since e-books came along.  And, precisely because my reading pace has picked up, I'm more willing than ever to try new-to-me and debut authors - that so many debut novels are available in readily affordable e-book version doesn't hurt either.

So, no, it's not "either/or" for people like me; it's more like "all of it," please...and thank you very much.  

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Phelan's First Case

As I have had reason to mention several times in the last three or four years, I'm a big fan of the Akashic Books series of "noir" short story collections.  Each of the collections is set in a major city or regional area, and the fourteen or fifteen short stories in each book reflect that unifying regional flavor.  Several of the collections are set in Texas cities, but the first one of the Texas books I've been able to get my hands on covers the state as a whole and is entitled Lone Star Noir.

The first story in the book, "Phelan's First Case," by Lisa Sandlin, is set in 1973 Beaumont.  Beaumont is a Texas Gulf Coast city located about twenty-five miles west of the Louisiana border.  Having grown up in a little town adjacent to Beaumont (going to Beaumont was like going to the big city for us), I can vouch for the authenticity of Sandlin's references to local landmarks, schools, streets, neighborhoods and the like, and was not surprised to learn that the author herself is a Beaumont native.  But this being a "noirish" story, the atmosphere described by Sandlin is more akin to the 1940s than to the 1970s.  And that's what makes these stories fun.

Tom Phelan, recent loser of a finger to an oil rig accident, has taken his settlement money and opened a private investigation service.  Now he needs a client or two - and a secretary to watch the front door.  The secretary problem takes care of itself when an old high school buddy of Phelan's convinces him to give  a woman fresh out of a Texas prison a chance at the job.  

Lisa Sandlin
And then before he knows it, Phelan's newspaper ad produces his first two clients.  One Beaumont woman wants Phelan to find her missing teenaged son; another, hoping for a big pay day, wants her wealthy husband followed.  Keeping his priorities straight, the investigator begins tracking the boy through his high school friends...and stumbles into a crime no detective should have to face as his Case Number 1.  

"Phelan's First Case," I have to say is long on atmosphere (the author does noir very well) but a bit short on plot credibility.  The best noir pieces manage to keep a sense of reality and threat about them; this story never achieves either of those feelings.  Perhaps the story is more tongue-in-cheek than I give it credit for, but as I read it, it is a bit of a disappointing kick-off for Lone Star Noir.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Western (As in Cowboy) Novels - Are Serious Ones a Lost Art?

Add caption
I was watching one of my favorite John Wayne movies late last night, "The Shootist," which uses John Wayne's movie image at its finest.  If you recall, it's the film in which Mr. Wayne's character learns that he is dying of cancer, and desperately needs to find a place where he can die in relative peace.  So, the infamous John Bernard Brooks, Wayne's character, rents himself a room in a small boarding house in Carson City, Colorado.  When his landlady learns who he really is, she demands that he leave - much to the chagrin of her son who is absolutely tickled to have one of the last of the notorious gunfighters under his roof (the story takes place in 1902).  Of course, Brooks refuses to leave and a minor romance ensues.  

John Wayne and James Stewart
This movie has a spectacular cast that, in addition to John Wayne, includes Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Ron Howard, Harry Morgan, Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, John Carradine, Scatman Crothers, and Sheree North. Reportedly, several of the actors were specifically requested by Wayne because of his association with them in previous films.  Simply put, this film is wonderful.  It features John Wayne toward the end of his acting career in a role that mimics real life.

Glendon Swarthout
So why am I mentioning all of this?  Well, because this 1976 movie is based on the 1975 novel by Glendon Swarthout, a novelist whom I believe is terribly underrated and almost forgotten these days.  Swarthout, for instance, also wrote The Homesman, the source of the current film of the same name.

I used to read westerns on a regular basis, always looking for the realistic ones and avoiding the series stuff that reminded me too much of the pulp westerns of the late 1800s, but I've gotten away from that habit (probably because my favorite western authors are dead now).  But new exposure to "The Shootist" makes me want to read (and even re-read) some westerns in 2015.

Any suggestions as to novels or specific writers will be much appreciated.

Bonus: Here's the original trailer for the movie (you will notice some of the most unrealistic "blood" in the history of film, but that's a minor quibble of mine).

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas, Y'all

Merry Christmas to all my bookish friends.  Wherever you are, I hope you have a wonderful day with family and friends, and that you create a lot of fine memories for yourself.

Make the most of what today offers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

E-Books Are Becoming a Bigger and Bigger Part of My Reading - Reluctantly and Finally

I'm not the biggest of e-book fans out there, but every year it turns out that e-books account for about 10% of my total reading.  This year, for some reason, that figure will be closer to 15%.  

And that percentage may be even higher next year, because I just got an early Christmas present of a brand new Kindle Fire HD7 - and I'm floored by how much better the reading experience is on the HD7 than on the Kindle Paperwhite or on my old Sony Reader.  There's just no comparison.

I'm also surprised at how much more pleasant an experience shopping the Kindle store is on the HD7 than on the Paperwhite.  And who knew how big a difference color would make in the overall electronic reader experience?  Not me, that's for sure, or I would have had a Fire long before now.

My wife, I'm positive, chose the gift because she knows that I am totally out of bookshelf space and she is tired of asking me to move stacks of books out of sight.  So this is one of those win-win Christmas presents guaranteed to make the giver even happier than the receiver.  Now I need to do some e-book shopping, see what my library system has available in e-books, and maybe even work in a little actual reading before the family Christmas Eve festivities begin.

Merry Christmas, guys!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"How E-Books May Disrupt Your Sleep"

According to this column in the New York Times, reading an e-book before bedtime is probably a mistake for those who really want a good night's sleep.
Compared with a printed book, a light-emitting e-book decreased sleepiness, reduced REM sleep (often called dream sleep), and substantially suppressed the normal bedtime rise of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep and wake cycle. The e-book users took longer to fall asleep and felt sleepier in the morning.
Although I don't have any scientific data to back up this theory, my own experiences pretty much verify what is described in the above paragraph.  Reading a tree-book in bed makes me sleepy...every time...never fails.  On the other hand, reading from my Kindle or iPad not only allows me to read much longer before falling asleep, it also guarantees that I'm going to sleep so lightly that I'll be tired when I climb out of bed in the morning.  That happens almost every time.

I figured this out the hard way a long time ago.  Anyone else notice the same thing?

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

Some novels are like balloons slowly being filled with air.  Just when the book reaches its breaking point, when no more tension can possibly be inserted, relief arrives in one of two ways: either the book springs a leak and fizzles to a disappointing end, or it explodes into one of those satisfying endings readers will remember for a long time.  Mystery and thriller writers are always trying to make their balloon pop, and the good ones do it more times than not.  Unfortunately, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers springs a bad leak instead of exploding.  It begins with an interesting premise, hints at some kind of intriguing revelation to come, and then fizzles into mediocrity. 

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers tells the tale of Tooly Zylberberg, a little girl who is having one of the strangest coming-of-age experiences imaginable.  Tooly lives with her father, a man who about once a year moves her to a new continent where she starts her life all over again.  That Paul is hiding them from someone goes right over Tooly’s head.  To her, being suddenly submerged into an entirely new culture where she has to struggle with language and a new school is perfectly normal.  And, every so often, no matter where they are, a woman called Sarah shows up to spend a little time with Paul and Tooly.  It is all perfectly routine to the little girl – until the day Sarah steals her away from her father.

Tom Rachman
Rachman tells Tooly’s story in a recurring succession of segments that occur in 1988 (when Tooly is 10), 1999-2000, and 2011 (the present?).  Although this approach is a bit confusing at first because of the number of characters involved, it soon becomes a fascinating process of filling in all the blanks about how the various characters became the people they are in 2011 when Tooly is trying to solve the mysteries of her childhood.  Who knows the truth – and is willing to share it with Tooly? 

Is it Humphrey, the old Russian who at times seems to have raised Tooly on his own while everyone else in her life forgot about her?  Zenn, the charismatic young man Tooly has always admired and looked to as her protector?  Sarah, the woman who kidnapped her?  Her father, who seems to have made little effort to find and get her back when she disappeared? 

What promises to be the fascinating truth about her childhood is out there somewhere, and Tooly is determined to find it.  But when she finally does find it, all the air comes out of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers and the reader is left holding little more than an empty balloon. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Trailer of the Week: American Sniper (movie version)

Suddenly, I seem to have more movie choices than I've had in years.  Whether this is a fluke, or the movie industry has actually turned the corner and is starting to make more adult films than comic book rip-offs, I don't know.  I'll just take advantage of it while the opportunity presents itself.

"American Sniper" is based on the Chris Kyle autobiography of the same name.  Kyle was murdered on a firing range while working with/counseling a veteran with mental problems associated with that veteran's own service to this country.  Kyle's story is a sad one that needs to be told because too many Americans don't understand just how much a few good men are sacrificing on behalf of the rest of us.

Those of you interested in the book that tells the story in Chris Kyle's own words can click on the link below:

 And for a look at what Taya Kyle thinks of the movie, click to this USA Today article that includes an interview of Taya touching on everything she went through with her heroic husband.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"All About That Bass" Song Parodies (Book Related and Otherwise)

If the popularity of a song can be judged by the number of song parodies it generates, "All About That Bass" is absolutely huge.  I've seen at least four good-to-great ones in the last month or so, and I suspect that there are still many more to come.

Some are book related, like this one from "Read Across Road Island",

or like this one promoting the Book of Morman,

or how about this one from a Maine high school,

and then there's this one from Country Music a cappella group Home Free (coincidentally, I grew up with the parents of Tim Faust, the bass singer in this group),

A quick search on YouTube will turn up a few dozen other parodies, but let me warn you right now that most of them are awful, truly cringeworthy stuff.  "All About That Bass" is the perfect parody-base of a song because it is so easily adaptable to whatever message anyone wants to attach to it - and it's catchy as heck.  If you watch these videos, I hope you can get the tune out of your head sometime soon.  Good luck with that.

P.S.  For the one or two of you in the world still not familiar with the original, this is what started all the fuss:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Norman Birdwell, Creator of "Clifford The Big Red Dog," Dead at 86

(Photo from Clifford's Facebook Page)
Norman Birdwell, who created all of those wonderful children's books  about "Clifford The Big Red Dog," died last Friday (December 12, 2014) at the age of 86.  Although an official cause of death has not yet been released, the Associated Press reports that Birdwell had been hospitalized for the past several weeks following a bad fall he suffered at his home on Martha's Vineyard.  He is also known to have been fighting prostate cancer.

The more than forty Big Red Dog books have been translated into thirteen languages, and it is estimated that there are over 126 million copies of them in print.  Clifford, along with his best friend Emily, also starred in two animated television series that remain popular today.  

Too, I still remember the Big Red Dog software program I used in helping to teach my now-15-year-old granddaughter how to read.  And I can only guess at how many hours I spent reading Clifford books to her, her brother, and cousin as they all progressed through their pre-reading years.  

Norman Birdwell
Norman Birdwell's stories are wonderful, and they always have a good lesson to teach without being too obvious about it all.  Maybe that's why kids love the books so much - and why they don't bore the parents and grandparents who are reading them aloud over and over again.

Clifford and Emily always made me smile, and I sincerely thank Mr. Birdwell for his contribution to children's literature.

My Accidental Jihad

My Accidental Jihad is the story of a young woman who, because she fell in love with an older Moslem man from Libya, found herself undertaking a very personal jihad of her own.

No, no, no… not that kind of jihad. As Krista Bremer puts it in her book," the prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest jihad, or struggle, of our lives is not the one that takes place on a battlefield but the one that takes place within our hearts...the struggle to manifest humility, wisdom, and compassion." Bremer, in order to make her new romance work long term, was forced to "wrestle with my intolerance and self-absorption." Despite the odds against her, she won her personal jihad and, with the man who would forever change her life, she created a beautiful new family of her own.

The author's choice of partners was both wise and lucky in the sense that she met a Moslem man who did not insist that she live under the strict religious restraints that Moslem women around the world contend with every day. The open-mindedness that each brought to the relationship allowed them to grow both spiritually and socially. Over the years, they have shared their respective cultures with their children, and have managed to meld themselves into a family that recognizes the best - and the worst- of both worlds.

Krista Bremer
There is a lot to like here, but I finished the book with the feeling that Bremer was going out of her way to soften some of the quirks of modern Islam, especially those pertaining to the treatment of women and a worldview that makes so many members of the faith ready to accept “battlefield jihad” as inevitable.  She succumbs a bit to the common tendency automatically to see one’s own culture as cruder and less meaningful than another offering a simpler lifestyle in which family, spirituality, and worship are the main concerns.

That said, My Accidental Jihad affords the reader a view that is both optimistic and inspirational, a look at what is still possible in this world.  While the book is not at all what I expected it to be from its title when I first picked it up, it reminded me of how much can be accomplished when two people combine a willingness to listen with the ability to find workable compromise.

That’s a worthy accomplishment, indeed, Ms. Bremer.