Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Weird Mind of Dan Simmons on Display

I made a quick stop at my county library branch this morning to drop off three books that were due back and stumbled upon a couple of interesting new novels while there.  The branch keeps only the children's books and a few of the more recently published fiction and nonfiction titles downstairs, but I always take a moment to scan those shelves.  And I'm really happy I did this time because I spotted a couple of novels that look really good - and I had heard of neither of them.

The most intriguing one is The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, a writer I'm pretty familiar with already.  I especially love his Drood, the novel in which he so spookily gets into the heads of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.  Simmons is skilled at blending fiction with fact in very plausible ways that will subtly twist one's image of well known historical characters right on its ear.  Drood is absolutely magnificent, so I have high hopes for The Fifth Heart.

This time around, Simmons teams the fictional Sherlock Holmes with Henry James in an investigation of the supposed suicide of Henry Adams's wife, Clover.  The supporting cast includes: Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Hay.  That's already enough to get me intrigued about the book, but it hardly expresses the weirdness of this tale.  Let me quote a bit from the dust jacket and you'll see what I mean:
Holmes is currently on his Great Hiatus - his three-year absence after his performance at Reichenbach Falls, during which time the people of London believe him to be dead.  Holmes has faked his own death because the great detective has used his incomparable powers of rationcination to come to the conclusion that he is a fictional character.
This leads to serious complications for James - for if his esteemed fellow investigator is merely  work of fiction, what does that make him?  And what can the master storyteller do to fight against the sinister power possibly named Moriarty that may or may not be controlling them from the shadows? 

I just hope I can keep up with this one - and that it doesn't disappoint me.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Boy's Life

Robert McCammon’s 1991 novel, Boy’s Life, is a very good coming-of-age novel in which young Cory Mackenson learns more about life in just a few months than many adults ever learn in a lifetime.  Because the novel is set in small-town Alabama in 1964, Cory is, of course, exposed to the racial intolerance of the era, but he is lucky in that his parents are not the stereotypical Southern bigots that exist in so many books and screenplays that have since been written about the sixties.  The “sin” of the Mackenson family is more the typical one of omission rather than one of active commission because, while the Mackensons were not themselves bigots, they accepted bigotry in their neighbors and acquaintances as the inevitable consequence of two different races living so closely together. 

In Cory’s everyday world, bullies, baseball, summer vacations from school, bicycles, and his small circle of best friends play much larger roles than race.  Well, they do anyway until very early on the morning that Cory and his father are almost sideswiped by a car coming at them from a road off the main highway.  Before the car can sink into the depths of the “bottomless” lake into which it has plunged, Cory’s father makes a desperate attempt to save its driver.  What he sees of the man behind the wheel just before the car sinks so rapidly that it almost sucks him down with it will make it almost impossible for Mr. Mackenson to sleep for months to come.

The naked driver has been brutally beaten, strangled by a copper wire, and handcuffed to the car’s steering wheel.  Cody and his father have stumbled onto a killer’s disposal of his victim, and consequences will have to be paid.  The Mackensons – and every one else in little Zephyr, Alabama – are about to live one of the most memorable years they will ever experience.

Robert McCammon
Boy’s Life very much reminds me of a Stephen King novel.  Like King often does in his own books, McCammon shows his readers the hidden evils of the world through the eyes of a child.  Cory Mackenson is an innocent, but the world will not allow him to remain innocent for much longer.  “It’s time to grow up, Cory, so let’s get on with it,” seems to be life’s message to Cory and his three friends.  And, ready or not, that’s what the boys will do.

McCammon uses a wide cast of characters to tell his Boy’s Life story.  Some of them are eccentric, some are evil, some are quite nice people, and unfortunately, a few of them are stereotypes.  Most of the more unforgettable of the author’s characters come mostly from the book’s black community (The Lady, her husband, the little boy that Cory befriends, the town handyman, etc.)

As I said earlier, this is a very good coming-of-age novel, but that is not to say that it could not have been a better one without so much emphasis on the supernatural aspects of the story.  Boy’s Life was written for the horror market of its day, and that made a lot of sense in 1991.  If written today, this might be a very different  - and even better – novel.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In Which A Car Wreck Teaches Me More About Honesty and Corporate Ethics Than I Really Wanted to Know

Well here we are at the last Sunday of June already, the start of a new week - one that I hope will be a whole lot better for me than the one we just finished.  

I was in an auto accident Monday about noon in which the car I was driving and the one that hit me were both totaled.  A third vehicle that was parked in the intersection had some very minor bumper damage to it.  The driver who hit me was speeding through a red light about three or four seconds after it had changed, and since there is a slight curve at the intersection I never saw him until he was about twenty feet from me.  Anyway, as I said, both cars were totaled.  

Big problem.  I was driving a loaner car from the dealership at which I had just dropped off my wife's car for some work.  That loaner was a 2015 Acura with 980 miles on it...and it is totaled.  The car that hit me was a two-year-old Nissan Altima...and it is totaled.  The third vehicle has about a thousand dollars worth of paint damage to its bumper.  

And then comes the topper.  The driver of the truck told me at the scene of the accident that he could not tell which color the light was in the direction from which the speeding car came through the intersection.  All he knew was that his own light was still red, but that does not mean necessarily that the opposite side was still green.  We agreed, and that's what he told the investigating officer.  The other driver, of course, claims his light was green.  The officer declined to find fault since no witnesses remained at the scene to tell what they had seen.

Now I find out that both the truck and the Nissan are covered by the same insurance company.  And, get this...the driver of the truck has somehow decided that he could see the light on the opposite side and that it was green when I was hit by the Nissan driver.  Meaning...you guessed it...that my insurance company will be left holding the bag on this one.  Meaning, also, that I will be out-of-pocket several thousand dollars because the damage to the three vehicles involved exceeds my coverage for a single accident.

I am cynical by nature, and always have been.  But this whole thing really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because I believe that if the other two drivers had had separate insurance carriers, the truck driver would have never changed his story.  Call me naive, but this really blindsided me.  Never saw it coming.

So now I'm left with a horrible screeching sound in both ears (as a result of the noise level reached when three airbags in my car detonated), daily headaches, doctors to see, and the knowledge that my auto insurance rate is about to skyrocket...if the policy is not canceled outright on me when it comes time for renewal.  

Yes, this is almost certain to be a better week than the last one.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

New Fonts for E-books...Can Page Numbering Be Far Behind?

For the last four or five years, I have consistently read more e-books than in the year before.  Too, I have migrated all the way from one of the original Sony Readers, to an upgraded Sony Reader, to a Kindle Paperwhite, and even to a Kindle Fire in the last few years.  So it's not like I'm even remotely close to being anti e-book.

But that doesn't mean that I love everything about reading e-books. For instance, I have never liked the generic font used in e-books, and I absolutely hate it when an e-book does not have real page numbers.  Who wants to be bothered with "position" numbers, percentages of completion, and estimated reading time remaining?  Well, for one, not me.

So it's good to see that positive changes are on the horizon.  According to this Wall Street Journal article, for instance, the font issue is well in hand:
The upgrades aren’t just aesthetic. Typography can affect how fast you read. Some fonts propel the eye forward; others cause fatigue. Using eye-tracking tests, Amazon determined that its new font, Bookerly, allows readers to progress 2% faster than its previous default, the clunky but well-performing workhorse font Caecilia.
Bookerly has received positive reviews but the typography world is even more excited about something else Amazon is releasing at the same time: new software that dictates how text appears on the page. This is the company’s first crack at introducing hyphenation—splitting a word in two to fit more characters on a line and eliminate the wide spaces that occur when there are too few words on a full-justified line. 

These may seem like little things, but if e-books are ever to approach the readability comfort level of books on paper, this is a really big deal.  

Now let's outlaw the publication of e-books that do not include real page numbering...come on, I know you guys can do it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Library Renamed in Tribute to Church Shooting Victim

St. Andrews Regional Library
In beautiful tribute to one of the nine victims of the horrible South Carolina church murders, the library that Cynthia Graham Hurd managed before her death is being renamed in her honor.  It will now be known as the Cynthia Graham Hurd St. Andrews Regional Library.

According to this article in The Guardian:
The motion was passed unanimously, according to the Post and Courier, which reported that Hurd’s family and friends had filled the front row of the council’s chambers as the resolution was read out.
Her brother, the former North Carolina senator Malcolm Graham, has described Hurd as “a librarian’s librarian”, who “enjoyed working with the kids, but she also realised her job extended beyond the walls of the library”. She had worked in the Charleston county library system for 31 years.
Hurd’s wake is due to be held on Friday, with her funeral on Saturday. The library service said that all 16 of Charleston’s public library branches will close on Saturday, in her honour and to allow staff to attend the funeral services.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Texas Vigilante

Texas Vigilante is Bill Crider’s sequel to his rousing western novel Outrage at Blanco.  What makes both of the novels unusual is not that they feature a fearless gunfighter or villains so nasty that they would make a Jack Palance movie character turn and run for his life.  No, what makes Outrage at Blanco and Texas Vigilante special is that the gunfighter they feature is a woman – a woman who has had all she can take and who is now willing to take the law into her own hands when and as necessary.  Ellie Traine has a gun and she is not afraid to use it.

Ellie is working hard to make a go of the small ranch she inherited at the close of Outrage at Blanco.  Reconciled to widowhood, she has carved out a new life for herself in the little Texas town in which her husband was so brutally murdered just months earlier.  With the help of hired hands, including a young couple and their little girl, the ranch, while not exactly thriving, is doing well enough to provide Ellie with both a home and a purpose in life.

Bill Crider
But, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished.  Ellie is about to learn that the young couple working for her knocked on her door for a good reason.  Lane Tolbert is desperately trying to hide his family from his brother-in-law, and Ellie’s little ranch in the middle of nowhere seems like as good a place as any to do that.  His wife’s brother is a violent prison inmate who believes that his sister turned him in to authorities.  He has vowed revenge, and because Lane knows very well that the man is capable of anything, he fears that his brother-in-law will slaughter them all.

And now, in a bloodbath that claims the lives of several prison guards, Angel has escaped and he’s looking for Lane, Sue, and especially for their little girl.  He has big plans for the family and he knows exactly how to hurt them the most.  Once again, the only thing standing between pure evilness and those incapable of taking care of themselves alone is a woman called Ellie.  And Ellie Traine is not going to back down – now or ever again.

To say only that Texas Vigilante is a violent, action packed western novel would not do it credit because it is much more than that.  Bill Crider has created a memorable character in Ellie Traine, and it’s kind of a shame that there is not a third Ellie Traine western.  Read this one, western fans, because Ellie Traine is a hoot. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Who Are These People?

A Process Opposite to That of Reading "Fifty Shades of Grey"
When I see a headline like "Fifty Shades of Grey sequel breaks sales records," my first thought is always "who are you people?"  And even after a bit of consideration, I can only attribute the popularity of this kind of poorly written tripe to: 

  • the number of people who chase every hot trend and want to appear to be part of whatever is "cool", people for whom product quality is not even a consideration, 
  • the timeless popularity and appeal of soft core pornography (be it poorly written or not),
  • the possibility that the reading skill level of the world's general population is now so bad that many people (when they even bother to pick up a book) can only handle the simplest prose and are unable to recognize poor writing when they see it, 
  • the overall dumbing down of societies around the world stemming from television shows like "E!" and others that make instant celebrities of trash like the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, and all those clowns on "Jersey Shore," and
  • to the internet, the best mass marketing tool to come around in human history.
That headline is one I grabbed from The Guardian, by the way:

“We’ve had magnificent support from across the trade,” said Susan Sandon, managing director of Cornerstone. “The excitement and enthusiasm that Grey’s publication has generated is totally irresistible and I am delighted with these early results.”
James’s previous novels, Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed – which tell the story of Christian and Ana’s relationship from her perspective – have sold more than 125m copies around the world to date.
...who ARE you people?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Richard III Camping Goods

While I am all but positive that this image has been photoshopped, I do have to admire the wit on display.  Nothing starts the day like a good literary pun...

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Boys in the Boat

About the only thing that most of us remember about the Berlin 1936 Olympics games today is the amazing performance that track star Jesse Owens, much to Adolph Hitler's chagrin, turned in for the United States.  Now, Daniel James Brown has written a book, The Boys in the Boat that might just change that - at least for a while.  Brown's book is subtitled: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Games.  It has been almost eighty years since these young rowers won gold and their story is understandably a largely forgotten one.  Well, it is time to fix that.

By the time they arrived in Berlin, the men, all of them University of Washington students, had already accomplished more than they ever had a right to dream of accomplishing.  The 1930s was still a time when rowing was considered to be a rich man's sport, a sport firmly established on the East Coast and dominated by the elite universities there.  Rowers were most often sons of the upper classes.  Their fathers were doctors, lawyers, politicians, and multi-millionaires.  No way should a rowing team from the West, one composed of the sons of farmers, loggers, shipbuilders, and other blue-collar workers be able to compete consistently with the boys of the East.

Coaches at the University of Washington and at the University of California were determined to change both the perception of their skill levels and the results of direct competition with their East Coast rivals.  As the 1936 Olympics approached, they had accomplished both goals in spades.  Not only did they start dominating the East Coast competitions, they so thoroughly dominated them that they convinced that region's sports writers that they would continue to do so for years to come. 

The University of Washington and the University of California were lucky to have each other.  Their head coaches were intimately familiar with each other's reputation, style, and tactics and the competitive rivalry that developed between their rowing teams was good for both schools.  In fact, if they had not had each other, neither school is likely to have accomplished what it did.  The schools were also very lucky that both had a head coach destined to make the National Rowing Hall of Fame: Washington's Al Ulbrickson and California's "Ky" Ebright.  And, as it turned out, rowing coaches across the U.S (and, eventually, elsewhere) were lucky to have George Yeoman Pocock, builder of the fastest racing boats in the world, come along when he did.

Daniel James Brown
Pocock, a Brit who found his way from Canada to the University of Washington campus, was far more than just a boat builder.  Even though he provided his boats to other schools and racing teams, Pocock became Coach Ulbrickson's right hand man, someone whose observations and suggestions the coach depended upon and of which he took full advantage.  What happened at the 1936 games almost certainly would not have happened without Pocock's help.

 In The Boys in the Boat, the author, with particular help from the daughter of rower Joe Rantz, delves deeply into the personalities and make-up of the members of the medal-winning team.  At times, in fact, the novel is so personal and so well researched that it reads more like a novel than a nonfiction sporting history.  It is an unforgettable piece of writing that I recommend to readers of all types.  You most certainly do not have to be a sports fan or someone who reads little other than history to enjoy The Boys in the Boat.  Please don't miss this one. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day: How Quickly It All Happens

Happy Father's Day, guys.  Enjoy and make the most of whatever phase of life you and your children or in because it goes from this...

to this...

in a heartbeat.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How Does James Patterson Do It?

How does something like this ever happen?

This is simply an observation about the extraordinary presence that James Patterson has carved out for himself in the world of publishing and bookselling.  I don't know a single thing about the man's personal life other that he seems to be giving away a lot of money these days, and that's a good thing.  But from this picture I snapped at my local Barnes & Noble this morning, I can see how he affords to do that.

No, what gets me is that of all the books in this special B&N display, I think that Patterson actually wrote two of them - despite the fact that his name is the single most notable feature on most of the covers displayed.  (Throw out that stray "Archie" that someone has misplaced.)  

What a sweet deal this guy is getting: his very name has become a brand now and he can sell it to aspiring authors willing to do a lot of grunt work for a piece of the James Patterson pie.  And now, the biggest of the surviving bookstore chains is bending over backwards to push all these "co-written" books of his.  I understand B&N's motivation...gotta sell books in order to survive...but I am really tired of seeing James Patterson, supposed author, everywhere I look.

Rant over.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Shots on the Bridge

The New Orleans police department has long had the reputation of being one of the most corrupt in the United States.  If it is not actually the most corrupt department in the country, in the minds of most observers it is certainly always in the running for that title.  And in the wake of what happened on the Danziger Bridge six days after Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, the NOPD proved that in their case public perception was fact because, sadly enough, the NOPD turned out to be a clear extension of the overall political corruption and ineptness that describes the history of New Orleans city government.

Hurricane Katrina struck a city without a clue.  Both the city's mayor and its police chief failed the city terribly by not having a solid plan in place for the aftermath of the hurricane.  In fact, as Ronnie Greene points out in Shots on the Bridge, those providing emergency services to the citizens of New Orleans after the storm were left largely on their own.  And this seems particularly true of a police department that failed to set up even a central meeting place/control point from which to coordinate its efforts to control crime during what turned out to be perhaps the most chaotic period in the city’s history.

The Danziger Bridge, only seven-tenths of a mile long, allows access between two New Orleans neighborhoods separated by the city’s Industrial Canal.  And going from one neighborhood to another is all that each of the victims of the police slaughter were doing on the morning they were unfortunate enough to cross paths with a bunch of adrenalin-fueled cops who completely misread the situation on the bridge.  The policemen believed that they were responding to a scene where an unknown number of snipers had shot at least one of their own.  They were anxious to get to the bridge before more policemen could be killed or injured – and when they got there they exited their vehicles with guns blazing.

Ronnie Greene
Before the gunfire ended (and it did not end even when all the victims were helpless and on the ground), six people, traveling in opposite directions in two distinct groups, had been shot.  Two of them were dead: a middle-aged mentally challenged man who was chased off the bridge and killed while trying to understand what was happening around him, and a seventeen-year-old boy whose body was chewed up by the number of wounds it sustained.  One woman, whose arm was literally shot off, saw her daughter shot in the stomach and her husband suffer severe shrapnel-related head wounds.  All the victims were black and none of them had a weapon of any type on them.  Some of the cops were white; some were black.

Then the cover-up began, and the NOPD lived up to its embarrassing reputation as being one of the most corrupt police departments anywhere.  Read Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge for the rest of this tragic story – especially the way it was so consistently mishandled in the court system.  We can only hope that someone in the city of New Orleans learned something from the mistakes made in this case – and is now in a position to help ensure that nothing like this ever again happens there.