Tuesday, September 22, 2020

$3 Million Worth of Stolen Books Found Underground in Romania

Back in January 2017, in a heist that sounds like something out of the latest Mission Impossible movie, a gang of Romanian thieves  cut a hole in the roof of a London postal transit warehouse and "abseiled" 40 feet to the floor, dodging sensors all the way. They were after a collection of rare books being stored in that warehouse prior to shipment to a rare-books auction being held in Las Vegas. They escaped with the books, said to be worth over $3 million, the same way they came into the building. 

Now, almost four years later, the books have been recovered, and according to BBC News, thirteen people have been arrested: 

The gang is responsible for a series of high-value warehouse burglaries across the UK, London's Metropolitan police said in a statement.
Officers discovered the books underground during a search of a house in the region of Neamț, in north-eastern Romania, on Wednesday.
The find follows raids on 45 addresses across the UK, Romania and Italy in June 2019, investigators say. Thirteen people have been charged, 12 of whom have already pleaded guilty.
The hoard includes rare versions of Dante and sketches by the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, as well as the titles by Galileo and Isaac Newton dating back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.

 It's hard to believe that this kind of thing happens in the real world and not just in movies and books. Apparently, the thieves were willing to sit on the books as long as it took to figure out a way to turn them into actual cash - something that must be near impossible for books as rare and as well documented as these are. 

And now, I can't help but wonder if being stored underground in those conditions for almost four years has damaged the books despite how well they seem to be wrapped in the below photo from the Metropolitan Police. High humidity is a book-killer, and from the looks of this underground vault, damp conditions appear likely. Somewhere, an insurance company or two are breathing big sighs of relief about now.

Metropolitan Police Photo

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The World Has Gone Mad: Banning Harry Potter

In what just may be the final straw that broke this camel's back, I can now officially declare that the world has gone mad. 

According to Newsweek (remember them?), one terribly "woke" (a word I detest in this context) bookstore owner in Australia actually thinks it will make her little shop a safer place for customers if she quits selling anything written by JK Rowling. That includes, of course, the Harry Potter books as well as the books published under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym Rowling uses for her crime novels. 

So how does this make her little woke-shop a safer place for her customers and their children? Well, according to the genius that owns the Rabble Books bookstore in Perth:

"...we want to talk about JK Rowling. We are always trying to make Rabble a safer space for our community, and part of that is trying not to put books by transphobes on the shelves, when we know about them."

Despite her obvious punctuation problems, this marketing genius goes on to say that all of that regained shelf space is going to be filled with comfort reads that are guaranteed to pull the community closer together by making them feel oh-so-safe as they browse her shelves. No longer will they have to look over their shoulders and wonder if a transphobic person might be sneaking up behind them:

"What I’d love to hear is your suggested alternatives - what are some queer and trans positive fantasy books for young people and crime books for adults?"

Please excuse the sarcasm, and don't get me wrong here. I have nothing against books featuring the "queer and trans" community. That's not really the point. With rare exception, I oppose censorship, and I agree that this woman can sell whatever she wants in her shop. What upsets me in this instance is the way she's going about it. "Cancel Culture" is a horrendous tool used by stupid people, and it's time that the rest of us stop condoning its use.  

The Woke Genius, Nat Latter


Saturday, September 19, 2020

Hieroglyphics - Jill McCorkle

   “I think that those who forget being children have likely lost their souls; it’s just that simple.” 

If this quote from page 261 of Jill McCorkle’s Hieroglyphics is true, the four main characters of her new novel remain firmly attached to their souls. One of the four, Harvey, actually still is a child, and Shelley, Frank, and Lil seem to live almost as much in the past as they do in the present. 

Frank and Lil, after spending most of their adult lives in Boston, have retired to North Carolina where Frank has become preoccupied with getting inside his boyhood home for one final look at the place he so vividly remembers. He particularly wonders whether the old Mason jar full of boyhood trinkets he left behind all those years ago might still be hidden away where he saw it last. Lil, his wife, has equally vivid childhood memories of her own, especially the ones so eerily similar to her husband’s. Shelley, whose own childhood was more troubled than she wants to admit even to herself, and her son Harvey are renting Frank’s old family home – and Shelley has no intention of letting Frank inside the rundown old place for a last look. 

Hieroglyphics is not the kind of book that hits the ground running and maintains a quick pace for the next 300 pages. That kind of book is easy for the reader to get into. Instead, McCorkle sets her hook here in a very gradual manner by building the depth of her main characters layer by layer until the reader learns to see them as the real flesh and bone people they are. By the end of Hieroglyphics, it is obvious that all four have something in common. Each, even six-year-old Harvey, is emotionally scarred by something that happened to one, or both, of their parents. 

Memories, though, are funny things, especially those held by older people involving their childhood experiences. Frank and Lil have vivid memories of those days, but they do not stop to think that the memories, even hazy as they are becoming, were originally filtered through the eyes of a child. Shelley has a past she so badly wants to keep hidden that she creates an alternate family history for her two sons. And little Harvey becomes the near-perfect reflection of all of his mother’s insecurities and fears. 

Bottom Line: Hieroglyphics is a literary novel for readers who enjoy memorably complex characters who are doing the best they can simply to get from one day to the next. Bit-by-bit, as their inner lives are revealed, it all starts to make sense – and it becomes impossible not to root for each of them to get past what has so emotionally scarred them. This one demands a little patience, but that patience is well-rewarded in the end.

Jill McCorkle

(Review Copy provided by Publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Who Doesn't Love Books on Books? Here Are 60 Suggestions for You


Anyone who spends time blogging about books and/or reading the dozens and dozens of excellent book-blogs out there, also loves reading about actual books. And we are very lucky that there are so many of them out there: books about books, about bookstores, about booksellers, about bookmobiles, about libraries, about collecting books, about caring for books, and even about "how to read" a book. You name a book-topic, and it's probably out there somewhere.

I had several hours this afternoon during which I had to do the kind of busywork that allows a person to just let their mind wander...so I did. At some point I got to wondering how many book-related books I've read, so I decided to look into that when I got home. Below, is a listing of the ones I could identify (the year listed is the year I read the book, not the year it was published):

  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays - Amy Meyerson - 2019
  • A Novel Bookstore - Lawrence Cross - 2012
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robert Sloan - 2013
  • Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore - Matthew Sullivan - 2019
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookstore - Lewis Buzbee - 2008
  • The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald - 2019
  • The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted - Robert Hillman - 2019
  • Paris by the Book - Liam Callanan - 2019
  • Book Case - Stephen Greenleaf - 1992
  • The Bookman's Tale - Charlie Lovett - 2013
  • The Bookworm - Mitch Silver - 2019
  • The Bookseller - Cynthia Swanson - 2016
  • The Book of Speculation - Erika Swyler - 2015
  • The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - 2006
  • Booked to Die - John Dunning - 1995
  • The Bookman's Wake - John Dunning - 1996
  • The Bookman's Last Fling - John Dunning - 2008
  • The Camel Bookmobile - Marsha Hamilton - 2007
  • First Impressions - Charlie Lovett - 2014
  • The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon -2012
  • The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafon - 2014
  • The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett - 2017
These 22 are all novels, with most of them being mysteries. I think the 34 that follow below are all nonfiction:
  • The Thieves of Book Row - Travis McDade - 2013
  • Books - Larry McMurtry - 2009
  • So Many Books, So Little Time - Sara Nelson - 2007
  • The Library Book - Susan Orlean - 2019
  • A Passion for Books - Harold Rabinowitz, Rob Kaplan - 2002
  • The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New - Margot Rosenberg, B. Mancowitz - 2008
  • The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe - 2012
  • The Clothing of Books - Jhumpa Lahiri - 2018
  • Book Lust to Go - Nancy Pearl - 2010
  • Modern Book Collecting - Robert A. Wilson - 1988
  • So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance - Gabriel Zaid - 2017
  • How to Read a Book - Adler and VanDoren - 1986
  • The Man Who Loved Books too Much - Allison Hoover Bartlett - 2009
  • The Maximum Security Book Club - Mikita Brottman - 2016
  • Book Finds - Ian C. Ellis - 2000
  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books - Paul Collins - 2003
  • Among the Gently Mad - Nicholas A. Basbanes - 2005
  • Slightly Chipped - Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone - 2001
  • Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore - Suzanne Strempek Shea - 2008
  • A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict - John Baxter - 2006
  • My Reading Life - Pat Conroy - 2010
  • The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr - 2015
  • The Fiction Writer's Handbook - Shelly Lowenkoph - 2011
  • Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading - Nina Sankovitch - 2015
  • Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading - Maureen Corrigan - 2007
  • A Year of Reading - Michael Dirda - 2016
  • How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster - 2019
  • Reading with Patrick - Michelle Kuo - 2017
  • A History of Reading - Alberto Manguel - 1999
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously - Andy Miller - 2015
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi - 2004
  • The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared - Alice Ozma, Jim Brozina - 2011
  • How Reading Changed My Life - Anna Quindlen - 2007
  • How Literature Works - John Sutherland - 2011

Suggested Additions to the Lists:
  • The Book on the Bookshelf - Henry Petroski - nonfiction -courtesy of Jeane
  • A History of Books - Gerald Murnane - nonfiction - courtesy of Moshe Prigan 
  • Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year Reading from Home - Susan Hill - nonfiction - courtesy of Kath
  • Jacob's Room Is Full of Books: A Year of Reading - Susan Hill - nonfiction - courtesy of Kath

(The ones in bold type are my favorites of the lot.)

I know that you guys, avid readers that you are, have probably read most of these, too. I also know that I've skipped others that don't include some variation of the word "book" in their titles, so please feel free to give me more book-books in your comments. And, I hope you find something new-to-you here that you will enjoy reading.

(This post has been, and will continue to be, added to from time to time.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The True Adventures of Gidon Lev - Julie Gray with Gidon Lev

Gidon Lev is an ordinary man who, because of the circumstances of his birth, has lived a truly extraordinary life. That he is even alive to tell us about it today, is perhaps the most amazing thing of all about him because Gidon had no business even surviving his childhood. His adventures began in 1941, when as a six-year-old child, Gidon was transported along with his mother and grandfather to Térézin, a German concentration camp some 30 miles north of Prague. He would still be there at the end of World War II, one of the ninety-two children known to have survived the experience out of the fifteen thousand children imprisoned there during the war. 

Gidon Lev is now 85 years old, and he is ready to share his story with the rest of us. 

Not only did this man survive a concentration camp where he could have so easily succumbed to disease or some German-inflicted atrocity, he survived both Israel’s Six-Day War and its War of Attrition. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He was married twice and now lives with his “life partner,” Julie Gray, a woman some thirty years younger than him who wrote The True Adventures of Gidon Lev with a mighty assist from Gidon himself. He has six children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild – with more to come. The man has certainly had his ups and downs during the last eight decades and, looking back, he’s not always proud of his behavior or the way that he treated some of those closest to him. But then, who is, really? 

His story is fascinating, no doubt, but one of the things I most enjoyed about The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is the way Gray (left) takes her readers along for the ride as she pulls the book together from her firsthand observations and Gidon’s notes and papers from his past. As each chapter unfolds, the author shares the circumstances under which it was written, the conversational editing process she led Gidon through, and his emotional reaction to whatever chapter of his life they were discussing. For me, it was hard not to feel as if I were in the room with them, a silent witness to their unique relationship and way of working so beautifully together. Too, I couldn’t help but wonder if the two of them were learning as much about each other and Gidon’s past as I was as a reader. Sometimes, even Gidon seemed a bit surprised by – and reluctant to accept – some of what they uncovered together. 

Bottom Line: The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is a firsthand account of one man’s experiences in a World War II German concentration camp. That the experience is told largely through the eyes and memories of a child, makes it even more heartbreaking a tale than it would have already been. That also leaves room for the 85-year-old Gidon Lev to learn things about himself and his experiences in the camp that he had no way of knowing – or remembering – as a little boy. Gidon Lev’s story deserves to be heard, and Julie Gray has done him and his story proud.

(Photo of Julie Gray and Gidon Lev credit to Julie Gray)

(Review Copy provided by Author or Publisher)

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Shane - Jack Schaefer

For a lot of legitimate reasons western novels get as little respect as romance novels, and, in fact, I’ve several times seen westerns characterized disparagingly as “romance novels for men.” But for a lot of equally legitimate reasons, westerns and romance novels, when they are approached in a serious manner by their authors, deserve the same respect granted to their supposedly more sophisticated cousins. Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel Shane is most definitely a western that stands tall for good reason. 

Shane certainly has its share of fistfights, and even includes a memorable gunfight between two of the fastest gunslingers passing through the state of Wyoming. But it also features a young couple trying to teach their son Bob (the novel’s narrator) right from wrong to provide him with a proper moral code he can live by for the rest of his life. It features a man so conflicted by his past that he struggles to keep himself under control even when violence is the only way to protect himself and those he loves. And it even explores one of the sweetest love-triangles I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Shane may not be the perfect western novel, but it comes as close as any to meeting that standard. 

     “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.” 

That’s the impression that Shane gave Bob when the two first set eyes on each other as Shane rides up to the Starrett farm. From that first moment, the boy senses something different about Shane, something very dangerous to anyone who might dare cross him for the wrong reason. Shane arrives just about the time that half-a-dozen small farmers are being coerced by a rich cattleman to walk away from the homesteads upon which they depend for a living. The man wants to drive large herds of cattle through the territory, but he cannot do that if he has to bypass all the fenced-off farms adjoining his own property. And after receiving a big government contract to supply as much beef as he can come up with, he will do whatever it takes to destroy the farms in his way. 

 Shane has to choose a side or ride away...he doesn’t ride away. 

Soon enough, Shane becomes a symbol of resistance to both sides of the fence dispute, something that he both regrets and accepts: 

     “In some strange fashion the feeling was abroad that Shane was a marked man. Attention was on him as a sort of symbol. By taking him on father had accepted in a way a challenge from the big ranch across the river. What had happened to Morley had been a warning and father had deliberately answered it. The long unpleasantness was sharpened now after the summer lull. The issue in our valley was plain and would in time have to be pushed to a showdown. If Shane could be driven out, there would be a break in the homestead rank, a defeat going beyond the loss of a man into the realm of prestige and morale. It could be the crack in the dam that weakens the whole structure and finally less through the flood.” 

Neither Shane, nor the Starretts, are willing to let that happen. 

Bottom Line: Shane is filled with memorable characters, heroes and villains, alike. One of the most memorable is Marian Starrett, a woman strong enough to support her husband in his fight to save their livelihood from the man who wants to steal it from them. The complicated relationship between Joe Starrett, his wife Marian, and Shane is one that Schaefer handles perfectly in this, his debut novel. Shane is so good that I can only imagine the pressure that Schaefer must have felt for the rest of his life to match it.

Jack Schaefer

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Today's Smile: Heywood Broun vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald

Haywood Broun

Apparently, critic Heywood Broun (1888-1939) did not at all care for F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise when it was first published - and he never changed his mind. Broun not only gave the book a bad review, he continued to take shots at it in several later newspaper columns, including one written about his attendance at the 1920 Yale-Princeton football game. Broun worked as a sports writer for part of his career so he knew what he was talking about - but he still couldn't resist taking another shot at Fitzgerald, himself a Princeton graduate. 

Who doesn't love a longterm spat between a critic and a writer? I know that I do. But what struck me as particularly funny was Broun's take on the value of a college education. As quoted in LOA's email announcement of this Sunday's LOA "story of the week," it went this way:

"...Just before the whistle blew, Captain Tim Callahan of Yale and Mike Callahan of Princeton walked out into the middle of the gridiron. The referee said: 'I guess I don't have to introduce you boys,' and he was right, because the Callahan's are brothers.

Mrs. Callahan believes in scattering her sons. She follows the old adage of 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket.' There is still another Callahan who is preparing for Ursinus. Mrs. Callahan believes that by trying all the colleges at least one of her sons is going to get an education..."

Maybe it just doesn't take much to make me laugh today, or I've finally gone stir-crazy, but I find that to be a pretty good punchline.  It worked on me, anyway.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Saturday, September 12, 2020

To Your Scattered Bodies Go - Philip Jose Farmer

All of us, I think, can recall a handful of books that to this day seem to mark a particular period in our lives. Often, as the decades go by, we find ourselves taking those books with us as we move from place to place. For instance, I still have the paperback copy of Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle that I paid sixty cents for in a Nashville bus station during my Army basic training in nearby Ft. Campbell, KY, in early 1968. Its pages are brown and a little brittle now, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. 

Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go is another of those books for me. I did not discover this 1971 novel (and Philip Jose Farmer) until 1983 when I paid $2.95 for a twenty-third printing of the paperback version of the novel. As you can see, the price of a relatively thin paperback had gone up considerably in the fifteen years separating publication of these two books. I’ve read each of them at least three times now, so I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of them. 

The main character in To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the nineteenth century explorer Richard Burton, a man who one morning wakes up naked on the banks of a river he has never before seen. Burton, though, is not the only confused person waking up in that same condition:

“Everywhere on the plain were unclothed bald-headed human beings, spaced about six feet apart. Most were still on their backs and gazing into the sky. Others were beginning to stir, to look around, or even sitting up.” 

 That quote, from page 13 of the novel, hooked me, and it was off to the races when I learned that To Your Scattered Bodies Go was just the first book in Farmer’s “Riverworld novels.” Perhaps the best thing about coming to a series as late as I came to this one is not having to wait at least a year between new books, and I took full advantage of my tardiness. 

This first book in the series sees Burton aligning himself with men and women he feels he can trust to travel with him up and down the river while he tries to figure out why every human being who has ever lived has been resurrected at the same time somewhere along the banks of this ten-million-mile-long nameless river. One of the first to join Burton’s new “family” is Alice Hargreaves, who in her first life was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Among others taken in by Burton are a primitive cave man and an alien who died on Earth while in the processing of killing off the entire human race. 

After Burton discovers a group of “Ethicals” who seem to be responsible for this unexpected afterlife, he wants answers. If they are not gods, how did they manage to resurrect everyone? Is the human race being given a second chance to find heaven? Or is this all just an experiment run by the Ethicals to record the history and customs of the entire human race? Are the Ethicals amused at how humans are reacting to their resurrection? Whatever they are up to, Burton wants some answers – and he is determined to get them no matter how many times he has to kill his new arch-enemy Herman Goring. 

Bottom Line: To Your Scattered Bodies Go beautifully sets up the rest of the Riverworld books. As the book ends, Burton understands just enough about his situation to get himself into even more trouble by trying to find the river’s source – where he believes he will find the home-base of the Ethicals themselves and all the answers he so desperately wants. And, in book two, The Fabulous Riverboat, Burton teams up with just the man to get him further up the river: the resurrected young Mark Twain. Let the fun begin.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Is Late-Onset ADD a Thing?

I'm starting to wonder if it's possible to develop a case of ADD behavior late in life. I've been finding it difficult to actually sit down and read for more than a few minutes without stopping all of a sudden to do one or two other things that suddenly spring to my mind. If that were not bad enough, at the same time that my reading-pace has slowed way down, my book-acquisition-pace seems to be accelerating. 

Everywhere I turn, people are talking about books, and I'm jotting down their recommendations as fast as I can. Is there more book-chatter out there these days  because of the pandemic? I mean, it's great whatever the cause, but this is getting serious now. Just today, for instance, I watched a livestream from the Carnton house in Franklin, TN, and came away from that with at least half-a-dozen new books on the Civil War that I really, really need to read. And soon.

As of this morning, I was only actively reading two books, both very slowly, as it turns out: Sean Hannity's Live Free or Die, a book that is much better written than I had expected it would be, but is also pretty depressing and scary; and Philip Jose Farmer's science fiction classic To Your Scattered Bodies Go, a book I've read twice before and loved. I am also starting at least two others today by choosing one of the four western novels in the beautiful Library of America volume The Western that arrived in the mail last week. The classic novels are from the 1940s and 50s, but I don't remember ever reading one of them despite remembering three of them well as favorite movies. 

The second one, which I've already started, is Julie Gray's The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal, Holocaust Survivor, Optimist. I have had an electronic review copy of this one for a few weeks, and now seems like the time to read it. Lev was one of approximately 15,000 children sent to the German concentration camp near Prague called Térézin. He and 91 other children survived the experience. Julie Gray was reluctant to take on this project when Lev first approached her with the idea, but now the two of them are constant companions despite their several-decade difference in age. I am definitely liking what I see in this one through the first three chapters.

Also, coming into my hands in the last few days are several other books I'm itching to get into: a nice hardcover review copy of Jill McCorkle's Hieroglyphics; Russ Thomas's Firewatching, a book I was lucky enough to win in a blogger's random drawing; and Martha Wells's Rogue Protocol, the third book in her fun "Murderbot Diaries" that I just picked up from my library this afternoon. And that doesn't even count the dozens of others that I'm keeping handy because I just know I'm going to read them all someday. Yeah, right. Oh, and the new Civil War books I heard about this morning on that livestream I mentioned. I'm about to begin the search to grab each of those, too. 

Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Tampa Bay Noir - Various Authors

I have been reading the Akashic “Noir Series” books since 2010 and, at this point, I’ve lost track of exactly how many of the short story collections I’ve read and reviewed, but it’s definitely well over a dozen of them, all told. As their titles indicate, each of the books is a collection of crime stories focused on one city or geographical area (the one exception I’ve read is titled Prison Noir). I’ve enjoyed each of the books, but I’m still not sure which type I enjoy most, the ones set in places I’m well-familiar with, or those set in locations I know I will never be able to visit for myself. Houston Noir, Lone Star Noir, and Mississippi Noir are collections set in neighborhoods and cities I know well. Providence Noir, Chicago Noir, Santa Cruz Noir, Baghdad Noir, Manila Noir, Long Island Noir, Buffalo Noir, and Belfast Noir, not so much. And I enjoyed all of them. 

 That brings me to Tampa Bay Noir, a 2020 collection edited by Colette Bancroft, who also contributed one of my favorites of the fifteen stories in the book. This collection includes stories by several well-known authors such as Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger, and Ace Atkins, among others. Connelly’s story even revolves around his much beloved LA police detective character Harry Bosch, something sure to please Bosch fans everywhere. All of the books in the collection (and there are something like 107 of them now with another six already announced) divide the stories into four distinct sections. The four sections of Tampa Bay Noir are: “Suburb Sinister,” “Blood in the Water,” “Grifter’s Paradise,” and “Family Secrets,” with the stories within each section falling into those specific themes. 

 My personal favorites include Lori Roy’s “Chum in the Water,” a story about a rather naïve man who borrows money from the wrong old man while, at the same time, placing his complete trust in a young woman who is not at all the innocent young thing he sees when she smiles at him. Another favorite is Ace Atkins’s “Tall, Dark, and Handsome,” which is a role reversal of what happens in the Lori Roy’s story. This time, it’s a younger woman who misplaces her trust in an older man – right up until she’s had enough. 

But it’s the stories in the “Family Secrets” section of Tampa Bay Noir that appeal to me most, particularly the ones by Yuly Restrepo Garcés, Eliot Schrefer, and Colette Bancroft (left). For the most part, each of these stories takes place behind closed doors and doesn’t involve the kind of spectacular crime featured in some of the other stories in the book, but they are every bit as dark, maybe even darker, than those others. There are criminals, and there are victims, in each of these families, and some of them are even punished for what they are doing. 

Bottom Line: Tampa Bay Noir is a strong addition to the Akashic Books noir short story collections. Its fifteen stories are largely atmospheric and dark, exactly what fans hope for when they pick up a new book in the series. Too, this one would be a great introduction to the books for those who are yet to discover them.

(A search on "Akashic Books" in the search box at the top of this page will yield reviews of several other books in the series.)

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

John Cleese Wants to Have All His Unread Books Buried with HIm

Via my digital subscription to the New York Times Book Review, comes a mini-interview with one of my favorite comedians and actors, John Cleese. I mean, come on, when an interview has a title like "John Cleese Intends to Have His Unread Books Buried with Him," how can you not read it?

The interview includes some really great questions (long tried and tested in most of these "By the Book" interviews), such as:
  • Last great book read,
  • your ideal reading experience, 
  • kind of reader you were as a child,
  • current writers most admired,
  • favorite fictional heroes or heroines,
  • favorite villains,
  • how personal library is organized,
  • favorite comfort reads, and
  • any guilty-pleasure reads.

Cleese seems to take the interview questions pretty seriously, but the personality and style exhibited in his responses will be easily recognizable to his longtime fans, particularly in quotes like this one:
"In a nutshell, I believe most organized religion is simply crowd control."

Or this one:

"I have books scattered all over the planet, like my ex-wives."

I was hoping that Cleese would be one of the few interviewees to actually answer the "guilty pleasure" question, but like most others, he bailed out of laying that kind of backhanded compliment on any of his contemporaries. 

New York Times Book Review link is here. 

(I should mention, too, that if I were to have all of my unread books buried with me, I would need a coffin about the size of my living room in order to accommodate them.)

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Drowning in Books on Not-So-Super Thursday

Tristram Fane Saunders

A little throwaway article by Tristram Fane Saunders in the Culture section of London's The Telegraph made me chuckle a little about the publishing industry's "Super Thursday" book drop in the U.K. According to Saunders, this is an annual event that happens every October there, but it came early this year. 600 books published on the same day, just in time for all the Christmas season marketing to kick in. What a nightmare that must be for publishers, critics, and retailers.

Arts critic Saunders reacted this way:

"I know, I know – every year book critics complain that there are just too many books. But this year, they might have a point. Won’t somebody think of the trees?
Burning the Books by Bodleian librarian Richard Ovenden (published today, and serialised as Radio 4’s Book of the Week) draws solemn lessons from conflagrations of the past. And yet, faced with today’s vast pile of reading-matter, its title sounds less like a warning than an alluring suggestion."

I imagine that publishing delays associated with the COVID-19 outbreak had a lot to do with so many books hitting the stores all at once, but I don't envy the professionals having to make sense of so many at the same time.

I know that we go through a similar marketing push in this country when dozens and dozens of new books all seem to hit the bookstores at the same time. I always find in amusing that so many books are hollering at the same time for a piece of my already-strained book-buying-money, but there they are anyway. I usually snap a picture of all the interesting ones that I know I won't be able to afford (or find the space for) so that I can request them from my library before too many others notice them first.

And the ones that I really want for my shelves, immediately go on a list of "bargain books" to watch for in the future. You can usually count on Christmas season books to be over-published, meaning that when the books reach the paperback stage of their life cycle, publishers will be practically giving away the hardcover remainders. Then I can celebrate as if it's Christmas all over again. 

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Artificial Condition (Murderbot #2) - Martha Wells

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells is the second novella in the author’s “Murderbot Diaries” series. That leaves two novellas, a novel, and a short story yet for me to enjoy – and even better, something knew to look forward to because the series continues in 2021 with the addition of a fifth novella.


Artificial Condition picks up exactly where All Systems Red leaves off. As readers learned in that first book, our Murderbot has a heart, and despite his shyness in dealing with humans, he is fast developing a code of ethics and morality that would put many humans to shame. Strangely enough, he’s developed his moral code by watching thousands of hours of what he calls “series,” something akin to the “soaps” that are so common in our own world. He has learned all about the human condition, and he knows which side he is on, so now that he is a “free agent,” a bot not owned and controlled by a corporation or any other owner, Murderbot is on a mission to clear his reputation of a stain that really bugs him. Did he really go berserk a couple of contract-jobs ago and slaughter all the people it was his job to protect?


Murderbot really hopes not, but there’s only one way to find out: return to the scene of the crime to do his own investigation of what happened there. Now, all he needs to do is figure out how to get there without being arrested, or more likely, destroyed by his enemies in the process. Along the way, Murderbot manages to pick up three new clients who need a bodyguard to protect them from a former employer, and to meet ART the robotic brains behind a large research transport vehicle transporting miners and scientists from planet to planet. Let’s just say that ART and Murderbot end up making one heck of a team for the good guys.


Bottom Line: Martha Wells packs a lot into 158 pages, including a whole lot of fighting between the good guys and the bad guys, but the main attraction here is Murderbot. What the bot learns about himself and his past in Artificial Condition will change him forever, further advancing the way Wells is developing him over the life of the series. Murderbot is already one of my favorite fictional characters of the year, and I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

Review of All Systems Red (8-23-20)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes - Nevin Martell


I’ve been a comic strip reader as long as I can remember, starting with all the classics of the 1950s when I was just a kid. At some point in the eighties, my taste in comics switched over to those strips with more sophisticated artwork, or the ones that addressed my more adult concerns. But really, it was always about cartoonists who could actually make me laugh out loud on a regular basis. So, for years, my favorite comic strips were Dilbert, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes. Sadly for many of us, the cartoonists responsible for both The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes shut the strips down way before fans were ready to see that happen. I grieve the loss of those two strips to this day. Dilbert, on the other hand, is still out there, having long outlived the period in my life during which I actually read a daily newspaper.

 Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip was written by superfan Nevin Martell and published in late 2009. I recently watched a documentary in which Martell explored Bill Watterson’s decision to disappear from public view. That’s, in fact, how I became aware of Martell’s book. When he began the book, Martell still hoped that he would be able to convince Watterson to give him an interview that he could use to close it out. But Watterson, being the recluse that he still is, never responded to the author’s letter or attempts to reach him through third-party friends or business associates. Still, Martell does manage to end the book in an interesting way by visiting Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Watterson’s hometown, where he managed to snag a rather pleasant interview with the cartoonist’s mother.


Calvin and Hobbes was a daily comic strip for ten years if you count the two nine-month periods in the nineties during which Watterson took much needed sabbaticals from the grind and pressure of producing a comic strip under such tight deadlines. The strip went into rerun mode during those eighteen months. Then, in October 1995, Watterson ended the strip for good. And he never looked back.


Bill Watterson (left) hates fame; he wants absolutely no part of it, even refusing to let his cartoon characters be licensed for sale as stuffed animals, dolls, toy figures, or anything else. That decision cost him and his syndicator millions and millions of dollars over time, but Watterson never wavered in his determination to keep the strip pure to his vision. Bill Watterson accomplished more with his 3,160 comic strips than most other cartoonists can only dream about. He greatly influenced his cartoonist contemporaries - setting such a high bar that he probably made his competitors better than they would have been without him - and the generation of cartoonists who followed him. But he was such a private man, that it is hard to find anyone except for perhaps his friends from high school and college who can claim to really know the man. Watterson’s reclusive lifestyle makes J.D. Salinger’s look like that of a carnival husker in comparison.


Martell sums of Watterson’s impact on the world this way:


            “Even though Watterson hadn’t set out to create something with mass appeal, Calvin and Hobbes did ultimately attract an audience that was without age limits or cultural boundaries. It was universally understandable without becoming meaningless or trite. It’s attractiveness never detracted from its artistry or depth. In that way, the strip was the ultimate piece of pop art.”


I couldn’t agree with him more. Bill Watterson has a very rare talent, and it’s a terrible shame that he didn’t share it with us longer than he did.


Bottom Line: 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Personal Note to My Blogging Friends

Herman Sattler (1922-2020)
Messing Around Somewhere in Germany at the End of WWII

This is a personal note to my blogging friends, many of whom have been aware of my father's ill health in recent weeks and how difficult it has been for me to deal with his problems during this awful pandemic.

Dad passed away peacefully this afternoon with the immediate cause of death listed as congestive heart failure. He had been unconscious for the last three days, subconsciously listening (I hope) to the Cajun music he grew up on in southwest Louisiana being played at his bedside. He sincerely believed in an afterlife and looked forward to seeing my mother for the first time in 21 years. Perhaps, he got his wish today.

Dad was born on a small farm in Louisiana in 1922 and lived there until moving to Texas for the first time in 1946. He was drafted into the U.S. Army one week after Pearl Harbor, landed at Normandy, and fought his way through France, Belgium, and most of Germany before the end of World War II. He tried farming again briefly after the war, but eventually decided to join one of his older brothers in Texas to start a new life here. He worked as an air-conditioner installer and repairman for almost exactly thirty years before being forced to retire because of bad knees. He liked to joke that he had been retired longer than he had worked at the job, something that is possible, I suppose, when you reach your 98th birthday.

Herman Sattler was indeed one of the lucky ones, but he was also one of the best men I ever knew in my life, always an example to his two sons and to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I, for one, didn't always live up to his standards, but it was never because I didn't know better.

We will miss him.

(Even now, things are complicated. Dad is to be buried in the little southeast Texas town he lived in with my mother for over 50 years. But...the town lost power during Hurricane Laura earlier this week, and both the funeral home and the church are still without power. So, it's still one day at a time.) 

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Children's Blizzard - Melanie Benjamin

In theory, it is way too early for me to be posting a review of Melanie Benjamin’s The Children’s Blizzard. The novel won’t even be published until the middle of January 2021 – but I’m excited about this book right now, and I want to start spreading the word about just how good it is. (I’ll probably repost the review – without these comments – again in January just to close the loop.) So, this is going out today.

I only even became aware of The Children's Blizzard because a book blogger, whose posts I follow closely, a few days ago put the novel on a list of books she is looking forward to reading soon. I read a considerable amount of historical fiction, and I’m particularly fond of writers able to immerse me completely in the period being featured. I discovered that Melanie Benjamin has that particular talent back in November 2011 when I read her The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, a novel that I lost myself in for several days. So, I’m not particularly surprised by how much I like The Children’s Blizzard.


The Children’s Blizzard is closely based upon a real-life blizzard that struck parts of  Nebraska and Dakota  on January 12, 1888. As it turned out, the storm could not have arrived at a more perfect moment than it did to claim a high death toll. Bitterly cold weather and a blinding snowstorm struck the area on the afternoon of a day that had begun as the first break in below-zero weather settlers had seen in days. Children were excited to be back in school after such a long absence, and most of them, along with their teachers, came to school wearing clothing barely adequate even for the light freeze they expected to face on their walk home at the end of the day. Even worse, the storm system arrived just as students were being dismissed, ensuring that most of the blizzard’s several hundred victims would be children who either froze to death on their way home or while huddled in their poorly insulated classrooms waiting for someone to rescue them.


Benjamin uses a cast of fictional characters to tell her story, but many of the events and details she writes about are based on what she calls “recorded history” in her “Author’s Note.” Key characters include sixteen-year-old Raina and her eighteen-year-old sister Gerda, both freshly minted schoolteachers who have moved away from home to run small schools attended by the children of farming families when those children are not needed at home as farmhands. And children like Anette, a little girl whose mother sold her to a farmer and his wife for a pig and a couple of chickens, and Fredrik, the little boy who falls madly in love with Anette even though all the other children prefer to shame her. Most prominent among the adult characters are the Pedersens, the couple who purchase Anette in order to exploit her free labor, and Gavin Woodson, the freelance newspaperman responsible for luring so many immigrants to Nebraska via the misleading ads and “fake news” stories he plants in newspapers all over northern Europe and America.


The Children’s Blizzard recounts a nineteenth-century American tragedy, but this is a tragedy filled with heroines and heroes of all ages. The biggest heroes are only children themselves, including the schoolteachers forced to make life and death decisions about the dozen or so younger children entrusted to their care. Some made the right decision; some did not. Either way, those who endured and survived the blizzard would be marked by the experience for the rest of their lives.


The Children’s Blizzard is a remarkable novel, so don’t miss it.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Laura Gave Houston a Free Pass

Lake Charles, Louisiana 

 Hurricane Laura finally made her turn slightly to the north that some forecasters were expecting, and that turned out to give the storm  enough of an angle into extreme southwest Louisiana that the Houston area was hardly impacted at all. I think Galveston had a little street flooding, but that was about it even that close to the Gulf. I live in one of Houston's northern suburbs, and up here we couldn't even tell that anything was going on.

I'm equally amazed at how tightly packed the eye of the hurricane has remained even after reaching land. That meant that the worst of the winds and rain did not impact nearly as wide an area as most hurricanes I've experienced in the past. Laura followed, and continues to follow, pretty much a straight line up through Louisiana. It will be curving eastward somewhere in Arkansas and will bring heavy rains eastward from there. It appears that even when Laura reaches Shreveport, she will still be categorized as a Category 1 storm.

After a lifetime of watching and living through hurricanes, I'm still surprised by their unpredictability even with today's high-tech tools to predict their paths. Twice in the past, I've even evacuated to areas for safety that unexpectedly turned out to be directly in the path of a hurricane, leaving the home we evacuated from high and dry.

My heart goes out to my friends and family in Louisiana who took, and are still taking, the brunt of this one. Thankfully, Laura is moving much faster than recent hurricanes, and that doesn't give her the time to drop torrential rains for hours and hours on the same area. The winds are doing terrible damage, but at least most families won't have to deal with horrendous flooding before they start the massive clean-up they will be facing now. Coastal areas, of course, did suffer flooding from rising tide levels that were pushed by the storm's 150 mph winds.

Keep everyone in your prayers. They need them right now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

As Hurricane Laura Approaches

 This quick post is just a heads-up of sorts that I, along with numerous other bloggers, am likely to disappear for a bit when Hurricane Laura finally lands somewhere around the Texas-Louisiana border late tonight or early in the morning. Even as close to land as the storm is now (maybe 150 miles out and moving about 15 mph), no one is quite sure yet exactly where it will make shore. It is expected to first impact land with winds between 145 and 150 mph, so wherever it hits, it will be bad news.

The best guess seems to be that it will strike somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana line, placing the Houston area on the west side of the storm system. That's the "dry" side, so we would not be subjected to most of the heavy rainfall. But it doesn't take much wind to knock out the power in this area, and sometimes it takes days - not hours - to restore power after something this massive. About eleven years ago, for instance, a hurricane (I've lost track of all their names now) knocked out power in my neighborhood for 14 days.

Houston has a decent shot at getting off lightly this time around, but just 100 miles southeast of us over 100,000 people are still in the process of evacuating their homes. That area includes the little town I grew up in, and I have numerous friends and relatives there still.

So for now, millions of people up and down the Gulf Coast are in the process of holding their breaths until Laura finally decides who is to be punished this time around. Here we go again.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Snowflakes - Ruth Ware


Amazon offers its Hush Collection of six short stories to Prime subscribers as loans, so I decided to read the first story in the collection last night, Ruth Ware's "Snowflakes." The good news is that you can download each of the stories individually; the bad news is that you can only borrow ten items from Prime at a time, so I could only download three of them. In addition to Ware's story, there are stories by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Laura Lippman, Jeffrey Deaver, Allison Gaylin, and Lisa Unger. The only one in the bunch I'm unfamiliar with is Gaylin, and that's probably my fault.

"Snowflakes" is a 21-page short story about a man who evacuates his family to an island because "war" is fast approaching their home and he wants them to be safe. The man's children know that he is a tyrant, but they understand that everything he makes them do is to help ensure their survival. Now, they are pretty much self-sufficient except for the things the man manages to occasionally smuggle in from the mainland. 

The children may not like their father, but they trust him - right up until the point he has them start building a high wall all the way around their compound. They sense that something has suddenly gone very wrong in their little world. And they are correct.

"Snowflakes" is, believe it or not, my first experience with Ruth Ware's writing. The story impresses me as being a well-written one, and I especially enjoyed the way she ended it. I'm always amazed at how much "story" good writers can pack into so few pages. Now I'll look forward to my first Ruth Ware novel. 


As an aside, I came across this Thomas Mann quote about readers that confuses me. I'm not sure what he is really saying (which may partially explain why I have never managed to finish The Magic Mountain):

"In books we never find anything but ourselves. Strangely enough, that always gives us great pleasure, and we say the author is a genius."

I think that Mann underestimated readers when he said this, but I'm open to having his meaning explained to me. Any takers?