Notable Nonfiction: First Quarter 2013

I don’t have ten nonfiction titles that I feel good about recommending as the first quarter of 2013 ends, but these five, I think, are worth your consideration:

1.  The Spark – Kristine Barnett  (Story of an autistic little boy whose IQ is higher than Einstein’s) 

 2.  Mr. Lincoln’s Battle with God – Stephen Mansfield  (This is not your father’s Abe Lincoln)

3.  Butterfly in the Typewriter Cory MacLauchlin  (Revealing John Kennedy Toole biography)

4.  Celebrating Pride and Prejudice – Susannah Fullerton  (Everything you wanted to know about the best loved novel ever written)

5.  Good Prose – Tracy Kidder, Richard Todd  (Part memoir, part writing manual co-authored by Kidder and his longtime editor)

I have high hopes for three or four other nonfiction titles that will reach the top of my TBR stack soon, but you can’t go wrong with any of these.

Fiction Top Ten – First Quarter 2013

Hard as it is to believe, we are already one-quarter of the way through 2013, meaning that it’s time for my first Top Ten update of the year.  Even though my choices are limited to books published between October 1, 2012 and today, this first list is filled with great reads.

Fiction Top Ten
First Quarter 2013

1.  The Dinner – Herman Koch  (Dutch novel proving that boys will be boys – and so will their parents)

2.  A Possible Life – Sebastian Faulks  (We are, all of us, connected to those who come before and after us.)

3.  The Heat of the Sun – David Rain  (Madam Butterfly: The Rest of the Story)

4.  Dear Life –  Alice Munro  (Chance encounters and spur-of-the-moment decisions change lives.)

5.  Tenth of December – George Saunders  (NY Times calls this “best book you will read in 2013.”  See for yourself.)

6.  The Accursed – Joyce Carol Oates  (Demons, Presidents, and fair maidens seduced)

7.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan  (A mysterious bookstore with almost no customers hires a new night manager)

8.  The Sound of Broken Glass – Deborah Crombie  (Scotland Yard detectives juggle home and work duties via role reversal)

9.  Truth in Advertising – John Kenney  (A midlife crisis involving diapers and the Super Bowl forces one ad exec to finally come-of-age)

10. Hit Me –  Lawrence Block  (Block’s lovable hit man is back with a vengeance.  He needs to pay for new stamps for his collection.)

Yankee Miracles

I cannot remember a time I was not a baseball fan – and as a kid growing up in a small town in the ‘60s that meant I was a Yankee fan.  No other team was on television as much or got as much national press coverage.  Those were the days of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Tony Kubek, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Bobby Richardson, etc. – a classic Yankee lineup.  Although my keenest interest in the team would only last another decade or so, I could never resist keeping up with all the drama associated with a George Steinbrenner team. 
As it turns out, a guy I never heard of, Ray Negron, had a front row seat to all that drama all his own – right in the dugout.  Negron’s story is an inspirational one, one that he shares with the rest of us in a book he has co-written with Sally Cook called Yankee Miracles (Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers).  His story can be characterized as a fairy tale with a very unexpected “fairy godmother” by the name of George Steinbrenner.  Who would have thought Steinbrenner had a heart?  Not me, I confess, but something was going on here.
Steinbrenner and one of his security people caught the then 17-year-old Negron spray-painting graffiti on Yankee Stadium one day.  Abandoned by his quicker cousins, all of whom managed to escape, Ray Negron had no idea that the man holding tightly to his arm was about to change his life forever.  But, after throwing a real scare into the teen by letting him stew for a while in a holding cell inside the stadium, that is exactly what Steinbrenner did.
Instead of immediately filing charges against him, Steinbrenner offered Ray the chance to work in the Yankee clubhouse until he had worked off the damages he owed the team.  Ray jumped at the job for two reasons: one, to stay out of jail and, two, because he was an avid Yankee fan (something Steinbrenner didn’t know).  The next time Ray saw his quickstepping cousins, they would be in the stands (after sneaking inside the stadium again) and he would be walking the field among his heroes.
Ray Negron
Yankee Miracles is about the “Yankee miracle” that Ray Negron personally experienced; it is the story of his chance encounter with a notoriously egocentric man who stepped out of character long enough to save a boy’s future.  Ray Negron would go on to make baseball his career, most of it as a member of the New York Yankee organization, a life that a young boy headed toward big trouble the way he was could have never otherwise achieved.
Along the way, Negron and Cook tell of the close friendships between Ray and some of the most famous, and infamous, players ever to call the Yankee clubhouse home: Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Dwight Gooden, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter, among them.  Do keep in mind that Ray Negron is a Yankee-lifer and that he tends to see the Yankees a bit through rose-colored glasses.  However, despite the feeling that much of what he reveals about his years with the Yankees is sugarcoated, Yankee Miracles will definitely appeal to readers who miss the likes of Mantle, Munson, Maris, and Martin.  They don’t make them like those guys anymore.

Saturday Night in South Louisiana

Gino Delafose

Just time tonight to post a video I shot over the weekend in Louisiana at the Crawfish Etouffee Cook-Off.  This one features one of the better known bands in that region right now, Gino Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie.  Gino, at 41 years of age, is one of the newer generation of Zydeco and Cajun music performers in the state.

The weekend was a successful one, with (unfortunately) more crawfish-eating than reading going on.  I think I gained three pounds in two days.

By the way, there is some pretty nifty dancing beginning about the 2 minute, 50 second mark.

Truth in Advertising

Although most people would tell you that they are too smart to be fooled by advertising, the truth is that it works – and that it works on even those who claim otherwise.  But, despite its effectiveness, we still like to laugh at the whole advertising industry and those who spend their lives “lying” to the rest of us about products we can easily live without.  John Kenney’s debut novel, Truth in Advertising, gives readers a chance to do exactly that.  Truth in Advertising, however, is a novel with a serious message.  That the message is cloaked in dark, often laugh-out-loud, humor is just a bonus. 
Whether he realizes it or not, Finbar Dolan is caught up in his own version of a mid-life crisis.  He is about to turn 40, has just backed out of his impending wedding, does not have to use all the fingers of one hand to count his friends, and feels like he is pretty much just wasting his life.  He has carved out a mediocre career for himself at a Madison Avenue ad agency but no longer really believes in what he does.  Then, Fin and his three siblings, none of whom he even speaks to anymore, must decide how to handle the impending death of their long estranged father.  When he learns that none of them intend to see their father before he dies, Fin realizes he is on his own.
Truth in Advertising is a story about second chances – as opposed to “second acts.”  Fin Dunbar will come to believe that, “Every day we get a fresh chance to live the way we want.”  He learns, the hard way, that the choice is his, but that realization is a long way from where he bottoms out:
John Kenney
         “It will change.  All of it.  Imperceptibly at first.  Then irrevocably.  Thirty comes.  Thirty-five surprises you.  The prospect of forty stuns you.  Once the money was a wonderful surprise.  Now it is not enough.  A restlessness creeps in.  A wanting of something you cannot quite put your finger on.  Stories of others people’s lives fascinate you.  The idea of many things – a career change, a sabbatical, graduate school, a tattoo – seems interesting but you never do any of them.”
Whether you call it a “second chance” or a “second act,” Fin Dunbar is finally ready to make more of the second half of his life than he made of its first.  If it is really possible for a person to come-of-age at 40 (you decide), John Kenney has written one of the funniest coming of age novels that I have read in a while.  But, call it what you will, Truth in Advertising is an admirable debut novel.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Crawfish and Thieves of Book Row

I’m feeling a bit better today (my allergy to tree pollen has had me feeling bad for almost two weeks) so it looks like I’ll be spending most of the weekend in Southwest Louisiana eating crawfish and listening to Cajun dance bands.  

I’ve just downloaded an upcoming book from Oxford University Press called Thieves of Book Row (June release) for my downtime, so I’ll have that along with me for the late night downtime when, as usual in a hotel room, I won’t be able to get to sleep.  So I’m covered that way, too.  Now, if I can get my video camera functioning correctly again – I tried to get fancy and ended up instead fouling up the settings some way – I plan to post some music to YouTube to give you guys a taste of what an authentic Cajun band sounds like.  

In the meantime, here’s something from one of my favorite Cajun  bands, Lost Bayou Ramblers, proving that young musicians are keeping the music alive by merging it with more mainstream rock sounds.  I still love the traditional Cajun music sound, but this is a pretty exciting evolution of the trad sound:

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen struggled to get Pride and Prejudice finally into print.  Finding a publisher was not easy (she even considered self-publishing), but she did not give up.  During the years the manuscript sat on her shelf, she reworked it and changed its title from First Impressions to the even more plot-descriptive Pride and Prejudice.  Now, 200 years later, that novel is still one of the best known, and best loved, books in the world.  

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live with their five daughters in Longbourn, a Hertfordshire town in which nothing is more important to young ladies and their mothers than making the right match.  A man with a fixed annual income is a must, but even better is a handsomeman with an annual income.  And the highly competitive (if a bit scatterbrained) Mrs. Bennet is ready to start marrying off her daughters.  This is, in fact, to her husband’s dismay, all the woman thinks about. 

However, the Bennet girls, beautiful as most of them are, face some stiff competition in their little town, and when a military troop makes temporary headquarters there, the game is on.  But it is when two wealthy young men take up temporary quarters in one of the county’s most spectacular homes and, at the same time, a foolish young preacher comes courting the girls that the fun really begins.

Pride and Prejudice, considering its age, is remarkably easy for today’s readers to read and enjoy.  Austen’s witty dialogue and her writing style work as well today as when the book was first published, ensuring that the novel will continue to entertain readers for many generations to come.  It does not hurt, too, that Elizabeth Bennet, the second of the Bennet daughters – and Austen’s personal favorite of all her heroines – is one of literature’s most memorable characters.  Elizabeth, though, is surrounded and supported by a whole cast of characters that interact perfectly to make Pride and Prejudice the very special book that it is. 
There are the wealthy (Misters Bingley and Darcy and their sisters), the super-wealthy (Lady Catherine), the foolish (Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet, in particular), a scoundrel (Mr. Wickham), the rest of the Bennet sisters and their long-suffering father, and a town filled with friends and rivals.

New readers are likely to be surprised by how much fun Pride and Prejudice is, but this is precisely the reason so many re-read it on a regular basis.  Jane Austen wrote romantic comedy before there was such a thing.  She was way ahead of her time stylistically, especially when it comes to dialogue, and it all comes together beautifully in Pride and Prejudice.  This one is not to be missed.

Oxford University Librarian Sacked Over Harlem Shake

Frankly, I don’t get the Harlem Shake craze and haven’t paid much attention to it, but the so-called dance seems to have cost one librarian her job.

According to USA Today, part-time librarian Calypso Nash has been sacked by Oxford University for allowing a group of students to perform the “dance” in a university library.  Students are, of course, protesting the sacking and are asking that the post-graduate student be given back her job.

All for this:

Hardly seems worth it…

License to Pawn

 There are fewer less-likely television stars than the Harrison family (known to their fans simply as Rick, “The Old Man,” and “Big Hoss”) and Austin Russell (the loveable walrus-shaped guy everyone knows as “Chumlee”).  But that is exactly what they are these days, and their television show, Pawn Stars, is the main reason that The History Channel is thriving to such a degree today.  Now Rick Harrison, who first conceived and nursed the idea of a pawnshop-based television show years ago, has co-authored a book telling how it all happened.  That the history of the Harrison family is not always pretty only makes the level of their success even more remarkable.  Rick, with a little help from his three co-stars, tells us all about it in License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and My Life at the Gold & Silver.

The Old Man, it seems, was a hustler from the beginning, always on the lookout, even during his navy days, for ways to bring a few extra bucks home to his family.  The family, after the San Diego housing market crash crushed its real estate business, moved to Las Vegas where the elder Harrison opened a “gold and silver shop.”  Rick, largely a self-educated man, suffered from epilepsy as a teen and was a serious drug abuser.  Corey (Big Hoss) one-upped his father when it came to drug addiction, and he is lucky to be alive.  Even Chumlee was heavily involved with drugs at one time – but he wised up long before Corey did.  Although Rick tells most of the story, his father, son, and Chumlee each get a chapter of their own to personalize their individual experiences.  And, in frank detail, that is exactly what they do.
Pawn Stars Cast
Perhaps most interesting are Rick’s accounts of how the business and the television show actually work.  He includes numerous stories reminiscent of the show about some of the most interesting customers and deals that he has seen over the years.  Pawn Stars fans will certainly enjoy the stories but might be surprised to learn how much things have changed for the guys since the show became such a hit.  (Hint: huge crowds, combined with limited floor space, do cause problems.)
Like so many first-person narratives of this type, License to Pawn has more the feel of a transcribed and edited tape recording than of a written narrative.  But, as is often the case, the style works perfectly for those whose voices and deliveries are as familiar to readers as those belonging to the Pawn Stars cast.  No, this is not great literature, but is fun – especially for fans unlikely ever to get any closer to the Gold and Silver than the pages of this book.

Happy Birthday, Philip Roth

Philip Roth, who surprised so many of us a few weeks ago by announcing that he had written his last novel, turns 80 tomorrow.  As a fan of his writing for more than four decades, I was both shocked and disappointed by his announcement.  He is one of the great ones, and it still feels strange for me not to wonder what is coming next from his pen.

I was reminded of Roth’s milestone birthday this morning when I received an announcement from Library of America that their  final two volumes of Roth’s work are available.  This brings the Roth collection to nine books totaling more than 7,000 pages, and it places the author in remarkable company.  To date, he is the second most published LOA author, trailing only Henry James’s sixteen volumes, and being one ahead of Mark Twain’s eight. 

(If you are unfamiliar with Library of America and its mission, please consider purchasing some of their wonderful books.  LOA is a nonprofit publisher and deserves (and really needs) the support of America’s book lovers.)

The first video (from 2011) shown below is one of the best Philip Roth interviews I have ever seen, and the second, from CNN, captures a bit of the general shock at Roth’s retirement announcement.

 Happy Birthday, Mr. Roth – and thank you.

Celebrating Pride and Prejudice

Although Jane Austen began writing Pride and Prejudice in 1796, and first offered it for publication the following year, her masterpiece would not finally be published until January 1813.  Now, the two hundredth anniversary of this literature-changing event brings much deserved new attention to the novel and its author.  And if you are one of the countless hard-core fans of Pride and Prejudice, you will not want to miss Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice.  Fullerton, president of Australia’s Jane Austen Society, has written an entertaining and informative history of the novel – from its conception to the worldwide love and admiration it justly claims today.
Celebrating Pride and Prejudice begins with chapters on the writing of the book, its publication (simultaneously in three volumes with an initial first printing of less than 1500 copies), and initial reaction to it.  Thankfully, as the author notes, Austen was able to enjoy the novel’s early success even though she would not be generally acknowledged as its author until her death in 1817.
Fullerton, in chapters such as the one on the book’s famous first sentence and another on its style, details and explains the groundbreaking impact of Pride and Prejudice.  She also includes individual chapters about heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her ultimate hero Fitzwilliam Darcy along with separate chapters on “Her Relations,” “His Relations,” and “Other Characters.”  One of the book’s most interesting chapters discusses illustrations and cover art associated with Pride and Prejudice over the past two centuries. 
Susannah Fullerton
But, the modern era, particularly as it relates to film and theatrical adaptations of the novel and its overall marketing, is not ignored.  Fans of the BBC Pride and Prejudice television adaptations may be surprised to learn that the 1980 version (if they have even seen it) is more true to the novel than the much more popular 1995 version starring the shirtless Colin Firth.  (And to my way of thinking, it includes the best Elizabeth Bennet ever in Elizabeth Garvie.)
The only misstep in Celebrating Pride and Prejudice is the over detailed chapter devoted to “Sequels and Adaptations,” a chapter paying way too much attention to what is commonly referred to as “fan fiction.”  Pride and Prejudice has certainly been subjected to more than its fair share of these “continuations,” “retellings,” “pornographic versions,” and the like, but being subjected to so many of their ludicrous plotlines at once makes for painful reading.
I found Celebrating Pride and Prejudice so intriguing that I followed it by re-reading Pride and Prejudice itself for the first time in at least twenty years.  And, perhaps because I had just finished Fullerton’s study, I enjoyed it more than ever.  Pride and Prejudice (and I mean this as a sincere compliment despite what I said in the previous paragraph) is romantic comedy before there was such a thing.  It is universal, a novel that can be as readily enjoyed today as it was when first published two hundred years ago.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Heaven’s Prisoners

Coming into 2013, one of my goals was to re-read James Lee Burke’s entire Dave Robicheaux series, capping off the year by reading Creole Belle (2012) for the first time.  That’s 19 books in all and I’m already way behind, so it probably will not happen exactly that way.  But I have just finished Heaven’s Prisoners, the second book in the series, one I consider to be a key book in the set.
Dave is long gone from the New Orleans Police Department now (although he can’t seem to stay out of that city), and has returned to New Iberia, his hometown.  He is newly married to his second wife and the two are running their own bait and tackle shop there.  It is a perfect life for Dave, something he was born to and does well – if his past, and his white knight self-image, will just allow him to get on with it.
Dave can’t win, though.  One day, while he is fishing on the Louisiana Gulf with Annie, they watch a small, two-engine plane crash into nearby waters.  The plane passes so close to the boat before slamming hard into the water that Dave has a clear view of the terrified faces looking out the plane’s windows.  Strapping on a pair of near-empty air tanks, Dave hits the water in hopes of rescuing some of the passengers.  And, largely thanks to the heroic efforts of a little girl’s mother, Dave manages to get the child out of the plane in time to save her life.  No one else survives.
James Lee Burke
Dave saw some things in the sunken plane he should not, for his own good, have seen.  After one of the bodies in the plane is left unaccounted for in the official account of the accident, Dave starts asking questions.  Some very powerful people want him to shut up – and Dave knows that he should.  But Dave, being Dave, can’t do that.  He wants the truth, and he is willing to risk everything he has (and loses much of it before this one is over) to find it.
Heaven’s Prisoners is an important Dave Robicheaux book because the little girl Dave rescues becomes Alafair Robicheaux, the only child Dave will ever have, and 17 books later she is still one of the most important people in his world – and in the series.  It is not easy growing up Dave Robicheaux’s kid, but the little Central American girl who almost died entering the country illegally will thrive and become a fan favorite over the years.
Next up in the series is Book Three, Black Cherry Blues.  

The Khaled Housseini Foundation

I’m going to do something different this evening: bring your attention to what I believe is a worthy cause that heavy-duty readers like you guys might want to help out by purchasing a bookmark.  (You have to admit that these hand embroidered bookmarks are beautiful.)

Most of you know of Khaled Housseini’s books, particularly the smash success he had with The Kite Runner book and movie (thus the theme of the bookmarks shown above).  

Mr. Housseini’s foundation describes its mission as follows:

The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, provideshumanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. The Foundation supports projects which provide shelter to refugee families and economic and education opportunities and healthcare for women and children. In addition, the Foundation awards scholarships to women pursuing higher education in Afghanistan.

Take a look here for bookmark descriptions and more detail on where and by whom they are produced…some 1500 Afghan women help feed their families through this work.   And, if you are not into bookmarks, take a look at the page anyway to see all the other stuff available there.  (For a larger image, just click on the bookmark picture I’ve included.)

Thanks for considering this.

By the way, Mr. Housseini has a new novel coming in May…always a good thing.

The Crook Factory

Think what you might about Ernest Hemingway’s writing, personality, attitude toward women, etc., there is no denying that the man lived life to the fullest.  And, of course, he went out with a bang, further ensuring his legendary status in the world of American literature.  But, as detailed in the Dan Simmons novel, The Crook Factory, there is much more to the Hemingway life story than most realize.  
Lest readers be left wondering how much of the novel is based on fact, Simmons adds this clarifying note at the end of the book: “The incredible story of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban spy-catching, submarine-chasing, World War II adventures in my new novel, The Crook Factory, is – I think – all the more incredible for being 95 percent true.”  He then goes through a list of plot twists and main characters that are based on “confirmed fact.” 
Fictional FBI man Joe Lucas, under direct orders from J. Edgar Hoover, is in Cuba to keep tabs on Hemingway and the little network of spies Hemingway is running there.  Hemingway, although he is a little suspicious of Lucas, only knows that the U.S. ambassador to Cuba will not approve the operation unless Lucas is part of the team.  He is not particularly happy to have Lucas on board, and, in turn, Lucas is unhappy because he thinks he has been assigned simply to “babysit” Hemingway long enough to keep him out of trouble – or from embarrassing the U.S. government.
But then people start dying.  And everything changes.  In this world of agents, double-agents, traitors, and professional killers, all Lucas knows is that someone wants Ernest Hemingway – and him- very, very dead.  Now, if he can figure out why, he might be able to save both their lives.
The Crook Factory is a superb World War II thriller that will, I think, leave the reader with a new appreciation for just what a wild man Ernest Hemingway really was.  Its seamless blending of fact and fiction includes appearances by the likes of: Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Hoover, John F. Kennedy, Ian Fleming, and other figures from both sides of the war.
Dan Simmons
The author’s account of Hemingway’s end is both so touching and so disturbing that readers will long remember it.  That such a famous man could have been so ill-treated by the medical community and his own government is shocking.  This, in combination with the incredible “missions” undertaken by Hemingway’s Crook Factory, make for engrossing reading. 
I do, however, have one word of warning.  The story involves a tremendous amount of infighting between Hoover’s FBI and the other intelligence agencies of the U.S. and Britain, and Simmons spends way too many pages explaining how it all happens  – and why.  Several long sections within the book’s first two hundred pages read more like mind-numbing pages from a bad history textbook than like content from a war thriller.  But don’t give up because the last 350 pages or so will greatly reward your patience. 

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Authors on Authors

As a dedicated, but strictly amateur, book reviewer, I have had my judgement questioned more than a few times – sometimes even by the author being reviewed.  That goes with the territory, of course, but it always makes me think of some of the more famous criticism directed at authors by their peers – and that makes me smile at the number of times they get it wrong.

Here are a few examples:

 He is a bad novelist and a fool.  The combination usually makes for great popularity in the U.S.  – Gore Vidal on Alexander Solzhenitsyn

…he goes on like the worker’s son, like a modern-day D.H.  Lawrence, but he’s just another boring little middle-class boy hustling his way to the top if he can do it. – Gore Vidal on John Updike

…he seems to suffer from American cleverness: the fear of being thought stupid, or dull, or behind the times.  I think that’s a very bad attitude for the novelist to adopt…he’s heading for disaster. – a little payback on Gore Vidal from Kingsley Amis

The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using “and” for padding.  Tom Wolfe on Ernest Hemingway

My favorite is a comment that Hemingway made in a letter to Charles Scribner about the writing of James Jones.  But I hesitate to quote the obscenity-laced comment here (also, its repulsive images).  Look that one up on the internet sometime…or email me and I’ll get it back to you.

A White Arrest

Ken Bruen novels are inhabited by a few (very few) good cops, a whole bunch of “bent” ones, and a few brutal criminals who happen to wear police badges while committing their crimes.  His is a violent world in which criminals and cops compete on an even playing field – rules and rights, be damned.  A White Arrest, the first book in Bruen’s White Trilogy, is a prime example of that world. 
London’s Chief Inspector Roberts and Detective Sergeant Brant do not do things by the book.  On the good cop/brutal cop spectrum, they are much closer to being characterized as criminal cops than as good cops.  But, despite their wild-man tactics, they are not particularly effective at solving crimes.  Consequently, their jobs are often on the line.  They badly need a “white arrest,” – the high profile arrest of a criminal whose crimes have caught the imaginations of the public – if they are ever to have any real job security.
Brant, the book’s main character, abuses his police power so badly that he has long forgotten how to make a legal arrest.  He physically abuses suspects, takes bribes when he can get them (and steals cash laying around crime scenes when he hopes no one is looking), runs a liquor store tab he has no intention of ever paying, and is not above stiffing the pizza delivery guy on occasion.  But all that makes him the perfect cop to stop the murderers terrorizing two very different segments of the London population.
Ken Bruen
A White Arrest is Ken Bruen at his wildest – and that is really saying something.  Reading this one is like reading under a bright strobe light as Bruen presents one short scene after another in such rapid succession that it is often difficult to determine which character is speaking – or, for that matter, even involved in the segment.  But, frustrating as this approach often is, it works well to set the tone of the dual investigations that take on lives all their own.
Roberts and Brant, like them or not, are a forced to be reckoned with in their patch of southeast London.  Criminals beware.  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Book Trailer of the Week: Maddie on Things

Time for another Book Trailer of the Week…this time for one of those up-beat, feel-good books that are really hard to resist.

Maddie on Things is a picture-filled book about Maddie, a rescued dog and the man who brought her home.  Maddie, as it turns out, has a special talent (make that two special talents): perfect balance and limitless patience with her owner.

Take a look at this – and be ready to smile:

(21st Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase)

Chin Music

Baseball fans are a sentimental lot.  When it comes to our game, we believe in fairy tales and happy endings.  We root for the underdog, and what’s more, we expect him to win more times than not.  We love baseball so much that we sometimes stop to watch little league games randomly spotted while driving someplace else.  And we instinctively recognize likeminded souls and will spend whole games talking baseball with the new friends who just happen to sit down beside or in front of us.  Lee Edelstein, author of Chin Music, is obviously a member of the club. 
Chin Music, Edelstein’s debut novel, is one of those YA novels that will be enjoyed as much by adults as by its YA readers.  Simply put, it is a wonderful baseball fairy tale, and its Spring Training publication date could not be more perfect.  Baseball fans, already anticipating the start of the new season, love to get their hands on this kind of thing about now.
The story begins during 1926 Spring Training in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Babe Ruth and the rest of the New York Yankees are there to prepare themselves for the new season.  But Babe Ruth, being the Babe, has more on his mind than physical training – and he takes a particular shine to Zel, the lady barber who cuts his hair every week.  Now, more than eight decades later, Babe Ruth is about to rock the baseball world again.
Lee Edelstein
Ryan Buck, Zel’s great grandson, is a gifted, but under-achieving, athlete.  Two years after a horrific accident, he has no memory of the accident itself but is plagued by nightmares related to it.  Unable to focus on the moment, Ryan is ready to give up sports for good.  Susan, his mother, knows that if her two sons are to have the kind of lives she envisions for them, she will have to raise some cash – and quickly.  And that is when she remembers the pristine Babe Ruth baseball cards Zel left behind.
Knowing almost nothing about the value of baseball cards, Susan is ripe for the picking.  But when an unscrupulous Orlando baseball card dealer tries to buy the car for a fraction of its worth, Susan makes the most important friend she has ever had.  That chance meeting between Susan Buck and Sam Frank will turn out to be almost as important to the Buck family as the one between Babe and Zel all those years ago.
Chin Music is the perfect novel for the season, but it is also the kind of feel-good baseball story that non-fans will also greatly enjoy.  Ryan Buck knows he has the ability to handle the “chin music” (a fastball thrown at a batter’s head) he might encounter during a baseball game.  The real question is whether he can handle the “chin music” life has already thrown at the Buck family.

Kinsey and Me

Sue Grafton is justifiably famous for her long-running Kinsey Millhone series, a series that is rapidly approaching a major milestone as it approaches the end of the run for the alphabetically christened novels.  Because “V” Is for Vengeance was published way back in 2011, fans of the series are certain to be pleased with the release of Kinsey and Me, a collection of nine (1986-1993) Kinsey Millhone short stories and a bonus section: the “and Me” portion of the book encompasses another bunch of very personal short stories closely based on the author’s own childhood and dysfunctional family.
Along the way, Grafton also explains the mystery/crime genres and discusses why she enjoys working within the limitations of the short story format.  Unfortunately, the Kinsey Millhone stories, precisely because Grafton fails to overcome those limitations, are not nearly as effective or impressive as the Millhone novels.  The nine short stories are cleverly enough plotted, but only one or two of the cases require Kinsey Millhone to break much of a sweat.  It is just all too easy for her.
Sue Grafton
Some of the stories, though, are fun.  “Falling Off the Roof” has a nice anti-Stepford-wife twist to it that had me chuckling, and “Full Circle” builds the tension nicely considering the number of pages the author allots to it.  Others, particularly “The Lying Game,” are just too clever for their own good, when read in a story collection.  They would probably be more effective when read as single stories in a magazine or in a collection encompassing several authors.
I admire Grafton’s courage in publishing the “and Me” stories.  What these stories reveal about Grafton’s background and childhood is sad, but they explain the origin of the author’s fascination with the mystery genre and her general love of books and reading.  She is to be applauded for sharing the stories, but be warned: they are rather depressing and are not at all like anything from her that fans have read before.  Grafton’s personal story is worthy of a full-fledged memoir, something her fans would, I think, appreciate.  Let’s hope something like this is in Grafton’s future writing plans.

9th Annual Tournament of Books Has Begun

March Madness (of the best kind) is finally here.  The Morning News Tournament of Books started yesterday with a wildcard shootout between three Iraq War novels: The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Fobbit.  Judge Nathan Bradley, in a detailed comparison of the three novels, declared Billy Lynn to be the winner of the pre-tourney round, earning the novel a head-to-head match with May We Be Forgiven on March 12.

Official tournament play opens on March 7 with Louise Erdich’s The Round House vs. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.  Edan Lepucki will determine the winner of this first official pairing.  Including the wildcard winner, there are now 16 books in the tournament, and starting March 7, one book will be eliminated each weekday in March – right down to the eventual 2013 champion.  

I have read four of the sixteen books and I’m familiar with four or five of the others, so this one should be fun.  I’m pulling for either Alice Munro’s Dear Life or Erdrich’s The Round House to be the last book standing, but that is probably the kiss of death to their chances, so I will apologize to both ladies now.

You can join the fun here.