Thoughts on Moby-Dick

This is not a “review” of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  Another one of those wouldnt do much good.  What follows are simply my thoughts and impressions on finally finishing a book that I first attempted, and failed to complete, more than four decades ago.  Since that first encounter, I have probably read the first quarter of Melville’s classic another ten times without getting any further into the novel.  But this time I made it despite setting the book aside for two or three weeks at a time.  And I feel like I finally successfully climbed Everest.
Most everyone knows the basic plot of Moby-Dick: nineteenth-century whaler loses his leg to a ghostly white whale and becomes obsessed with revenging his loss by killing the huge creature.  Nothing less will do.  What most people who have not read the classic do not realize is how few pages of the novel are actually devoted to advancing Melville’s plot (my own rough estimate is that less than half of the book’s more than 600 pages do so).  The rest of the book, the portion that most often drives readers to distraction, is Melville’s primer on the nuts and bolts of whaling, whaling ships and their crews, and whale anatomy. 
Melville, through the voice of his narrator, builds a strong case that those risking their lives providing a product so critical to the nation deserve much more respect and appreciation than they are accorded by the public.  He is also determined that his readers get a proper sense of the size of the creatures whalers were, under the harshest of conditions, battling for the benefit of those who took it all for granted.  Melville accomplishes both admirably.  The risks these men took with their lives on the open sea are astounding, and modern readers cannot help but be impressed by their skill and courage.
Moby-Dick has a Shakespearian quality to it, even to what at times sounds almost like stage direction inserted by the author as an aside.  This quality is most apparent in Melville’s dialogue and the way he has his characters regularly speak their deepest and most private thoughts aloud.  Both the structure and the philosophical nature of the book contribute to its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written – despite the generally terrible reception the novel received when first published. 
Bottom Line:  There is so much going on in Moby-Dick that whole books have been written about the novel.  It is, I suspect, on many more “To Be Read” lists than it is on “Read” lists, and this is understandable given its length and complexity.  Readers, however, should never permanently abandon their effort to read this classic novel.  Just the feeling of accomplishment one gets when that final page is turned is reason enough to keep Moby-Dick on the nightstand as long as it takes.

Elmore Leonard’s Final Novel to Be Completed by His Son

Here’s some news that will make fans of the late Elmore Leonard’s

Peter and Elmore Leonard

Raylan Givens novels breathe a little easier: there will be at least one more of them.  Leonard was in the process of writing another Raylan Givens story (with the working title Blue Dreams) and Peter Leonard, the acclaimed author’s son, has said that he will likely finish it for his father.

The Guardian has the scoop.

“I don’t know the last line, the novel was unfinished,” he added. “I don’t know how many pages it is.” Blue Dreams was originally conceived to feature a rogue immigration and customs official, an Indian bull rider and federal marshal Givens.

Peter also reveals that his father could be a harsh critic, so harsh, in fact, that Peter put fiction writing aside for 27 years after showing Elmore a six-page short story he wrote shortly after college.

Leonard, whose published novels include Back from the Dead, Voices of the Dead and Trust Me, described his father’s input into his own writing career. “Just after college I wrote a short story that was six pages long. A few days later, I got his three-page critique, the gist of which was ‘all of your characters look and sound the same, they’re like strips of leather drying in the sun’. I didn’t write another word of fiction for 27 years.” 

Peter Leonard finally got past the critique and has three published novels under his belt.

Click here to read the whole article.

Seat of Empire

Modern observers know that the business of politics is a nasty one.  Jeffrey Stuart Kerr’s Seat of Empire reminds us, however, that as politics goes, it is simply business as usual, that little has changed since the founding of this country – or since the earliest days of Texas history.  Here, Kerr tells the story behind the “birth of Austin, Texas,” a city forever linked to the personal feud between the first two presidents of the Republic of Texas: Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar. 
Lamar was determined to create a permanent capitol for the new republic on the site of a hill whose natural beauty he fell in love with while on a remote buffalo hunt.  Houston was determined that the permanent capitol of Texas be located just about anywhere else, and preferably far to the east of Lamar’s chosen site.  (One would suspect that Lamar felt equally strongly that the permanent capitol would be anywhere but its present location, Houston, the city named after his despised political rival.)  
Lamar’s vision was on shaky grounds from the beginning.  Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto – the battle that effectively gave birth to the Republic of Texas – was not the only politician against setting the country’s capitol in an area so remote that it could not be securely protected from Comanche raids and Mexican army invasions from the south.  Other prominent Texas politicians lobbied to have the new capitol placed in cities more convenient to, and more likely to be an economic godsend for, their own constituencies.
Jeffrey Stuart Kerr
Kerr details how Lamar and his backers were finally able to pull off the coup that would create the built-from-scratch city that became the last capitol the Republic of Texas would know – and the only capitol that the State of Texas has ever had.  As Kerr puts it, “The city of Austin was born in 1839, almost died in the early 1840s, and sprang back to life thereafter…the explanation begins with a buffalo hunt.”
State of Empire is an eye-opener for those (including, I suspect, most Texans) who do not know the colorful history of Austin’s founding.  Those who know the modern city’s streets well will find it difficult to envision Comanche raids on the same ground so bold and horrific that they came close to forcing abandonment of the new settlement.  Somehow, largely due to a handful of brave and determined citizens, Austin survived long enough for the rest of the Republic to catch up with it.
Bottom Line:  State of Empire will be of particular interest to Texas readers but will also benefit Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar scholars and historians more generally interested in this period of Texas history.  The book is aimed at general readers but includes a generous number of annotations, and enough bibliographic material, to lead scholars to other sources of detail concerning the birth of Austin, Texas.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tool Rentals at Libraries? Seriously?

I don’t know what to think about this NBC news clip about a new “trend” in what is on offer at public libraries.  Even though I can see the usefulness of the new library offerings, I have to wonder how this kind of thing impacts the buying of…you know, books.  

I love my county library system but I really don’t think I would be thrilled to see my tax dollars go toward the purchase of tools, toys, cameras, and the like.  For me, a library will always mean books, be they audio, electronic, or physical – plus computer access for research.  For a traditionalist like me, music CDs and movie DVDs are already pushing the envelope far enough.

Take a look at the video I’ve linked to here and let me know how you feel about something like this.  Maybe I’m just getting old.

Fast Times in Palestine

In a lot of ways, Pamela Olson’s Fast Times in Palestine is an eye-opener.  No doubt about it.  The stories she tells about the wonderful people she met and the beautiful experiences she had there are unarguably heartwarming – and heartbreaking. They are similar to what I experienced during my years in Algeria.  Olson’s memoir further proves to me that, given half a chance, people are capable of forming lasting friendships and bonds so long as they are willing to see each other as fellow human beings rather than as representatives of their respective governments.  
As I learned on September 11, 2001, however, not everyone is capable of doing that.  I saw Algerians crying because of my shock and pain and I saw Algerians openly laughing and celebrating the tragedy of that day.  But I saw an even higher percentage of my French co-workers smiling and joking about the same thing.  What does that prove?  Only that people are people and that politics makes many of them incapable of seeing the bigger picture.  But not all of them.
Pamela Olson
Pamela Olson saw things in Palestine I never suspected existed there: a thriving business community; nightlife that includes ready access to alcohol; weddings at which any inhibitions regarding dress and partying are abandoned at the door; and nice restaurants, among them.  She also tells of many of the things I expected to read about: Palestinian families with members maimed or killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time; Palestinians whose homes have been purposely turned into rubble by the Israeli military; and families whose very livelihood is threatened because their centuries-old olive groves are now on the wrong side of a security fence erected by the Israelis (tragically, hundreds of the ancient trees have been destroyed in the name of security or settlement).
My only complaint about Fast Times in Palestine, and I consider it more to be pointing out what I see as a flaw rather than complaining, is that Olson’s focus is overwhelmingly on Palestine’s moderates and Israel’s extremists – not to say that there are not plenty of each, because there certainly are.  I will long remember some of the wonderful Palestinian families to whom she introduces the reader.  I do believe that Israel is very heavy-handed at times in its approach to co-existing with Palestine, and Olson certainly puts a human face on those suffering the consequences.  But I also believe that Israel is home to many moderates who are simply trying to raise their families and get on with their own lives.  I would love to see the author spend some time with those people and tell their stories as well.  What is happening in Palestine is a tragedy and, while Fast Times in Palestineadds to the dialogue, there is definitely room for another book here.


When it comes to crime fiction, writers generally choose between telling their story through the eyes of either the criminal being pursued or the one primarily responsible for catching him.  Or occasionally, generally via alternating chapters, readers are offered both points of view – an approach that works remarkably well to create and maintain a high level of tension that peaks when pursuer and pursued finally come together.  Timothy Hallinan’s new Junior Bender series, of which Crashed is book number one, takes the first approach.
Junior Bender is one damn fine burglar, a thirty-six-year-old man who has been successfully breaking into houses since he was fourteen without ever having been caught.  When it comes to breaking and entering, Junior is a pro’s pro.  He only works two or three times a month, never gets greedy, and knows exactly what he will be able to move safely on the street.  So when a cop is waiting for him as he exits his latest job, Junior is truly and honestly surprised.  He is even more surprised to learn that he has been set up by criminals every bit as street smart as him, criminals willing to blackmail him into doing something for them he wants nothing to do with.
Trey Annunziato, a notorious Los Angeles mobster, wants Junior to work as a private investigator on the set of a pornographic movie the mob is bankrolling.  Someone wants badly to make sure that the film never happens, and each day lost is costing the mob boss almost $25,000 in sunk costs.  When Junior learns that the star of the film is the dope-addled, grown-up version of one of America’s most beloved child television stars of the previous decade, he finds himself sympathizing with the aims of the saboteur he supposed to stop.  What is a decent criminal to do?
Timothy Hallinan
Readers familiar with Timothy Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty thrillers (the Bangkok books) know that the author fills his thrillers with well-developed characters that are as much fun as the tight spots his heroes get themselves into and out of.  If Crashed is any indication, the Junior Bender series continues that Hallinan tradition.  Junior has a network of friends he can call upon when he needs a special skill or just another pair of hands, and unfortunately for him, he has at least one sworn enemy in the LAPD who would love nothing better than to put Junior away for a long, long time – if he cannot coerce Junior into sharing the wealth with him first.
Bottom Line:  Crashed is a fun way to begin what promises to be another great crime series from a trusted author.  This one is a wild ride that, despite the overall sadness of the story it tells, will keep the reader chuckling throughout.  Junior Bender is just that kind of guy – and, frankly, it’s a lot of fun rooting for a bad guy with a heart.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Book Thief – Movie Trailer

I’m excited about this one.  

Now I hope that my high hopes about the film’s quality and loyalty to one of my favorite novels of the past few years is not just setting me up for a huge letdown.  

After watching the trailer, my biggest concern is the absence of the narrator’s voice.  As fans of the book will remember, The Book Thief is narrated by Death himself. I hope that the film does not ignore this aspect of the story because that voice is one of the things that makes The Book Thief so special.

Big Brother

Big Brother is my first exposure to a Lionel Shriver novel.  My first impression, one that hardly changed for most of the book, was that Shriver is a good storyteller who populates her novels with a cast of interesting, well-developed characters.  Her characters, flawed human beings that they are, are all the more realistic because making them “likable” is not a goal – rather, Shriver wants the reader to understand and remember them. I had a feeling that I would be exploring Shriver’s earlier work soon.
And then it happened.  I reached the book’s final few pages and got a surprise that made me see Lionel Shriver and Big Brother very differently.  It was one of those “aha moments” that made me realize there was a lot more going on here than I thought.
Successful businesswoman Pandora Halfdanarson has made a nice life for herself in Iowa where she lives with her husband and his two teen-aged children.  Pandora, who spent summers in the area with her grandparents when she was a child, enjoys the relative simplicity of her lifestyle there.  Her big brother, however, has taken the opposite approach with his own life.  Edison, a talented jazz pianist, enthusiastically adopted his television-actor father’s screen-name, becoming Edison Appaloosa in the process, and moved to New York City to make his name.  And, especially to hear him tell it, Edison has done quite well there.
But, as Pandora learns when Edison pays her a long-delayed family visit, all is not as it seems.  The handsome brother she expects to collect at the airport is nowhere to be found.  Instead, Pandora finds a morbidly obese version of Edison she barely recognizes as her brother.  Edison is so big that, strictly for the convenience of complaining passengers, he has been carted to baggage claim in a wheelchair.  When she gets him home to her family, Pandora and her husband are dismayed to find that all of Edison’s numerous bad habits have grown in proportion to the rest of him.  He is the houseguest from hell.
Lionel Shriver
Big Brother is most obviously about the obese and how they are perceived and treated by others – despite the fact that obesity is so common in this country.  Shriver’s portrayal of their self-esteem problems and physical limitations is blunt; she does not shy away from any aspect of their daily lives, including cleanliness issues.  She is equally blunt about the callous reaction to the grotesquely overweight that so many of us do not even try to hide from “big” people when we see them.  But that is just the beginning of what Lionel Shriver wants to say.  Big Brother is also about family loyalty, bad parenting, personal courage, blind love, depression, dieting, and chasing fame for fame’s sake.
And then there’s that surprise that I can’t tell you about. 
Bottom Line:  This one, particularly because of one or two memorable scenes, might not be for everyone, but those who stay with it will most likely consider themselves to have been well rewarded for the effort.

Elmore Leonard Dead at 87

(Uncredited New York Times Photo)
Hearing of Elmore Leonard’s death this morning is another reminder of just how short life is – and how the older one gets, the quicker time seems to scream past.  Admittedly, the man’s output slowed down a bit when he reached his eighties, and some would argue that his best work was long behind him, but few could argue that Elmore Leonard was still a player, a solid presence, in the world of books, film, and television. 
I have been reading Elmore Leonard since the mid-seventies when 52 Pick-Up caught my eye in a little used-book store.  The dialogue in that book, and in every other Elmore Leonard novel I have ever read, was so realistic that I continued to jump on every new title of his I came across.  He became part of my small group of “go-to” authors; writers I trusted never to let me down no matter what direction their writing might take.  Sure, I enjoyed some Elmore Leonard books more than others, but I never felt cheated by one of them.
For years, I thought of Elmore Leonard as a paperback writer because I was fast accumulating a closet full of his novels in that format.  That image didn’t change for me until Leonard finally hit the national consciousness and his hardback titles began to sell in numbers equal to what he had been selling in the cheaper format.  I suppose, deep down, he will always be one of my paperback guys – those writers I could buy cheap during the years I could only dream of spending hardback money on anyone no matter how much I admired their writing.
But the two Elmore Leonard books I most prize today both turned out to be hardcovers.  One is called Dutch Treat and includes three relatively early novels of Leonard’s: The Hunted, Swag, and Mr. Majestyk.  The other is a self-explanatorily titled book called The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.  There are thirty stories in the collection, the earliest of which were written at a time Leonard was selling his stories at the rate of two cents a word and netted him about $100 each.  One of the best things about the collection is that the endpapers are illustrated by the covers of all the 1950s magazines that published the stories, magazines such as: Argosy, The Saturday Evening Post, Western Story, Zane Grey’s Western, Dime Western, and Ten Story Western Magazine.
As happens when one grows older, I am fast losing all the heroes and positive influences of my youth.  Elmore “Dutch” Leonard was among those who made my short list and, while I will miss the anticipation of what he will write next, he will live on in my memory – and the lifetime of superb work he left behind will keep him alive forever. 
Thanks, “Dutch,” for the memories.

Sandra Boynton’s Got Frog Trouble

Sandra Boynton is best known as the successful author of a long series of humorous books aimed at very young children such as the ones shown below: 

Boynton, however, has also just produced her fifth album of songs that are aimed at children of all ages – and as its cover indicates, this one is actually for “ages one to older than dirt.”  And, a quick look at the list of recording artists who participated in this project leads me to believe that the claim is a true.  

This is the video that sold me (it doesn’t hurt that it’s the song by one of my favorite “country” singers in the world, Dwight Yoakam):

Frog Trouble, Boynton’s first venture into the country music genre, is scheduled for a September 3 release.

The Other Typist

Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist, the author’s debut novel, is a highly atmospheric book set in New York City in the midst of the Roaring Twenties.  As seen through the eyes of Rose Baker, the book’s narrator, however, nothing much is really happening.  Certainly, for Rose, a young police stenographer who was raised by nuns in an orphanage, this is pretty much the case.
Rose sees herself as somewhat of a groundbreaker when it comes to women in the workplace.  As one of the few women working so directly with the NYPD, she takes pride in her ability to stomach even the goriest details contained in the confessions she transcribes for the official record each day. But at the end of the workday, she is content to haul herself back to her boardinghouse, where she shares a room with a rather unlikable young woman, for dinner and another evening of reading.  Rose Baker is a sober, responsible young woman vey much formed by her childhood. 
Everything, though, changes the day that Odalie, a beautiful and charismatic young typist, joins the office pool.  Be it for entirely different reasons, Rose is as taken with the new girl as are any of the men in the department, and she almost immediately begins plotting subtle ways to gain Odalie’s attention – and, ultimately, her friendship.  As the story progresses, and Rose, Rindell’s  narrator, reveals more about herself, what she is able to learn about Odalie’s past, and the unusual nature of their evolving friendship, it seems more and more likely that none of this can end well.  Now it becomes more a question of how badly damaged Rose will be by the process of reaching that end. 
Suzanne Rindell
But it is precisely at this point that The Other Typist becomes something other than what the reader has come to expect. Rindell shows us that she has more than one pitch in her arsenal.  She, as it turns out, also has a pretty decent changeup, and she saves it for exactly the moment she has her readers expecting just another fastball.
Bottom Line: This one, although it begins rather slowly, soon enough becomes enough of a mystery to keep readers turning the page.  Rindell’s writing is likely to remind readers of some of the genre’s masters – but this might be seen as a bit of a negative when the book’s ending leaves the reader with at least a sense of déjà vu.  

Can Our Brains Still Handle Both? Performing Multiple Shallow Tasks Simultaneously vs. Reading a Whole Book

I have been thinking about the post I made here last week about the rapid decline in e-book sales growth percentages.  As I pointed out there, e-book sales seem to be flattening out sooner, and at a much lower percentage of the total book market, than all the experts had predicted.   

I have mentioned (probably several times) that I find it difficult to read e-books – both reading them slower than physical books and retaining less of what I do read in them (a horrible combination, that).  Since all of my e-book reading is done on an iPad, my theory has been that I am too easily distracted by all the other iPad apps that are hovering (not always so quietly) in the background.  One little e-mail “ding,” and I’m off to check email.  That leads me to wondering what has been going on with my Facebook and Twitter contacts.  Then I might check the market or a baseball score, and before I know it, twenty or thirty minutes have gone by and the book is growing ever dimmer in my memory.

Today I took my Kindle out of mothballs and sat down to read a book on a dedicated reader to see if that made a difference.  And it did.  Because I have a Kindle paperwhite, one of the Kindles that are only good for buying and reading e-books, my mind never wandered far from the pages I was reading.  That started me wondering whether the rapid rise in iPad and tablet sales is playing a big part in the declining sales of e-books (I think it is).  

Then, to top off the day, I found this article at putting forth exactly the same theory.  This is part of that “Future Tense” piece:
…the iPad “does so many different things so well that there’s a constant urge when you’re using one to do something else. Two or three pages into a book, you’re already wondering whether you’ve got new mail, or whether anyone has added you on Twitter.” That is, tablets are distracting to readers because they offer other enticing things to do. But just how deep is this distraction? Why is it so compelling that it may be leading us away from using our tablets for e-book reading?
We can again turn to Carr for guidance since his book The Shallows sounds the alarm over the effects of Internet reading on our attention. For Carr, our use of the Internet is characterized by skimming, hyperlink following, and swift page surfing, and he claims that these actions are “literally changing the structure of our brain.” These effects stay with us even after we leave the screen and, in his view, make us into shallow and distracted thinkers. As he puts it, “our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.” This line of thinking can apply as well to our e-reading preferences: Our rewired brains prefer using a tablet to perform multiple shallow tasks simultaneously, rather than for perusing entire e-books with care.
It seems there are enough unintended consequences in today’s high-tech world to ensure that the “experts” are far from expert in predicting the future – and that is half the fun.

The Bookman’s Tale

Reading novels about books, bookstores, and book collectors is something that I have a long history of enjoying, particularly those novels that immerse the reader into the world of antiquarian book collecting.  So Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale seemed like a perfect choice for me.  But because I also have a history of not enjoying conspiracy theory novels, especially those that depend heavily upon coincidence to make the plot work, this one did not work out as well for me as I had hoped it would.
Peter Byerly is a recluse by nature.  Because he has preferred his own company since he was a child and has always felt awkward in one-on-one conversations, Peter is both shocked and thrilled to finally meet his soul mate.  Amanda is the perfect woman for Peter, someone who brings out the best in him and completes him in a way he never dared dream possible.  And then she is gone.
Still stunned by his loss, Peter moves back to England to ease his way back into the rare book business he has been so badly neglecting.  There, Peter is contacted by a man hoping to sell some of the books that have been in his family for generations.  While assessing the value and collectability of the man’s books, Peter makes what could be the discovery of a bookman’s lifetime.  He may, in fact, have just stumbled upon the “Holy Grail” of the book-collecting world: indisputable proof that William Shakespeare was truly the author of all the works attributed to him.  Some scholars still argue that a man of Shakespeare’s education and background would not have been capable of such complicated and distinguished writing.  Peter knows that by ending the “did he or didn’t he” debate once and for all he can link his name to Shakespeare’s forever.  His discovery could be that big.
Charlie Lovett
But first he needs to prove that his documentation is authentic and not the work of one of history’s master forgers, an investigation that seems to get the attention of someone willing to kill in order to make Peter go away for good.  Peter Byerly has inadvertently involved himself in a multi-generational two-family feud he could never have imagined when he stumbled upon what appears to be a Victorian era watercolor portrait of Amanda inside a nineteenth-century book.  Now, getting to the truth might be the only way he can save his own life.
Bottom Line:  The Bookman’s Tale is fun for a lot of reasons.  It offers in-depth insight into the closed world of rare book dealers, the techniques and history of document and signature forging, and the whole Shakespearean authorship debate.  But, while the premise of the book and its main characters are intriguing, the book’s plot relies too much on coincidence to make it plausible.  I was unable to suspend my level of disbelief to the degree required of a reader to buy into the book’s ending – and that disappoints me.

From Forbes: World’s Top Earning Authors" – Yuck

Forbes magazine has just released its annual reminder to me (otherwise known as “The World’s Top Earning Authors List”) that, relative to the kind of fiction that is sold in grocery stores across the country, serious, high-quality fiction is seldom rewarded in the marketplace.  

Yes, it’s always good to see that books are still selling well enough to make some serious money for a handful of authors, but come on, world, can’t we do better than this?

1.  E.L. James ($95 million) – for poorly written soft porn?

2.  James Patterson ($91 million) – for books he doesn’t even to pretend he writes himself anymore?

3.  Suzanne Collins ($55 million) – for milking a one-trick pony series way beyond the point it deserved 

4.  Bill O’Reilly ($28 million) – for a co-written series of pop history books and regurgitating the same old mantra to the faithful

5.  Danielle Steel ($26 million) – on average, more than 3 romance titles per year – and it shows

6.  Jeff Kinney ( $24 million) – I’ll give you this one, world.  The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books are exceptional and young readers seem to love them

7.  Janet Evanovich ($24 million) – How many times can an author write the same old book over and over again?

8.  Nora Roberts ($23 million) – Just the cover of a Nora Roberts book is enough to make a reader cringe

9.  Dan Brown ($22 million) – Proving that a very nice living can be made from poorly written conspiracy theory novels

10.  Stephen King ($20 million) – Still has his moments but is starting to become a parody of himself lately

11.  Dean Koontz ($20 million) – A whole career that would probably never happened if not for Stephen King’s success in kickstarting a dead genre…interesting that he made almost exactly the same amount of money that “the master” made last year

12.  John Grisham ($18 million) – Like King, Grisham still has his moments but does seem to be slipping

13.  David Baldacci ($15 million) – Maybe it’s me, but I just don’t get David Baldacci’s tremendous success

14.  J.K. Rowling ($13 million) – Not bad considering that no new Potter books were released

15.  George R.R. Martin ($12 million) – Thrones, thrones, thrones, everywhere, it seems; a one-trick pony who owes much of his success to the HBO network

I think it is a shame that more literary authors never come close to earning this kind of money.  But who ever said the world was fair?  

Rant over; feel free to throw rocks at me.  I even supplied the rocks for you.


One Second After

Probably because I was a child during those dark days during which teachers still had students climb under their desks as practice for what they should do when the Russians nuked our little town of 12,000 people, I have been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction for as long as I can remember.  As it turns out, there is still plenty of it out there, and it does not always involve nuclear bombs falling from the sky.  This time around it takes only a split second for every electrical device in what appears to be (at least) most of the United States to be fried into permanent uselessness.
The premise of William Forstchen’s One Second After is that a hostile government or well-funded terrorist organization manages to explode a nuclear device over the United States at precisely the correct altitude needed to unleash an enormous electromagnetic pulse that will do just that trick.  All anyone in John Matherson’s little North Carolina town knows is that they are instantly off the grid: no radio, no television, no telephones, no anything electrical – including all of their computer-chip-controlled cars and trucks.  It takes a while to hit them, but when people finally realize that no one is coming to help them, society begins to break down.
After the initial panic and scramble for available groceries, medicines, cigarettes, booze, and anything else still on store shelves, someone has to bring order to the chaos if any of the townspeople are to survive for more than a few months.  John Matherson, a local college professor with years of military training, calling upon the help of dozens of his former students, is the town’s best chance.
William R. Forstchen
The threat of electromagnetic pulse warfare does not exist just in books; it is a very real possibility in the real world, one that Forstchen does not believe authorities in this country takes seriously enough.  One Second After (which includes a forward by New Gingrich) is the author’s attempt to place the topic into mainstream awareness and conversation.  One can only hope that this 2009 novel caught the attention of a few people in the right places.
Bottom Line:  Readers will be fascinated by the ingenuity of the novel’s characters as they attempt to reconstruct the things they were taking for granted only a few days earlier.  At the same time, they will be appalled by how quickly the elderly and those with certain chronic illnesses begin to die off when life-sustaining drugs are no longer to be found.  But most disturbing of all is the realization that there are people out there who desperately want to turn One Second After into reality.  This one will scare you.

Indie Bookstores That Ask for Donations: Good Idea, or Not?

For those of us who truly love books, bookstores, libraries, and most anything to do with publishing, these are strange times.  We watch helplessly as our favorite bookstores disappear one after the other, all the while knowing there is really nothing we can do to help save them.  Or is there?

From the New York Times comes word about a new bookstore trend in which indie stores are forced to ask for patron donations in order to ensure their survival for even another few months.  This kind of thing seems to be the trend…even grocery store cashiers are pushing pricy bags of school supplies this time of year that often leave me wondering how much profit is in them for the grocery chains.

Where do we draw the line?  Is a one-time donation tied specifically to some catastrophic event acceptable but not a fundraiser to help a small bookstore meet its increased rent burden?  What obligation, if any, does a bookstore have after raising money this way?  It certainly cannot be forced to keep its doors open, but what if management squanders the money and then calls it a day?  How would that make you, a donor, feel?

I have mixed emotions about this kind of thing, wanting to help but wondering what good I am really doing in the long run.  I wish more of us were just willing to pay a “book tax” by shopping at indie bookstores in the first place:

In San Francisco, a campaign for Adobe Books successfully raised $60,000 in March after the store faced a rent increase and nearly went out of business.
In Asheville, N.C., the Spellbound Children’s Bookshop collected more than $5,000 when it appealed to customers for help moving to a new location.
In the Flatiron district of Manhattan, Books of Wonder raised more than $50,000 in an online campaign last fall after the recession and other losses depleted its financial resources.
Web sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, originally made for the public financing of creative projects, have simplified the logistics of raising money, and bookstores facing financial distress are seizing the opportunity. They can set up a Web page explaining what their fund-raising goal is, why they are asking for it and what the deadline is. Donors pitch in as little as $5 or $10 with a few clicks and a credit card number.

Read the article here before you make up your mind.   

"Books to Have and to Hold"

Despite trying to make some of these same points here in the past, I never said it half as well as Verlyn Klinkenborg says it in a New York Times piece in today’s “Sunday Review.”  Here’s a taste of what she has to say about reading e-books vs. reading tree-books:

I finish reading a book on my iPad — one by Ed McBain, for instance — and I shelve it in the cloud. It vanishes from my “device” and from my consciousness too. It’s very odd.
When I read a physical book, I remember the text and the book — its shape, jacket, heft and typography. When I read an e-book, I remember the text alone. The bookness of the book simply disappears, or rather it never really existed. Amazon reminds me that I’ve already bought the e-book I’m about to order. In bookstores, I find myself discovering, as if for the first time, books I’ve already read on my iPad.
All of this makes me think differently about the books in my physical library. They used to be simply there, arranged on the shelves, a gathering of books I’d already read. But now, when I look up from my e-reading, I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say, hidden under layers of software, tucked away in the cloud, utterly absent when the iPad goes dark.

Exactly…and here’s the whole article.  Please check it out.

The Good Lord Bird

In the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown hit the state of Kansas like a tornado.  Pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions were already at each other’s throats by the time Brown arrived to avenge the sacking of Lawrence by a pro-slavery mob, but soon his name would strike fear and loathing into the hearts of the state’s pro-slavers.  His story does not easily lend itself to comedy, but much of The Good Lord Bird, James McBride’s fictional account of Brown’s attempt to start an armed slave rebellion in the South, is as funny as it is serious.
Told through eyes of Henry Shackleford, a little slave boy whom Brown mistakes for a girl, the novel offers a factually accurate portrayal of Brown’s deeds and end that is somewhat distorted by the innocence of its narrator.  Because Henry (who pretends to be “Henrietta” for almost the entirety of the book) is telling the story, all the characters, when they speak, do so in the vernacular and tone of a little black boy who has lived his entire life within the confines of one tiny Kansas community.  Admittedly, the conversations can be a little jarring at times but they are a constant reminder that everything is being filtered through the eyes of a child.
James McBride
James McBride is a master of characterization and the beauty of The Good Lord Bird comes from the distinct personalities he creates for Brown, several of his sons and one of his daughters (Brown fathered 22 children by two wives), Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and so many of the fictional characters with whom they interact.  McBride’s approach, as is generally the case with the best historical fiction, is a vivid reminder that history is more than facts and dates.  It is about real people who had the same hopes and dreams that motivate people today, and seldom was their story as black and white as it appears in history books.
By story’s end, a rather beautiful bond has developed between John Brown and his “little Onion,” and their relationship is one that readers will long remember.  The child grows close to a slow-witted son of Brown’s, falls in love (still disguised as a girl child) with one of Brown’s daughters, is awed by the persona of Harriet Tubman, and forms a rather disparaging opinion of Frederick Douglas whom he/she sees as more politician than activist.  Almost lost in the story is the tragic end that Brown inflicts upon himself, members of his family, and others who believe as he does.
Bottom Line: The Good Lord Bird is an excellent piece of historical fiction that revisits one of the key events and periods in American history.  Readers will, I think, find it helpful to remind themselves of the key elements of John Brown’s history beforehand as it adds a certain amount of tension to the book’s reading.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Not So Fast: E-Books Will Not Kill Physical Books After All


A piece over on the Washington Post “Wonkblog” today touches on a trend that I’ve been noticing among my friends – both in the real world and on the internet.  It seems that everyone I know who wants an e-book reader already has one or two of them.  If not, they have already downloaded the e-book reader apps for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Bluefire, OverDrive…you get the idea…to their smart phones, iPads, Macs and PCs and will not be buying a standalone reader at all.  

So, as it turns out, the Nook will not be the savior of Barnes & Noble, after all.  As B&N has finally admitted, it just won’t happen, so they are shedding that hardware business.  

The huge drop in the number of e-reader sales translates, of course, into a leveling off of the growth of the sales of actual e-books.  And, as the article points out, this is mainly because e-books do not readily adapt themselves to all reading situations.  They are not great for reading in bed, for instance.  Nor for reading long, detailed, heavily footnoted non-fiction books that the reader will want to keep on the shelf for future reference, or if they like, as  “trophy” books.  They are perfect for reading while traveling or commuting to and from the job on public transportation.  They are great for reading in a waiting room.  They are wonderful for snatching a page or two of reading while standing in one of those slow-moving bank lines.  They just don’t work everywhere.

As the article puts it:

But the fact that that leveling off is already happening with e-books suggests that the ratio of printed books sold to electronic books is going to stabilize at a higher level than it had seemed likely a year or two ago in the era of extraordinary e-book growth. 

Read the whole Washington Post article here (I find it ironic that Amazon’s founder just bought this newspaper).

I admit that I like this trend.  It means that print books are very likely to continue to dominate the publishing industry both in sales and prestige.  As an avid reader and book collector, I like that.

The Pitcher

Whether they will admit it or not, most guys still react to a heart-tugging baseball novel the same way they reacted to one when they were kids.  Almost every boy, at one time or another – even if only for a moment – has probably dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, and in my day, that usually meant dreaming of major league baseball.  And, reliving those dreams for a day or two via a good baseball novel is still quite a kick for guys like us.  The Pitcher, William Hazelgrove’s new novel allowed me to escape into that world again for a little while last week.
Ricky Hernandez is a kid with an arm.  Not yet in high school, Ricky is already throwing a baseball a consistent 74 miles an hour.  And, on those rather rare occasions he gets the ball over the plate, he is pretty much unhittable in his youth league.  The problem is that opposing coaches know how wild he is and they give the take sign to even their best hitters when Ricky is not on his game.  The results are predictable.
Ricky’s mom, fighting an illness that has the potential to prove fatal, knows that her son has the natural ability to be special if only he can learn to control his pitches.  Because the boy’s father is no longer living with the family, she diligently relies on books and diagrams to coach Ricky – a strategy that most definitely is not working.  But desperate times call for desperate measures (as the cliché goes), and she decides to grab the attention of the former World Series MVP who hibernates across the street in his garage.  She knows that if Ricky does not make his high school team in the open tryouts that are just a few weeks away he might never played organized baseball again.  It is not going to be easy, however, even if she does get some MVP coaching.
William Elliott Hazelgrove
The Pitcher is one of my favorite reads of the summer, a summer during which I needed to find something about baseball to feel good about again because of the doping scandals and the sheer awfulness of my hometown team.  William Hazelgrove has done it.  I am pleased to find that my love of the game is as deep as ever; it only took The Pitcher to rekindle it.
Bottom Line: The Pitcher may be labeled as a YA novel, but readers will not really notice or care about that.  The book also touches on issues not related to baseball that impact Ricky’s life – especially alcoholism and living in America as the first generation child of an “illegal alien.”  There is a lot going on here.  Baseball fans, this one is for you.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)