Time for a (Short) Road Trip

I’ll be heading out around ten tomorrow morning on the 210-mile drive to San Antonio to attend the fourth annual book festival to be held at the San Antonio Public Library on Saturday.  

I’m not as organized as I would like to be at this point, but I’ve earmarked a few “don’t miss” sessions and I’ll be playing the rest of the day by ear as I discover more about the festival layout.  And then next weekend, there’s a book festival at a Kingwood community college that is only about 35 miles northeast of me, so I’m hoping to make that one, too.  

Since I’m not at all sure about wifi conditions and whether my blogging software will even work on my iPad (always an unpredictable hit or miss situation), I’m going to try to post a book review here tomorrow morning before hitting the road. And if things are working properly, I hope to post an update or two from San Antonio.  Wish me luck.

So…more from and about San Antonio and its book festival to come in a day or two.  Talk to you then.

King Maybe

Master burglar Junior Bender has a big problem, but it’s not the kind of problem you would expect someone in Junior’s profession normally to have.  There are no cops hot on his trail because, truth be known, the cops don’t even have Junior on their radar screen.  He is that good at what he does.   No, Junior’s problem is that he is a burglar with a conscience who is forced to deal with a wide assortment of people for whom conscience doesn’t even figure into the equation.  
Still, it is only after a planned-to-the-split-second burglary suddenly goes pear shaped that Junior realizes just how a serious a chain of events he has inadvertently triggered.  King Maybe, probably the most ruthless and most powerful man in all of Hollywood, wants Junior to do something for him – and declining the job is not something he is going to let Junior do.  King Maybe may not be much of a physical specimen (only those who don’t know him, though, would dare label him the shrimp he is), but his money and vicious cruel-streak make him one very dangerous man. 
King Maybe is the fifth book in Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender series, and the now fortyish Junior has been breaking into houses and businesses without ever once having been caught since he was fourteen years old.  That’s more than two decades of unbroken success, but Junior has to wonder if that means that he is unlikely ever to be caught, or that the odds are increasingly more likely that his day is drawing near.  Junior really has no idea, but hedges his bet by keeping a detailed escape plan firmly in place.  At a moment’s notice, Junior Bender is prepared to disappear, assume a well-crafted new identity, and begin life anew far from California. 
Tim Hallinan
King Maybe can correctly be characterized as a “crime thriller,” but that would be shortchanging both the book and its author because Tim Hallinan’s novels are as character-driven as any literary fiction out there.  Longtime fans of the series are familiar with the Junior Bender character at this point, and they know pretty much what to expect from him in most circumstances (although Junior does show a side of his character at the end of this one that I didn’t suspect he had).  What keeps the series so fresh is Hallinan’s talent for creating memorable side characters for Junior to interact with, be they Filipino houseboys, love interests, or villains like the high-heeled cowboy boot wearing King Maybe, a little man with a big ego. 

Hallinan has done it again. This one is fun.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Is Anybody Going to San Antone? Me…for the Book Festival

If all goes well this week, I’m heading to San Antonio Friday to attend the all-day-Saturday 2016 San Antonio Book Festival.  Believe it or not (and I find it hard to believe, myself), even though I live only 210 miles from the San Antonio Public Library, main site of the festival, I haven’t been to San Antonio in more than 20 years, so this will be an interesting excursion.

The festival organizers have line up more than 80 authors for the various sessions and presentations, and there are a few I’m particularly looking forward to seeing since I’ve read several of the books being discussed.  I’m hoping to make the sessions by Stephen Harrigan (A Friend of Mr. Lincoln), Jamie Brickhouse (Dangerous When Wet), a second Stephen Harrigan session (Old Facts, New Fiction), and maybe that Literary Death Match that comes at the end of the day and features Jamie Brickhouse, David Craff, Joaquin Zihuatanejo, and Sara Benincasa.  

That probably seems like a small sampling of the eighty authors who will be there, but that’s usually the way it goes, leaving some time for browsing the vendors, sampling the food, and plain old resting of the feet – and some time to work in last minute changes and additions to the schedule.  

Here’s a video look at who’s coming:








The Doll-Master

The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror is the latest collection of short stories from Joyce Carol Oates.  As the book’s title indicates, these six stories are about “terror,” but this is terror in a very real sense, not the kind that is sometimes associated in the minds of readers with books shelved in the “horror” section of their favorite bookstores.  These are stories about people in fear of their lives, sometimes told through the eyes of the potential murderer and sometimes through the eyes of those in danger. Sometimes the terror is real, at other times it seems to be more imagined than not by the potential victim, and sometimes it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Victims are dispatched by gunshot, strangulation, poisons, and in the book’s strangest tale of all, in a way that makes victims from all the other stories appear to be the lucky ones.
The young man at the center of the book’s title story became a doll collector almost by accident when, as a small child, he stole his recently deceased cousin’s doll as a way to comfort himself after her sudden disappearance from his life.  Now a young man still living at home with his mother, he adds “found” dolls to his collection every year or so, but keeps his collection hidden away where no one will ever see it but him.  The doll collector has become a doll master.
The Doll Master includes two stories in which handguns play prominent roles.  In the first, “Soldier,” a young white man is accused of having shot to death the defenseless young black teen he accuses of placing him in fear of his life.  Destined to be the most controversial story in the collection, this one is told from the point-of-view of the shooter, and deals with the role that racial differences play in perceptions of physical threat.  “Gun Accident,” again told from the shooter’s point-of-view, offers another lesson in what can happen when a gun gets into the hands of someone emotionally unprepared to handle it.  This time that person is a young high school girl entrusted with housesitting her favorite teacher’s house for a few days. 
“Big Moma” is about an eighth-grade girl badly in need of a friend.  When she finally finds that friend, she gains a whole new family, not just the school friend she had been longing for.  Now she senses that something is wrong, and the question is whether or not she has the strength to break free from the family’s influence– and will they let her? 

“Equatorial” and “Mystery, Inc.” both largely take place in the minds of their narrators, one of whom imagines herself to be the potential victim of her husband’s murderous intentions, and the other a man who has very specifically targeted his next murder victim.  Both stories are well plotted and are based on memorable characters and situations.  But for one simple reason, “Mystery, Inc.” is my favorite story in the collection and “Equatorial” is my least favorite.  I find it difficult to enjoy stories that use the all too common literary device of building tension to climactic levels only to end abruptly before that tension is resolved – exactly the way that “Equatorial” ends.  I don’t like writing my own short story endings.  “Mystery, Inc.,” a verbal sparring match between two very different bookstore owners, on the other hand, painstakingly builds the tension level to a climax and proceeds to deliver the perfect ending.

The stories in The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror are a bit uneven, and are sometimes predictable, but there is a lot to like about the collection.  Joyce Carol Oates fans and fans of macabre short stories will want to take a look at this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

A Pat Conroy Tribute

I guess I’m still finding it hard to believe that there will be no more epic novels from the wonderful Pat Conroy, but this compilation of clips from movies adapted from his books makes me realize just what a cultural impact the man’s writing had.  He leaves one hell of a legacy behind…all any artist can ask for, really.

This makes me want to spend the afternoon and evening re-watching each of these.

Hunters in the Dark

Lawrence Osborne is a British writer who calls Bangkok, Thailand, home.  As such, he is well acquainted with the cultures of that part of the world and how they change as one crosses from border to border in the region.  Hunters in the Dark, in fact, begins with the book’s main character, an Englishman by the name of Robert Grieve, crossing into Cambodia at a border crossing that country shares with Thailand. 
Grieve is a schoolteacher with only very tenuous ties to his work or, it seems, to his country.  He considers himself to be somewhat of a world traveler during his off time and, although he greatly overestimates his own survival skills, likes to extend himself further and further into the unknown with each succeeding trip.  However, unlike so many Westerners who come to the Far East looking for women and gambling, Grieve is in Cambodia simply as much to experience its atmosphere as for any other reason. 
Lawrence Osborne
As fate would have it (and this book is very much about fate and karma), Grieve’s one big night in a local casino paints a neon target on his back for all the local hustlers to see, including Simon Beauchamp, an American who knows exactly how the game is played in Cambodia.  Grieve is no match for a man like Simon Beauchamp, and when their paths cross, that becomes obvious even to him.  But even in the aftermath of that encounter, the ever-passive Grieves is still hoping to find a way to chuck his old life and begin a new one in Cambodia – and when he gets a well paying job as English tutor to a beautiful young woman, he begins to believe that he might just be able to pull it all off.
Despite its exotic locale and the decadent lifestyle described, Hunters in the Dark will never be (nor should it be) characterized as a thriller.  That is not what Lawrence Osborne was going for here.  Instead, Osborne has written a highly atmospheric novel charged throughout with a static electricity of background tension that promises an explosion at any moment.  All the while, our hero is content to wait around to see what happens next.  Anything it seems, beats the life he left behind in England – unless it actually gets him killed.

Bottom Line: Hunters in the Dark is one of those books where the reader keeps waiting for something exciting to happen – and finally figures out that whether or not it happens is beside the point.  This is a book about fate and what happens to those who buck it.  Come to think of it, Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Movies for Readers: Coraline

This week’s Movie for Readers is based on the 2002 children’s novel by Neil Gaiman.  The 176-page book was marketed as suitable for readers between the ages of 9 and 12, but I suspect that it might be a little too spooky for kids on the low end of that scale.  

The movie was released in February 2009, so it should be relatively easy to find (I know that it’s on iTunes, for instance).  It was directed by Henry Selick who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it includes, among others, the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, and Keith Davis.  It is highly rated as being one of the more creative and innovative children’s movies of its day.

If you have children of the right age, this might be a good one to enjoy with them.  And critics say this one appeals to adults as much as to children, so even if your kids are long past the targeted age group, you might enjoy this one on your own.

Movies for Readers No. 22

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones

Country singer George Jones lived such a colorful and public life that several biographies about him have been written in the past few years.  I have three of those on my own bookshelves: George Jones: The Saga of an American Singer (Bob Allen – 1984), Ragged but Right: The Life & Times of George Jones (Dolly Carlisle – 1984), and George Jones: I Lived to Tell It All (George Jones & Tom Carter – 1996).   Interestingly, both the first two books were published about the time that George returned to his roots and built Jones Country in tiny Colmesneil, Texas (population 600).   But Jones continued to add to his legend after 1984, of course, and although Tom Carter’s book covers the years up to 1996 when it was published, those years are somewhat filtered through the eyes of Carter’s co-author, George Jones himself.

Now, a full three years after Jones’s death, his legacy has become more settled and his whole story can be told in one volume – and that is exactly what Rich Keinzle has done in The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones.  From the very beginning of his career, country music fans were intrigued by the craziness that always seemed to follow Jones around the country as he performed.  By the end of that career, George Jones was a respected vocalist (still with a reputation for craziness) who had managed to grab the attention of music lovers around the world.  It was never easy for the shy, insecure performer that Jones was throughout his lifetime, but, public warts and all, he was just too good to ignore.
Rich Keinzle has done his George Jones homework, and it shows.  The Grand Tour recounts everything from the life of poverty into which Jones was born, through his battle with drug and alcohol addictions that almost killed him, and on to his rescue by Nancy Sepulvado, the Shreveport woman, who saw him through the worst of his addictions and saved both his life and his career.  It is impossible to recount the life of George Jones without spending a great number of pages on the singer’s problems and demons – and Keinzle does that.  But the high points of Jones’s life, including the best (and worst) of his recordings are also recounted in great detail. 

I appreciate The Grand Tour – and I am no casual George fan.  George Jones and his music have been in my life for more than five decades.  I grew up near the city of Beaumont, Texas, which Jones called home for a number of years.  My wife’s grandparents knew the Jones family in Saratoga, Texas, and her grandmother occasionally had George over to the house when he was a boy.  Too, I personally witnessed two of the milestone events cited by the author in The Grand Tour: the one and only country music show ever presented at Jones’s Rhythm Ranch in Vidor, Texas, and his later induction into the Beaumont Walk of Fame, a site that honors the most famous citizens born in the county surrounding that city.  And all that said, Rich Keinzle still told me a thing or two about George Jones I never knew; it’s that kind of book – maybe a little bit crude and rough around the edges…but then so was George.

James Patterson: The Walmart of Writers

I don’t know what to think about James Patterson sometimes.  I know, on the one hand, that he does things like give money to benefit school libraries, and that he is an advocate of childhood literacy programs.  But there is something about the guy that rubs me the wrong way: he dominates the bestseller lists by farming out his name to lesser-known writers to such a degree that hundreds of better books never find a place on the lists – and they never stood a chance to do so.

It’s one thing to be so successful that every book published becomes a bestseller, and several authors do produce one or two titles per year that become bestsellers almost like clockwork.  But it is an other thing entirely to crudely slap your name as co-author on a book written by another writer just because you can.  To his credit, Patterson does come up with the general plots; he just doesn’t want to take the time to turn those plots into…you know…actual books.

Just look at the numbers from this Independent article, for instance: 300 million books sold, first person to sell 1 million e-books, and 10 or 11 new (almost always co-authored) books a year guaranteed to dominate every bestseller list on the planet (his last 19 straight have made the lists).  The man may as well be printing money as publishing books because the impression left is that he’s not overly concerned about the quality of what he slaps his name upon.  

But, it appears that even all of this is not enough for Mr. Patterson.  No, now he’s come up with something he calls BookShots through which he will publish up to 4 short books per month, all aimed at people who don’t consider themselves to be readers.  The books are all expected to be about 150 pages long, and with the exception of a few romance titles, they will all be written by Patterson (alone or with someone from the writer collection he keeps by his side).  And, I assume, many of them will be taking up even more of the few bestseller slots Patterson has been allowing everyone else to share up to now.

James Patterson has become to writers what Walmart is to small town main streets – and that’s a compliment neither to Walmart nor to Patterson.


Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide

Michael Kinsley’s guide to old age is primarily aimed at his fellow boomers, the millions of us born between 1946 and 1964.  As a group, boomers are the next generation in line to “lose the game of life,” as Kinsley puts it, so it is time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable.  And, early on in Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, Kinsley makes the case that since we are all destined “to stay dead many years longer than we were alive,” the only thing we are going to leave behind is memories of ourselves – our reputations.  But here’s the kicker, boomers: if you want to be remembered as a good person, now is the time to get started because that old game clock is busily ticking away even as you read this.
It is common knowledge that Michael Kinsley has Parkinson’s disease.  He has, in fact, suffered from Parkinson’s for more than two decades since learning that he had the disease at age forty-three.  Having such a serious chronic disease gave Kinsley a head start on the average boomer who does not generally begin contemplating his own mortality until well into his sixties – if not even a bit later than that.  Much of the material comprising the seven chapters of Old Age appeared, in fact, in different format in Time and in The New Yorker between 2001 and 2014 (leading at times to noticeable repetition between chapters).   This probably also explains why, although Kinsley states that Old Age is not a book about Parkinson’s, quite a large percentage of the book’s 160 pages pertain to that disease and its affect on the whole mindset of aging.
Michael Kinsley
Despite the harsh realities of his message, Kinsley makes good use of humor to present what is ahead for him and his fellow boomers.  Even, for instance, when discussing dementia, every boomer’s worst nightmare, the author’s puts his sense of ironic humor to good use.  He explains his suggested rallying cry of “death before dementia” this way:
            “If you’re prepared to die at sixty, you can pretty much scratch dementia off your list of things to worry about.  By contrast, if you don’t mind being a bit dotty – or worse than a bit – you can go for longevity. But unless you’re extremely lucky, you won’t win both games.”
The inherent competiveness of baby boomers seems to amuse Kinsley greatly, but as he reminds us, “the only competition that matters, in the end, is about life itself.”  But sadly enough, that means we are competing to outlive our friends and family, and “even without a cash prize, we all would like to win. Life would be pretty empty without your friends. But not as empty as death.”

Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, might be just the book to ease boomers into the realization that the final score of their lives will be recorded soon – and that there’s still time to get in the game, friends.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Bookstores: Not What They Used to Be

I browse the same two bookstores every weekend, and during the week I usually manage to make one or two other stops at different shops.  You might think that would get expensive…and it used to…but the sad truth today is that I walk away empty-handed at least four out of five times I go to a bookstore.  The bottom line is that there are fewer local bookstores for me to shop at, they carry fewer titles on the shelves, and they all carry pretty much the same limited selection.

So I come home, crank up the Kindle, and if the e-book version of what I was hoping to find is not too ridiculously priced, download a copy and begin reading it – all in just a few seconds.  And take note, Mr. Barnes & Noble bigwig, I said “Kindle,” not “Nook.”  That means that if you want to sell me a book, it is going to have to happen at a cash register housed in a brick and mortar bookstore.

And I’m not expecting obscure titles and huge author back catalogs.  Those have always been hard to find, often requiring special orders and patience on the part of the buyer.  No, what I’m expecting is to see more of the “big” book titles being released every month instead of four new books that have James Patterson’s name slapped on the cover, a few new thrillers by the same old names, and a whole bunch of relatively silly chick-lit titles.  (I get it that a huge percentage of books are sold to females…I do, but do try to remember that some men read more than thrillers.)  Where is all the serious literary fiction that gets released every month?

Why is this happening?  Well, maybe, just maybe, it’s because I have to make my way through all the puzzles, toys, vinyl albums, Nooks, greeting cards, and tiny little people crafted to look something like every character from every successful TV show of the last decade before I get to the books.  Bookstore managers, you are fast squeezing books right off the floor, aren’t you?

While I’m at it, one last thing: if you are going to bother to carry the new hardcover addition to a long-established series, would it kill you to carry the couple of books that preceded the new hardcover?  If I haven’t read those already, I’m probably not going to buy the hardcover first – and if it takes me forever to find copies of the older ones, your flashy new hardcover might be in paper by the time I’m ready for the new one.  But if they are there all at the same time…side by side…I will very likely be tempted to purchase all of them.  Think about it.  OK?

Barnes & Noble, you got what you wished for.  First you killed the smaller bookstore chains in the country, than you killed off the last few remaining big ones.  Job well done…from your point of view, I’m sure.  But now you seem equally intent on driving away serious book customers at the same rate you killed off the competition.  You are really good at creating Kindle sales – and I know you don’t want to do that.  We need more titles (better chosen ones) on the shelves, not fewer titles than ever.  

Movies for Readers: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was a huge YA bestseller in 2012 and I still see copies of the book all over the place.  I haven’t actually read the book, but its cover is so intriguing that I’ve probably picked it up and flipped through it at least half a dozen times in the last few years.  So…here comes the movie and, from all appearances, it’s going to be just as intriguing as the book from which it is pulled. If you or your children are fans of the book, the movie is expected to be released at the end of September 2016.  This trailer is a “first look.”

Movies for Readers No. 21

The Grave Tattoo

I have long been a fan of psychological crime thrillers, but for whatever reason, The Grave Tattoo is my first experience with a Val McDermid title.  Now having read it, I can certainly see why critics of the day considered it to be McDermid’s breakthrough effort, and I look forward to reading more of her work.
This intricately plotted novel seems to have something for every kind of mystery fan.  Its core plot involves the 200-year-old body pulled out of a Lake District peat bog that a forensic scientist has cleverly nicknamed “Pirate Peat” because of the intricate tattoos still visible on the body.  Interesting as the body already is, there is a strong possibility that it could turn out to be an even more important find than it appears to be at first glance.  Local lore says that Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian somehow survived the aftermath of that famous incident, made his way back to his home area, and disappeared there for good.  Could this be the famous sailor’s body?
Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham, who grew up near where the bog body was found, believes there is more to the Fletcher Christian story.  Her research indicates a strong possibility that Christian told his story to William Wordsworth, an old classmate of his, before he disappeared.  She believes it likely that Wordsworth wrote down what he was told by Christian before producing a long lost poem about his old friend’s adventures.  Jane knows how successfully the Wordsworth family guarded its privacy and reputation, so it makes sense to her that the poem and notes would have been hidden away rather than being made public during the author’s lifetime.  But they are out there somewhere, she thinks, and if it can be proved that Pirate Peat is really Fletcher Christian, it will prove that she is on the right track.
Val McDermid
Intriguing as this story line is, it is easy for readers to lose themselves in McDermid’s side plots involving Jane’s friends and family.  The most intriguing thread involves the thirteen-year-old mixed race girl whom Jane has befriended in the infamous London housing project she is forced to live in – being a Wordsworth scholar and college lecturer does not seem to pay particularly well and London rents are high, after all.  Tenille is a pet project of Jane’s, a kid she is trying to save from the future that already seems destined to be hers. 

Wordsworth’s papers, if they exist and can be found, will be worth millions to the right collector, and as is always the case, some are willing to do whatever it takes to get their hands on something so precious.  Jane’s life gets complicated when characters from all the side plots start showing up in the Lake District for reasons of their own.  Suddenly nothing makes sense to Jane.  If she is to find the documents she is so certain exist, she will need lots of help – but whom can she trust?  Her brother seems to be in a race to find the papers before she does; the police are accusing her of hiding a murder suspect; and people are dying all around her.

Pulling It All Together

Click image for larger view

I’m going to try something today that I’ve been doing the reverse of on Twitter and Facebook for a while already: a little bit of cross-polinating to invite blog readers to join me on Facebook and Twitter.

I have recently started what Facebook calls an Arts/Humanities page there and I would love to see you guys join me on the Book Chase Facebook page and on Twitter where I am posting as @Book_Chase.  

I do post links on the Facebook page regarding what is happening on the blog, but that accounts for only about 10% of the book information and updates that I talk about over at Facebook.  And, as for Twitter…who knows what that will turn into on any given day?  It’s just a chance to talk with more likeminded book people that you will ever encounter in your real world.

So, please do take a look at the Facebook page and, if you like it, just click on the “Like” button and join the conversation.  Book nerds are not easy to round up…we are contrary, independent-minded people…but we know what we like and we are loyal when we find “our people.”  Take a look, guys.

Practical Classics

Kevin Smokler readily admits that when it comes to high school English classes he was a moron, a chronic complainer who bitched so often and so loudly about having to read classic literature that he ruined the experienced for everyone else.   He now believes that “the classics” too often “get off on the wrong foot” with adolescent readers who never get over the bad experience they had with the books in high school.  Smokler has written Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School in hopes that some of these readers can be convinced to give “the classics” the second chance they deserve.
Practical Classics is divided into ten theme-oriented sections containing Smokler’s essays on five books that fit within the chosen categories.  Those categories are: Youth and Growing Up, Identity, The Inner and the Outer World, Love and Pain, Working, Family, Ideas and Learning, Violence and Loss, We the Hero, and The Future. 
Smokler did not actually first encounter all fifty of the featured books while in high school – only a very special high school could have pulled that one off – but he selected each of the books for specific reasons.   He wanted books that offer “brisk reading experiences,” story-oriented books with relatively straightforward narratives (mostly novels and plays).  Smokler also includes a few books that were probably not assigned reading in any high school of his era, books that he hopes are being read in high schools today.
Kevin Smokler
For the most part, Smokler’s essays (average length of about five pages each) are interesting even to readers already fairly familiar with the book or work being discussed.  Some of the author’s book choices are a little off the beaten path, however, and in trying to persuade readers to give those books a chance, Smokler’s vague reasoning can be more confusing than persuasive.  This is most notable in his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin and his “Understanding Marshall McLuhan” piece. 
Some of the more conventional choices that Smokler includes in his “50 Books” are Huckleberry Finn, The Age of Innocence, Candide, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  More recent “classics” include: To Kill a Mockingbird, Portnoy’s Complaint, Maus, The Joy Luck Club, Fahrenheit 451, and The Bluest Eye. 

If you are like me (I can claim to having read only 12 of the 50 books), Practical Classicswill likely convince you to try some of ones you’ve manage to avoid up until now.  The essays can be a little hit and miss, I admit, but I’m now curious enough about six or seven of the titles to find copies of them for the first time.  And that’s what Practical Classics is all about, really…second chances.

1938 Warner Brothers Cartoon Based on Book Titles

This classic old Warner Brothers cartoon from 1938 cleverly uses book titles as the origin of a bunch of songs and visual gags that go on for almost eight minutes.  I can’t imagine today’s children being much intrigued by something like this…but maybe (I hope) I’m underestimating today’s kids and their awareness of classic book titles.

Keep Calm

Keep Calm is Mike Binder’s debut novel, but it is important to keep in mind that this is not the first thing that Binder has written.  In addition to being a film director and producer, Binder is also a scriptwriter, and that experience has greatly influenced the plotting and structure of Keep Calm.  This is, in fact, a political thriller that would very easily transfer to the big screen.
Adam Tate used to be a cop, a good one.  Then, in a moment of naïve stupidity, he made a decision that would ultimately send him to prison.  When, upon his release, a lucrative job offer comes his way, Tate knows that he has to accept it even if he can’t figure out why the company wants him.  Now he finds himself in London to attend an important business meeting at 10 Downing Street – and, as a bonus, his grandchildren are going to meet their maternal grandfather for the first time.  Tate, because he barely understands his new job and has nothing to add to the conversation, guesses that he has been brought to London for reasons other than business ones.  But it is not until a bomb explosion critically injures the prime minister shortly after the meeting that Tate understands exactly why he is there.  In an instant, he and his British-born wife, along with their two children, are running for their lives.
Mike Binder
Mike Binder has created quite a cast of characters here, including Georgia Turnbull, the young chancellor of the exchequer (and heir apparent to the injured prime minster) and Davina Steel, the lead investigator in the assassination attempt.  These women have done well for themselves in a world their gender would have excluded them from only a few years earlier, and now they have something else in common: capturing Adam Tate will advance both their careers to even higher peaks. 
But all is not what it seems.  If Adam Tate is not the rogue terrorist he is being presented as, who is behind the plot to blow up the prime minister in his 10 Downing Street home?  Tate knows part of the truth, and he suspects even more of it.  But can he keep himself and his family alive long enough for Davina Steel to figure it all out for herself?
Keep Calm is not the perfect thriller, but its weaknesses, let’s face it, are common to the genre: stereotypically evil bad guys served by robotic goons who do the killing – and enjoy it immensely; multiple last-second escapes; heroes who are repeatedly the only survivors in violent encounters with the bad guys, etc.  But that is the nature of the beast.  Thrillers, almost by definition, especially conspiracy thrillers, require that the reader be willing to suspend his normal sense of disbelief.  Do that and you will love this one – and, you might just find it playing at a theater near you one day in the future.

Movies for Readers: The BFG

First Edition of The BFG

This “Movie for Readers” will, I suspect, make a whole lot of money when it is released on July 1, 2016.  The BFG, as in “The Big Friendly Giant,” is based on the popular 1982 children’s book written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake.  My own girls were just a little too old to enjoy the book as children, but now as teachers of young children, both of them are looking forward to the film.  Although an animated adaptation was shown on television in 1989, this is the first major film production of The BFG.

Movies for Readers No. 19

We’ve Already Gone This Far

Patrick Dacey’s We’ve Already Gone This Far is a collection of thirteen stories about the residents of the fictional little town of Wequaquet, Massachusetts.  Wequaquet is very much a working class town, and like their counterparts everywhere, its residents are trying to get by as best they can in a shaky economy.  They all grew up dreaming the American dream, but now there don’t seem to be enough jobs to go around.  Life, though, has to go on – and some things never change.  Dacey’s stories and his characters remind us that we are all in this thing called life together, and that we have more in common, than not.
These are stories about failed marriages, mothers with sons fighting wars on the other side of the world, old men desperate for friendship, men running as fast as they can just to get by, and others hoping to rekindle old relationships.  Admittedly, none of these people are particularly happy, but Dacey makes them seem so real that the reader is likely to recognize a part of himself in each of them.  In all most every instance, these people are not defined by their problems, but by their hopefulness that things will get better if they just keep plugging away. 
One of my favorites is “Friend of Mine,” the story of a retired high school football coach unfortunate enough to have two vengeful ex-students rent the house next door to his.  The young men are as unhappy with their lives as the old coach is with his, but one of them still remembers how the coach often said, “There’s always the day before the day everything changes.” And, although it doesn’t happen like either of them thought it might, that day and the one after it finally come for both of them.
“Incoming Mail,” a series of letters from a mother to her soldier son, is one of the funniest sad stories imaginable, so funny, in fact, that it is at times difficult to remember that the letters are being written by a woman fast losing her mind – and that there is a boy on the other end of the letters who is probably being driven a little crazy himself by what he reads. 
Patrick Dacey
There are few happy endings in We’ve Already Gone This Far.  Most often, the stories do end with the characters in better positions than which they began, but their happiness is all a matter of degree, and most of them settle for happier rather than for happy.  In “Mutatis Mutandis,” for instance, a fat woman who is so desperate to lose weight that she willingly humiliates herself on a reality T.V. show, settles for attracting a new lover.  And then there are the men in “Acts of Love” and “Frieda, Years Later,” one of whom finds a new friend only when he hits rock bottom, and the other who, despite his wandering eye, comes to very much appreciate what he has at home.  “Lost Dog,” though, is a true tragedy.  This one tells the story of three young soldiers who naively wander off into the desert in search of a stray dog that reminds them of home.  Fittingly, this is the last story in the collection, because it is certainly the most haunting of them all.

These are stories about one of the most basic of human instincts, the desire to emotionally connect to others.  It is what, after all, we are all about, and Patrick Dacey reminds us beautifully in this debut collection of just how much we need each other.

Review Copy provided by Publisher