Monday, December 22, 2014

Paw and Order (Mystery Novel)

When I fall in love with a series, I am disappointed when I finish a book in it and say that “I liked it a lot.” I expected more from Spencer Quinn’s Paw and Order, the seventh book in the Chet and Bernie Series. (See my reactions to The Sound and the FurryA Fistful of CollarsThe Dog Who Knew Too Much and To Fetch a Thief.)  I enjoyed the fact that the novel branched out from the earlier books. The setting is Washington D.C., and the mystery to be solved involves politics and has some international intrigue. I liked that the climax of the plot did not follow the same formula as some of the earlier books. I’m glad that Quinn turned his attention to the relationship between Suzy and Bernie. Some of my favorite moments were when Chet professes his love for Suzy, but at the same time resents giving up the “shotgun seat.”

What I did not like about Paw and Order is that it did not totally feel like a Chet and Bernie book. (I will allow that the year since I read the last novel may have clouded my memory a bit.) Chet is not an integral part of solving the mystery. While the story is told from his point of view, I felt that it could have happened without him. And, the story contained too many instances where Chet is hyper and Bernie tells him to calm down. While Bernie has always been a very macho character, he seemed much more violent than I remembered him. He has been known to have a soft side, but it didn’t seem to come out until almost the end of the novel.

I’m not giving up on Chet and Bernie (and Suzy). Paw and Order was still a good story. But, my anticipation for the next novel is not as high as it has been in the past.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café (Mystery Novel)

Kindness. What are books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith about? Why have I read all fifteen books in the series and look forward to reading more? Kindness. In my darkest moments, I need to know that there is kindness in the world. When I am tempted to act sarcastically or snap at someone, I need to be reminded to take a deep, deep breath and to do my very best to be kind. The books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series remind me to do just that. The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, the latest novel, continues on the path of kindness.

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café is really Grace Matekoni’s novel. While Precious Ramotswe remains the main character, Grace is the one who truly grows in the novel. She decides to open a Café that caters to “handsome men,” which reveals so much about her character. She ignores the warning of her shoes, which almost ends in disaster. But the real story is the kindnesses that Grace bestows to the every wayward Charlie and to the daughter of a man working on the café. After fifteen novels, Grace faces her 97% and acts with incredible poise and generosity. (The moment was so beautiful that I was almost in tears.) Grace must also swallow her pride and take the help offered her by a woman who has irritated her in the past.

Yes, Precious has a mystery. She takes on a case where the client claims that an unknown woman, who has no memory of who she is, appeared at his door. He asks Precious to uncover her identity. In the meantime, Precious and her husband try to do what is best for Charlie.

A few weeks ago, in response to some pictures and links that Alexander McCall Smith posted on his Facebook page, I thought “I would love a t-shirt that reads ‘My favorite author wears a skirt’ (kilt).” Maybe those of us who are fans need to wear pins shaped like kilts to signify that we do our best, day by day, to be kind.  In truth, AMS somehow wraps up kindness and finds a way of putting it in a novel.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Imager (Fantasy Novel)

I was searching for a book about imagination when I came across Imager by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. I almost forgot what a joy it is to start reading a new series, watching how the various conflicts and storylines are set into motion. There are so many little presents to unwrap in the novels to come. My dominant feeling was curiosity as I turned the pages.

Imager starts out with Rhennthyl choosing not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a wool merchant. Instead he apprentices with a portrait artist. While Rhenn has some differences with his master and the Guild, he is a very good artist and is almost ready to earn the title of master when tragedy strikes. His master is killed in a mysterious fire. Rhenn wonders whether he unknowingly contributed to the fire because moments earlier, in a moment of frustration, he had imagined the explosion. Unable to find another master to allow him to complete his training, Rhenn explores his ability to manifest things using his imagination. --While an apprentice he had been able to move areas of paintings with his thoughts. – Satisfied that he has talent, Rhenn goes to study with the imaginers, people trained to manifest object with their minds. They are both valued and feared. He quickly advances through the levels, but not without incident. In self-defense, he kills one man and seriously disables another, the son of a powerful man. Rhenn soon is the object of assassination attempts. In addition, other young imagers are being murdered. By the end of the first novel, Rhenn has collected more than his share of enemies. The plotline contains a changing political situation that could lead to war. But, no series is complete without a good love story. Rhenn’s family pressures him to find a suitable wife. He meets Seliora while he is still an artist’s apprentice. She saves his life early on in his career as an imager. While her family embraces him and his calling, it becomes obvious that they have ulterior motives.

The world of Imager feels very real. While it is clearly fictional –it has two moons– it has elements of the Victorian era. The apprentice systems are well thought-out. The actions of the characters are consistent with their environment. So far, I think that I have found a nice series to follow. I have had just enough ponderable moments to fulfill my intellectual needs. I like the characters. The plot is not overly demanding for quick before bedtime reading, yet it is still interesting. As we approach a potentially long winter, I always feel better having a series to set some sort of rhythm through my weeks.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Things a Little Bird Told Me (Non-fiction)

Some of Biz Stone’s words of wisdom from Things a Little Bird Told Me:
If you take an idea and just hold it in your head, you unconsciously start to do things that advance you toward that goal. It kinda works. It did for me.
Real opportunities in the world aren’t listed on job boards, and they don’t pop up in your in-box with the subject line: Great Opportunity Could Be Yours. Inventing your dream is the first and biggest step toward making it come true. Once you realize this simple truth, a whole new world of possibilities opens for you.
Rose-colored glasses tint the world with false beauty. But an open, curious, optimistic mind yields solutions, and has a better time along the way.
Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, offbeat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to greatest works.
I haven’t used Twitter in years. So, when I recently received a tweet, I was a bit clueless. When I went to my local library, instead of finding a book on how to use Twitter, I managed to bring home a book on one of the co-founders of Twitter. I swear I enter an alternate reality every time I go to the Library. When I get home, I often just stare at the contents of my backpack. After five weeks of ignoring Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone, I finally read the book in a long afternoon. Why did I wait? It is a delight.

Things a Little Bird Told Me is a first person account of Biz Stone’s life leading up to the creation of Twitter, during his time at Twitter, and after leaving Twitter. Biz Stone is somewhat of a free spirit. He has been fond of breaking rules that don’t work for him, yet he has a strong moral compass. He understands that technology is really about people. His book is wise, witty, fun, and inspiring.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Novel)

Books. A Mystery. A Secret Society. A Font. Technology. The Singularity. Friends.

Yesterday was my official “be nice to Kata day.” I drank a white chocolate latte, ate a chocolate croissant, and read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Life was very, very good: long, contented sigh. Mr. Penumbra was the perfect book for the day. It falls into many of my favorite categories: “I get by with a little help from my friends,” “Helps you forget your troubles for an afternoon.” “Quirky but likeable characters,” “Down on his luck rises to the occasion,” and “Some things to make you think.” It is a novel with a mystery element to it. The juxtaposition of 15th Century printing with 21st Century technology makes the novel fresh and interesting. It is a novel that was easy to fall into, but when I was done I wasn’t hyper from an adrenaline rush.

Clay is a down on his luck geek who takes a job at a 24-hour bookstore, where he works the nightshift. His job has some odd responsibilities. He is required to keep a detailed log with descriptions of the bookstore visitors. He waits on odd visitors, members of a secret organization to which Mr. Penumbra belongs, who check out books that are written in code. The bookstore has very few actual customers. Clay decides to enlist the help of technology savvy friends to find out what is really going on. His actions change the lives of his friends, Mr. Penumbra, and members of the secret club, as well as Clay himself.

I feel like Goldilocks in the Three Bears: this novel is just right. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is thought-provoking without being too deep. It is interesting without making me pine for a sequel. The book is quirky without being overly silly or being “adult-rated.” It contains a bit of menace without having any real violence. It contains images that dance in my head but don’t haunt me. I guess the big drawback for me is that I don’t know a lot of people who share the same quirky set of interests that I do, who would share my delight in the book. Maybe I need to add still another category for novels, “technology with a big a heart,” so that some geeks can more easily find this book 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Novel October (Scattered Thoughts)

I was more than a little shocked when I recently opened the little Moleskin notebook where I keep a list of all the books that I have finished reading. For the first time in at least five years, as far as the notebook goes back, I had not finish reading a single non-fiction book in a month, October. This from a woman who in 2011 had months in which she finished reading ten novels. What happened? Yes, the whole Pulitzer Prize reading thing took away some of my enthusiasm for reading novels. Yes, for the first time in my life I had cable TV and a DVR. Yes, I read quite a bit of non-fiction. But, no novels at all? What was going on?

Recently I was having coffee with a friend of mine. She was enthusiastically talking, and I was doing a lot of nodding. I like her. The coffee was great. The wall next to us was covered with a collage of interesting photographs. The conversation turned to her concern about a difficult situation. Her actions had the potential to force a person to give up a long-held identity. All of a sudden I heard myself interrupt, “People change identities. It is just part of life.” Uncharacteristically, I felt no sympathy for prodding someone to shed an overly worn identity. I went on to describe some of the highlights of my reading about Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, a man who helped change the way we think about art.

Kandinsky was partially responsible for my lack of novel reading in October. Yes, novels saved my life, but biography can have a powerful influence, too. Book by book the life of Kandinsky has been changing the way I think. Since July, I have read The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock; Kandinsky A Retrospective by Angela Lampe and Brad Roberts; Kandinsky Watercolours and Other Works on Paper by Frank Whitford; and Kandinsky: Absolute Abstract Edited by Helmut Friedel. Each book gave me more of a feeling for the life of Kandinsky. Here was a man who moved back and forth between Russia and Germany and spent his final years in France. Sometimes his moves were brought about by his own interests but other times they were forced upon him by the politics involved in two Worlds Wars. Here was a man who knew great wealth, but he also knew great poverty. His only son died partially as a result of starvation. Yet, here was an artist who continued to evolve his style almost up to the time of his death at 77. Here was a man who thrived as an artist in his fifties and sixties, when many people are coasting in life. Despite having to change identities and experiencing various hardships, Kandinsky became a catalyst for new ways of thinking about art. At a time when I could not bring myself to read one more Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote about the military and war, Kandinsky inspired me.

When all is said and done, I seriously doubt Kandinsky will turn out to be my favorite artist. Kandinsky also had his share of flaws as a human being. But, his life made and continues to make a powerful statement. A few days after our coffee, my friend said to me. “I got. What you said about Kandinsky helped me see the situation in a totally different way.”

So I am back to my routine. Some of my favorite cable shows are on fall break. If I include Nightmare Before Christmas –okay it took under ten minutes to read—I have now finished reading three fiction books for the month, and I have another two from the Library waiting in my backpack. I feel better about trying to read more Pulitzer Prize winning novels with the understanding that I allow serendipity and my long-term favorites to shape my reading choices. And, yes, I brought home a very slim book about Kandinsky.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Living Life in Full Bloom (Self-Help Book)

Living Life in Full Bloom: 120 Daily Practices to Deepen Your Passion, Creativity & Relationships, by Elizabeth Murray, is a book overflowing with heart and practically radiating light. As I turned the pages, I kept thinking about who might enjoy this book as much as I was. Certainly this is a book that gardeners, artists, and those who experience life deeply would appreciate. Something about the book feels like it was meant to be a gift, even if only from the higher part of our selves to the everyday part.

While Life in Full Bloom is promoted as a self-help book, it feels more like a little vacation to a kinder, more thoughtful world. It is filled with art and photos, many of which I could easily get lost in. The book is also filled with stories about people who are living life in “full bloom,” including 92 year-old Betty Peck, who has dedicated her life to cultivating children’s imagination and teaching them about nature. Growing up, Murray was influenced by the Quakers, and it is easy to see how this shaped the book. While the book is beautiful, it does not shy away from sadness and grief, which are a natural part of life. Honestly, I could take or leave the more self-help focused parts of the book. For me, they take away from the overall flow and feel of the book.

Today I am going to reluctantly return my overdue copy of Living in Full Bloom to my local library, which has a waiting list for it. I feel like I am returning from a town where I secretly would like to live. A tiny part of the book has made its way into my consciousness, but I want so much more.

Monday, October 20, 2014

One Person/Multiple Careers (Career Book)

Marci Alboher gives new meaning to the term “slasher.” In this case a slasher is not a character in a horror movie. Rather, it is a person with multiple careers. Even the title of the book is a slasher. “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success;” “How ‘The Slash Effect’ Can Work for You.” This is not so much a how-to or inspirational book, as it is a book about identity. This is an “aha” book: “So, this is the direction my life is trying to take;” "So, this is who I am."

Marci Alboher describes both traditional and non-traditional slashers. Of course, she writes about the parent/career-person and the assorted artists/day-job workers. But, she also describes people who combine two or more unlikely careers. Some of the slashes complement one another, even if it is not first apparent. Other slashes are at odds but are an important part of a person’s life and identity. The book is filled with examples and contains practical advice.

One Person/Multiple Careers gives readers permission to be who they are, slashers. Instead of spending energy trying to choose an identity, they can spend their efforts making their unique combination work. This book is a “must read” for anyone who has been struggling too long with what they are going to be “when they grow up,” no matter what their age.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Legends (Spy Novel and scattered thoughts)

Reading Legends by Robert Littell marked a departure from my usual reading habits. Legends is the first spy thriller that I remember having read. It is also one of the first times I turned reading a novel into part of a larger event. I had just started watching Legends on TNT and was curious about the book on which it was based. So, I saved up episodes to watch until I finished the book, watching the last five episodes back to back last night. The effect raised questions for me about the context of my reading. Do I just want to keep reading book after book, or do I want to see if I can integrate books into a larger experience? In which case, what experiences do I want? What do I want to explore?

Briefly, a “legend” is an elaborate identity created for a spy by the CIA. Martin Odem is that spy. In both the novel and in the television series he is confused as to his true identity. Someone is keeping the truth from him. He is outwardly tough and inwardly fragile.

In the Legends novel, Odem is a detective who has been hired by Stella to find her brother-in-law, Samat, so that her sister can obtain a Jewish divorce. Odem has a number of mysteries to solve. Who is Samat and where is he? Why doesn’t the CIA want Odem to find Samat? They would rather kill Odem than have him find the answers.  At the same time, Odem struggles with his own mental health. Is this merely a side effect of taking on too many legends or does he have multiple-personality disorder? Reading Legends was a relatively fun and interesting experience for me. I enjoyed how Littell wove the different storylines together, putting chapters with different time periods side by side. Odem is a fascinating character. But, what I found most interesting was learning about the end of communism and the role that the CIA played. I just never thought about it, and the novel made it come to life. A German friendly acquaintance of mine has a rather harsh opinion of Americans and their knowledge of World events.

I had a different experience watching Legends than I did from reading the novel. Unlike the novel, Odem is still belongs to the CIA and plays an integral part in missions. The plotline of the series is driven by Odem trying to uncover the truth about his identity. Most of the episodes don’t have clear ending; a couple of times I thought I had fast-forwarded too far. I especially enjoy watching Odem transform into the different personalities. Watching the show made me remember the work of Hal and Sidra Stone, who believe that all of us are made up of different personalities. 

I don’t intend to start reading and watching spy thrillers on a regular basis. But, Legends has been an enjoyable experience for me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Dust Devil on a Quiet Street (Fantasy Novel)

There should be a genre called “haunting and beautiful.” I would definitely put Dust Devil on a Quiet Street by Richard Bowes into that category. While it has some (very) minor fantasy elements –possible ghosts, telepathy, a soul imprisoned in amber, and feline genes – it is more a novel about one man’s life. It is haunting to me not because of any fantasy elements, but because it does such a good job of capturing poignant moments. While the main character is a gay, former drug addict who lives in Manhattan (none of which describes me), most of the time I could easily identify with him. Much of the novel deals with universal experiences: losing friends, aging, coping with tragedy, celebrating friendship, and nurturing the next generation.

Dust Devils on a Quiet Street is written in a style that I am coming across more and more often, a hybrid between a series of stories and a traditional novel. Two of the chapters/stories especially touched me. The first was the opening chapter, which takes place on 9/11. The main character does his best to deal with his own sense of loss, while comforting those who look to him for a sense of stability. The second story that moved me involves the narrator coming close to the brink of suicide and being gently brought back. Be aware that some of the novel deals with the exploitation of young gay men, which while not particularly graphic is disturbing.

I sometimes talk about wanting novels to represent us to future generation, and I think Dust Devils on a Quiet Street does a good job of taking some snapshots of the opening days of 9/11 and of the beginning of the AIDs epidemic. While the novel was nominated for the 2014 World Fantasy Award, I wish it had received more recognition, so that more people would be moved to read it. It certainly touched my heart.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Love Letters (Romance Novel)

The inn had worked its enchantment once again, healing wounded hearts, lifting spirits, blessing all who stayed.
I slept extremely well last night, an odd statement with which to open up a review of a book and an unusual statement from someone who often has problems sleeping. But, the truth is that Debbie Macomber’s novels often have a soothing influence on people, especially me. They are definitely not examples of great literature. The prose is unsophisticated, the conversations unrealistic, the plots simplistic. Yet, in many ways Macomber is a great writer because she is able to touch the hearts of millions of women. Make no doubt about it, I am coming back for more.

Debbie Macomber’s Love Letters is the third novel in her Rose Harbor Inn series and continues where the last novel left off. Jo Marie Rose, the owner of Rose Harbor Inn, continues to cope with the grief she has felt since the death of her husband two years ago. In Love Letters she finds herself more and curious about her handyman Mark, who has become a close friend but remains something of an enigma. Meanwhile Jo Marie has some guests: Ellie, a young woman who is meeting a man she met on the internet; and a married couple, Maggie and Roy Porter, who are trying to heal their marriage. Ellie’s mother has warned her about the potential dangers of meeting the young man, but neither woman could have predicted the surprise he has in store for Ellie. As for the Porters, just when they think they have rekindled their love, it is tested by a potentially insurmountable challenge. In Love Letters, Jo Marie, her dog Rover, and even Mark attempt to heal the hearts of the Rose Harbor Inn's guests.

Macomber takes on some difficult topics in Love Letters. I’m not sure any real person would react the way her characters do, but it is nice to think that they would. The novel ends with something of a cliffhanger, and I plan to see what happens at The Inn at Rose Harbor next year, when the next book comes out.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sunshine on Scotland Street (Novel)

For most of us a discussion about the things that really matter – the fundamental questions of how we are to live our lives and, just as important, how we are to make sense of the lives we live—is a rare event. We do think about such matters, but our contemplation of them tends to be sporadic and darting. And when it comes to talking about them with friends, embarrassment often prevents us from anything but the most superficial discussion.

The above quote from Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith sums up why I continue to read books in the 44 Scotland Street Series and Alexander McCall Smith’s two other major series, the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series. Alexander McCall Smith does dare to talk about “the things that really matter” but no one talks about. Alexander McCall Smith’s books were the ones I immediately thought about when Connie Willis said that books saved her life. These books continue to save me, and I don’t feel so alone in this world. That said, Sunshine on Scotland Street, the eighth book in the series, is also a lot of fun to read.

In Sunshine on Scotland Street a number of characters undergo life changing events. Angus and Domenica get married. Bruce meets his doppelganger. Yet, there is at least one character who chooses not to have their life changed too much. In addition, after a wee too much cheer, Mathew agrees to be filmed for a Danish documentary. And, both Bertie and Angus have some adventures. I’m sure I repeat myself every time I write up my reaction to an Alexander McCall Smith book. So few authors dare to talk about matters of the heart. I am grateful that AMS still does. At some point I know the series will end, but until that time I will continue to look forward to each book. I’ll close with another lovely quote from Sunshine on Scotland Street.

“Goodnight, my boy,” said the Cardinal. “And God bless.”
It was a kind thing to say to a dog, and a good thing. Because the least of us, the very least, has the same claim as any other to that love, divine and human, which makes our world, in all its turmoil and pain, easier to comprehend.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Significant Objects (Short Stories, Social Experiment Book)

Significant Objects edited and partially written by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn has been my lunchtime companion for the last few months. It is an odd little book that I found at Half Priced Books. It almost said: “I’m coming home with you, you know.” I was looking for a book of short stories, and this seemed to fit the description. When I got it home, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe it is a book of short stories; maybe it is some odd hybrid. Yet what it has been is thoroughly engrossing. “So, what do you have for me today, my odd little lunch companion?” I wondered each day.

Significant Objects began as a social experiment. Walker and Glenn acquired over a hundred odd objects: for example, a necking team button, a duck vase, a rooster oven mitt, a seal pen, a motel key. Some were given to them. Some they bought at flea markets or thrift stores for very little money. The editors then asked authors to write fictional stories about the objects. Pictures of the objects and their stories were posted on E-bay, clearly indicating that that the stories were fictional. Part of the experiment was to see how the stories increased the value of the objects.

The book describes the experiment and contains the pictures and stories. The book is not slick. The photographs leave a lot to be desired. Many of the objects are on the pathetic side. But, I enjoyed the stories; many are odd, some touching, some horrifying, most clever. Most of the stories can be read in a minute or two. This odd book is the perfect companion for those odd moments when we just need a tiny bit of entertainment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Fantasy Novel)

That’s the trouble with living things. Don’t last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together….

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth…

Beautiful. What a beautiful little novel. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman so gently touched my heart. The main character as a child reminds me a lot of seven year old Bertie from Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street Series.  Gaiman’s character has that same innocence. Both authors have a talent for looking at life and what it is like to be human. Unlike Scotland Street, The Ocean at the End of the Lane also contains a liberal dose of magic, a bit of horror, and a smidgen of sexuality. The story is deceptively complex, both a simple fantasy and an allegory.

After the narrator returns to his hometown to attend a funeral, he finds himself returning to the Hempstock’s farm. There he remembers something that happened to him as a child. A new boarder had run over his beloved cat. Later the boarder was found dead by suicide. While his father and the police officer were busy, the narrator met the Hempstocks, including Lettie, who is eleven but she isn’t. He learned about the ocean on their property. The death unleashed a magical force. While Lettie promised to keep him safe, something unfortunate happened when he lets go of her hand. The Hempstocks attempted to put things back right. But, they wonder whether they did the right thing.

This image of the ocean at the end of the lane has appeared in my life while I have been exploring a mediation in my real life. The ocean is a perfect and vivid metaphor. As I sat down today, I couldn’t help but think of Lettie and her ocean.

Sometimes I think of the winners of the various awards as representing the world at a particular point in time. I want The Ocean at the End of the Lane to represent us to future generations: burnt toast, fathers and sons trying to understand one another, and magic. And it will. The novel won the Locus Fantasy award and was nominated for the 2013 Nebula, 2014 Mythopoeic, and 2014 World Fantasy Award.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Strange Country (Fantasy/Supernatural Fiction Novel)

There had been a time in her life when the world hadn’t been all that complicated — do the job and get back home. Even if sometimes getting home had been difficult or even dangerous, it was knowable. Doable. Things weren’t that way anymore.
As soon as I started reading the Strange Country by Deborah Coates, I was gone, totally immersed in the story, totally oblivious to my usual ruminations. Strange Country is a sequel to Wide Open and Deep Down. This part mystery, part supernatural fiction novel deals with some of the unfinished business that took place in the earlier storylines, including Death’s proposition to Hallie.

The story opens with Boyd Davies responding to a call about a possible prowler at Prue Stalking Horse’s home. Boyd doesn’t find a prowler, but when he looks around Prue’s home something doesn’t feel right. When they go outside, Prue is shot and killed by a high powered rifle. While searching Prue’s home, investigators find a long dead body and some mysterious stones. The stones are similar to the one carried around by Laddie, an unlucky psychic and a friend to Hallie and Boyd. In the meantime, Beth, Boyd’s sister-in-law and the daughter of Death, shows up at Hallie’s door. And, someone or something is leaving mysterious notes for Hallie, telling her to face her fear. Who murdered Prue? What does her death have to do with events that happened over twenty years ago? What does it have to do with recent supernatural events involving Hallie, Boyd, and others?

Strange Country renews my love of the Taylor County Series --I had loved Wide Open, but had been disappointed with Deep Down-- The rural settling and the characters are almost laid back, yet the plot surges forward. The plot just melts like chocolate or a spoonful of ice-cream, easily creating an immediate experience. While the novel ends with a sense of completion, it keeps open the possibility of more secrets that might lurk in Taylor County or in the lives of Boyd or Hallie.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Old Man and the Sea (Pulitzer Winner)

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is beautiful, sad, and haunting.  The wonderful experience of reading this 1953 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction makes suffering through some of the other winners worthwhile. The story is short, perfect, powerful, and complete.

The old man is Santiago, who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. The villagers consider him unlucky. He eventually even loses his apprentice because the boy's family is concerned that the bad luck will rub off.  So one day Santiago goes out alone and finally catches a fish, a huge marlin, and the two of them dance/battle. The interaction goes on for days, with the marlin dragging Santiago further and further away from shore. In the end, the sea takes its toll on Santiago.

The Old Man and the Sea reminds me of a Native American hunting story, yet it is the story of a Cuban fisherman. Deep in his heart, Santiago know the sea. He feels love and respect for the marlin, referring to him as “brother.” Yet, the story acknowledges the sea's dangers. Santiago isn’t puffed up with bravado. He accepts that he is an old man, yet all his years of fishing have made him masterful.

The Old Man and the Sea touched my heart and changed it. Part of me knows the story is also metaphorical, but I don’t want to think about that. I am content to let the metaphors reveal themselves in their own time.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Anything You Want (Business Book)

When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia.
Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Derek Sivers is filled with advice for an entrepreneur. Often running his business contrary to conventional thinking, Silver created the successful CD Baby, which gave musicians a way to sell their CDs on-line. The book is inspiring and easy to read. Because it is small, it is perfect for throwing into a purse, briefcase or backpack to read in spare moments. But, I am skeptical about how easy the ideas would actually be for most people to apply and be successful. I suspect it would take a person with an unconventional personality, who is comfortable in their own skin. Still, it is well worth reading and pondering.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Caine Mutiny (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

The sea was the one thing in Willie’s life that remained larger than Queeg. The captain had swelled in his consciousness to an all-pervading presence, a giant malice and evil; but when Willie filled his mind with the sight of the sea and the sky, he could, at least for a while, reduce Queeg to a sickly well-meaning man struggling with a job beyond his powers.

If I had read the ending of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk first (as I have sometimes done in the past with books), perhaps it would not have taken me over three months to finish reading the novel. I was seriously considering giving up my goal of reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners. Something within me rebelled against the story. Perhaps, I couldn’t stand yet another war novel. Perhaps I was convinced that at the end of the book a likeable character would be hung for mutiny. Perhaps I am too tired of reading real-life stories of the abuse by people in power. This week, I finally forced myself to finish the last three hundred pages of the 500+ page book in one day. In the end, I appreciated Wouk’s storytelling ability and felt that I had a glimpse of the 1950’s mindset. While The Caine Mutiny is a novel about war, it is also a “coming of age” story.

Even before The Caine Mutiny was a film, it read like a 1950’s movie. It contains the classic scenes of love, bravery, and courtroom drama. The novel takes us from Willie’s first days in the Navy to his last. For me, Willie is sometimes an antihero and other times a hero. What impressed me most about the book was how, scene by scene, Wouk builds the events that lead to the mutiny aboard the Caine, a minesweeper. In the courtrooms scenes, Wouk helps the reader understand Captain Queeg, the captain the men rebel against, as well as the nature of command in the Navy. The courtroom scenes and the conclusion of the novel made me question the perspective I originally had about the mutiny.

I keep on feeling that I am comparing apples to oranges when I compare my experiences of reading the Pulitzer winners to my experiences of reading other types of novels. The Caine Mutiny, the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner,  is a thought provoking, well-crafted novel. My escapist fiction loving personality did not enjoy reading the novel, though toward the end I found my reading rhythm. The Pulitzer winners provide a different type of pleasure, one of experiencing admirable craftsmanship.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Noisy Paint Box (Children’s Book)

“With his noisy paint box, Vasya Kandinsky created something entirely new—abstract art,”
“It took a long time for people to understand.
‘Is it a house?’ ’Is it a flower?’ ’What’s it supposed to be?’
‘It’s my art.’ Vasya answered ‘How does it make you feel?’”

When I attended an exhibit of Kandinsky’s art a couple of weeks ago, a key turned in my mind, opening the door to a wonderful room that I never knew existed.  I wanted to learn more about the grandfather of abstract art.

The Noisy Paint Box written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary Grandprѐ is aimed at primary school aged children. It describes how Kandinsky’s synesthesia led to the creation of abstract art. The words and illustrations help the reader get a feeling for Kandinsky, an experience that is enjoyable for both adult and young readers.

I don’t have a lot of experience with children’s books, but the vocabulary level seemed a bit high to me: “cerulean point,” “Fugue,” “Improvisation.” Perhaps this is a nice book to introduce children to some new art and music concepts.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On What Grounds (Mystery Novel)

When the going gets stressful, the stressed find a fun book to read. I’ve been drinking way too much coffee to get through the day, so it was just natural that I would find On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle. The mystery is the first book in the Coffeehouse Mystery Series. The novel is as much about coffee as it is about a mysterious accident. Inspired by the book, yesterday I drank my first espresso since my college days. And, wired but very happy, I finished reading the novel.

Part of the fun of beginning to read any new series is meeting new friends. The main character is Clare Cosi, who has recently agreed to again manage The Village Blend, an over hundred year old coffeehouse that she left years ago. Madame, the owner, happens to be her ex-mother-in-law. As part of Clare’s contract, she is to be given the use of the apartment above the coffeehouse. She soon finds that her ex-husband Matt, a coffee buyer, is also to have use of the apartment when he is in the city. It would seem Madame’s motives are not totally pure. Clare's living companion is a cat, Java, who earned his name partially because of the color of his fur and partially because of his temperament. Clare and Matt have one daughter, Joy, who is in culinary school. The lead detective on the case in On What Grounds is Quinn, whom Clare feels compelled to rehabilitate from his life-long habit of bad coffee.

As for the plot of On What Grounds, after moving yet more of her belongings to the apartment above the coffeehouse, Clare finds the assistant manager, an aspiring dancer, lying unconscious on the floor of the coffeehouse. Is it a tragic accident or is it something more? Clare, with the help of her ex-husband, attempts to find out the truth. At time the plot seemed to be only a convenient excuse to introduce interesting characters and educate the reader about coffee. But, the novel ended up in fine mystery fashion, with the appropriate plot twists. The digressions didn't take away from my enjoyment of the novel, and I feel fortunate to have found a  new mystery series to take me away from the drama of my own life.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

I Can See Clearly Now (Autobiographical Book)

I Can See Clearly Now is more than a title. It becomes a mantra in Wayne Dyer’s most recent book, a sort of autobiography. Over and over, he describes clearly seeing how events shaped his life and his career. He describes his progression from self-help author to spiritual author. He describes how creating programs for PBS allowed him to take his message to a larger audience. He also describes his forays into promoting new authors, acting, and leading tours.

I Can See Clearly Now helps us better understand the man who is perhaps one of the most influential self-help authors of our time. The book reveals a man with tenacity, whose sheer pluck made his first book, Your Erroneous Zones, a success. He demonstrated that same determination in promoting his PBS specials. The book also clearly shows a man determined to not follow the crowd, to be his own person.

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a fan of Dyer’s. He is such an intrinsic part of the self-help movement that I just automatically read his books as soon as I become aware of them. I listened to I Can See Clearly Now on audiobook. The experience made me step back and look at the man behind the books. I would love to say that it helped me to see clearly how the events in my own life shaped me; it did not. But, what it did do is start me pondering the influences in Dyer’s life and considering whether they had any relevance to my own life.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over (Non-fiction Book)

Many of us have gotten stuck in our lives. We live in a rut and have a hard time believing, in our hearts, that life could be any different. We desperately need something that can help us believe that life can hold new possibilities for us. It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over—Reinventing Your Life Dreams Anytime, at Any Age, edited by Marlo Thomas, could be just the inspiration that many need to again believe in possibilities.

The book contains sixty stories of women who found a new passion after they had already been established in their lives. Many of the stories involve women who launched a new career or who discovered a new avocation. Some involve women who found a new cause. Most of the stories involve a single passion, but a few involve ever-evolving paths. Most of the stories involve women who now are in their forties through sixties. Some of the women discovered their passions out of necessity, others out of a deep sense of dissatisfaction. The stories range from a woman who makes whisky to a woman who encourages people to be organ donors, from a woman who lived out her dream to be a cowgirl to a woman who runs a store that helps plus-sized women feel great in beachwear. Most of the stories involved happy endings, but in a few cases the women had major challenges before the book went to print. As I have thought about the stories in the book, I noticed that most involve a blend of serendipity and dogged determination. As I read the book, I noticed that a part of me whispered, “If these things were possible for these women, perhaps there are new, interesting possibilities for me.”

This is a book to read to be inspired. This is a book to buy to lend to people who feel stuck in their lives. For more inspiration see the "It Ain't Over Till It's Over" page of Marlo Thomas's website.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ancillary Justice (Science Fiction Novel)

“Why is this novel such a big deal?” I wondered as I saw Worlds Without End’s listing of award nominees. As of this posting, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has been nominated for the 2013 Nebula, 2013 PKD, 2014 Clarke, and 2014 Hugo awards and is the winner of the 2013 BSFA. I was more than a little curious. What I found is a novel with a fresh spin on the Space Opera genre. It is masterfully written and does an expert job of world building.

Ancillary Justice is written in the “first person.” Trying to explain that “first person” is not so easy and helps clarify why this novel is so refreshing. The narrator is an “ancillary.” In the world of Ancillary Justice, space ships are artificial intelligences. The physical part of an AI is composed not only of the ship, but also of the ancillaries virtually connected to it. Think of a traffic monitoring system with all the various cameras and monitors connected to it. But in this case the AI is connected to the bodies of what used to be living people, often those conquered by the Radch. The AI can not only receive information through each ancillary, but it can also act through each one; they are an extension of it. In some ways the relationship is also holographic, because each ancillary contains the memories and information of the whole AI. The narrator is both an ancillary known as “One Esk” and what remains of Justice of Toren, a ship that was destroyed. The narrator also calls itself “Breq.”

In some ways Ancillary Justice is a traditional space opera because of the scope the storyline. It covers over a thousand years. It describes an empire, the Radch, whose chief concern is expansion, “annexing” civilizations. The ruler herself has lived thousands of years and at one time can have over a thousand different bodies. Yet unlike most space operas, Ancillary Justice has a very personal story, partially because of the narrator. Breq is not some cold AI, but an individual who likes to sing and repeatedly demonstrates compassion. In the beginning of the novel, we learn that Breq’s goal is to seek revenge for the death of her favorite human, Lieutenant Awn. Much of the early part of the novel involves revealing the circumstances around Awn’s death. To complication matters, Breq discovers and takes care of Seivarden, who as a young lieutenant served on Justice of Toren. She is described as “not one of one of my favorites.” The once arrogant officer from a respected family was in suspended animation in an escape pod for almost a thousand years and is now an addict. Seivarden is both a hindrance and a sidekick as Breq goes about fulfilling her revenge.

Ancillary Justice is touching at moments, interesting most of the time, and even horrifying in a few spots. It takes some of the best qualities of a space opera and combines them with the character development that I associate with a novel that has a less grandiose setting. It works; I loved the book. The biggest flaw that I noticed in the novel is that Seivarden at times, especially near the end of the story, seems a bit of a caricature. All in all, I definitely think that Ancillary Justice is award worthy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Best of Connie Willis (Short Fiction)

I love reading anything Connie Willis writes. Her writing has just the right mix of quirkiness, science fiction, and humanity. I especially find myself thinking about Blackout/All Clear from time to time. Since I have read all the novels by Connie Willis that our well-stocked library system owns, I was delighted when I recently found The Best of Connie Willis, which was released last year. Some of the stories center on themes or characters that are in her novels, a treat for fans. Some of the stories are haunting. Some are wonderfully amusing. All of them are Hugo or Nebula winners. The Best of Connie Willis reminds me of what a wonderful storyteller Willis is.

Both of my favorite stories from the book are on the amusing side. “At the Rialto” is a fun story about quantum physics and a participant at a science conference. Perhaps this is one of those stories that only those of us who are nerds could love. “All Seated on the Ground” combines first contact with aliens and Christmas carols. Does it get any better than that? It brought back fond memories of singing in church and school choirs. I can’t write about the book without mentioning “Inside Job,” because it does such a neat job of answering a paradoxical question, which I can’t write about without giving away the plot.

I didn’t spend a lot of time dissecting the various stories. That would have taken away from the enjoyment for me. But, because the stories are award winners and because I respect Willis’ craftsmanship, I occasionally looked at the stories from an aspiring writer’s viewpoint. Even those brief glimpses expanded my thinking.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Surfaces and Essences (Non-fiction)

Analogies. Categories. Meta-analogies. Etymology. “Ad-hoc” Categories. Lexical Galaxy. Abstraction. Idioms. Parallels between Experiences. Domains. Me-too. Marking. Lexical Blending. Semantic Slippage. Conceptual Proximity. Frame Blending. Naïve Analogies. Words. Concepts. Albert Einstein. Theory of Relativity. Genius.

I almost feel totally comfortable calling Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking one of the best self-help books that I have ever read. Well except, that it is technically not a “self-help” book at all. It is labelled a “Philosophy/Science” book. But it certainly has helped me better understand so many of my experiences and set me on the path to some useful ways of thinking.
Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sanders co-wrote Surfaces and Essences, which has both a French and an English version. As the name implies, the book is about concepts, which on the surface could sound incredibly boring. But, the book is anything but boring. The narrative style is witty. It often uses idioms as a way to describe ideas. The book is overflowing with examples. The first part, for me the most interesting part of the book, talks primarily about language and ideas. Needless to say this is why there had to be a two versions of the book. Later on in the book, there is a discussion of parallel analogies or what creates a “me-two” experience, which for me was not as interesting as the first part of the book. Then, there is a discussion of some math concepts, again not as exciting for me. Finally, the book launched into how Einstein used analogies. At first this seemed like an odd path. But the section actually turned out to have some interesting ideas. The book wrap up is very clever.

Technically the first part of the book fell into the “Self-help” category for me. It definitely will help me be a better English as a Second Language tutor. It helped me look back on my conversations with people with Alzheimer’s in a new light. It helped me understand why two people can use the same words and mean very different things: friend, God, job, professionalism, obscenity, etc. It helped me understand why people with Asperger Syndrome sometimes tie themselves in knots trying to be very precise, yet somehow missing the meaning of a conversation. I also suspect the book will give me some ideas on how to be more creative and a better problem solver.

The book is not intended for everyone, but I think those who are drawn to the idea of concepts will be delighted. Light bulbs will go off and readers will wonder “why didn’t I learn this years ago? It could have saved me tons of frustration.”

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Adjacent (Science Fiction Novel)

For me The Adjacent by Christopher Priest is part novel and part musical composition. Themes and plotlines repeat throughout. Characters reoccur. There are moments of beauty and harmony. There are moments of chaos, especially near the end. At the conclusion everything ties together, and the novel gives the reader a sense of release. I was also left with a mild sense of ambiguity: “What really happened?”

The central theme is the idea of being adjacent. Magicians use adjacency to misdirect the audience during magic tricks. The main character in the novel uses a camera that relies on adjacency technology. The adjacency defense falls into the wrong hands and soon becomes a horrible weapon. Adjacent is also the name of a mysterious shanty town.

The Adjacent has various other themes. Through photography and biography characters attempt to capture “what really happened.” War – WWI, WII, and a possible last war – also take center stage. Characters look for and attempt to give comfort. Characters attempt to find defenses for the weapons of war. Characters respond to the horrors of war. This is a novel that focuses on the human side of life.

One of the sections, while playing a part in the larger storyline, could be a standalone short story. It focuses on the relationship between a plane technician and one of the women who transports planes. She is portrayed as a romantic, heroic character, though in the end we wonder how much of her story is true.

Part of the story has haunted me since I finished the novel. The plotline takes place in the near future, where climate change has left parts of the world uninhabitable. The UK is also being devastated by powerful storms. I was left to wonder “Are the effects of climate change as devastating as the theoretical weapon?”

The Adjacent is only the second novel that I have read by Christopher Priest. I also read and thoroughly enjoyed The Islanders, which has a relatively similar style. Based on these two novels, I am definitely a fan. I am looking forward to reading some of his earlier novels and short stories.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Grace (Eventually) (Non-fiction)

Anne Lamott has changed the way that I look at my own spirituality. Before I thought of a spiritual person as being a kind of “goody goody” or perhaps somewhat mystical, different from the common herd. In Grace (Eventually), Lamott recounts stories from her life that show an earthy, sometimes almost irreverent, side to spirituality. She is wonderfully witty and decidedly liberal. She looks at the spiritual life with honesty, giving the reader permission to both be spiritual and also be lovingly flawed. Since I finished reading Grace (Eventually) a few weeks ago, I have found myself looking at my relationship with The Divine in a new way.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Looking for Jake (Fantasy, Short Fiction)

Almost all the stories in Looking for Jake by China Miѐvelle are disturbing. While I enjoy Miѐvelle’s craftsmanship as a storyteller, I feel unsettled by the content of these stories. He is able to begin with what appears to be a relatively benign setting and add layer upon layer until the reader finds herself in the middle of a horror story. The horror is mostly physiological, with a minimum amount of gore. One story involves installing a vintage mirror, another involves a children’s play area in a furniture store—what could be more benign?— This is definitely not your “fairies going on a quest” type of fantasy. This is the type of fantasy that you don’t want to read before going to bed for fear of the nightmares you will have.

Looking for Jake drove me to reading romance novel to try to clear the images out my head. That said, I admire Miѐvelle’s ability to create something fresh, to weave a story, to invoke feelings in the reader, to build unique and convincing worlds. While I have little urge to read more by Miѐvelle’s, I feel intellectually enriched by what I read.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Blossom Street Brides (Romance Novel)

It is good to be back on Blossom Street, but not great to be back. While I enjoyed catching up with Lydia, the owner of the yarn shop on Blossom Street, Blossom Street Brides by Debbie Macomber is a bit too much of a romance novel for my tastes. Remember, I am not a great fan of romances.

The main story in the novel focuses on Lauren, who has just learned that her sister is pregnant. Lauren yearns for a family of her own but is dating a man who refuses to commit. Finally, Lauren decides to end the relationship. Almost immediately she meets Rooster, the business partner of Bethanne’s husband, Max. Is Lauren truly in love or is she merely on the rebound?

Blossom Street Brides has two subplots that involve conflict between mothers and daughters. Bethanne’s daughter Annie still has visions of a reunion between her mother and father, despite Bethanne’s marriage to Max. Must Bethanne choice between her daughter and husband? Elisa finds out that her nineteen year old daughter, Katie, is pregnant. Can Elisa prevent a repeat of her own, young marriage? Lydia’s adopted daughter, Casey, is having intense nightmares. What can Lauren do to help her daughter?

Lastly, Blossom Street Brides contains a small mystery. Someone is leaving baskets of yarn and knitting needles around town with instructions to spend a few moments knitting a few rows of a scarf that will be given to the homeless. The knitter can bring the completed scarf to Lydia’s yarn shop. The yarn definitely came from her store, but Lydia is not responsible for these mystery baskets. Who is leaving them?

While I enjoyed the subplots in Blossom Street Brides involving Lydia,  I missed the feeling of women’s knitting community that was present in some of the earlier novels. I liked the novel enough to continue to read the series, but not enough to try some of Macomber’s other series.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Rose Harbor in Bloom (Romance Novel)

I am not a fan of romance novels. I just don’t enjoy them. They bore me, and I find them trivial. I make an exception for some of Debbie Macomber’s series. While they seem a bit simplistic to me, they touch my heart and offer insights into the emotional struggles that we all face.

Rose Harbor in Bloom is the second book in the Rose Harbor Series, which centers on Jo Marie and her bed and breakfast. In this novel, she struggles with the possibility of finally knowing whether her husband, whose helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, is dead. Her friendship with Mark, the handyman, continues on its rocky path. Jo Marie also has guests this weekend. Mary is struggling with cancer and with some decisions that she made in the past. Annie wants to give her grandparents the perfect 50th wedding anniversary celebration, while struggling with her own love life.

In Rose Harbor in Bloom, Macomber looks at what makes for a strong relationship between two people. She looks at healing past wrongs and hurts. She also looks at letting go and starting a new life. Rose Harbor in Bloom definitely won’t convert me to being a romance novel reader, but I do look forward to the next novel in the series.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Forever Girl (Novel)

The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith is a story about love. There is no sex. There are no overt mysteries. There are no characters that one follows from one novel to another. There is a gentle book about love: falling out of love, struggling with unrequited love, trying to understand what love really means, and loving one’s children. Part of the story takes place in the Cayman Islands. Alexander McCall Smith brings them to life the same way he brings Botswana to life in the #1 Ladies Detective Series. In the beginning of the novel Amanda realizes that she has fallen out of love with her husband. She briefly entertains the idea of having an affair with a man to whom she is attracted. This brief non-affair has some unexpected consequences for Amanda and her family. Amanda’s daughter, Clover, realizes that she is in love with her best friend, James. Is it true that each of us has only one soulmate? Is love different for men than it is for women? Is friendship and kindness enough if there is no love in the relationship? As much as I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith various series, I am glad that he has been writing some stand alone novels lately. The Forever Girl allows him to focus on just one idea, the human heart. I admit that I got a little weepy at the end. The last paragraph is perfect, totally perfect.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

In the Forest of Serre (Fantasy Novel)

In the Forest of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip is, more or less, a fairy tale. It has wizards, kings and queens, a princess, a prince, a witch, and a beautiful mystical creature. Yet, the novel also contains a mystery that tugs at the back of the reader’s mind as the plot unfolds. Lastly, it has a sprinkling of metaphor.

To prevent war on Dacia, the king agrees to give his daughter, Sidone, in marriage to the prince of Serre, Ronan. The wizard of Dacia, Unciel, is very, very ill. Instead of accompanying Sidone to Serre himself, he sends another wizard, Gyre. But they discover that a witch has cast a spell on the prince.  Furthermore, Gyre proves to be a questionable choice to accompany the princess. Why did Unciel choose him? What caused Unceil’s illness? How can Prince Ronan be returned to his previous self?

Part of what makes In the Forest of Serre more than just another fairytale is the character of the scribe Euan. He has been asked to copy Unciel’s papers into a legible form. As Euan writes the words, he awakens memories in Unciel. Euan’s devotion and humility add a special touch to the story.

In the Forest of Serre also has a metaphoric level. What happens when someone gives their heart away? What are we worth to ourselves? How can we break the spell that has been cast on us?

I started reading In the Forest of Serre by accident, mistakenly believing it was a series of short stories. I am glad that I was treated to this pleasant story.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In the Forest of Serre (Quotes)

The following quotes from In the Forest of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip are definitely ponderable:

You have opened your heart, the book said. Now what will you do?

 …how do I know what I’m worth to me? What would you be worth to you?

Some days you battle yourself and other monsters. Some days you just make soup.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Best of Connie Willis (Quotes)

Over the years books have helped me in so many, many ways, but for the most part I have felt alone in my reading life. So often when I have wanted to talk about something from a book that has moved me, I have been shushed or worse – I have a friend that believes that reading science fiction is a sign of mental illness – Alexander McCall Smith, Debbie Macomber (Blossom Street Series), and Connie Willis are among authors who have repeatedly touched my heart. Near the back of The Best of Connie Willis is a “bonus section”-- which to me is worth more than the price of the book—that contains her Worldcom Guest of Honor Speech and an undelivered Grand Master Backup Speech. These two selections say so much that is in my own heart about books and make me feel that there is at least one other person out there who has a similar experience. I would love to see a slightly edited version of the speeches made into an illustrated book, which those of us who have been saved by books can read over and over again. Below are some brief excerpts:

[Books] saved my life. I know what you’re thinking, that the books provided an escape for me. And it’s certainly true books can offer refuge from worries and despair. …. But it wasn’t escape I need when my mother died. It was the truth. And I couldn’t get anyone to tell it to me…. I found what I was looking for, what I needed, what I wanted, what I loved in books. 

Characters in stories grow up and go off on quests ….. and in the process they tell us about ourselves. They show us what matters and what doesn’t. They teach us how to be human. And tell us how our own stories might turn out.

Books can reach across space and time …. and speak to someone they have never met, to someone who hasn’t even been born when they were written and give them help and advice and companionship and consolation. 

I encourage anyone who loves books to read the speeches in their entirety.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fragile Things (Short Fiction Fantasy)

My first reaction after I finished reading Fragile Things was to wonder why I hadn’t read more by Neil Gaiman.So far, I had only read The Graveyard Book and American Gods. As demonstrated by Fragile Things, Gaiman is a master storyteller. In most of the stories, the details come together in just the perfect way, with a wonderful twist at the end. The styles of the stories vary. Some are more traditional; others are shaped more like poems. One story is a novella. In “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot,” Gaiman tells fifteen microstories. One story won a Hugo; another won the Locus Award. “A Study in Emerald” is a fresh twist on the time-honored Sherlock Holmes tale. “Goliath” is a heartfelt twist on the Matrix. Some of the stories, I confess, I didn’t quite understand. While the stories are from the science fiction and fantasy genres, most of them are thoughtful.

Fragile Things left me with such a good feeling that I want to read more by Gaiman.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Shaman (Science Fiction Novel)

While I am a great fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, I have mixed feelings about his most recent novel, Shaman. It is a rite of passage novel set in Paleolithic France. The greatest strength of the novel is its ability to look at universal themes. In addition, it is well-paced and has an interesting plot. As with the Mars Trilogy, I enjoyed Robinson’s descriptions of the environment. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the accuracy of the description of Paleolithic life. Also, I found myself irritated with the all-pervasiveness of sexuality in the first part of the novel. At the risk of sounding like a prude, enough is enough, aren’t there some other interesting things to describe.

In the beginning of Shaman, a very young man, Loon, sets off on a “wander,” where he spends a period of time alone in the wilderness. It is to mark his official apprenticeship as a shaman. Yet, Loon is earmarked to be the apprentice by default; his deceased father was the true apprentice to the tribe’s shaman, Thorn. Loon’s interests lie elsewhere. Loon goes against Thorn’s wishes and marries a woman, Elga. Her past is a bit of mystery. When another tribe steals her, Loon tries to rescue her, with tragic results. By the end of the story, Loon has agreed to take on the role of the new shaman.

The very opening of the story opens with the words “We had a bad shaman.” The very end of the story could have read “We had a good shaman.” While the story centers around Loon, the reader slowly pieces together why Thorn was a good shaman. It speaks to the universal experience of not realizing how good a teacher or a parent was until they have passed or they can no longer understand the gratitude that we hold in our hearts. The story touches on a number of other universal themes. Most of the story focuses on the universal themes of trying to live up to other people’s expectations and trying to become one’s own person. Another major theme is regret. Thorn is forced to make some very difficult decisions, doing the very best he can in a nearly impossible situation. The decisions literally haunt him to the end of this life. Yet another theme is that of otherness. Are the “Old Ones” human? The individuals kidnapped from another tribe are not considered human. Lastly, there is the universal theme of trying to fill another person’s shoes after they are gone.

Shaman doesn’t describe much that is supernatural. It contains very few instances of Loon or Thorn practicing what we typically think of as “shamanism.” In fact more of the story describes making cave drawing.

While I’m glad that I read Shaman, it is definitely not on my list of books that I would most likely recommend.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Down These Strange Streets (Urban Fantasy Short Fiction)

When I read that Down These Strange Streets edited by R. R. Martin and Gardner Duzois was a book of urban fantasy short stories, I expected something very different from what I ended up reading. I imagined gritty detectives tracking down supernatural bad guys in modern cities. And, in fact, the book does have some stories like that. But, most of the stories are hard to pin down, transcending genres. A number of them are part historical fiction, including stories that take place in Caesar's Rome, WWII Aleutians, Prohibition Era United States, Babylon in its declining years, and eighteenth century Jamaica. Almost all the stories have some element of mystery, but they are not all what I would personally describe as "fantasy." Many of the stories have good plot twists.

My favorite story was "The Difference Between a Puzzle and a Mystery" by M. L. N Hanover. Not only did it have a good plot, but it also gave me a new paradigm to think about, puzzles vs. mysteries. Briefly, an exorcist is brought into a murder investigation to prove or disprove that a suspect is possessed. The exorcist is mild mannered, to say the least. He is even a Unitarian, making him seem even more ordinary. This all sets the reader up for a a wonderful twist at the end. I am new to M. L. N Hanover, so perhaps fans will not be as surprised by the ending.

My runners up for favorites were "It's the Same Old Story" by Carrie Vaughn and "In Red, With Pearls" by Patricia Briggs. "It's the Same Old Story" was a touching story about a friendship between a mortal and a vampire that spans close to 70 years. "In Red, With Pearls" was more of what I expected from an urban fantasy, a werewolf trying to find out why a zombie tried to murder his gay partner. The intensity of the werewolf's loyalty was one of the things that made the story attractive for me.

Down These Strange Streets introduced me to some writers that I had never read before. At some point I would like to read novels by a number of them, including Hanover, Vaughn and Briggs. This book also marks the beginning of what I hope to me a year focused more on short fiction and less on novels. I want to have a better understanding of what makes a good story, and short fiction seems like a good place to start.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Contribution of Outsiders (Quote)

Funny how it's always society's outsiders who create the things that bind society together.

Christopher Fowler in The Invisible Code, referring to Alan Turing

The Invisible Code (Mystery Novel)

Insanity. An Old Nemesis. A Red Thread. Witches. A Mysterious Death. Political Wives. Codes. Secret Weapons.

For me, the Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries by Christopher Fowler get better with each new book. The tenth book in the series, The Invisible Code, is not only a good mystery, but it is also thought provoking, educational, funny, and a great escape from my everyday life. Unlike the earliest books in the series, Fowler clearly establishes Arthur Bryant as the main character, bringing more of his quirks and brilliance to the novel. For those new to the series, Bryant is a loveable curmudgeon, who is long past the age of retirement. He is notorious for using unusual means to solve crimes, including consulting with those associated with the esoteric and the occult.

Early in The Invisible Code, Bryant and his partner May are called into the office of their archnemesis, Osker Kasavian, the head of Home Office Security. Osker is scheduled to give a presentation that could make him the one man in charge of the UK's newly overhauled terrorism security system. But, he has a major problem; his much younger wife Sabira, who has been acting rather oddly recently. She thinks dark forces are trying to harm her. Finding the true cause of Sabira's problems appears to be a perfect assignment for Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Reluctantly they agree to take on the case, with the assurance that that it will benefit the unit. Most of the story centers around Sabira's life and Bryant's attempts to find the truth about her mental deterioration. Fowler takes the reader inside the world of political wives, discusses classism, describes secret codes and describes ways the rich handled insanity.

I was much in need of a mental vacation, and so I spent a day just reading this novel. I especially enjoyed how Fowler laid out the mystery chapter by chapter, enticing me to try and figure out what was really happening. Focusing on Bryant and on Sabira made the story richer, although part of me misses learning about what is happening with the the other members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Perhaps Fowler could write some short stories that focus on some of the other characters. By the end of the story, Bryant had gained a new nemesis, making me hungry for the next book in the series.