Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sisters of Shiloh

It may have been uncommon, but it was certainly not unheard of for women to disguise themselves as men during the Civil War years so that they might join the fight on one side or the other.  Sisters of Shiloh, co-authored by sisters Kathy and Becky Hepinstall, tells the story of two fictional Virginia women who do exactly that.

Growing up in Winchester, Josephine and Libby were everything to each other.  Josephine, a year older than Libby, was the plain one, a shy little girl who was never quite at ease in the company of strangers.  Libby, on the other hand, was a pretty child so at ease in the world that her older sister easily faded into the background.  It was inevitable that someone would come between the sisters - and that someone came along in the person of Arden, the little boy who invaded the sisters' orchard hideaway when Josephine was thirteen and Libby twelve.

When, despite the pleas of Libby for him not to do it, the newly wed Arden sneaks away to join the Confederate army, Libby finding it impossible to wait at home alone, decides to catch up with him.  Josephine, ever her sister's protector, joins her, but by the time they find Arden at Antietam it is too late to save him from his fate.  Libby, though, is not ready to quit the fight; she wants vengeance and vows to kill with her own hands one Yankee soldier for every one of the twenty-one years Arden lived before dying to a Yankee bullet. 

Kathy and Becky Hepinstall
As members of Jackson's famous Stonewall Brigade, she will get her chance to do exactly that - but only if she and Josephine can make their fellow soldiers believe that they are men - and if Libby does not first slip into madness.  More and more often as the war grinds on, Arden comes to Libby in the dark of night, and what he hints about her sister is not pretty.  He urges Libby to keep killing Yankees but seems equally concerned about making her understand what really happened between him and Josephine on the day he died at Antietam. 

Sisters of Shiloh tells the story of two remarkable women who refuse to accept the roles and places assigned to them by the mores of their time.  Instead, they do what their hearts tell them is right: they take full control of their own lives and experience the defining events of their generation.  Libby and Josephine may be fictional characters, but it is important to remember that there were scores of real women who did the same thing during America's Civil War.  How they pulled it off is hard to imagine, but novels like Sisters of Shiloh offer a glimpse into their world and into their heads. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Does Anyone in Ford Heights, Illinois, Give a Damn?

Phil Kadner, Chicago Tribune
This is just bizarre.  

It seems that in Cook County, Illinois, somewhere near Chicago, sits a poverty stricken little "village" called Ford Heights.  According to Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Kadner, "The village has only about 2,700 residents and is only a couple of miles long."

Here's the bizarre part.  Residents of Ford Heights pay property taxes to the county's library district (over $13,000 last year) but they cannot borrow books from a library.  Any library.  Neither is there one in their village, nor do they have borrowing privileges at any of the libraries in areas surrounding Ford Heights.  

Perhaps even more bizarrely, Ford Heights has a fully-staffed seven-person library board for which residents foot the bill, a board that might be in the process of working out an agreement with one of the other nearby libraries - or not.  The mayor, who sounds more than a bit cavalier about his responsibilities to the people who elected him, sure as heck doesn't know.  According to Kadner again, the mayor said this when questioned,"I don't know.  I don't talk to those people (library board members).  They are very dysfunctional.  I have no dialogue with them at all.  I have no idea what they are doing."

Kadner's column can (and should) be read here.  It is an eye-opening look into what I suspect is local government at its worst.  Kadner is certainly to be applauded for trying to get something done that will allow the residents of Ford Heights full access to a library system they are helping pay for.  Good luck to him on that one.  It won't be easy as long as no one with the authority to make it happen gives a damn.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New Harper Lee Book Cover Revealed by Publisher

It seems that my February 7 post about the cover of Harper Lee's new novel, Go Set a Watchman, was premature because the book's publisher has just announced an entirely different look for the much anticipated novel.

So here's an update:

Apparently, this is NOT the cover of the new book.

This is the new cover announced yesterday.
And, for reference purposes, this is what the original cover looked like.

I do like the "new, new" cover a lot more than I like the one supposedly announced back in early February.  It makes much more sense when compared to the original (disregard that 50th anniversary addition to it).  I like the continuity implied by the resemblance of the two covers and the sixties-feel that both give me.  

So maybe this is the final cover...for sure, it won't be the last bit of news to trickle out between now and July, however.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jack of Spades

This time around, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates (who writes under a pseudonym or two of her own) offers a disturbing thriller about a mystery writer whose pen name starts to cause him problems in the real world.

Andrew Rush, author of twenty-eight highly successful mysteries, is quite pleased with himself these days.  His career solidly established, Rush has earned the respect of readers and critics, alike.  But Andrew Rush has a problem.  His agent and publisher expect him to keep doing what has worked so well for him in the past, and that is not enough for Rush anymore.  Unbeknownst to his wife, children, or even to his longtime agent, Rush has been writing novels under the pseudonym Jack of Spades for a while now – novels that are nothing like the ones he writes under his own name. 

The Jack of Spades novels are so disturbingly dark, masochistic, and violent that Andrew Rush would not even want to be seen carrying one of them around.  They are so strange that public libraries ignore their existence, so bad that when one of Rush’s grown daughters stumbles upon a copy of a Jack of Spade novel in her father’s study, she is repelled by its very existence.   But for reasons he would probably not admit even to himself, Andrew Rush badly needs Jack at this point in his life.  However, not until a local woman accuses him of plagiarism and presses formal charges against him, does Rush realize just how much he needs Jack.

Andrew Rush fears embarrassment and damage to his personal reputation as much as he fears anything in life.  Even though his publisher provides legal representation (and very expensive representation, at that) and assures him there is nothing to be much concerned about, Rush finds it difficult to think of anything but the lawsuit’s potential to ruin his reputation.  The writer, though, is not getting advice only from his lawyer; Jack of Spades is at his ear, too – and is offering him a more hands-on solution to his lawsuit problem.  Now the big question is whether or not Andrew Rush will come to his senses before his descent into utter madness consumes him and those around him.

Jack of Spades is a tip-of-the hat from one writer to another.  Oates makes numerous references throughout the novel to horror author Stephen King, even using King as a very minor character in the story at one point.  King fans are likely to be pleased that Oates even mentions a plot twist or two of King’s that are similar to the general plot of Jack of Spades.

Bottom Line:  Jack of Spades, although somewhat predictable, is a fun ride that fits snugly within the horror thriller genre.  Fans of the genre are certain to appreciate it.

(to be published on May 5, 2015)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is Listening to a Book the Same as Reading One?

Although this video seems to be aimed more at the parents of young readers than at adult readers themselves, most of the benefits of audio books listed here apply equally well to readers of all ages.

Jon Scieszka, author of the Frank Einstein series, and Brian Biggs (illustrator of the books) note that:

  • Listening to audio books help readers learn how to pronounce words correctly, 
  • Young readers can successfully listen to books at two entire grade levels higher than that at which they can read,
  • Readers learn about the pacing of stories by listening to them read aloud,
  • Young readers have a 76% higher comprehension rate when listening rather than reading for themselves, and that
  • Young readers are 67% more motivated to finish an audio book than they are to complete a written one.
I have listened to audiobooks for years, most often during my compute to the office and back (now down to four mornings a week).  But I also depend on audio books to keep me entertained and awake during the long driving days I rack up every summer following my other hobbies: music festivals, baseball, Civil War battle sites, and visiting author homes/museums around the country.  I generally drive around 3,000 miles a summer doing those things, so I have a bunch of hours available to listen to someone read to me.

But for a long time, I did not consider listening to a book to be equivalent to reading one.  It just felt too easy, more akin to watching a math teacher work a problem on the blackboard than working that same problem out for myself.  I was always a little embarrassed, in fact, to admit that my only experience with a book (pick a book, any book) was via audio; it felt too much like cheating.

This year, though, I have had a change of heart.  Probably, because I've learned what genres work best for me in audio format, I have come to fully embrace audio books as part of my regular reading (even down to keeping track of the pages I have "read" in audio).  I believe that my comprehension of certain books really is higher via audio.  That was a surprise. And, God knows, there are dozens of words that I have read in books hundreds of times each that I'm still not sure how to pronounce at loud.  Often, when one of those words pops up in an audio book, I've paused to repeat it half a dozen times before moving on.

So what do you think?  Is listening to a book the same as reading one?  Does it count?

Monday, March 23, 2015

When I Found You

It is possible for the course of a person’s life to be changed in an instant.  Sometimes that change is for the better, sometimes for the worse.  But then there are those times when it is hard to tell which it is.  Nathan McCann, the main character of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s When I Found You, would probably tell you that, in his case, it would depend on which day of the week you asked him that question. 

Nathan, a middle-aged accountant, is caught up in a loveless marriage to an unhappy woman who is only going through the motions of life.  He is not, however, (as he will prove in spades later in the story) the kind of man to give up easily or quickly when he has made a commitment to another person.  For now at least, Nathan’s work and his love of duck hunting help make up for the unhappiness of his home life. 

And then it happens.  While they are on a hunt one cold morning, Nathan’s dog leads him to the tree sheltering a newborn baby clothed only in an old sweater and a perfectly fitting knitted cap.  When, much to his shock, Nathan discovers that the baby is still alive, he drops his shotgun where he stands and rushes the child to the local hospital – where, beyond all odds against it, doctors manage to save the baby’s life.  And, almost unbelievably even to Nathan, his own life is about to change every bit as drastically as the abandoned baby’s life will be changed because, almost out of nowhere, he is filled with an all-consuming desire to adopt this little boy.

Catherine Ryan Hyde
But, that is not to be.  The baby’s grandmother steps up to claim him, and the best that Nathan can do is get her to agree that she will someday introduce her grandson to “the man who found him in the woods.”  Young Nat (who was named after Nathan) proves, though, to be more than the old woman can handle, and one day fifteen years later she does more than introduce the boy to Nathan – she abandons him on man’s doorstep.  Thus begins the rest of Nathan McCann’s life, and it will not be an easy life because Nat will soon vividly demonstrate how he wore out his grandmother and why she dumped his care into the hands of “the man who found him in the woods.”  

The basic plot outline of When I Found You is what compelled me to read the novel.  I was intrigued by the idea of a man who, strictly by chance, stumbles upon the one person with whom he will be most intricately bound for the rest of his days.  I expected a tale of a life saved, and put to good use, by someone who had escaped what was almost a certain death sentence.  Instead, the book turned into more of a cautionary tale with the message “be careful what you wish for”.   When I Found You is interesting in the way that train wrecks are interesting…I looked, but I didn’t enjoy it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Brazenhead Books: Bookstore or Speakeasy?

Owner Michael Seidenberg, Owner of Brazenhead Books
I absolutely love this story, and I'm hoping that my link back to the complete article in the New York Times works for all of you (the NYT only allows a person free access to ten articles per month, so some of you may have already exceeded your personal limits).  

This is the gist of the story.  A longtime NYC bookstore owner has been operating his latest location from his rent-stabilized apartment since 2008.  Apparently, he has been very sly about keeping this bit of information from his landlord for good reason, because now that he has been found out, Michael Seidenberg is being forced to vacate the building by the end of July.

How has he kept the secret while regularly drawing packed crowds to his hidden bookstore?  Does he even live there anymore?  Is Brazenhead Books more a literary salon than a bookstore?  Does Mr. Seidenberg really want to sell his books?  What are he and his regulars going to do, come July?

All this and more, can be found in the Times article.  Just click on the link I provided in the first sentence of this post.  This is cool as cool can be.  

P.S.  (Looks like this is not the only time that Seidenberg has gone public with his story.  This article from July 2014 indicates that the eviction notice came as a result of something that happened around then.  Mr. Seidenberg must have been given a full year to vacate the premises.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Barnes & Noble: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The way my copy looked before I removed the price sticker
Almost unbelievably, it is ANOTHER rainy weekend in the Houston area, and because the baseball games I planned to attend today have all been cancelled, I had time to make a run to a local Barnes & Noble store.  It was a rather uneventful visit with little new stuff catching my eye, but I did find a couple of "bargain books" to bring home with me.

The first is/was a perfect copy of Zadie Smith's 2012 novel, NW, that I've wanted to read for a long time ago.  "NW" is a postal code in London, and when I lived there my code was "TW." I came to understand how different the areas within those code boundaries can be even if they are very close together.  Anyway...I've been curious about the book for a long time, so it was nice to find a first edition hard copy for just six bucks (especially in the condition it was in when I left the store with it).

The second book is a new one to me: also from 2012 it is called Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training and it was co-authored by Colonel Jack Jacobs and David Fisher.  I grew a little nostalgic flipping through the book as it began to remind me of things I had forgotten about my own basic training in 1968 at the Army's Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  Had to have it.

My first surprise (the good one) was that the new bags I posted about earlier this week are already in the bookstores.  When the cashier placed my purchases in one of the new bags, I learned something I didn't know about them; they feature two different books, not one.  Mine has a portion of the first page of Tom Sawyer and an illustration of Tom smoking his pipe on one side, and a selection from the first page of Moby Dick with an illustration of the whale sinking beneath the ocean's surface on the other side.  They really are pretty cool.

My second surprise (the bad and ugly one) occurred when I got home and tried to remove the price sticker from the Zadie Smith book.  Why don't bookstore clerks realize that not all dust jackets are made from the same material?  The price sticker that will easily pull off a slick cover will damage a cover made of rougher (and more fragile) paper.  That's what happened to me.  Suddenly my Zadie Smith dust jacket turned from a pristine one into an embarrassment.  Now I'm ticked.  The "TH" of Smith's name was once dark, dark black on a snow-white background.  Now it's got little white dots on the bases of those two letters and the white background is smudged black.  Just shoot me now, B&N.  It would be quicker than this kind of slow torture.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Trailer of the Week: Suite Française (Movie Version)

I know/think that I have a copy of Irėne Némirovsky's Suite Française around here somewhere, but 20 minutes of searching have not turned it up.  Now I'm hoping that I didn't  inadvertently include it in one of the bags of books I've been bringing to the office for others to plunder on their coffee breaks.  I'm kind of betting that it will turn up here again someday but...

Anyway, while looking for the correct spelling of the author's surname, I found a movie trailer from 2014 that seems to perfectly capture the tone of the novel Némirovsky was working on when taken by the Nazis and imprisoned in the camp in which she eventually died of disease.  

I would love to see this movie (it appears to have just been released in this country last week) mainly because of the scenes depicted early on in the clip depicting the mass exodus forced upon French civilians by the invading Germans.  Roads and train tracks were choked well beyond their capacity when several million people decided to flee the major cities at the same time.  Just imagine how spectacular this would look and sound on a wide movie screen paired with the high-tech sound systems most movie theaters have nowadays.  

I misplaced Suite Franćaise before I finished it, a first for me...and I hope, a last. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

To Dwell in Darkness

To Dwell in Darkness is book number 16 in Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series.  It may be a bit difficult to believe that these fictional detectives have been around for that long already, but it is that very longevity that makes the series so appealing to longtime readers.  Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and his wife Gemma James live complicated personal lives centered on the logistics of making their blended family work, and things seldom stand still for them on the home front. 

This time around, Duncan is dealing with his recent transfer from Scotland Yard headquarters in London to a new job in the borough of Camden.  To all appearances, the transfer is a demotion in both status and responsibility, but because his old boss at the Yard is avoiding him, Duncan has never been given a proper explanation for the change.  If that were not bad enough, Duncan misses his old team in London, and is finding it difficult to warm up to the team recently assigned to him in Camden.   And unfortunately, the new team largely feels the same about Duncan.

But, when a bomb explodes in St. Pancras Station during the afternoon rush hour, Duncan and the new team, be they ready or be they not, must get to work.  Luckily for Duncan, Gemma’s trusted friend and colleague, Melody Talbot witnesses the explosion and ensuing panic and becomes an integral part of the investigation.  This allows Duncan to run two separate investigatory teams simultaneously (one official and one not), and he jumps at the opportunity even though this will leave him open to much second-guessing by his Camden staff. 

Gemma, in the meantime, is managing an unrelated London investigation of her own that haunts her terribly.  She feels certain that she has identified the brutal killer of a little girl, but she does not have the evidence necessary to prove her case.  The killer seems to have thought of everything, but Gemma is relentless in her pursuit of the man. 

Deborah Crombie
As soon as Duncan, Gemma, and Melody learn that some of the victims are close friends of theirs, the investigation becomes personal – and, at the same time, more difficult.  Not only are they charged with finding the group behind the bombing, they have to help their friends deal with its aftermath.  Was this the work of a terrorist group, and will the group strike again, or is it simply an innocent protest gone bad?  And what if it is a bit of both?

Crombie has another winner in To Dwell in Darkness.  She significantly progresses the Kincaid/James family dynamic and, for that matter, the personal lives of all of her main characters in ways that are sure to please longtime fans of the series.  And, in what I hope does not later prove to be a misstep, the author builds the novel to a rousing climax that ends with a dramatic cliffhanger leading directly to her next book.  It is the direction that the cliffhanger seems to be taking the next book that makes me a bit uneasy - but knowing Crombie, she will prove me wrong for having doubting her.