Monday, October 05, 2015

Killing Maine

The first time I picked up Mike Bond’s Killing Maine all I really knew about the novel was that it is the second book in the author’s Pono Hawkins crime thriller series.  But because I had read and enjoyed Saving Paradise (the first book in the series) so much back in 2013, I thought I knew pretty much what to expect.  As it turns out, my assumptions were not even close because Killing Maine is a whole lot more than I figured on.

Killing Maine is an angry novel and Mike Bond is an angry author.  Bond is not happy about a segment of the energy industry that declares itself to be environmentally friendly, but in reality destroys the environment, slaughters wildlife, and drives people from their homes wherever it leaves its dirty footprints.  Let’s call it “Big Wind,” because those profiting from the construction of wind turbines to be used for the generation of electrical power are certainly full of exactly that according to Mike Bond and Pono Hawkins, the chief protagonist of Killing Maine. 

Pono Hawkins is a well-known surfer, not only in Hawaii where he lives, but all over the world.  As Killing Maine begins though, he is in Maine, a long way from the Hawaiian beaches he loves so dearly – and he is freezing his butt off.  But Pono is a Special Forces vet, and when any other Special Forces vet needs his help, Pono is going to answer that call.  And that’s why someone is shooting at him today in a remote Maine forest where he is almost as likely to freeze to death as to die from the shooter’s aim. 

Like something out of The War of the Worlds, Maine has been invaded and conquered by the hundreds of gigantic wind turbines that are lined up in rows that make them appear to be marching across the clear-cut countryside.  They are, in reality, spreading so fast that no homeowner in the area is free from their threat – and the turbines are so environmentally unfriendly that no human being, and very few animals, can live comfortably anywhere around them because of the irritating sound tones they almost constantly produce.  Now a man who once saved Pono’s life in combat is in prison, charged with the murder of a Big Wind promoter.  Pono knows that Bucky has to be innocent, so even though he really can’t stand the guy, when Bucky’s wife (a one-time lover of Pono’s) explains the situation to him, he knows he has to help.  His personal honor code leaves him no choice.

Author Mike Bond
Thus begins the second round of Pono’s battle to expose Big Wind for what it is.  But even though he survived his first round with them in Saving Paradise, Pono is going to find it very difficult to repeat that success.  And even if he does survive, chances are good that he will spend most of the rest of his life in prison because Maine’s corrupt cops and politicians are trying to hang every new felony in the state on him while he is there working to free Bucky.

Like the first book in this series, Killing Maine is quite a ride for those who love good crime thrillers.  But, too, like its predecessor, it is much more than just another rousing crime thriller.  This is another of Mike Bond’s environmental eye-openers that will leave readers a lot wiser about alternative energy plans, state and federal politics, and the huge profits that are being stolen from the pockets of American taxpayers by the scam artists who often surround an industry like this one.  I can’t recommend this one strongly enough.  

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Special Memorial to Talent of Alexander Pope

I noticed in The Guardian this morning that the Twickenham area of Greater London has erected a beautiful memorial to Alexander Pope along the banks of the Thames.  It's impossible to tell from the article exactly where the memorial has been placed, but I'm hoping it's along that beautiful stretch of the river that I came to know so well (I lived just a stone's throw from the Richmond Bridge that crosses from Richmond into Twickenham).  I'm going to picture it there in my mind, anyway - at least for now.
The home of English rugby will be stirred “by tender strokes of art” as well as sport, following the installation of a new sculpture on the bank of the Thames celebrating the work of Twickenham’s most famous former resident, Alexander Pope.
Based on an urn designed by the poet for the garden of a friend in the Midlands but since destroyed, the 8ft sculpture features Pope’s famous lines from Epistle IVin which he exhorts readers to “Consult the genius of the place in all”, a maxim that is still a guiding principle in garden design today.
I love that the article mentions that Twickenham is the "home of English rugby" because I absolutely fell in love with the sport while I was in England.  I attended often attended matches at the big stadium and other smaller ones in the neighborhood and, to this day, I still try to keep up with the sport.

Special Note to my British friends:  If anyone can tell me more precisely where along the river in Twickenham this is located, I would much appreciate it.

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Thursday, October 01, 2015

Chicago Noir: The Classics

Chicago Noir: The Classics is my ninth experience with the wonderful Akashic Books series of noir short stories since I discovered them a while back.  In addition to this Chicago collection, I have enjoyed the books set in Manila, Belfast, Long Island, Boston, Mexico City, the Lone Star state of Texas, Providence, and one set entirely inside prisons.  I was particularly interested in getting my hands on Chicago Noir because that city’s reputation for political corruptness is the first thing that many people think when they hear the word “Chicago.”  Even the book’s editor, Joe Meno, stressed that reputation in his introductory comments:

            “Only in Chicago do instituted color lines offer generation after generation of poverty and violence, only in Chicago do the majority of recent governors do prison time, only in Chicago do the dead actually vote twice.  With its public record of bribery, cronyism, and fraud, this is a metropolis so deeply divided – by race, ethnicity, and class – that sociologists had to develop a new term to describe this unfortunate bifurcation.  As Nelson Algren best put it, Chicago is and has always been a ‘city on the make.”’

But all that said, the stories in Chicago Noir seem to stretch the definition of “noir” to a greater degree than any of the other collections I’m familiar with.  Granted, these stories are labeled as “The Classics,” and some of them are decades old, but I found myself wondering several times whether they really fit in this particular collection. 

Author Richard Wright
There is, for instance, a wonderful story from 1945 by Richard Wright called “The Man Who Went to Chicago.”  While this is one of my two favorite stories from the entire collection, I struggle to fit it within the confines of my personal definition of the term “noir.”  It takes place entirely within a Chicago Medical District research lab, and the only crimes committed are an aborted knife fight that causes damage to the lab and the workers’ decision to cover up the fact that the resulting damage ruined the research studies being conducted there.  It is “dark” only in the sense that it exposes the horrible racial discrimination so common to those times.

Author Fredric Brown
Now, my other favorite story from Chicago Noir: The Classics leaves no room to doubt that it belongs in any collection of noir fiction.  This one is called “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen,” and it was written by Fredric Brown way back in 1948.  The story is brutal, has a couple of unforgettably duplicitous characters in it, and the most shocking ending of any story in the entire collection.  It is only the second time I have read Fredric Brown and it is enough to make me search for more of his work.

As in most short story collections, the stories in Chicago Noir: The Classics are a bit uneven.  Perhaps that is purposeful and done in hopes that there is something in the collection that will appeal to everyone who picks it up.  If so, that might be a legitimate reason for packaging them together.  But a couple of stories were so formulaic that I wished I had not bothered with them at all.  It’s as if they were written to “spec” even though they were from 1995 and 2009.  But overall, this is a worthy addition to the Akashic Books noir series, and I am happy to add it to my collection.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Pavement Bookworm, Part 2

I first posted about Philani Dladla (aka The Pavement Bookworm) back on August 28.  In case you didn't see that post, here's a quick link to it for your reference.

As you might recall, Dladla is a young South African who found himself homeless and addicted to drugs...nothing unusual about that story.  But what makes Dladla special is that he used his love of books as a way to pull himself back together and, more importantly, to help a whole lot of other people in the process.

It's a great story, especially if you follow the links and watch the videos associated with Dladla's journey.  And, in that first post, I mentioned that the 24-year-old was working on a book of his own, a memoir explaining just how he became the man he is today.  Well, GoodNewsNetwork tells us that Dladla's memoir is going to be released in late October by South African publisher Jacana Media.  The book, aptly titled The Pavement Bookworm, does not appear to be available for pre-order in the U.S. - at least at the moment - but it's one worth watching for.

Book details
  • The Pavement Bookworm by Philani Dladla
    EAN: 9781928337003

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Printed Books Are Still Popular

I spotted an interesting article from Shreveport Times columnist Gary Calligas this morning.  In it, Mr. Calligas, who publishes a free monthly magazine for "mature adults" and hosts a Saturday morning radio show aimed at the same audience, talks about his fear that the youngest generations are now doing pretty much all of their reading on one electronic device or another.  According to Calligas, and I agree with him here, such youngsters are completely missing out on the more tactile pleasures associated with reading a book - pleasures that they will never even know they are missing unless someone makes sure that they get a few physical books in their hands before it is too late.

He greatly encourages grandparents (many of whom personally know nothing of the advantages of electronic reading) to buy books for their grandchildren - books they can discuss with them and enjoy together, no matter the age of those grandchildren.  He goes on describes what he saw at a local library sale:
"I was so happy to learn many seniors who were grandparents or great grandparents buying printed books for their grandkids. I know their grandkids are going to be thrilled about receiving them for an upcoming special occasion. One gentleman told me his grandson needs to learn more about American and World History from other sources than what they are teaching in school. So, he added these books will give him the opportunity to talk with his grandson about those certain times in history and to comment on their importance."
In fairness, Mr. Calligas does mention that many young people are driven to reading e-books more as a matter of convenience and lower pricing than for any real pleasures to be derived from electronic reading itself.   He is quick to point out, too, that he has tried reading e-books and neither enjoys reading them or finds the process to be an easy one.
Gary Calligas

All of the author's points are well taken, but I do think that most of us these days, young people included, tend to read both e-books and tree-books.  About one-third of my own reading, for instance, is done via a Kindle or an iPad app allowing me to access my e-books.  On the other hand, my youngest grandson, a seventh-grade student, does his reading exclusively with physical books.  He loves the heft and feel of the books he's reading and especially enjoys collecting them in series.  I enjoy the convenience of having a large number of books on one device without having to worry about finding shelf-space for them all.  (When I want to add a book to my permanent collection, I buy a physical copy even if I have already read it electronically.)  I realize that this is only anecdotal evidence, but I've noticed the same reading habits in my granddaughter, a high school junior who much prefers physical books both when it comes to reading for pleasure and when it comes to reading for study - as I well know since I'm the one financially supporting most of her reading.

Personally, what I'm seeing is that the market share of e-books may have very well peaked for now.  E-books will always be around, and they certainly have their advantages, but at least for now, the very existence of the physical book is not being threatened - despite all the dire predictions otherwise that were so common just three or four years ago.  And that is a wonderful thing.  

These are wonderful times for readers.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Twain's End

I started reading Mark Twain when I was about twelve years old, and over the decades I have come to read a substantial portion of his novels, essays, and other writing, including even his very long “autobiography.”  Too, I have read collections of his letters, biographies, and books about his books, so I was already pretty much aware that Mark Twain’s personality often bore little resemblance to that of Samuel Clemens.  But still, I was unaware of the scandal involving Clemens and Isabel Lyon until I read last year’s nonfiction account of it in Laura Trombley’s Mark Twain’s Other Woman (one of the many books used in Lynn Cullen’s research for Twain’s End).  So when I heard about Cullen’s new novel about Twain’s dedicated effort to ruin the reputation of his longtime secretary, I was eager to get my hands on it.

Twain’s End can certainly be read straight through like an ordinary novel, but it might be more meaningful if one starts with the author’s presentation of her impressive research sources and techniques.  Best of all, Cullen shrewdly uses excerpts from Isabel Lyon’s actual diary as the basic, chronological structure of her novel.  Then, with the basic facts established, it is up to Cullen to speculate about the motives, hidden agendas, personalities, newspaper sensationalism, and half-truths that inevitably shadow a scandal of this nature.   And what Cullen “reveals” about Mark Twain, Clara Clemens, Jean Clemens, Olivia Clemens, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and John Macy is not often pretty.

Sam Clemens originally hired Isabel Lyon as the personal secretary of his ailing wife, but in reality, even from the beginning, she served more as secretary and manager of the day-to-day affairs of the entire Clemens family.  The Clemens family was not a happy one when Lyon entered the picture, and it was certainly not a happy family when she left it.  One daughter, Suzy, was dead; another, Jean, was in and out of asylums; and Clara had a volatile relationship with her overprotective father.  And sadly enough, Olivia Clemens strongly suspected that her husband was physically attracted to his secretary. 

Author Lynn Cullen
Twain’s End is the story of the slowly evolving relationship between Sam Clemens, Isabel Lyon, and Clara Clemens.  As presented by Lynn Cullen, the relationship may have been slow to develop, but it was an inevitable one that finally ran its course because Isabel Lyon was patient enough to bide her time.  In the end, however, Lyon’s dreams were frustrated and denied her.  And when she finally gave them up and married a younger suitor, Clemens cut her off, accused her of embezzlement of his personal funds, and made a concerted effort to ruin her reputation and life.  No one, not a single person, in this sordid story exactly covers himself with glory.

Twain’s End will be of interest to Mark Twain fans yearning to know more about what made the man tick.  I enjoyed much of the story, but found that it left me wishing that more time had been spent on the embezzlement aspect of the relationship and a good bit less on the “romance” itself.  My biggest surprise was the side plot involving Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and Sullivan’s cad of a husband, John Macy.  That’s a story (and a side of Keller) that I want to explore more in my reading, so here’s hoping that Lynn Cullen writes a novel about that trio next.

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Banned Books Week (September 27-October 3)

How many of these do you recognize from the bits you can see?  How many have you read?  This is the kind of bookstore display that vividly portrays the utter stupidity behind the whole concept of banning a book...any book.

(You can click on the image to get a larger picture.)

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Edgar Allan Poe Open Casket Photo

I suppose that some will consider this photo to be more than a bit morbid, or even in poor taste, but I find myself fascinated by it ever since I stumbled upon it yesterday.

The photo is said to be of Edgar Allan Poe's open casket after his body was prepared for burial.  I think what fascinates me is the shocking realization of just how young this wonderful author was at the time of his death.  He died under a cloud of mysterious circumstances that I'm not sure have ever really been cleared up.  I, of course, knew he died at age 40, but he looks so young here that it really hits home on how much fine writing the world missed out on.

Now the BIG QUESTION: does anyone know if this picture is real or if it is just another internet hoax?  I am very skeptical about things I find on the internet but have been unable to find any information about this specific picture.  Thanks for any comments you want to offer.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Hot Countries

Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series hit the ground running in 2007 with A Nail Through the Heart and it has never slowed down.  And with the October 2015 release of The Hot Countries, the seventh book in the series, Poke Rafferty fans again have reason to celebrate. 

Longtime fans will already know this, but for the uninitiated, I’ll give a little basic background about Poke Rafferty and those closest to him.  Poke is a semi-successful travel writer whose travel guides are a bit offbeat in the way that they sometimes focus on the seedier sides of the cities he is exploring – and that’s exactly what he was looking to do when he came to Bangkok.  But along the way, life happened.  Poke is now married to Rose, a former bar girl, and they are living happily together with Miaow, their adopted daughter.  (Miaow, who was living on the streets when Poke spotted her, is probably my favorite character in the whole series.)

But Poke is more, much more, than just a travel guide writer.  The man is a born fixer, and he does not mind getting his hands dirty.  When he sees someone suffering at the hands of others, he wants to fix it – and with the help of some friends he usually does just that.  Poke’s most important “helper” is Arthit, a high-ranking Thai policeman, who also just happens to be Poke’s best friend.  The relationship between these two strong men has, in fact, been a beautiful thing to watch as it has developed and deepened over the seven books.

But now, in The Hot Countries, everyone closest to Poke is being threatened by a mysterious stranger who wants two things from Poke and will gladly kill any number of innocent people if it forces Poke to give him what he wants.  But there are two problems: Poke does not even have one of the things being demanded of him, and he will be damned if he will give up the other one.  And so it begins.

Author Timothy Hallinan 
But as the bodies begin to fall and he ever so slowly closes in on the man responsible, Poke will get some help from the unlikeliest group of heroes imaginable: a bunch of seedy old men who came to Bangkok decades ago strictly to enjoy the city’s wide open sex trade.  Now, what’s left of these men spend their days and nights hanging out at the Expat Bar, where they do their best to pretend that they are still the young, virile men who first sat on one of those barstools so many long years ago.  And who knows?  Maybe they do still have a little gas left in the tank after all.

Hallinan, in one paragraph, captures the sad essence of these men.  Here is part of that paragraph:

            “One night on Patpong around 3 a.m., exhausted, half drunk, and unwilling to return to the home he hand turned into a shrine to her (the Thai woman he was still in love with) he walked into a tiny place called the Expat Bar.  And he stayed for forty-three years.

Getting old.” 

The ending of The Hot Countries achieved something that rarely happens to me when I am reading: it left me with a tear in my eye.  I am a fan of series writing because of the way the good ones so fully develop not only the main character, but also several supporting characters.  I have read in and out of many crime fiction series since the eighties, and a few of them are so remarkable that they have become longtime favorite books of mine.  The Poke Rafferty series has earned its place among this select group.  I look forward (and hope) to be reading more Poke Rafferty stories for a long, long time.

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