Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Vacation Reading

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The first thing I do when we plan a vacation is pick out the books I’m going to take along. Then I change them about a dozen times before settling on a final collection.

I don’t have a particular style of book I want to read when on holiday — I’ve taken everything from Fielding’s Tom Jones to Lee Child thrillers along for the ride. In fact, I like to really mix up my genres. But I do have a fear of not having something on hand to read, so for a two-week trip I’ll usually pack seven books. And I’m often on that very last book on the way home. I sure wish I had that much time to read at home!

My vacation books all fall in the read-and-release category, however. After I finish a book I leave it at the B&B or on the cruise ship or in the airport or wherever. That means I never carry books that I think I might want to add to my permanent library.

Most of my vacation books come from Friends-of-the-Library sales or estate sales. FOTL sales are a great resource for gently used books at bargain prices. I stumbled across my first one in Hot Springs, Arkansas and came away with three boxes filled with books.

What makes these sales extra wonderful is that all the folks there — both volunteers and shoppers — are avid book lovers. That means you can get great recommendations on new authors with ease. The books themselves are usually a combination of library discards and books donated by library patrons. And, since the funds raised go to support the library, you’re doing good while doing pretty well for yourself.

Of course, I’ve gone overboard with these sales and now have a closet literally filled with books to chose from come vacation time. It’s an embarrassment of riches, but when someone recommends a book (and it’s a bargain) I can’t resist picking it up.

Fortunately, one of the best thing about books is that they never, ever go stale.

Getting Your Thrills

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

In the last two months I’ve read four thrillers. One of them I reviewed here on February 3rd, if you want to look back (The Paris Vendetta by Steve Berry). Another one I mentioned — not very favorably — on my “What I’m Reading Now” page of this site (The Genesis Secret by Tom Knox).

The other two I read were James Rollins’ The Altar of Eden and Douglas Preston’s Impact.

All of these have something in common: there is a scientific, historic, or religious (a la Dan Brown) element that is central to the plot and the thrills. I have a particular fondness for thrillers like these because they send me to the Internet to find out more  about things presented as fact and if there is any reality behind theories presented in the plots. I love learning new things.

But these authors are all very different as well. With James Rollins, I find the truth in his novels far more frightening than the plot devices he invents. Seriously. I still cringe every time I think about the very real radioactive lake in one of his other books that’s located right over earthquake fault lines: one good shake and those waters could wind up in the North Sea, making a lot of Northern Europe unlivable. Just another terrifying tidbit from one of Rollin’s thrillers. Conveniently for your nightmares, he identifies all the facts in his novels at the end.

In his newest book, Rollins gives his usual saviors-of-the-world, Gray Pierce and the Sigma Force, a rest. Personally, I enjoyed the change of characters; but I’m not by any means tired of his usual cast. I do wonder if he or his publisher felt this change was a risk, though.

On the other hand, Douglas Preston delivers the most unpredictable thrillers — and I mean that as a compliment. His newest thriller has mysterious meteor-type-thingies making holes right through the earth. The book before that centered on a machine built to talk to God and a crazed religious zealot determined to stop it at all costs. There is one central character in common, but that’s it. You just never know where Preston will find your thrills next.

Of course, Preston also writes with Lincoln Child, producing (among others) seven straight books featuring the fascinating Special Agent Pendergast, easily the most peculiar mystery solver this side of Sherlock Holmes. So you could say he has the best of both worlds — and so do his readers.

Like Rollins, Steve Berry centers most of his books around a regular cast of characters, starring Cotton Malone, a former Justice Department Operative who theoretically runs a bookshop in Copenhagen but is glad to take time out to save the world repeatedly. Berry likes to build his plots around some long-lost thing or secret, sometimes giving it some sort of super power that appeals to evil types.

One Berry trait I find amusing: He always manages to have a gun battle in a church or cathedral. He claims there is no subtext to this, there just happen to be more really old religious buildings than other structures. Well, he has a point there.

Who is my favorite? Of the current new releases, I lean just a bit more towards Preston. But I won’t miss a new release by any of them and squeeze in the older ones I haven’t read  whenever I find time.

That’s how I like to get my thrills. And at the same time pick up a lot of interesting information. What could be better than that?

“I want to read more books like that one.”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

When you find an author you absolutely love, you start gobbling up every other book he or she has out there like potato chips. Well, I do anyway.

So what do you do when the last book is read and the next one hasn’t come out yet?

You probably try to find other authors with a similar writing style in the same genre. Of course your best source for new writers is friends who love the same books you do. But I’ve come across a fun alternative online:

Gnod – The global network of dreams

This “learning” website recommend authors based on your likes, gives you a chance to join discussions about authors (though these tend to be rather lame and not worth anyone’s time), and can create a Map of Literature around any author you wish. Basically Gnod takes your favorite authors and the favorites of others who have visited the site and places their names in a galaxy of writers. The author you enter is at the center and surrounding it are numerous other writers. The names closest to your author are most likely to be read and liked by people who also liked your author.

That doesn’t sound very clear in words but is crystal clear visually, and it is fun to do. You can also click on any author’s name in that galaxy and a new galaxy will form with that writer at its center. The author’s names always take some time to settle into place and it’s rather fascinating just to watch.

Want to try it out? Just click here.

Oh, yes. It also does the same thing for music and movies. I think you’ll enjoy a visit. You might even want to bookmark the site. I did.

Dan Brown Does It Again.

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

I just finished The Lost Symbol, and once more Dan Brown has pushed my use of Google into overdrive. I kept paper and pen with me while reading just to write down the things I felt driven to learn more about — there are 19 items on the list, ranging from art works to fields of science. One thing for sure, Brown sure expands my knowledge of arcane subjects.

This is no review, by the way. What’s the point? But I did find a great article about Brown and his books in the UKs Telegraph that you might want to visit by clicking here. Among other observations, it shares his writing secrets, some of which are the same things that irritate certain critics.

The Lost Symbol is far less likely to draw the ire of the Catholic Church. I’m not so sure how the Masons will feel about it. The US Capitol Building and Washington Monument can expect tourism boosts, not that they need the publicity. Expect to see parasite books in the immediate future about Masons as well as the buildings and imagery of Washington, D.C. Expect some people to immediately call for the removal of certain public artworks that no one even paid attention to before.

Did I like the book? Anything that sends me in search of more information is a winner for me. So, yes.

Will you like it? If you liked The Da Vinci Code I can’t imagine why not.

‘Nuf said.

A Thrilling Duo: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

The Short Take: 

If you like your thrillers with a touch of the macabre, the books of Preston and Child are custom made for you. Particularly the ones featuring the eccentric FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast.


For me, Agent Pendergast is one of the most fascinating mystery solvers of the last 20 years. While he is supposed to be a FBI agent, he seems to do exactly what he pleases with little or no supervision. Unbelievably rich, emotionally flawed, and totally brilliant, his past is a Gothic as his present is dramatic.

Pendergast was introduced in Preston and Child’s first collaboration, The Relic. For some reason the authors chose not to develop him further for their next six books. But in their seventh collaboration, The Cabinet of Curiosities, he took center stage with a vengeance and has never turned it loose. He’s been the central character in their last six thrillers, with the seventh, Cemetery Dance, scheduled for release on May 12th.

It’s best to read them in order, starting with the above mentioned The Cabinet of Curiosities. They aren’t all of equal merit, ranging from “can’t put down” to “pretty darn good.” But if you enjoy mystery thrillers where the action depends less on guns and chases than it does on brilliance and the bizarre, I simply don’t think you can do better than this dangerously prolific duo.

Want to know more about them and their books? Just click here.

Back from Vacation

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

I’ve been away for the better part of three weeks. You might think I would use that time to read new, just-released books. Wrong. I packed my bags with a bunch of oldies — including one that was first published around 250 years ago.

Anytime I travel I follow a “read and release” policy: After finishing a book, I leave it behind for someone else to enjoy. My office closet has a whole area devoted to books I pick up at secondhand stores or other discount sources. One of my favorite parts of packing is selecting my reading material — there’s much to chose from and variety is key.

This time I selected:

“The River King” by Alice Hoffman: Very typical of her work — which you either love or hate. I just really get into the way she uses natural imagery of flora and fauna in such an unnatural and magical way. Men beware: her books are very girly. (Sorry, Amazon offered no link for this book.)

“Shadowfires” by Dean Koontz: I get more comments from fellow travelers when reading Koontz than any other author. They always want to know if I have read some other book of his. Unfortunately I have a hard time remembering the titles. In fact, once I started this thriller I had a sneaky suspicion I had read it already. Nothing was familiar however — until the end. Oops. I need to start a “previously read” list on Koontz. Problem is, I’ve read so many but am not sure exactly which ones those are.

“Original Sin” by P.D. James: Another “previously read” mistake. But I recognized this mystery from the first sentence. Oh, well, someone else will get to enjoy it. I do keep a list of previously read P.D. James books, but hadn’t written this one down. Any list is only as good as its maintenance. I do love P. D. James, however. Her mysteries are so smart.


“The Secret Supper” by Javier Sierra: I had heard it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t. This is a genre I enjoy, too. Maybe a lot was lost in translation.

“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel” by Michael Chabon: Interesting, but not near as good as his more recent titles.

“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” by Henry Fielding: Actually, I haven’t finished this one yet — it has close to 900 pages long in my 1950s era paperback edition. Small print to boot. This probably wasn’t the best choice for vacation reading, but it is a major hoot. Very, very funny in a low key, satirical way. I know I’m missing a lot of the humor involving other authors of Fielding’s time and it is easy to get impatient with the constant digressions into philosophical discussions, but it’s well worth the time invested.

I brought a couple of others just in case — I can’t abide being without a book. They’ll go back into the closet for another time. 

And now it’s back to reviewing new books. I’ve got one all ready to go up in a couple of days.

The Southern Festival of Books, Rick Bragg and Other Wonders

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending The Souther Festival of Books in Nashville, TN. I say “privilege” because this amazing event is free. Literally (and literary) more than 200 authors speak at this event which takes place in the environs of the Tennessee State Legislature.

I won’t make the obvious comment about the difference between the usual posturing and hot air you would find in that place as opposed to the second weekend in October. Oops. I guess I just did.

Ann Patchet, Richard Price, Sherman Alexie, and David Wroblewski were just a few of the very well known writers in attendance — all of them reading, talking, and signing. The only problem is that with such riches, you can only attend one session at a time. That often meant there were as many as 10 other sessions you were passing up.

I made a couple of poor choices. One biographer of an incredibly fascinating revolutionary was so boring his audience was drifting to sleep, despite the most uncomfortable chairs in the world. But some choices were sensational.

I made a point of sitting in on David Fuller’s session since I so recently reviewed his excellent Sweetsmoke. He was completely charming, very informative, and quite respectful of his audience. I regretfully came in late for Mark Winegardner’s talk about writing the sequels to The Godfather, but that was certainly eye opening.

However, I must save top honors for Rick Bragg. I heard him talk around a decade ago and he tore my heart out. He still does that, but he makes you laugh out loud as well. After reading his All Over but the Shouting, I permanently deleted the derogatory three word phrase often used to describe financially deprived Caucasians from my vocabulary. I felt ashamed to have ever used it. Bragg speaks for the rural poor, who are so largely forgotten in America. And he does it with such eloquence and grace you cannot help but be changed. Read him. Enlighten yourself.

And, make plans now to go to the Southern Festival of the Book next year. Bookmark this for updates.

Don’t Know Much about History

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

When it came to history, I was an “A” student from grade school through college. But I really didn’t gain much knowledge. Dates, treaties, political figures stayed with me long enough for testing then slowly evaporated.

Since then, I’ve read many histories and even more historical novels (which send me running to the Internet for historical confirmations). I’ve come to the conclusion that my formal education in history was largely a waste of time: we were taught for easy testing not for real understanding the powers at play during any historical era. I suspect the situation has not improved with today’s even stronger emphasis on test scores.

That is just a terrible shame. With no knowledge of the complexities shaping our past it’s practically impossible to truly understand what’s going on now.

For example, take our Pilgrims. From school days you might recall the Mayflower Pact, Plymouth Rock, hardship, Thanksgiving,  and maybe even Squanto and corn. That’s probably about it. Too bad. The true story of the Pilgrims as revealed in Nathaniel Philbrick’s fascinating book, Mayflower, is disturbing as well as inspiring.  Just making the Mayflower voyage happen is an adventure in itself. Squanto becomes merely one native player among a dizzying number of tribes the Pilgrims both need and fear. Pilgrim leaders are sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, and sometimes outright cruel.  Philbrick’s fully fleshed out history gives you a better understanding not just of the 50 or so years it covers, but of American history since then.

His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis brings amazing revelations as well. Did you know that Washington virtually started the so-called French-Indian War by himself? He certainly had no winning record before he was chosen to lead our Revolutionary armies.  It’s just incredible to learn about the real man behind the legendary  (and not true) wooden choppers.  He had the charisma of a rock star wrapped up in the dignity of a… well, President.


Of course, when it comes to world history, most of us had zero exposure to anything that didn’t happen in the Middle East or Europe. Fortunately, there’s an easy and even fun way to take care of that, thanks to Larry Gonick.  His Cartoon History of the Universe 1, 2, and III (I don’t know why the change from Arabic to Roman numerals) literally covers  everything from the Big Bang onward, including  historic events on every continent.  Written with wit and humor, you gain a true world-view that gives you a much better understanding of today’s complexities and conflicts.  If you don’t want to go back to the beginning, at least try Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U. S. Constitution. It puts American history in context with what is going on in the rest of the world. I bet your high school teacher never did that! And, it’s a real eye opener. Frankly, I would like to see Gonick’s comic books used as basic high school history texts, and have students supplement his work with research of their own. His extensive bibliographies provide ample starting points.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I would say it’s not enough to just remember the date something happened. It’s the “why” that really matters. That’s why we need authors like Philbrick, Ellis, Gonick and more to fill in the mighty chasms our history teachers left in our education.


Books I Want to See on the Big Screen

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

Seeing a loved book made into a movie can be a tragedy, a comedy,or a love story. Peter Jackson did a brilliant job with The Lord of The Rings, a book I practically lived in during high school and college. I, Robot, on the other hand had absolutely nothing to do with Isaac Asimov’s book by the same name. In fact, it blatantly broke Asimov’s Rules of Robotics.

That said, here are some books I’m would like to see at the movies:

The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank BaumYes, I know it’s a really, really famous movie already. But can’t we do a non-musical version, please?

The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov. Paging Peter Jackson. This saga deserves your touch. And, what a great time for the message of solving problems with wits instead of might.

Knight’s Castle, Edward Eager. This great kid’s book from the 50s would be so easy to update. It’s filled with magic. I  keep hoping the Harry Potter craze will resurrect Eager’s books. They certainly deserve the attention. Bonus — there are built in sequels!

A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe. Maybe people are afraid to go there after the Bonfire of the Vanities mess. Too bad. This is truly an epic story. If not a movie, can it be an opera?

Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz. Odd is arguably the most engaging character Koontz has ever created. A spooky, touching, and heartbreaking book. Not to mention loaded with action. And ready made sequels are available. Maybe this one is in the works somewhere? 

Five Quarters of the Orange, Joanne Harris. This beautiful novel set during WWII has Indy hit written all over it. Friendship, disaster, love, betrayal — it’s all here. All it needs is to get made!

Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose. The true story of the Lewis and Clark expedition is as exciting as any made up adventure. Someone, be a good American and put it on film.

Those are a few of my picks. What books do you want to see at your local multiplex?

Book Club Books

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

I’m in several book clubs and right now I’m reading a book for one of them: The Friday Night Knitting Club.

While there is nothing wrong with this book I just don’t get why it is a common pick for book clubs. It’s just another version of The Jane Austen Book Club, and so many others. Basically there’s always a group of women who lean on each other while going through cancer/divorce/affairs/pregnancies/etc. Been there. Read that.

With all the excellent books out in the world, why do these type of books keep coming up so regularly? Shouldn’t book clubs be about something more? Women make up almost all the members of the book clubs I belong to, and I suspect that is the norm everywhere. Are we — as women — saying we’re too shallow to read books of substance? Something is wrong.


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