Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dropping Like Flies

As I'm sure you've probably noticed (but I'll blog about anyway), some really good authors have died recently.

First, Robert Parker went--Sara Weinman's blog has a comprehensive round-up of retrospectives on him.

Then, J.D. Salinger bought it. So much for Holden Caulfield's creator. I'd wish him good luck in the next realm of existence (assuming there is one), if I could just stop thinking of how much Holden hated the phrase "good luck." As I recall, his thoughts were that if someone said "good luck," it was because the person assumed you'd need it.

Oh, yeah, and here's some more Salinger retrospectives: in The Times Online, Salon and the New York Times. Plus a brief round-up of reviews of Salinger's work.

Not only that, but Howard Zinn, the multi-talented author of A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES--well, he's shuffled off this mortal coil, too. As this man puts it, "Shit. Just . . . shit."

What more is there to say? Good night and good luck.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Book About How We Decide

Even though I haven't read this book yet, this review of HOW WE DECIDE by Jonah Lehrer made it sound really interesting.

I've always found it tough to make decisions. Would understanding how I do make it any easier?

For instance, choosing the books I read. There are so many I want to read (more than a lifetime's worth), that it's hard to know how to pick sometimes.

According to the review, the book has "innumerable applications for everyday life," whether you're "a golfer, musician, business leader, or motorcyclist." I wonder how the reviewer picked those. I know--read the book, right?

On the other hand, I'm not sure I want to think too much about how I think. Seems like it could drive you nuts. (Though some would say I'm already there.)

Anyway, it gives us yet another book to choose.

Thanks. I think.

(Image from

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Whatever Happened to Browsing?

You know, for some time, I've worried about the (possible) death of browsing as a way to learn about new books. The main reason, of course, is the Internet. Most of the time, when we're looking for books on the Internet, we're concerned with making (what librarians would call) precision searches. We're usually looking for a particular book by a particular author.

The question is, is this limiting our reading universe? Are we suffering a lack of knowledge of other books due to our ability to find particular titles without browsing other ones and making serendipitous choices about them?

I'd make the same argument for news reading. We can get our news delivered by email now (on topics we choose to monitor), and this eliminates the need to browse through the newspaper. But what are we missing out on because we haven't run across the random item that sparks our (unexpected) interest as we browse for the ones of most interest? (That's why I continue to get the Sunday paper delivered, no matter what.)

The other enemy of browsing is time. We all feel rushed these days. And it takes time to get in your car, go to a bookstore or library and browse through the shelves. (Time and gas, unless you ride a bike, in which case it takes even more time.) Our modern world and the Internet provides us so much information, which we have so little time to consume, it already feels like there's no time to do this.

However, even the hardest working person deserves some leisure now and then. So, spend your precious time doing something fun. Like having coffee with a friend. Or browsing the shelves of a library or bookstore. Or doing both. It'll be worth it. And your local librarian and bookstore owner will thank you.

This post was inspired by a similar one on The Reader's Advisor Online.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hardboiled Humor So Dark it Comes in '23 Shades of Black'

Review: 23 SHADES OF BLACK (The Imaginary Press 2010)
Author: K.j.a. Wishnia

23 SHADES OF BLACK is a real stand-out among hardboiled mysteries. For one thing, the main character, a New York cop named Filomena Buscarsela, is a woman of Ecuadorian descent. For another, although Filomena's tough as nails, beneath her toughness lies both keen intelligence and empathy. In addition, this female character is the creation of a male author. K.j.a. Wishnia (the "K" stands for "Kenneth") has succeeded where most male authors tend to fail. Without turning her into a saint (at least, not too much of one), Wishnia has created a likable and realistic female protagonist in a story told in the first person. This alone should probably have earned Wishnia the Edgar, but the story offers much more to support that position.

The story is actually told in retrospect, which is oddly (but effectively) conveyed in the first person present tense. As in "I get out of the car and get my nightstick . . .," as if it's happening right now, rather than back in the early-to-mid 1980s. This lends the story an immediacy it might not otherwise have.

Filomena and her partner, Bernie ("a beef-brained cabeza de chorlito so cerebrally-challenged he couldn't pick his own nose without the aid of an instruction manual and a detailed map"), end up on an emergency call for a toxic leak at a food stamp center. Apparently, the leak is coming from an insecticide factory next door. Without waiting for a hazmat unit or rescue workers, Filomena charges into the building and saves someone. (Disbelief had to be suspended here, before realizing this was pre-9/11 and the anthrax scares of the future.)

After the incident, Filomena just can't let go of what happened. Even though questions of sabotage are raised, no one seems to be following up. A suspect is identified and he ends up dead. And Filomena is the only one who seems to care. She asks questions, only to be smacked down. She follows leads, only to be thwarted. A reporter who's been calling Filomena with questions suddenly gets cold feet. Not good signs.

Read the entire review at:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

'Beneath a Weeping Sky' Combines Police Procedure with Psychological Suspense

Review: BENEATH A WEEPING SKY (Gray Dog Press March 2010)
Author: Frank Zafiro

Many readers might be put off by the notion of reading a story about a serial rapist. However, BENEATH A WEEPING SKY isn't just any old story about a serial rapist. There's nothing gratuitous about the violence in this book. However, be advised that it is a gritty police story about trying to catch a rapist and the occasional violent and uncomfortable scene is to be expected.

Having dispensed with those "pleasantries," it's worth noting that Frank Zafiro's story is well worth reading, for many reasons.

The Set-up

Although the story is told from many points of view, the honor of main protagonist (arguably) goes to patrol officer Katie MacLeod, a strong and well-drawn female character. The point is arguable simply because the reader gets to know and care about so many people in this book, including Detective John Tower, veteran officer Thomas Chisholm, patrol partners Anthony Battaglia and Connor "Sully" O'Sullivan (who are like the cop equivalent of Abbott and Costello), and even the serial rapist. Believe it or not, Zafiro manages to explain the rapist's background and motivations enough for you to care about him – even if he is doing evil.

Each of the major characters (and there are many) are fully fleshed out human beings with lots of problems from their past to deal with. Zafiro manages to skillfully explore each character's issues, while telling a chilling story of an increasingly violent criminal.

Katie (who has plenty of issues from her past) is enlisted as bait to flush out the perpetrator – a rapist who is threatening the women of the fictional River City, Washington. This leads to various complications and plenty of agonizing on Katie's part. She feels the pressure to stay strong, to be "one of the guys." Yet, at the same time, her past feeds her anxiety about being used as bait to catch the rapist.

Read the entire review at:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Daily Beast Previews 10 of January's Best Books

Even though I like to read a good deal of mystery and other crime fiction, I like to mix in other types of books. That's where lists like this from The Daily Beast come in handy.

I couldn't tell you how they picked the titles, but any list that starts off with Joshua Ferris (who wrote the great THEN WE CAME TO THE END) and Anne Tyler (who wrote--so much great stuff, the list would go on and on and on--though I have reviewed LADDER OF YEARS) seems like as good a list as any.

Okay, this item may not be completely timely, since it's January and the article is supposed to be a preview of the month's new books. (As in, ahead of time? Well, too late! January's here!)

Details, details . . .

(Image from

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Gone, But Not Forgotten

The end of the noughties (or the double-aughts, as I like to call them) brought forth the usual number of end-of-the-decade retrospectives.

Given this blog's purpose, it seemed appropriate to include links to an article and a post about the authors who died in the last 10 years. You can find the article about some of them in The Guardian and a rather comprehensive listing of author links in the Reader's Advisor Online.

It's a lot of writers, but at least their work lives on.

(Image by Priscilla W. on

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ah, Nature Tooth and Claw in 'Swan Peak'

Review of SWAN PEAK (Simon & Schuster Audio 2008)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, James Lee Burke; read by Will Patton

Let me stipulate: The Rockies are beautiful, the snow-kissed peaks, the gathering purple shadows, the sound of wind in the pines and larches, cut-throat trout slowly wheeling under lime Jell-O-clear water…If you have read rhapsodic nature-worshipping James Lee Burke, you know where I am going with this.

Burke, who lives in Montana and New Orleans, is apparently a rich man longing for the old America, where men went to war, killed or were maimed, came back and toughed it out in small towns, tramping along as cops or serial killers with their demons riding their backs and peculiar moral codes thumping in their chests.

Under the endlessly gorgeous descriptions of natural sights and sounds, Burke lets us know none too subtly, beats a black heart, men who look like other men but long to burn people alive and backhoe them into premature graves while they struggle to find oxygen amongst the richly fragrant humus being tossed on top of them.

Enter Clete Purcel, the wild-living former cop and rule-shattering PI of many Burke books, and his enigmatically explosive New Iberia, Louisiana, police pal Dave Robicheaux (this is their 16th outing). This time, the duo has traveled to visit a crusading professor (Burkean?) living in one of the most idyllic places on earth.

First thing, mayhem-magnet Clete runs afoul of some trashy bodyguards for two local oil barons, who have the bad judgment to run over the Clete-ster’s fly rod. Uh-oh.

It's on, babies.

I won't drop spoilers, but dragged into the volatile mix is a sexually conflicted prison guard, an earnest C&W singer, a gold-digging gal with pipes of her own, a rather thoughtful woman with flowers tattooed all over her tatas, some hapless college kids, and a tacky preacher man.

Will Patton, a perennial favorite reader of Burke books, mutters on in his soft, Southern voice, peeling back the beauty of a sunset to reveal the bloody and bloody-minded human pollution that lies beneath it.

Do I sound cynical? I love Burke, but seriously? This is starting to freak me out. Maybe he spends all day thinking about the only geography that counts, according to him—the hole we will lie in. But I don’t. Sometimes I watch TV, even…

I am being cremated, anyhow—and after I die, too.

Star Lawrence owns a recession-beating site called Do the Hopey Copey, Her other audio reviews can be found at

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Reading Dead? Hardly

I just love reading stuff like this article. It seems the rumors of the death of reading (due to the rise in popularity of electronic gizmos, MP3s and YouTube) are highly exaggerated. In fact, quite the opposite is true. We're reading more than ever, due (ironically) to technology.

A study performed at the University of California, San Diego, found that "[r]eading, which was in decline due to the growth of television, tripled from 1980 to 2008, because it is the overwhelmingly preferred way to receive words on the Internet."

Well, yah. If you're using the Internet, I think reading would be the preferred way to get words off it. Unless you have some kind of audible Internet reader. (Does such a thing exist? Wouldn't surprise me, if it did. Kind of like Kindle's audible books function, maybe? But I digress.) Either way, whether read or heard, we're still reading (in the broader sense of receiving words, either visually or aurally) more than ever.

We're also writing more than ever, due to Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Um, even if what's written ends up looking more like secret code than prose. "OMG! ROFL!" and "C U L8R!" may not be the Queen's English, but it's a form of communication.

But here's my favorite part of the article:

"If you're reading thousands of words a day on a variety of devices, paper included, you need as much help as you can get in deciding which words to read. Ironically, the same technologies derided by some for contributing to a lack of literacy — Facebook and Twitter [and possibly this blog? just sayin' . . . ] — are full of recommendations of things to read.

"Technology may have truncated and warped the written word in some cases, while increasing competition for our time. But as borne out by this new data, technology hasn't found a substitute for the written word as a means of conveying certain types of information. And, in fact, it has made reading and writing even more essential parts of everyday life."

So whether it's in print, pixels or audio, we're still reading. Which makes this writer and reader very happy, indeed.

(Image provided by kirstiecat on

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