Thursday, March 31, 2016

Time for a (Short) Road Trip

I'll be heading out around ten tomorrow morning on the 210-mile drive to San Antonio to attend the fourth annual book festival to be held at the San Antonio Public Library on Saturday.  

I'm not as organized as I would like to be at this point, but I've earmarked a few "don't miss" sessions and I'll be playing the rest of the day by ear as I discover more about the festival layout.  And then next weekend, there's a book festival at a Kingwood community college that is only about 35 miles northeast of me, so I'm hoping to make that one, too.  

Since I'm not at all sure about wifi conditions and whether my blogging software will even work on my iPad (always an unpredictable hit or miss situation), I'm going to try to post a book review here tomorrow morning before hitting the road. And if things are working properly, I hope to post an update or two from San Antonio.  Wish me luck.

So...more from and about San Antonio and its book festival to come in a day or two.  Talk to you then.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

King Maybe

Master burglar Junior Bender has a big problem, but it’s not the kind of problem you would expect someone in Junior’s profession normally to have.  There are no cops hot on his trail because, truth be known, the cops don’t even have Junior on their radar screen.  He is that good at what he does.   No, Junior’s problem is that he is a burglar with a conscience who is forced to deal with a wide assortment of people for whom conscience doesn’t even figure into the equation.  

Still, it is only after a planned-to-the-split-second burglary suddenly goes pear shaped that Junior realizes just how a serious a chain of events he has inadvertently triggered.  King Maybe, probably the most ruthless and most powerful man in all of Hollywood, wants Junior to do something for him – and declining the job is not something he is going to let Junior do.  King Maybe may not be much of a physical specimen (only those who don’t know him, though, would dare label him the shrimp he is), but his money and vicious cruel-streak make him one very dangerous man. 

King Maybe is the fifth book in Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender series, and the now fortyish Junior has been breaking into houses and businesses without ever once having been caught since he was fourteen years old.  That’s more than two decades of unbroken success, but Junior has to wonder if that means that he is unlikely ever to be caught, or that the odds are increasingly more likely that his day is drawing near.  Junior really has no idea, but hedges his bet by keeping a detailed escape plan firmly in place.  At a moment’s notice, Junior Bender is prepared to disappear, assume a well-crafted new identity, and begin life anew far from California. 

Tim Hallinan
King Maybe can correctly be characterized as a “crime thriller,” but that would be shortchanging both the book and its author because Tim Hallinan’s novels are as character-driven as any literary fiction out there.  Longtime fans of the series are familiar with the Junior Bender character at this point, and they know pretty much what to expect from him in most circumstances (although Junior does show a side of his character at the end of this one that I didn’t suspect he had).  What keeps the series so fresh is Hallinan’s talent for creating memorable side characters for Junior to interact with, be they Filipino houseboys, love interests, or villains like the high-heeled cowboy boot wearing King Maybe, a little man with a big ego. 

Hallinan has done it again. This one is fun.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Is Anybody Going to San Antone? Me...for the Book Festival

If all goes well this week, I'm heading to San Antonio Friday to attend the all-day-Saturday 2016 San Antonio Book Festival.  Believe it or not (and I find it hard to believe, myself), even though I live only 210 miles from the San Antonio Public Library, main site of the festival, I haven't been to San Antonio in more than 20 years, so this will be an interesting excursion.

The festival organizers have line up more than 80 authors for the various sessions and presentations, and there are a few I'm particularly looking forward to seeing since I've read several of the books being discussed.  I'm hoping to make the sessions by Stephen Harrigan (A Friend of Mr. Lincoln), Jamie Brickhouse (Dangerous When Wet), a second Stephen Harrigan session (Old Facts, New Fiction), and maybe that Literary Death Match that comes at the end of the day and features Jamie Brickhouse, David Craff, Joaquin Zihuatanejo, and Sara Benincasa.  

That probably seems like a small sampling of the eighty authors who will be there, but that's usually the way it goes, leaving some time for browsing the vendors, sampling the food, and plain old resting of the feet - and some time to work in last minute changes and additions to the schedule.  

Here's a video look at who's coming:

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Doll-Master

The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror is the latest collection of short stories from Joyce Carol Oates.  As the book's title indicates, these six stories are about “terror,” but this is terror in a very real sense, not the kind that is sometimes associated in the minds of readers with books shelved in the “horror” section of their favorite bookstores.  These are stories about people in fear of their lives, sometimes told through the eyes of the potential murderer and sometimes through the eyes of those in danger. Sometimes the terror is real, at other times it seems to be more imagined than not by the potential victim, and sometimes it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Victims are dispatched by gunshot, strangulation, poisons, and in the book's strangest tale of all, in a way that makes victims from all the other stories appear to be the lucky ones.

The young man at the center of the book's title story became a doll collector almost by accident when, as a small child, he stole his recently deceased cousin's doll as a way to comfort himself after her sudden disappearance from his life.  Now a young man still living at home with his mother, he adds “found” dolls to his collection every year or so, but keeps his collection hidden away where no one will ever see it but him.  The doll collector has become a doll master.

The Doll Master includes two stories in which handguns play prominent roles.  In the first, “Soldier,” a young white man is accused of having shot to death the defenseless young black teen he accuses of placing him in fear of his life.  Destined to be the most controversial story in the collection, this one is told from the point-of-view of the shooter, and deals with the role that racial differences play in perceptions of physical threat.  “Gun Accident,” again told from the shooter's point-of-view, offers another lesson in what can happen when a gun gets into the hands of someone emotionally unprepared to handle it.  This time that person is a young high school girl entrusted with housesitting her favorite teacher's house for a few days. 

“Big Moma” is about an eighth-grade girl badly in need of a friend.  When she finally finds that friend, she gains a whole new family, not just the school friend she had been longing for.  Now she senses that something is wrong, and the question is whether or not she has the strength to break free from the family's influence– and will they let her? 

“Equatorial” and “Mystery, Inc.” both largely take place in the minds of their narrators, one of whom imagines herself to be the potential victim of her husband's murderous intentions, and the other a man who has very specifically targeted his next murder victim.  Both stories are well plotted and are based on memorable characters and situations.  But for one simple reason, “Mystery, Inc.” is my favorite story in the collection and “Equatorial” is my least favorite.  I find it difficult to enjoy stories that use the all too common literary device of building tension to climactic levels only to end abruptly before that tension is resolved – exactly the way that “Equatorial” ends.  I don't like writing my own short story endings.  “Mystery, Inc.,” a verbal sparring match between two very different bookstore owners, on the other hand, painstakingly builds the tension level to a climax and proceeds to deliver the perfect ending.

The stories in The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror are a bit uneven, and are sometimes predictable, but there is a lot to like about the collection.  Joyce Carol Oates fans and fans of macabre short stories will want to take a look at this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter from a Literate Bunny

Happy Easter, book-loving friends.  Here's hoping you all have a wonderful day with friends and family...and that you can sneak in a little reading time at the end of the day.  Enjoy.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Pat Conroy Tribute

I guess I'm still finding it hard to believe that there will be no more epic novels from the wonderful Pat Conroy, but this compilation of clips from movies adapted from his books makes me realize just what a cultural impact the man's writing had.  He leaves one hell of a legacy behind...all any artist can ask for, really.

This makes me want to spend the afternoon and evening re-watching each of these.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Hunters in the Dark

Lawrence Osborne is a British writer who calls Bangkok, Thailand, home.  As such, he is well acquainted with the cultures of that part of the world and how they change as one crosses from border to border in the region.  Hunters in the Dark, in fact, begins with the book’s main character, an Englishman by the name of Robert Grieve, crossing into Cambodia at a border crossing that country shares with Thailand. 

Grieve is a schoolteacher with only very tenuous ties to his work or, it seems, to his country.  He considers himself to be somewhat of a world traveler during his off time and, although he greatly overestimates his own survival skills, likes to extend himself further and further into the unknown with each succeeding trip.  However, unlike so many Westerners who come to the Far East looking for women and gambling, Grieve is in Cambodia simply as much to experience its atmosphere as for any other reason. 

Lawrence Osborne
As fate would have it (and this book is very much about fate and karma), Grieve’s one big night in a local casino paints a neon target on his back for all the local hustlers to see, including Simon Beauchamp, an American who knows exactly how the game is played in Cambodia.  Grieve is no match for a man like Simon Beauchamp, and when their paths cross, that becomes obvious even to him.  But even in the aftermath of that encounter, the ever-passive Grieves is still hoping to find a way to chuck his old life and begin a new one in Cambodia - and when he gets a well paying job as English tutor to a beautiful young woman, he begins to believe that he might just be able to pull it all off.

Despite its exotic locale and the decadent lifestyle described, Hunters in the Dark will never be (nor should it be) characterized as a thriller.  That is not what Lawrence Osborne was going for here.  Instead, Osborne has written a highly atmospheric novel charged throughout with a static electricity of background tension that promises an explosion at any moment.  All the while, our hero is content to wait around to see what happens next.  Anything it seems, beats the life he left behind in England – unless it actually gets him killed.

Bottom Line: Hunters in the Dark is one of those books where the reader keeps waiting for something exciting to happen – and finally figures out that whether or not it happens is beside the point.  This is a book about fate and what happens to those who buck it.  Come to think of it, Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Movies for Readers: Coraline

This week's Movie for Readers is based on the 2002 children's novel by Neil Gaiman.  The 176-page book was marketed as suitable for readers between the ages of 9 and 12, but I suspect that it might be a little too spooky for kids on the low end of that scale.  

The movie was released in February 2009, so it should be relatively easy to find (I know that it's on iTunes, for instance).  It was directed by Henry Selick who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it includes, among others, the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, and Keith Davis.  It is highly rated as being one of the more creative and innovative children's movies of its day.

If you have children of the right age, this might be a good one to enjoy with them.  And critics say this one appeals to adults as much as to children, so even if your kids are long past the targeted age group, you might enjoy this one on your own.

Movies for Readers No. 22

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones

Country singer George Jones lived such a colorful and public life that several biographies about him have been written in the past few years.  I have three of those on my own bookshelves: George Jones: The Saga of an American Singer (Bob Allen - 1984), Ragged but Right: The Life & Times of George Jones (Dolly Carlisle – 1984), and George Jones: I Lived to Tell It All (George Jones & Tom Carter – 1996).   Interestingly, both the first two books were published about the time that George returned to his roots and built Jones Country in tiny Colmesneil, Texas (population 600).   But Jones continued to add to his legend after 1984, of course, and although Tom Carter’s book covers the years up to 1996 when it was published, those years are somewhat filtered through the eyes of Carter’s co-author, George Jones himself.

Now, a full three years after Jones’s death, his legacy has become more settled and his whole story can be told in one volume – and that is exactly what Rich Keinzle has done in The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones.  From the very beginning of his career, country music fans were intrigued by the craziness that always seemed to follow Jones around the country as he performed.  By the end of that career, George Jones was a respected vocalist (still with a reputation for craziness) who had managed to grab the attention of music lovers around the world.  It was never easy for the shy, insecure performer that Jones was throughout his lifetime, but, public warts and all, he was just too good to ignore.

Rich Keinzle has done his George Jones homework, and it shows.  The Grand Tour recounts everything from the life of poverty into which Jones was born, through his battle with drug and alcohol addictions that almost killed him, and on to his rescue by Nancy Sepulvado, the Shreveport woman, who saw him through the worst of his addictions and saved both his life and his career.  It is impossible to recount the life of George Jones without spending a great number of pages on the singer’s problems and demons – and Keinzle does that.  But the high points of Jones’s life, including the best (and worst) of his recordings are also recounted in great detail. 

I appreciate The Grand Tour – and I am no casual George fan.  George Jones and his music have been in my life for more than five decades.  I grew up near the city of Beaumont, Texas, which Jones called home for a number of years.  My wife’s grandparents knew the Jones family in Saratoga, Texas, and her grandmother occasionally had George over to the house when he was a boy.  Too, I personally witnessed two of the milestone events cited by the author in The Grand Tour: the one and only country music show ever presented at Jones’s Rhythm Ranch in Vidor, Texas, and his later induction into the Beaumont Walk of Fame, a site that honors the most famous citizens born in the county surrounding that city.  And all that said, Rich Keinzle still told me a thing or two about George Jones I never knew; it’s that kind of book – maybe a little bit crude and rough around the edges…but then so was George.